Here it is that time again to start planning what crops we’ll grow for this season. I think all the catalogues came even earlier this year than usual, but for me I wait until after the holidays to sit down and start ordering.
After seeing Brenda Smith’s top 10 list in last summers quarterly, I thought I’d write about my top 10 crops here in Iowa.

1.) Liatris aspera – This is one of those crops that can be cut at a couple of different stages. In fact I never even get to cut it in the 2nd stage when it’s actually in flower. I cut it all in the bud stage when they look like tiny green and white roses. It’s so unique with great tall stems, one of my favorites. A very easy perennial crop with seemingly no pest problems. I start this one from seed in the fall. I seed it into a flat of some kind of starter mix, and I winter it over in the cold greenhouse. This is my way of stratifying. Then when I turn the heat on, those seeds just pop. I do a lot of my perennial seed this way if I have trouble germinating it.
2.) Astilbe – Another easy perennial crop for me. I buy in plugs or bare roots of this one, and I never have enough of it.

3.) Baptisia – A great early spring crop that here in Zone 4 can get the buds nipped by late May freezes. There are 3 cutting stages to this crop; the flower, the black pods, and the foliage. All mine is cut for the flowers, I never have pods left to sell, and I sell just as much foliage throughout the summer as I do flowers in the spring.

4.) Globe Thistle – Another one of those true blue flowers like baptisia. It can be used as fresh or dries easily too.The only problem I have with this one is the alfalfa weevil. A really strange looking creature. For control I just go through the crop and hand pick them off and destroy them. There’s usually only a handful, but they can do quite a bit of damage.

5.) Serenade Asters – If only all my annual crops were this easy! The seed is easy to germinate, I plant it all at once, about 600 plugs, and I harvest it all over a 3 week period. I cut the whole plant and sell 5 stems for $7.50. I didn’t think there was a way to successive plant this crop until I talked to Dave Dowling at the National Conference in Pennsylvania. He told me about using lights for night interruption to get a second crop. This is a prime example of how going to a conference can pay for itself! The second crop that I’ll get next year with the information that I got from Dave will more than pay my expenses for a conference.

6.) Cramers’ Plum Nigella – I do 2 crops of this, the first I seed in my hoophouse after it’s going to stay cold so I get an early crop in the spring. The 2nd crop is also in the hoophouse,  but with transplanted plugs that I plant out in the spring. I just get better height on it in the hoop than the field. This is another one I cut of the whole plant at once. I think it’s too time consuming to try to stand there and cut it stem by stem.

7.) Lisianthus – I used to start all my lisi from seed, but it takes so long, that now I mostly buy in plugs. Germania has a great program for them.  It still takes  a long time to grow, but it’s such a high dollar crop, that it’s worth it. I grow this in the hoop and outside, but the height is better inside. Echo grows the best for me, with blue rim being the most popular. I like the Rosita series as well, especially the green.

8.) Lilies – These I grow from bulbs planted in the ground in the fall, but it’s so much easier to  grow them in crates! If you haven’t tried it, I’d suggest that you do.

9.) Celosia – This is a big family, but specifically the cockscombs and cresteds. Also ‘Tango’ is a great plume type that’s a coppery orange color. This is one of those seeds that seems to just get passed from grower to grower. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it in a catalogue. I save my own seed from all my celosias, and I’m happy to share ‘Tango’ with anyone who wants to try it.

10.) Sunflowers – Last but not least! My favorites are the Pro Cut series, because I find them they really reliable for being ready to cut all at the same time. I tried the peach last year, and in my humble opinion, and that of my florists , it’s really hard to tell the difference between it and the orange. I also like Sunbrights and ‘Sunbeam’, which is the one with the green center. Locally grown sunflowers are always an easy sell, because sunflowers are one of those flowers that just don’t ship very well.
A few of my other favorites are cinnamon basil, amaranthus, (especially the red), eryngium, ‘Neon’ dianthus, and delphinium, (even though I have terrible powdery mildew problems with it) .
I hope you Midwest members will feel free to contact me with questions, suggestions, or ideas for topics to write about in this column. I look forward to your input. How about e-mailing me with your top 10 list? I’m always interested in who’s growing what and why they like it.