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Remember the bok choy seeds that I started back in March? Here’s what they looked like yesterday, right before I planted them in my garden bed.
I started planting my rows of brassicas — broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, and now the bok choy — once our April night time temperatures were pretty reliably above thirty-five degrees. Now, these cabbage relatives, also sometimes called crucifers, are pretty tolerant of cool temperatures, and even hold their own well against light frosts, especially when planted, as I have done, in a somewhat protected plot of soil (I have them on the south side of my garage).
Additionally, I have covered each seedling with one of my improvised two-liter bottle cloches, which not only gives them cover from the frost, but also insects, such as the dreaded cabbage worm. As they outgrow the cloches, I will put them under floating row covers for the rest of their growing season.
Another enemy of my garden seedlings are cutworms, which gave my poor peas duress last year. As I’ve been readying the soil (I work a double row at a time), moving from east to west, I found no evidence of cutworms in that the section of the garden where my fall leaves had covered the soil. However, the section with little leaf cover seemed to have many cutworms buried in the soil. So I have begun to use additional protective measures in this area of the garden. All winter long I have been saving my empty oatmeal boxes for this very purpose. I cut each box in half, and when I use the smaller, 18-ounce boxes, the two-liter bottle cloches fit nicely over them.
I planted each seedling inside the protective collars offered by the oatmeal boxes, and then, covering them with the bottle-cloches, I anchored the cloches in place by submersing about an inch of the plastic beneath the soil and piling up additional soil around the outside of the bottle. There was room for all twelve of my bok choy seedlings in the double row that I prepared for them. I normally have back up seedlings, in case of some gardening disaster (such as an unexpected hard freeze), but in the case of my bok choy, I have none, which is why I saved them for planting outside last.
We had heavy rains last night, and the forecast is for rain all day today as well. My little bok choy seedlings appear quite content in their new location. And I’m grateful for a rainy day, because it means I can rest up a bit from all of the binge-gardening I’ve been doing this week.
Last frost date in my region is May 15. That is a date locked into the DNA of all serious gardeners. This is when we can safely sow our seeds and our tender seedlings outside, into the garden beds that we have lovingly prepared for them.
My sun porch is anxiously waiting for that date. Ten more days. My tomatoes are waiting as well. As we get closer to May 15, I’ll be checking weather forecasts to see if I might fudge a little and set them free a few days early. But ten days . . . that’s a little risky.
Last spring we actually had frost in late May, so this year I’m a little worried about rushing my plants outside too fast. I always start twice as many seedlings as I actually need, so that I have back-ups in place in case the worst happens. But these tomatoes, the ones I started in late February, have gotten large very quickly. I don’t know how long I can hold them back without causing them distress. I expect many of them will find homes in buckets and other large containers as I wait to see whether or not I should be giving them away to family and friends. And I’ve purchased row covers to use in the early weeks outside as another precaution for my tomato crop.
Thankfully, I have nearly finished putting in my very ambitious brassica garden. I saved my old station wagon, retired last year, to use as a green house this year, and it performed admirably. At one point I had more than a dozen large flats of brassica and lettuce and greens seedlings growing enthusiastically inside this defunct 1993 Mercury station wagon, awaiting transplantation into the garden. Except for the bok choy and my back ups, everything is outside now. Among my brassicas, I have hearty plantings of broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, cabbage and Brussel sprouts, all under cover, not only protected from the cold, but also those dreaded cabbage worms that I found so discouraging last year. The floating row covers will stay in place for the entire season, right up until this spring planting is ready for harvest.
I can’t believe I once thought a garden starts in May. This year, my garden began in the middle of January, when I bought the seeds and started planting my seedlings, starting first with the herbs, which need the most time to get established. Then came the tomatoes, then the lettuces and greens, and finally, in March, the brassicas. Last, I began planting the marigolds and nasturtium, the flowers that will help protect my garden from pesky insect infestations. And, in early April, the cold-tolerant greens began moving out to the garden and I planted my peas. In late April, the brassica seedlings were added.
Now we wait for May 15.
Before I started my garden last year — my first year as a vegetable gardener — I didn’t realize there were an abundance of veggies that could be moved out to the garden early in the season, once the soil can be worked. Instead, I thought I had to wait until after the last frost date here in northern Indiana — May 15 — before my garden could start to take shape. As a result, my garden got a late start. This year, I moved in the opposite direction and have tried to push the envelope, so to speak, to see how early I could get away with planting my salad greens. I began putting out Swiss chard and spinach seedlings in early April, which have taken advantage of the frequent spring rains. (Of course, I had plenty of back-up seedlings in case my experiment failed.) I expect to begin eating from these earliest plantings within a couple of weeks.
I also planted lettuce seedlings two weeks ago. These were not quite as successful. It looks like I lost about half of my plants, although I’ve been left with plenty for a first planting, and of course I’ll be adding more soon. I’ve decided that my lettuces should be the first seedlings I start each winter, so that they will be plenty big with good root growth to survive the April temperatures. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to begin planting lettuce seedlings in late January.
While we’re on the subject of starting seedlings, I’ve decided that I really like using peat pellets for lettuce seedlings, as well as seedlings of other delicate salad greens. They are exactly the right size for these particular vegetable seedlings, and the pellets are much easier and faster to plant once the greens are put out into the garden. I have about twice as many seed failures using pellets instead of traditional potting soil and peat pots, but the unsuccessful pellets can be replanted a second time when the seeds don’t sprout, so they aren’t wasted.
I discovered last year that lettuce and other salad greens do very well in high shade. I have mine in the section of the garden that is shaded mid-day by several old maple trees. They don’t need as much root space as other vegetables — about four inches is plenty — so the roots of the tall trees nearby don’t interfere their productivity. And the soil beneath the trees is rich and loaded with decades of organic material that has fallen from the trees. Yet there is plenty of light in the morning to keep these plants happy and growing. Additionally, this particular section of my garden lies along the south side of my garage and benefits from the protection this structure offers during frosty nights.
The only difficulty of growing near the trees is that I suspect they are a source of aphids. As I did last year, I cover my lettuce seedlings and the young seedlings of other salad greens with cloches made from two-liter bottles that I have been saving since last summer. This protects them from the cold, rabbits (I haven’t yet made needed repairs to last year’s fence), and insects. I’m also going to try covering the paths between the rows with plastic (last year I used dried leaves and pine needles) to see if this inhibits insects from spreading to my greens once the temperatures have warmed and I’m forced to remove the cloches. Additionally, I plant my greens in double rows, and I surround them with plantings of known aphid repellants — right now, those are onions and garlic, as these members of the allium family also are tolerant of cool temperatures. Later I will add cilantro, basil and anise.
Now that my greens and my peas are in, and I still have one week remaining in April, my goal next week is to move my sturdy and thriving brassica seedlings outside. This year I should have half my garden planted before we ever get to mid-May.
I’m guessing grumpy moles who don’t like bumping their heads when they are out on the prowl. What’s your guess? These are lettuce seedlings, planted under the protection of my improvised cloches (made from two-liter soda bottles). I simply can’t think of any other way these seedlings might be jumping our of their garden beds.
It’s been more than a week since my last post.
Those of you who read about the devastation endured (if you didn’t, read this) by my poor peas will understand. Such a blow is an entirely disheartening event for a beginning veggie gardener. And, after all the pride I had taken in my glorious peas, I suddenly felt very much put in my place. Who was I to think I could do this, after all? What did I really know about gardening anyway?
And, of all the crops planned for my new garden this year, the peas were the one I was most looking forward to. I don’t believe I have ever in my life tasted fresh shelled peas, even from my parents’ or grandparents’ gardens, and those in the know were telling me how scrumptious they are. My parents confirm that they had never had much interest in growing peas. Mom, a now-retired nurse who worked outside the home most of her life, didn’t relish the prospect of shelling them, so peas simply were never planted. Maybe because of that, growing peas has become my gardening holy grail.
And I may have been too hasty in blaming my sizable loss of peas on rodents — whether squirrel, rabbit, ground hog or mouse. Even after I had my fence in place, I continued to suffer additional losses. Further consultation with more experienced gardeners appears to have solved the crime. The likely culprit was probably cutworms. At least, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to via the circumstantial evidence.
Cutworms are scary creatures. The larvae of several species of night-flying moths, they come out at dark and attack. Some of these night-time marauders are solitary vandals, who sever the plants just below or above the soil’s surface, at times dropping the felled stalk into their burrows so that the vegetable appears to have vanished into mid-air. I have seen the work of these nasty fellows, and it’s downright spooky.
Others work in groups, like armies of juvenile delinquents, rampaging across the landscape in legions, eating the tops off of plants and then marching on to their next hit. Still others are silent stalkers, feeding off the vegetable’s root so that the plant above appears to wither away overnight. If you want to know more about these covert criminals, I recommend this informational fact sheet from the University of Rhode Island.
I have witnessed apparent attacks from every variety of these hoodlums, assuming they are indeed the culprits and not the rodents. (But I’m still keeping an eye on those guys too. They’re devious devils too, and I don’t trust them a bit, even though I’m letting them off the hook for now.) It turns out that the plastic protective cloches that I had made from one- and two-liter bottles offered pretty good (although not 100 percent failproof) protection from most of the cutworms, with the exception of those that attacked the roots. Once the cloches were removed, the peas were 100 percent vulnerable.
More than a week has gone by now since the initial attack. I have noticed that peas have an incredible will to live. Those that were left with any leaves at all have sprouted new side shoots and may actually continue to go on to bear some harvest. I’m glad I didn’t dig them all up right away in despair. It’s too soon to tell, but I’ll be sure to report later on if my wounded go on to bear a harvest.
I’ve moved all of my survivors close together to share a trellis, as it no longer seems worthwhile to run a supportive fence all around the periphery of my rather large garden plot, as I originally had planned to do. The downside to moving my peas around is that I am no longer sure which are the snow peas, which are the sugar snap peas and which are the shelling peas. They are now all mixed together. I supposed I’ll know if any of these poor survivors ever provides me with a harvest. At this point, I’ll consider myself lucky if there’s enough for a meal or two.
The stubby wounded plants are once again protected with cloches. Those that are tall enough to reach their trellis are wearing protective aluminum foil skirts, shiny armor to ward of the preying cutworms that may dare to attack from above.
Evidently, cutworms are particularly troublesome in a garden’s first year. The moths lay their eggs in grass and weeds in the late summer and, after hatching, the larvae feed until cold weather, when they overwinter in the ground beneath. Frequent cultivation of the soil helps to either push the larvae deeper into the soil or to lift them above the soil, where they are exposed to predators. By moving my peas, I was able to unearth and kill a number of the nasty demonic predators. By the end of June most of these devils will have risen from their Hades beneath my garden, transform themselves into moths and take flight, leaving eggs in grassy areas and hopefully away from my garden plot.
Suddenly, gardening feels like warfare, with the enemy coming at my charges from above and below. This world is not a safe place for vegetables, to be sure. This is crunch week in my garden, as I race against time to get everything planted. We tilled the soil in March, and now as I’m sowing row after row of my summer crops, I’m also turning over the soil in search for more of these subterranean terrorists. I’ve got my eye out for them now. I’ll get ‘em, just wait and see.