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My garden blog was inactive over the winter. I hadn’t intended it to be. I had wanted to post occasionally about the many, many dishes we enjoyed during the winter months from vegetables I had frozen last fall. Instead, I took a well-deserved break. Maybe next year, right?
But now it’s time to begin again. In fact, my 2010 garden actually started taking shape in 2009, when I decided to experiment with growing greens inside. That was largely a failure — the lettuce got aphids and ended up feeding our little rabbit instead of us. EXCEPT, the spinach was quite successful. In December, just after Christmas, when I disposed of the aphid-infested lettuce, I planted in its place baby spinach, which is ready to eat right now. I didn’t plant a lot, given that it was essentially an experiment and I only had a little seed left from my spring and summer gardens, but it’s nice to know now what works and what doesn’t.
In January I bought garden seeds the very instant they started showing up on store shelves. In mid-February, I began planting, starting first by planting left-over herb seeds from last year. I was completely hopeless successfully starting herbs from seed last summer and ended up buying plants later from the nursery. But I learned a lot in my effort, and I decided to give it another go this year. So far I have thyme, lavender and oregano growing great-guns. They’re still very, very small and tender. They grow in peat pots filled with seed starting medium, and I mist them daily to keep them hydrated. Still, I had a lot of failure, but the ones that have made it this far seem to be on the road to success. I’ll report in later with full results. Just this week, I also started basil and more cilantro. The cilantro has never given me any difficulty before. We’ll see how the basil does.
In late February, I started three varieties of tomato: Roma for making sauce, Beefsteak for sliced tomatoes, and cherry for the kids. I was very successful last year with about 50 plants that I started from seed during the winter producing 38 quarts of frozen tomato sauce. I lost about 20 percent of my harvest at the end of September to late blight — I had been aiming for 50 quarts as I thought we would average one quart a week. The 38 quarts turned out to be plenty, but I’m glad I aimed high because of the loss we incurred.
After I had the tomatoes off and running, I started the crucifers/brassicas. These plants can be put outside as soon as the ground is warm enough to work. I planted them in larger peat pots and will probably keep them inside as long as their pots are adequate for their growing roots. I had beautiful broccoli last year that I started from seed, which gave me the confidence to grow more varieties of crucifers this year. I have planted cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, which have all sprouted.
I have a kind of assembly-line rotating system in place this year to make the most of my available space and limited resources. Once the seeds are planted in their peat pots and seed starting medium, I bring their trays down to the basement to await sprouting. The very first day they pop their little heads out of the soil, they get moved into a room where they will sit under flourescent lights inches from the growing surface. As new sprouts from other varieties move into the light room, the larger or more cold-hardy vegetables go out to my sunporch on the west side of our house.
I knew last year, my first year ever as a vegetable gardener, that I was hooked on starting my vegetables from seed. I can’t tell you how proud I am of those 38 quarts of tomato sauce that I grew from a two dollar pack of seeds (plus another twenty dollars invested in starting trays, peat pots and seed starting medium). This year the trays are being reused, and the experience I gained last year with my failures will keep my expenses down even more.
It was about nine o’clock in the morning, mid April with the sun barely showing from behind the clouds. There was a look of soft rain in the gray sky hanging low on the horizon across the horse pasture that loomed off in the distance behind my dilapidated white-washed garage. I was wearing my black-and-white zebra stripe flannel pajama pants, my floppy old pink Isotoner slippers, and the black velour hoodie that I had bought a month ago on clearance at Target. I was clean, but without makeup, and my hair was damp from my morning bath, and I didn’t care who saw it. I was everything the novice gardener ought to be. I was going outside to check on my early planting of peas.
My garden sits across my crushed rock-covered drive about a dozen feet from my bottom porch step, still damp from an early morning shower. I briefly glanced at the spinach and lettuce seedlings nestled comfortably in their flats, having been left outside on the porch in the cool night air to prepare them for transplanting later in the week, when the ground was less wet. As I moved down the slick wooden steps, I took care not to fall, holding on to the rail, until my slippers crunched on the surface before me. I stopped and stared over the field beyond the road, where a weathered farm stand still rises from the landscape, a relic of another time when gardens were royalty and their attendants, ladies in waiting. In the distant haze lay the apartments constructed not so many years ago and beyond them my beloved Target and Menards and Kinkos, reminders of the times in which we now live.
My attention was drawn back to my garden before me when I heard the distant shout of a golfer in the course a hundred yards from the rail fence that separates my land from my neighbor’s. I heard also the crack of the iron against the ball, although my view of the play was shielded by the towering pines behind my neighbor’s small sturdy barn. I moved thoughtfully across the drive to my garden plot that follows one car length between the drive and the neighbor’s rail fence and then continues along the full length of my old garage until it nearly reaches the ancient maple that separates the front plot from the smaller garden bed in the back corner of my lot. And then I saw it, and my heart sank and my soul despaired.
My peas. My lovely precious glorious peas. Murdered. Slaughtered. A full botanical bloodbath had occurred while I peacefully slept in innocence inside. Who had done this retched thing? Who had bitten off the tops of nearly half of my exquisite slumbering seedlings? Homicidal rodents, that’s who. Vicious rampaging rabbits. Or gluttonous groundhogs. Perhaps maniacal savage squirrels. How often I had heard their challenging chatter in the overhanging branches of my yard’s many towering oaks. They were not content with the plentiful bounty of acorns that roll beneath my feet with my every step. They had been biding their time, plotting, hatching a plan, waiting for their chance when they could strike and make off with my growing greenery.
And then they struck. They had been watching, those treacherous, sneaky assassins. They had seen me remove those hundreds of protective makeshift cloches that I had so lovingly constructed out of discarded one- and two-liter soda bottles. They had seen me rotate them over to my shorter lettuce and spinach seedlings in the back garden bed, leaving naked and vulnerable my beautiful, trusting and pure-hearted peas now liberated and reaching their faces up into the sky above. And then they struck. When my back was turned.
Sensing their one lucky break — a late afternoon and evening downpour that prevented fickle me from standing out in the cold and wet April air and hammering two dozen fenceposts into the soggy soil and then wrapping my garden behind protective chicken wire fencing to foil their sociopathic visions of pea-seedling slaughter — these crafty criminals struck in the dead of night. And me, having left the night before with my little peas looking like this:
. . . Returned the next, following damp morning to see this:
. . . And this:
Is there justice in this world? Is there vengeance to be found? It is a harsh world out there. Evil lurks around every corner. We must be bold and face them down. We must triumph and fight for good. That is why my garden now looks like this:
Be brave, little seedlings. I am armed with hoe and rake and shovel and spade, and I will make sure the deaths of your brothers and sisters will never leave my memory. Because I am valiant, and I will battle onward for truth and justice, making certain those hellion horrors, those devious devils never ever have a chance to sink their treacherous teeth into your vitamin-rich, chlorophyllous, photosynthetic flesh again.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
Today is the third of three straight days of rain. As a gardener, I find I’m suddenly grateful for rainy days. The rain has not been constant, but the air is moist and cool and the ground solidly rain-saturated. The moisture nourishes my little seedlings outside and gives me time to rest and regroup again here inside where I’m warm and dry. And, because I’ve been mulching with pine needles as I’ve planted the seedlings into the garden bed, I’m confident they’ll have plenty to drink for much of the coming week. Weather forecasts for Friday and Saturday are in the high 70s. Grow, garden, grow!
By putting out the last of my peas and the lettuce, I have opened up several flats and space on my sunporch that I can now use for the next batch of seedlings. Three weeks ago I bought several packages of peat pot cells that had been reduced for clearance (30 percent off), and as I’ve moved out the cold-hardy seedlings into our garden plots, I began filling new pots with potting soil and placing them in the empty flats. In the past couple of days, I have planted two varieties of broccoli, muskmelon and a low-growing red nasturtium called Empress of India, adding them to my sunporch filled to the brim with flats of Roma tomatoes, marigolds, leeks and cilantro. A couple of weeks ago, I was beginning to get impatient with the four rows of spinach that I had planted directly into the garden, and I finished off the seed packet by planting what was left in an empty 50-cell flat. As it turned out, the flat seedlings sprouted about a week before their sisters outside. I intend to plant these babies just after I get in my last flat of lettuce mix. I also have begun sowing flats from a large packet of perennial flower mix, and I have infant alyssum, lupine, shasta daily, calendula, coreopsis, dianthus, poppy and Rudbeckia sprouting up all over the place.
I don’t know how much the purchase and use of peat pots, flats and soil mix will speed up and perhaps increase my harvest in the end. But these cheerful little seedlings have been great encouragement for this novice gardener, steady reassurance that perhaps there will be lavish bounty of peas and greens as early as June. In the meantime, while I’m waiting out the rain, I am once again at work filling my flats. Today I sowed the last of them: rosemary, thyme, chives, oregano, basil, and a climbing nasturtium mix (Fordhook Favorites Mix, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.).
Apart from the cold hardy crops that I will finish transplanting later this week, plants from the other flats of seeds and seedlings on my sun porch will wait for transplanting (unless they are bursting out of their pots and can’t wait) until after I have put in the seeds that will be sown directly into the garden after the last spring frost date, which is May 15 in our area. Having these seeds started and growing will make me feel less pressured to get everything out into the garden right away, once mid-May arrives. I’ll be able to spread out the planting over a week or so, which will be much less stressful for these old bones. And, once I’m finished with planting, it will be time to start thinking of taking in some of the lettuce for a great big salad.
I’ve shared many photos of my garden space and sun porch. Let me share a little of the scenery that surrounds us. This photo was taken four days ago at sunrise.
I’ve been inspired by Joe Lamp’l's attempt to start seeds on the cheap. (See Joe’s blog here and The $25 Victory Garden Facebook group here.) I wish I had thought to do this before I spent $24 on empty seed flats earlier this spring.
At first, I thought I would like the milk bottle starter best on top right, as it has a flat side. To open, with a utility knife, I cut three sides of a rectangle on the milk bottle’s side facing the top, leaving the last side of the rectangle uncut so that it can act as a hinge. Inside the bottle I layered 2 c. water topped by 3 c. potting soil formulated for seed starting. Last, I scattered spearmint seed over the soil, then used my fingers to cover it up just a bit. I taped the whole thing shut along the cut lines with packing tape.
However, the two-liter soda bottle (pictured bottom left) ended up being my preferred starter. After removing the label, I used packing tape to attach two wine bottle corks to one side about three inches apart. This is a very nice solution to keeping the bottle from rolling about. Then, as I did on the milk bottle, laying the bottle on it’s side, I used a utility knife to cut three sides of a rectangle on what is now the top side of the bottle, leaving the last side to serve as a hinge to fill the bottle with water (1 c.), potting soil (1-1/2 c.) & some seed (I used oregano) scattered on top and lightly worked in with a finger tip. I sealed the bottle shut with packing tape.
I think the two-liter bottle is the superior choice. It’s more slender and will fit on many window sills. It also is more transparent, allowing for better sun. Ironically, I believe it is more sturdy than many of the purchased seed-starting flats. When the seedlings are ready to transplant into the garden, take off the tape and the seeds then can be easily scooped up and replanted.
Over the past weekend I sowed several flats of snow peas. I used larger 2.5-inch biodegradable pots for these seeds, rather than the smaller 1.75-inch pots that I used for the previous flats: the lettuce mix, the Roma tomatoes and the leeks.
I also sowed a 50-cell flat of marigolds in the smaller cells, as I had read that marigolds make very good companion plants for almost all vegetables, particularly tomatoes. Marigolds are said to repel nematodes, whiteflies, mexican bean beetles, and tomato hornworms. I’ve never been a big fan of marigolds as flowers, but if they will keep pests out of my garden, then I will begin to regard them as botanical guardian angels.
The seed packet of the variety of marigold that I selected it Snowdrift (W. Atlee Burpee & Co.). Snowdrift says that it will grow to a height of 22 inches, with 3 to 4-inch cream-colored blooms. The lighter color appeals to me, and it occurs to me that this larger variety will need to be planted farther apart, which means I will not need so many to line the periphery of my garden, as is my intention.
Well, here’s the exciting news: my lettuce seeds have sprouted. And so have my marigolds. I am such a worry wart. Should I be concerned that the marigolds sprouted a mere four days after planting. The lettuce, which sprouted exactly seven days after planting, is right on target. But what about the Roma tomatoes and the leeks? They still have a couple of days, of course. But what if I did something wrong? I’ve decided maybe I should be taking them inside again at night for a while. While nothing is actually freezing overnight on my sun porch, they may need a little more warmth to coax them into showing their faces.
More wonderful news: My sons’ father Tim also has taken an interest in our garden, and he was able to borrow a rototiller. Leave it to guys to go crazy over any tool with an engine, particularly one that digs through dirt. Zac and Jacob had that sod mulched and then the soil fully plowed in one evening. (And Jacob also plowed our neighbor’s smaller garden the next afternoon.) I expected to be digging daily until May. So hurray for rototillers! Our garden measures roughly 12 by 60 feet, and then there is another patch farther in the back of the lot that we prepared for crops that can tolerate a little less direct sun. This plot measures about 15 by 15 feet. I know that sounds like a lot of garden, but when you consider how many hands we have involved now (who will likely be reaping the benefits as we start to harvest), maybe it’s just about the right size.
I have a couple of additional flats that I will be sowing today. Here’s a photo of one section of our garden.
Let me also add a brief update regarding the soil pH: I was able to treat the soil yesterday with aluminum sulfate, which is supposed to lower the pH immediately. I put down roughly what the package directed in order to lower the pH one full point. That should get us down around 6.5.
But storms were forecasted yesterday, and I could hear thunder in the distance as I prepared to treat the soil. So I made the decision to scatter the aluminum sulfate on top of the soil — yes, I wore gloves and used an old colander as a spreader. The package directions said to mix with water and then pour, but that was assuming that it would be used to lower the pH around established hydrangeas (which need highly acidic soil to get those deep blue blooms). I figured that, since I had nothing planted yet, I could save time by raking it into the top soil and allow the rain to distribute it further.
So, you guessed it. We had lots of thunder but not one drop of rain. The problem can be easily solved with a garden hose, but we have none. At least, not yet. We lived in an apartment for the year between leaving our last house and moving here, so I gave all of our old hoses away. I expect I will get one before the day’s end. I am truly grateful that we are so close to Home Depot, Menards and Target, as well as the higher end garden center where I bought the aluminum sulfate. I expect there will be many things that I’ll need as I learn more how to do this thing called gardening.
Here it is, everyone. My little plot of land. It doesn’t look like much, does it? It’s only March here, and temperatures went down into the single digits last night, so it’s hard to envision what this piece of land will look like in a few months. We have a piece of land that measures about 15 by 60 feet that is sunny, flat, and evidently fertile. We’re told that a garden once sat on this very same site, so that’s reassuring.
There also is another 15 by 20 feet available behind the garage and tree in the photo that could be used to grow vegetables needing less sunshine, such as the spinach crop I have planned. We will have to dig that site right away, as the seed can be sown on frozen soil for early harvest. What will grow there later in the season I haven’t yet figured out.
Today, the temperatures are above 40 degrees, and it is quite bright and sunny. So I have returned my previously planted flats to the sun porch, and I planted another today: leeks. Again, one flat of 50 cells. It is not supposed to dip below freezing this weekend, so I won’t have to move the flats in and out, which makes me very happy. I need to find someone who can tell me how much cold my sprouting seeds and seedlings can tolerate overnight in their enclosed but unheated space.
We are expecting sunny days in the 50s over the weekend, and my sons and I will be starting to dig. The spinach patch will be our first priority, so that we can get the seed in right away. We’ve purchased a bag of peat moss to mix into the soil for the spinach patch. I have no experience with this, and I don’t know how many bags of peat I will need in total for the entire garden. I’ve decided to buy one bag at a time. The first bag, purchased at a garden center about one mile from our house, was $8.99. It’s very heavy, so I expect it has been compressed a great deal, given that — in my experience, at least — peat moss is not particularly dense. It may be also that in time I’ll find a better price.
I just did a soil test with a little kit that I purchased at the same garden center for $1.19. It turns out that our soil is very alkaline — I’m guessing close to pH 8.0. As I said in my last post, we have ten large trees on our property, and as best as I can tell now (given that they have no leaves at present), I believe they are all oak trees. So the alkaline soil is to be expected. Tonight I’ll be researching my options on how to get that pH down between 6.0 and 7.0, which evidently is where most vegetables like their dirt.