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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.

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Last fall, I had the great idea of using mulched leaves from our yard to cover my back garden, with sits in partial shade between two large maple trees, for the winter. I knew I would be using this plot early this season for our peas, and I wanted to inhibit the weeds and keep the ground moist and easy to work.

This spring I got a later start than I had planned, but now my pea garden is well underway. I have two of my four rows planted, and a third ready to plant. The surprise, when I pulled off the leaves and moved them to my side garden to smother out the dandelions that were surfacing there, was that my pea garden is filled with worms — the good composting worms: red wigglers to fishermen, Eisenia fetida to biologists. I’m not talking a few worms here and there. I’m saying that with every single shovel-full of dirt, there are a good dozen or more of these lovely composting angels, turning all of those leaves into vermicast (otherwise known as worm manure), all waiting there to feed my peas for the coming season.

Beautiful red wigglers that I will put to work in my compost bin.

Of course, I have gathered up the worms that I could catch for my own compost bin. They will continue to feed off of last fall’s leaves, as well as banana and potato peels and other kitchen waste, converting it to organic matter that will fertilize my garden for the coming season.

I have to brag a little bit about my fence. We live right where new commercial and residential development borders long-time rural homes. I live in an older farmhouse, next door to a 1960s ranch with a new home built in the 1990s right behind me. The wildlife here is mostly rabbits, squirrels and ground moles with robins, wrens, hawks and doves hovering above our heads. But raccoons, ground hogs, coyote and deer are close by as well, and I’ve even recently spotted an eagle.

With one 60 by 12 foot garden bed running along my garage and drive and another 12 by 15 foot bed sitting in the back corner of the lot, you can imagine the potential cost of fencing such a garden. This year, I decided to go with the cheapest possible option. I am using deer netting, held in place by purchased wooden stakes and wood chips I got cost-free when the utility company took down a tree across the street from me, put the limbs through a chipper and left behind a huge pile of mulch in its place.

I was able to purchase a 100-foot length of deer netting from my local Lowe’s store for just under $13. I found 4-foot stakes (1 by 1 inch thick) in packages of six for less than $4 at Menards. I bought four packages. The deer netting is seven feet tall, and I cut it in half so that I had two 100-foot lengths that were 42″ high, yielding enough fence for these two garden beds for less than $30.

I stapled the deer netting in place to the wood stakes (which are soft wood, probably pine), leaving an extra six inches on the ground, which I folded out and then covered this with a thick layer of wood chips to secure the bottom edge of the fence.

Wood chip mulch runs along the bottom edge of my deer-netting fence, securing the garden from critter and providing a border that is easy to mow along.

Wood chip mulch runs along the bottom edge of my deer-netting fence, securing the garden from critter and providing a border that is easy to mow along.

Rather than a gate, I have a couple of sections where the deer netting is only 24-inches high, which allows me to easily step over the fence. I threaded a length of yarn along the top of these sections, so that I could easily see what I have to clear, anticipating clumsy falls into my growing produce without this precaution.

This little red wagon transported twelve loads of wood chips from across the street to secure the bottom edge of my fence.

This little red wagon transported twelve loads of wood chips from across the street to secure the bottom edge of my fence.

Having gone with this inexpensive fence, I realize that my garden remains vulnerable to large animals, but with a great deal of open greenery surrounding our property, I’m willing to bet that a rampaging herd of deer is unlikely to venture close to our house and garage, where my garden beds lie. Still, I have placed many of our now-unused cloches made from soda bottles on the sticks and bamboo stakes that are in my garden for various purposes. Others hang from nearby tree branches. My theory is that these bottles are functioning much like a scarecrow, creating motion and reflections that will fill wild creatures with caution and suspicion.

I'm hoping the soda bottles in my garden will make thieving critters think twice before encroaching on my territory.

I'm hoping the soda bottles in my garden will make thieving critters think twice before encroaching on my territory.

So far, so good. We’ll see if this fence continues to keep my vegetables secure through the growing season.

They aren't pretty, but they get the job done.

They aren't pretty, but they get the job done.


Several of my readers have commented on my cloches, made on-the-cheap from various bottles that largely have come from my household. By and large, these are one- and two-liter soda bottles. We had an entire winter’s supply of plastic bottles in our garage, awaiting recycling, when the idea came to me that I might be able to use them in my garden.

(Actually, if truth be told, we really don’t drink that much soda from bottles. I, however, love seltzer water, which I buy in two-liter bottles, and average about one bottle a day, whereas my daughters are fans of Walmart’s flavored seltzer, which comes in one-liter bottles. Between the two of them, they probably average eight to ten bottles a week. Yes, that’s a lot of plastic, but our water here is very bad quality, and even purifying it doesn’t seem to remove the bad flavor.)

Initially, I cut the bottles roughly about one-third down from the top of the cap. Two-liter bottles are 12-inches tall, and using a utility knife I cut the bottles at the point where the label ends, somewhere between 7-1/2 and 8 inches from the bottom. I cut the 10-inch tall one-liter bottles in about the same place, two-thirds up from the bottom, along the edge of the label. Then I’d remove the labels and use the bottoms. Later, when I ran out of bottoms, I realized that the tops also could be used with the shorter seedlings.

When I place the bottles over my seedlings, if the surrounding ground is soft, I can push the bottles down into the soil an inch or two, which secures them from toppling or getting blown about in the wind. We have had some windy days, but I have only had a couple of bottles desert their posts. With the fence around the garden — which is really not fencing at all, but deer netting secured to stakes — none have blown away to liter my neighbors’ yards. When I covered the spinach seedlings, which had sprouted in place in their garden setting, I soon learned to loosen the soil surrounding them with my hand spade before attempting to secure the bottles over them. Otherwise, the flimsy plastic of the bottles curls under and the cloches don’t stay in place.

One of the reasons I really like the cloches is that I can pile up the mulch fairly thickly around the plants and close to each individual plant without smothering the seedlings underneath. As the mulch settles into place and weathers down after steady rains, it forms a nice ring around the plants without actually touching the stems. My regular readers may recall that I have been fighting unusually high pH levels in my soil — it measured above 7.5 when we first turned over the soil in March — and after an initial application of aluminum sulfate that brought the pH down to just under 7.0, I have been attempting to maintain and perhaps lower that a bit more with pine needle mulch, graciously provided by my next-door neighbors. The cloches help prevent the needles from actually touching the seedlings, thus avoiding any possible burning from their high acid content.

The cloches also have very nicely protected the plants from rabbits, mice, raccoons, squirrels, ground hogs and all of the other Rodentia that prey from above the soil. Additionally, they had been very effective against the much-despised cutworms that strike from above — that is, of course, until the cloches were removed. They didn’t seem to protect them from underneath though, and the cutworm species that attacks the roots were able to achieve their mayhem unhindered, even with the cloches in place. I’m hoping that I will not have the problem with cutworms in subsequent years as cultivation alone seems to work against them as time goes on.

The two-liter bottles, by virtue of their larger circumference, fit over larger peat pots. I have sprouted my seedlings in 2.5-inch and 1.75-inch biodegradable cells, and the one-liter bottle cloches do not fit around the larger cells. So I have used them on the seedlings in the smaller cells (the lettuce and spinach, for example) and saved the two-liter bottle cloches for the seedlings in the larger cells. My lettuce plants have gotten so large now though that I am transferring the larger cloches to them as they become available. I expect I’ll soon be harvesting some of the lettuce, perhaps within the week.

However, I find I actually prefer the smaller one-liter cloches whenever I can use them. I have found that the flimsy plastic on the larger bottles curls under with age, which makes it harder to push them down into the soil. Loosening up the soil around the small plants first before pushing in the bottles over them helps prevent the curling, but in time the plastic eventually curls anyway. I extend the life of these larger cloches by trimming off an inch of the plastic when it starts to curl, but they will end up in the recycling bin before the season’s end, I’m afraid. The smaller bottles, on the other hand, will likely survive several seasons.

As I’ve needed larger and larger bottles, I started cutting off the bottoms of the bottles instead of the tops. I only take off between an inch and two inches when cutting from the bottle, which gives me a couple of inches more in height. This also is actually a better design functionally for cloches. The plastic at the bottom of soda bottles is a tiny bit thicker, which makes for a sturdier cloche. And the tapered top of the bottle allows debris to slide off easily, optimizing the sun that reaches the plants inside. Additionally, I have the option of removing the bottle cap and watering the seedling inside the bottle without removing the cloche, when I think that not enough moisture is reaching the roots directly under the cloche. This isn’t a frequent problem, though. Being able to mulch up close to the seedling allows the soil to retain moisture much more effectively between rainfalls. And, of course, I water with a soaker hose, so as long as the roots are getting what they need, it doesn’t matter whether or not the surface soil is damp.

I’ve been so happy with my improvised cloches that I’ve started using just about every plastic and glass container that would otherwise head straight to the recycling bin. This is what I’ve learned: I don’t like the gallon-sized milk and water bottles. The plastic in our gallon bottles is milky in color and translucent rather than transparent. I don’t think the seedlings inside get enough light or enough water to best sustain them. I love juice bottles the best, especially the large round Juicy Juice bottles. They are made with a thicker plastic, but are big enough in circumference to fit around larger peat pots. And when the bottoms are cut off, I have the same tapered top and the same option of using them with or without the lids.

Any clear glass or plastic container can be put to use in this way. The only limit is the size of the opening. Smaller jars can be used on tiny first sprouting plants and replaced with larger ones as the plants grow. In time, of course, the plants will outgrow them all, but by that time they will have a more solid footing in this world and be less vulnerable to attack. A loss of one leaf on a large plant is not the potentially fatal blow that it means to a seedling. Roots are larger, stems are sturdier, and leaves are more plentiful on older and larger plants.

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:

(This photo was taken at 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, April 28, 2009.)

(This photo was taken at 3 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, April 28, 2009.)

. . . Returned the next, following damp morning to see this:

(This photo was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

(This photo was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

. . . And this:

(This photo also was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

(This photo also was taken at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 29, 2009.)

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:

(Photo taken 9 a.m Thursday, April 30, 2009.)

(Photo taken 9 a.m Thursday, April 30, 2009.)

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.

Dandelions growing in my neighbor's pasture

Dandelions growing in my neighbor's pasture

When you are trying to learn a new skill — like gardening, for example — you just never know what useful information you might stumble across in your quest to master this new domain.

A recent encounter with persistent dandelions in my garden beds is an excellent case in point. While searching the Internet for organic remedies for this annoying pest — hoeing and heavy mulching appear to work best — I was astounded to learn that dandelions rule as one of the world’s most nutritionally dense edible greens. They are high in beta-carotene, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium and phosphate, as well as the B vitamins thiamine and riboflavin. I found The Leaf Lady‘s web site particularly informative.

Now keep in mind that I am not a nutritionist, nor am I an historian, only a mom armed with her Mac and a brilliant mastery of Google. But it turns out that the humble dandelion is a European import brought to the States to be farmed in vegetable gardens throughout the colonies when our country was young. Dandelions (from the Old French “dent-de-lion,” which means “lion’s tooth”) kept many a settler alive through tough times and continues to be cultivated and eaten the world over — adored by everyone except us disdaining Americans.

Now I knew dandelions were edible, having learned this fascinating fact the summer before I started high school. That year, my grandfather brought a car full of relatives to our home for an afternoon visit. Among them were his 92-year-old Aunt Alma, who was visiting from Missouri. There were many details about my tiny and unassuming great-great aunt that made an impression that day, among them that she, the youngest of ten siblings who immigrated from Sweden with their widowed mother, married her husband the very day after she met him for the first time (although they had been corresponding for several years) and with him went on to have eleven children of her own. Somehow, during the course of that visit, the conversation turned to food — as it often does when relatives get together — and my Aunt Alma professed an undying love for dandelion greens, much to the amusement of those gathered around her. Given that my Aunt Alma went on to live far past her 95th birthday, I suppose I should not have been so surprised at the healthfulness of her favorite green.

My Great-Great Aunt Alma, lover of dandelion greens

My Great-Great Aunt Alma, lover of dandelion greens

I spent an hour this past Saturday afternoon digging up dandelions out of my yard and garden, then got the brilliant idea of harvesting the greens and trying them for myself. That took the remainder of the afternoon and part of the evening as well. Not only did I have a lot of dandelions but it took a great deal of time to separate the leaves from the rest of the plant, bits of grass and a fair amount of dirt before cooking them. And then the product of my toil — sauteed with chopped garlic in olive oil — was a particularly chewy and bitter dish that we all sampled and no one liked.

So I turned back to my trusty Internet and, once again using Google, found tips for harvesting and for preparing the benevolent dandelion. It turns out that the most tender and least bitter dandelion greens come from the young plants that have not yet flowered. I found harvesting with a pair of scissors the most practical strategy, and by cutting one leaf at a time, I could most easily avoid getting blades of grass in the mix. Many dandelion afficionados advocate soaking the leaves in lightly salted water overnight to remove bitterness and to boil in water before sauteing to soften them. So in my second attempt to prepare my dandelion greens, I followed this advice and found a much more palatable result.

Additionally, I found the tiny flower bud that forms in the center of immature plants, when picked before the stalk forms and sauteed in butter, very tasty. I was able to gather about a cup of these delicacies with about four quarts of tender young dandelion greens in about an hour’s time. All I had left to do was careful rinsing and I was ready to prepare.

I’ve played around with a few recipes, and this is my favorite:

Saute four cloves chopped garlic and one thinly sliced onion in two tablespoons olive oil. Add one teaspoon of curry powder and 2 tablespoons golden raisins and cook, stirring, until the raisins have softened. Add two quarts of young dandelion leaves (which have been thoroughly rinsed, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces, boiled for ten minutes in salt water and then drained). Stirring, saute an additional ten minutes and serve.

Prepared this way, the dandelion greens are tasty, although I am even more fond of the dandelion buds in butter, which has a very nice, nutty flavor, I think.

Note to Mom and Dad: If you read this, do not send money. We are fine.

My peas have grown so tall that they were pushing their little faces against the tops of their makeshift one- and two-liter bottle cloches. This morning there was no putting it off. The cloches had to be removed. My peas would have to face the world — and all of its dangers — on their own now.

Meanwhile, in the lettuce patch, my lettuce seedlings also were straining to grow beyond their smaller bottle-top cloches. Many were waving at me through the holes at the top.

The obvious solution was to remove the bottle bottoms from the peas, freeing these mighty botanicals to reach for the sky, and to trade the lettuce’s smaller cloches for these larger ones. Then the lettuce cloches could be moved over to the rows of spinach, sown in March, that have now sprouted. Even garden plants, it would appear, inherit hand-me-downs from larger family members.

Graduation day.

Graduation day.

So, this morning, as I set about to the task of rotating the plastic cloches, I contemplated whether or not they were worth the effort. First of all, they are not particularly attractive, especially as covers for my conspicuously crooked rows of peas circling the periphery of the elongated garden bed that spreads out along my garage and extends about one car-length beside my drive. And, second, when I initially decided to try using them, I worried about high winds carrying them away and littering my neighbors’ lawns or the golf course adjacent to my neighbors next to me. In an attempt to prevent this, I push the plastic about an inch into the soil and then heavily mulch around the cloches with pine needles and oak leaves. And, thankfully, so far no cloches have sailed away in the wind. And then, finally, there is the simple, time-consuming aspect of cutting the plastic bottles, putting the cloches out and now removing or rotating them.

I came up with the idea of cutting plastic one- and two-liter bottles into makeshift cloches while putting in my peas early this month. In the hour or so that I spent today moving them about, I had to smile at the similarities I show in my parenting style and my approach to gardening. How often I have wanted to wrap my children up in their own plastic bubbles before sending them out into the world. What do I fear for my garden plants that makes me so intent on protecting them that I would expend a valuable hour of my day for this enterprise? At present, my fears are rabbits, squirrels, birds, deer, ground hogs, and raccoons. Birds and squirrels eat pea seeds. Rabbits, groundhogs and raccoons relish the sprouts. Deer nibble on budding pea flowers. My heart despairs to consider the devastation these critters could execute upon my garden plots.

But in the same way a mother has to find a balance between protecting and overprotecting her children, so too must a gardener seek that same balance. I can’t help but observe the difference between my four rows of spinach sprouts whose seed I sowed directly into the ground six weeks ago and their younger siblings, the flat I planted with seed from the very same packet (Baby’s Leaf Hybrid, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.) when I became impatient waiting for the seeds outside to sprout. Despite having been sown more than three weeks later, the spinach sown in the flats sprouted several days before those outside. The sprouts in the flat, now spending most of their time outside on the porch steps awaiting transplant, are larger, to be sure. But they are more gangly and fickle in form compared to their squat, sturdy brothers in the patch out back.

My gangly flat-started spinach seedlings

My gangly flat-started spinach seedlings

And so I wonder, have the advantages experienced by the seedlings that sprouted so easily through the soft starting mix inside the flat’s peat pots inadequately prepared them for the world’s capricious hardships? I won’t really know until I have harvested from both plantings. Certainly, more of the seeds planted inside have sprouted. In fact, I don’t believe a single seed failed to sprout. Outside, there appears to be a seed failure of about 25 percent. I have 76 spinach plants growing well there, and I have counted 26 gaps where seeds never sprouted.

My squat and sturdy spinach sprouts growing out back. (The circle in the dirt shows where their plastic cloches rest.)

My squat and sturdy spinach sprouts growing out back. (The circle in the dirt shows where their plastic cloches rest.)

Like any good mother — or gardener — I worry that my protective cloches may not actually increase the actual bounty. And ultimately isn’t that the whole point anyway? Did the protection provided by these plastic cloches make my peas stronger and taller, more prepared for battle against the dangers awaiting them? Or did it weaken them? I experienced some failure with my pea seedlings, but about the same with the seedlings that had cloches and those that didn’t have them. (Although I didn’t have the foresight to actually count each group.) All I can say is that a small portion of peas didn’t do well when first transplanted into the garden, whether or not they were in the cloches. Keep in mind that I also am growing four varieties of peas. Two are snow peas, Mammoth Melting Sugar and Dwarf Gray Sugar, and two are shelling peas, Dark Seeded Early Perfection and Burpeeana Early (all W. Atlee Burpee & Co.)

I was worried that perhaps the peas roots’ might not get enough water with their plastic shelters. That worry appears to have benn unfounded. While the soil immediately surrounding the peas’ stems often would remain a bit dry at the surface, the roots have had plenty of moisture. One unexpected advantage of the cloches was that I could mulch heavily between each plant and the bottles protected the seedlings inside from getting covered by the mulch. As weather allowed the mulch to settle, and as the seedlings inside grew taller, the stems were protected from the mulch’s excessive moisture, and yet the roots below benefitted from the long water retention in the soil between rainfalls and waterings.

Now that I have cloches in place over my spinach sprouts outside, I will be mulching between the rows here to give that them that same benefit.

My spinach and lettuce crop, inside their hand-me-down plastic cloches.

My spinach and lettuce crop, inside their hand-me-down plastic cloches.

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.

The view from my lettuce patch at sunrise.

The view from my lettuce patch at sunrise.

The very first flat that I sowed a month ago was from a lettuce mix packet — Summerlong Gourmet Mix (W. Atlee Burpee & Co.), which is said to be (and I’m quoting from the back of the seed packet) a “delicious blend of green and red lettuces” that includes: 20 percent Four Seasons and Lollo Rossa and 15 percent each Buttercrunch, Craquerelle du Midi, Black Seeded Simpson and Salad Bowl. Within a matter of days, I had seedlings eagerly sprouting out from the starting soil mix.

As I said, it was my first flat, and the seeds were rather small, so I sowed several in each of the flat’s fifty cells, assuming not all would grow. But, low and behold, virtually every one of those seeds must have sprouted successfully. A couple of weeks ago, I took out all but the sturdiest seedling in each cell, but I didn’t have the heart to sacrifice the less hardy seedlings, so I fastidiously transplanted each and every one of them into two more flats. And, wouldn’t you know, they all took! These little guys have quite a will to live. (I have learned my lesson, and all subsequent flats have been sown with only one seed per cell. Planting a flat once is enough work for me. Transplanting is more work than I care to take on.)

Now that I have all of the peas safely tucked into their rows circling the periphery of the main garden plot, it’s time to send these lettuce seedlings out into the world. They spent their first weeks on my little unheated sun porch, and a week ago I put them outside on my porch steps to get used to the outdoor climate. Earlier this week they encountered two days of cold rain, which they bravely endured. But now, with their soil and roots are well rain-saturated, it seems like an ideal time to set them loose.

Two days ago I put in two of the three flats of the lettuce mix. Compared with the muscular peas and their steadfast roots, my little lettuce sprouts are dainty — almost fragile. Their roots, unlike those of the insistent peas, although quite long, are threadlike and feeble — nearly gossamer.

Remember all of those one- and two-liter bottles that, cutting off the tops, I used as plastic cloches for my pea seedlings? Well, I saved the tops, and those are serving as shorter cloches for the lettuce seedlings, which are all less than an inch tall.

The two flats have given me more than three 12-foot rows of five varieties of lettuce.  I am using the tops of one- and two-liter bottles as make-shift cloches to protect the seedlings.  The rows are mulched with a pine needle and oak leaf mixture.

The two flats have given me more than three 12-foot rows of five varieties of lettuce. I am using the tops of one- and two-liter bottles as make-shift cloches to protect the seedlings. The rows are mulched with a pine needle and oak leaf mixture.

Just a few of our pea flats, snug and cozy on our sunporch

Just a few of our pea flats, snug and cozy on our sunporch

We like peas. We eat peas all year round. I put peas in macaroni and cheese. I add peas to ramen noodles. I like baby peas on salads. We eat snow peas raw as snacks. And, while my children aren’t as crazy about sugar snap peas, I can open up and prepare a 16-oz frozen bag of them and eat them all by myself. In short, this family is pea-nuts.

So, in planning our garden, it made sense to buy a package each of snow and sugar snap peas (Dwarf Gray Sugar and Mammoth Melting Sugar, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.). I couldn’t decide between two varieties of shelling peas (Dark Seeded Early Perfection and Burpeeana Early, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.), so I bought both.

Yes, four packages of peas just for us. Well, I suppose we’ll share, but still — that’s a lot of peas. Because I was concerned about getting the pH of our garden soil down to around 6.5, I ended up planting the peas in flats to buy us a little time. I had intended to move them before they ever sprouted above the surface of the potting mix, but with more than a week of dreary and rainy weather and a couple of writing projects thrown in, I didn’t get a chance to put them into the garden until late last week.

As of today, I have about 100 pea plants in the ground. That amounts to about a double row 25 feet long. I have lots more to go. The rest of my peas are sitting outside next to my front door waiting for me to get them tucked into their garden bed. And they are very impatient. Some seedlings are now reaching three inches, and their strong roots have pushed out of the peat pots in desperate search for more dirt.

When I planted the first seedlings the other day, I was amazed at the tenderness I felt placing each one into its place six inches from its sibling on each side. Is there any more beautiful shade of green than that of a pea seedling? This particularly happy shade reminds me of clover. Or shamrocks. And the round shape of the early leaves also brings to mind those same comparisons. But the tiny little tendrils, soon to entwine and hold onto the fence/trellis I have planned to circle the garden’s periphery, stir memories of infants’ reflexive, trusting grasp around a parent’s outstretched finger.

Yesterday it snowed. An April snow is not so unusual here in northern Indiana. I’ve been told not to worry — that the peas are cold-hardy. But I worried anyway. And I had my son go out to the garage to find a tarp to cover the seedlings sitting outside on our porch.

But I was less worried about the pea seedlings I had already planted. While putting them into the ground, I had become worried that rabbits would nibble on my little plants before I got the protective fence in place. That’s when I remembered we had a large number of one- and two-liter plastic bottles in our garage waiting for recycling. It occurred to me that I could cut off the tops and use the bottoms as individual green house covers for the pea seedlings. So that’s what I did, enlisting family and friends for as many as we could round up. In the end, I also used the cut-off tops to cover the smaller seedlings, as well as some glass canning jars I had found in the basement. I pushed the plastic securely into the soil (although I am a bit worried about what chaos a heavy wind might create), and then laid down between the bottles a two-inch blanket of pine needle mulch. So, when the snow fell, I was confident that my little seedlings were well-protected and would survive.

And, once the peas are in place and their trellis fence has been installed around them, I can use the very same plastic bottles to protect the lettuce and spinach seedlings, which are next in line to be planted into the garden.

The snow yesterday was very wet and has already melted, leaving behind a very cold and damp garden. I didn’t venture out to plant yesterday, but I’m hoping we’ll have warmer and dryer weather soon so that I can get in the rest of my peas. Wish me luck.

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