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Is it ever done?

For the past month I’ve been digging dirt. And planting seeds. And putting in the seedlings that I started myself on my sun porch. And this week, having found a little more space, I added a few commercially started seedlings as well.

And so today, an unexpectedly rainy day, I’m forced to pause and evaluate what I’ve accomplished in my garden so far and what is left for me to do.

For a garden newbie, I’ve taken on a lot this year in my enthusiasm to try growing just about anything and everything my family likes. Pair that with my compulsion to put every seed to use and what do you get? A very large garden, and a few sore muscles to boot.

To be exact, my garden is actually three garden plots. The first is the one where I have my spinach and lettuce and 18 Roma tomato plants that I started in March from seed, with some cilantro mixed in and a row of onions.

My corner garden plot.

My corner garden plot.

This plot gets full sun in the morning up until about 11 a.m., when shade from nearby maple trees shade it somewhat, making the light more filtered, but still relatively bright. At about 3 p.m. the southern third of the plot gets full sun once again for about four more hours. This is where I have the tomato plants. It is not my main tomato plot, but I put in the extra plants here, the ones that didn’t fit in the plot next to the house with the rest of the tomatoes. That plot gets full sun all day long, but I have to say that these tomatoes in the corner plot are doing very well too. They were smaller seedlings when I planted them about two weeks ago, but they’ve almost caught up with their brothers in the full sun. It turns out that they benefit from a daily watering early each morning just before dawn, courtesy of my next door neighbor’s automatic sprinkler. (I hope this is a good thing. So far, it has been.)

I continue to grow my lettuce inside their soda bottle-cloches. I’ve been harvesting lettuce from this plot almost daily for three weeks now, cutting the outer leaves and leaving the smallest one or two for further growth. (I probably should have started at least a week earlier.) The plants are starting to get too tall for the soda bottles, and a couple of days ago, as I’ve been removing the bottles to cut lettuce for our salad bowl, I started moving the two-liter bottles over to the new row of lettuce that I planted two weeks ago. The bottles have been great for leaving my lettuce leaves free of aphid, slugs, spider mites and the dreaded cut worms, and I’m holding my breath on how the older plants will do without them.

The baby spinach, on the north end of the plot, did not do well inside the cloches and this crop has been a bit of a disappointment. The extra warmth provided inside the plastic caused the plants to grow spindly, and the leaves wilted and burned if they touched the plastic. I removed the cloches once I realized this, and my girls and I have had a couple of salads and a breakfast spinach frittata from this crop, but now I see that red spider mites have damaged the lower leaves on most of the plants. I’ve tried washing them off, as I’ve seen recommended on several organic gardening sites. But I haven’t been entirely successful. We’re finishing off this crop and replanting new spinach in the place of the old as we do. This time I’m taking out the pine mulch and planting the spinach in rows closer together — with the individual plants about five inches apart on all sides.

Here’s my tomato and pumpkin plot next to our house:

My tomato plants and pumpkin hills share this garden plot with flowers and herbs.

My tomato plants and pumpkin hills share this garden plot with flowers and herbs.

Here I have 38 Roma tomato plants, six hills of pumpkins planted with 30 pumpkin seeds (19 have sprouted at last count), four sweet bell pepper plants and loads of herbs and flowers. I started the nasturtium inside by seed, both climbing and bush plants, and they seem to be thriving. My marigolds, on the other hand, also started inside in flats, are not. Of the 50 I planted, I have three left, and they are tiny little things — although they’ve grown considerably once I got them in the garden and out of my sun porch. You can see I also have lovely roses and the lamb’s ear is flowering right now as well. I’ve planted a variety of sunflowers directly next to the house, and there are four o’clocks (a childhood favorite of mine) starting to sprout there as well.

You can see that I have a few soda bottles over the smaller tomato plants in the foreground. That’s to protect them from my grandchildren, who are particularly drawn to this plot and sometimes walk about inside it, which is a bit of an inconvenience, as I’ve forgotten to put in garden paths here and there. Actually, I’m removing those bottles as soon as the rain clears, because the plants inside are starting to outgrow them, and their leaves don’t like touching the plastic either.

I have to show you how I’ve planted some herbs directly into this garden. It looks a little compulsive but, like I said, it helps signal my grandchildren (and me, because sometimes I forget) that something is planted there. I cut the inside cardboard from toilet paper rolls into halves, label the top edge with the name of the herb I’m planting there, put the cardboard into the ground, fill with starting mixture (because I’m planting delicate herb seeds) and then plant the seeds inside the cardboard.

You can see the basil sprouting inside the cardboard.

You can see the basil sprouting inside the cardboard.

I have found this method very handy, as there is no way my little herbs would survive otherwise. I don’t always take the time to look at the seating chart before venturing into my garden.

You might be wondering, why so many tomatoes and why Romas? Apart from my inability to stop planting once I’m on a roll, you can also attribute this to our family’s need for mega abundance in tomato sauce throughout the year. None of us cares that much for fresh tomatoes (although I have one plant each of cherry, grape and Big Boy for my grandchildren and one son). Since I was planting from seed, I wanted to make sure enough survived to give us a decent harvest. So far, so good.

Then there is my large garden plot, which is next to the drive and the garage:

My long and narrow garden plot follows the drive and extends back along the drive into the back yard.

My long and narrow garden plot follows the drive and extends back along the drive into the back yard.

This plot is 60 feet long. For the first 15 feet or so on the western side, it is about 12 feet wide, but closer to the garage it narrows to 10 feet in width. Here we have patches of what’s left of the peas. As I put in this garden, I started on the western side (in the background of the photo) and day-by-day worked my way east. I had to pause for a week or so to wait for my nest of rabbits to grow up and leave, but yesterday I planted over the spot where I uncovered the rabbits a couple of weeks ago. I still have about eight feet on the eastern end left to plant, but all-in-all, I’m nearly done now.

In this plot I have several rows of filet beans (bush style), one row of which is now more than a foot tall with blossoms. These beans I planted in a small flat back in April, hoping that I might be able to have an early crop. It looks like that effort may be paying off soon. I also have 30 pole bean plants — you can see the bamboo teepees that they will soon be climbing as they grow. I also have two hills of cucumbers sprouting as well nearby.

And what else? For squash: three rows of zucchini and three rows of yellow, two rows of spaghetti, and four hills of patty pan squash. For brassica: two rows of broccoli (which I started inside from seed), two rows of brussels sprouts, one row of cabbage, and one row of cauliflower (these last I bought commercially started). And, of course, there are radishes planted in between everything.

On the far eastern section of the garden, there is no direct sun until after 2 p.m. in the afternoon. There I have put in (going west to east) carrots, onion, and my lettuce mix. (I also have earlier-planted carrots in between my two rows of broccoli.) I have another eight feet left to prepare at the very end of this plot. I had hope to do that today, but today’s rain has postponed that until tomorrow. I’ve decided simply to put in more lettuce varieties, and I have purchased two salad blends for this: French Mesclun and Italian (Plantation Products, Inc.) You can’t tell I’m really enjoying these daily pickings of fresh lettuce, can you?

After that? Well, there are the two small flats of muskmelon that are growing heartily still on my sunporch. It’s been such a cool spring this year that I’m a little nervous about getting them out into the garden. But that’s going to have to happen this weekend. I’m going to put them on the western edge of the garden, outside the fenced area, so that their vines can grown out onto the wider portion of the drive there. If we are successful with the muskmelon this year, we might also try watermelon next year.

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The irony of writing a blog about gardening is that when there is the most activity going on in the actual garden, the blog suffers from lack of attention. The past three weeks have been hectic and back-breaking, as I made the push to get as much of my garden planted as early as possible once the last frost day (May 15) had passed.

I started a few days before the actual last frost date, on May 12, as there was no forecast of frost for the days ahead. First, I planted the eight 2-inch tall filet bean bush-style plants (Haricot Verts, Plantation Products) that I had started the month before in a flat on my sun porch. The flat was a little experiment to see if I could get an earlier harvest for a row of beans, which are a family favorite. I was not able to get any other beans planted until May 23, so I have to conclude that the experiment seems to have paid off. I now have one row of foot-tall bean plants while the others are only today sprouting out of the soil and into the world.

After putting in that first row of filet beans, I next planted two rows of broccoli plants (Barbados Hybrid, Ferry-Morse Seed Co.) that I had started in flats about the same time as the beans. Later in the week I had to be away for four days. In my absence, marked by an unusual late frost the first night (May 18th) followed by four days of hot sunshine and no rain, all but one of those infant broccoli plants shriveled up and died. Did the frost kill them? Or was it the lack of rain? Maybe cutworms were the culprits. Who knows? But thankfully, I had another flat of broccoli that I had planned to put in upon my return on the 22nd, and those filled the gaps left behind by their dead siblings. (One thing that I have learned up front about gardening is that it pays to have lots of back-up plants ready and waiting should something else prove to fail.)

Also planted that first week were four hills of patty pan squash, three rows of zucchini (Burpee’s Fordhook Zucchini, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.), three rows of yellow squash (Early Prolific Straightneck, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.), and two rows of carrots (Petite ‘n Sweet, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.). It doesn’t sound like much for six days of planting, but keep in mind that we rototilled the garden plot way back in March, and in the time since weeds have taken over the tilled soil. Additionally, given my experience with the peas, I was on a careful lookout for cutworms as I turned over the soil once again to ready it for planting. You might be interested to know that I averaged about one cutworm per spade full of soil. (I threw the round larvae out onto the driveway for the birds to eat. I made an abundance of feathered friends during the course of the week, to be sure.)

Additionally, I have radishes everywhere. I planted an entire package, putting in a few seeds into every row between the various squashes. One thing I remember watching my grandmother garden when I was a child is that she always alternated ever seed with a radish seed. The radishes sprout first — here in three or four days — and are ready to eat after three to four weeks. (Which is right now, in case you are curious.) So, while I am waiting for the rest of the seeds to sprout and then grow, I can pull out the ready-to-harvest radishes to make room for them. This summer, I will eat many radishes in memory of my Grandma Benson.

Old and regrettably damaged photo of Grandma Benson holding baby me

Old and regrettably damaged photo of Grandma Benson holding baby me

Here I have to point out another fact that I have learned this year as a novice gardener. Digging in the garden is a real pain in the butt. Literally. With exercise like this, who needs a gym? I may not have the perfect figure, but this summer I have glutes to die for. Women half my age should be so lucky.

When I resumed planting in my garden on May 23rd, returning after a five-day absence, I planted four hills of cucumbers (two of Early Pride Hybrid and two of Lemon, both from W. Atlee Burpee & Co.) 30 pole bean seeds (Kentucky Wonder, W. Atlee & Co.), and another 15 filet beans. Then, in a new plot along the sunny side of our house, I turned over the sod and put in sunflowers and four o’clocks (all now sprouting) against the house and in front of these 39 Roma tomatoes plants that I started from seed and grew on my sun porch. In front of the tomatoes are six hills of pumpkins just sprouting today (Jack-O’-Lantern, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.). For those who care to know, that’s 30 pumpkin seeds, a full 4-gram package.

And, if that isn’t enough, I put another 18 tomatoes in the back garden plot with the lettuce and baby spinach. Additionally, I have planted the excess 50-plus tomato plants (the back-ups) in every container I could find, and what I don’t use I’ll soon give away to family, friends and just about anyone else who will take them. And, yes, all of these are Roma tomatoes, every single one of them. We aren’t big for fresh tomatoes in this family, but we do like tomato sauce, and hopefully I’ll be putting away plenty of tomato sauce for the winter. Okay, admittedly I went a little overboard on the tomatoes, but like I said earlier, the one gardening rule I have learned to count on is to have plenty of back-ups.

I still have a 10 by 15 foot plot left to turn over on the far east side of my large garden plot. This section of my garden only gets direct sun after about 1:30 p.m., so I haven’t entirely decided what I should plant here. I have a 12-foot row of peas doing very nicely along one end, so this may be where I put in my fall crop of peas. I have plenty of baby spinach and lettuce seeds left also, and given that the soil in this section is a little rooty due to large trees a little bit away on the east and south, this site might be best dedicated to more greens. I’ll gladly take suggestions from anyone who can offer some.

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.

You all may think this subject a little premature, given that the last frost date is still a full month away in my Zone 5 climate. But I can’t resist sharing, as becoming a full-fledged vegetable gardener in my 54th year of life has been one of the richest learning adventures I’ve ever faced. Honestly, it ranks up there with college. Why? Because the fate of living, growing organisms in their own little ecosystem rests in my hands.

Rain was forecasted yesterday morning, but I had 32 cells of peas on my sun porch still needing a place in my garden. And before the rain made it’s appearance, I was outside just after 8 a.m., bundled up in my fleece Tigger pullover and my Mickey Mouse hoodie, my hands protected in work gloves from the chilly air’s bite, furiously punching the dirt with my hand trowel, placing the peas in the holes I’d formed and covering their peat pots with a little hand-held hoe someone gave me years ago. Sleet began falling, preceding what would become a cold rain, and I had to laugh at myself. It was official. I had become a gardening lunatic. What was my motivation for my crazy compulsion? Apart from the fact that the peas in these cells had reached a growth of five inches and their tenacious roots were exploding in all directions through the peat pots, my drive was fueled by the need for the plastic flat and the space it took on my enclosed sun porch. I wanted it so that I get my muskmelon and broccoli started.

Minutes later, warming up inside with a hot cup of chai as I watched the sleet turn into rain and darken the garden soil outside, I reflected on the many gardening truths that have overtaken my mind most of these days. And it occurred to me that I’d better get them down now, while they are fresh in my mind and not supplanted by the thrill of burgeoning vegetable growth later.

(1) Everything you need to know to grow a vegetable garden you can find on the Internet. You do not need a teacher. You do not need a gardening class. You do not need books. All you need is access to a computer and the ability to search for information. I google my garden questions all of the time: how do you prepare a garden bed, how do you test soil, how do you lower soil pH, how do you start peas, when do you start peas, what can you grow in containers, and so forth. I could go on ad nauseum.

(2) Soil is your garden’s foundation. Just as you can not build a house without first giving it a substructure, so too you must pay attention to the soil where your vegetables will take root and grow. The structure of the soil — based on its physical and chemical properties — must be considered and perhaps altered, because it will affect its water-holding capacity, as well as its ability to drain and encourage root development. The soil’s composition — the percentages of inorganic sand, silt and clay to humus (decaying dead organic material) and living microorganisms — also all work together to support, sustain and nurture the vegetables, from seed to seedling to harvest-bearing adult plant. Additionally, there is the basic chemistry of the soil’s pH, which will affect the solubility of certain nutrients in the soil and control their availability to the vegetables growing there. Soil, in my opinion, is a lot of chemistry and physics.

(3) From day to day, nature sets the gardener’s agenda. You can not harness the weather. The temperature, the sun’s path in the sky, rain, wind, sleet, snow and frost are all outside our control. Creation’s rhythms are our guiding light. If it’s to be sunny one day, that may be the day chosen for soil preparation. If rain is expected tomorrow, then today we may plant or transplant, hoping to glean the propagating advantage moisture will bring.

(4) There certainly is a lift of spirit that comes when witnessing the merry sprouting of seedlings while snow still covers the ground outside. I invested a fair amount of money into empty flats this year, and I very much believe the peat pots and potting mix have been extremely beneficial in speeding up the germination process, although I reserve judgment still on the plastic flats themselves. I have had nearly zero seed failure by making use of these products, and I’m hoping that in the end my investment will bring a more prolific harvest as well.

(5) Sun porches are ingenious inventions for gardeners. We are in our first months living in this home, which was once a farmhouse but now sits among other newer homes on a somewhat heavily traveled road near a shopping district. And I am delighted that my old fashioned, unheated sun porch seems to have been designed with gardening in mind. The shelves that line the windows are just the right width for my flats, and I have been able increase my seedling capacity by stacking crates around the periphery of the porch and topping them with more flats. Those farmers knew what they were doing when they built this place.

(6) And lastly, if there is any chance there may be roots in your garden, when you sit on the ground to plant your seedlings and lean over the soil to see better what you dig, keep your mouth shut. Roots are very springy, and inevitably they will throw a portion of dirt right into your face the moment you forget. And, should your mouth be found agape, it isn’t a particularly pleasant gardening experience.

Here's one corner of my prolific sun porch. So far I have sprouts of a lettuce mix, spinach, a perennial flower mix, marigolds, roma tomatoes, and cilantro.  I also have started spearmint, chives, lavender, muskmelon, broccoli and oregano seeds.  Thankfully, the peas are finally all outside.

Here's one corner of my prolific sun porch. So far I have sprouts of a lettuce mix, spinach, a perennial flower mix, marigolds, roma tomatoes, chives, cilantro, spearmint, lavender, muskmelon, broccoli and oregano. Thankfully, the peas are finally all outside.

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