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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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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.

Yesterday (Saturday) I planted the first seeds into my garden — spinach seeds, which I’ve read can actually be broadcast on frozen ground if the ground has been prepared in the fall. That wasn’t necessary, as it’s been pretty warm most days for about a week now. However, we live in northern Indiana, and we can still get overnight frost into the first part of May. The weather, from the middle of March through the end of April, can vary widely. We may yet have large amounts of snow. Or it may be quite warm, even into the 80s. Most likely, we will have a little of both. But I’ve been assured that spinach can handle it.

I have decided to plant many cold-tolerant plants, such as spinach and lettuce, in the plot that we prepared last in the far southeast corner of yard. The pH level there is a bit less alkaline, somewhere between 6.5 and 7.0, so we can work on lowering the pH throughout the season and worry less about getting plants to grow at all. The nitrogen levels there, while still low, are at least measurable. I will water between the rows today with a very mild solution of aluminum sulfate, which will lower the pH immediately. I don’t want to lower it a full point, as in the other plot, but I would like to get it down below 6.5. After the seeds sprout, I will mulch between the rows with pine needles.

This garden plot, in addition to having somewhat better soil, also is likely to get a bit of shade, as there are trees close by, although not directly overhead. I’m hoping it won’t be too shady, as this is where I’d like to put the tomatoes, but I won’t know for certain until the trees’ leaves come in. (They are starting to bud now, so it won’t be very long until I have a clue.) The hardest part about putting in this garden is doing it on land that I haven’t lived with for a while. We have only lived here since the beginning of the year, so the only season I have experienced with this particular land is the winter. I don’t know it’s history, apart from having been told it was once part of a farm, and I don’t have a really good feel for the sun and shade through the seasons or the pests that I might expect. (Although I can tell we have moles. That’s obvious.)

In preparing the soil, the rototiller pulled apart the sod, returning it as organic matter into the ground. Yesterday, I turned over the soil again for about one-third of the most northern end, and then I hoed and raked until I felt the soil would be hospitable for the seeds. I put in four 12-foot rows rather close together, about 12 inches apart.

When I opened the seed package (Baby’s Leaf Hybrid, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.), I was surprised that they were somewhat larger than I expected. I was expecting seeds more like the small flat lettuce seeds that I planted nearly two weeks ago in a flat. Those are now growing heartily on my sun porch, and I expect I will be transplanting them into the garden next sometime within the next week. Spinach seeds are rounder and goldish-tan in color. They look a little bit like grape seeds, I think.

This is what spinach seeds look like.  These are what is leftover from the packet I started yesterday.

This is what spinach seeds look like. These are what is leftover from the packet I started yesterday.

I think it’s odd that the seed packet directions say to thin the rows when the seedlings are 1 to 2 inches tall so that the plants are six inches apart. Why not simply plant the seeds six inches apart to begin with? After all, I’ve noticed that with the flats I have already started nearly every seed sprouts successfully. So that’s what I did. If there is significant seed failure, I figure I can put in new seeds in the spots where the previous seeds did not sprout. I hate to waste seed, and I have plenty of garden space. I hope this is a reasonable strategy, but I suppose I’ll learn in time what works best for me.

Putting in the rows of seeds yesterday reminded me quite a bit of helping my parents when they planted our family garden years ago. I don’t suppose I’ve sown a row of vegetables in 40 years, but I still knew how to take the hoe and drag it across the earth so that it barely scratched the surface. (Spinach seeds, say the package, should be planted about 1/2 inch beneath the soil.) I dropped the seeds in about six inches apart. I’m not so anal as to use a yard stick or tape measure for this. My hand stretches about 8 inches from thumb tip to the tip of my little finger, so the seeds are planted slightly closer together than that. Once the seeds were in their place, I used the hoe once again to push the right amount of soil over them. Finally, I tamped the soil down lightly with the end of the hoe so that the seeds were securely tucked into their bed.

My father always used kite string stretched across the width of the garden to mark out the rows. I didn’t, but now I’m feeling guilty about my decision. I did shove sticks into the ends of the rows, but I didn’t tie them together with string. We’ll see if this is enough. Once everything was in place, I watered the soil lightly, taking care to direct the spray up and allow gravity to pull the water down, my best effort at mimicking a light rain.

Here's where I planted the spinach.  I'm unhappy that my garden doesn't look more tidy.  Next year, after I've been able to add more organic matter, I'd like to put in a somewhat raised wood border.

Here's where I planted the spinach. I'm unhappy that my garden doesn't look more tidy. Next year, after I've been able to add more organic matter, I'd like to put in a somewhat raised wood border.

Our first pest concern is going to be rabbits. I have wire farm fencing that was left behind in the garage, but I’m not sure the fence gauge is fine enough to keep out rabbits. It might better serve us as a trellis for all of the peas I have planned (snow peas and snap peas), and then maybe later in the season to support the tomatoes. I expect I’m going to need chicken wire instead. I’ll have to get that within the week and get started fencing off this little patch.

My plan is to use the remaining 10 by 12 feet of this plot for lettuce and a later planting of what I have left in spinach seed. I’ll separate the four close rows (12 inches apart) by a larger 24-inch space for tending to my plants, weeding and harvesting. I’m also thinking I might be able to squeeze in rows of radishes, carrots and even onions between the spinach rows and the lettuce rows. I’ll have to see whether or not that works. I’m definitely pushing the use of this space quite a bit already. I’ve already mentioned that I’d like to use the plot for our tomatoes as these crops taper off by early June. We are not big tomato lovers, but there are a few who enjoy sliced tomatoes, and almost everyone (except me and my daughter Allison) likes cherry tomatoes. However, we do consume a hefty amount of tomato sauce, so I expect to plant a full packet of Roma tomatoes, which I started in flats nearly two weeks ago and — hurray — finally sprouted after I brought the flats inside from the sun porch, which still can get quite cool at night. I want to start another flat today and hopefully polish off that packet of seed. I intend to sow another flat of the mixed variety of lettuce also. I’m not entirely certain where it will all go, but we have so much garden available, and it seems like a good idea to try plantings in several locations, to see which area is best suited for each plant.

Additionally, in that back plot (the one with the spinach already in), I intend to border the whole thing with marigolds, which are said to be particularly beneficial for tomatoes, as they help to repel tomato hornworms. Keep in mind that I’m getting all of my information from the Internet, not from personal knowledge, so my opinions of what plants should be planted together may indeed change over time. But I feel very much in debt to all of those generous gardeners who share on line from their body of knowledge. As it turns out, marigolds also are beneficial for beans and peas, which I’m told are not compatible at all with tomatoes. So today I also will be starting another flat of marigolds to use up that packet of seed. The marigolds that I started a week ago have all sprouted and are thriving on my sun porch, despite the cool nights. I intend to bring them in on nights when hard freezes are expected, but I think they’ll be fine with anything warmer than that.

Every available square inch of my rather small sun porch is being put to use. I’m hoping soon to be able to get the peas in place out in the large garden plot that runs along the south side of my garage and drive. I’ve been waiting on that a little while in an effort to get the soil pH down somewhat. I haven’t measured the pH since the day I applied the aluminum sulfate there. Since it never rained, I expect I should sprinkle it with water, at the very least to help the chemical better absorb into the soil. Once that happens, I will start moving the peas outside. They will get even better sun in the garden, and they are already accustomed to the cool nights.

The peas, by the way, are today starting to sprout. These seeds were soaked overnight, and then I tried something I found recommended on the Internet by a successful pea grower. After the overnight soak, drain the pea seeds and rinse and drain again. Cover the glass container with plastic and allow the moist seeds to sit another day or two, rinsing and draining again every 12 hours or so. When you see a little root begin to grow — botanists call this a radicula (radical, don’t you think? It’s really just Latin for “root.”) –then you plant.

These peas have had me feeling so foolish. First, I misunderstood the directions and I didn’t drain the seeds after rinsing them on the second and subsequent days. Well, the directions I read didn’t exactly say to drain. They said to rinse. Well, I drowned the poor things. The little root sprouted right away, but then never grew. After that, I realized what I had done wrong, bought new seed, and the little peas are simply rooting away.

But then I realized how desperately alkaline my soil here is. The lack of nitrogen evidently isn’t a concern, since the peas pull nitrogen out of the air and then deposit the excess back into the soil. That’s great for me. That’s why I’m intending to put them in the large garden plot along my drive and garage. That soil appears to have no nitrogen. But then there’s the pH problem.

So I bought myself some time by putting the rooting pea seeds into peat pots with potting formulated mix. That was a little expensive, but I just wanted to keep them alive until I could get my garden soil’s pH down where it should be. (I already was suffering a fair amount of guilt for killing the first batch.) I applied the aluminum sulfate several days ago, as I knew a heavy rain was forecasted, by sprinkling it over the prepared soil and then raking it just below the surface. But, then, no rain. So I’ll be making my own rain today (with the garden hose, of course) and then I’ll plant the peas. Since they’ve been in the peat pots for such a short time, I’ll simply reuse them again with other crops. In the end, the whole ordeal will cost me about $3.49 for the potting mix that I used for them. I guess that’s not too bad to rescue four packages of snap peas and snow peas. Let’s hope I haven’t caused any damage, anyway. At this point, I’m wondering if I would have been better off taking my chances with the high pH soil.

The peas will be planted on the garden’s periphery. That way the afore-mentioned aluminum fence can double as a support fence for the peas, as well as protect the entire inside garden from the many pests residing nearby. Once we get into May, I’ll plant marigolds on the outside of the fence, as they are said to be beneficial for most garden plants for the pest-repelling qualities.

Okay, those are my plans. Keep your fingers crossed that it all works out. Gardens do take work, and I’m going to be very disappointed if there isn’t a big pay-off in the end.

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.

Our garden is taking shape.

Our garden is taking shape.

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.

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