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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.

This is the mystery: I plant my seedlings in their little peat pots, and a week later, they’ve been pushed up and out of the garden.

I’m guessing grumpy moles who don’t like bumping their heads when they are out on the prowl. What’s your guess? These are lettuce seedlings, planted under the protection of my improvised cloches (made from two-liter soda bottles). I simply can’t think of any other way these seedlings might be jumping our of their garden beds.

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.

Lettuce from my garden

Lettuce from my garden

We’ve been enjoying lettuce from our garden for two weeks now, and my girls and I have each consumed large salads at least every other day since then.

When I made the decision to plant lettuce earlier this spring, I did so largely because of the shadiness of the plot we had prepared. Situated in the back southeast corner of our lot, this garden plot measures about 12 by 15 feet and has three large trees nearby, one on the south, one on the west and one on the north. This also means that the ground has roots beneath the surface that hinders good soil preparation more than six inches down. The plot gets full sun from sunrise through about 11 a.m. and then filtered sun for most of the day after that. The south end of the plot gets full sun again in the late afternoon and evening, so I set aside a third of that end to see if I could grow tomatoes there successfully. The north third I planted with baby spinach. In the middle, I planted the flat of lettuce seedlings that I started inside in mid-March, as well as two other flats that were started later.

The lettuce (Summerlong Gourmet Mix, W.Atlee Burpee & Co.) is composed of six different tender green or red lettuces: Four Seasons, Lollo Rossa, Buttercrunch, Craquerelle du Midi, Black Seeded Simpson and Salad Bowl. Their flavors are on the mild side, which is most popular in my household. Once I complete this 1 gram package (which is likely to take all summer), I am going to have to buy individual packages so that I will know which is which. There is one that is so tender it practically disintegrates in my fingers when I handle it. But that one is the one with the most appealing flavor, so I don’t intend to avoid it, but simply find strategies for handling it.

I put the seedlings outside into the garden in mid-April and covered them with cloches made from soda bottles. Recently, I planted another row directly into the garden plot. I’d like to know if there is an advantage sowing the seeds into the flats.

The cloches are wonderful at keeping out insects and protecting the lettuce from rabbits, as I have not yet fenced off this plot (although that is on my to do list for the coming week). They aren’t fail proof — yesterday I found my first slug — but it’s very nice to harvest lettuce with lovely, flawless leaves. One small downside is that dirt & debris often falls from the cloches as I remove them onto the lettuce leaves, but that easily rinses away in the cleaning process. Another aspect of the cloches that has been a benefit is that I believe the plants stay warmer and thus grow faster inside the plastic. However, as the season heats up, that could turn into a detriment and the cloches may have to go to prevent frying my greens.

The first time I harvested my lettuce greens, I was dismayed to find that when I rinsed them in mass in a colander the way I clean my store-bought lettuce, their leaf structure is far too tender for the weight of the water, and they all went limp.
Thank goodness for the Internet and the gardening friends I have made on Twitter. My friend Dan (@cityslipper) at Your Home Kitchen Garden clued me in to his technique of allowing the lettuce to float in water and then rinsing the individual leaves one-by-one. This man knows what he’s talking about. Doing this solved my problem. Now I have a dedicated pail that I fill with water and put the cut leaves into it as I harvest them. I then rinse the lettuce leaves individually on an outside table with a weak stream from the garden hose before spinning them dry. This method is very efficient, and I can quickly harvest and clean a salad large enough for the three of us in a matter of ten minutes, if I don’t dawdle.

So far I’ve been able to cut the outer leaves of the lettuce plants and leave the inner one or two small leaves on the stalk. By doing this, the plant continues to grow and provide additional harvests. I haven’t yet exhausted any of the plants, so I can’t tell at this point how long I’ll be able to do that. But I plan to put in additional new rows of lettuce each week to make certain that my family and I will continue to enjoy these amazing greens all summer long.

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.

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.

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.

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