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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.

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’s been more than a week since my last post.

Those of you who read about the devastation endured (if you didn’t, read this) by my poor peas will understand. Such a blow is an entirely disheartening event for a beginning veggie gardener. And, after all the pride I had taken in my glorious peas, I suddenly felt very much put in my place. Who was I to think I could do this, after all? What did I really know about gardening anyway?

And, of all the crops planned for my new garden this year, the peas were the one I was most looking forward to. I don’t believe I have ever in my life tasted fresh shelled peas, even from my parents’ or grandparents’ gardens, and those in the know were telling me how scrumptious they are. My parents confirm that they had never had much interest in growing peas. Mom, a now-retired nurse who worked outside the home most of her life, didn’t relish the prospect of shelling them, so peas simply were never planted. Maybe because of that, growing peas has become my gardening holy grail.

And I may have been too hasty in blaming my sizable loss of peas on rodents — whether squirrel, rabbit, ground hog or mouse. Even after I had my fence in place, I continued to suffer additional losses. Further consultation with more experienced gardeners appears to have solved the crime. The likely culprit was probably cutworms. At least, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to via the circumstantial evidence.

Cutworms are scary creatures. The larvae of several species of night-flying moths, they come out at dark and attack. Some of these night-time marauders are solitary vandals, who sever the plants just below or above the soil’s surface, at times dropping the felled stalk into their burrows so that the vegetable appears to have vanished into mid-air. I have seen the work of these nasty fellows, and it’s downright spooky.

Others work in groups, like armies of juvenile delinquents, rampaging across the landscape in legions, eating the tops off of plants and then marching on to their next hit. Still others are silent stalkers, feeding off the vegetable’s root so that the plant above appears to wither away overnight. If you want to know more about these covert criminals, I recommend this informational fact sheet from the University of Rhode Island.

I have witnessed apparent attacks from every variety of these hoodlums, assuming they are indeed the culprits and not the rodents. (But I’m still keeping an eye on those guys too. They’re devious devils too, and I don’t trust them a bit, even though I’m letting them off the hook for now.) It turns out that the plastic protective cloches that I had made from one- and two-liter bottles offered pretty good (although not 100 percent failproof) protection from most of the cutworms, with the exception of those that attacked the roots. Once the cloches were removed, the peas were 100 percent vulnerable.

More than a week has gone by now since the initial attack. I have noticed that peas have an incredible will to live. Those that were left with any leaves at all have sprouted new side shoots and may actually continue to go on to bear some harvest. I’m glad I didn’t dig them all up right away in despair. It’s too soon to tell, but I’ll be sure to report later on if my wounded go on to bear a harvest.

I’ve moved all of my survivors close together to share a trellis, as it no longer seems worthwhile to run a supportive fence all around the periphery of my rather large garden plot, as I originally had planned to do. The downside to moving my peas around is that I am no longer sure which are the snow peas, which are the sugar snap peas and which are the shelling peas. They are now all mixed together. I supposed I’ll know if any of these poor survivors ever provides me with a harvest. At this point, I’ll consider myself lucky if there’s enough for a meal or two.

The stubby wounded plants are once again protected with cloches. Those that are tall enough to reach their trellis are wearing protective aluminum foil skirts, shiny armor to ward of the preying cutworms that may dare to attack from above.

Evidently, cutworms are particularly troublesome in a garden’s first year. The moths lay their eggs in grass and weeds in the late summer and, after hatching, the larvae feed until cold weather, when they overwinter in the ground beneath. Frequent cultivation of the soil helps to either push the larvae deeper into the soil or to lift them above the soil, where they are exposed to predators. By moving my peas, I was able to unearth and kill a number of the nasty demonic predators. By the end of June most of these devils will have risen from their Hades beneath my garden, transform themselves into moths and take flight, leaving eggs in grassy areas and hopefully away from my garden plot.

Suddenly, gardening feels like warfare, with the enemy coming at my charges from above and below. This world is not a safe place for vegetables, to be sure. This is crunch week in my garden, as I race against time to get everything planted. We tilled the soil in March, and now as I’m sowing row after row of my summer crops, I’m also turning over the soil in search for more of these subterranean terrorists. I’ve got my eye out for them now. I’ll get ’em, just wait and see.

My pea survivors are armed for battle.  This is war.

My pea survivors are armed for battle. This is war.

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