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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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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.

My granddaughter Jadyn loves to help water my garden.

My granddaughter Jadyn loves to help water my garden.

One of the best things about a garden is that it can involve the entire family, particularly children. Ever since I began digging in the dirt this has not been an entirely solo project. My sons turned over the dirt for me when their father found a rototiller that we could borrow one weekend. Never underestimate the power of a motor-driven gadget to pull in the interest of men. I would still be digging up our two garden plots — one 12 by 15 feet and the other 10 by 60 feet — had it not been for their contribution.

Now that green is sprouting up everywhere, I have the attention of my grandchildren, Jadyn (who will be nine this summer) and Jaxon (who just turned two). That’s good, because I have planned quite a few things with them particularly in mind. Why else would I have planted six hills of pumpkins — 30 seeds — if there weren’t children to share in the harvest?

Today I am working on the two teepees of pole beans that I hope to have functional for the children before the month is out. Each teepee has 15 beans around three poles that meet about six feet up. The beans have all sprouted now, and my generous next door neighbor (who also furnished much of my pine needle mulch) has given me an unusual treasure.

You can still see the work of Rita’s husband, who passed away a few years ago, in place behind her back yard. This garden must have been a marvel, although all that remains now is the crops that return every year — strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb. Among these crops, on each end of the garden, are very large stands of bamboo.

Now, I didn’t even know you could grow bamboo in northern Indiana. Evidently, Rita’s husband had the idea of planting bamboo to help feed the red pandas that our community zoo had acquired a decade ago. Unfortunately, it turns out that the zoo is pretty selective about what it feeds its animals and must get its bamboo from approved growers, so the bamboo never actually made it to the pandas. Instead, I am reaping the benefits, as there are plenty of towering bamboo poles left from last year’s growth that Rita’s daughter and grandchildren would have burned had I not asked for them. And several of these poles will form the support poles for my own grandchildren’s pole bean teepees. And there will be plenty left to construct tomato cages as well.

But garden architecture is the last thing on my grandchildren’s mind just now. A couple of weeks ago, during that crunch week in which I was hurriedly sowing seeds in the large plot next to my garage, I uncovered a rabbit’s nest under a pile of pine needle mulch. Only I didn’t know it was a rabbit’s nest at first, and the image of what seemed like dozens of palm-sized brown rodent bodies streaming from the ground will haunt my nightmares for a very long time.

Although the bunnies seemed perfectly able to get around quickly on their own, there remained a touch of that white blaze on their foreheads that marks the immature bunny. I rounded up as many of them that I could — five, which was probably less than half of them — and successfully returned them to their nest. They have since flown the coop (so to speak), but wouldn’t you know it, one has taken up residency in my garage. This is an older, farm-style garage with a large number of possible entrances and exits that I’ll never be able to block off without bringing in a professional contractor. So, for the time being, we have a juvenile rabbit living next to my garden. My challenge now is to keep him happy outside the garden and safe from the three golden retrievers who live here too.

Our resident bunny, hiding in the clutter in the garage

Our resident bunny, hiding in the clutter in the garage

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