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Despite the devastation my pea crop experienced in late April (details here), the day has arrived. I finally have peas. There aren’t many, but at present the snow peas are plentiful enough that I can use them in my salads or in a stir fry or two.

My garden's spring harvest now includes peas and radishes.

My garden's spring harvest now includes peas and radishes.

At this point, less than one fourth of the peas that I originally planted remain. There were four different varieties — a snow pea variety (Dwarf Gray Sugar, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.), an edible-pod sugar pea variety (Mammoth Melting Sugar, W. Atlee Burpee Co.), and two varieties of shellings peas (Dark Seeded Early Perfection & Burpeeana Early, also both W. Atlee Burpee & Co.). After losing about 300 pea plants, I moved what remained closer together and, as a result, the varieties ended up all mixed together. In other words, I no longer knew which plant would bear which type of pea. What to do about this? Hurray for the Internet once again.

By doing a search on all four varieties, I was able to gather enough information to help me identify which was which. For example, the Mammoth Melting peas grow on vines reaching four to five feet. These are easily the tallest of the peas, as the height of the other pea vines ranges from 24 to 30 inches. I have about a dozen Mammoth melting vines growing vigorously, some on a trellis I made with stakes and wire fencing that I had on hand. The others grow on trellises of tree branches and twine.

Mammoth Melting sugar peas in my garden

Mammoth Melting sugar peas in my garden

The Dwarf Gray sugar peas are very easy to spot. While the other varieties have white blossoms, these peas have blossoms violet-red in color, with reddish tinted stems. These peas also seem to be growing vigorously, but it appears that just 15 or so plants survived the April assault.

Dwarf Gray sugar peas in my garden

Dwarf Gray sugar peas in my garden

The rest are the shelling peas. I am having more difficulty telling these two apart. One appears to have a darker foliage. The Dark Seeded Early Perfection is described as having larger pods and somewhat longer vines. Perhaps I’ll be able to distinguish them as the pods fill out more. At present, while I have more than 50 of these plants, many are not thriving. Many were munched upon earlier this spring, but because of peas’ incredible will to live, the plants grew side shoots. Some have done well, but some have not. Only time will tell what kind of harvest they will bear.

A word about the trellises that I am using. I mentioned the fence-and-stake trellis. This was made using wire fencing that had been left in my garage when I moved here. I found working with it a bit difficult, due to the arthritis I have in my hands, so I used old tree branches and twine to construct trellises for the rest of my crop. I didn’t want to put a lot of money into my trellises, as I wasn’t at all certain I was going to keep these plants alive long enough to see a harvest. They aren’t especially pretty, but they are doing the job. And, in their own way, they have a rustic charm that probably would be more attractive if I had more vines covering them.

I still don’t have enough shelling peas to put together a meal, but I’ve heard a great deal from other gardeners about what a treat these will be.

In the meantime, we’ve been pulling up some of those radishes planted between the beans and squash. MMmmm. Now my salads have some color and some spice. My son Jacob, who stopped by yesterday afternoon right after I pulled the first red globes out of the soil, declared them the juiciest radishes he’s ever tasted. In fact, he ate all of them, and I had to go out for more later in the day. It’s good to know they are a hit, because they are bountiful here and I’m going to need help consuming all of them.

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.

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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