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This is the second year that I have started seeds early inside to plant in my garden later. Last year, I’m very proud to say, I grew about 50 Roma tomato plants from seed, transplanted them to my garden in May, and harvested enough tomatoes to freeze 38 quarts of tomato sauce, a supply we are still eating from to this day.

I learned a lot last year about starting seeds, which I did largely by following the directions on the seed packages and those that come with the seed starting medium and the little trays holding the peat pots. I won’t lie – I made a lot of mistakes. But with my experience came some knowledge that they don’t tell you when you buy these products. For one thing, I learned that you really don’t need the plastic trays. You just need something to hold the little pots of sprouting seeds until you can plant them in the soil. (Some people say you don’t need the peat pots too, but I’ve decided that I do, even if they don’t.) This year I am using plastic sweater boxes (without the lids) and shallow cardboard boxes, in addition to the trays I purchased last year.


I still consider myself a novice gardener, but right now most of my seedlings are growing heartily for the coming season. Yesterday I started a flat of bok choy, a vegetable I am planting for the first time this year. It occurred to me that many people might benefit from these inexpensive and fail-safe methods I have learned for starting seeds myself.

(1) Begin with a shallow cardboard box, the kind that canned goods and beverages are shipped in. I used a small plastic wastebasket liner to line the box, making it leak free. I stapled the plastic in place at the top edges of the cardboard.

(2) Place in the box medium-sized peat pots. For this project, I am using 12 pots 3 inches in diameter. These pots hold roughly 1 cup of soil or seed starting medium. I like this size when I am starting my plants 2 months before planting, because there is enough room for root growth until I need to transplant to my garden in May. If I use anything much smaller, I have found that most of my plants don’t have enough room to grow good root balls to keep them alive those full two months, and then I have to transplant to a larger size if I don’t want them to die. There are some plants that require less space — like lettuce — but yesterday I was starting a plant related to cabbage and in the brassica/crucifer family. These are not small plants. This is the size of peat pot that I used successfully last year for broccoli, a bok choy relative. Earlier this month, I also used these or similar pots to start cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. These pots were two dollars for 22 pots at Walmart. Of course, I only used twelve to plant this small flat, roughly $1.10 worth. I expect that I’ll also add another planting in late summer for a fall harvest.

(3) Fill the bottom of the pots (only half up) with potting soil. I have found that in these larger pots, I can use regular potting soil in the bottom, saving the top half of the pot for seed starting medium, which is a little more expensive (I’m told you can make your own seed starting medium, but my self confidence isn’t there yet for that project.) If you are using the smallest 50-cell to a flat pots, don’t use the potting soil, as these have barely enough room for the starting medium.

(4) After filling the peat pots half full with potting soil, add enough water to make the soil very wet. For my project, I used a quart of water for the twelve pots.

(5) Over the wet potting soil, fill the remainder of the peat pots with seed starting medium. This stuff is funny. Water doesn’t soak into it right away. It just runs through it. That’s why putting the wet potting soil on the bottoms of the pots helps, because it holds onto the water better. In time, the water at the bottom will wick up into the seed starting medium, which contains a high percentage of peat moss. But for a while, the medium kind of floats around on the water.

(6) Slowly add more water into the pots (another quart for my project). As I said, most of it runs through the starting medium, but some water will get absorbed. The rest will be soaked up later. At this point there will be about a half inch of water standing in the bottom of my cardboard tray. This will quickly be absorbed into the soil and seed starting medium in the next few days, and it was no cause for concern.

(7) Smooth out the surface of the seed starting medium with a spoon, and then mist the medium with water again. This allows moisture to be retained up at the top, where the seeds will be. Water signals the seeds to start growing, and they won’t grow until they make contact with the water.

(8) Place a single seed on the top of the seed starting medium in each pot. I use tweezers (which need to be dry or the seeds will stick), and I plant only one seed per pot, as I have nearly 100 percent sprouting success by using this method. If one seed should fail to sprout, I can use the pot again, either for a later planting of the same vegetable or another plant. (I waste nothing.)

(9) Mist heavily again. This way we can be certain the seeds are getting the moisture they need to activate germination. This also gives the soil starting medium one more chance to hold in a bit of water right there next to the seed.

(10) Cover the seed with the amount specified by the seed packet. (Bok choy and most other brassicas/crucifers need another 1/4 inch.) Then mist heavily again. Most of the directions I used last year warn against over-watering. I have found that slight overwatering (not flooding, but plenty of moisture) seems to give me my best results. By following these directions, I am making sure that the seed has initial moisture, as well as moisture for about one week, which is when I usually see sprouts for most (but not all) vegetables.

Initially, with this strategy it will look as if the pots have been filled to the very brim, but after about a week, once the water has soaked more fully into the starting medium, it all condenses some, so that I will have pots with soil about a half inch from the top of the pots in the end.

Then, finally, label every pot. You don’t have to be fancy. I use cut-up pieces of index cards taped to toothpicks. I also use a waterproof pen, as water will definitely come into contact with these labels, and they are going to look a little weary and waterlogged before the seedlings make it into the garden. In addition to the name of the vegetable, I also make note of the day they were planted. This information is helpful for future reference.

I have calculated that these twelve pots, fully filled and planted with seed, cost me less than two dollars. This is nowhere near what seedlings cost when purchased from a nursery, and I very much enjoy the satisfaction I get from doing it all myself. Initially, my potted seeds will spend about a week in my basement until they start to sprout. Then I will move them to a nice little sun porch on the west side of my house for my seedlings to stay while they are taking root and growing strongly in preparation for planting about mid-May. My crucifers, by the way, once planted also will have ground covers to protect them from insect infestation. But that’s another story, isn’t it?

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My garden blog was inactive over the winter. I hadn’t intended it to be. I had wanted to post occasionally about the many, many dishes we enjoyed during the winter months from vegetables I had frozen last fall. Instead, I took a well-deserved break. Maybe next year, right?

But now it’s time to begin again. In fact, my 2010 garden actually started taking shape in 2009, when I decided to experiment with growing greens inside. That was largely a failure — the lettuce got aphids and ended up feeding our little rabbit instead of us. EXCEPT, the spinach was quite successful. In December, just after Christmas, when I disposed of the aphid-infested lettuce, I planted in its place baby spinach, which is ready to eat right now. I didn’t plant a lot, given that it was essentially an experiment and I only had a little seed left from my spring and summer gardens, but it’s nice to know now what works and what doesn’t.

This spinach was sprouted and grown a few inches under the most full-spectrum shop lights I could find. (You'll notice there is a bit of cilantro thrown in as well, an effort to thwart the aphids.) It's now outside on my front porch awaiting consumption.

In January I bought garden seeds the very instant they started showing up on store shelves. In mid-February, I began planting, starting first by planting left-over herb seeds from last year. I was completely hopeless successfully starting herbs from seed last summer and ended up buying plants later from the nursery. But I learned a lot in my effort, and I decided to give it another go this year. So far I have thyme, lavender and oregano growing great-guns. They’re still very, very small and tender. They grow in peat pots filled with seed starting medium, and I mist them daily to keep them hydrated. Still, I had a lot of failure, but the ones that have made it this far seem to be on the road to success. I’ll report in later with full results. Just this week, I also started basil and more cilantro. The cilantro has never given me any difficulty before. We’ll see how the basil does.

In late February, I started three varieties of tomato: Roma for making sauce, Beefsteak for sliced tomatoes, and cherry for the kids. I was very successful last year with about 50 plants that I started from seed during the winter producing 38 quarts of frozen tomato sauce. I lost about 20 percent of my harvest at the end of September to late blight — I had been aiming for 50 quarts as I thought we would average one quart a week. The 38 quarts turned out to be plenty, but I’m glad I aimed high because of the loss we incurred.

I plan to keep the tomato sprouts inside under the grow lights for another few weeks before I move them to my sun porch. Last year my tomatoes seemed to thrive on that porch before planting outside in mid-May.


After I had the tomatoes off and running, I started the crucifers/brassicas. These plants can be put outside as soon as the ground is warm enough to work. I planted them in larger peat pots and will probably keep them inside as long as their pots are adequate for their growing roots. I had beautiful broccoli last year that I started from seed, which gave me the confidence to grow more varieties of crucifers this year. I have planted cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, which have all sprouted.

The broccoli and cauliflower have been rotated out to the sun porch from the growing lights to make room for more recently sprouted Brussel sprouts, cabbage and kohlrabi.

I have a kind of assembly-line rotating system in place this year to make the most of my available space and limited resources. Once the seeds are planted in their peat pots and seed starting medium, I bring their trays down to the basement to await sprouting. The very first day they pop their little heads out of the soil, they get moved into a room where they will sit under flourescent lights inches from the growing surface. As new sprouts from other varieties move into the light room, the larger or more cold-hardy vegetables go out to my sunporch on the west side of our house.

Newly planted seeds don't require light until they actually sprout. These flats wait side-by-side in my basement laundry area. The second I see that they've surfaced (and I check twice a day) they get moved to soak in full-spectrum light.

I knew last year, my first year ever as a vegetable gardener, that I was hooked on starting my vegetables from seed. I can’t tell you how proud I am of those 38 quarts of tomato sauce that I grew from a two dollar pack of seeds (plus another twenty dollars invested in starting trays, peat pots and seed starting medium). This year the trays are being reused, and the experience I gained last year with my failures will keep my expenses down even more.

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.

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.

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.

You all may think this subject a little premature, given that the last frost date is still a full month away in my Zone 5 climate. But I can’t resist sharing, as becoming a full-fledged vegetable gardener in my 54th year of life has been one of the richest learning adventures I’ve ever faced. Honestly, it ranks up there with college. Why? Because the fate of living, growing organisms in their own little ecosystem rests in my hands.

Rain was forecasted yesterday morning, but I had 32 cells of peas on my sun porch still needing a place in my garden. And before the rain made it’s appearance, I was outside just after 8 a.m., bundled up in my fleece Tigger pullover and my Mickey Mouse hoodie, my hands protected in work gloves from the chilly air’s bite, furiously punching the dirt with my hand trowel, placing the peas in the holes I’d formed and covering their peat pots with a little hand-held hoe someone gave me years ago. Sleet began falling, preceding what would become a cold rain, and I had to laugh at myself. It was official. I had become a gardening lunatic. What was my motivation for my crazy compulsion? Apart from the fact that the peas in these cells had reached a growth of five inches and their tenacious roots were exploding in all directions through the peat pots, my drive was fueled by the need for the plastic flat and the space it took on my enclosed sun porch. I wanted it so that I get my muskmelon and broccoli started.

Minutes later, warming up inside with a hot cup of chai as I watched the sleet turn into rain and darken the garden soil outside, I reflected on the many gardening truths that have overtaken my mind most of these days. And it occurred to me that I’d better get them down now, while they are fresh in my mind and not supplanted by the thrill of burgeoning vegetable growth later.

(1) Everything you need to know to grow a vegetable garden you can find on the Internet. You do not need a teacher. You do not need a gardening class. You do not need books. All you need is access to a computer and the ability to search for information. I google my garden questions all of the time: how do you prepare a garden bed, how do you test soil, how do you lower soil pH, how do you start peas, when do you start peas, what can you grow in containers, and so forth. I could go on ad nauseum.

(2) Soil is your garden’s foundation. Just as you can not build a house without first giving it a substructure, so too you must pay attention to the soil where your vegetables will take root and grow. The structure of the soil — based on its physical and chemical properties — must be considered and perhaps altered, because it will affect its water-holding capacity, as well as its ability to drain and encourage root development. The soil’s composition — the percentages of inorganic sand, silt and clay to humus (decaying dead organic material) and living microorganisms — also all work together to support, sustain and nurture the vegetables, from seed to seedling to harvest-bearing adult plant. Additionally, there is the basic chemistry of the soil’s pH, which will affect the solubility of certain nutrients in the soil and control their availability to the vegetables growing there. Soil, in my opinion, is a lot of chemistry and physics.

(3) From day to day, nature sets the gardener’s agenda. You can not harness the weather. The temperature, the sun’s path in the sky, rain, wind, sleet, snow and frost are all outside our control. Creation’s rhythms are our guiding light. If it’s to be sunny one day, that may be the day chosen for soil preparation. If rain is expected tomorrow, then today we may plant or transplant, hoping to glean the propagating advantage moisture will bring.

(4) There certainly is a lift of spirit that comes when witnessing the merry sprouting of seedlings while snow still covers the ground outside. I invested a fair amount of money into empty flats this year, and I very much believe the peat pots and potting mix have been extremely beneficial in speeding up the germination process, although I reserve judgment still on the plastic flats themselves. I have had nearly zero seed failure by making use of these products, and I’m hoping that in the end my investment will bring a more prolific harvest as well.

(5) Sun porches are ingenious inventions for gardeners. We are in our first months living in this home, which was once a farmhouse but now sits among other newer homes on a somewhat heavily traveled road near a shopping district. And I am delighted that my old fashioned, unheated sun porch seems to have been designed with gardening in mind. The shelves that line the windows are just the right width for my flats, and I have been able increase my seedling capacity by stacking crates around the periphery of the porch and topping them with more flats. Those farmers knew what they were doing when they built this place.

(6) And lastly, if there is any chance there may be roots in your garden, when you sit on the ground to plant your seedlings and lean over the soil to see better what you dig, keep your mouth shut. Roots are very springy, and inevitably they will throw a portion of dirt right into your face the moment you forget. And, should your mouth be found agape, it isn’t a particularly pleasant gardening experience.

Here's one corner of my prolific sun porch. So far I have sprouts of a lettuce mix, spinach, a perennial flower mix, marigolds, roma tomatoes, and cilantro.  I also have started spearmint, chives, lavender, muskmelon, broccoli and oregano seeds.  Thankfully, the peas are finally all outside.

Here's one corner of my prolific sun porch. So far I have sprouts of a lettuce mix, spinach, a perennial flower mix, marigolds, roma tomatoes, chives, cilantro, spearmint, lavender, muskmelon, broccoli and oregano. Thankfully, the peas are finally all outside.

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