Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Starting tomatoes too early

You know what they say about your eyes being bigger than your stomach? There are several horticultural equivalents to that (one of them frequently masquerades as "intensive gardening" but really isn't) and the one I fell for again this year was starting my tomatoes a bit too early.

When I was a younger gardener, and just embarking on seed-starting, I jumped the gun and put tomato seeds in pots as early as mid-February. This resulted in enormous plants long before it was safe to even take the seedlings outdoors, let alone plant them in the ground. I've since settled on mid-to-late March as the best starting time - but something about my schedule this year made me decide that March 11 was a good date, and those few days (plus some really vigorous seedlings) make a difference.

I should have put a ruler into the photo for context, but that big one in the back is 11 inches tall. Good thing my lights are adjustable. I have cold frames for hardening off (after this cold snap is over - make sure your vulnerable plants are protected tonight and tomorrow!) but considering how this year's going, I'm not planning to put plants in the ground until after Mother's Day.

Really I should learn to be like Bob and start my plants in late April, but I just can't help wanting to have those green monsters cheering up the house in early spring/late winter/whatever it is. Of course, after going out of my way to acquire seeds for Aunt Ruby's German Green tomatoes, I forgot to start them with all the others, so they went in the first week of April, and will be much more reasonable in size when planting time comes around. I'm sure they will catch up just fine.

Other varieties I'm growing this year (speaking of eyes being bigger than gardens, even though I have two gardens to plant in): Abruzzo, Amish Paste, Brandywine Sudduth's Strain, Gypsy, Indigo Apple, Isis Candy Cherry, Juliet, Orange Icicle, Riesentraube, and Striped Roman. Some are old favorites, some are from donated seeds, and some I just really wanted to try.

By the way, the plant labels are made from plastic sticks out of a Edible Arrangements gift basket, with orange duct tape to write on. I like recycling.

I've got lots of other cheerful seedlings taking up space on my shelves, including peppers:

which are doing pretty well, though still suffering an aphid infestation. This is after I removed each seedling from its soilless mix and rinsed it carefully under running water before transplanting, after having sprayed with soapy water and crushed many aphids on baby leaves and stems with my gentle fingers. I'm still crushing and spraying, and keeping the population limited, because it'll be a while before these plants can go outside. You know how people complain about ladybugs getting into their house in the winter? Where are mine, I ask? Though speaking of home-invader insects, I found a brown marmorated stink bug on one of the pepper seedlings the other day. Grr.

How are all of your seed-starting experiments going?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Unexpected cardoon survival

Last year we planted cardoons in the demo garden, and they became impressive plants:

although didn't make it to flowering stage. In the fall, I cut down the stalks and prepared the roots for winter as suggested: mulching well with leaves, placing a bucket over each plant stub, and tying the whole thing down with black plastic on top. Then came the arctic blast of this winter, and despite the protection, I didn't expect the plants to survive. But, a couple of weeks after we took all the plastic stuff off, they are back and growing:

Now the interesting part, because I also had a cardoon plant in my community garden plot, which never achieved anything like the height and breadth of the demo garden plants (it's the soil). I decided to let it die, and didn't mulch it at all. You would think the repeated hard freezes of the winter would have done for it. Nevertheless:

And that was a week before the plants in the demo garden showed themselves. I'm impressed. I've had cardoon plants overwinter before (see below) but only in the wimpy zone-8-like winters. Perhaps the frequent snow insulation helped, or else this is a hardier variety than I've grown previously. (It's called Avorio, and claims hardiness to zone 6, though I didn't actually believe that!)

Unfortunately I have planned a tomato plant for that space in my community garden plot, so I'll have to dig up the cardoon and move it somewhere else.

Cardoons are a close relative of artichokes, grown for the edible leaf stalks rather than for the flower bud. The stalks are better if blanched by wrapping the plant, which I admit I don't usually do, because it's so ornamental and dramatic if left alone. Here are some of those winter survivors from a few years back, with me as measuring stick:

And a closeup of the flower, which is why you want it to grow a second year (flowering the first year is possible but not common in my experience).

Very popular with bumblebees! Crossing my fingers for flowers this year for the demo garden plants.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

My new toy: broadfork

The first time I heard about, it was in the Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Gardening book a few years ago.  A broadfork is a big fork used mainly to break the soil and improve aeration and drainage by leaving the soil layers intact. No tilling or double-digging needed. In the organic gardening movement this is a must to have. Some sturdier broadforks can be used, for example, to remove turf, dig out blackberry roots, help to pull out quack grass and bermuda grass, dig up trees or root veggies, and prying out boulders. Compared to my  garden forged spading fork, the work is much easier and faster.

Many models exist on the market. Some are shown below.

Gulland Forge Broadfork


Johnny Seed Broadfork

Valleyoak Broadfork

I decided to go with a  Vashon Broadfork, an heavy duty model.

The model you buy will depend of the use you intend to impose on your broadfork.  The one with thinner tines (teeth) can only be used in lighter soil, vs the one with bigger tines that can break turf in clay soil.

Some other advantages to use a broadfork are:  good form of exercise and will lighten your wallet by about 200$+ shipping.

To use a broadfork to loose soil is easy. In short…

1.       Step on the bar to push down the tines in the soil.

2.       Hold on the handle bars and pull back until you reach a 45 degree angle.

3.        Pull the broad fork out.

4.       Step back few inches.

5.       Repeat.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April Fool!

Thanks to the GIEI Facebook team for catching this:

Now I really want to grow M&Ms in my garden!

An older one I've shared before, but always great to see again:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Seeding Peas Indoors

Shell peas

I love peas. I enjoy frozen peas steamed barely warm or thawed and sprinkled into salads, but I especially love fresh peas plucked from their tendrilled vines, shelled and popped almost immediately into a steamer on top of a couple of lettuce leaves. Cooked until they are bright green and barely tender, then bathed in butter or maybe lemon juice and pepper for those who shun butter, it’s a little bit of culinary heaven.
Peas are early-season veggies that flag and turn starchy (blah-tasting is the technical term) as soon as hot summer arrives, so there is a seasonal window during which to plant for decent harvest. Depending on variety, they need anywhere from 54 days to 72 days give or take to go from seed to plate. The rule of thumb here in Maryland was: Plant peas on St Patrick’s Day. Which in more ordinary years should get you safely through from poking those wrinkled little rounds in the ground until you’re blissfully scooping up warm spoonfuls at the dinner table.
Pods ready for harvest
Yet unless the conditions are right, you’ll be wasting both your seed and your time if you only plant by date.  Peas will rot instead of germinate if the soil is too wet and cold (below 48F or so; some say 45F but that’s not been my experience), as it has been this year.*
I’ve agonized over when to plant peas. Finally, this year, I started some in a flat and will transplant them into the garden when the weather settles down some. I’ve got a small back yard greenhouse, which I love, but you don’t need one to start plants indoors. There are back-posts in this blog that will give you plenty of good advice on how to do it at home without one. Before the greenhouse, (which saves me all kinds of money on anti-depressants), I used to start them in the kitchen and guestroom, both of which face south, and rig up some overhead full-spectrum lights to supplement the sometimes meager sunlight. 
Pea plants are sturdy little things and are as easy to transplant from a flat of individual cells (so the roots don’t tangle together) as lettuce, kale, and other early season veggies. The garden centers have got their seeds in now, so browsing and imagining is fun (for some people it’s clothes or shoes, for me it’s seeds and food). A visit to your favorite garden center makes a lovely Saturday’s project – get seeds and maybe a bloom or two for spiritual uplift, chat with friendly souls there about growing things, get home and plant the seeds in flats under lights, then relax and feel good about the cycle of life.
Two flats of peas: 1st on 3/12, 2nd on 2/22 just poking thru

Once in the garden, peas (Pisum sativum), fix nitrogen to their roots, so they require little if any nitrogen fertilizer, which tends to produce foliage at the expense of fruit. They also come out of the garden early enough that you can plant a second crop of summer somethings where they’ve vacated, which makes them a great use of space. You can also seed some into a container at the back door – they’re really pretty climbing up a trellis and they make great snacks right out of the pod. Replace the pea plants in June or so with something like a pepper plant and a couple of different basils and maybe a thyme for jerk chicken on the grill.

* Even if it the weather conditions are perfect for planting peas, if you have blackbirds and robins around, you might want to consider planting them in a meandering stream rather than a regimented row. Blackbirds and robins are marvels at discerning patterns, and once they see you put them in the ground – and believe me, they watch, especially in years like this when food is more difficult to come by – they can come down and Hoover up each seed, leaving little holes as evidence of their theft. Row cover immediately after planting also helps to thwart the birds.