Friday, March 30, 2012

Lead in soils, soilless mixes, worm composting

Yes, this is the catch-all soil post!  I have too much gardening to do for separate posts.

First, I wanted to point you to a brand new blog by Howard County MG Yung Cheng with a nice post on soils focusing on lead levels.  And that reminds me to do a soil test for the new part of my vegetable garden... thank you!

Next, after my disappointing experiences last year using a coir fiber-based mix for seed starting, I wanted to do more experimentation, comparing Miracle-Gro products sold at big-box stores.  First, I transplanted eggplant seedlings into peat pots, half using the peat-based potting mix, and half using a new product called Expand-N-Gro, a concentrate of coir fiber and fertilizer to which you add water.

A week after transplanting, all the seedlings are doing equally well.  I would say the coir fiber product works fine as a potting soil.

The other experiment was growing tithonia (Mexican sunflower) from seed, using my egg carton method.  Half the seeds were put in Miracle-Gro seed starting mix (on the left) and half in the Expand-N-Gro (on the right).  You can see the difference.  The seed starting mix seedlings are all doing fine; the coir fiber side produced one viable though smaller seedling, one tiny shrunken one, one that's pretty much dead, and three total duds.

So, based on these results, I would not try using Expand-N-Gro to start seeds.  The product is not marketed as a seed starting mix, so the experiment may be a little unfair, but since I had similar bad results last year using my own mix of coir fiber, rice hulls, and worm castings, I am personally off the stuff until reaching the transplantation stage at least.  I heard from one commenter last year who'd had a bad experience with the Jiffy Starts that use coir fiber rather than peat moss.  There are a lot of coir fiber mixes out there now, and I'd love to hear from anyone who's had good or bad results with them.

Finally, if you're interested in following my adventures as a novice vermicomposter, you can check out my Aunt Erica's Worm Farm tag on my Rogue Eggplant blog.  I promise to have a new update soon on efforts to put down the Worm Rebel Alliance.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Violet Jelly

Last summer I found a recipe for violet jelly. It was pretty simple: violet blossoms, water, lemon juice, sugar (lots of it!), and pectin. It sounded great; all I needed was some violets. Fortunately for me, I quit paying for a lawn service and hadn't had my lawn sprayed with chemicals for a few years. Unfortunately for me, the 'violet sanctuary' that had become a large part of my yard was not largely in bloom in July. So I tucked my recipe away and patiently waited......Until NOW!!! Oh, the violets in my yard are so beautiful, aren't they?!? The photo shows only a small part of my lawn on which the violets are taking over. I'd considered adding a nice, wood frame around them to make it look like an intentional flower bed.

Anyway, violets are edible! (both flowers and leaves, in fact). How about THAT for "Grow It Eat It"! I didn't even have to try on that one! In my yard are actually two different kinds of violets - purple ones and a white/purple variegated variety. As such, I decided to make two batches of the jelly. So, out in the rain I went last Saturday, and picked two cups each:

Again, aren't they beautiful? I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to do an internet search on "violet jelly" to find your own recipes (there are several), but the general idea is that you pour boiling water over the (rinsed) blossoms and let them steep for a time. At this point you can actually drink the strained infusion for a refreshing herbal tea (particularly if you have a sore throat), and it's this liquid that makes the base for the jelly. Follow your standard canning practices, or don't bother canning and just enjoy the jelly within a few weeks of making it. Check out my results:
The jelly on the left is from the purple violets; jars on the right are from the variegated ones. Interesting color difference, don't you think? You might be wondering what violet jelly tastes like. I would say it actually tastes a little like grape jelly. It's wonderful!

When life give you violets, don't spray them to death - make violet jelly! Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go back outside and pick dandelion leaves for my salad.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

So Far So Good

We were predicted to have a freeze last night after what seemed like weeks of end-of-April weather. It sent those of us, who had already planted our seedlings, scurrying to protect them. I had stuck a bunch of 2-inch tall pak choi, Lacinato and Russian red kale and three baby Forellenschluss lettuces -- as well as two rows of peas --in a bed on the northwest side of the garden, which is slightly protected from a long northwest fetch of wind by a cedar and a rickety fence. To further protect them from both frost and scavenging critters, I had laid floating row cover over them.

A look today revealed that they are (hooray!) intact, though slightly perforated by what appear to be flea beetles or some other small-hole-eating thing. They’re also nearly 3 times their original size.

In order to stagger the harvest, so we can make kale gratin and kale, bean and tomato soup and stir-fried pak choi with ginger and water chestnuts etc. etc. ad infinitum, I stagger plantings of seedlings. All have been sown on the same day in one or two starter trays, so what's not planted one week will remain to be planted another. The first wave went in on March 13. The second went in last Friday (23rd) in another bed, (also covered with floating row cover); they are hanging in nicely. The final wave of these seedlings will go in in another week (or whenever I prep a bed). At that same time, I’ll sow kale, pak choi and lettuce, etc. seeds so with luck if not strict planning, there will be weeks’ and weeks’ worth of harvest.

One thing that is striking when you start your seeds and either transplant them into the garden (or into graduated containers as I do with tomatoes and peppers and tender herbs) is how much the size of the container affects the growth of the plant. A seedling kept in a small cell will stay pretty small and get root-bound. Repotted into an increasingly larger container or into a bed (provided the timing is right), it will far outstrip its starter tray cell-mates who’ve stayed behind. It is a great illustration of giving a living thing room to grow.

I always think it also says something about human beings needing room to grow, despite our fears for our children in this scary world of ours, but that’s a different conversation for another day in another venue. Meanwhile, back to the repotting.

Gardening according to Sally Forth

By Francesco Marciuliano; drawn by Craig Macintosh

Monday, March 26, 2012

Outfoxing furry critters in your garden

Mama and pup
Wouldn’t it be great if you could find a no-cost, natural, sustainable way to control furry critters that eat your garden harvest before you even get a chance to pick some for yourself?

“We have zero problems with bunnies, moles, voles, mice, and chipmunks in our strawberry and blueberry gardens,” explained Beth, a Howard County Master Gardener.  “I’ve got what one of our neighbor’s calls a fox ‘nursery den’ in our backyard and she has the ‘adult den’ in her yard, so small critters just aren’t problem.

“Mama fox gave birth to eight pups last spring,” Beth said.  “I spent hours watching and photographing the pups romp in our backyard while Mama stood guard.  I discovered that my best vantage point was from the edge of my bathtub because it’s perpendicular to the den.  Because the foxes were anywhere from 50 to 200 feet away, I used a zoom lens.  They enjoyed eating the peanuts and sunflower seeds as much as the birds did, and they used our birdbath as a drinking dish.”

Pups at play
Are foxes the perfect critter control for suburban gardeners?

“Not quite,” Beth answered.  “We have a pair of groundhogs that are larger than the foxes—and the groundhogs are stopping by daily to see what’s growing.  And then there are the deer that browse through our property nearly every day.  Last year I planted one tomato plant, and the deer ate all the green tomatoes.  I tore out the plant in frustration.

“I’m told to expect a new litter this year,” Beth continued.  “I saw Papa fox scoping the neighborhood earlier this year, but I’ve not seen Mama yet.  I do hope they return.  The pups are so much fun to watch.”

But the groundhogs and deer—mountain lions, anyone?

More water, please
Thank you, Beth, for sharing your story and photographs.

Freeze warning!!

Attention gardeners!  A substantial part of Maryland will be experiencing temperatures at or below freezing in the early hours of Tuesday.  See this Washington Post article for details, and if you have tender plants putting out growth (or if you succumbed to the spring craziness enough to put in your warm-weather transplants far too early) take steps to cover them this evening.  Floating row cover, burlap, an old bedsheet, anything will help.

My worry is for my blueberries, in photo taken this morning, already in bloom - in March!  Somehow it didn't help to yell at them that they weren't paying attention to the calendar.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Growing carrots in containers


All you need is water, good, loose potting mix, some short-length carrot seeds, a little fertilizer, a sunny place, and water.

Did I said water? A moist but not soggy soil is the key to growing carrots in containers.

Many varieties are available for containers:
  • Small and round: Orbit, Thumbelina
  • Baby: Baby Spike, Little Finger, Mini cor, Short'n Sweet who is probably the most available seeds on the market.
  • Chantenay: Red-Cored Chantenay, Royal Chantenay

The depth of your container will determine which variety you can grow. You will need a minimum depth of 150% of the length of the carrot you want to grow. For example: If you want to grow Short'n Sweet, you will need a minimum 6'' soil depth to accommodate the 4'' length of the carrots. It doesn't mean if you try to grow in 4'' of soil you will not have carrots, it just means you will just have smaller ones.

The germination can require as long as two weeks and the seedlings may not emerge uniformly. Carrots don't need to be planted in a row. Just distribute seeds on the surface, thin to about 1 seedling by square inch when the greens are 2" tall. Use the thinnings in a salad.

The beauty of carrots is: if you need one, you pick one. It can be mature or young. If you don't need one right away, leave it in the soil. That's what happened to this specimen, seeded in August, of the Short'n Sweet variety growing in 12'' of soil last fall. To answer your question, this baby was sweet and not fibrous.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Stink Bugs: Update from the Washington Post

“Stink Bugs Migrating to the Deep South” by Darryl Fears in today’s Washington Post gives an update on what’s happening in battle with brown marmorated stink bugs.  Though stink-bug numbers seemed to be down in the mid-Atlantic in 2011, the invasive insects are expanding their territory and are an increasing concern in agricultural regions of the South.  To compound the problem, another Asian stinkbug, sometimes called the kudzu bug, is now established in Georgia, where it’s chomping away on kudzu, of course, but also food crops, such as soybeans.  To update yourself on the stink-bug problem, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Leafy greens, new and overwintered

I dropped by the demo garden this morning and found last fall's radicchio growing with spring energy, not to mention considerable redness.  It was much greener in the fall (see below).

I planted pea and onion seedlings earlier this week.  They're doing well despite the hot weather.  While I was planting them, I was visited by a very nice cat who now lives in the Farm Park's barn and decided to stroll over (a long stroll!) and check out the garden.  I hope she'll visit again and keep down our chipmunk and rabbit population.  Rabbits love peas, and our fence still has a few holes to fix.

We had plants in a cold frame over the winter - I couldn't check on it often, but I never worried that I'd left it cracked open.  Now it's open all the way!  The arugula inside bolted, but the pak choi is doing fine; I harvested one on my previous visit and it was delicious.

In a couple of weeks we'll be planting our new leafy greens for what I hope will be a lengthy enough spring (though I'm having my doubts).  My seedlings will be going outside soon.  I'm enjoying watching them grow (yes, I know, odd tastes), especially seeing the true leaves come out.  All brassicas have similar seed leaves, but they become distinctive pretty early on.

Here's some Lacinato kale, with smooth bluish leaves quite different from the more lacy look of a kale like Red Russian.

Red Giant mustard already has the dark veining and coarse aspect that will distinguish it later.

A green pak choi in the foreground, and paler Champion collards in the back.

I do like showing off baby pictures!  Hope all your seedlings are growing well too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tomato Patch: Soil secrets revealed!

University of Delaware soil test kit
includes instructions and mailer
Do you know what your blood pressure is—and what the calcium level of your garden soil is?

Most of us have a good idea about our basic body statistics—but quite a few of us haven’t the slightest idea about the state of our garden soil.  Shame, shame, gardeners—and that included me until four weeks ago.

If you’ve read my earlier postings, you know that I’ve had a problem in my Tomato Patch with blossom-end rot.  Last summer the disease, which stunts the fruit and makes most of it inedible, severely affected my paste-type tomato plants, including Super Marzano and Big Mama varieties.

Blossom-end rot essentially is a calcium problem—either an insufficient supply of calcium in the soil or not enough moisture for the calcium to go from soil to plant to fruit.  When I planted my tomatoes last May, I mixed a tablespoon or two of pulverized lime, a good source of calcium, into each planting hole, added some water to start dissolving the lime, and then drip-irritated the plants over the growing season.

My theory: Tomato plants plus calcium plus water equals perfect fruit.  My reality: Blossom-end rot affected nearly every paste tomato.

I’m not a screamer, but blossom-end rot frustrates me, and my nature is to solve a problem.  That’s why I decided to go back to square one of good gardening practice and test our garden soil so I know what I’ve got to work with and how I might make changes that result in even better crops.
I started my quest for a soil test by reading the University of Maryland Extension’s short brochure, “Selecting and Using a Soil Testing Laboratory,” which explains the value of soil tests and at the end lists six soil-testing laboratories and their offerings.  To see the Extension’s brochure, CLICK HERE.

When I saw that a basic test would identify the calcium level in the soil, I almost shouted “Yes!”—but I’m not a shouter either—because that result would answer a basic question I had about my blossom-end rot problem—is our soil calcium deficient?

I reviewed the offerings of the six laboratories and chose the University of Delaware Soil Testing Laboratory, though the labs all offer comparative services.  I went online and used a credit card to order two of their testing kits—because we have a series of small garden plots wrapping around the crest of our hill, and I wanted to separately test two separate areas to see if they differed significantly.  Each test was $10. 

In a few days a small box arrived with the two testing kits and directions for taking the soil samples.  I followed directions and mailed the samples.  In just over two weeks, I received the two “Soil Test Reports.”

One of our "Soil Test Reports"
Drum roll!  Calcium deficiency—yes or no?

I scanned down the list to “Ca” and saw that the calcium level in both areas of the garden is—I was surprised—excessive!

“Excessive” in this case doesn’t mean the calcium level is a problem.  It means I shouldn’t add more.  The two tests also show pH levels are “Optimum.” Phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and magnesium (Mg) levels also are more than sufficient.  Overall, the two tests show the soil in the two garden areas vary little.  Enclosed brochures explained the various results.

At the bottom of each report is a “Suggested Fertilizer Program” based on test results: Apply one pound of a nitrogen-only (no phosphorus or potassium, because we already have plenty) fertilizer per 1000 square feet of garden area.  Two examples are given: 3 pounds of ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) or 2.5 pounds of urea (46-0-0).

Is my blossom-end rot problem solved?  Probably not, but I’m smarter now.  I know the soil doesn’t have a calcium deficiency problem.  If I water properly, there should be no moisture problem.  But there’s still another possible tweak: Can I find a paste-type tomato variety that is blossom-end rot resistant?

I’ve been searching the internet and asking other gardeners for recommendations and haven’t found a list, though I’ve read several reports that the small Juliet hybrid is highly resistant—but its small size isn’t popular with kitchen canners.  I’ve also read the standard-size Amish Paste variety has some resistance, and I’ve already purchased a packet of Amish Paste seeds to try this summer.

The challenges of vegetable gardening keep me researching and learning—something good, I think, for the gray matter of this Ancient Gardener.

I’ll let you know as the summer unfolds and my Amish Paste tomatoes grow, bloom, and fruit whether I’ve solved this annoying problem.

What do you know about your garden soil?  Isn’t it time to have it tested?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Planting Before St Patrick’s Day

Usually I figure nothing goes in before St Patrick’s Day – peas rot if the soil is too wet and chilly and everything else just hangs fire, so you’re not getting any farther ahead unless you’ve put them into a pre-warmed bed (black plastic laid down for several days will warm one up considerably) and then have covered planted seedlings with plastic-covered hoop tunnel.
I rarely pull myself together enough to do either of those things, and haven’t done so this year, but so far, since we seem to be about four weeks ahead in terms of temperatures and bloom times, I figured I’d chance it with a few cool weather greens and vegetables.
I chose to put this year’s early greens in a bed on the garden's northwest side. The space is kinda protected by the dilapidated fencing and is in the lee of a white pine and cedar. It took a couple of hours two days ago to prep it. First, off came last year's detritus and remaining straw mulch that I should have taken care of last fall and didn't. Then I stuck a fork in it every foot or so to loosen the soil a bit and aerate it. Then down on my knees to dig out the henbit, dandelion and peppergrass. Up again to shovel compost over the now weed-free (for a time anyhow) bed, then raking to smooth it all out. Then in went some French breakfast radish seeds, just a few – I’ll plant more in a couple of weeks – the seedlings (dinosaur kale and dwarf pak choi) – and then the pea seeds, which were called Dark-Seeded Early Peas, though the seeds didn’t look any darker than any others I have.
The seedling installation is an experiment – I held back at least half of those available – since it is unseasonably warm and they are on the small side. Even so, I stuck them in hoping that they would produce an early crop in just a few weeks for stir fries. The peas went in on the north side of them, so they don't shade the plants. They're in a thickly-planted double row, closer together than the packets always call for since A) I didn’t bother to find my pea and bean inoculant, which boosts the germination and yield, and B) I figured if every one of those seeds did come up, I could thin them and steam the young shoots, so it’s win/win.
Once planted and lightly watered, I covered the whole thing with row cover, in part to protect them from any frost that may be coming down the pike in a few days, in part to stave off ravening rabbits and birds, who have an unerring nose for pea seeds. I’ve seen robins walk down a row and pluck every last one from the soil. Like crows, who are incredibly smart, robins can discern and follow a pattern. The rest of the flat will go back into the shelter of the garage to harden off, and, if necessary back into the greenhouse with the other seedlings. Fingers crossed, the vegetable garden is begun!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Carroll County Demonstration Garden Springs Forward into the 2012 Gardening Season

One of several raised bed gardens at the Public
Demonstration Garden ammended
with organic compost
Meg Gross plants leafy greens to highlight the many benefits of  growing and eating these delicious vegtables

The Carroll County Grow It Eat It Raised Bed Group jumped into this year's garden season with a comprehensive planting plan and schedule.  The team (a sub-group of the County Grow It Eat It Team) will manage the six raised bed vegetable gardens located at the County Demonstration Garden behind the Agriculture Center in Westminster.  This week, Master Gardeners Joanne Roush; Kay Sedlak; Cheri Grubby; Joan Epler; Meg Gross and Intern  Bill Corun planted Peas, Onions, Perpetual Spinach, Tatsoi, Mizuna, and Komatsuna (latter four plantings focusing on the Univ. of Maryland's State Grow It Eat It vegetable of the year "Leafy Greens").

Henry Lysy inspects last year's crop of sweet potatoes at the
Sweet Potato Festival held at the Garden in 2011.
As the weather warms and Mother Sun continues to gain strength, the group will add Tomatoes, Peppers, Cabbage, Kolrabi, Swiss Chard, Turnips, Lettuce, Kale, Beets, Mustard Greens, Sweet Potatoes, Radishes, Cucumbers, Leeks, Potatoes, Parsnips, Eggplant,Squash and Carrots.

The public is always welcome to join us on workdays to observe, participate, ask questions and enrich their gardening skills.  The raised bed group will be meeting each Thursday's at 1:00 PM.  Composting, Pollinators and Small Fruit teams will also be sharing their skills on varying days and times.  A definitive schedule will be posted soon.  See you there!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Early Broccoli

We can say our garden never sleeps. Presently, garlic, herbs, onion and broccoli plants are growing. With the warm late winter temperatures, we already started harvesting broccoli and it's only early March. We used the overwinter technique a.k.a "hibernation" with the help of a cold frame to grow broccoli during winter time. But for this past winter, that idea was not on the drawing board.

Remember the ground hog attack on our broccoli plants last fall? At our amazement, all broccoli plants survived, restarted to grow and grew nice, heads (about 1" wide) by mid November.

I would like to take the occasion and give a big pat on the back to this particular broccoli plant:

We started him from seed and transplanted this guy at its location in April 2010 [sic]. Yep, a two-year-old broccoli plant. You can also see the guy on a picture included in a post dated November 29, 2010. In that same picture, shown below, it's the guy next to the green arrow on the left.

The reason for its longevity? Being close to a blueberry plant with a regimented spray program surely helps. As does my wife's inability to pull out vegetable plants 'just in case' they might produce something more.

Carroll County Grow It Eat It Team Delivers Again - Pollinators, Edible Landscaping and Composting

Diane Brown describes the benefits of Black
Gold at the Composting Exhibit
located at the Carroll County Demo Garden
Barbara Walker leads the Composting
discussion at Saturday's GIEI session

Saturday March 3rd saw forty-five attendees arriving for the third "Grow It Eat It" learning event held at the University of Maryland Carroll County Extension location.  In addition to Master Gardener Chef Henry Lysy's Butternut Squash Soup demonstration and taste testing, the attendees explored new topics including Pollinators; Edible Landscaping and Backyard Composting.  Two more sessions are scheduled to wrap up this year's public offering on Saturday, March 31st and Saturday April 7th (each beginning at 9:00 AM).  The former date will include Seed Starting; Container and Raised Bed Gardening.  The final session on April 7 will include Cover Crops; Garden Maintenance and Companion Planting.  As always, each event includes a food demonstration and taste test by Chef Henry!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How to succeed at succession

I'm teaching a class this Saturday on intensive vegetable gardening (at Montgomery College, Germantown; I think you can still register for it if you want to, as well as for the excellent classes continuing the Suburban Gardener series, on container gardening and extending the season).  Among the many other topics I'm trying to squeeze into two and a half hours, I will cover (and do a little exercise on) succession planting.

Succession planting is the art of planning the garden so as to use all or most of your space in all the growing seasons.  Put in a crop in spring, replace it with another in summer and with yet another in fall (and into winter, if you're persistent).  The other technique sometimes called succession planting is sowing, say, a row or a few plants of lettuce in mid-March, following that with another row or plants in early April, then more two weeks later, until you run out of lettuce-growing weather.  I prefer to call that staggered planting, but it's on the same principle:  don't waste space or time.

All excellent advice, and I am all for it, and I try to do it and frequently succeed.  However, obstacles often get in the way of my success at succession.  Here are some of them:

Plants That Don't Want To Live.  Since I start a lot of my own transplants from seed, along with doing direct sowing in the garden, I'm sometimes faced with the problem of seeds that don't germinate in time to get with the succession program.  If I have to do a second sowing at the point when I finally give up on those first seeds, my plants will be smaller and not produce as much when they reach their Day of Doom (which is either the day I must put the next lot of plants in the same space, or the day the spring plants bolt into flower).  This can also be a problem when summer crops keel over from disease or pest damage, and it's too early to sow fall crops and too late to plant more summer ones.

Plants That Don't Want To Die.  The flip side of this is those plants that don't bolt, don't fade away, and keep growing and producing like crazy when they should have the courtesy to die already and make way for their successors.  The lettuce in the above photo?  Still edible in July.  What was I supposed to do?

It's Too Darn Hot.  (Companion problem: It's Too Darn Cold, or What Is This Snow Doing On The Ground In March?  Not an issue this year.)  I don't know about you, but when it's 95 degrees out I don't feel like working in the garden much, and I also don't feel like planning the winter garden.  Yet, we are supposed to start fall transplants indoors sometimes as early as June, and seeds are sown directly in the ground in August for many fall crops.  Supposedly.  Good luck getting them to germinate when the soil is hot.

All right, that's enough problems.  Solutions.  Planning will only get you so far:  no garden plan survives contact with the vagaries of nature.  You can stare at GE007 all you want and it will not make it precisely true in every year (though it's a good place to start).  In most years, you will need to make a plan and then improvise when some parts of it fail.  Here are some ways you can improvise and/or plan around.

Stagger planting.  As mentioned above, sowing a bit of your seed every couple of weeks instead of trusting it to the ground all at once is a great idea.  If the first lot fails, you've already planned to do another sowing, and you'll likely get some of your crop in time to pull it out and start over - or, if you're really good at planning, you meant all along to stagger your summer crops too.  Even if you didn't, you can say you did.

Just go buy transplants already.  Sometimes we have to swallow our seed-starting pride and give in to the garden centers.

Overcome your nurturing instincts.  To make the garden work the way you want it to, you may have to be vicious and just rip the plants out when it's time.  Don't forget that crops are often edible before they look like what you'd buy in a grocery store.  Baby vegetables are trendy!  Also, if your broccoli didn't head up or your kohlrabis didn't get fat, you can still eat the leaves.  They are the same thing as collards.

Have your lettuce and your beans, too.  Lettuce not done by the time you need to put that June planting of beans in?  If you have spaced your lettuce plants sufficiently well apart, either in rows or in a tidy pattern of hexagons or squares, you have room in between; sow your bean seeds there.  Pull out the lettuce (carefully) as it gives up - or, possibly, it will hang on longer now that it has bean plants to shade it.  If you didn't leave room in between, then pull some of the lettuce out and plant the beans where you've made space.  This is intensive planting and you will have to fertilize and water more to accommodate it.

Always have a pinch-hitter ready.  This is antithetical to the "but I don't wanna start plants in the summer" whine above, but actually it's fun to get a few quick-growing seedlings going in July so you can stick them in when something kills another plant.  Bush beans grow very quickly.  Cucumbers and summer squash are a little slower to produce but can still do the job.  Swiss chard is another possibility.  Caution: if like me you can't bear to throw a healthy seedling out, you may end up growing these in pots somewhere in a spare bit of sun, if for once nothing in the garden dies on you.

Yes, you do have to start the fall transplants in the summer.  Or, you can buy them in September.  You can even buy lettuce and spinach transplants if you want.

Shade and water.  Are the secrets to getting cool-weather plants to germinate in the heat.  Use the shady areas of your vegetable garden (don't tell me I'm the only one who has these) or set up a shade cloth... and keep the seed bed moist.  You can try starting seeds in the shade of other plants (my problem with fall gardening is I forget to leave room for it) but remember that your tomatoes and pole beans have very thirsty roots and you'll need to water even more to get the seeds to germinate.

Our GIEI video "The Sweet Smell of Succession" can be found here.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Frugal Gardener: Cutting lettuce in March

Red Sails lettuce cut Mar. 2
It was beautiful—the head of Red Sails lettuce I cut Friday when Ellen said we needed lettuce for our lunchtime sandwiches.

The head was the last of three I raised over winter in the mini-greenhouse I fashioned from an inexpensive plastic storage container I bought for a few dollars at Wal-Mart.  The storage container provided enough protection for the Red Sails lettuce—a cold-resistant variety—to grow through Winter 2011-2012. I started the seeds in yoghurt cups on October 31 and transplanted the seedlings into the mini-greenhouse on November 9.

This winter has been unusually warm with temperatures dropping below 20°F only five or six times and never below 18°.  To give the lettuce an even better chance of surviving, I set up the mini-greenhouse on the south side of a brick wall, where it would be both protected from cold wind and would benefit from the heat-absorbing bricks. 

After cutting beautiful heads of lettuce through the winter, I can only declare, “Success!”  The mini-greenhouse works.

Of course I should have two or three lettuce seedlings ready to transplant into the mini-greenhouse—but I don’t.  On Thursday I seeded two varieties—Red Sails and Green Ice—in a yoghurt cup that’s sitting on our kitchen windowsill, but they won’t be ready to transplant for another two weeks.  Do I hear a lecture coming on, “Use Your Head and Plan Ahead, Bob”?

During this experiment I’ve learned that something other than lettuce thrives over winter in my mini-greenhouse—slugs.  When I cut the last head of lettuce on Friday, I looked carefully between the bases of the leaves and found two half-inch black slugs and several so small they appeared more white than black.

I suppose an iron-stomached foodie might consider adding buttered slugs to his or her menu—but, thank you, I’ll take a pass.

I’ve got to add organic slug bait (iron phosphate), such as Slug Magic, Sluggo, or Escar-Go, to my garden shopping list because slugs are a fact of veggie gardening here at Meadow Glenn, where our 10 small, semi-terraced plots curve around the crest of a hill.  Supporting the plots are hundreds of concrete stacking block and even some river-stone mulch and some pavers that provide limitless living places for slugs.

If you want to get a head start on spring lettuce growing, why don’t you make a mini-greenhouse and start your lettuce today—and then reuse your greenhouse this fall to keep your fridge well stocked with lettuce into Winter 2012-2013?

If you want to see my posting about how I built my mini-greenhouse, CLICK HERE.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Pee-wee purple pak choi

The space under my seed-starting lights is already filled up, mostly with little leafy greens.  Pretty soon I will have to move them outside to a protected spot to harden off (at length, because we don't start up in the demo garden until April), so I can use the space for something else.

Here's one of the "greens" I'm excited about growing: purple pak choi.  I've had good luck with pak choi in the last couple of years, in both spring and fall (though fall is better), and I'm also growing a green one, but purple will be fun.

A lot of brassicas have varying degrees of purple/red coloration, which is due to anthocyanin pigments, either completely natural to the species or bred in.  Anthocyanins have nutritional benefits, and may also protect the plant from sun exposure; in fruits and flowers, they attract pollinators and seed-spreading animal munchers.  And it's interesting to vary the colors in your garden beds.  Green greens just get boring after a while!

I've also got purple kohlrabi seedlings, with green leaves and bright purple stems that will later swell until they look like kohlrabi, and just getting started some Giant Red Mustard.

Another (entirely unrelated) kind of seedling I'm excited about is roselle, Hibiscus sabdariffa.  Last year we had one successful plant; this year we will have a whole hedge of them.  Lots of Red Zinger tea!  Anthocyanins in plenty there, as well.

Now if I can only get my peppers to germinate.  Despite bottom heat, they are being very slow.

Friday, March 2, 2012

New blog for Frederick County MGs!

The Frederick County Master Gardeners are working on a new demonstration garden that will be full of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers this summer!  They've just started laying out beds and getting things organized.

You can follow their adventures at the Frederick County Demonstration Garden Blog.  Check it out!