Thursday, February 28, 2013

What’s blooming in your garden?

Purple deadnettle
Plants were blooming in our vegetable garden in the sunshine and 48°F temperature this morning, but the blooms weren’t of some prized edible that had survived our frigid winter.  Not surprisingly the blooms were on what we call “winter weeds.”

Winter weeds are those that sprout in the fall or late winter and grow, bloom, and go to seed rapidly as late-winter temperatures rise.  The two I saw blooming today are purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) and lesser-seeded bittercress (Cardamine oligosperma).

The blooming deadnettle and bittercress mean that each plant will be dropping scores, perhaps hundreds, of seeds in a couple of weeks unless I get out my weeding hoe and do some serious decapitation or uprooting.  I was tempted to run for my hoe this morning, but an overnight shower had left the garden soil too sticky to easily fall from weed roots, so I’ve put “Hoe winter weeds” on my mental to-do list for a relatively “dry day” early next week.

Lesser-seeded bittercress
I’ll be sorry if I don’t remember to hoe the flowering weeds.  This time next year my Aching Back will remind me that a weed not hoed today means 10 or 100 weeds to hoe next year.

Since my veggie patch was too wet to weed today, I grabbed my loppers and cut back the butterfly bushes (Buddleja davidii) in our front yard.  Butterfly bushes bloom on new growth each year, so I cut last year’s branches back to about 12 inches from the ground.  They look pretty abused right now, but by June new branches will be four feet high with pink flowers attracting scores of butterflies.

If you’ve been thinking about pruning your flowering shrubs, you may benefit from “Hedge your bets at pruning time,” by Adrian Higgins, in today’s Washington Post.  Higgins lists more than a dozen flowering shrubs and recommends when and how to prune them.

And, I almost forgot to add this tip: If you washed your bib jeans and hung them in the garage as I did in December, give them a vigorous shake or two before you put them on.  I did, and about 15 cold-numbed brown marmorated stink bugs tumbled to the garage floor.  Close call.

Seed starting medium comparisons, 2013 style

I've previously had disappointing results using coir fiber as a seed-starting medium, but since I do want to minimize use of peat and give alternative materials a fair shake, I'm trying again.  Lots of companies out there are working with coir, and the products we're offered will probably keep getting better.

Here's my latest experiment.  I ran into this product at Home Depot recently and decided it was worth trying against old reliable Jiffy pellets (made with peat).

For some plants (those with medium-sized seeds, such as tomatoes and peppers) I like starting in pellets, because it's very controllable and quick, and later on the seedlings pop easily into pots, pellet and all.  I don't use this method for small seeds, because it's hard to thin extra seedlings, especially if your definition of "thin" is "carefully remove extra seedling and plant it somewhere else, because how could you kill a plant?"  And really big seeds don't stuff easily into the pellet hole.

The coconut pellets are much faster to swell up on application of water, saving you a few minutes.  On the other hand, they dry out a little faster too, though not so fast that you'll lose seedlings if you water half a day late.

Germination was my real concern.  Here's my little tray of cardoon seedlings, about a week after seeding, freshly watered.

It looks like a draw so far; I'm hoping to see the rest pop up soon (and then I will have too many cardoons.  This is my second try, with fresh seed, since my 2007 cardoon seed seems to have finally given up).

I have a tray of peppers undergoing the same comparison, but none of those has germinated yet.  I'll report back.  So far, the newer product appears to be holding its own (it does look like a very odd form of sushi, but I won't hold that against it).  And I did find last year that coir fiber products work fine as potting mix to transplant seedlings into.  I'm still looking for a coir-based seed-starting mix that works.

The Quintessential Root Vegetable!

What do you think about when I say "root vegetable"? It simply has got to be a carrot. In fact, in my mother language (Dutch) the word for carrot is "wortel", which literally means root.

Carrots fresh out of the ground
Did you know that carrots were found in central Asia, more than 5000 years ago, and that they were neither orange nor sweet? Most carrots were purple, some were yellow and they really did not taste very yummy. Carrots were bitter and mainly used for medicinal purposes. Well, it is said that once carrots reached the Netherlands, Dutch botanists (those same people who were eventually responsible for all those crazy tulips) started breeding orange carrots. As we all know, orange carrots are not bitter at all.

I love growing carrots, especially fall/winter carrots because they are the sweetest of all. Once you have tasted a home grown carrot, there is no going back. Unfortunately, carrots are not always easy to grow.

The same carrots, all clean!
First of all, you need deep, loose soil to accommodate these roots. A carrot grows by sending down a deep tap root. Only after it has reached the desired depth, will it start to grow wider and thicker. If the seed cannot establish this taproot, you will end up with short, stubby carrots. So make sure your carrots have room to grow. If you do have heavy soil, or you are trying to grow carrots in a container, choose one of the shorter varieties.

Second, the seeds are tiny which makes sowing difficult. Some people will mix the seeds with some sand and broadcast this mixture over the planting area. No matter how careful you sow these little seeds, you are probably going to need to thin them so they will have enough room to grow.

Purple Haze
 Third, carrots seeds can take quite some time to germinate. While the seeds are germinating, you cannot let the soil dry out. To improve germinating chances, you could soak the seeds overnight. This never works for me because I just do not know in advance whether I have time to spend in the garden. Sometimes I do manage to soak the seeds for several hours. Another way to keep the soil moist is to cover the planting area with floating row cover.

One of my favorite carrots is 'Purple Haze'. The color is just magnificent! If you are trying to teach children what a root looks like, exactly, I think there is no better example than 'Purple Haze'. Thanks to the different colors, you can really see the vascular system and the root hairs.
Look at the inside of a carrot!

I love to sow carrot seeds in August so I will have carrots all winter long. The colder the weather gets, the sweeter the carrots. At some point in December, I will cover the carrots with a layer of straw to protect them just a bit from freezer temperatures. As of today, I am still regularly harvesting those sweet roots! Winter harvesting does require a little bit of planning; you will not be able to harvest your carrots when the ground is frozen or when you vegetable garden looks like this:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Growing veggies and herbs at your window

BioCité - Bottle Garden

WindowFarm - make your own

Having all year-round fresh veggies and herbs growing in your window is the idea proposed by Biocité a Quebec, Canada - a company that uses recycled glass bottles, and WindowFarm - a New York company offering a ready-to-use system or a make-your-own using used water plastic bottles.

The procedure is simple: a column of bottles is suspended from the ceiling or wall, a pump circulates the water with nutrients up to the top of the column, and the water drips down via gravity.  With this system, it is possible to cultivate herbs, leafy greens, lettuce, strawberries, and cherry tomatoes. Both systems use a substrate of clay balls as soil-less potting mix.

Bottle Garden - Café des Arts / Galerie MAM ! @ Montréeal, QC

WindowFarm - American Museum of Natural  History @ New York, NY

Friday, February 22, 2013

Planning this year's roots

I've been browsing through Roots: The Definitive Compendium with an eye out for anything else we may want to add to our already long list of root vegetables going into the Derwood Demo Garden this year.  I'm also intrigued by many of the recipes.  The book provides a pretty exhaustive list of roots, some of which are easy to find by shopping and some near impossible, and some of which can be grown here in central Maryland with varying amounts of zone-stretching.  It's not a gardening book by any means, but it's a starting point.

Things I may try: taro and malanga, both of which should be easy to find at an international supermarket. I'll need to sprout both of them indoors ahead of the growing season to have a chance at getting tubers to form.  If they don't, we'll at least have handsome elephant ears here and there.

Things I am not going to try: jicama, because 1) it requires a long growing season and I have limited patience for that sort of thing (see above and below), 2) it produces a large vine that I'd need to find space for in the garden, 3) the vine and its leaves and pods (jicama is a legume) are poisonous, and we have children wandering through the garden.  Also, alas, not trying for wasabi, because it is a slow-growing perennial not hardy in this climate.  It looks quite lovely, though.  Also not burdock.  Just because.  Maybe next year.

Oca: Oxalis tuberosa, from Wikipedia
Things I am tempted by: crosnes.

Things on the unusual side that we are growing: yacon, again, because it is so impressive and popular and tasty.  (In regard to the linked post: also dahlias, and I may eat some of them again, if I don't like the color.)  Also (for the first time) oca:  yet another plant requiring a long growing season to produce, but I'm going to give it a try.

The somewhat more prosaic list of other roots we're growing follows.

Alliums including leeks, bulbing onions (Superstar and Candy Red), bunching onions, and cipollini onions (in the salad table!).  In the fall we'll put in garlic, gray shallots and potato onions.

Beets of various kinds and colors, including lots and lots of my favorite red-leafed Bull's Blood.

Turnips of at least three kinds, and rutabaga in the fall.

Radishes: the Easter Egg mixture in the salad table, plus White Icicle, plenty of daikons, Red Meat (a "watermelon" type), and probably some others too.

Carrots in a range of colors, and little round Parisian carrots in the salad table.

Potatoes (Yukon Gold, Eva, and Adirondack Red) and sweet potatoes (Georgia Jet, plus maybe one All Purple).

And salsify, celeriac, parsley root, parsnips and, though botanically not a root vegetable, peanuts.  (Also kohlrabi, ditto.)

We already have plenty of Jerusalem artichokes (although, thanks to valiant efforts, far fewer than we did have).  And I don't think we'll be starting another horseradish patch this year: it was hard enough to eradicate last time, even though the harlequin bugs did their best to help.

But I think this is enough to be going on with!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Seed saving webinars

Since I spent an enjoyable forty minutes last night "attending" a free webinar on "Planning Your Garden for Seed Saving" hosted by Seed Savers Exchange, I thought I'd call everyone's attention to this great educational series.

Upcoming webinars are listed here (seed swaps, isolation techniques, saving seed from particular species, etc.).  All webinars are archived after completion, so if you can't join one live, check out the list of prior topics here.  Great visuals and explanations by experts, and all absolutely FREE.

My community garden is starting a seed-saving project that I hope to post about here over the next year.  Exciting!  (Because I don't have enough seed already, ha ha ha.  I guess I'll be trying to unload some of it at upcoming seed swaps.)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Shakespearean vegetables

This is the sort of thing I do to entertain myself while eating lunch...

Juliet tomato

Romeo pepper

Bianca pepper

Ophelia eggplant

Beatrice eggplant

And I suppose King Richard leeks, if we're going to get into the history plays.

Ah! And also Falstaff brussels sprouts.

Anyone else have candidates to add?  (I might actually do the Romeo and Juliet thing.)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Grow It Eat It in Prince George's County, Md

The Grow It Eat It education season officially began in Prince George's County yesterday.

A few weeks ago Nicolas and I were invited back to St. Pius X Catholic Church in Bowie, Md, to deliver our Introductory Vegetable Gardening class.  We did this last April, but turnout wasn't so great, likely because it was too late in the season.  Yesterday we had about 12 people show up, which was pretty good for a cold, Saturday morning, and a great start to the Grow It Eat It season of vegetable education.

It's been a busy season, and I hadn't really looked at my powerpoint slides since last spring.  I did a quick run-through of them on Friday night as a refresher, but I needn't have worried as once I got up there in front of a dozen eager gardeners, my passion for growing vegetables brought it all back.

The attendees remained actively engaged for the next 90+ minutes as Nicolas and I were reminded of how much fun we have teaching together.  In fact, yesterday was our 8th Wedding Anniversary, and we could think of no more fun way to spend it than to teach a Grow It Eat It class.  (We headed to Annapolis following the class to enjoy afternoon tea at the Reynold's Tavern and Tea Room.)

For those who would like to participate in upcoming GIEI seminars, please visit:  and click on 'Classes and Events' on the left-hand side to see if there are any classes in your area.  If not, and you have any suggestions for seminar locations or groups who would like a class, feel free to send an email to the GIEI contact for your county.

As one final plug for those of you in the Prince George's County area...Nicolas and I are teaching our 6-part 'Home Vegetable Gardening 101' course at Prince George's Community College starting on Saturday, February 23 and continuing on the following 2 weekends.  It's an extended, more detailed course that will take you from planning and preparation to harvesting, with some maintenance and troubleshooting in between.  We taught it last year and everyone had great fun with it.  If interested, go to, click on "Owl Link" in the menu, and then on “Workforce Development & Continuing Education Students” box. Then, click on “Register for Noncredit Course” and follow the directions.

We hope to see you there, but if not, Happy Grow It Eat It 2013!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Community Garden Transitions: Still Moving

The move from 26 to 12 had just begun, but I needed to finish. No time for delay. Back I went to extract the rest and the word "extractive" seemed particularly appropriate in this instance. That is what I was going to do...take out everything and leave 26 in a barren state. No wonder I found myself moving pretty slowly not getting much done, although all the remaining vegetables needed to go on this day, and 26 needed to be ready for handover to someone else.

 The broccoli and cabbage moved easily. Even the lettuce settled in pots to go home and in the new bed on 19. But the spinach seemed like an army, strong and vibrant, daring me to move them. Each plant looked strong and healthy while I, a broken gardener, bypassed them to do the rest first. That too was not easy…tulip bulbs already sprouting underground expressed distress at being pulled away, but they settled happily in their pots. With only one bed ready on 19, there was no way to fit everything there, or even in the pots I had brought. 
Spinach in 26
 Carrots looked like they would give up without a fight. There was no way they could be transplanted; in spite of digging and supplementing with compost, the one new bed was not up to accommodating any root vegetables. So I pulled them all out, half done. 
Purple carrots not ready for harvest
Finally, back to the spinach, and as I opened the row cover more fully, I noticed the emerging kale and heirloom lettuce mix, meant for salads in March and April. They did not even have their true leaves yet—no way to move those. Still, as an experiment, I scooped up some of each with my shovel and walked them over to 19. We’ll see how they do.
Emerging heirloom lettuce mix

New sprouts of kale

It wasn’t a lot of work, but it took all day. The one bed on 19 looked pretty good--spinach, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, one mustard green, one chard and one anemone--hope...
19 coming to life
A fellow gardener who lives nearby saw me there and came to talk. Yes, he would like 26, even for one season. I felt better. It’s nice to leave 26 in hands that care about gardens. I myself would have liked to keep 26 and make the transition to a new plot over the course of the season—I even offered to pay for both plots, but that was not an option.
Goodbye 26
There is controversy over people having two plots while there is so much demand. Those who question the two plot gardeners don’t know how small our plots are, or how intensively we garden…more on this in the next entry…

A permaculture love story

If you want a romantic gardening story to read for Valentine's Day, check out Anne Raver's New York Times article A Permaculture Love Story about two pairs of lovers who come together in an abandoned lot turned bountiful edible garden.

Thanks to Robin Ritterhoff for the link.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Community Garden Transitions: It Starts

Community gardeners forget that we are renting our land. It was with considerable shock that I got the news on January 23rd that a playground was going to occupy a part of our community garden. How could this happen without our knowledge? The next day a partial explanation was put forward by the leadership of the resident community association—it had been part of a County Master Plan since 2000. Never mind that it is 2013, and that a community garden now exists there. Other sites were deemed not available. Ours, though occupied, is considered to be “available” because of the Master Plan, which foresaw a play ground back when community gardens were not being discussed. The Master Plan, like many plans which claim to think into and address needs of the future, actually only represents the thinking at the time.

Our Community Garden in November
Taking up the offer then to move out of my “at risk” #26 plot to another safe one that had become available for new gardeners, is the focus of this blog. #26 was not my first plot. Back in 2009 I started with my first 200 square feet (#12) often speaking of it as “land” rather than a “plot,” because it seemed like so much space—I felt I could grow everything imaginable and have extra. It didn’t take very long for me to realize I should have exercised the option to get a 400 sq. ft. plot. Around mid-season #26 became available due to negligence and desertion. It was offered to an existing gardener by lottery and I won. Today, they have become simply 12 and 26, as though they are part of my family. 26 was not as good as 12, and over the subsequent three years, it never really reached the quality of 12. Being on the low end of the hill, it was also subject to flooding.

Last Fall, I decided I would do something about this. I brought wood from a construction project at home and personally built walls around the entire perimeter using stakes and a hammer—my first construction project.
Retaining walls, bounding and protecting 26 over winter

Then I brought six wheelbarrows full of compost and dumped them on the beds, then topped with straw. Even I was unprepared for the black gold I found there this week, after deciding to move. 

Too late for regrets, I thought.  I had my friend with me. She had come to help me move the asparagus, so we began there. Beautiful clumps emerged from deep under the dark soil. Even that deep, the soil looked amazing. Neat clumps of asparagus were ready to be moved out of 26 on to the new plot.

Asparagus waiting to be moved
How we thought we might get the new plot ready for asparagus is unimaginable. Though previously gardened (we found some radish), the new plot, 19, was covered with a thick mat of weeds. No problem, we were ready to dig. What we were not ready for was the huge quantity of rocks underneath. Soon we realized we would not be able to do it in the three days I have to empty out 26. So we went up to 12, my first plot, and created space for the asparagus there.

Soon we had it all in the ground. Back at 12, there was greater comfort, like being home. My 12 was a breeze to dig through. This particular bed, an extension of 12 on to the previously weedy hillside, was an experiment in lasagna gardening. I didn’t believe it when I read about it, but you can see how good the soil looks just two years later.

With that done and a lunch break, I returned to move the garlic. This required more daring; unlike the asparagus, the garlic was not dormant. Yet again, digging into 26 by myself this time, I worked methodically focusing on removing one row at a time, first the Inchelium Red (by now following the label as I’ve forgotten what type of garlic this is), and then the Spanish Roja...the soil emerged continuously beautiful. The trench left by each row being dug was accompanied by a strange sadness—26 seemed alive and made alive by the plants in it. As I started to extract them, I knew I would not take away all of it. I would leave some for 26. Eventually all the garlic was gently moved up to the last bit of available space on 12.

Newly transplanted garlic
Back to my new home, 19, I continued digging where my friend had started earlier. I’ve always loved the digging part of gardening, but this was tough – not one insertion of shovel would willingly go through the earth without hitting rock. Nearly an hour later, only the equivalent of one small bed was done. Resting and taking a closer look as evening approached, 19 revealed additional challenging details.
My new plot, 19
I began to wonder about the move to a new plot. What I would give for a sunny plot in my backyard!

Tomorrow, I will still have to deal with the rest of the stuff on 26—carrots, spinach, lettuce, emerging kale and lettuce, chard, celery, mustard, broccoli, cabbage, tulips, anemonies and half finished onions…maybe more. It will have to be moved out. For this day, I was done.

No sooner had I gotten home than I realized I was in pain, elbow pain, shoulder pain, back pain…a good evening for a brandy and rest. Of course, I had already missed a whole day of work!

Monday, February 11, 2013

My love-hate relationship with parsnips

I first heard of parsnips three years ago, when asking my mother-in-law for her chicken soup recipe. She said that I absolutely must include [**word in Polish**], not knowing how to translate it. After some research I learned that she was referring to parsnip, a root vegetable that looks like a white carrot and tastes like one also, but sweeter and with an intriguingly different aroma.

Last week the organic parsnips above were selling at the food co-op in Frederick for $3.69 per pound. At the website where I bought the seed packet that I successfully planted in 2011, 4g of organic seeds are now selling for $1.99. I harvested more than 7 lbs of parsnips from the seed packet I sowed on 3 square feet in 2011. Thus planting parsnips is a very good deal, if you're a better gardener than I've been... because in 2012 my entire crop flopped.

Parsnip seeds don't last more than a year, so you must buy a fresh packet. If you are as challenged by parsnips as I am, you'll actually use the entire packet trying to get the year's crop going, so no big deal! The seeds can take up to four weeks to germinate. In 2011 I started sowing seeds in mid-May with the intent of harvesting 16 parsnips per square foot. (However, upon doing research for this article I learned that I would probably have been more successful had I sowed at the end of winter, as soon as the soil could be worked and wasn't too wet.) I sowed four times in two week intervals, until I finally saw seedlings come up. Once the seeds managed to germinate, the plants thrived. Ultimately, so many of them came up that I had to thin them. Some of mine were larger than the ones above, pictured on a 14" x 11.5" cutting board.

Parsnip seeds are like carrot seeds, very light, so plant them on well-drained soil on a non windy day as you would carrots. ("Carrot-like" is no coincidence, since parsnip -- Pastinaca sativa -- is a member of the carrot family.) The foliage looks like carrot as well.

Parsnips require at least 6 months to grow. They should be harvested after the first autumn frost, after which they become sweeter. You can harvest them throughout the winter, which enables you to go shopping for free in your garden instead of using cash at the food co-op! 

Parsnips get a bad reputation from their European cousin, wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa L.), a weed whose leaves can cause a severe chemical burn. You will find numerous websites that caution you against working on them without gloves. That is not the case with plants that you cultivate from a seed packet.

Parsnips contain starch, and in the past were more popular than potatoes. You can mash parsnips (mix them with potatoes in your favorite mashed potato recipe, or try Mollie Katzen's healthier version). You can roast them (an interesting way to roast is Jamie Oliver's). You can include them in a soup or casserole. I definitely agree with my mother-in-law, that parsnips will improve your chicken soup.

I have no idea why my 2012 crop failed, since I repeated my 2011 steps. My best guess is that the seed I purchased wasn't as fresh, so this year I'll buy a packet from a reputable catalog. I will sow the seeds earlier in the year. I'll also plant a fast crop such as lettuce while I wait for them to germinate, which will have the added benefit of keeping the weeds away.

If you know any parsnip tricks, please share them. I can use your help!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Website for news and information against the BMSB

    This is a website of a team of more than 50 researchers at 10 institutions across the United States with the goal to to form a defense against the invasive pest brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB).  

   They are working to find management solutions for growers, seeking strategies that will protect our food, our environment, and our farms.  

   The  funding is from USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative and the University of Maryland participates actively to the research.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Green Ice becomes green slush: My mini-greenhouse fails

My cheap mini-greenhouse after two winters' use
The mini-greenhouse I made by cutting the bottom from a plastic storage box failed during recent frigid temperatures.

I picked lettuce from the mini-greenhouse every month during the 2011-2012 winter—one of the warmest on record here in central Maryland, where the lowest temperature recorded on our electronic thermometer was 18°F.  Frost often formed on the condensation on the inside of the box, but there was enough warmth from soil and sun for the lettuce in the box to live and grow.

Last harvest: Green Ice and Red Velvet lettuce
But not this winter.  When the forecast for the night of January 21 called for the mid-teens, I harvested most of the Green Ice and Red Velvet lettuce in the mini-greenhouse.  I left just three plants to be exposed to the lower temperatures.  Nighttime temperatures dipped to the mid-teens and lower that week.  Our thermometer registered 15°F  on the morning of January 22 and 11°F on January 23, and daytime temperatures for several days never climbed out of the 20s.

But temperatures recently changed and became springlike, topping out in the low 70s on January 30.  Ice drops on the inside of the mini-greenhouse became liquid again.  It was time to see how the Green Ice and Red Velvet had fared during the deep freeze.

All three plants were alive but frost damaged.  The crown of the Green Ice plant looked freezer burned, and the outer leaves looked, well, like green slush.  Outer leaves of the two small Red Velvet plants were limp.  Optimistic I proclaimed, “Alive!”  Pessimistic I replied, “But not edible.”

Jeanine S.'s even simpler mini-greenhouse,
bottom of a storage container turned upside down
Jeanine S., a Master Gardener in Harford County (Maryland), reports similar results with an even simpler mini-greenhouse, just the bottom of a storage container turned upside down over her lettuce.

“I harvested lettuce at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and again in January during Winter 2011-2012,” she explained. “This year I harvested through Christmas, but most of what was left after last week’s deep freeze has been badly ‘freezer burned.’ Some it may pull through, but it will probably taste bitter. My mini-greenhouse worked well with arugula, Butter Crunch, Deer’s Tongue, Red Sails, and Ithaca, as well as a ‘mixed’ variety.”

What have I learned from these mini-greenhouse experiments?

First, simple protection is enough to extend the harvest season of so-called “cool weather” crops, such as lettuce.  The mini-greenhouses provide enough protection for lettuce to survive down to 18°F, but somwhere between that temperature and 11°F, the freeze severely damages the lettuce.

Second, time and weather have taken their toll on the cheap, plastic storage box that I’ve used as the mini-greenhouse.  I’ve had to reinforce slowly cracking corners with duct tape.  I probably will try to use the box again next spring, but at some point I expect a corner to break off and I’ll add the mini-greenhouse to our recycling bin.  At $13.67, though, the mini-greenhouse didn’t break our budget—and provided us monthly lettuce harvests over nearly two winters.

Why don’t you create your own mini-greenhouse late next month as the weather begins to warm and plant an early crop of spring lettuce—or next October when early frost threatens?

Nothing ventured, nothing learned, nothing harvested.  Let the fun begin.

If you want to read more about my mini-greenhouse experiment, click on the links to some of my earlier postings:  Experiment begins, September 2011.  Early tips, January 2012. Cutting lettuce, March 2012. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Groundhog Day version butterfly!!!

This is our version of Groundhog Day: Imported cabbageworm butterfly day! 

Found this guy in our living room, this morning, looking for a place to warm up.


According to Wild Maryland 101 blog spot:
"They are very common and cold tolerant, and are often the first butterflies to be seen in early spring.  For this reason, many Marylanders consider this non-native butterfly a harbinger of spring." 

Pieris rapae, also known as small white butterflies, European cabbage white butterflies,  small cabbage white butterflies, and piéride du chou like we say in French.

Another recipe for your root vegetables

I love the taste of fermented or pickled preserved vegetables. It is a staple side dish for most Asian cuisines that I grew up with. This recipe would be a great addition for the year of root vegetables.

This recipe is from an article in the January 23-29 issue of Wire:13, by Garen Heller (above)

Radish and Root Kimchi

For the brine
4 cups water
3 Tbsp salt (sea salt is best...)

For the vegetables
Watermelon radish
Napa cabbage
Daikon radish

Use clean, fresh vegetables. Slice thinly leaving the skin on, except for the kohrabi, which needs to be peeled. The amount you use of each vegetable is completely up to your preference.

Soak the vegetables in the brine for a few hours. Drain, reserve brine and test vegetables for saltiness. If too salty, add a bit more water to brine; if not salty enough, add a little more salt.

For the spice mixture:
3-4 garlic cloves or more
3-4 hot peppers or more depending on desired space
3 tablespppon or more of freshly grated ginger root

Mash into a paste and stir into the reserved brine, then pour the vegetable mixtures into the brine.

At this point it is best to weigh down the vegetables to make sure they are constantly submerged in the brine. I use a wide -mouth container to allow for this. Some use a plastic bag full of water. Or, if you are going to be able to check the kimchi daily, you may opt to not use a weight. I check mine daily and in the process press down the vegetables that have risen to the top.

Ferment in a warm space covered for a week. When the ferment tastes ripe, move to a refrigerator where it will ferment more slowly. Or, you can opt to ferment in a cooler space over a longer period of time, such as a cool mudroom. Just be sure to add more salt.

I hope you enjoy this recipe. I have not tried it myself . But let me know how it turns out.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Growing transplants under fluorescent lights

Well folks, its that time of year when a lot of gardeners thoughts turn to spring, regardless of the dusting of snow on the ground this morning or Paxutany Phil's winter prediction tomorrow.  In six weeks, it will be time to start planting early root vegetables like potatoes, onions (seed), garlic (if it wasn't planted last fall), radishes and turnips. (Click here to go to the GIEI calendar for central Maryland.  If you are not in central Maryland, click here to go to the dynamic calendar, where you can enter your last frost date and get an adjusted planting calendar).  Other vegetables that can be sown or planted in mid-March are peas, fava beans, cabbage (transplants), leaf lettuce and spinach.  Late March and early April is a very busy time of year as a lot of cool season root crops like carrots, beets, horseradish (roots), leeks (transplants or seed), onion (sets or transplants), parsnips and shallots (sets) can be put into the garden.  Other cool weather crops like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, celeric, celery, collards, head lettuce, parsley (all transplants), kale, kohlrabi, mustard, and  Swiss chard (seeds or transplants) can also be planted this time of year.

In early spring, a large number of the vegetables we plant are transplants.  We can buy these transplants at the local nursery or big box store and take the chance the store will have the variety of vegetable we are looking for or we can grow our own transplants.  I prefer to grow my own transplants because it allows me to grow vegetables (like Packman broccoli, Snow Crown cauliflower, and buttercrunch lettuce) I won't find anywhere and I know do well here in Clarksville.

It's not hard or expensive to grow your own transplants, all you need is your preferred vegetable seed,  a fluorescent light fixture, a stand to hold the fixture, seed starting media (think soil-less mix), containers, water and a warm place to germinate the seed.  The GIEI website has a lot of information on starting seeds under lights. (click here to go to this information and links to videos on seed starting.)  My fluorescent light setup is made up of older, recycled T-12 fixtures.  Fluorescent tubes for these fixtures are being phased out in favor of newer, more efficient T-8 tubes which require T-8 fixtures.  T-8 fixtures are relatively inexpensive.  A four foot, two tube fixture (shop light) costs between $20-$25 and will provide light for two 11 by 22 inch flats, while a four tube fixture (two by four feet) costing about $40 will provide light for four flats.  So a PVC stand, two tube fixture and fluorescent tubes will cost around $50.  This may seem expensive, but remember that two flats of transplants can cost $30 and that these lights will allow you to raise transplant for many years in the future.

Fluorescent tubes for your fixtures should have a light output of at least 2500 lumens (a measure of total amount of visible light) and can be (in the case of a two tube fixture) two cool white, a warm and cool white or grow light tubes.  After seeds germinate, lights need to be lowered to within one to two inches above the transplant's foliage.  As transplants grow, the lights will need to be raised.  This photo is of my insulated light box.  The insulation helps retain the heat given off by the fluorescent fixtures.  It provides warmer conditions for those transplants that need them, like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers.
Each type of vegetable seed has an optimal germination and growing temperature.   Information on these temperatures, days to germination, planting depth and number of weeks to grow transplants from seed to transplantable size can usually be found on the back of the seed packet or in a good seed catalog like Johnny's Selected  Seeds. 
The temperature of your soil-less media will impact the amount of time it takes to germinate the seed.  The temperature of the growing media can be controlled using a seedling heating mat and a thermostat. The thermostat will have a probe which is placed in the media and will regulate the heating mat to keep the media at the desired temperature. So now that we have our lights, seeding mat and thermostat set up and information on how to start seeds and grow transplants from the seed packet, let's review the planning and steps necessary to start some broccoli seeds for transplant into the garden on April 1.
The first step is to determine when to plant broccoli seeds.  Since we want to put our transplants in the garden on April 1 and we know from the seed packet that it take approximately six weeks to grow the transplants from seeds to transplantable size, I simply work backward on the calendar from my plant outside date to determine my seed planting date, which would be February 18.
Next, when the seed planting date rolls around, I moisten the media in which I'm going to plant the seeds and fill the containers.  The container I use to start my broccoli is an insert made up of 32 two and a quarter inch square cells.  I place this insert in a flat and loosely fill the cell with soil-less mix.  I bump the flat on a hard surface to settle the media and sow the seed at the recommended depth found on the seed packet.  I then label the flat with the type of seed and date of planting, wet down the media using a sprayer or sprinkling of water and cover the flat with a plastic flat cover or sheet of plastic suspended over the flat using plant labels and tied around the flat with string or rubber bands.  Next, it's onto the seedling heating mat, set the thermostat for 75 degrees, insert the probe into the media and place the flat under lights.
Depending on the viability of the seed and germinating conditions, broccoli takes from 4 to 7 days to germinate.  Once most of the seeds have germinated, remove the flat cover and seedling mat, lower the height of your fluorescent fixture until the tubes are about one to two inches above the top of the seedlings and lower the temperature to around 60 degrees (optimal temperature for growing broccoli transplants).  Lowering the temperature at which the seedling are grown will cause stockier growth and create hardier transplants.  Check the seedlings daily, watering the seedling when the media feels dry to the touch and raising the lights when necessary.  After about two to three week, water with a half strength liquid fertilizer solution.  At five weeks, it's time to harden off  the  seedlings by introducing them to outside conditions.

In my garden, I use a cold frame to protect tender seedlings and harden them off.  On cold windy days and at night, I lower the top to protect the seedlings.  On nice days, I leave it propped open as shown in the above photo.  If you don't have a cold frame, introduce your seedling to the outdoors gradually by placing them in a sheltered place out of direct sun and wind for the first couple of days and then moving them into less sheltered area with more sun.  For a full discussion on hardening off, click here or here.  And don't let your transplants dry out. 

After about a week of hardening off, your transplants can be planted in the garden.  Plant them at the same depth that they are growing in the container and water them in with a half strength water soluble fertilizer solution.  In late March and early April, I place wire hoops over my raised beds and cover my transplants with row cover.  This protects my early broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kohlrabi seedlings from pests and provides an extra four degrees of temperature protection from fickle spring frosts.

I use my fluorescent lights starting in early February through late July to early August.  I raise transplants for initial planting in spring and summer as well as for succession planting during the summer and fall.  For example, I know that squash vine bores will get my early planting of zucchini so when I take the row cover of the zucchini so that they can be pollinated, I'll start a set of replacement transplants in four inch pots under lights.  In June, I'll start some broccoli, cauliflower and collard seeds for planting sometime in early August.

So, if your interested in growing transplants for vegetable varieties you select and maximizing the use of your garden by having succession transplants ready to go into the garden when space becomes available, get a couple of T-8 fluorescent fixtures and start growing.