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.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Montgomery County GIEI Spring Open House

The Montgomery County MGs are having a Grow It Eat It Open House next Saturday (March 29) and we hope you'll join us!

We'll have a full slate of interesting talks and lots of other opportunities to learn and share information. Full schedule is here. It's going to be fun!

I hope we'll have good weather so visitors can come up to see the Demo Garden, though there is not a lot going on yet in the vegetable beds. Mark your calendar for our other open houses this year, on May 3 and July 26, when the garden will be in full swing and we'll have plenty of hands-on demos along with many more seasonally-appropriate talks and information. See you there!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Seed starting for spring, summer and fall season vegetables

While giving my seed starting presentation last week, I received a lot of questions about how to determine the date to start seeds in order to get vegetable transplants for the spring, summer or fall garden.  The answer to this question is fairly simple.  Start with the date you want to transplant the vegetable outdoors and subtract from that date, the amount of time needed to grow the transplant from seed to transplantable size.  Since I will soon be planting my warm season seed like eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, I'll give you an example using eggplant seed.  The back of my packet of eggplant seeds states the seed should be started 8 to 10 week prior to the plant out date.  I use the 8 week period because smaller stockier transplants suffer less transplant shock and grow more quickly. So, the simple calculation is to use the frost free date for Clarksville (May 17) and subtract the 8 weeks.

May 17 – 8 weeks/56 days = March 20

Rather than repeat this calculation for all my vegetable and flower seeds, I developed a spreadsheet which makes the calculation depending on the date you want the transplant available.  It can be found on the Howard County Master Gardener website, under the Grow It! Eat It! link,  The link to download the spreadsheet is on the right hand side of the page under quick and useful links.

Low tunnels

So, I thought I would bring you up to date on my low tunnel experiment.  I didn't get a chance to put a low tunnel to work in my garden, but did get one installed in Mary's raised bed on Saturday March 15.  The bed we used was her 4 by 12 foot bed which is bordered by 2 by 12s.  The bed is filled with manufactured soil (50% leafgro-50% soil) and fertilized with 10-10-10 (one pound) to add .2 lbs. of N per 100 square feet.  This picture shows the partially planted bed.

Plantings in the bed are Packman broccoli, tatsoi, Tuscan kale, Red Sails and Butter Crunch lettuce.  The full planted bed looks like this.  

The PVC hoops are spaced about two and a half feet apart and tied together using another piece of PVC pipe at the top of the hoops and either tied or taped in place.  The plastic cover is 4 mil plastic purchased at a local hardware store.  It was stretched over the hoops, wrapped around some 1 by 2 the furring strips and attached to the 2 by 12s using screws.  The ends were loose so that the low tunnel could be ventilated, less it build up to much heat and cook the plants.

This last picture shows the impact of 9 inches of Howard County snow, we received Sunday night and Monday.  Mary told me that late in the day she had to open up one end of the low tunnel because the interior had a lot of condensation on the plastic sheeting.  Hopefully these plants will like their new environment and provide some early April and May greens and broccoli for Mary's table.  The only thing left to do is to install the drip irrigation since plastic isn't permeable. 

I'll update this experiment with low tunnels, but Mary should have great success as long as she remember to ventilate it on sunny days.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Aphid mystery solved

The clever folks at the Home and Garden Information Center have just solved a mystery for me, which was also a nice example of a deductive fallacy (on my part), so I thought I'd share it for general edification.

You may recall that last year I had a problem with aphids in my seed-starting process, which I'm pretty sure had to do with having taken plants outside during a warm spell and then being forced to bring them in again, along with some little juice-suckers that had hitched a ride. That took me forever to resolve (in fact I never completely did, but the plants finally got to stay outside for good), and stuck in my mind, so when I found aphids on my seedlings again a few days ago, I assumed the two events must be related - after all, I had never in all my years of seed-starting had aphids on my plants before last year, and so these must be the same aphids, or rather their descendants, miraculously preserved over many months in a moderately clean, definitely plant-free, and I thought pest-free room. (Once I got rid of the grasshoppers. Wasn't my year.)

Well, I didn't absolutely assume the aphids were related to each other, but I couldn't figure out how else they could have gotten there. There had been no plants in the room between August, when fall transplants went out, and January, when I started some leeks and onions and also sweet potatoes from slips grown off my stored tubers (dug in September and October). In February I planted microgreens (since eaten) and also potted up a sprouting potato. (Both that plant and the sweet potatoes were being grown to support my root veggies talk, not to go into the garden.) And then I planted peppers from seed, and the resulting seedlings were where I saw the hordes of tiny green aphids a couple of days ago, along with a few on the sweet potato plants.

Some of the plants had traveled with me to MG events, but hadn't introduced themselves to other plants there, and nothing had been outside for more than a few minutes in bitter to moderate cold. So where the heck could the aphids be coming from?

Potato aphid - BugGuide.Net
HGIC to the rescue! My little green not-friends are potato aphids, and they arrived at my house most likely on the potato from the supermarket that sprouted into my plant, or possibly on the sweet potato tubers I'd saved over the winter. I'd dumped the potato plant in the compost before I found the aphids on the other plants, but I suspect that's the source. You know how we MGs are always telling you not to grow your potatoes from grocery store seed stock, because of disease potential? Well, here's another good reason: they may bring pests with them, ones that are happy to suck on other plants besides the one that gives them their name.

The sweet potato plants have been discarded (all except one I potted up in a larger pot, that's well away from the seed-starting room), but I've still got aphids on my tiny pepper seedlings that need to be dealt with, which I'm doing by: a) isolating the worst-affected plants to a sunny windowsill in another room (and planting more seeds for those varieties, in case they don't make it); b) treating every plant on which I see aphids, as well as those on which I don't, to a dose of soapy water, to be repeated as necessary; c) hand-squishing every bug I see. Carefully, because these are still very small plants - most don't even have their first true leaves yet. I'll let you know whether they win the fight. But I must get rid of the critters, because very soon I'll have about a hundred other little seedings coming up.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Yukon Golds stored in the ground for the winter

So today was grandparent duty day and I picked up my newly minted 5 year old grandson Tyler from preschool at 1 pm.  It was still such a nice day, I thought he and I could dig up a few Yukon Gold potatoes that had been in the ground all winter. (Tyler loves mashed potatoes.)  I had good intentions of digging them up in December, but just never got around to it.  Tyler and I have a great relationship with potatoes.  I dig and he picks them up and puts them in the basket.  It doesn't hurt his back to bend over like it does mine.  So we dug about 5 feet of my double row of potatoes.  This is what we got.

Not a great harvest, probably 10 lbs.  I had trouble last year with my summer potatoes, which I planted around July 1.  (Seed potatoes aren't available this time of year, so I buy extra in March and store them in my refrigerator until mid June.  About that time, I take them out and let them start to sprout prior to planting them in the garden.)  My major pest problem last summer were Harlequin bugs.  They decimated  my potato foliage.  I'll try using row cover this year to keep them out.

After about 20 minutes of picking up potatoes and searching for worms, Tyler wanted to go inside and do something else.  So we trundled into the basement and transplanted my second set of cauliflower which is scheduled to go into the garden the first of April.  After Tyler tired of transplanting, we sowed three different varieties of Choi, which will also go into the garden in early April.  All in all, Tyler and I had a great time working together today.  Hopeful, he will grow up to love gardening as much as his pop-pop.

Hardening Off Vegetable Transplants, Season Extension

Well, I guess I knew that winter wasn't entirely over, but will it change my plans to put in some early season broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce, not likely.  Monday, I set up one of my cold frames and loaded it with the transplants I plan to plant this weekend.  I knew another round of cold weather was due later today and tomorrow, but didn't know how low the temps in Howard County were suppose to go.  Well, we are suppose to get into the teens tonight so I had to further insulate my cold frame against those temps.  So what to do.  Well I decided to raid my leaf pile (used during the year to make compost for my garden) and stack the leaves around the perimeter of the cold frame.

Later today, once the expected rain waters the plants and the sun goes down,  I'll put a couple of blankets over the top of the cold frame, a tarp over the blankets and a 4 foot square wooden pallet over the tarp to keep the wind from blowing everything around.

This weekend, I'll set up my low tunnel using PVC pipe and cover it with 6 mil plastic to make a mini hoop house.  Blog on the low tunnel to follow this weekend.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Fishing line deer fence update

This is a 3-year follow-up to my July 1 and July 9 posts from 2010, where I described a simple “fishing line” deer fence I made with five runs of monofilament line that proved a failure. But I liked its low cost and low visibility and was determined to tweak the original design to have a fence that would keep out deer, rabbits, and groundhogs. 

I stretched 3-ft. wide chicken wire along the base to provide protection from rabbits and groundhogs (those rascals will chew through the black propylene “deer netting”). The bottom of the chicken wire is buried about 6-in. down in the soil. I replaced the horizontal runs of fishing line with runs of 14-gauge wire spaced 12-in. to 18-in. apart, from the top of the chicken wire to the top of the fence (around 7-ft.). Then I wrapped fishing line (20# test) from the lowest wire to the top wire in a somewhat random pattern. The fishing line has broken in places (mostly due to me hitting it with tools) but is easy to repair.

We have a fairly high deer population in my area and my fence is barely 7 ft. in places. I’ve gone through 3 complete years with no deer, rabbit, or groundhog getting in. The fishing line is pale green and I doubt they see it. Maybe they bump into it and get spooked? I have 6-in. diameter wood posts at the corners (10 ft. tall with 2 ft. in the ground) and some 8-ft. metal T-posts between. I use in-line strainers to maintain tension in the horizontal wires. It is fairly unobtrusive.



Thursday, March 6, 2014

Announcing Grow100: the Grow It Eat It Food Gardening Challenge

Only have a small space for gardening in? Think that means you can't grow vegetables to feed your family? It's just not so! We can teach you how to use the space you have, and then you can share your results with us.
Enter the 2014 Grow It Eat It contest and show us “What Can YOU Grow in 100 Square Feet?”
OPEN to all gardeners- city, suburban, country; experienced and first-time gardeners; backyard, community, or school garden. AND you don’t have to be a Maryland resident. We have lots of examples and resources to help you. Use your imagination: the sky’s the limit.
Check out the contest rules and helpful information at the Grow100 webpage.

Whether you have a big space for gardening or a tiny one, join us this year and see what YOU can grow.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Growing Seedlings Under Lights

In January, I wrote about replacing my old T-12 fluorescent lights with a new set of T-8 troffers.  So, just to update the light story from my basement and the impact this seemingly endless winter is having on my spring gardening plans, I thought I would bring everybody up to date.  I started a number of flats of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, leeks and some snapdragons about the end of January.

The snapdragons and leeks start slowly and most seed catalogs recommend sowing them 10 weeks before the plant out date.  I planned to transplant them in the garden around April 15, so that meant starting them the end of January, first week of February. Leeks and snaps are doing so well that I may have to transplant them to larger pots soon.  Nevertheless, they will be ready to go into my cold frame to harden off  around April 1.

 The brassicas and lettuce started in early (late January-early February), hoping that winter weather would abate are ready to go into the cold frame. This would allow me to get some transplants in the ground 2 weeks earlier than my normal April 1 date.  I was planning on extending the spring season forward to mid-March for the broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce by using low tunnels covered with 6 mil plastic.  Given the snow we had Monday that plan may be out the window, but I will set up my cold frame this weekend to harden these plants off and prepare for a March 15 planting.  One thing to remember about broccoli and cauliflower is that cold weather will cause them to produce "buttonheads".  This happens because the cold weather stunts their growth producing small plants and thus, small flower heads.

The nice thing about having a large light setup (capability to have 20 flats under lights) is that I can plan for most weather.  Around mid February, I started more broccoli and cauliflower which would go into the garden on April 1, my normal plant out date.  I'll place these plants under low tunnels in order to protect them from the weather, imported cabbageworm and speed up their growth.  My spring broccoli is Packman and my cauliflower is Snow Crown because both of these varieties produce within a 55 to 60 day window after transplanting.  This means that they are out of the garden by the first week of June when the hot weather would cause the flower buds to open

I also plan to plant another flat of Packman and Snow Crown today, just in case this cold weather hangs on longer than anyone expects.  These transplant will be ready to plant about April 15 and if we do have a cooler than normal spring will be my main spring crop of broccoli and cauliflower.  Should the weather turn more reasonable, I'll have 3 succession plantings of broccoli and cauliflower for my extended family and the Community Action Council's Howard County food bank.  As part of the Univ. of Maryland's GIEI initiative, we also sponsor a Grow It Give It initiative where extra produce can be donated to local food banks and shelters.

Other seeds I will start this week are fennel, kohlrabi  (6 weeks to plant out around April 15), some choi, tatsoi (4 weeks to plant out around April 1) and my husk cherry seed (Goldie) which take 10 weeks to reach transplantable size.

In case you are wondering how I keep all of these dates straight, I have an excel spreadsheet which I update every year with my current seed list, days to germinate and weeks to grow to transplantable size.  The seed planting date is driven by the projected spring or fall plant out date.  Yes, my lights are working from February through the end of July providing transplants for succession planting and filling vacant space in my garden.

If you are interested in using my seed starting spreadsheet, you can find it on the Howard County MG GIEI website under "Useful Links".  But don't look for it immediately, I have to plant some seeds first.