Gardening in the Snow

And then it snowed. Again. And again. And again. The children now look forward to school as a pleasant interruption to their days in pajamas playing with Legos and building snow forts. The snowblower to which I reluctantly agreed now seems like an old, and well loved friend. Our chats about someday screening our porch or building a fire pit have given way to discussions about wood stoves and window replacements, blown in insulation and how to move the common entry to the garage before the salt, sand and chemical crud eat the flooring in the house.

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my sick of being cold face

I make no pretense that it never snows in the Mid-Atlantic, that we’re being subjected to some major injustice, or that these snows have been spectacular individually, but as with most folks in North America, I have now had enough.

We’ve eaten soup.

We’ve baked cookies and banana bread.

We’ve created worlds and watched curling (okay, not for long, but I had to know).

Whether the weather is ready or not, we are quite ready for Spring. The best antidote for my winter hostility is to focus my thoughts on the months to come. What better way to anticipate the end to the seemingly endless Tundra than by planning the garden and planting some seeds.

If you’ve been playing along for a while, you know that when it comes to following directions, I prefer an abstract approach, and this has presented me with some challenges in my gardening efforts in the past. Get up and go get it done only helps you if you’re doing the right things… or at least things that aren’t clearly wrong. In an effort to increase my garden success I’ve decided that, in addition to implementing the Big Dog Protection System, I will try to do some helpful reading in the cold months to improve my garden outcomes. I’ve also become interested in some new (or very old) gardening practices and am considering ways to implement them in the garden.

To that end I’ve been taking a spin with some of my old favorites to read about “crop” rotation. I use quotes because I feel silly using the word crop for my backyard garden, but the principles still apply.  I find Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch to be unbeatably reasonable on this topic (and all others that I’ve referred to them for) and my original garden guru, Mel Bartholomew, indicates that crop rotation is important just by building it into his square foot gardening approach.  I’ve had some trouble with various diseases and decreased production over the last few years, so this year I’m going to move some things around in very specific ways – get those plants helping each other and rebuilding the soil a bit.  We shall see.

I’m also super interested in implementing some permaculture strategies in the garden, although I confess that the extent to which these methods depart physically from what I’m only barely managing to do now is a bit intimidating.  But when a local landscaper,Michael Judd, writes a beautiful book on the subject that includes his pictures taken in the county you live in… well you don’t get much better advice than that. It’s like learning from a neighbor who takes great pictures. Reading… reading… reading.

In time honored tradition, I’ve already made my first gardening mistake by failing to realize that the extreme and persistent cold that we’ve experienced this winter has an impact even on my little indoor seed starting efforts. While I would usually remove covers from mini greenhouses once seedlings have sprouted, the constant blowing of warm air from the heat being on ALL THE TIME has proven far too drying for going topless. Overexposure led to terrible embarassment, and a trayful of VERY dead seedlings.

Even with one failure under my belt, looking at my stack of books, my graph paper, and the feathery alien seedlings growing in my living room fills me with hope that perhaps this will be the last snow for the season, that maybe, just maybe, the heat will turn off someday soon. I’m going to go make some soup and read about raised beds on contour to capture the rain. How about you? I hear we may get more snow on Thursday. For now I shall continue with the investigations and planning that are the unsung heroes of any human endeavor. Faith, hope, and a little optimism in a little seed in a little dirt.

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Faith in a Seed

Waterlogged Cauliflower

I was feeling a little blue yesterday because, as predicted, I have managed to overwater my seedlings yet again. It’s hard to see in the photo, but the bottom leaf on this plant is discolored, a leaf below that actually shriveled, and the growth is quite stunted. Other seedlings have also become stunted in their growth and are lighter in color than they should be. The tricksy bit about overwatering is that the signs of it look an awful lot like… wait for it… underwatering!!!! Super. So unless you are really paying attention or you’ve learned this lesson an adequate number of times for it to stick, you may actually water your seedlings to death in an attempt to make them look like they’ve not dried up and begun to die.

Unlike years past, I recognized the situation a bit earlier and have put my seedlings on the DWTSMYM (don’t water them so much, you moron) plan and they seem to be bouncing back.  I will be buying larger healthier seedlings to supplement my stock.  Still, this is a quantum leap over last year, and if I’d made notes on the whole process, I probably wouldn’t have to be buying any seedlings from anyone…. So back to feeling a little blue. And then I went outside…

Supplementary Cauliflower Settling In

and saw these…

Still More Asparagus

And these…

Precious Peas

And this…

Volunteer Onion

And this…

Volunteer Fennel

And… sweet swimminy… these…

Blurry Potato Seedlings

Though I do not believe
that a plant will spring up
where no seed has been,
I have great faith in a seed.
Convince me that you have a seed there,
and I am prepared to expect wonders.

Henry David Thoreau

Feeling adequately bouyed, I was able to grab my hacksaw, rip into the gutter and do this…

Yay Spring!

Seed Starting – Tips and Tricks

Or Learn From My Mistakes…

One of the glories of spring – watching those little green bits poke out of the soil, transforming from a hard little pebble into something that may well be able to feed you.  Miraculous.  Especially when it works.  In the past I have not had good luck with starting from seed and it took lots of reading for me to realize that I am not alone.  Most gardening guides tell you right off the bat that starting from seed, while potentially rewarding and money-saving, can be very frustrating.  In the past I have started seeds, used the few plants that worked out, and bought seedlings for the rest.  I have, however, made minor adjustments over the years and for the first time – and I am reluctant to say anything and jinx the outcome – I seem to be growing several plants that might actually survive this process.  So I thought I’d share  what I’ve learned with you while there’s still time – especially for those of you to the north.  Frankly with the way the weather has been, I’m inclined to dispense with my normal planting calendar altogether and just start whatever I want whenever it occurs to me.

For me, seedling success seems to depend most on 4 variables.

1) Temperature. For the last two years I have used heat with my seedlings and it has made an enormous difference in the number of seeds that germinate and the amount of time that it takes for them to start.  I personally use a heating pad (which I imagine is NOT recommended by heating pad manufacturers and is certainly NOT recommended by seed heater manufacturers 😉 ) and if it is especially chilly I also put a space heater next to the seedling rack.  My understanding is that most seeds need at least 70 degrees to germinate.  I feel the trays and if they are mildly warm NOT HOT I go with that.

2) Moisture. Seeds need water to germinate.  Seed starting trays often include a plastic dome for cover and this helps retain moisture and heat, makes a nice little hothouse to help your seeds along.  I use these domes, but have found that the trick is to make sure not to keep the dome over seedlings that have emerged.  The infant seedlings still want moisture, but not as much as seeds, and they don’t especially like a lot of water from the top.  I’ve been careful this year to remove seedlings that have emerged from the germination tray once they are truly out of the soil and placed them in a tray that is not covered to keep them from constantly being rained on from the plastic dome.  Because I like to be able to move them easily I prefer cardboard cells or toilet paper rolls cut in half to plant in rather than the rows of plastic cells.

I’ve tried something new this year that has proven quite effective in helping me regulate moisture levels for my seedlings.  Pea gravel.  Pardon the blurry image – what I’m trying to show is the gravel in the middle of the seed tray here.  I scooped some pea gravel into the bottom of the tray and then placed the seed starting cups on top of the gravel.  This allows me to pour water UNDER the seed starting cups.  They drink it up from the bottom while sitting on the gravel;  they are not as likely to develop problems associated with over-watering or water overwhelming the seedlings.  The pea gravel also holds onto a bit of moisture and slowly delivers some moisture to the plants through contact.  If I am remiss in watering, the effect does not seem to be as devastating.  If I overwater (something I tend to do), the damage seems mitigated.  I will be using pea gravel again.  It is important to note that I DO have a plastic tray under all of this mess that I tested for holes.  A drippy seed starting tray is not fun, and can be crazy dangerous if you follow my next suggestion…

3) Light. In years past I simply set up some shelves in front of a sliding glass door that was as south-easterly as I could provide and had very sad looking little seedlings.  Pale, leggy to the point of collapse.  NO GOOD.  I did some research online and found that there were plenty of gadgets available to help me provide light to me little veggie children and all I had to do was plunk down a load of cash and I too could experience seed starting victory.  Well, I pretty much vow not to start from seed every year, so the investment that they were asking for was pretty much out of the question.  More research from the DIY pages revealed that florescent shoplites can deliver adequate seedling sun.  That sealed it.  I had a wire shelf unit already (scored from a big box store on super sale, so I think it was like $15).  I went to the hardware store.  An employee offered to help and I explained my dismay that I couldn’t seem to get enough light in a VERY SUNNY glass door.  He expressed a theory that newer windows and glass doors may block out some of the magic that seedlings require because of their coatings and insulation.  He said something along the lines of “I’m no scientist, but folks with old windows seem to have better luck no matter which direction they’re facing.”  He then helped me choose 4 foot shoplites and T-12 bulbs.  I rigged the lights, added a heating pad, threw on a full spectrum light I had from when I lived somewhere it rained ALL THE TIME and voila, instant sunny spot for seedlings.

Lights Off.

Let the sunshine on.

4) Transplanting.  Great, so you’ve got some healthy green little buggers in those cells and it is so exciting so you just wait until the right date, right?  No.  You will need to take them out of those little jobbies and put them in slightly larger containers to allow their roots room to grow.  Yes, you really need to do this.  I usually do it when the seedling has begun to develop it’s second set of leaves.  This is another time I am glad to use cardboard.  It is MUCH easier to get them out of the cardboard then plastic, in my experience.  So, gently move them into larger containers, and a week before the proper date for outside I start putting them outside for a few hours a day, slowly building up the amount of time to get them accustomed to the harsher conditions that may be out there waiting for them.

Leeks getting ready for the garden. Go, leeks, go – you expensive, delicious little freaks!

I’ll keep you posted as to how many of my little beauties actually make it into the soil.  Here’s hoping my experiments will pay off for you!

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The Not So Big Push…

In most of my life I’m pretty good at estimating the amount of time that a task will take, or simply admitting it to myself when I have no clue as to how long a chore will require.  When I’m in the garden this skill seems to vanish completely and every foray has a to-do list that goes something like: 1) Go outside in the beautiful weather, 2) clean everything up, 3) make the dirt better, 4) repair equipment, 5) plant food, and 6) watch my yard produce enough to feed us all!  In my estimation this should take approximately 2 hours – okay – GO!!!

So I told you we were gearing up to do major overhaul, and we did, sort of.  Over the weekend we cleaned up one of the two beds, amended the soil with new top soil and compost, tore down old (much chewed) plastic fencing, installed shiny new 1 x 1 chicken wire, amended soil in the herb and greens bed, planted onion sets, spinach seeds, spinach seedlings, leek seeds, pea seeds (bush and vine), kale seeds, romaine seedlings, kale seedlings, and cauliflower seedlings.  Well, at least it sounds like a lot once I write it down.  I was sure we’d get the other bed cleaned up too…

Here’s a shot of how the whole place looked at the beginning…. this is the side we’ve not gotten to yet, with the hoses I forgot to remove… one of which didn’t make it. Expensive mistake number 8 million…

Here’s me trying not to be noticed while I weed the bed that we already cleared off.

Pleasant surprise #1: volunteer leek!

Pleasant surprise #2: volunteer fennel – from last year’s seeds sent by a seed saving friend in Michigan.

Pleasant surprise #3: volunteer celery, next to leftover beet, leek, and onion. The leek was still good.

Yucky garden: lovely garden. Lots done, more to go. It WAS awfully nice to have a surprise fresh leek to eat as reward.

Garden leftovers

Gardening is work.  There is no denying that.  It does however, in my humble opinion, beat the HELL out of cleaning bathrooms.  I much prefer the smell of soil and the smell of the different plants and leaves to the smell of bad male aim, if you take my meaning.  When we lived in the country, I did solve bathroom problems and garden problems by having my husband pee around the perimeter of the gardens at night.  This is very effective rabbit repellent and probably provides some nitrogen to the soil as well!

At any rate… back to gardening as work.  What an utter joy to come out to find little gems in the early spring garden that are leftover from last year!  We did have a mild winter (even for us) here in middle TN and I have 2 bunches of swiss chard that are growing – one green and one red.  I also cut back some kale that was still growing about 2 weeks ago and I’ll be able to harvest a stir fry or kale chips recipe in a few days.  And last but not least, leeks!  Lovely, luscious, expensive leeks are growing in my garden!  I tried to start them from seed in the garden in several spots last summer and got nothing.  Not a peep!  But – one row that I planted in the fall started to come up just as it was getting cold and I thought they’d freeze.  Well those hardy onion cousins are standing straight and about 8″ tall.  Can’t wait to sautee, stir fry and make the crunchy leeks litlsis has been raving about.  Joy!

Garden Gear Up

I can’t BELIEVE I am doing this again.  After last year’s near zero production desert stink bug fiasco, I SWORE up and down that I would not plant food again this year.  Something about a warm winter makes it hard to stick to it.  I SWORE I wouldn’t buy any new seeds, only use old seeds….  yeah.  I SWORE I wouldn’t buy any new equipment or planting medium because I would be making all of it myself…  Again, so much for that.  The irony is that so far… and I am taking a HUGE risk by admitting this, so far my seedlings look better than they have ever before.  Last year’s experiments with temperature control and lighting have made a huge difference.  And some quick reading on the internets has convinced me that I have probably been screwing up my vegetables in years past with too much compost and too little other soil… So I suppose what’s happened is that I’m convinced that this time it’s going to be different.  I kind of want to throw up even hearing myself say that; it sounds too much like a toxic relationship.  But, given how I feel about most of what I find at the store, and the fact that I really would rather eat organic if I can, and that the kids asked when we were going to plant the garden…  What do you do with that?  So here I am, with compost and soil in the car and seedlings galore on my improvised light stand, watching my planting calendar (which I got from these amazing ladies). The next few days will be the big push – getting seeds in the ground and getting that ground ready and balanced and healthy. I’m excited… and trying to maintain minimal expectations. Photos of seed starting setup, seedlings, and veggie patch to come!