Archives for posts with tag: automatic timers

[Obviously, I’m a bit behind on my garden blogging this year. Okay, much more so than usual. If I have any readers left, however, they will be relieved to know that I am not behind on my garden planting; there is plenty going on there. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to catch up. Please note, though, that many of the posts will contain very little text, if any.]

Well, so much for 2014.

It was a long one, trying in many ways, but in the end a good year. That was true for life in general and for the garden in specific.

What worked and what didn’t? Let’s start with the negatives.

Growing herbs from seed: It’s a wonderful concept and something that promises the heat of summer in the dead of winter. I started thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, spearmint, and sage at the end of January last year with high hopes. The only seeds to germinate were the rosemary (perhaps two) and the basil.

I sowed a second batch of thyme, oregano, spearmint, and sage in early March, this time with fresh seeds. The germination rate was much better but the growth of the seedlings was slow. They did not need potting up until the end of April and we didn’t set them out until late June (everything was late last year due to the harsh winter). My conclusion is that herbs are best purchased as seedlings.

Eggplant and peppers: These are not exactly negatives—we had a decent harvest—but they needed extensive feedings (weekly) and did not produce ripe fruit until the early fall. It is possible that I planted them too close to each other (again!) and this year, we will give them even more space. I’m determined to make them work because their flavor is so much better than what you can get at the market, even the farmers’ market.

Photo by Rachel

Radishes and carrots: It pains me that neither the radishes nor the carrots performed well last year—or the two prior years, for that matter. Radishes in particular are supposed to be one of the easiest vegetables to grow. They are also supposed to be quick to mature. In our experience, they are quick to sprout but then their growth slows to a crawl. Carrots are slow in all respects.

With most of the root vegetables, we have also had the problem of too many greens and not enough roots. It’s not a huge problem—I enjoy radish, beet, and turnip greens as much as I enjoy radishes, beets, and turnips—which is a good thing because there does not seem to be anything to be done about it. We will continue to try different varieties to see what works best in our garden.

Cucumbers and summer squash: Like radishes, summer squash is supposed to be easy. It is also supposed to be prolific. Not for us. We had enough but leaving sacks of zucchini and cucumbers on the neighbors’ doorsteps was never an option. This is another case where finding the right variety—a trial and error approach—is really the only solution.

Photo by Rachel

And now, the positives.

Lettuce from seed, indoors: Sure, the germination rate of lettuce seeds is abysmally low but there’s no reason not to sow a hundred seeds at a time. If too many sprout, they can be culled and used as micro-greens (in salads arranged with tweezers!). More likely, only just enough will grow to fill out the planter.

We use window boxes that fit nicely on the bottom shelf of our seed-starting apparatus. We keep one fluorescent light fixture on them continuously (controlled by a timer) and so I only need to remember to water them every other day or so to maintain a steady harvest. If I can figure out a safe way to automatically irrigate the boxes (without fear of flooding the basement!), then the process will be perfect.

Photo by Rachel

Sugar Snap peas: Peas with edible pods are tied with turnips as my favorite home garden vegetable. They are the first to start outdoors (theoretically, as early as March 17) and quickly add a touch of spring green to the garden. The sprouts are useful whether raw, as a topping for crostini, say, or cooked in a stir-fry. The blossoms are beautiful and once the vines start producing, they continue for weeks.

Turnips and beets: Turnips are my co-favorite home garden vegetable both because they are easy to grow and are versatile. Unlike the other root vegetables, we’ve never had a problem with too many greens, which are delicious raw (in a salad, usually) or sautéed (e.g., with onions and garlic). Likewise, the roots can be eaten raw—thinly sliced, with bitter greens and a honey-based dressing—or cooked. I don’t know why more chefs haven’t included them in their farm-to-table menus.

Beets are slightly more problematic and sometimes the roots suffer due to over-abundant greens growth. On the other hand, they are very resilient and last until early fall. (And for all I know, they could over-winter in the ground without damage.) Despite the additional effort needed to spur their root growth, home-grown beets are worth it. Nothing beats the earthy flavor of beets, pulled from the ground and roasted in a hot oven. That’s terroir defined.

Tomatoes: As in previous years, we planted twelve vines last year but only six in a raised bed. The other six we planted in the ground, in alternation with the summer squashes. Also unlike ever before, we only placed one tomato vine per cage. More experienced gardeners might be saying, “Duh!”, but we’ve finally arrived at the conclusion that the tomatoes are easier to manage (by which I mean, easier to keep pruned) when they have more space between them.

Photo by Rachel

We also benefited from an unusual late-season growth spurt last year; our vines were still producing fruit in mid-November. It was odd, but in a delightful sort of way. Having fresh tomatoes in the fall—which were still green, for the most part—made us think about them in a different way. Whereas the soft, ripe, red tomatoes of summer were best eaten raw, the firmer, tart, green fall tomatoes tasted better in cooked dishes.

String beans: Pole and bush beans are another vegetable on the too-short list of reliable producers. Their preferred schedule (mid-summer to early fall) makes them the perfect candidate to follow the Sugar Snap peas when they start to peter out. Like the peas, beans sprout quickly, climb their trellis rapidly (one can almost see them creeping upwards), and supply an abundant crop of crisp, brightly-flavored beans that last for an extended period. They are a good choice to end the growing season.

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While the other vegetables, rugged rough-and-tumble types that they are, enjoy the great outdoors, the lettuces are homebodies and prefer to be inside the house.

Lots of direct sun and the accompanying heat are fine for the hardier plants—summer squash and eggplant among them—but the relative cool and steady light (thanks to fluorescent fixtures and automatic timers) of the basement suit the more tender romaine and red leaf to a T.

And a trickle of water for 30 minutes every other day may be enough for ascetics such as the tomatoes but lettuces, hedonistically, would rather bask in constant humidity and completely moist soil, thank you very much.

I find it hard to believe that the romaine and red leaf lettuces we seeded back in March—and early March, at that—are still producing new leaves as they sit quietly in their planter boxes. They’re not alone down there: one Yellow Brandywine and two Yellow Belle pepper seedlings share space with them. These companions, though, are not yet producing.

Although still healthy, the lettuces are becoming stemmier (if that is a word) in preparation for bolting; one of the plants is about a foot high. At the same time, the leaves are thinning and they do not hold moisture as well. Their texture is leathery and their flavor more bitter. Five months is old for lettuce.

So, enough cutting and coming back. We’ll clear-cut what remains and have a big salad for dinner. That will be the end of the spring lettuce.

It won’t, however, be the end of the lettuce. Also growing in the basement is a lone head of romaine, the only one to sprout from our summer sowing in June. If it performs like its siblings before it, we’ll be eating fresh lettuce in October.

I know I’ve mentioned it many times before but I’m not going to let that stop me: Saying yes to one thing means saying no to others. I repeat it so often because it is still true.

Sometimes, the “no” is explicit—someone asks for something and the request cannot be granted—but it need not be. More often, the time and energy available are consumed by the committed tasks and at the end of the day, there are no resources left for the things not committed to. Stuff just does not happen.

It isn’t hard to guess where I’m going with this. I recently said yes to some work for my former partners. A large chunk of my time is now committed to this worthwhile—and quite enjoyable—project and, as a result, I have less time for other things, most notably this blog. That is why my posts have been few and far between lately.

Now, this is not to say that my blogging is less worthwhile or less enjoyable than the other work. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No, blogging has simply become less urgent; it remains very important to me. I admit to feeling a little discomfort with this—the puritanical worker in me wants to do everything, to get it done, now!—but I know I will catch up. Anyway, it is summer, a time when the pace is slower and more relaxed. For all I know, my readers are on vacation or tending their own gardens.

Nor does my not writing about the garden mean that nothing is happening there. To the contrary, the planters are bursting with growth, especially the east planter with its bounty of root vegetables (most especially, the turnips) and snap peas, while the cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, and bell peppers are preparing to carry out their own surge.

The most comforting aspect of the garden is that at this time of year, it practically takes care of itself. It basks in the sun by day, receives gentle watering from the timed hoses or occasional thunderstorm in the evening, and, at intervals, enjoys a little love from Rachel and me. Because in addition to everything else we are doing, we are both still chanting “yes!” to the garden.

I’m happy to report that the 2014 growing season is officially under way.

In our garden, anyway.  Having assembled all of the necessary parts, I found some time this afternoon to sow seeds for the herbs.

As a first step, I washed the mixing tub, seed tray and trowel with a mild bleach solution.  All of these items were used last year and have been stored in the basement since.  The exposure to outside elements is high and given the dark and damp conditions down here, the potential for mold and harmful bacteria is great.

Then, I mixed up a batch of seed starting medium.  I measured out quantities of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite (in a 2:1:1 ratio) to equal a half gallon of dry volume and dumped them into the tub.  The lime I purchased is pelletized so I used a mortar and pestle to pulverize it into smaller particles.  A quarter teaspoon per gallon—an eighth of a teaspoon for this batch—seemed much too small; I used a teaspoon.  To be more accurate, I would need to know the pH I was starting with.

Using a spray bottle, I moistened the mix and stirred it with the trowel.  Peat moss is extremely dry and perlite can absorb a lot of water so I had to repeat this process for several cycles.  When the moisture content seemed right—damp but not soggy—I spooned the mix into a half seed tray (that’s 36 compartments) and tamped it in lightly.  It turns out that half a gallon of seed starting mix is just the right amount.

Next came the seeds.  We will be planting basil again this year (last year’s did extremely well) along with the herbs we purchased seeds for last year but never managed to plant:  rosemary, thyme, oregano, spearmint and sage.  Because most herb seeds are very small, I used tweezers to drop one or two seeds into a shallow hole (formed using a pencil as a dibble) in each compartment.

After covering the seeds with a pinch of mix (the recommended sowing depth for herbs is only 1/4 to 1/2 of an inch), I gently sprayed the tray with water until it ran out of the bottom.  For most of the herbs, this will be the only water they get until they germinate and emerge from the soil 10 days (or, in the case of the rosemary, 28 days) from now.  I set the covered tray atop a heating pad on a shelf of the seed starting apparatus, turned on the pad and fluorescent light and made sure that the timer was properly set.

Like all seed sowing, starting the herbs is an act of faith.  This is especially true for the oregano and spearmint whose seeds are teeny-tiny (they are packaged in small zip-top plastic bags within their paper seed packet).  I can’t be sure whether any seeds actually made it into the soil or from which tray compartments they will sprout.

But I firmly believe that they will and I will be thrilled when they do.

This season’s unsung vegetables are the bell peppers and the eggplants.  That’s probably because there has not been much to sing about.  They have been steadily but quietly passing the days in the east planter, fending off intrusions from the nearby basil and enjoying the unobstructed sun they receive from the west (at least until the basil we transplanted there gets much bigger).

But they have not produced much.  Each of the pepper plants carries one ripening fruit and of these, three attained full size a week ago.  Since then, however, they have remained steadfastly green.  Eventually (I hope), they will turn either red or orange (we didn’t note exactly where we placed each variety) signaling that they are ready to be eaten.  Until then, we wait.

The eggplants, wedged tightly between the peppers and the basil, seem to be healthy enough.  The main stems are tall—at least two feet—and their leaves are large, thick and lush.  They remind me of tobacco leaves, another member of the deadly nightshades (family Solanaceae) to which they are closely related.

They have also been producing the most delicate blossoms in an understated shade of purple.  Beautiful as they are, though, it would appear that the pollinators in our neighborhood (bees, mostly) are not impressed by the color choice or do not care for the flavor of the eggplant’s pollen.  Whatever the reason, the flowers have not been successfully pollinated and no eggplants have formed.  So:  more waiting.  Gardening is not for the impatient.

At the other end of the garden, there is more to sing about.  The string beans are nearing maturity and the beets continue to thrive.  The beets have probably been harvestable for weeks (even accounting for this year’s slow growing season) but we’ve been storing them in-situ.  I think that the roots are better off in the ground than they would be in the refrigerator:  The weather has been moderate and the automatic watering ensures that they do not become dry.

In the meantime, the greens have filled out and darkened in color, an indicator of their high concentration of nutrients.  We continue to enjoy them when we do pull a few from the soil.  And we can’t get enough roasted beet roots.  We save them for a relatively cool day when turning on the oven will not heat the house too much.  Then, we savor their deep, earthy flavor with bitter lettuces and a simple vinaigrette.  They’re good enough to make me burst out into song.

It’s clear who the alpha squash in our garden is:  the western Supersett Yellow crookneck.  Of the four summer varieties, it has twice the volume of leaves (treating the plant as a hemisphere) as the others and easily four times as many squash growing at any given time.  The other crookneck squash plant and one of the Cavili zucchini are next in size while the remaining zucchini plant is markedly smaller.

Equally clear is the runt:  the Zeppelin Delicata.  In fact, it is not much bigger than the summer squash seedlings were when we set them out back in May.  The Naguri winter squash (a Kabocha variant) cannot be easily compared to the others because it is a climber.  However, if I coiled it up in a pile, it would probably be about the same size as the summer squashes, not counting the alpha.

Why there is such variation is beyond me.  All of the summer squashes were started in exactly the same way, given the same watering and fertilizer, potted up and set out at the same time, into the same soil, and watered by the same hose.  Similarly, the winter squashes were sowed outdoors in the same soil and have been watered along with everyone else.  They all get the same amount of rain and solar exposure.  There are virtually no differences in their growing conditions.

I suppose there is a minor difference in the amount of water each receives.  All six squash plants are on the same soaker hose and timer, along with the cucumbers.  However, due to variations in the hose (there are actually two linked in the run) and the decrease in fluid pressure from the hose bib (high) to the capped end (low), the amount of water delivered by the hose varies along its length.  The cucumbers get the most and the Naguri gets the least.

But I don’t think that explains the differences.  The alpha squash and the runt are adjacent to each other at the far end of the soaker hose.  The difference in the amount of water each receives would be minimal.  I guess that the variations are due mainly to differences between species (crookneck, zucchini, Kabocha and Delicata) and individuals (just as there are differences between each of us).

One thing that is the same about all of the squashes is that each is showing of powdery mildew.  To combat it, I have started spraying the leaves with a solution of milk and water (diluted at a 1:10 ratio).  I’m not very optimistic—the milk is the pasteurized supermarket variety and the spray is easily washed off by rain—but I will give it a try.

While showing (off) the garden to new neighbors who just moved in at the beginning of summer, we were faced with a philosophical question:  Does spraying the squash with milk, an animal product, mean that the squash is no longer vegan?  It makes no difference to me—I’ll eat just about anything—but it could make all difference to a vegan.

We’re running behind with the cucumbers which should have been in the ground over a week ago.  With plans for the weekend, we decided to make time during the working week to get caught up.

The cucumbers, like the squash, are moving out of the box.  Specifically, we are locating them along the fence behind the west planter, safely distant (we hope) from the east planter where they grew last year.  Next year, we will move the cucumbers to that portion of the fence.

I briefly considered putting the cucumbers behind (i.e., north of) the squashes where there would be no danger of their being shaded.  But that would be putting all of our cucurbits in one basket.  Because they are susceptible to the same harmful insects (e.g., the ubiquitous cucumber beetles) and diseases (such as the seemingly omnipresent powdery mildew), the cucumbers and squashes will be better off if kept as separate as possible.  Besides, at this time of the year, the sun casts a very shallow shadow.

We measured six locations, spaced at two feet on center, and brushed away the cedar mulch.  Rachel used a standard shovel and I used a spade to dig holes about six inches deep.  It is interesting that a standard shovel is best suited to a hemispherical hole while a spade, with its flat, rectangular blade is better for cubical excavations.  The shoveled holes were about eight inches in diameter; the spade-dug holes were approximately six inches square.

Once the holes were completed, we mixed up two batches of soil (each batch consisting of one 40-pound bag of compost and an equal volume of peat moss) and filled the holes.  We kept the mounds small in diameter (especially compared to the squash mounds) because they are located along an access aisle.  We want the cucumbers to be as tight against the fence as possible.

We expect that the cucumbers will grow high and wide.  To support their wandering branches we installed a chicken wire trellis along the fence.  We marked locations for six cedar posts (seven might have been better but we were short by one) and, using an old steel chisel and a sledge hammer, formed pilot holes.  This step is necessary due to our rocky soil.

Then, we pounded in the stakes.  I had originally planned to embed the six-foot stakes by 18 inches but had to stop at a foot (the depth of the pilot holes).  Once a stake encounters a rock, there is a risk of splitting or crushing it with further pounding.  Using our trusty Velcro tape, we tied each of the stakes to the top rail of the pool fence.  The stakes have a slight backwards rake to them (their bases are about three inches outboard of the fence) which will both stabilize the trellis and prevent it from feeling too imposing.

To form the trellis, we unrolled a 12-foot length of four-foot-high chicken wire and stapled it to the stakes using an electric staple gun.  (We acquired this tool many years ago for reasons I can no longer recall.  It always strikes me at first as silly—like an electric carving knife—and yet it is very useful and practical.  Although it delivers a staple with great force it does not otherwise disturb the work and requires very little effort.  In that regard, it is more akin to a pneumatic nailer.)  We held the bottom of the chicken wire eight inches above grade to give the young cucumber plants room to sort themselves out.

After that, we set out the cucumber seedlings, alternating the slicing and pickling varieties for visual interest.  On a leaf of one of the pickling cucumbers, I noticed a small white spot that might—I say, might—have been the beginning of a powdery mildew infection.  Just to be on the safe side, we tossed the seedling on the refuse pile and chose another.  Powdery mildew on the cucumbers is almost inevitable (we’ve had it every year) but we certainly don’t need it this early in the season.

To wrap up the planting (literally and figuratively), we dressed the soil mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to all of its other advantages—moisture retention, weed control, erosion prevention—the mulch will act as a visual marker of the cucumbers presence, just like the yellow tiles on the edge of a subway platform.  While installing the trellis, we found that it was easy to accidentally step on the mounds and now that the cucumbers are resident, we don’t want that happening again.

Due to the trellis’ location, I had to remove the hose rack and then reinstall it on the fence, two pickets to the right (east).  Eventually, we will install a timer-controlled soaker hose to irrigate the cucumbers but today, I gave them a bucketful of water (laced with fish emulsion).  Tomorrow, rain is forecast (as Tropical Storm Andrea makes its way up the Atlantic coast) so the cucumbers should get plenty of water.

When the weather flips suddenly from cold and rainy (we had to turn on the heat last Friday!) to hot and humid (more like what we expect in August), it makes watering difficult.

On the one hand, plants like tomatoes enjoy the warmth but they do not like to be overwatered.  At the other end of the spectrum, lettuces prefer moist conditions but will wither in the heat.

It reminds me that I have to pay close attention.  Automatic watering will probably not be sufficient and manual irrigation—the good old watering can—might be needed.

The Sugar Snap peas are sending up their tendrils, looking for something to grab on to.  So far, they have only found each other.  That’s not a bad thing—we all need to cling to our family at times—but to give them additional support, we reinstalled the trellis from last year.  We were able to remove it in one piece and it spent the winter in storage.  It went back in as easily as it came out.

Last year’s trellis only reaches halfway across the planter so we built another trellis, identical to the first, to complete the row.  The design is simple:  three vertical rods, equally spaced, tied together with a horizontal rod at the top.  This framework supports a pre-tied grid of nylon cords around which the pea tendrils will wrap themselves.

It’s simple but it requires a lot of knot tying.  This is not one of my strengths.  I was able to manage the pole-to-pole connections—with Rachel’s assistance—but attaching the nylon mesh was beyond me.  Rachel, on the other (smaller and more dexterous) hand, is a very skilled tyer of knots.  She did macramé as a child and had no trouble lashing the lattice to the frame’s perimeter.

With the trellis installed, along with the soaker hoses and watering timer I reinstalled earlier today, things are looking good in the west planter.  The second round of radishes, turnips, beets and carrots have all sprouted (in that order) over the last week.  They took half as long to germinate as the first round, a good sign of the increase in average daily temperature.  Some of the first batch of radishes—and maybe a few of the turnips—will be ready to pick soon.

We got things started in the east planter (looking barren in comparison) by sowing seeds for romaine and red leaf lettuce.  Our plan is to grow full heads of lettuce as opposed to the baby greens we tried last year.  For each variety, we planted three seeds in four locations.  If more than one seed germinates, we will allow all of them to grow to edible size before thinning (and eating) the smallest heads.  In a few weeks, we will plant the same amount again in a staggered arrangement.

[Today is the two-year anniversary of this blog.  My thanks to everyone who has been following our adventures in the garden.]

The two reluctant tomato varieties—Aunt Ruby’s German Green and Black Cherry—pushed out of the soil today.  We are six for six on varieties with only a few seeds that did not germinate.  I’m excited to see how the seedlings fare.

With the tomatoes and basil mostly sprouted, I connected the fluorescent lights to the timer to help the seedlings grow.  The lights will shine all day and into the night, providing both warmth and illumination.

I am keeping the heating pad under the eggplant and bell peppers and will turn it on and off manually until they decide to sprout.  Now I know how the mother hen feels when sitting on her eggs.