Archives for posts with tag: freezing temperatures

A funny thing happened to our tomato plants as the growing season started to wind down for the year. They went berserk!

Usually, production of new fruit diminishes at this time of year. Fewer flowers blossom and once the weather gets colder, the pollinators stop visiting them. The fruit that remains ripens only slowly, if at all (often, it doesn’t).

But this year, the number of blossoms has actually increased as we have moved later into the fall. And, apparently, the bees haven’t packed it in yet. Most of the blossoms have been pollinated and many fruits have set.

This is particularly true of the Black Cherry tomatoes. All of the remaining branches are supporting multiple clusters of dozens of tomatoes. Most of them are green but each cluster includes a handful that are starting to turn red.

With no signs of frost in the short-term forecast, it looks like we’ll be eating tomatoes at Thanksgiving!

As noted on their license plates, the State of Maine is known as Vacationland. And now I know why.

Rachel and I have driven up to Rockport for the weekend (we’re mixing Rachel’s business and our vacation) and have discovered that the Maine coast is just one big family resort. The woods and forests are pristine, the coastline long and scraggly, and the air is clear and fresh. There are also some good restaurants here (lobster, anyone?).

But, most of all, the climate is perfect. Here we are in the middle of August—the summer’s peak, really—and the midday temperature is in the mid-70s. That’s warm enough to wear shorts and a tee shirt with no worry of overheating. It might be as humid as it is at home (that would be due to the proximity of the ocean) but it’s so moderate in temperature that it feels comfortable.

In short, the weather is perfect for spending the entire day outdoors. Anything that can be done outside is at its best when done here: Hiking, boating, swimming, cycling…

…and gardening.

It turns out that there are many lush gardens in Maine. Most of the houses we’ve seen have a plot of vegetables or flowers—or both—in their yards. And a garden center near our hotel is one of the biggest I’ve seen anywhere, with an astonishingly diverse assortment of growing things. Who would have expected it?

Not me. I always thought that with its short growing season and cold, icy winters that Maine would not be ideal for gardening. The climate (I figured) might be suitable for evergreens and chrysanthemums but not tomatoes.

What I failed to consider is that although the growing season may be short, the growing day is long. Sixteen hours of sunlight per day, it appears, more than makes up for the loss of May and September.

This year, I am determined not to lose the battle against powdery mildew.

It’s probably a futile goal—quixotic, really—because we have suffered it every year that we’ve kept the vegetable garden, starting in 2011. Spores of Erysiphe cichoracearum, the fungus responsible for powdery mildew in cucurbits, are present, brought here from elsewhere by the wind (most likely) or by spontaneous manifestation (not likely but it is easy to understand why people once believed in it).

Sadly, the fungus is well-suited to survival and produces resting spores called chasmothecia (all of this is according to the folks at UC Davis; see “UC IPM Online”) that can—and do—resist the freezing weather that kills off weaker organism over winter. The only way to eradicate it is with fungicide, the most effective of which I have no interest in using.

No, eradication is not the answer; management is. And the key to management of powdery mildew is anticipation and early detection. It will appear—that’s inevitable—so I must be ready for it. And that means starting to spray the leaves of the cucurbits, which in our garden are the cucumbers and squash, with a preventative solution and starting to spray them now.

Last year, I found a good recipe on Late Bloomer’s website (see “Late Bloomer – National Heirloom Expo 2013 – Episode 36”; there is other interesting stuff there) and I mixed up a batch today. It’s a simple concoction of water, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and dish detergent (which I suspect is there to help the solution adhere to the plant).

I made a loop through the garden this afternoon, spraying each cucumber and squash leaf as I passed. My intuition tells me that spraying while the garden is in direct sunlight is preferable because the sun will evaporate the water, leaving the NaHCO3 and H2O2 (I have no idea what is the chemical formula for dish detergent but it’s probably too long to fit) behind to coat the leaves and inhibit fungal growth.

For the remainder of the season, especially in the fall when the humidity of summer remains but the nights are cooler, I will have to re-spray on a weekly (or so) basis.

Maybe I can’t win the battle but perhaps if I am diligent, I (and the cucurbits) won’t be routed.

We were under a Frost Advisory last night. That’s the warmest of the cold-weather cautionary notices issued by the National Weather Service. It indicates that temperatures may drop into the range of 36 to 33 degrees over the duration of the advisory.

Was there any real threat? No. The overnight low forecast for our area was in the upper 30s, at the upper end of the advisory scale. Frost was possible, especially at daybreak, but not very likely to occur.

Did I cover the garden anyway? Yes. Even as the likelihood of frost or freezing temperatures diminishes, the consequences of their occurrence increases. The farther along the vegetables are, the more exposed they are to damage. Also, the later in the growing season that damage occurs, the larger the investment (of time, energy, materials) that is lost.

It’s a good example of risk analysis. Moderate likelihood multiplied by high consequences produces moderate risk which can be mitigated with low cost (throwing plastic sheeting over the planters is easy, provided I get the warning in time). Overall, the risk to the garden is low.

The temperature did drop into the 30s overnight but there was no frost this morning nor signs that anything froze. It has gotten very easy to throw the plastic tarp over the planters so “better safe than sorry” is my philosophy.

Timing remains critical, however. I must wait until the sun has set (or is about to set) before placing the black plastic sheeting over the planter and in the morning, I need to get outside early and remove it before the sun’s rays fall directly onto the garden. Otherwise, the planter would become a solar oven and in no time, we would have roasted beets and carrots.

We’re leaving on a road trip tomorrow which motivated me to do more potting up this afternoon. The basil was ready to go—the seedlings are about three inches in height—but the other herbs are coming along much more slowly. The rosemary is growing at a particularly leisurely pace. Despite three months under the lights and over a heating pad, the seedlings are still mere wisps with only a few leaves each. I potted them up anyway, along with the sage, oregano, thyme and spearmint.

I also moved the eggplant and red bell peppers into pots. Like the planting before it, the second try at orange bell peppers yielded no seedlings. Clearly, this lot of seeds has lost its viability—and much sooner than expected. In general, the germination rates of last year’s seeds are very low, leading me to conclude that saving seeds is probably not worthwhile after all.

To wrap up the potting, I transplanted the second batch of lettuce heads into another pair of window boxes. This presented me with a storage problem because although I can fit two drainage trays onto each shelf of the seed-starting apparatus, there isn’t enough room in a tray for two of these larger planters.

So I ditched the trays and doubled up on the window boxes. The boxes that contain the soil and lettuce have their drainage plugs removed while the boxes into which they are nested do not. The lower boxes act as water catchment devices without taking up much more space than single planters. And even better, four of the compact units fit crosswise on a shelf. I may have figured out how to have fresh lettuce year ‘round.

You can tell that we’ve finally passed the point at which cold nights can be expected; there is a freeze watch in effect for tonight. I’m not too worried—the National Weather Service does not actually predict sub-freezing temperatures—but I will cover the east planter with black plastic sheeting just to be safe.

The radishes, always first off the starting block, made their appearance three days ago and the Sugar Snap peas, not to be left behind, started to peek out from the soil a day later. There are now seedlings to protect and the root vegetables are particularly susceptible.

With the trellis in place, I cannot fully cover the peas, but I don’t think it is necessary. The pea shoots are quite hardy and even without completely enclosing the planter, the sheeting will capture the heat that the garden acquired during the day.

I wonder what date the National Weather Service uses for last frost in our area? I conservatively use May 5, which has a 90 percent confidence level (i.e., there is only a 10 percent chance that the temperature will fall below freezing). Apparently, the NWS uses an earlier date.

I suspect that they use a lower confidence level, probably at a 50 percent chance of exceedance. Their date—whatever it might be—is less conservative from a freezing temperatures point of view but more conservative from a freeze warning point of view (i.e., its use will likely generate more warnings). Given that the NWS is in the business of forecasting the weather and not gardening, this makes perfect sense.

Mother Nature continues to be a bit confused about what season it is.

After a glorious weekend when temperatures reached through the 70s and into the 80s, we awoke this morning to a one-inch-thick layer of snow and ice which fell overnight.

Like the winter storms before it, the snowfall cloaked the still-leafless trees in a shroud of white. It has been long enough since the last one that I can again appreciate the beauty.

Sadly, however, I could not escape the need to sweep the walk and scrape the cars, tasks made more difficult by the persistent cold temperatures. That I do not appreciate. Nonetheless, it is forecast that the day will warm to above freezing and the snow should soon melt.

The planters are also blanketed by snow but I’m not worried about the seeds we planted on Sunday (see April 13, 2014). Probably nothing much has happened beneath the soil’s surface. The seeds will pause whatever they were doing and will resume when the soil heats up again. In effect, it will be as if the seeds were planted today.

So, the melting has begun.  It is going slower than I expected, mainly because it remains very cold.  Even on a day as warm as today—with a high in the 50s expected—the snow only melts at the fringes of the still-covered areas, where solar radiation heats the pavement, or roof shingles, or exposed rocks, and the heat absorbed slowly conducts its way under the snow (snowpack melts mainly from its underside).  The few warms days we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy have been bracketed by nights with temperatures in the 10s and 20s.

As the drifts recede and the heaps shrink, the world is expanding again.  A month ago at the height (literally) of the season, we were hemmed in by a thick blanket of snow and the towering moraines left by snowplows and shovels.  Our narrow dirt road, constricted at the best of times, became truly one lane; passing a car in the other direction was tricky.  Simply walking around the house was impossible.  It was not necessarily an uncomfortable constraint—the minimized outdoor world was cozy in the way that a small room can be, or as cozy as snow can be, anyway—but it was very limiting.

Now the road is back to its normal width.  The stone walls that border it are again visible, as are the rocks that have fallen from them here or there.  Mileposts, “for sale” signs, political posters—most things shorter than four feet in height—have emerged from hiding even if they are somewhat the worse for wear, having been shoved around by unknowing snowplow drivers.  Indistinct white lumps in the lawn or on the patio have morphed back into landscaping boulders, chaise longues, and charcoal grills.  In the distance, the hills have lost their understory of white and the bare trees, once standing out in sharp contrast to the snow, have faded into a uniform brown background (we have few evergreen trees around here).

In short, the accessible environment is returning to its normal state.  Time to embrace the great outdoors again!

Faith is one thing (see February 19, 2014) but important as it is, it is not always enough.

We sowed seeds for basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, spearmint and sage at the end of January (see January 28, 2014) and within a week, some of the basil and rosemary seeds germinated (that’s the faith part).  They are slowly making progress and soon will be ready for potting up.

However, as of today—more than a month after sowing—none of the other seeds have germinated (that’s the not enough part).  It is possible, of course, that this winter’s extreme cold has slowed the growth cycle or that the other herbs are simply taking their sweet time making it out into the cool air (or maybe it is both; I know how I feel about getting out of bed in the morning this time of year).

We’ll keep the faith but we will also plant another batch of seeds.  It is my hope that by the time warmer weather arrives, we will have seedlings of all six herb varieties.  To increase our chances of that, we will buy new seeds.

This gave us a good opportunity to return to Adams Fairacre Farms to browse the extensive collection of seeds on display in their garden center.  Each company represented there offers a wide selection of vegetable and flower seeds and all of them have a small collection of kitchen herbs.

Walking through the six-foot-high racks of seed packets was like strolling through an art museum.  Seed companies seem to put a lot of emphasis on the design of their packaging and many of them opt for finely-detailed drawings of the mature plants, reminiscent of vintage botanical prints (and for all I know, some of them are vintage botanical prints).

Uncharacteristically, I did not do any prior research into which seed company might be better or worse than another and so we had no rational criteria with which to judge the different brands.  Instead, we picked one herb each from four different producers.  By almost random assignment, we ended up with French thyme from Renee’s Gardens, Greek oregano from Seed Savers Exchange, spearmint from Livingston Seed Co. and broadleaf sage from Botanical Interests.

Back home with the original seed tray, we sowed seeds into the same compartments as in January.  Assuming a similar number of days to germination—usually 14 to 21; only one or two packets provide this information—we should have seedlings by the end of the month.  Of course, strictly speaking we will not know whether they germinated from the seeds planted today or those sowed a month ago (even though the latter would seem unlikely).

While we were at it (seed sowing, that is), we planted another row of romaine and red leaf lettuce seeds.  And that’s when our continued faith was rewarded.  Next to the seedlings that sprouted about two weeks ago were a few new seedlings, only just peeking through the soil surface.

Speaking of lettuce (see February 7, 2014), a quick consult of the seed sowing calendar reveals that now is the time to sow lettuce seeds for non-transplanted growing.  (The nice thing about the seed sowing calendar I developed last year is that it is relative to the assumed average date of last frost, which is essentially unchanging; see March 23, 2013.  Therefore, last year’s calendar will be just as accurate this year.)  By “non-transplanted”, I mean that we will start the seedlings indoors and then pot them up to larger containers that can be moved outdoors when the warmer weather catches up to us.

At a certain level, it seems unbelievable that we would be even thinking about planting something as delicate as lettuce at this time of year.  Especially this year:  Temperatures have been in the single digits and snowstorms are weekly events.  There is no feeling (I don’t feel it, anyway) that the wintery weather will be changing anytime soon.  And yet, we are approaching mid-February and in two weeks it will be March.  By my reckoning (see June 25, 2013), that’s the beginning of spring!  And what says spring more than fresh lettuce?

To get the lettuce plants started, I followed the same process as I did for the herbs (see January 28, 2014).  I mixed up a batch of seed starting mix (peat moss, vermiculite and perlite in a 2:1:1 ratio with a teaspoon of lime), moistened it with water and filled half of a compartmentalized seed tray.  I then planted six of the compartments with seeds for romaine lettuce and six with red leaf.  In a couple of weeks, I will plant another six of each variety followed by a final six of each two weeks after that (a half-tray has 36 compartments.

Assuming the lettuce seeds are still viable (and they should be; the seed packet indicates an average life of two years and they have been stored properly), they will sprout in seven to 12 days.  They’ll need a couple of weeks to get large enough to transplant and then four to six weeks to reach full size.  If the lettuce plants last that long (we may start eating them earlier), it will be some time in the middle of April.  Therefore, it is unlikely that the first batch will spend any time outdoors.  But the second and third sowings probably will.

I moved the half-tray of lettuce seeds onto the seed starting apparatus where it joined the herbs, already in progress.  They haven’t changed at all—their status is holding at four basil seedlings and two presumed rosemary seedlings—but I’m not worried yet (well, not too worried).  Herbs are notoriously slow to germinate (which is why we started them in January).

Up next, per the seed sowing calendar:  Bell peppers and eggplant in the first week of March.