Archives for posts with tag: growing season

[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.

Over breakfast this morning, we discussed a few ideas for the next growing season. It’ll be here sooner than we think.

First, we’ll move the peas and beans to the fence. We have two trellises now and rather than let one lie fallow (as we did this past season), we’ll plant one trellis with cucumbers and the other with legumes. We sow the peas and beans directly into the ground (as opposed to starting them inside, as we do the cucumbers) and I am pretty sure that there will be enough sun to germinate the seeds.

Second, we’ll plant the tomatoes in the ground only, not in a raised bed. I’m a bit surprised that we came to this conclusion because I was sure that the tomatoes in the planter would do better than those in the ground, mainly due to the soil being older and more conditioned in the planters (see June 8, 2014, part 2). Perhaps it was Murphy’s Law or maybe our tomatoes were contrarian by nature, but the vines in the ground grew fuller and produced more fruit. Go figure.

Planting only in the ground will mean fewer tomato plants—and, possibly, fewer tomatoes—but each plant will have more space. And because there will be no tomato plants in the raised beds, we’ll also have more room there to plant other things.

Which leads me to the third idea for next season: garlic. And now is not too soon to be thinking about it.

Because it turns out that garlic wants to vernalize—to spend a winter in the ground before sprouting in the spring. That means it needs to be planted now. Back in November, we purchased two heads of seed garlic (one hard stem, one soft) from one of our favorite market farmers, Jay. (By the way, seed garlic is no different from the garlic we eat as long as it has not been grown with any chemicals to prevent it from sprouting.)

Jay mentioned that he always waits until it is cold enough to make his fingers hurt to plant the garlic (and his garlic is always beautiful so he must be on to something). Today fits the bill, weather-wise, and I went out to plant. I first had to prepare a spot for it in the southwest corner of the west planter. I cleaned up the old mulch and fallen leaves, pulled a few weeds, added a topping of fresh compost, and raked it smooth.

I broke up the heads of garlic and picked the best cloves of each type. Perhaps we waited a bit too long; some of the cloves were starting to dry out. Still, I was able to get eight soft neck and four hard neck cloves and dropped them in one-inch-deep holes (root end down, pointy end up).

I covered the area with fresh mulch and gave it a good watering. If all goes well, we should see sprouts (also called scapes) in early spring.

There gets to be a point when it is just weird to still have vegetables growing in the garden.

I mean, it’s November already. My thoughts are turning to Thanksgiving—only a few weeks away—and its menu of turkey, gravy, and stuffing. Tomatoes and bell peppers seem completely out of place.

And, of course, there is the weather. It was warm much later than usual this year but it has finally turned cold and frost will be here soon. It’s time to clear things out.

Thanks to the late fall and the crazy growth that came with it (see October 17, 2014), we have many green tomatoes. There are probably as many green cherry tomatoes now as there were red and yellow cherry tomatoes in the entire season up till now. I’m not exaggerating.

And I’m not complaining, either.

I didn’t think that tomato plants were susceptible to powdery mildew. At least, I have never seen the fuzzy white spores on any of our vines.

But one of the Country Taste Beefsteak tomato plants has developed the affliction and it is rapidly spreading. Fortunately, the vine had all but stopped producing so there will be very little loss as a result.

I guess this is the downside to this year’s late growing season (and next year, the tomatoes will get the baking soda spray).

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!

Here’s what we’re up against this time of year. In the late morning, just before noon, the sun is near its zenith. Any yet, the shadows of the trees to the south of the garden are tickling the feet of the tomatoes and eggplants as they pass by.

In a few weeks, the shadows will be patting the nightshades on the head, like a visiting uncle does his nieces and nephews, looming over the children and shielding them from the light. The kids love their uncle but are a bit relieved when he moves on.

Lengthening shadows are one of the difficulties of cusp season gardening. The already short day is further reduced by obstructions to the sun’s lower inclination. Fall is upon us.

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.

One vegetable dies, another takes its place.

One plant germinates, sprouts its tiny stems, spreads its leaves, grows larger, offers its colorful blossoms to eager pollinators, sets fruit, and then gradually, or sometimes quickly, puts forth a bounty of shiny produce to the gardener who tended it.

And then, more quickly, the plant fades away, its produce picked and its energy spent. No more pretty flowers or tasty vegetables. Most plants simply wither away at this point although biennials will contentedly continue to absorb and store energy for their flowering the second year (not having flowered or produced seed in the first).

Depending on the time of year and the climate, that leaves a vacancy in the garden, a void that would be wasted if left unfilled. If it is early enough in the summer and the first frost is not expected until late fall, there is plenty of time for a fast-growing vegetable—radishes are a good example—to repeat the cycle of life and death before winter descends.

That’s how succession gardening is supposed to work, anyway.

In the best planned garden, there is more to it than squeezing a second round of produce into the growing season. With careful selection of the first vegetable planted, when it is through the soil will be well prepared (even if depleted in some respects) for the plant that follows it. Likewise, the second vegetable, if chosen with thought, will leave the soil ready for what is sowed the next spring. This process can be stretched out over multiple seasons in what becomes long-term crop rotation (see May 18, 2014).

Theoretically, we follow this approach. In practice, we do the best we can. I’ve already described our crop rotation strategy (see May 4, 2014) and for succession planting, we do multiple sowings of root vegetables, including two or three early in the season and one late in the season, for which we are about due.

We also planted a mid-season replacement for the Sugar Snap peas, the last of which we harvested this morning. There were still plenty of peas but production had slowed and the leaves had begun to turn yellow. New growth had appeared at the base of several vines and I was tempted to wait to see whether it would bear fruit. But wanting to move on, we pulled them out.

In their place we sowed string beans. We planted the same varieties as last year—Amethyst Purple and Roma II—knowing that they are fast-growing and prolific (assuming the seeds are still viable, of course). I don’t know whether string beans are a good successor to peas in terms of soil conditioning but I do know that they are the only other vegetable we grow that needs trellising.

Also, I love to eat them.

I’m tempted to say that we are much farther behind in the growing season this year than we were at this point in the last. The weather has been substantially cooler this spring, especially at night. Everybody—humans and plants, alike—seems to be moving in slow motion. The motor is running but the engine is cold.

However, looking back at photos and notes from mid-May, 2013, I find that we are not as far back as it feels. We have sowed the seeds for everything that we planned to start indoors and almost all have germinated and sprouted. The only exception is the Yellow Belle peppers with which we truly got a late start (after three failures of the Orange Sun seeds) and which are typically slow to germinate.

Also, we have already advanced most of the seedlings from their seed trays to larger plastic pots. Again, an exception is the Yellow Belle peppers but so are the pattypan squash and Early Fortune cucumbers. All of these were late additions to the garden lineup—and not because of the weather. Presumably, the failure of last year’s seeds to germinate was independent of what was going on outside.

More significantly, perhaps, the transplanted seedlings are taller and fuller than their 2013 counterparts. This is probably because despite the colder weather this year, we started the indoor planting earlier. We sowed seeds for herbs in January (even if only a few germinated) and again in early March. At about the same time, we seeded eggplant and peppers and in February, we planted lettuce. In 2013, we had not done any indoor planting until the end of March.

Oh, and we’ve already started eating lettuce, which had only just been planted in May of last year.

Where we have truly lagged, though, is in our outdoor plantings. Our goal had been St. Patrick’s Day; we settled for mid-April. The combination of lingering snow, travelling and (to be honest) procrastination pushed the peas, carrots, radishes, turnips and beets a month later than we would have preferred. Additional travel and additional procrastination (I can’t blame the snow this time) have also affected second plantings, which have yet to occur.

Oddly, though, everything we have planted outdoors looks to be as far along in growth as earlier plantings were at this time last year (we didn’t meet the St. Patrick’s Day deadline then, either, but had sowed seeds by the end of March). Apparently, the conventional wisdom holds true that plants will grow into their season regardless of the weather.

It’s a reassuring revelation that even if the engine starts cold, it will still get us to our destination on time.

One of the ways I know that spring has arrived is that for the next few weeks, the sun will shine directly through my office windows. With no leaves on the trees to filter it, the bright light makes it difficult to see the screen of my computer but the solar heat on my face feels great.

Another indicator that spring fever has hit is my desire to get out into the garden and start doing something. The draw is getting stronger every day as more snow melts to reveal another task that needs attending to. This was a rough and stormy winter and consequently, the yard is in disarray. Order must be restored! In other words, it is time for spring cleaning.

Most of our work over the next week or two will be in the ornamental gardens. We don’t do a lot of cutting back in the fall—usually, only enough to facilitate leaf removal. In particular, we leave the black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes in their bare-branched state to provide decoration and keep the garden from looking too empty. It is pretty, especially against the neutral background of winter white (i.e., snow), but as a result, the gardens are filled with dead wood.

To make matters worse, heavy snow came early this year and buried some of the plants we might otherwise have tidied up in the fall. These include the hostas, Siberian and bearded irises, and day lilies. In other years when we have left them, the faded leaves look crumpled and haggard by spring; this year, being crushed by snow for three months has done nothing to improve their appearance.

The first order of business, then, will be to trim everything back to make room for new growth. Clearing away last year’s detritus will also allow the sun’s warmth to activate the bulbs and rhizomes that have been lying dormant since the fall. In fact, small, spiky leaves are already poking up amongst the matted clumps of spent bearded iris leaves and I spy, with my little eye, a crocus peeking out through the cloud of desiccated Russian sage bushes.

I have some reservations about jumping back into it. Yard work is physically demanding and can be overwhelming (it sometimes feels as if the entire world needs tidying up after winter). But I know that it will also be immensely satisfying, a literal cleaning of the slate as we start the new gardening year.