Archives for posts with tag: harbingers of spring

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.

When a pirate buries his treasure, it is not for forever; he expects to come back for it. It may take some time before he can return—there are many ships to rob and his own vessel’s speed is limited by the winds—so it is important that he prepare for an almost inevitable occurrence: that he will forget where he buried for it.

How does he prevent that from happening? Well, the organized pirate makes a treasure map.

And not just any treasure map. If the pirate is also clever (and if he is alive, he most certainly is; most dumb pirates will quickly end up dead), he will incorporate some sort of code into his map. That way, if it falls into enemy hands (a competing raider’s, say), the location of the chest of gold (or what have you) will not be immediately revealed. In the time it takes to decipher it, the original pirate can track down the thief (who, most unfortunately, will probably end up walking the plank) and reclaim his map.

Even for non-pirates, making a secret map to protect one’s buried treasure is a pretty good idea. Except for certain buried treasures.

I’m talking, of course, about flowering bulbs.

When I bury a chestful of these little golden orbs, I want to forget where I left them. One of the greatest joys of planting bulbs is the exhilarating jolt of surprise when the blossoms are first sighted in late winter or early spring, usually pushing through a crust of snow. Having a map that gives their locations away would spoil half of the fun, for me anyway.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I want to leave my buried treasures susceptible to theft. If I thought it would help prevent the squirrels from stealing my precious stash, I would employ the most enigmatic map I could devise.

And if I still caught them plundering my treasure?

Arrgh! I would send those marauding squirrels to Davy Jones’ Locker!

We spent a few hours yesterday (before heading up to Stonecrop Gardens; see March 22, 2014) and again today, cleaning up the ornamental gardens. Saturday’s session was particularly enjoyable because the temperature quickly rose into the 50s. One or two dark clouds passed by, trailing a sprinkle of light rain, but otherwise it was sunny and warm.

Today was a different story as the weather returned to a more wintery state, including a chilling wind.

We cleared away the scruffy remnants of the Russian sage, penstemon (a variety of foxglove), black-eyed Susans, Siberian irises, and hostas. In the main ornamental garden beds, Rachel pruned the hibiscus (we have three) and some young lilacs. Together, we tackled the Japanese maple, a gift from the mason (and natural gardener) who constructed our stone walls and stairs.

We’ve been putting this off for a few years now and I hope that we did not wait too long. The maple had grown taller than we wanted, more upward than outward, and was threatening to obstruct the view from the patio that overlooks it. We clipped its upper branches and the skyward pointing portions of its perimeter branches. It looks a bit awkward now (most things do immediately after pruning) but its appearance should improve once the leaves sprout.

Up front in the hosta beds, we had a bit more work to do. I’m not sure when we last weeded this area (mid-summer, perhaps?) but it was in dire need of it today, especially the bed to the left of the stone staircase that leads from our front yard up to the labyrinth. The grade is steep here and the plantings a mixed bag. We’ve been slowly making a transition to flowering bulbs and groundcovers such as sedum and lily of the valley but mostly, the plants here are unwanted—weeds, by definition—and we removed many of them.

Weeding is very satisfying—the difference between before and after can be striking—but it is also back-breaking. After two hours in the bracing cold we were worn out. The ornamental beds are now clear of old growth and we were heartened by the signs of spring—snowdrops and crocuses at long last!—that are slowly emerging.

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.

Well, according to the seed sowing calendar, gardening tradition and conventional wisdom, St. Patrick’s Day is the time to sow the first seeds outdoors.  And not just any seeds:  today is the day to plant peas.

I fully embrace this idea.  It encourages a return to the outdoor garden.  It emphasizes the idea of rebirth and reawakening that is consistent with spring at its most conceptual.  And it involves (for us) sugar snap peas, one of my favorite vegetables, both to grow and to eat.  As an added bonus, it turns out that early sowing during the cusp season between the deep of winter and the peak of spring is actually good for the plants.

Cold weather (and it is usually cold in March) means that the pea shoots will grow slowly.  The restrained growth combined with the accompanying stress results in stronger leaves and stems (although too much stress is problematic; like any other plant, peas must be protected from freezing).  When planted in warm weather, peas can grow too quickly and weakly.  Worse, the period during which the peas are sweetest—fleeting at best—is even shorter.

Sadly, for the second year in a row, conditions will not allow us to sow any seeds outdoors today.  The garden beds, although again fully visible (see February 14, 2014 for a photo of when they were not), are still surrounded by a deep layer of snow.  The soil surface is overlain by a thick blanket of ice.  Preparing the garden in spring might involve turning soil but it should not include shoveling snow.

So, nothing going on outside.

What about inside?  All of the herbs have sprouted (the new seeds yielded seedlings about a week ago).  The second round of lettuce seeds have also started to germinate while the gangly lettuce seedlings from a month ago are almost ready to pot up (the taller ones were pushing up on the cover of their tray so I removed it).  The eggplant and bell peppers, seeded last week, should pop up any day now.

It’s more than enough to keep me going until the weather warms up.

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!

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.

On our drive over to the Home Depot this afternoon, we noticed a change in the quality of the sunlight:  it is brighter, more direct, and feels much warmer when it falls on our faces and shines in our eyes.  The sun has worked its way, slowly but steadily, higher into the late-winter sky.  We have turned the corner on winter and spring is coming.

Another way to tell that spring is imminent is to visit a garden center (and if it is open, that is the first good omen).  At the Home Depot, seeds have been on display near the main entrance for a few weeks but now they are expanding their selection and moving them into the garden department.  Workers are clearing away the remnants of winter merchandise (snow blowers, ice-melting salt and the like; good luck to anyone who still needs a snow shovel) and making room for seed trays, potting soil and amendments, planters, seedlings and other garden paraphernalia.  The outdoor showroom, stocked only with snow during the winter months, is starting to fill up.

We are here on a quest to acquire the components of our seed starting apparatus (see February 10, 2013).  The first item on our shopping list is the heavy-duty, 4-shelf plastic storage unit that will provide the supporting structure, and it is proving to be elusive.  We started at the Home Depot branch nearest our home but although both the website and in-store computer showed one remaining in their inventory, they could not find it (it was probably a display model).

The Home Depot website indicated that nine shelving units were in stock at the next store up the road.  But they couldn’t find them either.  It turns out that this shelf is not in their usual inventory but had been carried only for a winter storage promotion (not a bad post-Christmas concept).  Coincidentally—or call it bad luck—the promotion ended last week and just this morning, the staff had removed the display from the floor.  The customer service representative assisting us was not sure whether the nine shelving units existed in reality or were only figments of the computer’s imagination.

Either way, we had to make an adjustment to our design.  Back in the storage department, we looked at every other shelving unit that the Home Depot had to offer.  There was very little in the middle ground—most were too flimsy or too fancy—but the choice was obvious:  a five-shelf unit of the same make and design as the four-shelf unit we originally wanted.  My only objection was price (almost twice as expensive for that one extra shelf!).  After considering it further, however, we decided that it is actually an improvement.  We will use the upper shelves for starting seeds—with less bending over—and use the lower one for storage.

We moved next to the lighting department and found the fixtures we wanted with much less difficultly (although for future visits, I will note SKU numbers rather than manufacturers’ model numbers which are harder to find).  Before leaving this section, we remembered to get a 10-pack of bulbs (which are not included with the fixtures).

We had planned to start the seeds in simple trays but could not find them anywhere (once again the online inventory did not seem to match the store’s).  What we did find were a variety of compartmentalized trays, with and without planting medium.  Those that included soil employed pellets or disks of compressed soil which expand upon moistening.  We had to make another change.

After probably too much consideration (okay, we looked at absolutely every product), we chose trays with 72 small cells, each with a drainage hole.  The trays come with separate pans to collect water and clear covers to retain moisture and heat.  We had planned to put the trays in clear plastic bags and had not even thought about how we would deal with drainage, so this is a definite improvement over our initial design.

The trays did not come with planting medium so we purchased it separately.  I had calculated we would need 2 cu. ft. of soil for the simple trays but with the compartments we can probably get by with half of that.  One cubic foot is about 8 gallons or 32 quarts.  The soil is packaged in 10 quart bags so we bought three (close enough).  We also picked up a package of row markers (these will be very important once we sow the seeds) and a spray bottle.

The last item on the list (my mental one; I never wrote it down) was a package of small S-hooks.  We will need these to hang the light fixtures from the shelves.  This led us to one of my favorite places in the world:  the hardware aisle.  The walls are covered with hundreds of tiny plastic packages of fasteners of every sort and I usually find myself happily distracted by the variety.  I could probably spend hours here and indeed it took a while to find the hooks we were looking for.  Finally, Rachel spotted them and we headed to the check-out.

As we loaded everything into the car, we both felt intense excitement for the upcoming growing season.

With a big snowstorm approaching, we sat down with the seed catalogs today to continue—in a much more concrete way—our planning for the upcoming growing season.  We intend to start just about everything from seed this year and having made that decision, our options are much, much wider than they were last year.

Instead of being limited to the seedlings at our farmers’ market or garden center, we can choose from scores of different varieties of each type of plant.  And given the number of seed catalogs out there, the possibilities are practically unlimited (or let’s just say that they are only limited by our time and patience).

We wiled away an hour or two flipping through the pages of the John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog, trying to keep in mind what vegetables we actually eat (as opposed to what sounds interesting) and what our experience was last year.  When we had gone through every page, here is what we picked:

  • Sugar Ann Snap Peas
  • Amethyst Purple Filet Bean
  • Roma II Bush Beans
  • Black Opal Eggplant
  • Rainbow Carrot Mixture (Atomic Red, Purple Dragon, Red Samurai, Royal Chantenay, Snow White and Yellowstone varieties)
  • Tanja Slicing Cucumbers
  • Alibi Pickling Cucumbers
  • Gourmet Rainbow Radish Mixture (Flamboyant French Breakfast, Feugo, Hailstone, Helios Yellow, Pink Celebration, Plum Purple, Roodkapje and White Icicle)
  • Jericho Romaine Lettuce
  • Red Salad Bowl Loose-Leaf Lettuce
  • Chioggia Beets
  • Touchstone Gold Beets
  • White Lady Turnips
  • Cavili Zucchini
  • Supersett Yellow Crookneck Summer Squash
  • Country Taste Beefsteak Tomatoes
  • Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomatoes
  • Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Yellow Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Sungold Cherry Tomatoes
  • Black Cherry Tomatoes
  • Naguri Kabocha-Type Squash
  • Zeppelin Delicata Squash
  • Quadrato d’Asti Rosso Bell Peppers
  • Orange Sun Bell Peppers

Listed longhand like that, it seems like a lot of different vegetables.  However, there are only two more different types of vegetable than we had last year (the carrots and turnips).  Of these, the tomato, cucumber, eggplant and bell pepper seeds should be started indoors (and soon!).  Seeds for the rest can be sown directly in the garden, starting in early April.

We are also considering a few vegetables that we have never grown before but think might be manageable (and that we would actually eat):  Asparagus, Broccoli, Cauliflower and Bean Sprouts.  We can wait to start broccoli and cauliflower until mid-summer while beans can be sprouted indoors, anytime.

Asparagus would be a lot of fun to grow (and it will grow here; we have seen it at Stonecrop Gardens).  And yet, it would be a long-term commitment as it must be grown in a protected spot its first year and then given several seasons to reach harvestable production.  But it would be worth it to have this harbinger of spring growing in our own garden.

Our goal is to get the seed trays, lighting, heat (if needed), etc., prepared by the end of the month so that we can start sowing—and watering and lighting—at the beginning of March.  This will give us at least two months of indoor growing before transplanting the seedlings outdoors in May.