Archives for posts with tag: hardening off

Two of this year’s late additions to the garden—Tricolor Pattypan squash and Early Fortune cucumbers—have been racing to catch up to their cousins. The latecomers were planted at the beginning of the month (see May 9, 2014) while the Cavili zucchini, Supersett Yellow Crookneck squash, Alibi Pickling cornichons, and Tanja slicing cucumber seeds were sowed two months earlier. That’s a lot of time to make up.

However, it looks like they are up to the task. Most of the seedlings are already four inches in height; one the of the pattypan squash plants is twice as high. I potted them up as I was sure that their roots had run out of space in the compartments of the seed tray.

When transplanting the pattypans, I carefully labeled each seedling’s plastic pot with the color of the seed that produced it. Eventually, I will determine which seed—red, green or buff—produced yellow, white or green squashes.

The only stragglers now are the Yellow Belle peppers. They have yet to unfurl their first pairs of true leaves and remain somewhat dainty, in contrast to the brash squash and the more decorous but still exuberant cucumbers. They are not ready to be potted up. In fact, they do not appear to be in any rush to do anything.

Meanwhile, all of the other seedlings have been enjoying their daily trips to the back porch where they absorb a moderate dose of solar energy and respire the fresh air (I would say breath, but a plant’s process is the opposite of ours). I’m glad, too, that they are going indoors at night. Even though it is Memorial Day—the traditional start of the summer season—lows remain in the 40s. We’ll not be setting the seedlings out anytime soon.

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It has finally gotten warm enough—reliably—to start hardening off the seedlings. I set them out on the back porch today for the first of what should be about three weeks’ worth of visits to the wild outdoors before permanently moving there.

They’ll start in the shade, exposed only to the soft breezes of spring and the open air, whose temperature fluctuates much more than the closed atmosphere inside the basement. Eventually, I’ll move them into the direct sunshine where they will grow accustomed to the intense light and energy of the sun.

As we dug in the east planter—the first planter we built, two years ago—I noticed that the soil has achieved a dense, solid feel and attained a deep, dark color.  It is almost black, like the soil we saw in the Black Dirt Region of New York, near Pine Island (see October 1, 2011).  At just over two years of age, the soil in this planter is still very young and it is heartening to see that it is improving.  Hopefully, we will see more rapid improvement than our farmer friend, Jay (see June 9, 2012), who waited eight years before he was satisfied with his soil.

Also, after finishing up in the east planter, we decided that the seedlings that have not been transplanted (and which we still hope to give away) need not go back inside the house at the end of the day.  After all, had they made the cut (or had we had the space) and been relocated in the garden, they would be spending their first night outside tonight anyway.  We’ll leave them on the back porch until their foster parents (whomever they turn out to be) retrieve them.  The indoor growing apparatus has thus gone dark for the year (and looked a bit lonely).

Saturday was a washout (it rained all day) and yesterday, we spent our time expanding the west end of the garden (see May 26, 2013).  Today it is time to plant!

To start, we installed the tomato cages across north side of the east planter.  In each of the last two years, we added stakes late in the season to stabilize the cages against the unbalanced forces of unruly tomato vines.  Recognizing the inevitability of this step, this year we did it right from the beginning.

For each variety of tomato, we chose the two best specimens (even after having given some away, we had several to choose from), dug a deep hole on either side of a cage, and buried the seedlings and their root balls up to the first set of true leaves.  The buried portion of the stems will produce roots and help firmly establish the plant in the soil.  In prior years, I have relied on my memory to keep the location of the different tomato varieties straight.  This year, I placed row markers against the stakes.

In the south center of the east planter, we formed two rows, staggered, for the eggplant and peppers.  We have room for eight plants and chose three Rosso bell peppers, three eggplant, and two orange bell peppers.  We have no need to identify these with row markers; their fruits will (eventually) identify them.

I read that that bell peppers like to be close to each other—to hold hands—so we placed them with only about a foot in between.  All will eventually need support for their main stems but being short on stakes, we will have to provide them later (they are not yet very tall so there is time).

In the remaining sextant (at the southeast corner), we laid out a relatively dense pattern of staggered rows for the basil.  We planted nine seedlings that had been hardened off (we gave away the others) and added five seedlings from indoors.  The latter had not been hardened off and they showed it with their droopy leaves (I would be disconsolate, too, if I had been kicked out of the house).  These seedlings are also smaller having never been potted up.

With that, the east planter is now full.  We gave all of the newly transplanted seedlings a drink of water (we’ll install soaker hoses later) along with a dose of fish emulsion.

For the most part, the seedlings are ready to be transplanted to the garden but could use a few more days of hardening off.  Today, I put them out into full-sun for a few hours and will continue to do so, increasing the duration every day until the upcoming weekend.

Another reason to wait longer before setting the seedlings out is that the temperature still gets down into the 40s at night.  We haven’t had any more frost advisories or freeze warnings so there would not be much risk to transplanting now but it would not be very productive, either.  The growth of most of the plants would be stunted by the cool temperatures.

This is not to say that the seedlings are not anxious to get outdoors permanently.  Most of them are getting too big for their plastic pots and some have sent roots out through the drainage holes looking for water.  The crookneck squashes are particularly impatient to get into the garden.  A few of them have already started to form female flowers, which can be identified by the tiny proto-fruit at their bases.

Once again, the odds are against us.  Last night, the National Weather Service issued a frost advisory and tonight, a freeze warning is in effect.  We are more than a week beyond the official last expected frost date but as noted before, that doesn’t mean that frost or freezing temperatures are impossible, just that they are unlikely.  This late in the season, it should be very unlikely.

Have we entered a period of unlikely occurrences?  If I had a jar filled with uncooked rice and beans, would the two be perfectly separated, one layered over the other?  [See The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde.]  Would now be a good time to travel into deep space?  [See The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.]  Should I run out and buy a Lotto ticket?

Last night, I covered the most delicate seedlings in the garden—the romaine and red leaf lettuces—and tonight I will do the same.  But with a greater risk of freezing temperatures, I will also cover the west planter.  I should be able to get black plastic sheeting over everything except the peas who extend well above the top of the planter (even if their trellis was not in the way).  They will have to tough it out.

Even during the day it is colder outside than it is indoors (just like winter!).  Therefore, I am suspending the hardening off.  It’ll be like a snow day except that everybody has to stay inside.

The tomato and squash seedlings that remain in the seed trays are getting too big (the basil, eggplant and pepper seedlings, on the other hand, are not quite big enough).  I think we will be giving some away so I decided to pot up the best specimens.  Following the same procedure as before (see May 4, 2013), I transplanted as many seedlings as would fit in the drainage trays.

Deciding which seedlings would live and which would not was difficult.  As the proud poppa, they all look beautiful to me!  I tried not to dwell on it, however, and made the decisions quickly.  I gave preference to the two types of cherry tomato (which should be easier for part-time gardeners to grow) and was prejudiced against the Brandywines, both red and yellow (which I understand are the most difficult).  When I was done, the compost pile (well, at the moment it’s a refuse heap) got the addition of some very nice organic matter.

While I was at work, everybody, whether in a seed tray or small pot, joined me outdoors for a first day of hardening off.  Before starting the potting up operation, I moved all of the seedlings to the back porch where they could enjoy some indirect sunlight (the porch is covered by the dining room) and gentle breezes (a stone wall moderates the gusts of wind that can reach the porch).  After finishing the transplanting—which took just over an hour—I returned the seedlings to their cozy indoor nursery.

Tomorrow, they will come out again, and the visits will continue over the next two weeks.  Some time next week, or maybe the week after, the seedlings will spend some time in direct sunlight in preparation for transplanting to the raised beds.  My plan is to get everything in the ground over the Memorial Day weekend.

In preparation for planting, I sorted our seeds (for a list, see February 8, 2013 and February 8, 2013, part 2) according to sowing method and incubation period.  We’ve been guided this year by the Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook by Ron Kujawski and Jennifer Kujawski.  As the title implies, the book’s advice is arranged chronologically, relative to the date of last frost, which makes it very practical and easy to use.

Our seeds fall into three basic categories:  those that will be sown indoors before the last frost, to be transplanted when the weather is sufficiently warm; those that can be planted outdoors while it is still cold (i.e., before the last frost); and those that are best planted outdoors after any significant threat of frost has passed.

Some of the plants in the last category could be sown indoors (prior to the end of cold weather) but not all of them can be easily transplanted.  For instance, transplanting individual lettuce seedlings would be a tedious business and the chances of the seedlings’ survival would be diminished.  For some of these plants (again, the lettuces), we may elect to plant them indoors in large pots and then simply move the pots outdoors when the weather warms.

For the plants started indoors, some may need to be potted up before transplanting (e.g., the tomatoes) while others may not (e.g., the squashes and cucumbers).  All will want to be hardened off before migrating outdoors permanently.

Following the book’s lead, I tabulated our seeds into a Seed Sowing Calendar.  The only vegetables not listed there are the string beans.  They will be planted in the same spot occupied by the Sugar Snap Peas, after they run their course.  Last year, this was in early June.  We did not plant until July that year but will try to turn the crop over more quickly this year.

I’ve chosen May 5 as the date of last frost and that puts us today at six weeks before.  That also puts us three weeks behind on sowing seeds for eggplant and bell peppers and a week behind for peas.  I’m not worried about the peas—they wouldn’t be doing much outside in the cold anyway—and I’m not really worried about the eggplant or peppers, either.  They are late season vegetables so a late start should not make much of a difference.

On the positive side, the time is right to plant tomatoes and basil indoors and there are several other vegetables—carrots, turnips, beets and radishes—that can be sown outside at any time now.  The lingering cold and its effect on us (not the plants) is the only thing holding back our enthusiasm.

It’s not as complicated as it might look or sound but sometimes I ask myself, what have we got ourselves into?

We’ve been starting to think about this year’s garden which is the first step towards actually doing something about it.

When planning at this early stage, the milestone that comes up most often is the average date of last frost.  Seed choice, time of sowing, period of hardening off, and date to transplant all work backwards (or forwards) from this important seasonal transition.

So, when is it?

In the old days, we would ask an old-timer or consult an almanac.  I don’t know anyone around here who falls into the former category but there are a variety of almanac websites (and, presumably, one can still buy a print version), most of which provide a list of cities and dates.  Looking at the Farmers’ Almanac, for instance, I found a map of the US and after clicking on New York, a short list of cities popped up.  The nearest to us is Albany for which the average last spring frost is May 2.

That was very simple and convenient but Albany is significantly farther north than we are.  Also, the notes indicate that there is a 50 percent chance that frost will occur on a later date, which sounds risky.  With further research, I thought I might be able to determine whether the risk of frost—with a higher confidence level—might be expected to end earlier.

Other websites attempted to refine their estimate by combining information from several nearby cities, based on our zip code.  For example, Moon Garden Calendar presented data for Poughkeepsie (to the north of us) and Yorktown Heights (to the south).  For a 10 percent probability of exceedance (the site allows a choice), the dates range between May 14 and April 29; a linear interpolation would give us May 7.  At Dave’s Garden, three cities were presented (Mohonk Lake and Middletown, both across the river from us, and Poughkeepsie) and their information was averaged for me.  The “almost guaranteed” date after which frost will not occur is May 4.

These dates still seemed late to me so I went looking for other sources.  I next tried the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), which provides a map on which rough contours have been plotted.  Based on this map—which is extremely low in its resolution—we are on the border between a last spring frost in the range of April 30 to May 10 and April 20 to 30, with proximity to the Hudson River clearly accounting for the latter zone.  We are in a transitional area with a microclimate that depends not just on the river but elevation as well.  Apparently, I needed a more detailed map.

A little web searching led me to PlantMaps.  This site is a great example of a geographical information system (GIS), where a lot of available information is linked to a physical location.  In this case, after entering my zip code, I was presented with a zoomed-in interactive map of New York hardiness zones (see July 28, 2011), along with a list of other available maps, among them a Last Frost Date map.  I clicked on this link, and was directed to another color-coded contour map.

This one appeared to be in greater detail than the CCE version—after all, it is powered by Google Maps—but the problem with it is that because of all of the detail (roads, terrain, satellite imagery, etc.), the contour colors are difficult to match with the legend.  As best as I can tell, we are located somewhere between a last frost date of May 1 to 10 and April 21 to 30.  This is essentially the same result as before but with higher resolution.

Which should not be a surprise.  The source cited by all of these websites is the National Climatic Data Center, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  They maintain data for a long list of locations in each state, compile and average them, and maintain contour maps that present the information visually (the raw data is also available in text form).  Their map (which is low resolution, just like CCE’s) puts us squarely in the May 1 to 15 zone of last spring frost; the nearest city listed in their database is West Point, with a last spring frost date of May 3.  The Farmers’ Almanac had it right after all.

Based on all of this, we are approximately 14 weeks before the last frost.  Therefore, we’re already behind!  Of course, I knew that before I even started this exercise.