Archives for posts with tag: herbs

This year’s seeds (purchased from Adams Fairacre Farms):

Botanical Interests
All American parsnip (white)
Atomic Red carrot (red)
Chioggia beet (red and white stripes)
Danvers carrot (orange)
Homemade Pickles cucumber (green)
Little Gem romaine lettuce (green)*
Sun Gold cherry tomato (yellow)
Super Sugar Snap pea (green)

Hart’s Plant Seeds
Early Summer Crookneck squash (yellow)
Purple Top White Globe turnip (red and white)
Ronde de Nice zucchini (green stripes)
Yellow Pear tomatoes (yellow)

Hudson Valley Seed Library
Cherokee Purple tomato (purple)
Cocozelle zucchini (green stripes)
Doe Hill pepper (yellow)
Genovese Basil (green)
Goldie tomato (yellow)
Isis Candy Shop cherry tomato (various)
King of the North Pepper (green/red)
Muncher cucumber (green)
Rosa Bianca eggplant (rose/white)
Tri-Color Bean Blend (purple, yellow, and green)

Lake Valley Seed
Rocket arugula (green)*
Tendergreen mustard greens (green)*

Renee’s Garden
Crimson Crunch radish (red)*
Baby Ball Dutch beet (red)*
Garden Babies Butterhead lettuce (green)*
Watermelon radish (red, white, and green)*

The seeds marked with an asterisk (*) are those we purchased in the late summer or early fall of last year. We never got around to planting them but they should still be viable. The color in parentheses describes the produce, when ripe.

[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.

Another installment in the Food as Art series…

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.

After potting up the herbs and deadly nightshades (see April 25, 2014) and before leaving on our road trip (to visit friends and their Belgian Tervuren at the ABTC National Specialty event in Huron, Ohio), I sowed seeds for two varieties of summer squash and two of cucumbers. Optimistically (hope springs eternal, my father always said), I also planted a third batch of orange bell pepper seeds. I left them all (along with the rest of the seedlings and outdoor garden) in the very capable hands of Rachel’s mother.

Well, it would seem that she has a very green thumb (thanks!). I hardly expected the seeds to germinate by the time we returned two days ago—only six days after planting. Well, they germinated all right (probably after three or four days) and the seedlings have also surged to a height of over four inches. When I went downstairs to check on them Thursday, they were pushing up on the seed tray’s clear plastic cover.

On closer inspection, I found that not everything had sprouted. There was no sign of the Orange Sun bell peppers. The third time is not a charm for these seeds which must be past their pull date (contrary to what is printed on the seed packet). It would appear that not even the greenest thumb can resurrect them.

Further (or lesser, in this case), only one zucchini and only one pickling cucumber seed have germinated, in contrast to the six crookneck squash and five slicing cucumber seeds that sprang forth. Again, there is not much we can do about older seeds except to resolve not to plant them. Next year, we’ll be buying everything fresh.

I wasted no time moving the squash and cucumber seedlings into the tallest plastic pots I have. After placing them back on a shelf of the seed-starting apparatus, I hitched up the fluorescent light fixture to its highest position. At the rate the cucurbits are growing, they will be brushing against the bulbs well before we set them out on Memorial Day weekend.

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.

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.

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.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a gardening article that might be the first one I have ever seen that makes a case for not starting plants from seed (see “Roots and Shoots: How Homegrown Is Necessary?” which appeared in the February 14, 2014 issue of Philipstown.info The Paper).  Pamela Doan’s column does include simple and useful instructions for starting a garden indoors in winter (with an emphasis on tomatoes) but starts off with her reasons why she doesn’t do it.

It’s nice to see someone bucking the conventional wisdom, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.  I’m a complete believer in starting from seed when possible but I recognize that doing so can seem like a lot of effort.  If the choice were between buying seedlings or doing nothing, I would buy the seedlings (as I did in 2011 and 2012).  Like most gardening projects, however, sowing seeds requires intermittent bouts of close attention—often accompanied by intensive activity—but little effort otherwise.  Once the seed trays have been set up and are safely tucked into a warm and well-lit location, they take care of themselves for the most part.  Only a modest investment of time is needed.  Potting up requires another infusion of time but the task is not much different from setting out, something that must be done whether the seedlings are home-grown or store-bought.

Similarly, the financial investment needn’t break the bank.  Unquestionably, one can spend a lot of money on seed starting apparatuses, depending on size, features and aesthetic appeal.  And the cost of specially formulated grow lights and heating coils specifically designed for seed trays is ridiculously high (a case, I think, of commercial opportunism).  Expensive whistles and bells will not necessarily be of benefit to so basic an operation.  Fortunately for one’s pocketbook, for example, plain fluorescent lights and utilitarian heating pads work just as well as their high-end counterparts.

In fact, as we found out last year (see February 18, 2013), a spacious and efficient seed starting apparatus can be put together for very little money.  Our modified shelving unit (including lights, pads, and seed trays) cost less than $200 and can accommodate 432 seedlings on three shelves (with two shelves left over).  A smaller apparatus would be proportionally less money.

The unit should last essentially forever; there will be no new expenses year to year so the effective cost, amortized over its expected life, is even less.  Further, it can be used for storage off season (a mixed blessing; see January 8, 2014).  Existing shelves similarly modified would be more economical and a sunny windowsill, for those lucky enough to have one, is even cheaper.

The most eye-opening of Ms. Doan’s arguments against starting from seed is her primary contention that most seed companies put too many seeds in each packet.  To her, this means planting more of any given vegetable than perhaps she would like.  The result, given overall constraints of time and space, is a lesser variety of vegetables.  Either that or wasted seeds.

I’ll admit that last year we started more seeds than we needed (72 basil plants; really?).  But that was due to inexperience and pessimism.  With no idea of what rate of germination to expect and a firm commitment to planting only our own seedlings, we erred on the conservative side.  We didn’t let that impact our decisions about what to grow, however.  Instead, we gave away as many seedlings as we could foist off on people and, with some regrets, cast what we couldn’t use onto the refuse pile (see, for example, May 4, 2013, part 2).

The startling part of the surfeit-of-seeds concept, though, is the implication that all of the seeds in a packet must be planted at once.  This notion never occurred to me.  I am frugal (some would say cheap) about many things (but by no means all) and always intended to save the seeds I did not plant last spring to use again this year.  The average seed life is printed on each packet and most are theoretically good for two years or more.

I say “theoretically” because, of course, seed life depends on how the seeds are stored between planting seasons.  We kept our seeds safely inside a small box in the basement.  There, they were protected from light and excessive heat and moisture.  It can get warm and humid here in July and August—and last year was particularly torrid—but the basement is partially underground which mitigates the extreme weather conditions.  The small volume of the box should have further minimized the effects of summer.  (Some would suggest storing seeds in the freezer, as we did with seeds from two years ago; unfortunately, they are too easily forgotten that way, by which I mean that I forgot about them.)  Even after a year, the seeds should still be viable.

So now we’re in the process of finding out whether they actually are.  Our plan this year is to sow fewer seeds of each type of vegetable and, possibly, to plant additional varieties (this would require buying more seeds or, later in the season, seedlings).  So far, we have only planted herbs (six seeds of six varieties) and lettuce (six seeds of two varieties).

The lettuces are sprouting at about a 50 percent success rate while only two herb varieties (basil and rosemary) have germinated.  Herbs are notoriously slow to get started but I should note that all of the herbs except the basil have an average seed life of only one year.  I may be pushing my luck—and the limits of my faith (see February 19, 2014).

Contrary to the Roots and Shoots article, there is more than bragging rights to be gained from growing plants from seed.  It is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get the garden started and to jump back into the gardening spirit, even in the midst of winter.  And for a control freak like me, it is the only way to grow exactly what I want and to know everything about my plants.  The bragging—and blogging—rights are a nice bonus.

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.