Archives for posts with tag: moisture retention

Yesterday, we made a run up to the Adams Fairacre Farms store near us.  They have a well-stocked garden center, open all year, and we went there to procure seed starting mix.  We also found an amazing selection of seeds, including those of the Hudson Valley Seed Library about which I wrote last year (see January 5, 2013).  Good to know in case we decide to buy more seeds this year.

They had at least three brands of seed starting mix on offer, all different from the brand we used last year.  The ingredient lists looked similar and included a combination (in proportions not disclosed) of peat moss, vermiculite and/or perlite.  Some also contained compost or other fertilizers (most notably, the Miracle-Gro product which boasts both Miracle-Gro Plant Food and MicroMax nutrients).  These are superfluous for seed starting; the seed itself contains everything the plant needs from germination until leaf growth.

After browsing the available mixes and looking over the extensive array of soil components and amendments also for sale, I decided to make my own seed starting mix this year.  I recalled from my previous research that all that is really needed is peat moss, for structure, and vermiculite, for water retention.  I have more than a bale of peat moss left over from last year and picked up a bag of vermiculite to add to it.

Today, I decided to do a bit more research to determine what the best ratio of materials might be.  I didn’t find any definitive answers—as with most topics, there are a lot of opinions out there—but I did perceive two common threads.  First, many gardeners recommend adding perlite to keep the mixture lightweight and to facilitate drainage.  Second, several others suggest including a small amount of lime to balance the low pH (high acidity) of peat moss.

I made another trip to Adams (luckily, it is not far away) to buy the perlite and lime.  A definite advantage of the do-it-yourself approach is that all of the mix components are cheap.  For less than $20, I will have enough mix for this year’s seedlings, including potting up.  The lime will last substantially longer (in fact, I will probably never have to buy it again).

When combining the components, I will initially mix two parts peat moss to one part each of vermiculite and perlite. One recipe called for a quarter teaspoon of lime per gallon of mix, which seems low but is as good a starting point as any.  After that, I will adjust as needed to produce a consistency that seems right.

This is a case where my intuition will have to guide me.

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So maybe we don’t bother trying to grow lettuce next year.

The third round of lettuce seedlings have sprouted but not every seed and not at every location I planted.  I’ve kept them covered and moist (if anything, we’ve had too much rain lately) but there is nothing but bare soil in some of the spots.

And the seedlings that have sprouted are so very small and fragile.  The romaine lettuce sends up a stem that is no thicker than a few strands of hair.  It is easily knocked over by wind or beaten down by rain.  The red leaf lettuce is not much hardier.  Even in fair weather, the miniscule sprouts are susceptible to burning in the sun.

Meanwhile, one of the second planting of red leaf lettuce has disappeared.  I’m not sure if it disintegrated in the heavy rains or was melted in the heat, but it is no longer anywhere to be seen.

Not very encouraging.

On the other hand, the first planting of lettuce seems to have turned a corner.  The individual heads are getting larger daily and are sending out new leaves.  We will soon have to eat the excess or transplant it elsewhere.  Given our lack of success with subsequent sowings, the latter is most likely.

A friend of Rachel’s brought us a pot of Italian arugula seedlings (she took some of our surplus vegetables) and perhaps we will plant them with our other lettuces.  The arugula is already established (and easily recognizable with its narrow, jagged-edged leaves) and, according to the friend, very easy to grow.

The third seeding of the lettuces sprouted yesterday.  The seedlings are tiny and frail (were the first seedlings this small?) so I will leave them covered a bit longer.  To prop up the cloth covers, I laid a stake across the soil surface.  This will give the seedlings room to grow while remaining protected from wind, sun and evaporation.

The initial crookneck squash on each vine has grown to about an inch in length but both are experiencing blossom end rot.  One of them might be salvageable (in other words, we may be able to eat it yet) but the other is too far gone (I cut it off and tossed it out).  There has just been too much rain (e.g., almost an inch yesterday).

I’m not concerned about losing these first, early, squashes.  Shortly after we started the garden in 2011, a farmer friend told us that the first squash will never reach full size and that it is better to harvest it when still small to encourage additional growth.  It makes me wonder what purpose this early fruit serves.  It appears weeks before expected, with next-to-no hope of surviving to maturity.

I may have been deficient in my thinning during the last week, especially of the carrots, but almost everything in the west planter is in need of more space.  The growth of the carrots and beets has been very slow—they are all are much overdue—and crowding may be a factor.  Over the next few days, we will thin the older plants mercilessly using the three-finger rule.  I see salads and sautéed greens in our future.

We’re running behind with the cucumbers which should have been in the ground over a week ago.  With plans for the weekend, we decided to make time during the working week to get caught up.

The cucumbers, like the squash, are moving out of the box.  Specifically, we are locating them along the fence behind the west planter, safely distant (we hope) from the east planter where they grew last year.  Next year, we will move the cucumbers to that portion of the fence.

I briefly considered putting the cucumbers behind (i.e., north of) the squashes where there would be no danger of their being shaded.  But that would be putting all of our cucurbits in one basket.  Because they are susceptible to the same harmful insects (e.g., the ubiquitous cucumber beetles) and diseases (such as the seemingly omnipresent powdery mildew), the cucumbers and squashes will be better off if kept as separate as possible.  Besides, at this time of the year, the sun casts a very shallow shadow.

We measured six locations, spaced at two feet on center, and brushed away the cedar mulch.  Rachel used a standard shovel and I used a spade to dig holes about six inches deep.  It is interesting that a standard shovel is best suited to a hemispherical hole while a spade, with its flat, rectangular blade is better for cubical excavations.  The shoveled holes were about eight inches in diameter; the spade-dug holes were approximately six inches square.

Once the holes were completed, we mixed up two batches of soil (each batch consisting of one 40-pound bag of compost and an equal volume of peat moss) and filled the holes.  We kept the mounds small in diameter (especially compared to the squash mounds) because they are located along an access aisle.  We want the cucumbers to be as tight against the fence as possible.

We expect that the cucumbers will grow high and wide.  To support their wandering branches we installed a chicken wire trellis along the fence.  We marked locations for six cedar posts (seven might have been better but we were short by one) and, using an old steel chisel and a sledge hammer, formed pilot holes.  This step is necessary due to our rocky soil.

Then, we pounded in the stakes.  I had originally planned to embed the six-foot stakes by 18 inches but had to stop at a foot (the depth of the pilot holes).  Once a stake encounters a rock, there is a risk of splitting or crushing it with further pounding.  Using our trusty Velcro tape, we tied each of the stakes to the top rail of the pool fence.  The stakes have a slight backwards rake to them (their bases are about three inches outboard of the fence) which will both stabilize the trellis and prevent it from feeling too imposing.

To form the trellis, we unrolled a 12-foot length of four-foot-high chicken wire and stapled it to the stakes using an electric staple gun.  (We acquired this tool many years ago for reasons I can no longer recall.  It always strikes me at first as silly—like an electric carving knife—and yet it is very useful and practical.  Although it delivers a staple with great force it does not otherwise disturb the work and requires very little effort.  In that regard, it is more akin to a pneumatic nailer.)  We held the bottom of the chicken wire eight inches above grade to give the young cucumber plants room to sort themselves out.

After that, we set out the cucumber seedlings, alternating the slicing and pickling varieties for visual interest.  On a leaf of one of the pickling cucumbers, I noticed a small white spot that might—I say, might—have been the beginning of a powdery mildew infection.  Just to be on the safe side, we tossed the seedling on the refuse pile and chose another.  Powdery mildew on the cucumbers is almost inevitable (we’ve had it every year) but we certainly don’t need it this early in the season.

To wrap up the planting (literally and figuratively), we dressed the soil mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to all of its other advantages—moisture retention, weed control, erosion prevention—the mulch will act as a visual marker of the cucumbers presence, just like the yellow tiles on the edge of a subway platform.  While installing the trellis, we found that it was easy to accidentally step on the mounds and now that the cucumbers are resident, we don’t want that happening again.

Due to the trellis’ location, I had to remove the hose rack and then reinstall it on the fence, two pickets to the right (east).  Eventually, we will install a timer-controlled soaker hose to irrigate the cucumbers but today, I gave them a bucketful of water (laced with fish emulsion).  Tomorrow, rain is forecast (as Tropical Storm Andrea makes its way up the Atlantic coast) so the cucumbers should get plenty of water.

The effects of last weekend’s heat wave on the second batch of lettuce seedlings have lingered into this week and more of them have wasted away.  Of the 24 seeds I planted (three each in eight spots) and the 16 (or so) that sprouted, only three red leaf seedlings remain.

To make up for the loss, I reseeded the remaining red leaf location and all four of the romaines.  I covered each spot with an old cloth napkin (to reduce evaporation) and will keep a close eye on them.  With luck, the new seeds will sprout and the seedlings will get established before the heat returns.

I may have to do the same with the Delicata winter squash seeds if they do not sprout in a day or two.  They are well past their expected germination date and may have succumbed to the high temperatures as well (the Kabocha seeds sprouted two days ago).

Both the east and west planters are now completely occupied but we’re not done for the day.  This year we are thinking (and moving) outside the boxes and planting vegetables directly in the ground.

Yesterday, we removed the sod (see May 26, 2013) from the now-sunny area west of the west planter and covered it with mulch.  Today, we laid out the locations for the six mounds on which the squashes will grow.  A week ago, we had figured three-foot-diameter mounds spaced at three feet on center (see May 19, 2013) but looking at my sketch today, I noticed that I didn’t leave any walking space at the far end.

As I reconsidered the layout, I realized that because we are staggering the mounds, they can be spaced closer together.  We adjusted the west walkway from 2’-0” to 1’-9” and the spacing from 3’-0” to 2’-9” and were able to gain 1’-9” at the west end (I find the symmetry to be pleasantly reassuring).  This will be very helpful because the grade drops off steeply just beyond the garden area.

We extended a measuring tape along the ground longitudinally to form a baseline and then used a carpenter’s rule to measure the offsets in the short direction.  At the center of each mound, we pounded in a wooden stake.  After setting each stake, we checked our spacing both longitudinally and diagonally (we calculated that each mound should be about 3’-10 1/2” from its kitty-corner neighbor) and everything checked out.

When we got to the end, however, the final dimension looked a little short.  In fact, after measuring it I found that it was off by 3 inches.  In setting out the stakes, I had forgotten to reduce the first dimension (measuring twice doesn’t help if you are using the wrong number!).  We could have moved all of the stakes but decided that what we had was good enough.  Plus, having more clearance next to the planter is probably better than having symmetrical edges.

Next, we set our tape measure and rule to 18” and, placing one end against each stake, slowly rotated around it, removing the mulch to create a three-foot-diameter clearing.  We redistributed the mulch to the surrounding areas and were left with what looked like a small set of crop circles (we’ll keep an eye out for alien invaders).

Then, we dug.  Or, more accurately, we picked at the soil with shovels.  As I have noted many times before, the soil in this part of the yard is fill brought in during the pool renovation many years ago.  It is not of very high quality (from a gardening point of view) and is composed primarily of clay and rock.  Digging it is a slow, tedious project (the kind of task usually given to prison inmates).

After an hour of hacking away, each of us had dug one hole about 16 inches in diameter and six inches deep.  A large rock protruded into the hole I was digging and even with both of us working on it, we could not get it to budge; the squash plant who will live here will just have to work its roots around it.  Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we opted to plant these two locations and come back to the others later.

To fill the hole and create mounds (to elevate the plants above grade), we combined equal parts (roughly) of compost and peat moss, using the wheelbarrow as a mixing bowl.  I dumped the soil into the holes and Rachel formed it into mounds.  At the top of each mound, we dug a small hole into which we placed a summer squash seedling.

Finally, we covered the mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to helping the soil to retain moisture and discouraging the growth of weeds, the mulch should prevent the soil from washing away in a heavy rainfall (of which we can expect many over the course of the summer).

Slightly ahead of schedule, the lettuces have begun to sprout.

It is possible that they started a day or two earlier because, following the advice of Late Bloomer’s friend Farmer Jack (see the excellent “Planting Lettuce – Episode 7”), we had been keeping the lettuce covered with moist towels (actually, we used old napkins).  Also, the seedlings are very small.  Even had the ground not been covered, they would have been hard to spot.

The towel method works well.  We found that we needed to water the lettuce only once per day to keep it sufficiently moist that the soil never went dry.  In addition, by watering with the towel in place, I didn’t have to worry about disturbing the soil and seeds from the force of the water spray.  It’s too bad there is no way to keep the towel in place now that the sprouts are up.

We have also been following Farmer Jack’s admonition to “live in the garden” and visit all of the plants at least twice a day, morning and evening.  With luck, our lettuce (and other vegetables) will prosper as much as his.

Not shown on our Seed Sowing Calendar (see March 23, 2013) are the additional sowing dates for root crops such as carrots, turnips, beets and radishes.  We planted the first two rows of them three weeks ago (see March 31, 2013, part 2) and today, I planted two more.

I started by digging out the mulch to expose the soil surface.  It wasn’t easy—the mulch is thick and matted—but when I got there, I was happy to find the soil warm and moist.  The mulch has been doing its job.

I followed the same pattern of planting, sowing first a row shared by carrots (east) and radishes (west) and then a row with turnips (east) neighboring beets (west).  The only difference is that I swapped the locations of the Chioggia and Touchstone Gold beets.  The colors of their stems match the color of the beets and will add to the visual aesthetic of the planter when the plants get closer to maturity.

Some people use tweezers to place seeds and as I was sowing the turnips, I could understand why.  Turnip seeds are almost identical to poppy seeds and are very difficult to sow evenly.  I take a pinch between my thumb and forefinger and then roll them back and forth over the row in a motion similar to salting a hamburger.  It works fine but undoubtedly there will be clumps of seedlings when the seeds sprout.

The carrot seeds are also quite small and I used the same method for them.  The radish and beet seeds, on the other hand, are larger—about the size of ball bearings—and much easier to place, one at a time, with about an inch between them.  We’ll see how well I did when they germinate.

There is still space for one more row which we will plant with carrots and radishes in early May (it’s hard to believe that it’s only a few weeks away).  The west planter is almost full while the east planter looks oddly empty in comparison.  It will remain that way until we plant the lettuces (due this week but probably not happening until next week).  Then, at the end of May (if all goes well), the east planter will become suddenly crowded when we transplant the seedlings that are growing inside.

One eggplant sprout has decided to check things out above ground.  I hope it likes what it finds up here and calls on its siblings to join us.  And maybe if they party loud enough, their cousins the bell peppers will come along to have some fun.  I am keeping the heating pad under them as further encouragement.

Almost all of the tomato and basil seeds have sprouted.  The basil seedlings are still quite small—perhaps a half-inch tall—but the tomato seedlings are almost two inches high.  I removed the clear covers from their trays to reduce the humidity (and thereby discourage disease).  The moisture in the soil will also be reduced and I will have to keep an eye on the seedlings to prevent them from drying out.

Outside, the radishes and turnips have just started to sprout (there is much more mulch in the planter this year so it is harder to spot the seedlings).  Not surprisingly (they are in the same family), their leaves are very similar in appearance.  The days have been dry and windy and because the hoses are not out yet, I have been watering manually with a two-gallon bucket.

A watched pot never boils and watched seeds never sprout.  We were away most of the day yesterday and so I did not attend to the seeds.  This morning, I was rewarded to find that three of the six tomato varieties (Brandywine, Yellow Brandywine and Sun Gold) had popped up over night.  Hallelujah!

Later in the day, the Country Taste beefsteak tomatoes started to pop up (leaving Aunt Ruby’s German Green and the Black Cherry tomatoes unsprouted) as did the basil.

I will continue to warm the trays with the heating pad and will keep them covered until the remaining varieties sprout.  When all of the seedlings are safely on their way, I will remove the covers and water them as needed (without a cover, they will dry out).

Now the real work begins!