Archives for posts with tag: planning

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.

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.

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.

So far, we’ve been lucky.

When we started planning the garden—back in 2011—a location that would keep it secure from animals was a primary criterion. We were mainly concerned about deer, who in our experience will munch on just about everything. But we had also seen beavers, groundhogs and rabbits in the neighborhood and, of course, there are squirrels and chipmunks in large numbers.

We were happy, then, when we chose a spot next to the swimming pool, which is surrounded by a four-foot high picket fence. It won’t keep the deer out if they really want to get in (they can jump up to six feet) but it does deter them and screens the garden from view (they can’t hurt what they can’t see). Similarly, squirrels and bunnies can easily pass between the pickets but the fence seems to be diverting their attention elsewhere.

Later, when we designed and built the raised beds, we kept potentially harmful animals in mind. Our planters are on the high side—almost two feet—which minimizes bending over (my aching back!) and provides comfortable seating, our main considerations. However, the extra height also elevates the plants well above ground level. Coupled with the planters’ bordering trim, which extends six inches above the soil level, there is no line of sight to nearby critters who pass by unaware. (On the other hand, if deer were to enter the pool enclosure, the planters would be at feeding trough height.)

During construction, before filling the planters with soil, we installed a layer of galvanized wire mesh. The hardware cloth forms the bottom of the planter through which water freely drains. But should a gopher or mole decide to attack our vegetable garden from underground, the mesh should prove an effective barrier.

I say “should” because it seems that our luck may be running out.

Up until recently, we had never seen signs of subterranean marauders. Sadly, though, as winter was ending and the snowpack receding, the telltale serpentine humps were revealed, the topsoil pushed up through the dormant grass. Depictions of this in old Warner Bros. cartoons is not an exaggeration. The route map of the gopher subway system was easily identifiable.

At first, the tracks were limited to the lawn areas. Eventually, though, we discovered them leading into the vicinity of the vegetable garden and then right up against the planters (I can imagine the clang as the Goofy Gophers banged their cute little heads into the wire mesh). In one or two spots, the tunnels breached the surface, where apparently the little rascals popped out to get their bearings.

Fortunately, we have not witnessed any carrots or beets disappearing into the ground, pulled from below by hungry rodents. Just in case, though, we will keep a rubber mallet near the planters so we can play an at-home version of the carnival favorite, Whac-A-Mole.

We decided to pack the root vegetables in closely this year. We’ll cram six rows of carrots, radishes, beets and turnips into the east planter, completely filling the space in front of the Sugar Snap peas.

Four of the rows are already planted, two in April and two in May. The April bunch is in mid-production. We’re harvesting turnips and radishes—or their greens—on an almost daily basis. The beets are trailing behind a bit but we’ll start picking their greens soon. And seedlings for the turnips, radishes and beets sowed in May are pushing their way out of the soil.

But where are the carrots?

After a casual glance at the planter, one might not realize that carrots are growing there at all. There is no sign of those we planted in April and the May seeds have yet to germinate; their half of the row is empty.

That’s because we made a miscalculation when we laid out the rows. Carrots share with radishes in the first, northernmost, row. The next row going south contains turnips and beets and then the order repeats. At the west end of the planter, then, the rows alternate carrot-turnip-carrot-turnip-carrot-turnip, from north to south.

Now, carrots are very slow to germinate and when they do, put up frilly greens not unlike the dill or parsley to which they are related. Once sprouted, their growth remains slow. We don’t expect to be eating them until the end of June.

Turnips, on the other hand, are crucifers with tall, broad leaves. They grow quickly and profusely. They are among the first to germinate (along with the radishes) and soon grow into a dense hedgerow (albeit, at garden scale). The batch we planted in April is currently a foot high.

Hiding behind them are the carrots. Unfortunately, they won’t see the light of day until the turnips have all been harvested. Had we reversed the planting order, putting the turnips to the north, the carrots would not have been affected, at least not until the following row of turnips sprouted. I’ll try to remember this next year.

Fortunately, another consequence of the fast pace of the turnips is that they will soon be eaten, leaving the carrots to have their days in the sun.

I’m discovering some of the downsides to using last year’s seeds for this year’s crops. Sure, the practice is (theoretically) economical and minimizes waste but it is very unreliable.

For instance, after a month we have a grand total of one bell pepper seedling (a Quadrato d’Asti Rosso) out of 12 seeds planted. Not a great germination rate. I’m happy to have the one but this afternoon, I reseeded the other five red bell peppers and all six of the Orange Sun. These seeds have an expected life of two years and I am disappointed that they will be bringing down the average.

I also filled another half-tray with seed starting mix to get the tomatoes started. From last year’s varieties we have selected Country Taste Beefsteak, Yellow Brandywine, Black Cherry and Sungold. I concluded during my season recap (see January 15, 2014) that we did not really like Aunt Ruby’s German Green (except for the name) and, thinking about it further (see February 6, 2014), realized that the red Brandywine variety did not grow particularly well. We’re skipping the two of them.

That leaves us with four varieties and room for two more. It’s getting late in the seed-sowing season and we will have to choose them soon if we want to grow from seed.

I started with the Country Taste Beefsteaks and was surprised to find only three seeds remaining in the packet. Oops; another problem with using last season’s seed supply (although I guess that strictly speaking, this is more a problem of me not checking my supplies ahead of time). I planted the three and will hope for the best (and resolve to be more organized next year).

The Yellow Brandywine and Black Cherry seed packets were still mostly full—with many more than the six seeds I planted—but there were only two Sungold seeds left. I happily (and optimistically) planted them and wonder why some seed packets are sent out with only a handful of seeds in them while others contain scores. I do not believe there was any difference in price.

With the newly-sown seeds watered and safely tucked away on the seed starting apparatus, I next turned to the lettuces. The seedlings started in early February (see February 9, 2014) are now small heads and in need of potting up.

Following last year’s example, I composed a potting-up soil mix of equal parts compost and seed-starting mix. More specifically, the mix components are: 4 parts compost; 2 parts peat moss; one part vermiculite; one part perlite; and a tablespoon of lime. I stirred the soil together in a bucket, sprinkled in some water until it reached a satisfyingly moist consistency, and then went looking for pots.

I have several dozen plastic pots for seedlings but they are too small, even for a single head of lettuce. We also have an eclectic mix of terra cotta pots scattered about the basement and I sorted through them. Most are the basic eight-inch circular variety, big enough for a head of lettuce—but only one. Others are larger, with varying degrees of ornamentation, but none of them seemed practical for my purpose.

I then recalled a stack of rectangular plastic planters that we had purchased several years ago. We had intended to plant them with flowers and place them in our window boxes, which were painted wood at the time. We’ve since replaced those window boxes with open, wrought iron versions that are sufficiently decorative on their own.

The plastic boxes are terra-cotta colored and long enough to fit three heads of lettuce. I pulled two of them from the stack (which we had tucked away onto a shelf) and filled them with potting mix. I formed three depressions in the soil with my hands and then, using my specialized seedling transfer tool (which multi-tasks as a dinner fork), moved three Jericho Romaine and three Red Salad Bowl lettuce seedlings into their new homes.

Wrapping up my assessment of last year’s plantings in preparation for this year’s (see February 6, 2014 for the previous installment), the eggplant and bell peppers are two other vegetables (three, if you count the different colors of pepper separately) which were delicious and did well in our garden but which could use more space.

I had read that bell peppers like to be close to each other—to “hold hands,” so to speak—and set them out accordingly.  I treated the eggplant, the peppers’ near relatives in the deadly nightshade family, similarly.  However, I think that my efficiency in filling the available space actually worked against me.

I planted the eggplant and bell peppers in a staggered row which allowed me to fit eight plants into only about a sixth of the planter.  The plants were certainly cozy.  It was great until the plants grew up and out, at which point the back row was almost completely shaded by the front row.  In a Catch-22 situation, the plants in the back were never able to get the sun they needed to grow above the plants in front.

We’ll grow them again this year but keep them in a single row.  There will be fewer plants and they will take up more space but they should fill out more and produce a greater number of fruit (last year, each plant only yielded two or three).  Also, I have read that eggplant is a heavy feeder and I assume that the bell peppers are, too.  Therefore, I will fertilize them more often.

What’s left?  Lettuce, for one thing.  The seeds we planted outdoors in early spring thrived.  We were lucky with the weather—not too much heat or rain—and the first seedlings quickly grew into diminutive heads of red leaf and romaine.  Contrary to expectation, they were hardy enough to transplant and remained productive well into the summer.  They did not turn bitter until the very end of their season.

We were not as lucky, however, with the second and third sowings.  Most of the seeds germinated but by the time the seedlings pushed through the soil surface, the weather was either very hot or very wet or, on some days, both.  The extremes were more than the tender seedlings could manage and they simply disintegrated.

It seems that there is a critical period during which the seedlings are quite sensitive and after which they are much sturdier.  Therefore, this year we will start the lettuce indoors.  With the enclosed seed trays, heating pads and fluorescent lights, we can better control their environment during the sensitive stage.  After they develop into heads, we will transplant them into larger pots and move them around, inside or out, based on the weather.

That only leaves the sugar snap peas and the string beans.  All of these performed phenomenally well, especially the peas which came pretty close to my ideal vision of the vegetable.  (If I am a bit hyperbolic, it is because they are some of my favorites.)  We will plant them again this year and see whether we can make them even more successful.

I’m still going through the process of evaluating last year’s plantings to determine what will go into the garden this year.  Last time (see January 15, 2014), I used three criteria:  how much we liked the vegetable; how well it grew; and, if not well, what could be done about it.  So far, I have concluded that all of the cucurbits—summer and winter squashes; cucumbers—are loved, grew reasonably well (with exceptions) and can be encouraged to grow better.

What else did we grow?  Well, lots of root vegetables.  And, I should point out, lots of root vegetable greens.  The radishes, carrots, beets and turnips all sprouted quickly and then produced a full crop of verdant leaves.  This was not at all a bad thing because I have come to enjoy the greens almost more than the roots that generate them.  Whether plucked from the garden early (as part of the thinning process) and thrown into a salad or clipped from the mature roots and sautéed, they are a delicious addition to the table.

Sadly, the roots took a lot longer to develop, if they did at all, and their eventual success was varied.  The radishes did particularly poorly with the first and second plantings yielding a root only about half of the time while the third planting never really reached maturity.  The carrots and beets performed moderately better but were painfully slow (especially the carrots) to ripen.  I don’t think any of them got as big as they could have.  The turnips were the top performers and provided both sizeable roots and plentiful greens through most of the summer.

I think we’ll give them all another chance this year (we still have plenty of seeds) but will make sure to limit their Nitrogen, by which I mean that I will not add any to the soil.  That means using fertilizers that do not contain it (i.e., those with zero as the first number in their N-P-K rating).  I will have to do some research into what might work best but that’s a topic for a future post.

I would prefer to limit the colors of the radishes and the carrots because we found that the purple varieties were the tastiest (I guess I like the flavor of anthocyanins; see October 20, 2013), followed by the red.  However, that would be difficult without buying new seed.  Our current radish and carrot seeds are “rainbow” mixtures and there is no way to determine the root color from the seed’s appearance.  I suppose this is one good reason not to buy seed mixes.

Five of the six tomato varieties we planted last year passed the taste test and for the most part, all of them performed well.  We’ll replant the Country Taste Beefsteak, the Brandywine (although, perhaps, only the yellow), the Black Cherry, and the ever-popular Sungold but we’ll skip the Aunt Ruby’s German Green.  Therefore, we’ll have room for some new varieties.

And speaking of room, I think we will give each tomato plant a bit more this year.  Pruning remains a critical factor for tomato plants and the lack of space (due to the vines’ exuberant growth) compounds the issue.  The first year we gardened, we pruned too little; the next year, we pruned too much.  We’d hoped that last year would be just right and, in the beginning of the season, it was.  But then, at the peak of the summer, the tomatoes’ rapid growth overwhelmed us.

This year, we’ll plant one tomato seedling per cage and keep a closer eye on them.  Each plant will have more space to spread into and will have less impact on its neighbors.  With luck and careful pruning, each vine will remain within the confines of its own cage and will wrap around it rather than spill over the top.

Keeping the tomato plants separate will be also important to prevent the spread of blight which, having made an unwelcome appearance last year, is likely to return this year.  Once it arrived (on the Brandywine or Black Cherry vines), the blight quickly spread to the other plants.

The only vines that did not contract the disease were the Country Taste Beefsteak, which is another reason to replant them.  Even though the beefsteaks were infected by some other disorder (Septoria leaf spot?), it did not really affect their output.  Spraying everything with a bicarbonate of soda solution should also help.

Apparently, retailers follow a slightly different schedule from gardeners.

For instance, according to my seed sowing calendar, I should have started seeds for thyme and other herbs a week or more ago.  I had planned to do this and even though I could not make it happen last weekend, I did head down to the basement yesterday to start the process.

Now, I had thought that half a package of seed starting mix remained from last year.  However, to my surprise (and mild annoyance), even though there are several half-used bags of this or that soil amendment, none of them was seed starting mix.  I guess we used it all when we potted up the seedlings in May.  As is often the case, a trip to the store would be necessary before we could begin.

But which store?  First, we called the Home Depot, which is the closest to us and where we purchased the seed starting mix last year.  The brand we used is called Jiffy and is as simple and inexpensive as the muffin mixes which share its name and concept (“just add water”).

Unfortunately, although there were pallets of the mix somewhere in the store, they had no plan to set them out on the selling floor until next month.  On the Home Depot’s calendar, starting seeds is a February event.  Their timing is not too far-fetched, I suppose, but is counter to the usual practice in retailing (which, for example, resulted in Valentine’s Day candy being displayed in grocery stores starting on December 26).

Where next?  Our local garden center, a family-run business where we like to buy supplies whenever possible, is closed for the winter.  They will re-open on the second of March.  That leaves plenty of time before most outdoor planting (in early May around here) but not for indoor seed sowing and hardy outdoor vegetables such as peas and radishes.  There is a small segment of the market (the early-season growers) that they are failing to capture.

Some people would turn to the internet at this point and find an e-tailer (Amazon.com, most likely) who would ship a case of seed starting mix to them by overnight delivery.  That would certainly be efficacious—and almost instantaneously gratifying—but it does not seem consistent with the “think globally; act locally” nature of gardening.  Frankly, it just feels wrong.  (In Amazon’s vision of the near future, a delivery drone, bearing a pre-paid sack of mix, would be hovering outside my front door promptly on January 2.)

Then I remembered a branch of Adams Fairacre Farms that opened near us a few years ago.  They have a garden center within the store (which is primarily a supermarket) that operates year ‘round.  And when I phoned, they were able to confirm that seed starting mix is in stock and on the shelves.

It was nice to find a retailer who is on the same (calendar) page as we are.

At breakfast last Saturday morning (pancakes and eggs at our favorite local joint), we started in on early planning for this year’s garden.  The first thing we concluded is that we are not really early.  By some reckonings, we should have sowed seeds for thyme last month and could be starting other herbs right now.  The second thing we concluded is that, once again, we are behind schedule.

Luckily, the choices of what to plant this year were relatively easy decisions even though a fair amount of thought went into each one.  We started with the list of plants we grew last year and then applied a few different criteria to assess their success.

The most important criterion for each vegetable is our answer to the question, did we like it?  It doesn’t matter how well it grew or how much it produced if, at the end of the day, we won’t eat it.  Of last year’s crops—those that actually yielded fruit—the only one that did not absolutely thrill us was the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes.  They were not bad, per se, but they didn’t leave us wanting for more.  Consequently, we will not grow them again this year.

There was one plant whose fruit we could not taste.  The Delicata winter squash did set fruit—several of them—but was not able to develop any of them to maturity.  And that leads to the next criterion, performance.  Plants that did not thrive last year may not be suited to our particular microclimate.  Then again, we may not have given them what they needed, either.

So, what besides the Delicata did not perform?  Well, the Kabocha winter squash produced only one specimen by the end of the year and it was a small one at that.  That’s two strikes against the winter squashes and based on this meager showing, I was tempted to say that we should try other varieties this year or skip them altogether.

However, roasted with a little olive oil and salt, the Kabocha squash was absolutely delicious.  It passed the first criteria with flying colors even though it showed weakly on the second.  Similarly, although we were not able to sample the produce of our Delicata, it is one of my favorite varieties (we often buy it at the farmers’ market).  Therefore, we will try the Delicata and Kabocha squashes again.

The next criterion then is, why did these vegetables underperform?  My best guess is that we underfed them.  I haven’t reported on last year’s testing yet (look for a future posting) but soil properties are a definite suspect.  The areas we planted with the squash were newly formed last year and have not had much chance to stabilize.  This spring, we will probably need to enrich their soil and fertilize them more frequently.

The same could be true of the summer squashes—both the yellow crookneck and pale green zucchini—and the cucumbers—one a pickling variant and the other a slicing type—all of which we planted in more or less the same area (the ground surrounding the planters) and with roughly the same soil (equal parts of compost and peat moss).

Despite these similarities, however, their performance was quite different.  Three of the four summer squash vines were hugely productive (especially the alpha crookneck; see August 6, 2013) whereas the cucumbers produced only a modest quantity of fruit before fading away in mid-summer.  Two other factors could account for the differences.

First, the amount of soil we introduced for the cucumbers was much, much less than for the squashes.  This is partly because of their location between the pool fence and planters but mostly because the cucumbers were the last seedlings we planted.  By that time, we were tired!  Our native soil is rocky and very difficult to dig but we will have to face up to doing more of it this year.  Adding to and amending the soil will be an early spring chore.

Second, the cucumbers were stricken hard by powdery mildew and once afflicted, perished rapidly.  It is not clear (and probably never will be) whether this was due to their undernourished state or simply because the varieties we planted are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew.  The squashes, on the other hand, seem better able to continue to produce after contracting the disease.  Each of the squash vines was still setting fruit into the fall.

Both of these are factors we can mitigate—or try to mitigate, anyway—and so we will plant both types of summer squash and both types of cucumbers again.  To help control the powdery mildew (which is endemic in the northeast), we will plant in new locations.  I will also arm myself with a spray bottle full of baking soda solution which I will apply early and often.  With diligence—and luck—we will have more squash and cucumbers than we can eat this year.