Archives for posts with tag: roots

[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.

At last, time to set out the vegetable seedlings (and, at last, time to blog about it). We’re two weeks later than usual (we’ve set out on Memorial Day each of the last three years), mainly due to lingering cool weather.

And it’s more than a little ironic, considering that we sowed seeds for some of the vegetables much earlier than usual. Germinated indoors and then coddled during their early weeks with 16 hours of light per day and continuous heat, the tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, summer squash and cucumbers should have been raring to get outdoors a long time ago.

Yet somehow, they knew. They knew that indoors was much nicer, especially at night. I can’t say that I blame them. I wasn’t ready to spend much time outdoors until just recently.

To prepare for the seedlings, I first weeded the beds (see June 8, 2014) and then installed cages for the tomatoes. As in prior years, we’ll have a row of six cages along the north side of the planter; this year, the west planter is up in the rotation. In a departure from past seasons, however, we will plant only one seedling per cage.

To increase our tomato yield, we will also plant another six seedlings in the mounds at ground level, where the squashes mostly thrived last year. In May, we prepped the old mounds by adding fresh soil and mulch (see May 11, 2014). Today, we installed three cages. This exhausted the supply on hand and we will have to make a trip to the garden center for another three (we have some time before the tomatoes will actually need them).

We have four varieties of tomato—Sungold, Black Cherry, Yellow Brandywine and Country Taste Beefsteak—but unequal numbers of each. Because the west planter should be the safest (we’ve spotted evidence of moles or gophers this year; see June 1, 2014), we planted two each there of our favorites, the Sungold and Country Taste. One Yellow Brandywine and one Black Cherry filled out the row.

That left one Sungold, two Yellow Brandywine and three Black Cherry plants in the ground. It will be interesting to see which vines do better, those at ground level or those elevated in the planter. My money is on the planter.

After getting the tomato seedlings transplanted—buried up to their first branches to promote root growth—we moved on to the summer squashes. We set out two Supersett Yellow Crookneck, one Cavili zucchini (the only seedling that germinated) and three pattypans, one of each color (at least, I presume). I noted the location of the plant from each seed color so that we can confirm the color mapping (see May 26, 2014).

When we finished (at about two in the afternoon), the day had turned quite warm and it was time for a swim.

The string beans weren’t the only plants that got pulled out this weekend.

The tomatoes, about which I have been obsessing lately, have not been improving despite my pruning of several days ago (see September 27, 2013).  Once infected with late blight (the suspected culprit), the plants have little hope of recovery without the use of fungicides.  Late blight is caused by oomycetes, non-photosynthetic fungi (perhaps that’s redundant?) that spread through the production of millions of oospores.  Oomycete is a cool word but it is a very uncool organism.

I have read about using a baking soda spray in several publications and websites (see, for instance, Late Bloomer’s Episode 2.16) and will probably try that next year, starting early in the season to prevent onset.  We’ll plant the tomatoes in the west planter—the best we can do, in terms of crop rotation—and keep everything as clean as possible.  However, given the ease with which the oospores spread and their ability to survive, underground, through severe weather, we are at a disadvantage (and greatly outnumbered).

It’s much too late for any kind of spray this year so I pulled out the spindly vines of the Sungold, Black Cherry, Brandywine (red and yellow) and Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes that remained.  There were plenty of green (i.e., unripe) tomatoes but none that were fit to eat.  On all of the plants suffering from blight, the disease had spread to the fruit.  I don’t mind a rotten spot or two or even the occasional wormhole or bird peck, but the brown lesions, with their white spore sites, make even the best looking tomato unappetizing.

I’m happy to say that the plants were otherwise healthy and had produced extensive root systems (which required a fair amount of effort to pull out).  I was also pleased (and surprised) to see that the Country Taste Beefsteak tomato vines continue to resist the late blight; there were no signs of the lesions or brown spots on the leaves or stems.  This makes them a very good candidate for next year’s garden.

Of course, they are suffering from something else, possibly Septoria leaf spot (my hypothesis is based on review of photos of afflicted plants online) or maybe early blight.  Unfortunately, all of these conditions are spread by spores, the production of which is favored by the cool, humid weather that occurs in the fall.  I left the beefsteaks alone (well, I may have trimmed a few branches) in the hope that we will be able to harvest the dozen or so ripening tomatoes that are still on the vine.

Having harvested the last of the string beans (see September 25, 2013), we decided it was time to clear out the vines and start readying the west planter for winter.  Some gardeners would chop up the vines and till them into the soil to decompose and add organic matter (so-called green manure or green fertilizer).  Others might cut the stems off at the ground surface and leave the roots in place, hoping that symbiotic bacteria (if present) would continue to fix Nitrogen in the soil.

But neither of these ideas appeals to me.  Even though the planter is not that big (four feet by 12 feet), turning the soil would be a lot of work.  And anyway, we are following the no-till approach, which moderates decomposition, improves drainage and minimizes weed growth by leaving the soil surface undisturbed.  Somewhat ironically, it also maintains better aeration by eliminating compaction and encouraging the earthworm population.  In fact, our soil is essentially turned over several times a year by an abundance of energetic Lumbricidae.

Leaving the roots in place would require less effort—even less than pulling them out.  However, we do not necessarily have Nitrogen-fixing bacteria and it is not clear that they would have enough time to make a significant contribution to the properties of our soil.  Besides, it is more likely that we have too much Nitrogen rather than not enough (see June 22, 2013), as evidenced by our crops of carrots, beets and radishes which produced more leaves than roots.

Being completely honest, it probably wouldn’t matter if either alternative had a scientific justification because pulling the vines out is more in keeping with my nature.  I have been described as a neatnik and it is a characterization I do not deny.  At a certain level, getting the planter tidied up for its long winter nap is much more important to me than ensuring that the soil has a proper concentration of Nitrogen.  Our soil’s nutrient distribution can be adjusted in other ways and at other times but I have to look at the empty planter all winter long.

What I’ve learned about beets:  First, they need less Nitrogen than flowering plants and relatively low soil pH (i.e., slight acidity).  Our soil is at the high end (6.78) of the preferred range (6.2 to 7.0), based on last fall’s soil report (see October 4, 2012), and I infer that our Nitrogen level is also high (last year’s report recommended adding only nominal amounts).

Second, beet seeds are clustered.  What looks outwardly like a single seed is actually a seedball consisting of three or four seeds held together by an outer layer.  This redundancy helps insure that the plants successfully reproduce—each seedball is three or four times more likely to produce a new plant—but for the gardener, it can be too much of a good thing.  Under favorable conditions, all of the seeds will germinate and if all of the seedlings are left to mature, the result will be plants that are so closely spaced that there is no room for the roots to develop.  Even with careful sowing, therefore, thinning will be required.

Third, while the beet greens can grow quite quickly, the beet roots will sometimes grow very slowly.  This condition arises in part from the higher Nitrogen concentration in the soil—which promotes vegetative growth—and is dependent on temperature as well.  We had a cool spring during which the beet seeds rapidly germinated and produced lovely heads of dark green leaves.

Then, before the roots could catch up, the weather turned warm and the beets’ development slowed.  We kept them well hydrated, so they were not permanently damaged by the heat, but their growth was stunted.  I will do some research into how to minimize the Nitrogen effect (it is not clear what nutrients would promote root growth) and with luck, next year’s beet roots will develop earlier, before the hot weather arrives.

Fourth, beet roots can go a long time unharvested, even in high heat, with no detrimental effects.  We discovered this when we pulled out the first row (see July 28, 2013) and found the beets to be in good condition even though they had been in the ground for months.  It makes sense, botanically:  The roots store solar energy collected during the beets’ first year of growth in order to produce flowers and seeds during their second year.  It makes beets a good choice for busy people.  Unlike more delicate vegetables like tomatoes, which will rot if left unpicked for too long, beets will wait patiently in the garden with no ill effects until their grower is ready for them.

What I already knew about beets:  They are absolutely delicious, especially when roasted, which intensifies their flavor.  And the greens might be more delicious than the roots (they are certainly more nutritious).  Beet greens make a fine addition to salads when they are young and hold up as well as, if not better than, spinach when sautéed.

This year’s success story, in the early season at least, is the turnips.  They have been happily and exuberantly growing, providing us with tasty bitter greens and piquant roots.  Despite being crowded together, the roots have grown to diameters up to two inches.

The radishes and carrots have been doing moderately well even if they are slower to develop than we would like.  The first two rows of radishes are now mostly gone—eaten—but we are still working on the first row of carrots.  So far, only a few have grown to what I would consider normal size.

At the other end of the scale, the beets have not been performing well at all.  Even those seeded first—longer than two months ago—have not yet produced more than a few small leaves and there has been no enlargement of the roots.  We have been fertilized them monthly but that hasn’t seemed to help.

In fact, it might have hurt.  Doing a little research online, I found that a likely reason the roots haven’t grown is that the beets’ environment is too rich in Nitrogen.  This macronutrient is crucial for flowering plants and promotes the growth of the greens.  And because a plant has only so much energy available to it, what has gone into the leaves has not been available for root development.

That might also explain the slow growth of the radishes and carrots, both of which have towering greens but small roots.  Also, some of the radishes have bolted (gone to flower) which makes sense in a Nitrogen-rich environment.

Talking to our farmer friend, Jay, at the market this morning, we learned further that thinning might be even more critical than we thought.  We’ve been diligently thinning the radishes and turnips, motivated by our predilection for the greens in salads or sautéed as a side dish, but have been less attentive to the carrots.  Their greens are less attractive as a vegetable in their own right.

And I discovered that I had seriously neglected the second row of carrots.  It is sandwiched by two rows of turnips whose bushy greens almost completely obscure them.  I’m not sure I have ever thinned this row and spent a half-hour this afternoon catching up.

Jay also told us that beet seeds are actually seed clusters.  This means that even if they are carefully sown with ample space between them, thinning will still be necessary if and when all of the individual seeds germinate.  There’s no getting around it.

Yesterday, it rained and rained, through the night and into this morning.  More than an inch and a half had accumulated by the time the storm passed.  There will be no need to run the water for several days.

With the soil in the planters moist (but not soggy) and the sun finally shining (but not too brightly), it seemed like a good time to redistribute the lettuce seedlings.  The first seeding was very successful and there are two, three or even four heads growing in each spot.

On the other hand, three of the spots from the second and third seedings are bare (with three others likely to become empty soon).  Using a trowel, I dug a large hole in one of the vacant spots and then scooped out a lettuce plant, taking a generous clump of soil to protect its roots.

I carefully placed the lettuce plant into the hole and then used the displaced soil to fill the newly-created void.  Of course, there was not quite enough soil from the first hole to completely fill the second.  Digging holes is not a conservative process.

Regardless of how careful I am in containing the spoils from each excavation, a small portion always gets lost.  The remainder becomes more compacted and the result is a slight depression anywhere I have dug.  As with friction (which always acts in opposition), this phenomenon is unyielding and immutable.

After repeating the process a few times, the budding heads of lettuce are now spread out over most of the lettuce patch.  I’m not sure how the transplants will react to the move but I’ll keep a close eye on them to insure they do not dry out.

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.

One of the benefits of growing plants indoors in compartmentalized seed trays is that no thinning is needed.  We sowed one seed per compartment and they either germinated or they didn’t.  No effort or thinking is required.

The planters outside are another matter.  The smaller seeds—the carrots and turnips—were sown “thinly”, a qualitative term meaning closely spaced but not touching (the only quantitative definition I’ve found says to space them at three to four times the size of the seed).  Small seeds are difficult to place, however, and in practice they can wind up clumped together.  Consequently, when they germinate, the sprouts are literally on top of each other.

The larger seeds—the beets and radishes—are easier to place but some of them still end up too close together.  If nothing is done about them, they will hinder each other’s growth and stifle root development.  And for these vegetables, whose roots are what we eat, that would mean the failure of the crop.

So, we thin.  Or, to put it more harshly, we cull, pulling out the weaker seedlings so that the stronger ones can thrive.  Where there is no obvious choice, we remove seedlings to result in a uniform spacing.

And actually, I do not pull the seedlings out.  Doing so would loosen the soil and could damage the roots of the nearby seedlings that remain.  Instead, I use a pair of small clippers to cut the seedlings off at the soil line, leaving the ground undisturbed.  The beheaded roots will stop growing and, as they decompose, add organic matter to the soil.  In the case of the peas, the roots are especially enriching (they can be grown as “green fertilizer”).

The seedlings are still very small so I only thinned the most closely spaced ones.  After I was done, there were no spaces between sprouts smaller than a half-inch or so.  When the seedlings get larger and again start to encroach on each other, I will thin them at least once more to achieve a spacing closer to three inches for the turnips and beets and one to two inches for the carrots and radishes.

I did not attempt to thin the carrots yet.  Their seedlings are still small and frilly and I can barely see them let alone clip them.  When they get a bit larger, I’ll take a stab at them.  I also left the pea shoots.  They are already spaced at about an inch (their final spacing will be four inches) and are almost big enough to stir-fry but not quite.

Tonight, we will enjoy the first produce of the garden (Micro-greens?  Nano-greens is more like it) on slices of buttered bread.  Such delicacies are one of the main reasons I enjoy keeping a garden.