Archives for posts with tag: seed sowing calendar

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.

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Finally, a crack in the ice, a fissure in the hard shell of cold that has been this winter.  With temperatures in the upper 40s and a splash of warming sunshine this weekend, winter has moved on, having overstayed its welcome by a week.

It left some baggage behind—there is still more than a foot of snow on the ground.  The continued warm weather will get to work on that, slowly, but it will be another week or two before it is all gone.  The mountainous piles of snow in mall and supermarket parking lots—some of them six feet tall or higher—will take even longer to melt.

The thawing is a reassuring reminder that the seasons do change and that soon enough (or maybe not, for some people) the polar vortexes will recede back into the artic where they belong.  Until then, we must continue to prepare for warmer weather and the outdoor growing season that comes along with it.

Of course, there is nothing yet that can be done outside in the garden.  Indoors, however, plenty of tasks need attending to.  The basil, rosemary and first sowing of lettuce have all unfurled their first set of true leaves.  By now, they have probably used up most of the energy stored in their seeds.  I mixed a little fish emulsion with water in a spray bottle and gave all of them a quick boost.  Not long from now, I will pot them up.

According to the seed sowing calendar, I am a little late starting the eggplant and bell peppers, but only by a few days.  I filled another half-tray with soil mix and planted six eggplant (Black Opal) and twelve bell peppers (six Orange Sun and six Quadrato d’Asti Rosso).  We now have one and a half trays of seeds and seedlings warming on the heating pads.

Gardening is not all glamor and glitz.  In addition to sowing seeds, repotting seedlings, building compost bins, and other photogenic activities, there are less tidy chores that must get done.  For example, before starting on the sowing today, I washed up the small plastic and terra cotta pots that were still dirty from last year’s use.  It wasn’t a pretty sight when I began but it was immensely satisfying to see the results of my spring cleaning.

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.

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.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  And of all vacuums, the one that Nature abhors most is an empty shelf.  If she encounters one, she seems to exhort (in her inaudible but distinctly perceptible and imperative way), “Don’t just stand there; store something!”

That’s my experience, anyway.  Every bookshelf in the house is full to overflowing; many shelves carry two or three rows of books.  In the kitchen, our cabinets are always groaning with everything from pantry staples to exotic ingredients.  Upstairs, I never have any shelf space in my closet despite the two or three trips to Goodwill I make each year.

And then there’s the basement.

We have several shelving units down there:  one for tools (and whatnot), one for paint (and the like), yet another for seasonal items (such as Christmas tree decorations and pool furniture cushions).  Whenever a space opens up (e.g., when we put the cushions outside in spring), it is soon filled with something else (e.g., a box of the previous year’s records that was sitting on the floor for lack of shelf space).  It’s a good example of what I might call the “Shelf of Dreams” Law which holds that if you build it (a shelf), they will come (items to be stored).

This law immediately became apparent when we began planning our indoor seed sowing for the coming growing season (believe it or not, we should be starting this month) and I made a trip to the basement to prepare.  Recall that last year, we constructed a simple seed-starting apparatus to facilitate indoor growing (see March 17, 2013, part 2, for details).  And what did we use as the basis of our apparatus?  That’s right, a shelving unit.

Shortly after we assembled the shelves, we filled them with seed trays.   A few weeks later, after we set out the seedlings in spring, the shelves became empty again.  That condition did not last long.

First, I started placing miscellaneous gardening supplies there:  spray bottles, sacks of soil amendments, plastic seedling pots.  Then, in mid-summer, we held a big party for our 25th anniversary.  We needed room elsewhere in the basement (for the caterers) and so anything that did not have anywhere better to live moved to the seed-starting apparatus.  By the end of the summer, the shelves were full.

Which was fine through the fall and into the start of winter.  But now it is time to make space for the seed trays again.  It will take some effort—there’s a lot of stuff to relocate—but I’m sure I can find an open shelf or two somewhere in the house.

An inescapable consequence of anxiously awaiting something is that the feeling of impatience seems to make everything take longer.  It makes me think of the old Heinz ketchup commercial which used Carly Simon’s song, “Anticipation”, as its theme.  The characters’ thoughts of devouring a hamburger and fries made the ketchup appear to slow to a glacial pace as it oozed from the bottle and onto the food.

We’ve been anxious to start eating tomatoes (fresh ones, not those boiled down to ketchup) and have been avoiding buying them at the farmers’ market each weekend.  It is true that we’ve been enjoying cherry tomatoes for a few weeks already but the full-sized varieties seem to be developing more slowly (despite the vines’ rapid growth) and have only just started to ripen in useful quantities.  Anticipation has been making them late and keeping us waiting.

Only, it turns out that they aren’t late.  At least, not based on the days to maturity listed on the seed packets.  Given the time we sowed the tomato seeds (late March) and when we set out the seedlings (Memorial Day weekend), most of the tomato plants produced mature fruit before, on, or only a few days after the expected date.  The only exception is the Yellow Brandywines, the first of which we picked today.

(Now, I know that the days to maturity are only guidelines and that there is some confusion about when to start counting, the consensus seeming to be the date of setting out.  However, with my literal nature, I tend to take them as gospel.  According to my spreadsheet—yes, I have a spreadsheet—the Yellow Brandywines were expected on August 20.  It is now 16 days later; therefore they are late.)

Similarly, we had all but given up on the eggplants.  The seed package promised ripe eggplants by early August.  I would have been happy with unripe fruit by then or anything by now.  So far, though, we have had only blossoms (beautiful as they are).  But then they surprised us and as of today, two eggplants have set (I think there was one last week that succumbed to blossom end rot before getting very far).  I’m no prophet and I don’t know nature’s ways (that’s a bit of an understatement) but I’m very hopeful about the prospect of fresh eggplants in a few weeks.

Also, after a long wait (more than three weeks by my reckoning) the bell peppers are starting to turn.  At first, there was just a hint of orange, a blush of red.  But then came a burst of color as the rate of enzymatic processes increased exponentially.  They are now mostly orange or red (depending on their variety) with only underlying remnants of green.  Having already waited this long, we will give them another few days to mature fully.

The anticipation should make us enjoy them even more.  Or in other words (to paraphrase from Heinz), the taste will be worth the wait.

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.

The seed planting calendar shows that today is the day for sowing the cucumbers and squashes.  Rachel is laid up with a nasty head cold (get well soon!) so I am answering the garden’s call by myself.

After our first round of indoor seed sowing (see March 24, 2013), I know the drill:  moisten the soil mix; fill a tray with it; label the rows, drop in the seeds; cover with more soil mix; water; put the lid on the tray and place it on a shelf.

Cucumber and squash seeds are large and flat, similar in appearance but not as big as pumpkin seeds (their cousins in the cucurbit family) with which most people are familiar.  (I find it odd that I do not usually consider cucumber or zucchini seeds to be related and have thrown away thousands of them without any thought.)  The seeds are planted at a greater depth—one inch—and I used a pencil as a dibble to form holes for them.

After watering the tray, which holds eight seeds each or two types of squash and twelve seeds each of two kinds of cucumber, I placed it at the top of the seed growing apparatus (I moved the basil to the bottom).  As the youngest and only seeds not yet germinated, the cucurbits will get exclusive use of the heating pad until their seedlings emerge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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