Archives for posts with tag: spring

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.

While the other vegetables, rugged rough-and-tumble types that they are, enjoy the great outdoors, the lettuces are homebodies and prefer to be inside the house.

Lots of direct sun and the accompanying heat are fine for the hardier plants—summer squash and eggplant among them—but the relative cool and steady light (thanks to fluorescent fixtures and automatic timers) of the basement suit the more tender romaine and red leaf to a T.

And a trickle of water for 30 minutes every other day may be enough for ascetics such as the tomatoes but lettuces, hedonistically, would rather bask in constant humidity and completely moist soil, thank you very much.

I find it hard to believe that the romaine and red leaf lettuces we seeded back in March—and early March, at that—are still producing new leaves as they sit quietly in their planter boxes. They’re not alone down there: one Yellow Brandywine and two Yellow Belle pepper seedlings share space with them. These companions, though, are not yet producing.

Although still healthy, the lettuces are becoming stemmier (if that is a word) in preparation for bolting; one of the plants is about a foot high. At the same time, the leaves are thinning and they do not hold moisture as well. Their texture is leathery and their flavor more bitter. Five months is old for lettuce.

So, enough cutting and coming back. We’ll clear-cut what remains and have a big salad for dinner. That will be the end of the spring lettuce.

It won’t, however, be the end of the lettuce. Also growing in the basement is a lone head of romaine, the only one to sprout from our summer sowing in June. If it performs like its siblings before it, we’ll be eating fresh lettuce in October.

It has finally gotten warm enough—reliably—to start hardening off the seedlings. I set them out on the back porch today for the first of what should be about three weeks’ worth of visits to the wild outdoors before permanently moving there.

They’ll start in the shade, exposed only to the soft breezes of spring and the open air, whose temperature fluctuates much more than the closed atmosphere inside the basement. Eventually, I’ll move them into the direct sunshine where they will grow accustomed to the intense light and energy of the sun.

Now that it is fully a month into spring, we made another visit to Stonecrop Gardens. We brought along Rachel’s mother who has never been here before. We were very excited to show her around.

During our previous trip (see March 22, 2014), the ground was still covered by snow and we were confined to the Conservatory, the Pit House and other enclosed spaces.

This time around, the snow is long gone (not counting Tuesday night’s dusting, which only disappeared on Wednesday; see April 16, 2014), the skies are clear and brilliantly blue and, remarkably, it is comfortably warm. Perfect for a stroll through the outdoor gardens.

It’s a good time to see daffodils, hyacinths and other flowering bulbs (although it is still too early for irises and tulips). Not many of the trees have blossomed yet but the weeping cherry tree, the view of which is perfectly framed by one of the moon windows of the Wisteria Pavilion, looked beautiful anyway. Its slender branches have been carefully pruned to cascade downwards in a spherical spray of tiny buds.

This is the earliest we’ve been in the enclosed flower and vegetable gardens and their appearance is strikingly different from how we’ve seen them before. Late last summer (see July 27, 2013) for instance, the beds were overflowing with a rich variety of flowers, groundcovers and vegetable plants. The pathways between them were difficult to navigate without brushing against outreached branches or getting in the way of busy bees and other pollinators.

Today, these gardens are practically bare. Anything annual is long gone—cleared away in the fall, no doubt—and everything perennial has been trimmed back, almost to the roots in some cases. It is hard to believe that it will ever return to its abundant summer state.

But there are promising signs that this will indeed be the case. The Stonecrop gardeners were busy planting peas, lettuce and root vegetables, all under the watchful eyes of the benevolent scarecrow Miss Gertrude Jekyll (who was herself receiving restorative attention after what must have been a tough winter outdoors).

Last Saturday, Rachel and I made an early spring visit to Stonecrop Gardens (see March 22, 2014). The Open House being celebrated that day focused on their indoor collection, which is extensive, if not encyclopedic; much more than can be described in the average 500-word blog post. In fact, at the end of the last account, having finished our snack (cookies and cocoa) we realized that we were only about halfway through the list of plants on display.

What remained to view (not counting the outdoor areas still covered by snow and ice) were the Alpine House, the End House and the Pit House. Of these, my favorite is the Pit House, and not just for the flowering bulbs and succulents that inhabit it. Architecturally, it is unlike any other greenhouse I have seen.

A long, narrow building, its floor is set into the ground by about two feet; stone steps at each end lead down to its central aisle. The tops of the planting beds along either side are at grade level so all of the soil is essentially subterranean. The gabled glass roof springs from short masonry walls that extend about two feet above grade.

The peak of the roof—this is my favorite detail—is supported by two parallel lines of steel wide flange beams that are aligned with the fronts of the planters, thereby maximizing headroom over the aisle. Structurally, the Pit House is quite elegant (and that’s the nicest thing that I, as a structural engineer, can say about it).

Despite its partial embedment in the earth and glazed roof, the Pit House is not particularly warm inside. Nonetheless, it is cozy, mainly due to its diminutive scale. It feels not unlike a child’s playhouse although clearly, serious work is going on in there.

The beds are literally overflowing with a densely-planted collection of ranunculus, fritillaria, narcissus, primula, cyclamen and helleborus, to name just a few. Although only about a third of the area of the Conservatory, the Pit House contains two-thirds the number of different plants.

We strolled leisurely from one end to the other, enjoying the colorful blossoms that sprang from the garden beds at waist level or trailed along the steel beams over our heads. We left with an infusion of spring spirit and a renewed enthusiasm to get to work in our own garden.

One of the ways I know that spring has arrived is that for the next few weeks, the sun will shine directly through my office windows. With no leaves on the trees to filter it, the bright light makes it difficult to see the screen of my computer but the solar heat on my face feels great.

Another indicator that spring fever has hit is my desire to get out into the garden and start doing something. The draw is getting stronger every day as more snow melts to reveal another task that needs attending to. This was a rough and stormy winter and consequently, the yard is in disarray. Order must be restored! In other words, it is time for spring cleaning.

Most of our work over the next week or two will be in the ornamental gardens. We don’t do a lot of cutting back in the fall—usually, only enough to facilitate leaf removal. In particular, we leave the black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes in their bare-branched state to provide decoration and keep the garden from looking too empty. It is pretty, especially against the neutral background of winter white (i.e., snow), but as a result, the gardens are filled with dead wood.

To make matters worse, heavy snow came early this year and buried some of the plants we might otherwise have tidied up in the fall. These include the hostas, Siberian and bearded irises, and day lilies. In other years when we have left them, the faded leaves look crumpled and haggard by spring; this year, being crushed by snow for three months has done nothing to improve their appearance.

The first order of business, then, will be to trim everything back to make room for new growth. Clearing away last year’s detritus will also allow the sun’s warmth to activate the bulbs and rhizomes that have been lying dormant since the fall. In fact, small, spiky leaves are already poking up amongst the matted clumps of spent bearded iris leaves and I spy, with my little eye, a crocus peeking out through the cloud of desiccated Russian sage bushes.

I have some reservations about jumping back into it. Yard work is physically demanding and can be overwhelming (it sometimes feels as if the entire world needs tidying up after winter). But I know that it will also be immensely satisfying, a literal cleaning of the slate as we start the new gardening year.

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.

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.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Believe it or not (I almost do not), we still have carrots, beets and turnips in the ground.  We’ve been storing them in place until we are ready to eat them.  Based on prior experience, the root vegetables experience no loss of firmness or flavor as a result of continued exposure to soil and the elements.

In the last few days, however, I have noticed that the greens are starting to look a bit tired.  Eight hours a day of unfiltered sunlight takes a lot out of a leaf.  Also, we are getting into fall now and the color of the leaves is changing.  I’m not talking about autumn reds and oranges; vegetable coloratura this is not.  But the green is fading and streaks of yellow and brown run through the leaves here and there.

Besides, these veggies were planted in the spring!  If we had sowed a second batch of seeds in late summer, they might be ripening about now.  The last of the carrots, beets and turnips are well past their intended season.

So, we pulled up all of them.

There were only a few turnips left, anyway (we’ve been intermittently grabbing two or three to add to salads these past weeks).  I’ve been saving their greens—they keep well in the refrigerator—but we found this last batch infested with caterpillars.  Most likely, these are the same critters who chewed the cauliflower leaves into lace.  With their preferred meal long gone, I suppose, they found the turnip greens to be just as delicious.

Likewise, just four carrots remained.  This is due more to the poor performance of the crop than our use of them in the kitchen.  Still, these final four are the best of the season, full-sized and full of flavor.  Two of the four are of the Atomic Red variety.  The color comes from lycopene (or so says the seed catalog), the same beneficial anti-oxidant in tomatoes.  Of the multi-colored varieties we planted this year (also, Purple Dragon, Red Samurai, Royal Chantenay, Snow White and Yellowstone), the Atomic Red have the sweetest flavor (and possibly the coolest name).

I’m happy to say that almost an entire row of beets had been waiting for us.  Most of them are Chioggia, which when sliced crosswise, display concentric circles of red and white flesh (the outside is always red).  There are only a few Touchstone Gold beets and they are generally smaller than the Chioggias.  The sparsity and scarcity (relatively speaking) are representative of their relative performance all year.  Although their color is lovely and bleeds into the leaves, giving them a yellow glow, the golden beets do not seem well suited to our soil conditions.

While we were at it, we harvested the first three ripe bell peppers.  What a happy trio they turned out to be.  They remained in the garden about three weeks longer than we anticipated but the extra time was well spent.  They never completely lost a slight tinge of green but even so, their colors are brilliant.  A long sweat over low heat (along with onions from the farmers’ market) should deepen their hues and intensify their sweetness.

It has formally been summer since last Friday (June 21) but if I had to base my assessment of the season solely on the weather, I’m not sure I’d agree that it is summer.  With the exception of a few days at the beginning of the month, it has been as cool as it was back in April and May.  And then there’s the rain:  Almost five inches so far this month.

Weather aside, not everyone would agree that summer started on the summer solstice, especially those living in the southern hemisphere where the seasons are the opposite of ours on the north half of the planet.  I was reminded of this by a recent post (from Australia) by BetR2 (see “Am I Learning or Just Confused??? When is the first day of the season again?”).  For her, the start of winter was the source of her confusion.  It seems that there is no consensus as to what officially starts (or ends) a season.

Growing up, I was taught that summer occurred during June, July and August; fall spanned September, October and November; the winter months included December, January and February; leaving March, April and May for spring (although spring almost never lasts three months, even in the northeast US!).  BetR2 was similarly instructed, it appears, although of course, the seasons—and not the calendar—are reversed where she lives.

Others (such as the folks at Google) base the seasons on the astronomical milestones:  the summer and winter solstices and the autumnal and vernal equinoxes.  Followers of this philosophy tend to be staunch despite the irony that summer begins with the days getting shorter and winter with the days getting longer.  I think there is some meteorological basis for this, however, due to heat lag.  In summer, the nights are not long enough for the day’s heat to dissipate and as a result, it continues to accumulate after the shortest night occurs.  The temperature gets hotter even as the days grow shorter.  Eventually, though, the conditions reverse and we start heading back towards cooler days and, eventually, winter.

Another practical approach is to use holidays as the demarcation points.  In the US for example, summer “officially” begins with Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) and ends on Labor Day (the first Monday in September).  Christmas often considered a good time for winter to start (although some would argue for Black Friday, which follows Thanksgiving and opens the holiday shopping season).  To round out the seasons, Easter makes a nice transition from winter to spring, with its obvious connotations of rebirth.  Naturally, there are strong cultural, ethnic, and religious influences on this practice.

However defined, it is now summer (in the northern hemisphere) by any calendar.  All we need now is for Mother Nature to catch up.