Archives for posts with tag: thinning

[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.

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Still playing catch up, we thinned the beets and turnips today. Doing the turnips was easy: we had placed the seeds with one and a half to two inches in between them; to thin, we simply pulled out every other sprout. The remaining turnips, now spaced at three to four inches, should not need to be further thinned.

Thinning the beets required a bit more attention. Their seeds are clustered so even though we used the same initial spacing, each cluster produced multiple tightly-bunched sprouts. Rather than pull them out, which might damage the roots of those left to grow, we used clippers to cut off the extraneous stems and leaves. As it turned out, because the beet seeds did not germinate with the same success as the turnips and radishes, there was less thinning to do.

To wrap up in the garden, we harvested the first of the radishes. And we were just in time, too. Shortly after we went inside to sauté them with the beet and turnip greens, a rainstorm of nearly biblical proportions came crashing through.

These strong summer storms are very exciting and not a little alarming. They arrive with next to no warning—unlike hurricanes and tropical storms which are monitored closely as they track up the Atlantic seaboard—and can dump a huge volume of rain in a very short period. In fact, today’s storm brought a higher precipitation rate than either Hurricane Irene or Hurricane Sandy. Our road nearly washed out.

Luckily, however, the tempest had subsided after an hour or so (unlike the hurricanes which take a day or two before they run out of energy). No real damage had been done but the runoff washed around the raised beds and redistributed the cedar mulch. Still, it underscores the need for more risk analysis (see May 7, 2014).

With climate change clearly in progress, heavy rains such as the one this afternoon have been and will continue to be much more likely. The consequences remain moderate: flooding of the pool and garden area. So far, the impact to the house has been minimal although the long-term exposure to moisture—to the point of saturation—may eventually lead to rotting timbers and a leaky roof.

It is apparent that I need to assess the topography of the yard and devise surface drainage routes to relieve the low-lying areas where rainwater accumulates. The big unknown for us is what exactly to do to mitigate the flow and how much it will cost us.  Because although it is true that I can’t do anything about the weather (despite talking about it a lot), I can do something about its consequences.

Almost all of the Sugar Snap pea seeds germinated and today we thinned the sprouts.

This one round of thinning should be sufficient; the remaining seedlings have about three inches of space between them. The vines will be dense by the time they start producing pea pods but they will get plenty of sun (and we will get plenty of peas).

We got to the peas a little later than I had intended—the sprouts are about a foot tall—but it is not too late. The leaves are still tender even if the stems are starting to toughen.

Roughly chopped and sautéed with butter, the shoots were delicious on top of crostini spread with a dollop of ricotta.

It has been more than a month since we planted the root vegetables and they are coming along fine. As usual, the radishes are in the lead—they’re speed demons, relatively speaking—and their greens are at least six inches tall. The turnips are a close second while the beets and carrots are trailing far behind (again, not unusual).

We’re overdue, however, for a second seeding. I would have preferred to do it two weeks ago with a third seeding today, but others parts of my life took precedence. Better late than never even if there will probably be a gap between when the first crop is exhausted and the second begins to yield.

We laid out two new rows (at a spacing of six inches) and carefully placed (rather than sprinkled) the seeds with about one inch in between them. It is tedious—especially with the tiny carrot and radish seeds—but using tweezers helps.

And it is worth the extra effort. The seedlings that are growing now are comfortably spaced and will be easily thinned (and soon, too). The only seedlings that will require close attention are the beets whose seeds are actually seed clusters. No matter how much space we put between them, they will still produce tightly-grouped seedlings that we must thin carefully using clippers.

As Churchy LaFemme (of Pogo fame) might exclaim, “Gyack! St. Patrick’s Day falls on April Thirteenth this year!”

That’s because we sowed the peas today, an activity more traditionally undertaken on March Seventeenth. We’re a month late, but I’m not worried. It rarely (if ever) made a difference for Churchy on which day of the week Friday the Thirteenth actually fell and I doubt it will make a difference to us on which day of the spring we plant. Given the weather, it is possible that the peas would be no farther along by now had we planted them earlier anyway.

In addition to the peas, we also sowed seeds for a variety of root vegetables. Carrots and radishes will share a row while beets and turnips share another. At Rachel’s suggestion (a good one), we’ll do more beets than turnips this year: two-thirds of a row to one-third as opposed to half and half previously. The carrots and radishes will remain at parity.

As long-time followers of this blog will attest, I am a big believer in sowing closely seeds for vegetables such as peas, radishes, beets and turnips and then thinning the seedlings as they sprout. Doing so protects against low germination rates and the excess greens can be eaten. They are delicious and can be used raw in a salad or sautéed with onions (or other aromatics) as a side dish.

However, last year we were a bit heavy-handed in the sowing and too lenient in the culling. As a result, the roots were crowded and many did not enlarge fully. This year, we took a more surgical approach and carefully placed the seeds at a spacing of about one inch. With the smaller seeds—carrot seeds are particularly tiny—we used tweezers.

We’ll still have more seedlings than we can grow to maturity but it will be easier to thin the ranks to a spacing of two (radishes and carrots) to four (peas, beets and turnips) inches. I’m actually looking forward to it.

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.

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.

A recent article by Pamela Doan in the June 21, 2013 issue of The Paper (see “When It’s Okay to Kill a Plant”) led me to some further reflections on tree removal.  I share the writer’s angst over removing a tree—or any other plant in the garden, for that matter—and, like the author, I also agonize over the decision (see, for example, February 6, 2013).  I agree that there are several factors to consider and believe that removing a tree should not be undertaken lightly.

One issue she did not address is that often, removing a tree improves the conditions for the trees that remain.  For example, we live in a deeply wooded area where there is little to check the growth of the trees.  Each year, thousands of maple seed whirligigs twirl to the ground and many, if not most, of them germinate.  I (and my aching back) know this because hundreds of seedlings pop up in our gardens and patio areas every spring.  I must pull them out like weeds lest the house be swallowed up.

A proportionally larger number of seedlings sprout in the woods where there is no one to pull them out.  Instead, they take root firmly, continue to grow unabated and, with the passing years, become taller and larger.  They all crowd together like riders on a subway train, producing a dense canopy of sun-seeking branches above and a deeply-shaded understory below.  Commuters lucky enough to get a seat on the subway during rush hour know how it feels to be beneath the tangle of outstretched limbs.

The trees produce elongated trunks as they push their leafy tops higher and higher in search of a clear view of the sun (imagine the subway riders standing on tiptoe to read the advertisements that form a frieze along the sides of each car).  The trees wind up over-tall, spindly and top-heavy.  Aesthetically, they are lacking and the inefficiency of their shape cannot be good for their health.  Also, the preponderance of maple trees crowd out other varieties, reducing the diversity of species (probably 3 of 4 or 8 of 10 trees around us is a maple).

In a better world (or, at least, a better woods), I would take the same approach to the maple trees as I do with the radishes and beets:  thin early, thin often.  A larger spacing would lead to fuller trees that would not need to grow as high to gather their solar radiation (and they would look better) while still shading the forest floor.  Fewer maples would allow other tree varieties—oak, elm, poplar, even evergreens—a chance to increase their numbers and would make the entire woods less susceptible to harmful diseases or insects.

Like the crowding on rush-hour mass transit, it is a situation that is not easily changed.  I have often surmised that we could spend a week with a chainsaw, pruning and culling, and hardly make a noticeable difference in the local population density, never mind the entire woods or beyond.  Instead, we will take it tree by tree and consider the possible beneficial impacts—incremental and local though they may be—that could result from a tree’s removal.

Now that the tomato plants have warmed to the start of summer—and are producing the foliage to prove it—the time has come to put this year’s pruning philosophy into effect.

We still want the main stems to continue their upward growth, at least until they reach the top of their cages.  Therefore, I will leave alone the upper third of each vine.  This is also where the earliest blossoms are forming, another reason to take a hands-off stance.

Looking at the other end of the plant, we want the lowest portion of the main stem to remain clear of any branches to increase ventilation, keep the plants dry and reduce the possibility of rot or disease.  I removed a couple of buds from the base of one of the Brandywines.  The strong growth is encouraging given that last year’s Brandywine vines (we grew red, pink and yellow varieties) were the poorest performers.

That left the middle third of each plant where in just the last few days, several branches and suckers have sprouted, especially on the four cherry tomatoes.  I know from past experience that left unchecked, the multitude of branches can quickly become a tangled mess.  It becomes difficult to control and easy to miss ripe tomatoes (disappointing if they spoil before picking).  Worse, dense foliage harbors hornworms (disastrous if they are not spotted quickly).

Inspecting each main stem, I found that most of them had three or four branches closely spaced along the mid-height.  Each of these, in turn, had sprouted a sucker, some of which are already as thick as the main branches (about as thick as a pencil).  So, where a sucker was sprouting from a branch with another branch immediately above and below, I pinched it off.  If I projected that the sucker’s growth would fill an otherwise empty space, I let it be.  Even with this judicious approach, I ended up with a sizeable pile of cuttings.

Because I was in a mood to trim, I also culled one of the two Kabocha squash seedlings.  Both are healthy and have produced three three-inch-diameter leaves—each would be viable to reach maturity—but one is ever-so-slightly smaller than the other.  If I had more space, I would move it but I know that soon enough, the remaining vine will be sprawling across its corner of the garden.

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.