Archives for posts with tag: winter

This year, I am determined not to lose the battle against powdery mildew.

It’s probably a futile goal—quixotic, really—because we have suffered it every year that we’ve kept the vegetable garden, starting in 2011. Spores of Erysiphe cichoracearum, the fungus responsible for powdery mildew in cucurbits, are present, brought here from elsewhere by the wind (most likely) or by spontaneous manifestation (not likely but it is easy to understand why people once believed in it).

Sadly, the fungus is well-suited to survival and produces resting spores called chasmothecia (all of this is according to the folks at UC Davis; see “UC IPM Online”) that can—and do—resist the freezing weather that kills off weaker organism over winter. The only way to eradicate it is with fungicide, the most effective of which I have no interest in using.

No, eradication is not the answer; management is. And the key to management of powdery mildew is anticipation and early detection. It will appear—that’s inevitable—so I must be ready for it. And that means starting to spray the leaves of the cucurbits, which in our garden are the cucumbers and squash, with a preventative solution and starting to spray them now.

Last year, I found a good recipe on Late Bloomer’s website (see “Late Bloomer – National Heirloom Expo 2013 – Episode 36”; there is other interesting stuff there) and I mixed up a batch today. It’s a simple concoction of water, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and dish detergent (which I suspect is there to help the solution adhere to the plant).

I made a loop through the garden this afternoon, spraying each cucumber and squash leaf as I passed. My intuition tells me that spraying while the garden is in direct sunlight is preferable because the sun will evaporate the water, leaving the NaHCO3 and H2O2 (I have no idea what is the chemical formula for dish detergent but it’s probably too long to fit) behind to coat the leaves and inhibit fungal growth.

For the remainder of the season, especially in the fall when the humidity of summer remains but the nights are cooler, I will have to re-spray on a weekly (or so) basis.

Maybe I can’t win the battle but perhaps if I am diligent, I (and the cucurbits) won’t be routed.

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.

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.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a gardening article that might be the first one I have ever seen that makes a case for not starting plants from seed (see “Roots and Shoots: How Homegrown Is Necessary?” which appeared in the February 14, 2014 issue of Philipstown.info The Paper).  Pamela Doan’s column does include simple and useful instructions for starting a garden indoors in winter (with an emphasis on tomatoes) but starts off with her reasons why she doesn’t do it.

It’s nice to see someone bucking the conventional wisdom, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.  I’m a complete believer in starting from seed when possible but I recognize that doing so can seem like a lot of effort.  If the choice were between buying seedlings or doing nothing, I would buy the seedlings (as I did in 2011 and 2012).  Like most gardening projects, however, sowing seeds requires intermittent bouts of close attention—often accompanied by intensive activity—but little effort otherwise.  Once the seed trays have been set up and are safely tucked into a warm and well-lit location, they take care of themselves for the most part.  Only a modest investment of time is needed.  Potting up requires another infusion of time but the task is not much different from setting out, something that must be done whether the seedlings are home-grown or store-bought.

Similarly, the financial investment needn’t break the bank.  Unquestionably, one can spend a lot of money on seed starting apparatuses, depending on size, features and aesthetic appeal.  And the cost of specially formulated grow lights and heating coils specifically designed for seed trays is ridiculously high (a case, I think, of commercial opportunism).  Expensive whistles and bells will not necessarily be of benefit to so basic an operation.  Fortunately for one’s pocketbook, for example, plain fluorescent lights and utilitarian heating pads work just as well as their high-end counterparts.

In fact, as we found out last year (see February 18, 2013), a spacious and efficient seed starting apparatus can be put together for very little money.  Our modified shelving unit (including lights, pads, and seed trays) cost less than $200 and can accommodate 432 seedlings on three shelves (with two shelves left over).  A smaller apparatus would be proportionally less money.

The unit should last essentially forever; there will be no new expenses year to year so the effective cost, amortized over its expected life, is even less.  Further, it can be used for storage off season (a mixed blessing; see January 8, 2014).  Existing shelves similarly modified would be more economical and a sunny windowsill, for those lucky enough to have one, is even cheaper.

The most eye-opening of Ms. Doan’s arguments against starting from seed is her primary contention that most seed companies put too many seeds in each packet.  To her, this means planting more of any given vegetable than perhaps she would like.  The result, given overall constraints of time and space, is a lesser variety of vegetables.  Either that or wasted seeds.

I’ll admit that last year we started more seeds than we needed (72 basil plants; really?).  But that was due to inexperience and pessimism.  With no idea of what rate of germination to expect and a firm commitment to planting only our own seedlings, we erred on the conservative side.  We didn’t let that impact our decisions about what to grow, however.  Instead, we gave away as many seedlings as we could foist off on people and, with some regrets, cast what we couldn’t use onto the refuse pile (see, for example, May 4, 2013, part 2).

The startling part of the surfeit-of-seeds concept, though, is the implication that all of the seeds in a packet must be planted at once.  This notion never occurred to me.  I am frugal (some would say cheap) about many things (but by no means all) and always intended to save the seeds I did not plant last spring to use again this year.  The average seed life is printed on each packet and most are theoretically good for two years or more.

I say “theoretically” because, of course, seed life depends on how the seeds are stored between planting seasons.  We kept our seeds safely inside a small box in the basement.  There, they were protected from light and excessive heat and moisture.  It can get warm and humid here in July and August—and last year was particularly torrid—but the basement is partially underground which mitigates the extreme weather conditions.  The small volume of the box should have further minimized the effects of summer.  (Some would suggest storing seeds in the freezer, as we did with seeds from two years ago; unfortunately, they are too easily forgotten that way, by which I mean that I forgot about them.)  Even after a year, the seeds should still be viable.

So now we’re in the process of finding out whether they actually are.  Our plan this year is to sow fewer seeds of each type of vegetable and, possibly, to plant additional varieties (this would require buying more seeds or, later in the season, seedlings).  So far, we have only planted herbs (six seeds of six varieties) and lettuce (six seeds of two varieties).

The lettuces are sprouting at about a 50 percent success rate while only two herb varieties (basil and rosemary) have germinated.  Herbs are notoriously slow to get started but I should note that all of the herbs except the basil have an average seed life of only one year.  I may be pushing my luck—and the limits of my faith (see February 19, 2014).

Contrary to the Roots and Shoots article, there is more than bragging rights to be gained from growing plants from seed.  It is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get the garden started and to jump back into the gardening spirit, even in the midst of winter.  And for a control freak like me, it is the only way to grow exactly what I want and to know everything about my plants.  The bragging—and blogging—rights are a nice bonus.

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.

Another day, another polar vortex.  It seems that the atmosphere has reached down from the northernmost region of the earth and trailed a frigid finger of arctic air across the exposed back of the northeast.

To say that it has given us the chills would be a gross understatement; the temperature was two degrees below zero this morning.  This winter is on track to become the coldest one of my life.

I’ve been doing a lot of snow shoveling lately.  We had two big snow storms last week (the first major storms of the year) that left about a foot of snow on the ground.  In lieu of lifting weights or running (my usual fitness regimen), I’ve been following the snow-shoveling workout.  Perhaps I should develop the concept for a DVD or maybe it’s a franchising opportunity.  But first I have to figure out how to make it work in warm climates.

And that may prove important because it seems that many biomes which were once reliably cold throughout the winter are now mutating into climates that would be found much farther south.  Here in the Northeast, for example, last week’s snow was followed by warm days with temperatures in the 60s.  With the accompanying warm breezes, it felt like December in Florida, if not Hawaii.

The balmy days melted most of the snow, the remainder of which was washed away by an almost-tropical rainstorm that followed.  Today, it is as if the snowstorms of last week never happened.  It makes me wonder, why did I bother shoveling that snow in the first place?  Is there a deeper motivation than simply getting from my front door to where the car is parked?

The cycle—snow, shovel, melt, repeat—reminds me of the mandala sand paintings of Buddhist monks.  (Last year, the wrapping of Christmas presents put me in mind of the same thing; see December 22, 2012).  A snowfall creates a blank canvas on which we carefully create an intricate design (although because this is a process of removal, it is more akin to etching or carving a woodblock).  We plow roads, clear pathways, and dust off our cars, taking away only what is necessary to reestablish the transportation routes that are the otherwise invisible patterns of our daily lives.

And then the weather changes and our creations vanish, melting away into oblivion.  Here, the analogy to the sand paintings is more literal, as the carved snow transforms into water and is absorbed into the earth or trickles into storm drains or streams and thence, eventually, into the ocean.  We realize the impermanence of life, recognize the relative unimportance of material things and are healed in the process.

If only it healed my aching back as much as my psyche.

Leaves, leaves, leaves.

In an ideal world, they would all turn bright shades of orange, yellow and pink before falling.  Then, they would take a week or two to gradually flitter down from the trees in whimsical patterns across the sky, presenting a dynamic autumn tableau outside my window, before settling—just so—onto the landscape.  Somehow, the leaves would manage to avoid pathways, cars and rain gutters.

Once nestled artistically on the ground, there they would lie snugly, like an especially beautiful blanket over the hillsides, increasing the aesthetic value of the view as I walk from my house to the mailbox.

Then, in late October or early November, the leaves would gradually and magically dissipate, slowly fading from view, possibly in conjunction with the year’s first snowfall (an ideal version of which might be the subject of a future post).  Their disappearance would coincide nicely with the appearance of new mounds of fresh compost in the previously depleted bins (which, in this ideal world, have already been constructed).

In reality, there is a lot of raking and blowing to be done this time of year (and I still need to build those compost bins).

We had a relatively warm and bright morning today, something that we will not have many more of (the warm part, anyway) until spring.  So, after breakfast, we performed another round of fall clean-up in the garden.

It is not as if everything is dead or dying—there has been no killing frost so far—and yet, nothing is developing very quickly.  The growth of the squashes, in particular, has slowed to a near stop.  There are plenty of zucchini and crooknecks and even a few large yellow blossoms—all beaming like it was still August—but none of the squashes has gotten any bigger than a few inches in length.

I have to keep in mind that the squashes are summer vegetables and we are now squarely in fall.  The zucchini and crooknecks are past their season and it is time to let them go.

Pulling out the vines was relatively easy.  The only difficult part was finding where they were rooted to the ground.  Summer squashes grow from one central stem along which the leaves and fruit radiate.  After the squashes ripen and are harvested, the leaves wither and die, leaving their section of stem barren.

At the same time, the leading tip of the stem continues to grow outward and new leaves, blossoms and fruit are created.  As a result, after four months of bounteous growth, the vines reach a length of several feet.  The active end gets separated from its starting point and the intervening stem gets buried by fallen trees leaves.  At a casual glance, it looks as though the vines have moved around the garden.

The winter squashes we grew this year develop in a similar manner.  But instead of letting the Naguri squash (a Kabocha-like variety) trail spread out on the ground, we trained it up and around a tripod of garden stakes.  When we removed the vine last week (see October 13, 2013 for photos), it had reached the top of the tripod, within striking distance of the temple bell that hangs there.

The Zeppelin Delicata squash looked as though it would follow the same path as the summer squashes.  Sadly, though, it got no farther than the perimeter of its mound of soil.  It produced only a few fruit, none of which got any bigger than an inch or so in length.  For us, their name was something of a misnomer.  I wouldn’t even characterize them as weather balloons.