Thursday, July 17, 2014

A successful garlic experiment

Last year I was a wee bit short of garlic.  I ended up with 80ish heads, when our goal is generally closer to 100+.  I couple of things contributed to this--obviously I didn't quite plant enough bulbs--but also I had purchased a few "fancy" types from the market to diversify my crop a bit, and NONE of them survived the winter.  Lesson learned.  Also: our pickle production has been HUGE the last few years, and I forget how much garlic you use in every batch.

There was a bit of hoarding and skimping of garlic over the winter--I had resigned myself for buying garlic for the first time in YEARS, but we actually made it thanks to a hefty load of scape pesto in the freezer.  We limped along until this year's scape harvest, and I've been nicking a few baby green garlics out of the garden here and there.

Anyway, last fall's planting had a little more pressure to get it right.  I had to walk a balance of saving enough for planting, and having enough to mostly get us through the winter.  Then I had this idea.  There was a "plant".  A sort of chive, sort of not, at the end of one of my beds.  I realized somewhere along the line it was a garlic that I had missed one year, and it just kept coming up, making tasty snippings for dinner, and then teeny tiny little scape heads in June.  So I kept it, as kind of a volunteer pet plant (other people have these right?  That weird arugula patch growing in your pepper patch you just can't stand to pull?

So last year, we revamped that little bed for strawberries, and I dug that sucker up.  TONS and TONS of tiny garlc bulbs.  I wish I had taken a picture.  It was like a little garlic factory.  SO, this was my secret weapon last fall.  I planted half of my bed (about 75 bulbs) with big fat mature garlic from the last season's harvest.  The second half was chock full of wee baby bulbs.  I figured, at worst, they'd be tiny but edible, or I could replant them again and build them up to a larger size in a year or two. 

And they've done fantastic.  They've been noticeably shorter than the main crop, but I've pulled a few for fresh eating over the last few weeks and they are a nice size.  Today I lifted them all out and they are awesome.  I will definitely be integrating these little troopers into my main crop.  It looks like I may have harvested them a little late so they may not store all winter, but I'll definitely hang onto a few to plant this fall.  I should note my main crop is just selected from an unknown variety--probably organic grocery store garlic--and they are dependable if not exciting.  I am happy to have these little red-skinned cuties to add to the mix.

I'm totally going to cultivate a few intentionally neglected plants in my herb bed from now on.  It's the perfect fall-back garlic to cover for a poor year.   Meanwhile my "main crop" doesn't seem quite ready.  They still have 6 green leaves and are just turning brown at the tips, so I'm leaving the rest for another week or so. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

0-2 weeks to last frost(!) - Some tips on early spring planting

As is fairly normal for this time of year, we've had a rollercoaster of weather the past two weeks.  When the temperature dropped into the forties with rain, most of my plants came back inside for an extended break, and I bunkered up as well.

Inside the hoop house, spring plants loved it though.  They didn't get the rain, but the cool, grey days were perfect for spinach, salad greens and peas.  This week I had to start adding support to the indoor peas, while their outdoor counterparts are all of an inch high.

But the pendulum swung back the other way this week, we're at nearly 70 degrees as I write.  I semi-opened up the hoop this week--rolled up the sides and took out a few side panels that were getting in the way of my snap peas.  For the most part, the plants inside now are tolerant to light frosts, and are less happy when the temperature climbs to 100+ degrees.  Also, with the sides up I can install my gutters and take advantage of that rain!

Last week I was talking to a woman who works with local farmers, and she was saying that the window of opportunity for spring planting was frustratingly small this year.  We'd have a couple of nice days, then lots of rain, and they couldn't get their tractors into the fields.  It made me realize that home gardeners have an advantage for sneaking in early crops.  Still, dealing with wet soil can be an issue.  I have a couple of tricks:

1.  Prep beds in the fall.  I turn my compost piles in the fall, and give all available beds a nice layer of compost and a mulch of leaves.  For beds that will have bedding plants, I don't have to do anything in the spring--just move some mulch out of the way, and plant.  This is great for broccoli/cabbage and onions, who are often ready to plant when the weather is wetter.   One note, I am observing some slug issues with the leaf-mulched beds where I did this, they apparently can also be cozy spots for critters to overwinter.

2.  The 2-step turnover.  I know the latest trend is minimal working of soil--a lot of folks go the no-till route, and some say not even to turn compost into the soil at all, just let the worms do the work.  I've never had or used a tiller, but I do like to dig a bit in my garden.  Sometimes I have late fall plantings that don't get fed before winter--I'll have a pile of compost on the side of a bed that needs distributing.  And also, I confess, turning over soil with a shovel is a distinct pleasure for me.  I love the physicality of the process, and the sight of bits of eggshells and mysterious half-composted bits, fat worms and thousand-legged bugs.   I love how the robin follows me around, snatching treats when I turn my attention elsewhere for a minute.  So despite the slight risk of bringing weed seeds to the surface, I still do a bit of shovel work.

So I have a trick for wetter days (Not too wet! If you soil really sticks to the shovel it's best to wait, you don't want to damage the soil structure.) A day or so after a rainy spell, I do a light turnover, and let the bed sit, chunky and uneven.  After a few hours or even the next day, it will be dry enough at the surface to come back with a rake and break up the larger bits and smooth into a lovely surface for planting.

3.  The cheat.  When I want to plant tiny, fine seeds (such as lettuce or carrots), or the ground is just too wet to work, I spread a little potting soil.  In this spot, I had beds prepped for beans, but wanted to add a few rows of lettuce and arugula around the outside.  I pulled back the mulch, and spread some leftover soil mix.  In this case I recycled some empty (i.e. failed) pots from my seed starting extravaganza. 

This works great for folks who use lasagna-style gardening, and have heavily mulched beds.  It just gives the seeds a nice layer of fine soil to sprout in.  It's also not likely to have weed seeds, which gives more delicate plants a nice head start.  (Ahem, in my hoop house I spread some lovely fine sifted compost before planting carrots, and ended up with a cover crop of lambs-quarters, darnit!)

So here we go!  There are currently no days below 44 in the Madison 7-day forecast, and I'm getting pretty optimistic that we are past a danger of a hard frost.  I'm still waiting on planting my heat-loving peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes, and am holding off on cucumbers and melons.  But, I did seed some beans yesterday, and my zucchinis as well.  My fruit trees are getting ready to bloom, the grapes are breaking bud, and all the birds are telling me spring is here!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Four weeks to last frost, and a follow up

As did many in Wisconsin (and apparently many places in the US) we had snow this week, blarg!  Even worse was waking up to a 19 degree morning, with a high of 37, which is the normal low temperature for this time of year.  But really, somehow, in about 4 weeks our chances of frost will be nearly over.  Right?  RIGHT?

There is not too much on the indoor seeding front for me at this stage. I started a few more flowers:  nasturtiums, marigolds, and some cosmos and zinnias.  You can start a few last vegetables at this point, such as cucumbers or squash, but I usually find these all do better seeded directly in the ground, and don't seem worth the effort of babysitting inside.  If you do want to get a jump start on these guys, I would use compostable pots or newspaper for seeding, so these can go directly into the ground with less transplant shock. 

There are a couple of good indoor chores this time of year:

Plant Inventories:  Make a list of what you've started and tick off those healthy seedlings.  This is where I discover my Ancho peppers did not germinate at ALL, and that I planted way too many Sungold tomatoes (again).  Make notes if you have to pick up any plants that failed, or better yet trade emails with a gardener friend and swap! (Anybody have any Ancho peppers??)

Pot up:  If the season is running cold (like it is) I will pot up tomatoes at this stage so they can wait a bit more happily for warm planting weather.  Select your favorite strong seedlings, and plant them deeply in a larger pot.  Burying the bottom of the stem makes them even sturdier and roots will grow right out of the stem too.

Fertilize:  I am not a huge proponent of fertilizing, I generally rely on my overall soil health and add a ton of compost to my garden beds and leave it at that.  But, I do have a small bag of organic fertilizer I use for container plantings and at this time of year.  Fertilizing too early seems to make seedlings leggy and overgrown, but this late in the stage they can sometimes get a boost from a light feeding a few weeks before being planted out. I mix in some granulated fertilizer (or compost) when I pot up tomatoes, or make a compost tea (or just dissolve a little organic fertilizer) for watering. 

But, the best part of this stage of pre-frost preparation is getting out in your real outdoor garden (no lights, no flats, phew!).  I seeded peas a week or so ago, and this is a fine time to sow some early lettuce or spinach if you have a dry bed ready to plant.  This weekend I'm transplanting onions.  Since I had mentioned my method way  back in February, I thought I'd follow up with a few pictures of those seedlings.

Look, no snow!  And a chicken! Here are the flats, a nice healthy size for planting. 

 Popped out of the cell pack, you can see all the roots.       

I had watered these a few hours prior to planting, and could easily separate the seedlings.  Gently grasp just about the teeny root bulb and peel them off one at a time.  They look tangled but really they slide apart very easily.   These beds were prepped in the fall, all I did was rake off excess leaves and plant right through the leftover mulch.  No digging required.  I mass plant onions in beds about 4-6 inches apart.  You can plant even closer and harvest in-betweens as scallions early in the season.  Even though onions are quite tolerant of cold I cover these earliest planted beds with row cover, as I think it gives them a little heat boost and keeps out critters (mainly my dog, who has forgotten the difference between paths and beds over the winter).

Saturday, April 5, 2014

6 weeks to last frost: Gardeners, start your tomatoes!

Sorry I'm a little late on this one, but then again, so is the weather!  We've had a crazy week which included some good news, some bad news, and these little guys, which are pretty distracting.
Three new chicks to add to our flock:  our two oldest hens are five years old this spring, and while they are still laying well right now they are slowing down a bit. We lost two from their age-group last summer, so have started up a new generation to fill in as needed.

Sturdy Roma tomato: this is one of a few I started early to go in the hoop house. Confession: I also started my basil early.
So right, gardening.  Six weeks to the last frost is the timeline for starting tomatoes, basil, and some flowers such as calendula or marigolds.  As they are the big hitters in the garden, and so rewarding to grow from seed, they get more attention around here.  Tomatoes like heat for germination, though they are not quite as picky as peppers--I do put them on my warming mats if I have space.  This year my last round of peppers was lagging behind so the tomatoes had to wait, and ironically it was a non-heated variety that sprouted first (though it was brand-new seed).

I don't have a ton to add about starting sets at this point, except to mention that if you have been seeding all along, this is the stage where you have the most work cut out for you.  Learn from me:  don't have 17 flats of plants to take care of(!!).  But even with a few, you are watching the latest germinators, adjusting light heights, checking older plants for moisture levels, and maybe even hauling flats outside to get some real sun on some nice days (or if you have a cold frame or hoop, most days).  But it's also the stage where you start to see the rewards of all that labor.  Look at those sturdy plants!  You can almost imagine your future garden beds filled with all these babies you started yourself. 

Look at all those peppers!
And hopefully, 6 weeks to frost is also the time when you can actually get started in your outdoor gardening space.  I know folks up North are still getting snow (sorry about that!) but here in Madison we are finally getting a weekend with SEASONAL temperatures and some sun.  SO get out there, bond with your garden space, and start planning/imagining your lovely plants out there.  If I'm really lucky I'll find a dry spot to plant some peas!

Monday, March 17, 2014

8 weeks to frost - transplanting

Last week I seeded the brassicas:  Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.  These generally are advised to plant 6-8 weeks before setting out, but since most of these are fairly cold tolerant, that set-out date can be a little earlier than the average last frost.  Depending on the forecast and how warm the soil is on a given year, I start thinking about setting cabbage and broccoli out in mid- to late-April, with the protection of row cover or a low tunnel.  So I do start these on the early end of the range.  Another good idea with these guys is staggering planting--start a few indoors early, seed a few outdoors later, and you'll extend your harvest. 

On the schedule this week are the remaining peppers, and a few ornamental flowers.  But, also on the agenda was transplanting some of my earlier starts:

In general, I lean towards planting seeds with an eye for the least amount of transplanting--ie, plant in the size pot the seedling can live in until being set out in the garden.  This saves work and stress on the plants.  Still, sometimes you accidentally or intentionally have a few extra seeds planted, and have to thin your pot to avoid crowding.  In this case it's fine to cull the weakest plant--just snip the stem close to the soil to avoid disturbing the remaining plant's roots.

But, if you need that plant (perhaps the cell next door had poor germination) or you just can't stand to kill an otherwise healthy seedling, here's how I transplant young plants.  In my case, I have deliberately overseeded a few things to save some space under my lights during germination, and this week I was ready to move them into their future homes.

My tool of choice for this is a wooden skewer.  I poke the blunt end under the chosen seedling, and gently lift until it is rising out of the pot with no resistance. Very gently, lift the plant by the stem, just under the leaves.  If all goes well you'll have a barely disturbed baby root ball.

The target pots have been prepped and are ready to go before I start.  Using the skewer, I form a hole in the new spot, and gently reinsert the seedling.  Sometimes, if there's a long root, I use the blunt end of the skewer to carefully guide that root into the hole as I go.

The plant spends all of a few seconds exposed before moving into it's new digs, and that way experiences almost no transplant shock.  I like plants about this size for transplanting--they don't yet have their first "true" leaves yet, but they are sturdy enough to take a little handling.  And if you have two close together, their roots are not developed enough to make them hard to separate. 
Occasionally you will have a fatality in this process, don't stress over it.  Here's where I also admit I've killed sproutlings by "helping" them out of their seed shells.  I think we've all done that, right?
Next up:  I fight with myself over the realistic date to plant tomatoes--the end of March--or the overly optimistic March 19th that for some reason I wrote on my calendar.  Maybe I'll split the difference? 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cold Frame - Spring uses

FINALLY we had a break in the weather and I spent a quality afternoon outside.  My old cold frame is frozen to the ground from a winter sheltering leeks, so last weekend we built a new one to handle our burgeoning inventory of starter plants. In a few more weeks we should have both in full use. And since I've mentioned it a lot in my previous posts on seed starting, I thought I'd do a quick overview of how I use a cold frame this time of year.
As I've mentioned, I have a fairly minimal light set up, and the real estate under the lights gets more precious every year. So, as plants mature (meaning they at least having a set of true leaves), I begin to rotate flats outdoors into the sunny, warm, micro-climate of the cold frame.  I find the true sun and the warmth of the box makes for happy plants.  As the cold frame warms up, and the lid is propped open to ventilate, plants are exposed to direct sun and light breezes, creating sturdy stems and plants that are practically hardened off and ready for the real world, by the time the real world cooperates anyway.
One word of warning, using a frame requires a fair amount of effort and monitoring, especially at the beginning of the season when weather conditions change rapidly.  It takes some practice to regulate temperatures, and it's very easy to burn or freeze young seedlings.  And there is legwork involved: while a "hot box" greatly increases temperatures while the sun is out, it does not hold them well, so plants still need to come inside nightly.  There are a lot of trips carrying plants in and out.  For me, after a winter of being cooped up, I enjoy any excuse to spend time outside and frankly I need the exercise.  Babysitting a few flats at a time is do-able for me, but you may find your schedule or style doesn't fit this method as well.

A few basic tips:

  •  Keep it close to the house:  My hoop house is great for growing seedlings, but it's not very convenient. My hot box is set up on a picnic table right outside the back door (or as close as it can be and still receive sunshine).  I can swap plants in or out in a few minutes.  A deck or front stoop might be a good option.  
  • Avoid plant shock--especially at the beginning, the transfer from your house to shelter should not be too jarring.  After plants get hardier I am more lax with this, but at the start I wait for temps above freezing outside, and in the cold frame at least as warm as indoors.  For colder-hardy plants, I watch until the box hits 50ish degrees. Keep transfer times to a minimum.
  • Related to this, keep an eye out for adjustment issues--Even with venting the box can top 100 degrees easily, and plants dry out and overheat rapidly.  I water everything thoroughly and keep a close eye the first day out--often leaving plants for just a few hours to adjust.  Starting plants out on an cloudy day is a safe bet as well (did you know that an overcast day is still 1000-2000 lumens?)  And on gloomy days in the low 30s my greenhouse still hits mid-60 degrees easily.
  • Get a remote thermometer.  Seriously, these little gadgets have saved me lots of times.  I keep the base in a spot I walk by frequently, and a transmitter in the hoop and the cold frame.  It helps me gauge when to take things outside, and when to rescue things when the hoop hits 115 degrees and I need to open a vent.  Mine can also record highs and lows, which can be helpful when you are getting ready to leave things out overnight.  A regular thermometer works fine too, but the remotes are inexpensive and save you a few trips.  Bonus:  also useful for home-brewing and chicken rearing!
  • Ventilation:  Our original design used an adjustable prop.  Later we added a Univent--another super useful (but kind of pricey) gadget.  These have a piston which expands as the temperature rises, lifting the lid.  I love mine, and I think it's saved my plants more than a few times.  It gives you a little more flexibility as it will close the lid completely in the evenings, if you can't get to it right away.

Update:  We are excited to be partnering with a local store in Madison to offer cold frames for sale this spring!  2 models are currently available at the Madison Greenhouse Store!   More details are can be found here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

10 weeks to last frost (give or take) - how much to plant?

Well, the onions are up, and coming along nicely.

This week on the planting schedule:  eggplant, and some peppers. The first (and slowest-growing) of the heat-loving plants. 

Depending on your variety and seed packet, eggplants and some hot peppers are sowed between 8-10 weeks.  Last year these were slow starters for me, and although I have fresh seed for several of them I went ahead and started most of them on the early side of the range.

As these are heat-loving plants, and our house is at a chilly 60-something degrees, I wrestled my heat mat away from my home-brewing husband and put it under the flats to help with germination.  As I'm cheap and only have one small mat, I stack flats, and rotate plants out as they sprout.  Our bathroom is also for some reason the warmest room in the house (plus bonus humidity!) so I've used that in the past-- there are lots of other low-tech options for boosting heat.
One question at this time of year is:  how many plants to start?  This year I'm starting lots of extras in order to have a plant sale (consider yourself warned).  But, most years I aim at just enough plants for me, plus a few spares and gifts for friends.  How do I come up with a number?  I have a running list of all the majors (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, brassicas) going on 7 years now. I just pull out last year's garden map, and tally up the final numbers, and add it to my list.  Then I try to think back (this is a good time to re-read your garden journal or notes from last season):  was I swamped with tomatoes?  Did I wish I had more peppers to freeze or dry?  Did I need a pickle intervention?  Taking into account factors such as weather or pest issues, I adjust the quantities slightly year by year.

While it can be a little torturous to start thinking about preserving before your seeds have even sprouted, I find this is a good, realistic time of year to assess what you've been eating. At the beginning of winter, you are using up fresh stores, and possibly hoarding some of your more precious preserves. But by March, I think you have a better sense of what's left on your pantry shelves, and if those high summer ideas for meal plans are holding up in reality.  Are you craving green vegetables on your plate, or are you happy with the starchy, rooty, carb-laden comfort foods of winter?  Is your tomato shelf surprisingly full, or are you already skimping on opening jars of salsa?

So, back to the numbers game:  how many seeds to start?  My rule of thumb is 50-100% more than you want.  For example, if I want 2 tomato plants of a specific variety, I start 3 or 4.  That allows for a dud germination, plus a spare plant in case of calamity (death by frost/hail, or a being stepped on by a dog).  I usually end up with a flat's worth of spare plants at the end of the planting season, but there are always friends/neighbors to share with, or a food pantry or community garden that would love to take them.  It also lets you select the best/healthiest specimens to plant.  If I have a notoriously poor germinator (for me, parsley) or older seeds, I will double-up on the seeding to make sure I have enough starts, you can always thin out your pots later.

And, just because it's freezing cold and snowy out, one last summertime photo to remind me what this is all about: