One of the Joys of Maturity
One of the joys of getting a bit older is having the time to putter around in the garden. Below is my garden blog. This site also contains sections of recipes and features about specific, and often obscure, gardening lore.
Ignoring a couple of divergent forecasts, I decided to focus on the current 10-day forecast I like best from the Weather Underground. It calls for mostly warm days with some overnight lows well below freezing. We're not yet into cold frame weather, but we're getting close. I generally expect our cold frame to protect transplants under it down to about 28o F. Below that temperature, I have to cover the frame with blankets or just bring the plants inside overnight.
Taking advantage of the warm day, I brought our two flats of petunias upstairs this morning to select plants to move into ten inch hanging basket pots. These are the petunias I started in egg cartons on January 3. Starting four egg cartons of petunias, some cells with more than one seed, yielded around sixty healthy petunia plants when moved into fourpacks. That's more plants than we'll need, but one also goes through them pretty quickly when bunching them into large pots.
I selected two fourpacks each of Supercascade and Double Cascade petunias to transplant. Both varieties do well in hanging baskets, although I've never really had much success at getting them to trail, or "cascade" as their names imply.
I put four plants per pot, one plant centered and the rest around the edge of the pot. That's pretty tight spacing, but it also produces some thick foliage and lots of blooms early on. For this planting, I used standard potting soil (the kind with fertilizer pellets in it).
When I was done, I left the plants outside, but moved them close to the house to shelter them from the wind. That area will also move into shade in the afternoon, so the plants won't get too stressed from their first exposure to natural light (and UV). That's a bit of a risk, as these plants had not been hardened off by gradual introduction to sunlight under a cold frame. But I'll be bringing the plants inside at night for a few days and as necessary on cold days. I'll also be keeping them somewhat shaded for the next week or so.
When the plants come inside, they go in (new) trays on our dining room table or will line the kitchen wall. Taking the plants back downstairs under our plant lights with all of our other plants is a definite no-no. While transplanting, I saw one bug flying around the petunias. Commingling them with our other plants could start a bug infestation if any bugs did remain on the plants when they were brought inside.
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While things are really crowded under our plant lights and in the overflow area in our sunroom, I went ahead and seeded lettuce today. To wait much longer, I'd risk having the lettuce mature in really hot weather.
I used a really small tray insert size today (#1804) that allows 72 cells per traditional 1020 seed flat. And while in the past, we've only started a half flat of lettuce each year, I got carried away and seeded almost a full flat to lettuce. The last three inserts (12 cells) got seeded to Vinca.
The small cell size can work against you if planting is delayed, but we're usually able to carry our lettuce in this size cell up until planting. And since our weather tends to get really hot, really fast in June, we just make one seeding of lettuce in the spring. We actually get a better fall crop of lettuce than we do in the spring.
For gardeners looking to have really early and possibly extended spring harvests of lettuce, I'd recommend looking into some kind of in-ground, heated hotbed. Crockett describes such devices in his March feature in Crockett's Victory Garden (pp 28-29). Mother Earth News has a long article in their March/April 1976 issue about building cold frames and hotbeds. One also might want to look at the results of a Google image search on hotbeds.
Lettuce is a really easy vegetable to start. You just give it good (sterile) soil, cover the seed lightly for moisture and darkness, and set the planted tray in a warm, but not hot area. Ours went on a heat mat that runs around 70o F under our plant lights. The lights aren't really necessary until the seed emerges, and actually, most lettuce will germinate at far cooler temperatures.
Since we save a lot of lettuce seed from year to year in a freezer, but still buy a few packets of fresh seed each year, I had a lot of varieties of lettuce to choose from. I ended up seeding fifteen varieties of lettuce with the bulk of them being romaines. The oldest seed we used was dated 2005. Note that varieties not linked at right are ones that apparently are no longer available.
Our lettuce usually gets transplanted into a pattern made up of several rows with plants spaced diagonally. I like the mix of reds and greens in such a planting. And as early varieties mature and are harvested, I transplant any leftover lettuce starts into the bed to help us have a steady supply until the summer heat or frost in fall ends the season.
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The dire predictions of a serious winter storm didn't materialize here into anything more than some nasty ice, an inch or two of snow, and some uncomfortable wind chills. It appears that the cold will break by mid-week. Like everyone else, we're eager for signs of spring.
With a bright sun shining, I decided to fill a flat of fourpack inserts with sterile potting mix outdoors. Our parsley plants were just barely big enough to be moved from their communal pots to fourpacks. I also needed to get some flower seed started today.
Since we have three varieties of parsley started, I only used one fourpack and the communal pot for each variety, as we certainly won't need all that many parsley plants. The rest of the fourpack cells got filled with flower seed: dianthus; gloriosa daisies; calendula; columbine; and hollyhocks. In the next few days, we'll be seeding lettuce and alyssum, dusty miller, impatiens, marigolds, snapdragons, and vinca.
We're into the first wave of what I hope will be our last winter storm for the season. Predictions of heavy snow haven't yet occurred, but we're getting lots of freezing rain. The second wave of the storm predicted for this evening may carry 4-7" of snow, although we may just get more ice. I'm really rooting for the snow, as the ice can take down power lines and leave us waking up in the morning to a very cold, dark house.
Our half flat of onions, leeks, celery, and beets needed some attention yesterday. The short row of celery plants were big enough to move to sixpacks. The onions and leeks got trimmed to around three inches tall. The beets are a bit of a mess, and there's not much to do for them. The half flat went on a shelf in the sunroom with the rest of our onion plants. The transplanted celery stayed downstairs under our plant lights where nighttime temperatures run a bit warmer.
After a little reseeding, our broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts are up. They got moved off the soil heating mat yesterday. I had to lower the lights over them, as some of the early sprouts were already beginning to get a little leggy. Even when using a clear humidome, the light the brassicas needed was limited. So now that every cell has one or more plants up in it, the lights are just 2-3" above the tops of the tallest plants.
If necessary, I can always reset the brassicas lower in the potting soil to correct for floppy, too tall (leggy) plants. All of the brassicas are pretty tolerant of such treatment. It does, however, need to be done when the plants are pretty small.
"Profligate" Use of Plastic Plant Labels
Our apparent profligate use of plastic plant labels is driven by a couple of factors. First, when I think I'll remember what I put in an unlabeled pot, I'm almost always sorry later when I've forgotten the information. Besides plant type and variety names, I often squeeze in dates of seeding or other important notes (such as the bloom color or number of blooming cycles of a dormant gloxinia plant).
Second, we recycle our plant labels so that the long-term cost for them is relatively low. Almost all of our plastic plant labels are 5/8" x 4" and have come over the years from a listing just inside the back cover of the Twilley Seeds catalog. When transplanting in the garden, not only do the plant pots get saved, washed, and reused, but the plant labels are also saved.
The saved plastic plant labels go into an old plastic peanut butter jar until I'm ready to clean them. During the gardening season, another peanut butter jar filled with a fairly strong chlorine bleach solution sits on our kitchen sink or windowsill. The used labels get rinsed off and go into the bleach solution for at least a week. When I get around to processing them, most of the black, "permanent" Sharpie ink used to label them is either gone or seriously dimmed. Some of the labels require a little work with a scrubbie to come clean, and others have to go back into the bleach solution for another round of cleaning.
Clean labels get laid out to dry and then go back into yet another peanut butter jar for storage. Having been through a bleach bath, we have no worries about carrying over any plant diseases on our used labels. And while the cost of the labels has tripled since I first started buying them, they've proven to be a good investment with cleaning and reuse. Of course, plastic degrades in time, especially if left in the sun, so every three or four years I have to buy another package of labels to replace those that have gotten brittle and broken or have been lost.
As with a lot of the expenses associated with gardening, recycling and spreading the cost of plant labels over the years makes them quite affordable. The garden spade I broke up frozen potting soil with on Thursday is one given to me by my father over thirty years ago. Our rear-tine rototiller is one we bought twenty years ago when we moved to this property. Of course, to reasonably amortize the pull-type tiller I bought two seasons ago, I'll need to garden until I'm well into my nineties!
A recent discussion on Linkedin in the Garden Writers group asked the question, "What garden book has influenced you the most?" While I don't do a lot of posting on that or any other forum, I quickly responded, "Crockett's Victory Garden." The discussion included lots of suggested good titles that reflected many members' avocation of landscape and/or garden design, but for my money, Jim Crockett's book is still the best nuts and bolts guide to vegetable gardening.
In his introduction, Crockett wrote that he started the book "with the March chapter because in the Victory Garden and all but a few favored sections of the South and Southwest, March is the beginning of the gardener's year." But he also added that "the gardener's year is a circle that has no absolute beginning or end."
Our outdoor gardening season often begins in March with a planting of early peas. That may not be possible this spring, though, as a recent AP article noted that "the federal Climate Prediction Center’s latest forecasts suggest that snow and cold could continue to lash Indiana into late March." Associate state climatologist Ken Scheeringa with the State Climate Office at Purdue University said the agency’s monthly and seasonal outlooks call for a colder than normal but mostly dry start to March, despite a winter storm forecast to begin on Sunday. Scheeringa also noted that Indiana’s winter weather usually continues into the first half of March.
If all else fails, I may yet plant peas this month using an old Jim Crockett trick. He related on one of the Victory Garden shows that one can spread pea seed over semi-frozen ground and just poke it into the cold, muddy soil with a finger and get good results. I've actually used this method with some success, but one should use treated seed for such early plantings. Also, taking frequent warm-up breaks is a good idea, as I almost had frostbitten fingers the year I did it.
While our outdoor gardening will be limited by the weather this month, there will still be lots to do. We often are able to set up our cold frame in early to mid-March to begin hardening off our transplants. I started using our cold frame on March 9 last year, but also had to line our kitchen and cover our dining room table with plants when freezing weather and heavy snow returned later in the month. Hanging basket plants can easily go outside on warm March days as long as one is willing to bring them back inside when frost threatens.
While an old adage suggests one should seed lettuce on Valentine's Day, we usually get ours started in early March. We also count back six to eight weeks from ideal transplanting dates to sometime in mid-March to seed peppers (both sweet bell and paprika, but not hot), tomatoes, melons, and squash. (It may be easier, though, to just use the free, online Seed-starting Date Calculator from Johnny's Selected Seeds.) Of course, I'll be seeding yellow squash over and over into the early summer to ensure a continuous supply of that delicious vegetable.
If we get really lucky, things may warm up and dry out enough to do some soil preparation this month. I think the last time that happened was in 2009! But several areas of our garden are nearly planting ready, needing only a bit of raking before putting seed or transplants in the ground. Other areas, such as our large East Garden, always need a thorough spring tilling, although we limed and tilled the area last fall. And the center of our main raised bed needs a bit of fill to bring its level well above the surrounding terrain. One can dump dirt, compost, or manure when it's wet: You just can't till it in without damaging the soil structure.
And if I'm feeling really strong this month, I may put in another raised bed. I'd planned to enclose three sides around our shallow well pump with landscape timbers for a raised bed herb garden. The more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea of using treated timbers close to a water source (even if it's not our main, drinking water source) and set the project aside. But I recently ran across what may be a somewhat affordable source for untreated cedar landscape timbers.
And I've started the process for building a new cold frame by ordering the necessary PVC fittings. I've already found one serious flaw in my design, so this may be the last you ever read about this project (unless it turns out really well). While our old, wooden cold frame could be used one more year, parts of it are rotting. And the new frame is designed to hold more seed flats, be a bit lighter and more manageable, and also to fit in our narrow raised garden bed to extend our growing season in the fall without the need for floating row covers (which all our dogs think are blankets placed in the garden solely for their comfort).
As I wrote today's posting, I reread the introduction and March chapter of Crockett's Victory Garden. As often happens, I came away from the reading with a gem I'd previously missed. In his entry for celery, Crockett wrote, "Celery produces flowers rather than edible stalks if it's subjected to cold temperatures early in its life, so I leave the seedlings in the cosy greenhouse or hotbed until the night temperatures can be counted on to stay above 55 degrees." Since last year was the first time in years that we'd grown celery, I was totally unaware of the early temperature requirements for it. Now I know.
Although long out of print, Crockett's Victory Garden, Crockett's Indoor Garden, and Crockett's Flower Garden are still the best reference volumes I have on gardening. Fortunately for others, they're still available used at very reasonable prices (often $4 shipped) through Alibris, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million. Many of the things I write about on Senior Gardening, such as intensive gardening and grass clipping mulch, came from Crockett's books and/or the old PBS TV show, Crockett's Victory Garden.
at Senior Gardening