One of the Joys of Maturity
A Year in Our Garden - 2013
It's important to review what went right and what didn't do so well in ones garden each year. This feature story is my review of our 2013 garden, minus most of the bad stuff, as it's always more fun to read about gardening successes than failures.
Starting Slowly - January
January began and ended for us with lots of snow. The white stuff was actually more than welcome, as we were coming off the drought of 2012 and the month's 6.33 inches of precipitation went a long way towards replenishing the ground water depleted by the drought.
With seed orders mostly in, there's always a great temptation to get lots of stuff started in January. But for most of what we grow, it's still a bit too early.
One thing I did rush was starting petunias in egg cartons in late December. By mid-January, one egg carton of petunias was keeping company on our kitchen windowsill with an old parsley plant that never got set out in 2012. It's funny how one begins to crave seeing something green and growing in the dead of winter.
The petunias I started in egg cartons in late December had to be transplanted to 3" square pots early in February. Although cute looking in their egg cartons, they quickly outgrew them. In a pinch for time, and with a lot of 3" pots already filled with sterilized soil from a failed geranium planting, I just plopped the petunias into the used pots and soil. Within a couple of weeks, some of the petunias were outgrowing the 3"pots. Since I often can set plants out under a cold frame in March, I went ahead and transplanted some of the early petunias into 10" hanging basket pots, 3 plants per pot. The rest of the petunias just had to make do with their confined root space. And then I immediately started two more egg cartons of petunias!
My poor cultural practice of reusing the 3" pots filled with soil and apparently dead geranium seeds eventually provided a clue as to why we were having such lousy luck germinating seed geraniums. A geranium sprouted in one of the pots towards the end of the month! Apparently, the seed we had purchased in November (2012) contained a good bit of hard seed. Geraniums continued to sprout in the pots of petunias for months afterward!
Our flats of onions and shallots started in mid-January were ready for their first "haircut" by mid-month. Trimming the plants to about 2-3" in height keeps them from getting leggy (too tall and then falling over) and produces stouter transplants.
I accomplish the task with a pair of sharp scissors, moving down the rows of onions much as a barber might hold up hair to cut it. While the cuttings look like a nice bunch of chives, our onion seed is often treated seed, and the seed hulls adhere to the tops of the cuttings. I don't want to garnish my salad with chives and thiram!
I started our brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.) on February 20. We try each year to grow both a spring and fall crop of brassicas to fill our freezer with enough to last us all year. When to start them is just a matter of counting back six to eight weeks from the time I hope to transplant them. Johnny's Selected Seeds provides an excellent online Seed Starting Date Calculator that can be quite helpful in planning when to start transplants indoors...and when to hold off for a while. We have an old page that links to several sources for last and first frost dates (needed to use the calculator).
I usually start our brassicas in fourpack inserts (officially an #804 insert with 32 cells per flat) that are big enough to carry the plants until we transplant most of them in early April. Bottom heat really isn't required for brassicas, as they generally come up well in our somewhat cool basement.
When the broccoli and such come up, I have to be careful to get them fairly close to our plant lights, as brassicas tend to get leggy very quickly if they don't get enough light. I've frequently had to lift broccoli plants from their cell or pot and set them back into the planting medium a bit lower due to tall, spindly stems.
About this time every February, things always get a bit crowded under our plant lights. Sometimes perennial plants such as wax begonias get moved off the plant rack, only receiving incidental light from our fluorescents. Usually, one of our heat mats gets moved to a desk upstairs that has a fluorescent desk lamp for flowers that require light to germinate.
But also at this time of year, we usually begin to see early signs of spring. A year ago, a clump of crocuses appeared in our back yard that we never knew were there before. Things one expects also happen, such as the emergence of garlic planted the previous fall.
I messed up in February by not removing the heavy grass clipping mulch that was over our garlic. It had matted, and some new garlic varieties I was trying that had extremely small, weak cloves, weren't able to push through the matted mulch. I rescued them in March, but I think many were set back and a few even died.
March - Lettuce
I did our first seeding of lettuce on March 2. Since lettuce seed keeps really well in the freezer, and we buy one or two new varieties nearly every year, there was a lot of lettuce to seed. I started just a few cells each of 15 different kinds of lettuce. What we like runs to romaines, both green and colored, but we also grow softhead and crisp head lettuce along with several leaf types.
The lettuce, being the incredible stuff it is, was ready to head outside, under our cold frame by late March.
Cold Frame Craziness
In early March with our plant rack terribly crowded, I moved some of our more cold hardy plants outside under our cold frame.
A few days later, I paid for my overeagerness when we had a hard freeze (21o F) that nipped our wax begonias and some of our lettuce. Later in the month, we had snow that had me lining our kitchen with hanging basket plants and covering our dining room table with plant flats. (I have a wonderful and incredibly understanding and tolerant wife!)
I like to get our peas planted sometime in early March. As long as I use treated seed, the peas seem to just sit until the time is right for them to emerge.
This year, I planted on March 10. When I dug a bit in the bed about five days later, I could see roots emerging from the seeds, but didn't have any plants push up through the cold, wet soil until early April.
The real trick to planting peas early is to prepare the seedbed for them in the fall. All I had to do with this planting was work the soil a bit with a hoe, make a wide furrow, and add some granular inoculant, a touch of lime, and a bit of commercial fertilizer. I worked in the inoculant (and other stuff) with a hoe, as the seed treatment may kill the inoculant if there's contact with the treated seed. (It may, anyway.) One also doesn't want granular fertilizer touching the seeds, as it may "burn" them. Then I sowed a wide band of seed and covered it.
In years where the soil is semi-frozen, I've just about frostbitten my fingers by spreading pea seed over the prepared bed and poking the seed into the ground, one at a time, with my finger. And once when the bed for peas had been turned in the fall, but not really properly prepared, I spread pea seed on the soil surface and covered it with commercial soil mix. But for any of these tricks to work well, one has to have worked the soil just a bit in the fall to kill the weeds.
I left about 24" at either end of the pea row unplanted, as I planned to place a caged tomato plant at either end of the row later on.
Sweet Potatoes and Apple Trees
Even though the weather in March is generally pretty nasty here, there's one outdoor job that really needs to be done on a fairly warm day in either February or March: spraying our apple trees. We have two apple trees on our property and a volunteer tree we care for on our neighbor's property. All three got a good dose of dormant oil spray on one of those rare, nice March days we sometimes have. Dormant oil spray smothers any bugs (or bug eggs) that have wintered over on the apple trees. We continue to spray with increasingly dilute dormant oil until the trees begin to bloom.
I chose this year to just go with sweet potato slips produced from sweet potatoes in glasses of water, rather than ordering new plants. Such a practice can allow diseases to carry over from one year to the next, but it's also a whole lot cheaper than ordering new plants.
Only one of the two sweet potatoes shown at right produced slips, but it gave us more than enough slips that when rooted, provided all the sweet potato plants we needed.
Caring for Transplants...and Starting More
Since I'd started a lot of our flowers and other stuff in communal pots, there was a lot of transplanting to be done in March. Various flowers and vegetables had to be moved to individual pots or fourpacks to continue good growth. It seemed that everything needed transplanting at once.
But March is also the time to get some of our main crops started. I seeded a pot with thirty or so Earlirouge tomato seeds that had been in frozen storage since 1988! In just a few weeks, I was madly moving the tomato plants to roomier quarters, as we got well above 50% germination from the old seed. Our Earlirouge project turned out to be one of our big wins for the gardening season.
During the last week or two of the month, I seeded the rest of our tomatoes and our sweet bell peppers. One of the tricks to growing good tomatoes is having transplants six to eight weeks old ready to transplant when the weather is right. Plants that are too small may have a tough go of it when transplanted, and older plants may get stunted in too small pots before transplanting.
The month's seed starting wound up with some melon starts that emerged just a few days after seeding. We seed most of our melon and squash starts directly into 4" plastic pots where they remain until transplanted. I let two or three plants grow in each pot.
Of course, not everything we try works. I'd moved our two trays of onion plants onto our back porch to make room for other stuff under our cold frame. The onions had gotten nipped just a bit by a hard frost earlier in the month, but began to recover...before bleaching out and dying. One of our pets also dug a bit in one of the onion trays.
When I was repairing the digging damage in the tray, I detected the odor of cat urine in it. Our cats were having pee wars in our onion trays!
Despite watering the tray heavily with limewater to counteract the urine, we lost a lot of the onion plants, as they were burned by the urine. I immediately started another tray of onions, although it was really pretty late in the season to be doing so. And, our onion woes were only beginning...
We began April with some nice weather where the ground dried up enough to allow tilling of both our large East Garden and our main raised garden bed.
Getting our tilling done early allowed us to jump right into transplanting some frost hardy crops.
I transplanted brassicas into our main raised bed on April 6, putting in 4 Premium Crop broccoli, 3 Goliath broccoli, 5 Amazing cauliflower, 4 Fremont cauliflower, and one each of Tendersweet, Super Red 80, and Alcosa cabbage. The planting looks a bit bizarre, as we use old, wax paper coffee cups with the bottoms cut out as cutworm collars.
Beyond the cutworm collars, each planting hole gets a sprinkle of lime to help ward off clubroot and a quarter to half handful of 12-12-12 fertilizer worked into the base and sides of the hole. Then the hole is filled with dilute starter fertilizer before placing a transplant in it with a coffee cup cutworm collar about it. Then the hole is backfilled, both outside and inside the cup. It's really important to make sure the coffee cups extend at least an inch above the soil line, or cutworms may be able to scale them.
The cutworm collars get removed after a couple of weeks when the stems of the brassicas have hardened up enough to be unappealing to cutworms. To remove them, I cut down both sides of each cup with scissors and gently tease out the cup halves. Even with careful removal, the process still seems to shock the plants a bit.
By starting our brassicas indoors in February and transplanting in early April, we were able to begin cutting heads of broccoli by the end of May.
On the same day I put in the brassicas and just a few days after removing the mulch from the bed, I spied our first asparagus shoot of the season. Our raised bed of asparagus was planted in 2006 from plants we grew from seed. Each year it improves in vigor and production, albeit with copious amounts of compost added each fall.
We also tend a neighbor's asparagus patch just behind our property. The landowner is now in assisted living and we take care of some of her ground for her, including eating her asparagus. By mid-month, our annual, two-month asparagus feast had begun.
We call the second patch Bonnie's Asparagus Patch. Bonnie absolutely beamed when I surprised her at the home last spring with a large bag of her asparagus!
The garlic that looked pretty sad when I pulled the mulch from around it recovered quickly. There were a few gaps in the rows, but for the most part, the garlic appeared to be getting off to a good start.
Our peas planted in early March were tall enough by April 12 to add the trellis they needed for support. We squeezed Amish Snap, Champion of England, Mr. Big, and a bit of Spanish Skyscraper into about a twelve foot long row.
Our transplanting continued with our rather sad looking onion transplants going in on April 13. We also seeded carrots and transplanted some celery and leeks into a tight, intensive planting at one end of our main raised bed. I like to grow our onions and carrots at the edge of our beds, as one can easily cultivate, weed, and mulch from the side without ever having to step into the bed.
The next day our lettuce went into an area next to the onions and carrots. I like to just mix our lettuce varieties, trying to make a pretty mix of the reds, greens, and mixed shades of color of the various lettuce varieties.
At this point, we had done all the planting we could do in our main raised bed. The center section was reserved for a row of sweet bell pepper plants which couldn't go in until all danger of frost was past. Our average frost free date in this area is around May 1.
And as things would have it, we did catch a "late" frost on April 19-20, which had me hauling flats and hanging basket plants back inside from our back porch. We even had a little frost damage to some of the plants under our cold frame. The cold hardy plants already in the garden survived, although some of the lettuce looked a bit worse for wear for a few days. I had to pull off a few outer, frost damaged lettuce leaves.
During a few cool, wet days, I turned my attention to indoor chores such as caring for our transplants under our plant lights and getting some sweet potato slips rooting in potting soil. Our windowsill sweet potato was almost too pretty to trim, but it produced more than enough sweet potato plants for our garden.
When things dried out enough outdoors, I mowed and raked our lawn and the field next to our house, using a lot of the mulch around our garlic planting. When the rains returned the next day, I switched from my garden hat to my handyman hat and replaced our deep well jet pump that had been acting strangely for about a week.
I'd done an emergency replacement of the well pump three years ago. I had to go with a brand-x pump at the time, as that was all that Lowe's stocked! To make matters worse, the previous pump had burnt out when I forgot I was watering what probably was the world's most expensive planting of green beans ever. The well ran dry and the old pump burnt itself up pumping sand and air.
Knowing that I'd been taken on a cheapie pump that wouldn't last, I had the foresight to order a good one and just hold it in stock until needed.
Sadly, despite my foresight in ordering a backup pump and my incredible plumbing skills (Can you hear the hilarious laughter coming from my family?), mother nature decided we needed lots more rain. Our usually dry raised beds had standing water in them, not doing the crops already planted any good. And we live on high ground. Folks in lower lying areas were in a real mess. We ended the month with almost nine inches of rainfall.
Our garden plots remained too wet to do anything for the rest of the month. I did, however, get to plant a hill of butternut squash just outside our East Garden. Butternuts have been banned from our main gardens due to them totally overgrowing and crowding out our melons in the past. Now, I plant our butternuts outside our East Garden, usually on the site of the previous year's compost pile, which seems to give them a bit of a boost.
The site for the butternuts was fairly clear other than some residue from the compost pile that had been there up until last fall and a few weeds. I dug a hole around a foot deep, and then used my shovel to loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole another six inches or so down. I'm always amazed at the very thin layer of new topsoil created by the previous compost pile. I also was a bit dismayed that I hadn't raked the area better the previous fall, as there were still some decomposing vines left that could transfer plant disease to the butternuts.
I mixed a good bit of peat moss and a bit of 12-12-12 fertilizer and lime in the bottom of the hole and watered the hole with several gallons of dilute starter fertilizer. I also mixed peat, fertilizer, and lime with the soil dug out of the hole before returning it to the hole, making a depression in the soil, watering again, and inserting the butternut transplants.
After firming up the soil around the butternuts, I laid a heavily circle of grass clipping mulch around the hill of butternuts, being careful not to get the decomposing mulch up against the stems of the transplants. I also sprinkled a bit of Shot-Gun Animal Repellent to keep deer from nibbling on the mulch (and smashing the tender, young plants). The repellent also discourages our dogs from napping on the mulch, one of their favorite tricks.
As the butternuts grew, I expanded the circle of mulch.
The shot at right shows how far from the East Garden and house the new planting is. That puts it very close to the woods which shaded it some in the mornings. Beyond cutting the plants' growth, vining crops in the shade tend to get powdery mildew far easier than crops grown in full sunlight.
And close proximity to the woods can frequently lead to critter problems. Deer and raccoons are our primary pests, although we also have our share of possums and skunks. We've not had butternuts bothered by critters in the past, but there's always a first time.
From Steve, the at Senior Gardening