Monday, March 24, 2014

Seed Starting 2014

It is officially spring now. The days are growing longer and the sun is definitely stronger and higher in the sky. A boy’s thoughts are supposed to turn to starting seeds, forgetting the winter that would not end. I have already started my onions and the seedlings are doing great. While I still felt like hibernating, this week I did get my tomato and pepper seeds planted.




I am starting the tomatoes separate from the peppers because the peppers take so long to germinate. I used 3/4” soil blocks for the tomatoes and will plant up to 2” soil blocks when they get some true leaves.. This year I am using a bag of McEnroe’s Organic Potting Soil I saved from last year to make the blocks. Compared to Johnny’s 512, it is much finer and has fewer twigs and rocks to pick out. I added some horticultural grade vermiculite, since it is lacking that. I covered the seeds in the dibbles with some UltraSorb, described later, and put the tray on the heat mat.


For the peppers and eggplant seeds, I decided to pre-germinate them in a medium and transplant them to 1 1/2” soil blocks when they get some true leaves. The medium I am using is UltraSorb, a product from Moltan and sold by Autozone stores in the US as an oil absorbent for garage floors. UltraSorb is granular diatomaceous earth, not at all like food grade DE or the powdered DEs used in swimming pool filters. It is very popular and extensively discussed on the Tomatoville forum, where it gets rave reviews.




To hold the UltraSorb, I used a Styrofoam egg carton with slits cut in the bottom for drainage. The idea is to provide enough opening to drain (and bottom water) the tray without allowing the UltraSorb to leak out. I used a razor knife to cut the slits, but found I needed a few direct holes in the bottom (made with a toothpick).




I used a Sharpie to mark each cell with the pepper variety. Each cell was filled with UltraSorb and moistened with water. I then used a pencil as a dibble to make planting holes, planted the seeds, and covered with a little extra UltraSorb. If you want to try using UltraSorb, make sure you get the product by that name manufactured by Moltan. AutoZone sells another absorbent that is made from calcined clay and it’s pH isn’t suitable for seed starting.




With that done, next step is to get some of the brassicas going, broccoli, kale and collards, and then the lettuces. This year I am also going to start the kohlrabi seedlings indoor rather than direct sow. I keep forgetting they are not a root vegetable. Indoors at least, spring is happening. Outdoors, a lot of snow has melted but we are still getting single digit nighttime temperatures. Everyone around here is tired of winter and can’t wait for warmer weather.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

February Gardening in New England 2014



This was gardening in New England in February, 2014.  This is the path to the compost bin where I walked in my slippers every morning, risking frostbite, to deposit the kitchen scraps in the compost bin. Gardening is all about optimism, the belief that the future holds promise, that this frozen mess will eventually thaw and the compost bin will heat up and yield some black gold to enrich my (now frozen) garden beds. We hope, we trust, we pray to our gods, but just realize, summer does not always come.


My maternal grandmother, Eva Weinert Thess,  came to the US from Hungary in 1905. Her ancestors were ethnic Germans who emigrated to the Batschka in the eighteenth century after several years of unending winter in the Rhine river valley. Valentin Weinert arrived in Tschonopel about 1786 with his first wife, Anna Catharina Schinck. None of their children born in their native village of Niederburg came with them, so it is assumed they died of starvation before the Weinerts emigrated to Hungary. If Valentin had not chosen to make that long but optimistic journey to a better land, I would not be posting here.


OK, OK, summer is definitely coming this year, I promise. It is now March and Daylight Savings Time has arrived. The sun is much stronger and there is still daylight when I drive home from work. The snow is melting. The oil truck finally made it up the driveway so we have heating oil. And the onion seedlings have sprouted under the grow lights. I have my seeds in hand and the 2014 gardening season has begun!



Sunday, February 16, 2014

My choices for 2014



This is a particularly busy time for me. I have a seasonal job doing taxes and I am very busy from mid-January to the end of February, and again the first two weeks of April as the filing deadline looms. At the same time, the seed catalogs have arrived and I have to do the planning and seed ordering for the upcoming gardening season. I did get my seeds ordered and they are starting to arrive. Given the winter we have had so far, it is nice to be able to think about warmer weather and gardening.


Each year I go through the same process, deciding what to grow next season. I have my own experience growing vegetables in my own garden, but the catalogs are very enticing with their color photos and descriptions. I’m also influenced by bloggers who are enthusiastic about a particular variety, and by the kitchen garden at Tower Hill Botanical Gardens, where I can see the variety actually growing in similar conditions to mine. So here is an annotated list of what I am planting in 2014, with an acknowledgement of what/who influenced the choice .

  • Bean Bush – Provider and Jade are my reliable standards and I will be planting them again. The good news on Jade is a new grower has decided to continue to provide seed for the original, so seed vendors can still offer Jade rather than the replacement Jade II, which no one liked.
  • Bean Pole – I will probably still grow some Fortex and Trionfo Violetto, which did well for me last year and are terrific beans. I am going to have to find some room and construct another trellis because I decided to also try some Romano beans, Musica and Gold Marie. These are grown by bloggers I follow and I was envious of  their harvests of these beautiful beans.
  • Beet – I’m growing the red beet Boro again, but will substitute a new variety, Boldor, for Touchstone Gold beet. Here I was influenced by catalog descriptions of Boldor’s better germination rate and vigor.
  • Broccoli – Last year was a tough year for broccoli in our area. We had a hard freeze after I set out the starts, which damaged the leaves and attracted a flea beetle assault. That was followed by weeks of heavy rains, followed by weeks of temperatures in the high 90s and drought. Not ideal weather for broccoli. This year I will try growing Bay Meadows, which is supposed to tolerate some extremes in weather, according to the Fedco catalog.
  • Cabbage Chinese  - Haven’t grown cabbage before because it takes too much room, but have admired some of the Napa cabbages grown by various bloggers. Soloist is a miniature type Napa cabbage that hopefully will fit nicely in a square and even better in a dumpling.
  • Carrots – I had poor results last year with carrots for lots of reasons. I will try again this year and will be adding Yaya to my choices, based on blogger reviews.
  • Cucumber – I will grow Summer Dance and Jackson Classic pickling cucumbers again, based on my own experience with them. I will also grow Crystal Apple again, which did pretty well last year despite horrid conditions. I am adding Richmond Green Apple and Poona Kheera heirlooms to the mix, both impulse buys after reading catalog descriptions. Just have to find some room.
  • Kale – I will be planting Beedy’s Camden again, a great Siberian-type kale that is robust and hardy. Nothing bothers it. I decided to try Nero di Toscana, a kale everyone except me seems to grow, just to see what it is all about.
  • Kohlrabi – I tried kohlrabi last year and it was a failure, just like every other time I tried in the past. Going to try again this year growing Winner, a Fedco recommendation. I was blown away by the Azur Star kohlrabies growing at Tower Hill, but seed is apparently limited by crop failures, so maybe next year if I actually succeed in growing Winner. And this year I will start seeds in soil blocks and transplant to avoid the germination problems I had last year.
  • Mustard Green Wave will be in the garden again. New this year  is Dragon Tongue, a purple mustard from Territorial.
  • Onion – My Copra and Red Bull onions were pretty successful last year and the few remaining in the basement are still  in good condition. This year I am going to try Patterson, a yellow storage onion from Johnnys, and Red Wing (which was unavailable last year after a crop failure). Add to that the Saffron shallots, which I will try to grow from seed after last year’s expensive failure with fall-planted shallot bulbs. And I am trying Pride bunching onions from High Mowing, another impulse catalog purchase.
  • Pea Snow and Snap – The Oregon Sugar Pod II snow peas will be in the garden again. This year I am trying Sugar Daddy snap peas, which have short vines and good flavor, according to the catalogs. I prefer to grow the peas in self-supporting blocks rather than trellis them, saving precious trellis space for pole beans and cucumbers.
  • Peppers – Did I mention that last year’s weather conditions were horrid? A late Spring, cold weather including some freezes delaying planting, torrential rain storms and flooding, disease and pests, and weeks of weather near 100F made gardening here a challenge and affected my peppers. Still I had a fairly successful pepper season. I think some  of the success had to do with my new pepper protocol. Peppers I will surely grow again this year include Jimmy Nardello, Pimiento di Padron, Tiburon Ancho, Lipstick and Red Cherry. Two new ones I am trying are described as “spice” peppers, Aji Dulce and Trinidad, from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. These are supposed to have the aroma and flavor of hot peppers like Habanero without the heat. Trying the first one should be interesting, who’s volunteering?.
  • Radish – With the crappy weather, radishes didn't do well for me last year. I will probably try some again this year. New to the list is a radish I saw growing at Tower Hill, called Bora King. It is an elongated radish with a beautiful purple color and purple flushes on its foliage. I also bought on impulse some seed for Zlata. a Polish heirloom with a brown skin.
  • Squash Summer – The PM was horrid last year and the strain we had was resistant to most methods of controlling it. Even resistant varieties like Dunja were challenged. Hope this year is better. I still think Dunja is an excellent variety, but this year I convinced myself to try Desert, an exclusive from High Mowing. It is similar to Dunja but can still produce during extremely hot weather like last year. I was put off by the price of $7.50US for 10 seeds but decided that was just the price of supporting local seed companies who develop new varieties that suit my climate. Another experiment this year is substituting Y-Star for Sunburst as my yellow patty pan. I’m still a big fan of Sunburst but wanted to try Y-Star. Costata Romanesco and Tromboncino will still be in the garden.
  • Swiss chard – I’m trying Magenta Sunset this year, which I admired in the garden at Tower Hill. I will still be growing Orange Fantasia with it.
  • Tomatoes – Tomatoes are a big topic. In my SFG, I am growing indeterminate varieties 1 per square, a single leader trained up a trellis. This works but I have had limited results, a topic that will be covered in Part 2 of my What Works, What Doesn’t blog, if I ever get around to writing it. Meanwhile, I have plans to grow 7 varieties of tomatoes this year: 1) Juliet is a favorite that did very well last year in horrid weather. I considered trying Verona, a Johnny’s variety that claims to be Juliet-like with larger size and better flavor, but decided against it this year. 2) Sungold is another favorite but prone to cracking. This year I will try Esterina instead, a yellow cherry  from High Mowing that claims to be sweeter and more crack resistant than Sungold. 3) Jaune Flamme, a French heirloom grown by Michelle and other bloggers, will be given a chance. Another impulse decision, 4) Sunkist, an orange medium-sized slicer from High Mowing that was bred In New Hampshire, will hopefully produce some tasty tomatoes. 5) I saw Opalka growing at Tower Hill and was very impressed with the plant and the fruit. This is a Polish-origin heirloom paste tomato that will replace Gilbertie and Striped Roman in my garden. Hopefully it does better than those two, from which I failed to get more than a single tomato last year. 6) I love the flavor of Black Cherry, but the last two seasons have produced a meager harvest from plants that struggled with weather and disease. This year I am trying Black Pear, an impulse buy from Baker Creek Seeds. 7) Finally, I am going to plant Big Beef again for a main slicer tomato. I hope to buy plants locally so I don’t have to start these myself.
  • Turnips – I had some luck with Golden Ball last year but this year I will be growing Jaune Boule d’Or, a French heirloom from Baker Creek. Add to that the Japanese white turnip, Hakurei, from Johnny’s, in place of Tokyo Cross, which didn’t even germinate last year.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What Works Well in Raised Beds (and What Doesn't) Part 1




I now have two years of experience growing vegetables in raised beds, so I am getting a handle on which vegetables grow very well in raised beds and which don’t. I am using the Square Foot Gardening method promoted by Mel Bartholomew. SFG uses a soilless medium called “Mel’s Mix”, consisting of one third peat moss, one third vermiculite, and one third blended compost. Replanting is done by adding additional compost to the squares being replanted. In Part 1 I will concentrate on the positive and talk about the vegetables I have had success growing in my raised bed garden. Part 2, to come later, will talk about the negatives.


The use of the soilless mix in raised beds has many advantages:

  • The soilless mix has excellent mechanical properties, being light and fluffy, well-aerated with good water retention.

  • Raised beds thaw and dry out quicker in the spring so planting can start earlier.

  • The square foot method provides very efficient use of space, maximizing production from a given area.

  • Weeding is easier and beds can be kept relatively weed-free.

  • The pH of the mix is near neutral so there’s no need for liming or soil tests. The blended compost (replenished every planting) provides organic matter, nutrients and most trace minerals.

  • Watering is easier and the beds make efficient use of water, retaining it and minimizing runoff.


So which vegetables work well with the SFG method? In assessing that question, you first have to factor out all the variables caused by weather, pests and disease. I experienced  plenty of those elements the last few years. In general, vegetables with reasonable root masses and reasonable nutrient requirements should grow well in raised beds. A square (foot) in a six inch raised bed will have a soil volume of only half a cubic foot for plants to grow in and supply nutrients. Of course roots are free to spread into neighboring squares, but if they do too much of that, production in those squares will be affected.


Leafy Vegetables

All of the leafy vegetables I have grown (lettuces, endive, escarole, chard, spinach, parsley, and even kale and collards) have grown very well. They like the light, well-drained soil mix in the beds. Weather is the biggest factor affecting them. since they tend to like cool weather. Since I plant them fairly densely, slugs can be a problem but are easily controlled with Sluggo. Flea beetles and cabbage moths are problems on kale and collards. Those can be controlled either with row cover or sprays approved for organic gardens like Spinosad and Pyrethrin.


Small Root Vegetables

The root vegetables I grow (beets, radishes, turnips, carrots) should be happy in the Mel’s Mix. My biggest problems with them have been weather and pests. I have had the most luck with beets, although they grow slowly and occasionally get Cercospora leaf spot. I am going to experiment with adding a boron (Boraxo) supplement this coming season. Apparently beets (and broccoli) respond well to boron in the soil (even Mel recommends the use of a boron supplement).


Pests are the biggest problem with the other root vegetables. Radishes and turnips were plagued by flea beetles, which have become a severe problem in my area the last few years. In addition, the cabbage root maggot and  carrot fly maggot cause a lot of damage. The cure for all that is row cover, which is a real nuisance to manage. I may have to consider consolidating all these crops in a single raised bed so I can cover the entire bed. That’s unfortunate because they lend themselves to being tucked in here and there in the garden to maximize the harvest.


I grew carrots in raised beds last year for the first time and they are a bit challenging. I used Granny’s seed mat planting method, but germination times were long and germination was spotty. The carrots were supposed to get a good start before the kale and collards achieved any size, but that didn’t happen. The other consideration for carrots is length. I looked for varieties that grew to a length of 5-6 inches. You can  use a “top hat” to extend the depth of the bed, but that is far more trouble than I am willing to take on. The carrots pulled earlier were beautiful, but the later carrots were riddled with carrot fly maggot damage. The only reason I am going to plant them again in 2014 is the superior flavor of fresh carrots.



In general, beans (both bush and pole) grow very well in raised beds. I have good crops every year with no problems. I usually use seed inoculant, particularly in a new bed, since you never know if the right kind of bacteria are present. Studies have shown that even in real soil, inoculants help increase yield. One thing I have noticed is that during the first few weeks of plant growth in spring, the leaves of the plants are a bit yellowish and become darker green as daytime temperatures increase. I attribute this to the fact that the nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria work better in warmer weather.



Peas also grow well in raised beds. I just grow snow peas and snap peas. Regular peas yield too little for the space they take. And I always use inoculant before planting. My past practice has been to select varieties that only grow 2-3 feet tall. I confine them in the bed with some short fencing and let them grab onto each other for support. The problem with this technique is it is a bit difficult to find the peas in the jungle of foliage to harvest them.



Cucumbers do well in raised beds but need to be trellised. Cucumber beetles (which spread bacterial wilt) and powdery mildew (PM) are the two biggest problems. It helps to pick resistant varieties. PM can be controlled with sprays, but the beetles are a real problem. I usually seed cucumbers directly in the soil, but last year the weather caused germination problems. I had to revert to starting seeds indoors in pots and then transplant them in the garden. If you can manage the diseases and pests, and the weather is not awful, cucumbers will do well in raised beds.


Onions, Garlic, Shallots

I have had good luck growing onions and garlic in raised beds. They are shallow rooted, like light soils but don’t like competition from weeds. The raised bed environment is ideal for them. Last year I planted onions in the row next to the tomatoes. They did well and so did the tomatoes, whose roots had grown into the neighboring row but under the onions. The only conflict occurred when the onions tops were falling over and I was supposed to stop watering them, but I knew the tomato roots were in the same area and needed watering.


Garlic from cloves planted last fall did well. I harvested the bulbs in July and was pleased with the yield. So much so that this year I planted five different varieties. My one failure was trying to grow shallots from bulbs planted in the fall. The heavy snowfall cover last winter caused the bulbs to rot and not a single one survived. In 2014 I am going to try growing shallots from seed, like onions.


Summer Squash

If you stick to bush-type summer squash and give them enough room, summer squash will thrive in a raised bed environment. They like the light soil rich in organic matter, so I make sure to add plenty of compost. The trick is to pick varieties that are fairly reasonable in their space demands yet will produce a reasonable amount of fruit. I plant them in a 3x3 square, usually pushing 4 seeds into a circle in the center of the square. For zucchini, Dunja is a great variety. It forms a compact, open bush which allows good air circulation and makes it easy to spot fruit before they become baseball bats. It pumps out beautiful dark green fruit and it is highly resistant to PM.


The path to success revolves around pest and disease management. Around here, squash bugs and squash vine borers are a plague. Add in PM later in the season and there is a lot to deal with. Row cover helps with  the pests, but when the squash start flowering, you are faced with the choice of hand pollinating or removing the cover. Planting PM-resistant varieties helps, as do sprays, for the PM.

Monday, December 30, 2013

My Meyer Lemon Crop



This is New England and it is December. My potted Meyer lemon tree is safely inside under a grow light and seems reasonably happy (no spider mites so far). The two lemons that survived the fruit drop have finally matured. Last year I actually got five lemons from the tree (a tiny harvest to you temperate climate gardeners lucky enough to have a full size Meyer lemon growing in your yard, but significant to me). The harvest this year is smaller but the lemons were large to my eye (2.75 in. diameter and 6.1 oz./176 g. weight). One was turned into a lemon meringue pie (recipe here) for our Christmas dinner. It was not chocolate so I expected protests from the wife, but it turned out to be a big hit. It was Christmas and my own lemon so I  ignored the carb content for the day and enjoyed it just as much. Now I have to find another use for the second lemon for New Year’s Day dinner.



Saturday, November 23, 2013

Roots, both Edible and Incredible

How do you know you are getting a bit behind in garden chores? When the 2014 seed catalogs start arriving and you have not completed cleaning out the garden beds! I was enjoying the newly arrived Pinetree and High Mowing  catalogs when I realized I have not finished my chores with this year’s garden. We already had a garden work day but I spent more time helping put a wood chip border around our deer fence to protect the fragile plastic mesh deer fencing fabric from the town’s mowers than cleaning up my own plot.


We always recommend gardeners pull disease-prone plants like tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers and dispose of them in the trash, the task I had yet to finish in my own garden beds. So today I headed to the garden with a black plastic trash bag. My first discovery was a pleasant one. I had left some Golden Ball turnips in the ground after pulling the larger ones and they survived nicely. I now have a nice batch of turnips to use for Thanksgiving dinner.




Next I pulled all the dead solanaceous and cucurbit plants. The plants were dead brown stems, the leaves long blown away. The biggest distinguishing characteristic was the roots, and how easy or hard it was to pull the plant. Particularly interesting to me was to compare the root structures of the grafted tomato plants to the ungrafted control plant. I have already declared the grafted tomato experiment a failure, and I won’t be planting them next year. Looking at the root balls, you can see why. Below is a photo of the Juliet tomatoes. The ungrafted tomato is the one at the top.




Alright, maybe I should have removed the fabric from the grafted tomato, but roots are supposed to grow through it and actually did. Also notice the size of the stems. The ungrafted Juliet at the top was grown in a 4 inch pot by a neighbor and was a beautiful transplant with a thick, stocky stem flushed with red. The grafted tomato was a mail order plant and arrived as a small, spindly plant and was never going to compete effectively with my locally grown ungrafted plant. Next I pulled the Big Beef tomatoes, shown below.




Again, the ungrafted Big Beef is the plant on the top. The Big Beef grafted plant was a bit more successful than the pathetic Juliet grafted plant, but did not compare well to the ungrafted Big Beef. So much for the theory that the rootstock used for grafted tomatoes is far more vigorous and  produces huge root volumes. In my case, that clearly is not true, but there must be a reason. Commercial growers are huge consumers of grafted plants, so it must work in the right conditions. For the time being, I will sit out the grafting experiment and go with ungrafted plants next year.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Planting Garlic 2013



I have finally completed planting out my garlic for harvest next year. I am a bit late (mid-late October would have been better for my zone), but stuff happens. At least it is done, and since I over-ordered the Spanish Rioja, I have the additional satisfaction of spreading the affliction to three other gardeners by giving them free garlic to plant.


In the picture above, you can see the 4x4 bed that was used to grow bush beans this year. It was prepared for the garlic by adding a bag of lobster compost along with a granular organic vegetable fertilizer and some bone  meal. Three rows have already been planted and you can see the spacing I am using. Each square foot of the row is marked out and I have spaced 9 cloves of Rosso di Sulmona garlic per square in a 3x3 grid. That gives a 4” spacing between plants.


Last year was my first year for garlic and I planted two hardneck varieties, German Extra Hardy and Chesnok Red. I got a good harvest and set aside some bulbs for planting this fall. The Chesnok Red has held fine and is a great garlic. I am a bit concerned about the German Extra Hardy. Four months from harvest and the bulbs have started to soften and some of the cloves have turned brown, and some are even moldy. From the bulbs I set aside for planting, I only got enough sound cloves to plant three squares. This may be the last year for that variety for me, since there are far too many varieties to try and not enough time for me to settle for mediocre results.


This year I wanted to add another variety, probably Spanish Rioja. While shopping around I encountered and became enamored of Viola Francese, a softneck popular in the south of France and in Italy, so I ordered a quarter pound. Then I encountered Rosso di Sulmona, touted as the best tasting garlic in the universe, and I also had to have some of that. Eventually I got back to thinking about Spanish Rioja. Many sources were now sold out, but I found it at High Mowing Seeds and (accidentally) ordered a full pound. So this year I am planting five varieties of garlic. Here are the new varieties this year:




Viola Francese above (purchased from Cook’s Garden) is a softneck artichoke variety.The bulbs were very large and so were the individual cloves. The “viola” apparently comes from the violet stripes on the skin, since the individual cloves are an orange-brown color with just a flush of violet. Two bulbs to a quarter pound planted 4 squares.




The beautiful garlic above is Rosso di Sulmona (imported from Italy by Seeds of Italy). I believe it is a hardneck but I have seen it described as a softneck. The garlic I received had a single row of cloves around a central stem, which seems to be a hardneck. Cloves were very large, with 6-7 per bulb. I planted 5 squares of it and hope it lives up to the hype.




Finally, the garlic above is Spanish Rioja, another hardneck variety. The bulb has a white skin and the cloves are brown with a rose colored blush. Cloves were very large, 6-7 per bulb. Since I over-ordered, I planted 6 squares of this garlic, and gave bulbs to three other gardeners to try their hand at growing garlic. Everything is now planted, fertilized and mulched and I am done with the garden for this year, except for a few turnips and escarole holding in the garden.

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