Sunday, April 5, 2015

Next Up, Tomatoes




My attempt to salvage my shallot growing season has somewhat succeeded. With poor germination rate and the suicidal tendencies of my shallot seeds and seedlings, I tried pre-germinating some additional seeds in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag. They were kept warm by placing the baggie on top of one of the lighting units. After about a week, I had seeds sprouting. It was a bit challenging to get the sprouts into soil. The roots grew in a corkscrew pattern, as you can see below. Trying to get the sprout into a planting hole with the root downward was made harder by the shape and the fact the seed head was heavier. Simply dropping the seedling caused the seed to flip around and land in the hole with the root pointing skyward. I finally tried enlarging  the hole and laying the seedling in sideways.




The shallot seedlings did figure out which way is up, with a little help from gravity. These are planted in Lambert’s All-Purpose Potting Mix amended with a little kelp meal, and I am hoping it does not crust as bad as the McEnroe potting soil.



Sunday, March 29, 2015

Seed Starting Begins

The Ambition shallots were sown two weeks ago. I used McEnroe organic potting mix, which has some compost in it, in a plastic tub. I figured the plants would be in the tub for awhile so some extra nutrients would be beneficial. I have about 20 plants germinated from 45 seeds planted, so germination was not terrific. I would have more except for the plants’ tendency to commit suicide. The McEnroe mix formed a crust on top of the pot. Not sure that was the cause but the taproot of some plants elongated and pushed the seedlings out of the soil, where they flopped over and died. Weird, never had that happen before. I have started to pre-germinate some more seed in a wet paper towel in a baggie in hopes of catching up and getting a few more transplants. The top of the plant lights makes a good area to pre-germinate seed since it is slightly warm but not hot enough to kill the seeds.




Last week I sowed the first of the Brassicas, the kale and broccoli. For them I decided to use a standard soilless planting mix, Lambert’s All-Purpose Planting Mix. They spent a few days on the heat mat until germination started and are now off the heat and under the grow lights. Planted on March 22 were:

  • Kale Beedy’s Camden
  • Kale Nero di Toscana
  • Kale Tronchuda Beira
  • Broccoli Fiesta
  • Broccoli Arcadia
  • Broccoli Raab Sorrento




Today I am planting lettuce and peppers. The peppers and Ping Tung eggplant are going into plastic 6-cell flats. I can fit 12 of these flats into a 1040 tray, or 72 plants. I thought about but decided not to try pre-germinating the seeds. I have a heat mat that will accommodate a 1020 tray, and I planted 2 seeds per cell, so with 12 varieties to germinate, this is just much simpler. The one shock was the Stocky Red Roaster pepper, which had just 10 seeds in the packet. Guess I might be collecting seeds from this one if I decide it is a keeper (which is likely given its rave reviews). Planted today were these varieties:

  • Eggplant Ping Tung
  • Pepper Jimmy Nardello
  • Pepper Lemon Drop
  • Pepper Padron
  • Pepper Stocky Red Roaster
  • Pepper Arroz Con Pollo
  • Pepper Hungarian Paprika
  • Pepper Yummy Belles
  • Pepper Aji Dulce
  • Pepper Trinidad Spice/Perfume
  • Pepper Tiburon Ancho Poblano




The pepper flat was placed on my one and only heat mat. An hour after planting, here they are, warm and steamy on the heat mat.




Next I planted a tray of lettuce and greens/herbs. Lettuce seed needs light to germinate so I made a small depression in each cell and sprinkled a pinch of seeds into it. Then  I covered the seed with a little fine vermiculite and watered it in. The lettuce flat has a clear plastic dome to cover it but the heat mat is currently occupied by the peppers. They should be alright at room temperature.




Planted in this tray were the following:

  • Lettuce Green Ice
  • Lettuce Red Sails
  • Lettuce Buttercrumch
  • Lettuce Midnight Ruffles
  • Lettuce Winter Density
  • Lettuce Marshall
  • Ice Lettuce
  • Mustard Green Wave
  • Chinese Cabbage Soloist
  • Cilantro Caribe
  • Endive Dubuisson
  • Escarole Natacha

This was a pretty good start to the season. Next are some Asian greens and then the tomatoes. Hopefully the peppers are prompt because the toms are going to want some space on that heat mat.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Planning the 2015 Garden



Planning for the 2015 garden actually started last year as I observed what worked in the current garden and what did not do well in my garden, given soil and climate conditions. I usually write up a post mortem on the garden but slacked off this year. Still, I know what worked for me and what did poorly. I also keep a list of interesting new varieties to try, influenced by visits to the kitchen garden at Tower Hill Botanical Garden and fellow bloggers and gardeners.


The next step is to finally decide what I am growing next season. I make up a planting list, inventory my seeds, and then decide what I need to purchase. I like to try new things so there are usually several new varieties in the list. For those, I need to find a seed vendor who carries them. A snippet from the 2015 list is shown below and the complete list can be found here. Vendor codes are at the end of the complete list at the link.



The next task is to develop a planting schedule for each plant being grown. This is a multi-pronged, iterative task. Given a fixed amount of gardening space, I have to determine what fits where, how much of each variety to grow, and when to start seeds and when to plant/transplant. For this task I have two tools:

a plot plan of my SFG garden with ruling into one-foot squares, and a planting schedule spreadsheet.


The plot plan looks like this and I can write in year and Spring or Fall  for planting season. I sit down with my planting list and a 0.5mm mechanical pencil and a good eraser and work out a planting arrangement for the year. You can see I am dealing with a fixed amount of space: the plot is 15x22 feet and I have 180 squares to squeeze in everything I want to grow.





The work with the plot plan diagram produces the number of plants or seeds of each variety that must be started/planted. and is transferred to the planting schedule. The schedule is shown below and the online version may be viewed here.  The schedule has the usual columns for planned and actual seed start dates but it also includes number of plants and format (soil block size, etc.). Plants are listed alphabetically, which has the advantage of keeping them together. Sorting by seed starting date might make sense, but might also make a mess since that column has non-date entries. So I just scan the column to see what I need to do next.




I print out copies of the plot plan and planting schedule and put them in sheet protectors to keep them clean. They go with me to the garden and I try to keep them updated with the actual dates. Sometimes I even manage to update the online file with the actual dates and notes. This creates a record of dates, what was planted, and what worked that is then useful in planning the next season. And now as I scan the schedule while writing this, I see I better get to work with my brassica and pepper starts

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Seed Starting Season



Ol’ 67 there is my “mail slot” where the postman delivers my seed orders. It is not mounted in my door, rather it is perched on and frozen into the snow bank, hopefully out of reach of the plows which tore it off the post you see to the left. Fortunately all my seeds are safely inside and seed planning and planting is underway. Last week I planted my Ambition shallot seeds. It’s going to be Ambition this year because Saffron was out of stock/discontinued and then Conservor. Apparently 2014 was a bad year for shallot seed growers while I had a great year. And that is all the allium seeds I have to deal with now because the rest of my onions are transplants coming from Dixondale Farms in April.


In past years I have used a Hydrofarm plant light to start seeds. It is a single, 4 foot/120 cm T5 bulb in a reflector mounted on a support with cords to adjust the lamp height. I used it the past two years but the single bulb is really inadequate to cover the width of the two 1020 trays that fit under it. It would be OK for a single row of pots but not for a tray filled with flats or soil blocks. It was a nuisance to have to rotate and shift trays so plants at the edges of the tray would not get too leggy, and I was limited in the amount of plants I could have under the light. So this season I decided to invest in something more effective and with more capacity.




Most of the commercially available plant racks in the size I was considering were in the $600-1000 USD range and I am far too cheap to indulge in those. So I decided to assemble my own. Rachel of Growing a Good Life had a post on her setup and I set out to do something similar. My goal was not to go as inexpensive as I could but to build something with some quality to it that works well. The basic idea is to acquire a shelving unit and hang lighting units under each shelf. A 36 inch wide shelf unit would best fit my space but the lights come in 2 foot/60 cm and 4 foot/120 com sizes. So I purchased a 4 foot/120 cm bakers rack. I looked locally but could not find the size and features I wanted, so I bought it from Amazon. The unit above is an Alera wire shelving unit with casters and black anthracite finish, about $85. It is high quality construction and the finish is a metallic charcoal color and really attractive. The shelves are 18 inches/46 cm deep so if I had to I can easily arrange four of the 1020 trays you see perpendicular to the shelves without risk of them tipping.







I wanted good lighting and looked at shop lights available locally. Most were T8 units. A little online research revealed I probably wanted a T5 setup, so I again went to Amazon. I purchased two Apollo Horticulture four-bulb light fixtures. They are compact (only 2 inches deep) with a dimpled reflector and come with four 54 watt high output F54T5HO bulbs. The T5 bulbs are smaller and higher efficiency than the typical T8 shop light. The T5 bulb has a lifetime of about 20,000 hours and only loses about 5-6% light output towards the end of its life. My fixtures were shipped with bulbs having the 6400 °K phosphor which is best for vegetative growth. Each fixture has dual electronic ballasts and dual switches, so lights can be turned on in banks of two. Each has an outlet on the end so they can be daisy-chained. I got these for about $95 each plus shipping, more expensive than cheap shop lights but far superior in performance. So far I am pleased with these lights.








Next I had to figure a way to suspend the lights below the shelves and adjust the height to accommodate plant growth. It turns out there are lots of options available for exactly this purpose so I did not have to rig something. I chose to buy the Apollo Horticulture 1/8 inch rope hangers, which feature a metal gear and ratchet for durability. These were $12 per pair and work very well. So I now have a seed starting rack with 2 shelves plus a third for storing supplies. It can handle 1-8 1020 trays, rolls around easily, and cost about $320 to buy. I also rationalized that I could use it to grow salad greens and herbs during the winter to justify the cost. So far, I am pleased and the wife has not freaked out over the size of the unit, so on to 2015 and a great gardening season.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

2015 Planting List



What a winter! Historic snow amounts and low temperatures. We have had 7 feet of snow in about three weeks (a foot of that this weekend) and are expecting another 1.5 feet Tuesday. Tonight it is supposed to be –6 °F (-21 °C) with high winds and –30 °F  (-34 °C) wind chill factor. Brrr.


All of  the seed orders are in and mostly delivered and safe inside. For those of you unfamiliar with suburban snow storms, mailboxes on the street are subject to being blown up by the town plows going by at high speed, throwing a plume of heavy snow that rips mailboxes off their supports and deposits them who knows where. The mere fact that my seeds have been safely retrieved and secured inside is a major accomplishment. The hell with the bills, my seeds are safe.


I am now working on the seed starting schedule, which is keeping me positive with all the nasty weather. Meanwhile, here is the planting list for Spring 2015, whenever (if ever ) it arrives. Seed vendor legend: BC=Baker Creek, DF=Dixondale Farms, F=Fedco, HM=High Mowing Seeds, J=Johnny’s, PT=Pinetree, R=Renee’s, SESE=Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, T=Territorial

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Poor Gardening Weather



It is not very good weather for gardening today. 25 inches at 9 AM this morning and supposed to snow until at least 7 PM tonight.




It is even poorer barbeque weather. That’s my poor Weber kettle being engulfed by drifting snow.




While it is a monochrome world outside, it is warm and toasty inside.





Color will have to be provided by the seed catalogs. The storm is giving me a day off work and the chance to finalize my seed orders. To add some more color to the process, I loaded the pen with Noodler’s Apache Sunset ink for an in-your-face color addition and reminder of summer days. So I’m happy. I have my seed catalogs, a warm fire, and a glass of Cabernet. Just hope power stays on long enough for me to post this. Everyone stay safe.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Onion Culture



My onion plant order is placed! The only allium I will have to start from seed this year will be the Saffron shallots. I took other bloggers’ advice and ordered my plants directly from Dixondale Farms. Not only is the price cheaper for the two bundles I was planning to order, but it gets cheaper by the bundle, so it’s hard to resist. In addition to Copra and Red Zeppelin, I wound up ordering the Tropea onions I usually grow as well as a mixed bundle of intermediate day onions (Candy, Red Candy, and Super Star). So I will have 200-280 plants showing up mid-April and just have to figure where I will put them.


Dixondale has a lot of growing information and I learned a lot just by watching a couple of their videos. I already knew that up North here I plant long-day onions so that after the solstice when days grow shorter, the onions are triggered to start forming bulbs. But there are some tricks to getting the largest bulbs that’s probably obvious to everyone else, but wasn’t to me.


Supposedly an ideal onion will have about 13 layers or rings (ideal meaning that’s about as much as you can expect to get in a growing season). Each ring in the bulb corresponds to one leaf of the foliage. When daylight triggers bulb formation, the layers start expanding, so the more layers (i.e., the more leaves), the bigger the onion bulb will be. A healthy, rapidly growing onion can grow a new leaf about every two weeks. The plants from Dixondale will have 4-5 leaves and a healthy root structure (versus the 2 leaves that my own transplants have). To get to 13 leaves, it will take another 16-18 weeks after transplant, given ideal conditions. Onions are heavy feeders and require a lot of nitrogen to encourage foliage growth.


So the formula for big onions is:

  • Plant as early as you safely can. The clock is ticking and you want as much foliage as you can grow before bulb formation commences. Once the bulb starts forming there will be no more foliage growth.
  • Buy plants. Ignore the cost, the extra 2-3 leaves they have over homegrown transplants is worth 4-6 weeks of time in your garden.
  • Space onions 4 inches apart in the row, with rows 16 inches apart. Plant onion plants no more than 1 inch deep. The reason for the row spacing is that while onions are shallow rooted, they do develop extensive side roots. In raised beds, they recommend a minimum 4” x 8” spacing. I am going to have to play with the geometry of this for my raised beds. And there is the question of, would I like to have more, smaller onions or fewer but larger?
  • Use a general purpose fertilizer with lots of phosphorus (something like 10-20-10) for good root development when planting. Maybe add bone meal to get the extra P. If you are pushing the limit and planting very early, Dixondale has found that high potassium levels in the soil help protect against freeze damage. In addition to NPK, onions require a lot of micro-nutrients for healthy growth, including magnesium, zinc, boron, copper, iron, manganese and molybdenum, so make sure they are in your fertilizer (or throw in a handful of rock dust).
  • Then starting at two weeks after planting once roots have established, use a nitrogen fertilizer every two weeks. Stop fertilizing when bulb formation starts.
  • When bulb formation starts, make sure the onions have plenty of water. Stop watering when foliage falls over and let the soil dry out before harvesting.
  • Watch for onion pests like thrips and spray if needed.
  • Use a preventative organic  fungicide regularly. Even if fungus disease is not visible, any spores present may increase spoilage and reduce storage time.


The nitrogen fertilizer they recommend is ammonium sulfate, which is a chemical fertilizer and not suited for organic gardens. I will most likely use blood meal. If you have a blood meal rated 13-0-0, you apply a cup per 20 foot of row. I will also be amending the beds with the onions with rock dust and kelp meal to get the micronutrients into the soil.

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