On gardening shortcuts

A pretty summer cabbage, from seed started in February

February!  Hark, I hear the swoosh of the swing of the season!

Admittedly, this is wishful thinking on my part.  We’re a long way off from spring, but we’re not far at all from spring planning.  And most gardening folk are thinking about the upcoming growing season, myself included.  I am about two weeks from stringing up the basement lights for early onions, for example; exciting, but also…the worst part of my own garden calendar.  I abhor indoor gardening.

No, I am thinking about how much less work I can do this year.  Every year, it’s my goal to bite off less, to realize the value of my most precious resource:  my time.  I will say that the longer one gardens, the more shortcuts one finds.  One needs to pay attention, though.  If I don’t want to weed, I must mulch; if I want to maximize the harvest out of one bed, I must be merciless about pulling plants and reseeding/replanting.  It becomes a bit of a game.  And games can be mastered.

So I am trying to master the game that is the onion family.  I seeded three greenhouse beds with those little hard black seeds yesterday:  leeks, red and white and yellow onions.  I placed them between the green sprouts of the rows of garlic.  If all goes well, this one step will save me days of anxiety pampering those damned indoor seed trays.   They’ll take longer to grow, but the conditions in the greenhouses are both out of my control and perfect for seed-sprouting, if you happen to be an onion seed.

I will of course plant them indoors, too, but, if it’s a successful experiment, then next year the basement lights will only come out for the tomatoes and peppers, and maybe celery/parsley.  And THAT will save me lots of time.  And swearing.

24 responses to “On gardening shortcuts

  1. Good idea- the simplifying, but I think you should keep the swearing; it’s good for the spirit.

  2. I started my leeks and onions indoors just two days ago. I had hoped to use cold frames outdoors, but it’s really clear that it’s too cold for that, and I need to get a light and a heating pad. Even indoors, with the stove burning, most parts of the house are below 65! Currently, the babies are in a casserole dish above the hearth, at a nice toasty 70 degrees. Now it’s a race to get the lights and the heating mat before they poke out their little heads.

    In the long-term plans, I’m tempted by a greenhouse. Normally, winters in Atlanta were warm enough that everything could live outside. We’ve just moved to the Knoxville area, and it’s hard to tell whether winters will be as mild, given the crazy weather we’re having this year. My rosemary and sage will probably be fine, but my oregano and garlic may have bitten the dust. It’d sure be nice to have a greenhouse and not have to worry about it.

    • Hi Joshua, just a quick note to let you know that onions are just about the only things that will sprout even in extremely cold temperatures. Like anything, all seeds have a sweet spot of what’s ideal, but if you look at this table on this page you’ll see that onions sprout in as little as 32 degrees F (as do parsnips, lettuce and spinach)…just to take some pressure off you moving them around the house!

      • El,

        Thanks for that. It looks like even at 55, which is about as cold as any part of my house gets these days, they onions should still emerge reasonably quickly. I still plan to get a grow light and heat mat, because more starts are coming!


      • Thanks El. I’m thinking of starting seeds in my basement area, and the part I’m thinking of gets about as cold as 30 to 35*F-ish. I have no idea if it’ll work, but I’ll try.
        On a related note, do you think I can start onions outside once the temp is reliably above 32*F? Still early for that landmark, but just a thought…

  3. I just started my onions and a few other things yesterday. It isn’t my favorite part, but in the middle of winter, I don’t mind it as much. If I could direct seed everything, I’d be a happy girl.

  4. My least favorite part of the whole gardening experience is starting the seeds in flats in the house, I’m really not even sure why. Once I can move them into the greenhouse it is not so bad but I hate having to deal with them inside.

    I love your ideas with the onions and have been thinking about starting a small test plot of my own, direct seeded into the garden under row covers sometime later this month. Onions are not my favorite transplants.

  5. My biggest shortcut is just getting my veggies from a CSA 🙂 Actually, last year I had started some things from seed for my dad to garden along with his plot but I found out that I can get extra seedlings from the CSA too.

  6. Thanks for the reminder to get going on seedlings. It’s time! I’m sure the onions will be happy.

  7. ah ha ha! I am sowing spinach and radishes and snow peas OUTSIDE tomorrow! In containers, yes, so I can either bring them in or cover with plastic wrap if necessary, But it’s been well over 40 for weeks now.

  8. El,

    We are toying with the idea of building a small greenhouse out of a bunch of large plexi-glass panes a friend gave us (they were going to be thrown away). Your post here (assuming your greenhouse onions do well) is another kick in my pants to get us thinking about doing it.

    Thanks for the link to your chart. I haven’t been here in a bit, but ’tis the season to start reading you again. I here the “swoosh” as well:-).

  9. Wonderful stuff here, El! I found your site through the House of Annie “Grow Your Own” feature (I’m leek and parsnip soup there). As one eating locally in Minnesota and Wisconsin I see a lot of similarities in our situations–I’ll be checking in for inspiration, and commiseration.

    Best~ Brett

  10. Pingback: Pluck and Feather » After The Wolf Moon

  11. I guess I’m in the minority in that I kind of like starting my plants indoors–its my way of seeing/smelling that spring is coming. I hear you on the shortcuts though–as my garden has grown in size it’s also evolved to be easier to maintain (at least in theory!)

    Actually my shortcut for onions has been to buy plants/sets–but this year I’m doing seeds for the first time 🙂

  12. I’m with Sara, I love when it is time for starting my seedlings. Makes the rest of the Maine winter more exciting! Last year I started some very hot peppers from a dried pepper my friend got in New Mexico and it was so hot that when I realized that it had sprouted and took the plastic wrap off the tray a whiff of hot pepper went up my nose! No Kidding!

  13. Pamela, well, there’s no problem with me swearing off swearing, as I always pretty much fail 🙂

    Joshua, here’s my theory on heat pads for your seeds: once they have to go outdoors and live, their lives won’t be quite so cushy! I guess I am advocating a tough-love approach here. Sure heat pads get the seeds to sprout, quickly, but…they’ll be weaker once they have to go outside. Acclimating only does so much. And don’t worry about your oregano; they die back to the ground every winter. The garlic is probably just fine too. Rosemary is a bit more of a wimp though. But yeah, greenhouse! I’m pretty much gonna always sell you on one, I don’t care where you live.

    MC, what I do is I wrap my seed area (bottom, sides, over the top of the lights and down) in one of those thermal blankets (those shiny mylar sheets you find in the camping sections of places like Target: they’re folded up super tiny). Our basement is a perennially chilly 50-55 so the tomatoes hate it. Wrapping them up does two things: it multiplies the efficiency of the light, and it keeps them warmer. But yeah, that sounds like a cold basement!!! Anywhere else you can seed-start?

    Mom, well, that’d be my goal too but those tomatoes are so fussy. Good luck to your new year of gardening!! I confess I do love the smell of damp seed-start dirt…

    Mike, someone last year mentioned that she transplanted her leeks out and “it was like planting eyelashes,” and I had to howl: it’s pretty damned fussy work. Give it a go: if you have plenty of seeds, it can’t hurt, right?

    Wendy, jealous, that’s one full-service CSA, especially because they’re cutting into their potential customers by selling seedlings! But yeah, sometimes subcontracting is the way to go.

    Stef, indeed. You’re welcome for the reminder. Are you doing indoors or out? Isn’t it a bit wet out right now?

    Aimee, rub it in, why don’t you? Good luck on trying out the container garden, keep us updated. We’ve got some bad-ass grass here too but it does get cold enough here for it to stop growing for at least part of the year 😉

    ThyHand: welcome back, then! Hope I can nudge you to try something new…like that greenhouse. It sounds like it could be a really fun project, especially for your oldest. And yeah, happy swoosh to you too!

    Brett, where were you when I lived there??? You and Mary sound like kindred spirits, especially with the bread thing. I hope I can inspire you to build a small masonry oven: it would be just the thing for your bread bidniz. And to prove to you how long it’s been since we were there, there was no E. Lake St market back then! Indeed, I have you bookmarked too so do check back often.

    Sara, no, indeed, you’re not in the minority. I just feel like I should lay it all out there for folks who’re hesitating with even beginning to start a garden: the path to failure is littered with tons of unharvested produce in some weedy-assed gardens. So on paper I may appear terribly successful but hey: even some parts of gardening give me the blues, truly! BUT: good luck with the onion seeds. They take a while so be kinda patient.

    Liz, that’s a wonderful story on the peppers, how funny. But yes, unless you get a lot of sunny days at this time of the year, I think indoor gardening can really get you excited, don’t you? Good luck with the start of the season!

    • El,

      I hear you about coddling the plants, but I was really concerned that if I didn’t use the heat mats indoors, the seeds would take forever to start. My wood stove has been under-performing (maybe needs new gaskets… trying to troubleshoot it) and we have not been burning it to avoid wasting the wood, so the house has been getting down to maybe 50 degrees in the morning. I’ve learned that onions will germinate at that temperature, but the whole reason I’m starting them now is to get a jump on the spring, and at that low temp, I fear they’d take so long to germinate that I’d lose a lot of that lead time.

      Of course, the makers of the heat mats claim that they promote stronger root systems, not weaker plants. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. We’ll see how the babies do when they get set outside in the spring.

      Thanks for the comments on my herbs. I’ll be glad if the oregano comes back in the spring. These plants have produced some delicious meals for me. I have a bit of a sentimental attachment to them, even if I could go down to the nursery and just buy some more if they died. I have a friend who says she cuts her perennial herbs back to the ground every winter and they grow back every spring. Right now, the oregano just has a bunch of bare branches. What do you think? Leave it as-is or cut it back? Not sure whether the cut-back would do the plant a favor, kind of like pruning, or whether it would just set it back even further.

      • Definitely, Joshua, they’ll grow a bit more slowly, but…put them in the ground when it’s cold by putting them in early and they’ll be slow then too! Do you see what I mean? They’ll of course grow well for you indoors but that’s not what’s ideal. There’s unfortunately no “rushing” the season unless of course you count things like having a greenhouse that shaves plant hardiness zones by one or two levels. Warm soil, especially overnight, is what plants like. Onions are notoriously poky, but goodness they’ve got nothing on parsley and celery, which can take up to a month to germinate. My experience simply tells me that planting these things outdoors in the greenhouse means they’ll be about even with the ones I start inside, but there’s always a bit of a stop-growth shock when you transplant them, and I tend to transplant my onion family plants at least twice (from under the lights to soil in a greenhouse bed (as I need the indoor under-light space for the tomatoes) to where they’ll end up growing. And yeah, oregano. Don’t worry about trimming it until this spring’s cleanup. If you took a peek now, you would probably see a small bed of leaves right on the ground, where the new shoots will start. New growth happens there so you can feel safe with cutting off the old. This isn’t the case with sage or rosemary but it’s definitely true with oregano and marjoram.

  14. When did you live in Minnesota, El? The Midtown market on Lake Street started in 2003, and we started selling our bread there in 2005. Re ovens, we built a small earth oven at our Wisconsin place last year, following Kiko Denzer’s book. It was fun but not awfully practical (and I don’t think it’s going to survive this winter). I’d love to get going on a bigger one this year. Look forward to following the progress of yours. Best~ Brett

    • Hi Brett: we moved at the end of 2004, so I guess I am surprised I missed the Lake St. market because I lived right off Lake St., albeit near Uptown. Ah well. And yeah I had considered a cob oven too and had worried as well about its longevity: knowing my penchant for doing things twice (nonexistent, incidentally) I figured I would go for broke. I helped a girlfriend build hers in River Falls and another set of friends build theirs in Linden Hills. Yeah, tune in! should be a fun spring, burning things…

  15. El, your River Falls friend wouldn’t be one Catharine N., would it?


  16. What you said. Small, but nice. Catharine and I were trying to get together to talk farmers market baking a while back, but couldn’t get out schedules straight. I’m going to make a point to get out and see her oven this spring.

    Sounds like we could have a real old home week if we got going. Do you also know Mala, who put me in touch with Catharine? With Thomas being an artist, I imagine we have some friends in common in that world, too.

    Very best~ Brett

    • “Old Home Week” was yet another Minnesota term I had never known ’til I moved up there, how hilarious, thanks for reminding me. And when I first read your comments and blog I thought, “I should introduce these two to Catharine,” who after all is one of my dearest friends and favoritest cooking partners…and of course she’s a fabulous chef. I hope you do hook up with her, soon! That oven runs year-round you know, so go get a poolish going and take the trip out there. It takes about 2 hours to get the thing up to heat. It’s pretty fabulous. I don’t know Mala, or at least I think I don’t, but the world, as we have confirmed, is quite small. Tom’s represented by Thomas Berry, should you be in Mpls sometime. We were just up there for his show last fall. And of course we stopped in River Falls.

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