Category Archives: seeds

On the upside of the end

Rewards:  long-term garden residents Buttercup squash and Romanesco broccoli

Another gift to the hard-working gardener is the harvest of the vegetables that take forever to mature, like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and winter squash.  Perhaps our tastebuds are simply trained to the harvest calendar, but it’s just about now that these things seem so darned desirable…and tasty.

And some harvests allow you to contemplate infinity.  Witness a close-up of the broccoli:

isn’t that crazy?  And I will have you know that I hosed off the cabbage moth caterpillar poop and powdery Bt before getting out the camera.  I grow both ugly and pretty, equal opportunity.  Romanescos almost never get this large for me; this is one of three impressive ones as the others are much more gnarly and small.  And: they taste more like cauliflower than broccoli, if you’re curious.

There are still more late harvests to come.  Threats of frost hustled me to get out the cabbage knife and hack off a head of tender Romanesco.  Other head- and flower-growing brassicas can take quite a bit of frost:  some of the tight cabbage heads, especially the wavy savoyed ones, will last for a while, and much of the cauliflower and most especially the Brussels sprouts will last through Thanksgiving.  But…can I wait that long?

It’s 11 July! Have you started your winter garden?

It’s always Dog Days around here

We’re getting our first sweet corn here (boiled exactly 2 minutes, enfolded in butter and eaten) and tomatoes, and we’re deep into blueberries and cherries, yet my thoughts are turning to the winter harvest crops.

It’s quite a disconnect if you haven’t done one before:  just when you see the vegetables visibly growing, practically leaping toward the sun, it’s now that you need to be planting your winter garden.  In my part of the world, I can harvest plenty of stuff out of the outdoor gardens all winter long.  My leg up of course are the greenhouses but really, I am talking about outdoor winter harvesting:  root crops, leeks and collards are easily grown with nothing on them but all that snow.  With the minimal protection provided by row covers of agricultural cloth, I can add winterbor kale, escarole and radicchio.

Even if you’re looking forward to a garden-free winter, an autumn harvest is well within your grasp.  Around the first week of July is when I am seeding fennel, kohlrabi, rapini and broccoli for the first crops of each for the year (Sept-Oct harvest).  I find the warm summer days and cooling evenings of summer to be more favorable for these vegetables:  they respond better, are more tender, and aren’t pithy or bitter…all their fates if they’re spring-sown.  Favas, peas, second plantings of cucumbers are all going in now, as well as a second batch of summer squash.  I am also seeding for a baby leek harvest in February.  Succession-planting of beets, carrots and lettuce continues.  In other words, it doesn’t end.

Territorial Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds produce catalogs just for the winter-harvest market.  Check them out.

On the seed-sprouting window

About two months ago I was surprised to find some seedlings sprouting in my greenhouse bed.  Surprise?  Sure.  It can be surprise if you planted the danged seeds LAST spring.  Well!  The germination brush-off in the instance of these onion sprouts holds a lesson for all of us seed-freaks at this time of year.  Here is what my seeds were telling me:

It’s not you, it’s me.

On second look, they appear to be leek seedlings.

Now, life would be wonderful if my seed packet had said “days to emergence:  7 to 365” as I’d have had something to expect.  But it did not.  In other words, the seeds sprouted when their situation was ideal for them, not for me.  And that’s the lesson we all can take with us.

You see I think we’ve all internalized the notion that what is ideal for tomatoes (the fruity veg most likely to be started from seed) is what everything else expects too.  And that is true in a way (warm soil, enough water, enough light) but it’s not absolute, it’s relative.  Indeed, onion seeds sprout at much lower temperatures.  Lettuces, carrots, and a whole passel of other things do too.

I keep referring back to the sprouting table in Nancy Bubel’s Seed-Starters Handbook for a reason, I guess.  There’s a whole lot of truth in it that we need to understand.  Otherwise, the knowledge gets handed to you in the form of seedlings you expected to arrive a year ago, or, well, not at all!

On pea-planting season

I often feel like a poultry Pied Piper

There is a small window of time between melting snow and garden season when the chickens are allowed to run around unpenned.  They wander fairly widely, mostly in pursuit of the newly-sprouting grass, but mainly they all make a beeline for the gardens.  Deeply mulched beds need to be deeply scratched to find those worms within, you see, and then there’s the magic of The Compost Pile.  Oh the delectable wonders to be found in that monstrous pile of stank (if you’re a chicken, that is).I have set the compost bucket down to open the gate.  They have found it.

And then that window closes.  Slams shut, if you ask them: whaddya mean, we need to stay in here all day?  Their protestations are mighty.   Squabbles break out.  Feathers fly.  They are now confined until Happy Hour, usually around 6pm-dusk.  And they can tell time, so…at 6 you better be prepared to spring them loose.

The reason for their confinement?  The garden has been planted!  Yes, St. Patrick’s day, traditional pea- and potat0-planting day, was wonderfully warm and even sunny, so I locked up the birds and began the season.  These wily critters easily can fly over the 5′ fence encircling the gardens, and once they do, inevitably they will scratch up things that they should not.

Queen Ruby asks “but can’t I stay?  I won’t scratch things as much as the chickens,” to which I reply, no, m’dear.  She loves sprouts even more than worms.  (and notice the greenhouse roll-up side is up!  this is the earliest ever that I have had to do that.)

On hot beds

I have two 6’x3′ beds in the new greenhouse that are destined to get the hot-bed treatment.  Shovel Season is quickly approaching, so I might as well take this opportunity to get in shape for it, too.  Heave ho!

First step is to evict the resident lettuce, arugula, endive and escarole.  Potato onions at bottom of frame get to stay.

By halves, I remove the top shovel depth level of soil in the bed.  Notice I have left a ledge on the perimeter:  I am kind of making a tub

Third step is to lay down 3-4″ of mixed poo, including a bit of bedding from the rabbits

Fourth step is to replace the soil

Fifth step is to give it a good soaking: I didn’t need to do this, everything was wet already, so let’s skip to the Sixth step is to lay in some rows of seeds

Seventh step is to cover the bed to keep in the heat

And now I wait.  The microbial action of the mixed turkey, chicken, bunny and goat poo eating up the brown bedding material should happen quickly.  The point of this is to raise the temperature of the soil to a level that the seeds spring with life.  Ambient greenhouse temperatures range from 50-90*F in the daytime, with nighttime lows in the 40s.  The “normal” soil temperature, untreated, is around 55, which is quite fine for seed sprouting.  I expect this hot bed to jump to about 70, which means quicker germination.

This bed has been seeded with quick crops (turnips, radishes, spinach, arugula, lettuces) and transfer crops (broccoli, cabbages).  Nobody gets a long stay, in other words.  They’ll all be in and out by the first week of June.  Then, the bed gets the hot stuff (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and okra).

You don’t need a greenhouse to do this, of course.  As long as you don’t have heavy, wet soil, you can do this in an outdoor bed.  I would tent it with plastic, as long as you vent it in the hot part of the day.


More seed starting information

IN the “you can’t be the only one who needs to know this” department, I give you the following links for successful home seed-starting.  (And an apology to my international readers as most of these sites are for the U.S.  It’s not my personal bias I swear!)

It all begins with the last frost, or first frost-free date.  Killing frost, slight freeze, or just plain cold, if you’re planning on planting out those tender, lovingly-raised seedlings, it’s best to know when it’s safest to do so.  Dave’s Garden has a link by zip code with wonderful backup information behind it.

So now you know the date.  (Remember, it’s an average!!)  Next up is a Seed Starting Chart put out by Organic Gardening by plant type.  This should help you figure out what seeds should be started first, and there are handy little asterisks showing you what seeds are typically direct-seeded outdoors.  They also have a quick list to help you succeed.

While we’re at it, Organic Gardening also has a great how-to article on starting seeds indoors.  They also have good growing guides if you search by plant.

Cornell University has probably the best on-line vegetable growing guide, set up by individual varieties.

There is also your handy county extension agent.  These stalwart souls are sources of great information way beyond the mere starting of vegetable seeds.  They can help you get soil tests and help you with pest management, or even just hook you up with an experienced gardening neighbor.  Hey:  we pay these people’s salaries, and cutbacks usually come because they’re not busy enough, so use them, they’re there for you!

Likewise, your public library is also stocked with grow guides and gardening books.

Seed-starting shouldn’t be expensive; I mostly start mine in recyclable items like take-out clamshells and old yogurt containers.  (Some of these containers I have had for years…yes, I save garbage, what of it?  It’s not like the plants really care.)  And yeah, lighting is necessary, but fancy grow lights are not.  One cool- and one warm-colored fluorescent light in a shop strip fixture should cost you, in total, under $20.  You might want to splurge on seed-starting mix if only because it’s been sterilized and should be free of weed seeds…the irony is that dirt isn’t cheap.  With time however you’ll learn lots of tricks, trust me, that will save you money later on.  What other hobby feeds you, though?  Hmm?

On the seed starting thing

Because this is a (putative) gardening blog, most of my posts follow the seasons.  And it’s this time of year that I do my annual Seed-Starting Post, and if you’ve read me for a while, you’d know how much I dislike the process.

So.  This year I am giving you and myself a break by stopping the whining.  I will do a positive, hopeful post instead.

But the very idea of spring does make me happy, and germinating seeds hearken the season after all.  On Friday after work, I saw a flock of robins (about 200 or so) in the trees in our front yard.  We’re closer, the earth is tilting, even if the forecast is for (even) more snow.

Heck, *I* would sprout in soil this warm.  Remember the chart I showed you years back, and then mentally calculate how wonderful this is.

Yet it’s with mixed emotions that I consider the onions, artichokes, cardoon, and parsleys sitting on their steamy grow mat**.  My mother gave me a seed-starting heat mat last year when I put in her greenhouse for her.  This is something I normally wouldn’t buy for myself, as my default is to be as low-tech as possible.  And this is the first time I am using it;  it should shave a week off the process or more, so…no complaints thusfar.

No grow lights either this year for me.  Instead, the process is beginning on the front porch, with the heat mat. This porch has the advantage of being rodent-free (unlike the garage, or even the greenhouses) and it’s really handy.  It’s unheated, yet it’s insulated, draft-free and faces south and west, so it’s fairly bright and not frozen.  I have seed-started in here many times before, successfully, with neither heat mat nor greenhouses backing me up.

And it’s to the sunny greenhouse the seedlings will eventually go:  I use one bed as a nursery, a hotbed, as it were…I remove the top 4″ of soil, put a load of goat and chicken poo down, wet it, replace the soil and voila, a hot bed, the process of decomposition doing what my electric heat mat is currently doing on the front porch.  But I am getting ahead of myself:  the greenhouse bed won’t be used for weeks yet.  I will document it too.

Think spring…

(**But unless you’re starting onions, most of you have some time yet!  Look at the calendar and count backward from the last week of frost.  If you count back 8 weeks, you’re safe for your tomatoes and peppers.)

NOTE:  DISCUSSION OF USING UNCOMPOSTED, HOT MANURE IN THE COMMENTS!  I will go over it more in about a month when I set up the hotbeds in the greenhouse.