Archive for category Greenhouse growing
Last growing season, Renee’s Garden offered me the chance to try a few free seed varieties. As a member of the Garden Writers Association, vendors of garden-related items occasionally send me free samples of their products, in the hopes that I will review them favorably. I was very happy with the results of the free seeds that Renee’s Garden sent me last year. You can read my reviews in Part 1 and Part 2.
This year when I received my order form for free seeds, I decided to add a few vegetables to my Renee’s Garden trials. Today’s entry covers my results with these vegetable varieties.
As you likely know if you’re reading here, vegetable gardening is the fastest growing area of interest for new gardeners. Analysts speculate that this interest is driven in part by folks who want access to high-quality vegetables at reasonable prices. Whatever the reason, I think it’s wonderful that more newbie gardeners are out in their yards playing in the dirt. I tried a beet variety, two carrots, a spinach, and a pepper mix.
Beet, Dutch “Red Baron”
I always grow Red Ace beets, because they do well for me every year, and I like their sweet, robust flavor. As a comparison, I tried Red Baron from Renee’s Garden. Beets don’t really transplant well, so I always direct-sow them into the vegetable beds. Germination rates for the two varieties were both high; if anything, Red Baron did slightly better. Vigor of the plants also appeared to be nearly identical. In fact, if I hadn’t labeled my rows, it would have been easy to mix them up based only on top growth. However, differences in flavor readily distinguish Red Baron from Red Ace.
This was not my best year for root crops. I think perhaps uncharacteristically heavy spring rains may have had something to do with this. Still, when it became clear that summer heat was asserting itself, root crop yields were respectable.
Between Red Ace and Red Baron beets, Red Ace had a much sweeter flavor, but we found that we liked Red Baron too. Red Baron beets were earthier, more hearty, in flavor. I think they would be the basis of a delicious borscht. Red Ace beets are better suited to salads. I would grow Red Baron again.
Carrot, Nantes “Starica” & Carrot, Snacking “Rotild”
As you can see in the above photo, many of the carrots did not grow as optimally as I’d like. Most of what you see are the Renee’s Garden varieties. They grew more robustly than the several carrot varieties I tried from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which surprised me. Johnny’s offers pelleted carrot seeds, which makes these tiny seeds easier to handle while planting. I am able to space the seeds in the row far enough apart that they don’t require much thinning as they grow.
Renee’s Garden carrot seeds were not pelleted. I ended up doing major thinning to their rows. Interesting to me, Renee’s carrot seeds germinated at much higher rates than Johnny’s pelleted seeds, which is why I ended up with more of those varieties at harvest. I’ve never had such poor germination results with pelleted carrots before; I’m not sure why this happened.
As for flavor, despite their less-than-lovely looks, these Nantes-type varieties were both tasty. Starica was sweeter than Rotild.
Spinach, “Summer Perfection”
The blurb about this Dutch spinach variety sold by Renee’s Garden states that it “stands up to early summer heat.” I’m thinking that Dutch and/or California (location of Renee’s Garden) early summer heat must be a pale imitation of North Carolina Piedmont early summer heat. Summer Perfection bolted fast and early for me, just as soon as our high temperatures hit 80 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e., late March).
I grew this variety, along with all my other greens, beneath a canopy of spun garden cloth. The transplants went in before the last frost and were protected by the garden cloth. As temperatures rose, the garden cloth shaded the greens. I think this system (aided by phenomenal spring rains) kept some of the greens going into May — an unprecedented growing season for me!
Summer Perfection leaves were delicious before they bolted, but the variety is probably not worth growing in my climate. They just don’t last long enough to provide a sufficient return on my investment in them.
Pepper, Italian Sweet “Sunset Mix”
Every year, I grow a hybrid variety of Sweet Italian pepper called Carmen. Plants are consistently vigorous, overwhelmingly productive, and the scarlet fruits are reliably sweet, zinging the palate with a vitamin C tang. So when I saw that Renee was offering an heirloom mix of the pepper type from which Carmen is derived, I was curious, especially since I was promised plants with yellow or red fruits.
I have a love-hate relationship with most heirloom plants. In the southeastern US where I garden, our fungal diseases and insect pests are numerous and often devastating, and our summers are usually brutally hot and frequently plagued by drought. Most heirloom varieties I’ve tried start out strongly, but soon succumb to the growing challenges of my region.
I sow pepper and tomato seeds in my greenhouse and transplant them into their summer beds when growing conditions stabilize. Peppers especially don’t do well if you transplant them before nighttime temperatures stop dipping into the low 50s. The germination rate for Sunset Mix was about 60%. I routinely get 100% germination from Carmen seeds, and that was the case again this past spring. I attributed the difference to the hybrid vigor of Carmen and was not really surprised.
Vigor of the transplants was good. Sunset Mix plants grew as tall as the Carmens. Each plant produced a fair amount of fruit, but not at the hybrid vigor levels of my Carmen plants. As you can see by the harvest basket photo above, Sunset Mix produced some nice-looking peppers. Their flavors were good, but had much more bite than Carmen fruits. I found that Sunset Mix peppers did not always please my digestive system, while the milder, sweeter Carmen fruits never bothered me. I donated most of the Sunset Mix fruits to friends and the local food bank, where they were much appreciated.
I would not grow any of these varieties again, except perhaps the Red Baron beets. Even though the carrots were productive, they didn’t seem to appreciate my soil. I’ve had much better success with other carrot varieties. The spinach bolted so fast that I deem it to have been a waste of bed space. The peppers, although productive, just couldn’t match the flavor and productivity of my Carmen hybrid plants.
Still, my garden is big enough to accommodate a few experiments, and I will continue to try a few varieties that intrigue me. I never know when I might stumble on a treasure worth adding to my list of essential varieties.
Coming soon: Results of this year’s trials with Renee’s Garden flower seeds.
Pardon my silence, loyal readers. It’s that time of year, when freeze warnings pop up for my region, and Wonder Spouse and I must scramble to prepare our yard and gardens for their winter sleep.
First up last weekend was the water feature in our front garden. It was full of murky greenish water. We knew we’d need to catch and relocate the two Green Frogs who lived there most of the summer, but we were surprised to find that about 50 or so tadpoles were still alive and well and not yet ready for metamorphosis. Some had sprouted back legs, but most were still fully tadpole in form. We spent over an hour painstakingly scooping up tadpoles as the pond drained to reveal their hiding spots. I have no idea what species of tadpoles we moved, but they seemed to be at least two different sizes, colors, and shapes.
Frogs and tadpoles were relocated temporarily to a bucket filled with pond water. When we were sure we had all of them, Wonder Spouse carried them down to a small pond on our floodplain, where he gently poured them out. We know it’s tricky for them to make their way into territory already claimed by other amphibians, but we figured at least this way they have some chance to survive.
They can’t stay in the water feature all winter. If we happen to have one of our colder winters, the water would freeze throughout, cracking the pond, and killing anything trying to overwinter in it. When Spring warms the air, we are always surprised at how quickly frogs and toads find the newly re-filled water feature. It is a favored courting and egg-laying spot in our yard, probably because it is more protected from predators than the pond or creek on the floodplain. Nothing says spring like a raucous nighttime serenade by amorous amphibians.
Reptiles in our yard move themselves to their winter homes. Many seem to prepare for winter hibernation by shedding their skins. We found several two-foot-plus-long recently shed skins from our resident Black Racers. One lives in the rock wall holding up the beds around my greenhouse. Another lives somewhere beneath our front deck, and I know several others nest somewhere on or near the floodplain. I encounter them on patrols every few weeks during the warm months.
Suddenly visible in great numbers again are the Green Anoles. About a dozen of these color-changing lizards spent last winter living around the west-facing front of our house and the south-facing wall of our garage. They dispersed when the weather warmed. I’d occasionally meet one hunting among my flowers or vegetables, but otherwise, they seemed to have disappeared. But now, my goodness, they are not only back, they have multiplied.
A number of them seem to also be shedding summer skins, as you can see here on this one I spotted on the corner of the garage:
At least a dozen anoles have reappeared along the west-facing entry to our house. We now must check our screen doors before opening inner doors, lest a dozing anole drop into the house. A recently acquired pot of chrysanthemums by the front entry has been adopted as a favorite resting spot.
Every warm sunny afternoon, they emerge from their hiding spots to catch a few rays.
This year, I’ve spotted a least three anoles enjoying our back deck, which faces south and is protected from west winds. They even seem to be enjoying our deck chairs.
Sometimes, they join the squirrels in watching the humans indoors:
Of course, freeze warnings mean it’s time to relocate all summering potted plants to their winter quarters in the greenhouse. The pitcher plants and sedges that live in pots inside the water feature all summer get moved into individual trays that hold water. I refill them regularly, so that their favored moisture levels are maintained.
All the potted plants that spend their summer beneath the shelter of the Southern Magnolia also move into the greenhouse, along with pots of still-flowering annuals on the back deck. By the time we move in the deck plants later today, the greenhouse will be very full.
A packed greenhouse is actually better for the plants. Humidity levels are easier to maintain, and any insects or other critters who succeeded in hitching rides on the plants don’t usually cause much trouble. One year, a Cope’s Gray Treefrog snuck in for the winter. He just dozed quietly through the cold months until I moved him and his pot back outside the following spring. I keep my greenhouse cool all winter, so that plants mostly sleep but don’t freeze.
The plants growing on our five acres don’t need any help from me to prepare for winter. The Tulip Poplars have already dropped most of their leaves. Berries on the native dogwoods are almost gone, thanks to flocks of marauding American Robins and hungry Pileated Woodpeckers. They have moved on to the Southern Magnolia. Most of its seed cones are open now, revealing tasty red fruits coveted by wildlife of all kinds. I can lose an hour quickly this time of year just watching birds and other critters argue over magnolia fruits.
Fall color grows more glorious daily, of course. I’ll show you some examples soon. Right now, I’ve got to get the potted plants on the back deck tucked into the greenhouse. The weather seers are calling for a freeze tomorrow night. At my house, that likely means lows in the mid-twenties. Time to break out the extra blanket for the bed, find my cozy winter slippers, and wait for next season’s seed catalogs to start filling my mailbox.
I am happy to report that Wonder Spouse’s Great Potato Experiment appears to be proceeding well. You may recall that WS is trying grow-bags for his potatoes this year to thwart the greedy chomping of voracious voles on innocent tubers. He began by filling the bags one third of the way full of compost and soil, then planted his potatoes — three kinds, one in each bag. The above photo is an attempt to get all three bags in one shot. It’s not easy. They have grown — a lot.
Here’s what two of the bags looked like on May 9. At that point, Wonder Spouse had folded up another third of the bag and filled in more compost and soil around the stems of the enthusiastic plants.
Over this past long holiday weekend, he unfolded the final third of the bags, bringing them to their full height. Once again, he filled in compost and soil around the stems of the plants. The idea here is that new potatoes are produced from the newly covered stem nodes, thereby producing successive layers of tubers.
Here’s what two of the bags looked like a day or so after he filled the bags for the final time:
Already, the plants are taller than what you see in the photo. The burning question plaguing Wonder Spouse’s potato-fevered brain is, “Do I have growing tubers, and are they numerous?” “There’s the rub,” as the Bard once wrote.
The same methodology that we think is thwarting the voles is also preventing Wonder Spouse from checking on tuber production. The plants are jam-packed into those bags. To try to dig into them seeking tubers would be to risk damaging the plants.
Thus, Wonder Spouse, aka Mr. Potato Head, impatiently waits. Potato harvest traditionally occurs when the plants begin to fade and die, usually some time in June around here. New potatoes are said to be ready for harvest when the plants bloom. Ours bloomed a bit, but Wonder Spouse decided not to risk damaging his long-term prospects for a healthy potato yield.
And so we wait, watering occasionally. And when I foliar feed the veggies in a day or so, I’ll be sure to give the potatoes a dose too. Meanwhile, the suspense builds…
You may also recall that I had planned to compare the same varieties of two grafted tomato plants with two seed-grown plants of the same types. However, the grafted plants I received in the mail were past recovery on arrival, as I documented here. It turns out, that’s not the end of the story.
Via a terse e-mail from customer support, I was informed that my money for the plants would be refunded. I didn’t ask for this; they offered. On the other hand, the nice folks at the Oregon greenhouse operation that produces the grafted plants for the wholesale market wrote me several e-mails, including one in which they offered to send me new plants. I thanked them for their kind offer, but declined, pointing out that it was too late for a fair comparison, given the then-enormous size of my seed-grown tomatoes in my little greenhouse.
I was forced to wait much later than usual this year to plant out my tomatoes. Most years, they are in the ground and growing by late April. This year, it was about two weeks later. I was trying to avoid exposing the transplants to nighttime temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I didn’t succeed. This has been one wacky weather spring. Last Saturday night — May 26 — the temperature in my garden dropped to 38 degrees! Fortunately, there was no frost, the sun came up quickly, and no plants appeared to be damaged. However, their growth has been slower than normal, I suspect, due to the chilly nighttime temperatures.
On May 9, I was feeling good about the summer vegetable garden. My beans were coming up with impressive enthusiasm, and the seed-grown tomato transplants appeared to be adjusting well to their new surroundings. Imagine my astonishment when that day’s mail included a box of two grafted tomato plants from the company that had promised me a refund. I was flabbergasted — and confused. And curious. What would the plants look like this time around?
If you compare these to the pictures of the ones I received previously, the difference in vigor is apparent. I didn’t ask for these plants, and they were vastly smaller than their seed-grown equivalents already in the summer garden, but they were here. So I did what any obsessive gardener would do — I planted them the next day.
When I unpacked the box, I discovered an addition to the packing instructions. This was not in the first delivery I received:
Trust me, those first plants I received were not salvageable even by gardeners with two green thumbs.
I took the little plants to my greenhouse and arranged them for a photographic comparison:
If you click on the above photo to enlarge it, you should be able to see that the newly arrived grafted plants are in front. Behind them are the dead stubs of the first grafted plants that were sent to me. Behind them are two seed-grown plants of the same varieties that I didn’t have room for in the garden. I deemed these plants to be lesser candidates for transplantation, so they lingered in the greenhouse as back-ups, if needed. Brandywines are on the left, Goliaths on the right.
Here’s what the plants looked like in the garden this past weekend, about two weeks since they were first transplanted.
It may be a little difficult to tell from these photos, but I would estimate that the grafted plants were about a third of the size of the seed-grown specimens. All my seed-grown tomato transplants are now sporting green fruits, as you can see here:
To confuse me further, a few days ago, the company from which I ordered the grafted plants credited my credit card for the plants. I guess they were trying to be nice, which I appreciate, but I would have much preferred that a human being had contacted me with an apology instead.
Bottom line: I will attempt to proceed with the grafted vs. seed-grown tomato experiment as best I can. Measuring growth rates is mostly a subjective matter, of course. But I can count the number of fruits each plant produces. And I can record when the plants are overcome by the many diseases that usually claim my tomatoes by late August. Brandywines are heirlooms, meaning they lack hybrid resistance to diseases. In my garden, this usually translates to the production of a few delicious fruits, then the demise of the plant to disease. Will reputed grafted vigor keep that Brandywine alive and productive longer?
Stay tuned, garden fans. I’ll keep you posted.
Talk about a one-sided fight, my plan to test the same varieties of grafted tomatoes against their seedling equivalents was a total bust. Why, you ask? Because when the grafted plants I ordered arrived last Thursday, this is what they looked like when I opened the box:
If you click on the above photo to enlarge it, you’ll see that the plant on the right was broken when I opened the box. The leaves of the plant on the left — although they look a bit greener — are also wilted beyond recovery. Why? The soil in their little pots was Dust Bowl dry. No moisture at all.
This is one of those times when I let my enthusiasm for cutting-edge plants push me past careful reasoning. As I mentioned in my first post about this back in January, gardening magazines and catalogs have been full of buzz about the benefits of growing grafted vegetables. I didn’t really buy the hype, but I was curious, which is why I decided to try growing the same varieties of grafted and seedling tomatoes to see for myself.
But I didn’t research carefully. I impulsively ordered my grafted plants from the same company where I order my tomato and pepper seeds. Seeds from this company always give me near-100% germination and yield consistently healthy, productive plants, so I assumed they’d deliver similar quality in their grafted plants. What I didn’t know — because I didn’t ask — is that my tomato seed company does not produce the grafted tomatoes themselves. They buy them from a wholesale nursery that, I gather, has patented a line of grafted vegetables, which they produce and sell to retailers.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this model, if all parties plan carefully to compensate for the travails of shipping tender summer vegetables across North America. However, if the plants I received are any indication, careful shipping was not part of the plan.
The company I order my tomato seeds from is in Wisconsin — an area where winter cold remains abundant. And from the insert with my grafted plants, I learned that the wholesale nursery that provided the grafted plants is in Oregon. Neither of these locations is, of course, near my location in North Carolina. And our growing seasons are not the same by a long shot. If I had thought about this more carefully, I would have realized that it was not likely that a company in Wisconsin could ship me healthy tomato plants in time for me to plant them out with the rest of my summer garden. In my defense, I did realize that the plants I received would probably be smaller than my seedlings, and I planned to account for that in my field trial. But I needed live plants to make that work.
As soon as I received my dying grafted tomato plants, I called the company that sold them to me. A very nice lady there asked me if the grafts were intact and the stems were still green. They were. She then instructed me to cut off all the dead/dying leaves, water and feed the plants in their pots, and put them in the sun. I confess I laughed out loud at these instructions.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I’ve been growing tomatoes for almost 50 years, and I’ve never seen a leafless tomato stem re-grow leaves, especially when its roots have been traveling long distances in bone-dry soil.”
“This is what we’ve been told to tell customers, ma’am,” she replied. “The grafted plants are so vigorous that they are supposed to recover very quickly.”
So I followed her instructions. I cut off all the dead/dying leaves, transplanted the sad little stubs to slightly larger pots, and drenched them thoroughly with the fish emulsion/seaweed mix that I administer to all my seedlings. The company had provided a packet of commercial, non-organic, very potent fertilizer (20-20-20) that I was supposed to mix with water and use, but this would have ruined my little test by not using the same fertilizer, and I’m an organic gardener. Also, I think throwing that potent a chemical fertilizer onto deeply stressed plants is more torture than first aid.
Here’s what the plants looked like when I removed them from their shipping box and placed them in my greenhouse:
Here’s what the plants looked like immediately after their surgery:
Here they are transplanted, watered, and fed after a few days in the greenhouse:
And this is what they looked like about two hours ago:
I think it highly unlikely that these sad brown stubs will sprout new leaves, but I’ll leave them in the greenhouse another week before I give them a decent burial in the compost pile.
I imagine the folks from whom I ordered my plants would offer to send me new plants if I asked, but there’s really no point now. My seed-grown plants are ready for transplanting as soon as our uncharacteristically chilly weather pattern finally breaks down next week.
If folks from the wholesale nursery or the tomato seed company want to respond to this post, I’ll be happy to publish their responses. I’ve made every effort to represent their processes accurately, but if I’ve erred in a supposition somewhere, I’ll be happy to correct it.
Bottom line: I let my enthusiasm for a new plant fad overpower my years of gardening experience. It would have been interesting to see how grafted plants perform, but my seed-grown plants provide all the produce I need every year anyway.
If I discover a local source for healthy grafted vegetables, I might try one some time just to satisfy my curiosity. But I am blessed with rich garden loam, a long growing season, and healthy seed-grown transplants. New-fangled grafted veggies can’t possibly compete with all that.
As predicted, the warm temperatures arrived. Then they went directly to summer-hot temperatures. This week, we are in the 80s, which is too hot, considering that the canopy trees were mostly not even blooming yet. Forget about leaves. No shade. At all. Hot, hot, hot!
Now, of course, everything is exploding simultaneously. Pollen clouds haze the air, tree buds swell visibly, and the critters have all moved into full-out courtship mode. Toads trill from twilight to dawn. Bird song sweetens the air, along with the perfume of deciduous magnolias. Grass needs mowing. Ticks and mosquitoes lurk everywhere, hungry for blood. Ah, springtime in the southeastern piedmont.
I have managed to take a few pictures, but the plants and critters are moving so fast now that I’m having trouble keeping up. The vegetable garden, of course, has taken priority. My beautiful bed of greens that had been huddled under a garden cloth tent for warmth were suddenly too warm in there. But the sun is now too strong for them. Wonder Spouse devised a clever fix. He cut the fabric tent and shaped it into a canopy that protects the lettuces, spinaches, and Asian greens from direct noon-day sun, but allows them access to more gentle angled light and better access to passing rains.
Here’s what the bed looked like last Friday:
Here’s a closer view, so you can more easily see the plants:
Now the greens are large enough for single-leaf harvesting. Instead of waiting for greens to fill out as heads, I harvest individual leaves as they attain salad size. I’ll be picking greens for our first home-grown salad tomorrow morning as the sun comes up. Veggies and herbs are at their harvestable best first thing in the morning before the sun has begun to melt them. I can just about taste those tender sweet greens now…
Meanwhile in the greenhouse, the summer veggies, flowers, and herbs are well germinated and growing strongly. The tomatoes and peppers will need to graduate to larger pots in the next few days. The basils and flowers will take a little longer.
Since my last update, I have also direct-sowed into the garden beds several varieties of carrots and two of beets. I haven’t seen any signs of them yet, but it’s only just now been about a week. I’m hoping that this current bout of summer-like heat will not prevent these cool-weather veggies from germinating well. After this Friday, our temperatures are predicted to return to normal, so I’m hoping the spring garden can hang on until the cooler spring temperatures return. Spring vegetable gardening is always a gamble here. The summer garden is easier. You can almost always count on the weather turning hot enough for tomatoes and peppers to thrive.
Of course, much more is going on all over the yard and gardens. Last weekend, Wonder Spouse helped me re-activate our front water feature:
The pitcher plants in two of the pots are not as robust this year. I allowed far too many cardinal flowers to seed into the pots with the pitcher plants, where they proceeded to outcompete the pitchers. I spent several days digging out several dozen cardinal flowers in the hopes of re-invigorating the pitchers. Now it’s a waiting game to see if they can recover.
The trees are blooming about three weeks later than they did last year. Native redbuds are just opening in my yard:
And my Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is only now pushing out flower buds. Ditto for my Eastern Columbines. Both of these natives are usually open by the beginning of April, just in time for the arrival of Ruby-throated hummingbirds migrating up from their southern winter homes. I hadn’t seen any hummers, but judging by the arrival of my summer warblers, I decided to put out a feeder last Friday. Several hummingbirds were enjoying the feeder by the next morning, and I’ve seen them on it often since. Without their native flowers, they really need the sugar water I offer to help them recuperate from their long migration.
My native coral honeysuckle is usually blooming by now, too. This year, the one on my trellis is only just beginning to produce flower buds. The one draped over a tree stump near the creek is slightly further along. It’s buds at least show color.
The ferns are finally showing signs of life. Here’s a group of naturally occurring Cinnamon Ferns that thrive in my wetland:
Inside my deer fence, my Christmas Ferns are also showing new growth:
I can’t close today’s post without mentioning the currently blooming deciduous magnolias. Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ had a record extended blooming period of six weeks for me. The cool weather kept the flowers fresh, and the cold snaps only browned a few buds. Magnolia acuminata ‘Butterflies’ did not fare as well. When the heat hit it, all the buds opened at once, looked gorgeous for about two days, and now most of the petals have already fallen to the ground, surrendering to summer-like early April heat. But when they were fresh they were lovely.
Here’s the tree last Friday:
Here’s a close-up of the canary-yellow blossoms just as they were opening a few days ago:
As is always the case, my Magnolia acuminata ‘Elizabeth’ is blooming about a week behind Butterflies. Actually, a bit less than a week this year, likely due to our 85-degree day today. Elizabeth is taller than Butterflies. My 17-18-year-old specimen is about 50 feet now, and when the flowers open, the effect is jaw-dropping. Here she is from a distance this morning. I had to stand fairly far back to get all of her in one shot:
Then I took a few steps closer and tried for a shot with as much of the tree in it as possible:
And, finally, here are a few branches closer up, so that you can see the gorgeous flowers.
Elizabeth’s flowers are a much paler yellow than those of Butterflies, and under harsh sunlight, they fade to parchment white. The effect is lovely and more subtle than Butterflies. The flowers of both trees emit a perfume so strong that deep inhalation just about knocks me over. On a spring breeze, I can smell their fragrance across half of my five-acre yard.
There’s more, of course, what with everything exploding simultaneously in the heat. I’ll try to do a better job of keeping you posted here, but there’s just so gosh darn much to do out there. Weeds, for example. They have exploded along with all the invited plants.
But I’m not complaining. Hard work is part of the therapy of gardening. I’ll feel downright righteous when I sit down tomorrow evening to dine on our first garden salad of the year. It really is true, you know. The food does taste better when you grow it yourself.
Just before dawn this morning, thick frost glimmered in the fading light of a full moon. As the sun topped the nearby ridge, surfaces sparkled — walks, benches, lawn, even the trees. The thermometer on my cold hill bottomed out at 26 degrees Fahrenheit before the strengthening Spring sun began its work — Winter cold. Too cold.
The Spring Peepers, which have lustily chorused off and on since late December, have been utterly silent for four days. The American Toads, which had added their exquisite soprano trilling descant to the thrumming of the Peepers two weeks ago, have also gone quiet. The Green Anoles, which sunned themselves on our gutters on warm days all winter, have not ventured from their sleeping chambers in a week. To be sure, our weather has not been fit for cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles.
The plants in my yard agree. Half-open flower buds have opened no further. Some have browned from freeze damage. Others seem suspended in time, waiting for temperatures that match the astronomical calendar, knowing the equinox was last week, wondering like me, I imagine, why March turned so cruel in its waning days.
But while the plants and cold-blooded animals sleep, the warm-blooded ones are scrounging for food. A herd of five pregnant does devours every blade of green from our floodplain at dusk, when they emerge from their hiding places on the other side of the creek. Dark shadows in darkening light, they drift around the trees, more ghosts than flesh in the dimness.
The birds, on the other hand, have refused to concede to Spring’s reluctant arrival. Growing flocks of American Robins patrol the landscape, plucking fat earthworms from rain-moistened soil, muttering in delight at each new-found morsel.
The Red-shouldered Hawks circle the floodplain, then dive at crowded bird feeders in the hopes of pinning a slow-moving Mourning Dove or a greedy Red-winged Blackbird that lingers too long for one more bite. When the birds elude their grasp, they settle for patrolling the ground, pulling back fallen leaves with sharp yellow talons to reveal earthworms, which they greedily devour. When they’ve had their fill, they fly off with more; hungry nestlings must be fed, even while their favorite cold-blooded prey sleep securely in their winter hide-outs.
Flocks of Purple Finches grow daily. I think groups migrating from further south have heard about the snows in their summer homes up north. They linger at my feeders — free food — all you can eat! A pair of Carolina Wrens busily inspect flower pots, deck underpinnings, and an open garage for potential nesting sites. Wood Ducks paddle up and down the creek, preferring water warmer than the air.
A Great Blue Heron stalks from sand bar to sand bar. Rising into the air on massive wings, its majestic flight starkly contrasts with its harsh squawk of frustration at finding nothing tasty.
Suet feeders are perpetually busy from dawn to full darkness. Woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding nestlings, and insects are difficult to find in the frigid air. They are joined by increasing numbers of warblers, which must be arriving for spring nesting season. Like the woodpeckers, suet is their fall-back food until the insects finally emerge.
This morning as I filled the feeders, I heard the characteristic melodic gurgling call of Brown-headed Cowbirds. They usually arrive a few days after the warblers, lingering at my feeders until they pair off, and egg-heavy females deposit their eggs in the nests of unwary warblers.
Warm-blooded life does not seem to have the luxury of waiting for Spring to assert itself. Somehow it must carry on despite the dearth of natural food and warming nights. I keep my feeders filled and birdhouses clean, in the hopes that this eases their struggle a bit — for my local population anyway.
The weather forecasters predict that our perseverance will be rewarded. Warmer days are promised soon. I think perhaps they might be right. I spotted a bright yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail this afternoon struggling to make headway against a gusty northwest wind.
Any minute now, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be arriving for their spring nesting season. I’d best dust off their feeders ASAP, because their usual early food sources — blooms of Red Buckeye and Eastern Columbine — remain tightly closed against the unseasonable chill.
Like the warm-blooded life surrounding me, my garden and I must persevere. Lettuce transplants huddle beneath garden fabric in the vegetable garden. I’ve been afraid to check on them, fearing that lifting the fabric might chill them more. And the tomato and pepper seeds I sowed a week ago have mostly germinated in the greenhouse. I’ve raised the thermostat to reduce the chances of cold air being fanned onto new-born seedlings.
Gardening is always an act of faith. This season, however, is requiring a bit more of it than usual. Believe, my friends. Soon we’ll be up to our knees in tall grass, mosquitoes, and summer squash.
But don’t blink. I have a feeling we’re mostly skipping Spring this year.
On behalf of winter-weary gardeners everywhere, I bid you welcome! Spring — you are here, right? It is, of course, the day of the vernal equinox, that astronomical milestone that marks your onset. I ask, because, well, you seem to be a bit more capricious than usual this year.
Yes, the plants in my yard are showing definite signs of moving toward a new growing season, as evidenced by the beautiful native wildflowers in the above photo, blooming yesterday in my yard. They are just beginning to reach peak bloom; the ones in my north garden only yesterday peeked above ground. By last year’s vernal equinox, these flowers were nearly done.
Likewise, my beautiful Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ was well past peak bloom by last year’s equinox. This year, flower buds are just now swelling, as you can see here:
The native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin) are reaching peak bloom just in time for your arrival. Last year, they maxed out two weeks earlier. I love the tiny specks of bright yellow that adorn every branch.
One non-native early bloomer — my large Winterhazel — is about a week and a half behind last year’s peak blooming moment. The photo here was taken yesterday, and you can see that the flower clusters are just now pushing out their pendant strings of sunny bells.
My other big non-native bloomers — the loropetalum shrubs — seem to be more attuned to daylight changes than temperature. Flower buds are brimming with magenta color; a few are flaunting their bright strappy petals. But I’m guessing that the full spring display will occur just about the same time it did the previous two years.
That’s all well and good, Spring. A little variation in bloom time among the ornamentals on my five acres of North Carolina Piedmont is entirely to be expected. That variability is actually part of what keeps gardening exciting; I never know when and what each season will bring.
On the other hand, your capriciousness is also a source of frustration. You see, I had a feeling you were going to take your time coming this year. So I started my spring greens in the greenhouse later than last year, planning to transplant them into their permanent beds about now. I expected later frosts, maybe even a light freeze, but because I cover the transplants in protective garden fabric, I figured they would remain unharmed.
But, Spring, you have turned my planting schedule upside down with this predicted ten-day bout of well-below-normal temperatures that includes a very hard freeze tomorrow night. The weather seers are calling for a low of 26 degrees Fahrenheit at the local airport. Here in the boonies, that will likely mean a low hovering in the mid-teens.
I can’t put tender transplants into the ground when you are bringing winter temperatures to my garden. That would be plant murder! Meanwhile, right on schedule, my onion starts arrived in the mail two days ago. Somehow, I must persuade them to be patient, because I can’t plant them yet either.
Spring, it’s getting crowded in the greenhouse. The greens are itching for permanent digs. My pots of ornamental plants that overwinter in the greenhouse are all putting out new growth, gaining size and enthusiasm for your arrival daily.
I know I can’t stop your games, Spring, so I’ll do my best to convince the greens to be patient a few days. I think I know what you’re up to. After lingering early and long last year, you don’t want to party here at all. I think you’re planning to pound us with winter weather until April arrives, and then depart almost immediately, letting summer’s temperatures sear us before the canopy trees are even properly leafed out. The models of the weather forecasters seem to agree. They are calling for above-normal temperatures for most of the US during the month of April, which is why I’m going to sow tomato and pepper seeds in the germination chamber in my greenhouse later today.
I love you, Spring, really, I do. But, frankly, your whimsy is one of the reasons my hair is as white as the new snow covering Boston — again — this week.
The pile on the left consists of aged wood chips — all that’s left of the great Northern Red Oak that once grew in my backyard. The pile on the right is a load of mushroom compost that was delivered about three weeks ago. Both sit on thick black plastic (tarps work too) to prevent plant roots from invading my supply of soil-improving goodness.
I can tell by the search strings bringing folks to this blog that many new gardeners are hoping to grow vegetables this year. Hurray, I say! And welcome to the sisterhood/brotherhood of folks who grow at least a bit of their own food. It’s clear you have many questions, and today, I wish to address one of the key factors that separates successful growers from black thumbs — soil.
Clay soil challenges
In the southeastern Piedmont region of the US, our native soils are mostly clay. Here in North Carolina, we call it Carolina Red Clay, although I hear folks in Georgia put their state’s name in front of the Red Clay portion of the moniker. Contrary to common belief, clay is not low in soil nutrients. If it were, our Piedmont native forests and fields would not be so lush.
But clay is not ideal when you want to grow vegetables. Veggies prefer loamy soils rich in organic material. The organic material improves drainage and the moisture-holding capacity of the soil. It also provides a home for the zillions of beneficial soil organisms that facilitate the transformation of soil nutrients into forms accessible to the root systems of veggies and other plants. Soil organisms range from visible participants, such as earthworms (You can’t have too many!) to beneficial fungi and bacteria. Healthy soil is jam-packed with life.
Invest in raised beds
In my decades of experience, the only reliable way to create rich, healthy garden soil from red clay is to add as much organic material as you can. To make this practical, you must create raised beds. Yes, this is hard work in the beginning, but once created, you will reap tasty rewards for decades to come. Trust me on this. Raised beds improve drainage and help you build deep, rich soils suitable for growing root crops like beets and carrots.
The raised beds in my garden don’t look very raised, because they aren’t enclosed by boards or stone. Wonder Spouse and I created them by digging out the paths between beds, adding that soil to the beds to make them higher. We fill the paths back up to their original levels with wood chips. The chips suppress weeds and act as a moisture reservoir from which plants in the beds can draw as needed.
I am an organic gardener. I think chemical fertilizers are always a bad idea, because too much of what is applied — especially to lawns — washes downhill and into our streams and water reservoirs. Most of what washes is excess nitrogen, which creates massive disruptions in the ecology of our streams and lakes. The resulting pollution requires considerable expensive treatment before that water is safe to drink.
Because I’ve been adding compost to my beds for twenty years, the soil is quite healthy and contains many nutrients. But vegetable production is nutrient-intensive, so I do add organic fertilizers to my veggie beds. For members of the Solanaceae family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, potatoes), I use a mix specially formulated for them. It seems to kick flower production into high gear, and since you can’t have tomatoes and peppers without flowers, I give these plants a boost.
For squashes, beans, and spring greens, I rely on a balanced organic fertilizer with a relatively low nutrient load. I’m looking for balance here, and just a bit of a boost to the soil already there.
Root crops — in my case, beets and carrots — seem to require a trace nutrient or two that my soil is low on. When I use an organic fertilizer specially formulated for these crops, I get much larger beets and carrots.
Follow instructions for these fertilizers. More is NOT better.
I do make my own, but it is never enough, not by a long shot. Resources abound with instructions for making compost. Your favorite search engine will tell you all you need to know.
Although I never make enough compost for my needs, a number of nearby suppliers offer excellent compost options. They will deliver partial truckloads, or if you have a pick-up truck (or a friend with one), they’ll load it for you. If you have neighbors, consider sharing a truckload.
The compost above is used by local organic mushroom growers. They mix a variety of organic components together for growing their mushrooms, but they discard it after one crop to prevent disease issues — much the way I rotate my crops annually, only they discard their growing medium. This year’s batch seems a bit more fibrous than last year’s, so I’ve decided to use it to mulch my veggies. It’s fibrous enough to suppress weeds, while it retains moisture and slowly allows nutrients to seep into the soil.
I’ll use these wood chips to mulch ornamental beds that aren’t close to my house (termites love wood chips), and to top off any paths in the veggie garden that have low spots. In my yard, wood chips usually last about three years before they break down into soil.
Soil for container-growing and seed-starting
I am of the opinion that potting soil offered in bags at home improvement stores and many garden centers is lousy. Now such merchants are pushing potting soil that already contains fertilizer to “save you time.” Please, I beg you, do not be fooled. First, these fertilizers are not organic, second, one size does not fit all when it comes to fertilizer, and third, while you may get initial rapid growth, the poor quality of the actual soil provided will eventually cause your plants to suffer.
If you are trying to grow veggies in containers on your patio, I recommend that you make your own soil by purchasing top-quality topsoil and compost from a local provider. Find such a person through recommendations from seasoned gardeners. All providers are not created equal.
If you are hard-core and have the time, you can create your own seed starting mix by baking good soil you created yourself in an oven to sterilize it. Personally, I don’t have the time, and I think it’s probably hard to ensure you kill all potential contaminators. I rely on a professional-grade soil mix that I’ve been buying for years from a local garden store. They are going out of business, alas. So next year, I’ll pay the extra cost of having it shipped in. It will totally be worth it.
The Metro-Mix soil blends are ideal for seed germination. I am certain they are the reason I achieve almost 100% germination from every flat I plant. These mixes contain no added nutrients. You don’t want fertilizers in the soil when you sow seeds. Seeds contain all the nutrients they need to germinate and initiate plant growth. After a week or two, I start adding a dilute mixture of fish emulsion/seaweed when I water them. This is all the seedlings need to flourish until it’s time to transplant them to the garden.
This blog entry grows long, so I’ll stop for now. I hope this helps all you garden newbies out there. I can’t emphasize enough the critical importance of excellent soil. If you’ve put in the time and resources to create good soil, almost any plant you grow will flourish, whether you grew it from seed yourself or bought a flat of seedlings from a local garden center. But if your soil isn’t healthy, your plants will not thrive.
So get out there, and get dirty, people!
Can you feel it? The Spring Peepers can; they sing in my swamp with more vigor every day and night. Even the House Finches are feeling it. One came to the bird bath on my deck this afternoon with his mouth full of nesting material. He dropped the bundle of grasses beside his feet to drink, but the strong March winds blew it away before he’d taken a sip. I don’t think he was really ready to build a serious nest anyway. Perhaps the imminent Vernal Equinox (March 20) has him a bit addled.
I’ve been waiting for below-normal temperatures to abate so that I can start preparing my spring vegetable beds. It looks like this weekend will finally bring proper preparation conditions — and the amazing Wonder Spouse has even agreed to lend a hand. The timing is good. The seven kinds of greens growing in the greenhouse will be transplanting size very soon. And I need the room — it’s nearly time to start sowing tomato and pepper seeds.
I did not originally intend to grow seven kinds of greens this year. I had settled on five from my favorite seed supplier — Johnny’s Selected Seeds. But then I got my complimentary seed order form from Renee’s Garden (courtesy of my membership in the Garden Writers Association), and temptation overcame me.
This season’s spring garden will consist of the seven greens currently growing in the greenhouse:
- Lettuce, New Red Fire
- Lettuce Salanova Home Garden Mix (more about this another time)
- Lettuce, Coastal Star
- Spinach, Emu
- Vitamin Green Greens
- Spinach, Summer Perfection
- Asian Greens Mix
The first five are from Johnny’s, Summer Perfection is from Renee’s, and the final Asian greens mix was a freebie seed package from some other supplier, whose name I’ve managed to lose track of.
Also currently growing are seedlings of Bouquet Dill from Johnny’s and Blue Boy Cornflowers from Renee’s. Ideally, dill is best direct-sowed, but unpredictable weather — mostly in the form of hard rains — usually gives me sparse results when I direct-sow. As long as I transplant these herbs while they’re small, their somewhat temperamental tap roots should adjust without difficulty. One can never have too much dill, in this gardener’s opinion.
The Cornflowers are gorgeous blue annuals that bloom early, laughing at late frosts. I love the intense blueness of the flowers, so when I saw Renee was offering some, I jumped at the chance.
Because these are early spring plants, I didn’t use my germination chamber with the propagation mat to warm them. They don’t need the help. Even my cool greenhouse (I set the heater to come on at 45 degrees Fahrenheit) didn’t slow them down. All but the dill germinated in under five days. The dill took seven. The cornflowers won the contest, sprouting in less than 24 hours — now that’s enthusiasm!
When the garden beds are ready (i.e., weed-free), I’ll tuck in the greens, mulch with some fibrous compost mix I picked up from a local supplier, and enclose them in garden cloth supported by wire hoops. The cloth will protect the greens from all but the hardest of late freezes, and will also discourage rodents, who have learned to slip through my fence and help themselves — either field rats or meadow voles — or both.
I’ll be direct-sowing several varieties of carrots and two varieties of beets as well. Carrot seeds are as hard as dill seeds to germinate reliably, but Johnny’s offers pelleted seeds. They encase the seeds in little balls of clay, which dissolve when exposed to moisture. It is vastly easier to place these little clay balls where I want them — and to keep them where I put them. This year’s root crops will include:
- Beet, Red Ace
- Carrot, Early Nelson
- Carrot, Sugarsnax
- Carrot Nantes Starica
- Carrot, Snacking Rotild
- Beet, Dutch Red Baron
The last three are more freebies from Renee’s Garden that sounded too good not to try. Those carrots aren’t pelleted, so I’ll have some side-by-side data for comparison.
The only other spring crop this year will be Wonder Spouse’s potatoes. The order is due to arrive next week. I’ll keep you posted on that experiment, which I mentioned previously here.
I’ve given up on peas, either English or Sugar Snap varieties. Weather patterns have grown too unreliable for them, no matter how early I get them in the ground. Early heat waves destroy pod production just as flowering grows enthusiastic.
Early heat is the main enemy in a North Carolina Piedmont spring garden. Most of the greens I picked were chosen specifically because of their purported resistance to early summer heat. Carrots and beets are less affected — unless the heat leaps in the 90s in April — and heaven help us all if that happens!
Even after the spring garden is planted, there will be no time to rest. The summer beds will need to be prepared to receive the tomatoes and peppers that I haven’t even started yet (another week or two). As soon as the ground is warm enough, I’ll direct-sow the beans. I’ll start the squash seeds after the tomatoes and peppers are well germinated. They need less time to reach transplanting size.
So much to do, and an aging body to do it with. But Wonder Spouse and I will persevere, knowing that the rewards are delicious and good for us too.
But first, all those vigorous winter weeds must be removed from the planting beds. Charge!
Here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, winter is refusing to relinquish its grip. We’re not buried under feet of snow like our more northern neighbors, but the cold air refuses to head back to the Arctic, and frequent precipitation events teeter between rain and ice, often producing both forms in one episode.
Last Saturday, it snowed all day and into the night, but almost none of it lingered, because the previous day we had soared into the upper 60-degree range. It was fun to watch enormous wet snowflakes fall steadily while the Spring Peepers droned enthusiastically in the adjacent swamp. They didn’t quiet until the sky cleared and the temperatures plunged, turning melted snow into treacherous black ice.
Late winter temperature variations don’t seem to bother salamanders any more than they do Spring Peepers, as demonstrated by the top photo. That’s a salamander egg mass. We’ve observed several species of these amphibians on our property, so I’m guessing when I identify these eggs as those from a Spotted Salamander. I’m going by the description of egg-laying behavior at the link provided. Those black dots are the growing embryos encased by the gelatinous material that protects them until the new-born amphibians are ready to emerge.
Sunday morning after the sun melted icy walks, Wonder Spouse and I wandered up to the vegetable garden to discuss our immediate to-do list preparations for the spring garden. I’ve sowed quite a few (seven, I think) varieties of spring greens in the greenhouse. I’m hoping they’ll be ready for transplanting in mid-March, weather permitting. We have much to do to ready planting beds before that time — if winter will stop covering my garden in ice!
While we were there, we realized our abundant chive plants have begun putting out fresh shoots, despite winter’s persistence.
It’s a good thing that members of the onion family are relatively cold-resistant, don’t you think?
On Sunday night, temperatures plunged into the teens. The National Weather Service’s official recording station at our airport recorded a low of 18 degrees Fahrenheit. The thermometer on our hill got down to 13 degrees. Microclimate differences and the absence of nearby concrete and asphalt heat islands account for our consistently lower temperatures.
Fortunately, native plants are well adapted to our up-and-down temperatures, as evidenced by the native rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) that grows beside our back deck. This species is common in our mountains, but it does occur naturally in a few places in the Piedmont region, where so-called relict plant communities from the last glacial period survive to present day. I would never have planted this species where it grows in my yard, but it was here when we moved in 23 years ago, easily tripling in size since then, so I don’t argue with it.
Here is what the rhododendron looked like at 7:20 a.m. Monday morning, when our thermometer read 13 degrees:
See how sad the leaves look? The shrub is fine; this is how evergreens adapt to severe cold. They temporarily shut down their leafy water transport mechanism to protect leaves from damage. But the plant does look pitiful, as evidenced by this closer view:
A mere two hours later, the shrub’s protected southern exposure combined with strong sunlight helped the plant recover its composure.
So adept is this plant at its cold-recovery trick that you’d never know how sad it looked two hours earlier.
Such is the nature of Salamander Season here in the Piedmont. One minute, we’re shivering in frigid air, the next, sunlight and Spring Peepers warm us into spring garden dreams.
Friday’s forecast is calling for morning sleet that should morph into cold rain. Although inconvenient, I am grateful for every drop of precipitation. My county remains in moderate drought, a thirsty peninsula surrounded by well-watered counties to our east, north, and west. I will happily delay spring planting for mud-making rain, knowing we need that water to fight summer’s inevitable drought-worsening heat.