Archive for category Greenhouse growing
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.
I love this time of year in my corner of the southeastern Piedmont. One morning, I can wake up to 14 degrees Fahrenheit and frost so heavy it looks like snow. Two days later, mosquitoes and moths beat at my windows, taking advantage of 60+-degree air. And through it all, the Spring Peepers chorus steadily from the swamp. Add to that the shrieking of female wood ducks when I unintentionally startle them as they paddle on the creek, Red-shouldered Hawks scolding me if I approach their nest too closely, and the cacophony of woodpeckers arguing over territory, and what you have, my friends, are abundant early signs of spring. Oh sure, we may still get a late snow storm or (please no!) ice storm, but that won’t slow spring’s progress for long.
I have always loved sunrises, and they tend to be especially spectacular this time of year. I rise early and watch the chilly ones through my large south-facing windows. On warmer mornings, I stand outside, admire the colors, and enjoy the rising chorus of waking songbirds. If I’m really lucky, just as the sun tops the ridge line to my east, I am treated to the sea gulls.
No, that’s not a typo, I meant what I typed. Even though I’m a couple of hundred miles from the NC coastline, every winter I see sea gulls. I think they’re Herring Gulls. They migrate inland for the winter and settle on the large man-made lake/reservoir that’s about ten miles or so (as the gull files) from my house. Every morning just at sunrise, these thousands of gulls fly from the lake to the area shopping malls, where they feast upon the garbage left by shoppers in the parking lots. They return to the lake in the evening, repeating the cycle daily until they decide it’s time to return to the coast.
A couple of days ago, the gulls decided to steer their sunrise flight directly over my house. Wave after wave of gulls flew overhead in ragged V-shaped formations, the low rays of the sun illuminating their bellies and undersides of their wings. What seemed like an endless stream of brightly lit angels flew silently over my house for over five minutes. There must have been thousands of them. I don’t know if it’s because they are quite high up and out of my hearing range, or if perhaps they really do fly in silence, but their sun-brightened mute flight seems just right for that time of day. Raucous gull calls would definitely spoil the effect. It is a breath-takingly wonderful way to start one’s day. Alas, I was not awake enough to think to grab my camera.
I took advantage of yesterday’s mild weather to do a bit of yard work. I am far behind on outdoor chores, due to a self-inflicted injury on my right elbow. Some people get tennis elbow. I gave myself weeder’s elbow when I weeded my front bed vigorously for about six hours straight. (Memo to self: Aging elbows are much less forgiving than young ones.) After three full months of babying my cranky elbow, I’m now finally able to attack a few garden tasks. I started with some raking, followed by a few hours of dividing perennials and potting up some of the excess pieces. I’m helping a friend plant a new flower garden later this year, and I promised her some of my extras to help her get started.
Garden books will tell you that perennials should be divided every three to five years to keep them actively growing and blooming. I’m sure that’s probably true, but I’ve found that most of my perennials are more forgiving than that, and thank goodness, because that’s a task I rarely seem to find time for. I ended up yesterday with 21 pots of varying sizes full of healthy offshoots from some of my perennials, including bronze fennel (seedling explosion in the veggie garden paths), daylilies, salvias, rudbeckias, echinaceas, anise hyssop, columbine, and catnip for my friend’s cherished felines. You can’t even tell where I chipped off bits to pot up, so overgrown are my enthusiastic plantings.
While I was settling the potted perennials into the greenhouse for safekeeping, I checked on my rooting flat of rosemary and lavender cuttings. To test for roots, I lightly tug on the cutting. If I feel resistance, I know roots have formed. The lavender cuttings are not yet rooted, but about half the rosemary cuttings are rooted. I pulled one up so you can see how it’s looking:
Most folks dip cuttings into commercial rooting hormone — liquid or powder — to encourage stems to produce roots. If I were trying to root more difficult plants, say, cuttings of trees or some shrubs, I’d probably use this product, but I’ve never found it necessary for these herbs. I’ve also noticed that after a few stems acquire roots, the rest of the cuttings seem to root all at once. I suspect that the early rooters are putting chemical signals into the soil that encourage nearby cuttings to begin rooting. All the cuttings seem quite healthy, and the rosemaries are blooming like crazy. You’re really not supposed to root blooming cuttings because the flowers theoretically consume too much energy for the cutting to create roots. But my rosemaries apparently don’t know that, and I’m not going to tell them.
Very soon now, I’ll be starting vegetable seeds in the greenhouse. Rain — perhaps even significant quantities — is predicted for my region over the next few days. My county is in moderate drought, so I’ll welcome every drop. But as soon as the sun returns, I must focus on cleaning up the vegetable garden for spring planting. Ready or not, elbow, here comes spring!
The handsome creature above was kind enough to park itself on a large oak in our backyard on a cloudy New Year’s Day. Wonder Spouse grabbed my camera (it was closer) and managed to catch the Great Blue Heron just as it tensed before gliding down to the creek. As we can imagine the bird’s great wings expanding wide for flight, so can we imagine ways to expand our gardens.
Over the decades, I have become a more selective gardener. In early years, I planted any plant offered me, and rarely looked farther than my local stores for transplant possibilities. I am now much more selective, saving the diminishing choice spots in my yard for specimens like the Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) I’ve told you about before here.
In that post, I mentioned that I’d never seen my specimen bloom. Having read that the flowers are inconspicuous, I thought perhaps I’d overlooked them on my tree. But now I’m fairly certain that my tree had simply not bloomed for me — until now. Now all the upper branches are covered in fat flower buds just beginning to show hints of maroon petals within.
I finally found one bud within reach of my camera that was showing the color of the strappy petals.
The flowers are not showy, unlike the spectacular fall color display of the leaves. But their appearance expands the presence of this specimen tree, making it a magnificent year-round addition.
My garden expands as my transplants mature and prosper, but I have other ways to increase my garden’s presence in the world — by sharing it with others.
Like most gardeners, I’ve been giving away plants for many years. Some special plants just love to multiply, and it gives me great pleasure to share them. My shared wealth expands my garden’s reach to both ends of my home state and many points in between. I hear from the owners of those distant gardens when one of my garden babies blooms. It’s fun, for example, to hear whose daylily bloomed first and for how long.
It delights me to know that sometimes my garden expands itself by transferring the gardening bug to others. A housemate from graduate school — a city girl with no experience with the green world when we first met — told me years later that she plants a vegetable garden every year now. Working the garden with me — and tasting the results — persuaded her of the benefits of this pursuit. I am thrilled every time I manage to bring another soul over to the green side.
In recent years, I’ve expanded my garden in other ways. I grow extra vegetables each year, so that — weather and pests permitting — I can share them with friends and the local food bank. The Garden Writers Association sponsors a formal program to foster this idea. They call it Plant a Row for the Hungry.
You can do likewise in your garden. Or if you don’t have space for a food garden in your yard, consider helping with a community garden. The university in the town adjacent to mine runs a successful community garden program on campus. The bounty is shared with university staff and other community members who want to supplement their diets with fresh-grown produce.
And the land conservancy organization in my region supports what it calls the Local Farms and Food platform of their mission by allowing local food banks to operate community gardens on some of the arable lands being preserved by this organization. Arable land — an increasingly scarce commodity in my rapidly urbanizing area — is not just preserved, but put to its best use.
I’m sure my region isn’t the only place with such garden-expanding opportunities. If you are inclined to try expanding your garden in such ways, check with your local colleges, food banks, and land conservancy groups. If they aren’t already growing food to feed the hungry, maybe you can help get such a program started.
I also expand my garden by sharing it with friends who need a little extra beauty in their lives. Last year, I cleaned up and planted a tiny garden space at the home of a friend battling a major illness. Knowing she would be spending many days recuperating at home, I hoped that this small plot full of color would lift her spirits. Because she likes to cook, I also planted a pot full of culinary herbs that could sit on her patio, a few steps from her kitchen.
This year, another friend recovering from a major health challenge has a lovely empty garden space beside her new house. She is excited about planting this area with native flowers that will bloom enthusiastically and attract pollinators. I’ve begun potting up some of my garden multipliers for later spring transplanting to her new bed. And during yesterday’s absurdly mild weather here, I took cuttings of rosemary and Spanish lavender, placing them in a flat in my greenhouse. By the time spring arrives, they will be well-rooted and ready for new homes.
In my opinion, every southern Piedmont home should have a few rosemary shrubs growing nearby, for enhancing culinary masterpieces and inhaling their aromatically therapeutic properties.
As the years make my joints creakier, expanding my physical garden at home will likely become impractical. But I will always be able to expand my green world in these other ways.
As you readers of this blog plan your own spring and summer gardens this year, I encourage you to expand your thinking beyond your personal garden space. Whose life can you lighten by sharing your garden this year?
I thought I was being clever by pushing ahead my greenhouse planting schedule. After all, temperatures soared to May levels by mid-March. Native flowers were blooming three weeks ahead of schedule. Soil temperatures were above 60 degrees. Yes, average last freeze for my area isn’t until April 15, and frosts can occur a couple of weeks after that. But surely not this year, right?
Um, well, maybe not. The weather forecasters just came out with the temperature forecast through mid-April. My region is now forecasted to have a better than 50% chance of below-normal temperatures. This after the warmest March on record, of course.
On the one hand, this is great news. Maybe my spring vegetable garden will be one of my most productive ones ever. Of course, the Sugar Sprint Snap Peas still haven’t produced one flower bud. But maybe it’s been too hot for them, even though they have been climbing their trellis. Maybe now they’ll be happy and make peas for me.
On the other hand, the tomatoes in my greenhouse are already so large that I’m having trouble moving in there without snagging one and nearly pulling it down on top of me. And it’s only April 4.
For comparison, I went back and looked at my records for last year. According to this post, my tomatoes were about the same size as they are now on May 17. No, that’s not a typo. We’re talking five weeks later. Time for Plan B — or is it Plan C. This has been the most improvisational gardening season I’ve experienced in, well, forever. I can’t remember ever being faced with such problems.
Meanwhile, the natives and ornamentals are still hurtling through the season as if midnight is approaching and their coaches are becoming pumpkins. Case in point: I found this on the ground today when I was walking around:
Last year, I took a photo like that on April 24 as you can see here.
And my beautiful deciduous azaleas? They are blooming so early and fast that one finished before I could even document it here. Right now, the Alabama azalea is at its peak. Here’s the whole shrub:
That’s the Ashe Magnolia in the back left corner. It’s just beginning to open its buds. Here’s a close-up of the Alabama Azalea flowers so you can appreciate their beauty:
Last year, I documented peak bloom of this specimen on April 22, as you can see here.
One more example and I’ll stop for today. I documented the gorgeous blooms of Rhododendron ‘Pastel #20′ last year on April 14. It’s at maximum bloom this year today, as you can see here:
And here’s a close-up:
All the oak trees except the big Black Oak have finished blooming. The Northern Red Oak that towers over my house is raining fat caterpillars. I always wonder if they leap off the tree to avoid birds. Why else would they abandon their food source before they’re ready to metamorphose?
Most of the oak leaves — and the leaves of other native trees too — are rapidly achieving near-summer size. I’m hoping — praying, actually — this means that they’ll have time to toughen up enough to avoid being killed by a late freeze.
The good news? The same long-range forecast for my region has my area right on the line between above-average and normal precipitation. Maybe if it stays cloudy — and ideally rainy — the cold temperatures won’t drop low enough to kill my precocious plants. Of course, below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation could also mean snow. It has happened here in April — not lately — but it has happened. A light snow probably wouldn’t kill spring growth. But it doesn’t solve my biggest problem.
What I am going to do with the gigantic tomato plants in my greenhouse?