Archive for category Greenhouse growing

A Farewell to Flowers

Final moments in the sun for these nasturtiums

Final moments in the sun for these nasturtiums.

It was inevitable, of course, the prediction of our first freezing temperatures. They’ll actually arrive a bit behind the average date this year. By next Sunday morning, the weather forecasters are calling for temperatures around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. At my house, that will likely translate to the upper 20s — more than cold enough to kill the still-blooming flowers in my yard.

As has been their habit in recent years, the nasturtiums in my vegetable garden have staged a takeover, covering the beds that once held summer vegetables.

These will be nasturtium mush after Sunday morning's freeze.

These will be nasturtium mush after Sunday morning’s freeze.

Pretty much any flower still blooming — from salvias to coral honeysuckle to abelias, verbenas, lemon basil, and Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ — will be killed by the upcoming freeze. The bees know it’s coming. They work frantically on my salvias and other flowers from the time the air warms up enough for flight until full dark.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to protect my deliciously productive lettuce bed through this first bout of cold.

Fresh salad season in late October, oh yeah!

Fresh salad season in late October, oh yeah!

I didn’t manage to start my own seed for the fall lettuce, but I found starts of two of my favorite varieties at my local farmers’ co-op.

Leaves of Red Sails are so tender that you barely need to chew.

Leaves of Red Sails are so tender that you barely need to chew.

The green romaine is juicy and vibrantly flavorful.

The green romaine is juicy and vibrantly flavorful.

I also planted some Premium Crop broccoli. It is growing well, but is just starting to create flower heads. I’m hoping the Reemay cover over it will allow it to grow to harvestable size before cold weather settles in for the season.

The weather forecasters have been talking about the upcoming freeze for about two weeks, so I knew it was time for winterizing our front water feature and moving the potted plants from their summer home beneath the towering Southern Magnolia to the greenhouse.

Wonder Spouse kindly helped me with both tasks. Those pots are heavy — especially the waterlogged ones that sit inside my water feature all summer.

Drained and cleaned for winter.

Drained and cleaned for winter.

We relocated two Green Frogs who were summering in the water feature. We end up relocating amphibians every year at this time. We carry them down to the permanent pond on our floodplain. It was quite warm when we moved them, and they were very energetic, so we’re hopeful that they found a spot on the muddy bottom to sleep through winter’s cold.

Potted plants are all relocated into the greenhouse for the winter.

Potted plants are all relocated into the greenhouse for the winter.

After pulling out all the sprouting weeds in the pots, cutting off dead bits, and generally sprucing up the plants, we found good spots in the greenhouse for all the potted plants. The heater in the middle of the above shot keeps the greenhouse from going below 45 degrees — except for power outages and prolonged bouts of low temperatures. Most years, the little heater is enough to keep all the plants healthy.

Pots of plants that normally sit inside the water feature sit in water-filled saucers in the greenhouse for the winter.

Pots of plants that normally sit inside the water feature sit in water-filled saucers in the greenhouse for the winter.

Even the carnivorous pitcher plants seem to over-winter well in the greenhouse, as long as I keep their saucers full of water.

Even the carnivorous pitcher plants seem to over-winter well in the greenhouse, as long as I keep their saucers full of water.

The annual Changing of the Lizards occurred about three weeks ago. All summer long, the skinks own the front deck, basking in the sun, and scurrying into the flowers when I approach. But every fall, the skinks vanish and the anoles return. I think the anoles summer in the trees and shrubs, but every fall, they return to the west-facing front of my house, where winter sun warms the front wall all season. We often spot them hiding behind the drainspouts, or wedged beneath the overlapping boards of the house’s siding. This year, I decided to create a spot where they could soak up sun more comfortably.

I call it their Lizard Palace.

I call it their Lizard Palace.

I took some flat stones from a bed we dismantled, and stacked them so that small spaces — just large enough for lizards — remain between the layers. The structure is in a flowerbed beside the front wall of our house, where it should receive plenty of winter sun all season. I’m hoping that the sun will heat up the rocks enough to encourage the cold-blooded anoles to come soak up the warmth. I’ve already spotted some of them on the structure on cooler days, so I’m hopeful that the Lizard Palace will be a popular option for them as we progress into winter.

I’ve started keeping the bird feeders well-stocked, but they’re not getting much attention these days. I think most of the trees and shrubs in my yard produced abundant fruit this year, and the birds are taking full advantage of that fact — which is wonderful! The massive Southern Red Oak at the top of my hill produced zillions of small acorns this year. The Blue Jays and larger woodpeckers spend most daylight hours dining on these nuts.

And the great Southern Magnolia in our front garden is absolutely loaded with cones extruding scarlet seeds on thin filaments. These dangling fruits must truly be delicious, because every warbler, robin, woodpecker, etc. animates this tree until full dark. I find myself looking for excuses to linger nearby, so that I can watch the feathered folk engage in circus-worthy acrobatics as they vie for tasty magnolia treasures.

Looking like Christmas ornaments, the laden Magnolia cones signal wildlife that autumn's days are numbered.

Looking like Christmas ornaments, the laden Magnolia cones signal wildlife that autumn’s days are numbered.

Have you tucked in your outdoor potted plants and other cold-sensitive items in your yard yet? If not, make haste. Our first taste of wintry air is almost here.

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So much to see …

An iris (name forgotten) thriving in a neglected corner of my vegetable garden.

An iris (name forgotten) thriving in a neglected corner of my vegetable garden.

Is is just my yard, or is everyone seeing an explosion of growth from their gardens? There is so much to see that I really need to be outside every day with the camera. I am certain that I’ve missed peak moments of some of my spring beauties.

Everywhere I turn, I am wowed by another gorgeous flower — like that iris in the above photo. Long ago, I chunked some irises into a bed in my vegetable garden, thinking it would be nice to have a place for cut flowers and to bring in pollinators. I’ve forgotten the names of the varieties planted there, and most years, I am very slow to get their area weeded. But despite nearly complete neglect, they reward me with spectacular flowers every year. I love that about the bearded irises.

Speaking of which, check out these:

Iris 'Batik'

Iris ‘Batik’

These jaw-droppingly gorgeous blooms live in my front garden — another currently very neglected part of my yard. But do they complain? Never! They continue to multiply, blooming ever more magnificently every year.

Another plant that stops everyone in their tracks in my front garden this year is the coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’). It grows and blooms so wonderfully that I’ve had to prune it severely several times over the years to prevent it from pulling down the trellis it perches on.

Major Wheeler's scarlet wall of beauty

Major Wheeler’s scarlet wall of beauty

Why, you may ask, am I missing daily walks and neglecting beauties like those above? Two things: the vegetable garden and the greenhouse. As you may recall, my greenhouse was jam-packed with plants I grew from seed — veggies and flowers. However, in my part of NC, by early May, our temperatures are usually getting summertime hot. Even though the roof of my little greenhouse is covered by shade cloth and ventilated with a temperature-sensor-controlled fan — and I keep the door wide open during the day — temperatures get into the 100s in there pretty early.

Thus, I’ve been in my annual race to get everything growing in the greenhouse planted and/or moved to their summer spots before they sautéed themselves in the greenhouse. I’ve been working dawn to dusk at least every other day (weather permitting) to achieve that goal. And I just finished yesterday. Yes, I am tired, and yes, my aging, overused joints are not entirely happy with me. But it’s done. Every seed-grown start has been transplanted, watered, and mulched. Now it’s up to them and the whimsies of weather.

Top priority was the vegetable garden. Food plants always trump flowers. If I do say so myself, that part of my yard is looking pretty darn good. See for yourself.

Squashes grow large within their tents, surrounded by peppers, flowers, and herbs.

Squashes grow large within their tents, surrounded by peppers, flowers, and herbs.

The Fortex pole beans are making excellent progress.

It wouldn't be summer without Fortex pole beans for dinner.

It wouldn’t be summer without Fortex pole beans for dinner.

One thing I love about a late spring vegetable garden — everything looks so neat and tidy. After the plants have grown a while, weather, bugs, and diseases create a more “lived-in” look.

Potatoes in the foreground, onions, lettuces, and the summer veggies in back.

Potatoes in the foreground, onions, lettuces, and the summer veggies in back.

Today is the first day my area will go into the 90s since last September. I have not missed those temperatures. Also, all the bugs are back — the good, the bad, and the really annoying — biting flies, gnats, ticks. It’s a jungle out there again, or getting there anyway.

No more working dawn to dusk for this gardener. As summer temperatures settle in, I’ll be up at dawn for a bit of quick pruning, tying, watering, and harvesting, then back indoors by 9:00 a.m.  Unless a rare cool spell stops by.

Also stopping by this week, a couple of critters I don’t often see. A Red-headed Woodpecker hung around my yard for about 4 days, even sampling my suet feeders. I see them every once in a while, but they never seem to stay. I’ve always wondered if the Red-bellied Woodpeckers drive them away.

A gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker sampling my suet feeder.

A gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker sampling my suet feeder.

This other critter was trying to hide in my garage when I found him. I suspect he escaped from a load of wood chip mulch that I’d been spreading. That’s where these beetles live, so it was likely my fault that he was wandering around my garage. I relocated him to the mulch pile.

Eyed Click Beetle

Eyed Click Beetle

I haven’t begun to enumerate all that’s showing off in my yard right now. The Ash Magnolia blooms will be open very soon. The deciduous azaleas are amazing this year. The swamp wildflowers are ridiculously enthusiastic, likely from all that rain they had last summer.

I confess I spend my too-infrequent walks around the yard exclaiming over the loveliness of a bloom, the rate of growth of a particular shrub, the tiny discarded cones beneath my towering Dawn Redwood. Spring in my garden makes me a child again — surprised and delighted by every gift Mother Nature bestows on me.

Baptisia 'Purple Smoke'

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’

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Veggie Garden Update

Happy greens

Happy greens

It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks, but Wonder Spouse and I have just about got the vegetable garden where we need it to be. Mostly, anyway. Certainly, the bed of lettuces, spinaches, arugula, and broccoli is doing very well. We’ve enjoyed a number of quite tasty salads. However, as usual, the arugula has already begun to bolt. It’s really too bitter to eat now, and I will force myself to pull it up as soon as the scary weather predicted for the next several days is safely past us.

Coastal Star Romaine Lettuce

Coastal Star Romaine Lettuce

The spring garden was planted later than usual, because our darn temperatures wouldn’t stabilize, and because the ground was too wet to work longer than usual. My greens are doing well, because I started them in the greenhouse and then transplanted them to their bed.

Red Cross Butterhead Lettuce

Red Cross Butterhead Lettuce

But by the time I direct-sowed the beets and carrots, it was already about a month too late. They’ve sprouted beautifully, but the plants are still really seedlings. I am not hopeful that I’ll get much from them unless May high temperatures are much, much lower than normal.

Annapolis Red Romaine Lettuce tastes as wonderful as it looks.

Annapolis Red Romaine Lettuce tastes as wonderful as it looks.

Wonder Spouse’s potatoes are doing well. Here’s what one bagful looked like earlier in the week:

Before the bag was raised to the next level.

Before the bag was raised to the next level.

This past weekend, Wonder Spouse unfolded another third of the bag, filled in around the plants with the rich leaf mold/compost mix he devised, and counseled the plants to produce yet more tubers at this higher level.

Ideally, the stems should sprout new roots and then potatoes along the freshly buried stems. Here's hoping!

Ideally, the stems should sprout new roots and then potatoes along the freshly buried stems. Here’s hoping!

The onion plants I transplanted in mid-March are doing well. I’m trying to be very attentive about watering them. For once, the well we use for the garden is full to the top, so I can be more generous with this precious resource than in recent past springs.

Of course, as soon as the spring garden was in, I began weeding the beds set aside for summer vegetables and flowers. Weather — again — slowed my progress, as did my cranky joints. Alas, this aging gardener has discovered that repetitive gardening tasks are ideally allotted to alternating days, at least if I want to walk upright.

When I saw the weather forecast for this week — basically, an entire week of rain — I knew that the tomato starts in my greenhouse would never last another entire week confined there. So, ignoring my joints and with the help of Wonder Spouse this past weekend, the tomato beds were power-weeded, planted, and mulched.

A weeded tomato bed before planting. It was chock full of earthworms.

A weeded tomato bed before planting. It was chock full of earthworms.

The tomatoes were hitting the roof of the greenhouse.

The tomatoes were hitting the roof of the greenhouse.

It is a very satisfying feeling to step back and admire a well-planted, well-mulched bed. Of course, now I will chew off my fingernails worrying about hail and damaging winds.

Gardeners don't need to go to Vegas to gamble; we gamble on the weather.

Gardeners don’t need to go to Vegas to gamble; we gamble on the weather.

The first summer bed I prepared was for the Fortex pole beans. I think I planted them about two weeks ago, and I may have gotten 100% germination from them. I am excited.

Fortex pole beans in foreground; much of the rest of the vegetable garden behind and beside them.

Fortex pole beans in foreground; much of the rest of the vegetable garden behind and beside them.

I also got my squashes planted yesterday. I start them in the greenhouse, to ensure top-quality plants. Direct-sowing isn’t a terrible option, but when you have a greenhouse, you might as well use it. I transplanted three plants each of two kinds of zucchini — Spineless Perfection, and a new variety for me — Dinja. As soon as they’re tucked in, watered, and mulched, they are covered in their garden fabric tents to prevent insect pests from devouring the baby plants. As I explained here, the fabric comes off when the first flowers open.

Safely tucked beneath their insect-proof tents, the squash plants can focus on unimpeded growth.

Safely tucked beneath their insect-proof tents, the squash plants can focus on unimpeded growth.

I interplanted a few basils and marigolds with the tomatoes, but I have many, many flower and herb plants impatiently waiting their summer homes in my greenhouse. I can’t even think about their relocation until this terrifying weather pattern is past and the ground dries out. My area is predicted to receive 3-5 inches of rain. I’m praying my yard receives the lower end of that range.

Several of the tomato plants were displaying their first open flowers when we transplanted them, so I’m praying that the weather will be kind, and I’ll be devouring fresh-picked tomato fruits soon.

That’s about it for the veggie update. But I can’t close without mentioning the arrival of two species of birds that I associate with late spring — Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Summer Tanagers. The grosbeaks visit for about two weeks every spring and fall on their migrations to their summer and winter homes. My well-stocked feeders are a favored stopover for them.

The Summer Tanagers nest in my region every summer. I rarely see them, but I hear them often. They exchange a chipping call high in the treetops as they hunt for and devour the zillions of caterpillars that feed on the leaves of my canopy trees.

I know summer is nearly here when the tomatoes are in the ground and the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are visiting my feeders.

I know summer is nearly here when the tomatoes are in the ground and the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are visiting my feeders.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the folks in the middle of the country being hammered by tornadoes. It is indeed a cruel twist of Fate that Spring is often as destructive as it is beautiful.

Stay safe out there, ya’ll.

 

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Just in case…

Eastern Columbine

Eastern Columbine

At my house during the hours just before sunrise today, the temperature dropped to around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately for the myriad tender plants on my five acres, a north wind was blowing in cold air all night. The tender leaves of my canopy trees, the delicate flowers on shrubs and perennials are all as lovely today as they were before the one-inch rainfall of yesterday. However, tonight — we may not be as lucky.

A blooming blueberry bush in front of an Eastern Redbud

A blooming blueberry bush in front of an Eastern Redbud

Tonight, temperatures are predicted to be as low as last night’s, but tonight the winds are predicted to be much lighter. If they stop entirely, cold air will tumble down my hill to the floodplain beside the creek, then fill up the lower areas with freezing air, like water filling a basin.

A Rhododendron austrinum hybrid that started blooming yesterday.

A Rhododendron austrinum hybrid that started blooming yesterday.

One dark spring about a decade ago, temperatures dropped into the low to mid-twenties just as the canopy giants that tower over my land were pushing out fresh perfect tiny leaves, as they are now. Every leaf was killed. The trees remained winter-bare until June, when they finally managed to summon enough energy to produce another flush of greenery.

Variegated Japanese Solomon's Seal

Variegated Japanese Solomon’s Seal

So this morning, just in case, tomorrow dawn’s colder than predicted and destroys the spring beauty surrounding me, I went out and took a few photographs. Not every plant is peaking just yet, but this may be all we get this year. The whims of weather are not for mere gardeners to understand, I suppose.

Halesia diptera is just about to attain full glory.

Halesia diptera is just about to attain full glory.

The thicker bracts of our native dogwoods are unlikely to be adversely impacted.

The thicker bracts of our native dogwoods are unlikely to be adversely impacted.

The visual impact of a mature native dogwood in bloom should not be underestimated.

The visual impact of a mature native dogwood in bloom should not be underestimated.

The trilliums I planted last year are all up and showing flower buds. I am hoping the cold will not harm them.

I think this one is Trillium luteum, but I've managed to lose my labels, so I won't be certain if the flower buds don't open.

I think this one is Trillium luteum, but I’ve managed to lose my labels, so I won’t be certain if the flower buds don’t open.

The native deciduous gingers Asarum canadense) I added last year have expanded their numbers considerably. I am worried that this potential food for the Pipevine Swallowtail may be too tender to withstand tonight’s chill.

Asarum canadense

Asarum canadense

The Pinxterbloom Azalea is in almost full bloom, its flower clusters bobbing prettily in today’s north wind.

Pinxterbloom Azalea

Pinxterbloom Azalea

There’s more, but the strong wind prevented me from getting decent photographs of them.

As I wandered the floodplain, I discovered that the frogs and toads have reproduced with spectacular abundance this year. Because of the wonderfully generous rains all winter and, so far, this spring, my floodplain is still covered with a number of channels full of water — long, narrow puddles, basically. Today I discovered all of these puddles are brimming with tadpoles!

I'm guessing there are thousands, when you add up all the occupants of all the puddles.

I’m guessing there are thousands, when you add up all the occupants of all the puddles.

These puddles are not very deep — a few inches at most. And now that the great canopy trees are awakening and pulling up water to create leaves, past experience tells me these puddles will be vanishing quickly — barring unusually heavy and regular spring rains. The tadpoles are in a race with evaporation and thirsty trees. Can they metamorphose into frogs and toads before their puddle homes vanish? I confess I’ve spent more than one hour over the years scooping up beached tadpoles and ferrying them to deeper waters. As the water vanishes, the beached tadpoles become food for crows if I don’t intervene. I know it’s all part of Mother Nature’s master plan, but still I can’t seem to stop myself from interfering, at least a bit.

The yellow cast to the water is from the abundant pollen currently covering every object on the property.

The yellow cast to the water is from the abundant pollen currently covering every object on the property.

Tonight’s cold is unlikely to be severe enough to hurt the tadpoles. Warm ground will prevent the water from freezing. It’s times like this that I wish I could drop a giant glass dome over my five acres, protecting all the tender vegetation from unseasonable cold spells.

The vegetable garden will be fine. I’ve covered all exposed plants, and the cold won’t last long enough to exceed the protective capacity of those covers. Summer plants in the greenhouse continue to thrive. The tomatoes are becoming quite large. They need the weather to stabilize soon, so that I can transplant them to their summer beds.

The tomatoes are growing impatient with the weather swings.

The tomatoes are growing impatient with the weather swings.

The summer birds that have returned should be fine. The cold won’t be deep enough to kill their insect food supply, and I’ll be sure all the feeders are well stocked. The hummingbirds could be adversely impacted, if their favorite food flowers are killed by cold. Sugar water in feeders helps, but they need their native foods too.

Eastern Columbines are one of the first flowers beloved by hummingbirds to bloom in the spring.

Eastern Columbines are one of the first flowers beloved by hummingbirds to bloom in the spring.

So, my fellow gardening friends, keep all fingers and toes crossed for all of us who are facing a freeze warning tonight. Strawberry farmers will be encasing their crop in ice to protect blossoms and fruits. Alas, I’d need a sprinkler system capable of coating the leaves of 90-foot trees to protect my tender vegetation. Not exactly practical.

Here’s hoping these photos are the first of many I’ll be able to share this spring.

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Ready or not…

Eager lettuces.

Eager lettuces and friends.

I am not a gambler by nature — except for gardening, of course. Anyone who tells you gardening is a science is kidding you, or themselves perhaps. Science can help a gardener, to be sure. Understanding the environmental microclimates on your property, the species that naturally occur on it, and the geology of your land will absolutely contribute to your gardening successes. But wild cards abound — weather fluctuations, animal predation, neighborhood vandalism. Stuff happens; gardens suffer. Sometimes.

As a gardener for over five decades now, I weigh all the variables as best I can, then I go with my gut. Experience should count for something more than wrinkles, right? It should help me make the right gardening calls when my options are not absolutely obvious.

Thus is the dilemma of spring vegetable gardening in my region of North Carolina. Some years, spring has come so reliably early and warm that I’ve planted out tomato plants in early April. Then there are years like this one. For most of last week, weather forecasters were calling for snow for my region today. Measurable snow is not unheard of around here this time of year, but it is unusual — and entirely unwelcome.

As last weekend approached, the weather seers began to vacillate. Perhaps the snow would miss my area and pound the northeastern US instead. Perhaps. But is perhaps enough to gamble my spring vegetable garden on?

Surveying the size of the greens thriving in my greenhouse, and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to plant them out for at least another week if I waited, I decided to gamble.

Greens basking in Saturday sunshine before being transplanted.

Greens basking in Saturday sunshine before being transplanted.

On Friday, I planted the onion plants that had been patiently waiting for me since Monday when they arrived in the mail. Onion plants are remarkably forgiving. Even though they look a bit shriveled and worse for wear when you make them wait, experience has taught me that they’ll plump up in no time, sending up green shoots, putting out fresh roots, and fattening sweet bulbs for later harvest.

They don't look like much now, but give them a few weeks.

They don’t look like much now, but give them a few weeks.

I mulched the newly planted onions with mushroom compost from my favorite local supplier. This material is used by local mushroom growers once, then recycled into compost after harvest. It makes my local earthworms deliriously happy, and it protects the onions from heavy rains. I planted onions at either end of one of the long beds. In between, I’ll sow seeds of beets and carrots as soon as this latest round of wintry weather passes and the following warm rains end.

On Saturday, Wonder Spouse focused on his beloved potatoes, while I tucked in all the greens I described in my previous post. As I mentioned in that post, I did acquire a flat of broccoli seedlings to plant with the greens. They’re in the back on the left in the top photo.

After his success with potato bags last year, Wonder Spouse was eager to use them again, with a few variations, of course. Instead of placing the bags on top of the soil of a bed, this year, he dug out shallow holes for the bags before he filled them.  He has three bags, so he’s growing one variety per bag. Here’s what his supplier had to say about the varieties he’s growing this year:

  • Viking Red — Bright red skin, holds well in storage. Full-bodied flavor for baking and boiling that is extraordinary. Grows great in Texas and hot climates as it has ability to withstand heat. Rapid sizing, can grow from golf ball to baseball size overnight.
  • Purple Viking — Has all the characteristics of its parent Viking Red, but it has a true purple skin with pink-red splashes. Perhaps its most remarkable attribute is its waxy snow-white flesh. Drought-resistant and a yielder of large tubers. Its unique taste is loved by many and will get sweeter with time.
  • Marris Piper — This favorite from the British Isles never disappoints! Producing high yields of large, cream-skinned, cream-fleshed oblong tubers, Marris Piper makes awesome French fries and mashed potatoes that are out of this world. It’s very similar in taste and texture to the Kerr’s Pink and Yukon Gold potatoes with higher yields.

Here’s the first bag just before he buried the seed potatoes:

He'll use the pile of shredded leaves and compost to fill in the bags as the potato plants grow.

He’ll use the pile of shredded leaves and compost to fill in the bags as the potato plants grow.

At the back of this photo, you can see my bed full of newly transplanted greens. Here’s what the bed looked like before I started.

The metal hoops will support a garden fabric tent that I hope will protect the greens.

The metal hoops will support a garden fabric tent that I hope will protect the greens.

Here they are newly planted and fully mulched with more of that lovely mushroom compost:

Broccoli plants are in the center of the bed where the hoops attain maximum height.

Broccoli plants are in the center of the bed where the hoops attain maximum height.

The garden fabric we used is heavy enough to protect from heavy frosts, but probably not out-and-out prolonged freezes. And what we had on hand was not exactly the right size, so Wonder Spouse performed his usual magic to make it work for us. Here’s the final result:

Wonder Spouse is tucking in the final bits into the bed, using metal stakes designed for this purpose.

Wonder Spouse is tucking in the final bits into the bed, using metal stakes designed for this purpose.

Although the snow now heading for the northeastern US missed us, the cold will visit for about 48 hours. Lows are forecast to be in the mid-twenties, which at my house usually means low twenties. But one night will be windy, which is actually a good thing, as long as the hoop fabric holds.

The next night, however, will be flat-out colder than normal for this time of year. Will my transplants survive? See my first paragraph above. Sometimes, a gardener just has to go for it.

I carefully weighed the pros and cons. Experience has taught me that spring temperatures don’t last long in my area. Spring greens are only happy when the air is cool. Thus, I made the call to not wait another week to get them in the ground. I’ve done all I could. They’re well mulched and watered, and they are covered securely by their fabric shelter. They are also still small, which makes them a bit more resilient, at least, that’s usually the case.

I’ve got about three nervous days in front of me before the weather warms and turns rainy for the weekend. Will my garden gamble pay off? Stay tuned, my gardening friends. Whichever way it turns out, I’ll be sure to share the outcome.

I confess I am hopeful. After all, we’ve already dodged the accumulating snow once forecast for my region today. Here’s hoping fresh-picked spring salads are just a few weeks away!

 

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It’s all about temperature

If the soil temperature is too cold, forget about it.

If the soil temperature is too cold, forget about it.

Some decades back, I remember an experienced gardener telling me that it’s time to plant corn when emerging oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears.  Being of a more scientific bent, I did a bit of research and discovered that corn likes a minimum soil temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ve since found that corn germinates better for me when the soil is closer to 60 degrees.

But there’s truth to that old gardener’s advice. Over the years, I have observed that my soil temperatures reach 55-60 degrees just about the time the leaves of my tall oaks reach the size of squirrels’ ears. It varies a bit, depending on which species of oak and whether the oak is growing anywhere near the garden plot, but, in truth, oak leaf size and soil temperatures do seem to reliably correlate, proving once again that a gardener always fares better when she pays attention to the environmental cues surrounding her.

Especially in late winter/early spring (I can’t tell them apart this year), soil temperatures are critical to the success of my spring vegetable garden. Spring vegetables have a lot going against them in my region most years. Winters are often very wet, making for soils too wet to work. Or, like this year, repeated blasts of icy precipitation keep the soil not only too wet, but also too cold for planting. The sun is supposed to return with warmer temperatures just in time for tomorrow’s vernal equinox, and I know I speak for all frustrated southeastern gardeners when I say, Hallelujah!

But that’s the other tricky part of southeastern springs. Most years, they don’t last very long, instead morphing into summer by late April. Spring vegetables dislike summer heat as much as they are averse to freezing rain. It’s a flat-out gamble whether I reap much edible at all most years. But to be without the crisp freshness of just-picked greens or carrots, or the earthy sweetness of a red beet or onion — that’s too cruel a fate for my winter-worn green-craving palate to contemplate. And so I gamble/plant.

My lettuce and spinach seedlings in the greenhouse were mostly large enough for transplanting a week ago, but another round of freezing rain forced yet another delay. I am determined to plant them out in the next few days. I’ll pray that the row cover I enclose the transplants in will protect them from any last-minute jokes from wintry weather. Here’s what they looked like last Friday:

Eager greens ready for transplanting.

Eager greens ready for transplanting.

The local agricultural college near me publishes all kinds of useful information about gardening, including this handy chart of vegetable varieties and the minimum soil temperatures required for germination. From it, I see that lettuce and spinach seeds need 45 degrees. If you look at the top photo in this post, you’ll see that the soil temperature in my future lettuce bed was hovering at around 50 degrees last Friday. The ice storm of yesterday may have dropped it a bit, but for transplants, I’m not worried. In a couple of weeks, I’ll direct-sow additional seeds into this bed for what I hope will be a more prolonged harvest — if summer temperatures delay their arrival long enough.

This year, I’m growing a few varieties that I’ve had success with before, and a few new ones. I’m always looking for more heat-resistant varieties of greens. Here’s what I’m trying this year, all from Johnny’s Selected Seeds:

  • Red Cross — A heat-tolerant butter head lettuce that produced spectacularly for me last year. It was also delicious and really handled the heat well. As the name hints, its leaves are a beautiful red, which I love.
  • Buttercrunch — Really tasty and sweet, and reasonably slow to bolt. Leaves have enough body to work well as lettuce wraps, but are tender and sweet enough to eat by themselves. Yes, I’ve grown it before.
  • Annapolis — This is new for me this year. I couldn’t resist the description of what is supposed to be their darkest red romaine lettuce. Who doesn’t love romaine lettuce?
  • Coastal Star — Another romaine, one I’ve grown several times now because it is reliable and wonderful. Sweet, dark green leaves that stand up to warming springs better than I could have ever hoped.  I love this lettuce!
  • Corvair — Spinach comes in two forms. Some are smooth-leaved, and Corvair is one of those. This is a new variety for me. It is purported to be a slow-bolter and resistant to mildews. Less wrinkled spinach leaves means less washing required, so I’m giving this one a try.
  • Tyee — This is a savoy spinach — the wrinkled-leaf kind. I’ve grown it for years because it is tasty and vigorous. Its rapid leaf production compensates for its tendency to bolt when temperatures begin to warm.
  • Arugula — The standard salad arugula. I’ve grown all sorts of mesclun greens in past years, including this arugula. They all bolt at the first hint of 80 degrees. Despite my fondness for these tangy greens in my spring salads, I confined myself to just this type this year. I’ve composted way too many bolted mesclun greens in past seasons. This year, the arugula will have to suffice to provide that contrasting zing to the sweetness of the lettuces and spinaches in my salads.

Earlier this week, my onion plants arrived. The Yellow Granex plants will get tucked in at the same time I transplant the greens. Again, I would have popped them in before now, but all was ice again just yesterday.

According to that chart link above, carrots only need 40 degrees to germinate, while beets need 50 degrees. I’ve found that when I plant carrots when my soil is 40 degrees, they sit and wait until the soil is warm enough for the beets to germinate. I’ll use my handy dandy soil thermometer to check their future beds this weekend. If I’m at 50 degrees or better, I’ll try to get those seeds in the ground too. This year, I’m trying:

  • Romance — This is a new carrot variety for me, advertised as delicious, high-yielding, and uniform. I couldn’t resist.
  • Nelson — This consistently sweet early carrot (Romance should mature later) is a reliable old friend in my garden.
  • Red Ace — I’ve tried other beet varieties, but this is the one we love. Always productive, magnificently sweet and tender. We love these beets!

That’s it for the spring garden. If I see any healthy broccoli plants at the local agricultural supply store, I may grab a few, per Wonder Spouse’s request. I rarely have great success with spring broccoli — that summer heat problem again. But it will be easy to add a few beneath the tented lettuce bed, where cabbage moths can’t reach them to deposit eggs.

I’ve also given up on spring peas. They are so very heat sensitive, and our winters are so up and down that I rarely get a crop worth my effort. If we have a craving for spring peas, we can always grab a few at the local farmers’ market.

The greenhouse is getting full of seedlings. All my tomatoes and peppers are well up, but still small, of course.

Tomato seedlings and friends

Tomato seedlings and friends

I’ll tell you about them another time. I’ve got lots of flower seedlings growing too. Some kinds take almost two months to reach transplanting size, so I must start them early.

flower transplants

Wonder Spouse will be creating his potato bags this weekend. He would have planted them sooner, but that pesky ice slowed him too.

Every year, my blog view count increases as people search on things like, “When can I plant spring vegetables?” You will find charts of average last frost and freeze dates, but I consider those rough ballpark estimates. Every yard is different, thanks to variations in microclimate. The best way to know when to plant your spring vegetables is to pay attention to what your garden area looks like during late frosts. Is it snowy white? Then you’re in a cold spot. Err on the later side of the planting range.

To be much more confident, invest in a soil thermometer and use it. They are not expensive. Mine even comes with its own little case with a clip for attaching it securely to a pocket.

If the soil is too cold, forget about it.

Every gardener needs one of these.

I know that the wildlife in my yard is even more ready for spring than I am. Two days ago, as a cold rain began morphing into freezing rain, a frustrated Red-shouldered hawk actually parked itself on top of my bird feeder for about ten minutes. It looked so hungry and frustrated that if I had had something to feed it, I would have tried.

Hold on, Hawk. Spring arrives tomorrow!

Hold on, Hawk. Spring arrives tomorrow!

We’ll make it, friends. Spring is tantalizingly close now!

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Fast forwarding into Spring

Red Maple flowers brighten the canopy.

Red Maple flowers brighten the canopy.

OK, there’s still a pile of snow in my back yard. Really. It was a huge pile from cleaning our back deck, and it’s still not quite gone. But don’t tell that to the Spring Peepers or the Red-shouldered Hawks nesting on the floodplain, or the Red Maples throughout my yard. They all seem to be persuaded that Spring has arrived. It hasn’t, of course — not quite yet. But it seems as if the plants and animals in my yard have been biding their time, waiting for the frigid air to exit so they could explode into Spring Mode.

Most of the early-flowering plants had impressed me with their patience, not showing a hint of bud break as the arctic air ruled my region. The flowering apricots were hit pretty hard, of course. Many just-opening buds were browned by freezing temperatures. But the unopened ones still tightly shut have now opened with enthusiasm. The air around my front yard is fragrant with their perfume. I am delighted, and so are the honeybees finally making their appearance during recent warm afternoons.

The Cornus mas trees burst into spectacular bloom, yellow spotlights in a mostly brown landscape.

 

Cornus mas 'Spring Glow'

Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’

The Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ had been exhibiting unprecedented patience with the weather, but recent 70-degree days have caused its flowers to begin opening.

Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star'

Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’

The snow drops survived being buried by six inches of snow and ice and are in full bloom.

Resilient Snow Drops

Resilient Snow Drops

And the Witch Hazel ‘Amethyst’ is scenting the breezes with the fragrance of gorgeous purple flowers.

Amethyst lives up to its name.

Amethyst lives up to its name.

The warmer temperatures have all the early-nesting birds displaying territorial behavior as they pair off and claim nesting sites. Woodpecker drumming punctuates the air from dawn to dusk.

A Downy Woodpecker male refuels between bouts of territorial drumming.

A Downy Woodpecker male refuels between bouts of territorial drumming.

And the salamanders somehow managed to complete their late winter mating activities despite the cold and ice, as evidenced by this glob of eggs in our tiny pond.

Those black dots are developing embryonic salamanders.

Those black dots are developing embryonic salamanders.

Of course, my gardening fingers got itchy the minute the weather warmed and the frogs began chorusing 24/7. I got out the seeds that I’d ordered and contemplated my strategy.

Decisions, decisions...

Decisions, decisions…

Because I can’t expect the spring-like temperatures to last just yet (They’re on their way out as I type this), I can only start as many containers as will fit at one time in the germination chamber in my greenhouse. I settled on starting a few of all of the greens I’m trying this year (4 lettuces, 2 spinaches, and an arugula) plus the four flower varieties that require the greatest amount of time to reach blooming size. I sowed the seeds last Thursday, and here’s what they looked like this morning:

Seedlings in the germination chamber

Seedlings in the germination chamber

The nonpelleted lettuce seeds are well up. The coated lettuce seeds are still meditating on the merits of germination. One Tyee spinach has emerged; spinach is always slower than lettuce. All the arugulas are up and growing. And the dahlia seeds I sowed have begun to emerge — the first of the flowers, and a bit of an early surprise.

Now that I’ve got seeds going, it was time during our first warm weekend in forever to return to the vegetable garden and begin to prepare the early spring garden beds. I’ve got one weeded and ready to go for the greens. I’ll do more as weather and my aging joints permit.

Greeting me with enthusiasm were the chives I grew from seed two years ago. I was a bit worried that our prolonged freezing winter temperatures might have killed them. I worried for naught. These beautiful, delicious herbs are well on their way to growing tall enough to once again season salads, eggs, and whatever else can use a light taste of oniony goodness.

Chives showing they can handle Winter's worst.

Chives showing they can handle Winter’s worst.

This week’s return to winter temperatures will be harder on me than the plants and animals, I imagine. It felt so wonderful to be back in the dirt, pulling weeds, cleaning up old flower stalks, discovering sudden flowers tucked into various parts of the yard.

On the other hand, my creaky joints could use a day or two — OK, maybe three or four — to recover from my pent-up gardening enthusiasm.  Perhaps I’ll even feel a bit nostalgic toward this latest round of wintry temperatures. Because now I’m sure — Spring really is almost here!

 

 

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