Posts Tagged Annapolis lettuce

Spring Veggie Updates

Freshly transplanted Yellow Granex onion plants

Freshly transplanted Yellow Granex onion plants

Sorry for the prolonged silence, folks. I’ve been too busy to write, thanks to a break in the weather. After the snow melted, we got 1.28 inches of rain, which caused my creek to flood.

Squish Fest 2015!

Squish Fest 2015!

Although our vegetable garden is at the top of our hill, a good 200 yards or so up from that active floodplain, the raised beds were still unworkable for a while. I actually hit ice in the first one I tried to weed before the rain came! But my property is blessed with sandy loam instead of Carolina clay, so my raised vegetable beds became workable a few days ago, and just in time. My greenhouse was overflowing with eager spring lettuces, spinaches, and assorted other greens.

This is the size they all were before transplanting. I ran out of bed before I ran out of greens, so these still linger in the greenhouse.

This is the size they all were before transplanting. I ran out of bed before I ran out of greens, so these still linger in the greenhouse.

I rid two vegetable beds of their winter weeds. The crimson clover I had planted to prevent their takeover was killed by our super-cold February temperatures. But the henbit and chickweed thrived. At least they are relatively easy to remove.

I was hoping to direct-sow some carrots, but they need a minimum soil temperature of 55 degrees, and as of yesterday afternoon, my soil temperature was 48 degrees. Maybe next week, if the clouds will part to allow the sun to warm the beds.

One bed of transplanted, mulched, and watered greens.

One bed of transplanted, mulched, and watered greens.

I know they don’t look like much, but that’s a lot of potential salad in that shot. I left a bare spot in the middle for a few carrots, when the soil temperatures allow. I mulched the new transplants with the last of the mushroom compost we had delivered last season. I finished off that pile, so we’ll be getting more delivered as soon as the weather allows.

The kind folks at WordPress who created and maintain the blog software I use provide me with many useful statistics, including a daily list of search terms folks are using that lead them to my blog. From this, I know that a number of Piedmonters are starting to think about spring gardens and what they should plant. So I thought I’d share with you what I’m growing this year and why.

First, gardening — especially vegetable gardening — is a trial-and-error endeavor. Even if you grow the same varieties every year, you won’t get the same results. Weather, diseases, insects, seed quality, pollinator availability, varmint invaders — these are just a few of the variables that make it impossible to be sure you’ll end up with what you envision. That being said, I’ll tell you what usually works for me.

A close-up of just-transplanted greens.

A close-up of just-transplanted greens.

This assumes, by the way, that your garden area is already prepared and waiting. If you’re just now contemplating breaking ground for a spring garden, forget about it — unless you’re going with a container garden. The soil is too wet, and you don’t have time to get it ready for a spring garden. If the soil dries out soon, you could still grow summer crops in new ground, but it will take some serious work on your part. I wrote about soil preparation here.

What I Grow

I like to experiment, so most years I try at least a few varieties that I’ve never grown before. Sometimes the hype in the seed catalogs leads me astray, but sometimes I strike gold. That’s how I found Sweet Treats tomatoes — a cherry tomato variety I can’t live without now.

Onions

In the spring garden, there’s really only one kind of onion variety that grows well in our area. Onions are tricky, because most are sensitive to the amount of daylight they receive. The only kind I find worth growing are Yellow Granex onions. These sweet onions remain reliably mild. Mine rarely obtain the enormous size of the ones I see in the grocery stores, probably because I never manage to give them as much water as they want. But we always end up with a nice crop of medium to small sweet onions that store very well in our cool basement.

Spinaches

Spinaches come in two forms — smooth-leaved and savoyed-leaved. Savoyed-leaved varieties have wrinkly leaves. For me, the savoyed-leaf types seem to grow better, but if I plant early, I usually get at least some smooth-leaved leaves worth eating too. Spinach in my garden bolts at the first sign of heat. An 80-degree day is enough to get it to start sending up its seed stalk. When that happens, the leaves turn bitter and inedible very quickly. I always look for varieties that are described as “bolt-resistant” or “heat-tolerant.” Even so, the spinaches are done well before the lettuces every year in my garden.

This year, I’m trying three different spinach varieties. Tyee is one I grow every year, because it always seems to be the last to bolt. It is a savoyed-leaf type. I’m trying another variety, Crocodile, of the same leaf type. This year, the smooth-leaved spinach I’m trying is Corvair. I purchased all three varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

Lettuces

OK, I admit I always go a little nuts with the lettuces. Back in January when I’m perusing catalogs, I’m nearly always craving fresh greens. I look at all the pictures, read the enticing descriptions — and I just can’t seem to stop myself from ordering an array of selections. A few tried-and-true varieties are always on the list, but I’m always on the lookout for new varieties touted as heat-tolerant, productive, and tasty. My selections this year:

  • Annapolis — This is a red romaine that I grew last year and loved. I think it was the last lettuce to bolt last year.
  • Coastal Star — This a green romaine that also holds up very well in the heat. In the most recent growing years, the romaine lettuces have outlasted all other types.

These are the only two lettuces I ordered from Johnny’s this year, because I had already been tempted by the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog to order a few of their offerings:

  • Merlot — a leaf lettuce reputed to be “the darkest red lettuce in existence.” Red lettuces, as with red/purple fruits, contain beneficial phytochemical nutrients. Baker’s claims it’s very bolt-resistant. Time will tell.
  • Slo-Bolt — a green leaf lettuce with a name that tells you why I’m trying it. The Baker’s catalog claims it to be an excellent variety for the South. That’s me.

I also love the bitter speciality greens so often featured in fancy salads these days. The arugulas, mustards, and assorted other brassica relatives are very quick to bolt in my spring garden. So I limited myself to one mix from Johnny’s called Ovation Greens. They did produce a nice mix, which I interplanted in the bed with the lettuces and spinaches. I also got a complimentary packet of Tuscan Baby Leaf Heirloom Italian Kale from Renee’s Garden. The packet says it is a fast-growing variety designed to be picked small for salads. Free seeds for salads? You know I had to try it. I suspect it will bolt quickly; I’ll keep you apprised.

I started a few dill plants in the greenhouse when I planted the greens. Like the greens, dill bolts in the heat, and I wanted to try to give some an earlier start than I can provide with direct sowing (that soil temperature thing again). Interplanted with the greens are a few, slightly spindly Superdukat Dill plants from Johnny’s. This variety is supposed to produce more leaves than flowers, and it is the leaves we use in cooking. I’m hoping the plants will look more lively after they adjust to their new surroundings.

Interplanted with the onions are a few Red Ace beets that I started in the greenhouse. They germinated quite well for me. I’m hoping that I’ll get bigger beets by having plants in the ground this early.

Cloudy skies and a week of predicted above-freezing temperatures provide optimal transplanting conditions.

Cloudy skies and a week of predicted above-freezing temperatures provide optimal transplanting conditions.

I am absolutely gambling on the weather by transplanting now. I plan to cover the greens bed in a tent of heavy-weight garden fabric to protect them from freezes. But I won’t be able to get to that for a few days. If the temperatures dive more than predicted, I could be in trouble. But the prospect of an early, prolonged salad season was too tempting to ignore.

After I finished planting yesterday and took pictures of the results, I walked around the yard to document some of the early-blooming trees and shrubs beginning to explode with color. I’ll share some of those shots soon.

For those of you wondering about summer garden plants, if you’re growing from seed, you should not wait any longer to start your tomatoes and peppers. I’ll share my progress with those veggies soon too.

So much to do and show and tell. Surely, it must be almost Spring!

Tomato seedlings in my greenhouse.

Tomato seedlings in my greenhouse.

 

 

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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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