Posts Tagged spring vegetable planting
I know the folks in the Northeast are cold, snow-plagued, and miserable. I know the folks in the Pacific Northwest who prayed for rain for most of a decade are desperately looking for the emergency shut-off valve to Heaven. And I’m sorry for your troubles, truly I am, which is why I feel a tad guilty complaining about the temperatures dominating the southeastern Piedmont region of the US.
Sure, it got down to 25 degrees Fahrenheit at my house this morning. I had to remove ice from the bird baths. But according to the forecasts, I probably won’t need to do that again for at least ten days. And the way things are going, maybe not until next November. My neck of the woods is hurtling full-tilt-willy-nilly into spring.
We’ve already zoomed through crocus season, the snowdrops opened yesterday and will likely be done in a few days. I planted a variety of daffodils that are supposed to provide me with an extended seasonal bloom period, but I’m starting to think that may not happen this year.
I started seeds of greens for my spring garden during the first few days of February; at the time, I wondered if I was overeager. Now I’m exhorting the seedlings to grow faster, fearing that if I don’t get them transplanted into their garden bed soon, summer temperatures arriving by early April will melt them before we’ve harvested more than a salad’s worth. This. Is. Not. Good.
I posted the above shot to my Facebook page the other day, and someone there asked me to list the varieties I’m growing, because she couldn’t read the scrawls on the labels in the photo. So for her — and anyone else who might be interested — here are the spring salad varieties growing in my greenhouse right now.
- Coastal Star — This is my go-to green romaine lettuce. It stands up to the early heat that hits my area in late April/early May. This is the third year I’m growing it.
- Outredgeous — I grew this red romaine for the first time last season, and we loved it. It faded in the heat a little faster, but it stayed alive and productive this whole past winter for me beneath a row cover. I love this lettuce.
- Cherokee — This is a red summer crisp lettuce that I’m trying for the first time, because Johnny’s Selected Seeds (the source of most of my veggie seeds) says it is more heat-tolerant (i.e., bolt-resistant) than most.
- Ovation Greens Mix — I’ve grown this mix several years now. I get a nice assortment of fast-germinating speciality greens that give a nice tang or slightly bitter note to sweeter lettuces. They bolt very quickly in my heat. I direct-sow a few more when I transplant the starts in my greenhouse; sometimes that pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.
- Seaside Spinach — This is a new smooth-leaf variety I’m trying this year, because it is touted as being bolt-resistant. I often have trouble persuading spinach to germinate for me in the greenhouse, but this variety is popping up and growing with enthusiasm — a promising start.
- Rosaine — I grew this red bibb lettuce for the first time last year. It produces really lovely thick, buttery leaves. It is supposed to be bolt-resistant, but did not impress me last season. However, like Outredgeous, it produced all winter for me under a row cover. I’m thinking red lettuces may be more cold-tolerant.
- Corvair Spinach — If Seaside remains as enthusiastic as it is starting, I won’t be growing Corvair again. This smooth-leaf variety is a downright temperamental germinator for me — and most everything germinates for me, so this is unusual. The plants that do show up, grow well enough, but I would rather grow a spinach that I can always count on.
- Sparx — This is a new green romaine I decided to try, because it is supposed to be heat-tolerant and high-yielding. It is back-ordered until March 1. At the time I ordered, I figured this would not be a deal-breaker, timing-wise. The crazy weather may preclude a proper test of this variety, but I’ll give it a try when it shows up.
That’s it for the greens. Believe it or not, I really tried to keep down the number of varieties I’m trying this year. I also tried to contain myself when it came to tomato varieties, but I compensated with a new pepper variety, and an eggplant that intrigued me. Seed catalogs in deep winter are very, very hard to resist.
The absurd warmth caused my flowering apricots to zip through their bloom cycles much more quickly than usual. Only Peggy Clarke Senior is still perfuming the air, albeit faintly, with the magical cinnamon-sweet scent of her rosy blooms.
Our Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’ has opened flowers at the top of the tree. The forecasted heat this weekend will no doubt cause most of the rest to explode into bloom.
Both of my Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) are in full bloom. I’m hoping the warmth will encourage pollinators to cross-pollinate them to produce fruits this year.
This member of the dogwood family doesn’t naturally occur in North America, but it doesn’t seem to be invasive, so I decided to give it a try. If I start seeing seedlings popping up, I will yank it out pronto.
My patch of Golden Ragwort grows larger every year. It does a great job of reducing erosion, and when it blooms, its bright yellow flowers make the ground glow.
The weekend is supposed to reach high temperatures in the mid-70s here, so Wonder Spouse and I will be outside preparing spring vegetable beds and hauling fallen branches knocked down by winter storm winds. I anticipate plenty of sore muscles and creaky joints. But it’s all worth it when we sit down to the first salad of the season.
I’ll leave you with one last photo. I posted this to my Facebook page, but I wanted to share it here for my non-Facebook followers. On February 10, we enjoyed a penumbral lunar eclipse. Just the left edge of the full moon in the photo below was obscured by the sun’s shadow, but it was discernible. The Amazing Wonder Spouse set up his tripod and took this shot. Enjoy!
It’s been too long since I posted here. My apologies. Late winter in my corner of North Carolina has been a mostly soggy mess. And as I type this, yet more rain is pouring down upon my mushy landscape. I have been posting small items regularly on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page; if you use that social media tool, you may want to check out the photos and announcements of relevant events that I post there.
As I’ve noted on the PG Facebook page, beavers have once again moved into the wetland adjacent to my creek. They have built a dam downstream and off my property, which has raised the water level in the creek so that every rain event involving more than a half-inch is causing the creek to overflow in numerous places along my property, even cutting channels into what has been a stable, flat floodplain for over 25 years. It’s a real mess, and we’re not sure what, if anything, we can do about it.
The beavers are actively foraging all up and down the creek. In addition to harvesting a few saplings, they even “tasted” two of the Leyland Cypresses still standing beside the creek. To discourage them from returning, I sprayed the entire lower trunks of all the Leylands with a deer repellant spray in the hopes that it would make them taste bad enough for the beavers to ignore. So far <knock wood>, it’s working, but all this rain probably means I need to reapply the repellant.
But not all my landscape surprises are less than wonderful. Case in point: a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers appear to have chosen a sycamore just across the creek to raise this year’s brood. Until the forest leafs out, I can see this spot from my living room window and back deck. That’s a good thing, because when I try to walk near this tree, the woodpeckers make it clear that I am not the least bit welcome.
Another pair of late-winter nesters has settled in, as usual, in the wetland forest — Red-shouldered Hawks. They often lurk in the trees near our backyard bird feeders, but I haven’t seen them catch any songbirds. Frogs, salamanders, and earthworms, on the other hand, seem to be dietary staples. Wonder Spouse took that spectacular hawk photo two days ago when it decided to hunt from a tree in our backyard. He actually took the shot from inside our house. He is a wizard with his camera — and his post-processing software.
When we’ve gotten a few back-to-back days of sunshine, we’ve been hard at work preparing the vegetable garden for another season. All my seeds have arrived, and last Wednesday (2-16), I sowed my first batch of greens in my germination chamber. The ones in the above photo germinated in two days! I’ll enumerate the spring garden veggie varieties I’m trying in a new post soon. All the lettuces germinated instantly, along with baby kale and radicchio. The spinaches and parsley are only just now showing signs of germinating, which is entirely normal. When they are all well up and moved out of the germination chamber, I’ll sow another batch of spring veggies.
The two varieties of onion plants I ordered arrived mid-week, and I managed to get them all planted in their garden bed yesterday. I know they don’t look like much now, but if the voles will leave them alone, we have big hopes for these.
It’s always amazing how these stubby little onion starts that arrive with shriveled roots plump up in just a few weeks. I was delighted to get them planted the same week they arrived. Usually I’m not this organized and they wait a week or more. I’m hoping my efficiency will pay off in bigger bulbs. Stay tuned.
We’ve had a few bouts of deep cold and some ice — mostly freezing rain — which damaged my Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ flowers. They opened too early, thanks to the absurdly warm December we had here. Fortunately, not all the buds opened before the cold, so I’m able to enjoy a round of new blooms during our current milder spell of weather.
In addition to the witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ blooming well in the first photo of this post, my Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’ trees are bursting with bright golden flowers. I’m hoping they will cross-pollinate each other this year and produce some of the red berries that give them their common name: Cornelian Cherry. I was thus heartened to see a pollinator on these flowers yesterday.
Of course, spring bulbs are well up. My crocuses were eaten by deer before I remembered to spray them with repellent. Snow drops and myriad daffodils are all loaded with buds and will soon be glowing in the landscape as it wakens from its winter slumber. Meanwhile, the lushest, greenest parts of my yard are the lichens, soft and fluffy from abundant rains.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
My goodness, Winter has certainly been having his way with us lately, hasn’t he? At my house, we got rounds of freezing rain and sleet, followed a day later by about a half inch of snow. In a “normal” winter, all would have melted in short order. But this year, Siberian cold followed the precipitation. At my house, the thermometer on our hill bottomed out at 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. No, that is not a typo. Before and after this polar low temperature, our lows and highs had remained mostly below freezing for quite some time. In our 26 years here, I don’t think the ground has ever been so thoroughly frozen.
We finally got a glorious 55-degree high yesterday. Wonder Spouse and I walked around the yard, slipping and sliding in that welcome mud I mentioned in the title for this piece. But the mud is the result of thawing of only maybe the top quarter-inch of the soil. Walking on this ice-hard ground, you could feel the lack of give with every step. Even on the floodplain beside our creek, which is usually squishy wet this time of year and booby-trapped with myriad mole tunnels, the ground didn’t give at all. It felt as if I were walking on sharp rocks of multiple sizes spread unevenly across the terrain.
Even the deer tracks were really mud skid marks. Their hooves didn’t penetrate the frozen ground either. This is all bad news for southeastern Piedmont gardeners eager to plant their spring gardens. You can’t plant in frozen soil.
Most years by now, my spring veggie beds would be weeded and planted. But you can’t weed frozen beds. My little greenhouse is nearly full with seedlings of lettuces, spinaches, kale, beets, dill, etc. Somehow, I’m going to need to figure out how to transplant them all from their starter cells to larger pots. And then find room for all the pots in the greenhouse. This is going to get … interesting.
Yesterday’s brief warm-up (more snow is in our forecast) had me out in the greenhouse in shirtsleeves transplanting some of the cuttings I took last fall into individual pots. They were well-rooted and beyond ready for their own spaces. I don’t usually take cuttings of my front garden perennials in the fall. But last fall, something told me to root fresh cuttings of rosemary, several perennial salvias, verbenas, and lavender. And now I am very glad I did. The salvias and rosemaries may have been completely killed by that 1.6-degree night. They certainly aren’t looking well at the moment. Many other plants are showing cold damage too, including the large loropetalums up front. The lovely pink flowers on my flowering apricot are all soft brown, but a few tightly closed buds may yet yield more flowers, if Winter decides to loosen his grip.
He can’t hold out for much longer. Soon the sun will be too strong to be denied. Meanwhile, I’ll be juggling plants in my crowded greenhouse, testing soil temperatures in my vegetable garden, and keeping my feathered friends well supplied until the insects return.
I am not a gambler. I don’t buy lottery tickets or spend money at casinos. I am not a gambler — except when I garden. As with any game of chance, all the variables involved in gardening cannot be controlled by humans. In truth, even the plants are gamblers. My lovely ornamental flowering apricots are prime examples. Ten days ago, they were barely blooming, but a slightly (and I do mean slightly) milder round of weather this week persuaded them to open fully for business, much to the delight of my neighbor’s honeybees, who were also out taking advantage of the relative warmth.
When I realized my early-blooming gamblers were waking up, I made a quick trip around the yard a couple of days ago. Although the January Jasmine was still barely open, My Amethyst witch hazel was in full bloom.
The Cornelian Cherries (Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’) are just cracking open their flower buds. I told them to hold off for at least another week. Betting on successful blooms this upcoming week is a sure way to lose.
All these early-blooming gamblers may pay for their enthusiasm this week. Winter has decided to slam us hard at least one more time before allowing Spring to take over. The weather seers haven’t quite made up their minds (divergent models) about the duration and depth of the cold — and the amount of frozen precipitation that may or may not come with it, but I feel certain that early flowers will mostly meet their demise this week.
I confess the impending forecast has me wondering if I’m being punished for my impudent suggestion in my previous post to defy Winter. Maybe yes, maybe no, but I was left wondering what I should do now. All the spring greens I sowed in the greenhouse two weeks ago are well up. If we lose power, they will turn to green mush, along with all the potted plants I overwinter there.
Today’s mail brought my complimentary seed order from Renee’s Garden. She offers garden writers a few seed packets in exchange for publicity about her wonderful offerings. I am happy to oblige, and you can find my accounts of previous seed trials if you search on the company name. Several of the varieties I ordered this year require a lengthy nurturing period in the greenhouse before they’ll be ready for transplanting into the garden. I pondered — should I sow them now, or wait a week until the arctic deep freeze abates?
What the heck, I figured, I might as well double down and go for broke. I sowed the new seeds in the greenhouse this afternoon, and I fed my vegetable seedlings with a dilute solution of fish emulsion/seaweed to encourage strong growth.
Go big or go home, I say — at least when it comes to gardening. I’ve got plenty of leftover seeds. If all is green mush in a week, I just begin again. Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.
Is it just me, or has this already been the longest winter ever? Oh, sure, we get occasional very brief moments of temperatures in the upper 50s, but they’re usually accompanied by rain. And, yes, I know I’ve had it easy here in the southeastern Piedmont compared to those poor
fools folks in New England currently buried under three feet of snow and counting.
Even so, my winter-blooming plants are way behind their normal schedules. The only one currently blooming respectably is the pink flowering apricot in the above photo. My two other apricots — Peggy Clarke Senior and Junior — are only just starting to try to open a few flowers here and there. Often by this time of year, the apricots have been blooming since late December. Ditto for my January Jasmine. If I scrutinize the flower buds, I can see one or two showing peeks of bright yellow, but no open blooms. They didn’t make their namesake blooming month at all this year. The hellebores are also way behind. I can’t even find any flower buds showing yet. The snowdrops are just pushing up out of the soil, and so on and so forth with all my early bloomers. It’s enough to discourage any gardener.
But for the last two days, suddenly my Northern Cardinals are singing again. Since autumn, they’ve been cheeping among themselves at the feeders, but now the bright scarlet males are perching in the treetops bragging about their good looks for all to hear. Their surge in hormonal harmonizing defies winter’s tenacious grip, and reminds me of the sun’s lengthening daily presence. So I decided to take my cue from them and start some vegetable seeds in my greenhouse yesterday during a “warm” spell.
Personally, I am eager for salad season. An array of fresh-picked spring greens lightly dressed and perhaps mixed with a few other veggies, some nuts or berries or cheese — I’m salivating just writing about it. This excitement annually grips me as I survey my seed catalogs, which probably explains the assortment of seed packets I pulled out yesterday.
Yes, as usual, I’ve probably gone a bit overboard. But that’s why I’ve planted some of each of these in the greenhouse now. I want to prolong salad season as long as I can. You see, the problem with spring gardening in the southeastern Piedmont is that the optimal growing conditions for these veggies can be depressingly short. Sometimes the temperatures leap into the 80s in early April and never look back.
My plan is to grow the seedlings in the greenhouse until the nighttime temperatures stop regularly plunging into the teens. When that happens, I’ll transplant them into a garden bed, mulch them well, and cover them with a tent of the heaviest grade of spun garden fabric — the kind designed to protect plants from nighttime temperature drops. It’s a gamble, but the pay-off is totally worth it.
The lettuce seeds are tucked inside the germination chamber, where the propagation mat warms them from below to raise soil temperatures just enough to enhance germination rates. The spinaches, greens, and beets are sitting in flats on the greenhouse bench beside the germination chamber. They really prefer cooler soil temperatures, so that’s what they’re getting. I’ve never tried sowing beets indoors before, but the seed packet suggested it, and my germination rates from direct sowing have always been unpredictable, so I figured I’d try it this way. Of course, I’ll be sure to let you know the results of the experiment.
I use fresh potting soil for germination operations, and I fill all the cells and water them thoroughly before I start planting. By moistening the soil before sowing, I don’t risk dislodging tiny lettuce and spinach seeds by adding water later. Lettuce seeds especially need to be just barely covered. The only way to achieve the control I want is to slide the seeds in place one at a time into the pre-moistened soil. The green fabric beneath the flats is capillary cloth; this greenhouse staple holds excess water which can be pulled up by the seedlings as they need it. It allows me to maintain more consistent growing conditions inside my little greenhouse.
The top on the heated germination chamber ensures optimal humidity and warmth for encouraging seedlings to emerge. As soon as they do, I’ll move them to a bench. The enclosed chamber is too humid to keep growing plants happy. Plus, I’ll need the space for the next round of seeds I’ll be planting in a week or two.
Today, the winds are howling again, and nighttime temperatures are predicted to be in the low 20s, which translates to the mid-teens at my house. I confess I feel a bit less frustrated with winter’s tenacity, now that I’ve started my own spring revolution in my greenhouse. I encourage all my fellow Piedmont gardeners to join me in this rebellion.
NOTE: For those interested in the germination success of the seeds I planted, I’m providing a running account on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. Scroll up and click on the handy link on the right side of this page to get there.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Here they are newly planted and fully mulched with more of that lovely mushroom compost:
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:
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!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’ll make it, friends. Spring is tantalizingly close now!
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.
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.