Friday, April 18, 2014

Notice: be aware of frost damage at the big box store.

As you probably realized this week, we had many days of temperature around the freezing point. At one time, here in central Maryland, the water in the potholes froze.

We surveyed the frost tender plants at some of our local big box stores and with no surprise, we found many, if not all in some places, tomato plants with frost damage on the leaves because the plants was left outside during the nights.

Example of frost damage on a tomato plant

What surprised us is at one big box store, they brought inside, to a warm place, all their no-frost and no-cold resistant plants. More, because the temperature at 10:00am was around 40*F, the plants were always inside protected against the cold weather.

Keeping seeds warm: heat mats for germination

This topic has come up in a couple of different contexts recently, so I thought it was time for a post. I am relatively new to owning and using a heat mat for seed germination, so I welcome comments from more experienced users.

Seeds require different soil temperatures for germination. You can refer to various charts for ideal germination temperature, such as this PDF from Oregon State Extension, or books on vegetable growing or propagation (Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed is very useful). Depending on the temperature of your seed-starting environment, you may have to raise soil temperatures by artificial means. My seeds are starting in our upstairs furnace/laundry room, which stays pretty warm (unless, as in spring 2012, outdoor temperatures are unseasonably high and the furnace hardly ever goes on), but I still found that a few crops were sluggish, so I decided to invest in a heat mat. You can buy these through just about any seed catalog or gardening supply site.

Here are some of my plastic egg-carton seed starters on my heat mat:

Note that the mouse melons in the upper set have sprouted. This means that I need to move them off the mat to another location. (Problem is I don't have space anywhere else, but this is a separate issue; see "eyes bigger than garden" concept in last post.) Seeds of heat-loving plants in families like cucurbits and nightshades need warm soil temperatures to germinate, pretty close to the 87 degrees F. a thermometer just registered in the mouse melon cells, but seedlings will be damaged by prolonged exposure to those temperatures. They are going to prefer something closer to 70 F, which should be provided by the room temperature space under lights.

So if you want to give your melon, tomato, eggplant, or other heat-loving seeds a boost, especially if your seed-starting room is cold (a lot of people use basements), do try a heat mat, but do your seedlings a favor and move them off it after germination. Some seeds prefer colder temperatures (I've tried a few where the recommended soil temp was 50-60, and I had to put them in the chilly upstairs bathroom to get them going), but most are going to be slow to start in cold rooms. I suppose if you want to maintain 70 soil temp in a 60-degree room, you could use a heat mat but put something between the seedling flat and the mat - anyone try this? There are also temperature regulators available for some brands of heat mats.

By the way, there is a pervasive bit of advice that goes "start your seeds on top of your refrigerator for bottom heat." This works fine as long as you have an older refrigerator, but most of the new energy-efficient ones stay pretty cool on top, and vent what heat they produce somewhere else. But you may well have warm spots elsewhere among your appliances. I tend to put rising bread dough on top of the water heater (not enough space for much in the way of seed flats, though).

I am likely going to invest in another heat mat next year, because it really does help to get seeds going fast, and convinces some to germinate that would otherwise fail.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Planting Out The Peas

Snow peas planted along staggered fencing

They were starting to yellow, so it was time to get them in the ground, but the weather has seesawed so much and the critters are so prolific that I wasn’t sure I wanted to. All that loving work only to watch my otherwise healthy pea plants either die of frost or get gobbled by the beasts. Tough. But they either needed to go into the ground (or a pot or SOMETHING bigger with more nutrient and root-growth possibilities than the little 72-cell flats).  It was, simply, time, though when you’ve sprouted them, nurtured them and watched them grow into beautiful 10-inch possibilities, leaving them on their own in the garden at night is a bit like giving your kid the car keys for the first time. (It has to be done but oh my!).

So, on a relatively calm, sorta sunny day, I planted them in two different spots in the vegetable garden. The snow peas went into in a bed that’s semi-protected by an outbuilding on the north side and I stuck a few Forellenschluss lettuces in just south of them to keep them company. Out of curiosity, and because I think they might be just past the tender, rabbit-tempting stage, I left them unprotected.  

On the west side of the garden, I planted the purple-podded shell peas. I like snow peas, but I really LOVE shell peas and look forward to the harvest every year so wanted to take a little more care with them. Usually I’m too lazy to pound stakes in the ground and then put up wire for them to climb on, waiting instead until the peas are a tangled sprawl on the ground before I try to persuade them to climb on something. (I don’t recommend it). This year, I had treated myself to pea fencing that was really easy to jam into the ground, which was bliss (provided it holds).  In an attempt to protect the plants from both frost and rabbits, I clothes-pinned row cover to the top of the fencing on both sides. (As I wrote this, I suddenly thought: What a dummy! I should have pinned it much lower down so it wouldn’t be such a big fat sail in the wind! Some inspirations come a little late.)

As I planted, I discovered that many of the peas had already started to send out climbing tendrils, and a few hugged each other like long-lost friends. Those I stuck in on either side of the fencing together so I wouldn’t have to unwind the tendrils, a tedious job at best. Plus separating those bonded plants just didn’t seem right.
Row cover on the pea fencing waving in the breeze

Now, a week later, and one night after a 26F night, so far, so good. The row cover has been an interesting experiment. The warm blustery wind from the SSW kept picking up the row cover from beneath its rocks so it’s spent days flapping like a tattered sail. But, so far the peas are untouched, which may mean that even if it’s not covering the plants, it’s scaring the rabbits, which will do for now.  Last night and tonight will be another test. Peas can go through a light frost; we had a light freeze last night here on the upper Easter Shore (the bird baths were all skimmed over). Tonight’s predicted to be more of the same.

Now the wind is coming from the north, so I’ll go out later today and see if I can get the north side row cover stuff back under the rocks I use to hold it to the ground, (and take a reef in it to reduce the windage). Fingers crossed.

Time and the weather this season will tell whether starting peas inside was a good idea – Anna suggested sprouting them in a plastic bag in the house (see comment on Seeding Peas Indoors for instructions) and then planting them out at the right time (a moving target this year). Even if it turns out to have not been worth the trouble of starting them, I’ve enjoyed it. That may be reason enough.
Peeking beneath the flapping row cover to the peas

p.s. Thursday evening: The uncovered peas looked a little stressed, so I wrapped some row cover over them yesterday, and also reefed the tall sail down on the shell pea fencing so the whole kit and kaboodle doesn't get taken down in the next big wind. So far so good. Only a few more nights of protection and we SHOULD be frost-free.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Starting tomatoes too early

You know what they say about your eyes being bigger than your stomach? There are several horticultural equivalents to that (one of them frequently masquerades as "intensive gardening" but really isn't) and the one I fell for again this year was starting my tomatoes a bit too early.

When I was a younger gardener, and just embarking on seed-starting, I jumped the gun and put tomato seeds in pots as early as mid-February. This resulted in enormous plants long before it was safe to even take the seedlings outdoors, let alone plant them in the ground. I've since settled on mid-to-late March as the best starting time - but something about my schedule this year made me decide that March 11 was a good date, and those few days (plus some really vigorous seedlings) make a difference.

I should have put a ruler into the photo for context, but that big one in the back is 11 inches tall. Good thing my lights are adjustable. I have cold frames for hardening off (after this cold snap is over - make sure your vulnerable plants are protected tonight and tomorrow!) but considering how this year's going, I'm not planning to put plants in the ground until after Mother's Day.

Really I should learn to be like Bob and start my plants in late April, but I just can't help wanting to have those green monsters cheering up the house in early spring/late winter/whatever it is. Of course, after going out of my way to acquire seeds for Aunt Ruby's German Green tomatoes, I forgot to start them with all the others, so they went in the first week of April, and will be much more reasonable in size when planting time comes around. I'm sure they will catch up just fine.

Other varieties I'm growing this year (speaking of eyes being bigger than gardens, even though I have two gardens to plant in): Abruzzo, Amish Paste, Brandywine Sudduth's Strain, Gypsy, Indigo Apple, Isis Candy Cherry, Juliet, Orange Icicle, Riesentraube, and Striped Roman. Some are old favorites, some are from donated seeds, and some I just really wanted to try.

By the way, the plant labels are made from plastic sticks out of a Edible Arrangements gift basket, with orange duct tape to write on. I like recycling.

I've got lots of other cheerful seedlings taking up space on my shelves, including peppers:

which are doing pretty well, though still suffering an aphid infestation. This is after I removed each seedling from its soilless mix and rinsed it carefully under running water before transplanting, after having sprayed with soapy water and crushed many aphids on baby leaves and stems with my gentle fingers. I'm still crushing and spraying, and keeping the population limited, because it'll be a while before these plants can go outside. You know how people complain about ladybugs getting into their house in the winter? Where are mine, I ask? Though speaking of home-invader insects, I found a brown marmorated stink bug on one of the pepper seedlings the other day. Grr.

How are all of your seed-starting experiments going?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Unexpected cardoon survival

Last year we planted cardoons in the demo garden, and they became impressive plants:

although didn't make it to flowering stage. In the fall, I cut down the stalks and prepared the roots for winter as suggested: mulching well with leaves, placing a bucket over each plant stub, and tying the whole thing down with black plastic on top. Then came the arctic blast of this winter, and despite the protection, I didn't expect the plants to survive. But, a couple of weeks after we took all the plastic stuff off, they are back and growing:

Now the interesting part, because I also had a cardoon plant in my community garden plot, which never achieved anything like the height and breadth of the demo garden plants (it's the soil). I decided to let it die, and didn't mulch it at all. You would think the repeated hard freezes of the winter would have done for it. Nevertheless:

And that was a week before the plants in the demo garden showed themselves. I'm impressed. I've had cardoon plants overwinter before (see below) but only in the wimpy zone-8-like winters. Perhaps the frequent snow insulation helped, or else this is a hardier variety than I've grown previously. (It's called Avorio, and claims hardiness to zone 6, though I didn't actually believe that!)

Unfortunately I have planned a tomato plant for that space in my community garden plot, so I'll have to dig up the cardoon and move it somewhere else.

Cardoons are a close relative of artichokes, grown for the edible leaf stalks rather than for the flower bud. The stalks are better if blanched by wrapping the plant, which I admit I don't usually do, because it's so ornamental and dramatic if left alone. Here are some of those winter survivors from a few years back, with me as measuring stick:

And a closeup of the flower, which is why you want it to grow a second year (flowering the first year is possible but not common in my experience).

Very popular with bumblebees! Crossing my fingers for flowers this year for the demo garden plants.