Starting the Gardens Again
April 17, 2010, 6:50 pm
Filed under: Garden

This is (as usual) a rather belated post, as my gardening activities started over two months ago, but I thought I’d try to put in writing some of what I’ve done, my vision of the gardens for this year, some of the failures and successes we’ve had so far, etc.

I planted the first seeds of the season on February 11th, but I spent some time in the basement a couple of days before that, collecting the ingredients for and mixing the soil blocking mix I used this year, wetting it and letting it rest and then making the soil blocks themselves.  For the first time, this year I tried a soil block mix.  I had purchased the ingredients late last summer or early fall, and they were stored in the garage, where things like compost and topsoil had frozen solid, so first I lugged everything down to the basement to thaw.  Then I mixed the base fertilizer, then the rest of the mix.  Not having a good sense yet of how much 2 bushels/2.5 cubic feet is, I didn’t have a big enough container ready to mix it in, so I ended up dumping the mix around from one container to another, trying to get it to be consistent from one container to the next when it was done but probably failing.  I made a huge mess and, since I hadn’t had my fingers in any kind of soil for several months, was in hog heaven.

I dumped in water from the sink downstairs, which is hot and softened,  not ideal for plants.  I worried about it, but since all my buckets were full of blocking mix, I couldn’t really even lug water down from an unsoftened supply upstairs.  I let it settle for an hour, knowing that at least the heat would dissipate, and went upstairs to get my seeds ready.  The first planting would be: Yellow of Parma, Ailsa Craig & Yellow Borettana (cipollini-type) onions; He Shi Ko & Crimson Forest bunching onions (scallions); garlic chives, wild leeks (ramps, which need to be seeded at 70 degrees for a month, then moved to 30 degrees for a month, then back to 60 degrees), borage, epazote, feverfew, ground plum, passionflower (P. incarnata), Creeping thyme and Wild Zaatar Oregano.

This year, I’m attempting to do as much of my garden work as possible in phase with lunar cycles, so I should say that I was trying to get this seeding done before 3:24pm on the 11th, when the moon would move out of capricorn into aquarius.  The moon was in the fourth quarter, which wasn’t ideal, but I was balancing all this lunar business with timing when these transplants would need to go in the ground.

I made 110 2″ soil blocks, which filled a little over two standard trays, and seeded the alliums, herbs and flowers.  We didn’t have shoplights set up in the basement yet, but I’d bought a small heating pad, and I put the two filled trays on that and clear lids on them so that too much water wouldn’t be lost.  Several days later, when seedlings were starting to emerge, we perched three shoplights (each with two 40 watt fluorescent bulbs, about half cool white and half soft white, I think, no special grow-lights) on tool boxes so that they’d hover an inch or so over the dome lids.

In a week or two, at least half of the alliums were up and there were a couple of really nice borage seedlings.

Around the time I took these pictures, I started to suspect a problem with damping-off.  In fact, you can see the rust-colored surface the soil was developing in spots pretty clearly in the borage picture.  I assume this is a mould of some sort.  I’ve never dealt with damping-off before, so I wasn’t sure at first, but within a few days, it was clear.  We took all the dome lids off and aimed fans at the trays, and I started replacing the water in my spray bottle with chamomile tea, which is supposed to be anti-fungal, but although it would die down for a couple days or so, the fungi kept returning.  The beautiful borage seedlings died, as did lots of the alliums.  The edges of each tray fared best, so I suspect that the number of soil blocks I was cramming into each tray (50, 5×10, same as I did last year and the year before) led to a drastic reduction in airflow between and around the blocks in the middle.  You can see how closely the blocks are spaced.

Also on February 11th, I started stratifying some Prairie onions (A. stellatum) Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale).  I mixed the seeds in with some wet peat moss and put them in tupperware containers in the back of the fridge.  Both need to stratify for 2 to 3 months for best results.  This is my first time trying it, so we’ll see what happens!  It’s been a little over two months now, so I need to figure out where I want to plant them.

Still struggling against the dreaded damping-off, I realized on March 2nd that I’d forgotten to seed leeks, so quickly made 10 more soil blocks, seeded them with Musselburgh leeks, and added them to the third tray next to the Creeping thyme and Zaatar.

It was starting to warm up a little, and I wanted to get some things going outside, but the glass in the window on top of the coldframe Matt built last Fall had broken, so Matt went out to start cleaning it up.  It turns out that the glazing had dissolved, so the panes fell straight out, only breaking when they hit the frozen soil.  Word to the wise: install windows on coldframes with the glass up, wood and glazing down.  Luckily, we had another one just like it in the garage, also from Matt’s aunt and uncle’s house, so he put it on to start warming the soil.  Until it warmed a little, we couldn’t get the last pieces of broken glass out.  The greenhouse effect worked its magic, and within a couple of days, I could dig out the glass (with gloves on), but the compost I wanted to add to the raised bed to top it off was still frozen in the garage!  So I had to set that out to thaw, and I ended up getting impatient a day or so later and dumping the big frozen chunk from the bottom into the raised bed so that it could finish thawing– hopefully more quickly– in there.  It did, and I was able to rake everything even and start seeding on March 9th.  First in were Astro & Sylvetta arugula, Claytonia, Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-hendricus), Dutch & Verte d’Etampes mâche, Crimson Forest & He Shi Ko bunching onions and Bloomsdale & Strawberry Spinach (the latter not a true spinach but in fact another Chenopodium, C. capitatum).

On March 13th, I made more soil blocks and seeded lots of Glory of Enkhuizen & Mammoth Red Rock cabbage, Early Snowball cauliflower, Rainbow & 5 Color Silverbeet chard, Champion & Georgia Southern collards, Florence fennel, Lacinato & Red Russian kale; Encore mix, Jung’s Sweet Repeat Mix, Amish Deer Tongue, Ithaca, Little Gem & Speckled Amish Butterhead lettuces; mizuna, Echinacea purpurea, Missouri Evening Primrose and Italian parsley.  At that point, I was out of room underneath the existing shoplights, not to mention the single heating pad, so we needed to implement our plan: The Lit, Heated Nursery Shelf.

This is a recent picture of it, not from right after we (almost entirely Matt) finished it, when no one was in the mood for pictures.  It’s hard to see because only three of the lights are currently on (one of it’s best features is its adaptability, because its lights and heated shelves can be turned on and off separately, depending on what’s needed, while the lights continue to be on the same 6am-9pm timer), but it has four shelves, all of which are rigged for heat and three of which are rigged for light (the top, fourth shelf can also be lit if we hang lights from the ceiling, but we shouldn’t need that this season).  It’s on wheels, which is very handy.  Soon to be added are mylar to keep more of the light in by the plants and less out in the basement and linoleum to protect the cement board from moisture.

Since transferring to this system and discarding all the diseased soil blocks (where seedlings had failed due to damping off or never germinated), things have really taken off.  I think the DIY heating shelves provide a much more even, closer-to-ideal bottom heat range of 70-80 rather than the steamy 90-100 the purchased heating pad started to ratchet up to, and the new lights are better built so that more light is aimed at the plants instead of the rest of the room (aforementioned mylar to further improve this ratio).  It’s open enough to have good airflow.  Coincidentally, it started warming up so much in the last two or three weeks that I’ve been able to take trays outside to start hardening them off, and the sun does wonders against fungi, etc.

Speaking of outside, by mid-March the snow had melted and we were starting to see little bits of green out there:

I scattered a mix of giant crocuses, two types of hyacinth, snowdrops and scilla in a small bed beside the front door (right in front of the lilac which looks like it will bloom any day now) in October, and although later than most of the bulbs in the neighborhood because of less sun or poor soil or both, they did finally start to come up.  So did the greens I’d seeded in the coldframe:

I seeded the “Salad Spiral” again this Spring:

But the chives I’d brought inside in a pot last Fall got a headstart on the ones left outside and took off on the porch:

Also on the porch, there was a tragedy.  This was before we’d quite finished the nursery shelves, and I wanted the tray of alliums, which was starting to recover from damping-off, to get a good dose of sunlight in the south-facing porch window, where Matt had built a plant shelf.

I went outside to check on all the growing things out there, and when I came back in, one of the cats had jumped onto the tray on the shelf to get a little bit of sun herself, flipped it into the air and scattered plants and soil across the porch floor.  I saved as many as I could and swept the rest of the soil away, but I no longer had any idea what allium was what (sweet, storage, cipollini or scallion).  So I seeded a new tray just like the first (but weeks behind) and hoped they’d be ready in time.

With things on their way at the home garden, I decided to visit El Jardin del Elefantes (our shared garden a bike ride away, so called because of the plastic elephant statuette from Matt’s grandparents’ house that has become the garden deity Ellie-Ganesha).  By March 18th, the garlic, shallots, potato onions, multiplier onions and crocuses I’d planted at the end of October were all up and demanding more light.

I had planned to seed tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos and ground cherries along with broccoli, basil and dill on March 23rd, but I didn’t remember until March 22nd that I wanted to try pre-germination this year.  I went ahead and tried it anyway, wetting 17 paper napkins and sprinkling seeds on each of them– ground cherries from two different sources; Ancho Gigantea, Black Czech, Bridge to Paris, D’atil, Fish, Habanero, Hinkelhatz, Pasilla Bajio, Peacework & Puya peppers; USDA G32460 05G1 tomatillos (a large, tasty tomatillo we used to make most of our salsa verde a couple years ago and liked much better than the small, yellow, overly sweet variety I grew from a purchased transplant last year); and Cosmonaut Volkov, Matt’s Wild Cherry, New Yorker & Rose de Berne tomatoes– before putting them in several unsealed ziploc bags on top of the fridge (for the warmth) to wait.  I went ahead and seeded De Cicco broccoli, Sweet Genovese & Thai basil and Mammoth dill the next day, and– lordy!– turned the compost pile (it had gone anaerobic and not broken down much, so was not a pleasant task).

On March 24th, I went back to Elef. (my shorthand for our offsite garden) to seed Golden Sweet and Green Arrow pod peas and carefully strip off the burlap I’d used to hold down the mulch in the Fall and waited to remove until then because we had some cold weather in between my first and second visits.

Back at home, members of the salad spiral were growing steadily:

On Friday, April 2nd, I went back to work on the small farm where I worked last season.  That first day, I seeded carrots, lettuce, radishes, peas and beets for them, and felt like a slacker for not having done so yet in my own gardens (except for the peas, that is).  I had planned out all my garden activities for the season based on local patterns (in the 2010 Wisconsin Garden JournalSarah gave me for Christmas) and favorable lunar phases and positions, and along came this glorious, warm, early Spring and messed up all my plans!  Figures.

The following Monday found me back at work on the farm, digging potato trenches by hand under a suddenly very hot sun.  Embarrassingly, I sunburned my face and got a mild case of sunstroke…  Feeling achey and exhausted but determined, I went home and took a 10-minute nap, then went back out to plant more of my own garden.  At Elef., I raked off mulch and weeded the areas I needed, then dug more potato trenches.  Luckily, these trenches were in soft compost rather than sun-baked hardpan clay soil, and I only dug about 9 feet.  I planted All-Blue Potatoes I had ordered from Seed Savers Exchange and set out in the sun on the porch for two or three days until the eyes sprouted and saved another section for the Ozette potatoes I ordered from Potato Mountain but which hadn’t arrived yet.

Then I seeded Lancer Parsnips; Atomic Red, Chantenay Red-Core, Cosmic Purple, Dragon, Jaune Obtuse du Doubs and Lunar White carrots; and Early Scarlet Globe, Easter Egg Blend & French Breakfast radishes in alternating rows (the radishes in the same rows as the parsnips, to mark the spot until they germinate, and the carrots alternating with them).  You could say I got a little carrot-happy while placing seed orders this year…

By then, the promised rain was starting, and I watered everything in (tripping on the fence and falling in the process– long day) and got into the car to drive home, but the rain stopped, so I got back out, and seeded Bull’s Blood, Burpee’s Golden & Cylindra beets and Skirret.  After watering those in as well, I couldn’t help but stop to admire the row of garlic, etc.

The rain started and stopped again, so I went back home and planted some more!  I raked off mulch in the two front raised beds (the two that weren’t converted to coldframe in the Fall), saving space for tomatoes, peppers and basil in the middle bed and cucumbers, kale and collards in the front, and seeded more beets (Detroit Dark Red this time) and carrots (yes, more varieties! Muscade, Parisienne, Science Fiction Mix and St. Valery) in the middle bed.  In between, I transplanted some of those feline-benighted mixed alliums.  In the front bed, I seeded more mixed rows of Lancer parsnips and French Breakfast radishes.  One wouldn’t want to be too far from fresh radishes, carrots, beets, scallions and parsnips when one wants them…  During all of this, I spotted my first two mosquitoes of the season.

Believe it or not, in that flurry of seeding, I had forgotten to seed Hakurei turnips (my favorite), so on Tuesday after an easier day at work, I went back to Elef. and seeded the turnips and transplanted the rest of the mixed alliums.  I think I managed to get through that whole day without falling into, on, over or down anything (it wasn’t until that Friday that I fell down half a flight of stairs at work)…

The season was really getting going and I was feeling a little, umm, obsessed.  Spring’s that way, I guess.  More adventures in the life of La Agricultora Torpe in the next installment (date TBD)…


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