Coldfames (not mine)


A Fourth Dimension for the Garden

A “coldframe” is one of a few ways to add a new dimension — time — to gardening. Especially, for me, vegetable gardening. It inserts time where time does not exist. Instead of my gardening season screeching to a stop with a hard freeze sometime in late November or early December, a coldframe extends it a few weeks, possibly even more. And it can do the same thing at the beginning of the season, getting plants going and harvested sooner. (Multidimensional vegetable gardening is covered more thoroughly in my book Weedless Gardening.)

At its most primitive, a coldframe is nothing more than a clear plastic or glass topped box set directly on the ground, functioning in the garden as a miniature greenhouse. My simplest coldframe was made from four pieces of scrap pine boards notched together into a three-foot by six-foot rectangle. The covering was quarter-inch plexiglass whose previous incarnation was that of a floor runner beneath office chairs.Primitive coldframe

My most elaborate coldframe was a purchased structure, looking much like a miniature barn with a double-wall, polycarbonate plastic roof that folded open or closed along tracks in the eaves. Read more



Most Important, to Me at Least

Hints of summer already are here, not outside, but in the seed catalogues in my mailbox, on seed racks in stores, and from emails from seed companies. Look how many different varieties of each vegetable are offered! Thumbing through one (paper) catalogue, for example, I see twenty-eight varieties of tomato, seventeen varieties of peas, and eleven varieties of radishes. Anyone who has gardened for at least a few years has their most and least favorite varieties of vegetables. Here’s a sampling of mine.

Right from the start, I admit that most important to me in choosing a vegetable variety is flavor. I’ll grow a low-yielding variety, even one that’s not particularly resistant to insects or diseases, if it is particularly delectable. Within reason, of course.

Let’s start with one of the most widely-grown backyard vegetables, tomatoes.

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Popcorn Traditions

I was surprised at the different colors of my ears this fall — popcorn ears, that is. ‘Pink Pearl’ popcorn lived up to its name, yielding short ears with shiny, pink kernels. Peeling back each dry husk of ‘Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored’ popcorn revealed rows of creamy white kernels. The surprise came from some ears from either bed whose kernels were multi-colored, each in a different way, with some kernels mahogany-red, some pale pink, some dark pink, and some lemon yellow.Popcorn mixes

I plan to bring some of these popped kernels to Thanksgiving dinner, just as Native American chief Massasoit’s brother, Quadequina, brought along a sack of popped popcorn to the first Thanksgiving feast almost four centuries ago.

Popcorn predates that first Thanksgiving in America by thousands of years. Kernels have been found in the remains of Central American settlements of almost 7000 years ago. The Quichas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico grew red, yellow, and white popcorns. Even after that first Thanksgiving dinner, popcorn was eaten by settlers in the Northeast as a breakfast staple with milk and maple sugar, or floated on soup (very good!). Beginning in the last century, movie  and television viewing caused a resurgence in popcorn consumption.

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Saying It is Easy; Naming It, Not so Easy

Pinch your nose with your fingers and say “on.” Follow that with a long, drawn out, “d-e-e-e-e-v,” your mouth in a smile to get emphasis on the e’s. Endive. I once considered endive to be lackluster in flavor, so needed to be offset with this highfalutin pronunciation. After many years of growing endive, I’ve come to recognize a more distinct flavor, nutty and just slightly bitter.

Endive, frisee & escarole

Endive, frisee & escarole

(This is the first time I’ve used “nutty” to describe a flavor, having recently figured out what it means. Nut-like. Duh. Hints of nuttiness are found in the flavors of many foods, including seeds, wines, beans oils, cheeses, fish, and, of course, almonds, hazelnuts, and other actual nuts. Since writing the above description of endive flavor, I learned that others have also described its flavor as nutty. QED)

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Ode to Sungold

As the curtain closes on the summer garden and the autumn garden edges towards its glory, I’d like to offer thanks. No, not a religious thanks for a summer of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, and other warm weather vegetables. But thanks to a person, the person who bred Sungold cherry tomato.Sungold near season's end

Anyone not familiar with Sungold tomato should be. It’s sweet and tangy, not at all cloying, enveloped in persimmon-orange skin. I once grew over 20 varieties of cherry tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme), including Sungold, for a magazine article. As a friend walked down the row, sampling fruit from each plant, she proclaimed, “That’s one row of lousy tomatoes.”

Agreed, excepting a few varieties, one of which was, of course, Sungold. The other exceptions were Gardener’s Delight, Sweet Million, and Suncherry, all three of which are rarely seen these days, probably because Sungold eclipsed the others with its distinctive appearance and, I think, even better flavor.

(My cherry tomato row didn’t include marble-size, so-called currant tomatoes, botanically, S. pimpinellifolium. They are very sweet, very small, and very tasty. I don’t grow them anymore because, for me, they’re too messy, dropping fruits all over the place. The following year, seedlings can grow to become a tomato jungle.)

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Not a Research Station, but I do Test

It seems that every couple of years or so, some kind gardener offers me seeds, plants, or just a recommendation for the best-tasting, earliest ripening, or longest keeping tomato. I’m appreciative, but these days usually refuse the offer or ignore the recommendation.

True, In addition to providing a year ’round supply of fruits and vegetables, my farmden provides a testing ground for innovative techniques in growing fruits and vegetables, and provides a site for workshops and training. All this would surely include trying out new kinds and varieties of fruits and vegetables.

But I want to avoid having my plantings become like those described by Charles Dudley Warner in his 1887 classic My Summer in the Garden: “I have seen gardens which were all experiment, given over to every new thing, and which produced little or nothing to the owners, except the pleasure of expectation.”

Still, I have studied plants and soils in both academic settings and in my own “back forty” (actually, my own back 2 and 3/4). I’m in New York’s Hudson Valley, Hardiness Zone 5, more specifically the Wallkill River Valley. This low spot is notable for good soil and bad air. The soil is fertile, perfectly drained, and pretty much free of any rocks or stones. But cold, damp air, being heavier than warm air, pours down hillsides into this valley. It suits disease-causing fungi and bacteria of plants just fine.Aerial view of farmden

The above paragraph is a preamble to my offering a few recommendations on species and varieties worth growing in similar settings, but also, in many cases, where conditions don’t match those here on the farmden. I’ve also gardened in the Upper Midwest and in the South, and I think these recommendations would be well received over a large swath of our country. Some may be worth a spin in your own “back forty.”

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Go Drip!

This summer has been one of the hottest and driest ever — and it’s been one of the best ever in the vegetable garden. Baskets of red, ripe tomatoes and peppers sit on the kitchen floor awaiting metamorphosis into sauces and salsas, dehydration, or just plain being eaten.Dog Sammy and garden beds

What about water? My garden plants are plump with water thanks to drip irrigation. In addition to benefits to the plant, drip is also good for the environment, typically using only about 40 percent of the amount of water used by sprinkling. That’s because the more pinpointed water avoids wasting water in paths and other places it’s not needed. Also because little water is lost to evaporation.Dripline with beans

The “drip” in drip irrigation tells you that water is applied at a very slow rate, which is especially appealing to those of us whose water comes from a well. With drip, the well has plenty of time to recharge between waterings.

Drip is also better for plants. Leaves stay dry, lessening the chance for disease. And rather than flooding the ground, which a sprinkler does at each watering, drip keep soil moisture within that happy window when larger pores remain filled with air, and water is held within smaller pores so that roots can both breathe and draw in water. (This is one reason for the more efficient water use of drip irrigation.)

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A lot about this year’s vegetable garden warrants my patting myself on my back; other things warrant a nuggy (virtually impossible unless I was double-jointed). Let’s start with the pat-worthy stuff. Perhaps you’ll find some of it useful in your vegetable garden. Perhaps you’ll want to comment on it.

Good Moves

Sweet corn is one of my favorite vegetables, both fresh in summer, and frozen in winter. Evidently, chipmunks are also fans. I plant sweet corn — the old variety Golden Bantam — in hills (clumps) of three stalks per hill, the hills eighteen inches apart in the row, with two rows running the length of each three-foot-wide bed. I spread out the harvest with four plantings, the first on about the average date of the last frost, mid-May, and the last planting the end of June.

With a variation on traditional corn planting — “one for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow” goes the old saw — I drop five rather than four seeds per hole. Corn sprouting among lettucesSeed is cheap. Unfortunately, those extra seeds merely gave chipmunks more to eat in that first planting. So . . .

For subsequent plantings I sprinkled a mixture of cayenne pepper and cinnamon over the seeds in each planting hole. Although birds can eat hot pepper, furry animals generally, my dog Daisy excepted, cannot. I figured the chipmunks wouldn’t like the taste of cinnamon and/or it would mask any aroma from the corn seeds. The result: success.

Pests threatening my onions and leeks arrived here on the farmden just a few years ago. Leek moth is one of them and thrips possibly another. Leek moth flies to lay its eggs in early spring, and thrips overwinter in debris. Another pest severely stunted last year’s onions, but neither I nor a university vegetable specialist could find anything odd about the roots, tiny bulbs, or leaves on which to lay blame.

Thoroughly cleaning up debris, which I do for all beds anyway, and covering the bed with fine mesh should keep leek moth, thrips, and possibly other pests at bay. A wire frame to support a large piece of organza fabric, with the organza clothespinned tightly near ground level did the trick. The leeks and onions look healthy and vigorous.Onion and leek, netted

A Successful Makeover

The need for a bold makeover of my south vegetable garden is embarrassing, but I’ll come clean. For some reason I oriented beds in that garden, created in 1997, east and west. I should have know better. It was a more favorable location for the two gates, but that’s not a good excuse. Tall plants in east-west beds shade shorter plants in those and nearby beds throughout the day. So whenever possible, north-south, or nearly north-south, beds are best.

Last fall, with some help from friends, I raked soil in the beds and wood chipped paths as level as possible. (My beds aren’t raised beds, but they do slowly rise after decades of annual slatherings of an inch or more of compost.) South garden makeover1We rolled out gray resin paper to suppress weeds sure to sprout in the newly disturbed soil, then topped the paper with compost in the beds and wood chips in the paths.South garden makeover2

It’s a young garden again! Sort of. When planting, I can feel the difference in the ground from where a bed crosses regions that were once paths versus those that were beds. But the soil will get better every year, and the beds now run the better direction. Only one garden gate now, though.

Everything Not Always Rosy

Not all is always rosy down here on the farmden. Flea beetles, as expected, attacked my eggplants. I could have netted the eggplants also, but I was foolishly banking on hope.Fleabeetles on eggplant I’ll admit to spraying the organic pesticide Pyganic while waiting for the eggplants to outgrow the damage.

The other pest here is a weed, creeping woodsorrel (Oxalis corniculata). The straight species grows tall and is very easy to weed out. No problem.
The problem child is the purple-leaved variety (Oxalis corniculata var. atropurpurea) which blends in with the soil and hugs the ground in spreading mats. Oxalis weedIt responds favorably (for me, not it) to sprays of household strength vinegar or any of the other organic herbicides whose active ingredient is ammonium nonanoate, such as Ortho® GroundClear® Weed & Grass Killer or the more benign sounding BioSafe Weed & Grass Killer.

And finally, we come to drip irrigation, a watering technique on which I’ve heaped tons of praise for saving water, for limiting weeds, for healthier plants, and for being easily automated. This last quality can cause a problem. A few years ago I thought a spring had sprung it my field; it was an old main line that was still in line and spewing out water below ground. Another year plants in a couple of beds seemed to languish as drier weather moved in; the underground connection of some drip lines had disconnect from the main line. Yet another time, water was pouring out of an unplugged end of a drip line. Or, last year the battery died on one of the timers; most affected were two small rosemary plants, trained as small trees, many of whose leaves and stems dried up, dead.

This spring, it was, first, the main water source, which is from a shallow well, clogging the filter. And then, a piece of hose running from the well pump to the main line developing a kink.

All these irrigation glitches were easily fixed once I noticed them. And there’s the key. My very smart phone now reminds me to spend the few minutes required to check the drip irrigation system every Monday.


What’s Better: Loosy Goosy or Soldier Straight?

I wonder how much our gardens reflect our personalities? Some gardeners clip their yew bushes “plumb and square;” other gardeners clip or shear away at their plants more haphazardly. Even in the vegetable patch, a temperament may be reflected in the way tomatoes are grown: Do the plants sprawl over the ground with abandon, are they contained within strings woven up and down the row, or are they neatly staked? (Woven tomatoes or those grown in wire cages are more or less sprawling plants, held aloft.)Staked tomatoes

Whatever your temperament, a good case can be made for staking tomatoes. Tomatoes on a staked plant are larger and ripen earlier than those on a sprawling plant. Good air circulation around leaves and fruits of upright plants lessens disease problems. And fruits held high above the ground also are free from dirt and slug bites. You’ll harvest less fruit from each staked plant, but since staking makes best use of the third dimension, up, staked plants can be set as close as eighteen inches apart. So staking gives the best yields per square foot — especially important in small gardens.

Flavor Picks

Tomato varieties suitable for staking are so-called “indeterminate” types, which form fruit clusters at intervals along their ever-elongating stems. “Determinate” varieties, in contrast, bearsfruits at the ends of their branches, so if a plant was pruned for staking would be reduced to a single short stem capped by a single cluster of fruits. Seed catalogues and packets usually indicate which varieties are suitable for staking.Planted tomatoes

Determinate varieties are bushy plants that need little regimenting. They also ripen their fruits within a shorter window of time.

So what’s not to like about determinate varieties? Flavor! With fewer leaves per fruit than indeterminate varieties, flavor suffers. That concentrated ripening period also can stress the plants, making them more prone to disease.

As you might guess, I grow only indeterminate varieties of tomatoes. Flavor is my main criterion in selecting a variety to grow.


When choosing a suitable stake for staking (indeterminate, of course) tomato plants, don’t be misled by the puniness of tomato transplants. A tomato stake needs to be be six to eight feet long and metal or at least one by two inches thick if made of wood. I use EMT (electrical metallic tubing) conduit, 5/8 inch diameter and 10 feet long, cut down to 7 feet. It’s easy to pound into the ground (okay, I’ll admit that here on the floodplain there are no rocks), easy to remove, and reusable for years and years.

Most books and other sources of information suggest “planting” your stake along with your tomato plant to avoid root damage later on. Not true. My established tomato plants never bat an eyelash (figuratively speaking) as I pound in metal stakes only a couple of inches from their stems. And there’s a good reason to wait until the plants are well-established; by then, chance of cold damage is reliably history. Early planted stakes would interfere with my trying to throw a protective blanket over a row of staked tomatoes should cold threaten.

With the base of a stake set a couple of inches from a plant and a 3 foot length of iron pipe, capped at one end and slid over the conduit’s free end, the stake pounds in easily with repeated lifting and forcefully lowering.Pounding in tomato stake

Indeterminate tomatoes are vines, but not vines that can climb by themselves. So they need to be tied to their stakes. Material for ties should be strong enough to hold the plants the whole season, and bulky enough so as not to cut into plants’ stems. Coarse twine or cotton rags, torn into strips, are good materials. I use sisal binder twine. 

The usual recommendation, when tying, is to first tie a knot around the stake tightly enough to prevent downward slipping, then use the free ends of the rag strip or twine to tie a loose loop around the plant’s stem. False! With every foot or so of growth, I tie a single loop loosely around stem and stake above a node; the string can’t slip down lower than the node.Tomato plant, tied


Now for the pruning: Confine each plant to a single stem by removing all suckers, ideally before any are an inch long. A sucker is a shoot that grows from a bud originating at the juncture of a leaf and the main stem.tomato sucker

Go over your plants at least weekly, using your fingers to snap off each side shoot. (Cutting the shoots with a knife or pruning shear may transmit disease between plants as a blade touches cut surfaces.) Occasionally step back and refocus your eyes on the plant as a whole; I find that I sometimes overlook a sucker that has snuck up with two feet of growth I missed as I focussed on still small shoots just appearing from buds.

One final bit of pruning that some gardeners practice is to pinch out the growing tip of the plant when the stem reaches the top of the stake, then continue to remove any new leaves or flowers that form. This is a little chancy, since the effect depends on the maturity of a plant’s leaves and fruits. At worst, you reduce yield to a few clusters of fruit. But at best, your tomatoes are even earlier and larger. It may be worth a try on a couple of plants.

How do your tomatoes grow, up or sprawling. A case can be made for “up.” But you need the right variety, stake, and method of pruning. 


Transplant Shock

A recent telephone call to my sister caught her setting zucchini transplants in her garden. “Transplanting zucchini?” I queried. “Have some faith in nature.” Transplants on sale this time of year too often entice gardeners to set out set them out in the garden rather than drop seeds into furrows.Marigold 6-pack

I pointed out that not every plant likes to be transplanted. Tomato plants yanked out of the soil will resume growth in a few days if their roots are covered with moist dirt. Roots will sprout even if just a stem is in moist soil. But the roots of plants like corn, poppies, melons, cucumbers, and squashes (zucchini included) resent disturbance. Carrots, parsnips, and many other root crops also transplant poorly. Their taproots become the harvested roots. If bent or broken while young, forked, rather than straight, smooth carrots and parsnips result.

This is not to say that it is impossible to successfully transplant squash, poppies, and the like. Any plant can be transplanted if enough care is taken not to damage the roots. A plant doesn’t even know it has been moved when a large enough ball of soil is carried along with the roots. (To paraphrase Archimedes, “Give me a big enough shovel and I can transplant any plant.”) Enormous trees can be, and are, relocated if taken with sufficient roots (and money).

My sister told me that her zucchini plants were growing in plastic cell packs. If the roots were not yet crowding each other against the plastic, and if the plants were gently slid out of their containers, the transplants will survive. I’ve even heard of gardeners even transplanting carrots — very carefully, no doubt.

Is It Worth It?

Six pack of peas

Pea transplants for sale

Many vegetables could be easily transplanted, yet aren’t worth the effort. A friend transplanted peas one year. Granted, his peas were a foot high indoors when mine were just breaking through the ground out in the garden. But how many pea transplants can a gardener care for? I grow about sixty feet of double rows of peas in my garden, from which I expect about twelve pounds of peas. Each pea plant, though, yields only about a quarter of an ounce of peas. Who has enough space and time to sow, water, then transplant even two dozen pea plants for the paltry six ounces of peas those plants would yield?

Generally, plants whose seeds are sown closely spaced in the garden are not worth transplanting. In the flower garden, this would include alyssum, portulaca, and pot marigolds (though I admit to starting a few alyssum plants indoors so they would spread and flower sooner).

In addition to peas, some other vegetables not worth growing as transplants include spinach, mustard, and beans. Black Seeded Simpson and other leaf lettuces (sometimes referred to as “cutting lettuces”) are generally sown directly in the ground. While the plants are still small, I’ll run a knife near ground level every couple of feet or so slicing off their tops. For the next salad, I’ll choose new groups of plants to cut. Within a couple of weeks, plants are again ready for harvest.

Lettuce seedlings

Bibb lettuce transplants

Heading lettuces such as iceberg, bibb, and romaine are worth transplanting because each plant needs space in order to head up well. Alternatively, heading lettuce could be sown directly in the garden, then thinned to the appropriate spacing.

(I list dates for sowing and transplanting various vegetables, according to your region, in my book Weedless Gardening, available from the usual sources or directly from me here.)

Exceptions to Prove the Rule

“Trust nature,” I told my sister. “Sow seeds on the correct planting date in good garden soil, and they’ll germinate. Save transplanting efforts for vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, which need to be started early indoors in order to ripen their fruits in a reasonable amount of time. Or broccoli and cabbage, because individual plants yield a substantial amount to eat. Tomato, broccoli, and cabbage plants don’t object to being transplanted, and not too many transplants are required since they are set a couple of feet or more apart in the garden.”

Seeds which are particularly finicky or valuable (due either to scarcity or cost) also are worth growing initially in pots. Although hardy cyclamens (Cyclamen heredifolium) do self-seed under ideal conditions, I wanted to greatly increase my holdings. Cyclamen flower in a crannied wallThey’re a little finicky to sprout, so I collected seeds from one of my plants and planted them in a seed flat, where I could watch and nurture them individually, then transplant them to individual pots. Here it is, three years later, and later this summer, delicate pink flowers will hover like small butterflies above each of the ten fat tubers.

Sure, it may be worthwhile to start a few corn plants indoors, because fresh sweet corn is one of the ultimate gustatory pleasures of the vegetable garden. But is zucchini that toothsome?