Lifting lettuce seedling


A Pinch Every Now and Then

Deb is always impressed at the almost nonstop march of home grown lettuce that makes its way into our kitchen and then to salads and sandwiches each year. Not just a leaf here and there, or even the paltry amount in “side” salads served up in restaurants. No, I’m talking about day upon day lots of lettuce, often even whole heads — even here in zone 5.Four rows of lettuce in a bed

The key to this abundance is sowing seeds every couple of weeks or so. Not right out in the garden, but in seed flats; mine are four inches wide by six inches long and a couple of inches deep. After filling a flat with potting soil, onto the soil I press down a four by six inch board to which I’ve glued four dowels, each four inches long and Read more


For the Long Haul

Among the must-have tools for any good gardener are hope, optimism, and patience. I thought of all three last week as I was planting some seeds.
Asian pear, Korean Giant
The first of these seeds especially emphasizes patience. They were a few pear seeds I saved from pears I had eaten. After being soaked for a couple of days in water, the cores were soft enough for the seeds to be squeezed out, after which they were rinsed, and then planted in potting soil.

I put the planted seeds near a bright window in my basement where the cool (about 40°) temperatures would, in a couple of months, fool the seeds into feeling that winter was over. They would sprout.

Given time, those seeds would grow to become pear trees and, given more time (ten years, possibly more) go on to bear fruit. Those seeds came from Bosc and Passe Crassane pears. The genetics of the resulting trees will represent the sexual union of egg cells within the flowers with whatever male pollen happened to fertilize those eggs. As a result, said trees would bear fruits different, and probably worse, than the fruits from which they were taken. (There’s less than 1 in 10,000 chance of a seedling apple tree bearing fruit as good or better than the fruit from the mother tree; the ratio for pears should be similar.)

Shortening the Long Haul, and Other Benefits

Grated tree, year 1

Grafted tree, this one NOT interstem

So why will I be wasting all that time nurturing these plants? Because they’re not for fruit. They’re for rootstocks, for grafting. Pears and most other tree fruits are very hard to root from cuttings, so are propagated by grafting a stem of a good-tasting pear low on a rootstock.
Whip graft of stem to rootstock
So-called “seedling” rootstocks make for very sturdy trees, well anchored and genetically diverse so some scourge can’t wipe out a whole bunch of equally susceptible, genetically identical trees. On the other hand, seedling rootstocks make for very large trees that are very slow to induce bearing in their grafted portions.

Enter from stage right: clonal rootstocks, that is, plants reproduced asexually (cuttings are one example of asexual plant propagation) so that all members of the clone are genetically identical. Some clonal pear rootstocks — with such unalluring names as Pyrodwarf and OH x F 87 — have been developed that make smaller grafted trees that also are quicker to come into bearing. (I delve more deeply into the nitty gritty of grafting in my book The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden.)

My plan is to make interstem trees, each one by grafting a 9 inch stem of one of the clonal rootstocks near the base of a seedling rootstock, and then some variety for eating, such as Passe Crassane, atop the clonal interstem. That 9 inch clonal interstem has the same good effects as if it was used as a rootstock, except that the interstem trees also have sturdy root systems and genetic diversity at their roots. Because plants grow from the tips of stems, the heights of the grafts above ground remain the same even as the tree grows.

Parts of interstem tree

Parts of interstem tree

I’ll do both grafts at the same time, next spring. I’m hopeful, optimistic, and have patience that I’ll be biting my first pears from these trees within 5 years.

Lettuce be Hopeful, Patient, and Optimistic

The other seeds for this week’s sowing were four varieties of lettuce. No, not for eventual outdoor planting, but for planting in the greenhouse in spaces that will open up where some of last autumn’s lettuce will have been harvested.

It’s chilly in the greenhouse, where temperatures drop into the 30’s at night and on cloudy days, too chilly for good sprouting of lettuce seeds. Sowing lettuce seeds in flatsSo I sowed them in a 4×6 inch seed flat filled with potting soil, then moved the flat in front of a sun-drenched, living room window. Once the lettuce seeds sprouted, which was in a few days, I moved them to the greenhouse. Warmer temperatures are needed to sprout a seed than to grow a plant.
Lettuce sprouting in flat
The seedlings should not, of course, remained crowded in their mini-furrows in the flat. So once the seedlings grow a little larger, I’ll gently lift each one by its leaves, coaxing it up and out of the flat, and then lower the roots into a dibbled hole in one potting-soil-filled-cell of GrowEase. And so on, until each of the 24 cells has a small plant in it.

Moving small lettuce seedlingsI use this same method to keep up a steady supply of lettuce and other seedlings all through summer, the plants typically needing about a month in the GrowEase before they’re ready to transplant into the ground. Not so in winter, with the sun still hanging low in the sky and greenhouse temperature still cool. I estimate that it won’t be until early March before the lettuces will be ready to plant in the ground in the greenhouse.

No matter; I’m hopeful, optimistic, and patient. And I’ll still be harvesting some of last autumn’s lettuce beyond that date.

Colorful, Sometimes Tasty, Ground

Lurid Ground

Lurid, violet flowers have sprouted in the wood chip mulch beneath my row of dwarf pear trees. The flowers are autumn crocuses, the first part of the two-part flowery show that takes place each autumn in that piece of ground.
The second part of that flowery show, soon to follow, will be autumn crocuses. “But,” you exclaim, “autumn crocuses were the first part of the show!” Let me explain.

This first show is from a flower called autumn crocus but which is botanically a Colchicum species. It’s not really a crocus, not even related. Colchicum flowers resemble true crocus flowers, on steroids. The second show will be from true crocuses (that is, Crocus species) that happen to bloom in autumn. The Crocus autumn crocuses are dainty and in colors like our spring crocuses.

What’s really unique about the colchicum flowers, and what makes them so striking, is that, first, they emerge from the soil this time of year, and second, that they do so without any leaves, making the contrast between the mulched ground and the flowers all the more dramatic. The color itself is dramatic, the row of bold-colored blossoms painting a wide swath along the ground.
Purple autumn crocuses, in a row
Cochicums, like every other plant, need to photosynthesize, and, like every other plant, need leaves to do so. Those leaves, which are wide, long, and fairly large, appear for awhile in spring and look nothing like true crocus leaves. Not only do the plants not need leaves in autumn, they also don’t need soil. Colchicum bulbs will sprout their lurid violet flowers even if just left sitting on a bench or table!

Green Tastes Good

Aside from spots of bright color, the dominant color in my garden is green. That verdure is especially evident in my vegetable garden, now in its autumn glory – lush and green – and becoming more so every day. I’ve been sowing and planting with almost the same fervor as in spring.

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

A few weeks ago I made my last planting of outdoor lettuce, using transplants that had been growing in seed flats for about a month. The varying textures and colors of the different varieties make a pretty tapestry on the ground, so pretty that it seems almost a shame to pick any of the tender, tasty heads and ruin the picture. I’m not sure how large they’ll grow before stopped or turned to mush by really cold weather. Protection beneath a tunnel of clear plastic with, later, an additional covering of some spun-bonded row cover material, should keep them and me happy into December.

Other beds display yet more shades of green with varying textures. There’s a bed of kale, which has been pumping out deep green leaves for good eating since spring. Another bed has endive – Broad-Leaved Batavian — planted close enough so neighboring plants push each other’s leaves over the loosely forming heads. Shaded from sunlight, those inner leaves become tender and sweet, livened up with just a hint of bitterness.

Green, Not for Eating

Lushest green of all beds in my garden are those that are sprouting oats. Yes, that’s the same oats that we (and horses) eat, except that I didn’t plant these oats for eating. I plant oats as so-called cover crops, which are plants grown to improve and protect the soil.

I can only eat just so much lettuce, endive, kale, and other greens. If I’ve filled this quota for planting and no longer have further use for every bed this season, I plant it with oats. September 30th is my deadline because after this date — here in the lower Hudson Valley, at least — days are too short and weather becomes too cold to expect much growth.
Oat cover crop
Oats, just one of a number of potential cover crops, thrive in the cool weather of autumn and early winter. Their roots, pushing through the soil, crumble it and latch onto nutrients that might otherwise wash down below the root zone. After the roots die, they enrich the soil with humus and leave behind channels through which air and water can move within the soil. Above ground, the stems and leaves protect the soil surface from being washed around by pounding raindrops.

Most of all, I like the look of that green carpet of grassy oat leaves. Both I and Mother Nature abhor bare ground, which becomes subject to wind and water erosion, and large swings in temperatures through the year.

Greenhouse Happenings, Figs and Lettuce and . . .

Darkness Descending

Plant growth has come screeching (almost) to a halt. Lettuces just sit, hardly growing. No wonder, you are no doubt thinking. It’s getting colder and colder outside. I know that, but I’m writing about lettuces in my greenhouse. The issue isn’t lack of heat. It’s lack of light.Planting greenhouse lettuce

For more evidence that light is the issue, look to good vegetable gardens in southern Europe. In that mild climate, harvest from a well-planned vegetable garden continues year ‘round. But year ‘round harvest there takes planning — lack of light also makes for very slow growth over there in these darkest months. Unprotected plants survive because the winter weather never gets that cold over there. (And cool-season vegetables, such as spinach, radish, and turnips, that we plan for sprig or fall, are what do well in Mediterranean winters.)

My garden here in the Hudson Valley, at about the 42nd parallel, experiences winter day lengths the same as Rome, Italy or the island of Corsica — all on about the same 42nd degree of latitude. If lettuce plants grow slowly in Rome and Corsica, then the slow growth of lettuce in my greenhouse should come as no surprise. But it always does surprise me, and the brakes seem to start getting applied back in October, with full pressure about now.

All this came to the forefront of my attention back in 1992, when I read Eliot Coleman’s excellent book Four-Season Harvest. After highlighting the similar insolation of much of our “northern regions” with much of balmy Europe, he went on to describe various ways of protecting winter vegetable from our winter cold, which would kill most of them. Keeping the plants a bit warmer also gets them growing sooner once days become longer and brighter.

My goal, in the greenhouse, is to get a good share of the plants almost fully grown going into December. With lettuces, I try to plan to have enough of them to fill salad bowls through January and February, after which smaller plants are starting to grow fast enough to fill those bowls.

The 42nd Parallel

The reason Corsica and Rome remain relatively balmy all winter while winters here, with both locations at the 42nd parallel, get so frigid is that Corsica is bathed by the Gulf Stream, that warm mass of air that flows up from the Caribbean and across the Atlantic to wash over western Europe.

The warm touch of the Gulf Stream is lost as you move further east across Europe and into western Asia. Kazakhstan, parts of which also lie at the 42nd parallel, experience average annual temperatures from -60°F to 104°F!! The climate of nearby Turkey, whose north end touches that latitude, is moderated by the Caspian Sea. Moving further east to parts of Inner Mongolia, still within the 42nd parallel, winter temperatures might dip to -90°F.

A Greenhouse is not a Hothouse

If you were to join me in my greenhouse today, don’t forget your hat and gloves. The greenhouse is heated, but only minimally, enough to keep the temperature from falling below 37°F. That temperature provides a nice balance between energy use and reasonable year ‘round harvest. (Expotentially more energy is needed for incrementally increasing temperatures.)

Today is rainy and very cool, but not cool enough to kick on the greenhouse heater. So it’s pretty much the same temperature inside the greenhouse as outside the greenhouse — in the 40s. Most of what’s growing — kale, celery, mâche, claytonia, Swiss chard, mustard greens, parsley, and arugula — do fine with these conditions.

Leafy vegetables require less energy (i.e. sunlight) than do fruiting vegetables, so the low light is also fine to keep them happy even if only slowly growing, just as they would be planted (outdoors) in a garden in Corsica or Rome.

That’s also home to my baby, hardy cyclamens (about which I recently wrote), in a seed flat, until they decide to lose their leaves and go dormant. And two cardoon plants, also native to Mediterranean regions.

One Mediterranean plant that is very unhappy this year, even in the greenhouse, is fig. Figs are still ripening but, with the high humidity and low light, each is soon covered with fuzzy, gray mold. Figs rotting in greenhouseSplitting figRoots of Rabbi Samuel fig, near the endwall, spread under the wall and outside the greenhouse, soaking up so much water that the figs split before ripening. Yet, a few fig fruits escape both afflictions and ripen to juicy sweetness.

I wonder if fig gardeners in the Mediterranean share my fig problems.Eating a fig


 Onions & More, Late But They’ll Be Fine

   I missed my deadline by four days, sowing onion seeds on February 5th rather than the planned February 1st. That date isn’t fixed in stone but the important thing is to plant onions early.
    Onions are photoperiod sensitive, that is, they respond to daylength (actually, night length, but researchers originally thought the response was to light rather than darkness, so the phrase “daylength sensitive” stuck). Once days get long enough, sometime in June, leaf formation comes screeching to a halt and the plants put their energies into making bulbs. The more leaves before that begins, the bigger the bulbs.
    Plants from seeds sown outdoors — towards the end of March — won’t have as many leaves as plants given a jump start indoors. I like big bulbs; hence the early February sowing.

Fresh Seeds & Mini-furrows in a Plastic Tub

    First step on my way to onion-dom is to get fresh seeds. Onion seeds are relatively short lived and I want to give the plants plenty of time to grow. I don’t risk delays from poor germination and replanting of old seed.Onion seeds being sown in mini-furrows in pan of potting soil.
    Seeds get sown in a miniature “field:” A plastic tub 18 inches by 12 inches, with drainage holes drilled in its bottom and filled 4 inches deep with potting soil. Some weed seeds are unavoidably lurking in the garden soil and compost in my homemade potting mix, so I top the potting mix with a one inch depth of a weed free, 1:1 mix of peat moss and perlite.
    The edge of a board pressed into the firmed soil mix in the tub makes furrows, 6 of them equally spaced and about 1/2 inch deep within the tub. Into each furrow go onion seeds, sprinkled at the rate of about 7 seeds per inch. Once the furrows are closed in over the seeds, I water thoroughly and, to avoid washing away seeds, gently.
    Covered with a clear pane of glass and warmed to 70 to 75° F, the seeds should appear as grassy sprouts above the soil mix within a couple of weeks. From then on, my goal is to keep the plants happy with abundant light and water as needed. They get a haircut, their leaves snipped down to 4 inches, whenever they get too floppy. The compost and alfalfa meal in the potting mix should provide sufficient nourishment to the seedlings until they are ready for the great outdoors. That deadline is April 15th, weather permitting.

Other Cool Temperature Seeds Join the Party

    Onions won’t be alone on the seedling bench in the greenhouse. I’m also now sowing seeds of celery, celeriac, and leek. All, like onion, need a long period of growth before they’re ready for outdoors.

Onion seedlings, up and growing.

Onion seedlings, up and growing.

   These seeds get sown in furrows in small seed flats from which the seedlings, once they have two leaves, are gingerly lifted and cozied into waiting holes poked into the potting mix filling seed trays with individual cells. Little growing space is needed because a single seed flat can be home to a few kinds of seeds and the celled trays in which the seedlings grow until planted outdoors can house about two dozen plants in a square foot.
    I’m sowing lettuce in a similar manner. In contrast to celery and company, lettuce grows quickly. It’s needed to fill in gaps opened up from winter harvests of kale, lettuce, mâche, claytonia, celery, and parsley in the greenhouse, and should be ready to eat in April.

Nature & Nurture & the Spiciness of Onions

    Last year’s onions were abundant, large, sweet, and juicy. Anticipating their not keeping well, we ate them quickly, pulling the last ones from their hanging braid in the basement sometime in November. These were so-called European-type onions, varieties such as Ailsa Craig and Sweet Spanish.
    Next year we should have fresh onions for soups and stews on into winter because I’m growing some American-types, New York Early and Copra. American-type onions are actually sweeter than European-type onions, but their sweetness is masked by their increased pungency. That pungency comes from sulfur compounds, which are vaporized during cooking. Those sulfur compounds are also what help these onions keep longer.

Stored onions, in basement

Stored onions, in basement

    Soil enters the picture when it comes to onion flavor and storability. Sulfur is an essential plant nutrient and the more sulfur in the soil, within limits, the more sulfur in the onions. Sulfur is a key component of organic matter, so my compost-rich soil (with a whopping 15% organic matter) should have plenty of sulfur.
    Still, I’m thinking about spreading sulfur, the same pelletized sulfur I use to maintain soil acidity beneath my blueberry bushes, on half my onion beds to see if flavor or storagability are noticeably affected.


 Beds Ready for Spring Planting, Figs and Lettuces Readied for Cold

Much colder weather has been sneaking in and out of the garden but leaving traces of its presence with some blackened leaves on frost-sensitive plants and threatening to brazenly show itself in full force sometime soon. This fall I vow to put all in order before that event rather than, on some very cold night, running around, flashlight in hand, gathering and protecting plants.

Before even getting to the plants, drip irrigation must be readied for winter. Main lines and drip lines can remain outdoors but right near the spigot, the timer, the filter, and pressure reducer must be brought indoors where they won’t freeze. I plug the inlet for the drip’s main line to keep out curious insects. At the far end of the line is a cap that I loosen enough to let water drain out. Opening all other valves along the line leaves no dead ends in which freezing water could expand to break lines.

Begonia, amaryllis, Maid of Orleans jasmine (Jasminium sambac), and other topical plants are next in importance. Being near the radiating warmth of the house has spared them recent slightly frosty nights. Colder temperatures would not be so kind. I snap the stems off the begonias right at ground level and put the pots in the basement where cool temperatures will keep the tubers dormant to wait out winter. Amaryllis plants also go into the basement. Cool temperatures and lack of water for a couple of months give these plants the rest period they need so that, brought upstairs to a warm, sunny window, their blossoms can show off their bright, red color against the achromatic winter landscape beyond.

Maid of Orleans jasmine right away gets a prominent place in a sunny window to share its nonstop, sweet fragrant blossoms.

Figs, Pomegranates, & Subtropicals Readied for Cold, But Not Too Much

Fig, pineapple guava, Chilean guava, and pomegranate are subtropical plants that tolerate temperatures down into the ‘teens so can remain outdoors for weeks to come. Still, many of these plants are in large pots, not something I want to be lugging around following at last minute threat of frigid temperatures. So I’ll gather them together in a convenient location for quick dispatch indoors when needed.

Potted subtropical plants are getting ready for colder -- but not too cold -- weather

Potted subtropical plants are getting ready for colder — but not too cold — weather

The guavas, as well as kumquat and common jasmine (Jasminium officinale), are evergreen subtropical plants. The leaves are important to these plants both for beauty and for function so they’ll make the move indoors before the other subtropicals to make sure their leaves go into winter undamaged.

Common jasmine stays out longest because some exposure to cold is needed to get blossoms in winter.

Cold Weather Vegetables for Weeks to Come

The vegetable garden is still green with endive, kale, lettuce, turnips, Brussels sprouts, arugula, and other cold-hardy vegetables. Soon, though, their cold tolerances will be tested. I’ll pre-empt that testing by covering some of the beds with tunnels of fabric (“fleece” to the Brits, “floating row covers” to us colonists) or clear plastic. No need yet to cover the plants but better to have the metal hoops which support the fleece or plastic in place and ready for the covering before that frigid night to come.

Metal hoops readied to support covers for lettuce.

Metal hoops readied to support covers for lettuce.

Not all hardy vegetables get covered; just the leafy ones — lettuce, mustard, arugula, and endive — for fresh salads in the weeks to come. Brussels sprouts and kale are so cold hardy that they can go for weeks without protection, and, anyway, they’re too tall to cover. Leeks also can stay outdoors unprotected until December, or later, then get dug up and packed together in a box or large pot to store in the basement and use as needed.

Carrots, beets, turnips, and winter radishes enjoy the protection of the earth. With a deep mulch of leaves or straw, they could remain tender and unfrozen all winter. More convenient for eating is to dig them up just before really frigid weather descends on the garden and pack them in boxes with dry leaves to store in the cool temperatures of the basement. I’m putting off deciding which option to choose.

Fresh Lettuce ‘Til When?

Someone recently told me that they gardened maniacally all summer and now they are finished for the season  . . . which reminds me of some more things that I still have to do. Plant garlic. I planted cloves back in early September; a second planting, now, will give some indication if early or late planting is better. Mulch blueberries as soon as their leaves all drop. Sift compost and garden soil into buckets to store for making potting soil in late winter. Cut down asparagus plants after the tops yellow, and mulch the bed. Clean up spent vegetable beds of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants and spread them with an inch depth of compost. Mow hayfield and lawn to expose rodents to predators and, in the hayfield, to keep blackberry, sumac, and autumn olive from taking over. Plant bulbs (a large, naturalized planting of alliums; more on that some other time).

Metal hoops readied to support covers for lettuce.

Beds readied for spring, and lettuce readied for winter

I’d also like to divide older plants in a flower bed and dig out weeds that are starting to think they’re home. And build a rustic fence to hid the propane tank for the greenhouse.

I’m not yet ready to throw in the trowel for this season.

The Season Begins

Gentlemen (and ladies, and kids), start your engines. The 2014 gardening season has begun, here on the farmden, at least.
The day began with my lugging the big pail of potting soil from the cold garage to a warm spot near the woodstove. My home-made potting soil — equal parts peat, compost, garden soil, and perlite, with some soybean meal thrown in — is moist when I make it, so was frozen solid. Not usable or suitable for germinating seeds.
Once the potting soil defrosts and warms, I scoop it into a seed flat and a small plastic tub into which I’ve drilled drainage holes. Firming the soil in place with my Furrow Maker, a small board with spaced out,
The Furrow Maker in action

1/4-inch dowels glued to its underbelly, creates a miniature farm field. Into the tub’s “field” go rows of fresh onion and leek seeds (fresh is important with these seeds, which lose viability after a year or two), about 7 seeds per inch, which is enough to well populate the “field” without causing crowding. After the seeds are covered with soil and gently and thoroughly watered, the tub gets covered with a pane of glass and placed on a heating mat that provides gentle warmth of between 70 and 80 degrees F.

I could sow onion seeds outdoors in early spring. The onions I’m growing, and the ones all northern gardeners should be growing, are so-called long day (in fact, short night) varieties. Their leaf growth comes screeching to a stop in early summer’s 15 or

16 hour days. The plants shift gears and redirect their energy into pumping up growing bulbs. More leaves at that time means more stored energy available to swell up sweet, juicy bulbs. That’s what I want and why I go through the trouble(?) of early, indoor sowing. I’ll plant out the seedlings in early May.

The small seed flat gets similarly filled with potting soil and sown with seeds, lettuce seeds in this case. Greenhouse lettuce is still going strong but I want to have some transplants ready for when the older stuff peters out. A 4 by 6 inch flat with four furrows of lettuce seeds should provide all the lettuce transplants I need for many weeks.
A greenhouse full of only lettuce could get boring. Other sorts of edible greenery currently share the space, and will continue to do so in the coming weeks. Some has been planted, and some has planted itself.
Among the planted greenery is a whole bed of kale and Swiss chard livened up with a couple of fennel plants. Also mâche, which usually plants itself except that overly diligent weeding in the greenhouse
Fennel, chard, lettuce, and kale in this bed

necessitated transplanting self-sown mâche from outdoor garden beds into the greenhouse last September.

Self-sown greenery includes claytonia (miner’s lettuce), minutina, and — more familiar to most people — celery. Claytonia doesn’t have much flavor but adds texture and color to a winter salad. The same goes for minutina, which is actually an edible species of plantain (the common lawn weed, not the banana relative). Celery plants are in various stages of growth. We’ve been eating the mature ones for months and the smallest seedlings will be ready for transplanting out into the garden in early May.
So my friend Bob is over for a visit. It’s near lunchtime and he beelines for the freshly baked loaf
Celery for eating and celery babies for transplanting

of bread sitting innocently on the kitchen counter. Bob grabs a knife and already has a sandwich in mind. “Do you have any tomatoes,” he says. What? Tomatoes? It’s midwinter!

I guess he’s made the link gardening-greenhouse-tomatoes. Never mind winter. Sorry, not in my greenhouse in winter, for a few reasons.
Fruiting demands a lot of a plant’s energy. That energy comes from the sunlight. Even though the sun has been rising higher in the sky and for longer periods daily, its light is still paltry compared to midsummer sunlight. A bright summer day bathes the garden with about 10,000 foot-candles of light. My greenhouse, according to measurements taken at high noon on this crystal clear day, is bathed  with about 6,400 foot-candles of sunlight.
Natural sunlight could be supplemented with artificial light. Not a table lamp or even a bank of fluorescents, though. Light intensity falls off as the inverse square of distance from the light source; double the distance and you’ve got only one-quarter the intensity. So plants need to be close to the light source, which then will shade natural sunlight. Special high intensity bulbs are needed to make a dent in winter’s relative darkness.
And then there’s the temperature needed to raise a crop of tomatoes in February. For tomatoes, I wouldn’t want temperatures lower than in the 50s. My greenhouse heater kicks on at 37°F. Each degree of warming increases heating costs about three percent.
Winter tomatoes don’t seem worth the extra cost in dollars and to the environment from increased usage of gas or electricity. And they don’t taste that good. I can wait.

Cold? No Problem.

Brrrr! The mercury plummeted to nine degrees Fahrenheit in my garden a couple of weeks ago. Yet I was still harvesting fresh salad greens. And I don’t mean kale and Brussels sprouts; they’re tasty and still available in my “back forty,” but tender and succulent they are not. Likewise, I don’t mean turnips, carrots, or other root crops that can nestle in the relative warmth of the earth. (My root crops anyway were pulled and packed away into a box for winter storage.)
What I am talking about is lettuce, endive, and Chinese cabbage. These vegetables, which ARE tender and succulent, must have antifreeze in their cells to be able to remain so in the face of such cold temperatures. Actually, that’s not far off: With gradual exposure to increasingly colder temperatures, cold-hardy plants are able to move water out of their cells into the spaces between the cells, where freezing would cause less damage. Moving water out of the cells also concentrates the solution within the cells and — if you remember from your high school chemistry — concentrating a solution lowers the temperature at which it freezes. Warming weather reverses the process.
Mother Nature had a little hand from me, in the form of row covers, which are diaphanous blankets thrown over plants to offer them additional frost protection. Spun-bonded row covers let light and water pass

through. I’ve used these materials in spring and autumn for many years, but looking through the Harris Seeds catalog (, I came across a “point bonded row cover” which was said to give plants an additional 8 degrees or more of cold protection. That’s a lot.

A few weeks ago, I set metal arches (made from 5-foot lengths of concrete block truss reinforcement) over the rows, cut the row cover to 6 foot widths, and laid it over the hoops secured by additional metal hoops over the row cover. The material evidently is very effective; my guess is that endive and lettuce are cold-hardy to the low 20s and the row cover would bring protection down to the low to mid ‘teens. But this was 9° F.!
Row covers represent a trade-off between cold protection and light transmittance. Generally, the  heavier the row cover material, the warmer the temperature under the cover and the less light reaches the plants.
So in early spring, I’ve use a 1.25 ounce cover to speed along growth of new plants. This cover lets about 70% of the sunlight penetrate and keeps plants about 3° warmer than outside the cover. In early summer, I use an even lighter weight material, 0.55 ounce, to cover my eggplants so flea beetles don’t ravage them. Eighty-five percent of sunlight makes it through this lightweight material.
The point-bonded row cover is a heavier material than row covers I’ve used in the past. Endive, lettuce, and Chinese cabbages are now snuggled under 2 ounce fabric. Only about 30% of the sunlight, which is sparse anyway this time of year, makes it through this material. But the plants are fully grown, so don’t need to grow. To just stay alive, now, they need cold protection more than light.
So I’m driving along here in New York’s Hudson Valley and what do I see growing wild along the

roadside? A cactus. A cactus growing wild outdoors wouldn’t be an oddity in Arizona, but New York doesn’t have the climate and soils usually associated with cactii.

The Eastern Prickly Pear or Indian Fig (Opuntia humifusa) actually grows wild throughout the eastern parts of North America. You’re most likely to come upon the plant growing in a sunny spot in well-drained soil. Not the one I found, though. This plant was growing on a rock face, which is well drained, on an east-facing slope right at the edge of woods. Not particularly sunny.
Prickly pear cactus can be oddly attractive, even edible. The pads, once the spines have been rubbed off (not with bare hands) can eaten be raw or cooked. The red fruits are also edible. The Opuntia species usually eaten is O. ficus-indica, which is not hardy in cold climates. Even that species never tasted that good to me so I wasn’t anxious to try eating any of the roadside plant.

Also, in New York, Eastern prickly pear is classified as an “‘exploitably vulnerable species,’” which is a plant likely to become threatened in the near future throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges within the state if causal factors continue unchecked.”

I lied; I did pick off one fruit for tasting. It was seedy and flavorless. All was not exploitive, though, because I am planting the seeds.

Better than a Boxer and Goodbye to Mac

Check it out! New video up at showing step-by-step preparation of weedless beds in autumn.
Some people consider owning a Porsche Boxer to be a luxury; I consider crunching through winter snow to the greenhouse and picking a fresh head of lettuce to be a luxury. This lettuce-y luxury must be earned at a price that is more than monetary. It was a couple of weeks ago that I started paying for part of this year and next.
The goal is to harvest a head of lettuce every day from now through winter and on into next spring. That takes planning.

So at the end of August I filled a 4 by 6 inch seed flat with potting soil and sprinkled a different variety of lettuce into each of four mini-furrows. Covered with a pane of glass and watered, the seeds soon sprouted,

and after the sprouts grew for a week or two I delicately lifted individual seedlings out of the flat by their tiny leaves. Each sprout went into a waiting hole dibbled into a larger flat filled with potting soil, this time a flat where each sprout got its own cell.

Another payment: Today I spread an inch depth of compost in each permanent planting bed in the greenhouse. (Excepted were two beds, one awaiting the ripening of two more melons and the other that will be ripening cucumbers for the next few weeks.) Into the beds went seeds of various cool weather greens — mâche, arugula, mustard, minutina (also known as erba stella), and baby bok choi — as well as a few different varieties of lettuce.
Yet another payment: Towards the end of the month, I’ll lift out the lettuce seedlings that I transplanted into seed flats and plant them about 8 inches apart in any remaining beds.
All this planting may seem hectic or redundant but there is method to the madness. These greens tend to bolt (go to seed) when the weather is warm and days are sufficiently long. Sown too soon for winter, and they do just that. They’re ruined. On the other hand, autumn and early winter days are short and temperatures are cool to cold which makes for very slow growth. If plants are too small going to autumn, they don’t grow large enough to amount to anything until February or March.
So plants have to be big enough, but not too big going into autumn. How big is best depends on the plant, in some cases even the variety of plant. Plants grown from seed planted directly in the ground seem to bolt less readily than plants grown from transplants. All of which is why I grow a little of everything every which way at various times.
Although I’ve gardened for decades, my greenhouse experience spans only 13 years; perhaps after another 10 years I’ll know just when to sow everything to ensure a steady supply of fresh salads all winter.
“Payment” for my lettuce-y luxuries is too strong a term. All this ground preparation, sowing, and transplanting really just extends the fun of gardening into the winter months. And, did I mention weeding. What fun it is in winter. Really!

It is with regret that I thinned out excess turnip seedlings this morning. Not that I regretted tossing away the green tops. What I regretted was not being able to share the tops with Mac, my old neighbor. He died late last year.
Mac grew up in the South and wended his way north harvesting fruits and vegetables. He eventually

settled in the north, in a small house that practically butted right up against my garage.

You couldn’t conjure up a more disparate pairing: me, a short, white guy from the suburbs of New York City, and Mac, a tall, black guy from deep in the South. We were drawn together by our love for gardening. Perhaps I have some roots in the South (doubtful) because he and I also shared our love for okra and greens. A frequent summer refrain over the hedge separating our yards was, “How many bags of okra you got in the freezer so far?”
Mac and I always got along. When a pin oak on our property line was threatening to shade my plum trees, I hadn’t even finished my question before Mac answered, “Just take it down.” Some visitors here thought the ramshackle sheds and assorted objects scattered over his yard were an eyesore. I looked upon them as nothing more than “different strokes for different folks.”
Mac eventually moved into an apartment in town and, as he aged, his gardening capabilities diminished. But not his love for gardening, being in the garden, and eating from the garden. Each spring, he would bring me some seeds that he thought were worth growing and I would raise “starts,” as he called them, for both of us.
Because I’m partial  to the turnip varieties Purple Top White Globe and Oasis, I always got my own turnip seeds. The seeds are small and no matter how thinly they’re sown, they always come up crowding each other. So the only way to get nice, plump turnip roots is to thin out the plants when they are still young.
I like turnip greens but Mac liked them more. Every year, I’d collect the thinnings into a bushel basket, then hand them over to Mac who would sit outside his front door washing them, then cook and freeze them.

After he moved to an apartment, he started washing them here to bring home. As he aged, I started washing them while he watched. And finally, I started bringing him bags of washed, boiled, frozen turnip greens.

This year, I’ll just compost most of the greens. Bye, Mac.
Fig scale


Lest anyone believe that everything is always rosy here on the farmden, it ain’t so. True, right now, vegetable beds are brimming over with crisp, tender heads of delicious lettuce, broccoli, endive, and cabbage, and upright stalks of aromatic celery and leek. And, yes, the floor of the greenhouse is verdant with developing, young lettuce, large, leafy kale and Swiss chard plants, and 10 foot tall fig trees bearing fruits
But let’s start with those figs, three different varieties of which live with their roots right in the ground in the greenhouse. Green Ischia has been bearing large, copper-colored, firm, sweet fruits for weeks and weeks. No problem here.
About 8 feet from the Green Ischia grows a Brown Turkey fig. It kicked off the season as usual, loaded with fruit that started ripening in early September. Then scale insects moved in, dotting stems and eventually the fruits with their gray bodies, and sucking the life out of everything until the harvest petered away to almost nothing
About 8 feet from the Brown Turkey tree grows another fig tree, Kadota, with fruits lined up along its stems also. From past experience, I expected problems with Kadota. It’s a delectable and heavy yielder that thrives in hot, dry climates. The greenhouse is hot but hardly dry. With the high humidity in there, almost every Kadota fig has turned to a fuzzy, white ball just before ripening.
The Kadota problem is the one most easily solved. That white fuzz is fungal, and the fungal culprit is probably Botrytis cinerea, a cosmopolitan fungus boasting a slew of host plants. Botrytis claims credit, for example, for a wet spring’s fuzzy, gray strawberries, for a wet summer’s fuzzy, gray raspberries, and, in a more benevolent form, for “noble rot” of grapes, which makes for a sought-after wine. All sorts of ominous chemicals can control botrytis. More benignly, on stored fruits at least, it has been controlled with a 1% solution of baking soda, or an atmosphere of either 15 ppm acetic acid (i.e. vinegar) or 75 ppm cinnamaldehyde, the natural flavoring of cinnamon
Trying to control disease on my Kadota figs with sprays would be an uphill battle considering the perfect conditions for botrytis: a very susceptible variety of fig, a very humid environment, and presence of the fungus. My approach is straightforward, and that is to dig up Kadota and plant a more disease-resistant variety in its place
On to Brown Turkey . . . Scale insects get up into plants and move around with the help of ants. Stopping the ants goes a long way to putting the brakes on scale. Stopping the ants is easy: Masking tape wrapped around the trunk and coated with a continuous ring of sticky Tanglefoot Tangle-Trap Insect Trap Coating. I also, of course, have to make sure there are no leafy, stemmy, or other bridges around which ants can detour. Next year
One other possibility for reining in scale insects is to spray “summer oil” in spring after the plants have leafed out and greenhouse beds are clear of lettuce, kale, and other vegetables. Summer oil is highly refined so as not to damage plants while it’s smothering the scale insects.
Another problem I notice in the greenhouse is that developing lettuce heads have some hole-y leaves and a few gobs of insect poop. Slugs are the usual, occasional problem in my greenhouse, but they don’t leave green, gobby, poopy calling cards. (No less unpleasant are the silvery trails they do leave, from their dried slime.) With more than usual grasshoppers this year, that was also a possibility. Nix on that. I just haven’t seen enough of them for all that poop, and they chew beginning at the edges of leaves. Attacked lettuce leaves were pocked with holes
The feeding resembles the handiwork of cabbageworms or cabbage loopers. They’ve never before indicated a liking for my lettuce but are known to include lettuce in their diet. Yet another possibility is another caterpillar, armyworm. This one feeds at night and, because I haven’t seen any caterpillars, is now the most likely culprit
The natural insecticide, Bt (sold under such trade names as Dipel and Thuricide), that I mentioned last week is very effective against the cabbageworms and loopers, as well as young armyworms. Larger armyworms are finished or just about finished feeding anyway.
These few problems notwithstanding, things are still rose-y, or at least carnation-y, in the greenhouse. The big, fat, fragrant ‘Enfant de Nice’ carnations that I grew this summer . . . well, I couldn’t just leave them out to die from cold. So I dug up some plants to grow in the greenhouse. They add a nice spot of red, white, or pink color, and the fragrance is, as billed, “intoxicating spicy-sweet clove.”