Is Gardening Too Easy?

    Control yourself, Lee! Growing seedlings this time of year is too easy. Within a single packet of seeds  is the potential for a gardenful of vegetable or flower plants, even shrubs and trees. As such, a packet of seeds is relatively inexpensive.
    I have envisioned delphinium in my garden, its tall, blue studded spires backed by the fence surrounding my blueberry planting. I could have just gone out and purchased a few potted delphinium plants, but I wanted a bolder effect so purchased instead a packet of seeds. Who would have thought that germination would be so good. After all, the seed germinates best when fresh and likes some cool temperatures to awaken; some people freeze the seeds in ice cubes for awhile before sowing them. I used nothing but patience, and not that much was needed.
    I couldn’t bear to discard most of the seedling, so “pricked out” 24 of them into cells of my APS seedling flat.

Seedling plants (and Sammy the dog) in spring

Seedling plants (and Sammy the dog) in spring

    The same thing happened with red lupines, chocolate daisies, Yellow Gem marigolds, and . . .  Growing transplants is the easy part. The difficulty will be in about a month when I’m wandering around the garden, seedling flat in one hand, trowel in the other, wondering where to plant all these flowers. (This problem does not arise with growing vegetable transplants because I keep harvest records for vegetables that let me know how many plants I need of each. Could my eyes get too full or too fat on too many flowers? No.)

Damn-ping Off, No More

    Raising transplants wasn’t always so easy for me. Decades ago, as a graduate student, I lived in a converted motel room which also became home to seedlings for my first garden. The shelves were lined with peat pots of sprouting chamomile (very easy), lettuce, beans, and other plants.
    Thence was my abrupt introduction to “damping off,” a disease that attacks seeds and newly emerged seedlings. Imagine the disappointment of a beginning gardener (me) watching seedling stems pinch in at he soil line and topple over — the telltale symptom of damping off disease.
    I soon learned that damping off was not uncommon, even among experienced gardeners. The disease is caused by any one of a few soil dwelling fungi  that raise their ugly head (figuratively) given the right conditions (for them). One obvious way to try to avoid the problem is to sterilize the potting media.
    Most commercial potting mixes are sterile, as were the peat pots I was using. The problem is that the culpable microbes are everywhere, just waiting to attack when conditions are just right, conditions that I unknowingly provided for them in my motel room. The peat pots were excessively moist; the air stood still; and little light entered the room — perfect for damping off development.
    Nowadays, my seedlings rarely experience damping off. The plants get off to a good start at temperatures they enjoy, bathe in light in my greenhouse or sunny windows (or, in the past, cozied up very close to fluorescent bulbs), and a fan keeps the air moving. I also add sufficient perlite to my potting mixes so that excess water drains feely down and out of the mix.
    Years ago, soothing brews of chamomile tea would also come to the rescue — for the seedlings, not for me. That tea hasn’t been needed for a long time. I also don’t pasteurize or sterilize my potting mixes. Beneficial microbes, from the compost in my mix, and good growing conditions have thankfully made damping off nothing more than a distant memory for me.

Oh Deer!

    Bigger creatures are still an ever present nightmare. Especially deer and especially after this winter. They have sheared the greenery from nearly every evergreen they could reach here, the hollies, arborvitaes (white cedar), yews, hemlock, and junipers (red cedar).

Deer damaged arborvitae and balsam fir.

Deer damaged arborvitae and balsam fir.

    Interesting about the yews, because the foliage is toxic to many ruminants; a mouthful will kill a horse or cow within 5 minutes. Deer, according to most reliable sources, can feed on yew without ill effect. With that said, this past winter, I did find a deer dead on the ground near my yew bushes, which had been nibbled free of their foliage.
    How about the plants; how will they fare, bare. Yew tolerates all sorts of abuse in the form of pruning. Soon, new needles will start appearing along their stems. Or, if the stems are cut back, new needled shoots will soon appear. My other evergreens should also fare well. Rhododendrons and mountain laurels, which the deer left alone, also generally sprout new growth when nibbled. So any of these so-called random-branching conifers or broad-leaved evergreens can be pruned to look prettier after deer have ravaged them.
    Not so with so-called whorled branching conifers, such as pines, spruces, and firs. They generally do not resprout from bare wood, so there’s not much that can be done to prettify them now. Just lop back bare branches because they’re always going to be just that: bare.
    For more about pruning evergreens, and other plants, see my book, The Pruning Book.

Winter’s Legacy and Spring Forward

This winter’s cold is most evident on bamboo. Clumps of tawny, dead leaves, still attached to the canes, stare out from among the trunks and stems of dormant trees and shrubs. I hadn’t realized that bamboo was so widely planted. The depth of cold isn’t what killed the canes and leaves; it was the duration of cold. Seventy miles south of here, leaves of yellow groove bamboo, Phyllostachys aureosulcata, among the most cold hardy of the thick-caned bamboos, typically stay green and fresh all winter, but even they’ve been killed.
My bamboo, before pruning
No, the plants aren’t dead; just their canes and leaves. Warm weather will coax new shoots from the roots, shoots that will push skyward rapidly. I’ve measured as much as 6 inches of elongation per day. The record for bamboo growth, not around here, of course, is almost 3 feet in one day!  (That little tidbit comes from Bamboo, by Susanne Lucas, a beautiful, new book — in its binding, photographs, and clear writing — that provides an introduction to the culture, horticulture, and myriad uses of bamboo. Read it and you also will want to grow bamboo. For even more in-depth information on bamboo botany, culture, and uses, I turn to the no-frills book, The Book of Bamboo, by David Farrelly. )
Once bamboo shoots stop their skyward ascent, the walls of the canes begin to thicken. Canes that survive winter with green leaves intact don’t grow any taller in subsequent years. Cane diameters remain constant as they thicken within, in so doing becoming more useful for stakes, fencing, gates, and structures in the garden and beyond. Eventually, whether winter temperatures are frigid or mild, a cane dies.
Bamboo, after pruning almost all of it down to the ground
Dead canes, weather from age or from winter cold, eventually need to be removed to keep a grove looking spry. For my planting, I decided on the dramatic approach, cutting virtually the whole planting to the ground.  I used a lopper, attacking canes one at a time, then a machete to remove side shoots with leaves from canes worth saving — not an easy job but one that yielded an abundance of useful canes. Now, what to do with my stockpile?
As winter freezes have segued into capricious spring frosts, seedlings need to be readied for the great outdoors. In a greenhouse, on a windowsill, or beneath fluorescent lights, these plants lead a coddled life. Outside, life is tougher: temperatures swing 50 degrees in a 24 hour period, winds whip tender leaves, and intense sunlight beats down.
What these plants need is a couple of weeks of acclimatization — “hardening off.” Not too quickly and not too severely, though, or leaves could burn or flowers could appear prematurely; a plant could even die from shock. The thing to do is to find some cozy spot outdoors for the transplants, a spot that is sheltered from wind and receives sun for only part of the day, or else dappled sun all day. After about a week, the plants are ready to me moved to a more exposed location, one that just takes the edge off gusty winds and broiling sun. A week at this second location and plants are ready to be planted out in their permanent homes.
Seedlings getting ready of the great outdoors
The kinds of changes that hardening off induces in coddled seedlings depends on the nature of the seedlings themselves. Seedlings of cabbage, lettuce, snapdragons, pansies, and other plants that can eventually laugh off cold even below freezing develop a tolerance for cold by building up sugars in their cells. Gradual exposure to more intense light also thickens cell walls, fibers, and cuticles on both existing and new leaves. With increasing light exposure, chloroplasts, the green, light-trapping energy factories in leaves, move around and align themselves in such a way that the leaves turn darker green. And the leaves’ stomatal pores, through which water is lost and carbon dioxide and oxygen are exchanged, become more quickly able to open and close in response to changing conditions.
Cold-tender plants such as tomatoes, marigolds, and zinnias suffer at temperatures even above freezing. With these plants, chilling injury causes changes in plant membranes that interfere with photosynthesis and damaging toxins build up in leaves. Hardening off makes these plants better able to repair and prevent such damage. But temperatures that still drop below freezing mean that it’s still too early to begin hardening off cold-tender plants. Anyway, they’re still too small. Wait a month.

During the two weeks of hardening off any plant, growth slows and the plant becomes stockier. This is good; it indicates that a transplant is ready to face the world.  

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.

Tomato Sowing, and More

Sowing tomatoes was the big moment in the garden last week. The sowing was actually indoors and it was on April 1st, which is 6 weeks before the “average date of the last killing frost,” or, to those in the know, ADLKF.
I’m finicky about what varieties to grow because good tomatoes just waste garden space, never getting eaten if great-tasting tomatoes, are also to be had. But look at tomato variety descriptions in seed catalogues and on seed packets, and you’d think that every tomato variety tastes great and is worth growing. 
I read those descriptors carefully to narrow the field. For starters, I avoid any tomato listed as “determinate.” Determinate varieties grow by branching repeatedly because each stem ends in a cluster of fruits. The plants are compact and ripen their fruits over a short season, which appeals to commercial growers. Downsides are that their lower leaf to fruit ratio results in poor flavor and concentrated ripening causes more stress and, hence, susceptibility to diseases.
So I grow only “indeterminate” varieties, whose clusters of fruits hang from along their ever elongating (indeterminate in length) stems. These are the varieties that can be pruned for staking.
Short of tasting a particular variety of tomato, the next descriptor that would guide me is whether or not it’s a “potato leaf” variety. Yes, their leaves look like those of potatoes (a close relative), that is, thicker and with smooth, rather than serrated edges. Still, a lot of great-tasting tomatoes are not potato-leaved.
Pink, heart-shaped tomatoes also have the edge on flavor. Same goes for tomatoes that don’t ripen to a

Two great tomatoes: Cherokee Purple & Amish Paste

uniform red color. Or tomatoes that don’t ripen to perfectly round orbs. I also happen to like dark colored — so-called “black” — varieties. You could almost say that the uglier the tomato (by commercial standards) the better the flavor. Which is not to say that every tomato variety bearing ugly fruits is great-tasting; but it’s a start.

A man (or woman, or child) can grow only so many tomatoes. This year I narrowed my lineup to 16 varieties, some old favorites and a few new ones, the new ones chosen on the basis of being indeterminate, perhaps potato-leaved, etc.
The old favorites are Belgian Giant, Anna Russian (good cooked and fresh), San Marzano (good cooked, bad fresh), Cherokee Purple, Blue Beech (good fresh and with unique, good flavor cooked), Amish Paste (good

Some of last year’s tomatoes

cooked and fresh), Rose de Berne, Valencia (orange fruit), and Nepal. Also two cherry tomatoes, Sungold and Gardener’s Delight. The latter was my favorite decades ago and I’m curious now how it compares with the incomparable Sungold.

New varieties for this year are Brandywine Black, Black Prince, Cherokee Chocolate, German Giant, and Black Krim.
Whew! That’s a lotta’ tomatoes.
Even with a greenhouse, indoor planting space is at a premium. Besides those 16 varieties of tomatoes, with plans for at least 4 plants of each variety, I have dozens of other vegetable seedlings — broccoli, lettuce, kale, Brussels sprouts, pepper, eggplant, and more — growing or in the works. And multiple varieties of each.
I’m managing all this by starting out sowing seeds in what look like miniature fields. These “fields” are 4 by 6 inch seed flats, filled with potting soil into which I press 4 furrows with my MFT (my “mini-furrowing tool”). MFT is a 4 by 6 piece of plywood with a handle on its upper side and four, spaced out, 1/4 inch diameter dowels glued to its underside. Into the furrows impressed by the dowels I sprinkle the seeds, cover the furrows, and then smooth the “field” with a similar plywood rectangle lacking the dowel underbelly. The seedlings, when they sprout, look like miniature fields of plants.
Once sprouts unfold their second sets of leaves, they’re ready to be “pricked out” and given their own home. That home could be a pot or a cell in a plastic tray of multiple cells. Sliding a small, blunt knife into the potting soil beneath a seedling lets me gingerly grab its leaves and lift it out with roots intact to be dropped

A lot of seedlings in a little space.

into a waiting hole I’ve dibbled with my cone shaped “dibbler.” As each seedling is in place I tuck potting soil in around its roots. Without delay, once a tray of seedlings has been pricked out, I spray a gentle but thorough mist of water to moisten the soil and settle the little sprouts into place without knocking them down.

Seeds and very young sprouts spend one or more weeks — four in the case of slow-germinating and growing celery — in the seed flats, and then another four weeks or so in their cells. That translates to 50 or more seedling in an area 4 by 6 inches for a couple of weeks and then about 20 older seedlings growing up in a space of about a square foot for the next four weeks.
All this not only squeezes oodles of seedlings into relatively small space; it also keeps me intimate with them in their youth. I’ll be planting tomato seedlings out in the garden one week after the ADLKF.

Homegrown Rice & Good Gates

Whoops, I don’t know how this post from May jumped up to today. There are some new comments but its otherwise an older post. The newest post is the next one down. Farmdening is easier to figure out than blogging . . .


Here I am swimming in seedlings and small, potted plants sitting on shelves or the ground in the greenhouse, on my picnic table, and on the terrace. Each plant is waiting for the right time to be planted outdoors or to be moved to a bigger pot. So why would I add to the crowd by planting something as absurd as rice? Because rice tastes good and might be fun to grow.

Interest in commercial and home rice cultivation has been on the rise here in the northeast, as attested to by last year’s Second Annual Northeast Rice Conference, held in  — of all places! — Vermont. No paddies in the works here; I’m parting ways with most of my fellow growers in planning to grow rice under dryland conditions. Growing rice in flooded fields is a useful way to snuff out weeds — dryland weeds, at least — and, more importantly, in northern regions, to moderate temperatures. My planting is going to be very small, measured in square feet, so I can weed by hand, and my site is considerably warmer than anywhere in Vermont.
My planting has to be small because I’m starting with very few seeds: the variety Hayayuki, generally recommended for northern conditions and kindly shared with me by Ben Falk ( Ben has grown rice successfully in paddies he constructed at his homestead in central Vermont.
So today I planted seeds in a seedling tray with inch square cells in each of which I planted one or two seeds. If everything goes as planned, I’ll be transplanting in a few weeks (rice does not tolerate any frost, doesn’t even like cold weather). Recommended spacing is 12 x 8” for groups of 2 to 3 plants. My garden soil is very rich so I’ll plant closer than recommended. Harvest, with a grass shear, should come in September, followed by threshing by smacking pillowcase-filled seed heads against the floor. As for dehulling the rice, that is, removing the hard coat around each kernel . . . I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Plans for a small-scale dehuller are available at
Moving on to more practical matters: gates. If good fences make good neighbors, good gates make good invitations to pass through fences. The gate to my south vegetable garden is not good. It was when I built it, the sturdy frame of natural locust wood swinging either open or closed with the mere touch of a finger.
But locust wood is heavy, and that weight was the gate’s downfall, literally. For the past few years, the bottom scraped along the ground so that lifting the handle was necessary to open and close it. A five-foot span hinged at one end put too much stress on the wood.
I realized recently that the extra trouble of opening the gate and the possibility of it breaking was was limiting trips into the garden. And there’s little worse for a vegetable garden than a disincentive — be it distance, too many weeds, or a gate that’s too hard to open — to enter it.

That full five foot breadth was only necessary to let pass the occasional garden cart full of compost to spread over the beds. So why not, methinks, rebuild the gate with two half gates, one of which would be plenty wide for passing through for the almost daily planting, weeding, and/or harvesting. With less leverage, a half-width gate would experience little stress.
The locust branches of the old gate made it charming but slow to build. I built the new gate — a temporary one — out of 2 by 4s. A pintle sticking up into a hole in the bottom and a bolt sliding down through two parallel eye bolts and then into a hole in the top together make a sturdy, effective, and adjustable hinge, so each gate swings easily and, with a spring closure, shuts automatically.
Already, the garden beckons me. Beds have been layered with compost, weeds have been pulled, and today I’ll sow popcorn seeds. The only problem is that “temporary” building projects too often morph into things more permanent. Two compliments on the new gate have already started it down that road.