Monday, March 7, 2011

A year in the life of my garden - January to March - Seed Starting and Early Crops

Starting plants indoors always gives me a late winter mood boost. Here in NC, we have a few warm days in January and February that tease us and make us think it might be spring. It is on these days, that I get out in my yard and start clearing up for planting. I flatten off the tops of my mountain ranges that are the lasagna beds with a rake to make for easier planting and clean around my beds. I search for weed sprouts and pull them out.

In early January, I order my seeds. I always over order because I think I want to grow everything under the sun! My staples include: several varieties of heirloom tomatoes, leaf lettuce, spinach, several annual herbs, bush beans, mammoth melting peas, melons, pumpkins, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini and summer squash. I start my tomatoes indoors with grow lights around the 25th of January to give them ample time to grow great big roots before planting in April. I've also tried, but not had much success with starting broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and head lettuce.

In February around Valentine's day, I plant my first batch of potatoes, lettuce, arugula, onions, peas, and spinach. To grow potatoes, take your store bought potato and slice it into several pieces so that you have an eye or two on each piece. The eyes are where the buds sprout out and grow into plants. Let the sliced potatoes sit over night on some paper towels so the wet edges can dry a bit. Plant these "seeds" in a ridge about 8-12 inches apart. If your are planting a hill, you place three or four "seeds" per hill in the same manner you plant Zucchini. I plant two several foot ridges in my four foot beds of several varieties. (red, white, blue, Yukon Gold) between the ridges I plant my spinach, lettuce and arugula. I plant a row of mammoth melting peas through the middle of a bed and plant onions down either side of the peas. I also put up a trellis for the peas to climb. Even before these early crops completely die back, I will begging planting seeds and young plants right in with them. Including tomatoes, zucchini, melons, cucumbers, etc. More on that in the next post.

By the first week of March, my spinach, peas, and lettuce sprout. Before the end of March, I might see some little potato sprouts begging to poke through the surface. If I dig into the ridge, I will definitely notice my potatoes growing roots. During the first two weeks of March, I will plant broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower or Brussels sprouts. These cool weather crops will grow and die by mid-June at latest and I will be able to put several tomato plants right in between my rows of these plants when the tomatoes are ready for planting.

Starting seeds is a really fun project to do with your kids or on your own here's what you are going to do:

Where to buy?
Heirlooms: Heirloom plants produce a really interesting and different flavor in your garden. I highly recommend giving a few heirloom varieties a try. And not just for tomatoes! There are heirloom melons, lettuce, beans, peas, and a lot more. Victory is a great resource for finding unique varieties.
Traditional: Lowe's and Home Depot. Don't give up on the traditional seed packets you find at Lowes and Home Depot and even Walmart. Beefsteak tomatoes are as sweet and tasty as the Cherokee Purples! Don't overbuy on seeds. One pack of tomato seeds contains anywhere from 20-30 seeds which is more than enough to give you a good start and maybe have a few to give away.
Potatoes: Grocery Store. Start checking your potatoes for eyes and growth. As soon as you notice some growth, put them in a drawer in the fridge. This will slow the growth until they can be put in the ground. Potatoes are definitely something you can buy cheaper at the grocery store than buying seed potatoes. I've got one exception and that is blue potatoes. I bought a bag of seed potatoes for those because they tend to be more expensive at the grocery store than red, white or Yukon gold. I will grow all three of those varieties, plus the blue potatoes because they make a really unique looking mashed potato that my kids gobble up.
Onions: Hardware Store or Walmart. You can buy onion sets just about anywhere. They come in traditional bulb bags, or as already sprouted
bundles. You can also get onion seeds. I've bought some of these this year and will see how they do along side my onion sets.
Sweet Potatoes: Me! I will be putting in a sweet potato starter bed in time for planting around July. Sweet potatoes are harvested in October or even early November. If you need them and are local, I will have them available for $8 per 25 plants. Last year, my mother and i planted two rows of around 120 plants per row. We harvested two giant wheelbarrows from her traditional tilled garden full of sweet potatoes. If you want to start your own, it is fairly easy. Get a tub, some soil, and plant store bought sweet potatoes in the bin. Then water them a little daily. When the plants sprout a few leaves, pull the plant off the potato and plant them in the garden in ridges around July. Don't start your sweet potatoes too soon. Around early May is when I will start my bed for July plants.

What to buy?
Tomatoes = one tomato plant = 20 to 50 or more tomatoes
Onions one onion set = 1 onion head.
Potatoes one sliced potato with decent eyes = several pounds of potatoes
Zucchini 4-6 zucchini seeds = dozens of zucchini
Spinach, Leaf Lettuce 1 packet of seed = three to five big bowls of salad for a family of four.
Beans buy a big pack of seed and get a twice weekly crop that will allow you to feast on green beans and maybe put some back for later.
Peppers 4-6 plants of various types when put with the tomatoes = vats of salsa

How to start?
Indoor Starters
Tomatoes recommended starting time for tomatoes is 6-8 weeks. I am giving mine 8-10 this year. Last year I gave them 6 weeks and while they took off eventually, I lost a lot of young tender plants when I put them out and fertilized them too early. The ones that did best were the biggest of the bunch and some older plants I bought from a nursery. Don't fertilize any young tomato plants. Let them grow on their own with just water for as long as possible. When their root system is well established in their permanent home, about three weeks after planting them in your garden, give them a sprinkling with the fertilizer of your choice. More on that later...
Peppers. This year will be my first year growing peppers, but my mom has grown them for years. I plan on simply buying a few plants to put in as these are not my all time favorite food to snack on. I love peppers in recipes, but my family doesn't. If you are starting them at home, the recommended start time is 6-8 weeks like tomatoes.
Lettuce heads. Iceberg, Romaine, butter crunch, basically any lettuce head can either be started indoors or in the garden. The seeds are tiny, and need to be thinned, where you plant them in a row and the pluck out all the weak plants until you have proper spacing. I experimented with starting these indoors and outdoors this year. They do require a cooler environment, and my indoor starting methods were not successful!
Sage/Basil - sage and basil both start well and transplant well. Be patient with herbs!

Garden Starters
Spinach, Leaf Lettuce. Spinach and leaf lettuce (mesclun, spring mixes, etc.) all grow really well outdoors in early to mid spring or in the fall. Spinach is one of my favorite things to grow because your results come so quickly. You can harvest some young leaves and not harm the plant. It will keep bearing for you. Leaf lettuce is the similar. I prefer these over head lettuces because they are heartier and less likely to end in failure or a slimy mess of slugs. Slugs and bunnies love head lettuce, but they don't seem to bother my leaf lettuce and spinach as much.
Onions - onions grow really well in a ridge. Where you kind of make a little mountain range in your garden and plop the tiny onion sets along this ridge in little holes. As the onion heads grow bigger, you take a hoe and kind of pile your growing medium up onto the bulbs as they peek out of the ground as they get bigger, it will encourage growth.
Beans and peas - I love bush beans as they keep producing and they don't have strings which is convenient because I'm also lazy. But I plant both bush beans and climbing vine type pole beans. In early spring you can plant peas. I love in the pod peas and buy Mammoth Melting Peas. The pods can get as long as my hand and still be crisp and sweet! I plant bush beans in Mid april to mid May. After my peas die back around early June, when weather just gets too hot for them, I put pole beans in their place on the trellis. This means my early harvest of beans comes from the bush beans and my late harvest from my pole beans. And having fresh green beans all summer is a grand thing.
Zucchini zucchini grow in "Hills" like most melons and cucumbers. To do this, hoe up a little pile of soil, make several holes around the top of the hill and drop in 4-6 seeds. This method works really great and the past two years I have had such a bounty of zucchini and squash that I had to give away arm loads of it!
Potatoes - potatoes can grow in ridges or hills. Last year I did a combination of each. My ridges performed a little better then my hills.
Cilantro - I just found out that cilantro doesn't transplant well at all, so it is just not worth it to buy those peat pot cilantros from the store. I had a little success growing some last year, but it got really leggy very quickly and soon went to seed. Which made it Coriander and not Cilantro...

How to start seeds indoors

Buy a sterile planting medium - this means buy potting soil. I am experimenting with a mixture of my own worm compost, but if it is your first year, just go to Lowes and buy some plain old potting soil. Miracle gro
works fine, but can sometimes cause rapid growth in young plant stems. You want your young plants to develop on both ends. What is below the ground is just as important as what is above it. A healthy root system is just as important as a healthy stem and leaves.

Find your containers
Pot options include:
Peat pots - there is a debate about peat moss and whether or not it is an ecologically sound choice for use in gardens. Peat moss is harvested from sphagnum moss bogs. Most of what we get in the US is harvested from wetlands in Canada. While bog restoration is common practice among the companies who harvest it, these lands are rarely restored to their original form. I use peat moss sparingly in my gardening now that I know its harvesting really impacts the ecology of the area from which it is taken. Peat pots are cheaper than plastic, but can be used only once. Usually they are planted with your started plant right into the garden.

Plastic pots - I save pots from when I buy flowers and other plants every year. These pots are great for starting your vegetables. You can also purchase plastic pots from the store or on the web.
Cow pots - if I could afford them, I would so use these pots! They are made from sterilized cow manure and are just brilliant. They were created by a dairy farmer who had too much excess poo and decided to make use of it.
Newspaper pots - I love making something useful out of trash. Newspaper is vital to a lasagna garden and making these pots is so easy. And when it is time to plant, just tear off the bottom of your pot and stick the rest of it in the garden with your plant!

Recycled containers - milk jugs, yogurt cups, paper juice cartons, juice boxes, egg cartons, boxes, pretty much any container can be used as seed starter. Some of the paper items can be planted in your garden just like peat pots!

Follow instructions on the seed packet. Simply put, but very important. Your seed packet will tell you exactly how to plant each type of seed and how long it will take before germination.

Provide the right environment. You can grow plants just about anywhere, but all of them need about the same thing. Provide light, a temperature of 60-72 degrees, soil, and water.

Give your babies daily attention. Make sure your seedlings stay moist and get at least 8-12 hours of light every day. When the weather warms up let your babies visit the outdoors to get used to that environment. But be sure if it is cold at night, they come back inside!

Seed starting can be really rewarding or really frustrating. I've found a bit of both creeping into my head this season. I have planted 200 tomato plants that are doing beautifully. I will probably have loads extra to give away or even sell come planting time. Head lettuce and the whole cabbage family were quite disappointing and I ended up garden starting the lettuce and buying plants from the cabbage family. But giving it a shot is really worth it. I try something new every year and get better and better at it. Like learning any new skill, learning to garden takes practice and time!

Next time - April-June - Raising healthy veggies and pest management.

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