Thursday, May 8, 2008

One Month and Counting to Planting Time


Right now is the middle point of one of the busier times of year. I’m turning over the gardens and getting things ready to go in the ground. The greenhouse is set up, and all of the plants are out in it. I’m also trying a new experiment with some “cold frames” which are actually just three sections of glass fronted book shelves laid out in the yard. I put broccoli and cabbage plants in them because I don’t think it would be too big a loss if it didn’t work! I’m not just picking on two of my less well liked vegetables. Both broccoli and cabbage can be started again from seed in July and planted out in the cooler weather. So, if this batch doesn’t quite work out, it’s okay. There will be more later.

Seed Starting update: As I said, everything is in the greenhouse and started, even the melons which is exciting, because they are started three and four weeks before the last frost. I ran out of peat pots a couple weeks back and could only find one of those “mini greenhouses” which is basically a covered salad pan like you get from the grocery store or when a restaurant caters something. Hint, hint: If you have a family member in the medical field and you want a good planting container, wait until the drug reps bring lunch and save the plastic containers they brought the meal in.

I bought the mini greenhouse thing, because I needed the cups out of it. I suppose I deserved to get fleeced because I went to Tractor Supply, which is almost as bad as the Devil’s Playground (AKA Walmart) to get planting stuff. I usually don’t get hung up on having to get the exact right thing, especially if it’s overpriced and encased in a completely unnecessary piece of plastic. BUT I have been very unhappy with the plants that I started in flats. It was fun and all to just dump seed starting soil into whatever and chuck in the seeds, but I really had trouble after that. Because:

1. The seeds planted in flats too up too much room. It just seemed inefficient. I either had to plant rows of different seeds in the flats or hog up one whole pan for just one kind of seeds.

2. When I gave in and mixed seeds, different things were ready to transplant and different times. You generally start pulling things apart when the real leaves sprout. The first little leaves that come out of the seeds are are really generic. It’s so exciting to see the real leaves. They are different colors and jaggedy or feathery or hairy or spiky. The plant starts to look like a real plant. Then, you pop it into a cup by itself. When I mixed plants in flats, I’d be ready to transplant some while others were still immature. Then, I had even less room, see complaint about flats No. 1.

3. It’s hard to water flats. Sure, at the beginning, I’d just mist away enough to get the seeds going, but young sprouts generally need to be watered from the bottom. There was no good way to do this without just dumping water in and exposing some of the roots. Meanwhile, every time you move the plants, the surface shifts and cracks open, and more roots get exposed. In cups and pots, you just water through the bottom, and the water just kind of osmoses gently up to the plant.

4. The seeds just didn’t start good in flats. I didn’t skimp on seed starter. I made the flats nice and deep, and still, compared with things started in peat pots, my plants started in flats were spindly and slow to develop. Eventually they stalled, and I just started transplanting things too early for their own good. Which led to :

5. TRANSPLANT CARNAGE!!! There is no neat way (at least for me) to get the plants out of the flats. In cups, I rip off a cup, wiggle out the things I’d like to transplant, and pop them into the new pots and cups. In the flats, things were getting ripped and tangled and mauled and buried under the soil thrown up by other plants, and it was awful. And because the plants were spindly and under-developed, the stems snapped very easily. A lot of plants that looked like they had made it through okay were just withered away by the next day.

So, peat cups. Even though a lot of the books and things say flats. I like peat cups. Are they cost effective? I’d say yes, since, I have three living broccoli plants out of about two dozen I tried to transplant and another couple dozen I tossed out when picking which plants to transplant, and I’ve also lost quite a few flowers and herbs that were started in flats, too.

Other than the fiasco with the flats that consumed about a third to a half of my cosmos, calendulas, and gallardias plus most of the first crop of broccoli and cabbage, seed starting has gone fine. I have some tomatoes which could have been started earlier but weren’t due to the peat pot shortage. The strawflowers are late, too. Some hot pepper seeds I did not plant last year that I saved and tried to use this year didn’t come, and I wasn’t able to find a good replacement for them, but nothing horrible. I started more seeds and more kinds this year than ever before, and I even needed to add a new shelf to the greenhouse. I haven’t let anything freeze yet, and things are going well.

Everything is just sprouting its head off. I put in three new currant plants a couple weeks ago, and they won’t bear for a year or two, but the other currants are loaded with blossoms which are like little green flowers. Currant jelly is the jelly to have in my family. In the fall, I’ll sell strawberry, I’ll sell elderberry, I’ll sell grape, but I would get killed if I didn’t dole out the currant to my mom, aunts, and grandmother. At the house where I grew up, we had an old fashioned berry patch with gooseberries, rhubarb, and currants, and I remember learning how to make jelly by picking the berries with my grandfather and then moving into the kitchen and helping my mother and grandmother with the cooking and canning. My mom doesn’t care to make jelly, and my grandmother doesn’t like to get bothered with it anymore, but I usually combine my currants with the ones from her bushes and get about two batches a year.

I “inherited” an asparagus patch from the lady who had my house before I lived here. Asparagus are some of the longest-lived plants there are. You can grow them from seed, but most places will sell roots. Asparagus are one of those weird plants that has a funky chemical in it that some people can taste and other people can’t. Kind of like rolling your tongue. Elderberries are the same way. About ten to twenty per cent of people are deathly allergic to a chemical in raw elderberries. When you cook elderberries to make wine or jelly, that chemical is broken down, and they are perfectly safe, but I have read about some people getting poisoned from drinking maple sap from elderberry spiles. For the record, when I was a kid, we did maple syrup one year and used elderberry sticks which hollow out really well to make the spouts. No one got sick, but I don’t remember drinking the sap before it got boiled.

Back to asparagus. I don’t care for it, because I can taste whatever funky chemical that is, and I don’t like it! However, just about everyone else love asparagus. You can munch them raw or steam them. They are kind of an ongoing difficulty for me, however. Like I was saying, you get the roots, you put them in the ground, and they take a few years to get going. After that, asparagus can grow for decades.

These asparagus are planted in a raised bed that I have to mow around all summer. I understand the appeal of a raised bed, but I don’t like them. They are like special little weed factories that grow big, healthy weeds. I got rid of the strawberry pyramid last year, because it grew weeds and grass better than it grew strawberries. And every year, I vow that I’ll keep the asparagus patch weed free, and every year, I lose.

At first, I didn’t weed it that well, though, because I wasn’t sure what was growing there. When weeds came up, I thought they might be the asparagus, and I didn’t pull them out. Now, I know better, and I know that asparagus looks exactly like it does in the store, just sticking out of the ground.

In any planted bed like strawberries or asparagus, weeds are a problem. Because the plants stay in the ground and grow in the same place year after year, you just can’t cultivate and weeds the same way you can in a garden with annuals or vegetables. Strawberries don’t stay in place as long as asparagus, so after a few years, you just start a new patch and start out with a clean slate. Not with those darn asparagus!

So, I caught a reference in my favorite book “Garden Magic” that said something about dressing the asparagus beds with salt in March or April. Now, I’ve heard a lot of different things about weird stuff to put on your garden. And my grandmother says you should sprinkle epsom salt on the tomatoes when you put them out in the garden (along with a cup of manure tea) but that asparagus reference was a little too brief and too vague for me to just go pitching salt around.

I checked all my other books and found nothing about salt and asparagus. So, it was off to the internet, which is less fun than you’d think. We have a running joke that in the post that marks the underground phone lines, there is actually just one of those pre-historic woodpecker birds that like carve out the grocery receipts on the Flintstones. Every few minutes, it stops to say “I gotta get a new job!” And that’s our internet access. It’s just heck, I tell you!

Basically, since there have been asparagus patches, people have been dealing with how to keep the darn weeds out. Asparagus are native to the salty coastlines of the Asian Pacific (or something) and they tolerate salt well, even though the weeds in the garden do not. So, to keep a weed free asparagus patch, sprinkle a little rock salt around to burn up the unwanted plants, and it should not hurt the asparagus.

I tried that with a few plants, and I haven’t noticed a dramatic reduction in weeds or anything. But, I wasn’t too keen on just salting the earth out there in the raised bed. Last year, I used the raised bed as a kind of overflow area for tomato plants, and they did really well, and the asparagus was doing better than it had the year before, at least until the goats ate it. Two years ago, the plants were really buggy, but they seemed fine last year.

By chance, I read a book called “Carrots Love Tomatoes” over the winter which gave some scientific reason for the things I kind of noticed anecdotally. Apparently, there are chemicals in the roots of tomatoes which chase away the bugs that eat asparagus most, and there are chemicals in asparagus that tomato-living bugs just can’t stand!

There are some other kinds of hints in that book, too. Like: other plants just hate fennel. That one, I’m not sure about, because we had a lot of fennel growing here when we first go here, and the lower level plants did just fine all mixed in. I’ve tried to migrate the fennel other places, but it takes a while, because you need to just wait for the old fennel to go to seed and rip it up and start seeds elsewhere because fennel does not transplant well.

Another one I thought was funny was the advice to scatter a little lovage in amongst the garden beds because it has some kind of insect repelling qualities. Now, I have lovage I also inherited, and it is not a “scattery” kind of plant. Lovage looks like what would happen if flat leaf Italian parsley mated with bamboo. It smells very strongly of celery and grows about seven feet tall. It has a mighty root and will spread and grow back every year too. So, I’m not going to take that advice, but I will mix tomatoes with my non-salted asparagus this year.

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