May 9, 2017

It's Spring! Planting and Sowing, Planning and Growing

Sturdy Celtuce and beetroot seedlings ready for transplanting were started in the greenhouse and set into the cold frame for a couple of weeks to become strong enough to handle harsh spring winds, late snow and bright sunshine.

Given our all-over-the-place-weather (we're supposed to complain about the weather, right?), it seems that spring 2017 is arriving slow and low, and to be honest - I am totally fine with that. We seem to have escaped late frosts so far (although, the thermometer did dip down to near freezing last night!), all in all, it's a rather typical spring, one perfect for cool weather crops which is what I am going to focus on here. These rather normal or slightly cooler than normal temperatures in the North East mean that asparagus, potatoes, broad beans, sweet peas and lettuce are all enjoying a nice, slow start outdoors - what more can a vegetable grower ask for?

Lots and lots of pics about what I am sowing and growing in the veg garden this year.

With some time on my hand after being laid off, I can take the proper amount of time to prep soil, plant and plant so many crops which in the past I had to squeeze in on a weekend. I may have over-estimated my free time however, for it's not as if I haven't been busy. This week we hosted the folks from Barnhaven Primroses in France and the American Primrose Society which I write about soon for a cocktail party one night and then a banquet sit down dinner on Saturday night, and then there are the garden chores. A friend of mine said something to me last week which resonated -"have you reached that point where you say to yourself - How did I ever find time for work?". Yeah, I've reached that point.

Seed potatoes cannot wait - even if a party is planned for the weekend, so I had to make time to cut, air-dry and plant 6 varieties of potatoes for a project I am working on. Look at those colors! Heirloom purple, , Russian Fingerlings and new red varieties to test - I almost can't wait until September!

A few rows of French Fingerlings should be enough for a bushel of waxy, red-skinned potatoes which can be harvested in early autumn. The soil looks cold, but warms up quickly in the spring sunshine. Since the seed potatoes are sprouting already, I cannot wait any longer to get them into the ground. Trenches are dug 10 inches deep, filled with compost and potatoes are covered with 3 inches of soil - the rest will be hoed up in hills as the shoots emerge and grow.

I've planted four long rows of English peas - peas for eating (yes bro, I do grow some peas for eating). This varieties are shorter growing, but shelling peas can grow quite tall if one plants older varieties. I have avoided planting snap peas however and studies have shown that most commercial strains have lost vigor and quality, so I am waiting for sugar snap and 'sugar Ann to stabilize again - something I know Johnny's Selected Seeds is working on/ The perfect excuse to revisit shelling peas, but one must grow long rows to be able to get enough to eat and freeze.

Cut Flower Sweet Peas are set out in well limed soil. Plants have been pinched, which is essential for branching and thick stems. If you have never pinched your sweet peas, I urge you to buck up and do it. You will end up with leaves 6 inches wide, and long stems, especially if you only allow a couple of stems to mature, removing all of the rest. I never allow the leader to grow on, only the side shoots which are much more vigorous.
Cut Flower Spencer varieties of sweet peas ready for planting. All raised in deep trays called 'root trainers' except the two back trays which are 2 inches deep, and one can see the difference when the plants are taken out of the pots.
Here is a better shot of the strong roots which root training or deep pots allow.  The deeper the pot, the healthier the seedling. Notice how this sweet pea is pinched back to the first pair of leaves, and the two side shoots emerging.

Root training pots or cells which are very deep are useful for cut flower sweet peas, as one can see here. Deep roots will ensure strong plants once set into the soil.

I have a few places where I grow, but I also like raised beds (no bending over!). These are handy for crops that provide fast harvests for the kitchen or crops sensitive to flea beetles, root larvae and ground insects - so radishes remain clean without insecticide, and mesclun and arugula can't get peed on by the dogs. Really, it's a thing! These elevated beds are available from Gardener's Supply Company, and I really love them (this isn't a paid post, either but I have offered to write about them in the past, as you might know.). They are made of cedar and the one on the left has a cover and works well as a cold frame. I find them very useful and well made.

Cut flower sweet peas will always be on my planting plans, and this year, I am going overboard - raising almost every variety of Spencer Sweet Peas that I could find. These are the ones with long stems which are so fragrant, and old fashioned. I think this is the 30th year I have raised sweet peas. which is scary to think about, but I first joined the Sweet Pea Society in England when I was 25, and first exhibited sweet peas at out local horticultural society a year after that.  This time I am raising 60 varieties (now, that's crazy, right?). I've grouped them into color groups such as 'all mauve' in one row, 'all violet' in another, and so on. I am also growing some older varieties which I have not grown for 20 years or so including flakes and stripes. All of my seed came from England this year.

Some sweet peas are being planted on traditional bamboo tee pees as well. On these, I am planting the flaked or striped forms, as well as a row of bicolored types.

Baby beets ready for transplanting out into long beds in our 'back 40'. I am raising five varieties this year including Golden Beets, 'Chioggia or Bassano' beets, and 'Cylindra' or Formanova' types.

Here iss a new vegetable for me that I am growing - 'Stem Lettuce' or 'Celtuce'. After eating it at a new local Chinese restaurant (an authentic one where I am often the only non-Chinese student eating!). I've known about Celtuce as a kid, often seeing pictures of it in old seed catalogs, but never believed that it existed as I never saw it sold in markets or in restaurants - I mean, what would one do with it? That is until I ate some of the crispy, jade-like discs of sliced stem in a garlic sauce. I am hooked, and can't wait to see how this lettuce - grown for it's tall stem, will grow for me.

I've bedded the Celtuce out in raised beds, 12 inches apart. The seedlings so far have performed very well, being more vigorous than almost any other seedling I have growing, even other lettuce varieties. Now, if I can keep the dogs out! Already, the chickens got loose and scratched around the soil after I turned in manure and compost, but they seemed to only be searching for worms and grubs. 

Purple Kohlrabi seedlings raised in plugs are also being set out near the deluxe, along with two varieties of white kohlrabi.

Since it is still cool, the warm weather crops are still under glass. Twelve varieties of egg plant are being trialed -as well as countless varieties of chili peppers and peppers. Who knows where I will raise everything, but I might use nice large 14 inch clay pots for a collection of potted peppers and felt 5 gallon pots for eggplant, for the soil-less mix will ensure healthier plants reducing pathogens in the soil. If it doesn't work, who cares - we don't really like eggplant all that much, not hot peppers! Kooky gardeners.

After seeing our friend Amy Goldman's amazing farm and garden last summer, and her pepper collections both under glass and in the fields, I was inspired to try a few myself. I could never achieve the magic she was able to produce, but maybe on a smaller scale, I can at least grow a few of these beautiful fruits.

Also under glass are some pots of Reseda - the French Mignonette which many of you know, I've been trying to master as a potted plant and garden plant for some time now. I am hopeful that this year I may have some - stay tuned.

Soil is prepared for planting parsnip seed and seedlings. I am experimenting with a couple of methods inspired by growers of exhibition parsnips in England. Some growers there raised parsnips of amazing size, often in raised bed or tall boxes and even pipes, but I only need decent sized roots - which, like carrots must be raised from seed directly sown into prepared, rock free soils so that the tender, young roots can reach down naturally to produce strong, perfectly strait roots. 
This year, I have tried a few pre-started in root trainers however, a method some professional exhibitors of vegetables use. I would never suggest that the home gardener ever use pots for starting either carrots or parsnips for it is risky, as one can easily disturb the soil and thus, damage the straight tap root but if carefully set into a prepared hole, success might be had.

I fill the holes which are about 24 inches deep and 6 inches wide with commercial potting mix, but I could have used sifted soil but I could not find my soil sifter I them tamp down the hole of soil, and plunge in a handle from a how as an improvised dibble, maybe 6 inches deep - just keep enough for the seedling to set in with it's root ball undisturbed.

The parsnip seedling is set in and tamped down, well watered with a balanced fertilizer to set things off quickly and to avoid shock. I added 1/2 cup of Phosphorus in a trench underneath the bed to aid in root development on top of an application of Superphosphate a month ago in the same bed which was turned in with lots of compost.

After planting parsnips I moved onto the leeks. I started my seeds a but late this year, in February so they aren't as large as I would like, and the smaller cells I used seemed to keep root development to a minimum, but I am hopeful that they will catch up. I use a similar soil treatment as I did for the parsnips without the potting soil. A deep trench similar to the potato bed was dug, and the dibble stick method allowed me to set the leek seedlings in deep and I will fill in the trench as the leeks grow on, to help produce a long, white base. Additional nitrogen was added along of course with the pre-treatment of chicken manure in the winter, which is now well rotted. This is a high nitrogen crop, a heavy feeder and will require monthly applications throughout the season to maintain healthy growth with additional nitrogen.

I also planted parsnips between the rows of broad beans, which are coming along nicely, appreciating the cooler than average spring. The metal tomato cages are my terrier guards - but sometimes I think they just attract terriers who are always curious when I turn over the soil. The broad beans will be done by the time the parsnips begin to grow into mature plants.

Going along with this rather British theme then, here are some red currant blossoms. Maybe this year I will get a few, as these are still young shrubs, set out last year along with gooseberries and black currants.

The asparagus roots I set out into a new asparagus bed three weeks ago are emerging already - and while this looks like a pickable stalk, it is pencil thin, and rising from a 1 year old crown. Asparagus beds can last a century or more, and since I lost our family bed when we built the greenhouse in 2001, we are long overdue for a new bed. 50 crowns were set out and I have high hopes that next year we might be able to start harvesting our own asparagus once again.

Rhubarb is on the menu again, and I picked many stalks for our American Primrose Society party so that I could make tarts. The smell of sour rhubarb always reminds me of my childhood next door neighbor John Putis, as we would sit in his grandmothers garden and dip stems into cups of sugar - making funny faces because even with the added sweetness, the stems where almost inedibly sour.

Like asparagus, rhubarb is a long lived plant. These are over 100 years older and were planted by my grandparents. Now, we don't live on a farm, but in a rather ordinary city neighborhood (or, more like 'the hood', really), but we can still have a back yard full of interesting crops and plants. Don't let your location keep you from gardening. Even if you have a deck or balcony, some  vegetables do very well in container (not rhubarb, however). But I've seen spectacular rhubarb plants along driveways and even near dumpsters. It's very vigorous and durable.

The narcissus this year are enjoying the cool weather. Here are a few to brighten up this long post.


  1. Sorry about you being laid off. Wow, you have been very productive! And everything is so neat and tidy. My husband has a raised garden that looks like Piet Oudolf designed it. Very pretty but not what I imagine a veggie garden to look like. Thank you for the great advice. My Grandmother grew asparagus and rhubarb. I am thinking I need to try it. Unfortunately the humidity and insects in Houston take a toll on veggies. I am wondering how you are going to eat all this food : )

  2. I love the root trainers! I discovered them this year and found them online.


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