Happy Earth Day!
In honor of the day, I planted a few seeds, set in some lettuce starts, and then wandered the garden taking pictures. Here’s what it looked like today in my garden.
It’s time for edible gardening, even in the library.
As part of the Seattle Public Library’s Edible Garden series, I’ll be giving talks on growing cool. The first one is this Sunday in West Seattle.
I’ll talk about my favorite cool-season vegetables, and what soil and climate conditions they like. I’ll show lots of pictures, answer questions and even share some veggie seeds.
You also will learn about the many ways you can get your edibles growing better by using season extension techniques, which are the secret tools of the year-round vegetable grower.
Make a date and join me:
April 20, 2 p.m. — Seattle Public Library, West Seattle branch.
May 4, 2 p.m. — Seattle Public Library, Montlake branch.
May 20, 6 p.m. – Seattle Public Library, Greenwood branch.
These library events are free and open to everyone. No pre-registration is required.
Want to get planting earlier, warm the soil, protect starts as they harden off? You need a cloche or a cold frame. I have just the thing: an easy tunnel cold frame that you can build without much cost or skill.
First, go window shopping. Not peeking in windows of downtown stores — shopping for windows at building salvage places. A great one in Seattle is Second Use, where I’ll be leading a workshop this Sunday on this very topic.
Second Use, the ReStore and similar shops in many cities are great places to find inexpensive materials for garden building projects. They reclaim old window sashes and doors when homeowners are doing remodeling. They also have random collections of building materials, like wood or stone for raised beds, pipe for cloches, mesh for trellises and even old bathroom fixtures you could plant in, if you want. For the sake of your neighbors, please try to resist.
So here are the basics of a simple, lean-to window tunnel.
Find two window sashes of the same size.
Aluminum-framed ones are great, because they’re lightweight, and won’t rust in wet weather and soil contact. But they’re hard to find. Wood window sashes are great, with a couple of caveats. Find ones with solid putty that holds the glass securely. Look for recent ones that don’t have peeling paint. Older windows, before 1973, will likely have lead paint, and that can flake off into your garden, and is a hazard for the environment, you, your kids and your pets.
I’ve found some glass-fronted cabinet doors that work great. It’s less likely that lead paint was used on interior projects, and these are varnished on one side. They’re not real large, but big enough to grow a three-foot row of something, or to easily cover one flat of seedlings.
Carefully drill two small holes into the edges of one side of the frame. Into those, screw round eye hooks. These should match on each window, so when you lean them together in an A-frame shape, the eye hooks almost touch.
Set up the windows on a garden bed, then run a heavy-gauge wire through the eye hooks and twist it up to hold the windows in place. This will prevent them from collapsing into the bed and crushing your plants.
On each end, pile straw to cover the triangular-shaped hole. This will provide enough protection from wind, and will help hold in the warmth that will have been gained during the day. You could also lean full bags of mulch against each end, or find some other way to block those openings.
For a warmer solution, cut a piece of 6-mil plastic to fit each end, stretch it tight and staple it on. Or even cut triangular plywood ends and screw them into place. Adding something permanently to the end makes it more difficult to move the cold frame or take it apart for storage.
This simple building project will raise the soil temperature under the windows by 5 degrees or more, helping you plant earlier and provide a warmer environment for seedlings. Just don’t forget to water, and look at it daily to make sure it’s working properly.
Want to see more ideas and shop for salvaged products? Come to my talk at Second Use on Sunday, April 6 at noon. Better yet, come early and shop the plant sale that is accompanying the event. I’ll show slides of many ideas, give a couple of demos, and then we’ll walk the store to find the hidden treasures.
The last of the Brussels sprouts have finally come out of the garden, and they held pretty well until the intermittent warm days we’ve had in the last couple of weeks. Then they started to really, well, sprout. The remaining loose sprouts are shooting up into mini flower stems.
Here’s the last good stalk, showing its interesting spring habit.
I cut away the leaves along the sprouts, but left this one eruption for show-and-tell. If it sat in the garden much longer, all of the sprouts would look like this. In fact, here’s another plant that didn’t sprout-up properly, so I’m just letting it go to flower.
The main stalk of the plant bends left, and toward the bottom, a number of sprouts have opened up and shot out at a right angle. A few of the flower buds are about to open.
I could still be eating it at this stage. We often eat the Brussels sprouts leaves if the plant doesn’t produce sprouts but just gets very vegetative. They’re a quicker stir-fry and still have that tangy, smoky flavor unique to this cool-season crucifer, Brassica oleracea, Gemmifera group. You can also eat the flowers, which provide a light sprout flavor when tossed into the dish briefly at the end of cooking.
I’m often asked about planting Brussels sprouts, as it seems that many times they do not properly produce sprouts. I’ve certainly had my share of failures (see above). I think it’s a combination of timing, soil fertility and weather. Well, isn’t everything?
Open-pollinated (OP) Brussels sprouts range 180 to 250 days to harvest. That’s 6 to 8 months, so you really need to plan ahead. There are F1 hybrids that have been bred to mature much faster, as quickly as
75 days or so. I like to grow the OP varieties and harvest in winter, because I love the way brassicas get sweeter after they’re hit by frost.
For such long-season plants, I always start them in flats and then plant them out into the garden. I’ve found that if I get the transplants into the ground by mid-June, I should have sprouts for the holiday feasts. If I don’t get them in until mid- to end of July, I’ll be eating them in February and March. It’s a good idea to grow two varieties with different maturity dates, or practice succession sowing, so you will have a longer harvest. (The F1 hybrids are also planted in May and June, for harvest in late summer.)
The seedlings will need 5-6 weeks to transplanting, so that means doing the first sowing in pots by May 1.
I usually apply one feeding of liquid organic fertilizer to my starts, when they’ve gotten a few sets of leaves and are maybe 2-3 inches tall. When I plant them in the garden, I work in a spadeful of worm bin compost or a dusting of complete organic fertilizer (COF). Along with the N-P-K, they need the secondary nutrient sulfur and the trace mineral boron, both of which are present in organic fertilizer.
I do not fertilize much once the plants are in the ground. In my experience, they seem to grow better in a soil that is a bit lower in pH than the neutral 6.5, so I don’t plant them in freshly limed soil, because lime brings the pH back up.
Also, I am betting that, once the plants are established, the active soil food web will take over and deliver enough fertility throughout the root zone of my plants. For overwintering plants like Brussels sprouts, they need to put on most of their growth by late fall, say by November 1, because the cooler soil and shorter days trigger much lower activity in the soil food web, and fertilizers will not be as available or taken up by the plants.
My final step in proper plant feeding is to get a soil test done every 2-3 years to see how I’m doing. If you’re growing crops in your vegetable beds year-round, you need to pay much more attention to soil fertility.
And if you’re growing organically (and I hope you are), you also need to pay attention to potential diseases. Fungal problems like club root and bacterial diseases like black rot can affect brassicas, and the best defense is good garden sanitation and crop rotation.
The transplanted Brussels sprouts will be still young plants, just starting to get some size, by the time our warmest summer weather hits in August, so you might be tempted to plant them in partial shade. I advise against that. I’ve had best production from the plants in the most sunny spots. The challenge is keeping them well-watered during their crucial late-summer growing season.
They will benefit from a bed with lots of compost, and a top-dressing of mulch on the soil during that warmest time. That will help the soil retain water better, which means less stress on the plants. (Another stressor at that time of year is aphids, which love to swarm along the juicy stem and thick leaves. Douse the plants with a hard spray of water whenever you see aphids to keep them at bay.)
Fall and winter treatment
In the fall, a predictable cooling weather pattern provides the best situation for overwintering plants.
I apply a loose mulch of straw around the base of the plants in October, to keep the soil slightly warmer and prevent the roots from becoming exposed and desiccated by winter winds. If an unpredictable early freeze is forecast, I might throw a blanket of floating row cover over my brassicas to protect them a bit more.Brussels sprouts nutrition
But by December, the plants should have acclimated to winter, and don’t need covering. In fact, covering can be detrimental, as it could provide a cozy spot for pests like slugs and snails to take up residence.
Once the plants have reached full growth, you can nip off the tip of the plant, so it will send more energy into sprout production. I often forget to do this, and still get sprouts. Often, too, my sprouts are smaller than the grocery-store ones, but sometimes sweeter. To harvest, twist each sprout off the plant, working from the ground up, or just cut off the entire stalk if you need a lot.
It’s a long haul to grow a vegetable like this, but these tasty bite-size cabbages are worth the effort, packing a couple of hearty meals on each plant. This year, why not give them another try?