Winter Begins Now

With the thermometer on Viagra, we should only mention winter to mentally cool ourselves off, right? Well, that’s a good reason, but as year-round gardeners, it’s also good to think winter now, at the height of summer. It will spur you to be most productive in the garden.

cabbage snow cone

How about a frosty cabbage snow cone?

Mostly right now, we are tending our summer crops. I must confess, that’s what has kept me busy, and caused some radio silence on the blogging front. Let me cool you off with these ideas:

  • I have little black boxes of winter sitting on the deck.
  • There are a few stakes of autumn marking a corner of a bed.
  • A large white sheet that reminds me of snow is stretched over more open ground.

With encouragement like that, winter cannot be far away.

Things sprout fast in this weather. I did wait until a respite from the extreme heat of early July, because cool-season crops do not sprout well if the soil is too hot. Plus, it is impossible to keep the seedbed continuously damp during the sprouting period. But with days in the 70s and cool nights, now is a great time for those plants to get started.

Last week I planted fall peas, and they are just starting to push their curvaceous stems through the soil. These will fill in between those “stakes of autumn” in the corner of a front bed, where the spring beets lived.

pea shoot

Brussels sprouts and overwintering broccoli seedlings are cheerily growing in black six-pack pots on a shady patio table. The first-sown seeds from a month ago have progressed to grow sets of true leaves, but my second sowing — again, just over a week ago — sprouted so fast and vigorously that I bet they will catch up.

Another lesson about trying to plant during extreme warmth. I sheltered those pots while the seeds sprouted and hit them daily with water, but still they got a bit stressed. All these plants should be ready for transplanting in early August.

Last weekend I prepared a bed for another sowing of beets and chard. The bed had contained fava beans, which were pulled up in May and shelled and sauted with green garlic. Since then, the bed had sat fallow, covered by the fava stalks. The soil was very dry and clodded, and it took multiple waterings to get it back into usable shape. What a dry time we have had from mid-spring until now.

SummerSeedbed

Finally, a row of collard greens went in on the edge of the now-empty garlic bed. My abundant garlic harvest is now drying in the garage, and the bed is opened up for fall and winter crops. I sometimes start summer-planted crops like collards in flats and transplant, but being covered with floating row cover and watered regularly, these plants can grow just as well in place.

I expect the dry weather to continue into early September, so I am diligently watering all these seedbeds and seedlings. And in those beds that are waiting for fall crops, I’m also continuing with water. I’m hoping to feed the soil foodweb, let the weeds sprout so I can skim those off, and keep the ground the from getting hydrophobic. When I put those fall and winter crops into the soil, I want them to experience the best growth possible.

If this spiking weather pattern continues, they’ll need all the help they can get.

Practicing Patience in Planting

I can feel the vibe from here: when can we set out our tomatoes? A neighbor already has done it. Gangly plants in gallon-size pots are front-and-center in the stores. The questions go beyond tomatoes, though: how will you get your vegetables off to their best start? And what’s the right timing for planting the summer garden?

How? Season Extension

I’m on the verge of being a nag on this topic, but a great way to ensure a better start is to shelter your spring plantings with season extension devices.

  • Tomatoes and other hot crop transplants will benefit from added warmth
  • Spring greens will also welcome the warmth, especially when sprouting from seed
  • Seedlings susceptible to pests and diseases will gain strength when protected
  • Small plants can be spared the pounding from occasional heavy rains or strong winds (or even hail — we had some a couple of weeks ago)

This Sunday, April 12, 1-2 p.m., I’ll be showing and telling all about season extension at the West Seattle Nursery & Garden Center. I will explain in more detail why these devices help, and then I’ll show off a few of my designs and things sold by the nursery. You can “kick the tires,” so to speak, and think about what might work for you.

Tomatoes in cloche

Putting a cloche over your tomatoes can give them an extra warm start. This is especially important if planting out now. Even though our weather has warmed early, there is still potential for many weeks of cool spring days and chilly nights.

When? Be Conservative

It’s tempting to march out to the garden, clear away last year’s detritus, and just plop everything in the ground — seeds, starts, trellises, cloches. One big afternoon of work and you can just sit back and wait for the harvest, right? Well, maybe. Go ahead and try it. I would counsel patience.

I like to take a couple of steps at a time, slowly building my garden throughout the spring. I do it this way partly because I enjoy the process, and also because things will grow better if planted at the right time. As with so many things, timing is everything.

Right now, my spring greens, root crops and peas are up and growing nicely. I’m still a couple of weeks away from fresh salads, but we’re just finishing the last of the winter salad greens.

Also, I’m clearing and prepping the beds for my hot summer crops. The cover crop and flowering brassicas are coming out, lime is being dug into the soil where needed, and all the old stuff is being chopped up to make compost.

Cover crop being chopped

Cover crop has been chopped down with a hoe (right) and is being dug in with a garden fork (left). This natural fertilizer (green manure) needs two weeks to decompose before planting into it.

Soon I’ll dig in compost and fertilizers, as needed, based on the planting plan.

I continue to plant small quantities of root crops and greens, so that I’ll have a longer continuous harvest of these crops. I eat a lot of them.

What’s Next?

The green manure provided by chopped-in cover crops, and the lime, have to settle into the soil for a week or two before planting. That will bring me to the end of April, which is just about right timing to shake out the bean seeds. Then I’ll think about getting warm-season transplants like tomatoes and peppers in the ground.

By mid-May, those will all be planted, and then I’ll do the last of the summer plantings: squash.

Meanwhile, I am also planning my fall and winter garden. Yes, well before summer has come! By early June, I’ll be planting fall brassicas, and by July, most of my winter and overwintering crops will be in the ground.

All that will be left to plant are short-season fall crops, which will go in after the heat of our summer has dissipated, around late August.

Practice Patience

Mason bee house

Mason bee house

Right now I’m enjoying watching the orchard mason bees. They have emerged from their cocoons and are busy pollinating my fruit trees. Soon they’ll start laying eggs in the holes in my wooden bee house.

If I want to really see all this activity, I need to slow down, and stand or sit near the bee box for a while. (Don’t worry, they’re not aggressive.) My eyes need to adjust to their erratic activity, to see their patterns.

The bees are not working on my schedule. In order to learn from them, I must accustom myself to their ways.

Observance of the natural world takes time. I must take it on its own terms. Growing a vegetable garden also requires relinquishing my own concept of schedules and needs, replacing those with a studied observance of the weather, growth habits of plants, and messages from nature.

Three Rainy Day Garden Tasks

It’s a wonderful day to be a rain chain in Seattle. The “pineapple express” we’re experiencing right now is giving it a workout.Rain chain

But what about me, the gardener who is chomping at the bit to get my spring vegetable crop in the ground. I’m going to have to content myself with some other useful tasks that can be done under cover.

Here are three tasks for the rainy afternoon:

1. Sterilize pots for transplanting. I’ll need larger pots for my tomato and pepper starts, once they’re up to transplant stage in a few weeks. To prepare, I’ll wash the pots now, and sterilize them in a water bath that contains a bit of bleach.

2. Visit the nursery for some starts. I love to plant seeds of my favorite veggies, but have a short attention span when it comes to getting them to eating size. So I will buy a few starts of the same crops I’m growing from seed. The nursery starts will be producing a couple of weeks before the seeded plants are ready. And I get a longer harvest.

3. Sharpen and oil the tools. Probably the most important rainy-day task, and one that will pay dividends through all the busy gardening seasons.

The shovels, hoes and clippers can use a good sharpening with a metal file. First, remove the rust with steel wool. If bad, use 80-grit sandpaper or a brush attachment on an electric drill. Wear goggles if using a power tool.

Then, determine the original bevel that the tool had when it came from the factory. If I hold it up and look down the edge of the blade, I usually can see the angle of the bevel, even if the tool is dull. I’ll hold the mill file at that angle and work it down the blade, from the center toward each end with multiple strokes. When it’s shiny and sharp, I’ll flip the tool over and run the file once or twice along the back side to pick up the shards of steel left behind by the sharpening.

Any tool with wooden handles will benefit from cleaning, sanding and a coat of oil. Wash the handles with water, use 100-grit wood sandpaper to smooth out the nicks or splinters. Then apply a coat of linseed oil with a cloth. The tools  last much longer if given a little tender loving care.

When the spring weather is just too cold or wet to get out into the garden, spend some quality time in the potting shed, or visit the nursery for a dose of greenhouse-grown starts. The sun will probably come out tomorrow.

Five Tips for Successful Indoor Seed Starting

Now is the time to start early vegetable crops indoors as we wait for more soil warmth and longer days. I’ve been tinkering with my seeds and equipment in the basement, and am starting on my second tray of seedlings.

Here are five tips to help get better seed-starting success indoors:

1. Use fresh seed. This year I did a test. Cleaning out my seed boxes, I found some Little Gem romaine lettuce seed from 2011. It’s seed from my own plants, and I’ve been growing it each year. But lettuce seed is delicate, and often lasts only 1 to 2 years.

I am storing it in the dark, in glass jars with a desiccant pack, in my basement, which keeps a pretty consistent temperature in the mid-50s F. Still, it’s old enough that I should probably toss it into the compost.

But I also had some Little Gem seeds from last year. I decided to plant some from each batch in starter cells in my indoor seed-starting station. My approach is to pinch 5 or 6 seeds from the packet for each cell, then thin them if too many come up.

New and old seed
Here’s an example of new and old seed. Lettuce from 2011 in front did not come up nearly as
thickly as the 2014 lettuce in back.

As you can see in the photo, the 2011 seeds in front germinated at a much lower rate than the new seeds in back. Another thing that happens with old seed is that it is not as vigorous as new seed, so the plants themselves might not be as large or robust.

Time for me to say goodbye to that 2011 seed.

Some seeds, like beans, have a high germination rate even after many years. It does depend on how you store them. You can do a germination test to see if seeds are still viable.

2. Use bottom heat. Some seeds, like lettuce, will sprout in 40 degree F. soil. But that’s not the optimum sprouting temperature. For lettuce, that’s closer to 60. The soil in indoor seed trays will be cooler than the room they’re in. So bringing the soil temp up will cause faster, more robust sprouting.

You do that with a germination heat mat. The electric mat is set up to be water-resistant, so careful watering won’t damage it or cause electrical problems. It will generally heat the soil to about 10 degrees above the ambient room temperature.

To control the soil temperature even more, plug the heat mat into a thermostat. The heat-mat thermostat comes with a soil probe that tells it what the soil temperature is. When you set the thermostat for a particular temperature, like 68, it will monitor the soil and keep the heat mat working to maintain that temp.

3. Use supplemental light. Our Seattle days are getting longer, but still pretty short, and sometimes a dim grey when there’s heavy cloud cover and rain. Supplemental light will give your seedlings another good start.

You don’t need light until the seeds pop out of the ground. Once they’re up, they can be moved off the heat mat and put under light. The light should be 4-6 inches from the plants, and moved up as they grow. Use a cool light, like fluorescent, to not add heat to the plants. Heat from lights can burn or dry out the tender young plants, or at the very least dry out the soil too fast.

I use regular fluorescents, but there are “grow light” types that are much more expensive but will boost plant growth.

4. Keep a close watch. When seeds are sprouting, the soil needs to be kept evenly moist, but not wet. Once the seedlings are up, they need to be thinned, the plastic cover removed as they get tall enough to hit it, and the lights set in the proper position. And regular water is essential.

That means a visit at least once a day to your seed-starting station in order to maximize the process.

5. Don’t over do it. Too many starts too quickly will overwhelm your seed-starting system, and also your available time.

I often start one tray of salad greens in mid-January and grow them to 2 sets of true leaves, then sprout my second tray of them 3-4 weeks later (mid-February), and throw in some brassicas (kale, broccoli, etc.). I will be setting out the first tray of greens into a cold frame or cloche by the time the second one needs the light.

In another 3-4 weeks after that (early March), I’ll sprout a tray of warm-season crops like tomatoes and peppers.

Starting seeds indoors gives my garden an early start. It also scratches the itch I get as the days start to get warmer and longer early in the year.

Seed starting station

Here is my seed-starting station: lights on a timer, seedlings on top shelf, sprouting seed tray on heat mat (with thermostat) on the lower shelf. All electrical plugged into a power strip.

Cultivate Community: Share Seeds

Handling garden seeds always fertilizes my mind. The crops virtually spring up, even before they’ve been sown. And it’s almost as energizing to pass a handful of seeds to another gardener.

So this weekend I expect sprouts to come out of my ears and roots to grow from my fingertips as I help to host “Seed Swap!” It’s the second annual open trading day sponsored by the King County Seed Lending Library.KCSLLlogo

We’ll be sharing seeds and cultivating community on Saturday, Jan. 31, 1-4 p.m. at the Phinney Center in Northwest Seattle. The free event is in conjunction with National Seed Swap Day.

For me, it’s just an extension of a practice we’ve been doing for years with a group of gardening friends.

Gathered around the kitchen table, we thumb the seed catalogs, share our own seeds, and decide what to order and grow this year.

We return to our own gardens with the wisdom of our friends’ results, along with a few of their shared seeds. And when we collectively order a new variety, it comes with the feeling that we’re plowing a new furrow together, each in our own garden, but somehow with everyone’s hands on the hoe.

Go Hawks!Our event will inaugurate the newest branch of the seed library: the Phinney Neighborhood Association! The PNA has agreed to host the seed collection in its popular Tool Library. Starting in February, seeds can be “checked out” during the Tool Library’s regular hours.

Workshops will offer tips on saving and cleaning seeds. Speakers include KCSLL Co-director and Urban Food Warrior Caitlin Moore, author and educator Lisa Taylor (Your Farm in the City, Maritime Northwest Garden Guide), and me. There will be a tour of the tool and seed library, and tables with greening groups there to visit.

So this Saturday, come up to Phinney Ridge and bring your seeds and empty seed packets. If you don’t have seeds, just bring an open mind about trying something new. Someone’s sure to inspire you with a smattering of seeds.

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