Vegetable Garden

People often ask me how I start my garden and when I start each step. People who plant vegetable gardens often ask why they should start plants from seeds, “can’t you just buy plants at a nursery of farmer’s market in the spring?”  You can, but I prefer to start my own plants for several reasons:

1. I don’t want to introduce problems from someone else’s soil pathogens into my garden. This is especially true of “blight,” a fungus that is present in some soils and will decimate tomato and pepper plants.

2. I like to try different varieties of vegetables than are usually not available from nurseries and farmer’s markets. Maybe you love a solid tomato you can slice, then you may want “beefsteak,” but if you prefer sweet flavor, then “Brandywine,” will be best. If you want a colorful salad plate, you may prefer “green zebra,” or “black krim,” or “rainbow striped,” but you won’t find those at Home Depot. You only get those by starting from seed.  Read through the vegetable descriptions in the seed catalogs or web sites and you’ll be able to choose vegetables for the qualities you value most highly.  Same with peppers (spicy or sweet, frying or pickling), eggplants (do you want to salt them, or not have to), cucumbers (slicing or preserving), etc.

3. One started plant will cost about 5-10 times as one packet containing dozens of seeds. The cost of a grow light ($60), seed heat mat ($20), Jiffy starter greenhouse ($18) is still less than buying 20 plants, and you can choose what exact varieties to plant.

People who don’t plant vegetable gardens ask whether it’s all too difficult.  It really isn’t, I promise this isn’t brain surgery. Agriculture has actually been around since the neolithic era, and the fact that our pre-historic ancestors did not matriculate at an Ivy League university didn’t stop them from planting seeds that with some water and sunlight, grew to feed their families and communities. You can start with a tiny, four foot square garden and believe it or not, produce a large quantity of food for a family during the summer. See the following:  http://www.vegetable-gardening-online.com/small-vegetable-garden.html

The following should serve to illustrate what I do to get my garden going and growing.

December and January:
Buy the seeds: I spend these months pouring over seed catalogs and web sites and comparing what looks interesting with the seeds i have from the previous year. By the start of February I order my seeds. My favorite sites for purchasing seeds are:

http://www.heirloomseeds.com
http://www.kitchengardenseeds.com
http://www.ferry-morse.com
http://www.rhshumway.com
http://www.botanicalinterests.com
http://www.southernexposure.com
and occasionally I purchase a packet of Seeds of Change seeds, but only when I see something at the local grocery store that I don’t have and would like to try, but their seeds are expensive and I find have lower germination rates than those I buy from others. Heirloomseeds.com is my favorite seed company.

February:
Purchase needed supplies:  I like to start my seeds in a Jiffy Tomato Greenhouse, and even though it says “tomato,” I use it for all my indoor started seeds. This kit will start 36 plants, and I usually use two of them. It’s much more expensive than using a seed mix and peat pots, but it’s also infinitely easier, and since the cost isn’t outrageous, I just do it. I like that the set uses the Jiffy-7 peat pellets, which are larger than the usual ones you see in the nursery section, and I find it starts a healthier plant with better root formation. You only have to purchase the actual kit one time. Save it and use the base each year with new pellets that you can buy at a garden center, big box store, or on line (I buy a bag of 100 Jiffy 7s every few years, the cost is only $20).

March:
Start the seeds. There are directions on the packet, which I basically follow. Here is what I do:

1.    Add warm water to the base, gently pouring over the peat pellets and allow them to expand fully,
2.    Pull back the netting around the top of the pellet to expose the surface,
3.    Scratch the surface with a plant marker or plastic knife,
4.    Add two seeds to each peat pellet,
5.    Mark each row with a plant marker, or make a chart showing what is planted where–this is very important–you may think you will remember what you did, but you won’t, and then you won’t know if you’re planing 10 cherry tomato plants, or none, trust me, mark your seedlings,
6.    With your finger work the seeds in a bit and cover with the soil,
7.    When all seeds are planted, place the clear plastic lid on the kit,
8.    Place the kit on a seed heating mat and plug it in (I use the Hydrofarm mat available on Amazon.com for $20 and free Prime shipping)
9.    Check it after several days to a week, when the seeds have sprouted, or most of them, prop open one corner of the lid,
10.  When all have sprouted, remove the lid and turn on the grow lights, (I use the Hydrofarm Jump Start 4-foot T5 sets, also available on Amazon, for $60 and free Prime shipping),
11.  Keep moving the lights up keeping them a few inches above the plant leaves,
12.  When the plants’ roots are coming through the peat pellets I transfer them to Jiffy peat pots (#5) into which I have added an organic seed starting mix, and place them in my sunniest window sill.

Timing issues:

I live in Southwestern Connecticut, and although conventional wisdom would suggest planting your tomatoes outside around Mother’s Day (my favorite gift that day is to have the family help plant the seedlings), it’s been so much warmer lately, that in 2011 I planted on May 1, and this year could be even earlier.  One should generally start tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings indoors around 6 weeks before last frost, and then begin hardening off. This is the process of bringing the plants outside in the daytime, and then in at night to protect them from the cold. You do that for a week or two and then plant.

This year I started my tomatoes around Valentine’s Day. Way too early, I know, but I couldn’t wait…it was so warm that week!  I wrote into my calendar for all of February 2013 “Don’t plant seedlings until at least March,”  we’ll see if I listen next year to my own advice.

March 2, 2012  I started my peppers and eggplants.

Here are some photos:

March 14
Here’s a photo of the little plants started 12 days ago:

April
Direct sow cold weather crops:
peas (sugar snap, snow peas), radishes, chard, kale, brassicas, greens (lettuce, arugula)Start squash and melons in Jiffy #5 peat pots.  I put the plastic top of the Jiffy kit over the top of the pots until the seeds sprout, then remove it and place the pots under the grow lights.

May
Transplant all the seedlings to the garden

Tomatoes:
Drive LARGE stakes into the garden bed where you want to plant your tomatoes. Use stakes double the size you think you may need. Tomato plants grow very tall. I use 7-foot wooden stakes. Drive them as far as possible into the ground, you’ll need a ladder and a sledge hammer. Place the poles about 4 feet from one another.  Dig a trench, 6 inches deep and 1 foot long next to each pole. Water the plants in their peat pots until they are thoroughly soaked. I tear the peat pot and remove as much of it as possible so long as I can keep the root intact in it’s growth medium.  Lay the plant in the trench so it is horizontal, then gently bend the top part of the plant upwards and gently fill in with the dirt you have dug up to make the trench. The entire amount you have planted will become the base of the root system for the plant. You get more roots by planting horizontally. It’s ok to bury the lower leaves and branches, these will become roots. 

As the tomatoes grow, I tie them to the stake with garden twine.

Peppers and Eggplants:
Dig a hole twice as wide as the peat pot from which you are transplanting, and as deep.  Tear up the peat pot and place the plant into the hole, leaving only as much pot as is necessary to keep the growing medium intact around the roots of the plant.  Then to keep the plant stable, I use a “tomato cage.” These are useless of tomatoes, which grow way too big to accommodate the plants, but great for peppers and eggplants. I use the “Ultomato” cages available at Home Depot. They are reusable year after year, and snap together (and apart to store) easily.  After the plant is in place, I push the cage down over it so the plant is in the center of the triangle made by the cage.

Squash, cucumbers and melons:
Mound up a nice-sized pile of soil and tear the peat pot in which the squash or melon is planted, placing it into the center of the pile.  Be sure to have plenty of space for squash and melons to grow. They do best when they can grab onto fencing or trellising of some kind and will grow to amazing lengths. Just be careful that as flowers develop into fruits that you push them out of the way of fence openings so they do not grow into them, it makes them impossible to harvest.  It also helps if you can place them on the inside of the fence openings, so that animals don’t use your fence as a salad bar, eating away all the vegetables on the outside of the fence.

Crazy Weather:
The weather this year is so unusual, with everything blooming weeks earlier than it would normally. So it’s hard to know when to plant. My friend, Laura DePretta found this very helpful link and sent it to me:

http://gardening.about.com/od/organicgardenin1/a/Phenology.htm 

According to this, it’s already almost time to plant peas and potatoes!

Today is APRIL 17, 2012   It’s time for a little garden update.

In the fall, I read an article in Organic Gardening magazine about cover crops being used for mulch. The idea was to sow rye and hairy vetch (no, not me when I haven’t had time to shave my legs and am feeling crabby, it’s a vine-like plant that adds nitrogen to soil) in the fall.  In the spring, you’re supposed to “roll the rye,” flattening it down and crimping the stems. It’s supposed to die like that, still with it’s roots attached to the ground. Then you can cut some away where you want to plant vegetable crops and the rolled rye is supposed to form a solid mat of mulch that prevents weeds and retains moisture. Sounded like a great idea, so I tried it. 

What a fail. The seeds sprouted and grew throughout our unusually mild winter and a few weeks ago I set out to smoosh it down.  It didn’t work, it kept popping back up the next day. My son, Elias, came up with a great idea to use a dolly to flatten it, but still it popped up. I put a large folding table in the garden, face down on the rye and moved it every day, but still it popped back up. It seems, you can’t keep a good rye down.

I wrote to the Rodale Institute, publisher of Organic Gardening. They told me to till it under. Well, that would have been fine had I done it as soon as the ground warmed up, say March 1. Then I could have mixed in some of my finished compost and had garden soil ready for planting in April-May. But now we were already in April, and I was concerned the turned soil wouldn’t have time to settle and decompose the cover crop.

Last Tuesday, April 10, my landscapers came and I had them help me. They weed-whacked the cover crop and raked up the clippings. At Vinnie’s suggestion (Vincent Pellazzo, Landscaping by the Finishing Touch in Stamford, CT), they spread the clippings out under my pear tree to dry out (otherwise it would have rotted).

Then the men hand-turned the entire garden, getting the roots of the cover crop worked into the soil and adding wheelbarrows full of compost.  They did the entire garden except for one little patch, which we discovered contained a rabbit nest!  Leonides, one of the landscapers, noticed a ball of fluff and leaves and lifted it up and there was a litter of sleeping baby bunnies. Like bank robbers who get locked into the bank vault during business hours only to rob the place at night!  I couldn’t hurt them, though, they’re baby bunnies after all.  So we left that little circle alone and tilled the rest. I left the gate to the garden open that night, and sure enough, Ivett (our wonderful babysitter) and I saw the mother rabbit going in and out of the garden. She carried her babies to a new home. I’ve seen the mother at night by the hedge row along the driveway, so I’m pretty sure she’s fine. I didn’t tell my kids, they’d have insisted on keeping the babies, which wouldn’t have been good for them, as they were clearly tiny and needed their mother.  They never read the emails I send them, so I am pretty sure they’ll never read this far in my web posts, and thus will never know of how we came very close to tilling a nest of bunnies into my garden.

In any event, I spent all of last weekend making my vegetable beds and getting them ready to plant. Now, if only it would rain!!

I’ve had to water twice a day this week, and will keep doing so until we get a real soaking rain. The garden will turn to dust otherwise. I used the great dried out clippings from the cover crop and put them down over the soil to help keep in moisture. Hope this works, and I’m praying for rain.

May 30.  We’re growing now….weeds!!

After tilling, and planning the beds, I had to wait, and wait, until I could plant my tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. The weather became very squirrely, going from mild, to hot, to freezing cold in late April. Finally, the first weekend of May, I put my plants in the ground. It was still a little early, as the traditionalists wait until May 15 here in SW CT, but I was sick and tired of schlepping my plants in and out every day, they were certainly hardened off, and it wasn’t going to freeze. So they went it, and it’s been fine. The tomatoes are actually hip-high, and the sungold cherry plants are already producing fruit, though it will be a while until they are ripe, but it will be early!

The peas are just starting to blossom, and last weekend, Memorial Day, we ate our first salad from the garden with lettuce, arugula, herbs, spring onions, and radishes.  Now I just have to get out there and weed!  At this point, the asparagus is almost done, we had several nice dinners in May with the most wonderful, fresh asparagus. The only problem with growing asparagus is that now I can never buy it in the store again. It tastes like an entirely different vegetable when it’s fresh-picked.

The garlic scapes are just starting to form, in another week or so I’ll be able to harvest them and make a great pesto.  Speaking of pesto, I made a fabulous mint-pistachio pesto last weekend and have posted the recipe in the recipe section of this site.

Here are some photos of how it stands right now, I’ll post more as soon as it’s all weeded and looks better, you’ll see the difference.

Following are some photos of the garden as it developed in 2012. It was a productive year!JUNE 13, 2012

From left to right, the rows are:

1. Squash
2. Eggplants and peppers
3. Lettuces, chard, arugula, carrots, beets, raddishes and celery
4. Tomatoes

Pease are growing along the back fence

Not even a month later….look at the tomatoes, now, they’re over 10 feet tall!!  This is not necessaryily a good thing, though. It’s an indication my soil has too much nitrogen–it’s coming from my compost which is filled with chicken poo.

A few weeks later on July 25, 2012

This is just about a month after the prior photo…what’s missing? The squash. : (
The squash was infested with squash bugs and cucumber beetles. I was getting up at 6 am every day to race outside and hand pick the bugs off the plants and squish them. It got tedious, and didn’t seem to slow their population growth. I ended up pulling out all the squash plants and bagging them. When something has a problem, like bugs, blight or another fungus, mildew, etc., I don’t let that plant material go iin the compost. Instead, I bag it in big black lawn bags and bring them to the town dump. I don’t put it in the town plant material pile either, I don’t want to spread my problems, I just throw it out. That reminds me, I have to put my garbage out at the end of the driveway tonight.

Here’s a typical harvest for a day. This is from July 19, 2012.

In the back are beets and a bianca rosa eggplant. The leaves of the beets are great when they are fresh, I use them as a salad, roast the beets, and place them on the washed and cut up leaves. Yum. The leaves are also great in green smoothies. They taste like a mild chard.

In front are snow peas, green banana peppers and those little things on the right are radish pods. I left some radish to flower, and these are the result. They taste just like little crisp radishes, great on that salad with the beets.

As summer wears on, the plants produce profusely. Here is one day’s take of cherry tomatoes. This is a mixture of Sungold, Black Cherry, and Yellow Pear varieties. They became an amazing tomato jam, see the recipe tab for how to make it.

August 10, 2012

That didn’t stop the plants, a few days later I harvested this:

August 13, 2012

I continued having huge halls all the way through September. I canned tomato sauce and froze roasted cherry tomatoes with garlic and herbs in mason jars. We just keep eating beans, and eggplant, here are the Rosa Bianca, and the Pingung Long.

First frost came about on time this year. Usually, it’s around October 15. This year it was October 12, 2012.  Knowing that it would hit freezing, I had to harvest all the non-cold hardy veggies. I left the carrots and beets in the ground and picked all my peppers, beans a few Bennings squash (I replanted that one plant and got a nice harvest, they’re not shown in the photo).

Pepper Madness!!  October 12, 2012

That’s over 100 jalapenos, several eggplant, a nice amount of long beans (thank you May Ling Moy for the seeds), a fair amount of lima beans (but it won’t be that many when they’re shelled and an abundance of Cubanelle peppers, only a fraction of which got to that lovely sweet red. Those red peppers are the only vegetable Elias eats from the garden. Drives me crazy.

But what do do with it all?  Get canning!!

So on October 13-14, 2012, I spent the weekend canning (Brad was in London on business). I produced 6 pint jars of sweet pickled Cubanelle peppers, 11 half pints of jalapeno jelly, 4 4-0z jars of jalapeno jelly and 9 jars of pickled jalapenos. I also made 36 jalapeno poppers, those are prepared, but not cooked. I put them in freezer bags after the photo, and when we want some, we just take them out, put them on a cookie sheet and heat for 15 minutes. Perfect.  I still have a few unused peppers, we’ll just eat them this week.

Phew!

GARDEN UPDATE 2013 SEASON

As you can see from above, the garden last year, while cozy, was still quite productive. However, it’s been my dream for several years to expand the garden size and install raised beds. I finally did it this year and the impetus was an article from Mother Earth News Magazine (would you believe me if I told you I am politically conservative?). This is the magazine photo that got me started:

manage chickens in the garden
http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/chicken-manure-fertilizer-zm0z13amzkon.aspx#axzz2OOvAZi6I

I showed the photo and article to my husband, Brad, and he immediately saw the utility of such a plan, realizing that it would solve several problems. It would provide me with more growing space, the ability to have some permanent beds dedicated to items like berries I had no room for in the old garden, and could provide the chickens with protected space to keep them from harm such as that suffered by our dear McGonnagall whom we lost to a hawk in November, and Hermione, who was taken by an unknown predator several years ago. More on the chickens on their own page.

All I had to do was:
1. Remove the existing garden fence,
2. Install a much larger fence, with smaller fence openings to prevent animal entry,
3. Move the garden gate to the new opening,
4. Devise a “chicken tunnel,” since the one described in the article would not work for us for several reasons,
5. Buy a chicken coop (the chickens had been living in an annex of our furnace room, located outside our garage).

I did it all, well, almost all of it, I’m still working on number 4 and the new coop has not yet been delivered, but here are some photos so far.


The garden has been fenced in, though it was not done properly…I wanted the fence to extend down 12 inches from the soil line so that animals couldn’t burrow underneath the fence. It was only installed about 5 inches deep, I hope that is enough. I’m waiting for the chicken coop to arrive and have wire ready to make into the tunnels, but am waiting for the coop to be in place first and see the exact dimensions I will need to match.

I have ten long beds, measuring 3 x 8 feet and three 4 x 4 foot square beds in the center. The one in the foreground of the photo above contains lettuce with cucumbers planted at the base of the trellis, over which they will eventually climb, shading the lettuces during the hot summer.

The five beds along the left contain tomatoes in the far thee beds (four plants in each, so 12 plants all together), a bed of eggplants and a bed of peppers. Along the right-hand side the far beds will contain raspberries and blueberries, which I am waiting to arrive. They will not bear fruit until next spring. The other three beds contain carrots and beets, summer squash and winter squash. The other center beds contain beans (four varieties: edamame, lima beans, black turtle beans and Chinese long beans), and the last square has greens such as chard, arugula and rapini.

With all the rain we’ve had recently, I haven;t needed to water, but I do need to design and install a drip irrigation system, that’s next on my garden to-do list.

In the meantime, this is infinitely easier to care for and weed. I LOVE my new garden!

I purchased the beds from The Farmstead in Cape Cod. A few years ago they brought their products to a garden show in Greenwich and I knew they would be perfect, it just took a while to get them.  They were terribly simple to assemble, and the only thing I would have liked was if the web site from where they were purchased had provided the inner, and not just the outer dimensions. The 3 x 8 feet sited above includes the far corners of the beds, so it is quite a bit less than that. It’s late now, and I can’t go out and measure them properly, but eventually I will get to that and will make the appropriate corrections. The prices are very reasonable for a raised bed, these will last for many, many years being cedar, and they will not come apart at the corners like other beds and have no nails or other hardware. You can get them here: http://gardenraisedbeds.com/  Tell them I sent you!

September 20, 2013 Garden Update

I ordered my chicken coop from a company here in Connecticut back at the end of April, five months ago. It was supposed to be delivered 4-5 weeks later, but the folks I ordered from just couldn’t get their act together. Seems like they had a series of problems to deal with, and my coop just never made it to the top of their list. Unfortunately, they strung me along all summer, so I waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, I gave up on them, they offered to refund the money I had paid them back in April, and when they didn’t I had to instigate a dispute against the merchant with the bank that issued my credit card. Luckily, the dispute has been resolved, my money has been refunded, and I found someone else to build me a coop.

I asked my friend Ken, who is the facilities director at my children’s former school, whether his father, who built a fabulous little guard shack for the school make my dream-coop. Ken’s dad started work on the coop, but then left for vacation, and Ken took over and made the most fabulous little coop. It’s perfect and today was the first day they were in the coop. Look on the “chicken” page of this website for more information and photos of the coop.

To see the chickens in the coop and the run that extends along the perimeter of the fence, go to the “Chickens” tab on this site.

%d bloggers like this: