Cold Spring: Gardening in Cold Weather

The official first day of spring was Wednesday, March 20th. By the weather we have been having, you would think it was yesterday. The cold, dreariness of winter slogged on. Sure the snows melted, and the ground thawed. But until recently, that’s about all we can say has happened. April was drier and colder than usual, leading to a bleak, cold and wet start to May. We have had a few days of promising temperatures so far. But this time  they seem like aberrations, rather than the gradual warming trend we see going into May.

May is usually that month where upstate New York gardeners are feeling confident about the danger of frost being behind us, and we wait patiently for a few weeks for our soil to get warm enough so that our seeds will sprout and our transplanted seedlings thrive. Not so much this year. The weather has been terrible. While we had a good day here or there, nighttime temperatures have been dipping into the low forties, and occasionally high 30’s. In fact as I write this, it’s expected to dip to 42 degrees tonight.

I had a ton of seedlings ready to go. I had pots with lettuce loitering around inside waiting to go out (the dog kept eyeballing them, she has a taste for romaine…). I had a transplanted fig and several raspberry plants that needed to get put in the ground as well. Only the weather was stopping me. I wasn’t too concerned about sowing seeds at this point. All of my slower growing plants, like peppers, tomatoes, kale and brussel sprouts were putting on size, and I had to transplant them from starting cells to 3″ pots.

So on a nice day last week, I decided to start the hardening off process. If you have never done this, it’s the process of giving plants started indoors time to acclimate to being outside.  Plants started under grow lights in stable temperature will burn up, die back or otherwise wilt when exposed to the harsh temperature fluctuations and glaring sunlight of the great outdoors.

So my plan was to put them outside during the day on nice days giving them a chance to adapt. After a few days of this, I made the decision that they were ready. My arrogance and impatience would prove costly. But I forged on anyway. The first cold night outside, I dug a pit in one of my raised beds, dropped a storm window over it for a cover, and housed my plants in the improvised cold frame. This is where it started to go bad. The first few days they were in the frame, it was clear and really sunny, but temps were barely in the 40’s. I wasn’t concerned because I had been monitoring the bed temperature and it was staying around 50. But I failed to consider the effect of the sunshine through the glass. Almost everything in the cold frame got scorched being under clear glass. Not fatal, but decidedly ugly.  Thankfully, they have strong roots.

Last weekend was sunny and warm. I took advantage of that to get all of my raised beds tilled, and with a few days of decent weather on the horizon I decided to plant my potatoes, all of my transplants, and sow the remaining beds. I mean it was 60 degrees, almost mid-May. Safe space right? So I removed my wretched looking transplants from, the improvised cold frame and got them into the ground. I figured this would give them a measure of protection. WRONG AGAIN.

The temperature snapped back down. We barely made it into the 50’s here during the day, and back into the low 40’s most nights. At this point I think the transplants were hardened off enough that they just accepted the suffering. Poor little things. They are ugly looking for sure, with their  scalded leaves and withered appearance, but they are gamely hanging on. As you can see below the next few days things seem to be picking up.

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I am hoping that being planted in good soil, some warm sun, and decent average temperatures will snap them out of their sunburnt funk. A shot of organic garden fertilizer will help too. I will give the a few weeks to snap out of it. If they don’t I need to consider replacement options. On the plus side, my potato seedlings are already showing above ground., and I saw some bean sprouts this morning. My brussell sprout transplants appear to be indestructible. Not a mark on them. And above all else, my lettuce which has lived outside in pots for weeks now is loving life. In fact it’s doing so well, I started two more pots of romaine.

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This entire fiasco has taught me three things. First, I need to stop screwing around and build a few proper cold frames before fall. Second, I am considering black plastic to warm the beds faster, and to keep it on until late may with the transplants. Last, I need to be more patient. Not having a cold frame ready, I should have just made a home for everything in the unheated garage. It would have blunted the worst of the cold.

WELL, LIVE AND LEARN. Another update coming soon as things progress.

Spring relentlessly pushes forth and my green soul longs to keep pace.

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Spring Garden Preparations Continue

I had such plans for last week and this weekend. Our growing season is short here in upstate NY. Because of that, savvy gardeners like to hit the ground running as soon as it gets warm enough. I have the normal list of stuff to do such as work the beds, transplant seedlings to pots, etc. Additionally, I have an ambitious list of outdoor projects that I want to get done as well before the growing season gets underway. Some items are necessities, some are “nice to have’s”. Either way, I need nice, or at least tolerable weather to get it all done.

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Towards the end of last week, it started to rain and got cold again. Not exactly what I wanted because I had taken apart the almost 100 feet (30 m) of vinyl picket fence that was slowly being pulled down by creeping English Ivy. This Ivy had been planted in the cedar hedgerow along my southern border and just left to it’s own devices for who knows how long before I bought the house. It grew through the fence and into the lawn, in the process applying so much downward pressure on the fence, that it shattered the plastic clips that hold the sections to the posts. My only choice was to yank the fence sections out, prune back the ivy, then reinstall the fence sections using new hardware.

I could have let this go, but I have a deer problem and a dog problem. Deer want in, dog wants out. So I decided to solve both by installing plastic mesh deer netting. This would make the broken down fencing inaccessible, so the ivy/fence issue had to be dealt with first. I was not kind to the ivy……if anyone tries to sell you on the idea of a few flats of Ivy as a ground cover or border, or anything, just know that it needs to be constantly contained. And it will grow underground and pop up in other places. So you think you have it under control but you don’t.

I was also anxious to upgrade my compost bin in order to take advantage of the debris from spring cleanup as a potential source of compost. But given the location of the bin, the deer meeting had to go up first. So as you can see the ivy and fence issues were in the way of pretty much everything. To top it off, the weather was wet and cold. I needed a better option, but waiting for one would not help.

No secrets here. I sucked it up every decent, passably dry hour I could find until I beat back the ivy, and got the fence back up. Slammed home a bunch of 7′ metal T-posts I purchased at Tractor Supply and hung that netting. Hanging deer netting is no fun. It snags on everything. At one point I was like a salmon caught in a gill net. But you need to be patient, careful and deliberate. I still have a few hundred feet to go, but the hardest part is done.

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That was enough to then allow me to build my new compost bin. I already had a 4 foot (1.2 m) by 4 foot square made of 2″x 8″ lumber. My goal was to use that as the base and extend up so the bed was 32 inches (81 cm) tall sides and back, yet only 16 inches (40 cm) in the front to allow for easier working. I built this monster about 10 feet from the beds current resting place. And I grossly underestimated how much this beast weighed when assembled. Pressure treated wood is heavy stuff, and only handling one cut piece at a time, I didn’t consider the overall weight until it came time to re-position it. That took a combination of brute force and ingenuity, but I got it situated and I am a lot happier. My co-workers have been donating coffee grounds and between that and the yard waste I will generate form cleanup, I have quite a few sources of carbon and nitrogen and I expect to create black gold with this new setup.

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During the wetter hours, I managed to get most of my seedlings out of the 6 packs and into some larger starter pots. Even though I re-potted my peppers, they are still sitting on heat mats for another week. Everything got a small shot of fertilizer as well. That will help with the transplant shock. But the hardening off process has begun. My Viollete de Bordeaux fig has started to leaf out, so I potted that and it now lives outside. Soon it will go to it’s permanent home in the yard.

All told, it was a productive weekend despite the crappy weather. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and will yourself to get stuff done. Had the weather been sunny and dry, I would have gotten the garden area mowed out as well, maybe gotten some additional deer netting hung. But I am happy overall with what I have so far.

Find your motivation, make your own Eden.

Let the thought of growing things move your hands to action.

Seed Starting Update for 2019

The seeds have arrived. The plans are drawn up. And last week the first stage of the 2019 garden season began. I started seeds! I knew how many plants I wanted this year, so I made my list, and selected things for early starting that I knew needed to be started indoors, or were something I may have had a problem with in the past. My secret weapon this year is heat mats. I should have used them last year, but I thought my basement was warm enough and boy was I wrong.

So this year I ordered some off Amazon. I planted a week ago, and what a difference. I already have seedlings. If you were considerering using them, I would highly recommend it. They don’t cost much and the results I saw speak for themselves. Before I get into what already sprouted, here is what I started:

  • Swiss Chard
  • Kale
  • Jalapeno Peppers
  • Ancho Chili Peppers
  • Sweet Chili Peppers
  • Chinese Giant Bell Peppers
  • Intruder Bell Peppers
  • Sweet Chocolate Peppers
  • Olympian Slicing Cucumbers
  • Calabrese Broccoli
  • Mango Hybrid Melon
  • Cherokee Purple Tomatoes
  • Brandy-wine Tomatoes
  • Sweet Cherry Tomatoes
  • Steakhouse Hybrid Beefsteak Tomatoes
  • Green Gem Brussel Sprouts
  • Tango Celery

Seems like a lot doesn’t it? But I only planted 3 cells of most of those. I scaled it back based on my notes from last year. There is still an entire group that will be sowed outdoors in May, such as Sweet Corn, squash, beans, basically the easy fast germinating stuff. This year, because I ordered seeds, potatoes and some plants, the order is staggered. The seeds came about 10 days ago. I expect the tubers next, then the plants (raspberries and a fig), and last will be the sweet potato slips.

Right now I have sprouts on the kale, chard, brussel sprouts, tomatoes and cucumbers. So I am looking for a cheap source of small plastic pots to transplant them into. They will develop better i pots then left in the starter cells, even though I use deep cells.

20190317_074459My enthusiasm seems to grow along with them. One thing I did notice is that the heat mats require more frequent watering. Not a lot, but noticeably more than last year. I am okay with that. I tend to it all daily, like an impatient, hovering parent. I expect in another 10-14 days, maybe a little less, I will start seeing peppers. Peppers were a hard spot last year. It took a log time because my basement was so cool. The plants were small when I moved them outside, and were stunted for the season. This year I am hoping for bigger plats, for a bigger yield. .

20190317_075036So I am pleased that things are moving along. The warmer weather makes me impatient to get out there, so having something to do is a nice distraction. The snow is gone, the finches are changing colors, and in the mornings when I leave for work, I can hear birdsong. Now is also when I also start stocking up on supplies such as: fertilizer, copper fungicide for the squash, melons and cucumbers,  Epsom salts and calcium. I mix Epsom salts and calcium and give the beds with the peppers and tomatoes a good shot of that. That helps prevent blossom end rot and a number of other deficiencies they are prone to.  My raised bed soil is deficient in micro nutrients and last year I didn’t use nearly enough. I ended up having to foliar feed to treat symptoms and I would rather stay ahead of this time and have improved plant health in order to see increased yields.

20190317_074513That’s all I have to cover for now. In a few weeks I may update again, if some meaningful change has occurred. Until then, play for warmth.

2019 Rochester Garden Show

 

About this time each year, we here in upstate are pretty damn sick of winter.  Gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts more than most. Just when we can’t take it anymore, along comes an annual event that draws us like moths to a flame, and leaves us practically drooling for warmer weather, with our minds stuffed full of crazy ideas. Where did we get such fanciful notions?

The annual Rochester Garden Show, where else? The inside of a local indoor arena is turned into stone pathways meandering through some of the most fantastic and artistic landscaping displays you will ever see. Like a fashion show, designers throw out what’s practical, and instead show us what is possible. Displays of stone work, melded with water gardens, timbers, living walls, and much much more. And just when you think you have had enough, an area stuffed full of vendors with everything from hydroponics and tools, to seeds and statuary. So let me take you on a tour and show you what I love about this.

I will not attempt to go into detail on every single display. That would take a long time. Instead I will take you through my favorites, of which there were quite a few. The arena is round. So you have an outer ring of displays, then several throughout the center. This year’s theme was Enchanted Gardens.

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First up, was the display for the Monroe County Parks Department. Not something  I was expecting. However, after entering through a tunnel of birch and willow branches, I came across some very cool hand-made chars, a table and benches. As it turns out, the Parks employees made these, and there representative told me they were looking for a way to market them in order to fund projects. I thought that was a magnificent idea. No wonder why we have great parks with people like that.

 

Even though this is a Garden Show, the next display was actually requested based on the small display they did last year. The National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, New York’s Victory Garden. Last year they had a small victory garden display, hearkening back to World War 2, when people were encouraged to plant vegetables in order to help support the war effort. This year they added an iconic white picket fence, stars and stripes flying high and a larger garden. They also had a vintage Willy’s Jeep, and I got to register for a chance to go for a flight in a restored C-47 airplane that was actually used for the D-Day parachute drop. It was a touching display and just looking at it made me feel like I was looking at an actual 1940’s victory garden.

Right after that,  ran across an odd but cool piece by a company called GFNLA Plantgfx Gardenscape Pros (not exactly a catchy name). A giant stone throne/chair made for a giant, with a giant ax sunk into the ground next to it. Like Paul Bunyan himself was sitting there.

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I need this in my backyard. It’s just cool.

Fossil Rock Landscaping was up next. Their display was breathtaking in the level of detail, and that really made the design what it was. The display was titled  Enchanted Wedding Barn. It looked like something you would see in Country Living or Martha Stewart Living magazines. This was the People’s Choice Winner and Best In Show and I could easily see why. An open timber roof with nice natural looking stone, the structure was low, but that helped blend it into the surroundings. Country-style accent lighting, a really incredible dining area, and just behind the sliding barn door, an outdoor pub? They had me long before that, but that clinched it. If you had this in your yard, you would have nonstop garden parties, because …..why not show it off? It is by far, one of the coolest outdoor living designs I have ever seen.

 

I saw some interesting creations from  Westside Pro Landscapes, who used moss, woven sticks and flowers to create ladybugs, a giant dragonfly and a magical looking mushroom.

 

Next was the Fairy Land display. Fairies were snuck into displays, and while this didn’t have any, it was like you were walking down a long unused path in some old forest, and just stumbled upon this scene i a clearing.

 

As I finished my loop of the outside, the last display was the local Bonsai Society. The first part of the display was just a collection of Bonsai creations against a stark white back drop. It wasn’t exactly eye catching. But as you rounds the wall, it got much more interesting. Here under a stone and wood arbor, two gentlemen were working on some very cool looking specimens, and around them among the garden beds were displayed some incredible specimens. Comparing the first part of the display with the second part, really shows you why presentation is everything.

 

There was still more to see, and I have skipped over more than a few of the displays. I could write for days, and still not cover all of it. But I my intent is to just hit the high points.  So I will close with what was my second favorite display. A company I have never heard of called simply JOSH Landscape Company. Their scene titled simply Transcend was breathtakingly cool. High stone walls on the outside allowed them to slope down towards the stone path that led through the display. Huge trunks made of woven sticks and vines lighted on the inside immediately draw your gaze, and it gave it a very fantasy forest type of feel. But as incredible as it was, you couldn’t let that distract you from all the little details. Small deer topiary were hidden here and there, beautiful plant selection, and what I liked best, were the open books blooming from the landscape like flowers. It made the display like some literary dream world. Inviting you to come in and read in the garden. It was fantastic. I walked through it several times and every time  found something new.

 

After all that, I must admit feeling a little drained. It was a lot to take in. I wandered over to the vendor area and just cruised through that. Stopping to buy some variegated Caladium bulbs, a hydrangea and some spicy pickles from one of the food vendors. You can;t have an event without food, that just won’t do. It was everything I thought it would be and a little more. The awesome displays, the scent of new mulch and blooming hyacinth, and color everywhere you look sent me home with a smile. Something you don’t get much of this time of year.

I hope I could convey through word and picture just how excellent of a show this was, ad I look forward to next years being even better. My wildest dream is that somehow this inspires someone to start something similar in their community. Until next time…..

The Basics of Garden Design

Design can be intimidating. A lot of people try it, a lot of people fail. Many aspirants overlook the simplicity of it and try and get all fancy. In the end,  they often wind up with an unintentional, eclectic mess in the front yard. Mostly because they fail to heed the rules. Rules you say?  Yes, rules. There are rules to designing almost anything. Just because they change over time, doesn’t mean that design using growing things is the exception.

What’s that you say? You don’t like rules? You’re unconventional, a mold breaker, an innovator……you refuse to have your rampant creativity restrained by stuffy old conventions. To that I say “go for it”. Have at it. Please send me pictures. In the end, you will see what I mean. In this case rules are not absolutes. So stop thinking of them like a straight jacket. Think of them more as handrails, or a safety net. That by no means gets you off the hook for designing something so eye-shattering that the local town council deems it a public menace. Guidelines…just guidelines.

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You can follow the rules and still be creative and artistic. There are an infinite number of combinations of textures, colors, hardscape elements, specimen plants, and the like that you can incorporate. So think of these rules as the glue that holds all that together. Now you may finish reading this and decide that it’s not for you. You would rather leave it to a professional. That’s generally a safe move and can be much less aggravating. Then you are only responsible for whatever grand vision you tried to get them to translate into a drawing. But for those brave souls who want to try it themselves, or maybe you just want to have a finer appreciation  of how green spaces are intentionally put together, this may be for you.  You will also have a much greater appreciation when you tour horticultural attractions and you can sound super smart when you flippantly comment about how “the conflicting textures of the foundation plantings really anchor the structure to the landscape”.

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WELL, YES…

These rules can be broken down into two basic major parts. First, on a larger (think macro) scale are the design principles: balance, focalization, simplicity, rhythm and line,proportion and unity. You consider design principles when looking at the bigger picture, such as a large garden or an entire property. On the smaller (micro) , yet no less important scale are the elements of design: line, color, texture, form and scale. If these sound somewhat familiar to you, think back to any art classes you took in school. These attributes are not unique to landscaping and gardens. They are somewhat general artistic principles. You could just as easily apply them to a painting or a sculpture as you could to a cottage garden.

Now I could discuss each separate point in depth. and give you a complete informal education in one sitting. But that would require me to wear my fingers down to nubs typing. I have no wish to do that because I have a garden to plant soon. So, dear reader, this becomes a series. I will work through each of the design elements in more detail since each is worthy of it’s own post. Then I will move on to the design elements. Each of them deserves their 15 minutes of fame as well. I will keep it as interesting as possible and practical enough that anyone can follow along. I hope you will stay with me through this journey.

To be continued…….

First up: Balance

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