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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Growing Lettuce Indoors: The Basement Lettuce Experiment

My experiment with growing lettuce indoors from seed is progressing nicely. I posted once before about why I decided to do this, so I won’t go through all that again. I am happy with where things are right now. So far it’s been pretty easy.  I feel I should have done this much sooner.

So everything has been transferred to clay pots for a few weeks now. The romaine has started to darken a little and is now starting to show some size. It’s about 5-6 inches tall now. The red butter lettuce is starting to spread out a bit. I have never seen it mature. When I planted it last year, the critters got to it. So I am not sure of the final size, although I must admit I bought it on a whim just to have a little variety and didn’t do much research. I do have one stunted plant. Not sure what’s going on there. I gave it a little tug to check root development and it didn’t seem to develop the roots the others did. It’s still hanging in there, so I won’t get rid of it yet.

I think I am to the point now where they can come out of the basement and up to a sunny location. Outside is not an option for at least another 4 weeks, a little less if I protect it somehow. The trick is to find a spot in the house with enough sun, out of reach of the dog. She has a taste for romaine and pretty much any leafy green.

While we are on the subject of plants being started in my basement, I would like to introduce some new members of the 2019 Garden family, just arrived from Burpee.

On the left of the first photo is a Bristol raspberry, to the right of it, a Violette de Bordeaux fig.   The photo on the right are a variety of heirloom raspberry. A quick word on the fig……It’s supposed to be hardy for my growing zone. It’s a bush, not a tree, that grows 6-10 feet tall, is supposed to be a prolific fruiter after a few years growth, and the fruit is reported to be very sweet. A caution should be sounded here, that Burpee recommends netting to keep the birds off it. Now, look at the little tiny rooted cutting in the 3″ pot Burpee sent me. That cost $20.00. I would have sought out a better option had I known that is what I would get. Here is a fully grown specimen:

Violette de Bordeaux

I think it may take a little bit to get there. But I want to see how it goes. I may end up planting a few since I have a big open sunny space. Excess fruit can be dehydrated so I don’t worry about overproduction.

Well, that’s it for the update. Greener days are coming. The warmer weather has me aching to be outside. I caution myself with the fact that we were blanketed with snow when I got up on April 1, so conditions are still subject to sudden change here.

If you like what you see here, subscribe. Spring is in the air and new material will start coming faster now that there is so much good green stuff to go see and do. And for those of you who have already, thank you.

Basement Lettuce

So I am sick and tired of Lettuce recalls. That’s how this whole thing got started. Remember earlier this year? The great Romaine recall? Well, welcome to modern agriculture. This is what happens when you have centrally located super-farms busy mass producing all manner of agricultural products, sharing water sources with other farms. Gut bacteria from animal waste gets into the water supply. That water gets spread around….and poof. E.coli is added to your nice healthy salad. Now I am not slamming modern agriculture. It does much good and this is an unfortunate by-product. But we can do better.

Well, after weeks jonesing for salad (worse because we couldn’t get any romaine and my local Panera stopped selling salads), I said enough is enough. I am a horticulturalist and avid gardener. I have grow lights, trays, starter packs, potting mix and lettuce seeds. So why am I not growing my own? Well, I am now.

That’s right, in the bowels of winter, in my not so well heated basement, I started some lettuce seeds. My intent is to grow my own lettuce pretty much year round. I do not have a greenhouse or sun room. So I will have to make do as things progress. I started the new category that you find this post in, and that is where I will post periodic lettuce updates so you can see my success and hopefully very few failures.

Salanova Red Butter Lettuce

So after just a about a week ad a half, I had some respectable lettuce seedlings. I let them go for a few more weeks until I could transplant them into pots. Here they will stay. I made sure to plant them far enough below the rim, so I could cut them just above the crown. That is far off, but this “cut and come again” method will allow me to keep harvesting them for quite a while. When the nights get warmer in early May, I will move them outside. Lettuce is pretty cold-hardy. So a late freeze doesn’t scare me too much.

If this works I will keep it going, starting new seedlings, the transplanting into pots. The benefit of pots is I can move them to shadier areas in the high heat of summer to reduce bolting.

Dragoon Romaine

All in all, I am excited at the prospect of nearly year round fresh lettuce. Obviously to get any quantity, I will have to expat the operation. But right now I am happy with the 9 plants I have and if I rotate what I cut , water and fertilize wisely, I should get fairly regular and consistent harvests.

Well, that’s it for right now. I will post another Lettuce update in a few weeks. These pictures are over a week old, and the plants are now starting to flourish so the ext update should show quite a bit more development. In the mean time, keep finding ways to be green. And to those of you who have subscribed since my past post, thank you. As time allows I will come check out your content and return the favor.

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