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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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 Garden Plan….at least I hope it will be.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my goals for the winter was to do the advance planning for my vegetable garden. It’s nice to do it now rather than in the rush of spring. I have time to look at my journal from last year (yes, I keep a planting and harvest journal) and see what worked and what didn’t. Before I get into what I hope to have in store for this year….a little background is in order.

In the Beginning….

We moved into our current house in August of 2016. The big back and side yards were part of what attracted us to it. I immediately declared the south side of the house, a section hidden by fence, as the new “vegetable garden area”. The whole area is maybe 20’x 35′. It gets sun all day, but due to the mature cypress hedge on our southern border, part of it is sightly shaded. It was too late for a garden that year. So I sat, and I waited. Plotting and scheming the whole time. During that wait, I fell in love with the concept of Square Foot Gardening. At our last residence, I ignored conventional row gardening anyway and packed everything in as dense as I could, as a result I had some great yields. So this seemed like a logical step forward to me.

Spring arrived and I came out of the gate hard. I built nine raised beds, 3’x 6’x 8″ out of pressure treated lumber. I used fence boards to make it more economical as they are pretty cheap and the beds wouldn’t be that high, so sides collapsing wasn’t a concern. And I ordered up a load of topsoil. Here is where it went bad. The topsoil was nothing more than this real fine, screened clay. I cut it with compost and as much organic matter I could get my hands on. But it wasn’t near enough. That first season, I had serious compaction and drainage problems. Everything was stunted and only a few of the real hardy things did well. I was expecting some problems, just not to that extent.

Next season I added manure and raised bed soil to all the beds and mixed it in as much as I could. I also noticed last season that the beds have a nice worm population which I took as a good sign. Things were much better last year. I planted a ton of different stuff. I had zucchini and cherry tomatoes in such quantity, that I was sick of them long before the season ended. I started a bunch of stuff inside from seed and that gave me a nice jump on a few things.

This time around

So here we are in 2019. What is my plan this year? This year I am going to start replacing a few of the beds with something a little more hardy. I plan to keep the same size as it is good for working. I just want to use some sturdier lumber and build some cold frame tops for a few of the beds. As for Square Foot Gardening, I am going to stick with it, but ease back on the density just a bit. Especially with beans. I think it will help improve yield. I also plan on adding more organic matter to all of the beds this year. probably more raised bed soil and maybe a little composted manure.

I plan on having a good variety of stuff again this year, just at a more manageable level. So here it goes:

Green Beans and Yellow Wax Beans: I will plant half a bed of each. I prefer bush beans to pole beans, just easier to work with. The dog does too, because she likes to steal them when I am not looking. I have a lot of “Provider” Green Bean seed left over from last year. So I just need to buy more yellow. And I will stagger the plantings by a few weeks.

Red Butter Lettuce and Romaine Lettuce: I had these in beds previously, this year they go into pots on the deck. Too many critters having their way with them last year. Plus then in the heat of the high summer, I can move them to partial shade to help get a handle on bolting.

Swiss Chard: I suddenly can’t get enough of this. I planted Rainbow Chard last season and it went nuts, and I went nuts for it. But I will scale it back to three plants instead of the six I had last season. Not everyone feels the same way about it as I do so I had problems trying to give away the excess.

Zucchini: Okay, so last season I had about 6 plants…..I didn’t have the heart to toss the extra seedlings so I found them a home. My freezer is still stuffed with vacuum sealed bags of zucchini. This year…..1 plant. Maybe a second later in the season, we will see.

Yellow Squash: See Zucchini…..same story just a different colored vegetable.

Potatoes: One of the beds I plan on re-building is the potato bed. This way I can make it deeper. I plan on half a bed of Pontiac Red and half a bed of Yukon Gold. Last year I got a lot of earlies which was great.

Tomatoes: I have been a tomato junkie since I was little. I love them. I planted a few oddballs last year just playing around and grew a lot of Romas. This year I plan on scaling it back a little. No Roma. Just Cherokee Purples, Sweet Cherries and some Brandywines. I am also trying a new seed by Burpee, called “Steakhouse Hybrid”. It’s a giant indeterminate Beefsteak type with fruits upwards of 3 pounds. I like odd things, what can I say.

Cucumbers: These are my wife’s favorite an one of mine. I grow them every year. This time I plan on trellising them in a bed along my deck. I have doe it before with decent success.

Peppers: I tried a ton of different varieties last year. I had great success with Aji Dulci’s, but I will not be repeating that. I gave most away. This year, Green Bells, Red Peppers, Ancho Chilis, Jalepenos and a variety I discovered last season called “Sweet Chocolate”. Dark chocolately flesh, very sweet.

Kale: I have been growing Tuscan Kale for several seasons now. I does great in upstate New York. It really gets it second wind in the fall with the cooler nights.

Broccoli: I haven’t had a lot of luck with it the past few seasons. This year I plan on just a few plats, but growing them in pots . This way if I fail again, I haven’t wasted precious bed space.

Carrots: The bed for carrots is the second bed I plan on re-building this year. For the same reason as the potato bed. I want more depth. Like the beans, I will stagger the plantings a few weeks apart. They store good in the ground, but they are vulnerable when out there. So I would rather have a fresh batch every few weeks and take them direct to table.

Corn: Last year was a corn fiasco. I started a batch inside. Got the seedlings outside and they never really progressed. So I started over from seed. Good germination and the corn got about 5 feet tall, then the wind storm came after a few days of heavy rain and put a hurting on it. On top of all that, the deer ravaged the corn patch. So….fencing this year. Plus some tall stakes and guide lines to keep the corn straight.

Delicata Squash: I am trying this out for the first time. My plan is to grow it in this huge pot I saved from a fruit tree I bought. I am a huge squash fan and everyone raves about these. Plus,they are pretty pricey if you want organic. So I can hopefully get a good yield and feast cheaply.

Melon: I am trying a new hybrid of cantaloupe called “Mango hybrid”. I have a little spare bed space, so I plan on giving it a lot of room and see what it can do.

Brussel Sprouts: I may try these….not sure yet. I have been eating a lot of them lately, so I thought why not give a stab at growing them?

And although not vegetables, I plan on adding some Blackberries along my southern fence. It seems like a good use of space and I love blackberries. Hopefully my blueberries will come back a little harder this year too. Last year they performed poorly.

Lastly, I found a northern hardy fig. It’s a bush, not tree,, and I have a spot in full sun in the back yard where I have the remains of a stump to pull out. This wold be the perfect spot for it. It’s a variety called “Violet de Bordeaux”.

So that’s the plan. Seems aggressive doesn’t it? It’s a lot of growing in a little bit of space, but that is the essence of what suburban gardening is all about. How much can I produce? If I can make the soil a little better and fertilize when I am supposed to this season, who knows how much I will get. I do keep a harvest journal. I weight everything as I pick and compare it to what it costs at the local grocer. Last season I grew just under $400 worth of produce. This year I want better yields, and my goal is $600 or more.

So that’s it. Any thoughts comments or experience would be appreciated. I enjoy hearing the wisdom of others. I would rather learn from your mistakes whole I have a chance. Just like I invite you to learn form mine.

Up Next, The Great Winter Lettuce Experiment…..

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