Garden and Greenhouse

A Lesson From the Garden

I haven’t written about the garden this spring for a couple of reasons.  One, we’ve been so busy with the kitchen renovation that I got really behind in the garden.  At least a month behind, or more.  The other reason I haven’t written much about the garden has to do with this new lesson I’ve been learning.

I have always been a goal-oriented, task-conscious person.   I have been a working toward a series of goals my whole life, it seems.  I’ve achieved many, although not all, of them.  I think it’s important to have goals, to set tasks and follow through.  This is one definition of responsibility, and I believe in fulfilling one’s responsibilities. But lately, I have been learning a new kind of lesson in my garden.

The lesson is this:  Do what you love, but not to the point that it hurts you.  Or in other, more concise but overused words:  Listen to your body.  This might seem an obvious statement, but to many of us compulsive-gardener types (and other compulsive types), it can be a revelation.  I realized last summer that doing what I love was hurting me.  And I don’t mean just temporary pain.  I mean what I was doing, overworking myself in the garden, was contributing to the worsening of an ongoing problem.

My profile page for this blog mentions my disability.  (I really hate that word, but what else can you use?)  I’ve spent most of my life ignoring the fact that I have severe scoliosis, which is curvature of the spine, for those who don’t know.  My spine is shaped like an elongated, backwards S.  My whole torso has been twisted and shaped by the curving and twisting of my spine, and in fact, doctors and physical therapists have told me that most likely my inflammatory problems in joints and bones in the rest of my body can be traced back to the dysfunction of my spine.

I resolved when I was twelve years old not to let scoliosis define my life.  It might shape my body, but it wouldn’t determine who I would be.  But at sixty years old, I’ve learned that’s nonsense.  Of course something so consuming defines one’s life!  How can it not?  But what I’ve also learned is that this kind of shaping doesn’t have to be a negative thing.  It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

I believe that every life is a conversation or negotiation between body and spirit (and mind and heart and maybe some other things as well.)  There’s a verse in the Bible that I’ll take out of context.  “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  I find much truth about myself in that short sentence.  My spirit is willing to stay out all day in the hot sun and pull weeds until I can barely move my legs.  In my head, I LOVE doing that!  I love taking a messy patch of ground and making it neat and tidy.  But my flesh is weak.  My body simply can’t take that kind of abuse any more, and it should never have been subjected to that kind of abuse.  If the body is a temple of the spirit (taking another verse out of context), then it should be cared for.  In that negotiation between body and spirit, both should have a voice and be listened to.

So last fall, I resolved to cut back in the garden.  This meant that I wouldn’t plant enough tomatoes to can or make salsa this year.  I have plenty left over from previous years.  I wouldn’t plant green beans to can.  I have some in the pantry still. I wouldn’t plant potatoes, because I shouldn’t be digging to plant them or digging to harvest them.  I wouldn’t plant cucumbers because I don’t need pickles.  I wouldn’t plant pumpkins because I still have pumpkin puree in the freezer.

It was much harder this spring, come planting time, to stick to that resolve, but I did it.  I only planted ten tomatoes (instead of twenty-five), two peppers (instead of a dozen), and a few winter squashes.  I planted more cantaloupes than usual for eating fresh because they are so easy, but half of them died for no reason I can tell.  That’s the garden taking care of me when the spirit overcame the body, I guess! I didn’t even plant any carrots because I had heirlooms go to seed and reseed. I did plant a lot of cabbage, and between the little brown slugs and the deer getting into the garden through a gate left open, I only have three plants left, so I won’t be making any sauerkraut.  God and the garden taking care of me again, presumably.

As for weeding, that’s another negotiation.  Spirit says, “Get out there and get those weeds pulled before they take over the squash and tomatoes!”  Body says, “You can do a little today, and little the next day, and you’ll get it done.  And if you don’t, what’s the worst that can happen?”  Spirit says, “Duh! They’ll take over the garden!” Then mind intervenes and reminds both body and spirit that an integrated, semi-wild garden is a good thing for plants, birds, bees, and other pollinators.  Yes, mind has a voice to heed too.

Day before yesterday, I weeded the squash patch.

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I thought I was setting a realistic goal.  Spirit thought so.  Body thought so.  Mind thought so. I only pushed myself a little to finish it, and then later my knee told me that was a bad idea.  (It would have been really nice if my knee had told me to stop before I was finished, but it didn’t.)  Yesterday, I heeded the lesson.  Spirit really wanted to get the whole tomato patch weeded.  Body said, “Remember your knee?  Do half.”  Mind concurred. So I did half.  And today, I finished the rest of the tomato patch.

It took three days to do what I would once have pushed to do in a day (or less). And the world didn’t end, and the weeds didn’t take over.  And my knee feels okay, and the rest of me doesn’t feel too bad either.  That’s progress.

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Garden and Greenhouse, Gluten-free, Recipes, Side dishes

Zucchini Latkes

Subtitle:  The One That Got Away

It’s that time of year when everybody who has a garden has a zucchini that’s too big for its britches. I call squashes like this “the ones that got away (from me)”.  What do you do with them?

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Some people make relish. I don’t care for it, myself. Too sweet. (If anyone has a sour, dilled zucchini relish recipe, please pass it along!) Some people make pickles. I haven’t tried that because I’ve tried making pickles with Armenian cucumbers, and they were mushy. I can only imagine what zucchini pickles would be like. Yuck. Some people, including me, shred the monster squashes and freeze the shreds for zucchini breads and soups. And I use the shreds for another dish, my favorite way to eat zucchini: zucchini latkes. These are paleo, gluten-free, low carb. What’s not to like?

Now, there’s been a recipe floating around Facebook for Zucchini Fritters.  They look a lot like these, and the recipe is similar, except for one thing.  There is no flour in these.  And because there is no flour, they are not doughy.  They are nicely browned on the outside and tender on the inside, but with no doughy texture.  And I have to give credit where credit is due:  I would never have come up with these if my friend, DeAnna Beachley, had not taught me to make potato latkes exactly the same way.  And I thought, if it works for potatoes, why wouldn’t it work for zucchini?  It does.

 

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And try them with the dill sauce. Yum.

 

Zucchini Latkes

About 3 cups shredded/grated zucchini

¼ cup shredded/grated onion

1 egg, beaten

Salt and pepper

Olive oil or other oil of your choice for frying

 

After grating or shredding the zucchini and onion (either by hand or in the food processor), put it in a strainer for a little while to drain. Then dump the contents of the strainer into several paper towels or a clean tea towel you don’t mind staining green, and squeeze it like you mean it. Squeeze as much water as possible out of the zucchini and onion.

 

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Dump the squeezed zucchini and onion into a bowl, fluff it with a fork, and add as much egg as you need to make the mixture hold together. Don’t add too much egg, or the latke will not hold together when you fry it.  In the photo below, I have about a cup of zucchini and yellow squash shreds, and into that I mixed one of my little chicken eggs (very small), and it was just perfect.  For 3 cups of shreds, one large egg should be just right, but mix it in a little at a time until all the shreds are moistened in the egg, but no egg is pooling in the bottom of the bowl.

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Drop by spoonfuls into hot oil. Flatten with back of spoon. Fry until golden brown and latke is holding together, then flip. I find using both a pancake turner and a silicone spatula makes turning the latkes easier.

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After the second side is brown, remove from hot oil and place on rack; sprinkle with salt and pepper. (If you put your rack over a cookie sheet in a warm oven, your latkes will stay crisper and warm.)

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Do not salt the latkes before frying or as they are frying. Salt causes zucchini to release more moisture. You can add the pepper whenever you like, but always salt them right after they come out of the frying pan.  These lovely little patties are scrumptious served with the dill sauce below, made with either plain Greek yogurt or sour cream.

Yogurt or Sour Cream Dill Sauce

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Mix 1 teaspoon fresh chopped dill weed or 1 teaspoon dried dill weed into ½ cup dairy sour cream or plain Greek yogurt. (You can make your own yogurt and sour cream.) A little minced red onion, up to a tablespoon, is good too. I also like to grate a little lemon peel into the sauce sometimes, and if you use commercial sour cream, some fresh squeezed lemon juice will loosen it to sauce consistency.

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If you have monster zucchini in your garden, consider freezing some for zucchini latkes this winter. To use frozen zucchini, simply thaw, drain, squeeze, and proceed as above.

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Garden and Greenhouse

A Re-purposed Tool

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, one of my first posts (maybe the second?) was about my favorite tools. One of those favorite tools was my old wire lawn chair. I found a new use for my chair/tool today. It’s a garlic dryer!

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Some of this garlic is too small and will be replanted. (Some has already been replanted).

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It was all started from seed, some two years ago and some three years ago. I did get some nice bulbs though, and the big ones all went through the larger rectangles on the chair’s back. The smaller ones went through the spaces on the seat. The chair is in the shadiest place on the property, the patio behind the big oak tree in the front of the house. The sun will never reach it there.

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It’s important to keep curing garlic out of the sun, as I discovered on my return from Crescent City last week. I had put the chair with the first batch of dug garlic in the shade of the apple tree, but one bulb had fallen through the grid, unobserved. I found it when I got back home. It had fallen where it was exposed to the sun and it looked almost as if it had been frozen. Sunlight adversely affects curing garlic, so it’s important to keep it out of the sun as it is drying.

I have a bit more garlic to gather, so it’s good that I have room on the chair to slot it in!

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When this garlic has dried a day or so, I’ll brush the dirt off the roots and let it continue to cure for several weeks. And then, I’m going to attempt braids for the first time. This is the first time I’ve had enough garlic to even try braids. And I don’t think I’m going to be buying any $3/lb garlic this winter, so yippee!

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Garden and Greenhouse, Travel

Crescent City’s Farmers’ Market

I’ve been in Crescent City, California, for several days. We come here to fish, see family and friends, and enjoy the special atmosphere of the Pacific coast. I grew up just south of here, in the little town of Klamath, and I went to high school in Crescent City. It’s always wonderful to come back home to the coast.

This town sits back from one of the most beautiful natural harbors I’ve ever seen, with a brand-new small boat basin that was completely rebuilt after the 2011 tsunami.   The old Battery Point Lighthouse is visible from where I sit writing, on the dry strip of grass behind where our travel trailer is parked at the Bayside RV park. Behind me are some derelict boats and the old docks that were pulled from the wrecked boat basin, and behind them, a marine fabrication and repair shop. It’s noisy and stinky, but that’s part of the experience of staying so close to the harbor.

 

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Crescent City has had a thriving farmers’ market for some years now, but I’ve never managed to be here when the market is being held. On Wednesday, as I was returning from a visit with an old friend, I noticed the Downtown Crescent City Farmers and Artisans Market sign in front of the Price Mall parking lot, where the market is set up, right along Front Street. (There’s also a farmers’ market at the fairgrounds on Saturdays.)

 

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I arrived just as the market was closing at 2 p.m., but I still managed to speak with Hallie from Ocean Air Farms and get a few snapshots of some lovely produce she had leftover and the signboard that advertised what the farm was offering that day. Hallie told me that the farm sells to the farmers’ markets in Crescent City and Brookings and to the local whole/health foods store in Crescent City. I have to say, that cabbage looked wonderful, and if I’d had room in the little fridge in the travel trailer, I’d have bought one.

 

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The farm is located in Fort Dick, which is inland just enough to get a little more warmth than is usual right in Crescent City, plus a little more relief from the coastal fog and winds, and is in an ideal growing area for all kinds of vegetables.

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For my garden on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s early in the season yet, but Ocean Air Farms is already harvesting and selling over a dozen different vegetables. The prices looked pretty good to me for fresh, organic produce, although I have to admit, I’m not a frequenter of farmers’ markets because I grow nearly everything I want in my own garden, so I’m not the best judge of a good price at a farmers’ market.

 

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Just down the row from the Ocean Air Farms’ booth, I spoke with Rick Finley from River Bar Soaps. His family-owned company makes and sells a lovely variety of glycerin soaps with luscious-sounding scents. I’m a recent convert to homemade soap (and I’ll be posting more about that soon), so Rick and I talked about how much better handmade bar soaps make your skin feel than the liquid hand and body washes that have become so popular in the last 30 years. (I can’t wait to tell you about my experience with handmade soaps, but another time). If you’re a local and shopping at the farmers’ market, you might want to take a look at the River Bar Soaps booth. There’s also a website at www.riverbarsoaps.com for non-locals.

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Most of the vendors were packing up, but I did manage to get a barbecued pork stick and some “Gatorade” (full of fruit and what my sister later told me was probably lychee) at the Filipino BBQ place, and boy, was that pork wonderful! I liked the drink too, but it was a little sweet for me. (I drank half of it, and then dumped some lime juice and some sparkling water in it when I got back to the trailer.) I strolled through the jewelry vendors’ booths as they were packing up, thinking how much sister would enjoy looking at the jewelry and wishing she were with me, and then I took my lunch down to the B street pier and ate while watching a brown pelican coasting in the bay. I found a great place for Dennis and me to launch the little kayaks so we can paddle around the protected harbor.

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Wednesday was one of those wonderful days in Crescent City where the fog burns off early, and the sun comes out and mostly stays out, and the wind doesn’t get too strong. We had fresh fish for dinner and family to share it with. Feast time!

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Garden and Greenhouse, Uncategorized

Potting Up

This post is about potting up those seeds you started that are now needing larger homes.  I use somewhat unorthodox containers for my potting up.

Awhile back, I wrote a post about my seed-starting procedure for peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. The bell peppers and eggplant I started when that post was written are ready to go into the planter boxes in the greenhouse. I grow them in there because it’s the only way I can get their fruit to ripen. I just have to wait a little longer before I transplant them, until I know that I have the aphid-farming ants under control. I put out some sugar/borax mixture the other day, and haven’t seen an ant since. The ants themselves are not the problem; it’s the aphids they farm that suck the life out of the plants and prevent them from bearing as they should. I didn’t get a single eggplant last year and only a few stunted bell peppers because of the aphids.

The jalapenos and Serrano peppers will grow out in the garden, but it won’t be warm enough to set them out for at least a month, so they needed transplanting into larger containers. I also had a few tomato plants ready for transplanting.

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I planted 57 germinated tomato seeds, but a freak accident killed most of them. One morning, just a few days after I’d put the sprouted tomato seeds in their containers of soil, I left home for physical therapy in town, and to do some errands afterwards. It was a cool, cloudy morning, so I left the greenhouse closed up and the rope light on in the heated sand box with the lid on. The tomato six-packs were in that box. The clouds cleared off early, and the temperature climbed. I came home in the late afternoon to find the greenhouse at 120 degrees (it may have been hotter, but the thermometer was topped out at 120). There’s no telling how hot it was in the heated sand box, but it was hot enough to kill about 5 out of every 6 germinated seeds. I discovered that when after two weeks, only one or two in each container had emerged. The lesson there, always at least crack the lid on the hot box during the day. That venting might have saved my seedlings.

I do tend to go overboard with tomatoes. I always say I will scale back, and then I discover a new heirloom variety, and before I know it, I’ve planted 50 or so seeds. I really intended to not grow so many this year, but . . . the inevitable happened. So I guess the overheated greenhouse was God’s way of rescuing me from too many tomatoes. I have a few of each variety I planted except San Marzano. Even after replanting, the San Marzanos didn’t germinate. That seed must be old. Good thing I saved some fresh from last year’s crop.

At any rate, a couple of days ago, I potted up 6 jalapenos and 6 Serrano peppers, and about a dozen tomatoes. For growing on, I use a rather unusual container. I plant my peppers and tomatoes in Styrofoam cups.

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Now I can just hear some of the objections. “Styrofoam isn’t green!” “What about recycling?” To the first objection, I will say this. No, Styrofoam isn’t typically thought of as a green material because it doesn’t break down. And that’s precisely why I use Styrofoam cups for pots. They are durable, can be used over and over (my answer to the second objection), and are easy to use. I began using Styrofoam cups a few years ago, and I am still using the same cups I started with. I did have to open a new package the other day because I have given away or sold some of my plants over the years and haven’t gotten the cups back.

Here’s how it works. I take a sharp knife (or the blade of a scissors or a fork) and poke several holes in the bottom of a 16 oz. cup. I also poke a few holes around the base of the cup, about a half-inch from the bottom, to ensure good drainage. I use a Sharpie to mark the cup with the plant variety and transplant date, then I fill the cup with my moist soil mix, and use my thumb to create a nice well for the tomato or pepper seedling’s rootball to fill.

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I use an old table fork to pry the seedling out of the six-pack cell and place it in the cup’s well. I press down firmly, and if it’s a tomato seedling, I add more soil to bring the soil level up to just below the seed leaves. Some people plant their tomato seedlings all the way up to the seed leaves in the first transplanting, but I don’t. The stem is still tender, and I want to give the seedling the chance to set its already-developed roots before it has to grow too many roots on its little stem. (When I plant the tomato in the garden, I’ll bury it down to the seed leaves.)

I do not deep-plant pepper seedlings. There’s some controversy about whether or not pepper stems grow roots like tomatoes, and whether or not it’s a good idea to deep-plant them. I don’t do it for one very simple reason. Peppers grow slowly. If you deep-plant a pepper seedling to grow roots on the stem, you are just delaying the fruiting process. I’ve never done it, and my hot peppers do very well outside in my short growing season. I’m afraid that trying to root pepper stems would seriously set back my pepper harvest.  So I just transplant to the same soil level as the plant was in its original container.

After transplanting, I water the seedling to settle the soil and the plant’s roots into the soil, and then the tomato cups go into an aluminum foil roasting pan which sits on the warmed planting beds in the greenhouse until it’s time to start hardening off the plants prior to planting out. If we get a late freeze, I plug in the radiant oil heater and set the foil pans around it to keep them from freezing. The foil pans also reflect light and warmth on dark days, and they make it easy for me to move the plants in and out of the greenhouse for hardening-off.

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The cups of transplanted peppers went back into the heated sand box. The rope light is now on a timer and only comes on at night. The lid stays off, and this gives the peppers enough warmth to be happy without making them wimpy. The eggplants and bell peppers went back under the light (along with a few tomatoes too small to transplant). The light is only on at night now as well (and also on a timer), until I’ve decided I’m ant-free and can plant them.

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I use 16 oz. cups because they allow me to bury my tomato seedlings to just the right depth and allow for good root development. For peppers, which will stay in the greenhouse until June, the 16 oz. cup gives this slow grower plenty of root room as well. This size gives my plants enough room to grow for the next month or six weeks before I plant them out under cover. If your plants don’t need to stay in pots as long as mine do, you could use 8 oz. cups. And as I said before, the cups can be used over and over, so for me, they’re guilt-free. When it comes time to transplant the young tomato or pepper into the garden, the root ball slides easily and freely out of that Styrofoam cup. It’s slick inside, you see, and if you need to squeeze a bit or tap on the bottom to free up the plant (I usually don’t have to), the cup can stand up to the pressure. And then when it’s time to put the cups away after the plants are in the ground, you just nest them inside each other and put them back in the bag for easy storage.

I recycle or reuse just about everything. I save plastic six-, four-, and three-packs from flowers or other plants I might buy and use them over and over again in the greenhouse as my seedlings’ first homes. I bought both my Styrofoam cups and foil roasting pans at the Dollar Store, so my main cash outlay in the greenhouse is in good, organic bagged soil. I usually get mine at the local nursery, whatever brand they have on sale, because it is not cheap. And yes, I recycle it!

Any soil or starting medium left in the six packs is dumped into a labeled bag, and I use it the following year for starting my flower seeds. After the soil has been used for flowers, it’s dumped into the planting beds in the greenhouse or in the garden. I let the worms recharge it there.

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I also potted up some petunias and marigolds that I started from seed a month ago. I love petunias, but since seed companies have decided to start pelleting the seed, I do not have good luck growing them. The pelleted seed just refuses to germinate for me. Out of 50 pelleted seeds, I might get 6 or 7 plants. I do know how to grow petunia seed that hasn’t been tampered with; you just have to cover it very lightly, barely scratching it in because it is smaller than fine salt. (Back in the day, 40 years ago, I started hundreds of petunias from unpelleted seed and grew them on in flats for planting in the flower beds of the Trees of Mystery, where I was the head gardener.)

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Some years ago, I noticed that petunias would volunteer in my garden, so I started collecting seed from those volunteers and planting them in the greenhouse so I can have more and more and more petunias! After several generations, I now have petunias that are very hardy and smell incredible. (That’s my favorite thing about petunias—the scent.) I don’t have a lot of color variation. No reds or purples or ruffles or stripes, just plain trumpets in a pale pink, a deeper pink, a white, and a lavender, but I don’t care about the limited color selection. I care that I can grow petunias that smell heavenly, and I don’t have to mess around with that stupid pelleted seed.

I always plant lots of marigolds throughout my garden. They help to keep the tomato and cabbage worms away from those crops, and I just love their sunny colors. I get some volunteers every year, but not enough, so I gather seed each fall for the next year’s crop.

One last word about unorthodox containers. I will use just about anything as a seed-starting container in the greenhouse. The blue boxes in the picture below are Styrofoam mushroom boxes. I save them when I buy mushrooms, wash the boxes, poke holes in them for drainage just like the cups, and use them for starting flowers. I also save the plastic boxes that cherry tomatoes, or grapes, or blueberries are sometimes packaged in (there’s one in the picture above that’s about to receive some petunias), those plastic trays that hold grocery store sweet rolls (my husband buys those sometimes), and any other plastic thing that can be used like a flat, especially if it already has some kind of drainage holes in it. Then I fill the container with soil or starting medium and sow my seed like I would in a flat. When the plants are up and ready for pricking off, I may use a similar container and plant six to a mushroom or grape box.

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If I need larger containers, say, gallon-size, and I’ve used up all my actual pots, metal or plastic coffee cans make good temporary pots. They just need some nail holes poked into them for drainage. For the plastic coffee cans, hold the nail head with pliers and heat the tip with a lighter, then poke it through the plastic. These can be used over and over again as well.

I’m going to leave you with two transplanting tips. 1) My favorite transplanting tool is a common table fork. I have several in the greenhouse. As I mentioned before, they are useful for prying a seedling out of its cell in a six-pack without damaging the root ball. They’re also useful for disentangling roots in a wad of seedlings from a “flat.” I use a fork to tease the plants and roots apart for transplanting. (They also make good weeders if they’re sturdy enough.)

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And 2) when you’re transplanting, always remember to handle seedlings by their leaves or roots, never by their stems. If you bruise the stem, you’ll likely lose the plant. The stem is the conduit from the roots to the leaves, the spine, if you will. Damage it, and your plant is toast. Bulky gloves are no good for transplanting, so if you have an owie on your finger (like I often do), use vinyl or nitrile gloves to protect your hands. It’s a lot easier to handle delicate seedlings with thin, surgical-type gloves. Oh, I guess that was a bonus, tip #3!

 

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Garden and Greenhouse

It’s Time for Tomatoes!

In my last post, I detailed my seed-starting procedure, beginning with peppers. All of those pepper seeds germinated in the plastic bags on paper towels, were planted in containers of warmed, moist seed-starting mix, and placed in the heated sand box to emerge. They’ve now emerged and are under a grow light (cutting several days off the time it would take to germinate them in seed starting mix) so the sand box is free for tomato seedlings. But first, I have to sprout them.

I germinate tomato seeds the same way I do peppers, on a wet paper towel sealed inside a plastic zipper bag (click link to seed starting process ), but tomatoes usually sprout much faster. The seed coat of a tomato isn’t as hard; whereas, a pepper seed might take up to a week (or even a little longer) to sprout, tomato seeds usually sprout within three days or so in the bags, and the seed leaves usually emerge from the soil just a couple of days after planting the germinated seed.

(Note: of the ten varieties of tomato seeds I started on 2/22/15, five of them, including Red Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Rainbow, Black Vermissage, and Roma) have sprouted some seeds within 48 hrs. of placement in the bag, and others are showing the characteristic “pointing” of the seed coat which indicates that the radicle (embryonic root) is beginning to push through the seed coat.)

The seed packet says the seedlings should emerge in 8-10 days when planted directly into soil, so you can see that germinating on paper towels in plastic bags can cut up to five days off the initial germination process. As I said in the previous post, five days might not matter to some folks with a longer growing season, but it makes a big difference to me. I have to cope with a short growing season usually started by a delayed and chancy spring, and often ending in an early, bitter fall.

I taught myself something this year about the paper towel/plastic bag method of seed starting. I learned the paper towel sprouting method online, but the site I used (years ago—I have no idea where it was now) said to roll up the paper towels into tubes and insert all the tubes into one single plastic zipper bag. I never thought inserting all the tubes containing  different varieties into the same bag was a good idea—it’s possible to transmit diseases on some of the seeds to all of them that way, so I always used separate bags for different varieties of one plant or different species altogether. In addition, I’ve had some trouble with the tubes in past years. If you wait just one day too long to plant your seeds, the radicle will have grown into the paper towel, and then you have to be very careful not to damage it when you remove the seed for planting in the containers, and this is complicated further by the need to unroll the tube. This year, I thought, why not just fold one thickness of paper towel over the seed, put each one into its own zipper sandwich bag, and let it go at that. And I discovered that doing this makes it really easy to check for germination. You just hold the bag up to the window or a bright light, and you can see how many seeds have sprouted without even opening the bag. You can decide whether some of the seeds need to go into the soil immediately, or whether you can wait another day for the laggards.

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Because I already have seeds sprouting and will be planting them in soil today, yesterday (3/24/15)  I had to get the six packs filled with organic sprouting medium, moistened, and into the heat/sand box to warm up, so that the sprouted seeds don’t get shocked moving from a warm environment (the bag by the stove) into a cold one.

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If all my seeds sprout, I’m going to be a little short on space in the heated sand box, but I’m not expecting 100% germination out of the older seed. And if I run out of space, I will have to rig another heat box with the old rope light, which should work well enough for a few extra containers.

All this means I should have tomato seedlings by the end of the week! And that means that I will have about six weeks to grow them on before it’s time to set them out in the garden. That should be just about right. Tomatoes grow very quickly, especially in the protected environment of the greenhouse. It’s also important not to set out tomato plants that are blooming. You might think you’re getting a head start this way, but the transplanting process causes the tomato stem to root, and diverts energy from fruit production. It’s actually better, even with a short growing season, to plant tomatoes before they have developed blossoms.   For more about growing on, see my post from last spring:  “Transplant.”

I planted 30 germinated tomato seeds today.  I might have gone a little overboard, as usual. I started 67 tomato seeds from 10 different varieties,and I’ll probably be planting the rest within a day or two. I’m expecting about 60 plants, because some of my seed is getting a little old, and I don’t expect more than a 50% germination rate from a few varieties. (When the germination rate for a particular seed packet, whether homegrown or store bought, falls below 50%, I discard the seed for fresh. But I have saved seeds from my heirlooms since 2010, so I have a lot of extra seed too.) Some of these plants are for my son and daughter, and if I still have more than I need for my own garden, I’ll sell or give away the extras.

Every year, I say I won’t grow so many tomatoes, because I work myself to a frazzle preserving the fruit in the late summer and fall. But every spring, I’m just too tantalized by the prospect of ripe, sweet, homegrown tomatoes to eat fresh, or turn into charred salsa or Italian red sauce or tomato-apple chutney, to restrain myself.

 

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Garden and Greenhouse

Spring Seed Starting

Update:  the LED rope light works!   See below.

It’s spring, no matter what the calendar says, but here in northeastern California, in the northern spur of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, spring is always chancy. A few years ago, my husband built a little greenhouse for me, so my spring seed starting is so much easier than it used to be when I had to start everything in the house and rig up lamps in the laundry room and move seed flats outside for sunlight and inside for cold protection. I have a much better system now that I want to share with those of you who are fortunate enough to have a greenhouse or who can rig something similar for seed starting on a sunny, enclosed porch, or even in a warm basement.

First, I germinate my slowest seeds in the house, near the heating stove. The temperature by the stove is about 75-80 degrees, which is perfect for the slow-to-germinate seeds like peppers and eggplant. I decide how many of each kind of plant I want to grow, and I place my seeds on damp paper towels, spaced out with several inches between each seed, one kind of seed to a towel, of course, and then fold the towel over and place it in a new, plastic zipper closure sandwich bag. I label the outside of the bag with a Sharpie, writing the type of seed/plant and the date I started them. All the sandwich bags go into a clean, larger zipper bag, and that is wrapped in an old towel and placed by the stove to warm.

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One advantage to starting seeds this way is it cuts out the guesswork in how many seeds will germinate. You can see within a few days which seeds are viable and which aren’t going to sprout. You can start more without waiting and wondering what’s going under the soil, where you can’t see the seeds. You can tell if your seed is getting old, and if you need to buy fresh.

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By the way, if you are throwing out seeds and buying fresh ones every year, I hate to tell you how much money you are wasting. Most seeds are viable for years, and there are things you can do to improve seed life. I keep my seeds in plastic containers (glass would be better but I don’t have enough large glass containers) with several silica or charcoal packets (saved from medication bottles and from shoe boxes) in each container to absorb moisture. These containers are kept in my cool, unheated laundry room. I have had seeds (pumpkins and herbs) last 20 years or more in these conditions.

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Of the peppers, jalapenos typically sprout first. As soon as the first little white root emerges, usually in only a few days, I take the seeds out to the greenhouse.

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(Check on your bags of seeds every day—if the little roots grow too long, they grow into the paper towels, and then you have to carefully tear the paper towel around the seed and root and plant a bit of it with the seed to avoid damaging the root.)

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I’ve already gotten my heated sand box warming up the containers of moist soil that the seeds will go into. I carefully remove each seed from the paper towel and place them in the soil, covering them with as much moistened, warmed soil as the seed packet recommends. I also sprinkle the top of each container with ground cinnamon as soon as the seeds are planted. Cinnamon is anti-fungal, and helps prevent damping-off. It also helps me mark the cells I’ve planted in the six-packs, in case not all the seeds in a plastic bag sprout at the same time, which sometimes happens, especially if the seed is getting old. If I have to plant only one or two cells in a container one day, and two more cells the next, I can tell which cells have already been planted because they have been sprinkled with cinnamon.

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I’ve never had an issue with damping-off since I started using cinnamon some years ago, and it sure makes the greenhouse smell good! Each container is labeled with seed type and date and placed back into the heat box to continue growing. This method of germination takes several days, sometimes even a week, off the time it takes to germinate seeds in the soil, and in my area, I need all the growing time I can get. We have a very short growing season here, so even a few days can make a difference as to how much produce I can harvest.

My heat box consists of a large plastic tub filled half-full of builder’s sand that you can buy in a bag at a hardware or lumber supply store. On top of the sand is a rope light. My husband drilled a hole through the tub so that the end of the rope light fits through the tub and can be plugged into an extension cord that runs electricity to the greenhouse from the outside outlet on the side of the house.

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We plan to wire the greenhouse one day, but that hasn’t happened yet, and in the meantime, this works okay. The rope light heats the sand, which retains heat, and radiates heat to the shallower plastic tub placed above the heat box. This tub contains the seeds that have been planted into the soil-filled containers, and is covered with a lid to retain the heat. Seeds like peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes prefer bottom heat until their seeds leaves emerge from the soil. At that point, it’s time to put them under a grow light.

This system has worked beautifully for several years, but unfortunately, this year I noticed that my rope light had become somewhat brittle and discolored with heat and light, and several lights had burned out in various sections, so that the whole rope wasn’t producing as much heat as it has in previous years.

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I bought a new rope light, but I had reservations about this one. This rope light contained LED lights, which don’t produce nearly as much heat as the old bulbs, and I wasn’t sure the 18 foot rope would heat my sand box up to the temperature preferred by peppers and other heat-loving seeds. Sure enough, it didn’t. Now, I’m scrambling to find an alternative source of heat for the sand box, and hoping that my peppers and eggplant didn’t get too chilled when I made the substitution last night. I’m thinking I may have to find an old, short string of Christmas lights to provide heat for the sandbox, at least for this spring, until I can figure something else out.  Just when you have a good system down, it seems like new technology puts a kink in the works.  That tells me I’m getting old!

(UPDATE:  I just checked the heat box in the greenhouse, and the LED rope light has warmed up the sand and the sprouting box above beautifully!  I guess it just took a day or so to heat up.  What a relief!)

For growing on after the seeds have put up seed leaves, I have another plastic tub with a clear lid where the plants which have emerged sit under a grow light. On warm, sunny days, when the greenhouse heats up, I turn off the light, raise it out of the way (it’s tied off to small pulleys usually used for raising and lowering hanging plants for watering), and take off the lid. On cool, cloudy days, I leave the light on and the lid closed, although sometimes I crack it a bit to allow excess moisture to evaporate. The light stays on all night and the lid stays closed to keep the plants from freezing, as our temps typically stay in the low 30s at night through April, and we can get hard freezes into the first week of June.

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This year, I started flower seeds early, and I put them under the light, since they don’t require bottom heat like the peppers and eggplants do. I have several species already sprouted, including marigolds, zinnias, and schizanthus, which will be moved to the lid on top of the heat box when the peppers and eggplant and tomatoes require the space in the light box. By that time, the greenhouse should be staying above freezing at night, and if not, I’ll use a heater.

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As the weather warms, and the greenhouse heats up, the soil in the planting beds and the gravel floor act as solar collectors. As the plants outgrow the light box, I prick them off and transplant them to larger containers. I put those containers into flats and move them to the planting beds (which are partially planted in spinach and lettuce) where the soil helps keep them warm though cold nights.  Here’s a pic from a couple of years ago.  This spring’s spinach has just sprouted.  (I didn’t get it planted last fall because of my shoulder injury.)

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If a really cold night threatens, I have a radiant, oil-filled heater that I put in the greenhouse and turn down to its lowest setting, about 55 degrees, just enough to keep the plants from freezing. By this time, they are beginning to harden off, and I’ll finish that process outside on sunny days before I plant out.

I’ve learned that I can extend my growing season by planting out my tender plants like peppers, tomatoes, squashes and melons, in late April or May under water-filled covers (Walls of Water is one brand name).

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These act like mini-greenhouses, heating the soil and air around the plant and keeping the temps under the covers about 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding air, so even if the nighttime temperature dips down to 23 degrees, the plants won’t freeze under the covers. The covers can be tee-peed at the top on cold nights and opened up on warm days to allow air to circulate around the plant. I have to be careful about when I plant out, because if I do it too early, the plants will outgrow the protection of the covers, and what’s outside the cover can be killed back by a hard frost. I’ve lost tomato tops this way in the past when I’ve planted out in early April; although the covers keep the base of the plant from freezing, and the tops will grow back, it retards the plant’s blooming and fruiting stage. Also, most plants don’t like to be closed up inside the covers for too long. They can become diseased from too much moisture and warmth.

I’ve kept a garden log for several years, recording the dates I germinate seeds, plant them in containers in the greenhouse, harden them off or plant them outside under water-filled covers, so I know generally when I want to start and plant out various species. But there’s always a certain amount of guesswork, the necessity of updating equipment, and the occasional scramble to protect plants when a hard freeze threatens unexpectedly. That’s just part of gardening in challenging mountain conditions.  It keeps me on my toes.

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