Garden and Greenhouse

Back in the Garden

When I first started this blog at the urging of my good friend, Jordan Clary, and others, I thought I’d be primarily writing a garden blog.  But then I said, “What will I write about during the winter, when the garden goes to sleep?”  I got a lot of answers, but the one that worked itself out over the winter was cooking.  I’d write about cooking what I’d grown and harvested, what I’d managed to gather during the summer and fall, what I regularly make from scratch, and what the Mighty Hunter and our son had harvested during hunting season.  And that’s what I’ve done, with a few detours here and there, since the garden went to bed for the winter.  But now the garden is awake again, and for the past week or so, I’ve been out there preparing and planting and watching what’s happening in both the garden and the greenhouse.  In a sense, this post is a progress report.

This past fall, we had an acorn crop like nothing I’ve ever seen before in more than 27 years on this piece of land.

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That was great, except that I forgot about the acorns when I asked Dennis to put the fall raking of pine needles and oak leaves on the garden, as usual.  My intention was to use the pine needles and leaves as mulch, which I have done before, for many years.  That is the reason my soil is so rich and soft for 6 inches down.  I’ve been building soil with leaves, pine needles, and straw, for more than 25 years.  For the last two years, I haven’t put any straw on my garden except what came from the old bales of straw Dennis was using for his bow target backstop out back.  I haven’t been able to find clean, organic oat straw here where I live.  It’s either sprayed or full of thistles and oats.  I don’t mind the oats; I just pull them up when they sprout and add them to the mulch, but I don’t want thistles, and I’m still coping with the fallout from the last batch two years ago.  But I do have an unending supply of oak leaves and pine needles.  I was stoked at having a big pile of them in the garden, until I remembered the acorns.

Sure enough, that pile of leaves and pine needles was riddled with acorns.  And after the spring rain we had, they were splitting and getting ready to root; some had already sent out radicles to pierce the ground.  These are black oaks, and believe me, they are lovely trees, and I love them, but you do not want to let them root where you don’t want a tree.  They’re very hard to get rid of.  The grandkids and I planted some acorns in pots to transplant later at their house, and the rest I dumped out beyond the fire pit, so that the deer and squirrels could help themselves, and so that maybe some of them would sprout in a place that wouldn’t endanger my garden.  That whole pile of leaves and needles had to be burned because there was no way I could sift all the acorns out of it, and the ashes were then spread.  After that was done, it was time to turn my attention to the greenhouse.

I have a small greenhouse that Dennis built for me so that I could start all my tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, and other tender garden plants that I used to have to buy or struggle to raise in the house.  I love it.  I can play in the dirt long before the garden is ready.  But there was a lot going on in the French household this spring, so I didn’t get out to the greenhouse as early as I wanted to this year.  I’d planned to start my peppers and eggplant by the first of March, but I didn’t start them germinating until the second week of March.

I germinate my early seeds before I put them in soil for a couple of reasons.  First, I can control the temperature a little better if I germinate first.  Second, I can tell how many plants I’ll have, and it helps me plan a little better.  Any seed that doesn’t germinate isn’t planted, so I don’t have to plant more seeds than I need plants to guarantee that I’ll have enough of the plants I want.  Once in a while, a seed that germinates and is then planted fails to emerge, but very seldom.

Hot pepper and bell pepper seeds, eggplant seeds, and tomato seeds are all germinated between damp paper towels rolled up in plastic wrap, stuffed in a plastic Ziploc bag, and stashed by the heating stove for a couple of days.

As soon as they send out a radicle, or embryonic root, I pick the seeds off the paper towel and put them into the soil-filled containers I’ve prepared.  (If I let them go a little too long, and the roots have grown into the paper towel, I just tear off that little piece of paper towel and stuff it in the planting medium, where it will rot down.)  For seeds that like a lot of warmth, like peppers and eggplant, I make sure I fill the containers (usually reused plastic 3-, 4-, 6- or 9-cell containers from the nursery) with wet starting medium and put them the day before in my heated sandbox.  This is just a plastic tub with a hole drilled for the plug of a string of rope lights.  The tub is half filled with clean builder’s sand, and the rope lights go on top of the sand.  When the rope lights are plugged in, they warm both the sand and the shallower tub I place on top.  The containers of soil and seeds go in the top tub, and the bottom tub keeps the temperature at around 80 degrees, even on a sub-freezing night.  A lid goes on top to trap both heat and moisture:  a perfect seed starting environment.

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Last week, I put the germinated jalapeno, Serrano, habanero, and bell pepper seeds, and the eggplant, in the sand/heat box.  Two days later, one of the jalapeno seeds had already put out two seed leaves and was ready to go into the light box.  The light box is just a shallow, clear plastic tub that sits under the grow light I found at a thrift store for $3.

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Last week, I also started cabbage and kale seeds.  Because they don’t need much heat, I put them under the light with the lid off to germinate, and most of those seeds have sent out seed leaves.  As soon as they have four true leaves, I’ll transplant them into the garden. They are hardy and can take some cold temperatures once they’ve sprouted.

Also last week, I planted some garlic seed/bulblets from plants I let flower and go to seed last summer.  I’ve done this before.  The smaller seeds take two years to get big enough to harvest, and I have some in the greenhouse and out in the garden I’ll harvest this summer.

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Along with the garlic, I planted several different kinds of lettuce in one of my raised bed boxes made of old redwood fenceposts.  This is the box bed I usually plant cherry tomatoes in, which works well because by the time the tomatoes are needing more space, the lettuce is done.  The picture on the right, below, is the same bed early last June, just after planting the cherry tomatoes.  I got a lot of good lettuce out of that bed before the tomatoes needed more room to sprawl.

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The same goes for spinach in the heirloom tomato box bed. I allow the spinach to go to seed in the summer and self-sow.  This way, I have spinach much earlier in the spring than I would have it if I waited to sow seed myself. My spinach seedlings are several weeks old now, so I’ll have spinach to pick that much sooner than if I’d sown it this past week.  Below is a picture of the heirloom tomato box bed last spring, after I’d planted the tomatoes but before I’d picked all the spinach.  You can also see that baby garlic that I planted from seed early last spring.  I love interplanting this way.

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March is the optimum time to plant potatoes and carrots here, but we can seldom plant anything at this time of year because the garden is still usually at least a foot deep in snow.  This year, with the severe drought conditions California is experiencing, we have had no snow.  The garden soil is moist because we’ve had some spring rain, so this week, the grandkids and I planted both potatoes and carrots.

Even an experienced gardener sometimes makes mistakes.  We’ve had some family worries this winter and spring, and I’ll admit that my mind has often not been on my garden.  And yet, the garden is solace for me.  It’s the place where I find peace.  And so, when I can, I’m out there.  Where I made my mistake this year was in relying on my memory and not looking over all of my leftover seeds to see what I need to buy.  I seal up my leftover seed packets with masking tape and store them in the cool laundry room in large plastic containers.  I save silica packets from shoe boxes, medicine bottles, and other products, and I tuck them into the containers to absorb moisture and help keep the seeds fresh.  I have different storage containers for seeds that are planted at different times, and I didn’t check all of my containers.  I thought I had more carrot seed than I did.  As the grandkids made their furrows for planting the carrots (crooked, of course, but I don’t care because I don’t till after planting), I realized I only had a nearly-empty packet of carrot seed.  I remembered then that I’d given the rest of it to my son last spring, and I never bought any more.

Kaedynce and Bryce were only able to plant one row of carrots, and heaven knows if any of the seed will come up, because Bryce, the 7-year-old, covered it, but I can replant with fresh seed, and they will never know the difference.  Both Bryce and Kaedynce promised to come back and help me plant the rest of the rows when I get more seed.  Their favorite things about Nana’s house are the cookie jar that’s never empty, the roasted pumpkin and squash seeds on the coffee table all winter, and the carrots in the garden in the summer time.

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Dennis dug two potato trenches for us (again crooked, but since I don’t till between them, it doesn’t matter a bit) and Bryce and Kaedynce and I planted the potatoes left from last fall’s harvest that had shriveled and sprouted in their box in the pump house.

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We plant the potatoes six inches deep over a sprinkling of Dr. Earth Organic Garden Fertilizer, and then I mulch with 6-12 inches of leaves, pine needles, and straw, if I have any clean straw.  This mulch holds moisture in the soil, keeps down weeds, protects the potato plants from late frosts after they emerge, protects the potatoes from sunburn after they form, and makes it easier to dig them in the fall.

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The next spring, the mulch can be raked back and reused after planting, or tilled into the soil.  I never plant potatoes in the same spot in the garden they grew in the year before, but we always miss a few when we dig, so there are usually volunteers in the previous year’s bed.  I don’t care.  I just plant around them.  The volunteers are usually ready earlier than the ones we plant, so we have new potatoes around the 4th of July.

Kaedynce and Bryce have helped me plant potatoes each spring, and harvest them each fall, since they could walk.  Kaedynce reminds Bryce, “Don’t pick them up by the sprouts,” and Bryce reminds Kaedynce, “Don’t put them too close together, and make sure the sprouts are pointing up.”  They are expert potato planters by now, and I regret not getting pictures of them doing it again this year.  By that time the photographer in the family, Grandpa, was getting out the hot dogs and marshmallows for our reward for a job well done, a wienie roast at the fire pit.

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There’s lots more to do in the garden and greenhouse in the coming weeks.  I have volunteer spinach and romaine seedlings in the greenhouse that need to be thinned and tomato seedlings, winter squash, and cantaloupes to start.  There’s some more tilling for Dennis to do in the garden, and some transplanting of blueberries, and more potatoes to be planted, and of course, those carrots.  It’s something to look forward to, and I need that now.  I need the promise of spring that only a garden, and grandchildren, bring.

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Garden and Greenhouse

January Daze

The holidays have come and gone.  I’ve used up all the leftovers, and I’m sick and tired of cooking.  It’s the time of year when I’m glad I have a well-stocked pantry.  I can open a jar of abalone chowder base (just add half & half and sherry), or a jar of venison chili or venison stew, mix up a batch of cornbread, open a jar of pickles or dilly beans, and there’s dinner.

I tend to get a little blue in January.  After the holiday rush and bustle, the delight of having the whole family together, and the fun of watching the little ones enjoy the season, I always feel a little let down.  I remind myself that this is the time for rest.  Like my garden, I need this time to regenerate.  I need some quiet time to rest and think.  I need time for reflection.

When I was teaching, reflection was an important part of the way I taught writing as a process.  If we don’t take time to reflect on what we’ve done, we’re missing an opportunity for learning.  Rushing from one assignment to the next (whatever kinds of assignments these are, whether self-imposed or part of a standardized course) doesn’t give us time to understand what we’ve done well, where we need to improve, and what we need not do again.  Reflection allows us to make a solid plan for the future, based on what we know worked, or didn’t, in the past.

So this is the time when I pull out my garden log and go over the notes I made about the garden and the harvest during the spring, summer, and fall.  It’s the time when I decide what changes need to be made in what I plant and where I plant it.  It’s the time when I sort through my seed packets to see what I need to buy fresh and how much.  It’s a planning time, and it heartens me.

Seed catalogs have been arriving for a couple of months.  I put them aside until January, when their bright, colorful photographs cheer me and remind me that another growing season will fill me with energy, purpose, and hope.

I don’t buy a lot of seeds.  I sow very frugally because I hate to thin.  A packet of carrot seeds will usually last me two years because I don’t use them all the first year I open them.  The same with most small seeds:  beets, lettuce, spinach, etc.  I seal up the opened seed packets with masking tape, and I put all my unused seeds into an old plastic mayonnaise jar with a tight-fitting lid.  Into the jar along with the seeds, I place several silica packets, the kind that are shipped inside large bottles of medications, to absorb moisture.  I put this container in my laundry room, which stays cool summer and winter, and my seeds stay fresh for years.  I have some large packets of lettuce seeds that I’ve been planting from for ten years.

Seeds grown and processed for storage organically may be viable for a very long time.  There are reports of seeds left in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years that grew when planted.  Unfortunately, many large commercial seed companies began some years ago to treat seeds with substances that are supposed to increase germination rates and/or provide protection against pests and pathogens during and right after germination.  I believe these treatments affect seeds’ viability if they are not used within the first growing season after harvest.  For this reason, and the fact that I don’t like the idea of chemically-treated seed, I’ve begun to look for organic seeds and to grow more and more heirloom varieties and save the seeds myself.  Tomato seeds are very easy to harvest and save, and I’ve had very good luck with them.  I always germinate seeds like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant between moist paper towels stuffed inside plastic zipper bags.  It only takes a couple of days, and that way, I know exactly how many plants I will get from those seeds.  When the sprouts have just broken the seed coat, I can use tweezers to gently move them from the paper towels into warm, damp seed-starting medium and put them under a grow light in the greenhouse.

For other plants like lettuce and spinach, I allow self-sowing.  I let these plants flower (which has an added benefit of giving the bees more blossoms to milk). This means the garden gets pretty raggedy-looking in July and August, when the plants bolt and send up tall spikes of unremarkable flowers, then turn brown and, well, seedy-looking, but it saves me time and work and energy, and I get lettuce and spinach earlier the following spring.  There’s no guesswork on my part about when to plant:  the self-sown seeds sprout when conditions are favorable.  The plants and seeds do all the work.  Sometimes the seeds sprout where I didn’t expect them to, but I just work around them.  I like the spontaneity of allowing self-sowing.  I don’t mind a head of romaine in the middle of the row of carrots.

Larger seeds like pumpkins and squash are also viable for years when left untreated.  I have a pumpkin seed story that makes me smile every time I think of it.  When my children were small, I always grew jack-o’- pumpkins for them.  I usually grew a medium-sized variety, and we’d cook the pumpkins down the day after Halloween for pumpkin pies.  But one year when they were a little older, they wanted big pumpkins, so I planted a variety called Big Max.  They were big, all right.  We don’t have a very long growing season here, but we got a few Big Maxes, and I grew them for the kids for several years before I stopped growing a garden under the pressures of completing my M.A.

When my grandchildren were old enough to enjoy the idea of growing their own jack-o’-lanterns, I dug out the few leftover Big Max seeds and planted them.  Those seeds were twenty years old, at least, maybe older, and I got about a 50% germination rate from them.  Kaedynce and Bryce grew four big carving pumpkins from two plants.  I had stored the seeds using the method above, with silica packets in my leftover seed jar.  That was several years ago, but the kids still talk about Big Max and Maxine.  Yes, they named their jack- o’-lantern pumpkins!

Despite (or perhaps because of) this experience with the pumpkin seeds, I know that as my seeds get older, their viability will begin to decrease.  This is natural.  So I always plant a few extra seeds, more than I would if the seed was fresh.  This spring, because of my garden log, I know that while I still have a few Minnesota Midget cantaloupe seeds left (the only melons that do well in my garden), they will be five years old this spring, and I only got about 50% germination out of them last year.  I need fresh seed.  They are a hybrid, so I can’t save the seed myself.  But I’ll still soak the old ones and sprout them between paper towels, so I can use up every last seed that’s viable.  I don’t like to waste a thing if I can help it.

Just thinking about spring planting cheers me up.  On this gray day, when we’re in the middle of another drought cycle, and yet another moisture-bearing storm is pushing north of us, leaving only dry clouds to veil the winter sun, it’s good to rest, reflect, and plan.  That’s what January is for, in my book.

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