Well, the time off from the garden has ended. We finished last year’s in early November, and with the arrival of the seed packets recently, the game is again afoot. The seed trays and potting soil have been sterilized and set out for this year’s garden.
It is early in the season yet, being winter and all. However with row covers, it won’t be long at all before we can sow lettuces, peas and more outside. Meantime, the “spare bedroom” has become the seed nursery again.
In a review of the seed collection we have, it seems that this year will be a year for cabbage. Our stock seed was getting a little too old (germination rate drops the older it gets), so it’s time to plant the old and place the new into stock.
Today we planted four trays of cabbage; two green species and a red.
I”ve mentioned my intention to re-invent the herb garden, and that process begins with two trays of chive seeds and half a tray of dill seed.
Soon I’ll plant parsley, yarrow and stevia outside in the new perennial garden location.
But not yet. Not quite yet.
Once the ground temperature reaches 40 degrees though, the rules of the game change. I can harvest the winter carrots, the horseradish, the winter garlic. I can start dividing and transplanting the herbs that need moved – Lemon balm, thyme, oregano, lavender.
But for now, we have to keep our planting reined in – don’t want to get too far ahead. Cabbage, chives and dill…
That’s a good start.
Even as early as February, back-yard gardens across the country are being worked. Beds are cleared, disked, tilled. Hot beds are seeded. Fences are mended, turned up rocks are removed, and the garden is set to go.
And then spring rains come.
Just about the time those seeds you planted too early start sprouting, you can’t step foot in the garden. That fertile soil that we just tilled at 8-12 inches deep is now a layer of mud of the same thickness. One step inside the fence, and you’re likely to loose your rubber boots. (Kiss those garden clogs goodbye.)
So, while it rains, we stand at the eastern windows and peek out at the garden, waiting. Waiting for the rain to stop, waiting for Spring to get here, waiting for a harvest that’s weeks or months away.
When the rain breaks, we walk around the outside of the fence, peeking at tiny sprouts breaking through, marking each puddle within the boundaries as low spots in the garden.
Even after the rain stops, the waiting continues. The ground is saturated and sticky, and until it dries, anything that comes in contact with it will compact it hard as a rock, or carry it out of the garden, across the yard, into the tool shed, into the house.
Things are growing out there; in the garden, in the rain. Things I want to see, watch, nurture and talk to. (Things I want to eat.) But a garden, more than most projects, teaches patience. You cannot make the rain stop, the ground dry, the seed germinate and grow.
And so, on this rainy day, we stand at the eastern windows and wait.
Here’s a preview of my most recent installment of Reading Between Two Lanes coming to The Hur Herald:
Pardon the Plants
Since we started sprouting our own plants for our garden and don’t have a greenhouse, our home goes through a period in late winter / early spring when it is overcome by plant trays. Any flat surface near a window is likely to be covered in flat black trays of soil. Counters, shelves, tables – even the spare bed is blanketed with a heavy plastic tablecloth before being covered end to end in plastic trays of dirt.
Every morning, the trays need to be misted and watered, rotated around the light sources, and coddled. When the process first begins, this is a fairly easy process. But once we get close to 20 trays in four different locations, it becomes a rather time-consuming concept.
By the end of March, the days get warm enough to set the trays outside for some real sunlight and some exposure to outdoor elements. This extends the time consumed by these early sprouts and seeds. In addition to watering and coddling, each tray gets moved outside into the warmth in late morning, and moved back inside in early evening – one by one. In this phase, the trays consume space inside the porch door as well, moved that far inside the house, in assembly line fashion, at the end of each day.
Seed sprouts, even in such controlled conditions, are not guaranteed to survive. Dampening is a common problem, where the sprouts look healthy and fine one day, and fall over dying the next. Dampening is even more of a problem if you recycle seed trays and soil, as we do. But I learned this year that watering newly-planted seeds with strong, tepid Chamomile tea will help prevent it from happening.
In addition, without air movement to strengthen the new little stems, the sprouts can grow weak, and fall over. A fan blowing on them, and the daily rotation to face the light source a different way helps keep the stems sturdy and strong. Low levels of light will cause them to stretch high and lanky, desperate for light, which also makes them top heavy and tall also making them prone to fall over.
Some weak sprouts don’t survive the introduction to outside elements. Too much sun exposure right off the bat can shock them; too much chill can shock them as well. The little seedlings are delicate, fragile new shoots of life, and they have to be eased into the world.
On average, we manage about an 85% success rate with our seeds. It’s my fault really. After having trays all over the house and under foot for several weeks, I’m anxious to push the seedlings outside. I’ve wiped out entire trays with this one mistake. We cannot rush the growth of new life any more than we can rush the coming of spring.
Let’s hope I have the patience this year to let both happen in their own sweet time.
Allow Me to Introduce Our Tomatoes
Seed catalogs begin to arrive shortly after Christmas, anticipation of what I like to call “the gardender’s Christmas” in February. One day, there in the mail is a small box, holding treasures inside. Little packets of life that, if cared for properly, will grow into creatures with characters all their own. Personally I prefer heirloom seeds, for many reasons, but not the slightest is that they have their own lineage, their own history, their own story.
First, returning from last year, is the Black Krim pole tomato. This is the species I discovered that helped me overcome my distrust of dark tomatoes, and is the secret to my wonderfully tangy catsup. This Russian heirloom originated in Krim, a Crimean town on the Black sea. I ordered more seeds this year, because I didn’t save enough over from last year. I ate too many of them.
A new addition this year is the Ace bush tomato. Originally introduced by the Campbell Soup Company in 1953, Ace is reputed to be an excellent canning tomato with nice red color and mild flavor.
Saved over from last year is the Red Oxheart tomato, a popular Italian variety grown since the 19th century. Oxheart are strawberry shaped, with very few seeds, so they are excellent for canning and sauces.
Of course, we also have the classic Brandywine tomato. Dating back to Amish Country near Philadelphia in 1889, these lovely dark pink fruits are a joy to see and taste even better. They are considered to be “the benchmark” for real tomato flavor. They are excellent sliced or stuffed.
Our Amana Orange is a yellow version of the Brandywine.
This year, we’ll be adding another classic, Roma tomato. Roma hails from Italy, where it is a standard paste and canning tomato. Romas produce up to 200 fruits per plant that are firm, meaty, with few seeds.
After discovering a love of dark tomatoes last year, this year I also purchased the Cherokee Purple tomato, which originated in Tennessee, rumored to have come from the Cherokees. It is said to have intense tomato taste and just the right level of sweetness.
We also saved several German Queen tomato seeds, which are supposed to be rare seeds. These meaty slicers performed very well for us last year, and were great sliced and on sandwiches.
We must have gotten some mislabeled seeds last year, because some of our plants turned out to be Zapotec Pleated tomatoes. This rare variety hails from the Zapotec of Southerb Mexico. The fruits are not smooth and round, but pleated, and made very nice salsa.
Of course, it’s way too early to plant any of these lovely seeds yet, but still I shake the packets imagining the bushels of tomatoes each one will produce. Alas, this early in the season, all we can do is look at the pictures on the front of the packets and dream of how good the contents will taste some day.