spring gardening

Hardening Off Those Plants

Curious about what "hardening off" means and why it's important? Here's a blog from our archives to help you prep your cold-season transplants for the great outdoors. 

Plants need to be hardened off before being transplanted. What does this mean? It is the process you take them through to get used to direct sunlight, wind, cold, heat, dryness, and any other weather conditions they will be asked to live through during their lives. When plants are started in the greenhouse, in trays or pots, their world is sheltered and comfortable; food is readily available in the compost-fortified soil, and the temperatures are carefully regulated. Once it is time to go out into the harsh world of the garden, the goods and services become a little more scarce for those baby plants and they go through a bit of withdrawal known as "transplant shock."  Hardening them off gives them a gradual adjustment to this new world.  It is best to start out by putting the plants outside for a few hours, and then bringing them back in; this gives them a small taste of direct sunlight. In any greenhouse, the plastic film filters out 10 to 25% of the sun's rays and the tender plants are literally sun-burned when they first encounter that unmediated light.  Here is how I do it at my house. When you buy plants that were grown by Red Wagon Plants, they have already been hardened off and you can put them right in the ground. The following method is important to follow if you are working with plants that you know are not hardened off yet.

Once they have gotten used to a few hours of sunlight at a time, they can stay outside overnight, but under a protective row cover.

The cover comes off in the daytime and the plants are acclimated to being where they will be planted for a few days.

If the temperatures drop down below freezing, cover them again. Cold hardy plants such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, hardy lettuces, hardy herbs, escarole, scallions, onions can take a frost without a problem, but they will do it with more grace and strength if they have been gradually introduced to those temperatures.

Once the plants have had a few cold nights, under cover, they can have a couple more nights without cover, and then are properly hardened off and ready to go in the ground.

It's also a good idea to give cold-weather transplants a little extra compost or a fish/seaweed emulsion watering at transplant time. It is hard for plant roots to uptake nutrients in cool weather and this will aid their transition as well.

Planting the Fussy Onion

Onions are some of the first things to go in the ground each spring. You may not know this, but onions are finely tuned creatures with a rigid hormonal profile. They are completely and utterly dependent on the sun's cycle to grow into the lovely round orbs we think of as onions. Those plump layers only grow in relationship to the lengthening days of spring. If onions are planted too late, they will never bulb out and become big and round. An onion that has been planted too late, let's say after the middle of May, will never quite size up, but will create a thick stem, and a barely bulbous orb. The engorged stem will not create rounded layers at all but rather look more like a slightly ovate leek. These are still fine to eat, but won't really be onions you can store through the winter.

We recommend that people plant onions in mid-April. When it is muddy, and cold, and you think there is no way a plant wants to go into the garden, well guess what? The onions really want to go into that cold earth. The way we grow onion plants for sale is that we seed about 80 plants into a 4 pack, and your job as the gardener is simple:

  • Prepare a bed in the garden - deep, well worked, rich soil is best. I prepare my onion beds in the fall, that way they are ready for onion plants first thing in the spring.
  • Gently pull the clumps of soil and roots and plants out of the 4 pack.
  • Separate each plant and shake off the excess soil. The individual plants are like tiny blades of grass, but each one will grow into a big onion plant.
  • Make a trench about 4 inches deep the length of your planting area. Onion rows can be about 8 inches apart, so depending on the size of your bed, you can plant up to 4 rows of onions in one bed and still reach across the bed to weed comfortably.
  • Plant the individual plants in the trench, about 4 to 6 inches deep. Only a few inches of the thin green stems will be above ground. You should have about 2-3 inches between plants.
  • Tamp the earth tightly around each plant.

The onions plants won't grow much at first, but they are just hanging out in the cold soil, programming themselves to grow once the soil warms up. It is these cold, long days that help make onions nice. I know, it is hard to believe that they prefer this, but they do. Southern growers, who have shorter summer days than northern growers, have entirely different onion varieties than we do. That illustrates just how much onions are day-length sensitive. A few degrees difference in latitude necessitates a whole different set of genetics.

The other things to keep in mind with onions:

  • Keep them well watered. Water and day length is what makes onions big. Some straw mulch applied in late June is a good idea for keeping the moisture even and consistent.
  • Keep them well weeded. Onions plants are slender and upright. They do not create any shade, therefore weeds like to grow near them, in the sunny under-story of the onion patch and because onions really don't want to compete for food, water and sunlight. They are not good at sharing.
  • Keep them well fed. An application of Compost Plus in May is a good idea. It will help them get big and strong.
  • Growing onions in black plastic mulch is a good option if you want to eliminate weed pressure and heat up the soil. Once onions are big, they like it hot.
  • Harvest onions once the tops start to flop over. You can eat them fresh, as "green onions" or you can cure them by laying them out in a dry, airy place, away from direct sunlight. This usually happens in late July or early August. It depends on the varieties you grow and on the kind of weather we are having.

Onions are best stored in a dark, cool, airy place. A damp basement is not a good storage spot. A cold, dry, dark attic is better. Or an unheated closet, or a garage that does not get too cold. Ideal onion storing temperature is about 35F. That is pretty cold - colder than most basements.

Some onion relatives can be planted later in the season. This includes scallions, mini-purplette onions, pearl onions, and shallots. Leeks are also tolerant of a later planting, and can be planted multiple times throughout the gardening season if you would like to harvest baby leeks. 

The onion varieties we grow each year:

Cipollini Gold Coin - a flat, disc like onion that stores very well in the winter. It is a strong flavored onion which mellows when cooked and is delicious caramelized, glazed, or roasted. One of our favorites for flavor.

Yellow Storage Cortland - a huge, good keeper which means that it stores well all winter. Dry the onion once harvested in a cool, airy spot, and you will be eating it until March or April of next year. 

Red Storage Onion Mars - also quite big, and also a good winter keeper. Slightly milder in flavor than Cortland and can be eaten raw when sliced thinly. Red Onions develop their red interior only once they have been cured. Once harvested, coll in an airy dark spot until the tops are completely dried and can be pulled off by hand. That is the curing process for all storage onions.

Sweet Onion Walla Walla and Ailsa Craig - both are gigantic sweet onions. They do very well with lots of water and mulch. Sweet onions do not keep over the winter. They do not need to be cured, but rather get refrigerated once harvested. They are delicious roasted, grilled, or eaten raw in sandwiches. 

Scallions - These can be planted in clumps of 10 or so plants. They can be planted every few weeks for a continuous harvest. If you do not want to buy scallion plants or seeds, you can eat young onion plants as scallions.

Shallots - These store very well after being cured like onions. They add a sweet and complex flavor to winter dishes, marinades, and dressings. 

Mini-purplette - these are lovely purple pearl onions that are delicious in a spring braise with salad turnips and peas. They can be planted in clumps of 4 to 6 plants and can be planted multiple times throughout the season for more than one harvest. They also make great pickles. About 1" to 2" across.

How to Get Your Soil Tested

Here's one of our most popular posts from the archives. If you are a new gardener or gardening in a new spot, it's well worth it to get your soil tested to ensure happy plants and bountiful harvests. 

I've always thought that getting your soil tested was going to be somehow difficult and arcane.   But I've had some challenges growing things since moving here (namely like a non-blooming hydrangea).  So since Julie said it's a good idea, I've decided to give it a try. I visited the UVM Extension Service website.

And downloaded this form to fill out.

And scooped some dirt into a bag.

Julie adds:

It's best to take samples from multiple places, digging in the first 6" of soil, mix up the various handfuls of soilin a bucket, and select your soil test sample from this mixture. It gives the soil test people a better idea of the overall make-up of your soil. Make sure the bucket and spade are very, very clean.

skillet garden 024
skillet garden 024

Tomorrow I'll send the dirt and $18 to UVM.  And in 10 - 14 days I'll get back a recommendation of what I should add to my soil to grow what what we're planning.

In the meantime, I'm watching as the plants blossom, and unfurl, and grow.

skillet garden 013
skillet garden 013

Beautiful RWP pansy.

skillet garden 012
skillet garden 012

The last day of last year's inedible sorrel.  Tomorrow I'm ripping it out to make room for the currant bushes when they come, and will throw the leaves into a Greek-flavored braise I'm making.

Cold Season Gardening

As soon as the ground thaws, and dries out, I will be ready to plant. After chomping at the bit through this long, never ending winter, I long to get my hands in cool dirt and ceremoniously plant the first seedlings. A cold frame helps to rush the job along, and I can't wait to open ours up, fluff up the tired soil, add some compost and amendments, and dig in. My cold season garden is pretty predictable each year. I crave certain things, stick to those, eat only that the entire period of time it is ready, and then usually it is out of mind the rest of the year. Asparagus for example. It is pretty much a part of every meal during asparagus season, and then I never think about it the other 47 weeks of the year.  And it is ready before many other things, so why not give it the star treatment it deserves?  It takes up a good chunk of my garden for a reason....homegrown asparagus absolutely cannot compare to what you buy in the store.  There are so many delicate flavors in asparagus that are lost after any period of refrigeration, and I greedily await that first harvest each year.

And then there is bok choi. For some reason, I don't think about this vegetable too much 11 months out of the year,  but it is so cold hardy and so quick to grow, that earliest spring is the only logical time to insert it into the garden and into our kitchen. We grow 4 kinds of boc choi to give our gardens a real array of size, color, and harvest time. Violetta is quick to grow to baby size, and has shiny, dark purple leaves with pale purple and white stems. It is gorgeous and delicate and ready in just 3 weeks from the time I stick it in the ground.  Shanghai Baby Bok Choi is another quick and tiny one, but the palest green, with the most tender flesh. Red Choi is a medium sized boc choi with a more mustard like flavor, and the regular boc choi we grow, Joi Choi, grows up to be huge, heavy, and gorgeous (see below). These are all delicious chopped up and stir fried with ginger, hot pepper flakes, and garlic;  or thinly slivered and eaten raw as a salad or slaw or dropped into a warm bowl of broth.

Scallions are another cold hardy, quick to grow vegetable that makes it into all my early gardens. They can be planted in little clumps in tight spaces and harvested over a long period of time. I harvest them three or four at a time and leave the rest to grow for a later picking or two.

Next up are the salad greens, bitter greens and mustards. All of these can take multiple frosts and are happy to go into the garden long before the others.

In this picture from last year, we have Tokyo Bekana mustard in the bottom left corner. It is a light green, tender mustard delicious steamed or eaten raw. I especially like it in soups and broths with soba noodles and tofu. In the center is my favorite bitter green, Frisée ('Tres Fine Maraîchère") which I love to eat with a mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette. Behind that is some arugula which really should be planted multiple times throughout the season (just rip out the old plants and sow new seeds or seedlings). In the top right corner is a little bit of bulb fennel Zefa Fino poking into the frame. This is another great option for for those of us needing cold hardy and interesting garden plants. In the kitchen, I simply slice up the bulbs into long, thick wedges and roast in a 400F oven with olive oil, herbs and seas salt. And the bottom right corner is the soldier of the spring garden: Natacha escarole. This chicory relative is huge, easy to grow, and equally perfect cooked in a braise or sautéed or eaten raw in a salad, again with that garlicky Dijon vinaigrette. Escarole withstands multiple hard frosts, grows quickly to a 3 pound head, and is frankly one of the better values in the garden. A small to medium escarole in the grocery store can cost close to $4. And from one 4 pack, you can easily have twelve times the yield for about the same amount of money.

Here we have Lily sampling a bit of Lacinato kale. also known as dinosaur kale, Tuscan kale, or cavolo negro. We love it for its nutty flavor and the fact that a few plants stuck in the ground in April will produce until December. Again, a pretty good value! In front of the kale is more boc choi, Red Choi. And in front of that is ruby red chard. Chard is the least cold tolerant of all these greens, but it can take a few light frosts. The others can survive a few dips even into the 20's and come out fine.

From seed, I like to start radishes and spinach and peas, because really, who can resist this sight:

Get ready, set, go. Spring is coming, and we want to help you get ready. And soon, we will be looking at this:

Mini Raised Bed Greenhouses for Sale

Look at these great greenhouses Eric Denice has built. We are offering four of them for sale this spring.  And can deliver them to you, too. We have used the same materials that go into our production greenhouses...6 mil plastic, hoops bent at just the right angle to shed water and snow, polycarbonate end walls, wiggle wire and extruded metal track for securing the plastic closed, and pipes that act as a "brake" for keeping the sides just where you want them. We are happy to give you a demo....or come and peek at ours that is all planted and growing along nicely.

You can roll up the sides, you can close it securely and easily, or even take the plastic all the way off once the weather warms up. The frame can act as part of a trellis system for tomatoes giving them a warm and dry environment as they size up, and then you can take the plastic all the way off and let them grow through the top of the frame. Just add a few horizontal lines of twine and, voila, instant tomato trellis!

Plants are nicely tucked in and cozy warm, no matter what the weather! You can easily get a 2 to 3 week jump on the season with this kind of season extension. The raised bed means that the soil is dry and warm long before garden beds, and the tight, plastic cover gives you warmth on cold nights. You can keep the sides rolled down on chilly, cloudy days, but it is best to roll them up a bit in the morning. It can get quite warm in there when the sun pops out. This type of greenhouse will allow you to harvest greens almost year round. It can also be used as a spot to start seeds, harden off plants, and gives you an extra zone of warmth if you would like to grow a perennial that is not usually hardy here.

We can deliver, bring you soil, plants, and have your instant garden ready in just an hour or so! Just add water.

Dimensions: 4' by 10' 

Base boards are made of 2" by 10" hemlock

Price $425

Coming Home

Earlier this week, I went away for a total of 48 hours. This is astounding for a couple of reasons. Not only because it is May, and who do I think I am going away for a whole two days while trying to manage a greenhouse business. No, it's astounding because of the way that I came home.  I landed. I arrived. No stress, no jumping into a chaos of activity, no guilt at being gone, no extra work piled up. I came home to a busy crew doing everything well and calmly. I came home to happy customers loading up on plants while wearing big smiles. I came home to a feeling that all is right in my little world.  Two days off in May is hard to pull off in this line of work, but what helped me so much was that everyone who works here knew what to do, they made smart decisions and I am sure they handled problems with grace.  So, thank you, crew.

I also came home to a garden. I love my garden. The moments in the garden are rare and precious for me in May, but the first thing I did when I got out of the car, was go up to the large garden above the barn and finished planting a bed of strawberries. I harvested an armful of asparagus, collected the 4 eggs the hens had laid, picked a handful of chervil and flat full of mache, and I got to work making  dinner. I looked at my haul, as the sun was setting and felt embraced by the bounty.

We ate late. We ate well.

Egg Salad in Spring

Makes enough for dinner for 3 and leftovers for everyone's lunches. 

  • Hard boil 8 to 10 eggs.  (My method is to put cold eggs and cold water in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, covered with a lid. Let it boil one minute. Turn off the heat, but leave the pan on the burner. Set the timer for 8 minutes. Drain and run under cold water for 5 minutes.)
  • Finely chop a handful of herbs - I used chervil and chives.
  • Finely chop a rib or two of celery - I would have used lovage had it been big enough.
  • Finely chop half a shallot or 3 scallions
  • Peel the eggs and place in a shallow bowl. Cut them up with a couple of knives or a pastry cutter.
  • Add all the other ingredients.
  • Add enough home made mayo to moisten the whole thing.
  • Stir gently.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Homemade Mayonnaise

Add to the blender:

  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • a dash of cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp of salt
  • 1 tsp of Dijon mustard or 1/2 tsp dry English mustard
  • Blend for a few seconds and then very slowly drizzle in 1/2 cup of olive oil, grape seed oil, or a blend of the two.  Drizzle it in a very thin stream while the blender is whirring around though the top of the blender cover. Or you can use a food processor and drizzle it in through the feeder tube. Or you can do it by hand in a bowl, with a whisk. If you do that, try to anchor the bowl by wrapping a damp towel around the base. Or get someone to help you with another set of hands to hold the bowl, or beat the eggs, or do the drizzling. Beat or blend or process until it starts to thicken up.
  • Taste for salt and add a little pepper. If it is too thin, you can add more oil, still adding it in very slowly while blending.
  • You can add fresh herbs to the mayo, a little crushed raw garlic, a little chopped poached or roasted garlic (mellower flavor), anchovies, spices, roasted peppers etc. (for cleanest flavors add just one of these other ingredients, not a combination.)

We ate this lovely egg salad with toasted Pain de Mie (or Pullman Bread) from Scratch Baking Company in South Portland, ME and the asparagus was steamed and cooled, served on the side, splashed with some lemon juice.

Mache Salad

Mache is also know as corn lettuce. It is a cold hardy green that germinates only in cool temperatures. We grow it in flats in the greenhouse in the winter and gorge on it from late March to late May. It is a sturdy green with a nutty flavor, and it is eaten as a whole plant, washed well under running water, and dressed lightly with hazelnut or walnut oil and a good sea salt - fleur de sel, Maldon, or sel gris. The small plants have a really interesting texture and a rich flavor that is perfect this time of year when one craves green and fresh.

To the garden, the hens, and the amazing crew at Red Wagon Plants, thanks. You make life pretty, tasty, and lovely.

-Julie

 

Lori and Doug's Garden: Planting

Meet Lori and Doug, two of our favorite long-time customers and friends. Our skillful and talented guy, Eric Denice,  built them some beautiful raised beds and they've been busy planting.  Check out what's sprouting in their garden. These photos are from a few weeks ago, and we are updating them as we find time....so stay tuned to see more of this great progress.

I think some incredible meals will be coming out of this garden and kitchen this summer. Keep checking in to see the changes!

What to plant now?

Given that our spring has been pretty mild over all, many gardeners are eager to get in the garden and plant a little earlier than normal. While the temptation is huge, it is also a good idea to remember that a hard frost can still come anytime in the next month or so and the ground is not all that warm. So what can go in the ground now? Lots of cold hardy vegetables and herbs are ready to go including onions, broccoli, cabbages, kales, mustards, boc choi, and more. It is best to harden off the plants for a few days before transplanting them - this means letting them get used to the cold, the wind, and the direct sunlight. Most of our plants will come to you already hardened off, but other nurseries may not take care to do that, so it is best to do it yourself. You can also use some row cover to create a small micro-climate for the young plants. We use hoops made out of 9-gauge wire to hold up the fabric off of the plants. This will give the plants a breathable, water permeable house to grow under during their initial weeks in the garden. The growth rate will be about double the rate of plants grown without row cover.

You can read more about hardening off  here.

Another great thing to plant now are crops you direct seed and that can germinate in cold conditions - spinach, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, scallions, peas, and fava beans.

If you have a spot in your garden that you are not going to use this year, you might want to consider spreading some cover crop seed. this will help ensure that the soil is fed during it's fallow period. The cover crop is essentially plants that are grown just for the soil's on going health. For cold weather sowing, you might want to try a cow pea and vetch mixture or oats or an annual clover .  This will smother out weeds and add lots of organic matter to your garden.

Open House

Sunday, April 1, 2012 9 am to noon

Red Wagon Plants Open House

We welcome you to visit our greenhouses on Sunday, April 1st, from 9 am to noon.

We will have coffee, tea, and snacks for you as you peek around the greenhouses and see what it looks like when we are in full swing. Feel free to bring children, see the calves next door, and come armed with garden stories and questions!

We will have some plants for sale as well as Johnny's Selected Seeds. Come by for cold hardy flowers, herbs and veggies. Bagged compost will be available for feeding your garden beds and, best of all, our staff will be on hand to meet you and talk shop!

We look forward to seeing you,

-Julie and the Crew

FAQ #19: How can I manage powdery mildew?

From Sophia: Powdery mildew is a white powder-like fungus that particularly grows on cucurbits such as cucumbers and squash, French tarragon, bee balm, and other plants under adverse conditions. Powdery mildew does not generally kill the plants but will reduce their productivity and vigor. You can help prevent the disease by giving plants plenty of air circulation, only watering in the morning when the plants have time to dry, not planting cucurbits in the same place two years in a row, and destroying insect pests when you find them.

Once you have powdery mildew, you can manage it by removing the worst affected leaves with pruners. DO NOT put the leaves in your compost pile! Either burn them or throw them in the trash. Wash hands and tools with soapy water or dilute bleach solution after handling affected foliage and before touching other plants. Plants can be sprayed with a copper- or sulphur-based organic fungicide, or with a mixture of 1 teaspoon baking soda to 1 quart of water, once per week on the upper and undersides of the leaves until 2 weeks before harvest. This should eliminate the disease.

FAQ #13: What plants are easiest to take care of?

Annuals:

Geraniums

Imaptiens

Pansies

Marigolds

Salvias

Sunflowers

New Guinea Impatiens

Perennials:

Bleeding Heart

Astilbe

Echinacea

Garden Phlox

Sedums

Rudbeckia

Bee Balm

Lady's Mantle

FAQ #6: How do I grow asparagus?

The ideal method for growing asparagus is to prepare the area at least one season in advance by tilling and planting a cover crop to suppress weeds. This will help reduce stress on the asparagus plants during their first few years, ensuring a healthier and more vigorous crop. A cover crop turned into the bed also increases the organic matter in the soil which is good for the plants. Since asparagus is a perennial that can last for many years, choose a well-drained site that can be dedicated to asparagus for the foreseeable future.

Asparagus is usually grown by tilling an area and then digging trenches 6-8” deep and 3-5’ apart. The crowns (roots) are placed in the trenches 8” apart for narrow spears and 14” apart for thick spears. Cover the crowns with 1-2” of soil and fertilize heavily with compost or other phosphate-rich fertilizer. Add soil to the trenches three times during the next few weeks until the soil is mounded somewhat to avoid water pooling around the plants. Keep the plants hand-weeded and fertilized until midsummer, then mulch heavily with straw or leaves to suppress weeds. The asparagus “ferns” should be allowed to grow, since they feed the plants, then cut back after they die in the fall. A moderate harvest is usually possible the first year after planting, followed by full harvests every spring thereafter.

Red and black asparagus beetles are nearly always present in summer and can be treated with organic pesticides but are better removed by hand to minimize harm to the plants. Just drop the beetles and larvae into a can of soapy water to kill them. Larvae can also be killed by gently brushing the ferns with a soft broom - they die quickly after falling to the ground.

Although asparagus is not quite as simple to grow as annual crops, it is well worth the effort! Fresh, juicy asparagus spears are unrivaled in texture and flavor.

The Kitchen Garden: Abundant Harvest in Small Spaces

The following is a hand out that accompanied a workshop I presented at the NOFA conference Feb 12, 2012. -Julie

 

An abundant harvest in a small space can seem like a challenge, but by understanding a few concepts, you can make the most of your small garden so that it meets your needs and brings you joy. Observing plants is the best way to develop garden awareness; making good choices is the best way to avoid “garden guilt.” Abundant harvests have to do with efficiency:

  • The efficiency of the plant taking up nutrients
  • The efficiency of the amount of time it takes for the plant to mature.
  • The efficiency of minimized waste.
  • The efficiency of using your space to its maximum potential.

These are not hard and fast rules, but can be applied at your discretion in any area of the garden you would like to improve. These ideas can work for the spontaneous or lazy gardener (like me) or for the hyper-planner who maps it all out on graph paper ahead of time (like my neighbor). Think of it as cooking without a recipe - once you know a few techniques and concepts, you can explore and have decent results most of the time. And there is no such thing as garden failure - it is just a lesson waiting to be learned. The big factors:

  • Soil - texture, nutrients, compost, fertilizer
  • Shape - raised bed, containers, or “in ground”, bed prep
  • Water - drip, overhead, by hand, on timers, etc
  • Cultivation - weeds, mulching,  pests and diseases, season extension, spacing and timing, succession planting, shape of plants
  • Harvest - understanding life cycle of plants, post-harvest handling, when to try for multiple harvest or when to cut your losses, cleaning up plant debris.

Soil should be loose and rich and deep.  In a container it should be a pre-mixed potting soil, not garden soil. If the container is large (1 gallon or more) it should have some drainage material in the bottom. Many things work well for this - styrofoam packing peanuts, crushed up plastic pots, gravel, etc. If a pot is very lare (3 gallons or more) the drainage material can be a little deeper, up to the bottom third of the pot. It is a good idea to cover the drainage material with a piece of burlap, an old pillow case, or some other type of screen or fabric to keep the soil from washing down into the material that should remain porous.

In a raised bed, it can be a combination of materials including pre-made finished compost, leaf mold (rotted leaves - make a pile in the fall, it’s good to go in the bottom of the raised bed in the spring), peat moss, rotted manure/bedding (a good source is horse farms), garden soil,  sand and pre-mixed top soil / compost combinations. The key is to have a mixture of ingredients to re-create the complexity of a living soil system.

In the garden, the soil should be worked deeply with a 4 or 5 pronged fork, and loosed by hand or with a hoe. Even if you use a rototiller in the garden, the plants will benefit from having the soil loosened more deeply than where the rototiller tines reach. It is a good idea to shovel out the paths of the garden and put the extra soil onto the beds. This essentially makes a raised bed and will allow the roots to grow quickly and deeply in their search for food. Nutrients can come from compost, granular fertilizer, “Compost Plus” and/or  mineral inputs. It is a good idea to get a soil test in your in-ground garden or raised bed. If you are using materials in the raised bed that you know are of good quality, you can skip this, but if your plants look deficient during the growing months, you may opt to do a test after all.  Applying granular fertilizer or “Compost Plus” is best done after the plants have had a chance to grow out - either a month or so after seeding or two weeks or so after transplanting. Water is best done through drip irrigation - either soaker hoses or drip tape. A good source of drip tape is Dripworks. Next best watering choice is by hand since you can aim the hose nozzle at the soil, and not get the foliage wet. Third best choice (and not a good one, sorry) is overhead sprinklers: they require less of your time and labor, but they get the foliage wet. Two reasons to avoid getting the foliage wet with overhead irrigation (sprinklers and incorrect hand watering):

  1. it rots the plants, and disease can set in. Dry plants tend to be healthier plants.
  2. the plants take up water with their roots, not their leaves. You waste a lot of water and the leaves act as a nice umbrella for the roots, making it wasteful. You have to water more than necessary for the roots to actually start drinking. Getting the plants wet and watering the garden are two different things, and it is best not to confuse them.

Watering is best done in the morning - it gives the plants a chance to dry off before night time and supports their busy daytime growth. Watering at the end of the day is not recommended since disease spreads most during humid summer nights.  You can water the garden during the middle of the day, and the plants will still have time to dry off by sunset. Cultivation is simply the act of caring for plants. In larger scale farming, to “cultivate” means to scuff up the soil in such a way that you are removing weeds, usually involving a tractor and some sort of implement. Here we use the term “cultivate” in a broader sense meaning a general discussion of the cultural requirements of common garden plants. The “cultural requirements” of a plant are all the things that a plant needs from humans in order to thrive. For example, the site, the water, the tilth or texture of the soil, the space and  the nutrients are all a part of a plant’s cultural needs. To understand what a plant needs, you have to look at these factors:

  1. what is it’s shape? Shape of plants, physiological structure, and type of cells that make up the roots and the foliage all give you clues to what the plant needs. Thin fibrous roots dry out more than thick, tuberous roots (think of an onion plant vs. a tomato plant). Waxy, shiny leaves are more drought tolerant than matte, thin leaves (think of a succulent like aloe vs.a leafy plant like lettuce). Large plants with broad leaves have very different requirements than skinny tall plants (think brcocolli vs onion). The canopy a plant creates is also a clue - plants with a small canopy (onions, celery, leeks) do not cast much of a shadow. This makes them very vulnerable to weeds. Plants that create a large canopy (squashes, cabbages, broccoli, eggplant) cast a large shadow which slows down weed growth. Understanding the shape or growth habit of a plant also helps you maximize the potential of your small garden.
    1. A tall, vining plant can be trellised.
    2. A low growing, sprawling plant can be planted on the edge where it spills onto a lawn.
    3. A tall, skinny plant can be tucked into tight spots.
    4. A pretty, decorative plant can be planted in the flower bed.
  2. how hungry is it? Plants that need a lot of fertility are often referred to as “heavy feeders”. One common point amongst most heavy feeders is their life span. A baby lettuce plant that is in the ground for 20 days is going to be a light feeder. A giant, prize winning pumpkin in the ground for 130 days is going to be a heavy feeder. Plants that produce fruit such as tomatoes, zucchini, squash, peppers and eggplant are best fed when in a vegetative state (all green leaf growth, earlier in the first 45 days of transplanting); once those plants are in their fruiting state, it is best to lay off the fertilizer or compost which support green growth, not fruit growth. The plant has only so much energy, and if it is putting it into leaf growth, it won’t also put it into fruit growth. It is a balancing act since the green growth needs to happen quickly and in a lush manner in the earlier part of the season in order to support healthy fruiting in the latter part of the season.
  3. how thirsty is it? As in the discussion of shape, a plant’s water needs have to do with its structure, but also with weather and soil type. A garden in sandy soil will always need more water than a garden in clay soils. You can look for cues of thirstiness in a plant and water just as needed. These clues include very slight curling of leaves, a blue-like hue that creeps in (this is very sublte), or a very subtle droop in the way flowers are angled. This type of “reading the garden” takes some observation to understand, but gardening is a lifetime project with countless places to learn. Fruiting vegetables tend to taste better with less water. Leafy vegetables tend to taste better with more water. It is entirely possible to water tomatoes only once every two weeks, even in a drought, and get very tasty fruit. If you did that with lettuce, it would be bitter at best, but more likely it would simply be dead.
  4. how well does it share? A plant that knows how to share light, water, and nutrients with its neighbors is a plant that does well in small spaces. Radishes are a good example. They can be sown alongside just about any other crop, and they do quite well because of their short life span, lower light requirements, and broader leaves that shade out weeds. Radishes can share. Other examples of plants that cooperate nicely: arugula, baby lettuce, scallions (they are skinny and can go in nooks), cilantro, curly parsley or smaller varieties of Italian parsley, strawberries and wild strawberries, and pansies. Notice....with the exception of scallions, all these plants are low growing, have broad leaves that create a canopy that shades out weeds, and can tolerate a bit of shade that might be thrown by a neighboring canopy.
  5. how well does it compete? Plants that compete well are plants that are not easily thwarted by dry conditions, weedy conditions, temperature extremes, or low nutrition. You can always increase your harvest and increase your efficiency by knowing which plants have these characteristics. It basically allows you to prioritize garden tasks -you can make the less competitive plants a priority, and save the more tolerant, tough plants for a day when you have a little more time.  Working smarter in the garden can increase the harvest, and save you some “garden guilt”, just by knowing when to say “it’s okay if that is weedy, it can wait until the weekend.”

Succession planting is another way to increase your yields. This is the act of planting multiple generations of plants so that you have a continuous harvest. The trick with succession planting is to know a few numbers

  1. the date of the average last frost in spring
  2. the date of the average  first frost in fall
  3. the amount of time it takes for a plant to be harvestable (a.k.a. “days to maturity)

and two cultural factors:

  1. is the crop frost tolerant or not?
  2. is it a “multiple harvest” crop or a one time harvest?

Once you know these numbers and the frost tolerance of a plant, you can make some simple calculations based on your season length to determine how many generations of a particular plant you can grow. For example, head lettuce has about a 40 day life cycle from transplant time to harvest time, and it can tolerate a light frost. This means you can start transplanting it in early May (in Burlington, average last frost is last week of May)  or so, and you can repeat the planting of it every week or so, until early September. (in Burlington, average first frost is first week of October). Head lettuce is something you harvest only once, so if you want a nice head of lettuce every two days or so, you would plant 4 heads of lettuce a week, every week from early May to early September. This will give you a continuous harvest from early June until mid-October. If you are the kind of gardener who “puts in the garden” on Memorial Day and then you never replant, it is likely that you have a big glut of produce at certain times, and then none that is fresh and good at other times. By planting multiple generations of plants, you insure high yields and great flavor. A patch of bush green beans only produces good quality beans for about 2 to 3 weeks. After a while, the beans are tough and sparse on the plant. If you replant a new patch every couple of weeks, you will always have high-yielding, tasty beans. Abundant harvest happen on healthy plants at their prime, and gardens in small spaces require a certain amount of decision making. You always have a choice to pull out tired plants and to replant with new seeds or plants - this is often the most efficient way to have better yields. Mulch is a great way to keep weeds at bay, and to keep moisture near the root zone. It can also build soils, heat the soil, or cool the soil - all depending on your goal and what the plant needs. You can mulch paths and/or growing beds. Raised beds that are constructed out of wood can also be mulched and the paths around the raised beds can be mulched to minimize lawn mowing if you would like. If you use materials that naturally break down such as paper, cardboard, burlap bags, straw or bark, the mulched paths can become mini compost piles. By layering in materials that block out weeds, you are creating a layer of organic matter that will decompose over the course of a year and can then be shovelled onto the growing beds the following spring. Some mulch materials carry weed seeds so beware. They can still be used effectively in the garden, but best as a layer that is covered up with another barrier such as cardboard or burlap. As it breaks down and heats up over time, the weed seeds lose their viability and will not be a problem the following year. Plastic mulches heat the soil and are great for the heat-loving, fruiting crops. Harvest and post-harvest handling are other factors that affect the yield in your garden. Being able to plan or predict when you harvest a crop depends on your knowing the life cycle or days to maturity of that crop. It is entirely possible, to plan a garden harvest around certain dates or to plan for having no harvest during vacation times. An abundant harvest is one that happens when you want it. An unwanted harvest is a hassle - you have to get your neighbors to help, or find volunteers for a school garden, etc. Sometimes that works, but it is possible to minimize unwanted work, and under-appreciated produce by timing the plantings and knowing how much to plant of each crop. There are many charts on the internet that can help you gauge the garden harvest and how much to plant of each crop and when. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has some wonderful on-line tools, as does our own Red Wagon Plants website. Post-harvest handling includes everything from time of day you harvest, how you pack it into your basket or boxes, and how you store it. Morning is generally the best time to harvest since the field heat has not had too much time to affect the leafy green plants. Fruiting plants can be harvest later in the day. Again, this is a place where you can make a choice by harvesting the right plant at the right time of day. If you only have a few minutes to harvest in the morning, do the leafy greens. The fruiting plants can usually wait until later in the day or even a couple of days. Once a plant is cut or picked, it is best to wash it and refrigerate it right away. Again, this is related to an abundant harvest because anything that improves quality reduces waste. Lettuce that is wilted and dirty in the bottom of the fridge drawer is just not as appealing as lettuce that is crisp, clean and ready to eat. A small garden is not a productive garden if what you harvest ends up under-utilized. A good trick is to harvest the lettuce, and when you get in the house, soak it in a basin or large bowl of cold water right away. This takes out the field heat, the leaves absorb some water making them more crisp, and the dirt drops down to the bottom. Lift the leaves out, re-soak once or twice depending on the amount of dirt, and then spin the leaves in a lettuce spinner or by layering between some clean towels. Lettuce treated this way is sure to get eaten, promise! Plants like broccoli, beans, and tomatoes produce more the more they are harvested. Broccoli will generally make one big head, and then produce what is called side shoots all summer long. These shoots are the perfect size for cooking or eating raw and the more you remember to cut them, the more the plant will produce. Often a broccoli plant that goes into the garden in late April will continue to produce side shoots into mid-December - talk about a high yield! Most fruiting plants (tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers and eggplant) will also produce more the more they are picked. These do not need immediate refrigeration, and tomatoes and basil should never go in the fridge. A basket full of cukes and zukes can stay on the counter until a time later in the day when you have had a chance to make room in the fridge or have time to make pickles,etc. Again, a high yield can be a burden or a blessing, depending on how it fits into your life. With a little planning, a very small garden such as a 4’ x 8’ raised bed can include 2 tomato plants, a cucumber plant and a season’s worth of greens. This is often plenty for a single person or a couple. Abundant harvesting is about making choices that lead to efficiency and no waste., beauty and no guilt.  If you use your minimal space for vegetables that you will not use, then the space is wasted, if instead that small space is regularly turned over with fresh plants, and old plants are removed, then you will have a high yield of well loved produce. It is always a better choice to remove the garden debris (think bolted lettuce, cabbage stumps, woody radishes) than to let it limp along, tempting disease and pests.

Some good sources of information

  • Our website has an extensive list of resources in the “Garden Journal”
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, Territorial Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange and Botanical Interests are all reputable seed companies with lots of educational materials on their websites and in their catalogs. These are great sources of free information.
  • Cornell Extension has a website for home gardeners that is very helpful
  • Elliot Coleman’s books are geared towards vegetable farmers but have very clear explanations of succession planting, timing and spacing
  • Barbara Damrosch, The Garden Primer is my favorite all around basic gardening book
  • UVM Extension offers soil tests, a plant pathology lab, and a pest identification lab
  • Burlington Permaculture
  • Charlie Nardozzi offers a garden coaching program and gives weekly talks on VPR about gardening.
  • Friends of Burlington Gardens offers support to school gardens, community gardeners, and anyone interested in learning how to grow food. They offer a season long course at Ethan Allen Homestead that provides brand new gardeners all the support necessary to achieve success in their first year.

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What Can I Plant for a Little Early Color Around the House?

It's been a pretty cold spring in Vermont this year. I cannot remember a spring like this in recent memory, with night temperatures dipping into the twenties in mid-April and day time temperatures hovering in the low 40's. Many of our customers are ready for some color around the house, and it's still not safe to put out hanging baskets, or most annuals for that matter.

What I suggest for early spring containers is a selection of cold hardy plants, especially the ones that seem unusual in containers, but will feed the need for signs of life around the yard!

The following plants are just great for a year like this and look really cute mixed together.

  • Violas and pansies
  • Allysum
  • Cold hardy herbs such as parsley, chervil, mint (ginger mint cascades down the side of the container), cilantro, dill. The textures and different greens at dimension to the arrangements. Plus you can snip at them and bring them into the kitchen for some spring time flavor boosts.
  • Colorful kales such as Redbor and Red Russian.
  • Fennel - the bulb kind or the bronze herb kind
  • Lettuces - especially the green oak, red oak, and cherokee red batavian
  • Frisee endive - it has a lovely frilled edge, and an unusual lime green color.

The beauty of this kind of planter is that it is multi-purpose. The violas and pansies and their "companion" foliage are all edible. What a nice gift for someone special, or a treat for yourself to celebrate the slow unfurling of spring.

This Week in Photos - April 16, 2011

Each year I am amazed by the incredible variety of new plants that are available. This is the work of plant breeders, who painstakingly cross-pollinate particular varieties until they achieve the results we want or who carefully scan their crop for particular traits they want to select. It is a time-consuming process, but gardeners are always grateful - this year, as with every other, we are treated to an array of extraordinary new plants. We hope you enjoy this week's photos!

Each plant has a unique texture, and each has its special place in the garden...

And then there are also wondrous colors and shapes...

Weekend Garden Update and How to Prune a Raspberry Patch

Today's weather report - slush, sleet, slush. I am glad I got a few hours in the garden on Sunday. Here is what got done.

I oohed and aahed over the over-wintered leeks. If you peel back the outer layers, there is a sweet, leeky gem underneath. Silky and fresh in soups or braises - perfect for today's weather.

Sandy brought her mini tennis ball to the garden. She was pretty happy overall with the development of the garden work.

We said hello to the garlic.  It never got mulched this winter, but the 3 feet of snow we had all winter long seemed to do the trick. I will add a little Compost Plus to make it happy.

The Japanese Fan Tail Willow that is part of our hedgerow creating a privacy screen from the road made me pretty happy as I walked back to the house at dusk. The catkins were just calling out for a nuzzle.

The raspberry bushes got a haircut. The donkeys love to eat those prickly brambles. Hard to believe.

Raspberry patch before it gets pruned. Notice how thick it is. The trick is to cut out the growth that is two years old. Those are the "canes" that bore fruit last summer. They will not make fruit this year and just take energy away from the plant. They are pretty easy to identify because the bark peels back and the color is not as red as the 1 year old growth. When you cut them, the interior of the cane is drier and pale green. The canes that will bear fruit this year are brighter red, and when you cut them they are a brighter green and full of sap.

After pruning. The canes each have about six inches of space. I also cut the tips of the canes off, about 1 inch or so. This helps give the cane energy lower down on the cane where the fruit will size up a little more.

Fall bearing raspberries are cut right down to the ground, as you can see below.

Cannot wait to eat these, freeze them, make jam.

But first, back to the sleet.

Do You Want a Little Spring in the Kitchen?

We start selling herbs in pots long before the ground is ready to work. Many of you still have snow on the ground; some of you may be lucky enough to live someplace where the snow is melted, but we all are worried more is on the way. Anyhow, when the snow first melts, the ground looks barren and dirty save for a few bulbs trying to poke through. Poor things. This has been such a cold spring, and while I don't want to complain too much, it would be nice if we had a little warm weather right about now. If you are wanting just a little reminder of what is coming down the road, you could grow a little window sill herb garden for now. All you need are a few herbs, a sunny window, and not much else. If you want to get fancy, you could pot up those herbs into pretty pots or mix them together in an indoor window box, but there is no need to really. Just some 4" pots are fine for now, and soon enough the plants can go outside, either in the ground or in bigger pots. We just started to deliver plants to a few stores, so consider picking some up for a little cheer. The scent alone is enough to lift anyone's spirit.

A group of Bhutanese farmers came to visit our greenhouses this week - it's the second group that has come by. When I saw the look on their faces when they were smelling the herbs - mint, rosemary, cilantro, lavender - I was reminded of why I do this work. It takes the edge off of those long end of winter weeks and brings hope and love into my being. It's an honor to share it all.

- Julie

New Plants in 2011

'Zion Copper Amethyst' Osteospermum
'Zion Copper Amethyst' Osteospermum

We are so excited about our new selection of plants! Many of you have requested a wider array of edible and ornamental landscape plants, and we are happy to oblige. Below you will find a few of the new plants we love. Descriptions, growing information, and suggestions for companion plants can be found under "Our Plants".

'Zion Copper Amethyst' Osteospermum: Upright, daisy-like annual flowers in awe-inspiring amethyst/pink/orange. Plant in part to full sun 12-18" apart. Slightly trailing habit. Low maintenance, no deadheading required! Does well in containers. Allow top of soil to dry out between waterings.

'Holy Red and Green' Sacred Tulsi Basil: Striking purple and green leaves have a musky scent and mint-clove flavor. Tulsi basil has been sacred to Hindus for at least 3,000 years. It has excellent medicinal properties as a stress reliever and anti-inflammatory and makes a refreshing tea. Allison, our seed master, says it makes a wonderfully-scented oil for salves and skin creams.

'Reliance' Grape: A very hardy, vigorous variety that produces clusters of beautiful pink seedless grapes excellent for fresh eating as well as jellies and juices. Plant in full sun and moist, well-drained soil where the plant will have at least 10’ of climbing space. Prune in winter, train in summer. Makes a great privacy screen or seasonal shade.

'Banana Cream' Leucanthemum: An unusual perennial daisy that opens lemon yellow and slowly turns white as it matures. Full flowers bloom in abundance all summer. Ideal for cut flowers due to long, straight stems and extended shelf life. Looks lovely with just about anything, but especially lavender, liatris, and gaillardia. Very vigorous plants multiply easily, making a great filler. Plant in full sun 18-24” apart. Attracts butterflies.

'Niger' Black Mondo Grass: A compact, clumping grass-like plant. Foliage turns jet black when grown in full sun. Small light purple to white flowers on short stalks appear in early summer and give way to black berries in the fall. Plant in full sun to part shade 12” apart. Pair with succulents, lobelia ‘Fan Scarlet’, or Lamb’s Ear for dramatic color and texture combinations.

A note on the 'Julia Child' Heirloom Tomatoby the renowned tomato breeder, Gary Ibsen:

"Early in 2001, while having lunch with Julia Child at Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley, California, I told her about my having in my tomato seed trials several un-named varieties. I followed by asking her, "If I'm able to grow an heirloom tomato that's good enough to name after you, what kind would you like it to be?" I suspected she would say, "Red", or "Beefsteak", or "Yellow." However, after just a moment's hesitation, Julia looked at me and replied, "Tasty, my dear"

"'Julia Child' is an open-pollinated, heirloom tomato. The tall, indeterminate, potato-leaf plant produces lots of 4-inch, deep-pink, lightly-fluted, beefsteak fruits that have the kind of robust tomatoey flavors and firm, juicy flesh that invites tomato feasting and seed-saving. It's not a simple, sugary sweet variety, but has a bold, straight-forward character in its taste, with more than enough acidity and earthy nuances to balance its sweet, fruity flavors."

'Paul Robeson': A well loved tomato on many people’s “favorites” list. A “black beefsteak” with dark red fruit tinged with black, brown and purple flesh and skin. Rich flavor with hints of spice and red wine. Vary widely in size, but average 10 to 12 oz. each. Does well in colder temperatures. 74 days. Indeterminate, provide support. Won “Best of Show” at Carmel TomatoFest!

Allison on Seeds

Allison Lea, our incredible seeder,  eagle-eyed pest finder, and all around special person wrote this beautiful piece on seeds. We love her writing, and hope you enjoy these thoughtful words.

I've had seeds on my mind lately. Not surprising, given the time of year, and the fact that I've been planting seeds for a living for the better part of a decade. It's easy to forget about seeds, during the long months of a Vermont winter. But then that first warm day comes, and with it the scent of damp earth, and suddenly I am visualizing thousands of seeds lying dormant in the ground, waiting and working. I consider myself lucky, because I get to experience an early spring in the greenhouses. While the outdoor seeds are still mired in mud, ice, snow and more unpleasant bits of thawing matter, I am opening crisp white packets and distributing their contents into the warm fluffy soil from Vermont Compost: onions, lettuce, kale, various greens, annual flowers, tomatoes, peppers. I love my job for its ability to provide me with an invaluable set of simple lessons for life. First: start small. Some of the seeds I plant are truly no bigger than a pinprick. Yet even the smallest one contains all the knowledge it needs to become a complete plant. Inevitably, I have moments when I feel as though I'm flailing around in my life, looking for answers outside myself, or feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information literally right at my fingertips. And then I find myself standing at my seeding bench inside the greenhouse, holding a handful of seeds in my hand and realizing I have all the answers I need. I've always had them. Second: calm down a little and be still. While there are many seeds which travel for miles and miles on the wind or hitched to the back of some animal (mainly my dogs, it seems), all the seeds I've handled germinate best when they are left in peace. They're not going to be thrilled if I keep jostling the tray around, or picking them up, examining them for signs of life, and putting them back down. Likewise, when I allow myself to slow down and breathe a little, I start to get more of a grasp on the person I am becoming. Stillness is the key to sprouting, so when I feel myself flitting here and there, reluctant to make a commitment or put down roots, I go back to my seeds, peer at them thoughtfully, and then step back and let them be. Third: not all seeds are going to germinate. Some seed packets will say 60% germination rate. These seeds I sow a little thicker, in order to compensate. If all of them sprouted, I would have a very crowded plug tray, and unhappy plants. I have lots of great ideas, but they're not all going to come to fruition, so letting go of my attachments seems like a good plan. And finally (although the lessons continue indefinitely) cracking open is a good thing. I've seen thousands of little seedlings, and that first green shoot pushing up through the hull never ceases to delight and amaze me, whether it happens in the greenhouse, or out in the garden. So as I strive to make sense of a world which appears to be literally cracking apart under our collective feet, I will keep coming back to the modest little seed, looking for signs of something new and amazing coming through.