March Garden Plans


Okay, so we're actually in the middle of a(nother) Winter Storm Warning. Albeit one that is, for once, quite a bit lighter than predicted.

But, nonetheless, it is March. And peeking over at my handy vegetable planting guide provided by Gateway Greening, I see lots of activity starting in March. Along with the rest of the country, I am anticipating the explosion of outdoor activities, and happiness, that the highly anticipated spring will bestow upon us. For me, that particularly means making things grow.

This year I expect I’ll have to tack a couple weeks onto the traditional planting dates because of the bitter cold. But that means that very soon, peas go in the ground. They can handle some snow and they hate the heat. With our luck, we’ll transition smoothly and quickly to some freak heat wave like we experienced two years ago. Time will tell.

Peas first. Then lettuces, and the cole crops like broccoli and cabbage. (Side note: I definitely used to think the term was “cold crops” because, you know, they liked the cold.) Beets and carrots. Radishes and turnips. I could be eating fresh salad in 45 days give or take. Just as important, I’ll be digging into fresh, if cold, soil in a couple weeks. There are few things better.

Unlike last year, I am not starting any seeds indoors. I don’t really have the room in my new apartment and I’m planning to move apartments again. The greenhouse at Washington University has traditionally had a seedling sale on Mother’s day and I am hoping to snag some vegetable seedlings there in May. With my move I may have two gardens going on simultaneously, if I am that much of a masochist. I am getting a jump on early spring planting in my current space. But I certainly hope to find another community garden or have access to a yard wherever I move to continue the warm summer crops.

Although maintaining two gardens in two different locations in the city is probably well beyond my organizational skills, it is a good opportunity to learn more about gardening more quickly than I otherwise would be able to. That is one frustrating thing about gardening, you only get one shot each year.

My other outlet will be helping the Bell Demonstration Garden on Saturdays. I started volunteering last summer and hope to do so again starting this spring. Yet another opportunity to learn from people who really know what they’re doing in the garden.

I’ll update on the garden throughout the season and I hope that documenting it will allow me to reflect on what does and does not work!

Indoor/Outdoor Gardening

Phew! This was a busy day in the garden and I've got a lot to share.

First, a belated update to Indoor Gardening. Now it's outdoors! Starting plants from seed was a resounding success. With the LED grow light setup in the laundry room, the seedlings did great. I just left the light on 24 hours a day and the plants that got the most light right under the fixtures grew quickly and strong. I was able to rotate out the strongest plants to south-facing windows and put the smaller seedlings directly under the lights to grow better.

The tomatoes in particular did really well under the lights and flourished in the window when they were repotted at about 5"-6" tall. I also had success with hot and sweet peppers, eggplant and cucumbers. My rosemary is growing very slowly, but then again I think that's just what rosemary does.

After trying to transplant some lettuces and broccoli when they were still too young, I opted instead to just sow seeds directly in the soil. My front garden became my area for all these cool-weather crops because I was far too lazy to walk over to the community garden plot to dig in the cold, wet soil. But these plants did great when sewn directly in soil and I've had my first big pile of lettuces for a delicious salad. Not surprisingly, I now have more leafy vegetables than I really want and I've tried to pawn off the lettuces to my downstairs neighbors. But it's really fulfilling to have the first harvest of the year behind me and I look forward to more the interesting vegetables of summer. I've got peas going in the front garden too which now have a couple flowers on them so they'll hopefully be producing in the near future.

We've had a pretty cool and very wet spring--the Mississippi is chronically flooding--and so even though it's several weeks past the last frost date of April 15 I haven't been brave enough to put in my warm weather crops until now. Today was a beautiful day for doing so though: warm but not hot, with some occasional cloud cover. I went over to the community plot I've rented for the summer and transplanted four tomato plants, three peppers and two eggplants while putting in some seed onions as well. Oh and a cucumber. I started the cucumber indoors although I don't think that's really necessary or even recommended. I'm not sure they survive transplanting very well, but they grow so quickly that if the transplantation doesn't work I can just sew some seeds soon.

What's really intriguing about tomatoes is that because they have evolved to vine over the ground, wherever the stem touches soil it grows new roots. So a strategy for developing a really strong tomato plant is to remove a few of the lower leaves and dig a short trench. You lay the tomato down in the trench and cover up a lot of the stem with soil, leaving just a few leaves at the top. The top will quickly orient to grow against gravity and the whole stem will turn into a new root structure that will give the aerial portions plenty of support and the ability to gather water and nutrients from a wider area. I haven't done it before, but I'm excited to see if it helps my tomatoes flourish in the summer.

Another strategy I look forward to implementing is to actively prune my tomatoes. If you've ever grown tomatoes then you know that it's so easy for them to get overgrown and even get so big they fall over. This is the problem in trying to pretend that a vine is an upright plant. But apparently an easy solution is just to prune them back, like a tree or a grapevine. Once the plant is established and tries to grow extra stems, you just pinch them off at the base. This puts more of the plant's energy into the remaining foliage and fruits to promote ripening and keep the plant from falling over under its own weight.

Hopefully my tomatoes and other warm-weather crops survive the transplanting process well enough. In truth, I should have more carefully hardened them off to survive cooler temperatures and the scorching sun. But they are so hardy right now and the weather is basically perfect that I think I'll be fine, especially as the tomatoes grow new roots.

That finished off all my indoor plants, so I've turned off the LEDs and I'll have to clean up the soggy, wet cardboard boxes that housed my plants for the last few months. I have some other plants I can start from seed--pole beans, more carrots, some herbs--but I think I'm done with the laundry room setup. It's really satisfying to finally get my plants in the ground after nurturing them for months indoors. I've only ever bought seedlings to transplant, but it seems my own plants are somehow stronger. The whole process definitely gives me a level of satisfaction I haven't known before in my gardening experience and I hope I can repeat it next year.

As a topic preview, today I hosted an outreach event at my community garden brining some plant scientists to talk about medicinal plants, domestication and GMOs. It was small, but largely successful and as always I've learned more about how to host such events in the future. That post will be up soon.

Indoor Gardening

For the first time, I'm able to start seedlings indoors before transferring them to the ground for spring. I've been an avid amateur gardener for a couple years now, but last year I was making the move to St. Louis at the end of May. So when we started our garden, Rebecca and I had to largely purchase established seedlings because it was already June. And hot.

But this time around, we're planning on having even more ground space and we're hoping for a milder summer. To take advantage of this, we're starting the seeds off indoors.

What we needed most of all was lights. If you search Amazon for grow light fixtures, you'll find mostly fluorescent fixtures with light bulbs for 50 bucks or more. And even though fluorescent light bulbs are reasonably efficient, we're talking about having these things on 12 hours a day for months. Right away it was clear we wanted LED lights so we didn't run up the meter. We picked up this, a two pack of 2 Watt LEDs with a combination of red and blue diodes for good growth. Less than $30, they'll last forever and I calculated their addition to our electric bill at about 19 cents. Fortunately I found a couple cheap clamp-on light fixtures at Home Depot. The lights give out an eerie pinkish glow that frankly looks unhealthy. But it's supposed to be good for the plants. 
The only place safe from our cats is the laundry room. Fortunately it's also warm because of the furnace, so we set up the lights there. We hobbled together a collection of egg and milk cartons, produce containers and other assorted fiberboard to start the seeds in. We have some small pots laying around we can transfer the bigger seedlings to before taking them outside if needed. 

Although we had a couple seed packets leftover from last season, we had to go on a major seed hunt. Fortunately the Central West End has a fantastic nursery called Bowood Farms whose cafe is good for an exceedingly nice brunch. In fact, we spent our time on the restaurant wait list looking over our seed options.

We may have gone a little overboard. We've got two tomatoes (variety of cherry strains and a regular pole tomato); two varieties of carrots; red onions; beets; broccoli; cauliflower; sweet and hot peppers; Swiss chard, spinach and kale; green beans and snap peas; and too many herbs to count. Oops. Notably absent is a summer squash. We're going to be joining the Lee Farms CSA this summer and think we'll have plenty of zucchini, thank you very much. 

We got home and immediately got started. We've got three egg cartons and a leftover plastic planter going for now. We were already 'behind' schedule on some of the cold-weather crops like broccoli and cauliflower so those went in. We've got a whole 'flat' of onions going and then we used the taller plastic planter for beets. These will go in the ground next month. If we need more space we can probably swing the lights down and grow a bigger group on top of the dryer.

It was a wet and chilly day, but already the days are getting longer and I'm excited to harvest my first-ever spring crop in a couple months. Soon we'll get the warmer crops like tomatoes and peppers going and really take off!

I'll keep posting updates on this project. Already little hypocotyls (the embryonic stem that supports the embryonic leaves, cotyledons) are poking out and they should be turning green soon.