Friday, May 13, 2016

When to Plant?

When to plant? That’s the perennial question for any gardener, and if you’re anything like me you want to get everything out as quickly as possible. One advantage of container gardening is that you can put your plants outside pretty much whenever you want, as long as you’re prepared to bring them into some type of sheltered area when the nights inevitably get too cold. A garage, shed or barn works well, as does a living room or office, as we’ve had to do on many occasions. 
Let us out! 
This time of year is a paradox. We’re in Buffalo, NY, so we’re used to wild weather swings, but this spring seems to be fairly consistently cool and windy—neither of which are particularly conducive to growing most of the things we grow in the garden. The one positive is that it hasn’t gotten cold enough to frost here in weeks, so this year’s fruit tree crop should be much better than last season when we got the dreaded late frost. This also means that I’ve been able to have the citrus trees, onions, fennel, and some hardy herbs like chives, sage, thyme, rosemary, and cilantro outside for quite a while now.

However, it just hasn’t been consistently warm enough for the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants to go outside yet. Yesterday it was 80 here. Today it’s about 58, and very windy. This weekend’s highs are forecast to be 55 on Saturday and 46 on Sunday. As much as I might be tempted to put the tomatoes out and just bring them in when (not if) it gets too chilly in the evening, that quickly becomes more of a hassle than it is worth. It’s not so much the bringing them in at night, but the need to put them back out in the morning when you’re getting ready for work that you need to consider. It takes more time and effort than you think it would if you have any number of plants. If your cats see a cracked open door as an invitation to bolt outside like ours do then the process becomes a bit more “interesting” as well! If you have just one or two plants I suppose it might not be an issue, but for us it’s just not worth the couple of extra days outside for the plants.

A plant slumber party sounds more fun than it actually is! This was from the 2015 garden. 
With all that said, next week looks like a great opportunity for planting: highs in the low to mid 60’s (which is fine) and more importantly lows in the low to mid 50’s at night. It is also going to be mostly cloudy for a few days next week, which is my favorite time to plant because it allows the seedlings to become accustomed to the brighter light before they get hit with direct sun. Around here if you can get your garden out around mid-May you’re doing very well. Many people just wait until Memorial Day to avoid any chance of frost, but in the city it is almost always a few degrees warmer than in the more rural areas of the region, so we can get away with pushing it a bit.

The Mitoyo eggplants are the perfect size to plant!
As far as hardening the seedlings off first, I typically put them out for a few days before planting, especially if it’s going to be cloudy. One difficulty this year is all the wind, especially for the tomatoes, which are almost 2 feet tall! The wind just rips them to shreds if I put them out in their seeding containers. Once they are planted very deep this isn’t a concern, but I don’t want to expose them to too much wind stress just yet. As I mentioned before, planting during a cloudy period of a few days works very well, and I’ve never had a major issue with plants getting sunburned when doing that. Keep in mind though that I grow them a few inches from a repurposed aquarium plant grow lamp that is many times brighter than a typical grow bulb. If you use a sunny window you might want to be more careful of shocking them with the change in brightness.

Basil seedlings!
In other garden news, I just received my order of five 15 gallon fabric pots, which will replace the 12 gallon black plastic tubs I was using for the tomatoes. 12 gallons was fine for the tomatoes, so 15 will be even better, especially for the Brandywines. Since the weather is going to be cool and rainy, I’ll write up a longer post about these fabric pots in the next few days.

Finally, if you’re interested in more frequent updates from the container garden, be sure to like 
like captive roots on Facebook, as I frequently post a photo of the day from the garden.

Until next time, happy gardening! 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Planting Onions in Containers

This year I decided to experiment with a few new crops, and one of them is the humble, versatile, and delicious onion! After much research here is what I decided on for this season. Will it work? We'll find out together!

Step #1: Select an onion type that is appropriate to your region

This is key, because onions form bulbs based on the number of hours of daylight they receive. Your latitude determines the best type of onions for your region. There are many great resources for further reading on this topic, but it basically boils down to this:

Short Day Onions are best in the south. If you plant a short day onion in the north it will receive the required number of hours of daylight to trigger bulb formation early in the season before it has formed a strong root system and enough greens to support the bulb. As a result, it will grow greens but you will only get a tiny bulb. The unused package of Granex (Vidalia) seeds I have in my seed basket is a great example of this type (do your research before you buy!).

Long Day Onions are best in the north. These require very long days to form a bulb, so they will set their roots and grow their greens in the north in the cool of spring, then begin to set nice bulbs during the summer when daylight hours are much longer. If you plant a long day onion in the south it will never get the required number of hours of daylight to bulb, so all you will get is greens.

Intermediate Day (Day Neutral) Onions can be grown in both regions. They should work well in most growing regions, aside from the extremes.

After I read up on daylight hours I selected two day neutral types: Candy onions and a red onion.

Red onions planted in early April
Step #2: Seeds, sets, or plants?

This is another consideration. You can grow your onions from seeds, sets (small onion bulbs), or small plants. Seeds are cheap, but take a long time. Sets (the small bulbs) already have a nice head start, but after watching hours of Youtube videos and reading far too many articles, the consensus seemed to be that planting bulbs would result in plants that would bolt quickly, which leads to smaller bulbs and detracts from storage and overall quality of the harvest.

Your onion plants will probably look like this. These are Candy onions
I decided to go with small onion plants, which are just seedlings that have grown to 5-6 inches and are ready to plant. These come in bunches of 30-50, depending on the source. Although they might look dried out or delicate, it is very easy to separate the roots and end up with individual onion plants. If you start them early enough (mid December or so) you can of course just grow these from seed yourself, but I didn't plan ahead so it's plants for me this year!

To separate, gently pull the bunch apart. Then, simply pull out each onion plant, being careful not to damage the roots too much. As I mentioned before, they are a lot tougher than they look, but they will break if you rush it. If you break a few it's no big deal. This was a bunch of 50, so you'll get plenty.

The individual plants ready for the soil!
Step #3: Select and prepare your planter

So now you have your plants ready for soil! Hopefully you already have a number of containers on hand, as well as soil. The question then becomes which container type is best suited to growing onions.

In my case, there are a few considerations. First, space is limited. We have an upstairs porch, so we need to get as much yield from the available space as possible. This means pushing any spacing suggestions right to the limit. In addition, since this is an experiment I don't want to dedicate one of my "premium" containers to onions when there are peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, and many more crops that need a lot of space.

Onions don't grow very deep, but they do need horizontal space to accomodate the bulbs. I decided to use my window boxes, as they are about 36 inches long and hold about 7 gallons of soil, so they are a good size and also allow for a horizontal spread. They can also fit on the porch rails, leaving floor space for the VIP's of the garden. Yes, tomatoes know they are hot shots and have the egos that go with that!

Of course, make sure you use a good potting mix. I have had good luck with any decent quality mix. I look for a light mix (we are upstairs on a porch so weight matters) and one without much, or any, fertilizer, as I like to add my own. Lately I've been using Baccto Pro Mix with good results. It is light, fluffy, and simple. Just make sure to add fertilizer!

Planters filled with mix and ready to go!
Step #4: Space out your plants

In the instructions that came with my candy onions, it was suggested that the onions be spaced 4 inches apart, and 2 inches from the side of the bed (or container in this case). This was the spacing I used for the red onions that I planted a few weeks ago in early April.

Space the plants 4 inches apart 

Also, give them 2 inches from the edge of the bed or container 
More space is always fine, but crowding can result in smaller plants. By following this spacing (with some extra as it turned out) I was able to fit 10 onion plants in each of my 3 foot window boxes. I decided to really push the spacing to the limit and give each plant exactly 4 inches in one of the candy onion boxes, which gave me 16 onions in that container.

All told, I ended up with 2 three foot planters of candy onions, for a total of 26 plants. Earlier in the month I also planted one 3 foot planter of red onions (10 plants) and one 18 inch planter of 5 red onions, for a total of 15. All together, I have 41 onions plants, so this should be an interesting experiment.

Roughly space out the plants
Step #5: Plant the onions (but just the roots!) 

Now it's time for the fun part: planting! The key is to plant shallow. Unlike tomatoes, peppers, and many other garden favorites, onions should be planted very shallow. The instructions that came with these onions direct you to just bury the roots, but leave the white of the onion above ground as much as possible. The reason is that they will apparently form larger bulbs if the bulbs are mostly on top of, rather than buried by, the soil. It makes sense if you've ever seen onions growing, as it looks like they are just sitting on top of the ground.

Make a 1 inch deep hole and just tuck the roots under the soil

Keep most of the white of the onion above the soil

It is going to feel like the plants are very wobbly at first. I was worried about this, as we get a lot of wind on the porch, but you will likely be surprised at how quickly these plants anchor themselves into the soil. Within a few days the red onions I planted, which were much smaller and less green than these candy onions were, were firmly rooted and didn't budge when touched. 
Candy onions just after planting
Once they are planted, water them in as normal, fertilize with a good all-purpose fertilizer, and you should be on the way to successfully growing onions! At least I hope so! We'll see as the season progresses...

In summary: choose the right onion for your latitude, space at least 4 inches, plant shallow, and fertilize!

From everything I've read, onions are an extremely hardy crop. They are tough to kill, withstand frosts, and grow pretty much anywhere. This spring our chives, which were in a small container that was still frozen solid, were growing up through the frozen soil and were a good 6 inches tall before the dirt inside the container finally warmed up and defrosted.

One last great thing about onions: they can (and really should) be planted early, so you can get out in the garden and get some things growing before spring truly arrives. Be sure to check back often for updates on the onions, as well as everything else in the container garden. Also, if you follow Captive Roots on Facebook I will be posting a photo from the garden each day, starting today!

Until next time, happy gardening!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Welcome to the 2016 re-launch of Captive Roots!

Hello everyone!
Meyer lemon blossom
It's been a while since I've posted, so I wanted to let everyone know that the blog will be up and running again on a regular basis very soon! There hasn't been a lot of material to cover the past several months other than starting seeds and battling bugs on the citrus and pepper plants (more about that in my upcoming post) but now that temperatures are warming up and we have some nice sunny days I'm excited to get back out on the porch!

An early Nardello pepper!
I've been working on a lot of exciting projects that I look forward to sharing with you, such as overwintering a Jimmy Nardello pepper plant, which aside from the aforementioned battles with bugs was a pretty good success. It isn't the prettiest pepper plant right now, but it's healthy, alive, and already starting to flower, so once it puts out its canopy it will be quite the plant.

Overwintered Jimmy Nardello
We also have some citrus flowers on the Meyer lemon tree. The minute I put this outside a week or so ago it was covered in bees, so I'm hoping we get some good lemons this season!

"Release Us!" - Brandywine Tomatoes (2016) 
So while today's post is short, I have many more to come in the near future. It's almost garden season!


Friday, July 10, 2015

A Weekend Photo Tour!

Eggplant! Beware the spikes!

It's been a while since my last post, and the garden is going strong. We've had a very wet start to the summer, which has been a challenge at times with the tomatoes. But now that we're having more summer-like temperatures everything is happy and green!

Here is a photo tour of the garden from this afternoon. This week I'll be doing some posts focusing specifically on certain crops, so stay tuned!

Garden facing north

Garden facing south


I'm looking forward to these melons. As you can see they are easily trained right up the tomato cage. I'll be doing a post on these this week! 

Blue Beauty tomatoes

Easily my favorite tomato, and these plants are already loaded with some nice fruit! 

Orange You Sweet peppers

A delicious orange pepper that is great for stuffing. 

Poblano peppers

Our favorite pepper in the garden. A hint of heat, and tons of flavor. Also among the most prolific pepper varieties I've grown. 

Orange and red chard mix

Chard is one of our favorite greens to eat, so we have several containers planted this year. 

Perpetual Spinach

This is a type of chard, but looks and tastes more like spinach. It also does not bolt in the heat! 


We just had our first beet harvest! I'll be doing a post about the beets next week as well. 

Daddy Mix petunias

Petunias are my favorite flower in the garden. The Daddy Mix is a variety of 3 veined petunias.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

You Can (and should) Eat Your Broccoli Leaves!

Today's update will be a quick one, but I think you'll also find it useful if you grow broccoli. I recently read an article about a "new" vegetable that Foxy, one of the major produce suppliers in the US, is marketing across the country called BroccoLeaf. It is, as the name suggests, simply broccoli leaves. A quick Google search will turn up dozens of entries about the product. As someone who loves cooking (and eating) I was intrigued. 
our first broccoli harvest of the season!
If you grow broccoli you know that there are a lot of leaves on the plant when it is fully mature, which means that there is a tremendous amount of produce that typically goes to waste (or the compost bin) if you only eat the florets. I wanted to see if the leaves could stand up as a real component of a meal and not just a small scale snack while working in the garden, so when we harvested our first batch of broccoli last night I decided to mix in several large leaves and sauté it all together with some butter and fresh herbs. In a word: incredible! The leaves taste like a milder, slightly less sweet version of the floret/stalk.

leaves, stalk, and florets ready for the saute pan!
You can count me among the many who never thought to eat the broccoli leaves, aside from munching on a few here and there while working in the garden. In retrospect, it's obvious! Being from the same family as kale and collards, it only stands to reason that broccoli leaves (which look a lot like collard leaves) would be not only edible but tasty and packed with nutrients.

If you enjoyed this post, please like Captive Roots on Facebook and help spread the word! Remember that you can also receive alerts when future posts become available by subscribing via email on the right hand side of the screen.

Until next time, happy gardening!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Crop List for the 2015 Garden!

For the 2015 garden I wanted to strike a nice balance between experimentation and utility. Since we found that peppers freeze amazingly well (you can read more about that here) I decided to increase our production of peppers this season. I also wanted to devote a sizeable portion of our container space to cooking greens, as we enjoy fresh greens on a regular basis. I have wanted to try melons for years now, so I found a really neat small heirloom melon that Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello. It will be about the size of the Sikkim cucumber that I grew last season (you can read more about the Sikkim cucumbers from last season here).
an unusual crop...
So, without further ado, here is the 2015 crop list! Anything in blue is a variety I have never tried to grow before.


Blue Beauty, 2 plants in one 12 gallon pot, 1 plant in a 5 gallon pot
Golden Sunray, 2 plants in one 12 gallon pot
Roma, 2 plants in one 12 gallon pot
Frosted Green Doctors Cherry, 2 plants in one 7 gallon pot
Black Cherry tomato, 2 plants in one 7 gallon pot


Oda Pepper, 2 plants in one 7 gallon pot
Anaheim Chili, 2 plants in one 7 gallon pot
Poblano, 3 plants in one 12 gallon pot, 2 plants in one 5 gallon pot
Orange You Sweet, 2 plants in one 5 gallon pot
Cayenne, 2 plants in one 5 gallon pot
Biggie Chili, 2 plants in one 5 gallon pot
Fort Knox, 2 plants in one 7 gallon pot
Jimmy Nardello, 2 plants in one 5 gallon pot


Long Eggplant, 2 plants in one 7 gallon pot

Cooking Greens

Swiss Chard (mix of red and orange), 4 plants in one 7 gallon pot
Perpetual Spinach Chard, 5 plants in one 7 gallon pot
Vates Collards, 4 plants in on 7 gallon pot
Pink Chard, 4 plants in one 5 gallon pot
Kale, 4 plants in one 7 gallon pot

Cucumbers and Melons

Ananas D'Amerique A Chair Verte Melon, 4 plants in one 12 gallon pot
White Cucumber, 3 plants in one 7 gallon pot
Lemon Cucumber, 3 plants in one 7 gallon pot

Herbs (various containers)

Purple and Green Basil

Miscellaneous Edibles (various containers)

Green Onions
Purple and Green Bush Beans
Meyer Lemon Tree


Daddy Mix Petunia
Button Zinnia
Green Envy Zinnia
Dwarf Cosmos

In the coming weeks, I plan on spotlighting each of these crops with in-depth photos and more information about the containers and growing habits of each plant. It should be a great summer in the garden!

If you enjoyed this post, please like Captive Roots on Facebook and help spread the word! Remember that you can also receive alerts when future posts become available by subscribing via email on the right hand side of the screen.

Until next time, happy gardening!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Plant Peppers and Tomatoes Deep for Higher Yields and Stronger Plants

Plant deep. That is the best piece of advice I could give anyone who wants to grow healthier and more productive peppers and tomatoes. With tomatoes this is common knowledge among gardeners, and you won’t cause much of a stir by doing it. But anyone who has spent any amount of time reading a gardening forum knows that the topic of deep planting peppers can cause quite the debate. Many swear that peppers do not root from their stems, and that you will kill your plants because the stem will rot. This scares people away from trying it because of course they don’t want to risk killing their plants.
Peppers from early last summer... all planted deep and all very much alive!
Gardening is like any pursuit in that those who are passionate about it tend to have strong opinions. Just read a message board thread about organic vs. non-organic gardening for a quick primer on this. All I can speak to is my experience and the experiences of other successful gardeners who I trust. If your experience is anything like mine (and many other people who have practiced this method for decades) your pepper plants absolutely do root from their buried stems and do benefit from deep plantings just like tomatoes do. Eggplants benefit from deep planting as well. And why not? All three are members of the nightshade family, along with potatoes (which also should be buried as they grow for higher yields). It makes sense that they share similar growth habits.
loaded Jimmy Nardello plants from last summer
Deep planting of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants has a few major benefits. One is that more roots=more nutrient intake. The more nutrients a plant can take in, the more energy it has to do all of the stuff we want it to do (grow, branch out, produce fruit). In addition, more roots mean a stronger, sturdier plant in the wind. Each of those roots is an anchor that helps the plant avoid getting thrashed around in the wind. Finally, if you start seedlings indoors chances are that your plants are a bit leggy, which means they are very tall and thin due to the lack of sufficient light. They are literally reaching for the light! If you plant a leggy seedling at the same depth it was in its seed tray you will most likely have a top-heavy plant that could easily snap in a strong wind, which we get plenty of here in Buffalo.
Golden Sunray from 2015 garden.... stocky and already had a small tomato in late May!
So how do I plant deep? I simply remove the leaves from the lower 2/3 of a tomato or pepper plant, dig a hole deep enough to bury the plant about 2/3 of the way, and plant it. Don’t worry about getting it perfect; nature is tough, and gardening should be fun! If you forget to remove a leaf and it gets buried? DOOM! Actually, you won’t notice any difference; the leaf will just decompose in the dirt like the leaves that fall from the plant during the growing season do. Also, don’t sweat too much about exactly how deep you plant the seedling. Whether it is 40%, 50% or 70% buried the stem is going to produce more roots and the plant will be much stronger because of it than it would be otherwise. 

About those deep planted peppers… I have been deep planting all of my peppers for the past couple of years now. Far from sickly plants with rotten stems, the poblano plants last summer were about 5 feet tall, with thick tree-like stems. We are still eating cayenne peppers that we froze from last year’s garden. I grew 2 plants in a 5 gallon container. We just used the last of our aforementioned poblano peppers. I only grew 2 plants in one 7 gallon container. Remember, a plant is only as good as its roots, which is why a rich and well draining growing medium is essential for getting the results you want. Healthy roots=healthy plants. Having a lot more of those healthy roots makes a tremendous difference in the health and yield of your plants.

healthy plants=bigger yields... this is a 7 gallon container in 2013
I mentioned eggplants before. I often plant eggplants an inch or two deeper than the seedling trays, mostly because they tend to be stockier and tougher as seedlings and don’t really have a long stem to begin with. I typically plant them up to the base of the lowest leaves (without removing any). Sometimes though you will encounter a leggy eggplant seedling, and if that’s the case you can (and should) plant it just like a tomato or pepper.
more happy peppers from last summer's garden
Summer is well underway here in Western New York, and the garden is starting to really take shape! I look forward to sharing my adventures in container gardening with all of you for the next few months, and I hope your gardens are starting to bloom as well!

If you enjoyed this post, please like Captive Roots on Facebook and help spread the word! Remember that you can also receive alerts when future posts become available by subscribing via email on the right hand side of the screen.

Until next time, happy gardening!