Saturday, April 28, 2012

Here Comes the Sun!

Mother Nature has been somewhat moody lately here in WNY. After a beautiful early spring that saw temperatures in the neighborhood of 80 degrees on St. Patrick’s Day (not to mention leaves on the trees a solid month earlier than normal) we’ve been consistently in the 40’s to low 50's with frosty nights and a lot of rain. The plus side is that after today’s temperatures in the high 40’s, tomorrow the forecast calls for mid 50’s and then mostly 60’s and 70’s all week. The best part is that nightly lows are supposed to stay above 45 after we get through Monday, and even the 50’s toward the end of next week. This is especially exciting because hauling plants in and out on a daily basis is getting old!

Ozark Beauty Strawberry
 These colder temperatures don’t mean that things are standing still in the garden. The strawberries, mesclun mix, potatoes, beets, forget me nots, cilantro, dill, sage, and parsley have been outside for the past couple of weeks. I was a little surprised that the cilantro and dill seemed to take to the cooler temperatures, but I do bring them in almost every night. The strawberries have been outside pretty much day and night for a solid month now, although I do bring them inside when we get a frost warning, which has happened several times lately. It isn’t so much the plant themselves, but the delicate young flowers and berries that I am concerned with. The beets and potatoes haven’t come above the surface yet, so they are protected by the dirt in their containers. 

Mesclun Seedlings and Strawberries outside
Over the past couple of weekends we’ve also planted some new seeds and done some re-potting. Cucumbers, purple basil, squash, beans, chamomile, tarragon, and more chives are in the dirt in the greenhouse room. The squash, beans, cucumbers, and basil are all up and growing very quickly. This is my first time growing squash, and it was about 4 inches tall in about 2 days! Beans grow really fast and can probably be started outdoors, but with all the critters and birds around I wanted the plants going before I planted them outside.

Beans and squash enjoying life in the greenhouse room

Zucchini Squash

Today I am going to pot up a bunch of herbs in anticipation of them going outside once those nicer temperatures arrive mid-week. The greenhouse plants will also get their first dose of a mild fertilizer with their water this afternoon. As you can see, some of the tomato plants are becoming quite large.  

Green Zebra and Black Krim plants

In my next post, I’ll address how I have been hardening these plants off to wind and cold. Until then, here are some more pictures of the garden. Spring weather is just around the corner!

Cucumber Seedlings

Seedling Table on 4/28/12

Purple Basil Seedlings

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Containers for the 2012 Garden

Last season, I experimented with empty Tidy Cats containers for the garden. Like anything, there were plusses and minuses.

On the plus side, they are fairly tough plastic, have handles for carrying, and are a decent size (4-6 gallons, depending on the brand/size). They are big enough for most crops to do fairly well. We grew Abe Lincoln tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, tomatillos, and peppers in them, and all did okay (as I mentioned in the soil post, the cheap mix I used did not help matters any).

Last year's tomato patch using Tidy Cats buckets for Abe Lincoln tomato plants. Stylish? You decide!
On the other hand, there are drawbacks. Bright yellow cubes with the words “Tidy Cats” splashed across them might not be your idea of chic patio d├ęcor. You also have to wash them out really well in order to eliminate the perfume smell that lingers even in the empty containers. Of course, you need to drill plenty of holes for drainage, but that is a minor issue if you have a power drill. Painting them a more attractive color is a pain, because the decal is printed right into the plastic rather than stuck on, so you would have to paint over that as well, which is tough. If you aren’t prepared to deal with the raincoat yellow and bright blue color scheme and price is an issue, you’re better off just buying some black 5 gallon nursery pots for $3-4 a pop at your local nursery.

In a pinch, they worked. We had a steady supply that we saved up, and with a better quality soil and less crowding (but that’s another post!) they would be solid, dependable containers to use.

This year, though I wanted something more visually appealing for our new porch. Little by little, I began to buy containers each week. I eventually ended up with a solid collection for this year. The square 6.5 gallon planters were about $7 at Home Depot, and they are a nice size for most types of container veggies. I also picked up 4 of the black flexible 11.4 gallon “tubs” at Wal-Mart for about $6 each (I wish I had seen these sooner, since they were both cheaper and much larger than the square planters I had bought).

The 11.4 gallon flexible tubs (around $6 at Wal Mart)

The 6.4 gallon square planters (around $7 at Home Depot)

 The 11.4 gallon tubs are going to be reserved for tomatoes and okra. Most of the 6.5 gallon planters will be used for the cucumbers, eggplant, and peppers. I’m still debating how to allocate the container space, but that’s the fun part!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Seeds and Stats: About the Variety Mix Seed Packets

This year we wanted to plant a nice mix of tomatoes, so we bought the Burpee Heirloom Mix packet, which contains 5 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Sounds great, right? How can you beat 5 neat kinds of tomatoes (some of which are tough to find on their own) to try out on the porch all at once?

This is the seed variety packet we purchased
Well, one issue I didn’t quite think through is that we would have no idea what we were planting. Sure, statistically if we planted 10 seeds we ought to get two of each plant. That’s assuming every seed sprouts, and that the 10 seeds are an equal mix of all 5 types. I figured that in practice we would likely get 3 of one type, 1 of another, and 2 of a few different types, but at least we would get 1 of each. If we were really unlucky we could get 4 of one kind, 4 of another, 2 of another, and none at all of the other 2 types. Or 5 of one type, and (well you get the picture).

This thought process also assumes that the seed packet itself contains equal numbers of each type, which seems to be a bad assumption. This was clear when we opened the Burpee bush bean mix package to start the seeds this weekend. Luckily, unlike the tomato seeds the beans were clearly three different varieties. The maroon bean seeds were reddish in color and the yellow and green bean seeds were two different sizes, albeit the same shade of white. Still, unlike the tomatoes, it was easy to separate the beans into  distinct piles so that we could be sure to plant all three types. We labeled the maroon beans and then called the other two types “Bean A” and “Bean B.” We’ll find out when they get beans which is green and which is yellow. In terms of the mix, rather than a true 1/3 of each as the packet stated there were far more of the smaller white beans than either of the other two types. It was not really a big deal (since we only started 4 plants of each kind) but it goes to show that we cannot assume the tomatoes followed a perfect 1/5 of each variety pattern.

Back to the tomatoes, which did not allow for any visual sorting method since all of the seeds looked the same. To be safe, we started the whole package, then potted the best 10 plants into larger peat pots. I guess we’ll just see what we end up getting once the tomatoes come (hopefully not all Evergreen since we also planted Green Zebras!). One nice thing about the heirloom mix is that the Brandywines stick out once the seedlings get to a certain size, since they have a unique “potato leaf” foliage that is different from just about any other kind of tomato. So that’s one type down and 4 to go. Also, it might be luck, but of the 10 plants we potted up exactly 2 were clearly Brandywines, so maybe the probability will work out after all….

Notice the difference between this Yellow Pear tomato seedling and the Brandywines below

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"Past Gardens" slideshow is now up!

Check out the slideshow on the "past gardens" page! That is still my favorite cucumber plant to date!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Dirt on Potting Mixes

Last year I learned an important lesson about the value of a good quality potting mix when planting vegetables in containers.

After searching around, I found a product called Earth Gro potting soil. It was made by Scott’s, and most importantly (or so I thought) it was CHEAP! For a little over $3 a bag, how could I go wrong? After all, it’s dirt.

You get what you pay for... in this case heavy sandy soil! It was OK, but who wants to waste the time and effort of seeding, planting, watering, and fertilizing just to have OK results?

Well, I was wrong on many accounts. First, potting mix really isn’t “dirt” at all. Usually it’s a mix of bark, peat moss, and perlite. As I was soon to discover, the cheaper mixes, such as the one I has just bought about 10 bags of, included a generous helping of sand. The result is a very heavy, very compact mix that turns into something reminiscent of a block of concrete as soon as you water it. Halfway through a hot day it would crack and pull away from the sides of the containers, making watering extremely difficult.

Not surprisingly, most of the plants didn’t grow all that well in it. The tomatoes did okay, but not great. The cucumbers died soon after plating. The peppers didn’t seem to mind it, though, nor did the tomatillos, which provided enough fruit for a small army—even when I planted a few extra tomatillo plants in a spare 1 gallon (at best) pot I had around just to see what would happen. The okra produced only a few pods here and there, and most of the rest of the garden seemed stunted the entire season. 

The plants did okay but needed constant attention. Sometimes even that was not enough.
This year I was determined not to skimp on the soil. For one thing, we moved to an upstairs apartment, so weight on the upstairs porch was more of a consideration than when everything was outside on a concrete slab. Also, I wanted a decent harvest this year. To that end, I bought two kinds of potting mix to try: Miracle Gro and Sta Green Moisture Max (which is a Lowe’s exclusive). Each seems good, but I decided to go with the Sta Green for a couple of reasons.

First, it is about $2-3 cheaper per 2 cu ft bag than the Miracle Gro, which when you need to buy many bags adds up quickly. Second, it is light, fluffy, and airy—all key qualities that you want in a potting mix. It seems to have a lot of pine bark, which adds to the lightweight quality of the soil. So far, the strawberries and broccoli seem happy in it, so I decided to go with it for the rest of the containers this season.

To compare, a 2cu ft bag (the biggest bag they had at Lowe’s) weighs about 33 pounds after it had been outside getting rained on, which is about 10-15 pounds lighter than the wet Miracle Gro. Multiply that by 10 bags, and you’re talking a couple hundred pounds less weight and about $20 cheaper. Since I fertilize anyway, I am not too worried about what the mix has in terms of fertilizer, but the Sta Green does come pre-fertilized.

This mix is light, fluffy, and seems consistent from bag to bag so far. I have never used moisture control mix before, but I have heard good things, especially when you have a hot sunny porch like we do.

 Either way, the difference between both of these soils and the Earth Gro mix is stunning. A little 5 gallon pot of the Earth Gro that I had left over from last year was heaver than the entire 2cu ft bag of Sta Green!

The lesson was simple and clear: if you are going to grow vegetables in containers, don’t skimp on the potting mix. If you go with the cheapest soil you can find you’ll waste time and money, and ultimately be disappointed in your experience and your harvest.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

An update for a rainy spring day....

It’s been a busy few weeks in the garden lately! After a couple weeks of teasing, Mother Nature has gone back to her traditional early spring ways, with cold (often frosty) nights followed by 45-50 degree days. The strawberries are outside, and doing pretty well. They are tough little plants, so there’s little worry there. The other day we had a light snowfall and they shook it right off and continued producing sprouts and even some early flowers. I almost think they are doing better since I put them outside in the colder temperatures than they were in the nursery room window.

We also planted the lettuce last weekend, and since it hasn’t come up yet it’s been protected from the frost nights we’ve had this week. The chard went out last week as well, and even though it’s still very small, the plants are doing okay. Most of the sports were laying over because of the wind, so I stood them up and mounded some soil around them to help hold them up. We always have extra seed if they don’t make it (we were running out of nursery space so they had to go out). I’m hoping that this weekend’s 65 degree days and warmer nights well help the chard settle in and perk up a bit.

The broccoli and romanesco is toughening up already and seems to enjoy the chilly temps. Each has a woodier stem already than when they went out a week ago, and the nearly constant wind we’ve had seems to have toughened them up. One thing about this Sta Green soil is that it seems tough to get really wet at first, so that is something to be aware of if you have any type of “moisture control” mix. You really have to soak it at first, sort of like peat moss when it dries out.

This weekend, we are also started the last round of seeds: cucumbers (straight eight and lemon), squash (zucchini), and beans (mixture of yellow, green, and purple bush type beans). I also couldn’t resist the purple basil seeds I had been eyeing, so those go in the dirt this week as well.

Next year, I am going to just start everything in these larger peat pots to save the time/hassle of transplanting. Picking microscopic little seedlings from their seed starter mix and gingerly planting them into larger pots takes hours, and is nowhere near as fun as it sounds! But the results have been good. It is really amazing how hearty even tiny little seedlings really are.

One plus of the square peat pots is that you can fit 12 of them perfectly inside one dollar store aluminum cake pan, which helps a great deal with watering, as the cake pans can catch any runoff water. I’ve also found that watering the pan itself rather than the small plants allows them to wick it up as needed.

The square medium-sized peat pots fit perfectly into the dollar store cake pans, making watering a lot easier and a lot less messy! Plus, moving things around is a lot quicker.

This weekend we also potted up the cilantro and dill (in the big white window box) as well as some other herbs. I have an experimental small pot of each that is hardening off now, so if all goes well with those the big box will go outside soon after. As you can see, it is becoming crowded in the nursery room! 

Seedling table as of 4/15/12