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Garden Update

Garden Update

So far, the hoop house is working really well. I’ve got seedlings coming up of broccoli rabe, komatsuna, spinach, and endive. The other hoop house also has sprouts, so far, it’s the Chinese cabbage (2 kinds) that are sprouting the best.

I also have some overwintered leeks that are starting to green up again, as well as parsley, chives, chervil, garlic chives and the indomitable lovage coming back up in the herb bed.

And this morning, the first of the daffodils bloomed, on the back side of the house, where it’s warmest. So I guess spring is on its way after all …



The tomato and pepper seeds I planted last week are starting to sprout down there under the lights, and the hoop houses are really working too — I’ve got spinach, Komatsuna, broccoli rabe, pak choi, arugula, and endive all coming up. I also have a lot of weeds. I think my not-entirely-composted chicken poop/straw is going to be a tiny bit problematic, but at this point, when I”m having to thin seedlings anyhow, it’s not that much more work to whack out the weed seedlings.

Mostly though I’m just thrilled and relieved that spring is coming. The sun has come back, and although nothing is really budding out yet (except my allergies), you can just feel the earth turning on its axis. There will be more snow, and as tempting as it is to get started early, one must remember that our last frost historically doesn’t occur until May 17.

But things are sprouting! And in a couple of weeks I’ll have fresh greens. I can’t wait. I am beyond tired of eating store produce.

How to Start Seeds

How to Start Seeds

Kristi mentioned in the comments that she’s had bad luck starting seeds, and since it’s that time of year again, I thought I’d share my seed starting process. Because I’ve got a basement, I have plenty of space to start my own seeds.

My seed starting bench is an old steel garage shelf, above which I strung a cheap florescent fixture with grow lights. This one has enough space for four trays, which is usually about as much as I want to start at one time. Since the light is on an adjustable chain, I can hang it up high when I’m planting, or doing stuff, but then I can lower it way down so it’s right over the seedlings when they come up. They like the light close, that way they don’t get too leggy.

I also swear by my seed starter mats. These plug in, and provide just enough heat to warm the soil to 75 or 80 degrees, which is what tomatoes and peppers and most other warm-weather crops that you need to start indoors really need. They hardly use any electricity, and I’ve had almost 100% germination every year I’ve used them.

Once they’ve gotten a start, I move the trays to the set of garage shelving that you can see in the background of this shot. I looked at a number of kits online, but they were all too expensive, so I just suspended florescent fixtures with chains and s-hooks to the underside of each shelf, and filled them with grow-light bulbs. It didn’t cost me much since I had the shelves — I think the lights were about ten bucks each, and the bulbs were a little pricey — four or five bucks apiece and you need two per fixture. I also invested in a bunch of seed trays, some clear plastic lids, and an array of starter packs, all of which have lasted me for seven or eight years now.

I like starting my own seeds for several reasons. For one thing, I don’t have to worry about picking up any weird fungi or wilts from starts (last summer’s tomato blight on the East Coast started with Home Depot plants I believe). But mostly, I just find the whole thing kind of miraculous. This afternoon I was downstairs with 8 tomato varieties and (gulp) 32 different kinds of peppers. Trays filled with soil, a chopstick for a tool, two seeds to a cell, and in a week or so, there will be tiny little plants coming up. If you’re a person that has trouble sometimes believing that things can be okay, the annual ritual of planting seeds in your chilly basement, and watching them sprout, and nursing them along until they become actual plants, well, its enough to keep a girl’s sense of optimism alive.

It’s Spring and I Can’t Come Inside…

It’s Spring and I Can’t Come Inside…

Spring has sprung here in Montana. My computer is telling me it’s 57 degrees outside, and the sun is shining, and it’s making it very difficult to come indoors. Especially since I’m going to be returning to the Big Corporation part time, probably next week. So, I’m taking advantage of the weather, and the sunshine, and my last few days where I don’t have to be tethered to the computer indoors for specified hours.

Which means blogging might be a little slow this week.

On the other hand, I’ve been gardening up a storm. I added a second hoop house this weekend. This second hoop house looked much better than the first one. I think I mistakenly bought more expensive, bendier PVC than I needed the first time around. This second one I built using the cheapest 1/2 inch PVC that the hardware store had — 1.97 for a 10 foot section. It’s great. Very sturdy. So I went back and bought replacement PVC and rebuilt the first hoop house (I’m going to use the bendy PVC in the narrow beds along the back of the garden — my plan is to cut the 10 foot lengths in half, since those beds are only two feet wide).

There are even sprouts coming up in my hoop house. You have to look really hard to see them. God, I love arugula. It’ll grow anywhere. That photo was taken Saturday. By this morning the Komatsuna was also sprouted. The spinach and endives are a little behind, there were only one or two sprouts in those rows, and the mache, well, either there are a few mache seedlings, or those are weeds. I used fairly raw chicken straw manure compost, so I have a hunch it’s going to be a weedy year.

I’m waiting for my Asian vegetable seeds to arrive from Evergreen Seeds for the second hoop house. Right now it’s just heating up the soil in there. A couple of days of that aren’t going to hurt anything. I’m also about to go down in the basement and start the peppers and tomatoes.

Spring. It’s so beautiful. Like being let out of jail.

Hybrids vs. Open-Pollinated Seeds, Read the Labels

Hybrids vs. Open-Pollinated Seeds, Read the Labels

It’s that time of year, when we’re all buying seeds, and I just want to put a plug in for reading the labels. Seed saving is something I only came to a few years into keeping a garden, and I pretty much just save tomato seeds at this point, but with Monsanto being investigated for monopolizing seed stocks, it seems that seed saving is one place that backyard gardeners can really have an impact.

But the thing is, you can’t save seeds from hybrid varieties. So when you’re perusing the seed racks at your local garden stores, if it’s something relatively easy to save yourself, like tomato or squash or herbs, you’d do well to check the package. Seed Savers Exchange is a great source of heirloom varieties that individual gardeners have saved themselves, and they’ve got some good info on how to save your own seeds as well. Personally, I find that half the fun of having a backyard garden is growing things I can’t buy in the store. For the last few years it’s been interesting Italian greens and veggies from Seeds of Italy, and this year I’m experimenting with Asian greens I got from Evergreen Seeds. I mean, why grow the same old commercial hybrids that you can buy at the grocery store, when you can grow red bunching onions, or Rapa da Foglia senza Testa(one of my very favorite discoveries).?

Look, even Stephen Colbert is on to the awesome power of the non-hybrid seed stocks:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Survival Seed Bank
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Skate Expectations
Planting Peas

Planting Peas

spinach_seedlingsI took Easter Monday off from work, which was lovely for many reasons, among them that I got the early crops planted. I put in peas (Garden Knight and Telephone from Seeds of Italy), fava beans, arugula, broccoli rabe, a Japanese mustard green that I don’t have the packet in front of me and can’t remember the name, beets (chiogga and early wonder) and chard.

And then it snowed all week.

Nice wet spring snow, which was good for all those little seeds, but which did leave one wondering if winter is ever going to end.

Despite the snow, the spinach seedlings are poking their little heads above the dirt, as are the radishes, and I might have seen an arugula seedling out there this morning.

This morning, the sun is trying to peek through the clouds, who knows? Maybe it’ll get warm enough to put the tomatoes and peppers out in the cold frame for the day …

Tomatoes in the Basement

Tomatoes in the Basement

pb190024 This weekend I started seeds — tomatoes and leeks right now. I’ve blogged before about my seed starting setup, and nothing’s changed since last spring, so I’ll simply send you to this older post if you want to know the mechanics of how I get things rolling every year.

This year I’m going to give leeks a shot. I love leeks, and they’re so expensive in the store. I tried them once by direct sowing and they didn’t take, so I thought I’d give it one more shot. For the leeks, I simply filled one tray with seed starting mix, then made several trenches in it with a ruler, and sowed the leeks. I bought one of those fancy onion/leek seed starting trays at the garden store the other day, the kind that instead of having cells has long narrow slots, but the slots weren’t very deep, and it looked like I was going to have to transplant them earlier than I’d like to, so I went with direct sowing in a tray. I think I’m going to start the lettuces this way as well. (And next time I’m in Bozeman, I’ll just return the unused tray.)

I started many tomatoes this year, in part because I’m planning to sell seedlings at the Farmer’s Market. Here’s hoping that people will want Siberian and Heirloom varieties instead of boring old Early Girl. I planted 12 cells each of the folowing:

  • Mountain Princess from High Mowing Seeds
    This is a new variety for me. I picked up the seed packet at the local food co-op last summer.
  • Marmande from Seeds of Italy I love this tomato. It’s a slightly flat, delicious French heirloom.
  • Grushovka Siberian from High Altitude Gardens I’ve had good luck with the Siberian tomatoes in the past — they come in at 3-4 ounces, nice red, round fruits and are adapted for short seasons.
  • Olga’s Yellow Chicken from High Altitude Gardens (which they no longer carry so I’d better save seed this year.) This is a nice yellow tomato that I grow as much for the name as for anything else.
  • Galina Siberian from High Altitude Gardens A fabulous yellow cherry tomato. Huge indeterminate vines that will grow up and over anything (they’d be terrific in an arbor) and delicious fruit.
  • Black Cherry from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden SeedsThis was a nicely-flavored black cherry tomato that I grew for the first time last year. I wish it had come in a little earlier than it did, but once it started producing it was prolific.
  • Marglobe from Seeds of Italy Another Italian heirloom — great flavor in a compact round fruit.
  • Principe Borghese from Seeds of Italy The perfect canning or drying tomato. Ripens in clusters like grapes.
  • Jaune Flamee from Shepherd’s Garden SeedsĀ  (originally, this year I started seeds I saved myself, which is good because they don’t seem to be carrying them anymore.) This is a delicious orange tomato that also grows in clusters. I had great luck with this one last year and I’m so glad I saved seed!
  • Perestroika Siberian from High Altitude Gardens My goal this year is to take better notes on the Siberian tomatoes — I can never remember which ones were better than the others.
  • Prairie Fire from High Altitude Gardens This was my earliest tomato last year — produced a good three weeks before any of the other non-cherry varieties. A Montana native with compact and delicious fruits.

It’ll be about a week or so before anything much happens downstairs on that bench. I’m hoping that things will thaw out enough that I can get the rest of my beds turned over (and cleared of the wheat growing from last summer’s straw mulch). I’d like to start some spinach and onions — I’m growing weary of eating last year’s frozen greens and would love something new and fresh …

Gearing up for spring

Gearing up for spring

overwintered herbs in spring rain

It’s raining today — a nice soft spring rain, so I took the poor scraggly herbs from the Winter Herb Garden and put them outside the back door. The rosemary seemed particularly crunchy, but it did it’s job — it didn’t die. The thyme has been remarkably successful — the last few weeks it’s been sending out delicious little soft green shoots.

seed organization

I also got my act together last weekend and organized my seeds. As you can see — my “system” is nothing fancy. A couple of cheap bins from Pamida and a paper bag — but by the end of any garden season they’re a mess — some are in the basket with the cheapo tongue depressor/craft sticks that I use for garden markers (easy to write on with a sharpie, and they compost nicely), some wind up on the seed starting shelves, some sleeves were empty, in general, it was all a mess. So I went through and got everything organized by type — tomatoes, greens, herbs, cucumbers, beans, peppers, etc. Some people organize by planting order, but that’s too daunting and frankly, feels a little constricting. I know the spinach and broccoli rabe will go in first, but I’m never entirely sure beforehand what I’m going to put in next. So there we are — ready to start seeds this weekend or next, and ready to put some early cold crops in the garden beds.

I don’t have a picture of those, but they’re starting to shape up. I loved the straw mulch I used last year, but it had a lot of seeds in it so there’s all sorts of wheat growing in my garden — and it overwintered just fine, so it must be winter wheat. At any rate, I had a lovely half hour or so after work last night turning over the soil in a couple of my raised beds, pulling all those wheaty bits out for the compost. I have two beds now that are all fluffy and ready for seeds. This weekend I’ll clean up the rest, and start with the cool-weather greens. I’m so excited! Another year!