Monday, April 12, 2021

Spring in Full Swing

 We have a hot dry spring under way.  It has been nice to have the warm weather and sunshine, but I can't help thinking that I might almost prefer gloomy and rainy.  I have been having to water regularly just to get things going.

I filled my deck planters with pansies.  Home Depot had a great selection of the citrus blend which was exactly what I was in the mood for.  It is always hard for me to choose pansies because there is such a wide color palette and I love them all.  They were always the first plants to flower in our greenhouse, and the stems were perfect for little hands to pick.  Thus, I spent a lot of time picking pansies.  I just need to top off the mulch now that its settled.

The first two plantings of peas are up (planted March 15 and 29th) and the third planting is seeded.  I seeded leftover lettuce seed from last year down each side to act as living mulch but nothing has germinated yet.

I bought two packs of cabbage at the nursery.  I will still wait a week or two before setting out my cauliflower seedlings.  This time of year I had planned to use the frost blanket weight of row cover because it holds up well to snow and hard freezes.  But instead I grabbed a short length of summer weight floating row cover.  I was glad I did because the day after I transplanted these I came home to air temperatures of 86+ in the garden

The cabbages didn't seem to mind.

I seeded carrots a week or more ago.  Carrot seeds can be a real bugger to keep warm and damp and I get impatient because they end up not germinating until June.  I considered covering them with burlap but the draw back to burlap is the little leaves will push up into the weave and you can pull everything up when you remove it.  It does best when you can elevate it half an inch above the soil.  And I couldn't figure out how to do that in container (without using up all of my grow-thru grids) and still keep it secured so instead I'm trying bubble wrap.

This week we are expecting more seasonable weather of mid-50s and rain.  This is the perfect time of year to mulch the landscape beds because the plants are small and the lawn is soft enough to edge.  So its time to get busy!  I have dug up the perennials that I want to move and pried up any dandelions. Finally I will apply Milorganite fertilizer to everything then the mulching will begin.

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Cold Frame - Mark II

Since I don't have a greenhouse yet I make great use of my Cold Frame that  was built 10 years ago.  I use it to start seedlings a few weeks early, harden off all of my seedlings and store greenhouse purchases until weather permits planting.

It was quite pretty in it's youth.  The lids were picture framed with mortise and tenon corners.  The panels, salvaged from a friend's commercial greenhouse, were set into grooves.  All these details made the lids attractive, but also created some problems.  The panels were recessed below the wooden surface which made a great place for ice to collect in the winter.  The weight of snow could bend the panels enough for them to pop out of their grooves.  Water accumulated along the lower edge and any moisture or dirt that got into the channels of the panels, from either end, was trapped there forever.

Last year the corners of the lids gave out.  My husband really wanted to throw the whole thing on the burn pile and I don't blame him for that.  It was definitely past it's useful life span.  But instead he reinforced the corners so it would survive the winter and then this spring he offered to make repairs.  
We could have used the remaining salvaged panels and rebuilt the lids exactly the same.  But the remaining panels weren't in much better condition.  As the polycarbonate ages it discolors and becomes brittle.  The old panels were no longer surviving hail storms and were beginning to look as if someone had shot them with a pellet gun.  Last spring when the weather was so cold they did not let in enough light to raise the temperature much.  So it was time for a little redesign.  
Voila'. I give you - the Cold Frame Mark II sells reasonably priced 2 foot by 4 foot twinwalled polycarbonte panels in packages of 5 with free shipping.  And they also offer a 10% discount to listeners of the Joe Gardener podcasts. These panels are perfect for a do it yourself cold frame project.  They come in either 6mm or 8mm and I ordered the 8mm.  My husband was really excited to hear that their size (while convenient to ship) meant the lid would have to be built in three pieces instead of two - but not excited in a good way.

Has anyone recently checked on the price of a 2x4?  Anything that gets built around here this year is going to need to be made of salvaged material.  We had some lightweight 1x material left over when we replaced the deck, but not enough to make three lids.  This meant they had to be built out of 2x4 scraps.  Which therefore means they are heavier and super stiff.  The large lightweight lids had a tendency to become sails in any sort of a wind.  If you were lucky this meant they could slam closed.  If you weren't lucky it meant they would wrench off a hinge.  We use old window weights to keep the lids weighted closed, and chains to keep them from resting the weight on the hinges.

I'd like to point out two significant changes to the lid design in case someday you want to build something like this yourself.  The panels are attached to the face of the 2x4 frame with special padded washers designed for twinwall polycarbonate.  You can find an example here.  You first drill a slightly larger hole and then secure the fastener.  The fastener allows for expansion and contraction.  Our friends actually included some of these when they gave us the salvaged panels and my husband even knew where he had put them all those years ago.

Because the panels are secured to the face of the frame, the bottom edge is open to allow any moisture trapped in the panel to run out.  Also, there is a piece of wood with a rabbet cut along the edge to overlap the top edge and prevent water from entering in the first place.

So now I am in business for spring planting.  The cold frame, while its base is weathered and warped, is sturdy and functional and looks clean and respectable.  A lot more sunlight is making its way in.  I have a thermometer in it so I can get a feel for its temperature swings with the new panels.  I have moved several potted herbs from my office window to the frame, and I am preparing flats so I can seed some annual flowers and lettuce.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Seed Starting - Step #2

 Today I transplanted my cauliflowers into individual cells.  They are on the edge of being too big, but they just formed their first true leaves over the past couple of days.  I decided to do cells instead of 3 inch pots just as a space saver.  They should be able to go outside two or three weeks from now and I will move on to tomatoes.

The first thing I did was prep my cells with water.  These are bottom watering cells so I added about an inch to each individual tray and let them sit for a few hours to fully absorb.  This makes the soil damp enough to form but not sloppy.  I use a dibble tool to make deep, wide holes in each cell.

Next I scoop the entire cell of seedlings out onto my work surface.  This is where the intensive cell planting makes the process different from seeding one by one into individual cells.  The roots are intertwined and need to be teased out.  But the advantage is you have at least the number you need, and probably a few extra, and you can choose the strongest plants with the best roots to plant and cull any weak plants.  This time I got 100% germination so I had a couple of seedlings "excess to requirements".

In light, dry starter mix teasing them out is easy.  

These seedlings have awesome root structures!  The best I've ever grown I think.  At this stage you might get just a single tap root.  Ideally you should always handle seedlings by their leaves and not the stem.  If you put too much pressure on the stem you can kink it and kill the plant, but if you tear off a leaf it will grow back.

 I make sure the holes are as wide as they can be then guide these huge root systems into the holes and use the dibble to arrange them and close the soil around the stems.

Then I top water each cell to get the air out.  The cells should be kept quite damp for a day or two until the seedlings appear to be recovered and begin to stand up again.  They go back under the grow light on the same settings but with the fan OFF for at least two days.  Not only do they not need the stress, but also I don't want the fan to dry out the soil or the plants themselves when they are not able to replace moisture quickly.  When it looks like they have all recovered and are taking up water well, then the fan can go back on at its previous setting and I will rotate each tray every day so all of the seedlings get a breeze, not just one side.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Looks Can Be Deceiving

 I didn't really have a busy weekend planned.  I wanted to plant some peas, maybe seed some lettuce, putter around the garden getting the porch planters ready for pansies.  I wanted to do some other constructive things like laying out the new panels for the cold frame and running the vacuum cleaner.  But that all went by the wayside Friday morning when one of our biggest pine trees came down in the high winds.  Not that I don't enjoy tree cutting days.  I love spending the day outside getting dirty and picking up heavy things.  Its the perfect antidote for forty hours sitting at my desk munching on Chex mix.  But I prefer to plan for them.  And given the choice, we would have had the tree service cut this one.

Every time I walked down the driveway to get the newspaper I admired this tree.  A hundred years old, over seventy five feet tall, thirty feet of straight trunk before the limbs branched out. So big you couldn't wrap your arms around it, but two people could join hands around it.  I imagined how many board foot of beautiful clear pine was in it  But, looks can be deceiving.  Little did we know, it was rotten to the core.

We had high wind warnings for Friday.  When I left for work it was just whipping up, but there were still no branches down.  A couple of hours later, my husband called me at work to say our power was out and also that this tree was down.  The tree didn't take the power out, but that same gust of wind took out a pole half a mile away.  Just snapped it right off.  We installed a whole house generator last fall.  It responds so quickly to an outage that I don't have to reset the clock on the microwave.  So he heard the generator come on, and then as fast as he could reconcile in his mind what he was hearing and that the power was out, he heard (felt) a BOOM.

The tree fell into the wooded area taking with it some big red oak limbs and a few smaller trees in its path.  Note that the pine tree is a double trunk in this picture.  That split was a good 30 feet off the ground.  The top was a tangled mass of pine branches, oak limbs and saplings and it was all laying in the ditch about 3 feet below the road grade.

Saturday morning, our next door neighbor came to help, and cutting commenced.  We started at the branchy end, cutting whatever limbs they could get to while I piled.  We threw most of the branches up on the road edge to be removed in large piles with the tractor forks because there was no way to get a tractor in through the woods to the tree and then back out again with a load.  The the upper limbs were cut into 8 feet lengths and skidded out with a chain, up the bank and onto the road.  Then we'd use the tractor with the loader to roll the logs onto the tractor with the forks.  It took three long logging chains to reach some of the logs from the road.  

We live on a dead end, but there is still a lot of traffic on a Saturday morning.  As each log was skidded out I would remove the chains, shortening the distance between the log and the tractor until it was out.  As we worked I had to keep the piles of chain out from under the tractor and the logs and the traffic which meant dragging them across the road to the other shoulder.  By the end of the morning I felt like Jacob Marley's ghost wrapped in chains and I was tired.  Upping and downing out of the deep ditch only added to the fun.

But there was no time to be tired.  We needed to find our second (or third) wind because as we got closer to the stump, the logs got bigger.  A lot bigger.  And they were still solid, not punky like the base. Each section had to have a chain wrapped around it.  The sections were too heavy to roll or shift by hand in any way so we had to burrow under each one and shove the chain through.

The last section of log is just showing some rot on this end.  That cut right there would have been about 20 feet above the ground.  Below, the neighbor can just be seen standing behind the stump.  You can see where his shoulder height is compared to the tree.

Now we have a HUGE burn pile plus a dozen logs to deal with.  I realized at some point during the morning that we should have invested in an industrial sized chipper shredder... about 20 years ago... possibly along with a crane truck.  They would have both paid for themselves by now.

The first day of Spring has come (and gone) and it is officially gardening season.  And I realized that as far as what work needs to be done in the garden, the answer is "Everything but nothing".  That doesn't make any sense.  But it does.  We are at the starting line and Everything needs to be done.  We just can't (or shouldn't) do it yet.

It is still too early to bring all of the large pots and plant supports out.  Too early to start edging and mulching because some of the beds in shaded areas are still frozen while the lawn is too soft to drive the tractor on.  I've filled containers with soil for the carrots, and already planted two rows of peas two weeks apart.  The cauliflower seedlings are almost ready to transplant.

So far, taking advantage of the mild weather we've been having, we started by going over all of the gravel areas with the leaf blowers removing pieces of twigs and dry chunks of mulch and general dirt making everything look clean and ready to go.  I've raked out a few landscape beds so they are a nice backdrop for the daffodils that are emerging.

The weather will be up and down and all over the place for the next month.  In fact, it snowed last night.  Now we just have to sit tight and wait.  

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Seed Starting - Step #1

 It's Time!  The earliest plantings in my schedule are seeding the cole crops indoors and direct seeding the first planting of peas.  

Last year I wrote about my seed starting set up and my theories behind the different methods of starting and transplanting and the supplies that go with each.  This morning I seeded my cauliflowers and I thought I would do a more detailed step by step of what I have found to work for me.

This year I treated myself to a Tidy Tray.  Whenever you are playing with dirt indoors, it is hard to contain the mess.  With the Tidy Tray I can keep the seed starting mix contained, and when I am done for the day I can just set it aside without having to vacuum and wipe everything down.  When I am done for the year I can clean up and store everything away

I use the Koram bottom watering seed starting cells for starting the seeds and then sometimes the initial transplant.  This year I plan to transplant into 4 inch pots not the cells, but these are still the best for the first step.  The tray on the left has no drain holes.  I start with the tray about an inch full of water.  This will dampen the seed mix through the cell drain holes from the bottom up.

Some people dampen their seed mix before they fill their containers, but for me that is even messier.  I like to start with the mix dry.  I fill my cells most of the way and then set the seeds on top.  I am intensive planting these and will separate out the individual plants from the clump when they set their first true leaves.  These are Flame Star and Mulberry cauliflower. 

Then I sprinkle more seed mix on top and use a spray bottle to dampen it thoroughly.  Between the spray bottle and the bottom watering, by the end of the day the mix should be fairly uniformly dampened, but I will keep checking to make sure.

I finish off with a sprinkle of cinnamon powder.  Cinnamon is an anti-fungal agent and will stop the fuzzy white mold from growing on top.  This can be a problem with humidity domes.  It doesn't hurt the seedlings but neither does it make the grower feel good about their set up.  I prefer my plantings to be mold-free

Finally I place the humidity dome on top and the cell tray is complete

Next I set up my grow light and accessories.  The fan will not be used until the seedlings are transplanted, but I set it up anyway.  The outlet timer lets you set as many on-off sequences as you want.  I have used these inexpensive timers for years on house lamps and Christmas lights.  I've accumulated a lot of the little green and red triggers so I can set up many more sequences.  I start with three half hour increments and increase from there.

I have a second timer for the light and heat mat.  This power strip has two rows of outlets.  One is on the timer and the other is on constantly as long as the power strip is turned on.  I put the lights on the timed side and my heat mat on the constant side.

I place a vinyl tablecloth under everything to protect the workbench from water stains and the set-up is ready to go.  When the seedlings are separated out they will take up an entire flat of pots.  For the first couple of days I will monitor the moisture until I am sure the mix is soaked through.  The humidity dome will keep the surface damp, but when the seeds send down roots there needs to be enough moisture throughout the cell.  As soon as the first seeds begin to sprout I will turn off the heat mat and remove the dome.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Signs of Spring

Winter Aconite flowers.  Up until Sunday these were buried under
a three foot deep block of ice which Tim helped me clear away

Crocuses will be blooming in a week or two

Under the snow the Primrose are always green

Not sure I will be seeding peas this weekend.
Its hard to get in the mood when everything is still iced over.

The first Robins.  Not 10 minutes ago.
And for several days I have heard the Red Winged 
Blackbirds which are just as much a sign of Spring


Monday, February 15, 2021

Propagating Herbs - Experiment winter 2020 - UPDATE Part 2

 I am finally feeling confident about my sage propagation.  A few weeks ago I pinched this tall one off and in the past week it has begun to put out side shoots.  Now I just have to transplant it into soil without killing it.

The Rosemary is more forgiving.  An easier plant for my to grow under any circumstances.  I pinched these of quite a while ago.  They branched out almost immediately but have not made much progress of recent.