Successful Veg Garden Day 19

I’m getting pretty tired of writing about vegetables–don’t think I’ll even mention the word until this time next year. You must be getting enough of it as well!

Never worry, only three days of Boot Camp left–I guess we know why they used that analogy for these lessons. Today’s topic: Growing Greens.

Now I admit, I don’t love salad greens. I sort of have to force myself to eat them, because my favourite use is in sandwiches, but then I only use a few leaves of greens, and a lot of other, often calorific, sandwich fixings. But I always hope “I’ll do better next time”, so here I am, growing greens again.

Here’s some great things about growing greens:

1. They tolerate lower light levels. You can plant them in an already slightly shady (still getting a few hours of direct sun) areas, or in the shade of plants that will grow tall in mid-summer–like your tomatoes, potatoes, peppers.

2. They’re often quite decorative so they’ll do well in your ornamental garden. As you harvest the outer leaves, (leaving the centre to continue producing), you’ll want to have other plants growing around to hide the bare stem. Annual Alyssum is brilliant for that. Sow the flower seeds at the same time you sow the greens seeds or at the same time you transplant the seedlings. Ditto for candytuft (Iberis umbellata).

Iberis umbellata--annual candytuft.

Iberis umbellata–annual candytuft. And yes, you get multi-colours, and it self seeds like crazy–but in a good way. Like alyssum, very easy to thin.

3. Some greens are hard to keep growing through the hot days of summer, but collard greens and mustard greens will put up with a lot of heat. The other “green” I love to put in my sandwiches, and to a lesser extent in salads, is nasturtium leaves. They’re very like arugula in flavour, but with less bitterness, and thicker–more substantial. And nasturtiums are great additions to the vegetable garden, since not only are their leaves edible, but the flowers are sweet and peppery. Beautiful in a salad. They are said to be a great “companion” plant for the vegetable garden, altho’ I don’t care for one of it’s uses–as an aphid trap: the nasturtium attracts aphids drawing them away from other aphid-susceptible plants. However it’s my understanding that aphids (there are bazillions of species) are specific to the plant they are infesting, so the ones on the nasturtiums are not the ones that will attack cabbages, or roses, or daisies. One thing they definitely do do is attract pollinators, so planting them around plants that need pollination in order to produce fruit–toms, cukes, squash etc.–will be a very good thing.

Image courtesy of deeprootsathome.com

Nasturtiums growing with toms. Image courtesy of deeprootsathome.com

Two days left–herb garden and growing tomatoes. Stay tuned.

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Veggie Garden Day 18–Troubleshooting

We’re coming down to the wire now, only 4 lessons left in Garden Tribe‘s veggie gardener Boot Camp. Today’s topic is troubleshooting.

Garden Tribe recommends you look at your crops every day so that you’ll recognize when something is wrong. My problem is that I love to look every day–even more often–at the beginning of the season, but then I get sloppy, or busy, or distracted, or lose enthusiasm. And a few days go by before I go out and realize it hasn’t rained and the crop is thirsty. Or the slugs have had a field day with the lettuce. Or the Brussels are covered in aphids. (Aphids on the Brussels is somehow much more disgusting than aphids on any other plant!)

Google is really your friend when it comes to figuring out problems, and finding a fix. But you have to see the problem in order to google it. Try to make it a practice to go into the garden with a few minute to spare at least once a day. Might be after work, especially if you plan to harvest something for supper. Or before work if you’re one of those people who likes to have a leisurely breakfast reading the paper before your commute. Even better, before getting your kids off to school, get them out there as well peering into the nooks and crannies of the veggie garden.

And then try to pinpoint everything that you see wrong with a plant. Some pests will only attack plants that are already stressed. If you pick up on the stress (the leaves are your early-warning system: environmental problems most often show up in the leaves first), you may be able to prevent pest infestation by improving your plants growing conditions.

Finding concerns early will be your best strategy toward identity and remedy. Little holes in the cabbage leaves? Droopy tomato leaves? Holes in the ground where your carrots used to be? Two or three minutes with Google will give you answers and solutions, and since you found the problem early, there’s probably little harm done. (Well, except for the rabbits having stolen your carrots…)

Only three more lessons; stay tuned…

Veggie Tales Day 16 and 17

The reason I’ve grouped Boot Camp Day 16 (Seed-Starting) and Day 17 (Seedling Transplanting) together is because I wrote about seed starting already on Day 14, and besides, they’re pretty closely related.

This is the carrot bed. Tiny seeds sown thinly and shallowly, onto very damp soil, barely covered with light fine compost, and then covered with black plastic to maintain the moisture without the seeds washing down the drain in typical spring "showers".

This is the carrot bed. Tiny seeds sown thinly and shallowly, onto very damp soil, barely covered with light fine compost, and then covered with black plastic to maintain the moisture without the seeds washing down the drain in typical spring “showers”.

carrots

The same treatment a few weeks ago, and these are the carrots today.

So a quick review: if you’re sowing outdoors, make sure the seeds stay moist. That’s pretty much it.

If you’re sowing indoors, you need strong light (remember my friend with LOTS of windows in a west facing room), constant moisture– the seed starting medium will dry out faster indoors than outdoors, a bit of a breeze from a fan will help prevent fungal disease commonly called “damping off”, and you might want to consider underneath heat from a heating pad, the fluorescent light fixture, or a seed starting mat.

I haven’t made any mention of seed starting medium (except a second ago): I use Jiffy pellets for convenience.

Broccoli Raab, Purple Sprouting Broccoli, 4 different kinds of tomatoes.

Broccoli Raab, Purple Sprouting Broccoli, 4 different kinds of tomatoes.

I don’t recommend using peat/paper/coir pots (which in theory are meant to be planted whole), unless you are very careful to make sure the whole pot is buried in soil, and no portion of it is peaking over the soil. If it is peaking out of the soil, that edge will dry out and wick up all the moisture in the pot, making it difficult to keep the soil immediately around the root moist. Ask me how I know this… And of course, you’re only doing a small vegetable garden to start with, to maximize your success and gratification.

Moving on to transplanting your little guys:

[I’ve been enjoying watching Charles Dowding on Youtube. This vid is on transplanting.]

The main thing about getting your seedlings from where they started to where they’ll finish is “transplant shock”. Outside it’s colder, windier, brighter, and possibly in the middle of the day, hotter, than where the seedlings have been for several weeks. Think of a newborn baby! (Maybe a slight exaggeration…)

Most seedlings, and maybe all seedlings should be “hardened off” before actually being planted in the ground. I’ve read that you should take at least a week to gradually acclimate them to the outdoors, starting in a sheltered place for an hour or so and building up to full time in the kind of exposure they’ll live in. Mine go to the back veranda– bright but not direct sun, close to the house, so not too windy, and I start with 2 hours, go to 4 , then 6 etc.

When it’s time to finally time to get them in the ground, follow Garden Tribes instructions, and they’ll be happy as clams. And don’t forget, (Charles Dowding mentions it as well) don’t be afraid to plant your vegetable transplants deeper than they are in the starting medium.

This tomato seedling can't be planted out for weeks yet (altho I might try the milk jug trick again), but you can see it's already pretty tall. I'll give it as much light as I can, but when I put it in the ground I'll bury most if not all that stem.

This tomato seedling can’t be planted out for weeks yet (altho I might try the milk jug trick again), but you can see it’s already pretty tall. I’ll give it as much light as I can, but when I put it in the ground I’ll bury most if not all that stem.

Good-Looking Veggie Starts–Day 15

So you’ve decided that some of your crop is going to come from starts that you buy or otherwise acquire. How do you know what to look for?

This isn’t rocket science, (Plant scientists might dispute my dismissal) and Garden Tribe’s lesson covers pretty much everything you need to know. Probably the best advice I can give is, as  I said about pruners, don’t cheap out. If a broccoli or cabbage or tomato plant is cheap or marked down, there’s a reason for that. If there are yellow leaves, reject it. If the soil is dry, reject it. If the plant is “leggy” –i.e. long spaces between sets of leaves, reject it. Look at the rootball–yes, remove it very carefully from the pot–if the roots fill and wind around the pot, reject it.

Having said that, many vegetable plants can be planted deeper than you find them in their pots. So if the leaves look good, and the soil is moist, and the roots full and straight, but the plant looks a little leggy, you can be pretty confident it will be fine. When you plant it, just remove the lowest leaves, and plant it an inch or two deeper than it currently is.

That’s it. On to Day 16.

Veggie Tales Day 14

Two thirds through Garden Tribes’ Boot Camp for Veggie gardeners. Today’s topic–finally we’re getting to the fun stuff–Seeds and Seedlings!

Do you need to start your plants from seed, or do you need to buy seedlings, or “starts” from the nursery?

For some vegetables the answer is easy, as we read on Day 4. Carrots and radishes need to be sown where they will grow, so you won’t find them as seedlings in even the most comprehensive of plant nurseries. They have to be direct sown straight into the garden. And potatoes don’t even grow from seeds, they grow from other potatoes (often called seed potatoes, a misnomer). You won’t find “potato seedlings” in your nursery either. Others, like asparagus, are pretty temperamental to grow from seed, so buying what’s called “crowns” is much more efficient.

Aside from those few, though, the decision comes down to your own values–how much time you have, how much do you want to invest in the process, whether you want to try a lot of different vegetables, or try some more exclusive varieties.

Seeds: Growing from seed can involve two different processes: indoor or outdoor. Indoor sowing is often for plants that need a longer growing season, or more days of heat to ripen the fruit, so starting them inside while the outside weather in unfavourable gives you that longer growing time. Another reason to indoor sow is to have some seedlings ready to plant out when an earlier crop is finished.

Indoor sowing is where it gets a little complicated. Seeds don’t usually need light to germinate, but seedlings definitely need strong light to grow well. I have a friend –also in coastal BC–who can grow just about anything in her west facing, three-window-sided sunroom. My house on the other hand has only north and south facing windows, and the south facing windows are shaded by giant trees. And many seeds need (and most benefit from) warmth underneath. So my indoor sowing is done with the use of fluorescent lights that I salvaged from my aquarium. The top of my old fashioned bank of lights gets warm, so I start seeds by putting them on top of the lights where’s it’s warm, and then as soon as they germinate they go down under the lights.

IMG_1922

Newly sown basil, larkspur and leaf lettuce germinating above the fluorescent lights, on a cookie tray that holds the heat. Newly germinated lettuce underneath toward the right, perched on a Kleenex box so they’re only 2-3″ from the light bulbs, and then almost-ready-to-be-potted-up tomatoes underneath toward the left.

Outdoor seeding is for plants that happily germinate in colder soil, or may want warmer soil but have a short maturing time. Peas germinate well in cool/cold spring; beans need warm soil to germinate, but grow pretty fast, and unlike tomatoes and peppers, don’t necessarily need a lot of hot sunny days to ripen the beans. Both can be started indoors or outdoors.

So that’s a very quick primer on sowing seeds. What about buying plant starts?

Seedlings: Depending on where you shop, you may have a greater or lesser access to variety. For example, if I bought tomato plants at the local big box store, the options would be maybe three or four. At the brand name nursery down the road, there might be 5 or 6 varieties. But If I buy them at the New West Horticulture Society’s Boulevard Plant Sale (this Saturday) there will probably be a dozen or more different varieties! Sometime in May your own local Garden Club/Hort Society will be holding a plant sale, and odds are good there will be vegetable starts there, and usually a lot more variety than you’d find retail. Check out the local newspaper or google “garden club__your area___”.

If choice is not essential to you, and the complexity of the seed-sowing thing too much for a newbie, you’ll do well by getting veggie starts and plunking them down in your prepared beds. Next lesson will be on choosing good-looking starts.