What To Do This Spring While PPCG Is Closed

Check out The Trustees at Home, with links on gardening, virtual nature, keeping the kids busy, and more.

Complete a free vegetable gardening module from Oregon State University’s Master Gardener program. Some of the information in this program may be best suited for Oregon’s growing climate, but most looks like it’s relevant to us.

Follow the Insect Xaminer, a short video series from UMass Extension starting with (drum roll) the Gypsy Moth caterpillar. This first installment is quirky-gruesome in the context of  the pandemic, but I’m sticking with the series for its promised information on common insect pests.

Try a modified version of a technique known as winter sowing. I’m not encouraging anyone to run out to the store to buy anything, but if you can get your hands on a milk jug (or similar container functioning as a mini greenhouse), a small bag of seed-starting mix, and some lettuce seeds, cilantro, or spring onions, you can grow outside in a small, sunny space.

  • Because these plants like cold, you’ll have to open your containers on warm days or they’ll cook.
  • Once they are established with a few sets of leaves, you can probably leave the top off for good, unless we have an overnight with temps down into the 20s F.
  • I’ve never tried it, but some gardeners even start up their warm weather plants  (around now) in this fashion, though again, you’ll have to keep an eye on the weather. If we get a cold snap, throw a blanket over them.
  • There are a few benefits to protected outdoor sowing of garden plants. They’ll receive more light outdoors. (Even a sunny windowsill might not be bright enough for your plants, even if it looks bright to you.) Plus you won’t need to harden them off if you transfer them to a larger growing space. Just be aware that I don’t know when we’ll be able to get back in the gardens.

Holly Hill Farm–which like many other businesses is in need of our support–appears to still be having its early plant sale on April 18 & 19. (Their warm-weather plant sale usually happens in May.) Keep an eye on their website and/or sign up for email updates. They have altered their sales methods in response to COVID-19 concerns.

Stay tuned for more details from Braintree Farmers Market. They went to a virtual model on April 4, and it looks like the next date is May 2.

Download/stream the Birdsong radio app from RSPB.

Check out great gardening titles on Hoopla, available for free through Thayer Public Library.

Read all about why we need green spaces in The Wild Remedy, part illustrated diary, part scientific review of the mental health benefits derived from nature.

Go for a walk in any of the other numerous parks that are still open, such as DCR parks. Or try Great Esker Park in Weymouth, which was nearly empty on a sunny day this week.  For further info, here are links to the state’s assemblage guidelines and stay-at-home advisory.

Other ideas/comments? Please share below.

Photo credit: Gary R.

Five Indoor Seed-Starting Tips from Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden

Select Seeds Suited for Indoor Sowing and Transplanting

Many crops start well indoors–and need the extra growing time in a protected space while the weather is still too cold–but a few grow better when sown directly in the garden. There aren’t any no-break rules here. Even carrots can be transplanted, though it’s not generally recommended. Especially if you are trying a crop for the first time, read the seed packet for instructions on which method typically works best. Pay attention, too, to the days to maturity information and your crop’s cold tolerance to help decide where and when to sow.

Start with Good Materials

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Many seeds are viable for more than one year, but members of the onion family are notoriously short-lived. Pictured here, I sowed the far corner with fresh onion seeds and the near corner with seeds only 1 year-old. Barely any of the old seeds germinated.
  • Clean your seed-starting containers with a 1:9 bleach:water solution or soapy water.
  • Use a sterile grow medium formulated for seed-starting.
  • For best results, use fresh seeds. (See this link to a chart on seed viability and a great discussion on the difference between viability and vigor. More info here.)

Water Wisely

Keep your planting medium evenly moist until your seeds sprout, then let it dry out slightly between watering. In no instance should it be soggy or bone dry. Be gentle if you water on top and use a mister or similar method. Bottom watering avoids the problem of dislodging seeds and young transplants and helps prevent diseases.

Get the Light Right

This one is Margaret Roach’s most emphasized tip. Seedlings will need supplemental lighting–more than they’ll likely get on your windowsill–or they’ll grow tall and spindly.

For Perkins Park Gardeners: What to do if you don’t have a fancy grow light set up and still want to sow your own seeds for transplanting?

    • Try inexpensive shop lights. I’ve had reasonable success growing seedlings with a couple of shop lights purchased for around $15 at Ocean State.
    • Squeeze one or two cell packs on your windowsill and supplement with a simple clamp light fixture (bulb separate). Set them outside on warm-enough days, taking care to harden them off (see next tip) along the way.
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      Lettuce seedlings grown on a windowsill get a little long and floppy, but do all right if you don’t have to hold them long indoors.
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      But seedlings quickly dry out and outgrow their small egg carton confines.

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      Here’s another windowsill setup, fashioned out of a recycled cell pack and a milk carton, that gives seedling roots more room to grow.

Take Time to Transplant with Care

Harden off plants before you transplant them to their final space in the garden. They’ll need to gradually acclimate to outdoor conditions, especially to the sun. Start with no more than 1 hour outside in direct sun on the first day (not midday) and gradually increase the time of outdoor exposure over the course of about a week. You’ll know you’ve overdone it if you see bleached or brown and crispy patches on your plants’ leaves. Alternatively, some people like to choose overcast days, leaving them outside during daytime hours for a few days.

Once you’ve gotten your plants hardened off, make sure you’re not rushing to get your plant in the garden too early, before you are reasonably clear of of unsuitable weather.


For more seed-starting tips (and more):

A Way to Garden by Margaret Roach (2019).

For a wide range of seed-starting information see Margaret Roach’s website.

 

Spring Crops

What are the first crops that we should consider planting in our gardens in the spring? When the soil can be worked, we have a wide range of cold-hardy choices to consider. These crops all have a few things in common. They:

  • germinate in cold soil
  • grow well under cool conditions, and
  • tolerate a light frost.

Many of these crops can and should be planted in cool conditions, else you risk poor germination, poor development, and inferior flavor and/or texture. You’ll want to get them in the ground as early as you can to allow them time to develop before the heat of summer sets in. With good planning and a little cooperation from the weather, you’ll be able to harvest these crops in time to follow up with a warm weather crops such as beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Pay attention to the days to maturity information listed on many seed packets, and look for quick-growing varieties to make the most of your growing season. Also, be prepared to cover your crops with frost protection if temperatures take an abrupt and extreme downturn. Or stagger your plantings with the anticipation of a few losses.

  • alyssum
  • arugula
  • beets*
  • broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • cabbage, including Chinese cabbage
  • carrots*
  • cauliflower
  • celery
  • cilantro
  • collard greens
  • fava beans
  • hardy perennial herbs, such as chives, thyme, mint, oregano, and sage
  • kale
  • kohlrabi
  • leeks
  • lettuce
  • onions*
  • pak choi
  • pansies
  • parsley
  • parsnip
  • peas
  • radish
  • rutabaga
  • Swiss chard
  • tatsoi
  • turnips
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Cilantro (foreground) often reseeds itself and grows in the spring when conditions are just right. If you like it, leave it be. Self-sown plants are often the least fussy.
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Lettuce, spinach, tatsoi, and Hon Tsai Tai, a broccoli-like green, thrive under cool conditions. Damage thanks to slugs.

In my home garden, I’ve been able to overwinter a few of these crops–lettuce, arugula, bunching onions, spinach, tatsoi, carrots, parsley, cilantro, kale, and Hon Tsai Tai, a broccoli-like green–under protection. They didn’t grow much, but under protection, the limitation seemed to be more about diminishing winter light than cold.

On the other side of spring, a few of these crops such as the ones marked* generally can carry over well into hot conditions. With regard to one of these crops–carrots–I think a better option is to select quick-growing cultivars that mature in late spring/early summer, and then squeeze in another crop of in the fall, perhaps for overwintering. They’ll taste sweeter if they are harvested in cool conditions.

Some of the others on the cool list, such as lettuce, have cultivars purported to withstand the heat. I have yet to find a lettuce I can grow well in the summer heat, no matter what the claim on the seed packet. (Anyone? I’d love to have some lettuce with my summer cucumbers and tomatoes.) BUT, you can cheat the season a little by growing leafy vegetables in partially shaded areas.

One other note: Last summer my parsley bolted (went to seed) in early summer, and I have since read that young parsley seedlings exposed to substantial cold are more likely to have this tendency. In this case, you may want to grow a backup batch for late summer/fall. If the winter is not too harsh, they’ll even overwinter.

Ready to do some cool growing? Happy spring, everyone!


For more reading:

Cold-weather growing tips from Seed Savers Exchange.

Tips on when to start cold-weather crops from GrowVeg.

Also from GrowVeg, the “mess of protecting plants from stress.”  Lol, this is how my front yard looks right now, with hoop houses and frost blankets. Take a quick look at this article if only to see their simple, but smart way to keep plastic milk jugs in place as cloches.

The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour (2011) is a great beginners’ resource for learning all about season extension and growing in cool and cold seasons. It’s available free from Hoopla; I liked it so much I purchased my own copy.

Eliot Coleman is well-known for four-season gardening. Here are two titles, Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook. Available through Old Colony Library Network.

Use this planting schedule as a very rough guide.

Here’s a more tailored seed-starting and setting-out calculator from Johnny’s. (Note that you have to enter our region’s frost-free date, which can be tricky to figure out. The Farmer’s Almanac reports a frost-free date of April 22, using weather data from South Weymouth and allowing for a 30% risk of frost.) I feel all right using this data for cold-weather plants, but for warm-weather plants, I like less risk of frost.

Underfoot, Lofty: Good Soil for a Healthy Planet (P. 2/3)

To recap P. 1, building healthy soil in the garden means taking care of the billions of living organisms underfoot. It’s not as big of a job as it sounds. In our small community garden plots, we can adjust our practices easily and work less by retiring old methods like double-digging and other strenuous soil churning. Easing up on soil disruption protects its complex ecosystem and makes for happier plants.

Soil for the Planet

If that’s not enough to convince you to put down the shovel, consider the climate. One of the key drivers of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, but did you know that some modern agricultural practices–including tilling–also have released significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere?

Where is that carbon coming from? It’s right there in the soil, everywhere.  It’s in the roots of plants, in decaying leaf mulch, in earthworms, in sugars released by plants, and in long threads of fungal networks. Around 50%  to 58% of the organic matter in soil is carbon.

Unfortunately, our cultivated land has lost around half of its organic matter, from 5% levels of soil organic matter down to less than 3%. We want that carbon back! Soil life is built from carbon and depends on it to survive, which makes soil a great reservoir for carbon. In the soil it can do good things for us, whereas too much of it in the atmosphere contributes to climate change.

Regenerative agriculture or carbon farming aims to do just that–to put carbon back into the soil using a variety of practices, including no-till farming. It’s not a straightforward process. Some of the systems at work in the garden naturally put carbon back into the atmosphere no matter how carefully we tend our soil. For example, all of those wonderful soil microbes expire carbon dioxide when they break down organic material. Microbes in an acre of corn can expire as much carbon dioxide as twenty five active men.

In very rough terms, it’s a two-step-forward/one-step-back kind of a process, which means that the goal of carbon farming is to put more carbon into the soil than is released. Here’s where things get a little tricky and controversial, figuring out the best agricultural practices to sink the most carbon and keep it in the soil. Soil scientists have paid attention to a substance called glomalin, produced by fungi, which acts like a glue holding soil particles together in aggregates. (Remember, that cottage-cheesy, pebbled texture?) Some scientists think glomalin may tie up 27% of soil carbon for as long as 40 years.

Soil scientists have also paid attention to humus, the carbon-rich, coffee-colored, fertile part of soil. It’s hard to define humus exactly because it’s not clear how humus is formed; some think it’s a product of decomposition of organic matter, while others think that it’s a built-up product of soil organisms utilizing the sugars exuded by plants. In any case, the important quality of humus is that like glomalin, it’s considered by many to be recalcitrant, meaning that it’s likely to stay in the soil for a long time. These are the kinds of long-term storage we need to draw down the imbalance of carbon in the atmosphere.

Farmers worldwide are already using regenerative agricultural practices, in no small part because they improve productivity and in the long-run, make economical sense. Green America is cheering on home gardeners to do the same.  Their idea is this: our individual plots may be small, but collectively, we might be able to make a difference, similar to the way victory gardeners of WWI and WWII grew up to 40% of the fresh produce consumed in the U.S..

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The posters above were published by the U.S. Food Administration, created by Woodrow Wilson by executive order in 1917. Leading the newly-formed administration, Herbert Hoover had the power to act as “food dictator,” but strove to design “an effort that would appeal to the American sense of volunteerism and avoid coercion.” (I know I’m getting a little off track here, but I think this is interesting stuff and definitely relevant to the question of how to get large groups of people to act quickly in helpful ways for a common cause–like climate change.)

Bottom Line?

Ditching some of our old gardening methods may not only build the soil for our plants, but also may make a positive impact on the planet. I’m convinced at the very least that  strategies that support soil life yield more productive, sustainable, and healthier gardens. As we’ve said before at PPCG, our only organic gardening rule that we enforce is  “no synthetic agricultural chemicals.” But I hope you’ll consider making some changes in how you tend your plot, if for no other reason than you’ll get better results. For more info, take a look at the links below.

Up next, since I know we’re all itching to get in the garden: regenerative techniques we can use in our own gardens.


For More Info…

For starters, a nice graphic comparing “regenerated soil” vs. “dead dirt,” from Green America.

Here’s another good place to start. This short video explains regenerative agriculture in easy-to-understand language, from Kiss the Ground. And here’s a scripted version with some added details.

Another accessible piece–on fungi and their role in the carbon cycle–from NPR.

From Green America, understanding the complexities of soil.

From Northeast Farming Association (NOFA), really helpful white paper on soil carbon restoration. Read this if you want to go into more depth on this topic. It’s written for the general public and covers a lot of ground.  NOFAMass has become my favorite go-to source on soil-building.

From the New York Times Magazine, an article on changing agricultural practices to draw down carbon from the atmosphere. (Local readers: if you don’t have a NYT subscription and have used up your free monthly articles, our local library offers free three-day passes. Here’s a link to digital media.)

The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson (2014). I haven’t been able to get a copy of this book yet, but it looks like it’s available through Boston Public Library.

From nature.com, a relatively short, but more technical presentation of soil carbon sequestration. This was the first piece I read that helped me understand the balance of carbon inputs and outputs. Also covers some aspects of carbon sequestration such as soil mineralogy and land topography.

SOS: Save Our Soils. Very interesting 2015 interview with Dr. Christine Jones, soil ecologist. Some of this material was not fully explained for the general reader, but it covers a broad range of topics.

Want more posters? (I love this stuff!) Google ‘victory garden posters’ and ‘women’s land army.’

 

PPCG 2019 Plot Plan & Spring Shade Map

For PPCG members, our 2019 plot map with garden assignments is linked here.

The below diagrams show the shade patterns on our plots in spring, for garden planning purposes. You won’t have much shade at all until around the first week of May, when leaves start to fill in. Please note these sketches were drawn roughly last year at broad intervals and may not represent all of the sun/shade in your plot. I noticed even ten minutes can make a difference. Also, shade does shift throughout the growing season.

Here’s a guide for plants and their suggested light levels.

Happy gardening, everyone!

 

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Underfoot, Lofty: Good Soil for Healthy Plants (P. 1/3)

Let’s talk about soil. I made this pitch last spring and since then, I’ve learned more about soil and noticed a lot of interest in it in popular media. (See links below.) So I’m recharging my appeal this year: before we get into our gardens this spring with shovels, stop and consider the soil in your plot and how to protect and make good use of it.

Organic

A simple rule in our organic community garden is that we don’t use any agricultural chemicals. This one’s easy. We all know that products such as Roundup and Sevin aren’t healthy for us or the environment in many ways.

But organic gardening is more fundamentally about supporting nature and working with it. With regard to our soil, even the act of digging into it can mess up its natural beneficial processes. In some ways, less is more. Stop disrupting your soil, and it will thrive and work better for you.

Home Soil

Last fall when I dug a shallow trench to plant my garlic, I felt bad about displacing a handful of earthworms. Those critters were just the obvious living organisms in my garden. A teaspoon of good quality soil is populated with more microorganisms than people on earth. That’s billions of algae, fungi, bacteria, yeasts, protozoa, nematodes, and more. Scientists are only beginning to understand the complex ecosystems in soil and how they support plant life.

Here’s a simplified description of the relationship between your plants and microbes:

  • Plants take in carbon dioxide and through photosynthesis, use the carbon atoms to form sugars.
  • Some sugars are released into the soil through the plants’ roots, providing food for microbes.
  • These microbes, in turn, provide important nutrients right to the root zone of the plant.

Microbes act like home delivery food service. Sounds good, right? Here’s another point to understand: good soil with organic matter holds together in small clumps (aggregates) separated by open pores. Microbes thrive in this kind of environment; in fact, they depend on good soil structure for critical functions. Taking a shovel to it is like bulldozing their natural habitat. And destroying their home means your plants are going to be deprived of the little guys that nurture them. Your plants themselves like good soil structure for other reasons, too.

Soil Care

How can you tell if your soil has good aggregation? A handful of well-aggregated soil has the pebbled texture of cottage cheese. Soil that is poorly aggregated, in contrast, doesn’t hold together at all, or if you gently squeeze it, forms into larger chunks that don’t crumble nicely into pea-sized pieces.

Other bad consequences come from churning up your soil. For example, “tilling soil causes pore spaces to collapse and seal over, causing more rain to run off than sink in.” Your plants aren’t getting that water and worse, water run-off carries away your garden soil. Tilled soil is also lower in organic matter.

I like this description, relayed by Sharon Gensler, the Soil Carbon Outreach Coordinator at NOFA/Mass. “Poor soil is like a mound of flour, which sheds water poured on top rather than absorbing it. On the other hand, water poured over a stack of sliced bread is easily and quickly absorbed. The bread has crumb and texture, with many pours available to absorb and retain the moisture, while the flour is dense with very little porous space for absorption of air or water.”

Last summer, I took over a plot that another gardener couldn’t use. The plot had grown

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Once I pulled all of the purslane from this garden, water pooled on the surface and ran off rather than being absorbed by the soil.

“weedy”  with purslane (an edible plant, though not my favorite), so I set about clearing the entire plot. My thinking went like this: I’d clear the purslane so it wouldn’t compete with my garden plants for water and nutrients, and then I would cover any bare areas with compost and mulch to protect and build the soil.

Once all of those plants were cleared, however, I found I was left with dry, dusty soil that didn’t hold water well. Have you ever had a problem with hydrophobic soil? You might have experienced it when you let a flower pot filled with a peat-based mix dry out. No matter how much I watered the cleared garden, the soil seemed to repel, rather than absorb the water.

I went ahead as planned and covered the soil with compost and wood mulch–which helped with the watering problem, eventually–but I would not have had to remediate so extensively if I had selectively left some of that purslane in place. In many cases, a living root is better than compost and mulch. To be clear, I’m not advocating for letting any weed run rampant in the garden; certainly some weeds will outcompete garden plants. But in this case, I should have thought of that purslane itself as a garden plant–not only because it was edible, but also because it would have been a good friend to my garden, protecting the soil from erosion, supporting microbial life, and helping to retain water.

Bottom Line?

Start with soil! Make friends with the billions of organisms living underfoot, and they’ll do a lot of heavy lifting for you and your plants. Setting the shovel aside is just one way to keep your soil zoo happy. I’ll talk about what I’ve learned about no-dig and other soil-building methods, but up next in Part 2: Good Soil for a Healthy Planet.


For More Info…

From Green America, understanding the complexities of soil.

Interesting fact sheet from the USDA on soil health.

The Zoo Beneath Our Feet, from the Washington Post.

What is humus? From National Geographic.

Got worms? Earthworms can be an indicator of soil health. From MSU Extension.

How to Turn Dirt Into Soil From Yes! magazine, home gardeners share their experiences.

A deeper dive into soil aggregation. From the Soil System Sciences (SSS) Division of the European Geosciences Union(EGU).

 

 

How’d It Grow? Premium Peas

Are you getting ready to plant peas? It’s still too early here in zone 6, but I thought I’d mention this variety while there is still time for ordering from seed catalogs.

Description and Source

Premium is the name of the pea, which can be a little confusing if you go looking for it online since ‘premium’ is also used by seed companies as a descriptor. This particular variety is available exclusively from Johnny’s.

Premium is open-pollinated and resistant to Fusarium Wilt.

Please note that Johnny’s sells both untreated and treated seeds, the latter of which is coated with a fungicide to protect them from diseases such as damping off. When I contacted Johnny’s about the treatment, the representative indicated that treated seeds are not approved for organic growing.

Planting and Growing Notes

Last year on April 1, I sneaked into the garden on that one flashy warm day we had here in MA and got these guys planted in a nine-foot row under a mini grow tunnel (with a plan to remove it as they grew). Using Johnny’s intensive spacing guidelines, I planted them in a 3-inch band, 1 1/2″ apart, around 25 per foot. These peas do not grow tall, and although a trellis is not needed, I set up supports at the time of planting to keep space for other plants and to help make picking easier.

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‘Premium’ also grew well in a pot. Supported on twine and bamboo, they were easy to pick. Following this crop, I was able to fit in a crop of scarlet runner beans.

Soon after I planted them, the temperature dropped precipitously, down into the twenties. And then we had a long spell of cold, wet weather. I’d been hoping that the grow tunnel was going to warm the soil and help them move along, but those pea seeds didn’t budge for nearly three weeks, for so long without a sign that I thought I’d lost them. Around the time they sprouted, I put in another crop of peas in a pot on my front sidewalk, and those guys matured only a day or two later than the ones I planted  on April 1.

Harvest

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After shelling, I had about a pound of peas from a 9-foot row.

Most of them were ready for picking around mid June. Even if I account for that cold snap right after I planted them, they took a little longer to mature than the 51-day average noted by Johnny’s. Still, I was able to get my next crop in the garden easily while they were finishing up.

The nine-foot row in my garden yielded a little more than 1 pound of shelled peas.

How’d they taste? After eating Premium my teens decided that they do like peas after all. The flavor was fresh and sweet, not metallic or bitter, even for ones that I missed and left on the vine a little too long.

The ones that I blanched, froze on a paper-towel-lined tray, and then stored in freezer bags held well for a few months.

Bottom Line?

I’m planting these again in 2019, probably  a week or two into April depending on weather trends. My portable grow tunnel might have saved the peas from rotting, but didn’t warm up the soil enough to make planting worthwhile so early in very cold temperatures.

Though some peas like Bistro may offer higher yields, I’m generally interested in moving things along to fit in a succession of crops in a short time. I hear Strike is another good one to try for early yield.

Best of all, they tasted good and got my teens to change their minds about peas.