Friday, February 15, 2013

Get Ready For Spring

If you have not already done so, sow your first cool weather salad crops indoors between now and February 24. You could also sow in a coldframe outdoors. I planted 12 varieties of lettuce yesterday. Other early crops like mache, mizuna, tatsoi, scallions and spinach can also be started indoors if you wish. All these latter veggies will germinate in cold soil, and so can be planted outdoors, if you'd prefer. If you go the direct seed route, be especially vigilant for slugs and flea beetles. Cooler temperatures favor the latter, in particular.

The last half of February is also a good time to plant peas. Although we enjoy English, or shelling, peas, we prefer to buy them frozen. When we grow peas, it is always an edible-podded type, as these provide about twice as much food in the same space. We have found Sugar Snap peas to be unsurpassed for flavor, but this year we are trying a new one from Burpee, 'Super Snappy.' This variety produces extra-large peas, which can be shelled if you let them go too long on the vine. An added benefit is the compact growth habit, making them ideal for our raised beds. Burpee suggests this variety does not require a trellis, but in our experience, all peas do better with some support. Tomato cages work fine for the compact types.

Ancient Chinese gardening advice recommends, "When you pull a radish, plant a lettuce." This wraps the essence of succession planting and crop rotation into eight words. Spinach could substitute for lettuce in this scenario. Later in the year, put in tomatoes after the greens have been harvested. The best way to insure a ready supply of plants is to start them yourself from seeds. The best choices are all those mentioned in the first paragraph above, along with leeks, mustards, parsley, cilantro, dill, celery, and chervil.

If you start seeds indoors for early planting, you will require artificial lighting. A windowsill, even a south-facing one, will produce pale, elongated seedlings that lean toward the sun. To produce straight, stocky seedlings that transplant well, you need more light. We can go on all day about lumens and PAR values, if one wants to get technical, but the simplest approach to plant lighting recommendations is to talk about watts of fluorescent lighting per square foot of growing space. For vegetable crops, I recommend using six 40-watt T8 fluorescent lamps over a space 18 by 48 inches. The T8 (8-tenths of an inch in diameter) is the most common and least expensive lamp type, and is often supplied when you buy an inexpensive hanging "shoplight" fixture at one of the big box stores. Three shoplights, for a total of six lamps, will illuminate two standard 10 X 20 flats of plants, with a little room at the back for rooting herb cuttings.

You can buy brighter lighting sources that will illuminate a larger area or allow you to grow plants that need more light than lettuce and spinach, such as broccoli or chard. Among the choices are T5 fluorescents (only 5/10 inches in diameter, so you can squeeze more into the same space), high-output fluorescents, metal halide, and LED lighting systems. All cost more and offer various advantages and disadvantages over shoplights. For the hobby gardener needing only a few dozen plants per season, shoplights should do the trick. If you only use the lights for a couple of months each year, the lamps will last about 5 years, assuming you run them for twelve to sixteen hours per day. Twelve hours is sufficient for spring greens. Members of the onion and celery families will appreciate the longer days.

Two flats will supply you with anywhere from 18 to 72 plants, depending upon what size cell insert you place in the tray. For lettuce, greens, scallions or spinach that will be promptly transplanted, we use 72-cell trays. Later in the season, when we may reasonably expect to hold the lettuce a little longer, we will start them in larger cells. Leeks do better in 36-cell trays. Members of the celery family need to spend a longer time in the flat, and should be grown in 18-cell trays or small nursery pots.

Fill trays with seed starting mix and wet them down the day before you intend to plant. Use a drainless flat to support the cell trays. You can fill the flat with about an inch of water and float the prepared tray on top. This will allow the starting mix to soak up as much water as possible before you plant. The mix can be difficult to wet initially. After sowing your seeds, cover the tray with a clear plastic germination cover to maintain 100 percent humidity and to allow you to observe the seedlings. They need to remain under the cover only until all cells are showing green. As soon as all the seedlings have emerged, remove the cover, but take care that your seedlings do not dry out. This usually spells disaster if they are small. To keep them growing as rapidly as possible, add timed-release fertilizer, or a complete organic formulation, to the starting mix. You can also water with compost tea or kelp extract, but I find this more trouble than adding fertilizer to the mix.

Early lettuces thrive in a cold frame.
Most of the crops mentioned will require about two weeks to reach transplantable size, after they emerge. Thin to one plant per cell as soon as true leaves start to appear. Simply clip off the losers at soil level with a pair of nail scissors. Transplant them to the garden when you see the first roots emerging from the drainage hole in the bottom of the cell.

It is not necessary to plant an entire flat at once. You can save some cells for succession plantings. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his garden journal that lettuce seed should be planted by the "thimbleful" and "weekly." Most modern households will need far less than a thimbleful, more like a pinch, for a weekly supply. If you plant in succession, you may find it convenient to start new seeds under the germination cover as soon as the first trays are removed. The older trays need to adjust to cooler temperatures and lower humidity, anyway. As a rule, you should not grow plants with markedly different germination times in the same flat. Celery, dill, cilantro, parsley and chervil all take up to three weeks to germinate. By then, lettuce, which germinates in a day or three, will be ready to transplant.

We find it helpful to rotate the flats underneath the lights, because the intensity of illumination is far less near the ends of the lamps than it is in the center. Rotating the flats helps insure all plants grow at the same rate, and that none wastes energy stretching toward the light.

We purchase flats, cell trays, germination covers, growing mixes and much of our seed at Knoxville Seed and Greenhouse Supply on Rutledge Pike. Even though this is a large wholesale/retail company, you can purchase only one or two trays at a time if that's all you need, and the friendly staff will answer all your questions. They offer a good selection of organic fertilizer and pest control products. Plus, it is an independently owned, local company.

And speaking of great local companies, I will be giving a presentation on vegetable garden planning and starting seeds at Stanley's Greenhouse on Saturday, March 2. The public is invited to attend free of charge. I will have copies of The New American Homestead available for purchase. (The book is specially priced at $20, tax included. Cash, checks and all major credit cards are gratefully accepted.)

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