Saturday, January 31, 2015

Less Than Fifty Days Away

Spring arrives officially on March 20, so we are less than fifty days away! We have had some pleasant days during January, but hopefully it has not been warm enough long enough to bring plants out of dormancy. Snowdrops are blooming in some gardens by now, and the early Crocus chrysanthus blooms will be along shortly.

Now is the time to get your seed orders in, or to visit your favorite garden center's seed rack, in order to be assured of the best selection. All indications are that the hot items this year will be heirloom vegetables, especially tomatoes, and compact-growing varieties suitable for container or small space vegetable gardens. This is unsurprising given the trend toward home food gardening.

Time is running out if you are starting leeks or celery from seeds for spring transplant.

It is now time to start broccoli, cabbage and other brassicas for spring transplants. To spread out the harvest, start only one or two plants per week for the next several weeks. Wait a couple more weeks before starting lettuce, unless you are betting on an early spring, or can cover your transplants if frost arrives.

Hold off on starting any warm season plants, however. We are still roughly 80 days from the frost date. Despite the undeniable urge to get things growing, you will have more success if you wait until March 15 or after to start tomatoes. Bell and chili peppers should be started even later, around the first of April, and must be kept warm during their early development. Otherwise, they may not ever reach their full potential.

Now is a great time to start seeds indoors for cool season flowers. Calendula is an old favorite, and the petals are edible. Another edible flower, Dianthus or annual pinks, thrives in spring, but starts looking ratty after the weather really heats up.

For an early season pleasure that is definitely NOT edible, start seeds of sweet peas, Lathyrus, in small pots. They will need something to climb on if you cannot get them outside before they begin to climb. Start seeds around February 20 for transplant around March 20. This should give the sweet peas enough time to grow and bloom before the succumb to summer heat. The large, colorful, and exquisitely fragrant flowers are worth all the trouble, and they make good cut flowers, too.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Indoor Growing and a Word About Potatoes

If you cannot wait for spring, why not try growing a few veggies and herbs indoors this winter? A sunny windowsill or some artificial light will allow you not only to satisfy your gardening urge, but also to provide some welcome, out-of-season freshness in the kitchen.

If you have a south-facing window, you should be able to grow shade-tolerant greens and herbs. Some good ones to try are chervil, cilantro, and chives, all of which will grow without full sun. (In winter in Tennessee, a south-facing window is not nearly as bright as full summer sun.) With the addition of light, you can branch out into more demanding crops, like arugula, lettuce and corn salad.

I currently have an LED unit capable of illuminating about four square feet of growing space. We have lettuce, arugula, chives, chervil, cilantro, parsley and bak choy all growing well. LED lighting produces a lot of illumination for very little electricity. This unit, which is a prototype obtained from the manufacturer, consumes only 15 watts.

In two months, it will be time to plant potatoes. I mention this now, because you should now be ordering your seed potatoes online, if you want something other than the standard offerings we see around here. In my experience, Kennebec is the most common seed potato in the garden centers, with Red Pontiac being a close second. While I have seen heirlooms, most notably Irish Cobbler, available in recent years, they are not common. Another one you can often find is Yukon Gold, which is not only a great all-purpose potato but a good keeper, something important for home gardeners.

Contrary to popular belief, you can plant potatoes from the grocery store and they will grow. However, using them is not a good idea, as you may bring potato viruses, of which there are several, into your garden, making it difficult thereafter to produce potatoes. Play it safe and purchase certified virus free seed potatoes from a garden center or catalog.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Time for Early Plantings

Although the frigid temperatures outside may not be encouraging, now is the time to plant some slow growing crops for spring transplants. Leeks, celery, celery root and seed onions should all be started indoors by mid-January, in order to have plants ready for moving into the garden by the first week of March.

Gardeners with a coldframe should also think about starting lettuce and spinach indoors for moving to the coldframe in about a month. Other good early crop choices for coldframe production are corn salad, mizuna, bak choy, scallions, and mustards.

Free-standing coldframe
I have been experimenting with artificial light gardening for a number of years, and this season I am using an LED lighting system originally designed for aquarium illumination. While it is not ideal for plant production, it is certainly a far cry from the fluorescent shop lights I once used. The LED unit is compact, runs cool, uses only 15 watts of electricity and is producing a fine crop of microgreens and herbs for the kitchen.

If you are thinking about growing windowsill herbs this winter, start with chives, chervil and cilantro. They all grow easily from seed, do not mind crowding in the pot, and develop flavor at a young age. They all also tolerate light shade, and so will grow in a sunny window or under artificial lights more readily than more sun-loving crops. Cilantro microgreens only a couple of inches tall will brighten up your Latino or Asian dishes during the gloomy months. Chervil is almost too pretty to eat, but it adds a note of tarragon and parsley combined. Use it on vegetable or fish dishes, in particular. Chives can be used to bring a hint of onion flavor wherever you need it. If you start a few pots now and have some plants left over, you can transplant them to outdoor beds around the first of March, and they should grow and produce more herbs before the weather heats up. Chives is perennial, and clumps started from seed this spring may bloom next fall. They will certainly bloom when they are in their second season outside, especially if placed in full sun. Chervil will go to seed in May or June, as soon as the weather warms. Gather the needle-like seeds for a fall planting, and compost the rest of the plant. Chervil does not germinate well, so be sure to save a lot of seeds.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

New Year, New Garden

Happy New Year!

Even before New Year's Eve, we had received a couple of seed catalogs. Now, we have half a dozen, with more undoubtedly on the way. Whether you realize it or not, the 2015 gardening season has begun!

Now is the perfect time to think about what you will grow in your vegetable garden come spring, and seed catalogs are full of great suggestions. Trending this year are compact vegetable varieties suitable for containers or small space gardens. Plant breeders seem to have outdone themselves with lots of new tomatoes, peppers and squash, staples of the summer garden here in the South.

Tomatoes rank high on almost everyone's list, and there are varieties suitable for all kinds of growing situations, from patio pots to a traditional row garden. When looking for tomato varieties, consider how much support the plants will need. Indeterminate tomatoes typically grow a bit larger in Tennessee than the catalog listings indicate. Be prepared with a large, sturdy trellis. If you cannot provide appropriate support, consider one of the smaller tomato types that can be grown in a hanging basket.

Peppers, both hot and sweet, are also popular. Peppers are typically more compact than tomatoes, but nevertheless benefit from a cage or trellis. Some peppers bear so much fruit the branches will break if left unsupported. Several new introductions remain small and are suitable for patio containers.

Squash have gained a reputation for being uncontrollable sprawlers that take up too much room, but recent introductions promise gourmet-quality squash on compact plant. Most of the better summer squash types are Cucurbita pepo, a favorite target of the squash borer. The surefire, organic way to control this pest is to prevent its access to your plants. Keep squash covered with a row cover or grow tunnel until female flowers appear. Then, remove the cover to allow access by pollinators. Once the squash is mature, borers are less of a threat. A few varieties of summer squash are parthenocarpic, meaning they will set fruit without a pollinator. You can keep these types covered for the entire season. The cultivar 'Cavili' is one such. Another is 'Easypick Gold' shown in the photo.

Among the early, cool season crops, lettuce is probably the most rewarding one for small space gardens. Looseleaf and loosehead varieties of lettuce will give you the most salad greens per square foot. Butterhead lettuces, such as the miniature heirloom Tom Thumb, will grow to maturity in a six inch pot, and are pretty enough to partner with flowers. Scallions grow well with lettuce, and combine well in salad, too. We are partial to 'Parade' an annual scallion that makes long, straight onions with lots of white stalk.

Early January is the time to start celery, onions and leeks from seed, in order to have plants ready for moving outside around the first of March. Leeks and onions grow well in a sunny windowsill. For celery you will probably need supplemental lighting, unless you have a greenhouse. Supplemental lighting for growing vegetable plants indoors continues to improve. Many good choices are available. LED units are the most expensive, but have the lowest operating cost.

Here are some links to seed companies that you may want to investigate: