There go the last crocuses of spring. The first appeared on the south side of the house on March 11 while there was still much snow about. These are in my wife’s main flower bed on the west side of the house and they usually hold on until other bulbs get into the act.
It’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, and I’m so happy to have a few blooms to show off. Despite the calendar and increasingly longer days, spring started only a week ago… and then it was very wet. Amazingly, while I (along with everyone else around here) felt we’ve experienced the most horrendous and permanent winter in decades, perennials in central Pennsylvania are “on schedule.”
For the past seven or more years, daffodil shoots have appeared by late February. Winter of 2012-2013, in fact, daffodils sprouted **before** winter started! The poor, young shoots stood shivering for months before spring finally turned them loose.
What impresses me about the forsythia this year is its obvious reluctance to participate in what little spring we’ve had. We have no sprigs of yellow blossoms. Rather, each “sprig” has, perhaps a blossom with many buds watching, I guess, to decide whether it’s OK to open. Still, it’s very pretty.
This year, there were no sprouts at all until late March. In diminishing cold, daffodil tips appeared and slowly stretched upward for about two weeks. Then warm happened. In just a week, 2-inch sprouts erupted to full-sized daffodils and in about three days they spat out buds to blossom just in time for my Bloom Day photo session.
In past years, April 15 in my yard has seen apple, azalea, forget-me-not, lilac, peach, pear, tulip, hyacinth, and violet blossoms. But in each of those years I’ve joked that I’ll be able to grow pineapples outdoors by 2050 if the warming trend continues.
So, this spring of 2014 is “back to normal.” There aren’t many types of blossoms in my yard, and that’s how it should be in mid April. Please enjoy the photos.
Very much as if desperate for its moment of “fame,” this daffodil in our front yard blossomed for Bloom Day. Others also blossomed, but in the back yard tucked behind the lilac bushes.
If it has been warm enough for plants to grow, there are weeds somewhere in the garden or yard putting out blooms. This mint-family member appears every spring in my main vegetable bed and in my herb garden. It’s quite pretty with or without blossoms.
Each bud here is smaller than a dime, yet in about a week these will be two large cones of lilac blossoms—or the temperature will plunge dragging us into another plant-stopping cold spell. As I type this there are traffic accidents on highways within 60 miles of me caused by several inches of accumulated new snow. So… maybe it’ll be two weeks before the blossoms emerge. Whenever it does happen, it’s going to be quite a show!
On February 15th in Ithaca, NY, a snowstorm added several inches to a well-established snow pack. By this time, there was a similar covering in Lewisburg, PA, though a few February storms passed either north or south of Lewisburg, leaving our problems mild compared to those of neighboring states.
Who wasn’t talking about winter this winter? For most of us, it was unusual. Here, we’d gotten used to remarkably mild winters. I’d been able to play golf until January (we’d be cold, but snow-free), and whatever snow we’d get in January and February would melt away before March.
Year-after-year I’d posted a “first crocus of spring” photo pretty close to March 9th. And, unless we had a lot of rain in March, I’d been able to plant peas on March 17th—St Patrick’s day.
On March 11th, snow in Lewisburg had melted away except in heavily shaded places and north-facing slopes. I shot this photo of a north-facing slope around the corner from the Cityslipper ranch (my house). It’s the back yard of a newly-built, unoccupied house and that path through the snow is a deer trail. Four houses have gone up since winter of 2013, eliminating the woods and meadows where I’ve collected black raspberries, blackberries, and elderberries for 19 years. Sure, there are new houses with yards, but the deer haven’t given up.
By early February, we had an amazing accumulation of snow. It was amazing not so much for the amount of snow, but for the snow’s tenacity. Temperatures remained very low and the snow stayed. When things did warm up, it wasn’t enough to melt snow, but it was enough to cause more snow storms. The extreme “polar vortex” cold taunted us whenever we left the house, and the snow tormented our dog whose stomach dragged on snow whenever she went off road.
In early March, we had some less-cold days. What’s more, we had rain! This helped melt snow, but most plants wouldn’t be fooled. We’re used to seeing daffodil sprouts in February, but this year there were none even in the second week of March—or the third or the fourth.
Still, on March 11, spring said hello. It was sunny and warm, and on the afternoon dog walk I noticed how absent the snow had become. What’s more, there were crocus blossoms… pretty much on the same schedule as in our much milder winters. Sure, things have moved along well since March 11, but this post is about that special first truly spring-like day of the season. The photos tell the rest of the story.
With snow nearly gone, I inspected the yard. Someone had eaten many of my young rose plants and my hydrangeas nearly to the ground. That same someone, I guess, also chewed on my thornless raspberry plants. Still, I found promising indicators that spring might actually take hold. This was among the first crocuses about four feet from my main vegetable bed.
A lavender plant I set in the garden in autumn of 2012 has survived two winters. I’m guessing lavender is hardier than rosemary as cold winters have typically knocked out whatever rosemary plants we’ve established. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of lavender as a seasoning, and I’d rather have neutral smells in my living space. So, the lavender will remain an outdoor pet.
On March 11th, healthy-looking oregano leaves peeked through the dead stems from last year’s growth. I anticipate the oregano will try to escape its containment rings this season… I’ve three varieties each contained in a 3-foot circle by a plastic barrier I embedded about 9 inches into the ground.
Even with a sheet of ice nearly covering it on March 11th, my rhubarb plants had healthy “buds” popping out of the soil. The cold held these buds nearly to the end of March before slightly warmer days triggered them to deploy leaves. I’ll share photos in an upcoming post.
One week old tomato seedlings grow under lights in my office. While I planted 16 seeds per container, some didn’t sprout. There are, perhaps, 70 going strong. To the right are pepper seedlings barely visible under their shop light. That light is so much closer to the plants because I lifted the fixture above the tomatoes to fit the camera under it for the photograph.
Sprouts are up! One hundred and six sprouts grace my seed-starting shelf. Most are tomato plants though about 24 are pepper plants and another 8 are lettuce.
I live in USDA hardiness zone 6b or 7a, depending on how you squint at the most recent map. While it felt more like zone 3 this winter, the temperature might have just brushed minus 5 – the minimum low to qualify as zone 6b. What was unusual is the cold hung on day-after-day; we had a six-week period during which it was a relief if the temperature spiked into the low 20s.
Even as the snow melted, we had cold. There’s a popular rule of thumb in our neighborhood: plant peas on St Patrick’s Day. I doubt many people succeeded. In fact, cold and rain continued until just two days ago, so anyone trying to plant peas would have been working in mud. I don’t expect to put anything in the garden for another three or four days, assuming we don’t see even more rain.
How I Start Seeds
I recently attended my first seed swap where a presenter recommended that home growers buy celled seed-starting trays. I no longer go that route. I’ve used peat pots pressed out in connected cells, I’ve used compressed peat pellets, and I’ve used old plastic drinking cups. I wrote about much of this some years ago in evergreen blog posts.
Here’s a setup I created with my dad last spring. He found a seven foot section of wire shelving. We marked 17 inches in from each end of the shelving, cut the reinforcement wire along the front edge, and bent the two 17-inch ends down to create a stand from which to hang a shop light. My dad has a cabinet in his living room where he sets up trays and pots in which to start tree seeds. With chains to suspend the shop light, it’s easy to adjust the fixture’s height as seedlings grow tall.
These days I cut up gallon plastic milk and orange juice jugs and use the bottoms as seed planters. In a milk jug, I set 16 seeds, and in an orange juice jug, I set 12 seeds. Sure, roots grow together as the seedlings get large, but teasing (gently tearing) them apart doesn’t seem to bother them too much.
When I set seeds, I create a paper tag to identify which varieties of plants are in a particular container (and where the varieties are). These I tape to the side of the container for quick reference. I refer to the tags when I set seedlings in the garden and make a map that shows where I plant each variety.
The easiest thing to overlook when you start seeds indoors is lighting. Don’t assume a south-facing window can provide enough light to produce healthy seedlings. Instead, get a fluorescent fixture with 850K spectrum tubes (see the box titled Don’t Buy Grow Lights). When you first plant seeds, suspend the light about 3 inches over the surface of the soil. As seedlings grow, raise the light to maintain a 3-inch separation from the tops of the plants.
To start tomato and pepper seeds, keep the room temperature above 70 degrees. Ideally, shoot for 80 degrees which, if you don’t want to turn up the heat, you can achieve by putting a heating pad under the seed pots. I’ve found in a 70 degree room, fluorescent lights parked 3 inches above my planters warm the soil adequately.
Starting seeds indoors is only mildly challenging. If you have space to set up a light and some makeshift planters, don’t buy a flat of seedlings that someone else has started. You can grow that!
I start seeds in planters I create by cutting the bottom halves off of gallon plastic milk jugs. I start a cut by pinching the milk jug between the tips of a scissors and squeezing hard. If the carton proves too tough, I can poke a hole through with one scissors tip. Then I cut around the container on a line parallel to the bottom of the jug.
I buy a bale of potting soil every three or four years from a local garden center. A bale is an enormous amount of soil—compressed to about half its “fluffed” volume. To use it, I wield a butter knife as an ice pick, stabbing one end of the bale repeatedly until a chunk comes loose. I crumble the chunk into a planter and smoosh up smaller lumps between my thumb and fingers.
Note that I don’t put drainage holes in the bottoms of my homemade planters. This forces me to pay extra attention to the moisture of the soil. Before I plant, I add what must be about a third of a gallon of water and leave the planter for 30 minutes or longer so the water soaks in. The soil should be moist on the surface but there shouldn’t be water sloshing around in the container. Note your potting soil might float when you first add water. Worse: some potting soils don’t absorb water without encouragement. If you have such potting soil, stir the water in or it might just pool on top.
I use a chopstick to create 16 indents in the soil of a planter; orange circles in the photo represent the layout. For tomato and pepper seeds, these can be just one-eighth to one-quarter inch deep. I drop a single seed into each indentation and then gently nudge soil over the seeds. With all the seeds covered, I very gently tamp the soil down with the heel of my hand.
My labels aren’t pretty, but they work. This one reveals I have paste tomato seeds in the left two rows (for a total of 8), 3 Amana Orange tomato seeds at the back of the third row with one Tangerine Beefsteak seed in the front of that row, and a final full row of Tangerine Beefsteak seeds.
I may have to “pot up” the seedlings later which I do by gently tearing each one away from the root ball and then setting 8 into a milk-jug-derived planter. Of course, I create new labels for the new planters, and eventually I use those labels to inform a map I draw so I know where each variety ends up in the garden. I posted a video that shows the potting-up procedure when I made my seed-starting planters slightly differently… but the video is still relevant:
I wasn’t in great shape when it was time to pack and mail seeds. Happily, I had enough complete seed sets for everyone who qualified in the giveaway.
It has been a rough month: harsh punctuation to a difficult year. As my annual seed giveaway closed, I jumped from garden conference to garden conference and crashed with a sinus infection when I should have been mailing out seeds. Despite the plugged pipes, I managed to get seeds in the mail, and they should all have arrived at the homes of their new gardeners.
Start Your Peppers and Tomatoes!
For pretty much everyone in the United States, it’s time to start tomato and pepper seeds. Actually, it’s a little late for people in the south. In hardiness zone 6b, seedlings go in the garden around June 1st (though our last frost date is, supposedly, May 15).
Ideally, peppers will have two full months from seeding to transplant into the garden. Tomatoes will do fine with six weeks from seeding to transplanting. I encourage you to seed winter squash in late May or early June and transplant it to the garden in July.
I’ve written many posts about starting seeds, so rather than repeat myself, I’ve included a list (see box) of articles to provide help in case seed starting is all new to you.
Thanks for Participating!
It’s a privilege to have readers who take time to participate in my giveaways. As with most giveaways, I asked participants in this year’s to tell stories that would make me laugh. Honestly, things swung hard the other way! Many entrants told stories of how their gardens failed. Whether family pets, wild marauders, or hapless spouses destroyed a garden, I felt sad with each such story. Perhaps next year I’ll ask entrants to share gardening successes; those, at least will make me smile… though they might not make me laugh. (Stacia Brooks’s cucumbers made me smile.)
The box of envelopes minutes before I took them to the post office. I’ve heard from several readers already that they’ve received their seeds.
Sorry I’m so hard to amuse, but thank you all for your efforts. Susie Yarbrough tickled me a bit with her story of her 4-year-old son scavenging all her cherry tomatoes. Handy Helen also got a small chuckle with her story of slow-to-sprout seeds.
Debi Marti’s groundhog made me sad. (I’ve seen a 14 foot row of mature broccoli vanish into a groundhog in just a few hours.) Tamar Apkarian’s Super Bowl reference was timely, but her rabbits were discouraging. I was sad to hear that last year’s squash seeds failed for Una Walker, and the tomato seeds did only slightly better… and to hear that her sweet Italian peppers never made it to red! Sigh.
I ended up choosing Moonglow as the “mystery tomato.” The photo shows one way I’ve used orange tomatoes: I once canned 9 pints of combined Moonglows and Valencias. The packed jars glowed gorgeous orange and provided accents in several dishes through the year.
David Moffitt? Well… we’ve had beers together. What else can I say? Bobbi Thomas made me very sad by reminding me of the many years I’ve planted too early and had to drape my garden with large plastic sheets to protect wimpy plants from late frost.
Tim Brenner’s admission that the giveaway instructions were overly complex confirmed what I said in the instructions. I might make it easier next year and simply ask everyone to leave comments and mailing addresses, but it seems important to encourage participants to invite others also to participate… I guess I’ll figure this out next February.
Birds, pickle worms, contractors, seeds that didn’t germinate, clumsy cats, dreams of giant-killing, stubborn husbands, banana plants and syrup bottles, green paint on your thumbs (won’t fool your plants…), more dogs, weeds, prehistoric outhouses (septic fields are great for gardening as well), a steer (moo), soap-flavored cucumbers, manure plunges, and plant-killing crows, were all good stories. Thank you for sharing and best of luck with this year’s vegetable garden!
Please note that this giveaway ended on February 21, 2014. Thank you for your interest.
Neck Pumpkins! These are common in central Pennsylvania, but rare elsewhere. I hope you’ll enter the giveaway and introduce these amazing squashes to another part of the US. Enthusiasts love these for pumpkin pie.
Regular visitors to Your Small Kitchen Garden know that I’ve been very distracted by my dad’s house in Ithaca. Still, I grew a lot of produce in 2013 and I want to share. As in past years, I’m giving away seeds!
I’m most excited about the unique paste tomatoes I grow and about the neck pumpkins. This year, I’m giving away seeds to grow those and sweet Italian peppers (as I did last year). As well, I’ll include “mystery tomatoes.” The box titled Mystery Tomatoes? explains my motivation for this… but don’t worry, I’ll label whatever type of tomato seeds I send. Find the box titled, What Might You Get? to learn more about the seeds I’m giving away.
Here’s how the giveaway works:
I’ll organize seeds into “sets.” A set includes all types of seeds in the What Might You Get? box. I’ll create a mailing list sorted according to the rules listed below and I’ll mail complete sets of seeds to each name on the list (from top-to-bottom) until I run out of a type of seed. Then, I’ll mail partial sets having whatever types of seeds remain until I run out of seeds or mail to everyone on the list. It looks as though I’ll have at least 50 seed sets to mail, so please don’t be discouraged if you see a lot of entries.
I was relieved that seeds I gave away last year did, indeed produce gorgeous sweet red peppers. I’m planting these again in 2014 and I’m confident you’d be pleased if you planted some too.
Here are the rules:
1. The giveaway ends at midnight on Friday, February 21. No new entries or mailing list “bumps” are valid after that date.
2. To get on the mailing list, comment on this blog post using the comment form here. Please include a story about your gardening experiences that makes me laugh.
3. Use this link to send an email containing your snail mail address AND the email address you use when you leave your comment. If you expect to “bump” your entry (explained below), include your twitter name and/or facebook name in the email so I can identify when you bump. If you’ll be posting about the giveaway on your blog, include the blog’s URL in your email so I can give you appropriate credit (again: see below).
These could be Cornue Des Andes tomatoes (not yet ripe). Whatever the variety, they’re delicious raw, great for canning, and I’m giving away seeds so you can grow some.
Completing items 2 and 3, gets you onto the very end of my mailing list. All things being equal, I’d deliver first-come-first served until the seeds are gone. But not so fast! You can improve your position on the list according to the following:
4. Tweet a link to this giveaway (on Twitter) that includes the hash tag #skgseeds.
5. Post a link to this giveaway on Facebook and include the hash tag #skgseeds.
6. Post a link to this giveaway on Google+ and include the hash tag #skgseeds.
A single daily post on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ moves you up one space on the mailing list. So, posting on all three services in a day moves you up three slots; you cannot move up more than three slots in a day except for a one-time bump explained in item 7:
7. Pin the photo from the top of this post that includes the Seed Giveaway title. Include the #skgseeds hash tag in the pin’s description and you’ll move up 2 slots on the mailing list. THIS IS A one-time bump. While I’d love for you to pin the photo on multiple boards, I’ll count only a single pinning within the giveaway period toward your position on the mailing list.
I’ll monitor the #skgseeds hash tag on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. If I can match your posts to the email address in your original comment on this blog, you’ll move up the mailing list.
8. Here’s a shortcut: mention my giveaway on your blog and invite your readers to participate, and you receive instant gratitude. Also, I’ll move you to the front of the mailing list after any other bloggers who have already posted on their blogs. I’ll mail to all bloggers (in the order that they post) before I mail to anyone else on the list.
At Least Get on the List!
Don’t be overwhelmed by the options. At least leave a comment and email your snail mail address (items 2 and 3). TO RECEIVE SEEDS, YOU MUST LEAVE A COMMENT THAT INCLUDES A POSTAL ADDRESS! You’re likely to get some seeds (though, when I run out of these types of seeds, if I haven’t gotten to your name on the list, you won’t receive any). Last year I was able to mail to everyone who entered the giveaway (correctly)—more than 50 people.
During the growing season, please give me an update or two (with photos) of how the seeds are working out. I’ll share your updates with my readers.
This giveaway is open only to people in the United States and Canada.
I grew several tomato varieties in 2013 that made me happy without necessarily winning me over. Actually, White Queen and Moonglow were carryovers from 2012. Stupice, Indigo Rose, Mortgage Lifter, and Dutchman were new to me. My favorite in this list is Moonglow, though Stupice and Indigo Rose were the most successful in the garden. A seed set will contain 8 seeds from one of these varieties (my choice). From the top-left going clockwise: White Queen (fully ripe), Indigo Rose (fully ripe), Mortgage Lifter (ripens red), Moonglow (ripe), Stupice (nearly ripe; I understand you’re supposed to pronounce this as stew-peach-kay), Dutchman (ripens red; supposedly one Dutchman can grow to 7 lbs). Indigo Rose and Stupice tomatoes are about 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter – marginally bigger than a typical cherry tomato.
I harvested this fully-mature zucchini just before frost in late October or early November. It has lived with my winter squash for about three months and shows no sign of decay. Its durability has made it clear: We choose to call zucchini summer squash when, in fact, it works just as well as winter squash.
Having been very distracted from my small kitchen garden last season, I let a few things get away from me. Perhaps the biggest of those things were zucchini.
My single hill of zucchini vines (three plants, one starting pot) was producing by August 1st. We consumed, perhaps, three fruits through the growing season. By mid September, one squash had grown large and stalled; a clear sign it was no longer fit to eat. I harvested it and set it in the house figuring I’d collect the seeds to plant in the coming year. A second squash that would have been fine eating in late September maxed out and joined the first as a likely seed-donor. Then I got really distracted.
The zucchini in this photo dates back to September of 2013, making it about four months since harvest. This one has turned yellow and it’s kind of soft; I can bend it easily and it “gives” when I press on it. Still, if I were relying on a store of such squashes to get me through the winter, this would look pretty good for a meal or two.
By the time frost was inevitable in late October (or was it November?), there was one last humongous zucchini on the vines. I harvested it before the freeze along with more than a hundred pounds of winter squash and stacked them all on a chair in the dining room. There they remained until Thanksgiving at which point I moved them onto the sofa bed in my office.
Zucchini and Winter Squash
I’ve written several times about the amazing durability of winter squash and how you can store it effectively by rolling it under a bed in a seldom-used guest room. I’ve had both blue hubbard squash and neck pumpkins remain in near perfect condition for as long as 13 months when stored in that manner. Zucchini, I’d always understood, was a wimpy cousin of winter squash that we have to use when it’s young. I now understand that growing zucchini as summer squash is a choice and nothing more.
As I would with any winter squash, I peeled the skin from the zucchini, cut it open, and scooped out the seeds. This left about ¾ of an inch of only slightly soft fruit that smelled like fresh vegetable. Everything about the prepared zucchini qualified it as food.
Here, near the end of January, the three zucchinis I harvested in September and October are still in decent shape. In fact, the last one I harvested is indistinguishable from the day I brought it inside!
During the long “cold-storage” of my zucchinis, two of them have changed from deep green to squash yellow. The oldest zucchini had started to soften about a month ago, but it had virtually no other signs of decay.
Would You Eat a Four-Month Old Zucchini?
I butchered the oldest zucchini today and found it in terrific condition. I sautéd some with onions, tomatoes, and Italian seasonings, and it was fine (see below). It didn’t soften in cooking the way young zucchini does, but it softened and behaved in all other respects like zucchini: It brought virtually no flavor of its own to the dish and it added vegetable bulk. This mature, cold-stored summer squash was a bit like having a new vegetable to use in cooking—and it would certainly shred appropriately for use in breads, cakes, and other baked goods… but I don’t need more shredded zucchini; I froze plenty of it in-season!
Bottom line: If you’re overrun with zucchini in-season, let a bunch mature on the vines and harvest them just before frost. Store them as you would winter squash, and you’ll have another great (unexpected) winter vegetable.
I cut the squash into cubes and sautéd them in olive oil along with onions and canned tomatoes (from my garden). I added a touch of white wine, salt, pepper, dried basil, dried oregano, and crushed red peppers and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. Young zuke in summer would have been mushy by then. This well-aged zucchini turned translucent but it remained firm. I’m not a fan of zucchini to begin with, and this tasted every bit as good as any zucchini I’ve ever sautéd.