you can grow that
Framed against a dirty, south-facing basement window that will soon be blocked by the foliage of outdoor plants, these kalanchoe blossoms exist against all odds. The kalanchoe plants blossom nearly continuously despite receiving little sunlight and sporadic, meager watering.
At least three years ago, I picked up two kalanchoe plants from a vendor who gives away inventory at the end of the spring flower season. Kalanchoe is a succulent that, sadly, isn’t cold-hardy. As a houseplant, however, kalanchoe is indestructible.
In mid spring, I’m pushing hard to get the vegetable garden planted, so I had no time to deal with the kalanchoe. I set it on the only south-facing windowsill in the basement and got on with the gardening.
Actually, the flower pots holding the kalanchoe plants were quite small. I’d add just a little water and it would flow through the soil and out the bottoms of the pots. This was messy, so I considered options for capturing the overflow. Turns out, there was a windowsill planter “lying fallow” near the south-facing window. It was full of soil but without plants growing in it.
While these look like neglected plants, they’ve experience neglect that would kill a huge number of houseplants. Water runs straight through those tiny flower pots and the soil dries out in a day or two. Still, the plants remain green and in bloom even after three months without watering.
For expediency, I moved the windowsill planter to the south-facing windowsill and set the kalanchoe plants in it. And there they sat.
And there they sit.
My kalanchoe today
Here, years after I acquired them, my kalanchoe plants remain in their original pots. I water them, perhaps, 20 times a year… but not at regular intervals. There have been several three-month periods in which the plants got no attention. The soil has gone dry, light from the window has gone dim (when plants outside the window leaf up in spring, less sunlight comes through the glass), and I’ve added no nutrition by way of plant food or compost.
I picked up this pink-flowered kalanchoe at a bargain price and will plant it between my two white-flowered plants in the windowsill planter that has served for several years to capture excess water. With a bit of attention, these hard-to-kill plants should become a nice accent in my nascent houseplantscape.
Through most of the year, there are flowers on those kalanchoe plants. What’s more, the leaves are always green; they don’t shrivel, they don’t dry out, and they don’t fall off. Oh! And the plants continue to grow larger (if not attractively).
The point: I’ve neglected these plants like no plant I’ve ever owned, and they continue to grow and flower. Imagine how amazing they’d look if I actually took care of them. Actually, that’s the plan. They’ve performed so well, I’m finally going to reward them by moving them into the windowsill planter where they’ll have fresh soil and room to spread. I even bought a contrasting pink-flowering kalanchoe to set between them.
Want a nearly indestructible houseplant that responds to neglect by thriving and flowering against all odds? Try kalanchoe. You can grow that.
A lot of what’s in my dad’s garden was there when he moved into his apartment. There’s a boxwood on each side of his entrance walk and an impressive assortment of hostas for such a small space. At first, there might have been a Sundrop or two. Three years later, when I captured this photo, there was a jungle of Sundrops.
I’m still learning to want to grow ornamental plants. For me, gardening has always been about food. Touring show gardens, writing about gardening, and having many friends who are geniuses at landscape architecture and garden design has awakened in me a desire to have a pretty yard. Last summer a planting bed at my dad’s apartment reinforced that desire.
In very early summer, my dad’s garden sported a dense cloud of yellow: Flowers that glowed in the sunlight on 12-to-18-inch stalks. It was one of the most striking features I’d seen in any private garden, and I’ve visited a lot of stunning private gardens.
My Sundrop Awakening
I asked my dad if he knew what plant produced these arresting flowers and, happily, he did! “Sundrops,” he said.
I snapped a few photos and moved along but Sundrops were now in my mental catalog of plants to consider for my own yard. I hadn’t yet tracked down a nursery or garden center that sold Sundrops when this spring I once again visited my dad.
With virtually nothing growing, my dad’s garden still caught my eye. Where last summer there had been stalks of gorgeous yellow flowers, this spring there was a dense ground cover of green-and-purple-leafed plants. They were already growing despite spring having barely started.
My dad’s Sundrop plants had shallow roots and I was able to dig about ten of them in just a few minutes. I’ll probably plant them in the corner of the yard under the apple trees and see how quickly they spread.
So, I asked my dad, “Are those Sundrops?”
He gave an affirmative and told me they were getting out of control. I was thrilled when he agreed I should dig some from around the edges of the patch. I filled a bucket with plants and quickly realized they spread via rhizomes: root-like shoots that radiated out through the soil specifically to push up new plants.
I’ve been warned that Sundrops spread aggressively… which was obvious from my dad’s Sundrop patch. When he moved into his apartment four years ago, I didn’t notice Sundrops there; in only three years they took over a six foot diameter area.
Sundrops in your garden
I did a little reading and found that Sundrops — also known as Evening Primrose — are hardy in zones 5 through 8. Supposedly, they need lots of sunlight, but sunlight reaching my dad’s garden is best suited for hostas; his Sundrops were doing fine.
Your Sundrops will do best in well-conditioned soil, but they grow naturally in many soil types from sand to loam. They handle drought well and once they’re established you may need to be brutal to keep them from spreading beyond your flower bed.
With gorgeous yellow flowers, attractive bi-colored foliage, and a tendency to spread aggressively, Sundrops make a terrific ground cover whose character changes from season to season.
Want a fast-spreading patch of bi-colored leaves that throw up a cloud of bright yellow flowers in late spring? You can grow that with Sundrops.
I dug about a foot into the soil and still had to pull the roots of my horseradish plant. These are just over a foot long and I don’t know how much broke off in the ground.
Remember when I said you can grow horseradish? Do it! My three year horseradish project was very satisfying this Christmas. You might have a similar experience.
In mid autumn, I harvested from my horseradish patch. I’d heard that horseradish is hard to kill; it will take over your yard if you don’t manage it carefully. Harvesting helped me understand the problem.
I dug alongside a root and tried to follow it to its deepest point. Fully a foot into the soil, there was no end in sight and I simply couldn’t dig deeper. So, I pulled and the root broke someplace beneath the bottom of the hole. I suspect the piece left behind will send up a new plant pretty much as a dandelion would under similar circumstances.
I had to break the top of each root I harvested away from the other roots. They were all joined at the top by a raft of root tops and emerging plant stalks.
I dug a second root with similar results. If we used a lot of horseradish, I’d have dug more, but we go through about a half cup of horseradish sauce in a year—pretty much all of that on Christmas Eve.
A horseradish condiment
A few days before Christmas, I took a horseradish root from the refrigerator, rinsed it thoroughly, and used a vegetable peeler to remove the skin. Then I grated the root into the consistency of fine (wet) meal. This I loaded into a one-cup jelly jar; there was a half cup of grated horseradish.
To finish, I added exactly enough white vinegar to soak the horseradish—this involved slowly dribbling in vinegar so the grated root could absorb it. I stopped when the top of the horseradish was obviously moist. Then I covered the jar and set it in the refrigerator.
How we use horseradish
Our traditional Christmas Eve dinner is a beef fondue extravaganza. We cook our own cubes of filet mignon in a fondue pot of hot oil.
I shredded the horseradish on the face of my grater that seemed most suited to scraping things rather than shaving them. A single, peeled root generated a half cup of horseradish crumbs.
To prepare, my wife mixes up several meat sauces, a few of which incorporate horseradish. I’ve always bought a jar of pickled, grated horseradish to use in the sauces, but this year my wife used my homemade pickled horseradish. It tasted fine.
It took three years to go from my brother’s garden to my refrigerator to my garden and finally to my dinner table. It’s a very satisfying story to accompany dinner.
Want horseradish to make your own meat sauces? You can grow that!
With just enough vinegar to cover the shredded horseradish, after a few days in the refrigerator the horseradish seemed a bit dry. It was nearly exactly enough to flavor our Christmas Eve beef fondue; this is all that remains.
Among the things left by a vendor packing up after a hort industry trade show was a modest basil plant that I set under lights on my ping-pong table.
I attended a horticulture industry conference in January of this year. When the conference ended, vendors packed up their valuables and left. Some vendors left things behind.
Apparently, when your company produces hundreds of thousands of seedlings for garden centers all over the country, it’s not cost-effective to pack up a few dozen after a trade show and take them back to headquarters.
So, I scored some edible plant seedlings: two rosemary plants, three sage plants, and a basil plant.
Herb seedlings in winter
It’s not convenient to acquire seedlings in January in central Pennsylvania. Last winter was particularly cold, and soil was hard frozen. Without a jackhammer, I couldn’t plant the seedlings outside. And anyway, basil dies when the temperature drops to 32F degrees; in central PA, basil is an annual.
Ping-pong never caught on with my kids, and my wife and I haven’t played in years. To-boot, the only south-facing window in my basement illuminates the ping-pong table; it’s a natural place to winter over plants. I hang four-foot-long shop lights from the suspended ceiling to drive 850spectrum fluorescent tubes.
I had some stuff under lights on the ping-pong table—a whole bunch of elephant ears I’d peeled apart from the original corm I’d planted in the spring. It was a simple matter to slip the herbs in among them.
Every now and then I’d harvest a few leaves from the basil plant, and it did OK under lights. Finally, in June I planted the very mature seedling in my herb garden. It didn’t do well, but it grew and between it and a stand of purple basil plants, there was plenty to season salads and sauces. Then winter loomed.
When weather forecasts threatened frost, I cut several stems from the basil plant and stood them in water as you would cut flowers. Years ago I’d done this to hold some sprigs over a few weeks for cooking and was impressed at how easily they’d sprouted roots. This time, roots were my intent.
The basil wasn’t particularly eye-catching in my garden this summer, so I never once focused my camera on it. However, in several photos, the basil plant provided delightful contrast for the lavender.
The cuttings rooted quickly, and I moved them into flower pots after about four weeks. They’re just now fully acclimated to living in soil, and I’m seeing signs of new growth.
I’ve never grown herbs indoors specifically for cooking. When I have grown them, it’s been as starts for spring planting. This year, however, my basil cuttings are (nearly) entirely about seasoning. Under intense lights, I expect they’ll grow enough to flavor many meals.
I’ll harvest lightly so the cuttings remain strong, and I’ll plant the basil out next June. This will become a rhythm in my gardening year: Set the basil plants in the garden, harvest as-needed, root cuttings in autumn and pot them up, grow them under intense light, harvest modestly through winter, repeat.
It’s easy. You want basil for life? You can grow that.
Basil is one of the easiest food plants to grow from cuttings. About three weeks in water was enough to produce healthy roots on a tiny sprig.
I wonder how a well-managed five-year-old basil plant looks in the landscape. Similarly, I wonder whether a rooted cutting counts as a new plant, or just more of the original. This seedling started as a cutting from my herb garden and should provide seasoning for at least a few meals through the winter.
I spent a dollar to buy two Hen and Chicks plants at a yard sale in autumn. With snow predicted, I “heeled in” the plants in my vegetable bed. When the snow finally melted in March, I found this little family looking healthy and ready for action. Eventually, these will find a home in a rock garden I plan to build where the compost heap now rests.
I’ve been a sucker for succulents since I grew a jungle in my bedroom during my high school years. So, despite my garden’s intense focus on food plants, I’ve mused for a long time about establishing a succulent garden in my yard. Near the end of last year, I was working specifically toward that end: I had packed several carloads of rocks back from my brother’s farm to use in building a rock garden that would host a variety of cold-hardy succulents.
One afternoon in late autumn, I stopped at a yard sale. There, the only items that interested me were foam coffee cups planted with Hens and Chicks. Each cup had a price of fifty cents—lower than I’ve seen nursery plants discounted at the end of the season. I bought two. I hope my experiences with them so far inspire you.
No Garden Yet
By the time it got too cold to garden, I’d not yet prepared my new planting bed. I had enough rocks stacked on the driveway, but I needed to move the compost heap and it became too unpleasant outside for me to feel motivated.
To emphasize the certainty that you can grow Hens and Chicks, I captured this photo of a border along a sidewalk in Toronto. Toronto is well north of me and they experienced as punishing a winter as ours. However, by early March, snow had melted off and revealed this healthy-looking planting bed. Hens and Chicks have crowded the bed enough that it could benefit from thinning—a procedure the harsh winter failed to accomplish.
I didn’t want my Hens and Chicks—along with several other succulents I’d acquired—to spend winter outdoors in pots. And, there was no way I’d try to keep them growing indoors under lights. So, I decided to “heel in” the plants at one end of the vegetable bed.
Heeling in means planting a seedling poorly; without commitment. You can dig a shallow hole or find a bare patch of soil, lay the roots of the plant against the soil, and then cover the roots with more soil. I’ve seen young fruit trees heeled in while they were all but lying flat on the ground.
In any case, I heeled in the Hen and Chicks plants along with close to a dozen other succulents I’d bought at a garden center at “we don’t want these anymore” prices. Winter happened.
It was an impressive winter! We had more than a month where temperatures never rose out of the teens, and we had many, many days near and below zero. We also had snow, which is a blessing. Snow covered the garden continuously for several months and provided some relief from the cold for perennials.
A rule of thumb for central Pennsylvania is to plant peas on St Patrick’s Day. Usually by mid-February daffodils are at least sprouting and by March warm days beckon us to garden. This year St Patrick’s Day came and went and we got to April 1st before there was any real beckoning.
A chick must have broken off one of the potted plants when I heeled it in last autumn. Under snow at seriously frigid temperatures, the little plant managed to drop roots into the soil. It looked perfect when the snow melted, and it will look just fine in its new home when I get the rock garden assembled.
But look at the photos! Hens and Chicks are very well, thank you. The two plants I heeled in are healthy and ready to move. What’s more, a small “chick” that must have broken off last fall had rooted where it lay despite the cold and snow!
To reinforce the point, I’ve included a photo of a border along a yard in Toronto. I visited Toronto in early March—at least one hardiness zone farther north than central PA. In the city, snow had melted, and that dense growth of Hens and Chicks made a dramatic in-your-face, winter, statement.
If you have any doubts about succeeding with gardening, try growing a Hen and Chicks plant. If a small piece of this plant can break off and root itself during a miserably cold winter, I feel safe to suggest: you can grow that!
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After 17 months in my refrigerator, the horseradish roots my brother gave me looked pretty happy. Those are some seriously healthy-looking green leaves… despite that they’ve seen almost no light for more than a year.
How about a little horseradish with your steak? Once a year at Christmas, we have beef fondue with a collection of homemade steak sauces. At least two of those sauces include horseradish… horseradish from a jar. But that’s going to change.
In March of 2013, my brother gave me two horseradish roots dug from his garden. I was busy and so I left the roots wrapped in plastic in my refrigerator. I remained busy. Finally, on the last day of July of THIS year—fully 17 months after they went into the refrigerator—I took those horseradish roots out and planted them.
I don’t have much experience with horseradish in the garden, but I recognize a character when I see one. Almost nothing survives more than a year in MY refrigerator. Granted, I’ve witnessed spontaneous generation in there, but not of anything I’d want to eat. Horseradish roots emerged unscathed from their long imprisonment.
I’d heard horseradish will spread in a garden, taking as much ground as you’ll allow. And, I’ve heard it’s very hard to dig up horseradish adequately to shut it down. Pushy plant.
So, I took precautions. Photos tell the story. You want fresh horseradish and plenty of extra to preserve for year-round steak sauce? You can grow that!
I used an electric hack saw to cut the top and bottom thirds off a plastic 60 gallon food barrel. The middle third is an open-ended cylinder about 12 inches deep. Buried in the soil, it provides a root barrier for most plants. I hope it’s enough to control my horseradish.
After I set the two roots in soil, initial watering fully exposed the top of one of them. That naked root did nothing while the barely covered root put out new growth in just a few days. I covered over the exposed top and new growth came on almost immediately. From this I conclude: Plant roots so the tops are underground. (Please note this is not even vaguely scientific; it could be coincidence that the buried root grew when the other didn’t… )
From July 31 to September 10, this is what my horseradish did. I won’t harvest any this fall, and I’m going to let it alone in the spring. Had I planted it in April or May, I might try for a harvest, but two months hardly makes a full growing season. Christmas 2015? We’re having homegrown horseradish in our steak sauces.
After stopping to photograph a nicely-planted boulevard, I got an invite to the back yard where a small farm was well on its way to harvest. The bushy clump in front of the gas grill (front-left) is the out-of-control marjoram from which I received a rooted stem.
On a trip to Ithaca last spring, I happened through a neighborhood in which people tended their boulevards as gardens rather than as barren rectangles of useless grass. I parked and walked so I could take pictures and was capturing a particularly engaging scene when its gardener walked out from behind the house.
We became friends and she invited me to see what was growing in the back yard. There was a small farm back there. As we chatted, we discovered we had a mutual acquaintance. It’s an unlikely story, so here goes:
Crazy, unlikely back story
My dad was a college professor. One of his students in the 1960s had two boys who I would visit and play with—they were toddlers and I was, perhaps five or six years old.
I transferred my marjoram (a rooted stem from someone else’s garden) from a planter to a containment ring in my herb garden last year in late summer or early fall. The plant had developed a healthy root ball during its 4+ months on my screened porch. Here, about 10 months later (and after a very harsh winter), the plant is enormous. It hasn’t filled the containment area, but I suspect it will next season.
After I entered college, we had little contact with my dad’s former student and her family. I moved to Boston and began a corporate career where I met the woman who married me. We reproduced and moved to central Pennsylvania where we reproduced a bit more.
When my kids were about old enough to be babysitters, we got word that my dad’s student’s son (the toddler I’d played with some 40 years earlier) had moved to Williamsport—about 20 miles north of us. He was married with children and his family eventually moved to Lewisburg where my kids provided them with baby sitting services.
My childhood playmate’s wife is a musician who had performed in several academic settings, and we were fortunate to attend a private concert that she put on for friends as a rehearsal for an upcoming public concert. Alas, eventually, my childhood playmate and his family moved toward the Midwest (his eldest daughter is now driving).
My marjoram sprawls in part because huge clusters of flowers weight the ends of very long stalks. Blossoms started to open about July 15, and the display has been brilliant for three weeks with no end in sight.
June, 2013 in Ithaca
I was enjoying the small farm in the back and chatting with this pleasant couple and I learned that the husband is a musician who has performed at Bucknell University (the college in Lewisburg where I live). He had been offered the gig by the musician wife of my childhood playmate son of my dad’s graduate student! Freaky.
We became friends and realized we’re practically related! (It gets better: The musician husband is from Uganda. Our family had come to know a Bucknell student from Uganda who had started the awesome charity Bicycles Against Poverty. Turned out our student friend had attended the concert performed by the Ugandan musician husband booked by the wife of my childhood playmate son of my dad’s graduate student… and they—the two Ugandans in the story—had met each other!)
But that’s not the point.
What marjoram has to do with it
We got to be such good friends (happens all the time among gardeners) that my new acquaintances decided I might like to take some marjoram home with me. The marjoram patch was out of control, they said, and pulled a stalk out by its roots.
If marjoram’s beautiful purple flowers aren’t enough eye candy, my plants draw a lot of butterflies. It’s encouraging to see so many flitting around while I’m working the in garden.
I thanked them for the gift and nursed it for a few days until I got it back to Lewisburg. There, it languished in a small planter on the porch until October or November. Finally, I set a containment ring in the ground in my herb garden and planted the marjoram stalk in it. That marjoram is a superstar!
Photos make the case: you should have marjoram in your garden. In fact, grow it among your ornamentals; plant a meadow with the stuff. It’s amazing! Best of all, it grows like a weed.
Find a friend who grows marjoram and ask if they’ll pull a stem for you. Or, buy a marjoram nursery pot at your local garden center. You won’t need a large pot; in less than a year, a single sprig will grow into a large clump. You can grow that!
Nothing in my kitchen garden draws more honeybees than does the marjoram. This is encouraging; there must be at least one honeybee hive surviving within a few miles. The honeybees have a lot of company. The marjoram blossoms draw several other types of bees as well as pollinating flies and wasps.
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When you grow enough peas to stock your larder or freezer, it’s important to process them within a day of picking them. During peak season, I harvest about a gallon of pods each day. To keep up with them, I pod them while sitting in an easy chair and watching a show on TV.
Fresh garden peas have distinctive flavor unlike any you can buy in a grocery store. Remarkably, if you blanch and freeze fresh peas from your garden, they’ll hold much of that amazing flavor for you to enjoy throughout the year. Growing peas is easy, but I rarely see home kitchen gardens with enough pea plants to provide for a single meal much less for preserves.
Do you want a store of garden peas to get you through the year? You can grow that!
Peas thrive in cool weather, and cold only slows them down. Conversely, heat kills. Your goal as a pea gardener is to plant when the “days to harvest” are fewer than “days to summer heat.” Usually this means planting as early as you can work the soil—or within a few weeks of that.
I hoe 14’ long furrows 6 to 8 inches wide and set pea seeds every two inches along each side of the furrows. Last fall I covered my planting bed with autumn leaves so I had to rake them aside to make my furrows. The benefit of covering over the planting bed is that it emerges from winter with almost no weeds. Sadly, the leaves provide cover for slugs; I imagine I’ll be setting out bowls of beer to deal with that problem.
A rule of thumb in zone 6 is “Plant peas on St Patrick’s day” (March 17). It is rarely realistic; my garden soil is often mud in mid March. More importantly, when I plant peas that early, they grow at a glacier’s pace. I can plant more peas two to four weeks later and they’ll catch up with the ones I planted early.
Most years June offers up some stinking hot days, and by July the heat is relentless. It isn’t stinkingly-hot relentless, but it’s consistently hot enough that peas hate it; they wilt and die.
Peas grow from seed to harvest in about 70 days. Some claim 55 days—British Wonder and Alaska, for example—and shelling, snap, and snow peas may have widely differing days to maturity. I grow only shelling peas and I assume 70 days to harvest.
Counting back from late June, I need to plant peas in early April to give them their best chance. I also hedge my bets by selecting “wilt-resistant” peas. Wando is popular for late planting; it holds up well in early summer heat. Wando pea plants offer another advantage to older, rickety gardeners: the vines grow at least five feet tall. I wrote about this special consideration last year in a post titled Wisdom with Age.
Support Your Peas with Trellises
Pea vines are the most fragile plants in my kitchen garden. The stems flex a bit, but if I handle them too roughly, they crease and everything above the crease withers within a few days.
The earliest sprouts you’re likely to see are tiny leaf sandwiches. In cold weather, a sprout may look like this for several days—or even weeks.
Some varieties grow only 18 inches long while others may reach two, three, four, or five feet in length. Whatever the length when mature, pea vines can’t support their own weight; they produce tendrils that can wrap around leaves and branches of other plants for support.
It’s important to provide trellises. I grew an 18 inch variety once without trellises and the vines grew together as a mat on the soil. This trapped enough moisture that many vines rotted; it wasn’t pretty.
Trellises needn’t be elaborate. Here are a few styles to consider:
- Use dead tree branches pushed into the soil and leaned against each other.
- Set fence supports at each end of a row and stretch strings or wires horizontally between them at 4- to 6-inch intervals.
- Buy prefab lattice panels (home improvement stores sell 4’ x 8’ panels) and stand them along rows of pea plants.
- Attach wire fencing (available on 25’ or 50’ rolls at garden stores—I use 48” fencing) to sturdy stakes that you can hammer into the ground over freshly-planted peas.
Plan to Preserve
Pea patches are among the saddest things I see in other people’s gardens. So many gardeners set seeds along a short row—two to four feet long—and that’s it! With so few plants, you’ll harvest several delicious handfuls of pods over a two or three week period. That’s great for snacking in the garden, but you won’t have peas for the dinner table. Growing enough to preserve requires a bit of commitment.
In warm weather, pea sprouts can put out leaves in just a few days… but when the temperature drops, so does the sprouts’ growth rate.
For a sense of scale, I plant three 14 foot double rows of pea seeds, spacing the seeds about 2 inches apart. To create a double row, I hoe a furrow six-to-eight inches wide and an inch or two deep. I press pea seeds into the soil at two-inch intervals along each side of the furrow and then fill over them with more soil, leaving the furrow slightly lower than the surrounding soil. Then I baby-step lightly along the furrow, compressing the soil onto the seeds.
Each double row holds about 160 seeds—if things go well I end up with close to 500 plants. Some years I buy too many pea seeds and save the extras till the next season. I plant these as described, but before covering the seeds with soil, I scatter extras along the middle of the furrow in case the older seeds don’t germinate as reliably as new seeds.
Each of my pea trellises is a 13 foot long section of relatively sturdy, 48 inch wire fencing attached to three wooden garden stakes. I erect a trellis by setting the middle stake with a few whacks of a hammer, then pounding each end stake deep into the soil while pulling it away from the center stake to stretch the wire. Finally, I drive the center stake deep. By deep I mean 8 to 12 inches… I’ve attached the fencing so each stake protrudes about a foot below the bottom wire. In autumn, I pull the stakes and roll the trellis loosely to store in my garden shed. I’m fortunate: my garden shed could hold two or three dozen rolled trellises; with only three I’ve plenty of room for other gardening gear and much of our camping equipment.
I finish by erecting my trellises and watering heavily. I keep the soil damp until sprouts appear—sometimes I have to water each day, other years it’s cold and wet so watering isn’t crucial.
My point, though, is that number: 500. When I plant 500 seeds, we eat peas for a dozen or more meals during the growing season and I freeze between one and two gallons of peas for the rest of the year. I’m a lightweight. There’s a garden down the road from me that runs at least 30 yards long and the owners set three rows of peas and trellises each spring! These people grow at least seven times the plants I grow… I’m guessing they eat peas at dinner almost every day.
You won’t need as many plants to grow snow peas for preserving… but because I don’t grow snow peas I can’t guess how many meals’ worth you can harvest from a foot-long row.
Succession Planting After Peas
When your pea plants wither in late June, crush them to the ground and set seedlings of some other vegetables among them. I grow winter squash where my peas were, but you could try melons, cucumbers, beans and other vegetables that have short season varieties.
Sure, it’s a bit of work to plant peas and erect trellises; more work than for most common garden vegetables. Still, there’s nothing tricky about it. If you have enough garden space and you want enough peas to freeze (or to can or dehydrate), you can grow that!
I love this pea trellis fashioned from sticks and wild grape vines. Sadly, this tiny row of plants will produce enough peas for only one or two meals. If you plan to preserve peas from your garden, plant plenty. With rows totaling 42 feet and double-planted, I harvest between 2 and 3 gallons of peas in a season. I freeze about one-and-a-half gallons, and always use them up before next season’s peas are ready.
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:
It was love at first sight when I came upon this display at a farmers’ market. A fully ripe Fairytale Squash is light brown like the one on the left under the halved squash in the photo. I harvested all my Fairytale squashes green this autumn. Fortunately, winter squashes are usually happy to ripen off the vine if you store them someplace warm.
How much squash could you use in a year? Five pounds? Twenty five? How about one hundred pounds of rich, delicious, orange goodness? Back in January I explained how easy it is to grow winter squash. I’m telling you now: with a single hill of the right variety of squash, you can grow 100 pounds or more!
Really Big Squash
I once bought a 27 pound Blue Hubbard squash along with a 20 pound Neck Pumpkin and shared stories about them on this blog. Articles about them included the following:
- Blue Hubbard Squash for a Small Kitchen Garden
- Exploring Neck Pumpkin at Your Small Kitchen Garden
- Freeze Winter Squash from Your Small Kitchen Garden
These squashes were so large, I hold the farmer who grew them in high esteem; I expected never to grow such large squashes. Then I fell in love with Fairytale Squash.
Fairytales Come True
Last autumn, the farmer who had sold me my giant Blue Hubbard and Neck Pumpkin put together a display that included a Fairytale squash sliced open. It was gorgeous! I took a lot of photos and, as winter set in, I bought a Fairytale squash at a fire sale price.
The largest squash I’d dealt with were a Blue Hubbard (27 lbs) and a Neck Pumpkin (20 lbs) I’d bought at a farmers’ market. Neck Pumpkins I grow each year are descended from that original 20 pounder.
Sadly, I never tasted that squash. It got soft very quickly after I bought it, so I ended up harvesting the seeds and composting the rest of it. Honestly, the squash was in bad shape when I bought it; from the get-go I had wanted it for its seeds.
This spring, I planted a single hill of seeds from that Fairytale squash—four seeds started in June and transferred to the garden in July. In about a month, those four plants had taken over half the space I’d reserved for winter squashes; they were crowding out a hill of Butternuts and a hill of Neck Pumpkins (as well as three hills of pickles, my entire carrot patch, and two rows of bush beans).
About a month after planting, a single hill of Fairytale Squash had overtaken a 14 foot long, four foot high trellis. This is was massive growth, though still immature; it hadn’t yet produced blossoms. Eventually, the vines filled twice the volume they do in this photo and produced 5 large fruits. Because I planted late, I lost several very young fruits to autumn’s first frost.
By the end of August, I was hacking off the ends of some Fairytale Squash vines and training others back on themselves. When fruits finally set, I marveled at how large they grew and despaired just a little that they never ripened from dark green to the soft brown I’d seen at the farmers’ market.
Finally, after the first frost, I harvested the unripe Fairytale Squashes and moved them into our dining room where I figured warmth would help them along. There are at least five of these beauties, the smallest of which is over 15 pounds. The largest is a full 33 pounds! This single hill, starting very late in the season, produced more than 100 pounds of food! Had I planted a month or two earlier, it might have produce far more.
Want 100 pounds of winter squash? You can grow that!
The dining room provides a warm environment for my Fairytale Squashes to ripen. The stack weights, perhaps, 90 pounds, and there’s one more squash on the piano bench.
Find more You Can Grow That! posts here: www.youcangrowthat.com.