Posts Tagged ‘plant vegetables’
Before I started this simple project, my larder was a mess: two shelves of canned goods and empty jars jumbled every which-way. The lower shelf, I decided, could hold all the canned goods if I put the empty jars in boxes and stored them out of the way (actually on the very highest shelf where I’d stored several dozen empty jars I’d bought on sale at the close of 2009’s canning season). Once cleared, the upper shelf would become my seed-starting station.
I’m ready to start seeds for my small kitchen garden! I recently posted about my epiphany that I could clear a shelf in my larder and use it to start seeds. Today, I did the heavy lifting: I consolidated the canned goods onto one shelf, packed the empty jars into boxes, and cleared the way for seed planters.
I’m showing the setup to encourage you: you don’t need anything particularly fancy to start your own seeds prior to planting outdoors. I was lucky to have a shelving unit that I could repurpose, but last year I’d used a ping-pong table. There are only three critical issues you must address:
Seedlings Need Plenty of Light
Standard incandescent or fluorescent light sources aren’t adequate unless you can get them very close to your seedlings. Last season I planted tomato seeds in a table-top greenhouse, and positioned fluorescent lights about eight inches above them. The seeds sprouted in only two days (I’d expected it to take a week or more), and almost immediately grew too tall and slender reaching toward the light.
The lower shelf holds seven gallons of applesauce, five quarts of squash, a quart of red pepper relish, a gallon of salsa, two gallons of tomato sauce, two quarts of halved tomatoes, about three gallons of assorted jams and jellies, a quart of black raspberry syrup, and about two quarts of pickles. When I took the photo, I’d already hung a shop light above the upper shelf. The four-foot by one-and-a-half-foot space will be plenty for the number of seeds I plan to start indoors this winter.
When seedlings emerge, the light should be within three inches of them… and as the seedlings grow taller, you need to maintain the light source just a few inches from the leaf-tops.
If you want to grow large seedlings… or even grow plants that are flowering by the time they can move outdoors… a single light source above the leaves may not be adequate. While the top layer of leaves may get enough light, lower leaves won’t, and the plant could have weak stems, withered leaves, and other growth problems.
For typical seedlings started four-to-six weeks before your area’s last frost, lights a few inches above the plants will be adequate.
Seeds and Seedlings Need Warmth
With one light fixture mounted, my seed-starting shelf could already accommodate three starter trays holding more than 200 seeds. I hung two light fixtures so one can illuminate the shortest seedlings while the other handles taller plants.
This is less intuitive than the light issue, but it’s more important at least until your seeds sprout. Some seeds will sprout when the soil temperature is above 40F degrees while others wait until the temperature is 70F degrees or higher. A tomato seed that takes seven-to-ten days to sprout at 70F degrees may sprout in two days at 85F degrees.
After sprouting, seedlings may not grow robust if the temperature is low. Tomatoes and peppers, for example, originate from warm climates and do best in summer heat. Chances are you don’t keep your house anywhere near as warm as these plants would like; it’s important to compensate on your plants’ behalf.
Last year, I’d used picture-hanging wire to dangle one shop light from the suspended ceiling in the kids’ play room, and twine to hang a second shop light. It took a few minutes to tie those lights to the frame of one of my larder’s shelves. It will be short work to raise or lower the lights to optimal heights above the seedlings that emerge in March.
Last season, I pushed the ping-pong table against a wall above a baseboard radiator. Warm air from the heater kept my seed planters warm. This year I’ll probably put a heating pad on my seed-starting shelf; I keep my office about 62F degrees, and I don’t want my seedlings to have to meet the world with cold feet.
Seeds and Seedlings Need Moisture
Of course you need to keep the soil moist as a seed puts out roots and then a seedling. It’s also a good idea to keep the air around the seedling moist. The tiny peat pellets or starter pots people typically use to start seeds can dry out very quickly. By keeping them in a moist environment, you reduce your need to water.
I may wrap my seed-starting shelf with plastic to trap in heat from the lights and moisture evaporating from the seedlings. By erecting a tent around the plants and lights, I’ll create a greenhouse environment that should make young seedlings very happy indeed.
With both shop lights mounted, the first four residents of my seed-starting station moved in. A few weeks ago, I decided to test the tomato seeds I harvested last season. I planted four in a single peat pellet and all of them sprouted. I’m determined to keep them alive until I can move them outside… in April or May. The plants are already stressed from being crowded, so I’ll be transplanting them into pots later today or tomorrow.
This is where I set up the ping-pong table and started seeds indoors last March. The cardboard boxes and other items are props for an Odyssey of the Mind (OM) team’s upcoming performance. OM is a youth competition in which teams follow detailed instructions to build things, create stories, write scripts, and put on performances… all with no instruction from adults. I love the organization (my kids obviously love participating), but I hate what it does to my basement for three or so months each year.
For every small kitchen garden in the northern hemisphere, it’s time to get organized for the coming growing season. In hardiness zones seven and warmer, you could already have seeds starting indoors, while folks in zones six and colder should at least be getting organized to start seeds.
I’ve been musing about last year’s seed-starting: Last year I set up the ping-pong table and hung shop lights from the suspended ceiling in the kids’ play room. However, I didn’t start seeds until mid-March… pretty much after the annual Odyssey of the Mind disaster cleared out of the basement.
This year, I want to get seeds going a little earlier. Actually, I already started four tomato plants that are ready for “potting up.” That is: they’ve outgrown the peat pellet in which I planted them (yes, four seeds in a single peat pellet), and they’re ready to go into individual nursery pots. After that, I’d like to start broccoli and cauliflower within the week so I have some well-established plants I can set in the garden when the ground thaws.
My larder is at least as messy as the kids’ play room. However, if I consolidate everything from two shelves onto one, and store all the empty jars in boxes, I can clear a shelf to hold my seed starting planters and some fluorescent lights. I might even wrap the space above the seed-starting shelf with plastic and add a heating pad to create a warm, humid space that will coax tomato and pepper seeds to sprout.
Where to Start my Small Kitchen Garden?
Odyssey of the Mind is in full-swing in the kids’ play room; there’s no chance of setting up the ping-pong table until after March 13th. So, I’ve been musing about where to fit a seed-starting operation into the rest of my messy life.
In the meantime, I continue to create photos and videos that I might some day incorporate into blog posts… and yesterday I took some shots of my larder: there’s a story there about how full my larder was in November, and how empty it has already become in January.
Actually, my larder is no emptier than I expected it would be. I put up dozens of eight-ounce jars of jam and jelly during the growing season, figuring they’d vanish in December as my kids and my wife gave them to teachers and coworkers. That nearly cleared one storage shelf, while our steady consumption of canned tomatoes, apple sauce, syrups, jams, jellies, squash, and pickles has cleared quite a bit more space.
The shelves are messy as I’ve grabbed jars randomly, and put back the empties. But when I was taking pictures of the clutter, I had this epiphany: If I consolidate full jars onto one shelf, and box up the empty jars, I can clear a shelf and start seeds there!
The steel grill shelving of my larder provides plenty of places to tie up four-foot-long fluorescent shop lights. In case you’re looking for a dedicated seed-starting place, I want to emphasize: it’s hard to provide enough light for plants—particularly for plants you hope to eat some day. When sprouts emerge, they should find either full spring sunlight shining on them… or light from a fluorescent bulb or tube mounted within two or three inches of the leaves.
A Kitchen Gardener’s Seed Starting Setup
My canned goods sit on a steel shelving unit. I can hang fluorescent shop lights from one shelf so that I can easily raise them as plants grow tall. I’ll line the shelf under the light with something to catch spills, and set my seed-starting pots and containers there. Setting this up will be very simple, and caring for the seedlings will be convenient as my larder is in my office where I work nearly every day.
I especially like the idea of using my larder shelves for starting seeds because of the continuity it highlights: The shelves become the birthing room for the plants that will eventually provide food I’ll can and store on those same shelves. It’s the circle of life!
More articles about starting seeds
GlowPanel 45 LED Grow Light Seed Starting Shelf – I have 8 GlowPanel 45 LED grow lights on this rack (2 per shelf). I’ve been using them to start my seeds in peat pellets, then move them up to my bottomless pipe pots which are sitting on capillary mats, with a water reserver under them …
Design*Sponge » Blog Archive » small measures with ashley … – I saw this clever seed starting shelf http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/nurture-seedlings-tiered-growing-stand.aspx and thought, ‘I bet ikea has something that would work!’. The addition of bottom heat is essential! …
Pure-N-Simple Gardens: Whats Growing On Under Those Lights? – You can view my step by step instructions on how to build a seed starting shelf here. This is a very simple building project that will allow you to easily assemble, and disassemble your shelving unit each year without having to unscrew …
Seed Starting 101: Seedling Heat Mats and Inexpensive Alternatives – Whether you buy a seedling heat mat or put together a DIY alternative, I hope you’ll consider adding extra heat to your seed starting shelf this winter. The results will amaze you! For additional information on seed starting, …
A Few Seed Starting Tips – I’ve just turned the seed-starting shelf lights on for the first time this season. I would have turned them on yesterday, but with the lack of outlets in my basement, it would have necessitated me emptying out the basement chest freezer …
Your Small Kitchen Garden blog recently received a question about watering. The question was fairly general, and I ended up writing a detailed answer that would make a good post. So, here it is:
Rain in a Small Kitchen Garden
In early spring, young spinach sprouts pop out in the bottom of a furrow in my small kitchen garden. I deliberately plant in furrows and basins so water will collect around the plants and soak in there.
Ideally, it will rain on your garden, and that will reduce your need to water. Sadly, it may rain too much on your garden as it did for most of us in the northeastern United States in the summer of 2009. Once you’ve planted your garden, there’s little you can do when it rains too much; roots may drown where water collects and foliage may rot. Molds such as late blight thrive in wet growing seasons.
So, plan your garden with torrential rain in mind: don’t place beds in low spots. Better still, build raised beds that assure roots won’t steep in standing water should it rain heavily one year.
Optimize Water Use
Your plants will appreciate good drainage. As a favor to the environment (and to your finances if you use tap water in the garden), optimize the garden’s use of whatever water it gets. Assuming the garden bed drains well even in torrential rain, set your rows deeper than the surrounding soil. This means your plants will grow in the bottoms of troughs. For an individual plant such as a tomato, eggplant, squash, or pepper, create a small depression—a basin—with the plant in the middle of it. These low areas will collect rain or hose water and give it time to soak in around the plants’ roots.
How much Water is Enough?
As for knowing when you’ve watered enough? I wrote an earlier post on the topic titled Watering Your Small Kitchen Garden. My approach isn’t rigid; I simply try to keep the plants alive with the least amount of watering they’ll accept happily. I note the weather and I watch the soil and the plants. If there has been no rain in several days and the soil looks dry… or worse, leaves are starting to droop… I water heavily. If there is a sustained dry spell—several weeks or more with little or no rain—I change my watering strategy: I water lightly every morning. The idea is to provide just enough water on top so that any moisture that is already below the surface stays there.
Whenever I water, I target the soil line of my plants. If it’s a tight row of greens, carrots, peas, and such, I distribute water evenly along the row. If I’m watering individual plants such as tomatoes, squash, and peppers, I make sure the water lands where a plant emerges from the soil. There may be a relative desert between my tomato plants, but the soil extending a foot from the stem of a plant receives several light waterings a week during a dry spell.
Spot Water Your Small Kitchen Garden
It’s important to note: when I water, nearly every drop ends up in the depressions in which the plants grow. For heavy watering, I try to fill the trench that defines a row, or the basin holding an individual plant. After that soaks in, I fill the trench or basin again. For light watering, I may not fill the trenches and basins, but I direct the water into them.
Finally, I can’t emphasize enough the advantages of mulching close to your plants, and mulching heavily. Having a lawn, I believe, is a horrible affront to Planet Earth. However, as long as I have a lawn I’ll use grass clippings to mulch my small kitchen garden. Lawn clippings, fallen leaves, newspapers, cardboard, black plastic, pine needles, pine bark… come up with something that’s easy enough to manage that you’ll actually manage it. Mulch lets water through to the soil and significantly reduces the amount that evaporates on dry days.
I shot this sequence of photos one day when I was watering some newly-planted tomatoes. The photo on the left shows a tomato plant in its own basin freshly filled with water. Subsequent photos show the basin over the next 40 seconds as the water soaks in around the plant.
Further thoughts about watering and responsible ways to conserve water:
Tips For Watering Tomatoes Deep For Awesome Results : Veggie Gardener – Properly watering tomatoes is arguably one of the most important steps for growing plump, juicy tomatoes in the vegetable garden. Watering too much or not enough can destroy or limit tomato plant production and can contribute to …
How to Raise Organic Vegetables : How to Water Your Garden … – How often should you water your garden, and should you water it by hand or use an irrigation system? Find out in this free.
Become a green gardener « Buck BIG – Besides water, your garden needs nourishment. But many gardens get a diet of fertilizers, pesticides and weed killers that are heavy on chemicals, which can also enter the water system. Consider using organic or natural products instead …
Video: Cedar Rapids group issues a “Million Gallon Challenge” to … – The 65 gallons of water sitting in a rainbarrel is a lot, when you’re a homeowner looking to water your garden. It is a drop in the bucket when you look at the watersheds, communities and individuals across the state that could rise to …
How to Water Your Garden in the Right Way – How to Water Your Garden in the Right Way Water Your Garden. ALWAYS WATER: 1. Container-grown stock before planting out. 2. The bottoms of seed drills before sowing in dry weather, using a can with fine rose. …
My small kitchen garden is still fully abloom, which portends great things to come. The blossoms also provide fodder for me to participate in another Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. Carol at May Dreams Gardens hosts Bloom Day wherein she encourages garden bloggers everywhere to photograph their blossoms, post them on their blogs, and then add a link to the Bloom Day list.
My small kitchen garden this month has blossoms that are quite similar to last month’s blossoms. Still, there are a few changes, and all-new photos. I don’t really grow flowers, but if I don’t get any in my garden, I won’t get any vegetables and fruits either… and that would make me very sad. Please have a look and see what the future holds for my small kitchen garden.
Cilantro flowers abound in my garden. My cilantro patch is very mature, and blossoms are giving way to coriander. These cilantro flower clouds—volunteers that planted themselves last fall—float among my tomato plants. Similar volunteers are making coriander throughout my planting bed.
My oregano monster is in full-bloom: dozens of stalks of flowers stand above the foliage. My oregano is spreading; trying to consume the planting bed. So, a few days ago I trimmed back the edges of the monster. I’ll dig out a lot of oregano roots when my annuals die back in the fall.
My pepper plants this season have messed with me. Peppers I potted in gallon jugs grow side-by-side with peppers I potted in a handrail planter. The gallon juggers matured and produced fruit while the handrailers turned into bonsai pepper plants. About a month ago, I shuffled plants out of the handrail planter into an in-ground planting bed… but I left some plants in the planter. Now all are growing as though they mean it. So, August has brought a new round of pepper flowers, and I’m eager to harvest peppers in September. Most, I suspect, will end up in gumbo.
Oh, beans! I harvested about a gallon of wax beans over the past two days, and there’ll be another half gallon ready tomorrow morning. The climbing beans are still flowering and producing new beans which makes more than a month of production with no end in sight; typically bush beans spew huge amounts of beans very quickly and you need to plant them in stages if you want to harvest through the whole summer. I’ve taken a one-and-done approach with bush wax beans, and they’re flowering madly even as I pluck the gorgeous yellow pods.
I’ve been lucky this year to be in the one 50-mile swath of the United States that hasn’t been too hard on tomatoes. I’ve canned 1 and ½ gallons of tomato sauce, I have about 12 gallons of tomatoes ripening on my dining room table, and my plants are producing about two gallons of tomatoes each day. To keep me on my toes, the tomato plants continue to produce those demure yellow flowers. I suspect that flowers in mid August will not produce ripe tomatoes before the first frost.
Here’s a volunteer I really don’t want in my small kitchen garden… but it’s so pretty. I think thistle plants are quite attractive, and the flowers are gorgeous. Of course, I’ll pull this plant in a day or two and add it to the compost heap. But there it is blooming on Bloom Day.
The big change in my small kitchen garden from mid-July to mid-August is the overwhelming emergence of winter squash. I had set seedlings in the garden on the first weekend of July, and a month later squash plants covered a big chunk of the planting bed. The vines are maxing out. That is, they continue to put out more stem and leaves, but the new stems are very slender, and they don’t seem to support fruiting flowers. New fruiting buds are tiny, and they seem to wither and die even before the flower opens. That’s OK, there must be 15 – to – 20 butternut squash fruits under the leaves. And, despite the lack of viable female flowers, the vines continue to produce daily explosions of bright orange male flowers. I couldn’t choose just one squash flower photo for this blog post, so I’ve included three of my four favorites (the one I didn’t publish was a bit esoteric).
A volunteer tomato plant, self-seeded from last year’s crop, makes a small jungle surrounding a squash blossom in my small kitchen garden.
Few things are better in my small kitchen garden than the time I spend among the squash blossoms in August.
Thanks so much for visiting!
Seventeen days after I planted carrots in a sawed-off soda bottle, young carrot tops had sprouted on the windowsill in my basement.
I encourage people who have little space that they can still grow small kitchen gardens. To that end, on May 1st I cut the top off of a two-liter soda bottle, filled the bottle with soil, and planted carrots in it. I described this project in a post titled Small Kitchen Garden Carrots in Containers. I mentioned my container carrots again on May 18, and again on June 17. It has been an interesting project, and I encourage you to try it. I want to relate what to expect.
Mature Container Carrots
After three months of growing, a carrot of nearly any variety should be mature. By “mature” I mean the carrot plant has sent up a flower stalk and is making seeds. I would rather eat an immature carrot than I would one that has flowers. In fact, I’ve only let my carrots flower once, and I vowed that season never again to do so.
After three months of growth, my container carrots have pathetic tops. These are no better than a third the height of my in-ground carrots. I planted the in-ground carrots fully a month after the soda bottle carrots; and woodchucks have dined twice on the in-ground carrot tops.
So, my container carrots—a variety that matures in 65 days—ought to be dropping seeds all over my deck. That’s hardly the case. Rather, the carrot tops started to look stressed some time in June, and now they look very stressed. These stressed plants have very short tops compared to free-range carrot plants. Those tops have fewer fronds than my in-ground carrots do, and many of the carrot fronds are turning yellow or purple or some other color that isn’t green.
The good news is that those sickly-looking carrot tops protrude from very pronounced orange carrot shoulders. It should follow that there are whole carrots in the soil beneath those shoulders, albeit rather small carrots.
When my container carrots started to look bad, I took some steps to pep them up: I pulled a carrot to provide a bit more space in the soil (I’d planted 11 seeds). I also made a mixture of compost and water and poured it into the carrot container to provide an infusion of nutrients. The carrot plants weren’t impressed.
So, I decided that the container carrots are done: there are too many carrots growing in too small a space. I harvested them to put the poor things out of their misery. My suspicions about crowding were oh so right: I shook the soil out of the planter, and it came out in a cylindrical brick. You could use several hundred of these carrot planter bricks to build a small sod house.
The good news: my soda bottle carrot plants have shoulders!
The largest carrots were only four inches long, but it’s clear they would not have grown longer. Regardless, they taste grand as all fresh, young carrots do.
More Small Kitchen Garden Carrots
This carrot experiment was very satisfying. You know what I did? I cut the top off of a three-liter soda bottle, filled it with soil, and planted some carrot seeds in it. This time, I planted fewer seeds… in a bigger container. There may be only 70 days remaining in our growing season, but I’m hoping to get bigger carrots from this planter than I got from the first one.
If I don’t? No matter. It’s still likely to produce a handful of three-bite carrot snacks. Not bad for such a small kitchen garden.
As my soda bottle carrots slide out of the planter, I feel considerable heat in the soil. I’ve often touched the side of the planter to gauge whether it was overheating in direct sunlight, but it has never felt as hot as the soil does in my hand. I suspect being pot-bound was only half the stress my carrots experienced. The insulating plastic of the soda bottle concealed from me the extent of the greenhouse effect taking place around the carrots’ roots. The root ball has me musing about growing pre-formed sod bricks… it would be so much easier than cutting them out of prairie grass.
I always marvel that so much of what matters in life involves dirt. No, OK, I’m a purist: I grow food in soil. But when soil ends up on your hands, your clothing, your kitchen floor, or YOUR FOOD, it’s dirt. These little snackers are sweet and delicious.
More thoughts on growing carrots in a small kitchen garden
Grow your own in local skips – Gardeners are being encouraged to grow carrots in skips on building sites and tomatoes in hospital car parks under new plans to increase the amount of land available for grow-your-own vegetables. The Government is setting up a national …
How to Grow Carrots – How to grow carrots in the vegetable garden: fresh-carrots. carrots like a sunny spot; dig soil in autumn & break soil down to fine, crumbly seedbed before sowing. carrot-bed. sow outdoors from March to August – if in March cover with …
In the category of Flower closest to my kitchen: A bell pepper plant is just starting to set fruit. I have great hopes as there are already dozens of banana peppers and a few jalapeno peppers ripening just a few feet away.
Flowers are not the point of a small kitchen garden. However, without flowers, there are very few food products a kitchen garden can produce. So, though I often joke that I’m too lazy to plant something that I won’t eventually eat, I am very fond of flowers.
I’m also very fond of the on-line gardening community. While many participants in that community discuss their food-growing activities, it seems a majority prefer the time they spend with their flower and ornamental gardens. From the photos on their blogs, I know I’d enjoy spending time in their gardens as well… but I have no flower- or ornamental-garden to offer in kind.
And then there’s Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day started by Carol over at May Dreams Gardens: on the 15th of each month, participating garden bloggers post entries about what’s abloom in their gardens. This month, I’m joining the gang. But my post isn’t about nasturtiums, pansies, cone flowers, daisies, black-eyed susans, and clematis. You won’t find such things in my garden (sure, you’ll find them in my wife’s garden, but she doesn’t blog). Still, my small kitchen garden is blooming its head off, and I’m psyched because nearly every blossom means another goody to eat growing in my yard.
In the category of Tallest herb in my small kitchen garden: Dill weed volunteers grow where seed fell from last year’s plants. This variety of dill grows about five feet tall.
In the category of Don’t get me started: If I left all the volunteer cilantro plants to grow as they please in my small kitchen garden, I’d never again have to plant the herb. However, the volunteers rarely start where I’d like them to. Shortly after they flower, the plants produce coriander: the round seeds that either plant themselves in the garden or season a variety of Asian and South American foods.
Yes, more cilantro flowers. I wanted to point out that flowers aren’t the be-all and end-all of pretty in a small kitchen garden. Several varieties of variegated lettuce are still growing where I planted them, and they provide an attractive background for this volunteer coriander factory.
In the category of Invasive, noxious herb: About five years ago, I planted a tiny oregano plant from one of those 1.5-inch-cubed nursery pots. There is now a five-foot diameter circle of densely-packed oregano shoots, and they have just started to flower. No doubt, this fall I’ll be excavating oregano roots to decrease the plant’s footprint by at least half.
In the category of Winningest weed: It’s tiny. It likes my small kitchen garden planting bed. It’s gorgeous. I had to kneel with one elbow on the ground to get close enough for the photo.
In the category of Most fun for the money: In my first year growing climbing beans, I have become enamored. The flowers look a lot like all other bean flowers I’ve grown. However, I’ve had a lot of fun tying up strings and training the bean vines to use them. The tallest climber is about to pass the end of its string and become entwined with the kids’ play set (my youngest child is 13 years old, and the play set sees play about once a year).
In the category of Another tomato blossom photo: Yes, I’ve photographed a lot of tomato blossoms over the years. This photo is a little different as it vaguely captures the components of the tomato support system I erected this year in place of tomato stakes.
In the category of It’s cool to be different: I love the round cluster of flowers that emerges at the end of a long onion stalk. Ideally, your onions don’t flower; flowering generally results in a smaller onion bulb with a short shelf life. However, crazy weather can cause flowering, and growing onions from sets can also lead to flowers. No matter. My onions are plump and I’ll use them quickly once the stalks flop to the ground. My onion flowers look grand.
In the category of: Who’s happy on Garden Blogers’ Bloom Day? And: who doesn’t have clover flowers in their yards and gardens?
Do you have rhubarb in your small kitchen garden? I can’t imagine my garden without it. I’m certain that Rhubarb is almost strictly a food of gardeners; I don’t remember seeing it in the produce section in Boston’s grocery stores when I lived in Boston—or at the farmers’ market near Faneuil Hall.
In rural Pennsylvania, you can buy rhubarb in a grocery store and at the farmers’ market during the month or two it’s in season. I’m always overwhelmed by the price of rhubarb, and I note that it rarely has a prominent position in the produce section or on a farmer’s table at the market.
It seems unlikely you’ll experience rhubarb by chance. In my experience, people who know rhubarb grew up eating it at home. I imagine, however, that a lot of people have acquired rhubarb plants along with houses they’ve bought; if a former owner planted rhubarb, it’s quite likely still growing there. That gives the uninitiated a commitment-free excuse to try rhubarb.
If you’ve never tasted the stuff, don’t invest in plants. Rather, find a neighbor who’s willing to share—or buy some rhubarb stalks somewhere—and make some rhubarb sauce. The flavor might surprise you… but if you don’t care for rhubarb sauce, don’t give up on rhubarb. I’ve seen people who won’t touch rhubarb sauce devour rhubarb pie… and strawberry rhubarb pie, jams containing rhubarb, and rhubarb breads. I suspect they’d also go for a good rhubarb cake, but I’ve never seen a rhubarb cake, so I can’t be sure.
Once you’ve decided you like rhubarb, you’re ready to commit to one of the most rewarding home kitchen garden plants. Around here, you can buy rhubarb plants in nursery pots at garden stores and nurseries. A single plant runs about six to nine dollars, depending on where you buy it.
Rhubarb grows thick, tuberous roots that don’t like to be wet for extended periods. It also likes lots of sunlight and very rich soil. My dad used to dump raw horse manure around his plants to make them happy in the spring, and they never complained.
When you plant, select a place where the soil drains quickly. This is important: All my plants died one very rainy season when standing water collected for days on end. The next season, I planted in a slightly raised bed, but still lost two out of four plants when another rainy stretch saturated the soil.
Dig a hole at least six inches deeper than the nursery pot and about twice its diameter. If you cut sod to start the hole, put the sod grass-side-down in the bottom of the hole and cover it with soil and compost. If you didn’t cut sod for the hole, fill with compost and soil until the hole is as deep as the nursery pot. You should set the rhubarb roots two-to-three inches below the soil line, so if the nursery pot is full to the brim, make the hole you plant in a bit deeper.
Remove your new plant from the pot, set it in the middle of the hole, and fill around it with compost and soil until the hole is full. If there are young rhubarb stalks already growing from the roots, it’s OK for the soil to cover the bottoms of the stems. The stems themselves may not like it, but in the long-run, the plant will adjust to this planting depth; ideally, the top of the root should be three inches under ground.
Water rhubarb plants heavily for a few weeks after planting until you see new, vigorous growth.
It’s hard to kill a rhubarb plant by accident. I’ve never seen one burn from getting too much fertilizer so fertilize heavily in the spring, two or three times through the growing season, and again when you put your garden to bed in the fall. If you eschew chemical fertilizers add compost or manure often. Rhubarb grows most aggressively in mid-to-late spring, and may look pretty beat in the heat of summer. By fall, a rhubarb patch can look shot as the leaves wilt and stalks shrivel. I usually have some rhubarb-looking growth until fall, but everything above soil wastes away well before snow falls.
Don’t let the plant’s summer droopiness cause you to overlook it when watering. If the rest of your small kitchen garden needs water, so does the rhubarb. Give your plants occasional deep watering especially during dry spells.
Once stalks and leaves die back at the end of the season, mulch over the area with compost, manure, leaves, or grass clippings. Mulch will protect roots from early deep frosts, and provide some nutrition as young stalks push through in the spring. Rhubarb wakes up very early, and may be the first food you harvest in a season.
And that’s one of the most compelling reasons to plant rhubarb in your small kitchen garden: you do nothing to it from fall until spring, but it wakes up and quickly gives you a delicious fruit-like crop. This year, I harvested my first rhubarb stalks in early May while just a few of my herbs and vegetables were starting to grow. Only hardy herbs are ready in my garden as early as the rhubarb is.
In case you’ve never harvested rhubarb and made sauce, I wrote a blog entry detailing how. You can find it under the title Eat Rhubarb from Your Home Kitchen Garden. If you prefer watching over reading, here’s a video I created that explains how to make rhubarb sauce. It’s about seven minutes long. I hope you find it useful:
Here are links to articles that describe other uses for rhubarb:
Rhubarb Juice: A Many Spendored Thing – by David Perry. Many of you have heard or read me raving about rhubarb juice, a simple, healthy nectar that Dave Brown, wooden bowl maker, bread baker, birder, master canoeist, photographer, storyteller, life magician and director of the Wildbranch Writer’s Workshop first introduced me to…
Back to the Locabar: Rhubarb Margarita I’ve been hinting for weeks that I wanted a special cocktail for my birthday. Last summer we got so used to fresh, seasonal ingredients that our long winter presented a special challenge for the Cocktail Study Club. More often than not, Friday night rolled around and Charlie would say, “How about a martini?” I love his martinis but enough is enough….
For the past six installments, Your Small Kitchen Garden has been all about getting a garden ready for planting, and then starting seeds in the ground. If you’ve been following along, you’ve read about how I plant peas. I crowd my pea seeds, and provide a strong trellis for them to climb. By the end of the pea season, each trellis resembles a thick hedge of pea plants stretching five or six feet high.
Plant Peas Now
In hardiness zones six and lower, it’s not too late to plant peas. Especially if you’re still getting overnight frost, if you can work the soil, you can plant just about any variety of pea and expect success. However, as your region’s last expected frost date approaches (mine is but 10 days away), you’re flirting with “too late.” Your peas may start strong in the cooler weeks, but any significant early heat could kill the plants—or at least stunt their growth.
I’ve planted peas as late as three weeks after the last frost date and still had terrific yields. At that point I probably wouldn’t have planted at all if not for wilt-resistant varieties of peas. It’s a little sad to choose varieties for any characteristic other than flavor, but I’ve yet to grow a pea variety that was less than awesome. Around here, I can reliably buy Wando pea seeds, and they stand up remarkably well against the heat of early summer.
In this video, I wordlessly summarize how I prepare the soil in a row in my small kitchen garden. Then I narrate the steps as I plant a row of peas and erect a trellis for them. Please enjoy:
You’ve decided how many peas you’re going to plant in your small kitchen garden, you’ve reserved appropriate space, you’ve prepared the soil, and you have some kind of trellis installed or ready to install. I hope you haven’t worked too far ahead. We’re about to plant peas, but there’s a final consideration especially for people planting where there hasn’t yet been a garden. Before we plant, let’s talk about nitrogen.
Dig back to high school biology class. You might recall that some plants—clover and beans are popular examples—are nitrogen-fixers. This means that they capture nitrogen in their roots… and that’s important for your garden. Other plants suck nitrogen out of the soil, so growing nitrogen-fixers (whose roots remain in the soil after harvest) helps prepare the soil for later crops.
I turned a garden-fork’s-width of soil, raked out the clumps, stretched a guideline, and hoed in a 3-inch deep furrow. This will become the first row of peas I plant this season.
But nitrogen-fixing plants don’t work alone. They enter into symbiotic relationships with bacteria that live in soil. When the bacteria and plant roots get together, nitrogen-fixing happens. Peas and other nitrogen-fixing plants grow best when these bacteria are abundant.
Chances are, wherever you plant peas, there are enough bacteria to make the plants happy—especially if you plant in a bed that has previously grown vegetables.
To be certain, you can inoculate the soil—or the peas—with store-bought bacteria. Depending on the brand you purchase, you soak the pea seeds in it, or you add it to the soil when you plant them.
I’ve never used an inoculant and have always been satisfied with my pea harvests, though I’ve read that using an inoculant can increase productivity by 50% or more… but compared to what? The bottom line: using an inoculant can’t hurt, and it might give you better results than you’d get without it.
Despite the planting instructions on pea packages, I set pea seeds about one-and-a-half inches apart along each side of an 8-inch furrow.
Plant Peas in Your Small Kitchen Garden
Every pea seed packet I’ve seen tells you how to plant peas. You’ll do fine to follow those instructions. I have an unorthodox approach that has always worked well for me. Here’s how it goes:
Squint, and you can see pea seeds on each side of this furrow. The parallel rows of seeds are about six inches apart.
1. I prepare soil according to the low-till method I described in an earlier post. Actually, I follow the entire regimen as shown through step 10 in that post. At step 7, I create a hoe’s-width furrow. Then I add compost and stir, and I’m ready to set pea seeds.
2. I lay pea seeds in two rows along the bottom of the furrow. I make these rows as far apart from each other as they can be and still be at the bottom. This means the rows of peas within a single furrow end up about six inches apart. I place a pea every one-and-a-half-to-two inches within a row.
Within a few days of planting, I stand a trellis that runs down the middle of a double-row of peas. You can see that the row is slightly depressed below the rest of the garden. My garden bed drains quickly when it rains, so I depress the rows to help collect rain water and spray from my garden hose.
3. I crumble the larger chunks of soil from the mounded sides of the furrow onto the peas, and gently pull the soil from the edges into the trench. I try not to move the peas as I cover them over. I’ve always planted peas about ½ to ¾ of an inch deep, and decided this season that that’s too shallow. Especially if you plant early, cover seeds with at least an inch of soil. When I plant, inevitably several peas wash to the surface after I water a few times. In warm weather, this hasn’t been a problem. However, this year an early spring freeze damaged peas I hadn’t buried well.
4. I walk on the newly-covered row of peas with my feet side-by-side. I take baby steps to ensure that I step on every inch of soil, compressing the soil and the peas so that the trench finishes about an inch below the surrounding soil.
5. I erect a pea trellis that runs down the center of the row and will provide support for pea plants up to about four-and-a-half feet. My plants usually grow a foot or more above the tops of my trellises.
6. I water the peas heavily, and I water them each day that it doesn’t rain until young plants have two or three sets of leaves. After that, I water if the soil becomes dry.
Ongoing Care of Pea Plants
Plant deep—I have a lot of experience planting peas too shallowly. This evolved starting when I switched from buying packets of pea seeds to buying pea seeds in bulk. The bulk seed comes without instructions, so I guessed how deeply to plant.
I tend to plant peas too shallow and some wash to the surface after I water a few times. I usually shove them under with my finger, or sprinkle soil on them if they’ve softened up much. Next season, my pea seeds are going at least an inch underground.
Generally, my seeds ended up deep enough, but especially shallow ones gave rise to a post-planting ritual: after watering two or three times, I walk along my rows looking for peas that I’ve washed out of the soil. When I find them, I press them into the ground with a fingertip.
Don’t fall into this pattern. Make sure you get your pea seeds at least an inch under ground. It will reduce the chance that they’ll wash to the surface, and it will protect them from adverse weather that’s common in early spring.
Train the vines—There’s no guarantee that pea vines will grow toward the trellis you provide for them. Help them by gently moving the vines as needed… but don’t rush them; pea vines are quite weak and if you bend them too much they’ll crimp. Ideally, rest tendrils against part of the trellis they can encircle and they’ll curl around it in less than a day. I often push the end of a pea branch through the trellis and hook a pea flower or a pea pod on the metal wire. Whether this works for you will depend on the design of your trellis; wire fences work really well.
Pick peas often—Pea plants make more flowers and pods when you harvest the ones they’ve already produced. So, pick peas when they become ready. Don’t let pods expand into thick cylinders with peas crammed together inside. Rather, pick pods that have just filled out… it’s OK if the peas aren’t quite touching each other in the pod, or if they just touch. But when they flatten out against each other, they become woody, dry, and starchy; they aren’t nearly as fun to eat.
Pick gently—Pea vines are weak, so don’t just yank pods off the vines. Rather, hold the vine still, and gently pull the pea pod from it. With practice, you can pick one-handed without damaging the plants: Grip a pod in the palm of your hand. Use the thumb and forefinger of that hand to push the stem away from the pod until the stem breaks free. I’ll try to post photos or a video demonstrating this when I start harvesting peas in May.
In a few days, this pod will plump up and provide, apparently, five peas for the pot. It’ll take several dozen similar pods to produce enough peas for a meal.
Do you want to grow peas in your small kitchen garden? It’s a tough question. Peas require a lot of space for a modest harvest. On the other hand, garden fresh peas taste astonishingly better than any other peas you’ll ever eat. If your kitchen garden is space-challenged, there are so many other vegetables that will produce more in the same space as peas.
That said, I plant peas every year. In fact, I dedicate a significant chunk of garden space to peas—about a third of my planting space. But that’s not as big a liability as it seems because pea plants don’t live long. They prefer cool weather and tend to die off as days get hot. I usually remove my pea plants in June, and plant the same area with other vegetables—most often, squash.
Don’t Rush to Plant Peas
If you buy pea seed in one of those envelopes from a seed display in a store, read the package! They can’t print much on those envelopes, so what they do print is probably useful.
One thing you’ll learn is that you can plant peas as soon as the soil thaws in your garden bed. You can, but there’s no need to rush. Peas will sprout when the soil temperature is around 40F degrees, but they won’t grow much until the temperature increases. Give your soil a chance to dry out a bit and warm up. Except in very warm years, peas that I plant in mid-March in hardiness zone 5/6 might mature a week earlier than peas I plant in mid-April… so I try to find other gardening tasks for March such as pruning and grafting in my fruit trees.
Prepare to Plant Peas
When it’s time to plant peas, you must first prepare the soil. Depending on your planting bed, this may be a monumental task, or it may be a non-issue. In my slightly raised-bed layout, I need to walk in the garden bed to be able to till, plant, weed, and harvest. This means that each spring I’m dealing with compacted soil; my vegetables, I know, will be happier growing in loose soil. I feel compelled to loosen the soil before I plant.
The pea plants in this row have just produced their first flowers. I set peas so close together that they grow into a hedge. Notice that the pea trellis runs down the middle of the row – which is actually two rows of plants spaced about six inches apart.
When your planting beds are narrow enough that you can work them without walking in them, the soil remains loose from year-to-year; you can be a “no-till” gardener.
My last three posts discussed soil preparation for various types of planting beds. Whichever style and approach you use, this discussion about planting peas starts where those posts end: I’m assuming you’ve prepared your soil for planting, and you’re ready to put seeds in the ground.
Peas grow on vines. Pea stems are slender and can support very little weight. So, as the plant gets taller, it extends tendrils that curl around whatever they touch and support the plant. In my experience even “bush” varieties of peas are vines… they just happen to be shorter than typical pea vines.
When you plant peas, it’s important to provide a trellis. This can be a garden fence, a roll of chicken wire stretched above the planting area, strands of twine hanging from above… whatever suits your fancy.
Pea plants I’ve grown reach about six feet before they wilt in the heat of late spring. I built pea trellises that provide support for about 4 and a half feet, so the tops of the plants sometimes topple under their own weight when they grow above the trellises. Before I’d made trellises, I tried bush peas. The package promised 18-inch plants, and I got 24-in plants. Thinking bush I hadn’t provided a trellis, so the plants lay on top of each other. I plant peas densely, so there was a heavy load of plants that trapped a lot of moisture; the plants on the bottom rotted.
The point of the story is that even if you find a short variety of peas, you should provide something for the vines to climb.
Pick Your Pea Variety
I’ve noticed only three significant differences between pea varieties: size of plants, palatability of the pods, and wilt-resistance. We talked about the sizes of plants.
Palatability of pods—if you’re growing peas, the pods don’t matter. You’ll find varieties that claim more peas per pod than others, and you’ll find varieties that claim you can eat the pods, or let the pods mature and then eat the peas. And, of course, you can find snow peas—varieties intended to grow pods but don’t even think of letting them fill with peas.
Wilt-resistance—Pea plants don’t like heat. When they experience several sequential days of temperatures in the 80s and above, their leaves curl and their tendrils shrivel. If the temperatures hold, the plants die. Wilted plants will recover if the temperatures falls, but a mid-spring heat wave can seriously decrease your pea yields.
There are wilt-resistant peas that handle hot days far better than other varieties. Which brings us back to when to plant.
This pea pod sat for a month too long in the produce drawer of my refrigerator. All the peas in it sprouted, despite the refrigerator’s temperature being close to 40F degrees.
When to Plant Peas
You can plant peas as soon as the soil thaws. Peas will start growing in soil that’s above 40F degrees. I’ve had peas sprout in the produce drawer of my refrigerator which runs right around 40 degrees.
If you choose to plant that early, plant the peas deep. I learned this season that I tend not to plant peas deep enough. I planted in late March, and peas I’d left shallow softened up and then froze during a sequence of crazy cold nights. 10-15% of my seeds failed. (That same freeze would probably not have harmed pea plants had any already emerged above the soil… pea plants don’t mind nippy, frosty nights.) In most years, I’ve planted in mid May, and even peas that ended up on the surface because of my carelessness rooted and grew.
So, as I said: if you plant early, plant deep. I suspect my peas would have been fine had I set the seeds ¾ inch underground.
How do I get away with planting peas in mid-May? I buy a variety called Wando. These are amazingly wilt-resistant, and I’ve seen them suffer only in one very hot spring out of about a dozen.
Here’s my recommendation for when to plant peas in your small kitchen garden: Sow directly in the ground from two to four weeks before the last frost date.
How Many Peas to Plant?
A single pea vine may produce a modest single serving of peas. But you won’t get those peas all at once. Rather, as the vine reaches about 12 inches, flowers emerge. The vine continues to grow, and those flowers produce pea pods. As the first pods develop, more flowers emerge higher up on the now taller vine. This sequence continues… but you must pick the fully-developed pods as they become ready or the plant will stop making new ones. Once the vine starts producing peas, it may develop two-to-five pods every three-to-five days. So, you might harvest twenty, thirty, or forty pods from a single plant… but when you harvest the last pod, peas from the first one will be thirty days old.
A pea flower in the dew has inspired many a poet and playwright. OK, I made that up. But pea flowers are delicate and exotic: beautiful harbingers of the coming harvest.
All that to say: you need several pea plants to grow enough peas for a particular meal. My experiences may help you decide how many.
I plant 4 ounces of seed in three doubled rows totaling 42 feet. (I crowd my peas, as you’ll see in my next installment on this topic.) My family of five eats peas at two or three meals a week, and I still freeze around two gallons of peas to eat during the off season. I did some noodling about this some weeks ago and concluded that I harvest about one gallon of peas from every seven feet of doubled rows. Or, for every ounce of seeds I plant, I harvest between five and six quarts of peas.
I’ve never formally kept track, and different varieties of peas, different soil conditions, weather, and garden pests will all affect yield. So, the best honest advice I can provide: plant at least enough peas to assure you’ll have a meal’s worth when you do harvest.
How to Plant Peas
My next post will explain how I plant peas. My approach is a bit unorthodox, squeezing way more plants into my small kitchen garden than the package suggests. You’ll do fine to follow instructions on the pea seed package, or read my next post and get a look at extreme pea culture.