Good gardening weather at last! Sowing peas, harvesting garlic scallions!

Our greenhouse full of seed flats and sunshine.
Our greenhouse full of seed flats and sunshine.

Well, the photo is from another year, a few weeks later than now, but it gives a good idea of how full our greenhouse is. Currently the main user of space is broccoli. We have also started moving plants out to our coldframes, to free up space inside, and to harden off the plants ready for planting out.

We still haven’t done any tilling or disking, but if all goes well, we’ll do some tilling tomorrow and Thursday, before the next rain. Then we’ll work like crazy to make up for some of the time lost to snow and ice in the past month.

We have managed to sow our peas! It feels like such a triumph! We decided we didn’t need to soak the seed overnight as we usually do, because the soil is so wet. As I said last week, we sow peas in the middle of spinach beds. Several advantages-

  1. No need to wait for the soil to dry out to till – just hoe and sow.
  2. The spinach already has rowcover, which the peas can share.
  3. The peas will grow vertically, not encroaching on the spinach.
  4. As the spinach gets ready to bolt, and we pull it out, the pea plants are getting bigger. This “relay planting” makes good use of space and time – more efficient than using two separate beds for the two crops. (There’s more about relay planting in my book.)

30118_grandeBut, oh, the vole tunnels in those cozy row-covered beds! How to get rid of voles? Voles love pea seeds, so we have set out lots of mousetraps baited with peanut butter. We have flags marking the spots where the traps are, and the intention of checking them every day and re-setting them as needed. I like the Intruder Mousetraps (they aren’t paying me to say this!). They’re easier to set than the traditional wood and wire ones, and much easier to empty. Just squeeze the back flap to open the trap and shake out the creature competing for your food.

Sugar Ann snap peas. Photo credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Sugar Ann snap peas. Photo credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

We have a short spring here, and a hundred people to feed, so we don’t grow shelling peas. It would just take too long to pick them, too long to pod them, and the harvest season would be too short. Peas don’t thrive in hot weather. Instead we grow lots of Sugar Ann dwarf snap peas and some snow peas. I hope we win the competition with the voles!

Another sign of spring has been our first harvest of garlic scallions. They were a little bit shorter than usual for the time of year, but the psychological boost of harvesting a new crop made me do it! They are only a fraction of the size of these lush ones from a few years ago. usually we harvest them from early March to early May. We have lots, and a little goes a long way, so it will be OK to be harvesting them small at first. Garlic scallions are a treat! So easy to grow, and ready so early in spring, when there isn’t much else apart from stored roots and tubers and leafy greens. (Mind you, we are having delicious and beautiful salads, so I’m not disparaging leafy greens!)

A healthy patch of garlic scallions in spring Photo credit Kathryn Simmons
A healthy patch of garlic scallions in spring
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

How to grow Garlic Scallions:

All you need is a small space that’s close to where you walk in spring. In the fall, as you prepare your garlic cloves for planting, set aside the tiny cloves. They wouldn’t grow good big bulbs anyway, so you’ll want to sort them out. After you finish your main planting, take your tiny cloves to your early spring-accessible piece of garden, make a series of furrows as close together as they go, tumble in the tiny cloves, any which way they fall, close together, shoulder-to-shoulder. Cover over with soil, then mulch with straw, hay or tree leaves. When they are 5″ or more tall, start harvesting. You can pull them up, trim the roots, peel off one outer leaf, then bunch. Or if you don’t have many, you do have a long spring, and you’d trade a longer wait for multiple harvests, wait till they are 10″ tall and cut the greens. They will regrow for repeat cutting. Garlic scallions are great for stir-fries, soups, pesto, omelets, salad dressings. . .

Starting Seedlings

Seed flats in the greenhouse
Seed flats in the greenhouse

We’ve been starting seedlings since late January, and the greenhouse is filling up with flats of lettuce, cabbage, kohlrabi, spinach, scallions and broccoli. We’re eating our way through the lettuces that grew overwinter in the compost in the block-work greenhouse beds, and shoveling out the compost to fill our flats. All our seedlings are grown in 100% home-made compost. We screen compost to fill the beds in September and transplant lettuce there in October. When we need the compost for the seedlings, it has mellowed nicely and has plenty of worms. This beats buying in bags of compost, or chipping lumps off a heap of frozen compost outdoors in January! Our greenhouse has a masonry north wall and a patio-door south wall. It has no heating apart from the sun (this is Zone 7). This space is warm enough and just big enough for all our seedlings once they have emerged. For growing-on the very early tomatoes and peppers, destined for our hoophouse, we use an electric heat mat and a plastic low tunnel in one corner of the greenhouse. Many seeds benefit from some heat during germination and are then moved into slightly less warm conditions to continue growing. This means it’s possible to heat a relatively small space just to germinate the seeds in. We use two broken refrigerators as insulated cabinets, with extra shelves added. A single incandescent lightbulb in each supplies both the light and the heat (we change the wattage depending on what temperature we’re aiming for). Some people construct an insulated cabinet from scratch, with fluorescent lights suspended above the flats.

Our coldframes and greenhouse
Our coldframes and greenhouse

We use traditional coldframes for “hardening-off” our plants (helping them adjust to cooler, brighter, breezier conditions). They are rectangles of dry-stacked cinder blocks, with lids of woodframed fiberglass. Having heavy flats of plants at ground level is less than ideal for anyone over thirty-five! Shade houses and single-layer poly hoop structures with ventable sidewalls and benches for the flats are a nicer option. Some growers report that some pests are less trouble when flats are up on benches. Others say flats on the ground produce better quality plants. According to the nighttime temperatures, we cover the coldframes with rowcover for 32°F–38°F (0°–3°C), add the lids for 15°F–32°F (–9°C–0°C) and roll quilts on top if it might go below 15°F (–9°C). For brassicas, lettuce and our paste tomatoes (a big planting), we use open flats — simple wooden boxes. The transplant flat size is 12″ × 24″ × 4″ deep (30 × 60 × 10 cm). It holds 40 plants, “spotted” or pricked out in a hexagonal pattern, using a dibble board. For sowing, we use shallower 3″ (7.5 cm) flats. Usually we sow four rows lengthwise in each seedling flat. We reckon we can get about six transplant flats from each seedling flat. This allows for throwing out any wimpy seedlings, and lets us start a higher number of plants in a smaller space. Because we transplant by hand, and because we hate to throw plastic away (or spend money when we don’t need to), we use a range of plastic plant containers. For crops where we are growing only a small number of plants of each variety, we use six- or nine-packs, or a plug flat divided into smaller units.

One year we tried soil blocks for early lettuce transplants, shown here on our custom-made cart
One year we tried soil blocks for early lettuce transplants, shown here on our custom-made cart

The first crops sown are not necessarily the first ones planted out. Our spinach gets sown Jan 24 and transplanted out 4 weeks later. The early tomatoes get planted in the hoophouse at 6 weeks of age (slower-growing peppers go in at 7.5 weeks with rowcover at the ready!). Lettuce goes outdoors after 6.5 weeks, cabbage after 7.5 weeks, cipollini mini-onions after 8 weeks. These are early season timings and as the days warm up and get longer, seedlings grow more quickly. Being a few days later sowing something in early spring makes little difference, as later sowings can catch up by growing faster in the warmer weather. If the spring is cold and late, you may find your greenhouse packed to the gills with flats you don’t want to take outside. We try to put the faster-maturing crops near the doors and keep the open flats, which will need spotting-out, near the accessible north side. But let’s not complain about the bounty of so many plants! Spring is an exciting time of year, full of new growth and new potential. Working in the greenhouse with tiny plants on a sunny day when it’s cold outside is a special treat.