Frost, tomatoes, sun, rain, mistakes and future events

Tomato Seedlings in the greenhouse earlier in spring. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Tomato Seedlings in the greenhouse earlier in spring.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

What a week! With the forecast for low temperatures on Sunday and Monday nights this past week, we back-pedaled on our transplanting plans. The tomato plants in our coldframe were very tall. In order to cover them we extended the cold-frame height by balancing plastic crates on top of the blockwork walls. Setting the lids on top of this construction was a bit precarious, but it worked well. Only a few of the taller tomatoes got nipped at the very top on Monday night when the temperature plummeted to 30F. 5/14 is very late for a last frost for us. Our average for the past ten years is 4/30, but in 2009 it was 5/19. In 2011 it was 4/14. Farming is full of surprises!

Tomato Transplants in the cold-frame. Credit Kathryn Simmons
Tomato Transplants in the cold-frame.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

On Tuesday we started transplanting tomatoes. Hot dry windy weather. On Wednesday 5/15 it reached 90F. On Thursday afternoon we planned to continue the big transplanting of our Roma paste tomatoes. Three rows are in mowed no-till rye, vetch and winter peas cover crop and one row is on black biodegradable plastic mulch. (Here’s an interesting link to a comparison of the two biggest brands of biodegradable plastic mulch. http://extension.udel.edu/ag/files/2012/03/2012DegradableMulchWM.pdf) But Thursday’s shift was inauspicious. We started with only 5 of us (we plan for 7). One person had to leave at 4pm. One person was called away to bale hay. Another person agreed to provide childcare for the person baling hay, from 4-6pm. Then another person started to feel ill, and left the scene. The 3 of us still working at 3pm started to sow our second zucchini and summer squash. We each used two dowels to make holes every 6″ in the biodegradable plastic mulch. We got the holes popped through, but then another community member cycled by and warned us of a strong thunderstorm heading right for us. Discretion being the better part of valor, we retired for a tea-break and to consult the local radar on Wunderground. An intense “red and yellow” storm, not very wide (ie not very long-lasting), was due any minute. Once it started to rain we decided to quit trying to garden for the day. good thing too. We got an inch of rain in an hour. Too bad the soil hadn’t dried out enough for us to do a second hilling of the potatoes before this new rain. or make ridges for sweet potatoes. Now we’ll have to wait another week, during which there is 20-80% chance of some rain every day except Monday, when it is forecast to be foggy. So I’m getting closer to finishing reading my library book. . .

April 2013 Growing for Market
April 2013 Growing for Market

Meanwhile, in the Mental Gardening Department, I found I had made mistakes in my Growing for Market articles on parsnips and fennel, about which plants can cross-pollinate each other. So I wrote an apology and correction. One of these mistakes is in my book. In case you are reading my former, deluded, beliefs, here is the correction: On parsnips, the facts are that parsnips can cross with wild parsnip, but not with carrots or Queen Anne’s Lace, as I wrongly claimed.

On fennel, the facts are that fennel does not cross with anything except other fennel. It is widely said (even by some seed companies!) that dill and fennel cross, and some even describe the terrible flavor of the resulting crosses. Clearly this is a superstitious belief that continues because acting on the belief produces good fennel (or dill) seed. Similar to how someone might snap their fingers to keep away tigers – no tigers – complete success! I’ve long believed dill and fennel crossed. It’s good to know I don’t need to worry about that any more.

This is the first error I’ve found in my book. Soon New Society wants a list of corrections from me, for when they do a reprint. I’ve only found this and one formatting glitch so far. Embarrassing, but I repeat my Mantra for Consolation: “The only people who never make mistakes are those who don’t do anything.” On Monday I did an interview for Lightly on the Ground Radio on wrir.org (Richmond Independent Radio) with Sunny Gardener. I’m learning how to find and download the podcast (so many technical skills to learn!) I’m working on a powerpoint presentation on Planning Fall Vegetable Production, for Virginia State University’s Summer Vegetable and Berry Field Day on June 27 at Randolph Farm. This will lead nicely to my Last Chance Sowings article for the August Growing for Market and a Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables presentation for the Mother Earth News Fair in September

Here’s my list of upcoming presentations and workshops:

June 27 VSU Randolph Farm. Planning Fall Vegetable Production

August 19-20 Allegheny Mountain School, VA

September 6-7 Heritage Harvest Festival, Monticello, near Charlottesville, VA. Asian Greens, and Succession Planting for Continuous Harvests

September 20-22 Mother Earth News Fair, Seven Springs, PA. Cold-Hardy Winter Vegetables

October 12-13  Mother Earth News Fair, Lawrence, KS perhaps

December 12 Local Food Hub, Scottsville, VA. Succession Planting for Continuous Harvests, and Winter Hardy Vegetables

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.