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Raising It

Getting started with gardening

I hear more and more from people who want to get into gardening, feel overwhelmed, don’t know where to start and so on.

For the ‘I want to garden’ part, I say, “Hurray!! Another convert!”
For the ‘overwhelmed, don’t know where to start part,’ I say, “Ok, pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea and let’s sit down and talk about this a little bit.”

I don’t really care about why you want to garden (I’m a ‘find a hole and fill it’ sort of gardener myself and earned my stripes entering weasley looking carrots and droopy lettuce in a junior garden club show run by the local Men’s garden club when I was in the sixth grade. Somewhere, someplace, that white ‘honorable mention’ ribbon is at the bottom of a box in memory). I don’t care if the only thing you ever grew is a houseplant on a windowsill..or if you never grew anything at all but want to now. I don’t care if your interest is a whole bed of sweet corn, a year’s worth of broccoli or a tomato plant in a pot.

What I do care about is that you ENJOY it. A very short story to illustrate: Once, many years ago, the DH got super ambitious and decided that we needed a MUCH larger garden. Like, huge. And he decided to rip up a spot on the hill next to the barn that was probably 1/4 acre.

With a pick and a shovel. Not even a lawn tractor with a tiller on it. By hand. And he spent his entire vacation with this, hour after hour…day after day. The amount of sweat he put into that was amazing. And by the end of it, we had row upon row of tomato plants and pepper plants and potatoes and carrots and onions, all nicely planted, with the seeds just waiting to come up. And he decided to do just one..more…bit…of..a..dig.

And we ended up at the doctor’s with the DH, me pregnant with child number two, the 2 year old (who was grumpy at the time because we had interrupted her nap), and a completely useless arm. He’d ripped several tendons with all the digging you see. He spend the rest of the summer in a brace on his arm.

So, there we were with garden as far as the eye could see. I could only keep up with a rather small amount of all of that, so rather sooner than later, the garden disappeared under a jungle of weeds, squashes running rampant and goodness knows what else. We did not garden again for a very long time after that. When we did, we analyzed what had gone so horribly wrong.

First, location. The damn thing was so far away from the house that even just going up there was a chore. When we had first started gardening, at a different house, the garden was about 10 steps from the back door. We had a lovely time after dinner most nights just going out and taking a look at what was going on, pulling the odd weed, harvesting the odd bean or tomato. On weekends, we would put in a bit more work in terms of weeding, hacking back the spaghetti squashes with a lawn mower, that sort of thing. But the lesson here is this: Locate where you are going to grow stuff to eat close to where you are going to be, whether it’s on the deck in a planter box, next to the back door, next to the driveway where you are going to see it, a LOT. That makes it convenient and it also puts it where critters are not necessarily going to be able to get to it without being close to you (which they really don’t like).

Next, size. What the DH did was a case of ‘eyes bigger than stomach’ issue which put the garden into the range of requiring a team of people with gas-powered equipment to keep in shape. With him out of action and only one of me, we were defeated before we even started. Lesson from this: Keep the size of the thing, especially if you are just getting started, in the range of something you can get your arms around. This might be a couple of pots with tomatoes on the deck, or a flower box with collard greens and lettuce next to the back door, or some herbs. Or planting Rainbow Chard in the flower patch next to the back door (the stems are almost ‘glow in the dark’ so they are pretty splashy with the flowers). If you want to start with one bed, then make it something like 3 feet wide by 10 feet long. You can get a lot of production out of a space that big and as long as you keep an eye on it and pull the occasional weed, you can keep it under control and harvest things as you see them ripen. But, for the love of all things gardening, do NOT start with something 30 feet by 30 feet – after a month, you won’t be able to find a thing, trust me.

Other gardening thoughts for beginners:
What do you want to grow? What do you already like to eat and eat a LOT of? When you first start, it is completely easy to have things get out of hand. Like tomatoes? Then start with one, maybe two plants and make them two different things – like a cherry tomato and a plum tomato for sauce. You’ll get more cherry tomatoes than you can possibly dream of ever having, and you’ll have enough plum tomatoes to make fresh tomato sauce (which is heaven) and to freeze for winter sauce making and eating (take them out a little bit before you make a salad so that they are defrosting and you will have something that will beat any tomato you can find in the store, trust me). Like peppers? Buy a six-pack of sweet pepper plants and plant those. Take my advice and don’t buy a six-pack of hot pepper plants – you will end up with more hot peppers than you can ever use. Do you eat a lot of Italian (or Greek or Spanish) food? Then get plants for basil, oregano, cilantro and grow those (either in pots on the deck or in the garden). You can never have too much in the way of fresh herbs and eating a fresh tomato from your garden with fresh basil and olive oil is (well, I’m going to start there so I don’t start to swoon). What you don’t want to do it this: Grow a lot of stuff that you don’t already eat. Get your gardening legs under you so that you feel confident about growing the stuff you DO like to eat and then branch out from there. What you don’t want to do is finish the garden season with the thought that you threw out a lot of stuff that you couldn’t get your family to eat.

Something else: Don’t think that you are somehow some sort of weeny if you don’t grow things like tomatoes, peppers and so on from seed under lights inside your house. There is absolutely nothing wrong (or weak or silly or evil) about going to your local home and garden center and buying your plants there. Find someone truly local (not the big box national chains) to buy your plants – they will be growing things that they know will grow and grow well for you in your climate. You’ll be able to get a tomato plant in a big pot for the deck, for example – it might even already have flowers on it (woohoo!!). Much more enjoyable for someone just starting out.

Getting things started in the garden

Well, spring really sneaked up on us here at Chez Siberia (and probably a lot of other places as well). One moment, we have six inches of snow with freezing temperatures and the next… 50 degrees and sunshine.

Nothing like that to wake up the ‘we’d better start the tomatoes’ feelings.

Now, all long-range weather forecasts are telling your old Aunty that this summer is going to be not very warm (of course, all things are relative) – they are calling for temperatures in July and August to be 5-10 degrees cooler than normal. Which means that I needed to choose tomatoes that have a note on them saying something like, ‘cold tolerant’ or ‘will set fruit even in cooler temperatures’, because tomatoes are one of those tricky beasts. Most of them require warm night-time temperatures to set fruit. If temperatures are going to be iffy, then this is the way I hedge my bets.

Starting tomato seeds is really pretty simple. You need all the usual things – seed starting mnix, something to put it in, some warmish water, the seeds and a source of bottom heat. I use a heating mat, but I also got a metal grill to put on top of it to hold the box above the wwarmth a little bit. If I put the box of soil right on the mat, the soil mix gets to a temperature of over 80 degrees. Yes, I want warm soil but that will cook the seedlings, so I hold it away. If I didn’t have a metal grill to raise the box, I’d put an old towel on top of the mat to do the same thing. I also am a keen re-user of those plastic boxes that you can get salad mix in at the grocery store. They are relatively sturdy and have a lid that snaps on tightly to hold in the warmth and the moisture for the early stages of growing the seedlings until I need to transplant them out into bigger pots.

Now, this really is something you can do on the window sill at home as long as you have a sunny window, though you do need to keep watch to turn the seedlings so that they don’t grow all in one direction. I have an unheated greenhouse (and right now the temperature in that is 36 degrees – once the sun comes around the corner of the house, it will go up nicely into the 70+ range), but between the warming mat and my covering up the box with a big clear plastic bag, the soil is warm enough to keep the seedlings going.

Something that I am doing new this year (and I realize this sounds a bit daft at this point in the game) is that I am not putting any sort of seed identification markers IN the box. I’ve actually ended up numerous times with mold and other issues inside the box with the wood tags that I’ve used, so I’m doing something different this year. The humble piece of masking tape on the outside of the box.
I figure I can just write on the tape and won’t have as many issues inside the box until it is time to transplant.

Speaking of temperatures (digression), this year’s long winter and very cold temperatures have set me way back. Usually I can get out, put clear plastic or glass over one of the beds and get the soil up to 50 degrees so that I can put in cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Chinese cabbages, beets, chard and lettuces. Not this year. I went out this week and took the soil temperature and it was still under 40 degrees F. Not warm enough for me to encourage it with a piece of glass or plastic, I’m afraid. I’ll try taking the temperature again today since we’re supposed to have a nice warm sunny day (again, all relative; it’s supposed to be 50 degrees F). Perhaps I’ll have better luck today.

In other areas of the garden, we’re starting to see the leaves from some of the many bulbs I planted in the fall. The crocuses are up, bless ‘em, but nothing else so far. It will be very interesting to see how the bulb patch looks once it’s in full flower mode. The patch, frankly, is a supremely ugly spot under which is our new septic system. So, of course, in the digging, installing, and filling in, we lost all of the top soil (despite our begging the contractor to set it aside on a tarp that we oh-so-thoughtfully put out for him) and have nothing there but horrific weeds which we have been assiduously yanking out and replacing with hardy perennials, in the hope that they will beat the nasty guys back (I know, wishful thinking). In the fall, I planted several hundred bulbs of various sorts and we shall see if that gives us a little bit of pleasure in the next couple of months.

Hope your spring gardening is coming along! Anything new and exciting in your garden?

Searching the seed catalogs

For all I love the internet and seed sites (I have a very long history with seed companies..we won’t even go into that), there is something totally different about reading a catalog. I find I get so much more out of what’s on offer and this year, because the long range weather forecast is so weird (cool but dry), I have to scan more carefully than ever for magic words such as: ‘tolerant’ and ‘cold tolerant’.

I also like to get right to what is new. I think every gardener is like that. Yes, we all love our Danvers Half-long Carrots and San Marzano Tomatoes, but it’s always interesting to see what stars the seed companies have hitched their wagons to this year. Here are some interesting things that I’m looking into.

Kosmic Kale (Territorial Seed): PERENNIAL Kale. Perennial is one of those words I look for also, as I’d rather plant something once and then…move on. This is something you have to buy (right now – if it’s like other new introductions, seed will be available down the road) as a plant, but if you eat kale (and who should not?), then this is something you might want to consider.

Wasabi ‘Daruma’ (Territorial): OK, so Wasabi is not new, but it IS something, like ginger, which is getting more attention in terms of people’s trying to grow it here (esp in the Pacific Northwest). Again, this is something for people who love a challenge (for most of us, tomatoes and peppers are challenging enough).

Grafted Vegetable Plants (tomatoes, Peppers, et al.) Now, Territorial seemed to be the seed house that introduced this a couple of years ago. I have to admit that I saw this as a totally cosmetic and ridiculous offering until a friend of mine got some grafted tomatoes to try last year. His success rate with them vastly beat his seed-grown plants. Territory also offers grafting rootstock seeds and clips, so for those folks who want the benefits of grafting (disease resistance) but don’t want to pay the heavy freight, that might be the way to go.

Rapper Basil(Territorial): The magic words here are ‘slow-flowering’ — one of my biggest annoyances with growing basil is bolting, so this is something to look at. It also has huge 4-6 inch leaves, which not only plays into my urge to throw basil into sandwiches but also my need for lots and lots of basil for drying.

Spring Beet Blend (Territorial): OK, so you’ve had it with kale and are still not ready to take on Brussels Sprouts. It’s time to do some beets. OK, so you don’t like the fact that they bleed. This blend has orange and white beets which don’t bleed. Plant a whole row out as thickly as you can — pull up the small leaves, thinning the plants as you go so that you leave(heh) a couple of inches between to grow the rest of the beet below ground. Beet greens are nutritional powerhouses so this is a plant where you get a two-fer out of it.

Merida Carrots (Territorial): For those of us who just can’t seem to get out into the garden in the fall to harvest, this is YOUR carrot. 240 days, people — this is an overwintering carrot. I’m not sure this will work up here (probably better suited to more southern areas), but I’m certainly willing to give it a try. Plant in September and harvest… the next May. How cool is that?

Celery: Now, if you had to ask 1000 gardeners to list their top 5 vegetables that they absolutely grow, celery is not one of them which is too bad. Celery is also one of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ in terms of the sheer amounts of chemical residues found on them in produce bought at the grocery store — in commercial production, they are sprayed like fury. And I can tell you from my experience that celery is actually … quite easy to grow. As a matter of fact, one year, I grew it and then dug up a plant for the greenhouse for wintering over and eating and it was tender and quite delightful. Territorial has an organic and stunningly colored one called ‘RedVenture’. Just don’t plant it next to your rhubarb chard.

Starting this year’s garden

So, there you are, with the pile of seed catalogs (or the URLs of home gardener seed companies and your computer) and feeling overwhelmed. You’d like to have a garden this year. You’d like to grow more of the vegetables that your family eats (fruits too, if you are feeling ambitious), but there are so many varieties to try. What’s going to work for you?

What I always tell people who ask me about starting a garden is this: Start with what your family already eats. Just sit down with a pencil and paper and think about what gets put on the plate at your house and what gets eaten. Not the ‘awwww, do I have to eat this?” sort of response and with pulling and shoving and lots of sighs and finally a bit gets chewed up and hopefully swallowed. I mean, eaten. And I don’t care if it’s eaten covered with cheese, catchup, tomato sauce, parmasan cheese, ranch dressing, Italian salad dressing or melted butter and lemon juice. I mean eaten and, it is hoped, with relish and perhaps with yummy noises as well.

That list might be actually fairly small (and that is ok – we have basically 10 go-to veggies at Chez Siberia other than potatoes and onions), but that is ok. Here is out list:
Cabbage Family Plants (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Kale)
Carrots
Fresh Green Beans
Peas
Beet Family Plants (Chard and Beets)
Spinach
Greens of various sorts
Tomatoes
Peppers
Squashes and curcubits (summer, winter)

Once you have that list, for the first time you have a garden, try to keep your eyes smaller than your stomach – don’t go crazy, don’t rip up your entire yard. There are two means to success: First, only dig up as much as you can keep control over. If that is a 4 foot by 4 foot block, then so be it. If that is one 3 foot by 10 foot bed, then so be it. The DH once dug up about a quarter of an acre of the yard by hand, made beds, planted everything and ripped up one of the tendons in his arm. I was very pregnant at the time, so all of that sat out there while he was all bandaged up. Needless to say, finding the harvest was the challenge. We could have done a lot better with one bed. Second, not only pick types of veggies that your family eats (if all you can get your kids to eat is tomatoes of any sort – fresh in salads or processed for sauce for pizza and pasta – then grow tomatoes), but also pick varieties that will work for you and your location. Every seed site or catalog will have a USDA zone map which will tell you dates of last frost in the spring and first frost in the fall. Count up the days in between those two dates and you’ve got your growing season. Make sure you choose varieties of those veggies which will mature (that is, give you stuff that you can eat) which have shorter maturation than your growing season.

For example, here at Chez Siberia, to be frank, we are taking a huge risk if we put in plants like tomatoes and peppers before Memorial Day. The first week is June is sort of ‘iffy’ in terms of getting a frost. Likewise, although my zone information says that my first killer frost is the end of September or early October, we’ve been known to get freaky Canadian jet stream stuff during the first ten days of September which has killed everything in the garden except for the cabbage family. So, I only count June, July and August for my growing season: 92 days. So, in choosing tomato seeds to grow plants (or, if I were the sort of person to buy my plants at the local- not big box chain store – greenhouse, I’d check the labels on the six packs, the number of days to maturation will be there also), I’m going to go for the shortest days to maturation that I can find. One more hint on this — the smaller the tomato, the smaller the number of days to maturation, generally. So, cherry tomatoes are almost a ‘no-brainer’ here at Chez Siberia; beefsteak tomatoes will be something that I’d start a couple of plants super early and keep transplanting them into bigger and bigger pots until it is warm enough to transplant them outside, AND I’d put black plastic on the ground where I was planning to plant them to make sure the ground is nice and warm also. So, for example, for a beefsteak type tomato, I’d choose Pruden’s Purple (which is an heirloom tomato, tastes great, and has a days to maturity of 72 Days) over Black Brandywine (which is another heirloom, but has a days to maturity of 90 days).

Another thing to think about is this: If you have never gardened before, and you have children, it will be far easier to get them to eat what you are growing if the stuff looks familiar. So, if what your children think of as a ‘tomato’ is red (or, you eat green peppers at home, as another example), then make sure that you pick varieties which mature looking like what they expect the item to look like — a round, red tomato, not a black or purple Russian type, or a pepper that matures as a chocolate brown color. After a couple of years, you can branch out a bit and grow purple carrots, purple broccoli, fingerling blue potatoes and so on. But for the first time, just take it easy.

Field of dreams — with water

Either we have the biggest gophers on earth at Chez Siberia, or this is a project gone mad, right?

One of the reasons (rationalizations might be a better word) for buying Chez Siberia in the first place is that there was enough property to put in fruit trees. We’ve always wanted to have fruit trees. So, one year, in a fit of end of the summer stuff, we dug a massive number of holes and planted something like 20 different types of apples up on the hill next to the barn on the north side (don’t ask me why we chose that particular spot – it’s lost in the mists of time), at the end of what was, frankly, a rather dry summer. And being total beginners (and being in a hurry), even though there was water in the bottom of the holes, we planted the trees anyway. (more…)

Fall Gardening: Evaluating how things went

This week was, to certain extent, the ‘last hurrah’ for the garden here at Chez Siberia. We had several ‘killing frosts’ here – this is the sort of frost where basically it coats all the grass in whiteness and crunches when you walk on it. It also will literally melt everything that is not hardy to a certain extent — it explodes the water in the plant cells of plants such as tomatoes, peppers, squashes, non-hardy greens and so on. (more…)

We interrupt this raincoat for a tomato

For folks who have arrived, hoping that this is actually ‘The Further Adventures of a Zip-out Lining,” my apologies. Other things have gotten in the way, so you get this, a humble review of how to save tomato seeds.

Now, the picture up at the top is of a tomato, a very lovely tomato which originates from Russia. Do NOT ask me the name of this tomato because the rest of the seeds which I originally bought have been dispersed amongst other adventurous gardeners in the US (because Aunt Toby is like that) and one of those people got the actual original package. I know. Moronic, right? (more…)

Timely suggestions

OK, folks, sometimes it is good to, as they say in the classical music biz, ‘recapitulate the theme’ before we go on to the ‘variations.’ In your Aunty’s case this weekend, it hit me (literally; the calendar fell off the fridge) that we are now half-way through August, which means many things to many families:
1. School will be starting soon and many of you will be head-first in those lists that get sent out from schools for what your child is expected to have with them when they go back (if they have not gone back already – some school districts have started I think).
2. Even though it is still warm (and still very warm) in many places (except for our readers in Australia and NZ who are moving into the spring), fall and winter are making their inevitable march.

So, as I seem to do every August, your dear Old Aunty is here today to remind you of a couple of things which may be useful in terms of the next 8 weeks or so (depending on where you live):

First, it is still warm, which means that we have a window of opportunity (as they say) to use substances such as caulk, paint, wood putty and so on, which require temperatures of at least 55 degrees F to cure.

Second, if you have been cudgeling yourselves over the head with doing something about making your home more energy efficient, now is a bloody good time to actually take steps to doing it. There is literally nothing worse than laying on your back in a crawl space in December putting in insulation (well, actually, there IS something worse and that is laying on your back on a filthy barn floor when it’s 0 degrees F. at 2 a.m. and trying to help a ewe have her lambs. But we don’t do that anymore, hey nonnie nonnie and a fiddle-dee-dee). Doing this in August, September or October is much less nasty.

If you’ve been thinking about getting into canning or freezing (even if you don’t have a garden yourself), now as as good a time as any to do this. First – the farmers markets are exploding with gorgeous produce and so-called ‘U pick” is humming out there with fruits and veggies. Check with your county Cooperative Extension to see if they are having any canning, freezing, jam making etc. sorts of classes.

Let’s say you do have a freezer – now is a very good time to check it out and bring all the older stuff (you DO label what you put in there with what it is and when you put it in, right?) to the top or the front (depending on what sort of freezer you have) so that you can use it up before winter starts.

If you have a garden or beds or planters of plants, you may look out and feel that all the flowers are looking just a tad peaked at this point. Deadhead the perennials and cut back the annuals and give everything a good dose of organic fertilizer like compost tea or fish emulsion in water. That should give them a good pick-me-up to carry them into the fall.

For those folks looking for some posts to help them along, here you go:
Saving Energy

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2012/01/07/saving-energy-basement-windows/

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2011/09/03/its-that-time-of-the-year/

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2010/08/12/55-keep-your-eyes-on-the-thermometer/

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2009/10/08/to-do-list-caulk-now/

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2011/12/17/give-the-gift-of-warm-feet-part-1/

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2011/12/18/the-gift-of-warm-feet-part-2-fiberglass/

Freezing, Canning

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2010/08/22/overwhelmed-with-tomatoes/

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2009/05/30/introduction-to-canning/

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2009/05/28/be-prepared-introduction-to-anxiety-part-one/

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2009/08/02/wmd-zucchini-time/

http://www.kitchencountereconomics.com/2009/06/01/the-exploding-pressure-canner-and-other-kitchen-myths/

Enjoy!

Stalking the Wild Spaghetti Squash

Shhhhhhhh. We’ve now encountered the elusive spaghetti squash in her native habitat. If you look carefully, you can see her crouching here, under the large spiny leaves toward the back. (more…)

Currant Affair

What you see in the photo here are what are referred to as black currants, one of the members of the ribes family (which also includes red and white currants and gooseberries), which are a woody flowering plant native to Central and Northern Europe. Red currants are much much smaller (which makes them tedious to pick) – some of these on our bushes rival reasonably large blueberries in size. Currant root and seeds (and the fruits are really, really seedy) are high in alpha and gamma linoleic acid. Currants themselves are very high in Vit. C and have high levels of phytochemicals which have shown anti-inflammatory properties. (more…)

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