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Another year, another attempt at growing

January 11, 2011

Well, I’m hoping this year I’m finally on the ball by thinking about stuff several months in advance. In addition to actually updating this darn thing, if only for the handful of faithful friends who keep coming back to read even though I’ve been a dismally unreliable blogger.

I’ve already got my tomatoes started, and they should be due for their first feeding soon (if you read the previous blog post, sigh, from April 2010, you can read a more in-depth lament on feeding new seedlings.) I’m ditching the “Cherokee Purple” and Brandywine this year in favor of three varieties I ordered from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: Striped Roman, Green Zebra and the delightfully dubbed Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.

Now, I wish I could have met this fellow, born Marshall Cletis Byles, known as “M.C.” or just Charlie.

M.C. Byles with his now-famous Mortgage Lifter tomatoes.

Evidently, he owned an auto repair shop at the base of a mountain in West Virginia, and made most of his business by repairing the blown-out radiators of trucks that pooped out on their way up the mountain (and rolled back down in defeat), hence his nickname. He kept tomatoes in his back yard, and began his own breeding program that consisted of planting 9 or 10 plants in a circle around a central specimen, then saving the seeds of the strongest plant for next year. Wash, rinse, repeat for five or six years, until he had developed new, stable strain that reliably produced 1- to 3-pound tomatoes.

They were so delicious, sweet and, well, huge, that by selling the plant seedlings at $1 apiece — quite a bit of money in the 40’s and 50s — he paid off the $6,000 mortgage on the garage business in short order and he came to call them the Mortgage Lifter.

SESE’s catalog described 2-pound tomatoes, so I’m crossing my fingers and trying to go slowly and pay attention to the tiniest details this year in order to get things off right. Hell, if Radiator Charlie could do it–completely self trained–any of us should be able to grow our own food, and have reasonably good results.

So, with that, I’m off to water and possibly feed my little seedlings, and set up my second plant light for another row of indoor seed-starting potential.

Follow this link for the transcript of a radio show that describes the development of the tomato and even has an interview with the grandson of M.C. Byles, who discusses memories of his grandfather.


For lettuce, spring really starts in winter.

April 12, 2010

For people who grow their own lettuce, spring starts in winter; I have missed the boat yet again.

Today I had to throw out seedlings for the bok choi, tatsoi and one of the lettuces. I still have the two kinds of basil plugging along, and some leggy, leafy lettuces of another (sigh, unidentified) type. I just got everything started late, late, late!

Reading up–yet again–on starting seeds indoors, the good folks over at Purdue University inform me of this little tidbit:

Mixes that contain no soil are available for growing seeds. These contain either a combination of peat moss and vermiculite or peat moss and perlite. They may be purchased ready-made or can be mixed at home. These mixes as well as vermiculite used alone, have little fertility. Seedlings must be watered with a diluted fertilizer solution soon after they emerge… Those in totally artificial mixes without fertilizer need prompt and regular fertilization.

Awesome. So I’ve been trying to do this for YEARS now — in bright sunlight, in crappy kind-of-sunny windows, and now with my fancy-pants lights — and wondering why on earth the little seeds pop up like they’re doing great and then just…sit there.

Duh. They need food.

Seeing as how our last-frost date is virtually upon us, I’ve sadly given up on continuing with the cool-weather plants indoors. I realized last week that if growing my own lettuce etc. was to be successful, it needed to be started in JANUARY. So when I threw out the seedlings today they were already dead–wilted–because I resigned myself a few days ago to the fact that they were doomed anyway.

Tomorrow, I’m re-directing my focus: I’ll start the seeds for summer veggies (hot peppers, melons, some herbs.)

I broke down yesterday and bought transplants of bok choi and Chinese cabbage. Ugh, instant garden:

Dibbling in dirt; or, sowing seed.

April 11, 2010

One bored day this winter, after I ordered seeds but before I could do anything resembling growing them, I decided to try and do something about a difficulty I ran into last year: sowing seed.

Part of the problem was impatience–some of the seeds in question are so damn tiny (yes, I’m looking at you, carrots and lettuce) that after carefully sowing several dozen, I just got sick of bending over for so long and having seeds sticking in clumps to my muddy fingertips. So I’d get careless and just kind of sprinkle them down into the furrow I’d made, cover them up and be done with it. I’d get a second round of grumbling when I had to thin out what felt like thousands of wasted seedlings, then a third round when it became clear that even that amount of thinning wasn’t adequate and my plants ended up all stunted.

Researching methods of sowing seed had led me to the following solutions:

  • making a seed tape. This seemed like a labor-intensive process, since it involves putting down seeds on a biodegradable paper strip at just the right interval, which you then roll out into your planting furrow. The idea is that because seeds are spaced properly, there is less need for thinning and plants thrive better out of the starting gate.
  • mixing seed with sand. I saw this suggestion specifically for carrots, but again, it just seemed like an iffy proposition.
  • making a dibble board.

I first saw a high-tech version of the third item in question in a Martha Stewart magazine (groan, I admit), though the thing she was using was super fancy — it was a combo tool that made blocks of dirt with a little hole in the top so you have instant dirt pots for seedlings.

Of course I don’t have one of these, nor do I have the means to make one, nor do I have hundreds of dollars to spend on such a contraption, nor do I have a giant greenhouse operation to make this worth my while.

Then I saw this (again, way out of my price range–$225!)

Clearly, that’s a high tech doo-dad. But what is it?

A dibble board, or a pretty clever multiplication of a simple seed dibble, an old-fashioned farmer’s tool that you use to make a nice little divot in the dirt to receive the seed in question.

At it’s simplest, it’s a pointed stick you poke into the ground.

For $10, I bought a little wooden plank (poplar, groan), 75 wooden dowels and a zinc-plated handle (partially for looks, partially because I thought it might make it easier to use.) I drew a 1-inch grid on one side and drilled holes at the intersections, hammered the dowels in and voila: a cheapie dibble board.

In theory, I thought it would simplify the issue of spacing–why sow seeds thickly when I have a clear target and can just plant seeds at the space they’d need to be anyway?

Last week, after it rained, I pressed the dibble board into the soil of my garden, making neat little rows. Instead of planting seeds in rows, though, I skipped every other hole, following a kind of a honeycomb pattern so that plants would be clustered but still have adequate space on all sides.This is an example of someone else’s planting plan for carrots:

We’ll see how this works out. I used the dibble board to plan out spacing for carrots, mache, chard, several types of radishes, beets and an interplanting of Vivian romaine-style lettuce and more carrots.

heat mat + fluorescent lights = happy seedlings!

March 28, 2010

After researching stuff for a bit, I decided there was no point in paying over $100 for a “plant grow-light” setup when I could just go to the local hardware store and buy all the components myself for under $50. Voila:

The shop-light, fluorescent tubes, heat mat and timer for the lights are a relatively inexpensive and essential solution for something that’s plagued me every year I’ve tried to start seeds indoors. The darn things never get enough light or warmth to grow vigorously enough. Last year the only exceptions to this were marigolds and hot peppers (!), which grew like gangbusters once they were in the ground but took their sweet time getting big enough to transplant.

This opens up a wide world of plants! I’m now able to start virtually anything indoors. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, or like I have here, lettuce, Asian greens and two kinds of basil. Later this week I’m hoping to start another variety of lettuce.

In the two days since I set up the lights and heat mat, the difference in the little seedlings is amazing. I started them outdoors in this big plastic container when it was warm out last week, but when temperatures got back to March norms (50s daytime highs into the 30s at night) I figured they’d perish unless I did something. Of course, I got all this stuff after the fact–but since yesterday, everything’s gotten the nub of their first true leaves, and the basil has sprouted. The stems, while still kind of leggy-looking, have gotten much stronger, and the few unsprouted seeds germinated and are poking through.

Exciting times. Maybe I can actually successfully grow cabbage and broccoli this fall!

Today’s garden DIY disaster brought to you by spiders and Bob Vila.

March 11, 2010

March 11, 2010

So I built a pea trellis today out of stuff that was already in the shed from last year. Initially I thought it would be cool to buy some bamboo and lash it together to make a grid for the peas, but it was $1 for every 6-foot length and I wondered how it would hold up as a freestanding structure.

The great thing about gardening over at my in-laws is that the basement is stuffed with every imaginable tool, appliance, fastener, string, wire and other useful item known to man. The problem is that in order to find it, one must be possessed of the skill you need to see the 3-D image in those old Magic Eye books. You’ve got to kind of disconnect, unfocus your eyes, and the object in question will materialize. It’s really strange.

Yesterday I had the idea to fashion a rudimentary screen to sift my compost, thinking it would speed the process of removing roots and twigs. Wrong: the only screen available was that fine-mesh screen door material. I built a sifter anyway, which –shockingly!– didn’t work at all. It’s sitting in a sad heap in the shed again, waiting to be recycled into something with actual value.

Part of the problem was that I cut the frame pieces with a hand saw. What a pain in the ass. So today I went to the basement, meditated, and found not one but three different saws that would be perfect for cutting lengths of wood for the trellis frame. I settled on a circular saw, and also found a power drill, extension cord, measuring tape, string and three organizer drawers full of oddball screws.

  • Lesson 1: it’s harder than it looks to cut a straight edge with a circular saw. The edges of my cuts looked like water had eroded them away. Flat enough, but still.
  • Lesson 2: Never work with a wood harder than white pine. When I tried to screw the cross pieces together, the unknown hardwood I had nearly made me apoplectic. The wood resisted drill bits (I broke one!), wood screws (bent them) and nails of any size (split the grain).
  • Lesson 3: Flathead screws suck. I’m only bringing my own Philips head screws from now on.
  • Lesson 4: Tying string to form an even square grid is impossible.

I finished one of two trellises, and it only took me three hours. And to top it off, when I was pounding the trellis legs into the ground, the hammer head flew off! I have so much more respect for weavers, spiders and home improvement people who make it all look so damn easy.

Here’s the finished product. The second photo is just to show how the strings are secured. Try not to giggle too hard at the slack spots and crooked squares.

Compost results.

March 10, 2010

March 10, 2010

Another lovely day, another opportunity to work outside. Today’s mission was to clean out the compost pile, which had acquired an unfortunate collection of twigs, sticks, dead vines and wood ashes right on top. Naturally, all that stuff was just dried out, and in the way of the business end of the pile.

Clearing that mess out of the way, I was pretty excited to finally see the result of all the kitchen scrap collecting I’d forced my husband to do throughout 2009. We had a juice jug in the fridge — clearly marked “FOR COMPOST” so no one would try to drink from it. I shudder at the thought. Into that jug went coffee grounds, scraps of vegetables, fruit, bread, egg shells, pasta, banana peels, cereal and leftovers of any non-dairy or non-meat item we consumed. My husband tired of it, but our pile grew, so he gamely went along with it.

We probably added three or four pounds of kitchen waste to the compost heap each week, with the side result that our trash smelled far better and we weren’t having to take it to the dumpster as often. We also recycle incredible amounts of plastic, paper, cardboard and other wrapping materials, to the point that it almost makes more sense to have a large can for recycling and a small can for real trash.

Our compost bin design is super cheap. We bought a 4-foot length of chicken wire and fastened the ends with wire to make a really crude mesh bin. We stuck a plastic pole in the middle and covered the top with a black plastic yard waste bag, which we fastened to the edges with those heavy-duty paper clips they use in offices for big stacks of paper.

Compost bin in the garden in June 2009.

The plastic bag idea was good in theory, but not so much in practice. Water pooled along the edges, which I dumped regularly to discourage mosquitoes, but those damn bugs will lay eggs in any drop of water so it didn’t seem to matter much. The plastic pole kept leaning, so eventually we just discarded it. The bin probably got about halfway full by the end of the season, and not once did it smell bad. It always smelled sweet, earthy and pleasant–except when rotting melons were right on top.

Today when I cleaned out the bin, the heap only occupied the bottom quarter of the bin. But it was a beautiful sight to behold, after all the debris was gone: crumbly, black, sweet compost. God bless bugs and worms. They made me some dirt!

I spread it out over the big raised bed, the perennial-grapevine bed and the two sunniest beds, and there’s enough left to put a little bit on the shadiest northern bed. It’s so gratifying to have a long-term experiment turn out exactly as I’d hoped.

The compost jug is back in the fridge as of today, and Compost 2010 is officially underway again!

Snow, cold, snow, cold, 60 degrees.

March 8, 2010

March 8, 2010

We arrived back from a week-long ski vacation to Utah with my family to find Virginia bathed in warmth. The snow was all gone, except for collections of grimy piles here and there. Most importantly, though, the snow was gone from the backyard, so I got to inspect the garden area for the first time in nearly 2 months.

I found one mache plant which had sprouted from beneath all the snow, looking lovely and green. Yanked it and ate it. Italian parsley was dormant and the dead stems and leaves were matted over the oregano…which was still green and growing. It had doubled in size since I saw it last…and being a mint cohort, I decided to not risk letting it take over and yanked it out. C’est la vie; I’ll get a new, small plant and stick it in this year. The leeks were still soldiering on, but I had the idea to just scrape everything out of the dirt and have a clean palette to work from this year.

So, my little collection of King Sieg leeks got chopped up and made into a really delicious potato leek soup. I think that means I ate something from my own garden at least once a month for 12 consecutive months! How about that?

Sifting around to make sure I’d gotten everything out, I also discovered something far less savory than delicious leeks. A cat had been helping itself to my lovely friable soil for use as its personal toilet. Skulls and crossbones, was I steamed!

With the dual purpose of keeping cats out and boosting soil warmth through the last of the winter days, I cut lengths of black landscape fabric and laid them over all the growing areas, except the big raised bed, which is still probably mostly frigid since it’s completely in the shade of the shed.

…Okay, so I didn’t pull EVERYTHING. The chives looked so happy and clumpy, they just had to stay!