Friday, February 17, 2017

First seeds started and the light setup

It's a beautiful day in the Midwest, sunny and 64 degrees (18 C).   And it's not just today, the forecast calls for the same balmy weather for another week, with no low below 40 F.  That would be normal in April, but this is mid-February.  If this warm spell keeps up, many deciduous trees will leaf out, as they did in 2012.  That year an early warm period followed by a later hard freeze killed the leaves on any trees that budded out too early.  Those trees had to leaf out again, which was especially hard on the tulip poplars.  I'm worried that my two apple trees will leaf out only to have the tender growth killed by frost, but there's nothing that can be done.  Usually I prune the apple trees in early March, but this year I'll prune them this weekend.  Strange and bizarre weather.

The spinach that was sowed last October is doing really well under the plastic greenhouse.  There are two rows of Burpee's Double Choice, which I have overwintered for years, and one row of Reflect, which was overwintered the first time this year.  The Reflect spinach is growing really well, even better than the Double-Choice.  If it doesn't bolt as the days get longer it will be my first choice for overwintering spinach in the future.  I expect a small harvest of spinach next week when I thin the rows.  A row of Pinetree winter lettuce mix also made it through the winter.  

Several years I ago I came up with this self-watering system for starting seedlings.  The system uses two trays, a solid tray and a tray with slits or small holes in the bottom.  Three pieces of PVC pipe are screwed to the perforated tray.  The pipe makes a space between the two trays that will hold about two quarts of water.

A wicking mat is set into the slitted tray.  The ends of this tray are cut so the mat can be pushed through.  In the past I bought this wicking material from a nearby store called Worm's Way, a hydroponics supplier, but they closed their retail outlet near Bloomington this year. with the conversion of the highway to Interstate 69 shutting off their road access.  At a Michael's craft store I found a bag of quilt filling, and it looks exactly like the wicking material I used to buy.  It is cut it into pieces to fit into the trays.

The ends of the wicking mat are folded under the bottom of the perforated tray, which is set into the solid tray.  Add some water and it's ready for pots and cell packs.  The beauty of this setup is that it provides just the right amount of water to the plants and the reservoir will last about a week before it needs replenishing.  With larger plants like tomatoes and okra the water will last several days, still a real timesaver.

I seeded 12 cells of lettuce, enough to fill one half of an Earthbox.  I'll seed 12 more in a few weeks.  The seedling mix is Miracle-Gro potting mix.  Maybe it's not the best mix but it does the job, and it has enough fertilizer in it to sustain tomato and pepper seedlings until they are set out.  I put some mix in a plastic tub, added 1/2 teaspoon of beneficial microbes and rubbed the mix with my hands to break up any clumps.  A little water was added to moisten the mix then it was added to the cell packs.

The cell packs are 3 inches deep.  I like to use the deeper pots for lettuce and brassicas because the seedlings seem to get a better start as long as the root ball can be kept intact when it is time to transplant. These are pots that originally had some annuals from the nursery (frugal gardeners motto:  don't throw anything out).   Once seeded the pots were set in the trays and the tray was covered with a plastic lid until the seeds germinate.  I don't use bottom heat except when starting the peppers, the rest germinate fine at room temperature.  The light will be turned on a 16/8 hour cycle once the seeds germinate.

The light unit is a modified shop light with four T8 flourescent lights.  Two of the lights are 6500K and two of them are 8000K,  so they are strongest in the blue region, which tends to give stockier growth.  I found the 8000K bulbs at Rural King.  They are probably used in chicken houses to mimic daylight.  The old rule of thumb is reds for flowering and blues for foliage.  I've done some research on this and found that even the 'warm white' 3200K bulbs are not very strong in the red region that plants need, which is why I go with the high K bulbs.

When the four light setup was put into operation a few years ago two of the bulbs were Gro-Lux bulbs, which provide a red/blue mix of light perfect for photosynthesis.  Under this light the seedlings grew wonderfully the first year, but toward the end of the second season the seedlings became spindly and grew poorly.  So the bulbs were good for about a year, and at their cost I wasn't about to replace them every year, which is why I go with standard daylight bulbs now.  Anyone interested in more detail about lighting and seed growth, this post from 2013 provides some useful information. 

This is just the start.  In a few days I'll seed 72 cells (a full tray) with onions.  Most of the potting-up work I enjoy, but the onions are pure tedium.  Then it will be time to start the first set of brassicas.  The season is underway!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Seeds are here

The seeds from Totally Tomatoes arrived yesterday, the last of the mail-order seeds.  Last year I was able to mostly 'coast' on seeds from the previous year, but this year the seed supply was very much depleted and a larger than usual order was called for.  Most years I try to order from as few suppliers as possible, trying to keep shipping costs down, but this year that was out of the question.  The seeds came from Peaceful Valley (cover crops), Pinetree, Johnny's, and Totally Tomatoes.  Later I'll place an order with Planet Natural for some anti-fungals and other supplies.

Here's what came in:
Cole crops (* denotes a new variety):
Green Magic broccoli.  An early broccoli that has done well for me.
Imperial broccoli*.   A mid-season variety that is supposed to have good heat tolerance.
Point One cabbage*.  This will be the first pointed cabbage for me.  If anything the novelty makes it worth a try.
Golden Acre cabbage.  An early cabbage with great flavor.
Minuteman cauliflower*.  An early F1 hybrid that I'll grow along with Snow Crown.

Provider.  My favorite bush bean.
Fortex.  My favorite pole bean.
Musica pole bean*.  I really lucked out here.  While ordering cover crops from Peaceful Valley, I saw that they offered Renee's seeds, which carries this variety.  I've been wanting to try Musica for some time but did not want to place a separate order for one pack of seeds.  Maybe this bean will be the one worthy of growing alongside Fortex.

Bastan ancho pepper*.   Dave at Our Happy Acres grew this pepper and it looked like a good one. I have been growing Mosquitero anchos, which is also a high quality ancho, but a bit late for this zone.  Bastan looks to set peppers a bit earlier.
Magyar paprika*.  This is also from Renee's, another find.
The remaining peppers are bought as seedlings from May's greenhouse in Bloomington, which carries nearly 60 varieties of pepper seedlings.  Since the garden is not large it doesn't pay for me to start peppers from seed, with the exception of the hybrid anchos, which are much better than the OP varieties.

I'm growing more tomatoes this year, using the space that in the past was planted in potatoes.  Hopefully some varieties will survive the blight and septoria leaf spot.  Some of the varieties are heirlooms or older F1 hybrids that Totally Tomatoes claim have some blight resistance.

Better boy*.  An older F1 large slicing tomato that is supposed to have great flavor.
Black plum*.  Not sure if I'll grow this.  Supposed to be one of the better tasting sauce tomatoes.
Ferline*.  This F1 is blight resistance.  I did not notice until the seed packet arrived that it takes 95 days to mature, which will be late August here.  If there's space I'll plant one, but that is a very late maturity date.
Mountain Magic*.  This campari type tomato is blight resistant and reviews say it has great flavor.  I'm not a fan of the small salad tomatoes but a good flavored one may win me over. Worth a try.
Old Brooks*.  An OP heirloom that TT claims has some blight resistance.
Plum Regal*.  A determinate sauce tomato that is blight resistant, although reviews on flavor were lukewarm.
Roma VF*.  Another determinate sauce tomato that TT claims has some blight resistance.

Cover crops:
Biomaster field peas.  I've grown these several years.  When inoculated their roots develop numerous white nodules that harbor nitrogen fixing bacteria.  I sow them in the squash bed in March, then plant squash into them in late May.   The cut foliage is great forage for the rabbits.
Red cowpeas*.  A heat loving legume.  This will follow crops like onions and cole crops that are pulled out in the summer.

The rest of the seeds:
Reflect spinach.  I first tried this last year and really like it, very early and tasty.
Pontiac onion*.  A yellow storage onion from Johnny's.  I've been growing Ruby Ring for several years but this year have had more than the usual number of sprouts.  Time for something new.
Nantes carrot.  An old standard.
Red Ace beet*. Claimed to be the best all-around beet. 
Vertina cucumber*.  A smooth-skinned pickling cucumber from Johnny's.  It's parthenocarpic, so it won't need a pollinator.  Will replace Calypso this year.
Metro Butternut squash.  A mid-sized butternut that has done well here for years.
Buttercup squash. Just hope it doesn't succumb to the borer.
Javelin parsnip.  It just doesn't pay to plant the old OP varieties.  This one is much better.

Along with the seeds carried over from years past, it looks like I'm ready to start seeding.  I'll seed lettuce in about a week, then start onions a week after that.  In the near future I'll post on my seed starting setup and lights.  Happy gardening 2017.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016 - A quick overview and plans for next year

Except for parsnip, this year's plantings have all been harvested.  Total yields for the season were on the light side at 313 pounds.  There were a number of reasons for the low yields.  Last spring I was trying to finish a kitchen remodel that had been ongoing for over a year.   Since there was some uncertainty when the kitchen would actually become functional again, only a few cole crops were started indoors, consequently the yields of broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage and other brassicas were light. 

Tomatoes were hit by what I believe was early blight and septoria leaf spot, and yields were abysmal, just over 12 pounds from 4 cages.  Pickling cucumbers, which in the year previous had yielded prodigiously, produced just over 10 pounds from 3 plants.  Potatoes and sweet potatoes were hit hard by voles.  I still harvested 40 pounds of potatoes but no sweet potatoes.  On a more positive note, it was a mostly average year for peppers (13 pounds), okra (12 pounds), onion (25 pounds) and snap beans (19 pounds).  

Winter squash had their best year ever, with a total yield of 135 pounds.  Perhaps it was the  rabbit poop compost and nitrogen-fixing cover crops, or it was just a very favorable year for squash.  At any rate I'll continue to prep the beds much the same way this year. 

Under the protection of the plastic greenhouse next year's leafy greens are growing.  There are 2 rows of Burpee's Double-choice spinach and one row of Reflect spinach, a row of Pinetree winter lettuce blend, a row of bunching onion, and on the left, garlic.  With the extended warm autumn the garlic got off to a fast start.  I'm not sure what will happen with it being in the relative warmth of the greenhouse.  I've found the greenhouse prevents the soil from freezing unless the weather gets brutally cold.

Next year, yes, changes must be made.  I actually wanted to implement some changes this year but the remodeling work ruled that out.  First of all, no roots or tubers next year.  The rodents know where they are and they will be back.  Potatoes will be grown in containers or bags, sweet potatoes will not be grown at all.  That leaves a lot of free space in the largest bed, and that's where the tomatoes come in. 

It's unacceptable to give up on tomatoes, that means that major changes in methods are needed.  Here's a list:
  • Plant varieties that are blight resistant.  There aren't that many varieties available, and I've found that many of them are the saladette/grape varieties which I don't really care for.   Still there are some blight-resistant slicing tomatoes available, such as Ferline, Defiant, and Stellar.  There are also heirlooms which have been noted to have some degree of blight resistance, Pink Brandywine and Old Brooks, although they have no resistance to the wilts.  Also noted for blight resistance is the older hybrid Better Boy.  Plum Regal is a (supposedly) blight resistant hybrid paste tomato, so I'm sure I'll grow that as I need mostly sauce tomatoes.  I don't know if Juliet is a good sauce tomato but it has some blight resistance also.  I'm toying with the idea of buying a grafted Brandywine plant.  The list is still a work in progress.
  • Cage strategy.  I've been growing tomatoes in cages made from 4 foot by 8 foot remesh, which were rolled in cages of about 22 inches in diameter.  Two plants were grown in each cage, and two cages were wired together in pairs.  I may continue to use these cages for determinate tomatoes, which I've never grown before, but the cages will be staked singly, not in pairs, and varieties will be isolated from each other.  The extra space in the large bed will get some tomato plants.
  • New cages.  These will be made from a 50 foot roll of 5 foot remesh.  That extra foot will be a bonus for growing indeterminate tomatoes, which can really utilize the extra height.  I plan to make cages of about 16 inches in diameter, thinner and taller than the old cages.  Each cage will get one tomato plant.  They can be wired together in pairs, which saves on staking, as long as the same variety is grown in both cages of the pair.  
  • Mulching.  This is supposed to prevent splashup when it rains.  I don't know how much this will matter, as I prune off the lower foliage as soon as the plant gets a few feet tall, but certainly can't hurt.  
Most of the seed-buying decisions have already been made, but I'm still working on what tomato seeds to order, and it's a great way to pass the time on a winter's day.   I try to keep the number of companies that I buy from at a minimum in order to hold down shipping costs, but it looks like this year I'll have to order from a number of suppliers.  I always order from Pinetree, but this year will also place an order with Totally Tomatoes, Peaceful Valley (for cover crops) and Johnny's. 

Finally, next spring the strawberry plants in the perennial bed will be taken out and replaced with more asparagus.  The bed currently has 6 asparagus plants and there should be room for 4 more, which should make for decent yields of asparagus in the future.  Plenty to keep me busy. 

Here's wishing everyone a successful 2017.  We'll all need some luck in the coming year.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Monday November 14

Well it had to happen sooner or later, and this year it was definitely later.  I'm talking about the first hard freeze of course.  There was a light frost midweek that wilted some of the sweet potatoes and squash leaves at ground level but did not touch the peppers .   Friday called for a hard freeze that night and it was time to get the remaining peppers inside. 

From the top left are Mama Mia Giallo, an orange sweet pepper that I really like, Carmen and a few Jimmy Nardello peppers.  On the bottom are Mosquitero ancho peppers.  Jalapenos are on the right.  I plan to roast all but the jalapenos on the grill tonight.  I was hoping that the anchos would ripen but they never did.  They are not green either, there is a chocolate tone mixing in, so I'm hoping they will be good.  I'm not a fan of green peppers and much prefer fully ripe peppers.

The sweet potatoes were dug up.  There's no picture because there is nothing to show, just a few pounds of small roots and pieces of larger ones - food for the rabbits.  The voles got most of them.  I even managed to turn over one of the rodents while digging them up, and went after it with the shovel but it got away.   Next year, no potatoes or sweet potatoes in this bed.  I plan to grow some potatoes in containers.  No point in providing a buffet for the rodents.

The remaining squash were brought inside.  A few Tekskabotu were still on the vine and were also brought inside.  It was by far the best winter squash year ever.  I harvested 80.4 pounds of butternut squash from 4 plants, 42.0 pounds of Tekskabotu squash from 1 plant, and 12. 1 pounds of Golden Nugget squash from 1 plant, for a total of 135.4 pounds of winter squash. That does not include 11 pounds of Teksukabotu squash that may or may not be ripe enough for consumption.  All from a bit over 100 square feet of planting space.  To be fair, the plot was surrounded by trellises and the squash were trained over the potato patch once the potatoes were out, but still, it's an impressive harvest.

Once everything was out the garden was cleaned up.  The remaining structure was removed and the pepper plants cut down.  The 9 foot tall okra plant was sawed down.  To see what other people are harvesting, head on over to

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Hard to believe it looks like this in November

Still no frost, in fact we haven't been close to a freeze.  Last year the first frost was mid-October, more typical, although after that initial frost it seems it was about three weeks before the next frost.  Nevertheless it has been an unusually warm and pleasant fall this year.  The back bed in this photo shows the pepper plants.  The ancho and Mama Mia Giallo plants are tall and weighed down by peppers.   The middle bed has some parsnip and a cover crop of field peas and oats.  That's the last of the squash on the drying rack, although there are a few more still maturing on the vine. 

Speaking of mature squash, here's a comparison of a fully ripe Teksukabotu and one that never made it to maturity.  It probably set in September.  I had to harvest it since the vine was dead.  I don't know if the 'green' squash will be fit to eat but it can't hurt to cut it open and have a look.

This is a Mama Mia Giallo pepper that, with a little luck, may just ripen up. It will be harvested regardless.  It looks like next week will be sunny so it's got a good chance.

This is what I call the 'greenhouse bed' since it will get a plastic tent-shaped greenhouse set over it when winter finally gets here.  From left to right there are bunching onions that you can't see,  a row of mache that never germinated (what gives Pinetree?), a row of winter mix lettuce, two rows of Burpee's doublechoice hybrid spinach, a row of Reflect spinach, and garlic, which is just poking up.

I've had much more success with overwintering spinach than planting it in the spring.  The Reflect spinach, which I tried last year, has done the best in spring plantings so I thought I'd try it for overwintering.  For those of you who haven't had success with spinach, trial some different varieties.  Most varieties that I have tried have not done well for me, but the ones that have worked for me I have stuck with and they have proved reliable. 

This bed was planted in brassicas this year.  It's now growing a cover crop of field peas.  I harvest them with shears and fed them to the rabbits.  The peas should be 'fixing' some nitrogen on their root nodules, always a plus.

Most of the strawberries in the pallet planter have survived.  Still don't know if this is going to work or not.

The squash and sweet potato vines are still alive.  There's no likelihood of frost until next weekend so I'm in no hurry to dig up the sweet potatoes.  The leaves are another source of rabbit food.  The Silver Queen okra plant in the back is about nine feet tall now.  It's not producing any more usable okra but it's still growing.  I'll have to saw it down.

And the raspberry plants are still producing a trickle of berries. There's Autumn Bliss and Carolina Red.  They are both everbearing but I plan to cut them off at the ground again this year.  Last year the wet weather gave them a bad case of fungus and they are still not fully recovered.  Better not to leave any foliage over the winter.

Then there's the apple trees.  This is the first year that they set out a lot of fruit.  At first I was worried that they had set too many fruit but about a third of the young apples quickly dropped off, as if the tree knew it had too many apples.  Then the birds, probably blue jays, took an interest in the apples.  They would knock one off, peck at it a few times and leave it.  Sometimes they would carry them off a little ways then drop them.  They must have though it was great sport.  Still in late summer there were some apples remaining.  Then the wasps found them.  Wasps would find an entry into the apple then eat it out from the inside.  Long story short, there are no apples left on either tree.  None.  Maybe next year.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Monday October 31

This is unprecedented. It's the last day of October and yesterday I harvested these peppers - four ripe Carmens and some Jalapenos. 

The peppers were roasted on the grill that day.  After deskinning and deseeding they'll be frozen for use later.  There are also a number of ancho peppers that are beginning to turn red.  With no frost predicted in the ten day forecast, with a little luck I'll get some ripe anchos for roasting in a week or so. 

To see what other people are getting from their gardens, head on over to

Monday, October 24, 2016

Monday October 24

It's late October and this area has not yet been subjected to a freeze.  In fact the weather, with the exception of a few bouts of heavy rains, has been incredibly nice.  The trees are just beginning to change, the winter squash are still blooming and the pepper plants are still producing. 

The second batch of winter squash was harvested yesterday from the screen on the right.  They have been curing in the sun for about ten days.   There are still more squash that I have left on the vine or are curing on the remaining screen.  The squash on the vine still looked a little 'green' and since the vines looked healthy, they were left to ripen.  That's nearly thirty pounds of Teksukabotu and twenty four pounds of Metro Butternut.   The largest Tek squash weighed in at over five pounds.  Looks like I'll be making squash soup.   So far this year I've harvested sixty pounds of Butternuts, thirty-three pounds of Teksukabotu, and twelve pounds of Golden Nugget. 

It's always been a challenge deciding when to harvest winter squash.  A general rule thumb is that it takes seven to eight weeks for a squash to fully mature so it's flavor and sugar content is at a maximum.  About the third week in August I begin removing any newly set squash, on the assumption that the first frost will happen in mid-October, although a few sneaked by me.  You begin to notice indications from each variety of squash that indicate ripeness.  The Teksukabotus develop ribs as they ripen, and the green color loses to black. The Butternuts also change color somewhat.  I also look at the color of the stem.  It should be losing the greens and turning to brown.

The peppers are still growing.  Actually they are loaded with green peppers that will never ripen in time.  I harvested a Mosquitero ancho, a Jimmy Nardello and a few ripe jalapenos.  On the plants there are several Carmen and ancho peppers that are ready to pick.  I plan to roast them on the grill in a few days.  Many of the serrano and jalapeno peppers were left to rot on the vine, since there were no tomatoes with which to make salsa. 

To see what other people are growing, head on over to and take a look.