Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rain, Rain, Rain: I Surrender

Rain, rain, go away...

April showers may bring May flowers, but, quite frankly, they’ve washed out my gardening plans.

I had every intention of planting cool weather veggie seeds—lettuce, beets, chard, carrots—during the first few days of April, but rain and showers saturated our garden and made that impossible. One day I started to hoe some winter weeds but surrendered—quite happily—when the sticky soil just wouldn’t fall off the roots of the weeds. Our Maryland soil is basically clay, so if I plant seeds in the wet soil, the soil will crust when it dries and the seeds may find it impossible to break through.

For every day of sun that we’ve had during the first three weeks of April, we’ve had two or three cloudy days, often with showers, rain, even downpours. The “Official weather data” for Baltimore-Washington International Airport through last evening, as reported in the Washington Post, tells the story: we’re nearly an inch above average rainfall year to date. The forecasts for the next five days aren’t encouraging for seed planting either: rain Tuesday, thunderstorm Wednesday, rain possible on Friday.

I surrender. If I can’t plant lettuce outside, I’ll plant it inside. And that’s exactly what I did late Monday afternoon.

I gathered essentials for starting plants inside: sterile starting mix (soil), beverage cups that I saved over winter, and, of course, seeds. I took the packets of lettuce seeds—Red Sails (Botanical Interests), Coastal Star (Johnny’s Selected Seeds), and Simpsons Curled (Bentley Seeds)—out of the plastic jar in which I store them in our refrigerator and went to work.

Plastic strips divide cup
First, with a Phillips screwdriver I punched two drainage holes in the bottom of each of the seven recycled cups I planned to use. Then I filled the cups three-quarters full of starting mix, dividing the growing area in half with plastic strips I fashioned with scissors from a blueberry box that I liberated from our recycling bin. (The plastic strips will make it easy to separate the plants, two per cup after thinning, when I transplant them later.) Then I sprinkled two or three seeds into each side, covered them with about a quarter-inch of starting soil, dampened them with water, and took the cups in a plastic tray into our kitchen, where they’ll sprout in five to 10 days in temperatures ranging from the 60s at night to 70s during the day.

I don’t plan to move the seedlings down to our basement utility room to grow for three or four weeks under fluorescent lights. Instead, when they sprout, I’ll carry them outside during daylight hours for a week or so, until they look tall enough to survive the next shower or downpour. Even though temperatures outside dip into the 40s at night, lettuce is a “cool weather” veggie that should be flourishing outside in our garden, not inside our house.

Why do I plant the lettuce varieties that I do?

Red Sails has beautiful, burgundy-tinged leaves that look and taste great in salads, and it’s slow to bolt when hot weather arrives, so we can harvest it longer into the summer. When lettuces bolt, they send up a flower stalk, turn bitter, and go to seed. From planting seeds to harvest: 45 days.

I bought Coastal Star as an experiment while looking in the Johnny’s catalog for Parris Island romaine. I liked what I read. It’s heat tolerant (slow to bolt), and similar to Parris Island but with darker green leaves. From planting seeds: 57 days.

I didn’t buy the Simpsons Curled seeds. They came in a promotional packet from an organization soliciting my membership. I’ve grown greenleaf Black Seeded Simpson, apparently a similar variety, for years. Small plants can be pulled to highlight salads in about 28 days and full-size plants will be ready in about 46 days.

Which variety will sprout first? Most likely the Simpsons Curled.

And I’m still wondering when we will get a week or 10 days, rain free, so I can plant carrot, beet, and chard seeds in our garden.

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