Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tomato Patch: Exposing Seedlings to Reality

Sungolds and Juliets--growing fast now

This was “toughening up week” at the Tomato Patch.  Late Sunday afternoon I moved my three-week old tomato plants from their warm growing racks under fluorescent lights in our utility room to semi-protected containers on the east side of our house, so they would get increasing amounts of sunlight and be exposed to breezes that would help stiffen their stems.

This toughening up is called “hardening off,” which the Maryland Master Gardener Handbook defines as “the process of gradually acclimatizing a plant that has been raised indoors or in a greenhouse to harsh environmental conditions in the garden” (Chapter 17, “Vegetables,” p. 411).

I would be happy to transplant my tomato seedlings directly from utility room into the garden, but the risks would be high.  If subsequent days were warm with intense sunshine, the tender plants could sunburn—just as I would if I went to Ocean City and lay the whole first day in the sun without sunblock lotion.  Also, a sudden spring thunderstorm with wind and a downpour could twist and bend the tender stems and smash the plants to the ground.

So that’s why gardeners who start spring vegetables from seed indoors “harden them off”—“gradually acclimatizing” them to the cool, sunny, breezy world, though I hesitate to call our garden a place of “harsh environmental conditions.”

"Gradually acclimatizing"
“Gradually acclimatizing” for my plants meant this: (1) I put them in open plastic storage bins that protected all but the tops of the tallest plants from wind gusts.  (2) I took them out late Sunday afternoon for their first direct-sun exposure, and the afternoon shadow of the house shaded them after about two hours.  (3) Since it rained Monday and Tuesday, I kept the plants under the roof but on the edge of the porch, so they got bright light but weren’t battered by downpours.  (4) When the rain clouds exited and the sun shone brightly, I moved the plants a foot farther from the house each day so they’d get ever-increasing direct sunlight.

I planted the seeds in cups on April 19.  The shortest plants (Celebrity) were four inches tall by Wednesday and the tallest varieties (Juliet, Sungold, and Amish Paste) were more than six inches and growing at least one inch a day.  I was beginning to think they were clones of Jack’s fast-growing magical beanstalk.

The rains earlier this week were important to the Tomato Patch.  Early spring 2012 was especially dry.  Year-to-date rainfall before this week was about six inches below average.  Lack of moisture can be a factor contributing to blossom-end rot in early tomatoes when garden soil has insufficient moisture for the plants to move calcium from the soil to the developing fruit, so I’m hoping I’ll not have the significant losses that I had last year from that disease.

I’ve already written in my Garden Notes that I should start my tomato seeds a week later in 2013, around April 25, so they’ll be ready to transplant around May 25.  Tomatoes are a tropical plant and really thrive best in well-warmed soil, which means the opportune time to set them out here in Central Maryland is near the end of May or even early June—though that may seem like heresy to gardeners who set out their tomato transplants in late April or early May.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Frugal Gardener: Closing My Mini-Greenhouse

Last mini-greenhouse lettuce
I’ve closed my mini-greenhouse for the summer.  I grabbed the two handles and pulled straight up, moved the green-house aside, and looked at the three lettuce plants that still had been growing inside—two Green Ice and one Red Sails.

We’ll have to use those three heads soon because they show signs of getting ready to bolt.  Yes, I should have cut them a week ago, but I didn’t.  And after growing in the cozy greenhouse for several months, they may react adversely to the colder, windier life outside their plastic box. 

But lettuce life goes on. Nearby I transplanted eight lettuce seedlings that I started April 29 in yoghurt cups—two Red Velvet, two Cracoviensis, two Green Ice, and two Red Sails, so we’ll not be dashing off to a supermarket any time soon to buy lettuce.

New lettuce crop
I’ve declared the mini-greenhouse a success.  I grew lettuce overwinter and picked heads in January, February, March, April, and May.  Of course winter 2011 to 2012 was one of the warmest on record, with temperatures here in central Maryland only reaching lows of 18°F two or three times.  What if the temperature had dipped to 15° or 12° or 10°?  Would Red Sails and Green Ice have turned into Red and Green Slime?

When I hosed off the mini-greenhouse, I noticed several cracks that indicate it won’t last forever.  Three of the four upper corners—which were not reinforced when molded as were the bottom corners—had slight cracks.  I’ve already duct-taped the cracks in preparation for another winter’s crop of lettuce.

I could have bought a commercial greenhouse—for $150, $1,500, $5,000, or $25,000.  But $13.76 seemed like a perfectly reasonable price for a Frugal Gardener.  If I get another year of use out of the container—fine.  If I get two more years of use—excellent.  If I get three years, I’ll be tempted to trade in my bib overalls on a kilt.

Time for some cleanup
At the end of the day, I hosed off the mini-greenhouse.  It’s ready for growing lettuce again next winter.

If you want to see what the mini-greenhouse looked like when I created it, CLICK HERE.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Fragrance: Dianthus and Don

Dianthus & Don

This evening was designed for sitting on the front-porch glider, shelling peanuts as the temperature eased toward 70 and a gentle breeze rustled through the purple-leaf plum trees that cast shadows longer than the trees are tall.

Straight ahead of me two flowering kousa dogwoods framed a birdless bluebird box because this year a pair built their nest in the “white box” in the backyard and already have three blue eggs there.  Nearer me the first dark-blue Siberian iris blooms, a gift of Cindy S., a Howard County Master Gardener.

To my right, in, hopefully, a deer-proof fortress of iron stakes and welded wire, pink rhododendron blossoms proclaim, “This is our best weekend,” as lavender azalea petals loosen and float to the pine-bark mulch.  Nearby a Knockout rose lofts buds that promise future visual delight, and lingering bleeding-heart flowers bob in the freeze.

'Our best weekend'
To my left, bright-blue delicate brunnera flowers and miniature yellow trumpets of corydalis—gifts of Pat H., another Master Gardener, say, “Enjoy every day of May,” while pink, blue, and purple columbine flowers arch over their leaves—gifts of Pennsylvania cousins Curt and Jean W.

A high-school teacher once defined a “weed” as a flower growing where someone doesn’t want it to grow.  I don’t have any weeds.  I let flowers grow wherever they wish—usually—and, of course, as long as they aren’t real weeds.  I hate to uproot them with my hoe or Cape Cod weeder.  I prefer to let them grow—or share them with fellow gardeners.

As the wind shifted slightly on this May evening, a fragrance surrounded me.  I inhaled deeply. It was sweet and spicy.  It was from the patches of dianthus hunkering by our hardy ground orchids, a deer-resistant perennial recommended by Irene M., another Master Gardener.  I wondered how such small dianthus flowers can perfume such a wide area.

My mind wondered to two friends, Don and Joyce O.  Ellen and I have known them for half a century.

Sometimes a flower says it all
You know that kind of friends ...  classmates at high school or college … young families with children about the same ages … later, as empty nesters, chatting over dinner at Sierra’s Grill or enjoying plays at Olney Theatre or concerts at Wolf Trap or Strathmore Music Center. 

For years Don raised black raspberries in their back yard and prepared a quart of “concentrate” each summer that I made into a gallon of black-raspberry ice cream for late-summer gatherings of friends.

A month or so ago Don, a rose grower, was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease.  With our tears on Friday we mourned his passing.

I sat on our porch and inhaled the fragrance of the dianthus, but that spicy sweetness was overpowered by an even greater fragrance—memories of Don, husband of Joyce, father of Don Jr., Allison, and Karen, grandfather of four, noted scientist, our friend.