Gardening with vegetables and annual flowers is a race against time and the elements. If you jump the gun, spring frost may knock back tender seedlings. If you delay too long, yields may be reduced because plants won’t fully mature before fall freezes arrive or the excessive heat of summer stymies growth. Onions are an example of a plant sensitive to day length. Varieties adapted to the northern U.S. form biggest bulbs during the long days of June and July. Delayed planting results in decreased bulb size because they form during the shorter days of late summer.
In response to this year’s mild winter, I’m betting on an early spring. I seeded onions in the greenhouse in mid-January. The seedlings are up and growing strong, and will soon be ready to transplant into the garden. If you haven’t started onion seeds yet, you can still direct seed them in the garden, purchase transplants from a garden center, or plant onion sets.
This weekend I’ll be starting dozens more vegetables and annual flowers in the greenhouse seed-starting chamber. When seed orders arrive, I file away seed packets by planned start date, storing them in the extra refrigerator in the garage to prolong their viability.
I did a quick inventory of seed packets to start on March 1, and came up with the following list of things that I’ll be planting this weekend.
Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Pink’ (an All-America Selections winner for 2012) and ‘Blue Victoria’;
Dianthus ‘Parfait Raspberry’;
Celosia ‘New Look Red’;
Gomphrena ‘Dwarf Buddy’ and ‘Qis Purple’;
Baby’s breath ‘Gypsy Deep Rose’;
Lavatera ‘Hot Pink’;
Marigold ‘Hero Bee’;
Snapdragon ‘Twinny Rose Shades’;
Lobelia ‘Crystal Palace’
Tomato ‘Lizzano’, ‘Terenzo’ (AAS winners for 2011), ‘German Johnson’, ‘Mortgage Lifter’, ‘Pruden’s Purple’, ‘and ‘Pompeii’;
Pepper ‘Black Olive’, ‘Cayenetta’ (AAS winners for 2012), ‘Odessa Market’, ‘Corno di Toro Giallo’, ‘California Wonder’, ‘Gordo’, ‘Premio’;
Eggplant ‘Black Beauty’;
Basil ‘Queenette’ and ‘Mrs. Burn’s Lemon’;
Broccoli ‘Liberty’, ‘All Season’s Blend’, and ‘Romanesco’;
Chinese cabbage ‘Little Jade’ and Michihli’;
Lettuce ‘Garden Babies Butterhead’;
Beet ‘Bull’s Blood’
I’ll wait several weeks to start quick-growing heat lovers such as zinnias, squash, and ornamental cotton. By then, I’ll move frost-hardy annuals to the covered deck or front porch to acclimate to outdoor growing conditions. They’ll grow slower there than in the greenhouse, but as the adage goes, “slow and steady wins the race”.
I planted my garden peas this week, along with beets, spinach, lettuce, onions, mesclun salad mixes, corn salad, and kohlrabi. I was out of town all last week, or I would have planted these cool-season veggies then. It’s important to get them into the ground early so they’ll mature before hot weather hits.
I grow only edible podded peas in my garden. I like the idea of less waste and less labor in shelling out peas. (I leave the shelling to commercial canners and freezers.) This year I’m growing Sugar Ann, a dwarf type that needs little staking and Sugar Daddy, a stringless variety. (Everyone could use a Sugar Daddy, right?) I also usually grow Super Sugar Snap or Sugar Snap, the variety that started the snap pea craze when it was introduced back in 1979.
It will take a week to 10 days for the peas to germinate. That gives me a little time to prepare the trellis the taller types need. I like to use a twig trellis for the peas. This time of year I cut back to the ground my butterfly bushes, chaste tree, and beautyberry, which provide plenty of brushy twigs for the peas to climb. To make the trellis, I insert the base end of branches that are about 3 to 4 feet long 6 to 8 inches into the ground so they’ll stand firmly upright. The peas are planted in two rows spaced about 6 inches apart so the twigs are stuck between the two rows, and make a framework for pea plants from both rows to climb on.
The twig trellis holds up well for the entire season, and is easily removed when I pull the pea vines in midsummer. The brush gets recycled into mulch at the end of the year when it’s run through the chipper/shredder.
I’ll have to wait until June to reap the harvest from the peas, but I’m looking forward to the fresh taste of snap peas in salads and stir fries. I always freeze some for use the following winter, too.
While our friends on the West Coast may be enjoying an early spring, here in Iowa we’re still in the deep freeze with record snow cover. By mid-February, I’m ready for a break from the snow and cold. Most years I travel to a warm-weather destination for a few days to lift my spirits. That won’t happen this year. Instead, I just walk out the door of my basement and into the attached greenhouse. I took this shot of Vista Bubblegum petunias this morning when the temperature outdoors was in the teens.
Seeing the bright flowers in bloom is a great way to adjust my attitude. Gardeners are naturally optimistic–how else can you explain the leap of faith that it takes to plant seeds with the expectation of beautiful flowers or bountiful harvests of produce?
On sunny days the greenhouse truly is tropical. It often reaches 80 degrees even when temperatures outdoors remain below freezing. I love to open the basement door and allow the scents of springtime to fill the entire house. But overnight and on cloudy days, temperatures frequently dip into the 40s in the greenhouse, even with the triple wall acrylic covering and insulating bubble wrap.
In order to start seeds in the greenhouse, I have a germination chamber that keeps the seedlings warmer. This germination box is large enough to hold five standard nursery flats (plus a few extra plants). A heating mat supplies bottom heat, and maintains a constant 70 degrees F. The 8-inch deep box fell short for growing stem cuttings, so I added a 1-foot tall extension made of treated deck rails. Usually it’s draped with clear plastic, to hold in the heat. But the plastic rolls back to make it easier to water and work with the seedlings. This photo shows that the grassy onion seedlings are growing nicely, as are half a dozen types of perennial flower seedlings. I’ll soon start more annual flowers and veggies. By then the perennials will be able to move to the cooler greenhouse benches. And with improving weather conditions (I remain optimistic!) they’ll be ready to transplant to the garden when the snow finally melts.