the wages of impatience

I can’t explain some things. Like how, year after year after year, I can’t resist planting tomatoes out earlier than I should. It’s not a problem with other vegetables. Just tomatoes.

After an initial assessment of the ten day forecast a few days ago, I decided that it was worth the risk. Now I’ll be making extra work and worry for the next week or two, trying to keep them healthy. In two days, the low is now projected to be in the high 30s.

But before that gets here, there are three or four days with highs in the 80s.

So instead of planting the seedlings next week and sitting back, I need to protect them from both heat and blazing sun. Ever more contraptions.

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This is actually working pretty well for sun protection. I lined up the unused tomato cages and fastened shade cloth to them. So far so good. There are t-posts at either end with a wire strung through the cages to prevent the whole thing from blowing down. Even my understanding wife is looking at me sideways.

Then on Tuesday, the hoop houses and tarps and blankets will come out, and the fingers will be crossed.

There are two things that I can do to solve this; one, plant the tomato seeds still later so that the seedlings don’t get so tall that I feel like they have to go out too early. And two, pay attention to the promises I make myself every freaking year to be patient.


planting by natural signs

Maybe there’s a load of truth to these old wives tale-type nuggets, maybe not. It makes sense to me that nature can clue in an observant person about what’s going on with soil temperature and weather trends. But read these with an open/skeptical frame of mind:

  • Tomatoes can be set out when lily-of-the-valley is in full bloom.
  • When the flowering dogwood is in peak bloom it is time to plant tomatoes, early corn and peppers. Another is to plant tomatoes and peppers when daylilies start to bloom.
  • When you see new growth on green ash, grapes and bur oaks it is safe to plant tender vines, annuals and perennials
  • Plant peppers and eggplant outside when bearded iris is in bloom.
  • When black locust and Vanhoutte spirea are blooming, plant cold tender seedlings of: zinnia, marigolds, tomatoes, and peppers
  • When the daffodils begin to bloom it is time to plant peas.
  • Plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.
  • When the blossoms of the apple tree begin to fall, plant your corn seeds.
  • When the common lilac plant has leafed out, plant lettuce, peas and other cool weather varieties. When its flowers are in full bloom plant beans and squash. When its flowers have faded plant cucumbers and squash

At any rate, the lilacs are blooming along with some of the lily of the valley, so I took the plunge and planted my main tomato crop yesterday. It’s not a total leap of faith. I have small hoop house to cover them if need be, and backup plants if…don’t even think it.

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And finally, a random picture of our burning brush pile, just because fire is cool…


plan c

Went out to the coop this morning and found that my genius chickens had figured out the new perch ladder I’d made and were roosting on the poop board. Yay for me, yay for them.


But that’s like a P.S. At the beginning of the post. I actually wanted to talk about plans and reality and tomatoes.

For the past several years I’ve been starting a couple of extra-early tomato seedlings to go into the garden when it’s dangerous, under protection. Last year things went smooth as a baby’s bottom. The two seedlings took off and gave me some extra-early fruit that extended the season by several weeks.

This year? Pretty much the opposite. I had four early seedlings of two varieties. I thought it’d be cool to experiment with lopping off the tops of two of them to see if it created bushier plants, like the pepper plant that worked so well. Not so much.

To add some extra kicks in the pants, I mistakenly chopped the tops off of both plants of one variety. The two early plants of the other variety grew leggy.

Yesterday it was off to plan C. I put in one early seedling from the main crop seedlings and called it a day. I know leggy seedlings would likely turn out fine, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to start out the tomato season that way.

So besides planting about two weeks later than last year, the single plant I put in is an additional two weeks younger than last year’s early plants.


It’s easy to realize what mistakes I made; experimenting on more than one plant, not reading the labels, scheduling a vacation right in the middle of hardening off season (which meant basically starting over with that process).

It’s a hard knock life.  And a whole summer’s worth of dealing with weather, disease and pests coming up. How do I enjoy this so much?

somebody’s watching me

All the plates are in the air, spinning on their wobbly sticks. What an exhilarating time of year Spring is. Seedlings in the ground, seedlings under lights, seeds planted, seeds sprouting.

And all the while, you know you’re at the whim of nature. So you toss the dice, commit, hedge your bets and enjoy.

Yesterday was a perfect second day to baby newly planted seedlings; cool, cloudy, calm and wet. I could see them stretching as tall as they could go, proud and happy. Just wait, little ones. Mid-80s coming up.

That’s exactly why I always try to mulch the minute seedlings are planted. That four inch carpet of leaves breaks the wind, keeps the weeds away and moderates soil temperature.

Unfortunately it does nothing for the evil mamma rabbit (I assume it was a Mamma because that’s how I roll) that I caught spying me as I stood admiring my work. It reminded me (again) that from the minute you plant till the minute you put the garden to bed, something will be trying almost as hard as you are to get to your food first.

Seeing the bunny was on of those ‘Seriously?’ moments. I had literally just finished a couple hours of planting work. As I do every year, I went inside and priced fencing. It would be cheaper to just buy several years of groceries, so no.

Next best plan: free. Over the course of time, I’ve gotten a pretty good idea of which veggies the homeboy rabbits seek out. Baby lettuce is number one. They’ve always left the cole crops for their buddies the cabbage worms. So I covered the lettuce with a hoop house and smirked at the rabbit.

For extra piece of mind, I made use of all the grand-dog sitting we do and plopped a couple of ripe scoops of doggie doo right next to the little cauliflower and broccoli seedlings. With an orange flag as a warning for the rest of us.

And then I made preparations to plant potatoes, something I know would make Peter, Floppsie, Moppsie and Cottontail very ill indeed.

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boom boom, out go the plants

As with most any aspect of life, knowing your strengths and weaknesses and using that knowledge can make things a whole lot happier for you.

Over the years, I’ve observed that generally I can grow better tomato and pepper seedlings of the varieties I want than I can buy at the local greenhouse. By the same token, there are a lot of seedlings offered at the grower’s that make my efforts look sad.

I try to play to my strengths. Cole crop seedlings bought from the local greenhouse always always seem to be much more robust than those that I grow. Same with some lettuces. I don’t know why, and don’t much care.

It’s perfectly fine by me. I’d rather buy healthy seedlings (even if maybe some artificial helps might be used in growing them…I don’t ask) than nurse along sub-par seedlings using my limited indoor light space. I’m not looking to be organically certified. I know what I put into my soil and onto my plants, and none of it is synthetic chemicals. But there’s no point starting out with sickly plants.

Enough philosophy.

Dirt. Now that’s real.

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I hadn’t planned on planting a large chunk of the garden yesterday. But a look at the 10-day forecast was all it took to get the juices flowing irretrievably. It was off to the greenhouse for some of those maybe (but probably not) organic seedlings.

In went the cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and some lettuce plants. I basically covered the tilled ground with most of my stash of shredded leaves from last fall, then made planting holes through the leaves.

Uh. That’s frightening. No-till with twice the work, plus tilling. I may need to listen to my good friends who’ve been commenting that permanent mulch is a really great system.

A couple of concerns about permanent mulch systems; planting seeds in permanent mulch still seems a little clunky to me. We’ll see.

I’m not sure where green manures would fit into a permanent mulch system either. I don’t believe that a permanent mulch of mostly leaves would provide all the nutrients that certain plants might need, and green manures work so well. That’s a concern.

Mine’s a fairly large garden, and leaves are the only massive waste resource that’s available. Even with the huge cache of leaves I hoarded last fall, there’s not quite enough to cover the whole plot.

Oh, and the biggest drawback that I see to permanent mulch is that it’ll take forever for the soil to warm up in the spring.  Pulling it all back kinda defeats the ‘permanent’ part of the equation, no?

Still, something to think about and learn. That’s what I love. It never ends.

PS…the old tried and true works pretty well too.

spinach planted last fall and overwintered

spinach planted last fall and overwintered

tomato roulette

This is the time for us Michiganders to start looking forward to gardening overdose. Winter’s really dead. Hail to Dorothy! In our particular corner of the world I can feel the life waiting to bust out and run.

But it’s a dangerous time for zealots. With 10 day forecasts, it’s not quite as dangerous as in earlier decades, but you can still get bit. (See ‘Me, This Year’). That’s why I believe the hardest part of gardening isn’t planting. It’s not planting. The flowers are bursting, the thermometer says yay, and tomorrow all your plants are pale and drooping.

Especially with the warm-weather stuff like tomatoes and peppers, I theorize that you might actually gain on your time to first fruit by waiting those extra couple of days or weeks. Tomato plants definitely weaken and regress for a bit when they’re subjected to too-early planting.

That being said, there’s a little thrill in playing the odds with a plant or two, and crossing your fingers for a surprising warm spell. If tragedy strikes, I’m ready to lose one or two plants and also willing to pull ruthlessly and start over with a couple of backups.

It’s an intricate dance here in the upper Midwest; wait too long and the tomato crop hangs there in its greenness come the chilly nights of late September. Jump the gun and you have to replant, risking the same or worse.


put me in coach

You take your thrills where you can get them.

an ugly selfie

Sometimes you just need a little vacation from retirement. We took two days to get away from the endless busy-ness of the ‘easy life’ in a rustic cabin in Indiana. The trip was great, the return so-so.

It’s natural to try to present your best side, your beauty shots, when you blog. I do it often. You probably do it. But I’m not so vain as to deny mistakes and miscalculations. They’re part of gardening.

When I returned from our excursion, the first thing, of course, was to check the seedlings in the grow room. Not a happy thing. Only half of the sweet corn seeds had germinated. I plant them early to give them a head start in the warmth of the house. But having enough seedlings to plant a block of plants is critical for pollination with corn. I don’t have enough sprouted seedlings to start a block, so it’s back to square one, and my corn season got a few days shorter.


Next up, the very early tomato plants that I decided to experiment on by clipping off the growing tips. Oops. The two seedlings that I trimmed didn’t look so happy.


I’d chalk it up to sunburn if I didn’t have another seedling, a control plant, that received identical hardening off. Be very cautious if you’re considering this. Better yet, don’t. Luckily I’ve learned that setbacks don’t have to be disasters with a backup plan. There are extra plants under the lights for just this reason.IMG_4614

And finally, out in the garden, the effects of a hard freeze a few nights ago showed plainly. I didn’t have enough grow tunnels to cover the whole bed of young onion plants, so there’s a wilted, sickly patch right in the middle. Again, the backup plan should save my silly rear. There are more plants sitting in a cold frame ready to take their places.

IMG_4617Anyway, mistakes were made, and will continue to be made.


Last night Ma Nature outdid herself and gave us a beating.  Hard frost, on our weather station 21°.  I’m not sure that even covered plants will have a chance in that cold.


That’s frost on the cold frame glass.  Oh well.  We move on and see what happens.

Meanwhile in the nice warm house, I’m getting antsy for something interesting.  And I came across this:

My favourite method of pruning tomato seedlings is to pinch the tops when they have three good, strong leaves and a fourth emerging about 3-4 weeks old. Tomato seedlings have alternate leaves one leaf grows out one side of the stem, then another grows out the other side a little further up, and so on. The original seed leaves fall off soon after the true leaves start to grow: don’t count these. When you see the fourth leaf beginning to unfurl on a little stem, snip or pinch it off above the third leaf. What happens?

Nothing seems to happen for about a week, which is good because the plant is growing a stronger stem and roots instead of more leaves. Then you should see more strong growth at the top and sides, which you can pinch or train as you wish…By the time you plant your seedlings, they will be stockier, fuller and healthier than the long, stringy tomatoes that they might have been.

Look out experiment, here I come.

I’ve been growing a few early tomato seedlings to go out soon under a couple of layers of protection.  Come here, my pretties.  Snip.

IMG_4579The plant on the left will be the control, the one on the right is snipped.  If a theory makes sense, if it fits into what experience tells me should would work, I’m on it.  We’ll see.


I have some theories about growing seedlings indoors. Not sure if some of them have any merit, but that never stopped me.

The first theory though, I’m sure of. Seedlings need a lot of light or they get leggy. I keep my lights 1″-2″ from the tops of the plants and run them for 14-16 hours a day. It takes a lot of light to pretend you’re outside!

The second theory, I’m not positive about, but it seems logical. Some folks brush their seedlings with a hand a few times a day. I have a small fan blowing. Same principle. Slightly stressing the plants to toughen them up and yield sturdier stems. Seems to work as far as I’ve observed, and it does no harm.

The third theory, which isn’t really a theory, is that you don’t want to over-fertilize. I use half-strength fish emulsion and liquid seaweed, applied just a couple of times during the indoor life of the plant. Over-fertilization causes rapid growth and leads to leggy plants.

The next theory is that my grow closet is too warm. I believe that greenhouse-grown seedlings grow stockier partly because they’re grown in cooler temperatures. Yes, even the tomatoes and peppers. I haven’t found a way to cool my small space other than the little fan, so I live with it in the mid-70s. I suspect that the mid-60s would be better for the seedlings, but it is what it is.

And finally another theory that I’m not sure about: moisture. It seems obvious that seedlings shouldn’t be kept either too wet or too dry. But I suspect that erring on the side of dryness is better than the other way. Again, just a little bit of a challenge to help the plant accustom itself to real life.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these ideas, because nothing teaches like first-hand experience.


sweet corn seedlings

Why would a person plant corn when the potatoes aren’t even in yet? Bear with me.

Next to tomatoes, I believe sweet corn is my favorite vegetable crop. And for much the same reason; you simply can’t buy corn anywhere, even at roadside stands, that tastes as good as fresh picked from the garden.

So several years ago I decided to try something that I was convinced was stupid. I started corn seed indoors.

Now you know if you’ve grown corn before that as you plant seeds some won’t germinate, leaving gaps in the row. And you’ve probably tried digging up a stray corn seedling and replanting it in the empty space.

If that’s the case, then you also know that corn sucks at being dug up and moved. If the seedling survives the move, it’s stunted and rarely produces ears.

That’s why I thought starting corn in a flat indoors was a hopeless, desperate venture. Why would it work any better than digging up a garden-grown seedling with a big root ball and transplanting it?

Well, it does. It works fantastically.

Before trying this method my average first ear ripened in the second week of August. Since, the average is the second week of July, adding 3 to 4 weeks of extra fresh sweet corn to our table. That all happens because the tender corn seedlings can get a jump on the weather indoors.

There are risks. Always risks in gardening, which is one reason you’re addicted, right?

You need to be gentle while you’re handling the little guys between the flat and the ground.  They’re still baby corn plants without much root structure.   One year there was a hard frost in the Spring, and I had to scurry to rig up sheets and whojiggits to cover the rows. The corn seedlings wilted a little, turned a little brown around the gills, but in the end they popped back and still gave me corn.

Worth the risk.