2011 Seed-starting tally

From top to bottom: "Italian dandelion," flat-leaf parsley, and yellow Swiss chard.

After several years of buying veggie plants from garden centers, I was inspired to go back to starting my own from seed for 2011. A few factors motivated me:

  1. My husband announced he was willing – and eager – to eat more homegrown greens, like lettuce and kale, that are easy to grow from seed.
  2. I realized my summer would be incomplete without two specific tomato varieties, ‘Juliet’ and ‘Lemon Boy,’ so by starting my own I’d be sure to get them.
  3. I rediscovered my heating mat and the 48-inch long, adjustable-height fluorescent light fixture I’d used to start seeds in our spare room a few springs ago. (Yes, in an attic like ours, it’s possible to overlook a 48-inch light fixture for a couple years.)

It’s very important to use BRIGHT artificial light to grow seedlings indoors in Pennsylvania and similar climates. A sunny window may look inviting, but we always get a week of dark, cloudy weather as soon as my tomatoes germinate, leading to wimpy seedlings stretching desperately toward the dim outdoors.

Here’s the tally of herb and vegetable seeds I started indoors, along with the seeding dates based on an expected May 1 transplating to the outdoors:

  • Stevia (March 6)
  • Tomato ‘Sweet Pea’ (March 6)
  • Tomatoes ‘Juliet,’ ‘Lemon Boy,’ and ‘Gilbertie’ (March 11)
  • Kale, a Tocano type (March 20)
  • Swiss chard (April 1)
  • Italian dandelion, Cichorium intybus ‘Clio’ – yes, a weed, but tasty! (April 1)
  • Basil, Italian Genovese (April 1) *
  • Parsley, Italian flat-leaf (April 1) *

My strategy was to start the seeds in trays (not cells), then transplant the seedlings into plastic cell trays or peat-pot cells after they’d developed at least one pair of true leaves. Once the transplanting began, I quickly ran out of space under the light, so I began setting the cell trays outside during the day and bringing them in at night so they wouldn’t get chilled. (Even clouds outdoors are better than artificial light indoors!) This generally worked after April 1st. I got poor germination from the stevia seeds, but everything else worked great.

Seedlings enjoy the April rain. One of the trays includes rosemary I grew from cuttings.

I also planted a few things directly into the garden, as they tolerate cool weather and don’t transplant well:

  • Snap peas ‘Sugar Sprint’ (March 30)
  • Arugula (April 25)
  • Lettuce mix (April 25)

Arugula, about 3 weeks after seeding

Alas, I’ve still got a handful of seed packets yet to be planted: cucumbers, trailing nasturtiums, pole beans, and cilantro. I’ve run out of space in the garden, so I need to delete some more ornamentals to make room for these. I do plan to train the cukes and beans on trellises, but I’m still working out the details!

* Yes, basil and parsley are common plants and easy to come by in garden centers. Unfortunately, they’re almost always sold as five or ten small seedlings growing intertwined in a 3-inch pot, the plants just a bit too large to separate but too crowded to grow well individually. Clearly, the growers sow directly into the retail pots to avoid the hassle of transplanting, but while these squished-together seedlings “fill the pot” visually, they’re difficult if not impossible to grow on. No thanks!


Raspberry Research

Raspberries sit high atop my list of favorite kitchen-garden staples. What’s not to like about a perennial, shade-tolerant plant that only requires minor annual pruning and a few visiting bumblebees to produce sweet, juicy berries? They’re literally one of the easiest edibles to grow. Unless you have deer in your garden. But I don’t.

My 2 x 6-foot raspberry patch began as a few offshoots received from a friend, so unfortunately I don’t know that variety’s name. Since it produces a small crop in late spring and a second, larger crop in early fall, I do know it’s an everbearing type, ‘Heritage’ being a good possibility due to its popularity. [Update 3/8: I found my original plant label while raking leaves; these plants are in fact ‘Heritage.’] In contrast, summer-bearing varieties ripen all of their fruit within a few weeks during July in our area.

Because raspberries are so easy to grow, I wanted to add more varieties to the garden for comparison. (It’s like when you buy a pair of purple shoes, fall in love with them, and decide you really must have not one but FOUR pairs of purple shoes in slightly different shades because purple shoes are awesome.) Last summer, I picked up a single potted ‘Caroline’ raspberry plant at Whole Foods; it was marked down to 50% off and therefore jumped into my shopping cart unbidden.

‘Caroline’ ended up in the front yard and got broken off near the ground this winter beneath a mountain of shoveled snow, but I’m optimistic it will re-sprout from the base as spring arrives. This is another everbearing variety.

Three more varieties joined my collection unexpectedly this week when I walked through the door at Home Depot to replenish my leaf-bag supply, only to come face to face with a display of spring bulbs, seed packets, and yes, raspberry plants! What’s $5.95 x 3 compared to the joy of fruit-topped cereal and yogurt come July? I chose two black raspberry types, ‘Logan’ and ‘Cumberland,’ plus a red-fruiting type called ‘Latham.’ I know very little about these yet but will report on their progress in a few months.

By the way, raspberry plants do send up root suckers that lend themselves to transplanting and sharing with follow gardeners! So stick around, and I’ll let you know when some daughter plants from my original raspberry patch are in need of good homes.

Horseradish harvest

Jars of grated horseradish

Last Sunday was the first 60F-degree day near the end of a long, cold, snowy winter, so I was in the mood to dig in the dirt. Several friends had requested divisions from my five-year-old horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) clump, so I figured I’d start there.

I never ate horseradish growing up. My only recollection of its existence was as an ingredient in Arby’s “Horsey Sauce,” which I never actually tasted, having been warned by my seasoning-challenged parents that it was “too spicy!” As an adult, realizing that horseradish is the essential second ingredient in shrimp cocktail sauce, I decided it deserved a place in my herb garden.

However, in four years, I’d harvested horseradish roots for consumption exactly one time; the suggestion is to wait until winter for best flavor, but then there’s the problem of frozen ground covered with snow. And who eats shrimp cocktail in the wintertime anyway? The horseradish didn’t need me and I didn’t need it, so we ignored each other and did our own thing.

Last spring, I decided I was “over” horseradish and needed its sunny location for something more exciting, so I tried unsuccessfully to dig the whole clump out. Ha! Some roots were as thick as my wrist and extended downward toward infinity, so I hacked at them as best I could.

Not surprisingly, the surviving roots produced a thick flush of new foliage a few weeks later, so I cut the leaves off at the ground. (The small, new leaves are edible, with a spicy taste much like the roots’.) Had I continued to harvest the leaves, I might have eventually exhausted the roots’ energy reserves, but the next thing I knew it was mid-summer, and the clump was every bit as vigorous as in past years. Anne – 0, Horseradish – 1.

So, back to sunny, sixty-degree Sunday. I wouldn’t want to deprive my gardening friends of some root-wresting adventures of their own – hey, they asked for divisions! – so I cut off some of the crowns, shortened each attached root to 2-3 inches, and potted them up. I felt like a kid who cuts the green top from a carrot and plants it to see if a new carrot will grow.

Oh, and I dug up a few huge root segments there were too grotesquely large to pot up, so out came the box grater and the vinegar. Summer’s coming… bring on the shrimp!

As always, feel free to email me with comments or questions.