Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Big Plans for Small Spaces

One of the main problems I’ve had to solve, as a suburban gardener with limited space, time, and energy, is where to put all the plants I want to grow. Fortunately, I do have a flowerbed about 30 feet long and 3 feet wide, and I’m able to relegate some of the more decorative or hard-to-place plants to a spot among the perennials. But my main vegetable garden is small, and I want to get as much edible growth as possible out of my 100-foot-square raised bed.

So I’ve embraced the notions of interplanting and succession planting with the fervor of a religious revivalist. To begin the season, I’ve planted the entire middle portion of the garden with green, leafy vegetables—spinach and butterhead lettuce—and radishes. In between the rows, I’ve placed eight good-sized rocks to indicate where the tomatoes will be planted later in the season. This is a new thing for me, and there’s no telling how well it will work.

The radish seedlings came up first, just a few days ago. These were meant to be a decoy plant, so that any insect that had an interest in spinach or lettuce would instead eat the radish plants, which marauding bugs are said to prefer. Nothing has eaten any of the seedlings yet, and I have been thinning out some of the extras. The spinach and lettuce have since made their appearance between the radish rows. The seedlings appear robust. I am anxiously awaiting the appearance of the first pair of true leaves on each of them. Only then will I feel confident that some of these plants will make it to harvest.

On the southeastern edge of the garden, I have planted a narrower bed of Swiss chard and Walla Walla onions. I love the idea of growing big, sweet onions, but so far, there’s been no onion action. The Swiss chard, meanwhile, has emerged vigorously, as one would expect from a planting of big, strong-looking, cube-shaped seeds. I have high hopes for the Swiss chard. It’s supposed to do quite well in the summer heat. In Virginia, that’s a big plus. If it grows to the height I’ve seen in the grocery stores—some two and a half feet of strong-ribbed, tightly bunched vertical leaves—I will feel that I have brought something worthwhile to the world.

On the opposite edge, I’ve raised the trellis I mentioned before. To one side of my bamboo frame, I attached a length of plastic netting with twist ties. It was the same netting that I used last year in a not entirely successful attempt to keep the birds off my blueberry bushes. Beneath this netting, I’ve planted a row of closely-spaced snow peas, an early crop that should be out of the way by midsummer. On the other side of the trellis, the first pole bean seedling is poking its curved, yellow-green stem out of the mud.

In between, I’ve hilled up the dirt to accommodate one buttercup squash plant at each end of the row, with three cucumber hills taking up the middle. I poked a nasturtium seed into the base of each hill, because nasturtiums are supposed to repel squash bugs, which were the bane of my existence last year. The squash, cucumbers, and nasturtiums have not yet germinated, though I’ve kept a close watch on the hills.

Indoors, my peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants are still quite small, and the eggplants have only now put out their third leaves. These I will have to transplant into larger containers—Dixie cups, most likely, since I have nothing better, and since one must use these paper cups for something, after stumbling over them in the pantry closet for so many years. Between the tomato plants, I may plant a few peppers, but I think most of the peppers and eggplants will go into the flowerbed, just as they did last year. Peppers, in particular, are attractive plants, with their gleaming, pointed leaves, white flowers, and pendulous fruit.

Between the tomatoes, after the greens are done, I will plant two kinds of basil: plain basil and cinnamon basil. Although I’ve read that planting basil near tomatoes will improve their flavor, I’m not sure I believe those assertions. After all, any homegrown tomato is a huge improvement over the supermarket variety, and further enhancements in flavor would be extremely hard to measure. Still, I’ll give it a try. I like basil and I like tomatoes. The gardener’s foremost directive should be to plant what she likes. The only trouble is figuring out where to put it and making the plan work out.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Tale of Two Trellises

My neighbor, the Man with the Perfect Lawn, built his trellis a few weeks ago. As usual, I’m playing catch-up—rather lamely, it would seem. We both were dissatisfied with last year’s yield of bush beans, so each of us decided to plant pole beans this year. Naturally, to grow pole beans, one needs a beanpole.

Lawn Man tried teepee trellises for his cucumbers last year and didn’t like them. This year, he has nailed together a tough-looking structure from two-by-fours. He’s a construction worker by trade. While I’ve wielded a hammer from time to time, I have little confidence in my ability to cobble together wood-frame structures. Instead, I chose materials I could easily lift and created a rickety trellis of my own from bamboo poles tied together with a kind of nylon twine that has an annoying tendency to fray on first contact.

I think this will work for the beans, but I’m not so sure about the peas and cucumbers. All the books I’ve consulted recommend nailing up netting that the peas can climb. As for cucumbers, my family has always grown them on the ground, where they trailed limply for about six feet or so. These cucumbers produced adequately, but they were never wildly successful. I’ve also had thoughts about training winter squash on my trellis, but the idea has begun to seem impractical. If the vine doesn’t climb up the thing automatically, why waste time tying up each tendril?

The melons, meanwhile, must go elsewhere. In 100 square feet of space, it’s hard to keep plants apart from each other. According to The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Edward C. Smith’s guide to organic gardening in raised beds, melon plants should not be allowed to mingle with cucumbers. Smith claims that melons pollinated by cucumber flowers will taste bitter. I’m not entirely sure I believe that, but planting cucurbits apart from each other makes sense to me.

Last year, I planted the cucumbers, melons, and squash together in the same infertile plot. The poor soil quality guaranteed that anything planted there would fail to thrive, but the cucumbers, at least, produced a few odd-shaped specimens. The winter squash died, and the zucchini struggled, producing only male blossoms. Both were early and frequent victims of squash bug infestation. Squash bugs prefer squash, but they don’t mind dining on cucumbers and melons. Thousands of tiny, yellow cucumber beetles, both spotted and striped, also descended on my poor, struggling plants.

I’m hoping that if I keep apart the squash plants and banish the zucchini to the front yard and the melon to the flowerbeds, the insects will be forced to divide their time among three separate locations, reducing the damage they inflict in any one spot. So my trellis will host only the beans, peas, and cucumbers, and the squash and melons will be left to find their own way.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Thinning Seedlings: Evil but Necessary

I always have mixed feelings about thinning out my seedlings. They’re small and cute, and I’ve watched them since they first peeped out of the soil. But in the vegetable world, a Highlander-like ruthlessness prevails: in a given area, There Can Be Only One. So I dutifully chop the heads off these dainty little sprouts, one after another, in the hope that the remaining seedling in each compartment of the container will grow strong and large.

It’s hard to know which seedling is the best one to keep, this early in the season. I select first for size (nice large leaves), then sturdiness (a short, thick stem), then placement (towards the middle of the compartment, not at the edge). There are a few oddities that I’ve left behind—eggplant seedlings with three baby leaves, or cotyledons, rather than two. As my approach to gardening thus far has been largely experimental, rather than research-oriented, I’m not entirely sure what having triplet leaves means. Is it a sign of strength or an unwanted abnormality? After all, eggplant, by definition, is a dicot, the di- meaning its seeds naturally have two cotyledons. So I’ve decided to wait for the first true leaves to emerge before deciding which stem to lop off in these cases.

The culled seedlings look good enough to eat, but in this case, I’ll pass: tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers are members of the nightshade family of plants, whose stems and leaves are largely toxic to humans (though tomato leaves, in particular, are quite tasty to the larvae of the hummingbird moth). If I want sprouts or young leaves, I’ll have to plant something I can actually eat. Tomatoes and their brethren are a deferred pleasure, not to be enjoyed until midsummer. The wait will be long . . . and hungry.

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Friday, May 4, 2007


The vegetable and flower seeds started appearing in February, arrayed on tall racks at Lowe’s and Target. Each packet showed off a picture of the ideal specimen of its variety, a picture that practically screamed, “Plant me now!”

It’s hard for a gardener to resist that siren song. Last year, I heard it clearly and felt I was getting a late start when I planted my seeds indoors in March. It was a choice I ended up regretting. Everything looked perfect at first. The tomato seedlings sprang up vigorously, the thyme ran riot, and the basil—ah, the basil!—grew into a verdant mass of scented leaves. But outside the house, the cold winds howled all through April.

By the time I was ready to transplant my tomato seedlings into the garden, they were tall, skinny, spindly things. I planted them deeply, knowing that tomato stems planted underground will produce roots, but the plants still poked too far above the soil. The next harsh wind weakened the plants. I kept the peppers, eggplant, and cucurbits (cucumbers, melons, and squash) inside for several more weeks, until the weather turned milder, and they tangled themselves into a jungle on the dining room table.

This year, I was determined to do things differently. I started buying the seeds early, but I stored them away. My next-door neighbor, The Man with the Perfect Lawn, started his seeds in late March. I decided to start mine in mid-April. When the time came, however, I was immersed in other activities, too busy to dibble in seed starter. I planted my seeds just last week—too late, perhaps, to get much of a head start on the growing season, but certainly not too early.

The tomatoes started coming up a few days ago, starting with the Early Girl tomato seeds I bought last year. Yesterday, the first eggplant seed sprouted. The Anaheim and Aurora peppers haven’t yet reared up any vestige of stem or leaf.

Each time a seed sends out its first stem into the sunlight, I wonder at how such a large mass of life can emerge so quickly from something so small. Some of the tomato seeds I planted—the seeds of tiny currant tomatoes—were no larger than a grain of sand, yet their seedlings are already one inch high. Still, after the first leaves have emerged, the seed’s most important job is done. It has given the plant embryo enough nutrition to meet the sunlight and send out roots to photosynthesize and absorb moisture on its own.

Underestimate the seedling’s powers of growth, and you might end up, as I did last spring, with a table full of young plants straining to break free from their peat pots.

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