Sunday, March 30, 2008

Working for the Weekend

We were an industrious pair this weekend--planting okra, spinach, marigolds, and chard, and building two new raised beds along the driveway. Mark put together an innovative trellis for the peas using speaker wire, aluminum pipe, and rebar (photos to come). Drove down to the garden center to buy even more seed trays, including an extra-deep one for the onions, which have roots already poking out the bottoms of their cells. After a brilliant afternoon outside Saturday, we rewarded ourselves with a late dinner at the inimitable Noodle Chu, with Nico the Napless Wonder in tow. Did it all over again today. A satisfying weekend overall.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Seedling Update

Everything is flourishing nicely. Here are the hott pix:


scallions and leeks



Thursday, March 27, 2008

I Say Tomato

We're planting tomato seeds right now--Nyagous, Amish Paste, Isis Candy, the strange new Yellow Hog (a gift), and a few ornamental Snowball. Kate thinks we should be liveblogging this, but we don't want to be held responsible for the resulting clinical boredom.

UPDATE: We also planted eggplant tonight--four kinds, if you can believe it: Casper, Lao Green Stripe, Scarlet Chinese, and a special bonus Sri Lankan variety. A veritable passport full!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Rambling Man

Mark has this to say:

Kate brought up an important point yesterday when I was fussing with some of the peppers under the grow lights. To paraphrase, "You are taking all of the fun out of gardening." This wasn't the first time that I've heard this criticism, not even the first time that day. She's referring to my obsessive attention to miniscule "problems" that may or may not exist. For instance, I've been making little wood shims to prop up some of the shorter pepper seedlings so they get more light. I've also previously described the repotting of the leeks which was probably overcomplicated by me and possibly unnecessary. How can I even tell if I'm enjoying the process?

I know that I need to develop a more carefree and zen approach to gardening. Kate and my continued amicable gardening experience depends on this. You can probably tell from my meticulous blog entries that I'm way too detail oriented for my own good, not to mention downright pedantic. There is a time and place for concern and unease but these sentiments cannot permeate the entire experience.

Being a confirmed obsessive-compulsive, I tend to overanalyze. This trait has its strengths and weaknesses. My enthusiasm and attention to detail are impressive, but it's not enough for me to simply participate. I immerse myself in endless research, which eventually leads to a state of mania. Right now I'm obsessed with getting all of the seedlings off to a strong start, but I'm haunted by the notion that I can always tweak the process to produce even better results. After all, who wants to put in hours of labor only to fizzle out in the eleventh hour and receive nothing but failure in return? However, this outlook can produce disappointment when unexpected calamities which are beyond my control occur. Sometimes seeds don't sprout. Flea beetles may turn eggplant leaves into swiss cheese. Rain doesn't materialize, or worse, soaks the land with mold-inducing, fungus-spawning surfeit. No amount of preparation can prepare me to deal with these sorts of unforeseen challenges that all gardeners are forced to deal with eventually.

For me, there is no worse feeling than knowing that a window of opportunity is closing. There is always an optimum time to plant, transplant, and harvest any particular crop, but this schedule never dovetails nicely with the demands of normal life. Pruning is optimally done in the spring at the exact same time when seed-starting obligations take precedence. Compost is best and most easily made during the summer, but only if well-shredded leaves are available from the previous fall.

Furthermore, gardening often takes a back seat to the more mundane (to some) aspects of life. I claim to enjoy gardening for its relaxing and restorative properties. Playing "beat the clock" against nature is contrary to this goal and is ultimately a losing battle. Even though I understand this in principle, I find it difficult put this sort of laissez-faire nonchalance into practice.

My new mantra is to take a more natural approach to growing plants (this should be a no-brainer). I'm frustrated that I have to force myself to just relax and enjoy the ride. Nature dictates nature, and I'm only a lowly metalhead, a novice meddler at best. I could probably learn a lot more if I just stopped and smelled the roses rather than trying to micromanage them.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


We transferred some more leeks tonight and got into a tussle over whether it was necessary to do the same for the scallions. There seems to be a real dearth of information on intermediate transplanting. For instance, what should be done with leeks and other alliums when they outgrow their starting trays? Many books recommend transferring to a more nutrient-rich growing medium, but nothing is said about when to do this or what new pot to use.

Our personal experience with peat pots has been less than stellar, since the peat sucked up the moisture like a sponge and demanded constant watering. Also, the pots took too long to break down in the soil and inhibited plant growth. Aside from this, leeks and scallions in particular don't seem to use a lot of lateral room to grow.

We decided to make some tall, narrow newspaper pots, then placed them inside some round-cell seed trays for support. Is this the best solution? Probably not, since it's time consuming and can't possibly be employed by commercial gardeners. If anyone from our massive, adoring fanbase has any suggestions, we're all ears.

After inadvertently breaking a few scallion stems, Kate also suggested that they were too delicate for transplanting, so we're leaving them alone for now.

We need a gardening mentor and are accepting applications for the volunteer position, which does include a generous stipend of oatmeal cookies.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Pretty Peas

Today we planted peas in the garden while it snowed. Something is wrong with this situation.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Shrooms, Dude

Mark gave Kate a shiitake mushroom growing kit for her birthday last week. This is exciting to us because we are nerds, but also because we've been considering joining the NJ Mycological Association, or at least checking out a foraging event at one of the nearby parks. We have a couple of friends who are becoming increasingly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about foraging for mushrooms, but of course they live on the West Coast.

We needed some logs for the mushrooms to grow in, so Mark and Kate's dad enthusiastically sawed off a big limb from the oak tree in our front yard. We also found a guy in Andover who runs a sawmill and gave us pieces of some logs he couldn't use, so we'll see how that works. The sawmill guy also happens to sell certified organic compost and topsoil (I guess you could call him a "dirt merchant") at a fair price, so we took some of that as well.

So last night Mark drilled hundreds of little holes in the wood, and tonight Kate gets to fill them with little mushroom capsules and hot wax and see what happens.

Broccoli, Week 4

The broccoli is on fire! Well, not literally, but it's growing really fast.

Pepper Progress

Here's a quick rundown on the pepper plant germination after two weeks:

Aji Dulce – 4 seeds out of 12 (Southern Exposure)

Ampuis - 10 seeds out of 10 (Amishland)

Ancho Gigante – 15 seeds out of 16 (Seed Savers)

Fish – 0 seeds out of 5 (Baker Creek)

Hot Lemon – 6 seeds out of 12 (saved)

Kevin's Orange – 10 seeds out of 16 (Southern Exposure)

Orchid – 0 seeds out of 8 (Baker Creek)

Thai Birdseye – 0 seeds out of 12 (Baker Creek)

Trinidad Purple Coffee - 8 seeds out of 10 sprouted

So the sweet and mild peppers are doing well while the hot peppers are not as productive. In fact, the only chilies to germinate so far are saved seeds from last year. Mark is particularly surprised and disappointed to see the Baker Creek seeds performing so poorly. We're willing to give them at least one more week before moving to Plan B: find some transplants.

There is one other trick to pepper seed sprouting that we've employed. We've been placing the seed cells directly on top of the heating mat rather than placing them inside a tray and then on the mat. The soil seems to warm better this way.


Just a quick update. On 3/12 we planted two kinds of onions: 36 Spanish Yellow and 72 Cipollini. They sprouted in less than a week.

The leeks and scallions are now so tall now that they're flopping over. Hopefully that's not detrimental to their growth. We know you're excited about this, so stay tuned to see if the onions share the same fate...


We've talked about presprouting seeds in a previous entry. The main goal in presprouting is to get the seeds to germinate before they are deposited into the soil-free starting mix or are direct-seeded in the garden. The idea here is that environmental sprouting conditions are easier to replicate in a small incubation microclimate than in a 72-cell tray or garden soil. Presprouting is accomplished by rolling up seeds in damp paper towels and placing them in a plastic bag atop a heating mat. The seeds must be monitored on a daily basis for moisture levels; this periodic inspection also provides airflow, which is a crucial component to successful germination.

Pre-sprouting seems to work well for the small number of seeds we experimented with, but the task soon becomes onerous when applied to a larger number of seeds and varieties. For example, the daily unfurling of each roll of seeds becomes time consuming as the number of varieties increases. At first, we only dealt with 3 varieties of 3-5 seeds each. We then added a few more varieties after some initial success and then started to notice the added inconvenience of unwrapping and rewrapping a greater number of packages. Nevertheless, we did achieve some rapid germination with some of the seeds, noticeably with the purple coffee pepper. The earliest purple coffee sprout appeared within 5 days of starting the sprouts. The hot lemon peppers also performed well, with each of the 3 seeds sprouting on the tenth day. Ultimately, we have decided to reserve presprouting for small quantities or for direct-seeded plants that require warm soil temperature to germinate like melons, squash, and cucumber (i.e., the Cucurbitaceae family).

For the bulk of our pepper starts, we decided to use the same method that gave us great results last year. This is the 72-cell tray system with bottom capillary-action watering, a common seed-starting technique. The system works by placing the tray of seedlings on a water-absorbent mat which is kept damp by a reservoir beneath. This method provides an even supply of moisture to each cell and prevents overwatering. Our mats weren't absorbing enough water this year so we decided to stop using them and simply place the seedlings in a shallow supply of water. Mark then found out through his obsessive pursuit of gardening minutia that seedlings should not be placed in standing water for extended periods of time. These conditions lead to overly damp soil which can foster growth of the dreaded damping-off fungus. We are now keeping the cells watered by setting the tray in water for a half hour whenever the soil appears to have dried out, which is about every 48 hours.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Peppers are tropical plants and require a sustained soil temperature of about 80°F to germinate. Even under optimum conditions, most sources agree that pepper seeds started in a soil-less mix will not sprout in less than 7-10 days. The real trick with starting pepper seeds is to raise the temperature of the starting medium without denuding the medium of moisture. Airflow is another important factor in sprouting all types of seeds, so the growing medium needs to accommodate this condition as well. Furthermore, the conditions that favor pepper seed germination can also encourage mold to form which can smother new seedlings.

Although the challenge of starting peppers from seed seems formidable, we know it's not only possible but quite commonly accomplished by home gardeners, including ourselves. We grew about 50 pepper plants last year from seed and are hoping for similar success this year. The main difference for us this year from last is that we are growing a larger variety of peppers this year but a smaller number of each type. This means that we will be starting fewer seeds per variety and need to achieve the best germination rates we can get. We don't want to repeat last year's experience in which we ended up with way too many plants and not enough space to plant them. In other words, we would like to fine-tune the seed starting process and develop a clearer picture of how many seedlings to start with in order to arrive at a target number of adult plants. We expect to repeat this refinement process for the other vegetables we will be growing as well.

Friday, March 7, 2008

A Peck of Purple Peppers

Before launching into a tedious description of the various seed-starting methods we have employed, here's a basic overview of the 9 heirloom varieties we are growing and our target numbers for each type:

Aji Dulce – A popular Caribbean sweet pepper with the appearance and flavor of a habaƱero but only a shadow of its heat. We would like to transplant 4 of these outdoors at the end of May.

Ampuis – An interesting-looking French heirloom derived from Amishland. 4 transplants.

Ancho Gigante - Seed Saver Exchange's poblano. 8 transplants.

Fish – A moderately hot pepper with a prolific habit and some flashy foliage. 2 potted plants (all of our chilies will be grown in pots this year).

Hot Lemon – One of two varieties propagated from seed saved from last year, the hot lemon pepper is a crowd pleaser around these parts. Originally obtained from Burpee (of all places), this Peruvian heirloom imparts a fresh citrus flavor along with a tolerable level of heat. 3 potted plants.

Kevin's Orange – The only true bell we're growing, this is a medium-length season pepper from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. 8 transplants.

Orchid – a flower-shaped pepper grown more for its appearance than flavor, this type is probably going to remain an ornamental. We're interested to see how well this variety performs as the package label contain a warning regarding its low germination rate. 2 potted plants.

Thai Birdseye – A Baker Creek traditional offering collected in Thailand, these peppers are hotter than the larger Thai Dragon types. Baker Creek has a substantial number of authentic SE Asian peppers and vegetables, a lot more than we can grow in a season. We're growing 3 plants for ourselves and at least 3 to give away.

Trinidad Purple Coffee- This ornamental pepper is extremely rare and is being grown from seed collected last year from a friend's plant. As far as we know, the only way to obtain the plant is from a nursery in Maryland that does not sell seeds or ship live plants. Our friend (we'll call him 'Keeve') happens to live a few minutes away from the nursery and gave me some fruits last summer. We're hoping to get 3 healthy plants this year from which to collect more seed. This purple-leafed variety is incredibly hot and probably won't make it into anything fit for human consumption. Mark is looking forward to blending up a few of these chilies into a garlic/soap spray and then using the spray to melt some aphids.

Mark hopes to visit Maryland in April to pick up a couple more rare pepper plants for home seed propagation. In particular, he's got his eye on another nuclear-hot Caribbean ornamental appropriately named Scorpion. This year will mark our first real attempts at isolating plants for seed-saving purposes, and the rare peppers will be the cornerstone of these efforts.