Category Archives: Vegetables

My Little Lettuce Chuppah

I’ve always grown lettuce but for me, it’s been a spring crop. I never tried growing it in the summer or attempted to keep a constant supply of lettuce coming from the garden.

But this year, I decided to try a serious lettuce growing program.

To start, I knew that I needed a mixture of seeds, some that are better in the spring, others for the summer and still others for the fall. On my own, it would have taken a lot of time and effort to search through all of the lettuce varieties and determine which ones to grow. Fortunately, Johnny’s Seeds has developed a head lettuce planting program that lists the best varieties for each season.

I also knew that I needed a location to grow the lettuce that would be easy to control, water and monitor. So I made a 4’x4′ raised bed and divided it into 9 squares. That’s a little larger than the square foot gardening technique, but I liked that it would give the plants a little more room to grow.

IMG_9811I also wanted to provide some shade to the plants. Since I had already put stakes at each corner and wrapped the bed with chicken wire, I had the framework to attach some cloth to the top of the bed. I stretched wire to each diagonal post to make an “X” across the top of the bed. Then I put a piece of floating row cover over the top and attached it to the posts. The end result looked like a little chuppah (!), but it would give the plants some shade while still allowing me to access the bed for watering, weeding and harvesting.

I chose four different kinds of lettuce from Johnny’s program for the summer growing season. I figured that two summer crisps (Muir and Cherokee), a butterhead (Adriana) and a romaine (Costal Star) would give me a good mixture of plants to see which grew the best in the lettuce chuppah. Since lettuce can have thermal dormancy (seeds don’t germinate at high temperatures), I didn’t direct seed the lettuce; instead, I started seeds inside in Jiffy-7s.

Lettuce Bed with Knife Ready for Harvesting!

Lettuce Bed with Knife Ready for Harvesting!

I’ve been starting seeds every 2 weeks and planting four plants to a square in the raised bed. So far, it’s working well. This has been a wet and somewhat cool summer so the plants haven’t been stressed by heat or drought. I’ve started to harvest some of the first plantings and the lettuce is good.

Will this success continue? Time will tell. Warmer days are ahead and we’ll see if the plants bolt or turning bitter. Also, in August I’ll stop starting seeds of the summer varieties and switch to a couple fall varieties of lettuce.

If this experiment continues to work, that little 4’x4′ bed with its chuppah covering might just be the way to keep a steady supply of lettuce coming in from the garden. I could start in the spring and keep planting through early fall using the nine squares to grow lettuce all season long.

Multigreen Lettuce – A Name I’ll Remember

I’ve been growing lettuce for decades and I’ve tried more varieties of this vegetable than I can even remember. I’ve grown all kinds of lettuce: butterhead, summer crisp, leaf, romaine, and head. They’ve all been fine and have grown well, but none of the varieties was so amazing that I remembered its name.

Multigreen Lettuce

Multigreen Lettuce

That is until I grew Multigreen lettuce.

I don’t even know why I decided to purchase this lettuce from Jung’s Seeds, but I’m glad I did. Multigreen is a type of lettuce similar to the Salanova® varieties sold from Johnny’s Seeds and the Tanimura & Antle artisan lettuce that you find in four-packs at the grocery store. Here’s how the Jung website describes it: Harvest uniform leaves every time. Not a leaf lettuce, not a head lettuce, but a unique type that develops uniform, finely serrated leaves of shiny dark green with crisp  texture and mild, sweet flavor. One snap at the base of the plant yields identical leaves that have an excellent shelf life.

Multigreen Lettuce Cut in Half

Multigreen Lettuce Cut in Half

In the garden, Multigreen looks a lot like frisee endive. I’ve been harvesting them while they’re still young but if you let them mature, the plants will be much more rounded. But the truly surprising part is how uniform the leaves are and how easily they can be removed from the core. You can pull a number of leaves off the side of a harvested plant or cut out the core and have a large pile of perfect lettuce. I also like how the leaves are dark green at the tip and then become more blanched until they’re almost white at the core. In addition, they’re very easy to clean.

Multigreen Lettuce Leaves

Multigreen Lettuce Leaves

This kind of lettuce isn’t readily available for the home gardener. It appears to be marketed more to commercial growers for use in salad mixes. Given the ease of harvest and the yield from each plant, I can understand why it would be appealing to growers.

But having found Multigreen, I want to try some of the other similar kinds of lettuce. Johnny’s offers Salanova® Foundation varieties in green and red (similar to Multigreen) as well as Salanova® Premier, a lettuce like Multigreen but with more rounded leaves in green and red.

I’ll keep trying different lettuces but for now, Multigreen and Salanova® are two varieties whose names I’ll remember. Multigreen has certainly earned a spot in the garden rotation and I think Salanova® will as well.

Vegetable Garden – Off and Running

After a lot of fits and starts, the vegetable garden finally seems to be hitting its stride. Thanks to the warm weather and a lot of rain, everything is growing well. There doesn’t appear to be any major insect damage or disease, so for the time being, all is well. This week, besides lettuce, I should be harvesting some peas and summer squash.

IMG_1989

 

Broccoli

Broccoli

Potatoes

Potatoes

Summer Squash

Summer Squash

Peas

Peas

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

Peppers

Peppers

Collards, Kale and Lettuce

Collards, Kale and Lettuce

The Strange Weather Continues

Given the warm weather in May, I was able to plant the garden a lot earlier than usual. Things were growing well, but then it occurred – May 23 we had a frost. That’s unheard of in this area, but it happened.

It was the beginning of Memorial Day weekend and I could tell that some of the plants in the vegetable garden had been affected.

The strange part is how isolated the frost was. In a small row of beans, most of them were fine except for the plants at one end of the row. A couple of peppers were nipped, but plants right next to them were unaffected. It looked as if there was a small strip of the garden that got frost while the rest didn’t.

Frost Nipped Summer Squash

Frost Nipped Summer Squash

The only plants that looked really bad were the summer squash and cucumbers. The squash has since recovered. It appears that the outer leaves were the only parts affected. The cucumbers, however, were done; I needed to replant them. That’s probably because they were really small and happened to be right in the middle of the swath of frost.

The other issue has been the lack of rain. After a dry May, we just had 3+ inches of rain and the ground is now plenty moist. But with the rain came a change in the weather. Temperatures went from the mid-80’s to the middle 50’s. The broccoli and lettuce are loving it but the peppers and tomatoes – not so much!

If this bizarre weather continues for the growing season of 2015, it could be a very interesting year in the garden.

To Till or Not to Till – That Is the Question

A couple of months ago I read Jeff Lowenfels’ Teaming with Microbes. This book describes the microbiome of soil and the various living organisms that make up a healthy garden soil. He outlines the bacteria, fungi, archaea (organisms that were first classified as bacteria but later classified as a separate group of prokaryotes in 1977 – a new class of organisms to me!), arthropods, insects, and worms that are all a part of a healthy soil system. With all of this life going on under the surface of the soil, it got me thinking about how I garden.

Like a lot of gardeners, I’ve always assumed that you needed to have a nice, soft, fluffy bed of soil in order to plant seeds and grow plants. In order to achieve this, it means using a rototiller every spring to stir up the soil in order to create this desired texture.

But Lowenfel got me wondering if this is really necessary or even beneficial. There aren’t many farmers that plow their fields like they used to in the past – they just plant directly into the soil without any preparation. So could it be that this no-till approach is something that I should consider in the garden? After exploring a lot of sites devoted to soil and rototilling, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are some pros and cons to tilling the garden.

 

TroyponyThere are benefits to tilling:

  • It can break up heavy, compacted soil.
  • Large amounts of organic matter can be incorporated into the soil to improve its texture and tilth.
  • Tilled soil dries out and warms up more quickly in the spring.
  • If the soil’s pH needs to be adjusted, tilling distributes the lime, aluminum sulfate or sulfur throughout the soil and lead to an even adjustment of the pH.

 

 

There are also problems that tilling causes:

  • no-rototillerStirring up the soil disturbs communities of microorganisms as well as shredding earthworms.
  • The incorporation of a lot of oxygen into the soil leads to a rapid breakdown of organic matter and the release of a lot of CO2.
  • While tilling will kill surface weeds, it brings buried weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate and grow.
  • Quicker drying in the spring means that there’s less water in the soil later in the season.

I had always thought that you needed to till in order to open up the soil and allow for easier water absorption and root penetration. But I now see that in a healthy soil, decaying roots, tunnels created by worms and the hypha of fungi all provide avenues to allow water to enter the soil. Also roots are strong and while they can’t break through a hard dead-pan, they can easily make their way through the average soil.

Many think that fertilizer or compost needs to be mixed into soil in order for the plant to be able to absorb the nutrients. However, this isn’t the case. The majority of feeder roots of plants are close to the surface and the natural process of leaching will bring the needed nutrients to the plants. Side dressing plants with compost or fertilizer will work well and limit the amount of wasted fertilizer.

After a lot of reading, research, and thinking, I’m moving in the direction of not tilling. This year I left a couple of beds untilled to give it a try. I find that the untilled beds have more moisture in the soil than the tilled ones. While the soil might not warm as quickly, here in south central PA, untilled soil warms quickly enough. When I planted seeds, I just used a hoe to loosen the soil a little and the seeds germinated well.

The biggest challenge to planting in untilled soil was a mental one. I’ve come to expect that garden soil should be as loose and fluffy as a bag of potting mix. It seemed a little strange to plant in soil that was more firm and dense. So far, the plants don’t seem to mind the difference so this is probably something that I need to get over!

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I’ll never till again. If I was preparing a new site for a garden, I’d till the soil. If I planned to add a lot of compost or peat to the soil, I’d till it in. If I had pH issues, I’d rototill the lime or sulfur into the soil. And if this no-till experiment doesn’t work, I’ll certainly go back to using the rototiller.

But for now, no-till gardening seems like a good idea. It preserves the communities of life within the soil. It appears to maintain soil moisture better. And let’s face it – it’s a whole lot easier!

So, to till or not to till? The question is still open, but I’m going to see how the not-to-till option works for me.

The Vegetable Garden 2015 – A Late Start and an Early Start

This could turn out to be an interesting year in the vegetable garden.

I planted some cool weather crops like broccoli. kale, collards, onions and lettuce back in April, but the weather was a little too cool even for them. They sat in the ground in a sort of suspended animation and did nothing for a number of weeks. During this time, there was also a really cold night that nipped the brassicas and set them back even further. Add to all of this that there hasn’t been very much rain and the whole spring garden seems to have gotten off to a very late start. Only now are these plants starting to grow and get settled into their place in the garden.

But as is often the case, a slow, cold spring suddenly changes into summer within a day or two.

May 1st - Vegetable Garden Planted

May 3rd – Vegetable Garden Planted

In early May that sort of change occurred. Temperatures were in the 70’s and even crept up into the 80’s. Here in south-central PA the frost-free date is around May 15th. But this year, when I checked the Accuweather forecast, I could tell that the frost-free day for 2015 was going to be much earlier. It was May 1st and there was no sign of a cool down in the coming two weeks.

I also noticed something happening in the garden. Volunteer seedlings of squash and tomatoes were starting to pop up in the beds. While I’ll be hoeing out these plants since they’re little more than weeds, they served as a sign to let me know that the soil had warmed enough to allow them to germinate.

With the soil warm and the temperatures safe, I planted most of the warm weather vegetable garden on May 3rd. I transplanted tomatoes, sowed seeds of beans, cucumbers and summer squash.

My early planting seems to have paid off. The squash and beans are germinating, the tomatoes are fine. The only negative is that I had to water some of the plants – that’s unusual in May but until we get some real rain, I think I’ll have to continue doing it.

This year, the peas and broccoli might be later than usual, but I’m likely to have beans and summer squash much earlier than other years. I guess that’s the trade-off with having a late start with cool weather plants and early start with warm weather plants!

Cucumber Beetle Resistant Parthenocarpic Zucchini – Say What?!?!

Partenon Hybrid Zucchini (Park Seeds)

Partenon Hybrid Zucchini
(Park Seeds)

If there’s one plant I’m really looking forward to growing in the vegetable garden this year it’s Partenon hybrid summer squash. I found this new zucchini in the Park Seed catalog. The two things about this squash that caught my eye are that it is cucumber beetle resistance and parthenocarpic.

One of the constant struggles I have with zucchini is dealing with cucumber beetles. While these beetles cause leaf damage to the plants, the real problem is that they’re vectors for bacterial wilt. Bacterial wilt is caused by the bacterium Erwinia tracheiphila. When a cucumber beetle chew on a leaf, if it carries this bacterium in its intestinal tract, it’ll transmit Erwinia tracheiphila to the squash plant through the tissue damaged by its feeding on it. The bacteria multiplies in the xylem (the vascular tissue of a plant that transports water from the roots to the rest of the plant). In time, the xylem clogs and the plant wilts and dies.

While I haven’t had as much of a problem with bacterial wilt as I have in the past, it’s still a problem. Sprays, traps, row covers and silver plastic mulch are all ways to limit the problem of cucumber beetles but none of them are fool-proof. The idea of a squash that resists the beetle sounds like a good idea to me.

The other cool thing about this squash is that it’s parthenocarpic. Parthenocarpic comes from two Greek words: parthenos meaning virgin and karpos meaning fruit. Parthenocarpy is the formation of fruit without fertilization and a parthenocarpic plant produces fruit without fertilization.

Squash plants produce male and female flowers. In order for a squash to form, a pollinator (usually a bee) has to take pollen from the male flower and transfer it to the female flower. This usually isn’t a problem but if the weather is cool and/or rainy or if the pollinator population is low, the fruit set might be diminished due to lack of pollination/fertilization.

A parthenocarpic plant solves these problem. The fruit will form and mature without pollination so any variables to pollination that would affect fruit set in a normal squash are gone. Also, if you’ve ever let a zucchini get a little large, you know how the center of the squash is full of seeds. In the case of parthenocarpic squash there are no seeds because it wasn’t fertilized. It’s a “virgin fruit!”

It should be interesting to see how this cucumber beetle resistant parthenocarpic zucchini does in the garden. I’ll still plant some other varieties of zucchini but this is the one I’ll be watching closely.