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Spring Garden in Full Swing

Spring Garden in Full Swing

I feel like I wrote about the snow a few weeks ago in my newsletter, and before that I posted about our Winter Garden  in late February when I had a most welcome transformation about our garden space in winter. And here it is April 14, 2018 and it remains a topic of conversation here in the Upper Midwest, and for good reason. It is April 14th, and we are in the middle of the biggest snowstorm of the year, nay, the biggest snowstorm in several years. In our 15 years living in Minnesota, we have never lived through such a significant "Winter" storm this late into Spring. And we have lived through some brutal winters here.

It has been a Winter for resolve, for letting go, and for coming to appreciate the here and now.  Because it has become self-evident time and again that wishing away this eternal winter is just not possible. Not only for the late snow, but for the unseasonably cold spring thus far; our temperatures are 20-30 degrees below normal -- that's pretty much a season behind! I am not-so-secretly hoping our prolonged cold is having a positive impact on reducing the Japanese beetle larvae and other pests that are overwintering here. We must accept it, marvel at it, dig in and enjoy it, even if for only a moment. 

The birds are feeding voraciously at our feeders today while the wind howls and the snow accumulates and smashes historical records; we are expected to get at least a foot of snow this weekend and now a blizzard warning is in effect until Sunday morning. However, this does not mean we are not gardening. On the contrary, our garden is growing both inside and out.

Here's a little bit of what's growing for us. 

The First Harvest of the Year

A few nights ago, I harvested the first vegetable from our outdoor garden, despite this historically slow start to the growing season: bunching onions. I paired them with some indoor cilantro and dressed a rice pilaf dish with food from our gardens. Despite the meager offering, it did fill my aching heart with hope and resolve that gardening in every small way possible is a welcome act of self-reliance and sustainability.

first harvest.jpg

Outside, we hooped off three additional areas of the garden between snowstorms -- in addition to the two hooped beds that have been covered all winter. We have about 250 square feet (60+ linear feet) covered. In one of the hooped beds, we have kale transplants, bunching onions that overwintered, and direct-sown radishes and lettuce (sown in mid-March) that germinated a few weeks ago. I'd say that's a pretty good start to the growing season between spring snow accumulations.

 A welcome thaw on the eve of the historic April 14 blizzard that is currently befalling our beloved homestead. The hooped gardens give us a much-needed season extension, especially during cold years like this one. 

A welcome thaw on the eve of the historic April 14 blizzard that is currently befalling our beloved homestead. The hooped gardens give us a much-needed season extension, especially during cold years like this one. 

 The stout cabbage and cauliflower starts looked alive and well this morning after enduring their coldest and windiest night yet. Double row cover employed this year for the first time as an extra measure of insurance against unseasonable lows. 

The stout cabbage and cauliflower starts looked alive and well this morning after enduring their coldest and windiest night yet. Double row cover employed this year for the first time as an extra measure of insurance against unseasonable lows. 

On Monday in another covered bed, I transplanted our earliest brassica starts - three beautiful compact green cabbages and three romanesco cauliflower starts - along with our beet starts, a few more varieties of cauliflower, half a dozen broccoli, four different cabbage varieties, and 8 red chinese cabbage transplants. I added a second layer of row cover (AG19) to these somewhat tender transplants. I check them daily, and they are all doing well so far, although the beets' transplanting was potentially too delayed and I'm not super confident about their production. I'm sowing more beets this weekend that will get transplanted into the garden quicker than this succession, so early beets are still on the horizon for us. 

Our other covered beds are warming the soil for more transplants: in one bed we will transplant our red and yellow onions and some shallots as soon as possible. In the other bed we will transplant some tomato starts when the soil is warmer and the daytime temps increase a bit. I know that may seem early to some of you, but we have historically transplanted our tomato starts by the third week of April under similar protection. This year, however, likely has us delaying that goal until the end of April. Our tomato starts are looking strong indoors thus far, thriving atop a heat mat, being watered with a diluted organic fertilizer for vegetative growth, and under a full spectrum LED light. 

April Sowings

If you live in the northern half of the US or somewhere else where Spring has been slow to arrive, now is a great time to start many annual flowers and still so many delicious vegetables that would appreciate the indoor head start. There is plenty of time for most crops that need a head start, in fact, except for tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants (and some slow-growing herbs like thyme and rosemary). Here is what has been and will be sown in the coming week or so at the Seed to Fork homestead. 

Time-tested, perennially-adored Brassicas

We have sown two 50-start flats of broccoli, cauliflower, kale, pok choy, kohlrabi, and cabbage this winter, most recently at the end of March. The first flat was partly transplanted in mid-March as a super early experiment; we lost all of our kohlrabi and some of our kale from that first succession, which, given our unseasonably cold Spring, was not the least bit surprising. Didn't sting any less to lose some plant babies, but it was a good experiment for us as we continue to push our growing season to its outermost boundaries. Every year brings new challenges, and new successes. 

 From head lettuce in the front to cabbages and onions in back, our starts had a long, cloudy spell outside Friday before the snow reprise. 

From head lettuce in the front to cabbages and onions in back, our starts had a long, cloudy spell outside Friday before the snow reprise. 

Grab your favorite potting soil mixture, some trays or pots, a heat pad, and sunny windowsill or shop light and sow the following indoors anytime in the next week or so:

  • kale
  • pok choy
  • swiss chard
  • lettuce
  • kohlrabi
  • cabbage
  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • beets
  • cilantro
  • basil

These should be able to be transplanted into your garden three to four weeks after germination, depending on how quickly they germinate, how fast spring arrives in your area, and if you plan to cover them or not. If you don't plan to cover them, I still encourage you to start them now; we should be out of frost danger in 3 weeks or so here in zone 4b. It's the soil temperatures this year that will determine how well these plants do outdoors when they have their true leaves. While 65F (or warmer) is the ideal soil temperature for most vegetables, kale and other brassicas will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 45F. Our hoops are both to warm soils and prevent frost, and we always check soil temperatures before transplanting with a simple meat thermometer - if temps are in the 50s or higher, we go for it. 

Splashes of Color | For the Pollinators, not the deer

Our flower garden has - on paper - exploded this year, as I am going to try to grow all of the following varieties except the dahlias outside the deer fence. Besides our annual favorites like zinnia and nasturtium, we added some new flowers for our yard and veggie patch including calendula, chamomile, cosmos, dahlia, gomphrena, larkspur, snapdragon, and strawflower. 

 Sowed around the same time, 'bicolor rose' gomphrena (globe amaranth) in foreground contrasted against fast-growing 'resina' calendula in the background.

Sowed around the same time, 'bicolor rose' gomphrena (globe amaranth) in foreground contrasted against fast-growing 'resina' calendula in the background.

We have already started the larkspur, calendula, gomphrena, dahlias, snapdragons, and chamomile indoors. I am learning as I go, reading ahead here and there to ensure successful germination for all the different flowers I hope to have blooming all summer long. It is not too late to start calendula, chamomile, gomphrena, or snapdragons. In fact, I feel I started our calendula too soon. I will wait until 4 weeks before last frost next year as it's grown vigorously relative to the other flowers we started at the same time. 

This week I will start our zinnia, cosmos, sweet alyssum, and marigolds, and next week I will start our nasturtiums. Because of this snow, it feels so early to start those, but we are technically four weeks from last frost, so I'm gonna go on faith for the time being.

One of my side goals with our flowers is to develop a deer resistant cut flower garden. Yes, I've heard time and again "nothing is deer resistant", but we had a large patch of zinnia unprotected last year, and they bloomed all summer without so much as a nibble. And all of our native perennials thrive without so much as a sideways glance by the herd.

Our sunflowers, however, were routinely grazed, as were our hosta and elderberry shrubs, the latter of which was new last year. While my most prized annuals will be grown both inside and outside our deer fence, some will only be grown outside the deer fence and their fate lies in nature's hands, including the snapdragons and larkspur. The rest I have plans to tuck some in among our vegetable beds and fruit orchard such as the calendula and chamomile, the dahlias, sweet alyssum, and marigolds. 

 Larkspur require a cold vernalization to bloom well, including 6 weeks at 50F upon germination. Lucky for us, our climate (and our basement) handily satisfy those requirements. 

Larkspur require a cold vernalization to bloom well, including 6 weeks at 50F upon germination. Lucky for us, our climate (and our basement) handily satisfy those requirements. 

Flowers to start now include: 

  • Nasturtium
  • Cosmos
  • Marigold
  • Zinnia
  • Sweet Alyssum 
  • Calendula

I always indoor sow my favorite old-time flowers to mix in the borders around our veggie beds. If starting veggies isn't for you, flowers can be a fun and simple way to garden early. It's also a magical experience for children, especially sunflowers which are quite easy to germinate and best suited to grow from seed. I most often direct sow my sunflowers in mid- to late-May. 

I will start most of these in the next day or two; the nasturtiums will wait until next weekend because their roots are very sensitive to transplant, and I prefer to transplant them quite young. I plan to transplant all of these flowers out the third weekend in May without any protection. 

I hope you are finding ways to kick off your garden season from lettuce sowing to flower sowing to final garden plans. Happy Spring, from the frozen North. 

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