This was the year we dove head-first into seedling starting. Last year, we got our feet wet with early lettuce and spinach. This year, we took on a dozen more crops for a total of 350 seedlings! Here's what we did... and learned.
We started the seedlings in two main groups: early (sown on March 9th) and late (sown on March 30th).
Our early seedlings were Greens (lettuce & spinach), Alliums (leeks & onions) and Brassicas (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages & cauliflowers). They were first transplanted into 6-packs, then planted in the garden on April 21 (6 weeks after sowing). We had a long cold early spring followed by a heat wave, so the transplants took some time to take hold and have suffered some heat stress. Yet, we've had an excellent harvest of early greens and most of the alliums and brassicas have hung on and are now growing well.
Our late seedlings were the Nightshades (eggplants, peppers, tomatillos & tomatoes), along with okra, basil and a smaller, second crop of lettuces. They went into the garden on May 27th (8 weeks after sowing). Unlike the early seedlings, they required transplanting twice: first into 6-packs and then into 4-inch pots. The tomatillos and tomatoes may have been slightly overgrown (over a foot tall, some with flowers) when planted in the garden. The eggplants and peppers were strong, stunningly perfect 6-9 inch tall seedlings.
We experimented with sowing in soil blocks this year. The lettuces and spinach were planted directly into pressed soil blocks made with a press borrowed from fellow gardener, Donna Kray. It took some experimentation to get the soil consistency and moisture level right (quite heavy and wet). It also took some practice to perfect the pressing technique, but the seedlings did very well. The soil block presses come in graduated sizes – with the smaller ones fitting into the larger ones -- so they could also be used for the late seedlings.
The seedlings that weren’t in soil blocks were transplanted into 6-packs 2 weeks after sowing. The late seedlings were transplanted into 4” pots after an additional 2-3 weeks of growth. We made our own planting mix of coir, sterilized compost, vermiculite and sand. Unlike mixes using peat moss, no lime was needed to neutralize the acidity. We increased the amount of compost and decreased the vermiculite in the mix each time the seedlings were transplanted, always making sure to include a sprinkling of organic fertilizer.
Our seedlings began indoors under lights. Three 4' dual fluorescent fixtures were suspended below the upper shelf of a sturdy 4' x 2' x 6' tall shelf unit. Three 18" x 24" trays holding the seedlings were slid in on the shelf below. Two of the bulbs were Ecolux T8 and the others were older Paralite grow lamps.
The lights were run through a simple timer, set for 15 hours a day. The distance of the seedlings from the lights was adjusted by the number of trays (these trays have a 3/4 inch thick rim) and by switching out varying length S hooks made from heavy gauge wire suspending the light fixtures.
The only way we could grow so many seedlings was with the coordinated efforts of our dedicated seedling committee (Lisa, Michael, Mike, Sue and me). We gathered for planting and transplanting sessions, and took on caring for the seedlings at different stages of their development.
The grow lights in our basement made it easy for me to oversee the sprouting and early stages of growth. When it came time for the seedlings to be hardened off and given real sun, Lisa, Michael and Sue took over their care. We were able to spread the work and all reap the rewards -- awesome!
For next spring, we could plant both Tomato beds with Salad Turnips and substitute Radishes in the Sweet Potato bed (because they're faster). We might also try to get all four of the cucurbit (Cucumber, Watermelon, Winter Squash & Pumpkin) beds dug for the early May planting. That way, we can plant twice as long a row of each early crop.
Last year we grew sweet potatoes for the very first time, and had a very successful crop. Sweet potatoes grow from "slips", which are small stems that root from sweet potato tubers. Last year we ordered our slips from Burpee over the web, but the year before we had difficulty acquiring viable slips and didn't end up planting any sweet potatoes. For this year, we resolved to grow our own slips.
Over the winter, I went in search of organic sweet potatoes that had not been treated with a growth retardant. I also wanted to know what kind of sweet potatoes we would be planting. I went to several winter farmers' markets and talked to several farmers. They all tried to talk me out of our plan- they did not grow their own slips and believed it to be very difficult. I finally was able to buy 10 Covington sweet potatoes at the Somerville Winter Farmers' Market from North Star Farm in North Dartmouth. These sweet potatoes were extremely large, and might not have been the ideal sweet potatoes for our experiment.
There were many recommended ways to grow sweet potato slips that I found, and we decided to experiment and try several different growing techniques. The one constant was the recommendation that sweet propagation was helped by heat, so those of us who had heat sources used them. 3 of us took sweet potatoes and attempted to grow them in water, and I took 6 sweet potatoes and grew them in a variety of materials: 3 in potting soil, 2 in coir, and 1 in sand, all on a heating pad. The one thing we didn't try was to cut the sweet potatoes in half before putting them in a planting medium- I didn't discover this recommendation until after the experiment started. I planted the sweet potatoes sideways with the planting medium about halfway up the sweet potato, and the people who suspended the sweet potatoes in water tried to make sure that the root end was down.
At first, it seemed like the experiment was a complete failure. The sweet potatoes did nothing, for weeks on end. I kept them watered, and made sure that they didn't get too much water that would cause them to rot. The people who had them in water reported that there was something of a white fuzz on the sweet potato, but it didn't lead to anything.
Finally, one of the sweet potatoes in potting soil started showing signs of life.
Once the sweet potatoes started sprouting, they just took off. 2 of the 3 that were potted in potting soil sent up small forests of sprouts, and then the 2 potatoes in coir started sprouting. The sweet potato in sand was next, and finally, the last sweet potato in potting soil started sending up sprouts. It seemed pretty clear that the sweet potatoes in potting soil sent up the most sprouts in the shortest amount of time.
The slips got big enough that it became time to twist them off and root them in water. This seemed like a terrifying task that could easily destroy all my hard work, but it was actually really easy. The slips weren't that hard to detach, and if they were (mostly because I had let them grow too tall) yanking them off didn't seem to have any serious side effects. I soon had many slips sprouting in water.
Meanwhile, most the the sweet potatoes sprouting in water were still not showing any growth. Elisabeth transferred her sweet potato to potting soil, and finally had some success.
Michael was the only one who managed to have success with sweet potatoes in water.
For several weeks now, we have been handing out decks of Veggie School flashcards, for youngsters who have yet to learn their basic veggies. This weekend we added sample packets of Crosby Egyptian Beets, for their older brothers and sisters. Each packet contains a couple dozen pods of 4 to 6 seeds each, enough for several containers or half a row in a home garden.
In their day, Crosby Egyptians were one of this country's most sought after beets among market gardeners. Their early growth cycle, their extended youth, and their ease of preparation for market all brought more money to market gardeners’ bottom lines.
The Crosby Egyptian was first cultivated in the late-1860’s on a farm owned and operated by Josiah Crosby, one of the largest farms in Arlington, located on Lake Street facing east towards Cambridge. The Crosby Egyptian was a much improved version of a beet called the Flat Egyptian, imported from Germany, where beets had been first developed.
The Crosby Beet set itself apart from the Flat Egyptian in several ways that made it a better value proposition for many market gardeners. It liked cool weather; so it could be planted earlier in the growing season and brought to market sooner, when beet prices were higher. It was not as quick to turn tough in its growth cycle. Crosby Beets stayed tender and tasty longer than Flat Egyptians, during most all of the growing season. Finally, the Crosby’s skin was much smoother, which made it easier and more efficient to clean in preparation for market. Altogether, Crosby Beets meant a better bottom line for market gardeners, compared to the Flat Egyptians from which they had been evolved.
Though the owner of one of the largest market gardening farms in Arlington (much larger, for example, than the Robbins Farm), Josiah Crosby was not a seed distributor. He was not set up for that kind of business. So in the early 1880’s he sold the rights to his new beet to James H. Gregory, one of the country’s leading commercial sellers of seeds, based in Gloucester, MA
Gregory added the Crosby Beets to his catalog in 1885, where they became an instant success. In one of his seed catalogs from 1890, Gregory quotes George B. Courtis, “one of our best resident market gardeners” as saying “After trials of many varieties, I pronouce the Crosby’s Egyptian the best for the early market.”
Even today, with their heart-like shape, their smooth crimson skin, and their sweet red flesh, Crosbys are still regarded by many home gardeners as one of the finer beets around.
It looks like no rain this week. With seeds and seedlings for 2 dozen different veggies now settling in, that means we'll be watering every day.
Some plants will be fine with a dousing every second day, but some need a daily slug. These include carrots, beets, arugula, cilantro, basil, kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, book chi, salad turnips, scallions, spinach, mesclun and radishes.
The cycle time for hand watering is roughly 3.5 minutes per 2 gallon watering can (Fill from tap: .5 min, Carry to plot: .5 min, Sprinkle: 2.0 min, Return to tap: .5 min). That's about 2 hours for the 32 gallons needed for the water-every-day veggies.
Left to one's self, watering becomes almost a meditation. But when supervisors join in from the playground next door, it shifts to a different realm.
Today was our first comfortably warm day at the Garden. Another new member, Agnes, joined up, bringing with her a wicked fine camera. We were also visited by a half dozen curious kidlets with young parents in tow.
Today we planted eight more veggies: basil, cilantro, arugula, bok choi, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, and sunflowers. Avery put the finishing touches on his excellent drywell that surrounds our now-working faucet. Alan, Mike, and Steven started a pea trellis that will strech half the length of the garden. We also added a spindly arbor at the Garden's front gate with the hope that this summer's nasturtiums will make it beautiful.