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Intrepid Urban Farmer: With big swings in temps, who knows when to start . . . a gardener’s conundrum

By Ginger Dawson
Special to NKyTribune

This winter sure is weird.  This was supposed to be my first year to have time to really get an early crop garden started.  I was ready for it.  I had mesclun (a lettuce mix), two types of radishes, two types of spinach and peas all ready and waiting to go.

But when to start?  In the past, this was a fairly easy thing to decide.  I didn’t really have time to do it, but I did know when to do it.  The winters were fairly predictable.  In December, January and February, it was cold — obviously cold.  It was a reasonably consistent cold.  The kind of cold that you thought to yourself, “Hmm.  This is going to be going on for some time and I need to stick to the usual timeline that is focused on soil temperature, frost and the arrival of Mother’s Day”.  Easy.

This is the strawberry spinach, an ancient 16th. century European heirloom plant, found in a monastery. This explains a lot. Bad Seeds.

The respective outdoor and soil temperatures were in step with their annual dance.  You knew that when the dirt could be worked, you could plant your peas.  Or your radishes.  Or spinach.

But, not this year.  

How on earth am I supposed to have any signal about when to plant when the temperatures are swinging between 28 and 70 degrees on a weekly basis?!

And what about the dirt?  Who knows what’s going on there?  I do have a soil thermometer and I have taken my garden’s temperature.  The dirt is warm enough, but not too warm, for early planting.  This is good.  

But how good is it when it gets so damn cold some days that the little plants get frostbitten?  This is a gardener’s conundrum.

Now I know some of you (the greenhouse-owning elite) are poo-pooing all of this.  I know you’re thinking, “Why doesn’t she just use a cold-frame or row covers?”.

Since necessity is the mother of invention, or in my case, the eureka moment for a dolt, I have done just that.

Sure, this lettuce will be ready to harvest in nine days. Nope.

This past February 18, I planted some “Spicy Mesclun Mix — excite your salad bowl!” (this was the package description).   I put it in a little raised bed (actually, an old kitchen sink — that’s a story for another day) and cobbled together some bamboo arches covered with heavy plastic.  Aside from the fact that it looks really stupid, I think it is working out OK.  The seeds have germinated and I have a reasonably good stand of seedlings.  However, it has been 19 days and I should be able to harvest it in 24.  It ain’t gonna happen.

So, even with a cover, this bi-polar warm/cold business does slow things down.  The plants are as confused as I am. That’s fine.  I have learned something here.  And, I still feel pretty confident that I will get a decent harvest out of that sink no matter how perplexed the plants and this human are.

Heartened by this developing project, I decided, just yesterday, to get on with the rest of the early garden planting.

This was my chance to enjoy the efforts of last year’s new raised bed project.  I detailed that project here.

Half of one of these beds has been designated the perennial herb patch.  Chives, tarragon, sage and thyme reside there.  I add parsley annually, or bi-annually, depending on its survival (some parsleys can hang on for an extra year).

Here’s the lettuce hoop garden with everything and the kitchen sink.

The other half would be the home to my first planting of peas in quite some time.  This is exciting!….to me.

After loosening the dirt with a little hand-held hoe, I positioned a tri-fold wire plant support in an diagonal across the bed.  I made a little furrow around the base of the support.  The peas are planted one to two inches deep, a couple of inches apart.

Now, when planting beans, and peas are included in this category—legumes, I like to use inoculant.  Inoculant is a soil booster that contains live nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  It increases crop yields and improves the growth of the plants.  Nitrogen is added back into the soil.  This is an added benefit for the next season’s crops.  It is an excellent thing to do to enhance your crop rotation plan.  Grain farmers always rotate their soybean and corn crops for this reason.  Soybeans fix nitrogen into the soil and replenish it for the next season’s corn.  You can do this in your own, much smaller, farm and also enhance your plan with the addition of inoculant.

Inoculant is something that is not generally available in your local garden store.  Most of the larger catalogues carry it.  Burpee has it, and so does Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

But, here’s the problem.  It doesn’t take very much inoculant to treat seed.  The amounts that you can buy exceed your actual need by ALOT, unless you’re gardening a couple of acres.  For example, I bought the smallest amount I could find (Burpee).  It was a three ounce package, enough to treat a forty foot row.  My row is approximately twelve feet!

The pea, spinach and radish hoop garden doing its job, but not elegantly. Actually, it photographs better than it looks!

And here’s the kicker.  There’s an expiration date.  You cannot use inoculant from one year to the next.  So, there’s none of that thrifty buying in quantity that is so appealing to devotees of Sam’s Club toilet paper!  My little three ounce, one-season, packet was $9.95.  To me it’s worth it, but that’s your call on your own coin purse.

The peas got planted and then it was on to the spinaches.  I wanted to plant these in the same bed with the peas on either side of the pea trellis.  My plan was to plant New Zealand spinach on one side, and a new type of spinach I had never heard of before, strawberry spinach, on the other side.  
When I started off with this project, I had brought all of my seed packets out of the house and set them on the back steps.  I turned my back to attend to bed preparation.  I returned to the step to get the seed. The peas were there, the radishes were there — where were the spinaches?  Both types were gone!

I found the New Zealand spinach packet in the middle of the yard.  I could not find the strawberry spinach anywhere!  I surveyed the yard, lifted up the covers for the lawn furniture and the grill, and went back through the house and tore it up, wondering if I had dropped it somewhere inside.

I even considered the possibility of a senior moment.  Had I put it somewhere that I would uncover a year from now?  Like the Jeep glovebox?  At that point, anything seemed plausible.

I left that trouble on the back burner and went ahead and planted the New Zealand spinach.  Since I couldn’t find the damn strawberry stuff (who thought that was a good idea, anyway?), I went ahead and planted radishes in its stead.

I also planted radishes in a second large barrel planter just to mix it up a little.  I wanted to see how the soil in the planter compared to the raised bed — just a little experiment.

Another inelegant application. The strawberry spinach is under that mess.

While I was finishing up the radishes, I had a thought.  Of course, it was the wind that had dispatched with my New Zealand spinach packet.  Hmm.  So, certainly the wind must have taken my strawberry spinach, too.  But it was nowhere to be seen, nowhere near the path of the New Zealand stuff.  I scoured the entire back yard again and, just on a whim, I walked around my house on the opposite side, and looked towards the front, to the street.

Lo and behold!  My strawberry spinach had made a break for the street!  This seed packet had actually flown around the corner and traveled about 20 feet!  Wind?  I’m sorry.  There are other forces at work here.  I’m convinced that there is a garden poltergeist on Russell St.  Or, that strawberry spinach packet is filled with BAD SEEDS.

Anyway, I wrestled the packet back, opened it and planted the little monsters.  If they’ll just stay where they were planted, I should have a very interesting crop, either to eat or corral.

After I got everything in the ground, I devised covers out of various plant supports and heavy plastic.  True to my original skill and seeming sense of aesthetics for this project, I got quite an assortment of “interesting” structures.  And, like the lettuce tent, they look stupid.  I have got to do something about this -— my “French” sensibilities are mightily offended.

Now, I just have to wait for the seed to germinate.  This certainly is an interesting year to get serious about early season gardening!  I figure if I can get through this, I will be an expert during a normal year.  “Expert” may be a little over-confident.

The next thing on the agenda for next week is seed-starting.  This will be a welcome respite from all of this weather-bending confusion outside.  I can control my house thermostat and my heat mats are a consistent 20 degrees above that.  Hallelujah.


Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.

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