by Miriam Hansen
It’s been challenging to get super excited about starting seeds with this much snow on the ground. Still, April is the month to plant most of the seeds that need to be started indoors. With the exception of the squash family, I’ll be starting all the flowers and annual herbs, brassicas, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables that need four to eight weeks before being set outdoors.
Normally I’m so gung ho, I’ve got everything growing about two to three weeks too early and spend the beginning of May juggling seedlings, transplanting into ever larger pots and jiggling my foot waiting until the moment I can set things out. But unless this is the new normal, this is not a normal year. Usually by late March I’ve got huge spinach in the greenhouse, and I am getting an early whiff of spring from the green explosion under row cover. This year for the first time ever, all the spinach and lettuce I planted out in the greenhouses last spring died. This winter was just too cold for too long. We’re on the last of the freezer vegetables, and for the first time in thirty five years, we’re almost out of onions.
Gardening is a hope and faith based occupation. It is useful to remember that last year the snow kept falling until the end of April. And while I do have onions, leeks and shallots under lights in the basement, this year I’m also going to buy seedlings from Dave Grundy’s Onion Seedling Co-op. If you’re interested in growing onions from seedlings instead of sets, contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’ll direct you to the Dixondale Farms website where you can choose from eleven different varieties of long-day onions. At $2.75/bunch for (50–75 seedlings), it’s a heck of a deal but you need to order right away. Seedling bunches will be delivered at the end of April.
A few weeks ago, I moderated a round-table gardening discussion at the Four Corners Schoolhouse in East Montpelier. We were eighteen experienced gardeners discussing everything from pest controls to row cover and trellis designs for cucumbers to cover crops.
For me, the most interesting part of the discussion was hearing other people’s problems. Years of writing this column has taught me that the only way to learn how to solve a problem is to have a problem. Once you have the problem you can check with more knowledgeable growers, research online and try different strategies.
When my greenhouse cucumbers failed to set fruit a couple of years ago, a grower suggested they needed more nitrogen, the most critical element for plant growth. We side-dressed with Chilean nitrate and instead of having cucumbers set fruit and shrivel, they set fruit and grew. When we had a problem with peppers in the greenhouse last year and squash in the upper garden, after quite a bit of problem solving, I discovered that the horse manure we’d turned into the soil was not as rotted as I’d thought. Even though the soil was rich in organic matter, the nitrogen was all tied up in the sawdust in the horse manure. When I moved the peppers outdoors in a part of the garden with good fertility, they recovered and produced.
I grow many kinds of peppers with great success but when we went around the room, it turned out that there was one problem I had in common with most of the gardeners. We all have a hard time growing a decent radish.
Now radishes are supposed to be the easiest crop to grow. Start them early, about as early as you can plant peas outdoors, in a good friable soil as companion plants between rows of carrots, around young brassicas plants or in a bed of their own. From germination to salad, growing a decent radish should only take three weeks. Yet here are these gardeners who can grow everything from celery to okra, melons and sweet potatoes stymied by the easiest crop of all.
A bit of research online revealed that too much nitrogen results in lots of leaf but no bulbs. Other problems include a lack of boron or excess boron, too much heat that makes the roots too spicy, not enough space between plants and poor timing so the plants bolt and don’t bulb up. The list goes on and on, and that is just for one plant.
For the last few years my radishes mostly did nothing. Finally, last year I grew great radishes between the carrots in the area of the garden where we used to dump manure. The soil is unusually rich and friable but not particularly rich in nitrogen. That area had grown a lot of weeds and has had no additional fertilizer. The fact that those radishes grew nice sweet crunchy bulbs tells me I finally found the ideal conditions for them to grow. Quick tip: Much as those radishes enjoyed that old manure pile, the carrots did stupendously well.
What I’m getting at and what made the other gardeners in that room so happy is that there is a great deal of of trial and error in gardening. Even the most experienced gardeners have failures, but from those failures we are able to grow new successes.
So get harvesting and seeding and happy gardening!
Miriam and her husband, David, live in East Montpelier, where they grow most of their own vegetables, berries and meat on less than one-quarter of an acre. Your questions and comments are welcome. You can reach Miriam at email@example.com.