Friday, January 29, 2010

Food Crisis

Thomas asked on his blog today "Are we really at risk for a sudden and widespread food catastrophe" or is it just paranoia. He pointed out the paranoia of things like the cold war that didn't come to pass. I grew up with two kinds of paranoia, the cold war (I'm 48 to give you a timetable). The other was my dad.

My dad was quite the pessimist when I was growing up. He always thought our government or economy could collapse and we would have to take care of ourselves for a couple of years before things normalized again. I still remember his target date was 1982. I grew up in a household where food for a year was the norm -buckets of wheat, powdered milk, honey and salt (which he no longer has, but I'm talking aout my youth). We all learned how to use guns. My dad hunted. My job was to learn all the edible plants that grew around us in our backwoods house. Oh so much paranoia in my youth. So I understand the paranoia and have seen it not come to pass.

However just a couple of years ago we did have a world wide food catastrophe. Weather wipe out a chunk of the worlds rice crops driving up prices. Some farmers held onto their crops because they believed the prices would go even higher causing an even greater shortage. Oil prices hit a record high (required for how we make food today). Ethanol programs made the price of corn skyrocket. Stem rust in wheat was spreading. We had record high population (as we do every year) and a 60 year low in grain stockpiles. All of this came together at once. The world saw food riots. Remember this was all just a couple of years ago. I know we were largely insulated in the US. Even our poor were fairly insulated compared to places like Africa, but we have had a food crisis recently.

Will it get bad enough for the rich countries to be affected? Thomas talked about the potato famine and Monsanto's GMO crops. It is possible for GMOs to bring in genes that are susceptible to some disease and cause a crop failure of catastrophic proportions? Yes it is possible, but the likely scenario is that if something like that happens it will be a more minor crop failure like the corn gene issue of the 1970s. Most of the corn that was being grown had one little gene in it that caused it to be susceptible to smut (a corn disease not porn ;>). Over a couple of years smut started spreading. The seed companies figured this out and started growing out seed that wasn't susceptible. The whole world's crop probably won't be affected at once. The disease will spread. Monsanto isn't stupid (heavy headed and cruel to farmers at times yes, stupid no). They will notice and switch genes as fast as they can. This doesn't mean that whoever is growing the crop won't have issues. This doesn't mean it won't last a couple of years as they scramble to grow out another seed in large enough quantities. It could cause regional issues, but probably won't affect us.

If we have a food crisis for the richer countries, it will grow slowly over time. Population will increase. Petroleum will slowly run out and its price will rise. We will see more confluence of events like a couple of years ago causing temporary shortages. It will grow over time. Eventually we won't need a confluence of events. One bad weather year will create a shortage. This will happen unless we get the population under control. There is no stopping it. The time scale of this I have no clue, but as long as our worldwide population keeps growing it is inevitable. But look on the bright side. It is self regulating. When food becomes too much of an issue then massive war will break out worldwide and our population will go down. If it gets bad enough we might even bomb ourselves back into the dark ages or worse out of existence. How's that for paranoia?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Communal Insanity

I'm officially declaring myself insane. As some of you know we have been looking for a house to move to in East Arlington for the last year and a half. We like the location. It is within walking distance to the subway system, near the buses, near the bike path, and near a group of my friends. It seems like a perfect location. The problem is that East Arlington has tiny little houses and multi family houses and tiny lots. None of which we want. I wouldn't mind a smaller house and a smaller lot, but not tiny. And unless we know the people, I really don't want to live in a multi family house. We might not get along. I hear stories of not getting along and having to move. Don't worry I'm getting to the gardening part. I swear.

There are houses in the area that are fine for us, but they just haven't come on the market. I figure eventually we will get a house. Which of course got me to thinking. Most of the houses come on the market in the spring and summer. The typical time to move is summer after the garden is all up and running. I would hate moving out of my garden in its prime. I wouldn't be able to save any of my seed and wouldn't be able to can any tomatoes. So you see my problem. If we get lucky with a house, I get unlucky with my garden.

So I finally did it. I signed up for a community garden. If we haven't signed any papers by the end of May it will get planted in dried beans and hullless oats. If I have signed papers I can plant it with my tomatoes, squash, peppers and yes my beloved dried beans.

Finding a community garden was problematic. The one in Winchester is a postage stamp. For the longest time I was sure it was just someones garden from the fire department since it is on the same land. Even if I got in, the plots are way too small. Arlington only lets Arlington residents in, which I'm not yet and it has no water. Lexington (which abuts both Winchester where I live and Arlington) has two gardens and does let nonresidents in, but again they have no water. You might not think water is important with all the wet weather we have (we average 4" a month), but August tends to be spotty in rain. The last two years we have had 2-3 week stretches without a drop.

So I had to look farther afield. I thought being convenient to Arlington was more important than Winchester since a stand of dried beans and oats don't require a lot of attention. Belmont is right next to Arlington and their victory gardens are only 15 minutes from my house. They have water and they allow nonresidents to apply, though residents get the first option. So it seems to be my only reasonable choice. I applied. I wonder how far down the waiting list I am. And whether I have any shot at it at all. I know they had a large waiting list last year.

So I'm insane to try for yet another garden, but I did. I'm guessing the odds of actually getting a spot are slim, but you can't do it if you don't try.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Harvest Monday - 25 January 2010

I haven't been great about eating from my stores this week. It was the last week my son was home before going to collage and he was sick. So I let him pick what he wanted to eat: chicken soup, chicken pot pie, and chicken enchiladas. The only garden food used in these were my frozen carrots and my garlic. I had to buy my onions and potatoes as they are all gone.

I did open up some pickled peas. They are mediocre. I cooked them too long. Occasionally I get really paranoid with canned food and overdo it. If I make them again I'll follow the cooking times exactly. My refrigerator pickled peas that I ate over the summer were prefect, but they never saw heat. I might just stick with them and freeze the rest of the extra peas this year.

Another disappointment is my salsa. It tastes fine, but frozen salsa coagulates a bit. Canned salsa has a better texture. It is great for adding to things. My black bean soup recipe has three ingredients: black beans, salsa, and vegetable broth. It is so easy to throw together and tastes great. Adding salsa to chili works great too. Oh and bean dip (refried beans, salsa and cheese - again really easy). There are lots of ways to use it up, but I'm not putting it on chips anytime soon. Next year I'll can it. Weirdly the tomato sauce that I froze is just fine. As soon as it cooks up again it seems to get smooth. I'm using it up fast though. I'm almost down to my Sungold sauce. The sungolds make a really sweet sauce that isn't good for everything. It works great in chili which can use some sweet to counteract the spice, but it isn't good for pasta.

We are in a really warm spell today. It is going to get into the 50Fs and pour. It ought to free up my kale. I'll see if there is anything edible. I'll let you know on next Harvest Monday.

If you would like to help me believe that harvests still exist, put your name and URL into Mr. Linky below. It doesn't matter how big or small your harvest is. If you have had a harvest this last week, show us and join in! Just a note. Last time quite a few people put links to all sorts of weird posts, but not the harvest post they wrote. Make sure you are putting the correct link into Mr. Linky. I can fix them if necessary, but would rather not.

Friday, January 22, 2010

January Thaw

Last winter was very weird. We usually get a winter thaw, but last year it was snow. Then more snow. Then more snow. We never got the cold rains in the winter which I think as typical here after it snows. The snow didn't melt out until March. I was wondering if this year would follow suit, but the forecast is for three days above 40F and we might even hit 50F on Monday. That is pretty warm for January.

My beautiful white garden will probably melt out. I'm still not ready for the end of winter yet, but I'm sure by next month I'll be getting antsy. Right now I'm enjoying the beautiful scenery. I should have taken some photos for you all after the last snow storm. The flakes were large and beautiful and the trees just glittered.

BTW the photo of the garden was taken at 1pm, right in the middle of the day. You can see the nice shadow line of my neighbor's house. In a couple of months the sun will be high enough to get over the house and my garden will have sun again. I keep thinking I ought to do some winter gardening, then I see that shadow and know that my location isn't all that good for winter sun. And I'm happy again to be lazy in the winter. I think I'll go get a cup of tea while I dream about spring and enjoy the views.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

And Yet More Seeds

I swear every year that I'm going to pare down my seed order and not be overwhelmed. I swear every year I won't have seeds that can't be planted. Every year I fail. I am a seed addict. I just can't say no to seeds. I thought I was doing well. Really I was.

I spent only $33.80 on seeds from Fedco. That isn't a lot of seed is it? They give free shipping for orders over $30 so I had to buy at least that much. When they came earlier this week I was overjoyed. Then I noticed three in back order. My zucchini and winter squash are no problem. I won't need them for quite a while. But the last was Varsity, an onion. Ack! They send a letter with your order which talks about what is going on at Fedco. What seeds have run out etc. In addition they said six varieties of onion were on backstock. They swear to drop everything once they come in so they can get shipped out. They know we need to start them soon. Yes! I do! At least they know it is an issue. I hope they come soon since they need to get started in a couple of weeks. I'm not freaking out quite yet.

Then the next day another set of seeds showed up. My wintersown seeds. They will let you choose six packets of tomato seeds if you go through their little wintersown quiz. They have lots to seeds to choose from. This year I picked out all paste tomatoes and good canning tomatoes. I got tired of making sauce out of cherry tomatoes last year. Really it isn't the way to do it. Of course they didn't send me just the six that I chose, but they sent me eight tomatoes plus two other packets. The flat leafed parsley isn't really necessary, but I'll grow a few to add to my self sowing flat leafed parsley. I figure a gene infusion can't hurt. Especially since this coming year is an off year for my parsley. Being a biennial and self sowing in my garden, certain years are better than others. The other was Lemon Queen Sunflowers. Score! I grew them last year for the Great Sunflower Project, but the seeds they send are terrible and few. This ought to get a better stand of them in the garden.

So I sorted all the seed out and put those and all the seed given to me by my blogging friends. I came up with a list:

Asian Greens, Chinese Cabbage Rubicon
Asian Greens, Chinese Kale
Asian Greens, Ching Chang Bok Choi
Asian Greens, Choy Sum
Asian Greens, Fun Jen
Asian Greens, Komatsuna
Asian Greens, Michihili
Asian Greens, Napa Cabbage
Asian Greens, Purple Mizuna
Asian Greens, Senposai
Asian Greens, Shanghai Bok Choy
Asian Greens, Tatsoi
Asian Greens, White Stem Bok Choy
Asian Greens, Yokatta-Na
Bean Pole, Scarlet Runner
Bean Dried Pole, Cherokee Trail of Tears
Bean Pole, Kentucky Wonder Wax
Bean Dried Pole, Vermont Cranberry
Bean Dried, Black Coco
Bean Dried, Red Kidney
Broccoli, Packman
Broccoli, Piracicaba
Cabbage, Gonzales Mini
Carrot, Mokum
Carrot, Purple Haze
Carrot, SugarSnax
Chard, Argentata
Chard, Rubarb
Cucumber, Armenian
Cucumber, Diamant
Flowers, Borage
Flowers, State Fair Zinnia
Flowers, Jewel Mix Nasturtium
Flowers, Ground Control Marigold
Flowers, Lemon Queen Sunflower
Greens/Herbs, Golden Corn Salad
Greens/Herbs, New Zealand Spinach
Greens/Herbs, Red Leaf Holy Basil
Greens/Herb, Cumin
Greens/Herbs, Flat leaf parsley
Greens/Herbs, Sweet Basil
Kale, Mix
Leek, King Sieg
Leeks, Hannibal
Leeks, Malabar
Lettuce, Anuenue
Lettuce, Bath Cos
Lettuce, Dazzle Romaine
Lettuce, Deer Tongue
Lettuce, Freckles
Lettuce, Jericho
Lettuce, Korean
Lettuce, Manoa
Lettuce, Paris Island
Lettuce, Red Sails
Lettuce, Tom Thumb
Onion, Evergreen Hardy White/Scallion
Onion, Red Wing
Onion, Varsity
Peas Snap, Cascadia
Pea Snow, Blizzard
Pepper, Cayenne
Pepper, Early Jalapeno
Pepper, Hawaiian Chili
Pepper, Serrano
Pepper, Sweet Cherry
Radish, French Breakfast
Radish, German Beer
Radish, White Icicle
Spinach, Space
Squash, Costata Romanesco
Squash, Waltham
Tomatillo, Verde Puebla
Tomato, Amish Paste
Tomato, Chocolate Cherry
Tomato, Early Kus Ali
Tomato, Heinz 2653
Tomato, Hong Yuen
Tomato, Market Miracle
Tomato, Opalka
Tomato, Peiping Chieh
Tomato, Principe Borghese
Tomato, Romeo Roma
Tomato, San Marzano
Tomato, Siberian Tomato
Tomato, Sungold F3
Turnip, Oasis
Turnip, Tokyo Market

Gack! Those are not going to fit into my garden. Take the tomatoes list for instance. I have 13 currently on the list (not to mention Cherokee Purple that Dan is sending me and I really want to taste). I have room for only about 10 tomato plants. I'll have to pick and choose. Opalka (from EG), Amish Paste, San Marzano will all make the cut as paste tomatoes. I'll have to think about the others. Two of the Asian tomatoes are great uniform ones for whole canning so I might pick one. Sungold F3, Market Miracle and maybe Chocolate Cherry will make the list. Knowing me I might just start them all then have to put them in pots again this year. I swore to myself I wouldn't do potted tomatoes this year. It might be another broken promise.

As you can see my Asian green supply runneth over too. Again I'll have to pick and choose. I might do all new ones this year and let the old ones sit in their seed packets. Except mizuna. I need my purple mizuna. It is too pretty not to grow.

Then there are the lettuce varieties. I only have a 3'x3' spot every year for lettuce. And that is a lot of varieties. How will I keep them all separate? I had trouble with five varieties last year. Some at least are summer lettuces - Jericho (Israeli), Manoa (Hawaiian), and Anuenue (Hawaiian) will all be grown at different times than the others.

So I have more seed that will ever fit in the garden. Again. I ought to know better. Somehow most of it will get shoved in. If my garden weren't surrounded by a cedar fence and maple trees I would be eyeing the land outside of it, but as it is I've only got about 250sqft. Hmm that community garden plot is looking better and better.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I love eggs. I eat them almost everyday for breakfast, but I treasure the eggshells just as much. I keep a container by the stove and every time I crack an egg the shell gets tossed inside. My son is not too keen on on my container. Last time he left to go back to school he exclaimed how happy he would be not to have to put shells into the container. The container was mostly full. OK it was overflowing. He would try to put a shell in and it and several others would topple out onto the counter.

I like to cook my eggshells before they go out into the garden. It makes me think I won't be contaminating my garden with salmonella. It also dries them out and makes them easier to work with. But I won't heat up my oven just for eggshells and I have a tenancy to forget to put them in the oven when I'm in the middle of cooking something. So the eggshell containers would overflow.

After the umpteenth time the mountain of eggshells toppled over, I decided I had to change my ways. Now when the container is full, another glass container comes out and the shells are put in that and stuck in the cold oven. They sit there until the oven is used. This way I never forget to cook them up. This morning I was making a squash casserole and cooked my shells. BTW never cook eggshells for very long. Ten minutes seems fine. Longer can make your kitchen really stinky.

When I cooled down my eggshells I prepared to put them in their next container for storage - a double ziplock bag. I double it because the eggshells go in fairly whole and I can crush them through the plastic. Once layer means bits of eggshell on the floor, but two seem to keep them contained while crushing. Today this container was full. This only happens a couple of times a year. It was time to deal with them.

Years ago I put them in the garden or compost just roughly crushed like this, but I really hate the look of half crushed shells. They look really ugly in the soil. So I started to powder them in my food processor (warning do this will cloud your hopper, the eggshells are harder than plastic). I not only liked the aesthetics of this but found they worked better.

I use eggshells mostly to fertilize my tomatoes. I put at least a cup of powdered shells in each planting hole. Tomatoes love calcium and eggshells have a lot. It helps the tomatoes grow and helps prevent blossom end rot. In addition if I'm still having trouble with BER, I make eggshell tea. I put a cup of eggshells into a quart of water and let them steep for 2-3 days. Warning: this smells vile so keep it outside. Then I dilute it and use it to water the tomatoes. It works really well.

So now I have about six pounds of crushed eggshell for the garden next spring. You can't beat free fertilizer.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Harvest Monday - 18 January 2010

Even though I've been gone for almost half the week I did better about eating from my stores. Early in the week we had a stir fry. I defrosted some Komatsuna. I wasn't impressed with the defrosted texture. It became tough to chew. Not terribly, but enough to notice. The chard and spinach freeze better.

I had my ubiquitous winter coleslaw, with carrots and onions from the garden and stored cabbage from the farmers market.

Then I made minestrone soup which is mostly vegetables. I love minestrone soup. It tastes so good, but is so good for you. It can be made either vegetarian or with sausage like my son likes it.

Minestrone soup and freshly grilled bread

Daphne's Minestrone Soup

  • olive oil
  • 1-2c onions
  • 1 c celery
  • 1-2 cups carrots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/4-1/2 lb hot Italian turkey or pork sausage (totally optional if you want to go vegetarian)
  • 3 c tomato sauce
  • 1 qt broth (either chicken or veggie)
  • 1 1/2 c grated zucchini
  • 1 c green beans
  • 1 c cooked spinach chopped
  • 3 c cooked dried beans of whatever varieties you like
  • 1/2 c red wine (optional - I do this if there is a bottle already open)
  • T fresh basil or pesto
  • t dried oregano
  • T dried parsley
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 c dried pasta which has then been cooked
  • grated Parmesan cheese

First chop the onions and add them to the pan with olive oil.

I used the last of my stored onions. I didn't have quite enough, but I did have some leeks from the garden still, so I chopped them up too. I sauteed them until they started looking translucent.

I chopped up the last of the fresh garden carrots too. I still have some frozen, but if I want fresh I'll need to go to the supermarket. I added these and some store bought celery.

And some garlic from the garden. I still have tons of garlic. I think it is going to last the winter unless I start using it up more.

Once those are nice and sauteed down. I added the chicken broth, wine and the frozen tomato sauce made from my garden tomatoes. Canned tomato sauce looks so much prettier than the frozen stuff.

Then came the frozen veggies saved from the garden: green beans, zucchini, spinach (not pictured), and pesto (only olive oil and basil with nothing else added, I freeze it on a cookie sheet and break it into chunks). I added my beans. One cup was cranberry beans from the garden. The rest were local kidney beans and Jacob's cattle beans.

Then I seasoned it with oregano and parsley that I had dried from my garden. And added salt and pepper. I always cook the pasta separately so it won't get mushy. The soup recipe makes almost three quarts so I freeze it without the pasta and leave some in the fridge for lunches. As we eat it the pasta gets added along with the cheese. I once made the mistake of freezing the pasta and soup together. Ick!

Minestrone is a great soup to use up anything that needs using in the fridge. Cabbage or chard can be used instead of spinach if that is what you have.

If you would like to help me believe that harvests still exist, put your name and URL into Mr. Linky below. It doesn't matter how big or small your harvest is. If you have had a harvest this last week, show us and join in! Just a note. Last time quite a few people put links to all sorts of weird posts, but not the harvest post they wrote. Make sure you are putting the correct link into Mr. Linky. I can fix them if necessary, but would rather not.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More Seeds

I've been remiss on thanking people for their seeds. I did one post earlier on what came in but more have been coming in over the last couple of weeks. I have a little container I've been collecting them in so they don't get lost before I sorted them out. Today was the day to do that. They are now all labeled with who they were from. Here is what I've received in this second wave.

Jane from A Kitchen Garden in Kehei Maui sent me some French Breakfast Radishes and some New Zealand Spinach. My mom used to grow New Zealand Spinach when I was young. I don't remember much about it. I know I didn't like it as much as the real thing (spinach and Brussels sprouts were my favorite vegetables when I was young), but I don't remember disliking it either. I'm going to try it again and see if I like it, though it will be hard to beat chard as a summer green.

Jody from the Paw Paw Patch sent me two types of lettuce: Dazzle Romaine and Bath Cos. Also she described one of her beloved vegetables, German beer radishes. I just had to try them. I've never had a radish with butter and salt, but it seems like a excuse to drink beer so I'll try it. The seeds she sent were saved from her garden.

Stefaneener from the Sicilian Sisters Grow sent me her favorite lettuce, Tom Thumb. I've never grown a small headed lettuce before. This year I will.

Annie's Granny from Annie's Kitchen Garden got thanked last time around, but then she decided to send me more. Now I have Purple Haze carrots to try. Most of my carrots will be SugarSnax or Mokum, but I really love the look of the colored ones so I'm trying again on another variety.

Miss M from The Informal Gardner sent two kinds of leeks for me to try, Hannibal and Malabar. I've also bought a third, so I'll have a nice little leek trial going on. Last year my leeks were pretty mediocre. I'm hoping for a better show this year.

Emily from Greens and Jeans sent me Freckles Romaine. I was going to order this from Fedco under the name of Forellenschluss. I think Freckles is a prettier name. Or at least easier to pronounce. It is a very old heirloom (1793) so had gotten more than one name over the years. Another name is Trout Back. Again I think I'll stick to Freckles.

Michelle from From Seed To Table sent me Senposai seed. She noticed it on my Fedco order and said she had plenty to share with me. She says it is very prolific. I hope so. I wonder if it will out grow Komatsuna.

My biggest surprise was from Mac at High Desert Garden. I was sent a massive quantity of mostly Asian greens, including some that I had almost bought but decided I'd wait another year for them. There were many different seeds some of which I won't grow (cauliflower is not a favorite of mine and watermelon is hard to grow here because of the short cool summers). Others I will most likely grow: Tokyo Market Turnip, Napa Cabbage (no variety given), Michihili Chinese Cabbage, Chinese Kale, Choy Sum, Shanghai Bok Choy, white stem bok choy (no variety given), Roselle, Anuenue Lettuce, Manoa Lettuce, Korean Lettuce, Hawaiian Chili, Sweet Cherry Pepper. Roselle really intrigues me. I'll have to research it and see if it will grow here. Hibiscus are not usually northern plants. I hadn't a clue that there was a variety that was edible.

So a big thanks to everyone that sent seed. I've already placed my Fedco order and it ought to show up soon. When it does I'll have to make my seed chart and figure out exactly what and when it all needs to be started. I'm really starting to get excited about spring, but I've got two more months to wait until the ground is unfrozen.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Harvest Monday - 11 January 2010

I've been so busy this last week I haven't taken any photos of what I've been eating from preserved food. I swear I was going to, but the food was all eaten before I got a chance. The last of the potatoes was used up on New England Clam Chowder. I also made a chickpea soup. My onion stores are really low now. I can make just a couple of more dishes then I'm stuck with supermarket onions.

The big downfall was my birthday party. My hubby and I always throw large birthday parties where we play mostly European board games (which are better than American parlor games) and chat with friends. I bought a premade veggie platter from Costco and a huge container of grapes. I should have made some coleslaw since I still have plenty of cabbage, but my son and I spent our time making lime rum balls and rum cake. Yum. Much fun was had by all and I even got to play Perquacky which is my favorite word game. But nothing from my stores was used. Not one little bit.

I hope you are all doing better than me with eating from the garden this week. My garden is still buried in snow and the kale is nowhere to be seen. I'm thinking it is still there to be harvested.

If you would like to help me believe that harvests still exist, put your name and URL into Mr. Linky below. It doesn't matter how big or small your harvest is. If you have had a harvest this last week, show us and join in!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Harvest Monday - 4 January 2010

We have been experiencing a nor'easter these last couple of days so we are now buried in another foot of snow. It is looking like another snowy winter. So the first Harvest Monday of the year is not giving me any harvests. I do have two kale plants out there or I think I do. I can't see them any more but I have faith they are still out there. I ought to pick them during the next thaw. Last year we never got one and stayed locked in snow all winter long. That was really unusual for us.

I have been using up my preserved food. Some things are starting to run low. I have one potato left. We had roast beef one night which required baked potatoes. Roast beef only comes out when my daughter is home. Then the next day I made beef stew with the left overs which took most of the rest of the potatoes. I go through things so much faster when my kids are home from college. From the garden: potatoes, carrots, onions, dried thyme.

Soups have been the order of the day for lunches. Besides stew I made a nice bean and ham soup from the leftover Christmas ham. I usually make soups just for me as most of my family won't eat bean or vegetable soups. But my son is home and he loves such food. From the garden: onions, garlic, dried parsley.

I used the last of my farmers market apples in an apple cake for breakfast Saturday morning. I grate my apples as opposed to chopping them. My family prefers to not have chunks in their cake, but they love the taste. From the October farmers market: apples, homemade applesauce.

If you would like to help me believe that harvests still exist, put your name and URL into Mr. Linky below. It doesn't matter how big or small your harvest is. If you have had a harvest this last week, show us and join in!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Get Growing in January

This is the second in a twelve part series for new gardeners. If you have never planted vegetables before but always wanted to, this is the series for you. Robin, who writes the blog Vegetable Matter, and I will post on the first of every month. Robin lives in Houston and I live in Boston. We will be posting about what to do in the garden that month and giving advice. So if you have always wanted that vegetable garden, but didn’t know where to start, you have no excuse. Get growing!

Growing your own seedlings

Up north we are locked in ice still. There is no outside growing going on. Even the intrepid folks who have low hoops over their garden are just hoping everything lives through the cold of January. The one place we can start to think about growing is inside under lights.

Many people buy all their transplants from the garden center. I've certainly done that in many years, but doing so limits your choices. Tomatoes might be the one exception. For instance Verrill Farm in Concord, MA might sell 30 varieties of tomato transplants every year, but they only sell a couple of kinds of peppers. So if you want anything but Cherry Bomb or Jalapeno, you are out of luck. Looking in a lot of different garden centers can improve your odds of finding the pepper you want. But if you are looking to grow a Fish pepper, for a spicy white cream sauce, you will have to grow your own.


The best way to grow your own transplants is with artificial lights. You can do transplants using the natural light on a south facing windowsill, but I've found that the transplants are more leggy and not as strong. They succumb more easily to disease.

The LEDs were getting a lot of press, but I tried them and they aren't quite ready for prime time yet. Fluorescent shop lights however are cheap and easy to get. And best of all they really work well.

You can get shop lights at hardware stores and home improvement centers. You might even have one in your basement right now. Four foot long T8 lights give you the largest bang for the buck. Shop lights come with two bulbs in them. Some are spaced a couple of inches apart. Some are closer together. You want to pick the light with the bulbs spaced as far apart as possible. In addition you want a wide reflector. Your plants will grow best if they are right under the lights and if the lights are spaced farther apart you have a wider growing surface.

Many people buy full spectrum lights. Save your money if you are only growing transplants. The cheap cool white bulbs are perfect for leafy growth. The red part of the spectrum is only needed if you want to grow flowers. So I hear the question already, "What if I'm growing marigolds which are flowering plants?" Even flowering plants do better and have more blooms in their future if you transplant them young, before they bud out. So in their youth they only need blue.

The one thing you should spend money on is replacing your bulbs every couple of years. Fluorescent lights lose brightness over time. The less bright your bulbs are the weaker your transplants will be. Every time I do it, it seems really wasteful, but your plants will thank you. If you don't like throwing out bulbs that still work, I suggest putting them on Freecycle (remember fluorescent bulbs have mercury in them and should be thrown out with the rest of the garbage, my town has a toxic waste day where you can toss things like that and they will be processed appropriately).

Shoplight being used to grow seedlings

When you set up your lights, put them on chains (they often come with chains) so you can raise and lower the lights. It is best to always keep the lights about and inch or two above the plants. If the plants start to touch they can get burned. If they get too far away the plants will get leggy. You can attach them to anything (mine are on brackets in the wall), but most people use wire shelving rack that come 4' wide. You can just hook the chain onto the top shelf and grow on the shelf below. If you need even more space you can use all the shelves.

Where should your shelves be? They should be in a room that is not too hot and not too cold. This can mean a different temperature for different crops but I have found if your room is between 60F-75F (15C-21C) almost all the crops will grow. I have mine in my laundry room which maintains a temperature of about 62F (16C). Warm weather crops (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants) will grow just fine as transplants there, but they won't germinate easily at that temperature. I own a heating mat and use it to make sure they germinate and remove it once they are up. If you don't want to spend the money on a heating mat, you can germinate the warm weather crops in a warm spot in your house. The top of the refrigerator often fits the bill. I've even used the back of my desk where the radiator heat comes up. Just make sure they get moved to the light the instant they pop out of the soil.

Except for onions (which bulb up due to the length of the day), you should keep your lights on for about 15 hours a day. I heartily recommend a timer so you don't forget to turn them on and off. Don't leave them on all night long as plants need a rest from the light.

Growing mixtures

You can't grow seedlings in your typical garden soil. Your garden soil is too heavy and has lots diseases and insect pests. Young seedlings are prone to damping off disease. Most people buy a sterile seed starting mix from the local garden center or hardware store. I heartily endorse the behavior for first time growers even if I don't always do it myself (mostly I make my own mix).


Once you have your soil, you have to find something to put it in. The only requirement is that it is deep enough (for many plants 2" is plenty) and it has holes in the bottom so it can drain well.

Onions growing in commercial cell packs

Commercially you can buy cell packs and trays. They have little dividers between plants so their roots don't get tangled. Plants find transplanting stressful (though different plants take the shock differently) and this separates the roots from one another to reduce the stress. You can also find peat pots and jiffy pots that reduce the stress even more. With these you don't even remove the plants from the pot. You plant them pot and all. I find them a bit on the expensive side. Peat pots I find have another problem too. The compressed peat is hard for the plant roots to get through and can slow down the plants rooting into the soil itself once it is planted. In addition the pot rim can wick up moisture from the soil and dry out the plant. I've found the plants just don't grow as well as other methods.

You do not have to spend money on pots however. You can make your own. You can make flats of plants (where the roots do grow together) from things like plastic clam shells from your recycle bin. You can use old cardboard boxes (but they wick water so need to be watered more often). You can use tossed plastic cups. These are all free. Once caveat is that you have to punch holes in the bottom so the water can drain out well.

A flat of newspaper pots waiting to be transplanted

Another homemade pot is the newspaper pot. Commercially they sell forms to make them quickly. In addition there are plenty of instructions online for how to make them, but you can also do it very simply like I do. I merely take a long strip of newspaper about three inches high and loop it around a bottle and use a paper clip or piece of masking tape to keep it from coming unraveled. I don't even have a bottom to the pots. I keep the soil in by compression. I compress the soil firmly into the bottom while keeping the pot down on the counter. Sometimes I lose a little dirt when watering, but mostly it stays together quite well. And once planted, the roots are instantly free to grow.

Soil blocker

Last year I started using soil block makers. Soil blocks are just compressed soil. They hold together because of the compression of the soil that has a lot of peat. They aren't as easy as other methods and have a learning curve. I found it took a while before I figured out just the right amount of water to add to the soil mix and how to get the soil compacted evenly across the blocker (I use my hands, though none of the instructions you will read will tell you to do this). In addition they are harder to water. I find bottom watering the simplest method, but you have to do it gently and not near a block so the soil from the blocks isn't washed away. Many say to use a mister to keep them moist, but my hands aren't strong enough to mist until all my blocks are moist all the way through. In addition the blockers needs a soil mix that will hold up to the blocker but drain well enough when compressed. The general advice is to make your own. I have done this and also used Fedco's Fort V potting mix. Both seem to work well though my homemade mix is cheaper. There are probably other brands that work well too, but since I haven't tried them I can't recommend them.

Soil blocks

So why would I go to the trouble of using a soil block if it is so hard? Well the best thing about a block is the it just gets planted right into the ground which means there is no transplant shock at all and the plants grow strongly as soon as they are planted. And unlike even a thin newspaper pot, there is nothing to break down before the roots can reach the soil. The roots instantly take off. So of all methods it is the hardest for the human, but the easiest on the plants. If you are interested in reading more about them is a good reference site, but remember that it is a commercial site so has a vested interest in you buying something.

Watering and Fertilization

Many people just pour water over their seedlings to water. I don't recommend this. Fungal diseases are more common when the foliage of the plants get wet. We are indoors and there is no reason to do this to your plants. I recommend bottom watering. You will need a tray that is bigger than your pots. Pour water into the tray to about an inch and then gently sink your pots. When you see the top of the soil is wet, they have been watered sufficiently and you can remove them to drain. If you have blocks you need to be even more careful and put the blocks in a tray (I keep them in one) and slowly pour in the water so the stream doesn't hit any blocks. Only pour in a bit at a time and slowly let the blocks soak it up. You don't want to get the water to high or move very fast or the soil might wash away.

Before you water again let the surface of your pots dry out. If they stay wet all the time they will be more prone to damping off and mold will grow on the surface (most surface molds are harmless so don't worry too much about them). You never want to let it get dry enough that your seedlings wilt, but they do better if they aren't constantly soggy either.

I use a soil mixture that has enough organic fertilizer in it that I never need to add fertilizer while my seedlings are growing. I find this the easiest solution. Many seedling mixes will contain fertilizer too. If your soil mix doesn't have a fertilizer then you will need to fertilize your seedlings regularly with a balanced liquid fertilizer. You can do this whenever you water. The bottle will usually have a recommendation for how much to feed, but never use more than a half strength fertilizer on seedlings and don't start until they have their first true leaves. (The first leaves on a plant are called seed leaves and usually have a different shape than the leaves that will come next, or their true leaves.)

Keep the Seedling Healthy

Plants don't like the air to be absolutely still like it is indoors for two reasons. The first is if the air doesn't circulate, damping off is more likely to kill your plants. Damping off is a generic term for a lot of different fungal diseases, but they all have the same symptoms. The plant stem either at or just below the surface rots and the plant falls over. It is less common if the soil surface is kept dry (though a dry surface will not prevent it totally). So circulating air helps keep the soil from staying damp too long. There are some home preventatives (not cures, once your plants have this kind of rot on their stem they are dead - get rid of them before they infect their neighbors). If after you sow your seeds, you sprinkle the surface with cinnamon it will help prevent the disease. Also diluted chamomile tea works fairly well, if you put it into your watering can, or if you spray it lightly on the plants.

Air circulation is good for another reason. The stems of plants that are grown in air that is very still tend to be leggier (taller and thinner). They also don't have the strength to stand up to the wind when finally put outside. If the plants are grown with air movement they will be shorter and stockier and won't be as shocked when transplanted outside. Thigmomorphogenesis is the word that botanists use for this phenomena. Interestingly enough you don't really need wind. If you pet your plants, the touch of your hand will keep the plants from getting spindly too. But a small fan works really well. You don't want one that is very powerful. Heavy wind will set the plants back, but mild breeze will help them out. I use a cheap little $10 clip on fan. I don't keep it on all the time, but turn it on for an hour or so every couple of days usually right after I water.

What Plants and How Long They Grow Indoors

Not all seeds should be started indoors. Some like bean seeds hate to be transplanted and germinate well outdoors, so why bother. If you start them inside you have to be really careful not to disturb their roots at all and they still often do better direct seeded. The following is a list of the most common of these plants: beans, peas, spinach, corn, melons, cucumbers, and squash.

Some people elect to try to start them inside for the following reasons. Some winter squash has a long growing season and if the plants aren't given a head start they won't have time to ripen (a reason only for short growing seasons). An extra early harvest is another reason. Getting the plants big enough before they are put out so the slugs don't eat them to the ground before they get big enough (the reason I do this with cucumbers). Spinach sometimes has germination issues so they start them inside. I generally recommend not growing these indoors unless you have a solid reason for doing it. They are much easier as direct seeded plants. If you do elect to grow these indoors, make sure you use a pot that doesn't disturb the roots, like newspaper pots or soil blocks.

There is a list of plants that I would never transplant. These are typically root crops: carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, rutabaga, parsnips, dill, and cilantro. Root crops (with the exception of onions that are always done as transplants or sets) just hate being transplanted and sometimes will never form a good root if you do.

Then there are the seeds that are easily grown direct seeded in the garden, but do well as transplants too. Whether they are direct seeded or grown indoors is really an issue of your climate and the timing of when you want to get crops. If I grow successions of lettuce indoors I can get the seedlings older before they need space in the garden. Then they might only need to spend a month in the garden to head up instead of two. So sometimes growing seedlings indoors is just a space saver. Some use part of the garden as a nursery bed for just this reason. If your broccoli needs an 18”x18” spot in the garden, you might not want to give it that space until it needs it. You could grow something else there until your transplants are ready. But on with the list of crops in this type: lettuce, Asian greens, broccoli, cabbage. In the north the last three are almost always grown as transplants, but I see a lot of southern gardeners direct seed these crops as they have a longer season.

The last list is a list of the plants that people almost always grow from transplants or buy from a nursery. It really isn't necessary. Tomatoes will grow quite well from seed in the garden, but usually the seasons aren't long enough to get a crop before frost (or intense heat in the far south). These are peppers, tomatillos, tomatoes, onions, and eggplant.

How long should you grow these crops in pots indoors? Maybe people will say that tomatoes need 8 weeks before transplanting. This isn't necessarily true. It depends upon how big of a pot you it is grown in. A good rule is that transplants should never get root bound. Once the roots have filled up their pot they either need to go out into the garden or they need to be given a larger pot. If you don't do this the plant will get stressed and your yield will go down. So if you are only growing them in a small pot and don't want to pot up, you need to grow them for a shorter period of time. Smaller transplants can often grow better than larger ones. For some plants once they hit a certain stage in their growth they quite working on their roots and put their energies into their leaves or fruit. If you haven't gotten your plant into the garden by then you won't get a good root system and your harvest will suffer. Peppers are cruel this way. They tell you right when you've waited too long. Once they start flowering they have gotten a bit too old. I still plant peppers that have started flowering out in the garden, but I really try to make sure they haven't started yet.

Below is how long to grow your transplants.


How long to grow in weeks

When to plant after last frost

Careful of roots

Needs heat to germinate


5 to 6



3 to 6

-2 to 0

Chinese Cabbage

3 to 6



3 to 6

-2 to 0


3 to 4

-2 to 0


2 to 3





3 to 6




3 to 6

-2 to 0


8 to 12

-2 to 0


3 to 5

-2 to 0


2 to 4





8 to 10

-2 to 0


4 to 7




2 to 3





4 to 8*




4 to 6



*I've found tomatillos a little problematic on timing. Some can germinate in a few days (like most seeds) and some can take several weeks. If yours germinates quickly the timing might be shorter, or if they are very slow they might be longer.

You will notice that some of the cold hardy plants say you can plant them at your last frost date or a couple of weeks before this date. The variable is how well you harden off your plants before setting them out. If a plant is grown indoors in a nice controlled environment than is just planted outside it can easily succumb to the harsh conditions. If you slowly acclimatize the plant to the weather the plant will learn how to deal with the temperature swings and cold temperatures. I'll talk more about transplanting and hardening off later in the year.

The other variable is how long to grow the plants. Typically the lower range is if you only give them a smaller pot to grow in, say 1 1/2” square. The second number is if you pot them up (move them to a bigger pot) to a 4” pot. I often pot up into deep newspaper pots, but however you do it the roots need more space once they fill out the pots they are in.

The plants that don't like root disturbance like the squash should never be potted up. Start with a larger pot. I use a 4” tall and 3” wide newspaper pot. You want to see at least the first true leaf before planting out, but no more than two true leaves. Shorter is often better with these types of plants.

When you pot up your plants make sure they are growing in their new pot at the same level they were growing in their old pot. Some plants will die if they are sunk too deep into the pots. The major exception is tomatoes. For tomatoes you can plant the low into the new pot. A tomato plant will put out roots all along the stem, so it only makes the plant stronger.

The last thing you need to know to calculate when you want to start your plants is your last frost date. Robin talked about this last month, but because it is so important I'm going to talk about it again.

Your last frost date is something you will learn over time. There are some wonderful charts out there that will tell you what it is, but every location is slightly different. For instance I live on a steep hill. Cold air sinks so the colder frosty air just flows right down the hill to the valley. Just a few hundred yards from my house could have a frost weeks after I have had my last one. Robin had a good link in her December post. My favorite frost chart is here. Just scroll to your state and click on it. It will bring you to a page that lists where all the official weather stations in your state are. Find the one closest to you for an idea of when last frost is. Use the average 36F degree row since frost can easily occur when the thermometer reads over 32F (remember cold air sinks and readings are usually not taken right at the ground level).

Other post in the series

Determining your growing zone and planting peas (Vegetable Matter - December)
Planning a Garden (Daphne's Dandelions - December)
Growing Lettuce (Vegetable Matter - January)
Starting transplants indoors (Daphne's Dandelions - January)
Growing tomatoes (Vegetable Matter - February)
Compost (Daphne's Dandelions - February)
Snap Beans (Vegetable Matter - March)
Peas and Spinach (Daphne's Dandelions - March)
Eggplant (Vegetable Matter - April)
Brassicas (Broccoli, Cabbage, Asian vegetables) (Daphne's Dandelions - April)
Edamame (Vegetable Matter - May)
Tomatoes (Daphne's Dandelions - May)