Garden Diary 2020 - April 1-30
The last frost date has passed and planting has begun! It's been a busy month of soil preparation, planting experiments, yard clean-up and DIY projects. And already we've been harvesting our lettuce and perennial herbs! What a treat to have organically grown, healthy food right outside our front door alongside the beautiful spring flowers. Check my intro article here, where I'll add links to my Garden Diary 2020 posts throughout the gardening season.
Getting Crafty with Trellises
Today was the day to get crafty. I'd been shopping online and at the garden centers for a selection of trellises. I need a large, rectangular frame for the cottage garden, a teepee trellis for beans, and a tent trellis for cucumbers. Unfortunately, trellises they can get a bit pricey, especially the nice, decorative wrought iron ones. So, I decided to try making them out of bamboo instead. The hardware stores had a limited selection, but it was enough to get started. I used this video for ideas on how to build a cucumber tent trellis, though I used different measurements. And despite being a Boy Scout mom, I'm terrible with knots. I don't know if this will hold up, but it's up and in place. I planted Marketmore cucumber seeds in the center of the bed underneath the tent as directed on the package. We'll see what happens!
Outdoor Herbs Experiment
On March 9, I had planted the three herb seed discs in outdoor pots. Finally, all three have begun to sprout. It definitely took longer than planting seeds inside, but they look healthy and have already endured cold temperatures just above freezing, wind and heavy rain. The seed discs are a nice way of getting even spacing from tiny seeds. I definitely like the concept. The chamomile, catnip and cat grass are also coming in nicely, which I had planted all in pots on the same day from seed.
The two hot pepper seedlings I had prematurely planted outside didn't do well, so I pulled them out and replaced them with two red bell pepper transplants from the hardware store. I hadn't planted any of these from seed, but I do use them in my cooking. There's plenty of room left in the bed for my hubby's hot peppers.
My tiny pond and rock garden had been looking shabby. Plants and rocks had all shifted from erosion over the years. The timber fencing had rotted, and unwanted plants were taking over. After 3 days of cleanup, I started replanting. I can't wait for my indoor seedlings to mature enough to be planted. In the meantime, I purchased a couple packs of dianthus to get it started. I love the punch of red and pink against the cool, gray rocks.
With my increased awareness of using organic material to feed the garden, I started to consider garden waste as an asset. I have a number of mature trees on my small suburban lot, which provides ample shade in the backyard. Along with the trees comes a bounty of yard waste every year in the form fallen branches and piles of leaves. We set most of them out for the city to take away in the fall and spring, and hold back some for compost. This year, we held back more to feed the kitchen garden.
I purchased a reasonably priced electric shredder and mulcher to chomp away at the fallen branches. It made beautiful, woody mulch that I placed on one side of the strawberry bed. While it did a good job on the branches, it didn't do a good job at shredding the leaves. I may invest in a better leaf shredder in the fall.
Another spot in our yard that always annoyed me was the back edge of our property line, which slopes down a couple feet into trench we call "the pit." It's lined with trees and bushes, and backed by our wooden fence. Leaves, branches, and vines have collected and rotted back there for years, much like an untouched natural forest floor. Having spent hundreds of dollars on organic material already this spring, I figured it was worth looking under all those leaves to check for compost. Sure enough, I found it in abundance. I harvested a large container full out of one small area. Then I backfilled it with yard waste to start the process all over again. There's much more to collect and will be quite useful as I complete my garden bed preparations.
More Clean-Up and Planting
We've come a long way with cleaning up our garden beds, but have at least two more weeks of work to do. In the meantime, I've planted more herbs that I started from seed. The weather is expected to remain above freezing now, though some nights it will hover around 40 degrees. They should be able to survive just fine in the wild outdoors.
Hot Pepper Geek-Out
A week ago, we planted the seeds we harvested from my husband's dying dragon cayenne hot pepper plant. We've been eagerly awaiting our first sprout, checking under the plastic dome each day for the smallest bit of green in the starter tray. My kitty loves to "help" by licking the condensation off the dome. This morning, I lifted the dome and there it was! I was so excited that I carried the whole seed tray upstairs to my husband, who was just waking up. He was so excited, too! Yes, we have totally geeked out on a pepper plant, but oddly enough, harvesting our own seed and growing it indoors is sort of like a parental experience.
Tomato Cages Arrived
After hours of searching online and in the stores, I finally found the tomato cages I wanted. With so many people planting tomatoes in their home garden, you'd think that it would be easy to find good cages. The inexpensive round ones I purchased last year from the hardware store were not tall enough, and by the end of the season, the plants were spilling over and looking unhealthy. They weren't even tall enough to handle the determinate varieties, let alone the indeterminate ones. In addition to height being an issue, there's also space. I have limited storage space and needed cages that would fold up nicely in the winter.
I found these 56-inch, galvanized steel square cages by Hoss Tools that fold up flat for storage. Though they are an investment, these are well-priced and very sturdy, and look as if they could last a lifetime, or even handed down to the next generation. Some people recommend having cages for the indeterminate varieties up to six feet tall, but based on my experience last year, the 56-inch cages might be tall enough for what I'm planting. Joe Gardener makes his out of cattle panels from the tractor supply store, shown here, and perhaps someday I'll give that a try.
Transplant Thyme Experiment
There are a number of herbs and flowers whose seeds are so tiny that you end up planting clusters of seedlings instead of two to three per cell. Such is the case with thyme. Since I need at least a couple dozen plants to fill in the gaps of my flagstone pathways, I wondered, will each tiny seedling make a whole plant, or do you need a cluster? With my thyme seedlings ready to move to a larger pot, I did an experiment.
I took one cell's worth of seedlings and planted each seedling either individually or in small groups in its own space in a recycled plastic strawberry container. The rest of the cells each received their own 4 inch pot. We will see what emerges.
No matter what happens, I could see why professional growers don't take this extra step. It's extremely time consuming and tedious.
For weeks, I've been hardening off my indoor seedlings on days when the weather is nice. Today, I let them experience their first rainstorm. I kept an eye on them through the window, but since they are only a few days away from planting in the ground, I thought it was time.
DIY Cottage Garden Trellis
During our construction project last year, we had to remove the old bushes surrounding our house in order to dig out and seal the foundation. It left a bare spot of brick wall on the front of the house that was begging to be covered by a colorful, climbing flower using a trellis. I'm not willing to replant anything permanent or expensive until I get a better idea of how I'm going to use the space, so I've decided to fill the spot with annuals and perennials that I could start mostly from seed. With a span of 9 feet, I would need four, two-foot panels to cover this section. Store-bought versions would cost me hundreds for what would likely be a temporary design fix. Having successfully completed the bamboo cucumber trellis, I got to work on the cottage garden trellis. I drew out the rough dimensions using graph paper, then measured and cut the poles. There was definitely a learning curve to figure out how to tie the pieces together, but once I got it, I finished the project very quickly. You can use the same material and method of tying for any structure you want to create, as demonstrated in this video.
I had tried a few different materials to tie the cuke trellis, and have concluded that jute twine works best. It is just course enough to create some friction with the bamboo so that it doesn't slide around too much in the tying process. And, unlike the wire ties that I tried, twine is much more flexible and easy to tie. Plus it comes in a nice brown color that blends with the bamboo poles. Here is the final result. If all goes well, the wall will be covered in blooms in a few months and you won't see the bamboo poles hardly at all.
As far as plant selection goes, I want a long bloomer that does not require deadheading. The trellis will be the backdrop behind many plants, and I don't want to step on them to access the trellis. Good candidates include thunbergia and mandevilla. It's too early in the season to purchase them at the garden store, so I will have to wait.
Veggie Beds are Coming Alive
We've had heavy rains and cloudy days lately, but when the sun popped out for a few hours, I got a good look at the growth in my veggie bed. The green tops of the root veggies are beginning to surface. The bean seeds have been pushed through the ground atop unfurling sprouts. Light, feathery carrot leaves are defying the harsh weather and surfacing in their row one by one. Onion shoots boldly spike out of the red, white and yellow domed fruits below. Lettuce leaves are fresh and ready for harvest. Cucumbers planted by seed, however, have not shown up. I may have to replant them.
The Early Bird Catches…A Frost
Well, my hastiness cost me a few plants. Weeks ago, the temperatures had been so pleasant and unseasonably warm that I thought we had reached our last frost about a month early. Our normal date in Zone 7 is mid-April. I planted a few cold hardy plants, but took a chance by planting a few herbs and veggies outdoors in late March and early April.
Then a cold spell hit. Evening temperatures dropped to just above freezing. Coupled with rain and strong wind gusts, my newer plantings were toast the next morning. I've lost a couple new basils and a cucumber. I left them in the ground in the hopes that they will miraculously recover. But I have learned my lesson to wait for the calendar and trust the long-term trends. I have held off planting my tomato and pepper seedlings in the outdoor beds, and they are tucked nicely inside protected from the cold.
Suburban Sweet Corn Experiment
My hubby grew up on a Midwestern farm amongst vast fields of sweet corn. Parades, festivals, cycling events and beauty queens in his home town are dedicated to the harvesting of this beloved, local crop. After having great success with his hot pepper plants, he's beginning to see the potential of growing his favorites right outside our suburban front door. So it wasn't a surprise that he picked up a package of corn seeds for us to try growing this year in our yard.
Because of the size of the stalks, corn will be a little more tricky. I've devised a plan to plant it in containers right outside his home office window. I think there's just enough light to be considered full sun. Fingers crossed. I'm going to start it by seed indoors at first until I get all the supplies I need for outdoor growing. This should be interesting!
Once we started preparing our kitchen garden beds, we began to notice more parts of the yard that needed attention. One by one, we've been weeding, turning, reshaping, lining and mulching our other flower beds. Some old, tired bushes and plants need to go, and some beds need to be tidied up or completely redone. I wasn't intending to go this far, but now that we've started, we might as well keep going. During COVID-19, there's nowhere else to go but my yard anyway. The weather has been pleasant, the beautiful spring flowers are bursting with color, and the birds sing on branches as they patiently wait for me to leave the bird feeder areas.
Cottage Garden Seedlings
I thought flowers would be easier to start indoors than veggies, but the opposite has been true. Some, like the milkweed and nasturtium only gave me one sprout, and others, such as one of the delphinium varieties, never sprouted at all. Some are leggy and flop over, while others have barely gotten off the ground. I tried planting more impatiens, but not a single one sprouted this time. I must have done something wrong.
I'm going to try direct sowing some again outside when it warms up a bit more in a week or two. I've since learned that some of these seeds do better if they're soaked in water the night before planting. The ones that have done okay, like the Sweet William and Shasta Daisies, are still too small to be transplanted.
My mixed success with flower seedlings is partly due to my neglect. I haven't babied them the way I did the veggie plants. Plus, the overwhelm of tomato and pepper plants has taken up the good indoor lighting that I needed for my flowers. Next year, I won't overplant and will be so much better prepared having experienced many mishaps this year.
What Took Me So Long?
While my main focus for the garden this year was supposed to be setting up the kitchen garden, my ambitions expanded to cleaning up the rest of the yard. For over 20 years, I have hated the two pachysandra beds in front of my house, but never did anything about them. Though pachysandra is a nice, evergreen ground cover that requires no attention to make it thrive, it can quickly become a nuisance if not regularly managed. The underground roots shoot beyond their intended borders and have to be yanked out to keep them in bounds. They are also a trap for leaves and tree seedlings, and offer shelter to unwanted pests like mice. I've tried to incorporate other plants into the beds, but the pachysandra quickly chokes out anything in its path.
When my hubby came home from his walk the other day, he surveyed the front yard. "Dang, it looks terrible!" he exclaimed. He was right. Along with the overgrown pachysandra, his beloved tulip poplar tree was getting so tall that it was shading another connected plant bed. It was time to reorganize. I started yanking out the pachysandra one root at a time, first on the left bed. After hours of work, I raked it smooth and moved the plants struggling under the tulip poplar tree to the somewhat sunnier bed. I'm not sure if they'll survive the transplant, but they're a good placeholder until I can figure out a better landscape plan. My body hurts, but it's already looking better.
That was fast! It's only been three days, but already a corn seedling has sprouted. The excitement for our corn in a pot experiment is building.
Spring in Full Bloom
The garden preparation has been physically grueling, but the colorful spring blooms keep my spirit alive. Bleeding heart, azaleas, candytuft, cornflower, tulips and daffodils are my reliable perennials that brighten the fresh landscape with pink, red, yellow and white every spring. Perennial herbs have emerged and are already being used in my cooking.
My Aching Body and Welcome Relief
After weeks of digging and hauling heavy bags of mulch, my body was starting to give out. Circulation in my hands and feet has been pinched off, and I'm groaning like I'm 100 years old going up and down the steps. It just so happened that my dear friend and workout instructor added a stretch class to her line-up. She's doing classes online during the COVID shutdown, which is perfect since I'm covered in dirt every day from being in the garden, and wouldn't dare leave the house. The stretch was exactly what I needed to loosen up my pinched nerves. Can't wait for the next class!
Pachysandra Dig Out Complete
After three days of digging out eight trash cans full of pachysandra, it's gone! At least the parts I can see above ground. I'll finish replanting the beds with recycled plants from other parts of the yard when it warms. My daylilies and hostas need to be divided and moved, and that might make a good place for them. The beds are visible from my kitchen window, so I began to envision more opportunities for the newly reclaimed beds. They are a prime spot for another bird feeder so that I can watch them while doing dishes. Why I didn't do this years ago is beyond me!
Last Day of Frost?
It looks like tonight will be the last time this season that we will see temperatures near freezing. The evening forecast is looking up from here. Tomorrow I will start spring planting.
It's been an exciting couple of days. I finally got to plant the tomatoes and peppers we had started from seed indoors. My nice fluffy soil, which I had spent so much time preparing, made planting easy. The tomato plants are nestled in their cages, fourteen in all. I purchased three San Marzano tomato plants, one of my favorites for making tomato sauce, since I didn't come across their seeds back in February. The rest are from my homegrown collection.
The hot peppers include some that I purchased, including the Dragon Cayenne that my hubby enjoys so much. We found out that it is a hybrid variety - a cross between a Thai and Cayenne pepper - so the plants we grow from the seeds we harvested may turn out to be one of the parent plants, not the hybrid. The prospect of growing mystery pepper plants could be fun, but to insure we get a true Dragon Cayenne, I purchased the plants.
None of the cucumber seeds I planted under my trellis on April have sprouted. I replanted them again today. Perhaps it's been too cold and rainy for them?
After watching several YouTube videos on planting ginger, like this one and that one, I decided to try it myself. I use it a lot in cooking and it would be great to have it fresh in the garden. I had a big piece leftover from the grocery store, cut it up and set it in the ground in between the lettuce heads. I hope I didn't waste a good piece of ginger!
Pole Bean Trellis
I made another bamboo trellis, this time for the tri-colored pole beans. Though I had a rough idea in mind how to do it, I built it on site in order to perfectly fit the space. There are three poles on each side joined by a shorter cross piece, forming it into a sort of arbor. Underneath I'll install a bird feeder pole. Once the beans grow up the vine, it will provide a little shelter for the birds to come and eat. At least that's what I'm hoping anyway. Upon completion, I planted three bean seeds on the outside of each pole - one of each kind. I hope it works!
More Plants are Arriving
The garden stores are filled with colorful plants now that we are past the last frost day (fingers crossed). Not all of the summer plants have arrived, but the selection has expanded from even a week ago. Though my plan was to grow most of them from seed, I ended up purchasing some plants - mostly perennials - that I didn't have in my seed trays. Bee balm, salvia and spurge will be nice additions to the garden. I was mindful to look for plants that attract pollinators and birds. When I pulled up to my house after returning from the garden store, I felt a sense of pride. For the first time in several years, the yard was looking really nice. It was motivation to finish the job.
Grub Worms - A Tasty Treat?
Whenever I dig into my soil, I come across those nasty grub worms. After finding out how much they damage the plants, I looked into what to do with them. Turns out that birds love to eat them. Today, I tossed one in a cardboard box while I was planting. When I walked away, a bluebird swooped down, snatched it in its beak and flew away. Now I know what to do with them - put them in the bird feeding tray away from my plants.
The Rain is Coming
I skipped breakfast and lunch and planted for nine hours straight. Almost all the little flower seedlings that I started indoors have found happy homes in the garden. I didn't have a precise plan on where to put everything, so is was a bit like putting a puzzle together. I focused on plant height and hours of sunlight needed as a guide. I gave little attention to color and texture. This year is more about experimenting with seed, a much less expensive option than buying plants. If I don't like something, I can move it or toss it out without much loss. The seedlings are tiny, so small that I could plant them with a spoon! I have no idea if they will survive. But for better or worse, the cottage garden is nearly complete, and the rest of the flower beds are about two-thirds finished. We have a solid day of rain coming and I wanted to get as much as I could into the ground to take advantage of the free watering.
I have a few dozen seed packets that I can direct sow when the rain stops wherever there are still gaps in the landscape. Since I have little experience with seed, I don't have much confidence that the seeds or seedlings that I started indoors will produce full flowers by the end of the summer. Unlike in past years, I labeled everything that I planted in order to track what works and what doesn't. I can't wait to see what pops up! I may still purchase a few more plants if something catches my eye that I haven't tried to plant before, especially perennials.
More Tomato Cages
I ordered four more tomato cages, shown here. A different brand than the previous set, these are taller and more expensive, but these, too, are square and fold up flat for storage. The bright red color adds nice contrast to the green plants. They arrived today and were easy to install. I'll do a cage comparison at the end to the season.
Bush Bean Replant
The unexpected freezing temperatures and wind knocked out the tender bean seedlings. They all had to be replanted.
Dinner Salad Harvest
It's early in the growing season for most veggies, but the lettuce I started in March is ready to be harvested. We've been eating fresh from the garden salads with our meals, cutting off only the leaves that we need. I've read that lettuces are cut and come again, meaning that you can cut the outer leaves and they'll grow back, usually three times. And then you start over. So far, the heads we have harvested are doing just that.
The Leafy Green Bed
We've reclaimed another part of our garden that I've now designated the Leafy Green Bed. This spot used to be covered by a wooden platform that has steadily rotted over the years. My hubby planted the seed of suggestion that we rip it out, and then it got me thinking. The lettuce I'd planted in the veggie bed gets direct sun, but the greens probably won't do well in the summer heat. I can see already that on bright, sunny days, the tender leaves get a little wilted. I've read that in the summer, leafy greens prefer dappled sunlight. This spot is perfect, as it is shielded by a couple nearby trees.
My spring has been completely consumed with gardening. I've cleaned up most of the front yard flower beds, planted most of the kitchen and cottage garden, built three bamboo trellises, and moved all my plants outdoors. Our original plan to plant a few tomatoes and hot peppers has expanded beyond our imagination. Much of the grueling work has been done, and most of our efforts have been a success. We learned a lesson in patience when we tried to fool mother nature by planting too early. But all is well. The spring flowers, bright and bold in early April are now fading away. Late spring and summer blooms are not far behind.