Sunday, April 29, 2012

Growing steady in moody weather

T.S. Eliot was right: April IS the cruelest month. Two weeks ago it was sunny and seventy degrees; I tidied up flower beds, planted bushes and trees, and, most rashly, started beans, cucumbers, peas, artichokes, and cilantro. Kale, collards, and spinach were sprouting happily in the cold frame. Last Monday morning, I woke up to six inches of snow.

            Though the vegetables I had sown are technically “cold-weather crops” I have found that my assessment of cold spring temperatures and the seed companies’ varies quite a bit. Here in far Upstate New York, winter is over when ice stops crystallizing on your face (this is also known as the beginning of flip-flop season). Apparently, true “cold crops” are usually sown when the temperature is reliably sustained at around sixty-five degrees (up here we call that bikini weather). Considering our growing season is really only about four months long, different understandings of what it means to be "cold" or "warm" (which up here we actually never achieve for very long) really matters for one's harvest. 

            I could only think one thing: thank the gardening gods I container planted. In my earlier posts, I mentioned how much I admired my friend Julia’s container cucumbers. Determined to do the same thing, I started scarlet runner beans, pickling cukes (my favorite), and sugar snap peas in single-cell containers right after St. Patrick’s Day. As they started to grow (and they grow quickly!) I filled twelve-inch-deep containers with a bottom layer of composted cow manure and topped it with potting soil. I made a few very simple trellises from dry sticks (grape vines are also very helpful here, depending on how you want your vines to grow-- perhaps in fun shapes?) and stuck them in a triangular formation in the rear of the pot. I then planted each pot with combinations of beans and cucumbers, and planted hanging baskets with peas. I placed them all in front of a window in my back kitchen which is separated from the house and is maintains a constant fifty-five to sixty degrees.

            When the weather was still warm, I began the process of hardening seedlings that had developed at least two leaf sets (this is important—you don’t want to start them too early). I have learned from experience that planting indoor-sprouted seedlings directly into the great big wide world is seldom successful. Most expert gardeners say that leaving the seedlings outdoors, in their nursery cells, for a few hours a day (providing the day is a lovely one) helps them to harden and acclimate to garden life. Through this process, the seedlings can experience harsher climate factors—direct sunlight, winds, even temperature fluctuations—and get used to them gradually before being permanently placed in them.  Thus, I had first hardened my seedlings in their primary sprouting cells, and then had set out the containers entire when they were comfortably planted. When colder evening temperatures set in, I whisk them back into the house for shelter. Voila: a literal (potential) moveable feast. 

            Currently,  my beans are about eighteen inches high with a  healthy growth of leaves and my peas hang from their perches about the same (the cucumbers seem to be waiting for some warmer weather). They have been largely living in the back kitchen as the weather has been lousy this past week, but they got to see some outdoor sunshine today. While (as always) I’m a little nervous that I began too early, if all continues to go well, I’ll have a very early veg crop this year. 

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