The Symphony That Is Spring
April 17th, 2013 in gallery
Heirloom Tomato Greenhouse
Photo: Bob Feingold
Spring is in full swing, even if the weather is not. The best part, of course, is that all the plants are popping up everywhere and the daffodils opened last week. Yes it has rained steady. And, yes, we have had weather in the forties. But the plants have come up strong and straight, nonetheless. They are on a timer now. And nothing short of a freeze will stop them. Irises, day lilies, peonies, delphinium, roses, lupine, tulips, self-seeding chard, asparagus, chives, have all said hello.
It is like a symphony getting ready for the performance. The strings sing and pluck, the horns resonate, the drums skip and strut along their course. All together and apart, in a spontaneous, chaotic, discordant, yet somehow harmonious prelude, each getting ready for its solo display in the sun, magnificent each in its own way at its own time. The performance starts in earnest in May. The finale, really, is in July with an encore in September.
I am more than ready for this annual concert. My soul loves to be replenished at this time each year. The garden symphony and my work to help it along makes my soul soar.
More down to earth, close to Buzzard's Bay, the Spring weather is more a wishful illusion than a real expectation. The water and fog keep us at least five degrees colder in Spring and five degrees warmer in Fall, with fluctuations. We make some adjustments where we can, but in many things, we can't.
For example, heirloom tomatoes. People want to buy and plant them in Mid-May to Memorial Day, even though June 1 is a better time for planting most years. They tend to languish before then because they need 75 degrees to be healthy and get sulky when its colder. But we seed and pot according to the requirements of both the plants and the planters.
To make the planting calculation more complex than usual, this year we changed the method of growing our seedlings. For years we used peat and then coconut pellets successfully. With this method, to have the plants ready for the end of May, I learned that planting the seeds around April 1, was fine. Eight weeks is more than enough. But this year, we changed seed starting methods to save time, space and money. Peat and coconut pellets come 72 to the tray and cost about five cents each. Which makes for a lot of trays when you are growing more than 1000 plants. This year we switched to grow trays, 20 rows to the tray, 25 seeds to the row, five hundred seeds to the tray, not seventy two. Three trays for 1500 seedlings, instead of 20. That saves tons of space, tons of time for watering, and the expense of pellets. Once you buy the grow trays, the expense of starting seeds is reduced to the price of the seeds. Not bad. But it is the savings of space and time which pays the greatest dividends.
Of course, there was a learning curve. I was advised by two growers to start at the end of February. I did. The seeds germinated in a few days and grew too fast, too thin and too tall. The growers assumed I was going to place the trays in the greenhouse and they would grow slowly, thick and short. But I nurtured them in the safety of our house, under T-5 grow lights. I was advised to throw them out and start again. I got new seeds, new trays and reseeded. But I noticed that the old seedlings slowed right down and were doing fine, once I put them in the greenhouse. So I ended up potting seedlings from both plantings which all are doing well quite well. I will have tomatoes ready to sell in waves from early May through the first two weeks of June, fitting the requirements of the plants and the planters who want to plant early, and those who want to plant when the time is right.
I will probably start my seeds later next year, and keep some in the house and put some in the greenhouse, to compare results. I will keep the grow lights closer to the seedlings and keep them lit for fewer hours, so they don't get leggy. They are safer in the house under controlled heat and light than in the greenhouse which can have wild swings due to wind and temperature. I love to have them in the house so I can see them and take care of them better.
So now I have about 1400 heirloom tomatoes potted and very happy in the greenhouse. I water then daily and check in at least twice a day. They make me very happy. They are getting taller and stronger every day. It never ceases to amaze me that these beautiful ever growing plants started just weeks ago from the tiniest of dry seeds. And some of the seeds were two years old, to boot. Nor are they alone. Delphinium, lupine, onions, chard, carrots, romaine, radishes, leeks and strawberries are happily growing along side their tomato cousins.
The tricky part now is making sure that doors and sides of the greenhouse are open and closed when they should be. There is at least a thirty degree difference between the outside and inside temperature on a sunny day. If I make a mistake, I can bake or freeze the plants. Not good. Recently, I kept the greenhouse closed when I left in the morning because it was cold, windy and overcast. When I got home at 1:30, it was over 100 degrees in the greenhouse because the clouds had dissipated. I had watered in the morning, so everything was still alright. But if the sunshine started earlier or I came home later, the result could have been really bad.
And now that the weather is turning, we are starting outdoors as well. We planted a few varieties of potatoes and a new asparagus bed. The peas go in tomorrow and spinach and romaine.
The most exciting change that is happening outside is that we are converting one large area to sustainable, organic tomato garden. This means no-tilling, drip irrigation, clover ground cover and no artificial fertilizer in this experimental tomato growing area. Jeremy Brodeur of Oak and Holly Garden Design is guiding us with this conversion. We are optimistic that the deer will get many more disease free tomatoes this year and that the organisms living in our soil will be happier, too.
My friend Laurie Hellstrom swears by this method and has shown me side by side results that are truly impressive. Yesterday was the start day. Tom Kirby had delivered his composted horse manure which is certified organic. I call it Black Gold. After a discussion of my objectives and history in this field, Jeremy laid out the outline of the garden with string. Then he used a Broad Fork (thanks Johnny's Seeds and Elliot Coleman) to upend and loosen the soil where the tomatoes will be planted. This preserves the life in the soil which enriches the plants and prevents compacting soil. Roto-tilling disturbs and ultimately compacts the soil by destroying the life within it. Then he laid down recycled paper as a weed suppressant and covered it with Tom's composted and cured horse poops. Then we used newspaper and grass clippings on the path to suppress weeds. After carefully laying out the drip irrigation lines, connecting and testing them and the electronic timer, perennial clover seeds were spread on the beds and outer paths. On the side between the stonewall and ineffectual deer fence I designed and installed for nought last year, we will plant flowers that attract bees and other beneficial insects, perhaps asparagus, hyssop or cone flowers. This is called Lasagna Gardening. We have high hopes!
Sustainable Tomato Garden
Last week, my friends from a local nursery helped me clean the tree damage and the garden beds as well. Today I ordered the mulch which will go down this weekend. Last week we also spread compost and tilled in the winter rye and compost in the old fashioned way. ( I do love my Honda rear tine tiller. We can't change everything all at once. I am not on firm ground yet.) We need to fertilize the roses, finish pruning the fruit trees, and start planting according to each plant's timetable.
Oh, and thank you to Norm Buck who is coaching a few of us on growing GIANT PUMPKINS. That should be a blast. Last year a friend of a friend grew the world's biggest at 2009 lbs. He earned $10,000 for his efforts at the Topsfield Fair. Our seeds are from slightly smaller pumpkins, but anything over 100 lbs would break my record. What a Halloween that would be! But I don't want to wish the season to rush by so fast. I want to savor every garden day. Enjoy yours.
My website - 24K Heirloom Tomatoes & Friends
posted in: The Gallery, , early spring garden, heirloom tomatoes, sustainable garden, grow trays