Thursday, April 11, 2013

Transplanting lettuce

For a week, every time I walked past the lettuce, it yelled at me. It was all tangled and crammed together and needed to be transplanted, separated out so each plant could grow. More importantly, my wife and I have been eating store-bought insecticide- and herbicide-laced (not to mention, over-hyphenated) lettuce like rabbits

Yesterday, I finally transplanted some plants. Here are some photos to prove it happened.

Marvel of Four Seasons fighting each other for nutrients, moisture, and light.

 The Red Salad Bowl lettuce was a tangled mess.

To keep as much of the roots intact as possible, I wet the soil, then wiggled the plants lose...

then planted them in an appropriate container that we had saved in the past few months.

At first, the transplants were wilty and wimpy, but after a day under the lights and a generous helping of water, they've bounced back. Looks like we'll need more containers and more friends to help us eat all this lettuce.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Where I geek out about seed germination*

Seeds, those little dry things that rattle around in paper envelopes, seem pretty insignificant. We don't pay them much respect as they show up each spring in packets on the store aisle caps for a few months, then are gone. But seeds and the plants they grow aren't going away, of course. Seeds have grown yearly generations of seasonal plants since they were spoken into being at the beginning of time.

The process of germination starts as seeds take in water and expand. Pressure builds on the outer coating and eventually the seed bursts open and a root pops out. Most plants send up a fuzzy stem and two early leaves. Some plants, including corn, have only one or these rudimentary leaves. This leaf or leaves had been curled around the stored fats, carbohydrates, and proteins inside the protective outer coating. The seed's internal chemistry begins to change also—proteins and starches break into simpler compounds that the seed uses to shift into high gear.

Early leaves look the same plant to plant. It's not until the first true leaves appear that plants differentiate themselves. Here is a pic of a Large Red Cherry's first true leaf. You can tell it's a tomato plant just from that distinctive leaf. (Stay tuned for a future post on the Large Red Cherry.)

Large Red Cherry—every seed I planted germinated and grew true leaves after 19 days

Scientists don't understand everything about seeds. Some seeds remain dormant, refusing to germinate even when conditions are almost perfect and evolution can't explain the origin of seed-bearing plants. Even Darwin wrote that they are an "abominable mystery."

In the end, we know enough about seeds and their growing process to stand in awe and watch them work.

Slow but steady. This photo from two weeks ago shows plants that still have 
plenty of time—another month and before Central Ohio's last frost date. 

*Believe it or not, I'm not a biologist, botanist, or seed whisperer. I am a seed pray-er, however.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Know when to put down the book

Besides changing diapers, one of my new hobbies is reserving and reading books from the public library. Yesterday I cam across this quote in Alan Silver's How to Win Grants.

"Books, seminars, workshops, and the like are fine, 

but don't let them put off your day of reckoning."

Seems like good advice for almost any daunting process in life, including gardening.

Don't let books become your garden. Books and blogs are there to inspire and teach you, but there comes a time to put down the book and go outside and work your land. Make your own mistakes, learn about your own soil, talk to your neighbors to find out what varieties work well. The real learning, as you probably already know, takes place once you're in the middle of it, whatever "it" is.

Today I read through half of Jere Gettle's The Heirloom Life Gardener. The book's photos are a feast for the eyes and Jere's (I think it's short for Jeremiah) writing is smooth and easy to read quickly. He talks about getting into the garden while it's still cold to prepare the ground and plant cold weather veggies like spinach, lettuce, and potatoes.

The next two days' weather forecast looks nice--sunny and 40s. I have a long list: turning the ground, creating a new bed for corn, and planting several things. My plan for tomorrow is to spend less time inside reading about other people's gardens and more time outside creating the garden we want.

Monday, March 18, 2013

General Bidwell Melon

(Cucumis melo)

The casaba melon was named after the town of Kassabeh, near Smyrna, where melons are a big deal (Turkmenistan celebrates a national melon day each August). While the more popular and readily available Golden Beauty Casaba grow into eight-pound-spheres of white fruit, the Bidwell is a monster, reaching 16 to 20 pounds in an oblong football-shape. Almost everyone who plants and harvests the Bidwell raves about its taste, with Amy Goldman, author of Melons for the Passionate Grower, writing that it "tastes like heavenly orange sherbet."

Image credit: Nancy Leek

The Bidwell melon gets its name from John Bidwell (1819-1900) of Chico, California, who planted 10 acres (oh my goodness) and popularized the variety. Nancy Leek, who wrote the book on Bidwell, points out some wrong information in the Seed Savers Exchange's seed description. Leek says that Bidwell, a Brigadier General in the California Militia and U.S. Representative, received the casaba seeds from the USDA 1881. His first-year crop succeeded and he grew a (maybe literally) ton the following year.

We've done well with cantaloupe the past few seasons, but I'm not sure how Bidwell's melon would do in central Ohio. Maybe I should stop typing and order seeds right now so I can take my own photos of the fruit in August.

If you want to learn about 19th Century California politics, Leek's blog,, is the place to learn.

Waiting, or How to Garden in One Hard Step

My wife and I got serious about our garden this year. In years past, we planted some seeds in Styrofoam (gasp) cups and cleared a spot for them on a shelf in front of the south-facing glass door. We always got a late start and the plants would be only an inch tall when the time came to transplant them into the earth.

Over winter we read a lot, went on a date that included Half Price Books where we picked up some gardening books, and lit up the basement with fluorescent lights above newspaper pots filled with seed-starting soil. It was a lot of anticipation and I have high hopes, but so far, when I peek at those pots in the basement the only green I see is sprouting lettuce. Nothing is going on above the surface for any of our other plants. It's then that I remember that the hardest part of gardening is waiting.

Planting is the act of starting a process, then stepping back and letting the seed do its thing. From the human perspective, gardening is almost passive. It's the effort of clearing the way, eliminating both stones and weeds, providing the seeds and plants with the nutrients and water they need to grow.

Germination takes time. A seed is transforming from a dried lump of cells into a self-sustaining plant, able to gather what it needs from the outside world. I don't know much about being a seed, but all that growth and development seems difficult. Then, once the plant is out of the ground and begins growing out and up, we have to wait for the flowers to pop out. As summer draws on, we wait for the first tomato, the first small pepper. The first vegetables I pick aren't ripe—it's too hard to wait for the yellow tomato to slowly brighten to a fire engine red (or brown-red like some heirloom tomatoes). Once the fruit comes in, we wait for a few perfect specimens and save seeds to start the process again next year.

That growing process is what gardening is all about. Rather than only consume at the end of the cycle, a gardener allows himself to participate. Year after year, along with learning more about the soil in his garden and the specific needs for each plant, the gardener learns patience. And it's waiting that makes the cherry tomato taste all the more sweet at summer's end.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Brandywine Tomatoes

The largest sections in seed catalogs are usually for peppers and tomatoes, and for good reason. While tomato plants all look about the same, the fruit they produce varies widely in shape, color, texture, and taste. One could fill entire gardens with heirloom tomato variations and I suspect some do, but many people recognize the Brandywine tomato as the standard to which all others are compared.

Image credit: hardworkinghippy

Named after the Brandywine Creek in Chester County, PA where there was an important Revolutionary War battle, the tomato appeared in 1889 offered by Johnson and Stokes Seeds. The seed had originally come from a customer in Ohio. The tomatoes are large, some reaching 12 ounces, and the plants produce plenty of them.

There's a variety of Brandywine called Sudduth's Strain. Heirloom tomato champion Ben Quisenberry received seeds for this pink tomato in 1980 from Dorris Sudduth Hill. Hill's family had grown the variety for more than 100 years, according to Seed Savers Exchange, which now sells several of Quisenberry's tomato varieties.

Tomatoes of any kind are the perfect first plant for budding gardeners and no garden is complete without tomatoes. A flat of Brandywines is germinating in our basement; I hope to enjoy their sweetness in a few months.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

People plant but don't 'grow' vegetables

"I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth."
Paul's first letter to the Corinthians chapter 3, verse 6

Today's post is a slight deviation from my previous writing; please let me know what you think.

So far, I've tried to refrain from saying that gardeners grow things. Instead, I've written how people "plant," "sow," and "garden." Sure, gardeners weed, remove rocks, water, plant, till, fertilize, compost, and harvest. Breaking ground and tilling is sweaty and dirty. Pulling weeds is back-breaking and knee-hurting. Watering is tiring and tedious. Gardeners work hard. And most of the time, they can taste the fruits of their effort.

 Image credit: chatirygirl

But the turbines in the cells inside the plant do the impossible magical hard work of actually growing the stem to steady the whole plant; multiplying leaves to suck in more sunlight; lengthening the roots to solidify the plant's foundation and take in more water; bearing fruit and seeds to plant the next generation and create compost for next year's garden. It's a Biblical perspective that science backs up—people work, but the growing itself is a hidden process.

  Image credit: Southern Foodways Alliance

I hope there have been at least a few times when you have stood with dirt under your fingernails in your garden as the sun sinks, then gone to bed only to look at the garden again in the morning to see visible growth since the last night. If you haven't seen your garden grow over night, I hope you see it this year. I hope you witness the ancient mysterious process of growth, one that the Bible can use as an illustration, science can explain, but only nature can carry out.