It is a cold Midwestern January morning. A fresh two inches of snow are on the ground. The sky is blue and cloudless. The temperature is expected to break freezing this afternoon but it is a bit breezy which counters the warming effects of the ample sunshine. At noon today, my wife shall jump into Lake Michigan for the Lakeview Polar Bear Club's "Celebration of Shrinkage".
But not I. No, on this mid-winter's morning, I am obsessing about gardening.
I have some big plans for the garden this year. My mother, who keeps a garden as well, gave me a very generous gift certificate for Johnny's Select Seeds. I typically buy from Burpee, but Mom swears by Johnny's. They are on the expensive side, seed packets at $3.45 add up quickly. Specialty items are more expensive.
Thanks to Mom's generosity, I am able to easily pursue a more extended growing season and am planning to put in three seasons worth of crops. I usually only plan on growing a spring crop and a summer crop. By fall, the heat, the weeding, the mosquitoes and the garden pests have eroded my enthusiasm for gardening and I half-heartedly sow a fall crop from whatever seed I saved from the spring.
But the climate has been notably changing around here: The springs have been colder and darker and the autumns longer and milder than they used to be. The Midwest is traditionally not the best area for growing cold weather crops in the spring as we tend to transition from Winter to Summer rather abruptly. Last year for example, April was so cold and cloudy that the Broccoli Raab was only four inches high when the heat of May caused them to bolt. So, for the first time, I have decided to expand my efforts towards planting a complete second cold weather crop for the fall.
Not that I am giving up on my early spring crop. Cold-weather crops grow their foliage when the soil is cool. The leaves are mild-tasting and tender at this point. But when hot weather arrives, the plant undergoes a transformation called bolting. The plant puts its energy into growing upwards to greate a flower head. It grows stalky and bitter-tasting and, unless kept for seed-production, is now unsuitable for eating. Because of my area's abrupt springtime hot-spells, I have selected heat-tolerant or slow-bolting varieties to grow in the spring. These include Emu spinach, KY Cross cabbage, Snow Crown cauliflower, Coastal Star romaine lettuce, and Gypsy broccoli.
Selecting these cultivars poses a logistical challenge for me. Some crops, such as spinach, carrots and beets, I sow directly into the soil in rows. In the past, I would just buy other crops, such as those in the cabbage family, from a farm stand as plants. This year I am buying all of my selections as seed and I shall have to start them 4-6 weeks before it is time to transplant them into the garden. As I hope and pray and make blood-sacrifices to be able to find my garden thawed and dry enough to till by mid-March, I need to start some of my crops...now?
As I do not own a greenhouse I am going to start many of my spring weather crops indoors in the basement. I tried my hand at starting seeds this way a few years ago. I purchased an economic double fluorescent bulb lamp and a heated seed starter tray that came with 72 1-1/2" square pots. I recall that I failed to start any lettuce in this manner but I believe that I started a number of other things successfully. Starting seeds indoors can be tricky and have limitations. Plants in the Brassica (cabbage) family need warm soil to germinate but require cool soil thereafter. Many plants with touchy roots, such as corn and carrots, do not tolerate transplanting.
Recommended transplanting guidelines
| Crop || Germination temp || Min. Plug Size || Weeks to transplant |
| Cabbage || 75F-85F || 1-1/2" || 4-6 |
| Brussels’ Sprouts || 75F-85F || 1-1/2" || 4-6 |
| Lettuce ||40F-70F || 3/4" || 3-4 |
| Cauliflower ||75F-85F || 1-1/2" || 4-6 |
| Broccoli ||75F-85F || 1-1/2" || 4-6 |
In addition to the transplanting challenge, I am going to try to grow a couple of new cultivars this year. Burpee sells a variety of sweet pea called Mr. Big which can grow up to 4 feet tall. I am going to try to get a 20 foot row of it to climb up the eastern fence. I am tired of the mess that traditional red beets make so I am going to grow a golden beetroot instead. My asparagus bed is five years old now and I hope to get a good crop of Jersey Giants once the soil warms up enough to wake them up. Last year I did not have asparagus until May!
The average date of the last frost in suburban Chicago is May 1st. Shortly thereafter, the soil will have warmed to at least 60F during the day to allow for the planting of warm weather crops.
Usually my seed potatoes will come in from Ronniger's Potato Farm by mid April. I have selected an early yellow variety, a late yellow variety and two fingerling varieties. I have grown these varieties before with good yields. My onion plants will arrive about the same time. I always grow Walla-Walla onions because they are very sweet and mild. This year I am also going to grow a storage variety to keep until the sweet onions have been used up.
I am the son of an Indiana farm boy and, therefore, sweet corn is a birthright. But apparently, I am not very good at growing sweet corn! Birds, bugs, storms and cross-pollination have thwarted my efforts for many years now. This year, I am going to focus on growing a pair of Supersweet varieties with the SH2 sugar enhancer gene. This gene will slow the conversion of sugars into starches, which extends the shelf life of the corn. When I have successfully grown corn recently, it has been decidedly starchy. I tried once to grow Supersweet variety but it did not germinate well.
I have a method of germinating large seeds in mason jars indoors. I soak the seeds in mason jars for a day and rinse and drain the jars twice a day thereafter until germination. This works well for nearly everything, but perhaps not for Supersweet corn. I shall have to experiment!
Another of my experiments I will undertake this year will be growing tomatoes from seed. I have a fungal blight in my soil which I believe is Early Blight. Every year I try to grow Roma tomatoes. Once the plants set fruit the blight starts to kill the plant. I get the fruit but the plant dies. Indeterminate varieties of tomatoes, which do not put all of their efforts to growing a single crop at once, do not succumb to the blight. Therefore, this year I am growing three varieties from seed, a determinant paste tomato for the making the annual pot of tomato soup, and an indeterminate tomato for juicing and fresh eating, with the latest-and-greatest disease resistances, and a cherry tomato.
I will also be starting all of my cucurbits this year from seed of the latest-and-greatest disease resistant varieties. Last year all of my cucumbers, melons, and squashes were attacked by cucumber beetles. This year I am going to attempt to use nematodes to kill the upcoming generation of beetles as larva in the soil.
Overwintering beetles will emerge in the spring and feed on just about anything until the soil warms up. They will then seek out host plants, corn and cucurbits that the larva feed upon, to lay their eggs. The larva will hatch and feed on the roots of these plants. What I plan to do is to start my cucurbits indoors (corn does not like to be transplanted) and when I transplant them and sow the corn, I will disperse these beneficial nematodes into the soil.
When the cucumber beetle larva hatches, the nematodes will seek them out and enter their bodies. The nematodes then release a toxic bacterium which exists only in the nematode. This bacterium reproduces and kills the larva. The nematode uses the bacteria as a food source and will finish its life cycle within the dead larva and reproducing by the thousands. Interestingly, these Entomopathogenic nematodes of the Steinernema and Heterorhabditis genus have five life stages and all but the “hunter” stage is spent inside the host.
The species Heterorhabditis Bacteriophora has been documented in the wild infesting striped cucumber beetles in the Southwest. This “cruiser” species seeks out a wide variety of grubs and larva, burrowing through the soil to a depth of 7", and is not adversely affected by tillage. Theoretically, two applications of 5 million nematodes each in the early summer should help to keep my local population of pests in check all year long.
I will have to time the applications of my gruesomely helpful roundworms with the transplanting of my crops for maximum benefit. I have prepared a table for transplanting my tomatoes, eggplants and cucurbits. I will sow my corn, beans, and okra directly.
Recommended transplanting guidelines
| Crop || Germination temp || Min. Plug Size || Weeks to transplant |
| Cucumbers || 70F-85F || 2" || 4-5 |
| Summer Squash || 70F-85F || 2" || 2-3 |
| Zucchini || 70F-85F || 2" || 2-3 |
| Eggplants ||80F-90F ||3"-4" || 8-10 |
| Tomatoes ||75F-90F || 3"-4" || 5-6 |
| Melons ||80F-90F || 2"-3" || 4 |
I have not committed to this idea, but I have been thinking about building myself a cold frame to put outdoors. A cold frame is designed to trap sunlight warmth inside a frame of wood or other insulating construction with a top made of glass or clear polyethylene sheeting. Once seedlings have sprouted indoors, I could put them outside in the cold frame to benefit from direct sunlight. Spending up to a week in a cold frame is also a good way to "harden off" the plants before they are exposed directly to the elements.
I am going to try to grow two crops that I did not grow last year. The first of these is fennel. I once tried this but I failed to thin it properly and proper bulbs never formed. The other is celery, which I have never grown before. Celery bolts when exposed to temperatures UNDER 55F so are best transplanted out to the garden in June. I will have to start them indoors in March. Both plants should be ready to harvest in the late summer.
Back-in-the-day, folks would put in an extensive cold weather crop of cabbage, greens and root vegetables to stock their root cellars for the winter. The crops they planted in the mid-summer are cold-tolerant, "storage" cultivars bred to withstand a long growing cycle and to stay fresh during the long cold winter. As I had earlier explained, this year I am going to take advantage of these mild, long autumns that we seem to be having and grow a proper fall crop of cultivars selected for cold-tolerance and/or long-storage properties.
2011 Fall(sow or transplant early July - early August)
| ------14'--------- || -----9'-------- || -----9'-------- || -----9'-------- ||-----9'-------- || -----2'x 24'----- |
| Asparagus Bed || Dunja zucchini
|| Zephyr yellow summer squash
|| Marketmore 76 cucumbers || Olympian cucumbers || Genovese basil |
|Asparagus Bed || Millionaire okra || German Butterball potatoes ||Allstar Gourmet Mix looseleaf lettuce Black Seeded Simpson lettuce ||Storage No.4 cabbages || Sun Gold cherry tomato |
| Windsor fava/broad beans || Bolero carrots || || Orion fennel || Churchill brussel's sprouts || Mountian Magic tomato |
| Windsor fava/broad beans || Tyee spinach || French Fingerling potatoes || ||
Denali cauliflower || Mountian Magic tomato |
| Windsor fava/broad beans || Touchstone Gold beets (2nd crop) || Russian Banana potatoes || || Marathon broccoli || Grandero paste tomato |
| Windsor fava/broad beans || Tango celery || Orient Express eggplants || || ||Grandero paste tomato |
|Mr. Big sweet peas (2nd crop) || Tasty Bites cantaloupes || Savor charentais melons || Fortex green beans || Big Mama lima beans
|| Genovese basil |
Two of my greater successes last year were with crops that bore during the fall. The Big Mamma lima beans I grew last year took all very to grow but by the fall had produced a high yield of fresh lima beans. I will grow them again this year.
The fava beans that I grew were not so high yielding in bean pods but I consider that experiment a success solely as a cover crop after the corn. Beans are a legume which fixes nitrogen into the soil. I can continue now to rotate sweet corn and fava beans in the same extra wide 14 foot rows within the same year now.
Last year I failed to sow the Brussels Sprouts soon enough. We had a cool wet spell and the slugs had their way with the young plants. If I have succeeded in starting my spring plants indoors, I will do the same for my fall crop.
Nematodes, seed transplanting, cold frames, storage cultivars...all very ambitious designs every one. It is lot of work just to satisfy my deep seated desire to be digging in the dirt. After all what more can a good boy want, other than a...
links about benificial nematodes