FloraQuest 2011: If We Cantelope, Lettuce Marry!

Spring gardening swings into action today!

About a week ago I observed that the earth had thawed in most of the yard. Yet, some snow was stubbornly refusing to melt in some of the garden. I knew however that in the Midwest spring can transition from frozen earth to quagmire to the heat of summer in a very short time span.

The long term forecast called for a chilly but dry weekend. Monday was forecasted to be also dry and sunny and 45F degrees. In my book you don't insult the Gardening Gods by NOT rototilling with such a rare combination in mid March.

My ancient beast of a rototiller, a front tined Sears Craftsman Model 32-29958, had last year suffered a degradation of its Briggs and Stratton 8HP engine to an unusable and, irritatingly, seemingly unfixable degree.

I chose to call up my local Sunbelt Rental office in Aurora and, for $45 a day and a $50 pickup and delivery fee, rent a Honda FC600 mid tined tiller. I wanted to rent a rear tined tiller, which is heavier, and would have incurred a much more substantial delivery fee for that reason. I really wish that I had a rear tined tiller.

Troy-Bilt (see footnote) introduced the American gardener to the rear tined garden tiller in the 1937. The Troy-Bilt Model A-1 was based on a German commercial machine called The Earth Grinder The A-1 set the standard for garden cultivation for the homeowner. It featured high speed rear tines with an inverse rotation and self-propelled main wheels. I have never had the fortune to operate a tiller with these features.

The Honda FC600 and my old Craftsman, front-tined tillers, do not have self-propelled tires and rely entirely upon the cultivation tines for propulsion. This is a pain in the ass. In theory, front tined tillers are supposed to till to a depth set by a "depth bar" behind the forward rotating cultivating tines. This bar is supposed to hold the tiller back, from charging forward uncontrollably until that depth has been reached. This "depth bar" at worst becomes a plough as the cultivating tines do a minimum of cultivating and a maximum of propulsion as I struggle to hold the damn thing back so the cultivating tines actually tills the soil.

The Honda FC600 adds this wonderful concept of engineering by adding a single thin plastic idler wheel to the front which serves the purpose of getting the tiller stuck in one place. This makes the operation of the FC600 an alternating struggle between shoving the tiller forward to unstick the front wheel and straining to hold the tiller back. Unlike my Craftsman, which has side mounted idler wheels, the FC600 has no gearbox and therefore, no reverse. I do not believe that I will be spending $1,499.00 MSRP for a new FC600. Good one, Honda, stick to designing small engines, please!

For all of my bitching and complaining about the machine, I did get 1440 sq. ft. of garden cultivated in a little over two hours.

It was frosty this morning and the ground was a touch frozen on the surface. The Sunbelt Rental driver dropped off the tiller at 8:30 AM. The engine started on the first pull and by 11 AM I had doffed my jacket and ski-cap and had me a PB&J and some chips for lunch.

The day really warmed up to be a great one. Sunny and a high in the upper 40's. I was not the only ones to find the weather fine. I even got a little touch of sunburn!
A few flocks of Canadian Geese were congregating way up in the sky, gliding playfully about on updrafts. That strange warbling sound that the extreme altitude distorts their honking into accompanied me as I set to planting rows of Spinach, Lettuce and Sweet Peas.

(See my 2011 Garden Planner for a layout of this year’s garden!)

Using a planting hoe, which has an arrowhead shaped head, I cultivated the soil into a single row of fine black earth along 22' of the southern fence. I sowed Burpeeana Early Sweet Peas into the row and covered them with 2" of fine soil. In a couple of weeks, after the seedlings emerge. I will plant another row about 3" in front of the first one to prolong my harvest. Sweet Peas are an old world legume of the shelling variety; the pods are not eaten. They thrive in the cold and are so sweet it is hard not just eating them all right out of the garden when they get plump in early May.

Next I planted lettuce. I cultivated three 9' rows and made sure I made shallow furrows with very fine soil. Lettuce seeds are very small and must be covered by NO MORE than 1/4" of very fine soil. I sift the soil between my hands as if it were flour to get that fine consistency and then firm the soil lightly. Small seeds make tiny seedlings and if buried any deeper they won't be able to reach the sunlight.

I planted one row of Musclun mix and one row of Simson Elite for salads. These are looseleaf lettuces which should be ready in 28 and 48 days respectively but the tender thinnings with make a few salads before that.

After these looseleaf lettuces are harvested I will buy potted Romaine lettuce from Klein’s Farmstand and plant them in the vacated rows. I find planting cool weather crops from seed a bit tricky and do enjoy the convenience of letting someone else doing the work of starting potted seedlings indoors.

The final row is a Burpee Bibb lettuce. It hakes head lettuce which are the variety that sandwich shops make lettuce wraps with! I should have at least eight good sized heads in 75 days but again, because I am planting rows by seed, I will make salads with the thinnings.

Speaking of salads, tender spinach thinnings make for excellent salads! I planted three 9' rows of spinach. I used three different varieties Harmony Hybrid, Avon Hybrid and Bloomsdale Long-Standing. These are all ruffle leafed and long standing or slow bolting varieties. When the weather grows hot and spinach leaves start to grow arrow shaped and bitter the plant is starting to bolt, or, starting to get stalky as the plant is preparing to flower. I usually prune the upper leaves of the plants rather than harvesting the complete plant to "persuade" the plant not to bolt, but that will only delay the inevitable. After thinning my varieties will mature at 40, 44 and 48 days and three meals a day will be served with sautéed spinach!

A great day and a good start but that's going to be all for now! Look out for another installment from Stuart's Garden when I plant Beets, Carrots and Broccoli Raab when the soil warms up a bit.

Troy-Bilt Footnote: In 2001 Troy-Bilt's parent company, Gardenway, went bankrupt and most of the Troy-Bilt assets were acquired by MTD. Troy-Bilt's reputation for rugged and dependable products under the MDT parentage has declined badly. I have found many reports of unreliable engines, flimsy throttle cables, weak transmissions and inferior steel tubing among other things. A Sad state of affairs. Troy-Bilt products build by Gardenway and their predecesors are held in high esteem and have the reputation of being built like tanks....

P.S....and hopefully I can find one with the CA$H MONEY I JUST GOT FROM SELLING MY DRUMSET! What an awesome day!

Burpeeana Early Sweet Peas
Musclun mix
Simson Elite
Burpee Bibb
Harmony Hybrid
Avon Hybrid
Bloomsdale Long-Standing