Let Volunteers be Your Guide for When to Plant

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A question I am often asked is, “when do I plant?”  It’s an important question.  Different plants require different growing conditions and should be grown at different times. Without a doubt, one of the keys to a successful garden is knowing when to plant all of the different varieties that you will be growing.  But, how does one determine when to plant?

Well, there are a few different ways this can be done (I’ll save the best way I’ve found ’till the end)…

First, you can make a trip to your local nursery or home and garden center and look to see what they currently have for sale. Typically, they stock plants based on growing seasons.  However, you should just use this as a general guide, especially in the spring, when the ground and air temps may not be warm enough for planting in your specific area.  I can’t tell you how many people I know who have lost their entire investment, in the spring, by planting too early just because the plants were available in the nursery.  Also, they often don’t stock vegetable transplants year ’round.  Just because they’re not available in the nursery at the moment, it doesn’t mean it’s not the right time to put them in your home garden. Typically, home and garden stores make transplants available one time per year, in early spring.  There are many vegetables that can be put into the garden right up through the fall, like lettuces, cabbages, peas, and oriental greens, but you may not find them for sale in your local stores.  So, yes, see what’s available at your local nursery, but don’t use it as the only method for determining when to plant.

cool weather seedlings

Next, you can go by the instructions on the back of a seed packet.  Some seed packets have very general (and sometimes confusing) instructions.  It may show a map with color-coded zones and planting times.  If there are a lot of different climates in your state or county, it can be tricky to pinpoint, exactly, which zone you fit in just by looking at the small map.  Also, the range of planting dates can be quite large – i.e. if you are in zone x, plant between early February through April – that’s a pretty wide range.  It can be a bit of a guessing game when you use these types of seed packets.  However, there are some wonderful heirloom, organic seed companies that provide planting instructions with great detail on their packets, including whether or not the seeds need overnight soaking, cold stratification, or scarifying, which can make all of the difference when it comes to successful germination.  These types of packets also base seed starting time on your first and last frost dates.  For example, the packet might say something like, “start seeds indoors four weeks prior to your last frost date.”  This really helps you to zone in on a particular planting date for your seed starting.  The key here is knowing your first and last frost dates so that you get those seeds in the ground at the right time.

This leads me to another tactic, which I greatly employ in my own garden planning – a vegetable planting guide.  There are a variety of different guides that you can reference and download on the internet.  Some are designed for specific hardiness zones, counties, and regions, others are more general in nature.  Some cover very basic garden vegetables, herbs, and flowers, others get into more specific types of plants.  Some are very visual, others more technical.  I keep several different types of guides on hand to help me with my planting times.  I like to use simple, at-a-glance-type guides at the beginning of the gardening season to quickly plan out what I’m going to get started and when.  When I get closer to the fall, I prefer to use a more technical guide that includes a “days to harvest” column so that I can count back from my final frost date and know when I can safely sow or plant out my final crops.

Finally, a method that I’ve really come to appreciate in helping me know when to sow and plant (and the one that I’ve found to be the most reliable) is using volunteer seedlings as guides.  Whenever I see a baby plant growing, it indicates to me that it’s the right time to sow brother and sister seeds of that variety. Here’s why:  that seed has been lying underground for some time, waiting for just the right conditions to spring to life.  It’s presence in the garden indicates that there must be ideal conditions for it to be growing, and, therefore, it’s time for me to begin sowing or planting out more of it (the exception being warm weather varieties that show up late into the season, when there won’t be enough time for them to set fruit for harvesting).  The key to using this method is letting some of my plants from the previous season set and drop seed.

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(with potatoes or garlic, I  leave some of the harvest in the ground, for plants where the seeds are contained inside of the fruit, I  allow the fruit to mature, then leave it to decompose right in the garden bed. Bugs, insects, animals, wind and water can also disperse seed, setting up the opportunity for more volunteers to pop up later on.  If you compost, you may also find volunteers there.)

Each year, there are variances in weather conditions in my area – variances that home and garden centers, seed packets and charts can’t predict, but I can almost always guarantee that I’ll be planting at the right time if I do it in conjunction with volunteers that I see sprouting in my garden!

Won’t you give it a try?

 

Transplanting, Instead of Culling, Makes Me a Much Happier Gardener

Ever had a hard time thinning or “culling” those extra seedlings that spring up from over-sowing or volunteering?  It’s very common, in my garden, to find seedlings that are way too tightly packed together.  Even though I know it is the absolute right thing to do, I can’t tell you how it pains me to remove these sweet little gems from my garden.

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The other day I was working in a bed of lettuce that I had sown a few weeks prior – one that I sowed an over-abundance of seed in to ensure better germination rates.  It was now time for the weeding and thinning to take place.

I like to let my seedlings grow a couple of sets of true leaves before starting the thinning process.  Crickets and grasshoppers around our homestead love those first little, tender leaves and often chew them right off, leaving nothing but the stem and roots, essentially killing the plant, but they don’t tend to bother them once they get larger.  So, rather than thin early and risk losing what’s left to these pests, I leave them to grow until they are large enough that the pests won’t bother them and then begin the thinning.

As I started the process of locating the lettuce among the weeds, to my happy surprise, I also noticed that there were a ton of carrot seedlings scattered about – no doubt from seeds that had dropped off and germinated earlier in the year  from a carrot plant that I’d let go to seed for the purpose of seed saving…

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If it were spring or summer, I’d thin any unwanted plants by gently pulling them up or cutting them off at the soil line and then toss them aside. But now that it’s fall, and the days are shorter, the weather is cooler, and the ground is staying saturated longer,  I’ve decided to try and salvage as many seedlings as possible.  I know it’s a risk with the carrots because transplanting can cause the roots to fork, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take to save these dainty little volunteers!

Digging up a clump of soil – plants, weeds, and all – I take care to pry the weeds away,  and then I gently divide the seedlings…

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Although I try not to disturb the roots, I find that in this cooler weather the plants don’t mind having their roots exposed as much.

Then, using a hand trowel,  I pry open up a small area of soil, slip the transplants into place (evenly spacing them out as I go), and give them a good watering to get them off to a good start in their new homes.

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What a joy it is to have a few more beds of lettuce and carrots growing, now.  It makes me very happy!

So, if you’re like me, and you absolutely can’t bear to sacrifice all of those perfect, albeit not so well placed, vegetable seedlings that you’ve sown or have volunteered, and if it’s the right time of year, you might just want to consider taking the time to transplant them into another area of the garden where they’ll have adequate space for proper growth, ensuring happier, healthier plants.  Knowing that you’ve save those little beauties, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot happier, too! 🙂

Edibles With the Best Return on Your Investment

“All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial”, declares the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:23.  This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible because it helps me to stop and consider, more carefully, whether or not a decision I make is going to be profitable in my life.  For example, it is perfectly lawful for me to spend time on the internet, but (and I’m sure you would agree)  it would not be beneficial for me to spend all of my waking hours blogging, posting, pinning, emailing, reading, gaming, and tweeting on my computer.  I can eat chocolate to my heart’s content, without the slightest fear of my home being raided by police officers, but I wouldn’t get very far before my gall bladder violently arrested me for substance abuse — eating chocolate is definitely not beneficial for my health, as I’ve sadly come to learn.

Deciding how to spend one’s time and what to eat aren’t the only ways to apply this verse.  Another great way to use it is in planning this year’s garden.

Many gardeners dream about self-sufficiency, growing all of their own produce, and becoming less dependent on the local grocery store for their favorite fruits and vegetables.  What they may not realize, however, is that while it is completely lawful to plant any of the grocery store varieties that they are so familiar with, it may not be profitable, especially for those with small gardens.  For example, so many people tell me that they want to plant corn in their backyard gardens.  They love the taste of fresh corn on the cob, and can’t wait to get it growing.  “Well”, I say, “there really isn’t anything in the stores that compare to homegrown corn, but you have to grow a lot of it, if you’re going to get a good return on your investment.”  “It takes a lot of stalks to get good pollination rates, and high quality, open-pollinated, non-GMO, non-hybrid, non-treated seed only produces 1 – and if you’re lucky, 2 – ears of corn per stalk”, I tell them, and “Corn takes a lot of water, is a heavy feeder, takes a long time to grow, has a very small window of time for harvesting, and a short shelf life, too”.  With all of its negatives, I often wonder why I continue to grow it myself!  Corn is one of those crops that is completely permissible to grow but questionable as to its profitability.

The good news is that there are quite a few crops that not only are lawful, but beneficial to grow in your garden because they give you a great return on your investment.  

Here are some of my recommendations…

KALE

dinosaur kaleCHARD

rainbow chard

LOOSE-LEAF LETTUCE

green leaf lettuce

SPINACH

spinach, garlic border

PERENNIAL HERBS

HERBS

The value in these crops is that you can continually harvest off of them during the growing season.  Unlike corn, which produces 1-2 ears per stalk, and then you uproot and discard the plant, these plants allow you to harvest individual leaves or stems, and then leave the rest of the plant in the ground to continue growing and producing for you – some of them for the entire year, and some (like the herbs and chard) for years to come!

GARDEN PEAS

snow peasGREEN BEANS

beans and potatoesTOMATOES

loads of tomatoes

CUCUMBERS

cucumber tunnel

SUMMER SQUASH

cocozelle zucchini

WINTER SQUASH

winter squashes for baking

SWEET AND HOT PEPPERS

ancho pepperEGGPLANT

Ping Tung Eggplant

ICEBOX (2-3 lb) MELONS

charentais melon

The great thing about these plants is that they grow on bushes or vines and produce a lot of fruit per plant over a long period of time – a lot of bang for your buck!

TREE FRUIT

plums

GRAPES

GRAPES

BERRIES

raspberries

(ESPECIALLY WILD STRAWBERRIES)

ornamental strawberry

ARTICHOKES AND ASPARAGUS

green globe artichoke

These crops take a couple of years to start producing, but they have great staying power, and longevity of harvest.

GREEN ONIONS AND GARLIC

ONION

BEETS

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CARROTS

colorful carrots

These crops are profitable for the gardener because they don’t take up very much space, and you get a lot of seed for a small investment.

So, as you plan out this year’s garden, look over your seed catalogs, where all vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers are permissible and ask yourself, as you make your selections, “Will this be beneficial?”  If the answer is, “yes”, then freely proceed.  If the answer is, “No” or “I don’t know”, then either move along, or find a reason why it would be beneficial or profitable to you.  Financial gain is not the only measure of profitability, after all. 🙂

What fruits, vegetables, herbs, or flowers would you add to this list?  Is there a plant that you love to grow even though you get very little return on your investment from it?  Which plant gives you the greatest return on your investment?

Successful Gardeners Persevere!

So, you tried your hand at a backyard vegetable garden, this year, and it didn’t turn out so well?  Seeds didn’t germinate?  Plants didn’t set fruit? Some (or maybe even all) of them up and died on ya? And you’re thinking, “I give up; I’d better just leave the growing to the experts”?

brown yellow leaves

Hold on!   Let’s not be hasty — Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Like fine wine, friendships, and love, building a successful garden takes a lot of hard work and plenty of time, too.  If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to keep at it!  Learn from your mistakes.  Build on your successes — no matter how small.  Every season brings another opportunity to begin again and create the garden of your dreams!

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In the meantime, let’s do a little trouble shooting and see if we can’t figure out what might have gone wrong, this year…

First, how was the quality of your soil?  When I first started gardening, I knew nothing about healthy soil.  I figured dirt was dirt, and that I could just plop my seeds and transplants any ol’ where I wanted and they’d grow like weeds and produce like the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.  Um.   No.   I absolutely set myself up for failure when I failed to deal with the health of my soil.

Could your soil be the source of your problems?  If so, I suggest you curl up with your computer and a nice cup of tea, and do a Google search on “how to build healthy organic soil”, or “permaculture”, or “sustainable gardening”, and prepare to be amazed at what you will learn!  I also highly recommend watching this video to learn about one of the best ways to prepare your garden beds for planting.

Next, did you plant often, and at the right time?  I know.  I know.  As soon as that first frost-free day of the year hits, Spring Fever takes over, and we all want to get everything into the garden at once.   While it is often necessary for people who live in places with short growing seasons to take this approach to gardening, those of us who live in more temperate climates will often have much more success when we slow down, and take our time sowing, transplanting, and harvesting at different times throughout the growing season, taking into consideration the full number of growing days we have available and making the most effective and efficient use of each and every day, week, and month we have until the weather turns and we must put the garden to bed for the winter.  When we fail to start seeds or transplant seedlings into the garden at the right time we often sabotage our efforts in the garden.

How do you know when to plant what?  Again, a quick Google search, or trip to your local library will turn up loads of useful information.  Search for “vegetable planting guides”, or “vegetable planting schedules”, and then learn all you can about growing vegetables in your area (know your USDA hardiness zone, first).  One of my favorite resources for month to month garden planning is The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan.  At the back of the book, you will find a planning calendar, based on the number of growing days in your region, that tells you, month by month, what plants to start in flats, sow directly, and transplant into the soil.  Armed with this knowledge, just see what a difference it makes in your gardening success!

Finally, did you make adjustments and corrections as you saw problems arise?  As squash bugs began to appear on your zucchini, did you take measures to eradicate them, or did you leave them to spread and destroy all of your plants?  As pests began to nibble away at young seedlings, or maturing fruit, did you look for ways to protect your precious crops, or let nature take it’s course and devour the fruits of your labor?  When seeds failed to germinate, did you re-plant time and time again, or leave the ground fallow, and figure you’d try again next year or never again? A garden is not something to be planted and then left alone.  We must tend it.  We must nurture it.  We must constantly interact with it so that we are aware of problems, immediately, when they arise and then take care of them.  Gardeners who neglect their gardens will almost assuredly reap what they sow.  I know, ’cause I get just as neglectful as anyone else.

But, if I can bounce back and find success in gardening, then you can too.  So, don’t you ever give up! Just stick to the advice of Winston Churchill, who wisely stated, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”, and I’ll bet someday you’ll be the expert that everyone else comes flocking to for sage vegetable gardening advice! 🙂

Maybe You Can’t See the Garden Path, But You Can Still Harvest The Fruit

What do Martha Stewart, P. Allen Smith, and Michelle Obama have in common?  They all tend  “immaculate gardens”, or they did, that is, up until the recent government shutdown.  Now, however, it appears the First Lady has more in common with us regular gardeners, than the gardening royals, Stewart and Smith (and I mean that in the most respectful way, ’cause I love their immaculate gardens!)  As the Huffington Post has reported: “The normally immaculate [White House Kitchen] garden [looks] more like what most gardeners’ plots appear at this time of year – overgrown.”  – errrmmm…

overgrown weeds

please excuse the mess

Eddie Gehman Kohan, founder and editor of Obama Foodorama, says that, as a direct result of the government shutdown, the First Lady’s Garden is “wrecked” as “The showcase plot is filled with unharvested vegetables and weeds, and wildlife running amok”

rabbit

awww…but they’re so cute!  …ehem.

But, I say, welcome to the real world of gardening, Mrs. Obama, where us regular gardeners – the ones who do all of the work ourselves – have learned that the keeping of immaculate gardens…

mom's garden

thank you for looking so good for this photo shoot!

…is not anywhere near as important as the tending of a living, growing, producing, decaying, ever-metamorphosizing and holistic plot of land that we lovingly call our – anything but immaculate – garden.

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my realistic garden

Yes, just as “Weeds are springing up everywhere” around the White House Kitchen Garden, so they are out at My Happy Homestead, Whit’s Acres, too!  Try, as I might, to keep those pesky space invaders out, there’s just no end to them all.  I mean, can you even spot the peas in this sea of weeds???

peas lost in weeds

I call it garden camo

“Before the shutdown”, according to Ms. Kohan,  “brown and yellow leaves were immediately whisked away” from the garden.”   The brown and yellow leaves are really starting to multiply in my garden, too, now.  It is fall, after all.  Should I fret? Put one of my kids to whisk them away? No.  They make great compost!!!  And, I actually think they are quite beautiful.  They add character and realism to my garden.  They remind me that life is never static, but always changing.   They encourage me to welcome each new season that God is bringing into my life.

yarrow seedhead

grean bean leaf

artichoke seedhead

welcome, fall!

Prior to the shutdown, at the Kitchen Garden, “diseased or bug-infested plants were removed” as well, she says, rather than simply left “mouldering on the ground” … umm..like mine…

old squash

old watermelon

future – great – volunteer, I say!

In the real world of gardening, pests do abound, as Mrs. Obama is finding out, from this example given on the blog, “The wildlife that lives on the historic 18-acre campus–including a newly arrived fox now making a home at the White House–are having a field day.”  Oh, man.  Tell me about it.  Out at My Happy Homestead, squashes get buried…

buried squash…lawns get punctured…

gopher hole

…and tunnels get dug to Kingdom Come, on a daily basis,  by all of the wildlife that have “made themselves at home out here!”

squirrel tunnels

I can’t even begin to tell you how many ripe, crispy apples, sumptuous strawberries, and red-ripe raspberries and grapes I’ve lost to ants, squirrels, and birds, and I could still go on and on about all that cute wildlife that lives around here!  But, I won’t.  I’ll just tell you that I’ve learned to deal with it.  Great gardens attract great wildlife – both good and bad, and that’s just a fact.

Another fact is that plants get messy, in a garden.  They are living, growing, things, afterall.  In pristine gardens, however, this is frowned upon.  Plants are expected to behave themselves.  At the White House, apparently “The tomato plants are now an impressive tangle of browning vines, with ripe Sungolds littering the ground beneath” , says Kohan.  “Growth in the garden has been rapid.  The stepping stone pathways can barely be seen between the bed boxes.”  Oh, my! In my garden, the tangling tomato vines are one of my most favorite sites!  I love the rustic look of the rambling beauties, especially when they are filtering the bright morning sunlight through their boughs…

tumbling tomato

And plants that spill over their containers onto the walkways are equally just as charming…

straw walkway

a lot of people pay good money to get this look!

In the course of a year (sometimes longer for bi-annual plants), growth stops, and plants begin to set seed.   It’s just a fact. For most of us gardeners, who planted out heirloom seed at the beginning of the season, this is a welcome sight!  True, the harvest of the fruit has come to an end, but a new harvest is just beginning – the harvest of ‘free’ seed for next year’s garden…

basil blooms

lime basil in bloom

radish bloom

China Rose Radish in bloom

At the White House garden, unfortunately, seed-setting is called into question.  As Kohan says, “Most of the herbs in the garden, including the Pineapple sage and white basil, have gone to seed…  Perhaps America’s best-known presidential gardener [Thomas Jefferson] would have much to say about the current state of affairs in DC–as a farmer, and as a statesman astonished by partisan brinksmanship [causing it all]”.  Well, from what I know about Thomas Jefferson, as a gardener, I don’t think he’d be astonished by those tiny, little basil blooms at all.  He’d know exactly what to do with them. Perhaps here’s what he’d say:  “Hang them out to dry, then strip them from their stems, sift the seed from the chaff, and store them in a cool, dark place until next spring when they’ll grace your “immaculate” White House Kitchen garden with their vibrant color, aroma, and stature once again, and not ask the American taxpayer to foot the bill, ever again, for new basil seed.”

Perhaps he’d have even more to say about the White House lawn where, because of the shutdown, groundskeepers are not “allowed to mow the grass, [and therefore]  clover, buttercups and weeds have sprouted in between the unraked leaf litter on both the South and North Lawns.”  Ah, yes, the dreaded “weeds” in the pristine lawn.  What would Mr. Jefferson have to say about that?

barley millet in grass

Maybe he’d say, “Put the chickens to them!” (like we do)

chicken tractor

“They LOVE clover, and all kinds of weeds, and they fertilize the grass for a pinch of chicken feed!”

In fact, the only thing Mr. Jefferson would have been astonished at, I think, is the complete lack of attention that has been paid to this garden during the government shutdown.  The fact that “okra in the back of the garden has soared to over eight feet tall, but the many ready-to-harvest pods remain on the plants, as do new blossoms, and the sweet potatoes–a favorite of President Barack Obama’s, are especially abundant this autumn,  but this year’s orange behemoths remain in the ground as worm food” because  “gardeners are not allowed to harvest the crops” because of government furloughs  would have been sickening to Mr. Jefferson, I think.   “Let’s get out there and get that okra picked, and those weeds weeded, and those varmint trapped, and those seeds collected!” I think he’d say. I can just hear him admonishing Mrs. Obama, “Let’s Move!

Okay, these are all my words.  Just the words of a simple gardener. But, for most gardeners, stuff happens!  Plants grow, set seed, and die.  They yellow and brown.  They don’t always grow in a neat and tidy manner.  They get invaded by ouside forces.  There is always something looming on the horizon.  Not even Martha Stewart,  P. Allen Smith, nor Mrs. Obama can escape that.   Most gardeners, however,  don’t sit around and wait for someone else (especially not the government) to take control of their garden problems.  We roll up our sleeves and get it done, ourselves.  We tend to the weeds, pests, and rotting food.  for a moment, yes, we may even get to experience the “immaculate” garden.  But, then it’s right back to the battle — our imperfect, weedy, yellowing, pock-marked gardens come right back, and they are still wonderful and amazing!  Most gardener’s plots show the heart and conviction of  real gardeners who keep on gardening — keep on moving forward — to provide food for their families, friends, clients … no matter what, even in times of great financial stress and burden.

As the government shutdown comes to an end, and the White House Kitchen Garden gets whipped back into its pristine shape; as Mrs. Obama’s Kitchen Garden, once again, becomes “to a backyard plot as a Bentley is to a VW Bug”,  the fact that it once had something in common with “most gardener’s plots” will become a fleeting memory.

The lesson learned, from Ms. Kohan’s blog post, however, is that,  although the White House Kitchen Garden may be a Bentley, when the government ceases to function, the VW Bugs will be left standing — and providing food for thousands upon thousands — in spite of all of those pesky weeds and plants covering our garden paths.

Three Gardening (and Life) Lessons Learned From The World of Sports

My husband and I both grew up playing competitive sports.  It’s in our DNA, I guess you could say.

dna_strand

It’s a tough world to live in.  Yet, the lessons that are learned there are priceless and timeless — lessons that easily translate into every other area of life.

As I was out in the garden, the other day, completely out of breath, dripping with sweat, and with my leg and arm muscles on fire from digging a trench, I started thinking about some of the lessons that I’d learned from the world of sports, so I thought I’d have some fun sharing them with you today.

Lesson number one :  “No pain, no gain!”  Oh, if only this weren’t true!  I’ve never been a fan of physical pain.  I’ve always loved playing sports, but have never enjoyed the physical pain that I’ve had to put my body through in order to get stronger, jump higher, hit a volleyball harder, or outlast my opponent.  So, as I was out there, digging my trench, putting all of my arm and leg strength into it, feeling like I couldn’t dig another inch, I had to remember, “No pain, no gain”.  So, I just kept telling myself, “one shovel-full more.  Just keep on digging, no matter how much it hurts.  You’re getting closer to the end.  Soon you’ll be done and able to get the bed planted!”  If I’d stopped, because of the pain, I never would have gotten my tomatoes planted.  I had to keep digging, despite the pain, to accomplish my task.  That is how you overcome physical pain, you  focus on the end goal.  Whether you’re digging a trench, pulling weeds,  getting started on an exercise regimen, or whatever – focus on the end goal, not the pain, and remember that there is no gain without that pain, and then push through it because the end product is so worth it!

framed raised bed

loads of tomatoes

Lesson Number Two:  You win some, you lose some.  I’ve heard it said that, no matter what we farmers and gardeners do, we should expect to lose about thirty percent of our crops.  Whether seeds fail to germinate, get eaten by bugs or gophers, succumb to disease,  stress out due to extreme heat, or spoil before they make it to your table or tummy, when it comes to harvest time, it’s a given, “You win some, you lose some”.  It’s frustrating, I know!  But, we have to pick ourselves up and carry on.  We can’t let losses drag us down.  We can’t give up!  We must learn from all of our losses, in the garden and in life, and then move on from them.  Losses aren’t really losses, in the large scheme of  things, anyway.  As Robert Louis Stevenson so elegantly put it, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.”   Yes!!!  NEVER stop sowing.  Beautiful fruit awaits!!!

acorn squash seeds

Ronde De Nice Squash

The final and greatest lesson I’ve learned from the world of sports is: NEVER GIVE UP!  Do you remember the Chinese hurdler, Liu Xiang,  from the 2012 Summer Olympics, the one who was predicted to win gold, but then tore his achilles tendon at the very start of the race?  Oh, my goodness!  If anyone had a reason to give up, it was him.  (I’ve  experienced that injury before and – believe me – getting up on your feet is the LAST thing you want to do after it happens) But, Liu Xiang did.  He had that “never give up” spirit inside of him that said, “keep on going and finish!”  So, he hopped on one leg, all the way to the final hurdle, which he kissed, and then continued hopping on until he crossed the finish line, where other Olympic contenders met him and carried him off of the track.  It was a beautiful sight.    The point is, “Winners never quit, and quitters never win”.   Farmers may lose entire crops.  Athletes may finish last.  All of us, at one time or another are gonna have something devastating happen to us that makes us want to just lie down and give up, but we can’t.   We gotta push through the pain.  We gotta move past the losses and, as one of my cousins always used to say, “Just keep on truckin!”   Keep moving forward, one step at a time, giving 100% in action and attitude towards everything that we do, and – whether the world recognizes it or not – we’ll be successful.  As Joel Salatin says when it comes to farming, “Good Enough is perfect”.  Yes, it is.  As long as you never give up! So…

never-give-up-500x804

(graphic via The Pixel Boutique)

Lesson Learned?  I hope so!  Now, carry on. 🙂

Transplants, Direct Seeds, Volunteers – And The MVP of the Garden Is?

The other day, I was out in my vegetable  garden, observing the different plants that are growing, when I noticed that there was a marked difference in the appearance of some of my  summer squashes and melons.  Most of them were growing well – they had well-developed stems, leaves, flowers, and fruit, but a few of them were growing amazingly well – they were lush, stocky, vibrantly colored, and producing an abundance of perfectly unblemished fruit.  I wondered what it  was that was making the difference.  All were growing in the same medium, and had been given the same amount of water and sunlight, but there was something significantly different about these plants – the MVP’s of my garden.  Who are these MVP’s? Keep reading and find out!

There are three ways to get plants started in a garden.  You can purchase or start your own tranplants, direct seed, or – if you happened to be so blessed – get volunteers to spring up on their own.  I have all three types growing in my garden, and I love them all.

Transplants are great when you want to get a head start on the growing season, and some plants are just easier to grow when they are started as transplants.  I’ve never had much luck direct seeding tomatoes and peppers straight into the ground where I want them to grow.  For me, they do much better when I put them into the ground as transplants that I’ve started, indoor, from seed.  Other plants that I prefer to start indoors and grow from transplants are eggplant, artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale, basil, lettuce,  other small seeds that need consistently moist soil to germinate in, or seeds of plants that need a longer indoor growing season before placing them outdoors (certain berries, and wild foods).  I also like to get a head start on the growing season by planting out transplants of summer squash, melons, cucumbers, lettuce, onions and some other flowers and herbs.

Direct seeding works best when you have a long growing season, like I do, and with certain plants that just don’t transplant well, like carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, corn, potatoes, beans, and peas.  Although you have to wait a little longer (until the soil has had a chance to warm up, with most crops), direct seeding is typically less expensive to do than transplanting, and  if a plant dies, you will have back-ups and can immediately get a crop going  again.  Besides the plants that I’ve listed, I also direct seed my garden with summer squash, melons, cucumbers,  lettuce, and a few other plants  that I can plant out at different intervals throughout the growing season.

Volunteers are plants  that a gardener has very little to no control over.  These are plants that spring up, on their own, throughout the garden, rather than being deliberately planted.  These plants often get their start from stray seeds that have been brought in to the garden by the wind or water, an animal, in compost, or parent plants that have died and been left to decay in the soil.  In my garden, I typically find volunteer squashes, melons, tomatoes, tomatillos, mulberry, elm, and walnut trees, and a variety of other flowers, herbs, carrots and lettuce.  I love finding volunteers.  They bring a sense of unexpected whimsy, beauty, and food  into my gardens.

So, which of these three types is the MVP of my garden?

Perhaps you already know, but I’ve taken a few pictures to show you why one is the hands down winner.

Here is a picture of a squash plant that I started indoors, from seed, and then transplanted into the garden as soon as the weather warmed up.

squash transplant

It is growing and producing well, even though it does look a little scraggly.  As you can see, the leaves are on the small side and the plant is tall, and thin.

Compare that with another summer squash that I direct seeded into the garden…

direct seed squashOn this one, the leaves are bigger, the plant is stockier, and the fruits are more abundant and uniform.

I’m having similar results with a Golden Jenny melon.  I transplanted most of the plants in early spring, and they are growing and producing just fine.  A couple of the plants were eaten by bunnies, early on, so I re-started them by direct seed.  Here is a picture of the two examples.  Can you tell the difference?

Direct seed melon100_3884

The one that was direct seeded has  thicker stems, and larger, greener leaves.

So far, head to head, then, the direct-seeded plants perform better than the transplants when it comes to appearance, health, and overall crop production.

But, neither the transplants nor the direct seeded crops compare, to the MVPs of my garden – the volunteers.

volunteer squash

Look at the color and size of those squash leaves, and the fullness and vibrancy of the plant!  There is just no comparison, and this is true with every other volunteer plant that shows up in my garden.

And, it makes sense.  Just think of all that this volunteer has had to go through in order to make it into this world.  It’s managed to survive a freezing winter, and has been exposed to all of the elements.  No one has taken the time to plant it at the proper depth, feed it, or protect it from predators.  Yet it not only survives, it thrives!  Because of the struggle that is has gone through, it has emerged from the ground with a larger stem, which makes the plant less susceptible to insects and disease.  It’s larger leaves allow it to maximize the photosynthesis process, allowing the plant to make more food, which, in turn, allows it to produce more beautiful and tasty fruit.

Yes, the undisputed MVP of the garden is, absolutely, the volunteer plant.

The only drawback to these plants is that they often come up in an area where I hadn’t planned on them growing, and I sometimes end up with more than I want or need.  I rarely  try to transplant them, though – they just never seem to recover that same amazing luster after they’ve been moved.  If I do, I  make sure that I take a really big root ball so that   I  disturb the roots as little as possible.  Oftentimes, the volunteer plant goes  into shock.   If I’ve taken great care of it, though,  it often recovers within a few days.  They are the hardiest of the bunch, after all, and that’s why I love them so.

So, now you may be thinking, “Wow! I want some of those volunteers to grow in my garden!”

Great!  Here are a few things that you can do to encourage volunteers to take up residence where you live.

1.  Grow plants that are propagated by seed and ones that self-seed easily.  Typically, a seed packet or seed catalog will tell you this information.  Wild flowers make a great starting place.  A word of caution:  if you use hybrid seed, you may or may not get second generation plants that look identical to their parents, and, if they’ve been genetically engineered, they may carry a terminator gene and might not reproduce at all.  Also, if you use open-pollinated seed, you may not get a second generation that looks like its parent, but an entirely new cultivar may arise and surprise you altogether, depending on what the cultivar has been cross-pollinated with (which I think is quite interesting and fun, actually).   In fact, the example of the volunteer I’ve shown above my be a new cultivar – the result of a cross between an two heirloom, open-pollinated summer squashes, a Bennings Green Tint Scallop Squash and a Cocozelle Zucchini.  I will purposely save seed from these fruits, this year, and start them from seed, next year, to see if the unique squash breeds true to this parent plant.

2.  Allow your plants to “go to seed”.  This happens at the end of the plant’s growing season, when it begins to turn brown and the flower begins to form a seed head.  The plants are probably going to look straggly and downright ugly at this stage, so you may want to make sure that you have some planted in an area of the garden where you won’t mind their looks, or in a place where they’ll be disguised by other, taller, plants.  Some plants look really interesting when you let them go to seed, though, so you might not mind them standing front and center in a bed.  Simply leave the plant to drop it’s seeds where it’s growing,  then pull it out once you’ve noticed that it’s gotten rid of all or most of its seeds.  You don’t need to do anything to the seeds that have been left on the ground.  Somehow, they will just find a way to do what God designed them to do – make another plant.

3.  Collect seed from your plants and scatter them around, in other places in your garden, where you want them to grow.  Again, you do not need to do any digging or burying.  Simply toss the seeds on top of the ground and let them work their magic.  (Not every seed will germinate, or live, and some self-seed more readily than others.  Just keep experimenting and having fun with it).

4.  Leave end of the season fruits to decay right in the bed.  I have a flower bed, at the very front of my yard, where a volunteer butternut squash returns, year after year, because I always leave two or three ripe squashes to decay on the vine, over the winter.  Through the decaying process, they deposit their seeds on top of the soil.  Eventually, the seeds work their way down further and then wait start life, anew, the following spring.  This method works great with all kinds of squashes, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, and tomatillos.  The trick is knowing how to identify the seedlings when they emerge, in late spring, so that you don’t mistakenly uproot them and totally destroy everything you’ve been waiting and hoping for!)

5.  Toss plants with seed heads and whole fruits into the compost bin where they will lay dormant until you spread the finished compost onto your garden beds and, possibly, come to life again one day.   Plants that seem to make it through the composting process and come out alive, on the other side, most readily are: tomatoes, squashes, tomatillos, and watermelons.  Weed seeds are also notorious for making it out of the compost alive, so if you don’t want tons of volunteer weeds, make sure that you remove the seed heads before adding the stalks into your compost bin, or compost inside of steel barrels, like I do, to help ensure that the pile heats up enough to kill off those pesky potential volunteers.

Well, now you know that volunteers are absolutely, hands down, the Most Valuable Players at My Happy Homestead.  I get so excited whenever I see one, or a patch of them popping up in my gardens.  However, that doesn’t mean that plants that have been started as transplants or through direct seeding don’t also play a major role out here.  Each of them serve a purpose, and definitely need to have a place in everyone’s garden.  I say, “Cherish your volunteers and applaud your transplanted and directly seeded workhorses”.  Together they make a wonderful team, providing you with early and steady production, beauty and bounty.  That’s what I call an all-star,  championship team!

What do you do to encourage volunteers in your garden?  What are some of your favorite volunteers?