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?

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My Top Three Food Choices for the Fall/Winter Garden

It’s something I’ve been hearing a lot of, lately, “I didn’t get a garden planted this year.”

“Well”, I say, “the year’s not over yet!”

In fact, the end of summer is a great time to get a fall/winter garden started.

There are a variety of  crops that do well as fall and winter crops and, depending on where you live, you may be able to successfully garden all the way into next spring.

Today, I wanted to share with you my top three favorite food crops to raise in a fall/winter garden.  If you still want to get something growing, this year, why not give these a try?  I chose these varieties for their ease of growing, quickness to produce, beauty, and versatility  in cooking.  I hope they inspire you to get a fall/winter garden, of your own, growing.

1.  Looseleaf Lettuce — also known as “cut and come again” lettuce.  My favorite varieties are: Lollo Rossa, Merveille Des Quatre Saisons, Oak Leaf, and Black-Seeded Simpson.

Lettuce is one of the easiest crops to grow, and it grows best in cool weather, so the end of summer is the perfect time to get a crop started.

I recommend growing the looseleaf type (as opposed to the “head” type) because you can begin to harvest leaves from it in about 45 days after planting, as baby lettuce.  When the leaves get to be about three inches high, you can simply clip them off,  leaving about an inch of growth near the soil, and they will continue to grow and produce even more leaves for you to harvest (head lettuce usually requires the entire head to be harvested at once, and it does not produce another head once it is cut off).

It does not take much room to grow lettuce — it can  be grown in containers and small pots.  There is no need to plant it in rows, or even dig furrows when planting.  When I sow my lettuce seed, I simply scatter the seed on top of the soil, then gently rake through it, or cover it with straw hay, and keep it well watered until it sprouts.   I allow the lettuce to grow very close together, leaving only a couple of inches between heads.

Lettuce is one of those crops that I try to grow year-round in my garden — it definitely pays big dividends in terms of cost savings at the grocery store, and there are so many colorful, tasty, heirloom varieties that I just can’t get anywhere else except my own backyard.  Last year, my lettuce made it all the way through the mild winter right into the spring.  Whenever a deep frost was expected, I simply tossed a covering of plastic over it, and it kept right on producing.  If you’re looking for a sweet, delicious, healthy, and easy to grow crop for a fall/winter garden, lettuce can’t be beat!

2.  Garden Peas — varieties to look for:  Corne De Belier, Sugar Ann, Sugar Snap, Lincoln (garden) , and Tall Telephone (garden)

Talk about another easy-to-grow garden goodie!  These are one of the first plants I learned to grow in my garden, and let me tell you, they are totally user friendly.

The only thing that stops this wonderful, edible gem from producing  is the heat.  So, as we head towards the cooler days of fall, it’s the perfect time to sow seed for this sweet, green snack.

My preferred method for growing peas is on a trellis system (I just love the way they look spiraling up a tee pee trellis)  Therefore, I am biased towards a “pole” variety.  I make my own trellises out of tree limbs (three of them) that I form into a “tee pee”.  Then, I wrap around it with twine, leaving about six inches of space between each level.  If you don’t want to mess with a trellis system, simply purchase a “bush” variety that will support each other when they are planted close together.

There’s not many other veggies that can compare to the sugary, sweet, crispy goodness that garden peas provide. True garden peas are grown for the peas that grow inside of the shell, while snap and snow peas are grown for their edible pods.  Both types are grown in the same way.  When planting in late summer, it is best to plant them in a shaded area, where they will not be stunted by the hot sun.  They can also be planted out  later on, after the weather turns cool, but before frost sets in, and they will be ready to harvest the following spring.

If you’ve got kids, garden peas are a must!  I haven’t met a child, yet, who doesn’t love the taste of fresh, vine-picked garden peas.  They are delicious raw, stir-fried, boiled, or in salads… a perfect crop for the fall/winter garden!

3.  Beetroot — Types I’ve grown:  Bull’s Blood (pictured) and Chioggia

Before I started growing my own beets, I had an aversion to their earthy taste, but now that I know what a homegrown beet tastes like…wow!  It’s one of my favorite things to grow in the garden.  Like the two veggies I listed above, this one is incredibly easy to grow.  The seeds are large, making them really easy to handle, and they don’t take much care once you’ve got them planted in the ground.  They are fast growing and can be grown just about anywhere.

Not only is the root edible, but the tops are, too.  I love to harvest the young tops and add them to my salads and smoothies.  If you leave the bulbs in the ground, you can continue to harvest the tops for a long while – simply cut the tops off at the base, and the beet will sprout new leaves for you.  I’ve been harvesting beet tops from a crop I planted almost two years ago, when we first moved on to our property!

I also enjoy eating the beet roots fresh, peeled  and chopped into matchsticks to top a  salad, and juiced and added to my smoothies (they give it a beautiful color!)  One of my all-time favorite recipes that makes use of both the roots and the  tops is a Roasted Beet Salad With Oranges and Beet Greens  that I found at Epicurious.com.  It makes a fantastic fall salad – one that adds a touch of beauty and health to every meal it graces!

So, to everyone who has been lamenting about not getting in that  spring garden, I say, “fah-get about it!”  As the Chinese Proverb says,  “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”  Okay.  We’re not talking about trees, here, but you get the point:  if you missed out on spring planting, this year, the second best time to plant is now.

So, why not grab a packet of lettuce, pea, and beet seeds and get growing?  Remember, it’s best to choose heirloom, open-pollinated, and non- genetically modified seeds.  My favorite places to order seeds from are Bountiful Gardens, Baker Creek, and Renee’s Garden Seeds (the other thing that’s nice about starting a garden, this late in the year,  is that  seed companies may be offering a discount on their end of the season seed packets).

Do you garden through the fall and winter?  What are your favorite varieties to grow, and why?