People used to come in to Natureworks and complain about woodchucks saying “why do they have to eat all my vegetables? I’d be fine if they just ate some and left some for me!”
Spoiler alert: it’s not actually sad.
Growing from crowns vs. growing from seed
Seeding for winter harvest
Does it count as original thought if I'm just sharing a post from Johnny's? I don't know, but this Winter Growing Guide from Johnny Seed Company showed up in my email and I was very inspired after I read it. I made a plan to try several of the varieties listed, and planted some kale as
How to share with woodchucks
We had a woodchuck and a rabbit in our yard and I'd like to share how we gardened in a way that allows them to live with us. But come on a little philosophical journey with me before we get into the tips.
I have long believed that my gentleness is weakness. I wear work boots and dress androgynously to look tougher than I am. But at work I don't like doing things like driving trucks onto grass because I see insect holes in the ground and I know how bad compaction is for the roots of plants. There’s a White man who lives in my head and scolds me when I’m being gentle with nature. “Dig that dirt, don’t look at what’s in it. Cut those plants, don't worry about what they are, they’re in our way.” This man speaks with the voice of the world I see around me; fast moving, rough, unsentimental.
But I’m not like that. And I’m beginning to put aside my humbleness and realize that gentleness like mine is not wrong. It is, in fact, what we need to protect life on this planet and stop the tailspin towards extinction.
I’ve been reading Native American thought books lately and they’ve been opening my eyes to White ways of thought I hadn’t even considered. I had just assumed that the attitude towards nature that I'd absorbed from our dominant culture was the only way to look at things. But you can ask a tree whether or not you can cut it down and listen to the response (a bird nesting in it might answer “no”). You can acknowledge that living things exist in a democracy of species with all creatures being equally as valuable as humans.
Which brings me to the woodchuck and rabbit in our yard. I have seen neither around for a few weeks, which genuinely makes me sad. Yes, the woodchuck ate our peas and broccoli, and several kales. Yup, it frustrated us for a moment, but these are native animals on this land and vegetation is their food.
Many gardeners are furious at woodchucks. On Facebook gardening forums, people recommend shooting them, often with a joke in the same sentence. But that's not funny. If you casually advocate shooting something that's inconveniencing you, how many steps until you're recommending removing or killing people who are in your way as we've done in our colonial history? Other people trap woodchucks and bring them to a piece of our vanishing wilderness that is not their home. If that's not colonial behavior, I don't know what is, because it's exactly what we did to Native Americans who lived on the land we wanted to live on. People who remove woodchucks in this way are often sheepish when they describe what they've done. If you're slightly embarrassed about it, then you probably did harm. There are things I've done in the yard that I am not proud of. I'm working towards causing no harm. It's a process and we can all work towards becoming more gentle.
We have gobbled up most of the wilderness, leaving creatures nowhere to live but next to us. And now we say they can only live there if they do not eat? That is not fair and we have an obligation to share our space with them.
The following are tips on how I’ve shared our food with garden visitors.
I miss our woodchuck. My extra collard patch grows tall without him but my heart aches when I think about where he could be and whether he was forcibly removed.
Seeds you can plant directly in the ground
Vegetables you can transplant if you have seedlings
A note on where to get these things: Natureworks still has seeds, and always keeps a good stock of what can currently be planted. Seed catologs are also still mailing seeds to order. Natureworks is the only garden center I know of that gets fall vegetable seedlings, usually starting early/mid August into September, and they have a good variety. Seedlings for most fall crops are started in mid May-mid June, so you can get a jump on planning for next year.
Vegetable planting Q and A
Some friends of mine have been asking me gardening questions and I think they are worth sharing:
Q) I've planted seeds and I realize I don't really know the difference between weeds and sprouts. Any ID tips or weeding tips?
A) It depends what you've planted. Typically anything that comes up looking like a grass is a weed, unless you've planted corn, which comes up looking like thick grass, or dill, parsnips or carrots, which come up looking like the daintiest little grasses. You could look up images of the things you've planted and pull anything that isn't them. You can also just let the sprout develop for a little while to determine if it's a weed or not. Start observing the plants in your garden and compare them with plants you see when you are out for walks. Common weeds are usually prevalent in other places in your area. My friend also mentioned a solution to his own problem, which is planting in rows.
Q) I've waited the 6-10 days required for beans, and only one has popped up. Should I replant?
A) Probably. Animals could take the sprouted seeds (a chipmunk had taken his) or it could be a watering issue. Seeds need the soil surface to be constantly moist, which could mean watering daily or even twice a day. Once the plant is growing, you can reduce watering.
Watering technique is important. For seeds, you keep the soil surface moist, but no mature plant in the world benefits from a light watering every day. This makes the roots grow close to the surface (that's where the water you’re giving them is, after all) and therefore they are less drought tolerant. You want to water deeply and infrequently, so that roots stretch downwards searching for water, anchoring the plant and making it more drought tolerant. Most vegetables (and newly planted perennials and trees) like an inch of water per week. Rainfall usually provides this, but supplemental watering may be needed.
Also, a note on animals. Boy, they love to eat sprouted seeds. I covered an area I seeded with row cover, which I hope will work. You can also cover your whole garden with rowcover. That is what I'm having some friends in Hartford do whose garden was getting raided by squirrels. Row cover can be ordered from Johnny Seed Catalog, Fedco seeds, or gotten at Natureworks in North Branford.
Ok, and one more note. This one's on beans. I planted some pole beans that I was very excited about. They were getting eaten big time by insects. It's insect damage because they're missing very tiny pieces of leaf. Animals would just chomp large parts off. SO my solution was to plant more beans of different varieties. I figure more plants will spread out the damage more. It has worked, and my precious beans are growing!
Q) How far apart do I plant vegetables?
A) Seed packets will usually tell you a spacing. For most seedlings, I stretch my fingers as wide as they will go and plant them as far apart as my thumb and pinkie. Lots of people plant tomatoes too close. I give mine lots of room to grow--I plant mine about three feet apart. I also plant them very deeply. Tomatoes grow roots along their stems, so you should always plant them deeper than they were in the pot. This way they grow extra roots and they don't have to expend energy holding themselves up.
Q) When do I plant vegetables?
A) Cold-hardy things like greens (kale, collards, broccoli) can be planted approximately April 15th-August 1st. The end of that time span gets a little tight for planting seed, so you'd probably want to transplant. Tomatoes go in May 15th-June 15th. You'll want an early-maturing variety if you plant toward the end of that time span. Beans and squash can be seeded or transplanted May 15th-July 15th. There are better resources out there than this simple answer, but those are some guidelines.
I know many people are gardening for the first time, or trying it again after a long break. Be patient. Some of your vegetables will get eaten by bugs and animals. Remind yourself that you can always go to the grocery store and they can't. Some of your crops will turn out horribly and others will be amazing. Neither outcome has anything to do with you, really.
Thoughts on perennial vegetables
I've been ruminating on perennial food plants for the past few days. I'm in charge of planting the vegetable garden at Natureworks, and guess what? I haven't done it this year. I haven't been there much, and when I am there, I don't have time. But it looks ok. That's because the rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, and herbs that come up year after year. Perennial food plants. Sure, there are gaps where annual vegetables would usually go, but the garden looks ok and we get some harvest without doing anything.
And that's the key. Will your food plants come up without you doing anything? What if your main gardener gets hurt, or is too busy, or your annual vegetable seedlings die for some reason? You won't have vegetables. But if you base your garden around things that you plant once and will produce for years, you can be guaranteed to have some food.
Perennial vegetables are built for resilience. Diverse perennial vegetables are build for extra resilience because if one of them has a bad year, the others will feed you.
Just a few perennial vegetables off the top of my head:
Good King Henry (it's a leafy green)
Turkish Rocket (another leafy green. It might reseed and become invasive? I'm not sure about this one)
Fruit trees and berry bushes
Some varieties of kale and collards will overwinter in New Haven without protection and in colder climes with row cover or plastic on them. They are excellent spring greens. Later in spring they flower and go to seed, so you attract bees and then get more seed.
Cilantro and dill are not exactly perennial, but if you scatter their seeds in the fall, they will come back next year.
So, though I often get dreamy about tomato varieties, this year is reminding me how important it is to focus on food plants that will come back year after year.
Don't plant tomatoes now
Don't do it! Even without the Arctic Blast this weekend, it's still to early.
People get so hyped up to plant tomatoes, squash, peppers, and beans around now, but it's too darn cold. My anecdotal observations from having spent a lot of time working outdoors the past ten years is that spring is cold for longer than you expect and fall is warm for longer than you expect. I always think of May as a very warm month, but it's just not. And I think of September as chilly weather for long sleeves, but there were 80 and 90 degree days last September.
So when to plant tomatoes? (And all the rest of that warm stuff)
No earlier than May 15th. Memorial Day weekend is the classic time to plant tomatoes and I agree. I've planted them May 15th before, and they just sit there in the dirt until late May when they take off and grow rampantly. So it's kind of pointless to put them in May 15th, in my opinion.
And when is it too late? I took home some stragglers from Natureworks and planted them in probably the third week of June. Didn't get any tomatoes, but that's because they were long-maturing varieties. If I had put in a quick-maturing 60 day tomato at that time, I think it would have been fine. So I would say you can plant tomatoes all through the first few weeks of June, but as it gets later, be careful about the variety you plant--make sure it matures quickly.
The whole gardening year lies ahead of us and it’s really getting cranking! The soil is warm enough for many types of seeds and transplants.
A note on transplanting seedlings vs. planting seeds:
The case for transplanting vegetable seedlings as opposed to planting seeds directly in the garden was made best in the book The Market Gardener: seeds take up valuable garden space while they grow. If you plant already-growing plants, you’ll maximize your garden production space. If you have indoor growing space, you can start these seeds in cell trays indoors. If you don’t, buy seedlings from a nursery. (Professional growers really know what they are doing, so you’re going to get the best results from professionally grown seedlings.)
Some things are just better planted as seeds—root crops like carrots, parsnips, and radish don’t love transplanting.
You can plant both seeds and seedlings at the same time, by sprinkling seeds around the transplants. A great example of this is lettuce; a week or so after you plant lettuce seedlings, sprinkle 10 lettuce, arugula, or radish seeds around them. The lettuce will get harvested and new ones will be growing in its place.
What you can plant now, in mid to late April
Our last frost date is coming up; optimistic sources suggest it’s late April. Conservative sources say it’s May 15th. It will likely be somewhere between those two. There’s really no need to rush it and plant tender seeds like beans and cucumbers. Even if our last frost is genuinely in late April, the soil will likely be too cold for warm-season vegetables and the seeds will rot.
So enjoy the season. No need to rush it.
Indoors in cell trays
The only things you’re going to be planting indoors in pots now are warm season transplants, such as:
Seeds you can plant directly in the ground
If you bought them, or grew them yourself and they have their first true leaves.