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Veggie Confetti

Microgreens and wheatgrass aren’t just for fancy restaurants or overpriced juice bars anymore.  I can see why they’re continuing to grow in popularity for home gardeners because they don’t require much space, don’t require much work, and have a short time to harvest. If that’s not enough reason to grow them, they’re also nutrient-dense.  The microgreens tested by the University of Maryland contained between 4 and 40 times the amount of nutrients/antioxidants as their mature veggie counterparts.

Interested in trying it out?  Select a container.  A decorative container can be used to double as a fun centerpiece, or if you’re classy like me, you can use a milk or juice carton.  Fill the container to ~½ inch from the top with a seedling or potting mix that is slightly wet, like a wrung-out sponge.  Select your favorite seeds and find out whether you need to pre-soak them (or, to make things easier, a microgreens seed packet that mixes seeds that germinate/grow at similar rates).  Scatter the seeds evenly over the soil.  Cover with a thin layer of soil and dampen the surface with misting/light watering.  Move the container near a sunny window and water lightly for 2-3 weeks (or according to your packet instructions).  Once they’re ready to harvest (generally, when the first set of true leaves appears), snip the greens above the soil line, rinse gently, and use fresh as a garnish to your food.  Wheatgrass can be blended with water or juice, strained, and added to smoothies.  To get a few rounds out of the wheatgrass, remove about ⅓ of the blade and wait a few days before the next harvest.  That’s all there is to it.  Bon appétit!

Early bird

I planted half a dozen different varieties of tomatoes in my garden yesterday.  Almost exactly 2 weeks from when there’s a 50/50 chance of frost occurring in the Denver metro area.  But I’ve hedged my bets by using those handy season extenders and by warming the soil temperature to 60 F.   A few weeks from now, another set of tomato plants will be added to the garden.  Which set will win the race to produce the first tomato?  

Other than that, I’ve transplanted cole crops like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, seeded mixed greens, and planted potatoes.  It’s been a pretty productive weekend.  If you’re looking for inspiration for starting your garden earlier, check out the Colorado cold frames & greenhouses group on FB or this CSU fact sheet on extending the growing season (despite the title, many of these tips can be applied to the Denver area and not just mountain towns).

Happy Easter!

Tuber, or not tuber…

Potatoes are the ultimate comfort food. I guess I’m not alone in thinking that, since they’re the one of the most highly consumed veggies in the US.  In 2014 alone, people ate an average of 45 pounds of potatoes each!  Consider adding room for a few plants in your garden this year…you haven’t tried a great potato until you’ve had new potatoes.

Potatoes are a plant you want to get to an earlier start on in Colorado; once temperatures rise above the mid-80s, tuber growth slows or can stop altogether.  To give the plants a running start, plant when the soil temperature reads at least 45 ͒F in the morning (I use a simple analog meat thermometer).  

About a week or two before planting, you can expose seed potatoes to indirect light indoors to form buds: 60-70 F is optimal. About a day before planting, cut the potatoes into 1.5-2 inch pieces with 1-2 eyes per piece to allow the cut surface to dry before planting (potatoes can be planted whole if smaller than the size of an egg).  There are several ways to plant potatoes, but I’m a fan of the organic mulch method.  Mulch cools the soil in the summer, reduces water loss, and reduces competition by weeds (and, therefore, the time I have to spend weeding). It is also much easier to harvest potatoes from straw than from the soil.  I dig a trench ~1 foot deep, plant the seeds with the eyes upward, and cover with a few inches of soil.  

Plant spacing determines tuber size, and a good starting point for “average” sized potatoes is spacing plants 12-15 inches apart with 12-15-inch rows.  I add about 6 inches of straw mulch and add to it as the plant grows.  Potato plants produce tubers during and after flowering, and potatoes form along the stems of the plant.  It’s important to keep the tubers from being exposed to light as they grow to prevent the production of glycoalkaloid poisons (if the potato is green under the skin, this poison is likely present).  

New potatoes will be ready to harvest ~8-10 weeks after planting.  For storage potatoes, allow the plants to die back or clip them back 2 weeks before harvest to allow the skins to toughen.  Dry the potatoes for 2-3 days after digging before washing. (Make sure they’re completely dry before storage.) The optimal storage temperature is 45 F.  If you’re like me and don’t have the room, a crawl space or dark area of the basement will also work.  They become slightly soft after a couple of months at the increased temperature, but we tend to eat them before it becomes too much of a problem!   I am excited to try making my own potato chips this year…if anyone has a go-to recipe, please send it my way!

Planting the Seed

One of my grandmas always started her tomato seedlings in empty milk cartons on a small table next to her living room window in the spring.  The seedlings would eventually make their way from that table behind the flower-print sofa to the garden under the protection of a metal coffee can.  Over time, they’d become mature enough to produce tomatoes, and finally, many of those tomatoes would end up in my stomach.  Oh…now I realize why I enjoy gardening so much.

Even though I saw this cycle year after year, the first time I planted flower and vegetable seeds on my own, I made so many beginner mistakes.  Using poor lighting.  And WAY too much water.  And hardening off the seedlings that made it to May?  Forget about it.  Here are a few things that helped made gardening a lot easier (along with actually following the instructions on the seed packets):

  1. Use a seed-starting mix.  The advantage of using a potting mix over garden soil is that it will be free of weed seeds and disease, and is likely to have better drainage and less compaction.  
  2. Don’t overwater.  There’s a decided lack of information on the Internet regarding the average ideal water content for seedlings.  Many say it’s something you acquire a feel for with time, which I’ve found to be true, but I’ve also found to be frustrating for the beginning gardener.  I start by slowly mixing in water to ~25% of the soil mix volume, or until it is just moist, before adding it to the container. I then let the soil become visually dry on top before giving it the next good watering.  
  3. If you are using your own containers (milk cartons/plastic cups), don’t forget to punch holes in the bottom to provide adequate drainage.  
  4. Consider investing in a grow light for your plants.  Even with a south-facing window, they appreciate the extra boost.  General recommendations are 12-16 hours of light per day, with the top of the plant ~1-2 inches below the light.
  5. Plan ahead.  Certain seedlings, including tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, should be potted up to a larger pot when the first 1-2 sets of “true” leaves appear above the cotyledon (seedling) leaves. This will keep the plants from becoming root-bound in their tiny pots, competing for light, and becoming “leggy”.  I start my tomato and pepper seedlings in a 72-cell or 128-cell flat and pot them up into 4” x 4” pots.  More indoor space, more lighting…you get the picture.
  6. Provide light, artificial mechanical stress to your plants to help them develop thicker stems (and potentially higher chlorophyll content and insect resistance) which could translate to stronger plants when it’s time to transplant them outdoors.  According to articles like this one from UFL.edu, mechanical conditioning can help reduce plant height by ~15% for vegetables like squash and >50% for tomatoes compared to plants that haven’t been conditioned.  You can do this at home by using an indoor fan to create slight movement or by lightly brushing seedlings with your fingertips or another object.  
  7. Harden off your plants gradually, generally over 7-10 days.  Seedlings just aren’t ready for full sunlight and spring winds after spending their formative weeks under the comfort of your roof.  Start by providing them with ~2-3 hours of sun in a more sheltered location, and bring them in at night. Eventually, work your way up to a few days of spending ~12 hours outside, and finally, a couple of full days outside before transplanting.  The amount of changes plants go through during this time are pretty impressive and are summarized by the UNL Extension.  
  8. Last, but certainly not least, ask friends or family for their tricks of the trade.  If I would’ve asked my grandma for tips early on, maybe I could have skipped a lot of the basic mistakes.  (Sorry, Grandma!  By the way, I owe you a few tomatoes….)

Start with Soil

Well, it’s that time of year, again.  Spring’s just around the corner, the perennials are starting to wake up, and I’m already fighting the urge to plant seedlings way too early. Oh, patience.  

If you’re a fellow sufferer of gardener’s spring fever, or a beginner who doesn’t know where to start, one thing you can do to get a jump-start on the season is to think about your soil.  A statistic that came up more than a few times in my Colorado Master Gardener Program courses is that approximately 80% of landscape plant problems can be blamed on soil issues.  That’s nothing to sneeze at!  Arm yourself with the knowledge of where your soil stands to prevent plants from stunted growth, low yields, or increased susceptibility to pests and disease.  

Soil tests are relatively inexpensive through your local cooperative extension (generally around $25-35), especially considering that the recommendations for home garden testing is every 3-6 years.  If you’d rather skip the test, you can make educated guesses based on where you live/what you’ve done with your garden in previous years. Unless you have soil that has been heavily amended, chances are that if you’re gardening in Colorado, your organic matter content is less than 1% (it should be closer to 5%), your soil is on the clay side of the spectrum (which means compaction, poor drainage, and reduced access to oxygen for your plant’s roots), and your available nitrogen levels are on the low side. The CSU Extension provides a breakdown of soil care, including the “why” and the “how,” in CMG GardenNotes #711.  Most importantly, they distinguish between adding compost, which builds up organic matter and releases nutrients over time, and fertilizers (chemical or organic), the nutrient supplements.  Which means you might need to buy two separate products.  Not sure what to buy?  Check out CMG GardenNotes #234 for organic fertilizer options.  They even list the pros and cons of each.  

But you’ll probably want to wait a while if you’re planning on tilling those amendments into the soil.  For clay soils, tilling too early can do more harm than good because it will take away a good portion of the air pockets critical for root growth, and you’ll end up with clods that aren’t always the easiest to plant in.  (Don’t worry…we’ve all done it.)  A good trick to know it’s ready is to take a handful of soil from your garden, squeeze it into a ball, and drop it.  If it shatters and crumbles, start tilling.  If it generally keeps its shape, tuck the rototiller out of sight and try to make a dorodango out of that mud ball.  Because, lemonade from lemons, right?  Happy (almost) spring!

Just a little pep talk…

So, you didn’t have much luck the first time you tried to start a garden.  Or the second time.  Maybe your plants were stunted after a cold spell or bolted after a hot spell.  Maybe rabbits got to enjoy your harvest before you did. Or perhaps your dreams of having a tidy, picturesque garden were turned upside down when you found out that weeds have the unique ability to grow an inch every time you blink.  Whatever the case, I’d like to suggest a few reasons why you should try again.

My own tenure as a gardener started out pretty rocky.  My parents rented a 10’x10’ community garden plot for me in Fargo, ND when I was about 10 years old.  It rained relentlessly that summer, and when it wasn’t raining, the mosquitoes were out in full force. making the task of weeding unbearable.  (I gave up by mid-summer.)  The tomato plants turned into potato bug hotels.  I had to hop from weed mat to weed mat because I had planted everything too close together and there wasn’t room to walk.  All that I had to show for my work by the end of the summer were a handful of string beans and  zucchini that ranged in size from “small” to “baseball bat”. My misfortunes didn’t end there.  In Colorado alone, I’ve lost plants due to frost and spring and summer hail storms. (Three times.  In one month.  Seriously?)  My yields have been reduced in especially hot months.  I learned that “full sun” can translate to as little as 6 hours in Colorado.  I also learned what happens when you overwater your seedlings and when you don’t harden them off sufficiently.  I’ve had to deal with a slew of slugs in my strawberry patch during a particularly wet spring and an assortment of aphids in my broccoli during another.  

But even with all of the challenges and setbacks, I, along with many others, start over each winter/spring, armed with more knowledge than the previous year.  There is a lot to be said about gardening.   Good surprises usually overshadow the bad.  Like the time the lettuce seeded itself around the garden so I didn’t have to plant it the following spring. And the first time I tasted a home-grown strawberry.  As someone who works at the lab bench  with proteins and colorless liquids and numbers all day, I find the more tangible outcomes of gardening pretty exciting.  As numerous studies will tell you, it can also be a great stress reliever.  Finally, anyone who has tasted a tomato or cucumber fresh from the garden can attest that the flavor and texture are much better than store-bought varieties picked before they’re ripe and bred for larger sizes or transportability rather than taste. If those aren’t enough reasons to garden, here are a few statistics that I find particularly compelling:

  • Less than 1% of the food we eat in Colorado is actually produced in Colorado. (CPR 2014, Denver Post 2015
  • On average, our food travels over 1000 miles before we eat it (Weber and Matthews 2008)
  • In Colorado, 29% of children, 55% of high school-aged students, 19% of adults did not eat vegetables at least once a day (Colorado.gov 2013

Essentially, my point is that we can do better than this.  Our ancestors have done better than this.  I realize that not everyone is able to have a garden of their own.  If this is the case for you, consider eating healthier and supporting your local economy at the same time by purchasing seasonal fruits and veggies from a nearby farm or garden.  (If you’re in the Wheat Ridge area, I hear Robinson Gardens is fantastic.)  If you can start your own garden, my advice is to start small.  Be realistic about the amount of time you have to dedicate to it.  Lower your expectations:  it’s OK if everything doesn’t turn out quite like you planned.  Get help with selecting varieties that do well in your location.  Roll with the punches that Mother Nature throws out.  And have fun watching what happens next.

In future posts, I plan to share some of the tips I’ve learned (or will learn) along the way.  I look forward to growing with you!