Sunday, April 28, 2013

...and still more delayed sprouts.

Below are some more sprouts that germinated in late April, after being in the ground for three or four weeks.  Also, some that grew from roots or tubers, but also emerged later than normal due to the cold early Spring.

Carrots (left) have a thin, shiny cotyledon.
Cilantro, also in the Umbellifer family, are a similar size as carrots, but have wider, rounder cotyledons.


Potatoes are in the nightshade family, and while the plants are very similar to tomatoes, we generally grow them from other tubers, so the new shoots are not in fact seedlings. The first leaves will just pop out of the ground and soon a full grown plant will emerge.

Horseradish (below) is a brassica, and like the potato, we do not grow these from seed.  The shoots will emerge from the roots, so will soon grow into large, true leaves.  The first shoots are very sharp and fern-like.


Identifying volunteer sprouts

Every gardener will devote a lot of time to weeding.  We always try to pull most weeds at an early stage, before they take over.  We also find many unwanted or unplanned "good" plants, that we may either treat like a weed, or save.  These are often referred to as "volunteers".

Volunteers could be self-seeded offspring of last year's plants, seeds from compost, or seeds scattered by birds and squirrels.  Some plants, like raspberries or mint, can send runners underground, producing more volunteers.  One important thing for new gardeners to understand, is that they can't keep all volunteer seedlings, as there's really no room in the garden.  Some can be given away but many will end up in the compost.

Tomato seedlings near a pistachio shell
These tomato seedlings could be from the compost or from dropped fruit.  Most gardens do indeed have some dropped fruit, even if we aim for zero waste...just because they ripen so quickly in the late Summer.  Birds and squirrels will also grab some fruit before picked by humans.  But, from the shear volume of volunteer tomatoes that appear by mid-May, my guess is that the majority are from the compost bin.   If we don't remove most of our tomato seedlings, there would be nothing else growing in the garden.

Volunteer tomatoes are the survivors, and usually grow more vigorous and bear more fruit than the more sought-after heirloom varieties.  These seedlings will not emerge until late April or early May, but they will eventually catch up and surpass the indoor-started tomato seedlings.  The fruit-type is a wild-card.  In the past, most of ours have been cherry tomatoes, but last season we had a lot of larger-fruit varieties.  My guess is that the open pollenated, fallen fruit from our own garden, will produce smaller, mongrel types, whereas the larger fruits that were grown in farms, and left in the compost bin, may produce true offspring.  I also think that some of the heirlooms from the compost bin may grow at a similar rate as the mongrel varieties, just because the survivors have been self-selected form the hundreds of seeds; but, I'm not positive about this theory.  Just think, do we plant 300 seedlings under the grow lights to chose one?  Definitely not.  As for hybrids, I'm not sure what their offspring will look like, and maybe the seeds are not even viable.

My advice is to keep a few and see how they do.  If you didn't start seeds indoors, try only growing volunteers and skip buying plants.  Also, give many away.  In past Mays and Junes, I have given hundreds of volunteer tomato seedlings from our school gardens, to the kids, and then I have gotten lots of positive feedback the following Falls.  People are generally not disappointed, as large yields are often more appreciated than fancy heirloom names.

Squash seedlings
Volunteer squash seedling are also very prolific, and these too can take up a lot of space if not thinned out.  Similar to the tomatoes, there's some mystery element to the fruit type.  We do know for sure that all squash will be the fall/winter squash varieties, all vines.

Nearly all summer squash (i.e., zucchini, patty-pan, yellow squash) are varieties of the Cucurbita pepo species, all harvested in the unripe state, thus before the seeds are fully formed.  Composted summer squash will not have viable seeds.

Squash seedling
There are three common species of fall/winter squash, each with many varieties.  Most of these are also the Cucurbita pepo species, so can cross pollinate with summer squash.  But, since most squash in the compost bins are store bought and grown on larger farms, we assume and hope that most are not cross pollinated, but can't be too sure.  The most frequent volunteer squash I have seen is the butternut squash, and the squash type can usually be identified by the shape on the female flower bud.  Since squash plants take up a lot of space, and a weird cross pollinated variety may not be too palatable, it's worth keeping one or two, but not dedicate the entire squash production to volunteers.  Plus, unlike tomatoes, seedlings do not have to be started too far in advance.  Rather then let mystery plants survive, you can just direct sow specific varieties that you want, or start indoors a couple weeks earlier.

One more thing about squash seedlings... They may actually be another family member, like a melon.  These will be identifiable from their first true leaves, which will be similar but with rounder edges.  I'll post examples when some of mine grow.

Sunflowers will drop seeds that will sprout in their proximity the following April.  Birds, squirrels and other animals will also scatter seeds.  Or, they can be in the compost, as people compost their garden waste.
Sun flower

Similar to other volunteer plants, these will be easier to grow and more vigorous.  The flowers are usually a lot smaller than the type we plant, but still very nice.  I would keep a few and pot and give away others.  Each spring, I start fancier varieties indoors, and if the transplants do not make it, I would let the volunteers grow.  Usually we have some of each. 
More sun flowers

Friday, April 26, 2013

Restaurant garden

I'm excited to be planting my first restaurant kitchen rooftop garden.  I'll also plant a nice sidewalk-level edible landscape, more for viewing purposes.

My predecessor created this rooftop garden a few summer's ago, but last year he moved on to a larger restaurant "farm" in Manhattan, leaving this roof fallow during the Summer of 2012.  I inherited some good soil, but mostly filled with deep-rooted chickweed, grass, and also a few little tree saplings.

After spending several hours shaking out the weeds, the area was ready.  Nothing too fancy, but the early phase of planting will be simple.  I'll later add some sub-irrigated planters (SIPS) and some warm-weather crops.

I'm using shallow food trays with train-holes.  These will mostly grow shallow-rooted salad greens, mint, and some other vegetables that I find suitable.  The initial planting was on April 11, and there have been a few other staggered plantings of lettuce, arugula, spinach, endive, chard and beets (for greens).  Germination was slow due to low temperatures, but this has also been a blessing in disguise because of the lack-of-rain.  We should have an irrigation system set up sometime in May, but until then I will have to rely on rain and infrequent hose waterings.


A few weeks after the initial plantings, we do have  a lot of sprouts.  Slow progress, but it's coming together.  Some planters have been dug up by squirrels, so I'll re-sow and sprinkle some blood meal to deter the squirrels. 

The sidewalk planters were built in late March.  Now they're thinly planted with simple things like Pansies and English Daisies, just so they have something while pea, fava bean, chard and nasturtium seeds are germinating.  The end result will have sorghum, okra, hibiscus, peppers, chard, and cascading nasturtiums and sweet potatoes.  It will be simpler than my vegetable gardens, but have enough complexity to spark interest from passersby, and set the tone of fresh produce for diners. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

More delayed sprouts...

Thanks to a cold early Spring, some of our early crops are coming in a bit late.  But, they are germinating as expected, so all is well.  It seems that the only risk of planting early is the delay, but no lost crops.

I was surprised how long it took the peas and fava beans to show a sign of life.  These are considered the earliest of "cold weather" crops, and some took three or four weeks to germinate

Fava Bean

Fava Bean
Fava beans and peas are both legumes that have similar looking early sprouts.  Their cotyledons stay underground, while curled up true leaves are the first to emerge. 
Yellow-veined chard
Chard, and also beets (which are both the same species, Beta vulgaris) take a little long to germinate, and then will grow slowly during the beginning of the gardening season.  These chard sprouts in the photo were in a very sunny, south-facing planter, so emerged within two weeks.  I have others planted in shadier areas that have still yet to germinate after four weeks. 

This particular lettuce is growing very fast, especially in comparison to the general slow pace of the other lettuces.  They certainly don't all grow at the same rates.  These were planted nearly four weeks earlier and already have a few true leaves.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Rainy day activity - making homemade Chia Pets(!!)

After a few days of summer-like weather, we finally had a two straight days of nice rain.  The plants are happy.  But, we had to rely more on indoor activities for my After-School gardening class.  Below is one easy and fun thing to do...

Homemade Chia Pets(!!)

Everybody loves the Chia Pets that are advertised on TV.  While we won't make a ceramic animal, we can make our own homemade chia pets with the correct supplies and a little creativity(!!!).

What is chia?

Chia seeds are not a grain, but the seed from either of two different chia species, salvia hispanica or salvia columbariae.  They are in the mint family, and close relations of other salvias, many that we grow for flowers, plus sage.  Salvia hispanica is native to southern Mexico and Guatemala, and salvia columbariae is native to the deserts of the United States' Southwest.  The indigenous peoples of both regions traditionally ground the seeds for food, or added them whole to nutritious beverages.

Chia's recent emergence   

While most Americans were only familiar with chia's utility in growing fur-like sprouts on cute ceramic animals, chia has made a recent emergence as the latest “miracle seed”, which can be found in any health food store and many smoothie shops.  Chia seeds placed in water quickly emit a gelatinous-like substance that closely resembles tapioca.  Both the health benefits and texture are appealing.  Chia sprouts are enjoyed as any other sprout.

Supplies for a homemade chia pet

-  Cheesecloth or old stockings, cut into 1' squares
-  String
-  Googly Eyes
-  Chia seeds (!!).  Or, if cheating, grass or wheat will suffice (but don't say
    that I recommended this).  A mix of chia and grass is also nice.
-  Soil
-  Small cup or jar


1) Soak chia seeds in water
2) Cut cheesecloth into square
3) (Optional) Us string (or if fancy, us a thread and needle) to create ears and a nose, etc.
(or) just draw a face with a Sharpie when all done.
4)  Add a spoon full of waterlogged chia seeds to the area of the cloth that will grow sprouts
5)  Add a handful of soil
6)  Bring corners together and tie shut with string.
7) Place string side down in cup, jar or any water-tight base.
8) Water
9) Enjoy!  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Final verdict on early planting

After a few days of warm weather (70s and even some low-80s), plus steady watering, we finally do have a lot of germination from many of the early sown seeds.  These are the seeds that were planted as early as three weeks ago, right before and after our mini-blizzard, plus some that were planted as recently as ten days ago.  The more recent sowing should soon germinate.

Most of the expected are germinating: arugula, radishes, turnips, kale, kohlrabi, pak choy, lettuce and spinach.  We are still waiting for the Beta Vulgaris species (beets and chard) as well as carrots, but those take longer, so no surprise.  I would have expected the fava beans and peas to have already germinated, but still not giving up hope.  As seen in the photos, the brassicas have similar looking cotyledons, while the lettuce and spinach are in different families so a lot more distinguishable.

So, the final verdict is that the early sowing really was fine, and these seeds can just wait around in the soil for a few weeks as the temperature warms up...  We have done this for a few years, but this was the coolest early Spring where I planted this early.  Meanwhile, most other gardeners are starting to think about their garden right now (April 10th) and ours is starting to sprout.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Verdict on Early Planting Strategy

...still not sure.  While I'm not recommending that all gardeners get a huge head start on their Spring planting, I'm still unsure if my strategy for scheduling reasons, is a good one.  Still waiting to see if there are any downsides.

FINALLY, after very little rain, outdoor water supplies not yet turned on, and a cold early Spring, we have some germination.  Not to discount all the normal "Spring activity" like garlic, tulips, daffodils, etc, but now we have some arugula sprouts, direct sown before Spring Break, two weeks ago.  Very slow, but there is a sign of life from our Spring planting!

I'm expecting radishes, turnips, spinach, kale, collards, peas, fava beans, etc. to follow suit very soon.  Tardiness is okay, but zero or low rates of germination will be taken note of, and planting those crops will be delayed a few weeks next year.  I still have faith in look for an update...hopefully sooner than later.

My belief is that the main issue here is lack-of-water, not heat.  

Note the poorly sifted compost on the soil.  It doesn't seem to hurt directly sown seeds.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Planting and Harvesting Calendar for NYC

A lot of people ask me when I can start planting.  Seed starting, direct sowing, transplanting, etc., etc.  Here's a timeline that gives a basic guideline for NYC.  It's not perfect nor are these dates absolute, but a good place to start.  If I were to make some edits, I'd say that the early indoor seed starting window could be moved later.  I still encourage people to start by March 1, but if starting a bit later...still go for it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Another garden plan explained

A photo from a past season...
Here's another early and late planting map explained.  I'll try to avoid repeating too many of the same concepts from my prior garden plan post.  The earlier posting was for a school garden, where each small section was allotted for a class, whereas the below plan is for our community garden's Group Vegetable Garden, which is a ~400 s.f. space shared by 22 people.

The goal of this part of our community garden, is to allow new members to work in a garden while on the wait list for their individual plots.  It also allows us to mentor beginning gardeners, share knowledge, etc. Finally, we really do push for a lot of vegetable production. 

We used to have big planting days in the early Spring and kind of wing it, expecting a large group to pull together it's knowledge assets and make the garden happen. Now, I've moved it towards a central plan, but using a democratic process to for crop selection.  This way, we just get things planted and all are happy.
Similar to the school garden's explanation, I'll first cover the Summer plan, and work backwards.  The lower tier is set aside for tomatoes, plus basil and carrots as their companions.  This year we are doing lasagna or sheet composting for that tier, so I'm not sure if the carrots will germinate on a layer of paper, so they may be skipped in that area.  The back triangle of the lower tier has some horseradish plants that tend to take over, and we're also going to plant parsnips (which were a huge hit last year). 
A typical harvest from last Summer

The center row of the middle tier will have warm-weather crops, so the early season planting will be quicker crops.  The other rows have early, full season crops like chard, collards, kohlrabi, kale and rudabagas, which were already planted in late March and will remain until the Fall (or longer).

The upper tier has some cold weather plants replaced with warm, and some long season plants.  The garlic was planted last November, and will be harvested in July, and then replanted, maybe to be covered with a hoop house next Winter.

The early plan shown below has some of the full season crops that were described above.  The quick crops that will be rotated with warm weather crops, include arugula, spinach, fava beans, lettuce, radishes, cilantro and bak choy.  It's important to understand that not all "short season" crops are created equal.  The quickest are radishes and spinach.  Soon after, the arugula will bolt (or go to seed).  Then, lettuce.  We will have to make some choices and harvest some salad greens in their entirety to make room for the new, before they reached their full potential.  Still, baby or young salad greens are great, so no loss.  Arugula and lettuce will sometimes bolt before getting bitter (as it gets hotter), or get bitter before it always worth making space and not worry about extending their lives.  Or, both happen at the same time, as heat affects taste and bolting.  Fava beans are often done by late June or early July, so we'll plant okra seedlings in between the fava bean plants by mid-June, and as the fava bean plants wither away, the okra will take over.  Okra grows super-quick in the heat and can be started as late as July, so no need to speed the process of their predecessors, so hence I chose fava beans rather than something that would be harvested earlier.

One more upgrade we made this year, in addition to the lasagna composting in the lower tier, is our using raised beds and sunken paths.  We're following a smaller scale version of a concept that I've seen in some urban farms in Brooklyn, using coffee bean sacks to cover the paths.  This will hopefully reduce or eliminate foot traffic in the beds, whereas in the past, our brick or wooden plank paths were level with the beds, so people would be tempted to veer off the paths and step on the soil.  The raised beds will also increase drainage, and speed up the warming of the soil in the Spring.  Finally, the new paths will just make the entire garden a lot more assessable and easier to work on, better ergonomics (rather than trying to balance on a 6" plank while weeding, harvesting, etc.).  Lots of benefits, so we believe that it's worth the sacrifice in planting space.  See some recent photos...