I heard somewhere that 90 percent of life is what happens while you were making other plans. That has been true this year. When we made our seed lists and orders last January, we could not have foreseen how different this year would turn out to be. Steven and the kids started work and school online in March, and have been online ever since. Like you, we've rearranged travel plans and our furniture and workspaces to accommodate online schooling. I wouldn't change everything though. In many ways this has been a great year.
This year marks a turning point for us as our two oldest make college plans and we'll have another senior next fall. My mom says I shouldn't get used to having everyone home. It is time for them to launch and make plans of their own. I feel blessed to have just a little while longer with them all at home. However, online school and work has not been problem free. The golden retriever personalities in my family have really missed spending time with friends and attending high school games, band concerts, and events and I have missed my quiet spaces. With people on zoom meetings in every room of my house all day, we've all had to be extra considerate about noise and schedules.
I loved this summer when the kids had no obligations or zoom meetings and could help with the garden. We grew a record amount of food and canned and dried more than ever. This is good because with everyone home for three meals a day, we are eating more too. Summer and fall are not the time I can sit and reflect. Even during a "normal" year, there is not much downtime as we can and preserve the harvest and take care of our large family. I had planned to write all sorts of things for the blog and add recipes too, but family comes first. I managed to post some updates to Instagram. Now I have some quiet time again as the holidays come to a close and everyone, even Steven, is taking a short break. It's time to reflect and think back on the garden year and see what we learned and what we will be doing this next year.
Let's start with the garden wins this year. I loved growing the potatoes in buckets. The buckets kept the voles out and they were really easy and fun to harvest. We plan on expanding that project next spring. I love fresh just dug potatoes. We already preordered several hundred pounds of seed potatoes in six different varieties. We want to offer an early spring sale for those of you who are local and who have asked if we sell seed potatoes. Our onions were great too. We dried some, froze some, and ate a whole bunch fresh. This next spring we will be growing our own onion starts. We've already purchased 1000's of seeds (they are very small). I found an everbearing strawberry that I am excited to try from seed too. We had a hard time getting all the strawberry starts we needed last year in all the unprecedented rush. We've already ordered plenty for next year, so no worries. We are planning to have the seed potatoes, onion starts, strawberries, and kale etc. available for purchase for early spring planting in April. If you're local, let us know if you're interested. Someone recommended Ogalalla strawberries; an everbearing type created for the midwest, so we will have those this year too.
This year with shortages on different products, it felt extra important to get a good yield out of our garden. We tried a bunch of newer sweet peppers that we will add to our list next spring. The winner of the spicy peppers this year was Aji Rico. It made the best smoked paprika powder, and was so tasty. We will definitely plant them again. We grew a different blend of tomatoes than we usually do this year because we lost all the plants in one full greenhouse last spring. The winner for us last year was paisano. It was a perfect sauce tomato and produced a ton of tomatoes even in pots. We've already looked through and ordered a bunch of new tomato seeds for the spring. We remodeled the Roma, paste, plum line up for maximum production and disease resistant varieties. We retired a few that didn't perform as well as we hoped and added a few more to try. When canning lids were in such short supply this summer, I was lucky not need to purchase more, but as we look ahead to 2021 the supply still looks tight, so I am thinking that I will dehydrate some of the tomatoes we grow next year instead of canning them all; paste tomatoes will dry beautifully.
We have lots of seeds for herbs, melons, squashes and cucumbers. Steven and I sat down and did our own little "advancement" meeting this fall to determine what varieties we want to grow or sell in 2021. He does this on a huge scale for his day job at Corteva. It was fun to review the varieties we grew and what worked and what didn't. As we looked for things that we wanted to add to our list we were drawn to plants that would really work. For instance, cucumber beetles decimated our cucumbers. We got some, but not nearly what we needed to make pickles. We added county fair pickling cucumbers. They have all female flowers, which means they are self pollinating and we can cover them and keep out the cucumber beetles. They are also resistant to the bacterial wilt that the cucumber beetles carry. We did the same review on tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash, herbs etc. I'm really excited about our 2021 spring lineup.
That leads us to our upcoming spring sale. The big project this month is going to be trying to put all of the 2021 plant inventory online. My appreciation for the ease of online shopping has increased this year during the pandemic. We want to be able to provide online ordering so that is easy for you, and easier on Steven. The spreadsheet magic that he does every year is amazing, but very labor intensive.
We've been ordering seeds, pots, and everything we need for the 2021 garden season. We ordered lots of things months ago. Why so early? Well, seeds have been in short supply everywhere, and some of them have been more expensive than they used to be. We've done a lot of shopping around. Some things are still backordered, but we got in line early so that we could find everything we need. We didn't want to be caught without our favorites available for you. It feels good to know that we have found a source for almost everything now. We'll be planting onion and strawberry seeds soon, and probably some hot peppers. They take forever to get going. I know winter is just getting started, but we will have the grow lights up and going in no time at all. It is great therapy in the coldest dark days of winter to turn on the grow lights and have green things growing. Only a few more days until it time for garden 2021! It's going to be great!
Early spring is an exciting time in the garden. The greenhouses are full of blooming annuals. The leaves are back on the trees, my apple trees are blooming, the grass is green, and things are growing so it must be time to plant right? It depends. My Facebook feed reminded me that May 3rd six years ago I was shoveling snow. The standard wisdom is to wait until Mother's day to plant frost tender flowers and veggies. That is because our average last frost date is May 9th. However averages, are just that averages. Even though April ended amazingly warm, it looks like the start of May will be unseasonably cold. A late frost is not out of the question at this point, and the overnight temperature Friday night says we could get frost. In the pictures below you will see that five years ago we had to cover our plants on the 20th of May! The next six days the overnight temperatures look cold, we might even get frost. A frost would kill tender plants. Even if it doesn't freeze, warm season plants will still complain this week. We have been running the propane heaters again this week. They really want overnight temps in the 50's or higher. It is not a good week for frost tender vegetables like peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, squash and melons to be outside. Even if a frost doesn't kill them, they will not be happy in these temperatures. So what do you do if you already planted them out in the garden? Don't worry! We've got this covered!
How do I protect frost tender plants?
When the forecast is cold, we take tender plants in pots indoors, (a covered porch or garage is fine) and cover those that are already planted. We have learned through experience that where we are on a slope, the backyard will be colder than the front yard. That means when the forecast is 40 degrees we pretend that it might freeze. We don't want the temperature to unexpectedly dip and cause us to lose the garden plants we worked so hard on. Here are a few tips for covering tender plants during spring cold snaps.
1. Try to create and air pocket to preserve heat from the soil. The air cools down very quickly when the sun goes down, the ground stays warm longer. You want to capture some of that heat and wrap it around your plant. You can buy frost cloths, or I have used blankets, bed sheets and plastic to try to keep the frost off. A bucket turned over on top of a tender plant is usually good for a few degrees of heating. A layer of cloth,covered with a layer of plastic is good insulation too.
2. Don't let the cover touch the leaves. If we get a frost, you will damage leaves that are touching the plastic directly. The cover really isn't the most important part, what you want is to have warm air circulating around the plants. A bucket overturned over small plants works well. For rows of veggies use wire, stakes, or tomato cages to put your covering over. You want something that covers, but doesn't directly touch the plant. This will also keep you from breaking stems or tender leaves.
3. Take the covering off during the day when the warmth returns, and cover again in the afternoon. You can't just put a bucket over your plants all week. They need the light and heat from the sun. The same covering that keeps the heat in will keep the heat out if you leave it on all day. In the mornings after things warm up, take the coverings off and let the plant get the sunshine and let the soil heat. Then in the afternoon when it is still warm, cover everything back up. That way you will capture some of the day's heat to carry them through the night. IF you took your plants indoors, remember to take them back out during the day. A week in the garage with no light would be hard on them.
4. Consider supplemental heat. While we have heaters and fans to keep plants warm in a greenhouse during cold snaps, I wouldn't use a heater and fan for plants already planted in a garden. However if you have individual plants covered with a bucket and you wanted to give yourself a little peace of mind, you could activate a hand or foot warmer or fill a water bottle with hot water and place it inside the bucket as well - just make sure you time it so they are still warm in the coldest hours of the morning. Most of the time when our greenhouse alarms go off it is early morning just before sunrise. That's when it gets really cold. If you have a row of small tender plants covered you could also add a string of non-LED Christmas lights to bump the temperature up a degree or two.
May 20, 2015 - Notice that we wrapped the tomatoes and put unrolled tomato cages over the strawberries and put blankets over them just in case since it was so late in May that they were already loaded with strawberries. The wire kept the blankets from pressing down on the plants and gave them a pocket of air. We took the blankets off as soon as the day warmed up so that they could get sunshine and warmth.
How do I know which plants are frost tender?
Even trees and experienced farmers can be fooled by a warm spring that ends with an unexpected cold snap. My apple trees are in full bloom, and even my grapevines are leafing out. They usually wait to get going until it is safe. However, I lose my apricot blooms every year to a late frost. Lots of the plants we grow originated in warmer climates, and they do not know how to deal with our Midwest weather. They need special care. Basil, tomatoes, peppers, melons, cucumbers, and eggplant will not take the cold. Even if it does not freeze, they will be unhappy in these conditions. They will not grow, they might drop blossoms, their leaves will show stress. They are warm season veggies. Pretend they came from southern California. If it gets down to 45 degrees they are thinking, "where is my winter jacket? Do you want me to freeze to death?"
If you can wait to plant them, wait until the overnight temperatures are in in 50's. If they are already planted, help them out on cold nights with a covering.
Some plants are more hardy. We hit 60 degrees and they break out in shorts because they think it is so warm. My snow peas literally grew through our last spring snow. So did my onions garlic, parsley, and thyme. Oregano is hardy, tarragon can take some cold. Strawberries like the cool spring weather. Chives show up in my garden early and don't mind the cold. Rhubarb, kale, chard, spinach, beets, carrots, cabbage and celery will not flinch in the cool spring weather. They like it. Lettuce likes it cool too. Unless we get down to freezing temps these plants will be fine, and most of them will stand a light frost just fine. I won't worry about them this week.
Do I have wait for Mother's Day?
“When should I plant my tomatoes?” A common answer in central Iowa is “any time after Mother’s Day”. But does that rule of thumb still apply this year? The best planting time for tomatoes depends on your weather conditions, but here are a few guidelines that can help you decide when to plant regardless of where you live.
The first thing to understand about planting tomatoes (and peppers, eggplants, melons, and squash) is that they are warm weather plants. Tomatoes will not grow in temperatures below 50 F. The first sign that it is warm enough to plant is the night time temperature stays consistently above 50 F. The ten-day weather forecast for my town in central Iowa indicates we won’t reach those temperatures in the next 10 days.
Why should I care about the soil temperature?
The second thing to consider is the temperature of the soil about 4" deep. Ideally, tomatoes should be planted when the soil temperature is at least 60 F in the early morning. You can use a soil thermometer, a kitchen thermometer, or just stick your finger in the soil for a minute and see if it feels cold (if it feels uncomfortably cold it is probably below 60 F). So far this year, even the maximum temperature at the closest station taking soil temperatures hasn’t reached 60 F.
Why should I care about the weather forecast?
The third thing to consider is the weather forecast. Even if there have been a few warm days and nights and the soil temperature warms to 60 F, a forecast for significant cold weather indicates it may be better to wait to plant until warmer temperatures are in the forecast.
What about this year?
So where does my garden in central Iowa stand on these 3 considerations? Our night time low temperatures this week have been in the upper 40's most nights. The soil temperature in my west-facing raised garden beds this morning has warmed, but the night time lows in the 10-day forecast has a mix of 40's and 50's. All of that suggests I should wait another week or two, which puts us pretty close to….Mother’s Day.
What about Peppers, Eggplants, Squash and Melons?
If you are like us, tomatoes are not the only type of plant we like to grow. We also grow peppers, eggplant, squash, and melons. Add 10 degrees to all of the tomato temperatures above when deciding when to plant peppers, eggplant, squash, and melons. Cool season plants like peas, potatoes, onions, celery, kale, carrots, broccoli, and cabbage can be planted now if not already done.
If you haven’t purchased tomato, pepper, strawberries, herbs, or squash plants yet, check out our plant sale page at https://www.iowabackyardfarmer.org/springplantsale.html