Obsessions of Early Spring Northern Gardening

It’s snowing here in New Hampshire, and today I transplanted some celeriac, cutting celery, and snapdragons. No one has fingers small and sensitive enough to sow the microscopic seeds of these plants so that they don’t germinate and grow up hugging each other to death. Yes, I know about mixing them — and poppies, and the other ridiculously tiny seeds — in dry sand and planting that to distribute them more widely. But as an amateur without tons of space to seed start or certainly, transplant while the possibility of frost lingers outside, I’m very conservative about using space, plants lights, heat mats and other necessities of indoor gardening in the northern late winter and early spring.

I start the season by nano-gardening. The term micro-gardening has already been taken for small gardens, especially urban gardens, which is very cool.  I use nano-gardening to describe the tiny, tweezer stage of plant growth. Imagine my dining room being taken over by a 3-tier set of plant trays with lights on timers, heat mats on a thermostat, and a schedule that maps out what needs to be started when so it is timed just right in an unpredictable climate to go out to my unheated glass greenhouse and then out to the gardens. I have to think about how I keep them just right – not too dry, not too damp – while I am in Boston part of every week, and how to juggle the times I am out of town or out of country for longer.

The first of this year’s planned harvest has been in the ground since last October, when we tilled up the fields, chose the location for this year’s garlics, planted the rows, hayed them over and marked them clearly so I know exactly where they are after the snow clears. They are already growing, despite the frosts and today’s snow. Other favorites for this year are also in the ground getting ready to launch themselves. I’ll look forward to seeing the volunteer sunflowers that pop up here and there, and dread the armies of borage from last year’s seed drops that will try to take over the garden. A farmer neighbor gave me 4 tomatillos 3 years ago, and I now know to expect a mass of them popping up in their corner of the garden. I will find volunteer Yellow Beam and Black cherry tomatoes, and while I am supposed to throw them out for fear of tomato diseases, as usual I won’t have the heart to do so.

Over the winter I do the usual winter chores of a gardener, and live a rich fantasy life as the seed catalogues roll in. I also work on my document about my seeds and plants – not just logistical issues about when I should start them and how I should plant them, but their histories. Everyone talks about food for thought, but this is an exercise in thought for food.

I want to know where the plants originally came from so when we eat them we know the stories. The Cylindra beet is a Danish heirloom. The Scarlet Nantes carrots go back to the 1850s. The Diamond eggplant came from Ukraine. The Ananas D’Amerique Melon was grown by Thomas Jefferson. Big Boston lettuce originally came from France. The Violet de Galmi onions came from Southeast Niger. Rat’s Tail radishes originated in Java. The Cobbler potatoes were supposedly discovered by an Irish shoemaker in the late 1800s. The Long Pie pumpkin is probably an old Native American variety and the Galeux d’Eysines squash hails from Bordeaux. Aunt Ginny’s Purple tomatoes came from Germany, the Aussie comes from (yes) Australia, Brad’s Black Heart came from Brad Gates in California, Neves Azorean Red tomatoes came from (yes) the Azores, the Paul Robeson origined in Siberia, the Wapsipinicon Peach originated in Iowa. Most of the tomato histories involve breeders whose names we know and who clearly understand the meaning of “labor of love.”

The seed-starting schedule starts with onions, parsley, and delphinium in February, then moves on through a succession of flowers (ending with Mina Lobata, Zinnia, and Cerinthe in late April), greens and herbs (the lemongrass is looking good!). March is brassica time – in my case, some different color and shape broccoli and cauliflower. My rule is don’t grow anything that will look as it does in a supermarket.

April is the marquee planting time, because my favorite seeds go in. First the eggplants and peppers – about 8 different varieties of the former and 10 kinds of the latter. Then my favorites – 30 varieties of tomatoes. Red, pink, orange, yellow, black, green, huge, large, small, and cherries. Fabulous names. More about these later in the spring.

Then later April the cucumbers (I used to do 3-4 different kinds, but I’m settling on an Asian variety), squashes and pumpkins of different colors, sizes and shapes. Winter squashes mostly.

Then, there are the seeds that will go straight into the ground. Radishes (6 varieties), peas (4), beans (6), beets (10), carrots (9), greens, lettuces, and herbs I didn’t start inside. And of course potatoes. 6 or 7 kinds. And others.

But back to this time of year. The nano-gardening of the late-winter hobby gardener is a world of attentiveness to the slightest growth, the slightest change in field of soil that measure 1-1/2 inches by 1-1/2 inches,  the bare beginnings of troubles like the dreaded damping off or the tiny nano-insects that sometimes invade, search and destroy these precious little beings.

Like all babies, these little plants are so planned for and anticipated, so precious. When I am at home in NH I visit them multiple times a day. Water from the bottom, mist them on the top. Check them out every morning before I even pour my coffee to see whether anyone else (yes, “anyone”) has poked its head above the surface.

As with all babies, it is amazing to imagine these tiny little specks of green as they will be in late summer. Can those tiny little folded green pins turn into large purple onions? Those lovely delicate pairs of leaves will be big, ugly but tasty celeriac? The impossibly small clusters of round leaves will be a dozen tall snapdragon plants that will bend with their own height and weight?

You never know what to expect. I planted three different kinds of onion seeds. The Violet de Galmi came up fast and profusely. A second kind (I’m not even sure what, perhaps Jaune Pailles des Vertus) are seeds I saved from onions that failed last year by bolting immediately. A lot have germinated – maybe a third to a quarter of them. A third kind, which I loved when I first grew them a few years ago, Noordhollandse Bloedrode, failed utterly to germinate. All fresh seed, grown under identical circumstances, but who knows. I see in online discussions a lot of people complaining about the germination rate of the Noordhollandse. So I gave up on them and started more Violet de Galmi and my bolt-derived seeds. I have transplanted my affections already.

By this second day of spring, I have transplanted the first round of onions, parsley, kale, snapdragons, and today, the celeriac into bigger pots. I could be mistaken, but I think they are all looking happier and quite eager to spread their leaves (and roots) more. The greens and herbs I threw into the raised beds in my greenhouse – the ones that are happy enough with cold — are starting to come up. The sorrel in there is emerging, and we’ll have our first soup before the last frost.

I’m not a farmer. A farmer couldn’t treat plants and growing this way. I’m a hobby gardener. But I learn a lot from my farmer neighbors, and they are wonderfully encouraging and tolerant of my hobby.

The snow has stopped. Time to go look at my seedlings again.

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