What to do when your seedlings grow too big

I started my peppers too early.

Every year I warn fellow gardeners not to rush on getting seeds into pots for warm-weather vegetables. Tomatoes, in particular, outgrow their indoor space under lights much faster than you’d think, but you can make this mistake with many plants that shouldn’t go outdoors until the chance of frost is past and the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees F. There’s often a several-week gap between the average-last-frost day that you used to count back from when calculating start dates and the actual day that it’s safe to put the plants in the garden. That can go either way, of course, but unless you’re inclined toward taking risks, it’s better to err on the side of later planting. The seedlings will grow faster under warm conditions and catch up with their early-planted peers.

So, there was no reason to put the pepper seeds in as early as the very end of February, but I did it anyway. We all have those moments. Mid-March would have been fine, but I know I was feeling anxious about other things and probably projected those feelings onto my peppers. And now I have some large strong well-grown pepper plants that are more than ready to go into the ground–which some of them are going to do this week, soil temperatures notwithstanding.

Some of my large pepper plants hardening off, guarded from inside by a helpful cat

If you have been in this situation, which most of us seed-starters have, here are some things you can do, more or less in chronological order. This applies also to plants you may have bought a while before you could plant them–we all do that too!

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November Harvests: Aconcagua, Senposai, and Watermelon Radish

Earlier this week, I finally took all the pepper plants out of my community garden plot, in anticipation of a predicted frost. It’s ridiculous that I was still harvesting peppers in November, but this is the world we live in.

The final plant to go was a variety called Aconcagua, which I bought seed for and planted for the first time this year. It’s a sweet fryer-type from Argentina that’s described as growing up to three feet tall and producing fruit up to a foot long. I didn’t get quite those results, though I will admit that I didn’t plant it in the best location in my plot (lots of thistle competition). It was, for sure, a big pepper plant, with fruit frequently at least six inches long, with a fresh fruity taste that was great in salads or fried.

Here’s my last harvest (in November, again! From one plant!).

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What can you start from seed in February?

I hope all of you are busy planning your vegetable gardens and getting those seeds ordered! If you haven’t purchased seeds yet, now is the time. A lot of seed companies are experiencing larger than usual interest and several have had to temporarily stop accepting orders. Many varieties of seeds are running out. So jump on it!

If you already have your seeds and your plan of action, you may be champing at the bit to get started. Those of us who start seeds indoors feel the urge to play in the dirt (or the soilless seed-starting mix) even in winter, but it’s often not a good idea. When I began gardening, I started many plants far too early, and was sorry later when I had enormous seedlings that couldn’t be put in the ground until the weather cooperated. So as a former offender, I will state clearly: DO NOT START YOUR TOMATO PLANTS IN FEBRUARY. In fact, do not start your tomato plants until late March or early April, and you will be much happier, and so will your plants.

But what CAN I start, you ask, with a pitiful, yearning look in your eyes. I know. I really do. Here’s a  list. It may not include anything you’re actually planning to grow, but I’ll give you another suggestion at the end. Here we go.

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Vegetable garden successes

One of the joys of this otherwise largely depressing year has been hearing the stories of first-time vegetable gardeners who took the step of growing some of their own food due to economic insecurity, extra time on their hands, a desire to give back to a community via food donation, or a need to be outdoors more. Welcome to the club! We would have a secret handshake, but that’s not such a great plan right now. Distance elbow bump pantomime!

The fall months are a good time to look back on the season and assess what worked and what didn’t. In this post I’m going to mention some of the plants and cultivars that produced well for me this year. I emphasize me and this year because a secret of vegetable gardening is that each year is different and each garden is different, so I’m not guaranteeing these will be as great for you, or even for me next year. But if the descriptions sound good to you, they may be worth trying.

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You Can Grow This Trendy Veggie: Shishito Peppers

Here in Maryland, we’re unfortunately in the wrong climate zone to grow our own avocados for toast. Cauliflower rice we can manage, but only with some challenges, since cauliflower is a space hog, doesn’t like the rollercoaster temperatures of our spring season, and has lots of pests. (Luckily, cauliflower is not super expensive in stores, and if you have a food processor, chopping it up literally takes minutes; you don’t need to buy it pre-riced.) Apparently cabbage is the trendy vegetable of 2019–cabbage rolls, cabbage chips, wedge salads, kimchi–but it has all the same problems in the garden. Kale is easier, but it’s so 2016.

What’s the trend-seeking gardener to do? Well, that’s easy. Grow shishito peppers.

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Year of the Pepper

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A melange of interesting peppers from the Derwood Demo Garden

For this month’s post I was going to write about tomato successes and failures, but the latter part of tomato season has been depressing, so I’ll put that off and cover peppers instead. 2018 has been Grow It Eat It’s Year of the Pepper, and on the whole I think we chose well! My own pepper beds have been plagued by some of the same fungal diseases that are taking out my tomato plants, but our Derwood Demo Garden beds are beautiful and productive. All the peppers there are growing in raised beds, which in my experience peppers really seem to prefer – maybe it’s the extra room in loose soil for their roots, or the slight warming effect in the early part of the season, or the excellent drainage. In any case, they’re thriving.

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