Posted on

Tips for early spring peas

Soaking pea seeds

Planting pea seeds thick

Peas don’t like heat, so it’s a good idea to plant them as early as possible. But if you plant too early, you’ll end up with only a couple of survivors spread across a large trellis, wasting precious garden space. What’s the solution?

Early-planted peas can do well, but you need to stack the deck for success. First, soak your pea seeds inside for at least four hours, during which time they’ll plump up and wake up. You can actually keep them inside until they sprout, but you’ll want to pour off the water after twelve hours or so and cover the seeds with a humidity dome if you go that route. Sprouted peas also need to be handled more carefully to prevent the tender new roots from breaking, so I usually just do the four-hour-plumping-up soak.

Next, out in the garden, ignore the instructions that pea seeds should be spaced one to three inches apart. Instead, drop them into a furrow in dense clumps before covering them up.

Protecting pea seedlings from critters(Of course, it goes without saying that you waited until the soil was at least 35 degrees Fahrenheit, planned for rain to keep the seedlings growing fast, and didn’t plant just before an extended cold snap.)

Finally, find some way to protect your pea seedlings from critters. The same sprouts that are delicious on our table are also a favorite of rabbits and other garden invaders. We use caterpillar tunnels over our spring pea beds, keeping the enclosure in place until the plants are tall enough to need a trellis.

After all that, it’s time to wait and hope. Fingers crossed for a copious, early crop!

Posted on

Should I plant peas on Valentine’s Day?

(Short answer — probably not.)

But who wants a short answer when you can read an Appalachian anecdote?

Where I grew up, the rule of thumb was to plant lettuce on Groundhog’s Day and peas on Valentine’s Day. Which makes very little scientific sense (even if you ignore the fact that I now live in a different USDA hardiness zone).

After all, what early spring crops are looking for is moist soil that’s not too cold. And February weather is so variable that a date perfect on some years is bound to be terrible on others.

So, yes, I definitely recommend you pull out a soil thermometer rather than planting by the calendar. But there’s also a fun alternative (at least for lettuce).

Wintersowing lettuce

Last year, I meant to collect seeds from my lettuce bed, so I let the plants bolt and bloom. Unfortunately, it rained then stayed wet while the seeds were maturing. Rather than fighting the damp, I shrugged and figured I’d order my lettuce seeds next time around.

But when I went out to take a look at the spot at the end of January, there were already tiny lettuce seedlings poking up out of the earth! A soil thermometer would have given me data on whether the soil was warm enough right at that moment, but those overwintering seeds assure me that the average had been at least 35 degrees Fahrenheit for long enough to tempt overwintering lettuce to sprout.

Peas need about five more degrees of warmth than lettuce, so while I could plant some now I’m going to wait a little longer. (Pea seeds are also very tasty to critters, so unlike lettuce they’re not a good choice for wintersowing.) To soothe my itchy green thumb and commemorate Valentine’s Day, I’ll start a flat of broccoli inside instead.

Posted on

Turning old pea seeds into yummy winter sprouts

Are you itching for homegrown vegetables, but your garden soil temperature is still far too cold to start any new crops? Did you buy too many pea seeds last year and aren’t sure whether the holdovers have enough vitality to germinate in chilly soil?

Why not solve two problems at once by sprouting some pea seeds indoors?

Choosing seeds to sprout

Soaking pea seeds

First a note on choosing seeds — I always buy untreated pea seeds and those are the only type I’d use to grow pea sprouts for the table. If you’re not sure whether your peas are treated, shake some out of the packet. Are they pink? Treated! Are they tan or pale green? Untreated!

The next step is related. Treated seeds are engineered to be less likely to rot while they slowly soak up enough water to germinate. The way to bypass this issue when using untreated seeds is to soak the seeds overnight or until they plump up and lose their wrinkles. Even though you’ll be sprouting your seeds inside where rotting is less likely, you might as well soak your seeds.

Setting up your sprouting trays

Growing pea sprouts

The next question is — what should you plant your pea seeds into?

I was experimenting and didn’t want to commit to an entire flat to pea seedlings, so I dug into the recycling bin for potting containers. Clamshells from the grocery store are great since they have drainage holes in the bottom and a lid you can close to keep the soil surface damp during germination.

I tried out two depths of clamshells and highly recommend you choose the deepest tray possible. A 1.5-inch tray barely gave us two cuttings of sprouts while a 3.5-inch tray gave us at least three. (More on that later.)

Once you’ve chosen your planting container, fill it up with potting soil, then spread the soaked seeds in a layer along the top. I packed them in so the seeds were touching, which maximized the planting space.

Harvesting pea sprouts

Cut pea sprouts above the bottom leaf.

Now it’s a waiting game. Once your peas send up shoots that are multiple inches long, cut each sprout just above the bottom leaf.

The photo above shows a pea plant at its second cutting. Notice how it resprouted from the same point (which it will do again and again). Don’t cut below all the leaves, though, or you’ll only get a single harvest!

How many harvests to expect

Harvesting pea sprouts

Our first harvest was small (but tasty!). The photo above shows the total yield from both planting containers.

Growing pea sprouts indoors Homegrown pea sprouts

The second and third cuttings were larger. The images here show the plants and their yield after the third cutting.

After that, I realized I’d made a bit of a mistake. Our pea plants kept sending out new shoots even though I hadn’t put them in a window or under artificial lighting, so I figured they were fine in low light. But after the third cutting, it became clear that the seeds had used up all of their stored energy.

Which is a long way of saying, harvest four from the deep pot was scanty. Harvest four from the shallow pot was nonexistent and a lot of the plants died all the way back.

I put the deeper pot on a windowsill after that and am hoping we’ll see enough growth to get a fifth harvest. But even if this is the end, sprouting leftover pea seeds was definitely a low-work and nearly free way to add something fresh to our winter diet. (Plus, greenery inside in January makes me smile.)

 

 

Posted on

How and why to start a pit garden

On our first homestead, ground water was so high in certain areas that we had to build extra-tall mounds just to prevent plant roots from drowning. On our current ridge, the problem is the exact opposite and I hope the solution is the opposite too.

 

Pit gardenWhat’s a pit garden?

A pit garden is simply a garden bed located below the natural level of the surrounding earth. The idea is to concentrate and hold onto moisture, both groundwater and runoff from the surrounding terrain.

Alternatively, if you locate your pit garden where it gets runoff from your roof, you’ve created a rain garden. Whether a rain garden will rot roots depends on your climate and what you plant. But if you’re on a dry ridgetop like we are, it might be just the ticket!

 

How to know if you need a pit garden

Does your ground dry up and crack at least once a year? Do you irrigate and still lose shallow-rooted perennials like blueberries? Do volunteer vegetables come up in your mulched aisles more than in the good soil of your raised beds? Do broadcast-seeded plants germinate fitfully in the middle of your beds but better around the (lower-down) edges?

If any or all of these field marks sound familiar — try a pit garden (or rain garden, or both)!

 

Gardener digging a trenchHow to build a pit garden

Dig a trench then backfill it most of the way with excellent soil (putting the old subsoil somewhere else). Your goal is to have any mulch hit right at the natural elevation of the surrounding earth.

Next, plant and enjoy the result!

(By the way, the diagrams in this post are courtesy of Midjourney…who doesn’t seem to understand what either a shovel or a spade is. My correction: dig your trench with a spade, not whatever that gardener has in his hand…)

 

Pit gardenWhat we did

In our case, we’d dug the beginnings of a foundation for a wood-stove-room addition. Then (as usually happens with me), I lost interest in putting time and energy into house when I could put the same time and energy into outdoors and plants

So I moved acidified soil from our blueberry patch into our premade pit garden. Next, I transplanted a cranberry and a few blueberries that had barely been hanging on in the main garden into that good, low earth.

Our spot is definitely a rain garden in addition to a pit garden, and in some very wet years the trench used to hold enough water for tadpoles to mature. (You can see what it looks like after a sixth of an inch of rain in the photo.) I’ll report back and let you know if that’s too much water or just right for our ericaceous crops.

 

Anna Hess in a rock mazeWinter break

In other news, we’re taking a bit of a winter break while Mark heals up a back injury and I stick to the basics to keep the homestead running and myself sane. I’ll tell you about our edible-seed-sprouting experiments and more when life smooths out again.

If you miss hearing from us while you wait, why not check out our gardening video courses or deep-dive into gardening topics with our books?

Posted on

Third-generation hybrid hazels

Cracked hazelnuts

Hazelnuts have a lot of potential as a low-work garden plant, but blights make straight-up European hazelnuts problematic in the eastern United States. Luckily, various institutions have been experimenting with combining the disease-hardiness of American hazelnuts with the productivity of European hazelnuts over the last decade, and we jumped on the bandwagon very early on.

 

Our previous hazel experiments

Walden Effect hybrid hazel experiments

I used Google to search through our old posts to refresh my memory, and they actually got the facts right. But what’s most relevant to this post is:

Which brings us to…

 

A new hope

Male flower buds on hybrid hazel bushes

Hybrid hazel bushIn April 2020, we planted two hybrid hazel bushes here in Ohio: Yamhill and Dorris, both from Burnt Ridge Nursery. As expected, both have grown well with very minimal attention — I think I’ve kill-mulched under them every other year. Both are shaping up to look much more like European hazelnuts (tall and less bushy) than like American hazelnuts (shorter and with lots and lots of trunks). But what about the nuts?

Many plants with separate male and female flowers start out male only as they mature since it’s a lot less work to produce pollen than fruit. Sure enough, in spring of this year (2023), the Yamhill produced its first male flowers. Now, the Dorris is following suit while the Yamhill is completely coated in both male and (I think) female flower buds.

So it looks like 2024 will be the test! Do these more carefully selected hybrid hazels produce nuts with shells thin enough so I don’t have to pull out my hammer? Stay tuned for a taste test this coming fall!

Posted on

A brand new gardening course for you!

Garden Course Sale

Porch planter boxAs long-time readers are aware, Mark’s a big believer in building your way out of repetitive or unpleasant homesteading tasks. So I get to enjoy his amazing caterpillar tunnels, porch-top planter boxes, anti-chipmunk strawberry beds, anti-bird raspberry area, and deer-proof garden fence.

Now, after a year of making me talk in front of a camera then plunking Mark down in front of editing software, you can enjoy a deep dive into each of those projects. For another day or two, you can even nab your copy at 50% off!

This is our second video course and I hope it comes across as tighter, more informative, and more entertaining than the first one. (It certainly felt that way to me, but maybe I’m just getting over my annoyance at seeing myself in moving pictures.)

Caterpillar tunneslAs a bonus, Udemy courses come with a lifetime subscription to updates. For example, folks in our Soil-First Gardening Course paid up front for an hour-long course just like this one, then got a bonus half hour of cover-crop information a few months later totally free even though the course increased in price by $10 at the same time.

Which is a long way of saying — I hope you’ll grab a copy now while DIY Gardening Projects is brand new and the cheapest it will ever be!  if you really want to make our day, please consider leaving a review after you watch. Reviews not only help strangers decide to take a chance on our courses, they also give us ideas of what to add and how to do better next time.

Happy learning!

Posted on

What the new zone map means for home fruit gardeners

2013 and 2023 USDA zone maps

Perhaps you’ve seen the new USDA hardiness zone map that came out this week? For the first time in eleven years, we have an updated map, and about half of the United States moved half a zone warmer (with the rest staying in the same zone they were in before). You can check your new zone here.

Before you rush out and buy tropical trees to plant in your garden, though, I thought I’d share a few thoughts from our last fifteen-plus years growing fruit.

Averages aren’t everything

Snowy gardenFirst, you need to understand what the zone map really means. It’s a thirty-year average of annual extreme low temperatures in your location.

In other words, that’s the coldest it’s likely to get in your garden on an average year — so sometimes the temperature will never drop that low and sometimes you’ll see a freak cold spell that dips even lower. In fact, as the climate changes, unusual cold waves (and heat waves) are becoming more common, so my biggest piece of advice is this:

Be conservative when picking out those fruit trees! Maybe don’t choose a fig that’s only on the edge of hardy where you’re located. Instead, if you live in zone 6b (as we now do), it’s smarter to select varieties hardy to at least zone 6a. This is especially true for fruit plants that take several years to mature.

Frost pockets

Peach flowerWhile you’re planning smart, be sure to consider microclimates. Even though the area we moved from is technically half a zone warmer than the one we’re in now (meaning we moved from zone 6b to zone 6a…which is now zone 6b!), our hilltop tends to evade early and late freezes that would have definitely struck our previous deep-valley pocket.

So no matter what the map claims, believe your eyes if they say you’re actually half a zone colder or warmer than your neighbors. And consider late freezes prone to result in fruitless years when selecting varieties — late bloomers can be a major plus.

Heat and drought

Bowl of berriesFinally, it’s worth looking at the flip side of the coin. The hardiness zone maps don’t say anything about annual high temperatures or droughts, but for many of us both of those climate concerns are increasingly relevant in our gardens.

For example, despite drip irrigation, our hilltop gets so bone dry during scorching summers that I keep losing shallow-rooted blueberry plants. I intend to move the survivors to a wetter location (which I’ll tell you about in a later post). For now, just remember that there’s a lot more to keeping fruit plants happy than making sure they evade the worst winter ice.

Shameless plug

If you want to read more of my thoughts on choosing fruit plants that will produce with minimal headache on your part, definitely check out my Weekend Homesteader: Winter ebook (or nab the full series in paperback form).

And I’d love to hear from you. How are you changing your gardening plans in response to the new maps?

Posted on

The best time to harvest ginger roots

Newly harvested ginger roots

Last year, I wrote that, when growing ginger in the home garden, you should wait to harvest until after the leaves die back in the autumn. Now I’m not so sure that’s true.

This data isn’t actually from my own garden (although I am eating the result!). It all started when Mark’s mom cut up one rhizome to grow in a corner of a garden bed for my sake. “Harvest whenever you want,” she said.

When Mark and I dropped by at the end of September, the ginger plants still seemed to be growing so I decided to wait. But between then and the end of October, a light frost killed back all of the plants except one.

Baby ginger roots and mature ginger roots

The ginger that kept its top turned out to be at its peak and made delectable pickled ginger. The plants that had died back came out of the ground with tougher skins (like what you’d find in the grocery store) and several were rotting.

Since pickled ginger is my favorite use for the rhizome and the recipe demands “baby” roots, I’ll aim to harvest before the first freeze next time. For folks who store their ginger on the shelf, you’ll definitely want to wait longer so the protective outer skin will form (although not so long you get the rotting I dealt with).

Not sure if that means harvesting immediately after the first freeze or before, although I suspect the trick is to start root pieces inside so the plants hit maturity before cold weather comes to call. I’d love to hear from folks who have experimented and figured the sweet spot out!

Fall harvest

As a side note, growing ginger in a garden bed instead of in a pot definitely resulted in higher yields. And it was less finicky! So much so I might actually grow ginger myself next year rather than begging my mother-in-law to do the hard work for me.

In the meantime, I’m just enjoying my pickled ginger mixed into steamed veggies. That and hoping for more rain to boost our parched fall garden’s yields.

Posted on

Bite sized tomatoes

We got a late start on our deck grown tomatoes.

A bit of a mix up on which variety this is but I really like the sweet taste and easy harvest.

This is the second year our deck tomatoes seem to be healthier than the ones we planted in the garden.

I like to split them down the middle to add a sweet dash of color to our salads.

Posted on

Propping up anti-bird netting

Propping up anti-bird netting

Blackberry

Our berry enclosure has been unsuccessful at keeping out chipmunks but successful at keeping out birds. So we moved our strawberries (aka chipmunk magnets) to a different setup and are using the space left behind for blackberries, raspberries, and gooseberries.

This year, we’ve had great harvests from all of our berries, which means I visit the berry enclosure a lot. And that also means bird netting rubbing against my head every time I take a step turned into a drag. Time to solve that problem once and for all!

My first step was to look back through old Walden Effect posts, where I found this great solution in another gardener’s berry area. Now, how to recreate it to mesh with our existing setup?

A PVC pipe on top of a fencepost

We had a lot of 10-foot PVC pipes lying around, purchased when we thought we’d need to extend our garden fence to 10 feet to keep out deer. That turned out to be unnecessary, so I decided to repurpose the pipes into berry-netting supports.

Next, we need to find a U-post that would slide easily inside the pipes. The cheapest, shortest ones were a fit!

Berry enclosure

I ended up cutting a couple of feet off each PVC pipe before sliding it onto the post since there was only so much wiggle room in our existing system. If you’re starting from scratch, you can probably use the full height.

Last step was to plop old plastic flower pots on top of each pipe to spread out that pressure point and prevent pipes from poking through netting if leaves fall before we take our setup down. If you repeat this, be smarter than I was — don’t stare up at the flower pot as you raise the pole into place or you’ll end up with an almost black eye!

We’re thrilled with the result, although the enclosure still has one big flaw. Honeysuckle has taken over the fence edges and each season it expands to twine into our berry netting. We’re still working out solutions on that front. In the meantime, eating lots of berries is a great reward for not-so-hard work.