Tuesday, March 22, 2011

our homestead: breaking some of the rules

I'm fairly ecstatic to announce that despite some severe lack in equipment I've been able to grow 40 tomato plants on my windowsill from seed. A past blog I wrote briefly described a little about what goes into successfully growing tomatoes from seed. You can read about it here:
Usually my family will use really nice LED lights and heated seed mats to get the tomato plants off to a good start. I was pretty used to this system, so when I received two free packets of fancy Pink Brandywine and Evergreen tomatoes in the mail, I initially thought I wouldn't be able to grow them myself unless I went out and found some nice lights and the aforementioned seed heating mats. Granted, grow lights and seed mats aren't that expensive, but I was a bit on a budget this winter (I think everyone was and still is).
Anyway, in early February of this year I was dawdling around down in my basement when I realized that I had a perfectly good seed starting rack which was being used to house boxes of odds and ends. I felt my hibernating green thumb start to come back to life and I quickly began to clear off the white, cast-iron metal rack and then drug it upstairs to my livingroom (which has a southwestern facing window, so it receives a fair amount natural light, as well as there's a heater vent in the next room). Our livingroom is certainly lacking furniture (save for a cool old, banana yellow desk that my mom and I refurbished together), so the plant rack was a welcome addition. I found some leftover empty seed-starting trays in the shed outside and filled them with some organic potting soil, kitchen compost from my worm bin and a scattering of coffee grounds. I planted both varieties of tomato seeds (about a half inch deep and a half inch apart) and gave them a sprinkling of water from a mason jar with a lid I'd punched holes into with a hammer and a nail. I crossed my fingers that something...maybe one or two starts might emerge. After all, I was trying to germinate these seeds without LED lights, heat mats or good spring or summer natural light (again, early, cloudy Western Washington February).
About a week or so later, I couldn't even believe it...there were healthy green starts popping up all around the little seed tray. I even had my mom and stepdad come over and look at them to make sure they were really tomatoes and not volunteer weeds which had somehow appeared or survived in my compost. Hooray! My tomatoes were really growing! Every day I gave them some water from my mason jar and made sure to rotate them as they'd usually bend all the way over depending on wherever any scrap of outdoor light was present...once again, cloudy, Western Washington February.
Now it's mid-March and I've separated and transplanted my tomato starts into their own 4 and 6 inch containers. I have a small hoop house going up in my backyard, so I'll be able to keep my tomatoes fairly warm and they'll be able to flourish in solar energy. My plan is to move them out from my windowsills to the soil in their hoop house in early April or so. I so look forward to being able to enjoy my very own homegrown tomatoes.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

trail setters: looking forward to farmers markets

Here's a little video I shot at the Edmonds Farmers Market (when I was supposed to be selling vegetables). Just thought I'd post it here, after all, market season is right around the bend...

our homestead: welcoming spring with a potato (and pea) planting

Spring! Spring! Oh my darling, you've come back to me! In celebration of the growing season, I've spent the day digging around one of my garden patches, planting out potatoes and sugar snap peas. To prepare this year's potato patch, I was sure to clear out any pesky weeds and dig up any large stones, then I put down heaps of rich compost (potatoes love some fertile soil) and "green manure", also known as alfalfa grass, grown by a local farm. I selected three organic seed potato varieties: 1) french fingerlings (a buttery, gourmet finger-shaped tuber with a golden flesh and blush, papery skin), 2) all blue potatoes (it's safe to say that this one's my favorite- blue in hue, slightly sweet, and oh boy! it makes the best mashed potatoes with peas), and 3) classic red nordland roasters (bring on the rosemary!). I dug three long trenches about 3-4 inches deep, about 2 feet apart, and dropped a potato every 12 inches down each row before covering them up with a blanket of soil.
When their first starts emerge from the earth, I'll begin drawing up the soil around their stalks as they grow. This is known as "hilling"...essentially as your potato plant grows you build a mound around it on either side, ensuring its developing tubers aren't exposed to any sunlight as sunlight causes them to turn green. Eventually the potato plants will grow bushy (they almost look like determinate tomato plants), flower, and then they will start to turn brown. A midsummer dying potato plant marks the kickoff for potato harvesting (of course you can always dig around before this point...usually when the flowers appear...and steal a potato or two). To harvest, whole plants can be pulled up, attached tubers and all, and digging around the plant's surrounding hill will reveal even more new potatoes.
So why did I plant sugar snap peas by my potatoes? Other than the fact that a fresh sugar snap tastes like vegetable candy, peas, another cool-weather crop, are kindred spirits with developing potatoes. Peas, like all legumes, are "nitrogen fixing", meaning they'll grab a hold of nitrogen in the air and enrich their surrounding soil. Nitrogen is essential for healthy green development (leaves, stalks and shoots), and potatoes are heavy Nitrogen feeders. Want to strengthen your soil for some summer corn or tomatoes? Plant some good ol' peas now!