Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Spring seedling protection

After the warm spell a few weeks back, Nature has emphatically reminded us that frost will threaten Chicago well into May. Blankets hopefully stowed away in closets have been pulled back out and spread once again across the bed. I recycled my milk gallon "cloches" during the early 80 degree weather, only to spend a hasty evening with a box cutter this past weekend, fashioning more.

This is not to say the garden has suffered. The peas, spinach and other cold-weather greens (mizuna, mustard, kale, chard) are thriving, but not yet at harvest stage. The herb garden is almost lush, and I can add tarragon, chives, thyme and oregano to my dinners with renewed culinary abandon. The first flush of asparagus is over, and I am waiting for another round of spears. The first of the strawberries are poking out of faded blossoms, and the rhubarb is looking almost prehistoric in size. But how have some of my other spring seedlings fared, those both naked and protected? Here is a photo update of my various experiments.

1. Cold frame lettuce: I sowed lettuce "tom thumb" on March 6th in both the cold frame and in a bed nearby, unprotected. After 6 weeks, there is a marked difference in the size of the seedlings - I didn't have a ruler, so I am using my size-11 foot for reference.

We have already thinned out the cold frame lettuce above for an early spring salad.

This unprotected lettuce has barely passed "microgreen" stage.

2. Store-bought vs DIY wall-o-water for tomatoes: As I posted a few weeks back, I set out two very small sweet 100 seedlings, with barely one set of true leaves. One went into a 2L pop-bottle fort and the other into a purchased Burpee brand wall-o-water. It pains my DIY aesthetic to report this, but the wall-o-water is vastly superior (and I even cheated and gave the DIY seedling a slightly sunnier spot!).

The amusing lesson in all of this, however, is that the most developed tomato seedling is the one I have left out to the elements:

Of course, this is an Early Girl, not a Sweet 100, so maybe she is just living up to her name. Her foliage is denser, her stems thicker. Lesson: if I am that committed to having home-grown tomatoes on the 4th of July table, perhaps time would be better spent growing earlier varieties, rather than coaxing mid-to-late season varieties into early harvests.

I have also noticed that my almost completely neglected wintersown tomatoes are rapidly catching up to my coddled sweet 100 seedlings. They too have thicker stems and denser foliage. Maybe all the indoor-start-hand-wringing is for nothing, and I should wintersow everything and be done with it. This is probably the sensible plan, and one that makes sense given my limited time. But then what would I fuss over in the waning weeks of winter? What would I do if I had no seedlings to run out and cover with homemade cloches? Why garden if you don't want to take pains, foolish though they may be?

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