Gardener's Dilemma: Sow What Now?

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Looking out my office window into a backyard landscape that is still knee-deep in snow in March is a head wagger.

But supposedly, the big thaw is on its way, so there is that.

For the past three years, by the middle of March my indoor germinating of seeds has been well underway.  In our basement growing area, under lights, we would be fastidiously nurturing a variety of warm weather heirlooms in jiffy pots -- tomatoes, a range of colorful bell peppers, three varieties of eggplant, herbs blah, blah, blah --  right next to the red wriggler vermicomposting bin, where my super cool homemade fertilizer is created, harvested and stored.

Keeping a worm bin at home is good for so many reasons, and almost effortless...except for the every three months or so harvesting thingy, which for me is always a minor ordeal, but gratifying in result.

Not surprisingly, this year I am not going to start any seeds inside until after Easter.  And, none of those potentially gorgeous heirloom tomato vines, brandy wine and beefsteak varieties, mostly, will go into the ground this year in mid-May.

If I start them, let's say, in the third week of April, I am anticipating that they will be hardy enough to go into three self-watering containers (yes, I have totally caved in to this urban container gardening concept) by early to mid-June, when I hope it will finely be tomato weather...warm!

Why am I waiting?  Well, we did almost tirelessly battle too many garden pests last year, and with my backyard being the size of a postage stamp, rotating crops can be tricky.  My big idea is to change up the growing culture by going with self watering containers on wheels.  

I did have luck with that last year growing heirloom black cherry tomatoes in an Earth Box, in spite of all those garden pests -- each one of which I am already tired of, and they are not even here yet.  Blech.

In 2013, early in the growing season, we warded off clouds of aphids with a soapy water spray.

By June, the slugs were drowning (hopefully inebriated) in beer.

And, in July, the before and after pictures of the hornworm was gross, mostly because those wonderfully efficient parasitic wasps I was trying to attract into my yard as beneficial insects, came,  They laid eggs -- like in the movie Alien -- into the hornworm, and the babies ate their way out, desiccating it.

Enough of that.  What I can predict now is that as soon as the permafrost in my garden lifts, I will immediately sow some super hardy cool weather seeds -- lettuces, spinach, radishes,  beets, possibly in a cold frame, as I have a couple of old storm windows perfect for building one of those, just taking up space in the garage.

Still, very soon I will be taking a few short road trips to purchase seeds locally, because I like garden shops where I can get an in-the-moment thrill from walking those aisles of seed packets galore.

Next year, though, I hope to be part of a local seed swap, and of course, the West Cook Chapter of Wild Ones can help out with that.

For now, forget about me waiting around for spring to arrive.  I am going to go find some myself.

Kicking off on March 15 will be the 2014 Chicago Flower and Garden Show.  Then, showing up after that will be "The Secret Garden" at the upcoming Macy's Flower Show.  It runs from March 30 through April 13.  I am scheduled to be a volunteer docent twice.  My heart is already warming up just thinking about all those gorgeous blooms and sensational smells.

I guess I could go look for a crocus or two...if all that bloomin' snow would melt.

I'm banking on seeing one of those by the end of next week.  Hope does run eternal, ya know.

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Reader Comments

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Deb Quantock McCarey from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 20th, 2014 12:17 PM, the first day of spring, I decided to geminate some snow pea and spinach seeds in a large reclaimed wash basin under lights in my basement. But here's a cool idea I saw at the 2014 Chicago Flower and Garden Show: fill an old, cut-to-size rain gutter with your planting medium, sew early season seeds into that, and in a couple of weeks, when the weather is warm enough, dig a "trench" in your growing space and slide the soil and transplants (snow peas, for example) into it to continue growing those cool weather veggies outdoors!

Deb Quantock McCarey from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 14th, 2014 3:31 PM

@ Jim...well, when germinating the tomato seeds we have used a Hydrofarm CK64050 Germination Station with Heat Mat. Cheating that forward, I keep the mat going 'til I feel the basement is warm enough, which usually isn't until they are ready to transplant outside. We do have heat vents down there, though. And, my Red Wrigglers are doing great, so... I'm starting later to see if putting them in the ground when it is really warm helps produce a higher yield. Hope so. Have to let you know about that. :)

Jim from Oak Park  

Posted: March 13th, 2014 4:05 PM

Deb -- do you do anything special to heat your basement up? I start tomatoes every year, but they are so puny, even after 8 weeks. I was going to start them upstairs this year, as I thought maybe the cold basement slowed them down.


Posted: March 11th, 2014 5:44 PM

@Violet, a microgreen mix--has a bunch of things, chard, peppergrass, cabbage, things like that. I loved the peppergrass part! :) Looking at package--Microgreeen "Savory Mix, made by Botanical Interest--available at WholeFoods and Green Home Experts.

Don Nekrosius from Oak Park  

Posted: March 11th, 2014 3:47 PM

Great idea: Scratching the itch that must be under every gardener's thumb to get going out of doors when the weather finally settles. Jackie Tanaka sent along a wowser of a photo of a salad vegetable she has already got going under lights. Beautiful plant. Jackie must be a heck of a green thumb. Let me say in response that I'm two-thirds the way through leading a three session class on vegetable gardening at the Oak Park Conservatory. As part of the hands-on activities of the class, we've

Deb Quantock McCarey from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 11th, 2014 2:05 PM

Just learned that my gardening bud Don is teaching a seed starting class at the Oak Park Conservatory on Saturday, March 22nd. He says that "while this class is aimed at the novice gardener/seed starter, green thumbs could spread the word to those who want to learn, or join in for fun. Sign up for it through the Park District of Oak Park website. Students will go home with some vegetable and flower seeds planted in a seed starting medium." Pass it on!

Violet Aura from River Freaking Forest  

Posted: March 11th, 2014 12:43 PM

Stephanie, what microgreen did you grow?


Posted: March 11th, 2014 12:32 PM

Am about to enjoy home-grown micro-greens on my sandwich! They can be grown year round inside. Don't forget to plant those native plants to attract and maintain beneficial insects. :) They are here year round--so make sure they have nice overwintering places.

Jackie Tanaka from Chicago  

Posted: March 10th, 2014 12:33 PM

I've made a point, this year, of searching the seed catalogs for cold season and fast growing varieties for early results (gratification). I'm trying a tomato variety called Sub Arctic Plenty - determinate, 42 days - originally developed for the US Air Force in WWII to grow tomatoes in Greenland. It's supposed to be the earliest variety - with 4" red fruit. I had luck with May Queen butterhead lettuce last season (45 days).

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