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Easy Peasy, First Greens of Spring

I couldn't wait, I admit it. Not one week, and certainly not four. Three weeks have passed now since I sowed the first hopeful seeds of the season, more-or-less outdoors, in a small unheated greenhouse. Cold hardy peas, arugula, cress, mache (corn lettuce), and spinach, plus two varieties of dill were on my early garden planning menu.

Fast growing Alderman peas herald spring with their bright green wings and curious, curly tendrils

It was still very brisk outside during what is traditionally the coldest month of winter, with night time low temperatures dropping below freezing several times, and daytime temperatures hovering in the low '40s. We've had very little sunshine, and relatively low precipitation. Cold and grey, followed by more cold and grey. I felt gardening deprived and desperate, so for the first time ever, I experimented with putting a small space heater in the greenhouse, setting it to 35F, just to keep the temperature above freezing. The heater has turned on infrequently thankfully, so I am not expecting a huge utility bill.

A bamboo stake makes shallow trenches for small seeds

I was pushing the envelope for sure, but like so many people who have been going bat guano crazy being home more than they'd like this past year, I needed a distraction. What I needed more than anything was an excuse to get my hands dirty. Granted, I have been growing tomatoes and peppers from seed indoors, under lights, but that just isn't the same as making that visceral, hopeful connection with (or near) the garden.

Our little greenhouse (glasshouse) was installed 30 years ago by the previous owners, and while it is a treat to have, the cedar and hemlock trees planted alongside have grown so tall and wide that the structure is shaded for about half of the day during the summer, and even more when the winter sun sits low on the horizon. We have no plans to cut the trees down or back, so I have instead re-purposed the greenhouse as a sort of halfway house for overwintering pots and also for transitioning plants started indoors or from a nursery.

Cheap and cheerful. DIY seedling trays re-purposed from damaged 10x20 flats, drilled for drainage

I didn't have proper seed starting trays with drainage holes, but I made some by drilling several holes into the bottoms of a half dozen solid-bottom trays that had been set aside due to cracks and splits. I then set my DIY seed starting trays into intact solid-bottom trays, which worked out beautifully as a cheap and cheerful but highly-functional, self-watering arrangement. The solid trays have channels in the bottom, which when filled with small volumes of water, allow the soil in the drainage-drilled top trays to draw up moisture as needed.

Beautiful mache (corn salad) rosettes in their infancy, ready for thinning/transplanting

My enthusiasm and ingenuity was rewarded this past week as the peas poked their bright green seed leaves through the soil to welcome spring. My heart soared!

My three pea choices for 2021 (so far):

  • Alderman Shelling Peas: an heirloom variety also known as Tall Telephone peas. I will be planting these in front of a newly replaced section of 8ft high cedar fence that together with some pea netting, can act as a sort of living pea canvas/trellis. Alderman peas are hardy and produce largish pods of many peas each, so a great choice I think.

  • Super Sugar Snap Peas are super performers in my garden. They don't love wet feet though, so a sodden spring can dampen production. I planted three crops of these beauties last year, and the late summer sown peas were producing (albeit slowly) into early November, past the first hard frost.

  • Snap Peas Little Crunch: a delicious new snap pea developed especially for growing in containers; 24-30 inch vines with lots of chubby, crunchy-sweet pods. I am starting these peas for a friend to grow in his seaside container garden.

Given the cold wet time of year, I did not nick or soak the dry pea seeds before planting as one often does with peas and beans. Inspired by the cold and the damp, nature just did her thing intuitively, and it worked out well with almost 100% germination.

Frilly dill starts, so whispy and delicate, are doing well in spite of their ill-advised early sowing

Four or five days before the peas broke through, the sweet little salad greens made an appearance. The dill of course, arrived late to the party. Planting dill in February is not recommended, but I have heard that it can be done under cover. I am hedging my bets by multi-sowing two entire packages of dill seed, one each of two varieties. Worse case scenario, I end up with dill microgreens.

Two dills that I have high hopes for:

  • Ella Dwarf: a sweet low-profile variety that I am growing as a companion/beneficial underplant for cucumbers grown in containers, and also to tuck between perennial herbs in my herb spiral. Dill attracts bees, but also beneficial insects like hoverflies, ladybugs, and parasitic wasps. Beneficial insects feed on non-beneficial insects like aphids and caterpillars that can decimate crops.

  • Dukat: a nice medium size dill to grow for use in pickling vegetables, which I do an absolute ton of. The seeds heads are large and super fragrant, and beneficial insects love them. This variety of dill can grow to about three feet tall in my raised beds, so to avoid staking and increase diversity, I plan to inter-plant among perennials in other areas of the garden as well.

The salad greens that I started are doing well, though a recent mid-day sunny spell drove the temperature in the greenhouse to 85F, stressing the cool loving greens. The shock of direct sun (albeit brief), and the drastic elevation in temperature killed over half of the tiny wasabi and wild arugula seedlings (and a few wee spinach). Oops! Lesson learned.

Tiny wee wild and wasabi arugula plants wilted under the heat of an unexpected sunny break - lesson learned

The peas are doing their pea thing and growing quickly. I will be planting the Aldermans soon, in the garden. I will thin the mache (Vit, Granon Organic), transplant the spinach (Seaside, Little Hero for containers) and cress (Persian) into small, individual pots for planting out and for sharing, and give the dill a bit (or a lot) more time before transplanting.

I have moved all of the tender greens (everything but the dill and peas) to the opposite side of the greenhouse, into absolute shade, just in case the sun decides to make another mid-day appearance.

With the exception of a few casualties, cold hardy spinach survived the mini heatwave

My favourite green this spring is the Persian Cress - Lepidium sativium also known as wrinkled cress, crinkled cress, shahi, or tartizak. An elegant little plant that, while not widely known, is well worth looking for. Each tiny start will grow into an arugula like plant with strong but delicate feathery leaves that taste of pepper and nuts. It will produce beautiful small white flowers along slender stalks. These can be eaten or left to go to seed, but they look especially lovely as a cut flower in a mason jar.

I have so many more seeds to start now that spring is just around the corner, so I will move most of these greenhouse-started plants to a sheltered spot under our glass patio roof - hardening them off for a few hours each day, until they are acclimatized. The patio's stone pavers collect and store solar energy during they day (as does the cement floor of the greenhouse), releasing it gradually into the evening. One kitchen vent and two bathrooms vents send room temperature air out into the space as well, elevating the overall temperature by a few degrees. By utilizing several natural and man-made microclimates on our property, I can extend our comparatively short growing season by 60-90 days overall if all goes well.

Persian cress showing architectural superiority early, at just a few days of age. So beautiful

I will experiment some more in the greenhouse this week, re-purposing perhaps, some torn lightweight floating row cover as a makeshift shade cloth to protect cold-hardy tender greens from sudden sunny outbursts. In theory, a good idea, but we shall see. Even if I fail, as I did with the arugula seedlings, I will have spent some delicious soul-nurturing time outdoors, and I will know more than I do now.

If you too, are itching to get your hands dirty, and have or can create a sheltered part-sun space on a covered patio, beneath the overhang of an exterior door, or near an exterior vent outlet, why not try getting a jump on spring by sowing and growing some easy peasy legumes or cold hardy salad greens?

Even if you fail, you'll win.

To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.

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Thelma Dabrowski Morrow
Thelma Dabrowski Morrow

So nice to see what you’ve started growing! I always try somethings early , it does help passing time in winter , fun experimenting. Oh never heard of Persian Cress, will have a look For it! Nice post and I enjoyed watching your YouTube video! Well done ! 👏🏻👏🏻

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