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it's not st. paddy's day, but at least the peas are in

According to my mother, my grandmother planted her peas on St. Paddy’s day. That was over a month ago, and I can assure you that there was nothing going into the earth here in Connecticut then. The only thing you could do that was remotely green, was drink green beer and look out the window at the dwindling snow piles.

like opening day, just no baseball

Finally, the snow is gone. It stuck around a long time, in part because there was so darn much of it this winter, but also because it’s been a very cold spring. Even today, which held promise for sunny and sixties, was not that warm and, frankly, not that sunny. But, never mind, I had my mind set on today being opening day at the garden.  Brendan, my “go-to” starter  when it comes to gardening, was here for a garden work day, and we were going to whip that sad heap of winter leaves into a real garden.

Joe DiMaggio said of baseball’s opening day, “You look forward to it like a birthday party when you’re a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.” That pretty well says it for opening day in the garden — after a long, cold winter, it’s like a party, except with dirt and seeds instead of cake and ice cream. And, unlike baseball, whose fortunes are tossed on whimsy, you can be sure that something wonderful does happen in your garden! You breathe some fresh air, hopefully enjoy a bit of sunshine, and savor the satisfaction of preparing that rich earth. Just that much can be good enough; now add to it the potential of little green shoots peeking out in a week or so — and the hope of fresh greens and other vegetables in the future.

or is it really spring training

spinach on right, planted last fall

spinach on right, planted last fall

As I explore this metaphor, it seems to me that the gardening that we do in March and April is really more like spring training — at least here in the northeast. We’re warming up our gardening muscles in preparation for the summer league, which is still more than a month away. We’re starting only the winter league vegetables now. Those cold-hearty, not-so-flashy, utility players like peas, spinach and other lettuces, potatoes, beets, and such. If you’ve been tending your winter garden under the cold frame, you may have some of these players already warmed up and practically ready to bat. Look at the picture of the spinach that I planted last fall in my cold frames. They had just sprouted before the weather turned too cold, and have been buried under several feet of snow all winter. It’s really amazing because the weight of the record-breaking snowfall shattered the glass lights.  The plants were not protected very well and some were pinned under the glass.

On the left side of the cold frame, I’ve planted arugula and salad bowl lettuce. Both of these seeds are very happy to germinate in cool weather. In the garden proper, we planted snow peas, two types of potatoes, garlic, beets, and radishes.

still in training

tomatoes in training -- getting a little fresh air

Memorial Day is really Opening Day in Connecticut. That’s when the summer garden stars like tomatoes, beans, corn, and peppers, will make their debut. They need warm soil, warm air, warm nights — you get the picture. Until then, they are still sitting on the bench. Here are some of the plants that I started from seed in January. I’ve repotted them several times, and some are quite tall. I’ve just started to condition them: taking them outside for short periods to get a little fresh air and sunshine — not too much of either. Like a pitcher’s arm, they need to warm up and get into condition before they can withstand a full day’s sunshine without sunburn or strain.

the log

Now’s the time to start the log for the year. Just like New Year’s resolutions, I vow to maintain and learn from my garden log each year. I’ll be depending upon all of you to keep me on task this season!

lessons learned

the first metric -- arugula planted Jan. 11

Besides being a gardener and a foodie, I’m a writer and editor. That’s how I’ve made my living most of my life.  It’s been a satisfying–and often humbling–experience as I’ve learned how much I really don’t know. This is especially embarrassing as you try to market yourself as an “expert.” That’s how I came to learn the word, “metric.” I was editing a stuffy report for an insurance company, and tried to convince the author (obviously he knew about life insurance, but he didn’t know about words) that there was no such word as “metric.”  A little more investigation on my part showed that, yes, “metric” was indeed a word, and a pretty common one at that. Ubiquitous wouldn’t quite describe its use, but not far from it. I was humbled and educated. That’s a good thing. And thanks to the education, I have just the word to use for today’s post!

scientific rigor

Gardening and home food preservation, while relaxing and enjoyable, require a certain amount of rigor, as they would say in scientific circles. Yes, rigor is a good description because both gardening and food preservation are scientific (biology, chemistry, and a bit of physics) endeavors.  Beyond the science, there’s economics, and possibly some art and business rolled into the growth of a little seed. Giving that seed the best chance of performing well requires some discipline, and that’s where the metrics come in.

repeatability and reproducibility

My garden is a scientific experiment, some years successful and others not so much.  To learn from my successes and my failures, I need to have some sense of what factors contributed to said success/failure. If the green zebra and Brandywine tomatoes produced their little hearts out (like they did in 2010), how can I reproduce that event? Or can I reproduce that event? If the winterbor kale never got “off the ground,” why? Is this something unique to this growing year, related to this location, associated with the climate, or none of the above? And how do I really know how productive any of my garden charges are if I don’t really know how much they produced? The short answer to these question is “metrics”; actually documentation including metrics.

the garden log

now is a good time to begin your garden log

It’s still close enough to talk about New Years resolutions; one of mine is to document my gardening activities with greater rigor. While snow blankets the garden, and even my cold frames are covered with several feet of snow, now is the time to reflect on last year’s planting and harvest and glean lessons from the data.

I’ve started a few seeds already, and with my fresh resolve, I’ve dutifully recorded them in my garden log. There’s hope for this year’s log, but as you scroll down, you’ll see that there’s not as much to be learned from last year because I didn’t follow through for the whole season.  But it’s not totally useless. For example, I’m starting my tomatoes earlier than last year (early Jan. vs. late Feb.) remembering that they were still pitifully small when I planted them in late May.

seed starting in early January


home economics

The raspberries were incredible this year! Felt like I was making batch after batch after batch of red raspberry jam and chocolate red raspberry sauce. They were great gifts, and gift them I did! It was a joy to share the bounty of my garden with grateful friends and family. Folks have asked how many jars did I make. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I knew the answer to that question. I kept a notebook in the kitchen and made a quick, scribbly entry for each canning episode. This serves multiple purposes. It tells me how many jars I made, yes, but it also gives me documentation to hone each of the recipes. (Go back to the reproducibility concept.) As I tweak the formula for chocolate raspberry sauce, I need to know what ingredients  and process I used, and then change only one thing at a time.


red raspberry jam -- the tip of the iceberg

I deciphered these hasty scratchings and converted them to a legible canning log, which documents the production. The full log (not included here due to space restraints) includes a comments column that describes pertinent variables. The log documents what I had felt about the proliferous raspberries: 125 1/2 pint and 14 pint jars of jam and sauce. Not too shabby in terms of quantity; as for quality (most important) I’ve tweaked the sauce recipe to exactly the right formula.  We’re ready for 2011!


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