Confessions Of A Garden Gambler

There was the year we had roasting cars on July 2. That’s a month to 6 weeks ahead of schedule for central Indiana. For here, our last killing frost is due, on average, in mid-April. So that seed corn went into some pretty cold ground.

It’s popularly supposed that many seeds won’t germinate in the cold ground. But we’ve found that waterlogging rather than meaning is what causes the most trouble. 

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If you’re a cautious gambler, you can always treat early planted seeds with fungicide.

We don’t. We figure if we lose a planting, it’s no great tragedy, for we don’t gamble many sources. And if the risk pays off, the reward is great —especially when the neighbors hear about it. Just by accident, naturally, across the garden fence.

So we follow the system of all beginning gardeners, although we’ve long passed that happy stage. We plant a little corn as soon as a balmy spell of weather comes along in late March or early April.

Early May or later is the conventional date. And we do plant a quick maturing kind. Midget corn is our choice for earlier planting. It will shave two weeks off maturing time, and although ears are small, table quality is tops. Even if it weren’t, roasting cars eaten in early July have their own sweetness.

Early Beans

Green beans are good gamblers. This is because it takes so few to produce so much. Toss 30 beans early into the garden gamble. 

Thin out the weakest half. You will still have five feet of row. Need I add that 5′ feet of bush beans produce a lot of harvests?

We’ve learned beets and carrots will stand much colder than they’re supposed to. So one of our grandest garden gambles has been with the bit of French forcing carrot.

Unfortunately, the seed of this is hard to find nowadays. These grow to the size of a giant radish and make tasty sweet carrots to use with early peas, cooked alone or eaten as is for finger salad.

A few seeds planted about four weeks before the average last-killing frost produces unbelievably early carrots. Failing to find this seed, we now settle for almost any fat horn-type carrots, for they swell their waistlines fast instead of growing down to China first.

One year, I note in an old record book, we seeded French forcing carrots and ‘Perfected Detroit’ beets on March 23.

Lettuce is generally accepted as an early crop. But there are tricks to lettuce, too. Still another quote from our garden record books is this: “February 17—sowed lettuce, Bibb, Imperial something or other (I quote exactly!) under hotkaps.

Also sowed a Bibb, Imperial, and Simpson bed with no protection.” This is followed immediately with another note dated April 30: “This lettuce has been useable for a couple of weeks. Do it again!”

Green onions can be boosted into earlier production, too. We like to set perennial or Egyptian onions in the fall to pull in the earliest spring. 

Another note from the garden record says: “February 25—pulled green onions (perennial) and sorrel for salad.” The sorrel was fall planted, too.

To Start With Warmth

If it’s crops that demand hot soil for germination, such as cucumbers and melons, these can go through their germination period indoors. But they’re not easy transplanters.

A single pot with two or three seeds, thinned later to the single strongest quickest growing one, is easy to manage, especially if the pot is one of the plant-eats-pot types you set out as is. Or there’s the old-fashioned way of inverting a square of sod in a berry basket and planting two or three seeds to feed on decaying grass.

One way to step up tomato production if you haven’t the facilities to start your plants early indoors is to buy flat-raised plants the minute you see them on the market, no matter the weather.

Pot them tip individually. They’ll quickly outgrow their flat-crowded sisters. Set them outdoors every mild day. And when a cold night comes along, it’s easy to bring them in on a tray.

Still, another method used here by clever gardeners is planting tomato seeds in place in early April, 2 weeks before the last killing frost date. Such plants have cold resistance and will far outstrip flat-raised plants at regular planting times.

Planting Tender Seeds In Fall

Still another gamble practiced by gardeners here (I’ve noticed it, especially among European families) is the planting of supposedly tender seeds such as tomatoes in fall. This must be done late so they can’t germinate before winter. Four to six weeks after a black frost is about right.

Seeds are planted deep, to about an inch. Then extra protection is given with another inch or so of leaves. These are removed relatively early in spring. 

These seeds germinate quickly after an average winter. An average winter here means the temperature can slide down to zero easily and often below. It usually does not stay there very long, however.

I have always been puzzled why so many gardeners buy broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and even kohlrabi plants. These seeds are tough. 

They can be sown in place very early—three weeks before the last killing frost is hardly a gamble with them.

Thinned later to the most potent plants, they zoom into production. And there’s no time lost with transplanting and dawdling through the repair of torn roots.

Even flowers can be managed to produce early. Dahlias, of course, won’t take even a light frost. But you can get a head start by laying clumps of tubers under a protective maternal shrub two or three weeks before the safe planting date. There, sprouts soon venture forth.

If they threaten to reach the breakable stage, tubers can be separated at any time. Yet if a cold night comes along, it takes only a few minutes to cuddle the tender roots under a heavy old blanket.

Most gardeners wait for mild weather to plant gladiolus corms. But our local specialists make the first plantings in mid to late March.

Using Coldframe And Hotbed

A cold frame and hotbed answer an impatient gardener’s prayers. But lacking these, there are substitutes. 

Set a storm window up against the south side of a building. Even with ends open, this surrounds pots and plants under it with excellent extra warmth.

Or sow your early garden in any spot protected from the north. The south of a white building is extra warm with reflected heat. 

It helps, too, in the open garden to make rows east and west, ridging slightly to the north to catch and hold that extra sunshine. Those little plant-protecting igloos called hotkaps help.

Seeds can be sowed under these or cloches at unbelievably early dates. For example, the notebooks say we planted cabbage seeds under protectors on March 4.

If you want to use the traditional Mason jar, it’s wise to swirl mud or lime around inside it, or your vegetables may be cooked before you are ready. 

And if you’re a freezing family, the little square clear plastic freezer boxes can also find a spring used in this fashion.

We plan to increase our garden gambles this year by seeding more midget vegetables. (Moving last summer put a temporary stop to our experimentations.) 

Many of these we haven’t tried yet. But a highly critical professor friend says their table quality is tops.

And they’re naturals for early harvest because of their short maturity periods: little tennis ball-sized cabbages, small individual serving-size muskmelons, watermelons, a Tom Thumb head of lettuce, little cucumbers, and even small eggplants.

44659 by Marguerite Smith