In my last post, I highlighted some general questions that new and veteran vegetable gardeners had been asking each other as they got going on their spring gardens, questions about seeds, seed starting and soil, and I linked to several earlier posts that address many of these questions. Since publishing that post, I’ve heard more questions, some about pest control, others about how much to plant, how often, how far apart and how much to thin those sweet seedlings. Now seems like a good time to return to earlier posts I’ve written about spring vegetables and highlight responses to these questions as well as offer updates and insights I’ve gained since writing them.
Lettuce: In 2013 I wrote about my preference for lettuce mixes , those packets that contain seeds of lots of different colors and shapes of lettuce. Most seed companies offer them along with single packets of many different varieties.
These lettuce mixes are still my favorite way to get a varied lettuce crop in my kitchen garden. I can plant a 3-foot row of seed mix every few weeks from spring through early summer and get a steady supply of lettuce until summer vegetables like zucchini and beans tempt us away from green salads.
Succession planting is one key to successful, ongoing lettuce harvest. The other is foiling wire worms, half-inch long yellow worms that, as Linda Gilkeson writes, “are very fond of boring into lettuce roots.”
The other day, a neighbor asked me why some of her lettuce starts had simply flattened down against the soil and died. What she described is the classic result of a wireworm boring into the lettuce root and killing the plant. If you pull the plant out and look at the stem, you’ll often see a wireworm lodged in the stem just below the lettuce head and maybe a few other wire worms in the roots or nearby soil. I grab each worm I see, pull it in two and toss the pieces.
How else to combat wireworms? Potato bait! Gilkeson has great advice for trapping wireworms. I’ve used potato bait successfully since reading her advice.
Skewer chunks of potato on short sticks (they act as markers so you can find them again), then bury the potato piece an inch or so in the soil. Check the traps every day or two and destroy wireworms. Some bore right into the potato (just pull them out); others are in the soil beside the bait. I use a trowel to scoop up each bait chunk so at not miss those nearby wireworms. Wireworms can move several feet through the soil so placing the baits at 1-2 foot intervals in the bed is close enough. Once a bed is cleared, the potatoes chunks can be re-used elsewhere. Wireworms are common in sod and readily migrate into garden beds adjacent to lawns or weedy pathways; along the border of such beds is a good place to put the bait potatoes.
Click on her link to see pictures of wireworms and potato bait.
Carrots: In 2013, I wrote about growing carrots, emphasizing a planting technique I learned from Steve Solomon in his Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades and a harvesting technique I learned from Shepherd Ogden in National Gardening Magazine. For planting that encourages germination and minimizes thinning, “Mix carrot seeds into fine compost and distribute this mixture along the row.” To harvest the sweetest carrots, be patient. “Carrots can look ready, full and orange, but Ogden writes: ‘It is only when the sugars have built up that we get the full flavor of a first-class carrot, which can take an additional week or two depending on soil moisture and the weather.'”
One more growing technique I’ve benefitted from since 2013 is using insect netting or fabric to protect carrots from carrot rust fly.
Once again, Linda Gilkeson has been my guide. She advises: “Even if you usually don’t need to cover spring-sown carrots to prevent carrot rust fly damage, most people should cover their July-sown carrots. By late summer there are a lot more carrot rust flies looking for carrots to lay eggs on than are present in the spring.” To be safe, I usually do cover early carrot plantings, and I definitely cover early July plantings, leaving the covers on through October. These early July plantings provide carrots throughout the winter in my kitchen garden and, thanks to the insect barrier, they are free of the worm tunnels that carrot rust fly larvae leave. See this June 29, 2018 entry from Linda’s List.
Spring Turnips: In 2011, I wrote about spring turnips one of my favorite early spring roots.
Like carrots, turnips benefit from being covered by insect barriers, both to protect the roots from maggots and the leaves from flea beetles. “To minimize root maggot and flea beetle damage, I covered the just planted seeds with Reemay and kept the germinated seedlings and then maturing plants covered until they were nearly ready to harvest.” If the weather is warm, I use a row cover lighter and thinner than Reemay to avoid trapping too much heat on the new seedlings. Territorial Seed Company offers a summer insect barrier I’ve used and liked.
In this spring turnip post, I also note seed spacing and thinning techniques: “I planted the seeds about an inch apart and began thinning and harvesting turnips when they were an inch across. Those that stayed in the ground grew quickly to two inches across.”
Finally, I planted two crops of these lovely turnips, a succession that stretched turnips meals over two months: “I planted the first crop in early March this year and another in late April. The March planting was ready to harvest by early May and the April planting was ready even sooner, early June.”
Beets: In 2011 I wrote about beets , another crop that works well planted several times over the season.
“Beets are a perfect crop for succession planting. This year, I planted my first block of three three-foot rows April 26th, another block May 30th, another June 12th and a last, longer block July 23rd, a bit late but they are doing fine and will mature by late fall and hold into the winter. If I’d planted three fifteen-foot rows all at once in April or May, I can’t imagine what I would have done with all the beets.”
Beets also benefit from early thinning. As Nancy Bubel writes in her New Seed-Starters Handbook (1988), “The beet seed that you plant is actually a seedball, an aggregate of two to six individual seed. Consequently, even when you follow the recommended spacing of 2 inches apart, the seedlings will need to be thinned.” I do my best to thin beet seedlings when they are very small, about an inch and a half tall, and the soil is moist. The tiny, thinned beets are delicious washed, dried and added to salads.
Peas: in 2011, I wrote about Sugar Snap peas , explaining my fondness for the flavor of the original sugar snap despite its vast height and tendency to get powdery mildew.
There are also the challenges posed by birds and rodents: “For years I direct seeded them, hoping that rodents and birds wouldn’t eat all the seeds or new sprouts. Row covers helped deter these pests, but I often needed to replant. Then a few years ago I began starting the seeds indoors in 1-inch cell trays. By carefully setting each seed a half inch deep with the hilum down and keeping the soil barely moist, I got nearly 100% germination. Here in zone 7B I start seeds in mid-February and set them out a few weeks later; I plant a second crop in mid-March. Even in those years when the seedlings grow a little taller and are more root-bound than I’d prefer before setting them out, they grow quickly once they are in the ground.”
Pea weevils are one more pest that has challenged my sugar snap pea crop for the past several years. Fortunately, Linda Gilkeson has a solution:
You can sow peas every month through June to ensure fresh peas into October. I start my early plantings of peas in vermiculite indoors to avoid the main egg-laying period of pea leaf weevil, which is now common in my area (for damage, see: http://www.lindagilkeson.ca/root_feeders.html#74). The weevils have one generation a year and only lay their eggs in the spring. Peas planted later than mid-May after the egg laying period is done generally escape damage from the weevil larvae, which eat the nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots. Pea attacked by weevil larvae can’t make their own nitrogen, but still grow well if the soil is enriched with nitrogen sources, such as fish compost, blood meal, alfalfa meal, etc.
Following her advice, I’ve been planting my sugar snap peas as well as fava beans, later in the spring the past few years and think that I’ve had success discouraging pea weevils.
Happy spring vegetable gardening! Enjoy the warming and lengthening days. And remember:
Don’t be discouraged by pests. There are lots of clever ways to foil them.
Try succession planting. If you have the space and the time, make several short plantings every few weeks rather than one big planting only once.
Think about seed spacing and seedling thinning. With many vegetables, careful spacing and steady thinning give you a continuous supply of food. And if new seedlings are really crowded, be brave and thin them; they’ll thrive in a bigger space. Think of it as social distancing.