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spring crop

Squash seedlings from a Home Kitchen Garden

My squash seedlings grew to this size in their starter pots, and then slowed way down. By the time I planted them in the garden three weeks later, each had added no more than two inches of stem and another leaf; they looked very sad.

In May, it was apparent that my home kitchen garden’s spring crops would not mature on time. By “on time” I mean “on my time;” I have no illusions that plants growing outdoors are going to follow my schedule. Still, for the sake of comparison, in 2008 my garden put out its last load of peas in mid June. This year, the plants continued producing till the third week of July… and even as the vines were dying, cool weather coaxed a burst of flowering.

To prepare for this year’s late transition from spring crops to summer crops, I started squash seeds under lights on my ping pong table. These, I captured in a time lapse video as they popped out of the soil, and I posted it in blog entry titled, Squash Babies for my Home Kitchen Garden.

Slow Grow

By early June, my squash babies were ready to move into the garden, but the spring crops weren’t even close to done. I didn’t want to “pot up” the squash seedlings (transplant them into larger pots) because I’d run out of large peat pots and my gardening budget was stressed. So, my squash babies sat in their infant-sized pots and yearned for greater things.

And there they sat, and sat, and sat.

When a plant spends too much time in small pot, it feels stress. Roots grow into any open space they can find without actually growing up out of the soil. Eventually, there are so many roots in the pot that they quickly suck all the nutrition out of the soil. Most plants shut down; they don’t die, they just stop growing… or they grow very slowly.

By May 10 (left), sprouts in my Home Kitchen Garden were pathetic. I had planted much of this in March, yet lettuce and spinach weren’t yet ready for thinning. Fully 20 days later (right), I was finally making salads from thinned lettuce plants and young spinach leaves… but I had harvested only three pods of peas. I had no doubt by May 30th that there would be no space for squash plants until July.

Hardening Down

What is most problematical is that pot-bound plants continue to mature… even when they put on virtually no new growth. For most plants, this maturation includes what I call “hardening down” (forgive me if there’s a horticultural term for this that I ought to know). When a plant hardens down, it strengthens the distinction between the root system and the above-ground stem.

For many types of trees, hardening down is obvious as the bark turns from smooth to rough and it eventually develops deep furrows. For garden vegetables, hardening down produces similar textural changes in the stem. The surface of the stem nearest the soil becomes woody and it eventually stops thickening. Some plants produce flower buds even though they’ve grown only a few small leaves.

Once a plant hardens down, the hardened stem will not thicken—or will thicken only a little when the plant reawakens… if the plant reawakens. And that brings me back to the transition from spring crops to summer crops.

A Home Kitchen Garden Seasonal Transition

My sad little winter squash seedlings were hardening down, and my pea plants hadn’t yet produced peas! A vaguely unfortunate turn of events provided a partial solution: My spinach plants met an abrupt and unexpected end.

I had planted only four feet of a row with two types of spinach. The plants took forever to grow big enough for harvest, and after providing for only two salads, half the plants wilted and died. I guessed a plant disease or insect was involved, but the wilting death didn’t spread to the other half row of plants. Then, about seven days and two more salads later, the remaining spinach plants bolted. In early July, I pulled the spinach plants, turned over soil in the row, and planted two of my squash pots just three feet apart.

On July 14 (left), the pea plants (center three rows) showed a lot of brown; there were still pea flowers and forming pods, but there would be only an occasional handful of pods had I let them alone. So, on July 15 (right), I removed the trellises, the pea plants, and the weeds. I left in place some volunteer tomato plants, cilantro, and dill weed. Squash plants in the front-left of the photos were well-established after nearly three weeks in the garden. Other squash plants, nearly invisible near the top of the photo, started far more slowly I think because their roots have been too wet.

At the opposite side of the garden, I planted another squash pot snuggled between two rows of peas. A week later I planted the last squash pot between adjacent rows of peas. I figured to spend the next month stepping over those plants to pick peas… but I also figured the squash plants would stretch their roots and break out of their pot-bound stupor.

This morning, the squash in my Home Kitchen Garden fills fully one third of the space where peas grew just two and a half weeks ago. Even the slow-starters at the far side of the garden are waking up. Things are very crowded what with the volunteer tomatoes and herbs, but the plants don’t seem to mind. Already, the squash have set at least a dozen fruits, and there are many fruiting buds preparing to blossom.

Summer Crops Prevail

It was a short month; we had some heat in July that cooked the pea plants. On July 15th I removed the pea trellises and the plants, and I pulled the weeds that had grown from the exposed soil along the pea rows. I worked around four volunteer tomato plants and a few volunteer herb plants. In the two weeks since, the squash plants I had placed in the vacated spinach row have exploded outward in all directions.

As the vines have lengthened, I’ve trained them toward the newly-opened space. They obviously have overcome being pot bound, and are already setting fruit. It’s clear that four plants from the first two squash pots will completely fill the space the pea plants had occupied.

Clearly, starting the squash in pots gained two or three weeks on the summer growing season. This means extra days for the plants to produce squash before frost shuts them down. Even if we don’t have wacky spring weather, you can bet I’ll start my squash in pots early in coming seasons.

 

 

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