January 23, 2020

Resolving to Go Undercover


Pineo Photo - Floating row covers keep the squash, cucumber and melon plants safe from beetles in the author's 2011 garden.

• By Janine Pineo •

Resolutions are sort of like good intentions.

(I’m trying not to think of what they say about good intentions.)

I often intend to do something in the garden. Like: I intend to start a real compost pile and turn it regularly. Or: I intend to weed out the weeds in the bean patch before they grow giant seed heads and disperse thousands of seeds for next year’s weeds.

I have found intentions just don’t work for me. Intend is wishy-washy; resolve has purpose.

As I started to peruse my pile of favorite seed catalogs, I decided I wanted to have resolve.

Immediately doubt assailed me: Perhaps I’ll want too much. But I nipped that negativity in the bud. I resolve to plan ahead and perhaps tack this column to my pillow as a reminder.

I hereby resolve to:

Place my seed orders before March 1.

Most of the big ones, anyway. Better yet, make that as many as I can afford to mail by that date. Because if I don’t, then I can’t:

Start some seeds indoors in late March.

The best things I’ve ever started in the house were alpine strawberries and Munstead lavender plants. Both did exceptionally well, despite poor natural light (not my fault) and uneven watering (all my fault).

Once out in the garden, the alpine strawberries grew rapidly. Since their second summer, they have produced the most delicious strawberries I have ever eaten.

Most of the plants are in my perennial bed where their crisp leaves fill in around the bases of taller perennial flowers. They blossom all summer long — last year I was picking them into October — although the biggest crop is early in the season.

This year I discovered another alpine strawberry to add to my collection. Named Yellow Wonder, this variety offered by Pinetree Garden Seeds of New Gloucester is touted as having berries even sweeter than the reds.

I think I must taste these yellow berries to believe.

So I’ll sow a few strawberries, a pot or two or five or six of lavender because I only have eight mature plants and would like someday to replace the lawn with them, and a couple of tomatoes.

Ah, tomatoes.

I do not have good luck with tomatoes.

Whenever I’ve started them myself, they grow pathetically.

But I must try again because I have a hankering for Mini Pearls, a cocktail tomato that makes my favorite cherry tomato Sweet Million look like it’s on steroids. Mini Pearls is another offering from Pinetree, which says the fruit has the flavor of a full-size tomato and the plants can be grown in pots.

Since I’ll be organizing the seeds early for indoor planting, maybe it will prod me to remember to:

Plant peas and spinach outside in April.

This highly experimental undertaking has me a bit worried, especially since most years there’s still snow lingering around my yard in April.

Enter my two raised beds. They are my one chance for success if I want to have fresh greens in May and peas in June. The main vegetable garden is too soggy in April, but the raised beds drain like a sieve.

My desire to plant spinach in April stems from envy and common sense: I want an early crop and I figured out that I’ve been planting my spinach too late — or a hot spot from global warming has developed over my vegetable bed.

You see, my spinach bolts.

Every single time. Before I pick even one leaf. Little plant one day, seed head the next.

Spinach loves the cold, and April has that. May has been too warm to grow spinach well, so I figure it can’t hurt to plant early.

Perhaps I’ll be successful with Tyee, a spinach hybrid offered through Pinetree. The description of this green describes it as a fast grower and a slow bolter.

My kind of spinach.

It also said that the folks at Pinetree planted it April 19 and it didn’t start to bolt until June 23. With that time frame, it’ll be easy to eat all I sow and replant with something else for a late summer harvest.

I’ll have lots of time to replant in June if I remember to heed the most important lesson I learned last year. I must:

Cover my squash and cucumber plants with row covers.

Imagine my horror when I walked up the squash row and saw my little babies covered with cucumber beetles, their nasty little selves munching away, devouring leaves until only a papery skeleton was left.

Wretched beetles.

I had nothing but my hands to kill the cursed things, which was disgusting but it got the job done.

Every day I would head up to the garden to squash the bugs, and one afternoon I decided I needed a little help, which came in a spray bottle filled with hot pepper wax. One spritzing of this lasted for several days until it rained, but by then the plants had enough of a jump-start to withstand any attack of beetles.

My resolve for this spring is to rotate the squash and cucumber rows — not a simple task in a small garden — and cover the plants with floating row covers, something that should stop the bugs and make the plants grow faster because the covers trap the heat and warm the soil.

If the covers fail to stop the bugs (I keep having a nightmare of them bursting out of the ground and I haven’t dared find out whence beetles come), then I have an ominously big bottle of hot pepper wax at the ready.

If I should fail at any of my resolutions — here comes the disclaimer — I can say the fault rests with that time-honored culprit bedeviling every garden.

I’ll blame the weather.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in January 2000.

2012 Update: Janine still has a hard time growing spinach that won’t bolt, growing tomatoes from seed and ordering before all the good stuff is gone. However, she has got the row cover thing down pat. See above photo for proof.