Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Size Matters.

Posted on | June 5, 2014 | 4 Comments

I realize there are instructions on seed packets and information on the plastic plant stakes in veggie transplant trays.  But, really, who pays attention to that stuff?  The seeds are getting sown in whatever manner that they fall from my hand.  I’m not mixing them with sand (from where??) or putting them in a salt shaker or drilling individual holes with a stick.  I will cover shallow seeds with a toss of dirt from the shovel or push large seeds in with a  fingertip.  That’s about all the personal attention any seedlings get from this farmer.

After all, why do I need to sow the seeds in perfectly spaced rows?  I consider thinning seed beds that were oversown as a feed supplement to the animals in the barnyard.  The fat pony would never touch a large, dried up carrot or mealy over-sized radish when she was raised on tiny, sweet mini-carrots and spicy bits of radish roots.  Even we are accustomed to the delicate and fresh shoots of new seedlings.  Who wants a well-formed but boring head of lettuce when you can nosh on delicious snippets of loose leaf bibb and buttercrunch?

It’s the same thing with vegetable transplants.  The squash plants are going into the squash bed in the manner in which they will all fit.  Ditto the tomatoes, the peppers, the eggplant, etc.  Because is the writer of the plant stake going to come and add 3 feet to my raised bed to get the correct spacing?  No, he’s not. And until he arrives to haul down 2 wheelbarrows full of compost to add 3 feet to the row, the plants are just going to make due with the room available.

Besides, some of the seeds don’t germinate and some of the transplants die.  That’s Nature’s way of making appropriate spacing in the garden.  Who am I to argue with Mother Nature?  Not to mention that I’m bound to step in a soft, newly sprouted seed bed at least once while backing in the wheelbarrow or carrying a bale of straw or driving in a garden stake.  And even though I garden in flip flops, they are size 10 flip flops.  Size 10 takes out a lot of little seeds.  And if the transplants are a little too close for the plants to grow comfortably, try dragging the garden hose over them when you’re watering.  Severely crushed plants will wither and die and some will get torn out by the roots.  At the very least, limbs will get cracked off, ensuring no single plant branches out and takes up too much room.  This is called “pruning”  and all the professionals do it.  Probably.  Maybe.  Eh.

I also don’t buy the “plants need proper air circulation” argument for space requirements.  They’re outside!  How much more air do they need?  Some people will say that putting plants too close together provides lots of cover for harmful insects.  But the insects in my garden have no problem crossing open ground to nibble on the next plant in the row.  Besides the bugs are almost always found hiding on the underside of the leaves which means I don’t need adequate spacing as much as I need plants that can spin their leaves around like a Droll Yankees birdfeeder.   Of course, it’s true that the vegetables on the plants need enough access to sunshine to ripen, which is a good reason to keep them far enough apart.  Although experienced gardeners will advise you to keep their roots cool, which is a good reason to have the plants overlapping a bit.

So I tend to disregard guidelines about proper spacing and expected size of the vegetables that I grow in the garden.  I think that the people who created those guidelines are the same people who suggest getting a soil analysis to see what kind of nutrients are lacking in your garden and then trying to fix it.  Um, no.  There are enough things around here staring me in the face that need fixing.  Trees still leaning since the ice storm, nail pops in the ceiling, overflowing gutters, leaks in brooder room roof.  I’m not about to solicit complaints from the garden soil.  Oh, you want more phosphorus?  Out of  magnesium?  Well, I want a pedicure and I’m out of Chardonnay.  A little help?

I think those people also created the concept of “hardening off.”  This is the idea that you should escort young plants into the sun and warmth of spring gradually.  Take them out for a few hours each day and then tuck them back safely into your home or greenhouse to prevent shock or overexposure.  Do that for a couple weeks until the plants are properly adjusted to natural outdoor conditions.  Hah!  I will lock my own children outside for the entire day just so I don’t have to listen to them begging to play Wii.  I’m certainly not worried about shocking or overexposing a bunch of transplants.  Who wants a bunch of fragile plants anyway?  When the weak ones dies, it just makes more room for the strong ones (see the Mother Nature theory above).

For many years this gardening method has served me very well.  So I’m not sure exactly what went wrong this year.  Or, I guess, what went right.  Because nothing died.  Nothing withered.  Everything survived being trampled by size 10 flip flops or being garroted with the garden hose.  The seedlings didn’t mind that I failed to apply the fish emulsion because every time I opened the bottle I remembered how awful that stuff smells and saved that job for another day.  Another day which never came.  The transplants survived being buried in compost that was still so hot it was steaming as I dumped it onto the raised beds and so wet I moved it by pitchfork because a shovelful was too heavy to lift.

Anyway, the spacing seemed completely reasonable when I planted.  Oh, look at the adorable little squash and zucchini.


That’s 2 rows of squash and zucchini separated by what used to be a path.  I forcibly mow the path each week, snapping off leaves and grinding up runners.  The.  Plants. Don’t.  Care.  Their growth cannot be stopped.

The potatoes should be slowed down by the last few weeks of heat.  Every afternoon I expect them to be withered and ready to harvest. Instead, they have gobbled up 3 bales of straw and are still growing.  The potato patch is now so high that it’s trying to shade the cucumbers.

But the cucumbers refused to be deprived and are climbing for the sun at an astounding rate.

And although the cucumber trellis should hold, there’s a problem with the winter squash.  Big helped me carry a 16′ X 4′ cattle panel to the garden for the vining varieties.  It’s working perfectly, but the Burgess buttercup and Cocozelle are already reaching the top of the 4′ panel.

Which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the row.  Since I got lazy after Big left and hauled down a couple 3′ cattle panels for the acorn and butternut squash.  They’re about to swallow that trellis whole.

Of course, they’re better off than the tomatillo plants.  Oh, the cute little tomatillo plants that I grew from seed.

When I realized that the tomatillo plants were going to grow tall, I tried staking them to some of those skinny, flimsy, green 15″ plant supports.  When I realized they were going to keep growing tall and then branch out and try to fall over, I settled for tying the stems together around the supports.  It should hold.  Probably.  Maybe.  Eh.

The fact that the veggies are outgrowing what I considered to be a reasonable amount of space makes me worried about the fall tomatoes.  I knew 8″ apart wasn’t enough for the beefsteak varieties….

….and certainly not enough for the bushy cherry tomatoes.

But how could I know that every plant of every variety would live?  That everything would grow to its maximum size?  Who would expect a Sugar Baby Bush watermelon plant to spread out 4-5′ wide, wrapping itself in the other “bush” watermelons planted a couple feet away?  Is that really “bushy” behavior??  I think not.

Even the ornamentals are out of control.  Nasturtium is supposed to be an excellent companion plant in the garden.  So why is it trying to choke out the peppers?  That’s not very companionable.

It’s not even afraid to take on the giant zucchinis!

The comfrey has to be cut back almost daily to keep it from blocking any and all sunshine to the lamb’s ear.

And the zinnias, well, the zinnias might be a bit overwhelming by bloom time.  But at least they’re so close together that they should support each other.  No staking needed.

Sometimes I stand in the garden, searching for my pitchfork that I set down and then lost in the canopy of leaves, restaking trellises threatening to topple, forcing my way down paths choked with vines or branches and wonder about all those gardening guidelines.  The size approximations and spacing suggestions.  Huh.  Size really does matter.  Who knew?


4 Responses to “Size Matters.”

  1. Andy
    June 5th, 2014 @ 7:42 pm

    Plenty of sunlight and a ready supply of fresh manure, that’s why you don’t need the fish emulsion (but if you’re not going to use it, may I have some for my sun-deprived, less s**t-enriched garden?).

  2. April S
    June 6th, 2014 @ 10:11 am

    lol – your theory on gardening is very similar to mine. Might I suggest you add a mischievous goat to the mix? Mine loves to help – he just trimmed the strawberries that were threatening to spread to another row in my pallet garden (and surely would have caused stains on the kids’ clothes with the juice of the lovely berries they were about to set) down to nibs. He even managed to pull one clump out by the roots to more effectively thin them out. Oh – he likes broccoli too – have any of that? 😉

  3. Dawn Bowden
    June 7th, 2014 @ 9:32 pm

    Loved your post. Thanks for keeping it real!

  4. Michelle
    June 10th, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

    I find land and plants to be very forgiving, if you have good compost and good water. 🙂 I transplanted my seedlings a billion times because I started in small containers (I had a small area to plant indide), and they obviously quickly outgrew those, then I ran out of appropriately sized containers… so they hodgepodged into anything possible and into the garden way too early, and won’t you know, I hardly lost a plant and my peas that I transplanted are almost ready to pick and I’ve been eating salad for months! Woohoo, glad I didn’t listen to the people who said my plants can’t take stress! 🙂

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