Spring Fever- How to Choose a Plant
Spring fever really can be a problem. You go to the nursery and want them all! As I prepare for Ampersand’s Fundraiser Plant Sale on May 6th, I find myself assessing how well I have done with each species. I’ve really tried my best to plant each seed at the right time and give them the right growing conditions. Each variety of plant needs it’s own kind of care to be at the perfect stage for transplanting in your garden. Officially we plan to wait till May 15th to avoid danger of frost, but after having had a late winter storm yesterday and a warm spring day today, I’m wondering if we can get the frost sensitive plants in the garden a bit earlier. Often we can, especially if we are prepared to cover them at night if we get a stray frost.
I’m growing over 40 different varieties of seedlings. Sadly, I don’t have the garden space to even plant one of each to see it reach maturity, so I’m counting on my babies going to good homes. This post is dedicated to sharing with you a few important factors that go into seedling selection for your garden, whether you get them from me or someone else.
The first one is the plant variety. Gardeners like me get a bit crazy with the seed catalogs in January. I love befriending new food plants that are native to or grow well in the Southwest US. So I have ended up with some enchanting oddballs like Tarahumara Chia and Desert Huckleberry or Chichiquelites. When I find an heirloom variety that has been grown for generations within 100 miles or so of my location, I’m all over it. Which is why I have Santo Domingo Ceremonial Tobacco and Corrales Azafran (used as a dye, a saffron substitute, and for dry flower arrangements).
But I know most of you are eyeing my tomatoes and basil. I’m excited to offer seven different varieties of tomatoes, most of them specifically chosen for their ability to grow well in our desert climate and produce fruit before you give up on them. I also offer five varieties of Basil so you will never get bored with pesto. Both of these summer faves need a head start in the greenhouse, so knowing what to look for in a seedling is important. Many tomatoes need a long growing season so you want to get plants that are ready to produce tomatoes as soon as the soil temperature in your garden allows. If they are grown too close together in the nursery they may get spindly stems to compete for light. Ideally they will have some experience with wind before you purchase them. A leggy weak-stemmed tomato plant is a sorry sight being battered in your garden by the Spring winds of New Mexico. Look for side shoots emerging from the nodes in the body of your plant. Those will produce a full sturdy plant that will be prepared to produce many flowers early on. You want a nice squat basil plant as well. Those full top leaves are hypnotizing but remember to look for those little leaves sprouting from the stem to know they are ready to make lots of leaves for your pesto!
Now this is not a nice thing to do while you are selecting plants in the nursery (at least not while anyone is looking) but the roots of your plant really should be fully grown through the soil. The soil should hold together when you remove the plant from it’s pot. When it gets put in the garden, the roots will be happy to spread into the surrounding moist soil. A root-bound plant will look all knotted up with roots winding around the shape of the pot. The root mass will need some extra massaging (maybe even a bit of tearing) to loosen the root structure before planting.
The plants do look really sweet with flowers on them. But keep in mind that the transplanting process can be traumatic. Many gardeners pick off the flowers and buds (even small fruits sometimes) when transplanting to allow the plant to focus on establishing it’s root structure right away. When the plant feels comfortable in it’s new environment it will be ready to fully focus on making the flowers and fruits you so want. We manipulate the lives of our little plant friends so much. It feels good to respect their process and allow them to focus on building a good foundation before expecting so much production out of them.
While I’ve been growing vegetables and seedlings for 25 years or so, this is my first time utilizing my three current greenhouse spaces to full capacity. I’ve found they have different qualities that complement each other quite well to provide the various habitats I need. All spring I’ve had seeds starting in flats that need constant warmth and moisture, newly transplanted seedlings that need at least partial shade, and potted starts that may need different amounts of sun and space. Sometimes I’ll locate smaller plants in warmer places to speed up growth, or bigger plants in cooler places to slow it down. I find myself rearranging the babies nearly every day- within and between the greenhouses.
Sure, I’m showing you all my favorite seedlings. Since you have read this far, I’ll reward you with one of Ampersand’s dirty little secrets. Look at this kale plant. Here’s an example of a seedling past it’s prime. It’s got a yellowing leaf and roots hanging out the bottom. It was perfect during the April 2nd plant sale but they didn’t all find new homes. Looks like there is not enough drainage in the tray that is holding the pots and that’s why the roots have started exploring. I would have been happy to have sold them all in April. But I also think there will be gardeners happy to buy them in May. Kale is so resilient, with a little root massage this plant will start producing abundant leaves once you get it in your garden.
Or maybe you would rather plant a more drought tolerant green like Chamisal Quelites Verdes or Purple Mountain Spinach. These readily reseed in your garden (and sometimes even in your driveway) to provide tender greens much of the year.
I recently showed a nursery expert friend my growing scene. Everywhere is overflowing with plants. When I postulated that in the next years I might be able to match my supply with the needs of local gardeners, she said “Well that would be amazing, because no one else can!” Thanks, that made me feel better. Meanwhile, come get my plants on May 6th outside the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, New Mexico. 10am to 3pm.
Here’s the full list of plants I’m offering:
Tomato Varieties: Flamenco, Yellow Pear, Marvel Striped, Stupice, Ace 55, Yellow Perfection, Punta Banda
Peppers and Chilies: Early Jalapeno, Padron, Shishito, Anaheim
Tomatillo: Verde, De Milpa (purple)
Herbs: Tarahumara Chia, Sweet Marjoram, Flat Leaf and Moss Curled Parsley, Epazote, Sorrel, Corrales Azafran, Santo Domingo Ceremonial Tobacco, Catnip
Di Cicco Broccoli and Wakefield Early Cabbage and Tohono O’odham Iítoi Bunching Onion
Squash: Chimayo Calabaza, Navajo Cushaw ‘Tail Squash’
Greens: Chamisal Quelites Verdes, Purple Mountain Spinach, Red Russian Kale, Chichiquelite (or Garden Huckleberry), Southern Giant Curled Mustard, Tatsoi, Rainbow Chard
Flowers: Cosmos, Calendula, Corrales Azafran, Edible Viola (Johnny-Jump-Up), Shungiku Edible Chrysanthemum
Basil: Lettuce Leaf, Genovese, Sweet Italian, Anise, Lemon
And here’s my latest video showing the greenhouses and many of these plant varieties!
Written by Amanda Bramble