Many moons ago, when Mrs. Butcher first suggested we start gardening, one of the biggest objections that I had was that I didn’t want to spend every day of the Spring and Summer pulling weeds. I’d done enough of that shit when I was a kid in my mother’s Very Large Garden to last me a lifetime, thank you very much. She told me that it was possible to garden without spending all that time pulling weeds. I didn’t believe her, but I also know that the only way to disprove a system is to adopt it. So, because she knew I needed to be led very gently into this venture, we just did a few tomatoes and peppers the first year. I was so amazed at the result that the next year I agreed to have a much larger garden…and the rest is history.
The way that we were able to enjoy our garden that first year, rather than see it as a never-ending drudgery of weed-pulling, was through the use of grass mulch. Mulching in this way does three things: it keeps weeds down to the point of being manageable, it keeps the ground cool and moist, and—as the grass breaks down—it fertilizes the soil. We’ve found that the ideal ratio of grass-to-garden is about 80:20. In other words, if your garden takes up roughly 20% of your available land, then having the other 80% available for mowing will give you enough mulch to work with throughout the growing season. Now, the plot of our current home is incredibly small, and it’s built on a hill, so we don’t have nearly enough grass space to cover all of the garden beds—which means that I also mow the lawns for our neighbors on either side of the house to get what we need. It’s a nice, symbiotic, relationship. They don’t have to mow their lawns, and we get the right amount of grass mulch. We also share some of our bounty with them each year as an additional thank you, just like we do with the folks down the street who provide us with their horse manure.
Even with 80:20 ratio however, it’s still not enough to cover everything with the appropriate depth in one shot—especially now that we’ve added the strawberry bed. But we get enough to be able to cover everything in a four-week rotation so that the mulch doesn’t pile up too much, or break down too fast, before we refresh it. The thickness of the mulch is very important. We’ve found that an ideal depth is about 1 ½ inches, which is thick enough to keep the weeds down and the ground cool and moist, but not so thick that it starts to mold. Our first mowing was done on May 1st and I was able to cover the asparagus and strawberry beds.
The next mowing from the following week was enough to cover the onions and garlic as you can see in the header image.
Does this keep 100% of the weeds down? No, it does not. There is still some weed pulling that needs to be done, but it very manageable—no more than probably 15 minutes worth a week as long as I stay on top of it. Trust me, that is a huge improvement over what I was doing as a kid, watching my summers pass me by while getting sunburned on my knees in my mother’s garden.
It’s also time to work on the second phase of hardening off our new plants, which is doing the first transplant into larger pots. All of the seeds were started in very small pots (or even smaller plastic cups with little holes drilled in the bottom), and now they are large enough that they need to be moved into larger pots before they get too root bound and stop growing. I’ve got two trays to work with: one tray of eggplants and another tray of peppers. The pictures here will show the pepper plants because the difference between before and after is more noticeable.
I’ve got a tray filled with jalapeños, green chiles, bells and sweet red peppers (called Escamillo after the male lead in the opera “Carmen”). When I’m done, I’ll have two trays of peppers.
These little pots are 3 ¼” tall and 2” square. I’ll be transplanting the peppers into pots that are 5” tall and 3” square which will give them plenty of room before the final transplanting into the garden at the end of May. The process for transplanting is pretty basic but does require some care as these plants are still quite fragile. The first thing I do is trim off the starter leaves from the stem. These leaves will eventually die off anyway as more of the secondary and adult leaves grow, so by trimming them now I’m achieving two goals: the stimulation of more leaf growth and I have more stem to bury in the new soil. It’s important to use scissors or some other clipping instrument—rather than just using my fingers to pinch them off—because I don’t want to risk stripping the outside of the stem off the plant as I’m removing the starter leaves.
Next, I give the pots a few good squeezes to loosen the soil away from the sides of the pot. It’s important, before transplanting, that I make sure the soil in these pots is still fairly moist, but not completely soaked. Peppers, generally speaking, like drier soils, but if the soil is too dry when transplanting, then it will just completely fall apart and expose the plant roots which will make it very difficult to recover and generally results in a dead plant. So, I want the soil to be moist enough to hold together when I’m doing this. Sometimes, depending on how well developed the root systems are, I may also need to stick a thin instrument, like a table knife, down the sides of the pot and scrape inward along the bottom of the pot a bit to break the roots free from the bottom of the pot.
Then I turn the pot over, cupping the plant between two fingers, and give the bottom of the pot a couple of sharp raps to pop the soil loose. Next, I turn the plant over and cup the soil in my fingers while lowering it into the larger pot. Then I start filling the pot with fresh soil all the way up to the leaf line. I usually have to gently lean the plant this way and that so it doesn’t get buried under the soil as I’m adding it to the pot. As I’m adding the soil, I give the pot a good shake to even everything out.
Burying the plant all the way to the leaf line accomplishes two things: it allows for more root hairs to sprout out of the now-buried stem, and it gives the plant a solid foundation for strength in its growth. This is particularly helpful if your plants are a bit on the leggy side and are in danger of falling over and/or snapping at the stem.
By the time it’s all over, I went from two trays of eggplants and peppers to four trays. Then I poured about an inch of water in the bottom of the trays so it can be absorbed into the soil from the root side. This allows the soil itself to firm up evenly within the pot. If I had poured the water over the top, the soil would have moved all over the place and created weak spots which wouldn’t give the plant the sturdy foundation it will need for the final stage of hardening off.
Back under the grow lights they go. I won’t run the fan for a few days so they can get settled in their new homes and so they can grow enough to actually make using the fan worthwhile.
Finally, I pulled the domes off of the strawberry plants a couple of weeks ago because they were getting too tall for the domes. I’ve been pinching off blossoms roughly once a week to encourage root and plant growth. So far so good.