Pittsburgh winters are fickle beasts. More and more often we are stuck with a warm November, recently sliding into December, that sees very little snow contributing to a White Christmas. January typically sees freezing cold, and surprise snow one day will be followed by weather just warm enough to melt the snow, turning it into a gray icy mess.
This year, we skipped a lot of the second part of winter that can wear you down, chilling you to the core with sub zero temperatures. It was cold, it was winter, but we also had a lot of days warmer than 50 degrees before we even got to March. All of this is a long winded way of getting to a hard question for someone eager to get planting in the garden: when to start seeds?
We are officially in Zone 6 in Pittsburgh, and our last frost date is supposed to range from mid April until mid May, depending on which source you ask. Ever the optimist, or maybe just eager-ist, I go by the earliest date provided and sometimes roll back even further from that.
Past gardens have been successful, but we have a larger yard and a more permanent mindset that is fostering a desire for both more consistent production, as well as a longer season of fresh foods. Having tried some succession planting in the past, I picked up a few books to push this idea even further. I would highly recommend Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest. Full of wonderful ideas, charts and theory behind rotating crops, successive plantings, and crop variety, the goal is to push your garden to a year round bounty. Additionally, his farm is based in Maine, so it provided some practical cold world information that a majority of fair weather gardening blogs and books do not deal with.
In front of southern facing windows, on top of a radiator, we now have seedlings for a whole host of edibles, and a few flowers, some of which were started over 4 weeks ago, at the end of February. There are the regulars: tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, radishes. We are also trying a few new things this year: rhubarb, chard, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as a reach goal of growing artichokes.
As March draws to a close, we are now facing a long stretch of warm weather, with not a single low dropping below freezing. In fact, frost appears to be so remote of a threat, I took it as an opportunity to finish construction on our raised beds and begin sowing a few direct seed outdoor crops. Focusing on cold hardy plants, we now have carrots and beets in one of the root vegetable beds. These beds are the typical mix of compost/soil/peat moss, but also have a bag of sand mixed in to loosen the soil and allow for bigger produce than what our compact earth would otherwise generate.
Some peas and radishes were also planted, with room left for successive crops to follow in the coming weeks, which was also done with the carrots and beets. A few rows of greens, spinach, arugula and a few lettuces, also went into the coldhouse (more on that another time…). Most of our herbs will likely be bought as existing plants, having had much trouble cultivating from seed in the past. One of the few being tried from seed this year is Cilantro, mainly for allowing better staggering of plantings, so we can have fresh all spring/summer/fall.
Over the next few weeks, as we inch closer to certain frost free territory, more seeds will go into the ground, and the seedlings will work their way outside to harden and eventually transplant. The previous flower beds were lined with plastic, which is now in bad shape, and need to be totally reworked before planting there. Fortunately a lot of flower seedlings want much warmer soils, so we still have weeks to work with there.