Growing into a Homestead: Getting Spring Started Early

Aren’t we dreaming of getting into the garden. . .? It’s mid-March, and it’s a frigid, rainy day. The state of Ohio is soaking wet, the back yard is squishy with mud, and a sharp wind has scattered empty plastic garden containers all over the lawn. It’s just too soon to climb into our Wellies and start digging.

But I dream of turning my new backyard, already beautiful, into my own little homestead.

I long to make Caprese from chopped basil and sliced Roma tomatoes from my garden. I’d be transported back to Italy, where adventure abounds.

Jalapeño peppers, banana peppers, bell peppers, and ghost peppers will take over one corner of the garden. I’ll raise more peppers than I’d ever eat – I won’t touch the bell peppers, no matter if they are green, red, yellow, or orange. But they are hearty, which is satisfying to a novice gardener, and the host of peppers reminds me of time spent in Albuquerque, Tijuana, Costa Rica, and California.

My backyard garden will require tending, which will mean a commitment and an investment, of time, energy, and finances. In the end – or somewhere along the way – it will become my homestead.

I won’t go so far as to raise chickens – that’s a lot of work! But I’m “at home” in my new neighborhood. I have already found a source of organic, free range eggs in a neighbor just across the street. In this moment, home is where I want to be.

But I’m ready for raised beds, dirt under my fingernails, and grow lights to get things started.

You see, on a snowy day in February I decided I was not waiting for spring to bring its warm temperatures, sunlight, and rich soil. I wanted to smell dirt! I wanted to watch things grow. I wanted to try something new, go on an adventure. So, I thought, let’s go!

I knew it would take a bit of shopping, with repeated visits to Menards, Lowe’s, and Oakland Nursery, to really get going. Renting property for about the last decade had turned me into a container gardener, so I had plenty of those, but I longed for a more productive, prolific garden space.

A small 4-tiered mini-greenhouse was already taking up residence in the basement of my Sharon Township Cape Cod-style home. On the second floor, I work from home in a spacious, but tidy, home office, painted in cool grey tones, with white trim and gauzy, sheer white curtains that I looked forward to seeing blowing in the breeze that would push through a just opened window. But my mind was two floors down, wondering what I might grow in that little greenhouse. What was possible, if I invested in grow lights, fans to circulate the air, a gadget to gauge the temperature and humidity, and large trays filled with potting soil?

“When it comes to architecture, Cape Cod house style is as all-American as a fresh slice of apple pie.

Dating back to New England during the 17th century, this classic style proves that keeping it simple is anything but boring. In fact, it’s not too hard to see how Cape Cod homes have deftly surpassed the test of time.”

Homes & Gardens: The Best in Design, Decoration and Style

Over the years I’d been intimidated by the idea of growing plants from seed. My only experience was from elementary school projects that routinely kicked off spring in the Midwest. Individual seeds were pushed into moist dirt, housed in Styrofoam cups that we spritzed with water daily, until little sprouts pushed up to the surface. (It was the late 1970s; grownups might have known how terrible Styrofoam is for the environment, but I certainly didn’t. I hadn’t yet developed the skills (or morals) to object.)

Those fragile individual plants eventually made the perilous trip home, in the hands of a 2nd grader, after we’d moved on to the next science lesson. I’d promptly neglected the little plant, which dried up and never amounted to something that could be planted outside or bear fruit. Since many sprouts look the same, to the eyes of a child, I couldn’t even tell you what we were attempting to grow, since we never got very far.

So, as a young adult and into middle age I’d strolled into the garden center each May and purchased small plants that had already been established, by a professional gardener working in controlled conditions with sophisticated equipment and knowledge to spare. All I had to do was get them into a pot and keep them watered.

This year I’d do things differently.

Along the way, I’d learned about finding the best location for each established plant, reading the little plastic tag that came with it, to choose a more or less sunny spot.

What did a plant need when you started it from seed? How long did it take plants to germinate? Did I really understand what germination entails, how the tiny seeds “come to life,” or what the ideal climate was? Luckily there is plenty of information on the back of the seed packets! I had some gardening books, so it seemed like the right time to crack them open. And there’s always YouTube.

Within a few days the radishes were sprouting, followed by the beets, with the jalapenos trailing behind. I let some grow in clusters, thinking I’d eat the sprouts as a garnish to my spring salads. Others I carefully nurtured, as individual plants, weeding away the competition of secondary and tertiary sprouts.

Slide the arrow, in the image above, to see more or less of these young shoots.

To the Thawing Wind:

Come with rain, O loud Southwester!

Bring the singer, bring the nester;

Give the buried flower a dream;

Make the settled snowbank steam

~ Robert Frost

I won’t pretend to know a lot about the grow lights. There are several small, independent indoor gardening centers in my small patch of Columbus. I suspect the supplies sold there are used to grow more than vegetables, but the gardeners seem invested, and were quite eager to help educate me.

The setup I ended up with was just enough, and the plants seemed to like it. A few weeks in it occurred to me that “in the wild” the plants don’t get 24 hours of sunlight each day. Perhaps I should be shutting the lights off at night. . . . there were a lot more YouTube videos for me to watch.

But I got my fix! My basement now smells like dirt; the scent hits you as you get about 1/2 way down the open basement stairs. I quickly learned: (a) I’m not actually going to need 36 tomato plants, if they all survive, (b) I’d need more dirt, and larger pots, to upgrade the small plants into – I’d started early – too early to think of getting the plants directly into the Ohio ground as soon as they were ready, and (c) this is a lot of fun!

The plants become like pets; I’m eager to check on them each morning, to see how they have changed overnight. I want to ensure they have all the nutrients and water they need; I may have gone overboard with the water at first, but the plants seem to have recovered and established stable roots, once I backed off on watering them every day.

Now I’m dreaming of cutting into the first fruit produced from a plant I started from seed! I don’t want to get ahead of myself though – I need to keep them alive a few more weeks, and prep the outdoor beds, before I can safely move them outside. Transplanting should be fairly easy; the step-up, slightly larger pots they are now in are biodegradable, and can be planted directly into the ground with my small plants.

We have a long way to go, my plants and me!

But it really feels like we’re on an adventure together.

I’ve signed up for my yearly, full-season CSA box (Community Supported Agriculture), so I’ll be getting locally grown fruits and vegetables delivered to my front door, through the summer and into fall. Maybe next year, with a little more learning and investment, I won’t need that delivery.

Okay, maybe in a few years, with a lot more learning and a smidge more investment, I won’t need that delivery. For now, I’ll keep planting! The output, from my garden or the CSA, will taste clean and fresh. I’ll make my Caprese, from local tomatoes and basil, and be transported back to Italy. Peppers, hot and mild, will expand my ingredient list, and I’ll try out some of those recipes in the cookbook I brought back from New Mexico.

Join me on my next adventure,

~ Kat

Related Links:


Indoor Gardens:

Oakland Nursery:

New Century CSA:

26 Beautiful and Inspiring Spring Poems for the Classroom:

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