A-Z Gardening in Zone 3-4

For the organic gardner struggling in the short season climate


Old Timey Planting Guides


In years gone by people planted their crops according to the cycle of the moon, sun and other visual signs. Here are a few of the signs they observed when planting.

Corn and Beans.

Plant corn and beans when elm leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear, when oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear, when apple blossoms begin to fall, or when dogwoods are in full bloom.

Lettuce, spinach and cole crops.

Plant lettuce, spinach seeds in the garden and  broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, pac choi, Chinese cabbage etc. seedlings  in the garden, when the lilacs show their first leaves or when daffodils begin to bloom.  See also post,  “Of Cabbages and Kings”.

Tomatoes, early corn, peppers.

Plant tomatoes and peppers plants and early corn, when dogwoods are in peak bloom or when day lilies start to bloom.  See also post, “Tomatoes and Peppers”, on page 2.

Cucumbers and squash.

Plant cucumbers and squash seedlings when lilac flowers fade. See also post, “Squash Anyone?”.


Plant potatoes when the first dandelion blooms. See also post, “One potato, Two Potato”.

Beets and carrots.

Plant beets and carrots when dandelions are blooming.


Plant peas when the forsythia blooms, when daffodils begin to bloom or on Good Friday.  See also post, “Peas Please”.

This information gleaned from “The Old Farmers Almanac” and the University of Wisconsin Extension.

Beware,  sudden prolonged warmer than usual weather may cause apples, other fruits and plants to soften early so that they will blossom and then get caught by a frost, which could cause the above signs to be off by a few weeks or more.   Such a hot spell forced my apples and blueberries to bloom too soon last year and they produced little if  any fruit.

A truism in zone 3-4 is never plant your tomatoes or other tender crops before  May 30th, no matter how warm it has been.  More that a few neighbors have not heeded this warning and have lost their tomatoes and tender plants and had to start over again.


Freezing and canning your garden produce

Linda and I have been very busy these past few weeks harvesting and processing our garden bounty.  So far we have frozen numerous pints and quarts of peas, green and yellow string beans, broccoli, cauliflower, and water bath canned 7 quarts of tomatoes.  We harvested and dried our garlic and soon we will be pulling up our onions and drying them and storing both in our cool dark basements.

The peas finished producing in the middle of July.  The string beans have stopped producing enough to freeze, but we can still find enough to have with a meal or eat raw.  Broccoli has just about stopped producing and the cauliflower may have enough for one more round of freezing.  The tomatoes have been producing for a few weeks now.  Last week we had enough to can 14 quarts and after a look in the greenhouse this morning we have another batch to do this week.  So far we have 21 quarts of tomatoes.

The Stripped German tomatoes have been producing very large tomatoes.  Yesterday I harvested about 15 huge tomatoes, they have been producing steadily for weeks now but yesterday’s haul was the most at one time.  We are giving away and eating as many as we can because you cannot water bath can Stripped German tomatoes safely because they do not have a high enough acid content.  Linda and I have been stuffing ourselves with bacon and tomato sandwiches, our favorite way to eat them.  It really is a shame that you can’t keep tomatoes like apples so you can enjoy them over a longer period of time.

The new fiberglass roof on the greenhouse has made a big difference in the amount and size of peppers and tomatoes we have grown this year.  The old fiberglass roof had darkened due to the fiberglass fibers being exposed to the elements because of erosion of the protective layer and mold discoloring it.

Soon we will be freezing corn and digging up our potatoes for storage in the root cellar and the last crop to be harvested will be winter squash and pumpkins, which we store in our cool basements.

This year we have very few apples and blueberries, probably due to a very warm spell in April that started the trees and bushes blooming followed by a very cold spell.  Cool and rainy weather keep the bees from pollinating the them.  There might be a shortage of honey bees but I have noticed a big increase in the  number of bumble bees in my apple trees and blueberries this spring.


Planting In The Greenhouse

Over Memorial Day weekend Linda came over with her two daughters, Theresa and Elaine, and Elaine’s husband Dan, to plant tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse. It was a perfect day to work in the greenhouse, it was cloudy and cool. You don’t want to have to work in the greenhouse for very long on a sunny day. Linda had planted cucumber seeds in the greenhouse the week before. The cucumbers are just emerging now and will soon climb up on the netting we hung from the greenhouse roof. As the cucumbers grow, we thread them in and out of the netting so that the plants can get a good grip on the netting and won’t fall down due to the weight of the cucumber growing on them. We also put down black plastic mulch to keep the weeds down, yes we have weeds in the greenhouse, and to keep the moisture in the soil. In order to get a jump on the season we started our summer and winter squash in pots a few weeks ago. we keep the pots between the cucumber rows until we can safely put them outside in the garden.

We have been planting the tomatoes in red plastic mulch for many years now. The red-colored mulch actually reflects infrared light wavelength upward into your plants, stimulation more rapid growth and development, according to the US Dept. of Agriculture, which developed the red mulch. You can buy Red Tomato Mulch form Gardener’s Supply Company, A.M.Leonard’s Gardeners Edge and Charley’s Greenhouse & Garden.

Slugs and pill bugs are the two pests we have to deal with in our greenhouse. I put down diatomaceous earth and escar-Go and I also try to capture a big fat toad to put in the greenhouse for the season. Toads really enjoy the greenhouse once it gets growing good.

We haven’t had a problem with white flies for many years now. White flies live in greenhouse environments and to get them you have to bring them in from another greenhouse, at least here in the frozen north. The best way to get rid of them with Catch-It-Traps, you can get from Charley’s Greenhouse & Garden.

We use drip irrigation to water everything growing in the greenhouse in order to saves time and water. I have found that watering twice a week, on Wednesday and Sunday evening, for one hour works well for us. See a past post, “The Greenhouse“.

Peppers in the greenhouse

Cucumbers in the greenghouse


The Greenhouse

Tomato and pepper seedlings on shelf in greenhouse.

Potting bench in greenhouse.

West view of greenhouse.

South west view of greenhouse.

South east view of greenhouse.

West view of greenhouse.

South facing view of greenhouse.

These are pictures of the greenhouse in spring. Our greenhouse is really a garden under glass as we plant tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers into the ground rather than on benches like traditional greenhouses. MY late husband John built a smaller version of the existing greenhouse about 35 years ago when we realized that the season was too short for tomatoes to ripen. It wasn’t long before the greenhouse grew to it’s present size. Last summer we had to put on a new roof and rebuild the supporting structure, so now the greenhouse should last another 35 years.

We plant the tomatoes and peppers in tomato cages. The cages keep the fruit off the ground and make it easier to harvest. It’s a lot of work to set up the cages and drip line but it’s well worth it.

All our tender seedlings go into the greenhouse until they can be planted outside in the garden or in the greenhouse. Depending on the season, we can keep the tomatoes and peppers going until Thanksgiving. The cucumbers usually don’t keep growing that long. They tend to get mildewed and then we have to pull them out.

We grow the cucumbers on strips old blasting nets John brought home from work, he worked in construction. John and I were into conservation long before Al Gore was in diapers. Nothing goes to waist around here and everything is recycled over and over again. It either gets fed to an animal, put in the compost bin, or a good use is found for it. The greenhouse itself was built out of old storm windows John found at the dump or on the curb. (See a more recent post, “Planting In The Greenhouse, on page 1.

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April Fool

It seems as though Mother Nature was playing an April Fool joke on us. April 1st was 60 degrees F, with a warm southern breeze that made it seem even warmer, even without the sun. This morning April 2nd it was 19 F and snowing, with an arctic wind that made it seem a lot colder, even in the sun. March was so cold that I was unable to take the tomato and pepper seedlings off of the germination stand for more that a few days. One morning the front porch was 45 F. That’s when I decided to put the seedlings back on the germination stand. And so, I could not start the herbs and impatience. Easter Sunday morning it was 10 F and the Sunday after that 2 F. We had many nights in the teens and very little sun during the day to warm the porch up.

Last week the 6:30 geese arrived. I call them that because for many years now at this time of year they come flying in at about 6:30 every morning honking loudly while circling the pond before landing in the water. They stay until fall. Usually it’s a pair sometimes it’s 2 pair and one time it was 3 geese, I guess one partner didn’t make the trip. This year I happened to be gazing out of my upstairs window when I heard them coming, I watched with glee as they landed on the ice covered pond, usually by now the ice is gone, an saw them skid along the ice as if they were wearing ice skates. They walked around a bit in the slush and then took left. I’ve seen them fly over a few times since then, I guess their waiting for the pond to thaw.

The weather in zone 3-4 really can be trying. You have to just bid your time and plan for the weather to go against you anytime. Knowing how many seeds to start and having a place to put them until they can be put out into the greenhouse or outside is very important and more than a little tricky.


Tomatoes and Peppers

Tomato and pepper seedlings in the greenhouse.

Mid-March to early April is the time to start tomatoes, peppers and any flowers, like impatience, that take a long time to germinate or to flower. Some seeds, such as petunias, might need to be planted even sooner.

Linda’s husband Tim made her a heat and light stand so she could germinate plants more easily indoors. It has 4 shelves, 3 have heat and 4 have fluorescent lights. The germination stand moved from her house to my front porch about 10 years ago when we started gardening together. I had the land, she had the ability to wield the garden tiller and gravely tractor.

We have been growing Heirloom tomatoes for many years now. This year we are growing Cherokee Purple, Moskvich, Striped German and Amish paste tomatoes and Boynton Bell and Sweet Banana peppers. We are also growing a hybrid cherry tomato called Chiquita, it’s a pink cherry tomato. We grow cherry tomatoes in deck planters so we can put them in the greenhouse if frost threatens. We like them because they ripen before the others and we can grab a hand full while working in the garden.

After the tomatoes and peppers start coming up, it usually takes 3-4 days for tomatoes, a little longer for peppers. I turn on the lights so they don’t get to leggy. When the majority of tomatoes or peppers are up they are moved off the germination stand to a shelf on the front porch, which has a southern exposure, until it is safe to put them in the greenhouse. Turn the plants every evening, so they grow straight, and pet them. Just run your hand gently over the seedlings at least twice a day. I also have a small fan on a timer. That emulates garden breezes and also keeps the stems strong. You will find that stragglers will keep coming up as the seeds can germinate at different times.

The greenhouse is not heated, however, we do have a space heater we use in the spring and fall when it gets too cold. Because the greenhouse was built over the cellar door, the temperature is a little warmer in spring, winter and fall, than it would be if it was a stand alone type. The stone steps absorb heat during the day if the sun is out and radiate it out during the night and there is some heat that migrates from the wood furnace and oil burner furnace. Living in zone 3-4, we can have temperatures into the 20’s in spring and fall. It can be really tricky, trying to figure out just when to move things to the greenhouse because every spring is different.

Last year we planted our tomatoes and peppers outside because we had to replace the roof on the greenhouse. Our peppers produced practically nothing, the tomatoes did better. The tomatoes had blossom end rot and cracking problems that they don’t usually have in the greenhouse, because we can control water and heat. In the fall we didn’t cover the peppers, why bother, and learned that peppers are frost hardy to a mild frost. That must be why, one year when the temperature went to 19 degrees outside, temperature difference is about 10 degrees warmer in our unheated greenhouse, after we put our tomatoes out in the greenhouse, the peppers survived better that the tomatoes. We lost half our tomato plants that spring.

When the tomato and pepper plants get to be between two and three inches high transplant them into pots to give them more space to grow until they can be planted outside or in the greenhouse.

Tomatoes in the greenhouse

Pepper plants in the greenhouse