Transitional Traditions

Putting in a Spring Garden

Transitional TraditionsIt was the end of February. We were boiling maple sap and setting up our first-ever mini greenhouse. The seeds had arrived from our catalogs, and the starter soil sat beckoning me from the edge of the kitchen table. Surely we could plant some seeds now?


Seedlings under grow lights

In our part of Wisconsin, the typical last frost date is around Mother's Day.

I don't know what I was thinking.

Fast forward to the end of April, and the greenhouse in our living room was bursting with enormous tomatoes, lively cabbages, and stretchy cauliflower. I began watching night-time lows like an addict. The weather was evening out, but not near what we needed. I decided to put the cabbages out to start hardening them off.

Seedlings hardening off outside

First, we had to prepare the garden for new plants. This always involves weeding the raised beds and top-filling with compost. This year, we had enough compost for five beds. Next, we began planting cold-hardy seeds. We put radishes, lettuce, peas, and carrots into the ground. Later we planted the little Chinese cabbages in a bed all their own. They looked so relieved to be out of the little cups!

Kids weeding garden beds

Chinese cabbage sprouts

We still needed to top fill and weed three more beds. Down the road from us is a nursery that sells composted topsoil for 30 dollars per yard. While not cheap, the soil is black and loamy. And, having few alternatives (my dad's farm across the road only had hot manure available), we filled the back of the pickup three times.

Having all the beds filled and ready to plant was a good feeling.

Unfortunately, I was unable to get a suitable row cover for the Chinese cabbages in time, and the flea beetles found them. Flea beetles love spicy greens in the springtime, most notably radish greens and Chinese cabbage. Once they find the plants, a row cover is useless. I concocted a homemade insecticidal soap from a recipe I found online and sprayed all the plants. It kept the bugs off very well! Unfortunately the combination burned the tender leaves, and we thought we'd lose the whole crop. I felt like a parent that accidentally hurt their child — just terrible! In the next week I watched the little plants slowly recover, only to have the flea beetles move right back in and riddle the remaining leaves with holes. ARGH!

In desperation, I went to a local garden center and bought some OMRI approved insecticides. I really hate resorting to this because often they kill the beneficial insects as well. However, I am not sure the plants will mature without some help, so I am going to apply the new spray tonight. Hopefully this does the trick.

In the last couple days, we filled the rest of the raised beds with seeds, transplants and several good waterings.

Organized garden beds

Yet, our tomatoes still hang out in their little root-bound cups, waiting for their turn in the garden. Last night we had a frost again. In the forecast, it looks like the last one for the year. I'm trusting that forecast, because they are starting to suffer.

Tomorrow, our gardening partners and a retired couple who also garden in our plot will come to build four or five brand new garden beds. It will be a long, lovely day of construction, topsoil hauling, and planting.

This year we have three families growing with us in our 5000-square-foot garden. In the previous years I was mowing most of that land because we hadn't had the funds to build it larger (most everything needs to be in raised beds due to poor soil fertility and heavy clay that does not drain well). This year, however, the garden will pay for itself for the very first time. We have five people who asked to form a CSA from our little garden!

A CSA! I'm so excited! After gardening for my family for ten years, I feel like I might have the ability to plant for others as well. I will have the much needed help and support from our friends who lived with us/gardened with us last summer, which automatically gives a boost of confidence.

Suddenly, crop failure or poor yields become a big deal. There will be a great deal of additional research on my part, but it will only help me to become a better gardener. I'm excited for the challenge!

As I look onto the garden this morning, the carrots, radishes and peas are well up and growing strong. The transplanted cauliflowers have put out new leaves, and my perennial flowers are beginning to form flower buds. It's really spring in Wisconsin, and I'm so pumped for the new gardening year!

Syrupin' and Seed Startin'

Transitional TraditionsIt was February 17th, almost the exact middle of winter, and we got an urgent text message: "Saps running! You tapping this year?"

What?! It was a full month earlier than last year. How could the sap be running? I looked out my kitchen window. Yes, the snow was melting with the unusual warm snap we were having ... but I didn't think that would wake the trees up by itself. Didn't the sun have to be at a certain angle? Wasn't there something to the length of the days?

No matter. In two days we'd hastily drilled holes in our neighborhood maples and pounded in the taps. In fact, our coats and faces got splashed with the heavily flowing sap. It was, indeed, running!


Andy and I, with the help of our friend Erik, went from property to property adding taps and blue sap bags to the tree trunks. In a couple hours, we had them covered. Here’s the interesting part: some of the maples we had drilled into last year were bone dry; not running at all yet. Others had clearly been pulling water for several days already. It was an odd experience; one we had not encountered yet in our fourth year of syruping.

That weekend we had scheduled to be out of town, so we relied upon our friends to collect sap. The day we hammered taps, it was 50 degrees F outside. When we came home from our trip, it was closer to 65! We broke records all over the place. Unfortunately, the sap was no longer running.

We had collected merely 20 gallons, and most of that had been from the first 24 hours.

Undeterred, we kept our bags up and waited. Winter can be tricky in Wisconsin; she only has a few stunts to pull. We knew the snow and cold would be back before the calendar proclaimed spring was officially here.

Indeed. Less than a week after seeing record highs, the state was covered in a snowstorm that dropped 6 inches of snow in some parts. And we collected 26 more gallons of sap. The trees love a good mix of freezing and thawing to get their blood pumping.

Because of a number of circumstances, we are having to boil it all down in our kitchen again this year.


As the sap turned from clear to amber to bronze, the seeds for our garden arrived in the mail. It was time to start our seedlings for May.

Planting Cabbage

We have had very little success starting seeds at home. This year, I asked if we could invest in a seed-starting rack complete with grow lights in order to give our little tomatoes and peppers a fighting chance. With the help of a skilled friend, we found a simple, DIY, seed-starting rack plan online, and he built it in a single day. With all the hardware, lights, and wood, the final cost was about 100 dollars. We can hold up to twelve seed-starting trays (the standard kinds you find in garden catalogs), and the lights are designed to be raised or lowered depending on the plant height.


I’m sure there will be tweaks on our part to ensure the seedlings’ success, but for now, as the sap boils away, the little cabbages and lettuces have already sprouted. We are hopeful for an early spring, especially since the seed rack has taken over our living room!