Spring Garden Planning

The Connecticut Flower and Garden Show a little over a week ago was a great reminder that thankfully, yes, spring will soon be coming to my frozen climate whether I personally believe it or not. And even though spring does come slowly to Connecticut–and sometimes not at all (something I often talk about when I show photos of my tree peonies. I can guarantee far above normal temperatures on the day that my tree peonies open so that they flame out spectacularly and only last for a single day. They are an over-rated waste of space in my garden–or perhaps it’s my climate), it is still something that has to be planned for in the garden unless you want to be like everyone else and just go rushing off, willy-nilly in the spring to buy the first thing you see at the garden centers.

While there’s something to be said for exuberance at garden centers (I know that I am all too guilty of that one!), at least do it with some sort of thought or plan in mind. What is your overall idea for the garden this year?

Will you be adding more natives?

Are you planting for pollinators?

Maybe you want to grow your own vegetables? Or add a few berry bushes? Or even start more simply with a few herbs (I was describing most of the Mediterranean herbs last weeks as “basically weeds that can grow in rocks.”) They’re not quite that easy–but almost!

Or maybe this is the year you start your own tomatoes/lettuce/peppers/fill in the blank from seed because you just can’t find what you like any other way.

Whatever it is, do go out and start shopping, by all means, but do it with some sense of what you hope to accomplish. You’ll be happier, you’ll have better results in the garden, and maybe you’ll even help some wildlife or pollinators as well. It’s all up to you–that’s what’s great about gardening.

Feeling Seedy?

About a week or so ago, I started my vegetable seeds. For some reason, I always dread this job and I don’t know why. Even when I am starting seeds for me, my neighbor and the garden at work, it probably takes all of half an hour to complete the task from start to finish.

For this round of seeds, I was just starting peppers and tomatoes–the really warm weather vegetables that need a head start. Most other things I start outdoors–beans, lettuce, things like that.

I may need to do something special to seeds like morning glory if I am going to direct sow those–I noticed I had several different types in my “seed stash.” Usually with those, because they have a hard outer seed coat, I will soak them first before sowing. The other option is to file or nick them a little bit–anything to break open the seed coating.

I suppose at some point I need to figure out what I am going to do with my decorative amaranth as well. Do I start them early indoors or just direct sow them when it’s time?

And I should think about sowing my snap peas, although it has been so miserable and cold that I am not sure it’s quite time. There’s a fine line in my state between cool soil and soil so cold it rots early seeds.

If all this sounds like a lot of trouble, it’s really not–witness my statement at the beginning of this post about starting the seeds taking all of half an hour. Nurturing them along is a little more time consuming but certainly no more so than watering house plants (and we know I have an epic number of those!).

Even transitioning the seeds from indoors to outside need not be too much of a problem–again, I do it with my house plants (about 100 or so) every spring and then I transition the house plants back in again in the fall. What’s a couple of trays of seedlings?

The biggest worry I have is that one of my “critters”–and it’s usually the chipmunks–will decide to wreak havoc among the seedlings and I will lose half of my hard work. But in that case, there are always garden center transplants.

Still, seed starting allows me to choose what I want to grow–not what someone else has decided that I should grow.  And it lets me garden in the cold dreary days when I think the sun and warmth will never return (since, as I am fond of saying, we get 2 seasons in my state, winter and July!)

While it may be a bit late to start seeds indoors where you are, it’s almost never too late to plant something in the garden. Why not give it a try this year?

Are You Feeling Seedy?

It’s that time of year when even non-gardeners can’t help but notice seed packets everywhere.  They’re in the grocery store.  They’re in chain pharmacies.  Of course all the big box stores–Target,  Walmart, Home Depot and Lowes–have them. And any garden centers that are open would have them (and lucky you if you live in a climate where garden centers are open year round ).

Despite the fact that the seeds are in the stores, in my part of the country,  it won’t be time to start seeds for a minimum of two or three months.

But if I want the best selection of seeds,  now is definitely the time to shop. And it’s easy to get carried away,  particularly because those little packets are so attractive and the prices are so reasonable.

So no matter how you are shopping –in person at a store,  or in the many, many wonderful catalogs –try to have a plan.  I know I always find myself with dozens of tomato packets in my hand –more than I could grow in 10 years, and certainly more than I could eat and give away.

But keeping in mind my “gardening resolutions ” I do want to try some new things this year too. They may not be vegetables,  because I don’t have a lot of sun in which to grow those. But we’ll see.

Let’s Hear It For The Hybrids–Seeds That Is

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about seeds starting but not a lot of time talking about types of seeds. And this post isn’t really going to be much about that. If you want to know the differences there are a lot of places to go.  Baker Creek has a decent discussion on their web site, Margaret Roach talks a good bit about it on her blog.

As a general rule, I usually only grow heirloom vegetables myself (again, if you want more of an explanation, I talked about that awhile back here).

But sometimes, there are legitimate reasons to grow hybrid vegetables (or flowers or other things, but this post will be about vegetables because that’s primarily what I grow from seed now) from seed.

As always, it’s all about choice.  Seeds give you that choice. And hybrid seeds offer you choices that heirlooms can’t.

For one thing–and this is extremely important–they can build in protection against disease.  Now for the most part when we’re talking hybrids, what are we talking about? We are not talking about the “parade of horribles” or “frankenfish” or any of the sorts of things you read in the media about genetic manipulation.

What we are talking about on a commercial-scale is what’s been going on in nature–and in backyards–for centuries.  One plant cross-pollinates with another plant and–whammo–you have a hybrid of the two.  If you have a human intervening somehow, you have hybridization.  It’s just that simple.

Now obviously there are a lot of reasons not to grow hybrids. If you like to save your own seeds, you don’t want to grow hybrid plants because the next year’s crop won’t come “true” from seed.

But there are some great reasons to grow hybrids as well, disease resistance being the primary one.  Cool new varieties are the other. I grew the ‘Indigo’ tomato (the one that turns purple when ripe) a few years back.  Its color meant is had more anthocyanins, supposedly a healthy thing for you.  I don’t know about that–I just know it didn’t make it into my “tastes good enough to grow a second year” rotation.

This year the cool new variety is ‘Kalettes,’ available from Johnny’s Select Seeds. It’s a cross between brussel sprouts and kale.  It looks like a cool new crop and I’m sure it would be very tasty. I just know whenever I crow cole crops I have such an aphid problem it’s not worth it. So no ‘Kalettes’ for me!   If anyone tries it, let me know.

So just because something is a hybrid, don’t automatically discount it. It doesn’t mean it’s part of that huge GMO problem.  It just means that folks, working under controlled conditions, did some breeding work. And whatever they created may or may not be better for your garden.  You’ll have to try it to know for sure.


Success With Seed Sprouting!

So after all the gloom and doom of the prior several posts, you’ve finally managed to say to yourself, “Well, the heck with it all. Seeds are only $2 a package. How hard can this be if every kid in school comes home with a plant in a cup? I’m going to do it!”

And truth be told, it’s not all that hard.  I’ve just given you all the things to think about so that you know how to do things properly.

So now that you know how to read a package to see whether your seeds need light to germinate, you know that you’re going to try not to over-water them, or you’ll water from the bottom if possible to try to avoid damping off, and you’ll check your last frost date so that you know when you should start the seeds, you’re ready to go!

There’s one final thing to remember after your seeds come up and you’re looking at them.  This is something that happens to me every year.  It’s sort of a “gardener’s envy” kind of thing.

I have my seeds, and no matter how well they’ve done, or how tall they are or how beautiful they look to me, it’s unavoidable that at some point before I put them in the garden or pot where they’ll eventually wind up, I start going out to garden centers.

And of course, what do I see there, but commercially grown seedlings and transplants for sale.  Compared to my plants, these huge, robust plants are like the Arnold Schwartzenegger of the plant world: they’re on steroids!

And so I go home and look at my tender seedlings and think, “Ugh. These are pitiful. They’re like dental floss with leaves.”

Except they’re not pitiful at all. They’re the product of my hard work and careful selection and no commercial or chemical fungicides, fertilizers or growth hormones.  I always need to keep that in mind.  After all, isn’t that why I’m starting my own seeds to begin with?

Protecting Seeds From Damping Off

On this Friday the 13th it seems appropriate to discuss a gruesome disease that can affect your precious tiny seedlings after you have so carefully nurtured them.  Once they have it, it is fatal, so prevention is really the only “cure.”  And as I have mentioned in a few prior posts, some seeds are more prone to it than others so it helps to know this in advance.

First of all, damping off is caused by any number of different fungi.  You’ve heard of lots of them and they are the usual culprits behind disease in the garden: alternaria, botrytis, fusarium–and there are lots more!

How do these fungi (or funguses if you prefer) get onto your seeds? Any number of ways. They can be blown there by the wind. They can be carried there in your water. They can be on the seeds themselves. They can be in your potting mix.  If you’re re-using trays, pots or tools, they can be on those implements.  In other words, the fungal spores are pretty much everywhere and very hard to avoid.

They do like certain conditions–cool and damp–better than others.  And of course certain folks will recommend using a fan for circulation around your seedlings. I’ve tried that. I can’t say I think it makes much difference in terms of damping off, but it does help strengthen the seedlings before you harden them off, so if a fan works for you, by all means, try setting one up near your seed starting place.

Some folks will water with different mixes–I’ve read about watering with water infused with garlic or with chamomile tea.  Again, if it makes you feel better, go right ahead.  For me, trying to keep the potting medium evenly moist and not overly wet, and trying to water from the bottom when possible, particularly when the seeds are young, seems to work as well as anything.

There is a product sold particularly for this purpose called No Damp Off. It claims to be an organic sphagnum moss from Wisconsin. I actually do own a bag and for very susceptible seeds, I will lightly top dress with this product. I think the bag I have has lasted me over 20 years (since I try to use non-renewable resources very sparingly!) I can recommend it, with the limitation that I wouldn’t plant directly into it myself.

If you start reading articles for the greenhouse and nursery trade, you’ll see all sorts of technical publications that talk about soil drenches for seedlings.  I’ve attached one from the University of Massachusetts here. But stop just a moment and think about this.  Why are you growing seeds? Surely it isn’t to drench them with commercial fungicides before they even hit your garden, is it? (Maybe it is. If so, you can skip the rest of my post).

That’s not why I grow them. I grow them to get something better than or different from what’s out there in the trade. I grow seeds because I want to choose the varieties that I want to eat. And I grow them because I want to control the process from beginning to end–what goes on those seeds.  And ideally that does not include chemicals or fungicides at any part of the growing process.

So if I lose my seeds to damping off, I may have to go buy some plants at the garden center–plants that in all likelihood will have been treated, unless I can find some that say “organically grown.”

But with any luck, I won’t lose my tender little seeds.  And I’ll have the pleasure of knowing I have grown my own plants organically.

And Still More About Seed Starting!

Wouldn’t you think I had said it all by now? I’ve been talking about seeds and seed starting for over a week now, right?

In my post Friday, however, I touched on things like not setting yourself up for failure and about reading the seed packets.  Remember, I’ve been doing this stuff in earnest for 25 years (and as a dabbler since I could walk probably so we’re talking 5 decades of experience).  Anyone who owns 2 books about seed starting (I mean, does anyone even own books anymore and not just use the internet?) has to be pretty hard-core!

That doesn’t mean that seed starting is always hard.  But it does mean that in certain cases–I mentioned a couple last week–you might need to do certain things for your seeds to help them. That’s what this post is about.

The first thing you always want to know is whether you have to cover the seeds or whether they need light to germinate.  Most seeds are fine being covered and being in the dark.  I start most of my seeds in those little coir wafers I mentioned. I just drop them into the holes in the little discs, put them in my dark furnace room where it’s warm, and check them every few days to see if they’ve sprouted.

I do put the discs (which you have to wet so that they expand) into little trays and I cover the trays.  I have re-usable trays for this purpose that I’ve used for decades.

Now clearly if the seeds need light to germinate, I can’t do that. I will go through all the same steps (coir disc in the tray with the plastic cover to retain moisture) but I’ll put the tray in a sunny south window, again checking every few days for germination.

But what happens if your seed package says “needs a period of cold to germinate.”  In that case, you have a couple of options.  Since it’s usually perennials or cold-hardy annuals that have these instructions, you can do whatever you would normally do to start them and then set them in a protected cold place, checking them as you would do any other seeds.  The instructions will often tell you how long the cold period will be, but it is quite often a significant period of cold–a month or more, because what you are trying to do is to simulate the cold dormancy of winter that the seed would have gone through if it remained on the plant out-of-doors.

Be careful if you are using your refrigerator for this cold place.  And extra refrigerator is a great place to do this so long as it doesn’t have fruits or vegetables in it.  Some fruits and vegetables can give off compounds that can interfere with plants, particularly bulbs. But you don’t want to take the risk that an apple or an onion is going to undo all your hard work in chilling your seeds.  Better to find a protected place–even under a flower pot outside–than to risk using your current fridge.

This period of cold is called stratification, or cold stratifying in case you run across those “technical” terms.

But I see I’ve gone on for quite some time so we’ll continue again on Friday about how to protect seeds from that most dreaded of diseases, damping off!


More About Seed Starting

I’ve spent the last week or so talking about seed catalogs and buying seeds.  But what should you do once you’ve got the seeds? How do you go about starting the little things?

Well, if you’ve looked at the catalogs–or even in the stores–you’ve seen that there are a whole lot of things that are often sold with the seeds.  Are any of them necessary?

I would tell you that the only thing necessary is a sterile potting soil without fertilizer. If you can find that, you don’t need to buy anything special. But since that seems to be impossible to find these days, that’s why I buy seed starting soil.  If I can find it, and quite often I can, I buy organic seed starting soil, because for the most part I am growing edibles so I want them grown in organic soil.

If you want to buy one of those fancy tray systems with the wicking mats and the heat mats for your seeds, by all means, go right ahead.  Anything you can do to give your seeds an advantage is fine by me.  If you want the little peat pots, okay–but try to find something a little more sustainable. I was so thrilled a few years when I found little round discs made of coir (the coconut fiber).  Peat comes from non-renewable resources and is acidic. Coir is neutral.  It’s up to you.

In any event, here’s what you need to ask when starting any seeds:

  • Do they need light to germinate?
    Do they need heat (or cold) to germinate?
  • How long will they take to germinate?
  • Are there any other special conditions I need to know about?

All of the information you need to know should be on the seed package.

One thing to pay attention to, particularly if you’re growing edibles. It may say something like “harvest in 28 days” or “harvest in 68 days.”  That harvest is days from germination, not days from planting.  It doesn’t really specify that.

I also doesn’t really tell you that if you’re starting seeds inside (like with tomatoes or peppers) versus what we call “direct sow” (in other words, planting them in the ground–how novel!), it’s really going to take longer, I find, for harvest to occur.  Some things you just can’t speed up. Nature has its own timetable.

In other words, don’t plant the tomato seeds in February in Maine and expect to harvest tomatoes in June. It will not happen. There’s not enough light, heat and sun on the planet or in an electric plug to make that happen!

Finally a word about when to start those seeds. Don’t start them too early. With the exception of peppers, (and parsley, if you’re starting that from seed) most seeds will come up in about a week or so.  Then you’ll have tender little seedlings to nurse along until you can plant them in the garden.

So if you know your last frost date is in May, don’t start tender things in February.  By the time you get them outside, you’ll have bean-pole looking things that are all scraggly and mal-nourished. Don’t set yourself up for failure.



Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Seed Starting

I have been a seed starter from way back–probably from childhood. So this was a bit of a wake up call for me. I’ll tell you how it came about (and how I’ve changed it, obviously)

I was reading an article in my local paper about how March gives gardeners the gift of time (I presumed the writer meant that gardeners still had the luxury of planning the garden). The article asked a series of questions that “the gardener” was supposed to ponder. One of the most shocking questions–and I hope it was asked tongue in cheek–was something like, “Do I really need that big vegetable garden that’s not sustainable because it uses all that water, or should I just sneak over and steal a few tomatoes from my neighbor?”

One thing the writer has correct is that vegetable gardens, even if they are using drip irrigation fed by a rain barrel, are not the most xeric gardens out there. They can’t be. You need water to grow good vegetables.

And of course last year I had the well-publicized battle with the deer.

So that got me thinking (not about stealing my neighbors’ veggies, I hope you understand!). But it did get me thinking about whether there were ways to do what I was doing any better. Or perhaps I should just get my tomatoes from the abundance of Farmer’s Markets in my town. Is that more sustainable and would I regret that?

I do have a week or two left to decide. I could also try to come up with Plan C, which I haven’t yet thought of.

You all will obviously see the results–or not–here this summer.

Setting Out

Well, this is it: you’ve started your seeds, you’ve grown them up, potted them out, hardened them off and now you’re ready to set them out in the garden.  What could go wrong now?

Just a couple of things: the biggest enemy of tiny seedlings is probably the cutworm.  This is the larva of a few types of night flying moths and like its name, it does exactly what it says it does–cut.  More precisely, it circles the stems of tiny seedlings and severs them.  You leave the garden one morning and all is fine.  You come back the next day and all you have on the ground are shriveled up, severed stems.  It’s pretty devastating, especially after you’ve nurtured your plants this far along.

There are lots of home-made solutions for this problem and you can google them as well as I can.  Probably two of the more popular consist of poking a toothpick down in the soil along the side of each seedling’s stem, and encircling the stem of each seedling with a tiny collar of cardboard or paper.  You won’t take this step until you’ve been wiped out by cutworms.  It hasn’t happened to me so I don’t do it.

I have, however, been wiped out by other more common garden critters digging to see what is under the plant I’ve just put in the garden, or better yet, digging up the plant I’ve just put it so it can bury its nut or acorn there.  Charming little critters.  I usually don’t take any precautions against this because I never know when or where it’s going to occur.  I just try to patrol the garden regularly and get the uprooted plants back in the ground.  They are rarely damaged by the squirrels or chipmunks but if left out in the burning sun all day while uprooted they will be.  So this sort of patrol has to be done last thing in the evening and ideally first thing in the morning again.  Occasionally I still lose some plants.  My yard is chipmunk heaven!

If you were so inclined you could sprinkle red pepper flakes around the newly planted plants.  That would probably help.  You’d need to re-sprinkle after every rain, however, so get a big, cheap container of the stuff.

Birds will also uproot plants if you’re growing something they like like sunflowers or corn so be aware of that.  If you plant sunflower seeds, they will almost never germinate in my yard–they squirrels will dig them up for food first.  I found I had to grow them up to about 12″ tall before they were left in peace.  And then once the sunflower heads formed seeds, they became little squirrel jungle gyms, with the squirrels climbing the stems and riding the heads of the flowers, eating the seeds.  It was pretty comical, but of course, not pretty, in the sense that the flowers were stripped of their seed before I or the birds got any.

And finally, if you are planting crops that need staking, set your stakes early and keep up with the staking.  It is so much easier to stake a tomato when it is young, than to try to pick up a mature tomato and try to mangle it onto a stake.  It tends to break, to coat you with that green tomato dust (or whatever it is you get covered in when working with tomatoes) and you lose an awful lot of your crop–if not your whole plant that way.