Hardening Off

I mentioned Monday that after transplanting seedlings, they would be ready to go outside when the time comes.  Well, of course, “the time comes” in different parts of the country earlier than it does here in the Northeast.  Even though we’ve had a ridiculously mild winter here in the northeast, I wouldn’t dream of setting out anything but the hardiest crops–things that are frost tolerant like pansies and violas–or early spring vegetables–until late March or early April, usually.  Tender things like peppers, tomatoes, basil and the things that really love the warmth don’t go out for me until around Memorial Day.

But you need to think of your seedlings just like you think of yourself.  Just like on that first warm spring day, you couldn’t go outside naked (for the purposes of this plant discussion) and bask in the sun all day without totally being burned to a crisp, neither can your tiny seedlings.  And it’s worse if it’s windy!  They hate that!  So remember that before you set those poor babies out and go off to work all day!

No you have to transition them out slowly–a couple of hours at a time–and in a protected area first.  And I know you have real jobs–you can start this on a weekend.  On Saturday, put the plants outside for a couple of hours, in the shade, under a tree, protected from the wind.  Then bring them back in.  If it’s not going to be very cold, you can put then in a garage or shed overnight.  On Sunday, do the same thing–outside, in the shade, for a couple more hours–then back inside the garage or shed.

Monday they can go outside all day–still under the tree or in the shade but only if it’s not really windy.  And if you’re doing this is the early spring when the leaves haven’t come out yet, make shade: Put them under a patio table, or under a couple of chairs or even under a beach umbrella–be creative but make the shade they need.

Monday night, back into the garage.  But that’s the last night you’ll baby them.  On Tuesday you’re going to give them some sun–half a day if you can manage that.  In other words, there must be a part of your place that gets morning sun–that would be best and then the sun goes around the side of the house in the afternoon.  So put the seeds there.  And leave them there Tuesday and Wednesday.  By Thursday you can transition them to full day sun.  And by the weekend, they will be ready to plant wherever it is you want to plant them.  Not as bad as it seemed, was it?

Check them for dryness in the morning and in the evening, especially if there has been a breeze–they will dry out fast and you don’t want to lose them at this point.  And on Monday we’ll talk about planting them in the gardens.

Potting On or Potting Up

Once your seeds have their first set of true leaves, it’s time to transfer them to pots if you’ve started them in those disks of compressed peat.  If you’ve started them in little pots, you can wait until they have two sets of true leaves of more.

Wait a second–what’s all this business about “true” leaves? Well, you won’t know until your seedlings have two sets of leaves.  Then take a look at the first set.  They are most likely very round and different from the next set.  That’s because they are not “true” leaves; they are what is known as cotyledons or “seed” leaves.  These are the very first leaves the seedling pushes out to begin the process of obtaining chlorophyll and making food for itself.  They are not in any way what the “real” leaves of the plant will look like.

Once your plant is ready to be potted up, it is most important again, that you use only seed starting soil (Gardener’s Supply actually sells an interim soil for this purpose but even I don’t go so far as to use it).  Again, regular potting soil is going to have fertilizers in it and they will be too strong for these tiny seeds and will burn them and kill them.

Use only clean pots (you don’t want to risk contaminating the soil and transferring fungi that might cause damping off, now, do you?)  And handle the tiny seedlings by the stem, which is sturdier than the little leaves.  If you break the entire top of the plant–no more plant.  By grasping the tiny stem–gently of course–you are much less likely to do damage.

Place the rooted stem into moistened cutting mix and keep the mix moistened–remember Friday’s “What Can Go Wrong?” post.  These seedlings are still prone to drying out, and once they have dried out, they are dead. But evenly moist, if you can manage, is the best practice.  A small watering can with a tiny rose attachment (the head that allows you to sprinkle water gently) will accomplish that.

Years ago I bought 4 small screw-on caps for soda bottles from a catalog company called Lee Valley (and no, I get nothing for mentioning their name.) I save them season to season and they allow me to have a couple of bottles available, with water in them, at all times, for “drought emergencies” with my seeds.  I notice that now their collection includes one for “weed watering” (presumably with some sort of herbicide, be it chemical or organic.  It’s a nice collection and it sells for $4.95 plus shipping.)

By carefully transplanting the seedlings and keeping them moist, you should be ready to set them outside when the warmer weather comes!

So What Could Go Wrong?

So you’ve heard a couple of horror stories already that might give you pause about seed starting: getting the seeds mixed up and of course, having a huge blight wipe out a crop.  The first is relatively minor and the second is a huge disappointment that everyone from home growers to commercial farmers and agribusinesses face.  Is that any reason to be daunted? Not really.

Most gardeners admit that they’ve killed an awful lot of plants.  In fact, one speaker I recently heard described his credentials as “I’ve killed more plants than anyone in the room.”  Cute.  Trial and error is, however, one of the best ways to learn and seeds are very inexpensive teachers.  Success with seeds can give confidence to try other things.

But seedlings, precisely because they are so small, can have a couple of problems that larger plants might not have.

As you might suspect, the problems all revolve around water (provided you’re read the instructions for whether the seeds need light for germination). Too little water and the seeds die–and this is critical because if the seeds dry out just a little bit, their tiny stems close up and they cannot be revived.

At the same time, if the seeds get too wet, they are prone to a fungal disease known as “damping off.”  All the books say that there will be a ring around the stem where the fungus has invaded.  Mine usually succumb when the stem is too small to even see a ring around the stem.  The stem just blackens at the soil level and the plant keels over–voila, no more seedling.

So what do you do?  There are several things other than just giving up and buying plants at the local garden center. First, one of the reasons that so many “seed starting systems” exist is to try to help growers have success.  If you’re starting something that is particularly tricky and prone to damping off, you may want to use one of these systems, which usually consists of tubes of soil-less mix on a wicking  mat over a reservoir of water that you refill–and then that whole thing is covered with a humidity dome.  They’re not terribly expensive.  A beginner’s kit from Gardener’s Supply is about $30 (plus shipping.)

But, for example, marigolds are horribly prone to damping off.  Who knew?  But that’s why they rarely give them to kids anymore–or they give them to kids in such vast quantities that they rarely fail.  If you wanted to start those, you might do so in one of those kits.

Next, as I’ve suggested, you just start mass quantities of the seed to allow room for failure.  As I often do when planting beans out-of-doors, I put 4 seeds in every hole, chanting the Native American saying, “One for the Rook and one for the Crow, One to die and one to grow.”  It pretty much covers all the bases. (And I still had to plant my heirloom bean crop 3 times last year, so that tells you that seeds are a pretty tricky proposition sometimes).

Finally, sphagnum moss contains a natural substance that helps to retard damping off.  Once again, sphagnum is not a renewable resource so I only use it sparingly and when I must to control this fungus.  But if I’m planting something that I know is particularly susceptible, I sprinkle a fine layer of the moss on top of the seedlings (or place the seeds on top of the moss if they need light for germination) and I rarely lose a seed this way.

Seed Starting Supplies

Last Friday I talked about when to start your seeds–or how not to have Jack-in the beanstalk–beans and dental floss with leaves way before it was time to get them outside.

Today I want to talk about some of the “how-tos” or the actual items you can use to start seeds.  While many folks use ordinary household containers like small yogurt cups and egg cartons for seed starting–and this is perfectly fine and a great way to recycle so long as you make certain there are holes punched in the bottom for drainage first–numerous garden centers, big box stores and even catalogs make a good living selling seed starting supplies and even systems. Depending on what you’re starting and even how delicate your seeds are (which you now know from reading one of those handy seed-starting books) you might want to consider one of those.

Back in the day when I was starting hundreds or even thousands of seeds (and yes, thousands is not an exaggeration) I used to get my seed starting supplies from Gardeners Supply in Vermont.  They have everything anyone could need–and more.  I mentioned that huge 5′ tall light tray–even that came from there by mail-order.  (and no, despite my fine patronage, I am not being compensated in any way for my recommendation.)

One of the advantages of having seed-starting supplies that are dedicated to the task is that you obtain better results.  Under no circumstances should you ever attempt to start seeds with regular potting soil–or worse yet, garden soil, for example.  Potting soil is just about always enhanced with fertilizers and wetting agents that are too strong for the tiny seeds and you will not have satisfactory results.  Garden soil is often either too poorly drained or too fast-draining to achieve good results–and it will harbor bacteria and fungi that the seeds will not be able to fight off.

Having read about your seeds you will also know whether or not they “resent transplanting.”  That will tell you whether you should use one of the many types of peat or manure based pots than can be planted directly into the soil so that you will not have to disturb the roots.  While I am not a huge advocate of using peat in the garden since it is a non-renewable resource, this is the one time I make an exception if I can’t find a substitute.

Finally for ease or convenience, you may wish to avail yourself of one of those “seed starting kits” that the stores sell.  Generally they consist of compressed disks of peat, a water-tight tray and a lid that will act as a greenhouse over the tray.  This is definitely a good way to get seeds started (notwithstanding the compressed peat disks and their non-sustainability) but you need to be certain of two things: first, that the seeds you are starting are not prone to “damping off” (I’ll talk about that on Friday) and that if you are starting a lot of seeds, you have a way to figure out which is which.

You may remember a year or two ago, I had my seeds set in one of those trays and the tray set down on top of a copier in the furnace room (because heat aids in germination and the seeds didn’t need light to germinate.)  Well, the Spoiler (and this is one of the reasons he’s called the Spoiler) needed to use the copier and he needed to use it RIGHT THAT MINUTE!  So I hurried in and picked up the seed trays without giving a thought to where I was setting them down or in what direction.  Needless to say, I had no idea, when I picked them up again, what was what or which labels belonged where.  So except for the clearly yellow tomatoes, or pear-shaped ones, we ate “mystery” tomatoes that summer.

It may have been 2009 however, when we lost most of them to the tomato blight because I do not recall wondering “Gee, this is good–I wonder which tomato this is?”

Beginning Seed Starting–The Timing Is Everything!

There was a time when I would start so many seeds that they would over flow my 6′ tall, 3′ wide light tower and I’d have the trays stacked on the floor around the fluorescents desperately trying to get them some extra light.  No more.

Back then I was starting annuals, perennials, houseplants, cacti and of course vegetables.  I’ve grown vegetables for as long as I can remember–far longer than it was fashionable.  Even as a child we always had a few tomato plants tucked in an out-of-the-way corner somewhere–because no summer ever went by without homegrown tomatoes–and of course basil to go with it.

My gardens are full to overflowing now so about all I need to grow every year are vegetables.  Last year I was gifted with a raised bed by a Canadian company (to whom I shall be eternally grateful).  This fall, although I didn’t exactly think of it as a gift, many of our trees–or the tops of them–came down, giving me more sunlight than I’ve ever had on this property.  So I expect this gardening season to be even more bountiful.

Since that’s the case, I need to start my seeds–but if I were a new gardener and didn’t know and saw the seeds appearing in the box stores in early January, I might have thought it was time to start them then.  That’s probably the biggest mistake a new seed starter makes–starting seeds too soon.

The back of the seed packets aren’t whole lot of help–they have a tiny map with wavy lines that show you roughly when to plant the seeds outdoors.  Great–but how do you know how long it’s going to take them to get going indoors?

One of the best resources, if you’re a new seed starter, is a book on seed starting.  No, this is not something you sit down and read cover to cover–who has time for that?  Get something like The New Seed Starter’s Handbook by Nancy Bubel and flip to the type of seed you’re trying to start.

It will give you a wealth of information–whether the seed germinates in the dark or whether it needs light to germinate (in other words, don’t cover it with soil); whether you need to scarify it (scrape it with a file to simulate the motion of having it go through a bird’s intestines); whether it needs stratification (a period of cold treatment (if so, plant it and put it in a cold place–if you’re having winter right now, a garage or shed will do, otherwise a spare fridge or even your own fridge, in a baggie, in a pinch) and how long it might take to germinate (some seeds take notoriously long times, like parsley and peppers, which can take up to 3 weeks!)

Once you know how long the thing will take to emerge from the ground, and anything else that might be relevant, you can plan when to plant–and perhaps how to plant–the seeds.  More on that on Monday.

A World of Controversy Inside A Tiny Seed

On Friday I promised I’d talk a bit about GMOs, heirlooms versus hybrids  and organic seeds.  Since Friday’s post was already way too long and this is not a political blog, I will try to keep this as short as possible.

I think I adequately covered the reasons why someone might want to choose organic seeds in Friday’s post.  One fabulous source that I did leave out, however is the Hudson Valley Seed Library.  For those of us in cooler climates (and of course in the Hudson Valley region) this is a great, locavore source.  For the rest of the country it is still a great organic choice.  Online catalog only.  I grew a few things from there last year.  Not only do they have fun choices, but their Art Packs (for which you pay a bit more) are true works of art and things of beauty.  And this time of year, who doesn’t need more beauty is our lives?

Okay, now on to the more complicated stuff.  Many of you may know the difference between a hybrid and an heirloom but just a refresher.

A hybrid seed is one that has been selected and specifically bred–and bred here is the key word–over time to have certain traits.  It may have been crossed and re-crossed with the best plants of its type so that it is a superior variety.  It may have specific resistance bred into it–in the case of tomato seeds, we are accustomed to seeing a long list of capital letters after certain hybrid varieties for example, noting resistance to certain tomato diseases and funguses (the common VFNT).  You may also be familiar with “Round-up™” ready corn, but that’s different–I’ll talk about that below.

Heirlooms on the other hand, are varieties that are a certain age–generally at least 50 years old–think of them as the “antiques” of the gardening world.  Generally they are not readily available commercially, but that is changing because gardeners are demanding them.

They are what’s known as “open-pollinated,” meaning the wind or bees will pollinate them–but that of course leads to issues.  I grow anywhere from 6-10 heirlooms in very close quarters in a raised bed.  Since they are all “open-pollinated” if I were to save my seed (which I don’t do because a package of seeds lasts me longer than I can use it up, even sharing it with friends) these tomatoes would not be the same varieties I’d planted the prior year–they most likely would have cross-pollinated with each other!

So if you are saving seeds from an heirloom, be aware that it may be cross-pollinating with other heirlooms in your garden!

And finally we get to the thorny issue of GMOs or genetically modified seeds. This where the “Round-up Ready™” seeds come in.  Chances are, most home gardeners will never knowingly plant GMO seeds.  But if they garden anywhere near large stands of corn, wheat, soybeans, alfalfa or perhaps even certain types of grass in the years to come, they will be growing GMO plants.

Genetically modified is a complicated laboratory derived process that involved gene splicing–not something the home gardener can accomplish (yet anyway).  So far, it has primarily been done by Monsanto, the maker of Round-up™ which is a brand name of glysophate, a weed killer.  Monsanto spliced a gene into different seeds making them resistant to Round-up™ so that the fields could be sprayed with Round-up™ killing the weeds and not the valuable crops.  Sounds pretty good, yes?

To big agribusiness, yes it certainly did and millions of dollars of these seeds are sold every year.  In fact, just last year, a new type of Round-up Ready™ crop, alfalfa, was approved for sale, making it the sixth or seventh such crop on the market (I’m not sure if the grass is for sale yet or still in the testing and lawsuit phase). Interestingly enough, Monsanto is in court as I write in New York where over 80 plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgment to stop them from this sort of thing.

So why is this bad?  The problem is the pollen from these crops does not stay in the fields–and organic growers are complaining that their fields are being contaminated by Round-up™, among other things.  See above lawsuit.

There is also the argument that the corporation, Monsanto, is harming third world growers.  But you can Google that one yourself.  I’ve already gone on long enough!

On Friday we’ll actually talk about seed starting and how to get started once you’ve made your seed selections!

Choosing Seeds, or What’s Wrong With Burpee?

Everywhere you go, it seems there are Burpee seeds.  They’re in the big box stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and even the grocery stores.  They have a huge full-color catalog that if you’ve every started seeds or ordered seeds will arrive at your home before the holidays.  So if you’re planning to start seeds, why not pick up a few packages of Burpee seeds and plant those?

For a lot of folks, that’s fine.  They have for years. Burpee sells “named” reliable varieties that many will recognize–Marketmore Cucumbers, Big Boy Tomatoes, Blue Lake Bush Beans, Cherry Belle Radishes and things like that.  It’s very easy to pick varieties because the names are names you recognize and you know they have grown well for you and others in the past.

Burpee also has branched out–it now sells some heirloom vegetables (heirloom being a designation that depending on the vegetable generally designates it as an older variety, open pollinated, and not a hybrid, meaning that you can save the seed from year to year and you will be able to grow the same plant from that seed) and you will recognize some of those names as well–Brandywine Tomato is one of the most famous heirloom vegetables.  Many people think that heirlooms have better flavor than hybrids.

We’ll talk about the difference between heirlooms and hybrids, organic seeds and GMOs on Monday.

Burpee even sells some organic seeds.  Why is it important to get organic seeds?  It depends.  If you’re a certified organic grower, you need to start with organic seed.  For the rest of us, some of us just like to know that no chemicals were used on our seed. 

Also, if you’re growing micro greens or greens that are spending a minimal amount of time in the soil like mesclun mixes you may want to start with organic seed because the time from seeds to table is so minimal.

So what’s wrong with Burpee?  Nothing at all.  But you may not want to limit yourself by simply choosing Burpee seed.  While Burpee is an old and well-respected seed house, there are so many other choices out there.  And once you start looking at seed catalogs, beware: it can become addictive!

Most seed catalogs assume you want to grow vegetables but almost all still have a flower section as well.  a couple of the best for flower gardening are Thompson & Morgan (a British catalog with a New Jersey office) and Select Seeds, located right in my state, Connecticut.

Some of the largest, like Burpee, have flower sections that almost rival the vegetable sections.  And when I say “flower” I mean both annual and perennial flowers because many perennials are quite easily grown from seed.

For the largest section or organic seed around, try Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Albion, Maine.

For heirloom seeds, the choices are really becoming abundant.  My favorite has always been Baker Creek Seeds of Missouri.  The nice folks of Baker Creek have also bought out the oldest seed company in the United States, Comstock Ferre & Company and they also publish a catalog as well.  Not only are the Baker Creek seeds heirloom varieties; they promise to be GMO-free (more about that Monday). 

There is also the Seed Savers Exchange catalog for some great varieties of heirloom vegetables, flowers and grain.

Finally, if you enjoy cooking, there are some catalogs that cater more or less to edibles in both the vegetable and flower variety.  The Cook’s Garden is the one that springs most readily to mind but John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds is another less well-known catalog.

Renee’s Garden is also a fabulous source of vegetables and some flowers.  Each year I trial several different types of vegetables and an occasional flower or herb from there that they are kind enough to provide the seeds for.  The seeds are always good, they germinate well, and the seed packets are a joy-they look like hand painted watercolors of the veggie or fruit.  Renee’s Garden is an online catalog only.

So again, I ask, what’s wrong with Burpee? Nothing at all.  But now that you know you have so many choices, why limit yourself?

Tomato Seedlings Revisited

You may remember that on April 27th I posted about starting tomato seedling and about a little confusion I had that day with my labeling system that resulted in my not knowing which seedling was which.  I posted photos of my seedlings and my neighbors.  This will be an update post.

Yesterday I potted up my neighbor’s seedlings into containers of compost.  They look quite healthy and sturdy.  He likes ‘Better Boy’ by Burpee so that is what I grow for him, and when I pot them up I set the seedling into the compost almost up to the first set of leaves so that it will develop a nice thick stem.

These, on the other hand, are my tomato seedlings.  When I go to garden centers and see the beautiful plants in all sizes ready for sale, I do not know why I bother growing from seed. I remarked upon that to a friend today and another customer nearby overheard and said, “Oh me either.  Then I put mine outside one day–one day!  And already they’re all wilted over.”  Sometimes the “joy” of growing from seed is very over-rated!

It is also nice to know that you no longer have to grow from seed to get organic plants.  This is one I purchased for my lecture yesterday.  This is not an heirloom variety but there were heirloom varieties available–more heirlooms than not I would say .  I needed a determinate variety to continue to test my “topsy-turvy tomato planter,” which works best with smaller, non-vining types of tomatoes (I think–we’ll see.)

In another month I hope I will have robust plants to show–especially since I grow in containers myself.  After all, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t get joy–and good tomatoes–out of it!

The World’s Largest Cold Frame?

I was talking to a fellow gardening enthusiast about my blog recently and she asked whether she could use her enclosed porch to start seeds.  I asked her if she meant to use it as the world’s largest cold frame and she said she did.

So many people have glass-enclosed porches that in colder climates are referred to as 3 season porches.  These are fabulous places to over-winter herbs, tender perennials and to start cold season vegetables.  I even use mine to transition plants outside in the spring, and to hold colder loving plants like clivia and cymbidium at cool temperatures–without fear of frost–in the fall. (The decals on the window are to help avert bird strikes).

I have fresh herbs all winter thanks to the 3 season porch.  Herbs that might be difficult or problematic to grow indoors, like rosemary, thrive and even bloom on the cooler temperatures of the porch.

In even the coldest winters, it has never fallen below 22 degrees, making this a true Zone 8.  I keep 2 bay plants out here as well for soups and stews, as well as lemon verbenas (which do defoliate).

I keep 2 kinds of thyme as well, not because they’re not hardy for me, but merely so that they’re close at hand for cooking.

I also have my non-hardy florist and Satsuki azalea bonsai over-wintering, as well as a camellia, a gardenia (which survives the cold just fine), a non-hardy mahonia and a non-hardy landscape azalea.  These all bloom at the appropriate time.

In another month or so, I’ll begin transition my hardier houseplants outside through the porch.  They spend about a week on the porch before they go outside into a protected area.

My porch is oriented North-South so I have both sun and shade making it very flexible.

I could do more, I suppose, and make it into a cold house of sorts where I do four season growing a la Eliot Coleman of Maine.  I haven’t yet gotten that ambitious–but maybe next year!

Houston, We Have Germination–or Seed Starting

The first of the many seeds that I will start this season have germinated–and now that I have seen their tiny pale little seed leaves, or cotyledons, I wonder anew why I do this.  I will wonder even more once every possible outlet from the grocery stores to the big box stores to the garden centers start to carry healthy looking, robust transplants–and what I have looks like green dental floss with tiny leaves at the end!

I do it of course to get varieties that I otherwise can’t get anywhere else–and to support the great heirloom seed savers catalogs.

I don’t do much of this sort of seed starting, in those compressed peat disks known as Jiffy-7s.  I do it with what you see above, which are the seedlings of Hungarian Wax peppers (capiscum frutescens ‘Hungarian Wax’) from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  I start these every year for a neighbor and because they need extra heat and coddling I start them early.  They take about 7-9 days to germinate, even with the bottom heat from my cable box!

The only other thing I will start in such an un-environmentally friendly way are tomatoes, again because they need extra care and coddling.  I grow perhaps 10-12 varieties of those a year.  And before I transplant them into larger pots for hardening off, I remove the netting so that that doesn’t get out into the garden.

Everything else usually gets directly sown in the garden–but I’ll be showing you my successes–or not–with that in the coming weeks!