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.

Gardening As A Balm for The Soul

Believe it or not, it’s not too early to be thinking about your 2017 garden. And no matter how you felt about the election we just had here in the United States, it was–and still is–a very contentious time.

So one of the things we can do to reassure ourselves that no matter what happens in the rest of the world, in our little part of the world–the one piece we have control over–all will be well–is we can begin planning our gardens.

For those of us that start seeds, perhaps one of the things we can do is to decide that this year we will try to buy seeds from companies that grow organic or sustainably harvested seeds whenever possible. One of my favorite small companies that sells such seeds is the Hudson Valley Seed Company.

Not only are their seeds almost all organically or sustainably grown, but their seed packs are literally works of art–they are, in fact called Art Paks. After I start my seeds, I save the “paks” and either put them up in my potting shed or sometimes they even make it up to my den for display. They’re gorgeous!

If you don’t know this company, you should. They sell lots of different vegetable seeds and mixes and several types of flower seeds and mixes for pollinators as well. They also ahve herb seeds.

If you are in the Northeast, it is likely that they will be at a Flower and Garden show near you so that you will see them in person–that’s how I first became acquainted with them. But I warn you–their art paks are so lovely you will have a tough time deciding which ones to buy!

More About Seeds


On Wednesday I talked about some seeds I had received from my sister that she hadn’t planted. Some clever readers might have noticed the date on the back of those seeds–2013.

There’s nothing wrong with “older” seeds. Many will germinate far past their packaging date. Careful gardeners will do a germination test, taking several seeds, laying them on a wet paper towel and seeing what percentage germinates to see how thickly to sow the seeds (in other words, if only 50% of the seeds germinate in the test, sow twice as many as needed).

I’m not quite so “careful”–or perhaps it’s always that I have planted by the Native American saying anyway: if I have it correct, the saying goes, “One for the rook, one for the crow, one to die and one to grow.” So I always plant more than I need according to that saying, although in my yard, it’s more like, “one for the squirrel, one for the chipmunk–” you get the idea.

The above packets, from Renee’s Garden, also arrived on Saturday with my sister’s seeds. I ordered these, although Renee’s Garden is always very generous to garden writers in providing sample test packets for the garden. Since my garden yields have been so sporadic over the past few summers, I didn’t want to ask the company to subsidize my anymore since I couldn’t in good conscience promise to rave about how wonderful they were if rabbits, deer or crop failure  kept claiming them as they had in the past. But whatever I have gotten from Renee’s Garden has always been wonderful and I love to patronize them.

The ornamental amaranth is going to be one of my “experiments.” I promised to try some new things this year and so this will be one of them. It’s just for fun–it will not attract pollinators (well, its colors may, but it won’t feed them). So in that sense, it violates almost all my “rules” of gardening: it’s not native and it’s not beneficial and you can’t eat it. But heck, it’s pretty and it’s annual so why the heck not, just for one year?

What about you? What are your seed starting plans?


Wordless Wednesday


Over the weekend I received these seeds from my sister.She had been given them by friends but had never planted them. She said every time she thought about planting them, she realized that she would be out of town when they bloomed.

I told her that that’s what gardening is all about: being out of town when something blooms! For years I had that trouble until I decided to make my garden a later season garden. And of course, I don’t even bother with things like amaryllis until this time of year. Takes a lot of stress out of gardening.


This was on the back of the packages. I wonder if “esq.” is a designation for “company?” I seem to recall that from my days of traveling in England. Otherwise, this guy is working way below his pay grade!

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.


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.



Buying Seeds From Garden Catalogs–Your Head Will Be Spinning From All The Choices

Even small garden catalogs offer a dizzying array of choices when it comes to seeds. In fact, that can be part of the problem sometimes–how does one ever choose? There are catalogs dedicated to the solanaceae family (in other words, primarily tomatoes and peppers).  There are catalogs dedicated to organic seeds and to “natural” seeds and to heirloom seeds and to saved seeds.

And then there are just seed catalogs in general.  Territorial is one of the ones that comes to mind. If you want to read a good seed catalog that has a bit of everything–non-organic seeds, some organic seeds, grafted plants, regular plants and lots of equipment this is the catalog for you.

What I particularly like about Territorial is the depth of their instructions. I am sure folks will have a fit because the catalog is not all organic and what that means is that some of their seeds are GMO and some of their seeds come from the huge agri-businesses.  Okay.  I get it.  Am I telling you to buy all your seeds from Territorial? I am not.  I am telling you that I like the format of the catalog.

You can get almost the same information from Johnny Selected Seeds.  Their seeds are mostly organic, heirloom and non-GMO. They do sell hybrid seeds, if you care about that sort of thing.  There is a page on their web site explaining the differences among the different types of seeds that they sell.

As between Johnny’s and Territorial, I find the seed starting information slightly better at Territorial.  And let’s face it, when you are beginning with something as small as a seed, where something can go wrong so easily, it’s nice to have as  much information as possible.  I won’t copy and paste the info in here, because all of it is copyrighted, but I suggest you look at Johnny’s and Territorial both for something you’d actually like to grow.

Or take something that is a wee bit challenging to grow like hollyhock or marigold.  Marigold is prone to damping off.  Hollyhock needs light to germinate. Territorial is very good about giving tips on how to sow.  Hollyhock also has some pretty specific temperature requirements.  Johnny’s is a little vague on these to say the least.

Now a very serious seed starter is going to do some more research or is going to get a book on seed starting. I’ve actually got 2, from back in my 10 tray seed starting days.  But you shouldn’t have to do that.  The seed packet and the catalog should give you all the information you need.  So that’s why for me, Territorial is a huge winner!



Buying Seeds From Garden Catalogs–Or Even If You Do Everything Right, Things Can Still Die And It Won’t Be Your Fault

So I’ve already talked about some of my favorite garden catalogs like Baker Creek and linked to Margaret Roach’s blog with the list of all the organic seed companies. What I want to talk about now is why you might want to buy seeds from a catalog instead of from the local rack in your grocer/hardware store/big box stores.

Seeds are everywhere and they have been for quite some time. For those of us that have been avid seed starters, there’s nothing better than poring over huge selections of seeds, both in person at the garden center and in all the lovely catalogs that come to the house.

As a general rule, however, unless it’s a real impulse purchase, I only buy seeds through the mail.  Why?  For the most part, I think that the conditions where they have been stored, and the conditions where they are kept are more tightly controlled.  And that gives me a better chance of success with those seeds.

Because let’s face it, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with seeds.  They need to be kept evenly most but not overly wet–a difficult thing to achieve. And even if you do achieve that, there is always that nasty fungal disease, damping off, to contend with. It’s not your fault–it just happens.  Certain seeds are more prone to it than others and there are certain things you can do to try to avoid it but after I lost 9 out of 10 trays of seedlings one season to it I dramatically cut back my seed starting, re-educated myself about seeds (never mid about heartbreak!) and learned that some things just aren’t your fault.

Maybe that’s the biggest lesson a mature gardener can learn–even if you do everything right, stuff still happens.

It doesn’t just happen with seeds, although at the most elemental level, it starts there.  It can happen with plants, it can happen with trees and shrubs–basically it happens all through the gardening process.  And inexperienced gardeners always blame themselves.  This is so very wrong.

Just because a plant dies–or a seed fails to grow–it’s not always your fault.  Sometimes it is. Sometimes you didn’t water enough, or you watered too much.  But barring those two basic things (and failing to notice some disease or pest destroying the plant) very little else is your fault.

So if a seed fails to sprout, what did you do wrong? How is that your fault?  Most likely it isn’t. Most likely the seed wasn’t stored at the right temperature or harvested properly or perhaps you buried it too deeply but it can often overcome that.

No, if a seed doesn’t come up, more likely that not, that fault is the seed company’s.  So choose your seeds wisely.  They’re not that expensive.

And if you do buy them in a store, try to avoid a rack that’s in front of a drafty door or a sunny window or any extremes in temperature that might cause the seeds to bake or freeze when they’re not supposed to.  Seeds aren’t fool-proof.

But the good news is that for a couple of dollars, when seeds grow, you can harvest enough to feed you, your family, and your whole neighborhood. You will probably even have enough to give away to a food bank.

So by all means, grow seeds! It’s definitely worth it!