Category Archives: Seeds & Seed Starting

Tips for Starting Lettuce Indoors

 

Lettuce seedlings started indoors

Tiny lettuce plants in grow tray.

Look closely. Can you see them? Tiny, the size of a filament, maybe a bit bigger than a human hair.

You are looking a freshly sprouted lettuce.  I tucked these seeds in this grow tray 3 days ago – moist seed starting mix, a dash of vermiculite on top and water in the tray.

They came up on their own.

Lettuce likes the cold and doesn’t need light to sprout. Once they stick their heads up out of the soil, all you have to do is keep the soil moist and the light on (for 10 hours) and close to the seedlings so they don’t get spindly.

Lettuce plants ready to transplant.

Lettuce plants just before transplant.

In 4 or 5 weeks, these tiny plants will look like these babies, which are about ready to be hardened off and transplanted so they can enjoy the cool days and cooler nights of early spring.

I put my first crop of lettuce in the ground when the price for 12 ounces of the organic stuff hit $5.98 a bag.  That comes to $18 a week for just a bit over a pound of green leafy lettuce.  I haven’t looked back since.

Why?

Transplant lettuce in March.

Transplanting lettuce is easy.

Lettuce is one of the easiest crops I have ever raised.  And, it’s a two-fer! Save your seeds and pay no more (well maybe you’ll have to buy seed every 3 or 4 years). Just keep planting and harvesting.

If you want to grow organic, you have to be particular about whose seed you buy. I want organic seed, especially if I plan on saving and sowing.  And I want flavorful leaf lettuce — not head lettuce you have to chop with a cleaver.  And I definitely do not want Genetically Modified (GMO) seed.

There are four places I buy seed:

Adaptive Seeds – this is relatively new company, established in 2009 and based at Open Oak Farm in Sweet Home, Oregon. Their seeds are absolutely wonderful.  The moving forces behind this company – Sarah Kleeger and Andrew Still — are devoted to “…finding, stewarding and sharing rare, diverse and resilient seed varieties for ecologically-minded farmers, gardeners and seed savers.” They sell only public domain, open pollinated (OP) seed, as well as many diverse gene pool mixes.

Hudson Valley Seed Library –  the variety they offer is impressive.  Their seed is  locally grown in a climate and soil not unlike mine here in Zone 6b.  And this company helps support school and community gardeners with donations of seeds.

Territorial Seeds – kind of the granddaddy of organic seed growers, this company was organic before organic went mainstream.  Family owned, Territorial Seeds has a fantastic reputation for the seeds it sells and the customer service it brings to the table.

Grow Italian – I discovered this company more than a decade ago and it’s my go to seed company for all things Italian including some lettuce and mixed greens.  When you buy a packet of lattuga from them, you get high quality, high-germinating seeds and a lot of them.

Lettuce is an easy crop to grow and so tasty.

I think the hardest part of growing lettuce is picking the kinds you want to try.  But once you have your seeds, planting is so easy, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

I supplement my indoor seedlings by sowing seeds right in the garden bed.  One problem with sowing lettuce is that the seeds are small and lightweight and they tend to drop into the dirt in clumps or blow off my hand. I used to have a hard time getting them to spread out on the soil but here’s a trick my sister taught me.

  1. Get some soil – take it from your garden if it’s rich and light or grab some potting mix.
  2. Fill a quart jar about 2/3rds full of the soil.
  3. Put lettuce seeds in the jar.  I put different types together so I grow my own “mixed greens.”
  4. Shake the jar until all the seeds are mixed, uniformly, through the soil.
  5. Gently shake the soil out of the jar and into your beds. If you can still see some of them, put just a tiny bit of dirt over the visible ones.
  6. Water the seeds in.

Then all you have to do is water every day until the seeds sprout.  Then water weekly and wait for the lettuce to grow.

A few more tips:

  1. Don’t plant in the summer!  Lettuce, like beets, likes cool weather. Plant in the spring and again in August for harvest in late September and October.
  2. Start lettuce plants indoors if you want.  I use 40-cell growing trays and start mine in early February.  When I transplant, I cover the babies with a small tunnel to protect them from frost.
  3. When you cut lettuce leaves, don’t cut them down to the ground.  Cut about an inch from the bottom and you will get a second crop.
  4. If you want to save the seeds, plant for a spring harvest but only cut the first crop.  Let the second set of lettuce leaves grow up and flower.  Then wait.  It will be tempting to take the flower heads off when they get their puffy, white hair.  DON’T.  The seeds need to mature.  Wait until the heads are dry, brown and about ready to burst.  Then pull the seed heads off, take the seeds out and let them dry in a small strainer for a couple of weeks.  I refrigerate mine once they’re dry and plant them in the fall.

So while the wind howls around our house, I am happily ensconced in the basement playing with and planting lettuce seeds.

Excerpted from my book – Grow So Easy: Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us – a guide to easy, fun and productive organic gardening for everyone.

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Starting Seeds Indoors – IT’S TIME!

My palms are itching. My toes are tapping. My heart is beating faster! It’s time to

Starting seeds indoors is easy

Starting indoors seeds is easy!

start my seedlings!

Not all of them, you understand but it’s  enough for me to start the cool weather babies — lettuce, kale, beets and maybe even a Brassica or two.

Seed starting is really easy as long as you pay attention to a few basics:

Buy the right seed. Now what in the world does that mean? Seed is seed, right? Not in today’s world. Unless it’s certified organic, you could be buying seeds infused with herbicides and pesticides. And guess what? The herbicide and pesticide actually grow right into your plants and right into your produce.

So, only buy 100% certified organic seeds. Where? My favorite outlets for healthy and happy seeds are:

  1. Seeds of Change
  2. Seed Savers Exchange
  3. High Mowing Seeds
  4. Hudson Valley Seeds
  5. Territorial Seeds

These folks have healthy seeds that ensure you grow healthy plants and healthy produce. And they have ideas, tips and equipment for getting started. NOTE: you do NOT have to buy a whole lot of “stuff” to start gardening.

Start your seeds in the right dirt. I know, dirt is dirt. But is it? And what

Seedlings get a good start in healthy dirt.

Healthy dirt means healthy seedlings.

difference does dirt make to growing healthy, happy plants and healthful food? Dirt is everything.

This is one thing I buy every year. Why? Because dirt for starting seeds has to be organic. I get mine from Gardener’s Supply – employee owned and US-based, their seed starting mix has stood the test of time for more than 25 years!

Have the right equipment and tools. Most of my gardening stuff was used when I started. It still is. My favorite seed starting tool are my seed starting kits.

Grow trays are best seed starting tools.

Grow trays are perfect for starting seeds.

I bought these 25 years ago and they are still working great!  The small cell of dirt heats up fast. The base and mat ensure the seedlings never dry out but they also never get too wet or damp off.

If you’re just starting out, don’t invest too much before you start growing. Look around and use stuff you already have or someone else can loan you. Or check Craigslist and pick up gardening equipment for a song!

I found most of my tools and you can too so don’t let the cost of tools scare you off. (The post on finding tools was written 5 years ago but it still stands as does its companion post on garden tools that are nice to have.)

Getting started is so easy. I hope you take a chance. Grow your favorite vegetable on your patio, in a pot on the back porch or in a plot in the back yard.

Green and organic garden in summer.

My garden in July, 2016.

Give it a shot and just 5 months from now, you could be looking at gorgeous, healthy veggies growing on your very own plants!

Looking for more tips on seed starting? Margaret Roach, one of my most favorite gardening gurus, offers her own seed starting wisdom, too.

Join in. Get your hands dirty. And start growing your own food. It’s fun and it really is easy!!

Tips for Getting Ready to Garden

Organic tomatoes on a trellis

Tomatoes enjoying their trellis.

I’m a hardcore organic gardener so, gardening never really stops for me.

My first tip: if you are really into organic gardening and enjoying fresh and truly healthy produce, ONLY buy organic and heirloom seeds from sources you trust.  Tip 1A: if you invest in organic seed, heirloom seed, consider saving seeds from your garden and using them next spring.

There are a dozen reasons to try seed saving but I can think of two that drive me. When you save seed, you:

  1. Save money and you save the planet, just a bit (and that’s all anyone can ask for).
  2. Create seeds that are uniquely adapted to your soil, your growing environment.

Here’s my second tip for anyone who wants to garden, is gardening or thinks

Bag garden waste

Bag your garden waste.

gardening prep is done in the spring. I do it all my garden clean up AND prep in the fall!

In fact, all of my garden beds get prepped in September and early October. Newly composted soil is spread on each raised bed. Fences and trellises are taken down, cleaned and stowed.

Tomato cages are pulled up off the sweet red peppers they supported all summer long and put away. My blackberries are thinned, blueberry bushes are trimmed. Elderberries, goji berries and figs are cleaned, dead wood and branches removed

Straw protects my garden.

Straw protects my garden in the winter.

and then, all of my beds, bushes and berries get covered with straw, bale after bale of bright golden yellow straw…and every bed, bush and berry goes to sleep, dreaming of spring and another growing season.

Doing this work in the fall means that, usually, I am doing what all gardeners do in the winter  — thumbing through seed catalogs, cleaning my seed starting gear, ordering organic seed starting mix (detect a theme?) and just generally getting ready to…start seeds!

Tip number three – start planning your spring garden in November and December and start ordering any seeds or supplies you need as early as you can. If you don’t, you may be in for a rude surprise. Vendors sell out!

This year, I didn’t follow my own advice. I sort of lost all my steam and stopped. I can’t blame a “hard” winter; it’s been screwy but not a lot of snow or ice, so far. I haven’t been sick, nor has my husband. I’m not working so I can’t use that as an excuse. True confession: I’ve been hibernating this winter.

I didn’t even know I was hibernating until this morning, until one of my online buddies, Chrystal wrote about her kale and the big freeze of 2017.  After reading her post about kale and herbs and garlic and forsythia…my sap started to rise and I started thinking about March and getting growing.

I’ve missed out on some seeds I really wanted to try this year but, after inventorying what I saved and what I had left, I think 2017 is going to be a great gardening year!

To the basement! It’s time to plug in the lights, clean off the seed starting trays and get ready to grow!

How To Water Your Garden

Successful organic gardening relies on a series of small but vital choices we, as the gardeners make. Something as simple as where you buy the seed you choose to plant is pivotal in today’s world of GMO where even the seed coat can affect the final product.

The view from the meadow.

Weather can help or hurt a garden.

Some factors, like the volatility of the weather, are out of our hands but other factors like proper hardening, picking the right site for each plant and deciding what day you put your babies in the ground all affect gardening success.

But one of the most important factors is watering. When do you water? How do you deliver the water? How much? How often?

These are all important watering questions but I like to think that “when” is one of the most important. Why? Because timing is vital especially to the “newly transplanted.”

Half a century ago, at my mother’s knee, I learned one tip that has helped me

Watering in new transplants is vital.

When you water new transplants is critical.

move vegetable and herb starts from peat pots to the ground, easily.

Transplanting is pretty simple. Dig the hole, peel the peat pot back so that none of it is sticking up above ground level, place the transplant in the new hole and firmly press dirt all around it.

But there is one more step you have to take to help ensure every plant you put in the ground survives. Mom called it, “watering in.”

Watering in is so simple but so many people forget to do it. Once the transplant is in the ground and the earth is tamped down around it, pour a couple of cups of water over the plant. This simple act – watering in – does a couple of critical things. It:

  1. Ensures the roots of your baby and the dirt are in solid contact.
  2. Eliminates air pockets that could dry out bits of the baby roots and kill the plant.
  3. Stops the dirt from acting like a sponge and wicking off the water.

Watering in new transplants works. This year, I transplanted a total of 199 fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers in my garden. I only lost 2. I credit watering in with my success.

Watering in is just one tip in Deep-Rooted wisdom.

Deep-Rooted Wisdom is my favorite gardening book.

It’s been 60 years since my Mom introduced me to this concept and this summer, for the first time, I read about this technique in what has rapidly become my favorite gardening book.

Deep-Rooted Wisdom by Augustus Jenkins Farmer was a gift from my sister-in-law,(I think the best gift I got for my 68th birthday!) Watering in is just one of the common sense ideas for gardening that the author offers.

Read up, give them a try and let me know what happens in your garden!

If you want more watering tips, check out the best soaker hose I have found! It’s also one of the tools I consider “nice to have.” You can garden without it but over time, the hoses will pay for themselves.

Happy gardening!

 

Tips for Gardening For Aging Backs

I admit it.  My back hurts.

It pretty much hurts all the time now. Following two surgeries on my left hip, I was left with two scars (7 inches and 4 inches) slashing horizontally from spine to hip bone and doing battle every day to see which cut muscle can spasm the most.

Some days, it seems like they are both winning but a little pain is not stopping me from putting in my garden this year. In fact, it’s made me rethink a few things.

Straw protects my garden.

Straw protects my garden in the winter.

First tip: Prep the Beds Early
All of my soil is covered by straw for over-wintering. Straw keeps down weeds but it also keeps the soil cooler, longer.

If you grow Mediterranean veggies like I do — tomatoes, peppers, eggplant – you know the soil has to be warm, warm, warm so the first job is pulling the straw back.

Instead of trying to get all my prep done is a day, now I spread it out over a week or two. The steps are easy but all of them require bending to which my back says, “No!”

So here are the steps I take to prep the garden:

  1. The first thing I do is pull back straw from my planting areas.
  2. Next, I move the fences and rails I am going to use to trellis everything from tomatoes to cucumbers to new locations.
  3. The raised beds get the next look-see. I add soil or compost to the beds, level them off and get them ready to receive my transplants.
  4. Last but definitely not least, I lay out my soaker hoses being careful not to knock about the baby lettuce already growing.

    Soaker hoses around baby lettuce.

    Soaker hoses are set in place early.

Second tip: Fast versus Slow
That blasted tortoise showed up this year and gave me some advice on how to win the race to put my garden in without too much pain. I am following it.

I used to put ALL of my plants in the ground on one day. When I say all, let me give you my count for 2016:

  • 16 cherry tomatoes
  • 4 San Marzano tomatoes
  • 12 Sweet Italian Peppers
  • 5 Rosa Bianca Eggplants
  • 6 Zuchetta
  • 14 cucumbers
  • 4 basil plants
  • 2 Italian parsley plants
  • Countless flowers for interplanting

That’s 63 plants and 63 holes of varying depths, all at once. And this list doesn’t include the 3 types of beans I put in the ground now that the lilac is finally in full bloom.

This year, I am staging my planting. I dug 16 holes for the tomatoes, a week before I needed them. All I have to do is set the tomatoes in holes, press, water them in and stake them and quit for the day. The “quitting” is the hardest part for me but I am letting my back give me orders this year.

If my back feels okay the next day, I will dig the holes for the eggplant and the peppers and plant the following day. Holes for herbs will be next, then planting. Last to go in the ground will be zukes and cukes around the end of May because these babies really like their soil warm.

Third tip: Plan for the Future

Raised beds keep my back happier.

Raised beds are easier on my back.

The size of my garden hasn’t changed much over the years but how I garden has.

I started with no raised beds; this year 6 of them. One is an old Chevy truck bed in the background.

Two are new galvanized oval-shaped beds and

3 are home-made, 12 foot long boards held together with corners from Gardener’s Supply.

Raised beds let me work with soil that is softer, more friable and easier to dig in. I also can reach the ground a bit easier as it is close to my knees. I can sink stakes and cages and trellises into my raised beds without my hand sledge.

I plan on adding 2 more raised beds next year so I will have even less digging to do when it comes to prep and planting.

 

Bees Susceptible to Neonics Used on Seeds & Seedlings

Bee on sunflower.

A bee visits one of my sunflowers.

If you’re an organic gardener, you don’t use neonics which we know are killing bees and damaging the environment. Or so you think.

But, if you are not buying organic seeds and organic plants, you very well may be poisoning bees right in your own back yard.

Eartheasy shares the latest information on neonics and on how these deadly herbicides and pesticides have slipped into just about every aspect of the farming and gardening world and the result is devastating.

For example, Marta Spivak, an entomologist and Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota, suggests that  this could be the foundation for “…the problem of the Varroa destructor mite, which spread widely in the 1990’s. If a bee’s immune system is already compromised by even a low dose of neonics (for example, the concentration found if only the seed of a plant is treated) it can make it all the more difficult for the bee to recover when it encounters the dreaded mite.”

Eartheasy provides more information and more insights on their site. Check it out and find out how we might just be undermining the health and well-being of our bee friends and not even know it!

 

When To Plant Veggies

It’s that time of year…finally!

I think I can actually start planning on putting out some of my home-grown plants. Weather in zone 6B has finally moderated. No more wild extremes like 81 degrees on Monday and 27 degrees on Friday night!

We’ve been on a roller coaster ride for temperatures and high (and constant) winds in the Mid-Atlantic states. The weather has made gardening more like a series of fits and starts than planning and planting.

Cold temperatures and high winds stunted the garlic.

Garlic stunted by cold and wind.

My lettuce and kale got burned almost to the ground in spite of having been covered by a tunnel of plastic! Wind swept under one end of the tunnel and flipped it off on night. I didn’t catch it until the next morning and by then, the damage was done. Even my garlic took a hit and that’s hard to do.

But now, it looks like we are getting to the time when something other than kale, beets, lettuce, onions and garlic can be put in the ground so here are some tips for getting your babies and their new “digs” ready.

Prep your soil!

If your garden soil has been covered during the winter, uncover it. I pull straw back about 12 inches from the fences I use to support my plants so the soil can warm up.

If you’re going to amend your soil, adding worm castings or compost (or both), now is the time to turn it and add the amendments. I use 1-year-old horse manure so I have to dig down, put manure in the trench, and cover the manure with about 8 inches of soil. I want to feed my babies, not burn their new roots.

Lay down your soaker hoses. It’s so much easier to put soaker hoses on the ground before you put your veggie plants in so take an afternoon to organize and lay them out especially where you’re going to plant tomatoes, which you don’t really want to spray with water.

Harden them off!

Hardening off your plants does NOT involve tools or torture.  It just means that you have to introduce your transplants to the outdoors, gradually.

Five or six days before you want to put them in the garden, start setting them outside for a an hour a day for 2 days, 2 to 3 hours a day for 2 to 3 days, 8 hours a day for 3 days and only then (and only if it’s not hailing or very windy) do they get their first overnight! Keep an eye on them.  Make sure they have water and are not staked out in high sun or high wind.

NOTE:  when hardening off, stop fertilizing.  If the plants have small flowers or fruit on them, pinch both off.  You want to help transplants direct all of their energy to rooting in the soil before trying to set flowers or fruit.

Plant When It’s Warm!

I also used to hurry and plant my babies by May 7th or 8th. Frequently, the ground was too cold for warm weather crops like tomatoes and peppers and they simply stopped growing for a couple of weeks (or forever in some cases).  Putting plants in the ground too early can be deadly so give the soil a chance to warm while you get your plants ready for the great outdoors.

Remember, plants that I call “Mediterranean”like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant like warm earth and warm air. The optimal air temperature for them to go into the ground is 75 to 85 degrees. In my neck of the woods, that means these warm weather babies are typically transplanted the last week of May, especially if the weather is dicey.

So, even though it’s not quite time to start putting your plants in the ground, you can go out and play in the dirt, yourself. Get your garden ready for the big day! Your babies will thank you.