Category Archives: Seeds & Seed Starting

Practical Organic Gardening – Free tips on Growing Lettuce

Red Butterhead lettuce ready for harvest.

Red Butterhead lettuce makes a soft, beautiful head that’s perfect for salads.

I love raising my own lettuce.  It’s a love born out of hate.  That sounds like an oxymoron but it isn’t.

I started raising lettuce when the price for 12 ounces of the organic stuff hit $5.98 a bag.  For me, that’s $18 a week for under two pounds of green leafy lettuce.

Do the math.  I was spending almost $1000 a year on lettuce!  Try doing that on a fixed income.

I hated paying the price so I stared planting and growing my own.  And guess what?  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 every 3 or 4 years).  Just keep planting and harvesting.

So, let’s start with seeds.  I am pretty particular about whose seed I buy.  I want organic seed, especially if I plan on saving and sowing.

Organic red leaf lettuce

Organic red leaf lettuce grows quickly and tastes sweet by itself or in salads.

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 three places I buy seed:

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 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.

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 tend to sow the seeds right in the garden bed.

One problem when planting 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 spout.  Then water weekly and wait for the lettuce to grow.

A few more tips:

Don’t plant in the summer!  Lettuce, like beets, likes cool weather.  You can plant in the spring and again in August for harvest in late September and October.

Start lettuce plants indoors if you want.  I use 40-cell growing trays.

Seed starting in cells

Cell system for seed starting

And I start mine in early February.  When I transplant, I cover the babies with a small tunnel to protect them from frost.

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.

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.

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Practical Organic Gardening – Growing Tomatoes!

fox cherry tomatoes

Fox Cherry tomatoes are a staple in my garden.

As promised, it’s time to start thinking about what to plant. Most gardeners, me included, rely on one summertime favorite, the tomato, to grace their gardens every year!

Why tomatoes?

Tomatoes are pretty hardy plants.  And they’re happy growing in containers.  They’ll even grow hanging from a hook, upside down.    So, even if you don’t have any space for a garden plot, even if you can’t grow anything else, you can grow tomatoes.

If you’re new to gardening, you might want to start with a few tomato plants instead of starting seed. Why?

Tomatoes from seeds

Tomato seedlings growing indoors.

Most warm weather crops  like tomatoes, should be started 10 to 12 weeks before your last frost.

In my zone, Zone 6a, that means I am in the basement, filling peat pots and dropping in seeds in the second week of February.

From the moment the seeds go into the pots until I get them ready for transplant, I have to pay attention – keep them warm, water them, feed them and ensure they are healthy and happy.

So, if you’re just starting out, buying plants may be a lot easier and a lot less risky.

Tomato Basics
Before we talk about the hundreds of varieties of tomatoes available today, let’s talk about a couple of categories that you should know about when you pick seeds or buy plants, namely determinate and indeterminate.

Tomatoes come in both these varieties.  What’s the difference? Determinate varieties bear their crop all at once and tend to be more compact.  Don’t have much space?  Try these.

Indeterminate tomatoes bear fruit all season and grow longer vines.

Organic tomatoes on a trellis

Tomatoes enjoying their trellis.

These vines require support (staking or caging) over the growing season.   Got room and a couple of fence sections?  Try these.

I usually plant both so I can make tomato sauce, paste and barbecue sauce with the determinate varieties and eat the indeterminate tomatoes all summer long.

Now let’s talk about types of tomatoes?  From this organic gardener’s chair, I think of tomatoes as coming in three types – plum tomatoes, slicers and cherry or grape tomatoes.

 

  1. Plums – these are the kind you can use to make great tomato paste or pasta sauce with.
  2. Slicers – these are great for burgers or sliced and served with just a salt shaker.
  3. Cherry or Grape Tomatoes – these are tiny bundles of tomato flavor that taste great right off the vine.

Again, I plant a few of all three types because I love them.  You can pick and choose the ones you like the best and plant those.

Tips on Planting Tomatoes
Tomatoes are warm weather plants; they really don’t like cold soil or cold air.  You can plant them out on the ragged fringe of your last frost date but putting them in the ground too early may just stunt their growth.  So tomatoes should not go into your ground until the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees.

Tomatoes should be given some room to breathe.  Plants should be 2 to 3 feet apart and rows should be 3 feet apart.  This gives the tomato plants room to spread out, especially the indeterminate ones that can grow vines that are more than 9 feet long.

NOTE:  Overcrowding is a mistake I make over and over again and by August, I can’t reach my plants and bugs are having a field day dining on ripe tomatoes. Space them better and get better crops and fewer pests.  (Now to get me to follow my own advice….)

When planting tomatoes in the ground:

  1. Pick a nice sunny spot that drains well.  The slight slope in my garden ensures that the roots of the tomato plants are wet but don’t drown.
  2. Remove all containers (plastic or clay) from the plants except peat pots.  If using peat pots, just grasp the bottom and start to close your fist.  That pincer movement punches small holes in the bottom that roots can slide through quickly.
  3. Strip off all but the top set of leaves.
  4. Make sure you dig a hole that is deep enough to bury the stem up to the very last set of leaves at the top.  Yes, I really do mean bury them deep.  The stem that you put underground will send out roots and very quickly anchor the plant and give it a lot of opportunities to take up nutrients and water.
  5. Fill the hole with the dirt you removed and tamp it down to make sure there are no pockets of air around the roots.
  6. Water the transplants in by pouring 1 or 2 cups of water on the ground at the base of the stem of each plant immediately after transplanting.  NOTE:  You can use a very weak liquid fertilizer (2 tablespoons to a gallon of water) if you want but I don’t fertilize until about 2 weeks after I have transplanted.
  7. Mulch with straw around each transplant.  Mulching also makes for a weed free garden – the only state I want to be in when it comes to gardening.  It also ensures that moisture is retained and to make sure rain water doesn’t splash up on the leaves of the tomato plants.  Water that splashes up off the soil can cause verticulum wilt or mosaic tobacco virus, the two most common diseases in the tomato family.  By the way, never smoke in your garden – you can make your plants sick, literally.

Stake your tomato babies when you plant them.  Tomatoes grow fast so if you wait, it may be too late to get a tomato cage or a stake in place.  Staking prevents some diseases and improves your yield.  It also makes it much easier to pick once the plants start producing fruit.

staking tomatoes

Staking with found items

What should you use for stakes?  Visit any gardening or hardware store and pick up wooden stakes or, my favorite, metal stakes.  I also use old fence section and have been known to use an old box spring on occasion.

If it doesn’t rain and/or if it is very hot during the first week after transplanting, make sure to check the plants to see if they are drooping or wilting and pour another cup or two of water on them if they are.

Once your tomato babies are in the ground and have weathered the first week, there are only a couple of things you need to do to ensure a good crop:

Always pinch off the first flowers on all your tomato plants.  The plants are still trying to get established in the ground.  They don’t need babies to distract them from growing into strong, healthy plants.

When the second set of flowers appear on the plants, mix 2 tablespoons of Epsom salts into one gallon of water and use one cup for every foot of height the plant has – 2 feet = 2 cups.  Epsom salts provide magnesium and sulfur – both needed to produce chlorophyll and allow for proper absorption of phosphorous and nitrogen.  NOTE:  Don’t use too much Epsom salts.  If you do, you will get lots of beautiful, green leaves and bushy plants but not many tomatoes.

Tomatoes should get 1 to 2 inches of rain a week.  If it doesn’t rain, make sure you water them.  I use soaker hoses.  Soaker hoses save water and prevent the spread of soil borne diseases.

Tomato horn worm eating tomatoes.

A tomato horn

Keep an eye out for the tomato hornworm – a big green caterpillar that likes to eat tomato plants.  If you see one munching through your garden and you don’t have trichogamma wasps, use pliers if you have to but pull it off and kill it.

If you have trichogamma wasps, sit back and watch the show.

Trichogramma wasp eggs on hornworm

Wasp eggs on hornworm

The wasp lays eggs on the hornworm. When the larvae hatch, they dine on their host. It’s not pretty but the wasps are an effective and natural control for these destructive pests.

If you planted indeterminate tomatoes, take a few minutes a week to check for and remove the axillary or side shoots that come off the plant.  But don’t go crazy and strip off a whole lot of leaves.  Tomatoes can get sunburned – really – and burned fruit just doesn’t taste all that good.

So trim lightly. Keep the plants from getting too bushy. Use their energy for  production.

Fertilize your tomato plants when the fruit are an inch or more long. I use fish emulsion mixed with water and poured around the roots of every plant.  This is sometimes called “side-dressing” a plant.  Another free fertilizer is crushed eggshells. Just put about 1/2 cup of crushed shells around the base of each plant.

You can side dress the second time right after picking the first ripe fruit and make a 3rd and final application a month later.

When it comes to harvesting your tomatoes, you can do it by look and feel or you can do it by temperature.  If the average daily temperature is around 75 degrees and the fruits are red, they are ready to be picked.  And don’t refrigerate tomatoes.  The flavor and quality of the tomato will be much better if it is kept at room temperature.

One of my favorite resources for learning about tomatoes is online.  Although it is a Missouri extension office, the basic information works for any gardener, almost anywhere.

And that is how to grow tomatoes.

 

Free Organic Gardening Book

If you ever wanted to learn all about organic gardening, the good, the bad and the ugly…just sign up for this blog and sit back.

Every week or so, I am going to upload a chapter of my organic gardening book which you can read for free!

Today, I am starting at the beginning…that would be Chapters 1 & 2 (the chapters are short) of Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us. Enjoy!

Chapter I – Why This Book

Organic gardening is easy, practical and cheap!

My all organic, backyard garden.

Remember when you decided you wanted to start a garden?  You told a friend, spouse, garden center guy and then got bombarded with miscellaneous stories of gardening disaster.  All that support really made you want to go out and start tilling the soil, right?

I hate it when I hear someone telling another would be gardener how hard it is to get things to grow or how easy it is to kill this vegetable or that one.  Why?  Because, instead of gardening, you probably wanted to run home, mix up your favorite drink and sit down with the remote control.

Too many people in the gardening business write or talk about how hard organic gardening is or how complicated it is.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to make people who read their articles or buy their books put down the shovel or rake and walk back into the house.

They’re lying!  Organic gardening is easy!  It’s cheaper than going the chemical route and it’s fun!

Organic gardening is so easy the lettuce practically grows itself.

Organic lettuce is easy to grow.

The truth is gardening can be as easy as you want to make it.  It’s all about what you want to grow.  Figure out what you want to plant, how many plants you want to put in, how large a garden space you want and what works in your planting zone.

One tip from someone whose motto is, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”

Start small and only plant those crops you want.  Lettuce is so easy to grow that it practically raises itself! It’s a cool weather crop that loves early spring and late fall. And it helps save you $5.00 for organic greens in the store!

Think about it. Stores sell spring greens mix for $5.00 for 12 ounces.  Fifty two weeks of buying greens comes to just under $300.  You can raise enough for you and your significant other for less than $3.00 a year.

Some seeds, some dirt and some water, a little kindness and a lot of sunlight and you are on your way to creating your own organic garden.  So, dig in!

Reading This Book

Organic gardening tips

Organic gardening is so easy.

This book is designed so you can pick it up, look up a specific plant or bush and read about the good, the bad and the ugly for just that one selection.  Or you can read it cover to cover – starting at the back if you want to and working forward.

Why?

Because a lot of us gardeners aren’t very linear.  And many of us would rather “give it a go” than sit down and read about gardening.  So I tried to give you what you need, when you need it.

Want to raise blueberries?  Interested in saving your own seeds?  Want to get a handle

Organic gardening is easy.

Organic gardening is all about getting your hands dirty!

on techniques like composting, using organic fertilizers or even doing battle with Japanese beetles?  Check the Table of Contents and flip to the right page.

Want the back stories?  The pain of losing a loved one to Verticillium Wilt?

Make a cup of herbal tea, start here and just drift through the book, laughing, learning and, I hope, getting a powerful yen to get out there and get dirty.

 

PS – if you can’t find it in my book, I didn’t kill it.

 

Hardening Off Plants Before Transplanting

Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and zucchini wait for transplanting

Veggie plants waiting for transplant.

It’s May 19th and my tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers and zucchini are still not in the ground.

Cold, windy weather kept the bees inside the hive and this gardener indoors with trays of plants crowding the top of her desk and claiming space on the floor.

 Then, the temperatures shot up to high 80’s and low 90’s and trying to harden off became a game between me, the sun and the time of day.
Zucchini, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant being baked in the sun.

Plants being burned by the sun.

All 74 plants go outside in the morning but by 2:30 PM, all of them are back, inside, feeling the burn.

It’s almost the end of May and I am still trying to harden off my plants and get them in the ground! I would like to stop doing this particular dance with my plants but I know better.
Peppers, cukes, zukes and eggplant baking on the patio.

Veggie transplants baking in the sun.

Hardening off is necessary to move the plants from a controlled environment into the world of wind, sun, rain and changing temperatures. Don’t harden off and your plants will die.

This weekend, no matter what the temperature, I will be planting my babies and saying small prayers over their little, green bodies. Here’s hoping the sun and the wind relent for just a few days!
After all, it is May, the merry, malleable and ever-changing month of May. Hope I get the garden in the ground in the next week.

April; The Cruelest Month for Gardeners

April blooms

Blooming April in my yard.

It is April, beautiful April in my backyard.

When I walk into my garden, I know that no matter what goes on in Washington, D.C., I have this patch of peace, of paradise, to turn to.

And there is so much promise out there, now, beckoning.

Cherries, apples and blueberries are in full bloom!

Apples trees covered in blossoms.

Apple trees in full bloom.

Onions are rising straight up out of the dark soil and straw that make their beds and baby beets, lettuce and spinach are sprouting, everywhere.

April means onions, lettuce and spinach sprouting.

Onions, lettuce and spinach growing in April.

Everything is growing!

So why is April the cruelest month for gardeners? I have 20+ tomato plants in my basement, hard by 20+ sweet peppers, varying varieties begging to be planted.

Tomatoes and peppers in pots.

Eggplant are rising up in their cells, growing taller and stronger every single day.

Raised from seed, started in early February, lovingly cared for, they are so tall, so hardy looking, so ready.

My fingers itch to set them out in the deep rich soil I have prepped for them. But I can’t.

Raised beds for my tomatoes

Bed waiting for tomatoes!

If I put them out now, they will flounder; they will stop growing. They will be delayed in both flowering and fruiting. Why?

The days are warm; we’ve already hit the low 80’s a couple of times. But the soil is still too cold as are the nights. Setting Mediterranean plants in cool Pennsylvania soil now would mean later, smaller harvests of tomatoes and quite likely no harvest of either peppers or eggplant.

So, like all the gardeners everywhere who are poised to plant in April, I wait for the warm soil and soft breezes of mid-May when I fill all these beds with the plants I have been spending time with, worrying over and feeding for 3 months.

Spring? Where Did You Go??

Lettuce cut for salad

Hacked off lettuce.

I know I always start my seeds too early. But never before have I actually had to eat the lettuce I was growing in my 40 cell seed starter.

It feels very cannabalistic. But I had to. The lettuce was 6 inches high and growing fast!

I confess, it was quite tasty. And I confess to adding liquid fertilizer to the grow tray after the slaughter. Why not? Hydroponic gardeners do that, right?

Lettuce waiting to be cut.

Lettuce watching me.

But the remains are sitting on the desk, in front of the big window, watching me. It’s really, really weird.   Now it’s all hacked off. And it’s all my fault.

This year, like every year, I started lettuce and beets in the basement in early February. The plan was to put the healthy transplants in the ground in early March.

The plan was thwarted by 6 inches of snow, followed closely by 2 inches of pure ice and topped off with another 4 inches of snow. It fell almost 2 weeks ago but still, it lingers.

Tomato babies ready for transplant.

Tomatoes ready for bigger pots.

I usually gauge transplant time pretty well. I guess weather forecasters aren’t the only ones being thrown off by the moving jet stream and the heating planet. Nonetheless, tomato babies and seedling peppers are up in the basement nursery, too.

Here’s hoping I get the start of Summer a bit better than I did Spring!  Happy gardening everyone!

 

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.