Category Archives: Seeds & Seed Starting

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.
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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.

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!