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!

DON’T BUY Gilmour Soaker Hoses

It is with my sincere apologies that I share this information:

Gilmour Soaker hoses contain “…one or more chemicals that are known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects.”

I have had my soaker hoses for years. When I published an endorsement of the hoses on my other blog – Write on Target, I simply had no idea that the products used to create these soaker hoses contain chemicals that are dangerous like lead, BPA and phthalates.

If you want to know what hoses to buy, which ones are safe and which ones are not, please go to Eartheasy, one of my favorite resources, and read their article on healthy hoses.

Please accept my sincere apologies for endorsing a product that is anything but healthy.

SPECIAL THANKS to Kate Russell for letting me know about the dangers of Gilmour soaker hoses…and all other hoses.

Tips for Fall Garden Clean Up

Green and organic garden in summer.

My garden in July, 2016.

T.S. Eliot got it wrong. April isn’t the cruelest month; it’s September. It’s the time of year when your garden goes from lush, green, verdant…

Tips for cleaning up your garden

Garden clean up in progress

To brown and gold broken up only by beets, Swiss chard, kale and lettuce.

Not only is the growing season drawing to a close for many of us…but it’s time to clean up!

I used to hate cleaning up my garden in the fall. When I  looked out my kitchen window and  saw more brown than green, I would grimace and think, “…next weekend.”  Inevitably, clean up kept getting pushed back by other, more pleasing events like the Brewfest in Kennett Square or the Hagley Car Show .
But not anymore.

Tomato horn worm eating tomatoes.

A tomato horn worm in my garden.

I’ve discovered that cleaning up is the perfect time to find unwanted visitors like the varmint that was eating my tomatoes. This fat and happy tomato horn worm is enjoying his last meal.

While tearing down my tomato trellises, I found a dozen of these beautiful but sinister worms as I cleaned up the tomato bed. But I also learned that all but 2 were covered with trichogramma wasp eggs, like the little fellow below.

Trichogramma wasp eggs on hornworm

Wasp eggs on hornworm

Fall cleaning, removing leaves, vines and stems, raking up fallen bits and pieces of this year’s green bean and tomato plants, all these activities help me get a jump-start on my garden next spring.

Garden Clean Up Tips
Anyone who has gardened for a few years has come up with their own tips and tricks for making garden clean up a bit easier.  Having 30 years of experience behind the hoe, I have discovered a few things that might make life easier for any organic gardener.

My first bit of advice? Be prepared.  When I go out to clean up, I always bring the tools I’ll need to make it easier.  So my tool bag (actually my wheel barrow) contains:

  1. Scissors – the knots you used to tie up tomatoes will be real tight after a summer of rain and heat.  Trying to pull them off just frustrates the gardener.
  2. Secateurs – if you try to cut back blackberries or blueberries without them, the chances are you’ll do more damage than good.  These small, sharp sheers can cut through up to an inch of stalk or wood and are always in my bag of tricks.
  3. Baling Twine – picked up at the stable and used to bundle all the leggy tomato, pepper and eggplant carcasses.
  4. A shovel – I sometimes need to coax some of the plants from the ground.  Eggplant and tomatoes get stems more than an inch in diameter and their roots can extend up to 10 feet from the base of the plant.  So, a bit of shovel power comes in handy.
  5. A rake – I prefer the good, old-fashioned garden rake because it’s heavier than a leaf rake and the tines won’t work against me as I rake up fallen tomatoes and peppers.
  6. A bucket – I use an empty kitty litter container and I use it to pick up all the green or rotten produce that hits the ground at the end of the season.
  7. Garden gloves – I consider these optional.  I always start out wearing them but, inevitably, rip them off about 30 minutes into clean up.  I like the way the dirt feels on my hands.  But the manicure does suffer so it’s up to you whether you wear them or not.
  8. Large trash bags – I didn’t use to bag any of my garden waste but I learned that trying to compost vines from tomatoes, zukes, cukes and even green beans meant giving diseases like wilt a head start next spring. It also meant providing warm, cozy homes for Mexican Bean beetles and cucumber and squash beetles among others.

Clearing The Ground
This is always the worst step for me.  I really hate pulling off tomato cages, cutting vines out of my fence sections and tearing up the roots of the dying plants.  But once I get started, I actually enjoy it!

Bag garden waste

My dogs helping me to bag .

I pull all plants (except perennials), shove the waste into bags and stack them on the edge of the garden. I know some people put their plant bodies in the compost but I don’t. Why not?

If you’re a slow composter like me, letting nature and God do the work for you, you probably shouldn’t put your garden detritus in the bins, either.  Seeds will germinate.  Diseases will survive.  When you spread your compost next year to welcome your new seedlings, you may be welcoming some very unwanted visitors.

One last task remains before you can move from clearing to covering.  If you grew tomatoes, grab a bucket and pick up all of the fallen tomatoes off the ground.  If you don’t you will have a whole lot of baby tomatoes to pull up next year.  This is a gooey task but well worth the effort.

Once the ground is cleared, it’s time to cover it. I use straw and a lot of it. It mulches the ground, protects perennials and annuals like garlic and beets and sets me up for weed free gardening in the spring.

I use about 40 bales of straw  to cover everything including the blueberry and blackberry patches, the vegetable garden, raised beds and asparagus.  That may sound like a lot but by next spring, the 18 inches of straw I lay down now will have settled and started to break down.

Bug Control – A Pre-emptive Strike
I offer one last bit of advice for wrapping up the growing season and getting ready for your garden next spring.

During the growing and harvesting season, I don’t use any bug control except what I detailed in Getting Bugged.  However, if it’s been a very bad year for Mexican bean beetles, Asian Beetles, Japanese Beetles and Stink Bugs, just before I cover my garden, I do spray the straw remaining from last year and the ground in my raised beds.

Before you gasp, click unsubscribe and cry, “…traitor,”  know that I use only one product — Pyola.    The active ingredient is pyrethrin which comes from chrysanthemums and is mixed with canola oil.  I use Pyola to control next year’s bugs by killing the larva that are now safely snuggled into my garden ground.

NOTE:  Pyrethrin is a contact poison which quickly penetrates the nervous system of the insect.  It will affect bees and some  beneficials so I wait until I have had two hard frosts to use it. I want to make sure there is no insect activity in the garden.   Also, pyrethrin is harmful to fish so if you have a pond or your garden borders on a stream, don’t use it at all.

Cornell University’s post on its ExToxNet provides a very thorough idea of what pyrethrin is, how it works and what it might do in the environment.  Read it before you use it so you’ll know if it will work in your garden.  And don’t use it if you don’t have to.

So that’s my version of garden clean up.  Clean up really isn’t that hard but I avoid it because it signals the end of the growing season and the approach of cold winds and falling leaves.    It also means time for dreaming and planning next year’s garden…

 

Top Canning Tips for Harvest Season

It’s almost the end of September but here in Zone 6b, I’ve prepped the

Blackberries ready for next Spring.

Blackberries trimmed and mulched for next Spring.

blackberries for next spring, pruned the blueberries, pulled out the eggplant and sunflowers and planted beets, lettuce and kale.

But I am still harvesting tomatoes, Italian peppers and green beans! The season is ending a whole lot warmer than it began so I am leaving these plants in place so I can get as many of the veggies as possible.

I can only eat so much in a day so I learned how to preserve my harvest early in my gardening life. In fact, I have been preserving my harvest for well over 25 years and have learned a few things the hard way. But I think the folks at Eartheasy have captured some of the best canning tips .

I do have a couple of others to add to the list:

  1. Heat your jars in the oven — at a very low temperature – to sterilize them. I just lay them down on a cookie sheet and put them in at 175 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. This method is easier for me than trying to time the dishwasher to your canning project and safer than pouring boiling water in jars.
  2. Make sure your water bath is boiling before you put the jars in. I always start it a bit early just in case. I can turn the flame down if I’m not ready for it but I know my water bath is there for me when I need it. And I know I won’t over process or under process.
  3. Heat your jar lids. I boil water in a pan then put the lids and rings together and drop them in the hot water. This help to heat up the thin rubber seal on the jar lid and sterilizes the rings – two important factors of successful canning.
  4. If what you’re canning is not acidic, use your pressure cooker! Tomatoes are okay in a water bath; green beans are NOT!
  5. When in doubt — throw it out. If you take a jar off your shelf in the pantry and the color just doesn’t look right or it’s sticky on the outside or the lid is lifted, toss it out! Better to be safe than sorry when it comes to home canning.

I also use my dehydrator to preserve my harvest for everything from cherries and apples to tomatoes and herbs.

And I freeze crops, too. Open my freezer door in January and you will find zucchetti spaghetti, shredded zucchini, sliced and fried eggplant slices, blanched green beans, whole frozen plum tomatoes and fresh frozen pasta sauce mixed in with bags and bags of blueberries, blackberries and cherries.

Think of all the work you put in to get to harvest then think of ways of saving as much as possible. You’ll be happy you did when snow is falling and wind is howling outside and you are sitting down to eggplant parmesan or butternut kale quinoa soup.

Happy harvesting everyone!

ps – please forgive the gap in posting. My husband has been ill and out of work for 6 weeks but is on the mend, now.

The Summer of 2016 Is Ending

Am I crazy? Is summer really ending??

August heat baking my garden

Garden baking in the August sun

Today’s heat index in Southeast Pennsylvania says it will be 114 degrees out. It’s only August 13th. Summer isn’t over. It can’t be!

Bianca Rosa eggplant

Bianca Rosa eggplant enjoying the heat.

I am still harvesting like mad. My Bianca Rosa eggplant have given me 15 beautiful globes and there are more than that still on the plants. The Fox Cherry tomatoes are coming in so fast it’s hard to pick them (especially when you were silly enough to plant 10 of them!).

Growing giant Zucchini

Sicilian zucchini gone rogue.

The Sicilian Zucchetta are downright frightening in their productivity and sheer size.

I’ve been giving them away, cooking with them, jousting in the back yard and leaving them on neighbor’s doorsteps in the dark of night (too big for their mailboxes).

Green beans are producing about a pint a day and my Frigatello Sweet Italian peppers are just warming up, throwing off 5 or 6 peppers a day.

And I’m still getting beets, inter-planted among the tomatoes, keeping cool and waiting for me to harvest them.

Fox Cherries protect beets

Fox Cherry tomatoes shade my beets.

IMG_2568

So how can it possibly be summer’s end?

It happens every year, I wake up and step outside before the dawn light and something has changed.

The feel of the breeze on my skin. The smell of the air. A tiny change in the song of the insects. Every year, there is a single moment when I know that summer is ending.

2016 Perseid meteor showers

Perseid meteor cuts across the night sky (courtesy AMS, Ltd)

This morning, sitting on my patio watching the Perseid meteor shower (image courtesy of the American Meteor Society, Ltd.), I knew as any long time gardener whose blood runs to soil and whose bare feet crave time connecting to the earth knows.

Summer into Autumn is always bittersweet for me. My garden, this garden, will never come again. Next year, the war with Japanese Beetles and the ongoing struggle with Mexican Bean Beetles will begin again. Triumphs and defeats will eddy and swirl across my back yard.

Sunflowers grace my garden

Sunflowers tower over my garden…and me!

But then there will be all that glorious, organic food flowing from my garden to my kitchen table and the tables of friends, relatives and neighbors, again.

And sunflowers, bachelor buttons, chamomile, marigolds and lemon verbena will open for the bees. Lemon balm, milkweed and borage will offer food and nectar to butterflies, wasps and beneficials.

Blueberries and blackberries will be joined by elderberries and goji berries, adding to the delicious, healthy treasures growing just steps from my back door.

And I will once again know why I garden.

Note: the image of the meteor, above, was taken by Eddie Popovits and used with the express permission of the American Meteor Society, a non-profit, scientific organization founded in 1911 and established to inform, encourage, and support the research activities of both amateur and professional astronomers