• Gardening Tips
  • Plant Propagation
  • Vegetable Gardening
  • Garden Projects

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Hardening Off Seedlings (Seed Sowing 101)

Once your seeds have grown big enough to plant out in the garden it's time to find a way to get them into the garden.  Direct sowed seeds have a big advantage in this area as they have grown from the start in the great outdoors are are already well adapted to the weather.  Seedlings grown indoors aren't so lucky.  Bringing those seedlings outdoors too fast may result in planting shock because of the change in intensity of light or the weather conditions.  The method you use to transfer your seedlings outdoors is called hardening off.  Hardening off is where the plants are gradually adapted to the outdoors over a period of several days.  Each day the plant is exposed to more of the natural weather until it is ready to grow outside by itself without protection.

How to Harden off Transplants

The most common way to harden off seedlings for transplanting is to place them outside in a protected location for a short period of time then bring them back indoors. Each day increase the length of time until you feel they are ready to be planted in the garden. Start with 2 hours on a mild morning and add an hour or two each day. Keep the seedlings well watered at first them back off as they get stronger.  If your transplants start to wilt bring them back inside to recover.  Another method is to move the plants into a shady location for a while then expose them to a little sun each day, again increasing in time, until they are ready.  Of course shade loving plants won't need exposed to the sun!

Another method is to place the seedlings outside under some sort of cover.  A folded piece of cardboard is a good option.  Each day remove the cover for a period of time that increases each day until the seedlings are hardened off and ready for transplanting.

When is the Ideal Day to Plant Seedling Outdoors?

I like to watch the weather for the ideal planting day to put my seedlings outdoors.  A series of overcast days in a row with some scattered showers are perfect!   Overcast days are great since the sun exposure is limited for planting a new plant in the ground.  I also try to wait until evening to put new plants out since it will give them time overnight to adapt to their new homes.   The safe planting date in our area (Spring Hill, TN) is usually mid April but it is often better to wait until the end of April before putting summer vegetables and annuals outdoors.  That two week period between April 15th and the 30th is a very tricky period of time weather-wise and the plants make up that time very quickly if planted later.  I've had tomato plants planted right after the frost date not do nearly as well as those planted later.

Growing The Home Garden Seed Sowing 101 Series
When you put together your seed starting plan for the year don't forget to add in a few days of time to harden off your seedlings.  You (and your seedlings) will be glad you did!

Friday, January 27, 2012

First Daffodil Blooms of 2012!

The first daffodil blooms of 2012 are now on display in my garden!  Every year I like to track the first daffodil of the season.  It amazing how much each year can differ.  The warmer the weather the earlier the flowers appear.  We're almost a month earlier than last year's daffodil blooms!

Here's a look back at the dates and posts for the daffodils of the past several years!

First Daffodils from 2009-2011
(Spring Hill, TN):

As you can see this is the earliest the daffodils have bloomed in my garden yet.  It's been an extremely warm winter so far which is obviously the reason for the early blooms!

Are there any daffodils blooming in your garden?

5 Ways to Help Wildlife In Your Garden Without the NWF

By now I'm sure you've heard all about the National Wildlife Federation and their new found friend Scott's.  There are quite a few people upset about this arrangement since many of Scott's products are made from ingredients none of us would rather see in the environment.  The NWF exists to promote and help wildlife but it's pretty hard to do that when an "ally" is undermining the process.  The issue is very hot where it concerns the Backyard habitat certification program that the NWF promotes.  Its intent is to encourage gardeners and land owners to enhance their properties in order to make them more suitable for wildlife.  It's a nice idea and you get a fancy little sign to put up but I don't think you need to have a national certification to provide a great habitat for wildlife!

For this week's Friday Fives post I thought I would share with you a few ideas that you can do in your garden to create a DIY Wildlife Habitat on your own!
  1. Wildlife has to eat something!  But we're not just talking bird feeders here.  To really provide for wildlife you have to give the animals and insects something to eat that is sustainable and natural.  Trees and shrubs that provide nuts and berries are a great example.  Grazing grasses for deer, seed heads of flowers for the birds, and flowers for nectar work great for hummingbirds, bees, and other pollinators.
  2. Provide places for wildlife to grow.  Butterflies have certain plants that are host plants for their larvae.  These plants provide food and shelter from predators and create an environment for the larvae to grow.  Tall grasses provide great spots for young animals to hide while the parents bring back food. Give wildlife a place to hide from predators so that they can feel safe and secure.
  3. Find a place where the animals can get water.  Ponds are awesome but a birdbath can do wonders. Birdbaths can range from a simple saucer laid on the ground to fancy and elaborate concrete fountains.  Keep it shallow so the birds can stand or place rocks in it that give them a place to perch.
  4. Bird House
    Made from a Fence Board
    Give wildlife a home by providing shelter.  While this is can be similar to finding a place for wildlife to grow this is more about finding a place for wildlife to bear their young.   Birdhouses are one easy way to provide shelter but brambles, thickets, shrubs and trees all provide good nesting locations. 
  5. Avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.  I can't emphasize this enough, so I'll say it again.  Avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides! The chemicals in these synthetic concoctions can do a real number on wildlife. 
    • They can interrupt the growth cycles of fish and amphibians in our streams, 
    • kill off beneficial insects that aid our gardens, 
    • kill off insects that provide food sources for birds and other creatures, 
    • hurt natural microbes that do important work in our soil,
    • and create an environment that depends on chemicals for continued maintenance!
    Think about that last one for a second.  When you upset nature's balance by using chemicals you have to use more chemicals to maintain it.  When you spray to kill off an insect and you also kill off the predator insect how are you doing any good?  Also if you live near a lake, stream or other body of water you need to realize that everything you spray, spread, or use in your garden has the potential to end up in that body of water - then it can go anywhere
I'm sure the certification program offered by the NWF was a great way for the organization to spread their message - and raise funds too, but if you're frustrated by their recent actions take a page from my book and make a DIY Wildlife Habitat in your yard!  You don't need a big organization to honor your garden.  You don't need a fancy sign to help the birds - they can't ready anyway!  Spread the word of what you do to help wildlife through your friends, your garden clubs, your neighbors, your blog, your Facebook page or wherever you happen to be. Trust me, word of mouth means more than that little sign does - at least to me.

Previous Friday Fives

Thursday, January 26, 2012

2012 Nashville Lawn and Garden Show

Ever been to the Nashville Lawn and Garden Show?
Here's the info for 2012:

Gardens Past, Present & Future Will Be Celebrated March 1-4

at the 2012 Nashville Lawn & Garden Show

Discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello gardens among the many

free presentations at the show

Nashville, TN – The timeless appeal, importance and fun of gardening will be celebrated at the 23rd annual Nashville Lawn & Garden Show on Thursday, March 1, through Sunday, March 4, 2012, at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. Gardens Past, Present & Future is the theme for the 2012 presentation of Tennessee’s largest and most popular annual gardening event.

The show’s centerpiece will be an acre of live gardens featuring thousands of spring flowers and plants, waterfalls and fountains, trellises and gazebos, and outdoor living spaces. More than 250 exhibit booths will offer horticultural products and services, outdoor living d├ęcor, gardening equipment, plants, flowers and more. A floral design gallery will spotlight the creativity of more than 20 of Middle Tennessee’s award-winning floral designers.

The show also offers the opportunity to hear free presentations by horticultural, landscape design, and gardening experts. The speakers will include Peter J. Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. Hatch will speak on Friday, March 2, about Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden, which featured more than 330 varieties of vegetables and continues to provide gardeners with a model in vegetable cuisine, sustainable horticulture, and a passion for the earth – a perfect example of how gardens reflect the past, present and future. Then on Saturday, March 3, Hatch will discuss Thomas Jefferson, Gardener, an exploration of Jefferson’s use of native plants, the union of gardening and sociability, and his experimentation with useful plants as a means of social change.

Planting Seeds in My Raised Bed Circle

Last year I put together the circular raised bed in my vegetable garden.  It's in the center of the garden layout which is in the parterre style garden layout I planned last year.  Of course my plans are changing a little this year too.  It never fails, the only thing I don't change in my garden is the fact that I am changing my garden!  I'll show you that plan soon, possibly next week.  For today though I'll share with you the seeds I planted in the center circle raised bed.

My center circle is made from concrete retaining wall blocks.  Concrete can make some excellent raised beds since it doesn't rot and doesn't need much in the way of special assembly techniques if you keep the garden low.  Most of the concrete retaining wall blocks are recommended to go up to 2' high (or 4 levels) without needing mortar. I used this bed last year for greens and beans but added some amendments to nourish the soil more.  It was covered in weeds so I turned the soil under, broke up the larger clumps of soil and removed the major root systems of the remaining weeds.  I left some of the weeds to die off naturally and "return to the soil from whence they came!"  Then I made trenches a little over half an inch deep in the soil.   

The trenches were where I placed the sugar snap peas.  I put four in each spoke of the wheel for a total of 24 seeds planted.  Once the seeds were in place I covered the trenches with the excavated soil.  In a couple weeks I'll start another round in another bed.  On one side I sprinkled some spinach seeds, pressed them lightly into the soil, and covered the spinach seeds with a sprinkling of soil.  Essentially you could say I have a sugar snap pea pie with a side of spinach!

I really enjoyed the warm weather this week. Who wouldn't with 60 degree weather in January! How about you?

Growing The Home Garden
Seed Sowing 101 Series

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

In case you are wondering about where exactly you are situated in the USDA plant hardiness zone maps here are a couple to look at. One is the national map and the other is the Tennessee State map.  The maps are useful when determining which plants to plant in your area.  The zone map shows you the lowest expected temperatures in an area. 

You have to take this with a grain of salt though.  If you live in a frost pocket or have various micro-climates in your garden the plants can perform differently.  Our house is situated in a frost pocket and despite the USDA zone map which shows us in a zone 7a location and has a 0°-5° Fahrenheit low. We typically end up with temperatures below 0°F once or twice a season.  

National USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

(Click on the Map to see a larger picture)

Tennessee USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

(Click on the map to see a larger picture)

It's interesting that there is so much similarity between the USDA zone map and the Arbor Day map from a few years ago! You can look at your state or area by visiting the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

Where to Plant Your Seedlings (Seed Sowing 101)

Once you have your seedlings growing strong and you've properly hardened them off (more on that next week) it is time to plant your seedlings in the garden.  But where should you plant them?  It may seem like a given that you'll just go out and stick them in a hole and watch them grow, but it's not always that simple.  What if your soil is rocky, clay soil that's water retentive?  (Then you just might live in Tennessee!) What if your soil is sandy and has trouble retaining water?  Not every gardener is gifted with the perfect soil but there are ways around it that will help your produce a great garden.

What's Your Soil Like?

First you should figure out what kind of soil you have before you plant your seedlings.  One of the best resources you have available to you is your local university agricultural extension service.  The Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service offers soil testing for a fairly low price and will even provide a custom evaluation of the soil for the crops you intend to grow.  For example if you want to start a blueberry farm and your soil doesn't have the ideal pH for blueberries the soil test results will come back to you with soil amendment recommendations tailored for your garden's blueberries.  I've never actually gotten a soil test since most of my vegetable gardening is done in raised beds and I've been able to control the soil that goes into them.

Also I should mention that one of the services agricultural extension services offer is that of identifying plant diseases - this can be an extremely valuable tool in your gardening arsenal!  Remember knowledge is power, right?

The easiest way to improve your soil is to add compost.  So if you aren't composting kitchen scraps, yard waste, and leaves - START COMPOSTING!

Raised Beds

I love gardening in raised beds!  There are numerous advantages to gardening in raised beds including control of the soil like I previously mentioned.  Raised beds can come in different styles as unique as the gardener.  The standard wooden rectangular bed is an old favorite but you don't have to purchase anything to build a raised bed - just mound up!  Take soil from the edges or walkways and pile it up into a row shape with the sides sloped downward. Keep the soil raised in the middle and you gain the drainage benefits of a raised bed without having to buy any materials.  You could use recycled materials to put together raised bed just make sure they are non-toxic.

Before you build your raised beds and put them in place consider your raised bed garden layout.  Once you've put your raised beds down you don't want to move them every year.  Trust me, I've done that!

Our apartment deck vegetable garden
- circa 2006 A.D.

Pots and Planters

Many vegetables will grow very well in pots or planters.  My first few gardens were on the back deck of our apartment.  I grew cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, lettuce, and other vegetables on the back deck.  In fact it's very similar to growing in a raised bed except easier to move around!  There are even custom kits you can get that make watering the plants easier. The EarthBox Garden Kit (Amazon Link) is one kind of grow box that allows you to water directly to the roots system and has a reservoir to hold water that will wick up into the soil.

DIY Grow Box Style Planters
You could purchase this kind of planter but you can also make one yourself.  Just take a look at the resources in the box to the right.

But you know, a deep pot will work just fine!

The Traditional Garden

There's always the traditional garden.  This type of garden is typically grown in rows of crops directly in the soil.  It's a tried and try way to garden and works very well if your soil is workable.  Often rows are set up and tilled then some sort of straw mulch is placed in between the rows to keep weeds down.  You could also periodically till the rows to keep weeds down.

The Layered Garden

Layering organic materials to create a garden is another method that works great.  It doesn't break the soil up which could potentially harm beneficial organisms in the soil and relies on the organic mater trickling down into the soil.  Today this method is known as Lasagna Gardening (a book by Patricia Lanza at Amazon) but also as sheet composting. It's simple and easy.  Using layers of various organic materials including leaves, grass clippings, newspapers, cardboard, kitchen scraps and others you can create a healthy, organic soil system for your seedlings.

Growing The Home Garden Seed Sowing 101 Series

Monday, January 23, 2012

Timing (Your Seeds) is Everything! (Seed Sowing 101)

We've talked about how to pick your seeds and we've talked a little about the soil to use, but when should you start your seeds?  This is when good planning comes into play.  You want your seeds ready to go when it's safe to plant but you don't want to start them too early, so how do you figure that?  It's actually pretty easy.

The easiest thing I can tell you is to look at the back of the seed starting package and see what it says!  Post done right?  Nope, I need to do better than that!

Should I Start My Seeds Indoors or In-ground?

There are two ways to start seeds: ahead of time in a pot or directly in the ground.  Plants that like an early start are plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.  Early starting plants are generally summer plants that need to start out of the cold but need a long growing season.  There are some summer plants you can get an early start on but don't like root disturbance.  Cucumbers, melons, squash, and other cucurbits fit this description but are often best sowed directly in the soil.  For these plants use biodegradable pots to avoid disturbing the roots when you plant them in the ground.

Sugar Snap Pea
Spring greens can go either way in many cases but because of their frost resistance are usually best direct sowed outdoors. Lettuce can be direct sowed outdoors about 2 weeks before the last frost date, spinach about 6 to 8 weeks and many other greens can be sowed somewhere in between.  The exact planting date varies based on where you live.  For example I planted a variety of lettuce in the fall called 'Tom Thumb'.  I was hoping to get a cold frame up around them so I could continue to harvest the lettuce throughout the winter but never quite got around to it.  Fortunately the little lettuce seedlings are doing fine, dormant at the moment but still alive and well and will resume growing when the weather becomes favorable.  They can tolerate a bit of cold weather here but really don't grow.  In a colder climate the lettuce might not do as well. Spinach is very frost tolerant and as soon as I am able I'll be clearing a spot in the garden and sowing my spinach and the sugar snap peas.  Our weather has been extremely warm and the peas can tolerant frosts when they do come. Cool season vegetables can also be started indoors in biodegradable pots and easily transplanted outdoors when ready.
A Few Plants that Tolerate Frost
Radish, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, kale, lettuce, chard, cauliflower, carrot, onion, peas parsley

The Frost Date

When you start your seeds indoors take into account the last frost date for your area and when you actually want the plants in the ground.  Last year I was early with planting my tomatoes. They were ready to go in right after the frost date had passed.  They only problem was that we had cold weather after the frost date.  I protected my plants and none were lost but it brings up another issue: soil warmth.  Warm season plants like their feet to be warm too.  If the soil temperature is too cool the roots won't grow.  In this case getting an early start didn't mean they produced any earlier.  In fact these plants actually were slightly stunted compared to the next batch of tomatoes I planted a week or two later. My advice would be to plan to plant warm season vegetables outdoors a couple extra weeks after the frost date to get the soil warm, but there are ways to cheat the system...

Plastic Jug Cloche
If you want to cheat the weather you'll have to find some way to heat the soil. Soil cables will do the trick but require setting up and electricity.  Dark plastic sheeting is an easy way to warm your soil.  Just cover the area with the plastic, pin it down and it will attract solar energy from the sun to warm the soil.  There are even plastic mulches that are specially made for this purpose.  One other warming method is to place milk jugs filled with water next to the plants in a circle.  The water acts as a heat sink and will release heat over the cooler times for the plant to use.  Of course you could turn your milk jug into a cloche by cutting out the bottom of the milk jug and removing the cap. 

Take your time from the last frost date and add to it any extra time you might want.  Like I mentioned earlier, a week or two after the frost date isn't going to make a big difference in the long run of the plant's growth cycle.  Then figure the amount of time it takes to grow the seeds you want and count back to figure out when to start your seeds.  It's a fairly simple calculation that will make your timing just right!

More From Seed Sowing 101!

Friday, January 20, 2012

5 Favorite Trees That I Grow In My Garden (The Friday Fives)

What is a garden without the trees?  Bare and boring!  Without a good tree you lose the shade they provide, the elegant grace that trees offer as a focal point, the fruit the tree may bear, the benefit to the wildlife around us - I think you agree, you just have to have a tree!  But what trees would you pick?  And which one's would I always want planted in yard?

Here are my picks for this week's Friday Five!

  1. Japanese Maple Leaf
    Japanese maple leaf
    When I was a kid living at my grandfather's house there was a row of trees on one side of the driveway.  The trees had been there as long as I had known and had knotty roots along the surface of the soil, thick branches that hung low, and were the perfect trees for climbing.  I can't tell you how many times I climbed this one tree in particular but I'm sure if I had been counting I would have lost count!  I remember being underneath it in the shade while the hot summer sun beat down.  I remember fondly how great those maple trees were!  Ever since I've always loved a maple tree (Acer younameit ;)).  In our yard I've planted four maples, each of which is either a red maple or a hybrid red maple. My grandfather's were most likely silver maples which can be troublesome because of its roots that rise to the surface of the ground.  I also added six Japanese maples to the mix, some of those are planted in memory of my father
  2. Yoshino cherry flower in spring
    'Yoshino' cherry flower
    Yoshino cherry trees are another favorite that I just can't get enough of in my garden!  So far we have three.  Two of which I planted and one that I rescued after a deer mauled it at my mother-in-law's house.  The poor tree was nothing but a stump with a shoot when I rescued it.  Now it's about 8 feet tall and may even bloom for us for the first time this spring!  The white blooms are gorgeous every spring.  The next cherry I get I want to be an 'Okame' cherry which is one of the earliest cherries to bloom.  It has more of a pink color blossom.
  3. Birches are great trees for their bark, but I also enjoy the dappled shade they provide. Their leaves are much smaller than that of a maple but the fast growing nature of the birch allows them to get to a good size to cast shade in just a couple years.  One birch that I planted in a low spot is almost as tall as our house now and it's only been planted for three years!  Birches like moisture and if you have a location that gets periodic pooling or you have a stream nearby you probably have a good site for your river birch! Plant it, put a bench down under it, and enjoy! Birch trees make an excellent choice for rain gardens.  The 'Heritage' River birch comes highly recommended.
  4. Forest Pansy redbud leaf - purple
    'Forest Pansy' redbud
    Along the Cumberland Plateau every spring the redbuds (Cercis canadensis) bloom and create an amazing portrait of spring.  The roadsides are lined with the light purple color of their blossoms.  I always enjoyed the drive during that time of year, it always felt like I was inside of a painting.  Which is probably why I've transplanted several into our yard over the years.  I also purchased on special redbud 'Forest Pansy'.  'Forest Pansy' has dark purple leaves which are stunning in spring.  The leaves eventually change to a green color during the heat of summer.  There are also weeping forms of redbuds, none of which I have, must to my disappointment.  If I even come across one in a nursery it may be coming home with me! Redbuds can be short lived trees but I believe their beauty makes up for that.  The tend to enjoy living underneath other larger trees but can tolerate a wide arrange of growing conditions. 
  5. white dogwood flower
    Cornus florida dogwood flower
    And last but not least the dogwood.  It's one of my wife's favorite trees so for that reason alone I have to put it here! ;)  But it's definitely worthy of being listed. The trouble with dogwood is in its disease resistance.  Anthracnose and powdery mildew are the two most common ailments but plant propagators have been working on a number of hybrids and seeking out resistant specimens like 'Appalachian Spring'.  I had that dogwood once until a deer decided it made a good scratching post!  I've added two dogwoods since then.  One is just an ordinary white flowering dogwood while the other is called 'Constellation'.  'Constellation' is a hybrid of Cornus kousa and Cornus florida.  It blooms later than Cornus florida and doesn't produce fruit.   

There you have five of my favorites, although I have to say I admire so many more than just five.  These were all deciduous and there are many evergreens that would be worth spending some time talking about.  Maybe they will be another list of five?  Until then check out the last couple Friday Fives!

Previous Friday Fives

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Randomness from Wednesday

Wednesday was full of randomness, although it wasn't all gardening.  A little bird watching, a little gardening, and a little bit of house stuff all rolled together to make a Wednesday.

The day started with a trip to the home improvement store.  Not for gardening stuff this time but for painting materials.  A bathroom in our house needs redone so I ventured out to find what we needed.  Fortunately the garden center area wasn't stocked yet and the temptation to add more plants to the garden was not there.

Later in the day I went out exploring the garden in the 30 degree weather.  And I found this:

The hyacinths are rising!  Already.  It seems very early to me but the weather has been much warmer this year and it makes sense.  I looked back at a blog post from 2009 and saw that the last week of January was the hyacinths were beginning to emerge. The daffodils were sending up buds too. I hope this early growth doesn't carry over to the fruit trees or we may finds ourselves lacking in local fruit this year.

Before my daughter got home from school my neighbor's daughter stopped by to ask a question.  She wanted to know if I would mind if she kept a bee hive in their back yard which is adjacent to ours.  I thought about it for a second, my only real concern being that my kids wouldn't wander too close and said sure.  It will be a benefit to my garden to have a happy hive of honey makers nearby.  We garden organically here so there will be no risk to the hive from us and with bees becoming threatened by stuff like colony collapse disorder anything we can do to support them is a good thing! And maybe if the bees do well we'll get some extremely local honey!

Then my kids and I drove to grandma's house.  I had a meeting to go to (which I'll mention in a moment) and grandma was going to watch the kids for me.  Along the way I had to make a stop.  I've been saying for a couple years now that I need to stop by the lake in our community and take a picture of the heron.  Wednesday was that day!  I'm pretty pleased with the pictures I managed to take of the blue heron. 

I know some of you pond gardeners may not be fans of the heron, with their great appetite for your fish, but they are some very majestic birds.  Their size and their graceful flight have always captivated me.  Truly majestic!

I think photos taken in water situations always look pretty cool when the reflections are in the just the right place. 

Earlier I mentioned a meeting I was on my way to, what was it you may be wondering?  Myself and two other people have decided to start the first Spring Hill Children's Garden!  Right alongside the children's garden will be a community garden where citizens of Spring Hill can come and plant their gardens for 2012.  This definitely looks to be one of my bigger projects and I'm really hoping that it goes over well in our community.  If you have ever put together or worked on either a children's garden or a community garden and you have some ideas or tips to share please let me know!  This will be our first attempt and any insight that will help us find success is welcome!

There's more Seed Sowing 101 to come on Monday - Tomorrow will be another Friday Five Post!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Dirt on Seed Starting Soil! (Seed Sowing 101 Part 2)

OK so you've gotten your big seed order in the mail, now what?  What do you use to actually start the seeds in?  What kind of pots?  What kind of soil?  After deciding what seeds to order you need to know what medium to plant your future garden in.  There are a lot of variables out there to choose from, let's take a look at a few options for starting your seeds for this Seed Sowing 101 post!

Tomato Seedlings
First of all there are some basic simple soils you can use to put your seeds into that will work fine.  Generally they consist of a combination of a few ingredients peat or coir for the bulk of it, perlite or vermiculite to add drainage and lighten the soil a bit, and maybe some sand to improve the drainage. 

Peat Vs. Coir

Peat has been the tried and true main seed starting soil ingredient for years but coir is catching on fast.  Coir is made from the waste hulls of coconuts while peat grows naturally and slowly in peat bogs.  There is some concern today about the sustainability of peat which is why many gardeners are leaning in favor of coconut coir. Either will work fine.

Vermiculite vs. Perlite

Both vermiculite and perlite are light materials that improve the drainage of soils but there is a major difference for the gardener be aware of.  Vermiculite added to soil works great to improve the drainage but there is an issue with some vermiculite containing asbestos.  Asbestos isn't a good thing!  I prefer perlite which is made from heated volcanic glass that resembles styrofoam bits and pieces.  You've probably seen it before and wondered "why in the world did they put styrofoam in my potting mix?"  Well they didn't!

Commercial Mix or Homemade?

You can go out and buy a commercial seed starting mix (which I've done many times) or you can make your own.  Generally it is cheaper to buy the raw ingredients and put together your own special blend.  It also gives you a great amount of control over what kind of plants you're starting.  For something that needs better drainage and lighter soil you would just put in a higher ratio of perlite to the mix.  You can even add in other ingredients like compost to create your own seed starting mix.  There is some evidence that completely composted compost (say that 5 times real fast!) has a positive effect against damping off!  So consider the compost! You could also buy the store bought seed starting mixes and add a little of your sifted and full decomposed compost from your compost bins. I'm convinced compost will save the world one day!

If you're short on time or lack of experience is a concern then there is nothing wrong with purchasing a ready to grow seed mix. Because these mixes do not contain many ingredients that will offer nutrition to the plants you may need to add some light fertilizer after the seeds have germinated.  (Please steer clear of synthetic fertilizers if at all possible!) Keep fertilization light at this point because you don't want too much green growth until a good root system is established.

Other options

I have used the peat pellets in the past and found them to be very easy for starting seeds.  The pellets, which resemble small dried disks, need moistened before seed starting.  Once the pellets been sufficiently moistened they expand into small cylinders of soil where you can plant your seeds.  I like the fact that you can plant these directly into the garden when the plants are strong enough or you can move the seedlings into larger pots without having to change pots around.  

Pots, Pots, Pots!

Cowpots from Gardener's Supply
I highly recommend using a biodegradable pots for your seeds.  Peat pots work great but there are other options.  Coir pots are catching on as are a unique product made from the waste of the dairy industry - Cowpots!  Cow pots take the composted manure and form it into pots that will actually provide nutrition to the soil.  I reviewed some cowpots last year and found them to be a pretty nice option.  The only downside is a little odor when wet - you wouldn't want them in the kitchen windowsill I think ;).  The odor is just one small negative when compared with a renewable resources that does an excellent job at growing plants.

Of course another excellent option for seed starting pots are the flats from all those plants you purchased last year!  6 packs work great if they are in good condition (they break down and tear easily) but I really like the idea of using a flat.  After you add soil to the flat and add enough water to dampen it you can plant it in mini-rows then transplant the young plants once they have their first set of true leaves. Or scatter sow in the flat! There are two awesome advantages to using a flat, one is that all the plants are in a single container and when the seedling flat needs moved there is only one container to deal with for all the seeds.  The other advantage is that when some seeds fail to germinate (which happens all the time) a whole container hasn't been wasted!  Avoid sowing different types of seeds in the same container or flat as that is a recipe for confusion!

Mushroom containers make great seed starting flats!
I've often used yogurt containers, mushroom containers and all sorts of plastic containers destined for the recycling bin to start seeds in so use your imagination when coming up with a container!  Just be sure to thoroughly clean out any containers that have been used before to reduce the chances of a pathogen hurting your seedlings.  (A 10% bleach 90% water solution will do the trick).

A lot of people have success using newspapers wrapped into a pot form or even cardboard tubes left over from toilet paper and paper towels.  There are many, many options for seed starting pots!

Growing The Home Garden Seed Sowing 101 Series
The next topic for Seed Sowing 101 will be all about timing!  Timing is everything right?  Or so they say!  Thanks for following along and if you've found this helpful please share it with your friends!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Plant Propagation Bench for Seedlings and Cuttings

I'll continue with the Seed Starting 101 Series tomorrow but I thought I would use today's post to share with you a related project. Recently I purchased a seedling heatmat that I've been testing in the garage to see how seedlings will grow out there.  The results have been pretty good so far with good germination rates for kale, chard, spinach, and even heuchera.  In fact the heucheras are nearly ready to transplant into larger pots. They are small but I'm estimating in a week I can transplant the tiny heucheras individually into pots. Related to the heat mat is my new project which I made significant progress on over the weekend, it's a seedling and cutting plant propagation bench! I used the dimensions of the heat mat (48"x20") to construct a bench that would house the heat mat, grow light, and would be enclosed to allow for heat and moisture retention.

Plant Propagation Bench for Seedlings and Cuttings

The propagation bench is made of mostly pressure treated lumber to resist moisture damage. The plants won't make direct contact with the wood so there are no concerns there.  Newer pressure treated lumber is much safer than the older stuff anyway (no more arsenic in the pressure treating process). The bench is essentially a raised bed on wheels! The bed portion has a layer of plastic to prevent water spills from running everywhere, 1" of styrofoam insulation (recycled gift packaging from Christmas), and a heat sink layer of ceramic tile that should help the heat mat maintain more balanced heat level.  You could easily convert this idea into an actual raised bed on wheels by making the bed portion deeper and adding a drainage system.

The bench is extremely heavy so wheels were necessary.  Simple 2" locking caster wheels are doing the job. If I planned to take it into the yard I would need wheels more suited to yard work, but I don't plan on using it anywhere but the garage.

I need to enclose the propagation chamber next with clear plastic doors.  Plexiglass is easy to find at the home improvement stores which is probably what I'll end up using. I also want to add a small fan to blow on the seedlings.  Keeping the air moving is important to prevent fungal diseases like damping off and can actually help make stronger plants. The seedlings get used while young to a breeze and grow stronger to resist it.

When not in use for seedlings the heat mat can also be used for propagating cuttings.  I can't wait to test that out!

Tomorrow I'll resume the Seed Starting 101 Posts with the Dirt on Soil!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Selecting Seeds (Seed Sowing 101 Part1)

Pepper Seeds
The other day someone asked me for some general seed sowing and I realized that I had not yet gone through the whole process from start to finish.  I have some scattered information (pun intended ;)) about seeds and seed starting throughout the blog but a complete guide was lacking, until now!  Beginning with this post I'll go through my seed starting process.  Please note that these post are intended to help anyone who is daunted by the task like first timers or those who claim not to have a green thumb (I think anyone can grow a garden and anyone can have a green thumb) and some of this seed sowing information may be stuff you already know.  If that's the case and you have something to contribute about the post subject please do.  Also ask away if you need further clarification on anything - please, there are no dumb questions so long as they are about seed starting! And now for today's topic: Selecting Seeds.

Selecting Seeds

Selecting the right seeds is an important part of the seed sowing process. I know from personal experience that it is extremely easy to go overboard on buying seeds.  I end up either I don't get all the seeds started or I've ordered way too many.  I have fallen victim to the pretty seed catalog syndrome many times in the past and will undoubtedly do so again, the photos and descriptions look so good that I just want them all!  Selecting the right kind of seed is also important as sometimes there is confusion regarding the whole heirloom vs. hybrid situation.  We'll go over that too!

Finding the Right Seeds

Every winter I'm bombarded with seed catalogs. That's great because I love to see all the new things the seed companies have to offer but it can be overwhelming with all the neat stuff they have.  There just isn't enough space or money for everything.  When I begin my seed hunt each winter I go through my favorite catalogs and make a mark beside each seed I have any passing interest in so that I can return to it later. Then I map out what I actually need.  For my garden I like to grow a few new varieties each year and I want to keep growing some of my favorites like the 'Woodle Orange' tomato.

I usually try to map out how many plants of each I'll need to start by asking myself questions like:  How many cherry tomatoes do I need?  1 or less!  They come back.  How many slicing tomatoes do I want?  Several!  How many Romas?  More than last year!  The number of plants you select should be based off of how much time you can spend in your garden and what your family will eat.  A family of four has no need of 10 zucchini plants planted simultaneously!  Although two plants planted every two weeks for five weeks will insure a good steady crop despite Squash vine borers and other pests. 

After I've made a list I check to see what I still have around.  I save a few seeds each year from the heirloom plants but also have leftover seed from last year's seed purchase.  Many seeds will remain viable for years if stored properly in a cool dark place. This varies as seeds for lettuce and onions will remain viable for a much shorter time than tomatoes or peppers.  During this process I also think back to last year's garden and muse on what performed poorly.  If the growing conditions were the same as another variety that did better than I know the poor performing vegetable/flower may not be a good one to keep trying and it's time to find a replacement.

Once I've established what I have I go back to the catalogs and look for my marks.  If I already have it I don't need to buy it.  Sometimes I choose to try something new to replace a poor performer and I'll write that down on a list with the price. Anything I need to reorder or any new kinds of vegetables also go down on the list with the price!  Always keep the price in mind.  Most varieties have many more seeds than you actually need so plan on saving them or sharing the cost with a friend.  Do you need 30 seeds of Brandywine tomatoes?  Probably not unless you are hoping to start selling tomatoes at your local farmer's markets. So split the packets, split the price, or save the seeds you don't need!

Then it comes time to order.  I'll go back through my list one more time and eliminate the unnecessary fluff.  I compare the price to what I really need and get rid of the excesses of my seed starting imagination...which can be considerable! When I have the cost of the seeds in the budget ballpark I make my order.  Where do I order from?  I'll share that at the end of this post.

Heirlooms vs. Hybrids

I've seen confusion regarding heirlooms and hybrids on various forums.  An heirloom is a plant that typically has been around for a while.  It has a history.  Like the 'Cherokee Purple' tomato which is said to have been grown by the Cherokee Indians.  Not all heirlooms have a colorful history and really it isn't necessary.  What an heirloom actually is is a stabilized hybrid.  The plant has been cross-pollinated with another to become what it is today.  Seeds grown from the heirloom typically come true to type with very little variation.

A hybrid isn't stable.  Seeds sown from the offspring of a hybrid might get you a similar fruit or vegetable but are more likely to resemble the parent plant of the original seed.  Heirlooms typically were saved because someone thought they tasted great or had a special feature like interesting size, interesting shape, or resistance to disease.  Hybrids are usually bred for the same reasons. Hybrids tend to have fewer pest and disease issues due to the focused breeding programs they have been through.  This makes them a good choice for beginning gardeners who may need a little help in getting that first garden going!

I prefer to purchase heirlooms for the seed saving capabilities but which ever type of seed you choose make your decision is based on what you need and what will work best for your garden!

Stay Tuned for the Next Post in Seed Sowing 101: The Dirt on Soil!
Growing The Home Garden Seed Sowing 101 Series

A Few Places to Find Seed
I highly recommend Baker Creek which is where I get most of my seeds. Renee sends out some great seed too!I included the affiliate link to Burpee just in case you want to compare pricing and products.

Friday, January 13, 2012

5 Vegetables I Will Always Grow In My Garden! (The Friday Fives)

It probably seems early and with scattered snow it certain feels early but it's never too early to start thinking about the vegetable garden! Store bought vegetables just don't thrill me the way the fresh garden picked varieties do. It makes sense when you consider that garden grown vegetables don't have to be picked days before use just to be shipped across the country.  The other huge advantage is that you know exactly what chemicals have or have not been on your vegetables!  Peace of mind is priceless isn't it?  That's enough with why you should grow vegetables in the backyard, side yard or anywhere in your vicinity - at least for today (I sense another Friday Five post coming on that topic!)  Let's take a look at the five vegetables that I will always plant in our raised beds!
  1. Woodle Orange Tomato
    Let's start the list off right with my all item favorite - tomatoes!  If you consider the garden a meal, the tomatoes are the main course.  We use the tomatoes for pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, and for canning but by far the most typical use for our tomatoes is between two slices of bread, slathered with mayo, a little bacon, and often a couple delicious slices of turkey!  Of course taking a slice of tomato with mozzarella cheese and dressing it with balsamic vinegar is a delicious appetizer that can run you upward of $8 at some restaurants.  We gardeners can do that much cheaper - and more deliciously!  There are some regular varieties we grow every year like Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and now Woodle Orange but we always try to add a new variety or two each year.  I stopped planting cherry tomatoes with one exception: Sungold.  Sungolds are one of the tastiest cherry tomatoes around and they're orange too.  I've heard that orange is a popular color around here...
  2. Rouge D'Hiver Romaine Lettuce
  3. Another vegetable we grow every year is Romaine lettuce.  We like the Romaine lettuces as opposed to  head forming lettuces because of the ability to cut and come again!  With Romaines you can pull a few leaves from a few plants, make a salad, and come back a week later for more.  The variety I like the most is Rouge D'Hiver which actually comes back on its own if you let it go to seed, and you should!  The flowers are an attractive addition to the summer garden (so long as the deer don't eat them).  When sowing lettuce I typically scatter sow lettuce a cleared area rather than work in rows. Lettuce seeds are small and don't need much (if any) soil covering them to get growing.
  4. Summer Squash
  5. Yellow Summer Squash is another vegetable we try to grow every year.  We aren't always successful as the pests for cucurbit crops are numerous.   Curcurbits include many of the vining vegetables like cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and melons.  The biggest pest for our squash is the vine borer.  To prevent them row covers are an option but the bees can't get into the plant area to pollinate them which becomes an issue.  Bt injections reportedly help once an infestation is present but I've never tried it.  Squash bugs are also an issue but can be removed by hand or crushed when you find clusters of eggs under the leaves.  Even with all the issues we still try to grow yellow squash because of its delicious buttery taste! Breaded squash medallions fried in olive oil and good but mostly we just grill them with a coating of olive oil sea salt and pepper.  Are you getting hungry yet?
  6. Cantaloupe
  7. Musk Melons!  That's right I said musk melons!  Otherwise known as cantaloupe, musk melons provide us with our morning fruitiness.  We strive to have some sort of fresh fruit with breakfast each day and during the summer cantaloupe gives us a replacement for store bought fruits (citrus) that we can't find locally.  While we are taking bites out of our cantaloupe, the cantaloupe is taking a bite out of our grocery bill! I always tell my wife that "We cant-a-loupe because we're already married!" Yes I know, that's a very cheesy joke, but that's what you get when you live around here.  Cantaloupes suffer from many of the same pests that the summer squash does so grow multiple plants to ensure a good crop. We grew Sierra Gold, Old Time Tennessee, and Jenny Lind last year.
  8. While there are several other vegetables we grow yearly like spinach, radishes, beets, carrots, and others, slot number 5 belongs to the cucumber.  Cucumbers are yet another cucurbit for this list.  We use them mostly in fresh salads but I really want to try my hand at pickles.  I attempted refrigerator pickles once and they turned out good but I think it's time we made an attempt at some dill or sweet pickles. I grew a pickling cucumber last year but while weeding Bermuda grass accidentally pulled the shallow root system of the cucumber plant out!  I don't advise anyone to do the same.  Needless to say those pickling cucumbers were in a pickle!  I attempted to replace the roots back in the soil but the damage had been done. 

There you have another list for The Friday Fives!  Last week I mentioned the 5 Plants No Garden Should Be Without so go check that out if you haven't already.

What vegetables do you always grow every year?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

One Thing I Miss About the Growing Season!

While the snow has just started here in Spring Hill, TN I'm thinking about the nice warm days of our growing season and all the neat stuff we get to experience as gardeners growing in the south.  I'll add to this list every few days with a new thing that I miss about the growing season.  Please share in the comments some of what you miss and we'll commiserate together!

What do I miss about the growing season? Plump juicy sweet, wholesome garden fresh tomatoes!  Ah the store bought, shipped from somewhere else, and nearly tasteless tomatoes just can't compare to the just picked from the vine variety!

Woodle Orange Tomato

Do you miss fresh garden tomatoes too?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Wonders of a Heat Mat! (for Early Seed Starting)

This year I invested some money into heat mat.  I've heard for years how bottom heat speeds up seedling and root growth and I thought it was high time I got my act in gear.  So toward the end of last year I ordered one. And let me say, I'm enjoying it already!  It's not really time to start seeds, at least for the vegetable garden which is where I start most of my seeds, but I wanted to test it out. I needed to figure out the heat mat's idiosyncrasies before heading into full out seedling production mode.

Here's what I've learned about my heat mat:
  1. Germination time increases greatly!  Instead of 7-14 days on spinach I found that the seeds germinated in less than 5 days.  By knowing this I can adjust my seed starting schedule a little.
  2. The heat mat can dry plants out much faster.  It makes sense doesn't it? Increased heat increased the rate of evaporation. I discovered this fact when we left home for a few days over Christmas.  I left the cover off of a flat of seedlings that included kale and chard.  When we returned many of the seedlings has dried out and died.  To fix this covers of appropriate heights should be used to keep the moisture inside.  Or just check the flats daily!
  3. Growing heucheras from seed is still fun!  I've grown heucheras from seed before but this time I used the heat mat to get an earlier start.  The seeds came from 2010 and were a mix of various types.  'Palace Purple' comes true from seed but most of the other varieties do not.  That's good because I want some different unique heucheras to emerge from this crop of seedlings.
  4. Keeping a lid over the flats greatly increases the amount of heat retained in each flat, which means the heat mat doesn't have to work quite as hard to maintain a good temperature.
  5. Damping off can be an issue!  This happens without the heat mat as well.  Damping off is an annoying fungus that loves to destroy tiny seedlings before they have had a chance to really get going.  If you can combat the fungus long enough for the seedlings to grow strong you can resist it.  I've used the Safer Brand fungicidal soap in the past which has done a good job at keeping damping off at bay.  Another method you might try is a mixture of baking soda (2-3 TBS), water (1 Gallon), horticultural oil (2 TBS) and liquid dish soap(1/2 tsp). 
  6. Heat mats make seed starting more versatile!  What do I mean by versatile?  Before the heat mat I was doing my seed starting in a walk-in closet with central heat.  Now I'm doing my seeds in the garage!  By using the thermostat I bought with the heat mat I can keep the seedlings at a constant temperature even when it's in the 30's outside!
  7. Heat mats make gardening more fun!  Pure opinion here but I think you'll agree!

Spinach seedlings
I bought the large size mat which is 20" x 48".  Currently I'm working on building a structure that will be a heat mat table with an enclosure to keep moisture and heat inside as well as a light stand to hold a 48" grow light.  Lighting is extremely important.  Natural lighting is best but when you are working in a garage you don't really have that option.  You can see from my young spinach seedlings that more light is needed. Leggy seedlings mean you need more light.  Currently one tiny light is supplementing the natural light.  Once I get my seedling propagation chamber put together I shouldn't have this issue.  It's best to keep the grow light within a few inches of the tops of the seedlings for optimal growth!    

Heuchera Seedlings
Have you ever grown seedlings with a heat mat? 

You can find heat mats and thermostats at these online stores: