Sunday, April 15, 2018

Seed Starting Tips

The past couple of years I've helped lead workshops on seed starting, and I find that many people are hesitant to start seeds indoors.  Even a Master Gardener I know confessed that there is something about seed starting that scares her silly!  On the opposite side of the spectrum, my kids wonder why I would even bother to lead a workshop on seed starting.  According to them, you stick a seed in some dirt and voila!  Sadly, it's not quite so simple as that, but I have a few tips that give me pretty good results every spring.

'Purple Bumble Bee' Tomato seedling
1.  Plan when to start the seeds.
Thankfully most seed packets will tell you a lot of information about how to grow your seeds, including how long you need to grow them before planting the seedlings outside.  You will need to factor in time for your seeds to sprout (usually around a week).  You will also need to plan for a week or two to slowly introduce your seedlings to the outside environment before planting them outside so they won't go into shock, a process called 'hardening off'.

The back of this tomato seed packet gives
pretty good instructions on when to start the seeds.
Many summer vegetable and flower plants don't like cold weather and won't be able to be put outside until after the last frost of the season.  You can find out around when the last frost in your area will be by searching online

2.  Use a sterile soil or seed starting mix to plant your seeds in.
Don't just use soil straight from your garden to plant your seeds in indoors.  Outside soil or even those big bags of potting mix may have bacteria, fungi, or bug eggs in them that might hurt small seedlings.  Instead, use bags of seed starting mix, which are completely sealed and sterile.  They are made of a water-retaining mix of peat or coir with some perlite or other light, fluffy materials added.  Another sterile option that is easy to use are those compressed peat pellets that expand when you add water.

If you do want to use a potting mix or soil that you have lying around for seed starting, you will need to sterilize it first by heating it to between 180° and 200°F (85° to 90°C), which will kill off any nasties.  I usually do this by putting the soil in a large bowl, moistening the soil, covering it with plastic wrap, microwaving it for 3 to 5 minutes, and then letting it slowly cool.

3. Plant your seeds in moist (not soggy!) soil and then cover them with plastic to keep them moist until they sprout.
Many seed trays will come with a plastic cover to cover them with, or you can use plastic wrap.  Some seeds like some light for germinating, some like darkness.  Some like it cool, most like it nice and warm.  (Your seed packet should tell you, or you can use search online.)  Just don't put your seed trays in direct sunlight, as that will cook them.

Ground Cherry seedling
4.  After the seeds sprout, they will need air, water, and lots of light!
When most of the seeds have sprouted, uncover them and put them in a sunny window or under some fluorescent shop lights hung a couple inches above the plants.  If you are using florescent lights, pick the light bulbs that cover the full spectrum of cool and warm.  Keep them on for 12 and 16 hours a day.  (My lights are on a timer from 6am to 8pm.)  Water the seedlings when they get dry, but try not to water so much that they are sitting in soggy soil.

my grow light setup: bakers racks and shop lights suspended on chains
5.  Put on a fan.
Good air circulation prevents fungal diseases.  Keep a fan nearby running on low.

6.  Start fertilizing at half strength after the seedlings start growing their first true leaves.
If you are using a seed starting mix of peat or coir, it likely doesn't many nutrients in it.  When the seeds first sprout their first baby leaves, they are using energy stored in their seed.  However, when they start sprouting their next leaves (called their 'true leaves', since the baby ones will at some point fall off), they need some nutrients.  Fertilize at a diluted half strength every couple of weeks.  A liquid fish or kelp fertilizer is great.  I tend to use whatever fertilizer I have on hand.

pepper seedlings starting to grow their first true leaves
7.  Once your seedlings get a little bigger, thin them down to one plant per cell or pot. 
Unless your plants are meant to be grown closely together (like bunching onions), they will start competing for light and space.  Use a small pair of scissors to cut extra plants off at the soil level.  It is emotionally hard to get rid of seedlings, but if you thin them, the remaining plants will grow much bigger!  (Sometimes you might even have to plant them in bigger pots.)

8.  Pet your plants!
Lightly run your hands over the seedlings for a minute or two every day.  This actually helps toughen them up and grow stronger.

9.  Harden your plants off gradually starting a week or two before planting outside, and keep an eye on the weather.
Like I previously explained, if you just plant your seedlings outside right after being in a nice, climate-controlled house, they will go into shock.  Start getting them used to the elements by putting them in a shady, protected place outdoors for a couple hours.  Each day, gradually increase their exposure to the sun and wind until they are ready to be planted outside.  Keep an eye on the weather! If there is a late season frost forecasted for after you've already planted your tender annuals outside, cover them with a sheet or blanket overnight.

10.  Enjoy!

Friday, April 6, 2018

That's One Cold Shower

If April showers

bring May flowers...

what does April snow bring?

The coming May blooms might want to go into hiding for a little while!

Happy spring?

Friday, March 30, 2018

Give Winter Aconite Some Love

Snowdrops get all the attention for blooming so early, in late winter when supposedly nothing else is blooming.

But what about Winter Aconite?

No one often mentions poor Winter Aconite, aka Eranthis, but for me it blooms at the same time as Snowdrops - possibly a bit earlier.  And, while Snowdrops are lovely and all, the tiny Winter Aconites are far more welcome in my garden for the main reason that...

...they aren't white.
And after a long snowy winter, I'm pretty much ready for any color that isn't white! (No offense to you, Snowdrops.)

Now I do get why Snowdrops are far more commonly grown here than Winter Aconite.  Snowdrops are very hardy, easy to grow plants, and they are decently easy to sell as dried bulbs in fall.  Winter Aconite are fussier both to grow and to sell.  Bulb growers will sell dried Winter Aconite tubers in the fall, but the tubers really resent being dried out.  Out of the several dozen Winter Aconite tubers I've planted, only a handful have actually come up.

Soaking the tubers well before planting them helps to rehydrate them and increases the chance that they will come up.  Margaret Roach from A Way to Garden has recommended buying wax-dipped tubers that are now being offered from places such as Old House Gardens, as the wax prevents them from drying out so much.  She has had much more success with these (100%!), so that definitely sounds like a better way of selling them!

Winter Aconite is also more fussy about where it likes to grow.  They prefer cooler climates (zones 4 to 7), and they like partial shade or conditions under deciduous trees and shrubs where they get sun in winter and shade in summer.  They thrive in that magical rich, moist, well-drained soil, and they don't like to completely dry out even in summer dormancy.  Winter Aconites also prefer not to be disturbed - mark where they are so that you don't accidentally dig them up in summer (which I am totally guilty of, whoops!)

Winter Aconite seedlings
Winter Aconites are critter-proof, so once you get them established, they are thankfully pretty hardy and long-lasting.  When happy, they seed around and make large colonies of Winter Aconite in the garden.  They are best divided and moved in late Spring after their foliage starts to fade.

Eranthis hyemalis
There are two types of Winter Aconite commonly sold here in the States.  Eranthis hyemalis, native to Europe, is the most common one.  Eranthis cilicica, native to Asia Minor, is now thought to be a possible subspecies of E. hyemalis.  It blooms slightly later, has slightly larger flowers, and more deeply divided foliage than E. hyemalis.  E. hyemalis is said to prefer more alkaline soil, while E. cilicica prefers a more neutral soil.  There are also several Asian species, some with beautiful white flowers, but rarely sold here.

Eranthis cilicica
There are several cultivars of Winter Aconite out there, mainly from German and Scandinavian breeders, but they are hard to find and expensive here in the States.  E. hyemalis 'Flore Pleno' has doubled flowers, 'Schwefelglanz' has pale yellow flowers, and 'Schlyter's Triumph' has orange flowers, to name a few.  I am hoping that Winter Aconite will become more popular over here, and we will start seeing more interesting varieties available.  After the long winter, though, we will take whatever color we can get in the garden!

And I so enjoy those little splashes of yellow that pop up right after the snow!
Happy Spring!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Veggie Garden Remix

It may be officially spring, but with snow on the ground and more in the forecast, spring still feels far, far away.  Thankfully the Boston Flower Show was this past weekend, giving us a much appreciated glimpse of spring!

The Water Wheel garden by Heimlich Nurseries at the Boston Flower Show
As spring has to come sometime, I've also been busy starting seeds indoors for this year's veggie garden.  I really enjoy planning the vegetable garden every year - since most vegetables are annuals, every year's garden is different!  I love finding fun new things to grow, and I was very excited when this book came out this year:

Veggie Garden Remix
Northern gardeners might know the Canadian author, Niki Jabbour, from her fabulous book The Year-round Vegetable Gardener.  Her new book, Veggie Garden Remix, is another great one, and I was delighted to be able to go to Niki Jabbour's talk about it at the Boston Flower Show.

Niki Jabbour at the Boston Flower Show
The book showcases different vegetables that are not as commonly grown here in the US.  While some I did know and grow myself (ground cherries, walking onions), many I'd never even heard of (molokhia?  Chinese artichoke?)

The book is ingeniously laid out.  For each common vegetable, the book gives several unusual options that people might also like and tells how to grow them.  My favorite is the section on spinach.  While I always seem to have trouble growing spinach, Jabbour gives several options that seem easier to grow, as well as some that are more heat-tolerant for summer harvesting!

Jabbour is also a fan of trying more unusual varieties of your common veggies, and her book lists some noteworthy varieties that she's tried and enjoyed.

Niki Jabbour talking about different types of beans
Less adventurous growers (and eaters) might not enjoy a book like this, but I though it was a lot of fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed her talk as well.

Here's to growing some new things in 2018!

And here's to spring, wherever it might be...


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Out of Order

A beautiful February spring:

Followed by...

a very, very wintery March.
I feel like something is wrong with this picture.

Today the third nor'easter this month has arrived, hammering us with yet more heavy, wet snow.  We are fortunate that we live in an area with underground power lines and thus rarely lose power.

Stay safe out there, fellow New Englanders.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Monarch Population Numbers Announced

Today the WWF-Mexico and Conanp announced the numbers for the Monarch Butterfly population that overwintered in Mexico.

Monarch Butterfly population 2017-2018, compared to previous years
graph source: WWF-Mexico
The news was not so good.  Nine colonies of Monarch butterflies were found occupying a total of 2.48 hectares of forest.  That is a drop of 14.77% from the previous winter, which covered 2.91 hectares.
closeup of Monarch population the last few winters, in hectares
The drop in population was attributed to the presence of two tropical storms and three hurricanes along the Atlantic coast when Monarch migration began in mid-September.  High temperatures in the midwest and northeast of the United States also caused a late migration, possibly also contributing to the decline in numbers.

Whatever the reason, it is sad news for the Monarchs.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Earthworms Gone Bad

Most of us grow up hearing about how great earthworms are for the garden.  Gardeners strive for a garden full of beneficial worms!  They aerate the soil, break down organic matter from the soil surface, and expel their nutrient-full 'castings' (aka 'poop') underground for the benefit of plant roots.  Whenever I found earthworms on our driveway after a rain, I enthusiastically picked them up and placed them in whichever part of the garden I thought needed them the most.

Then came the discovery of the invasive Asian jumping worm.

Asian jumping worm
Believe it or not, here in New England we don’t have any native earthworms, as glaciers wiped them all out several millennia ago.  With no earthworms, our hardwood forests evolved in an environment where fallen leaves collect in a thick layer on the forest floor and decompose slowly.  This leaf litter retains moisture, maintains the soil’s pH level, and supports a rich understory as well as the wildlife that live in such an environment.  

Yellow trout lilies
However, in the 1600’s, European settlers introduced earthworms back to the Northeast.  These non-native earthworms alter woodlands by eating the leaf litter that normally supports native tree seedlings and native wildflowers such as trout lilies, mayflowers, and trillium.  

Trillium cuneatum
The disappearance of this spongy leaf layer leads to the disappearance of insects and amphibians that live in it, which has larger implications in the forest ecosystem.  Thankfully this process is very slow, as the worms do not spread very quickly by themselves.

Enter the Asian jumping worm.

Asian jumping worms have likely been in the South and in northern greenhouses for several decades. However, they were noticed in 2013 in Wisconsin as problematic, and since then awareness has grown about these earthworms, which are.... a little different.

Asian jumping worms are more energetic than other worms.  Hailing from Korea and Japan, they are also known as ‘crazy snake worms’, as they thrash wildly side to side and even jump when handled.These worms have a voracious appetite, able to break down wood mulch and plant debris extraordinarily quickly.  (In one study, researchers from University of Wisconsin - Madison studied plots of forest land newly invaded by worms and found that the worms decreased the leaf litter mass by 84 to 95% in just four months!)

Instead of dwelling in deeper soil, Asian jumping worms live close to the soil surface, right underneath the leaf litter. Their dry, but nutrient-full castings are mostly left in the top two inches of soil, inaccessible to deeper plant roots. They work so quickly that scientists liken it to a dose of quick-release fertilizer.  However these nutrients easily wash away - sometimes to where people do not want it, such as in waterways.  Soil occupied by jumping worms often looks churned, grainy, and dry, and it is more prone to erosion.  

These worms that I had so carefully rescued were Asian jumping worms, of course, and they are changing the soil in my garden. The top layer of my soil in many parts of the garden has turned into a gravelly field of loose, dry little pellets.

While Asian jumping worms do thankfully die off in cold weather, their cocoons survive to hatch the next spring.  Another difference between these worms and others: it takes just one.  Jumping worms can reproduce asexually, thus it takes just one worm to make a colony in a new location.

So how can you tell if you have these crazy worms?

Asian jumping worm
It's difficult to tell with young worms, but the adult jumping worms can be identified by their smooth, light-colored clitellum, which completely circles its body near the head.  (The similar-looking European nightcrawler has a raised clitellum instead of a smooth one.)  They also wriggle wildly (or jump!) when picked up or touched.

So what can be done about these invasive worms?  Several states have launched campaigns to discourage people from dumping worms from fishing bait and vermicomposting in the woods, which exacerbates the problem.  Several organizations in Wisconsins have even cancelled their annual plant sales in order to slow the spread of these worms.  As for us, we can make sure not spread these worms by checking plants that we buy or share with others for worms and destroying any that are found.  Acquire compost only from reputable sources where it has reached properly high temperatures, which would kill any cocoons.

As for me, I will stop rescuing these invasive worms and putting them in my garden.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Veggie Quest Begins Anew

There might be snow on the ground now, but recent spells of spring-like weather have me in the mood to plant!  Even though I really do have plenty of time before spring truly arrives, I feel a little behind this year, as I am still deciding my seed orders for this year's upcoming vegetable garden.

last year's 'Mammoth Melting Sugar' Snow Peas
So how did last year's garden go?  It's evaluation time!

veggie garden 2017
The season began for me in early March with the starting of the onion seeds.  It was the first time I had started them from seed...

onion seedlings
...and it possibly might be the last.  It's just so much easier to order a bunch of seedlings, honestly.  I've heard that one can grow bigger onions by using seeds, and I'm sure that is true, but I started the seeds on the late side due to travels and ended up with the same size of onions as always.  I usually grow red storage-type onions, which lasts us through most of the winter.

'Red Hawk' onions
This year I was very excited to also grow Egyptian Walking Onions, aka Tree Onions.  They are a perennial onion, and one can eat the bulb, the stalk, or the bulblets that form on top.  They are called 'walking onions' because the bulblets weigh down the stalk, bending it down to the earth so that the bulblets can root.  Thus the plant slowly 'walks' to spread to other areas.  You can see a couple of the stalks in the picture below already bending down to start their stroll.

Egyptian Walking Onion
This year we ate mainly just some of the stalks as green onions, so that our patch of Walking Onions could increase.  They were strong with a bit of a spicy kick, which we enjoy!  The best part about them, though?  Nothing else eats them, so I could actually plant them outside of my fenced veggie garden.  I love trying new things in the garden every year and discovering new favorites to grow.

Clockwise from top left:  Purple Podded Pole Beans, potatoes, Half Long Guernsey Parsnips, Xtra-tender Sweet Corn,  Japanese Minowase Daikon Radish
Out of the new varieties we tried this year, my hands-down favorite was the Purple Podded Pole Beans.  They were prolific, indestructible, and delicious!  One of my daughters also discovered how much she liked parsnips (always a win!).  A carb-lover like most kids, she had so much fun digging and eating the potatoes out of my garden that she wants to grow them in her own garden this year.

potato plants
The kids also enjoyed the Sweet Corn, even though they ended up being more like corn 'nuggets', if you couldn't tell from the picture.  Our poor corn plants lived quite the hard life, having been completely knocked down by a strong storm and replanted/propped back up into place.  We also grew the usual suspects of garlic, peppers, and tomatoes, and I was able to can over a dozen jars of salsa in the attempt to keep us in salsa until the next harvest.

This year I tried growing Brandywine tomatoes again -  but in the greenhouse and away from the chipmunks this time.  They were as impressively delicious as everyone said, though I think I still prefer the Black Krims.  The Brandywines also didn't really produce quite as many tomatoes, either, though I did get one impressive 1.5 pounder!  Our tomato season is just so short up here, and by the time tomato plants really get going, it starts getting cold.

my 1.5 pound Brandywine tomato
My favorite tomato varieties this year?  Black Krim, Chocolate Cherry, Brandywine, and Magic Mountain.  I had one dud, the 'Green Vernissage' tomato, which I unfortunately grew from a complimentary free seed packet.  Maybe others like it, but I thought it tasted so awful that I cut the plants down.  My greenhouse space is at a premium, and that one was not worthy!

step inside to find my tomato and pepper plants
Of course, every year there is some sort of pest to deal with.  This past year I found myself with a deluge of slugs and grubs, which cut down pretty much all of my lettuce and spinach that were in those beds.  I consoled myself with how pretty my favorite turnips looked, grown under a row cover and away from the usual flea beetles.

'Hakurei' turnips
So what new ventures shall this year's garden bring?  Perpetual spinach? Wonderberries1500 Year Old Cave Beans?  There's always something new to grow and discover.

So let the season begin!

Anyone growing anything new and exciting this year?

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