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Posts Tagged ‘planting’

Tomatoes Under Lights

First tomato sprout of 2015

It took just over four days for my first tomato seedling of 2015 to emerge.

Saturday and Sunday, March 21st and 22nd, I planted 73 tomato seeds in five planters. The planters are under lights in my office.

The 73 seeds represent 18 varieties of tomatoes – six varieties I brought back from last year’s garden, and 12 I bought from seed companies this spring. The first seedling emerged on March 26, just five (or four) days after planting. I snapped photos but here it is about 36 hours later and I’m just creating a post.

A lot happens in 36 hours! At last count, 67 seeds had sprouted. My planters have gone from bare to heavily-forested in just a day-and-a-half. I’m very excited to set the seedlings into my garden, but that won’t happen until June (unless the weather forecast is excessively rosy in May).

I love starting my garden indoors under lights!

Tomato jungle under lights

In about six days, all but six of the tomato seeds I planted in containers have sprouted. Unfortunately, only one out of four Great White seeds is up, so I may do a second planting of that variety. Those leafy things way in the back on the right are cardoon and artichoke plants. I started artichokes about February 10th, and cardoon about March 5th.

 

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Start Your Own Seedlings

You Can Grow That!

Tomato seedlings under lights

One week old tomato seedlings grow under lights in my office. While I planted 16 seeds per container, some didn’t sprout. There are, perhaps, 70 going strong. To the right are pepper seedlings barely visible under their shop light. That light is so much closer to the plants because I lifted the fixture above the tomatoes to fit the camera under it for the photograph.

Sprouts are up! One hundred and six sprouts grace my seed-starting shelf. Most are tomato plants though about 24 are pepper plants and another 8 are lettuce.

I live in USDA hardiness zone 6b or 7a, depending on how you squint at the most recent map. While it felt more like zone 3 this winter, the temperature might have just brushed minus 5 – the minimum low to qualify as zone 6b. What was unusual is the cold hung on day-after-day; we had a six-week period during which it was a relief if the temperature spiked into the low 20s.

Even as the snow melted, we had cold. There’s a popular rule of thumb in our neighborhood: plant peas on St Patrick’s Day. I doubt many people succeeded. In fact, cold and rain continued until just two days ago, so anyone trying to plant peas would have been working in mud. I don’t expect to put anything in the garden for another three or four days, assuming we don’t see even more rain.

How I Start Seeds

I recently attended my first seed swap where a presenter recommended that home growers buy celled seed-starting trays. I no longer go that route. I’ve used peat pots pressed out in connected cells, I’ve used compressed peat pellets, and I’ve used old plastic drinking cups. I wrote about much of this some years ago in evergreen blog posts.

Inexpensive seed starting light and stand

Here’s a setup I created with my dad last spring. He found a seven foot section of wire shelving. We marked 17 inches in from each end of the shelving, cut the reinforcement wire along the front edge, and bent the two 17-inch ends down to create a stand from which to hang a shop light. My dad has a cabinet in his living room where he sets up trays and pots in which to start tree seeds. With chains to suspend the shop light, it’s easy to adjust the fixture’s height as seedlings grow tall.

These days I cut up gallon plastic milk and orange juice jugs and use the bottoms as seed planters. In a milk jug, I set 16 seeds, and in an orange juice jug, I set 12 seeds. Sure, roots grow together as the seedlings get large, but teasing (gently tearing) them apart doesn’t seem to bother them too much.

When I set seeds, I create a paper tag to identify which varieties of plants are in a particular container (and where the varieties are). These I tape to the side of the container for quick reference. I refer to the tags when I set seedlings in the garden and make a map that shows where I plant each variety.

The easiest thing to overlook when you start seeds indoors is lighting. Don’t assume a south-facing window can provide enough light to produce healthy seedlings. Instead, get a fluorescent fixture with 850K spectrum tubes (see the box titled Don’t Buy Grow Lights). When you first plant seeds, suspend the light about 3 inches over the surface of the soil. As seedlings grow, raise the light to maintain a 3-inch separation from the tops of the plants.

To start tomato and pepper seeds, keep the room temperature above 70 degrees. Ideally, shoot for 80 degrees which, if you don’t want to turn up the heat, you can achieve by putting a heating pad under the seed pots. I’ve found in a 70 degree room, fluorescent lights parked 3 inches above my planters warm the soil adequately.

Starting seeds indoors is only mildly challenging. If you have space to set up a light and some makeshift planters, don’t buy a flat of seedlings that someone else has started. You can grow that!

Making a milk jug seed planter

I start seeds in planters I create by cutting the bottom halves off of gallon plastic milk jugs. I start a cut by pinching the milk jug between the tips of a scissors and squeezing hard. If the carton proves too tough, I can poke a hole through with one scissors tip. Then I cut around the container on a line parallel to the bottom of the jug.

Preparing to start seeds

I buy a bale of potting soil every three or four years from a local garden center. A bale is an enormous amount of soil—compressed to about half its “fluffed” volume. To use it, I wield a butter knife as an ice pick, stabbing one end of the bale repeatedly until a chunk comes loose. I crumble the chunk into a planter and smoosh up smaller lumps between my thumb and fingers.

Note that I don’t put drainage holes in the bottoms of my homemade planters. This forces me to pay extra attention to the moisture of the soil. Before I plant, I add what must be about a third of a gallon of water and leave the planter for 30 minutes or longer so the water soaks in. The soil should be moist on the surface but there shouldn’t be water sloshing around in the container. Note your potting soil might float when you first add water. Worse: some potting soils don’t absorb water without encouragement. If you have such potting soil, stir the water in or it might just pool on top.

Planting seeds in a milk jug starter

I use a chopstick to create 16 indents in the soil of a planter; orange circles in the photo represent the layout. For tomato and pepper seeds, these can be just one-eighth to one-quarter inch deep. I drop a single seed into each indentation and then gently nudge soil over the seeds. With all the seeds covered, I very gently tamp the soil down with the heel of my hand.

Label your seed planters if you plant many varieties

My labels aren’t pretty, but they work. This one reveals I have paste tomato seeds in the left two rows (for a total of 8), 3 Amana Orange tomato seeds at the back of the third row with one Tangerine Beefsteak seed in the front of that row, and a final full row of Tangerine Beefsteak seeds.

I may have to “pot up” the seedlings later which I do by gently tearing each one away from the root ball and then setting 8 into a milk-jug-derived planter. Of course, I create new labels for the new planters, and eventually I use those labels to inform a map I draw so I know where each variety ends up in the garden. I posted a video that shows the potting-up procedure when I made my seed-starting planters slightly differently… but the video is still relevant:

 

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Vegetable Seeds Choose Life in a Small Kitchen Garden

I don’t think this is natural… and it’s even a little creepy. In real life, corn seeds dry out on the cob; get eaten by rodents, birds, and deer; and end up back in (or on) the soil before they sprout. Even if you don’t treat corn right, it wants to grow; it wants to make its own corn seeds.

The whole point of being a mature vegetable is to make more vegetables. Once you’re all grown up, you have only to spread your seeds so they can take root and produce new plants. As a vegetable seed, you do everything you know how to do to succeed; to grow into a mature plant so you can spread seeds.

To illustrate my point, the photo to the right shows an ear of sweet corn which, when I husked it, simply looked too old to cook and serve at a meal. Instead, I set the ear—along with husks from the night’s meal—into a compost bucket and set it on the deck rail. Then I kind of overlooked that compost bucket for a week or two. When I finally got around to dumping it, I found that the corn on the cob was growing.

I had not treated these corn seeds well. I hadn’t dried them. I hadn’t removed them from the cob. I hadn’t stored them in a moisture-free environment. I hadn’t planted them in well-nourished soil. I hadn’t kept them uniformly moist. Still, they did their best in the environment they had available.

I won’t make a habit of sprouting seeds in dishrags for my small kitchen garden. This was a complete fluke and it will never happen again (maybe).

A Tomato Seed Shows Pluck

Poor housekeeping in my kitchen should further make my point: I prepared a tomato salad during the summer, and used a Handi-Wipe towel to clean up the counter. When I finished, I rinsed out the towel and tossed it against the backsplash of the sink.

Apparently, I didn’t use the towel for a few days, but when next I picked it up, I found it had a passenger: a young tomato sprout had emerged from among the towel’s fibers. This was not the tomato seed’s natural environment, but still it managed to set out on its mission to grow up and produce seeds of its own.

Starting Vegetable Plants is Easy

Why am I telling you about my horrible housekeeping? To emphasize just how easy it is to start a garden: when you follow instructions in a “how to plant vegetables” article, you’re pampering seeds with an ideal environment; you’re bound to succeed! So… try it! Even if you mess up in extreme ways, your seeds will try very hard to make you successful.

Do you have examples of seeds sprouting—or vegetable plants succeeding—in unlikely environments? Please share your story in a comment!

 

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Pink Champagne Blueberries in my Small Kitchen Garden

Briggs Plant Propagators in Elma, Washington provided attendees of the Garden Writers Association Symposium with bagged Pink Champagne blueberry plants. I’ve planted mine near my fruit trees in hopes of improving the blueberry crop in my small kitchen garden.

In late August, I abandoned my small kitchen garden for a week and attended the GWA Symposium in Cincinnati. I’m glad that I did for a lot of reasons, one of which is that I returned with several Pink Champagne Blueberry plants courtesy of Briggs Plant Propagators in the state of Washington.

I finally planted the blueberries in late October. Why did it take me so long? Rain. Rain and PH.

Blueberry Plants Prefer Acid

As I’ve reported in nearly every post this year: In central Pennsylvania, if you weren’t gardening in the rain, you weren’t gardening. We had so much rain that several towns in my area made the national news. But I wasn’t out in the rain for gardening or for any other activity.

While I waited for the rain to subside, I managed to test the soil’s acidity. According to a home test kit (that I’ve since been told is highly unreliable), my yard has neutral PH. That’s not too bad for blueberries, but they prefer acidic soil, so I treated the soil with an organic acidifier.
Instructions for the acidifier were to spread some of the material on the soil and that it would take five or more weeks to lower the PH one full point. So, I dug holes for the blueberry plants, loosened the soil in the holes, and sprinkled the prescribed amount of acidifier in each hole. Then I waited.

Captions under the photos in this blog post tell the rest of the story. Happily, we had a few rainless days and I set the blueberry plants in the holes. I watered heavily that day, and I erected small fences to keep out rodents and deer. The plants look terrific; they’ve started to develop fall colors, and I expect they’ll drop leaves in the next week or so.

When I plant a perennial, I dig a hole dramatically larger than the root ball requires. This lets me work compost into the soil, or, if I’m planting in a lawn, it lets me recycle the sod into fertilizer. I piled the sod along one side of the hole, and heaped the soil on the other side. Then, I laid the sod into the hole grass-side-down. It will break down as the blueberry plant’s roots reach it, providing an abundance of nourishment in the plant’s first season.

You can’t see a “how to plant _______” sequence often enough! OK, you can, really. There are so many “how to plant” videos and articles on the Internet, it’s easy to get your fill. I won’t be offended if you pass on the planting, but have a look at the final set of photos; they show how to protect your seedlings from foraging animals. Here’s the basic planting sequence: gently squeeze the nursery pot several times and tip it down until the root ball comes free and slides out. Then, especially for heavily root-bound plants, loosen the root ball across its bottom. I don’t butterfly the roots as some do—just gently pull them apart across the middle so the roots loosen up. Finally, I set the slightly softened root ball into the middle of the prepared hole.

I pulled the soil into the hole and filled around the blueberry plant’s roots. I filled the hole so that the soil was exactly even with the surface of the soil that was in the pot. Sometimes, you need to adjust the plant by lifting it and adding soil beneath the root ball. It’s very important that you don’t let soil rest against the exposed stems of the plant. After filling the hole with soil, I ran the hose… I used enough water to saturate the soil all the way through the sod in the bottom of the hole. In retrospect, it would have been better to set up the fence before watering the plant.

My blueberries need only a modest fence. Using 24-inch chicken wire, I figured to make a cylinder about a foot and a half across. Remember high school trigonometry? To calculate the distance around a circle, multiply the circle’s diameter times PI. So, to get a 1.5 foot circle, multiply 1.5 times PI (which I approximated as 3); you need about 4.5 feet of chicken wire. I cut the wire, drove a stake about 8 inches away from the plant (completely missing the root ball), curved the chicken wire into a cylinder, and stapled it to the stake. The bottom of the cylinder rests on the soil, and I can use a tent stake to pin it down later if the need arises.

Disclosure

GWA is the Garden Writers Association, a group of people who write for magazines, newspapers, television, radio, gardening-related businesses, and the Internet. You might guess that GWA members are important to companies who sell products and services to gardeners or who create products for the gardening industry. You’d be right. The GWA Symposium draws tool manufacturers, nursery suppliers, plant breeders, and other concerns who wish to get the attention of writers. Those writers, in turn, might report on the products and services, bringing them to the attention of readers, viewers, and listeners.

I received products mentioned in the accompanying article to use for free because I’m a member of GWA. The experiences and any opinions I report are purely my own.

 

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Readying for Go in my Small Kitchen Garden

We got a little snow in early January, and later a second storm added several more inches. Rain at the end of the last snowfall turned it all into a four-inch layer of crust.

For nearly a month my small kitchen garden and all the land surrounding it has been covered in a four-inch thick iced-snow permafrost kind of thingy. There was snow, then there was rain, and then there was cold. For a while, the crust wouldn’t hold my dog’s weight and she was obviously distressed by it. Eventually, sunny but very cold days extended the crust through to the ground; we have been walking on ice.

Today, on the closing day of my seed giveaway, the temperature pushed above 40F degrees! That was enough to soften the ice cap all the way to the ground… and it was enough to bring the rabbits out of their holes. As Cocoa and I stepped out the door, we spotted one just beyond the blueberry scrubs at the edge of the yard.

Readying to Start Seeds in my Small Kitchen Garden

With rabbits out of their holes, it’s time for me to get my garden plans in line. I explained various seed-starting strategies and described my seed-starting shelf in a series of posts in February of 2010. For a thorough overview, visit each link listed in the box titled, Strategies for Starting Your Small Kitchen Garden… I’ve listed them in the order I posted them. Note that this year I’m not using peat pellets or peat pots on my seed-starting shelf.

What am I doing to prepare? I’ve four tasks:

1. Clear the seed-starting shelf—My larder is fuller this year than it was last year. That’s because I wrote a book about preserving garden produce, and I canned a lot more fruits and vegetables last year than I had in preceding years. So, with all the canned goods cluttering my shelves, it’ll take an hour or so to rearrange things and hang the light fixtures that will warm my planters and feed my seedlings.

With a light crust on the snow, Cocoa preferred to hunt rabbits from the safety of the sofa in front of the picture window. Today’s higher temperature loosened the snow pack, and finally Cocoa spotted her first rabbit of the year.

2. Collect seed- starting containers—I’m done with peat pellets, and I’m done with peat pots. This year I’m doing all my seed starts in cut-up plastic milk jugs. Reasons 1: Peat pellets are simple and convenient for starting seeds, but not so good for sustaining seedlings. Once a seedling’s roots fill the pellet, you must transplant to the garden, “pot-up” the seedlings, or fertilize them to keep them healthy. Reason 2: To start seeds in any kind of pot, you need soil as well… so I have to buy soil; I can reduce expenses by not buying pots.

3. Ordering seeds—Yikes! I’m on the late side for this little task. In fact, I’ve heard some popular vegetable seeds are already hard to find. I’m looking for a few varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and for brands of broccoli and cauliflower that perform better than what I planted last year. I’m also very tempted to start artichokes indoors, move them outdoors in April, and see whether I can harvest a few by season’s end.

4. Well… buy seed-starting soil—I have some left from last year, and the nursery where I shop won’t open until mid-March, so no hurry on this one.

 

 

 

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Small Kitchen Garden: The Friend Maker

Your Small Kitchen Garden catches up with even more posts about what went on in the garden this season while the kitchen gardener (Daniel) was busy writing his book Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry it, Too.

When I first photographed this small kitchen garden, it held mature vegetable plants of many varieties along with a whole bunch of weeds. For a household of one, the garden was pleasingly overplanted (always plant too much so you have produce to share).

A Kitchen Garden Photo Session

I’ve spoken a few times about a man I met in 2009 when I spotted his small kitchen garden and asked whether he’d let me photograph it for my blog. In the summer of 2009, this man had a somewhat weedy planting bed supporting mature tomatoes, greens, beets, summer squash, and asparagus. I tried to add depth to my photo of this planting bed by capturing a heavily-laden grape arbor in the foreground.

During my photo shoot which, sadly, I tried to complete on a heavily overcast day, this friendly old man shared stories about his gardening and his family. Turns out that his wife had cooked rhubarb into treats, but since she’d died he had no further interest in the plants. The enormous bed of asparagus apparently had fed his family, but now produced so many shoots that he’d harvest and compost them to keep the plants producing for his occasional meals into the summer.

Kitchen Gardening Twilight

Some chard growing in my new friend’s garden begged me to get artsy with my camera. Sadly, the light wasn’t so good that day, so there weren’t many reasonable shots from which to choose.

This nice man told me he planned to remove his rhubarb plants, so I offered to do the job for him in exchange for the plants. I returned in the spring, moved the plants to my garden, and reported about my experience in a post titled Small Kitchen Garden Rhubarb Project.

To thank my new gardening friend, I baked and delivered a strawberry-rhubarb pie. After a short chat at the front door, he invited me around to the planting bed where he explained that he just couldn’t get motivated to plant a garden this year. Strawberries were in season, but he’d planted nothing yet.

So I asked whether he wanted a garden; of course he did.

The Two-Hour Kitchen Garden

My friend’s soil was in spectacular condition. In less than two hours we’d planted climbing beans along the back fence, set six tomato plants, as many pepper plants, broccoli and cauliflower seedlings, and a few hills of winter squash. As we packed up our tools, I told my fried that he was responsible for weeding.

This had been the season of too many. I had ended up with double the tomato and pepper seedlings I’d planned, and I had broccoli and cauliflower plants that simply weren’t going to fit in my garden. As well, I had bought extra lima bean and string bean seeds… and quite a few butternut squash seeds.

I also had kids (still have them, come to think of it). They agreed to go with me and plant a garden appropriate for a bachelor.

The planting bed had spent winter and early spring under black plastic. We were able to peel back the plastic and, with very little digging, raking, or hoeing, plant all the seeds and seedlings we’d taken along with us. I used several stakes from my garden to erect a trellis for the tomato plants, and we covered as much soil as we could with black plastic. We finished the job in about two hours.

Kitchen Garden Challenges

I visited about a month later and found the garden was way, way behind my own. I had watered during an early dry spell, and my friend had not. Worse: a woodchuck had dined on beans and broccoli before my friend had captured it and released it many miles outside of town.

I meant to visit one more time in the fall, but that clearly isn’t going to happen. Still, I’ll check in mid-winter so I’ll know whether to start extra seeds for my friend’s 2011 small kitchen garden. My kids clearly don’t like gardening, but I think they’ll be willing to chip in if we can finish the job in under two hours.

Call To Action

I posted this story before I went to bed early on Saturday morning. As I woke up later that day it occurred to me: I should have encouraged the world to act! Here’s an amendment to the story.

Please help in an aged neighbor’s vegetable garden! It’s likely there are hundreds of thousands of aging gardeners who lack the energy or motivation to plant the family vegetable patch. Find one and extend an offer to help! We spent just TWO HOURS to plant in a well-established bed. For that, a lonely, pleasant, and very appreciative old man had a season’s fresh vegetables that called back decades of produce he’d grown with his family.

It was a simple, painless gesture that I’d love to see repeated by my gardening friends all over the world.

 

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