Saturday, April 19, 2014

Four weeks to last frost, and a follow up

As did many in Wisconsin (and apparently many places in the US) we had snow this week, blarg!  Even worse was waking up to a 19 degree morning, with a high of 37, which is the normal low temperature for this time of year.  But really, somehow, in about 4 weeks our chances of frost will be nearly over.  Right?  RIGHT?

There is not too much on the indoor seeding front for me at this stage. I started a few more flowers:  nasturtiums, marigolds, and some cosmos and zinnias.  You can start a few last vegetables at this point, such as cucumbers or squash, but I usually find these all do better seeded directly in the ground, and don't seem worth the effort of babysitting inside.  If you do want to get a jump start on these guys, I would use compostable pots or newspaper for seeding, so these can go directly into the ground with less transplant shock. 

There are a couple of good indoor chores this time of year:

Plant Inventories:  Make a list of what you've started and tick off those healthy seedlings.  This is where I discover my Ancho peppers did not germinate at ALL, and that I planted way too many Sungold tomatoes (again).  Make notes if you have to pick up any plants that failed, or better yet trade emails with a gardener friend and swap! (Anybody have any Ancho peppers??)

Pot up:  If the season is running cold (like it is) I will pot up tomatoes at this stage so they can wait a bit more happily for warm planting weather.  Select your favorite strong seedlings, and plant them deeply in a larger pot.  Burying the bottom of the stem makes them even sturdier and roots will grow right out of the stem too.

Fertilize:  I am not a huge proponent of fertilizing, I generally rely on my overall soil health and add a ton of compost to my garden beds and leave it at that.  But, I do have a small bag of organic fertilizer I use for container plantings and at this time of year.  Fertilizing too early seems to make seedlings leggy and overgrown, but this late in the stage they can sometimes get a boost from a light feeding a few weeks before being planted out. I mix in some granulated fertilizer (or compost) when I pot up tomatoes, or make a compost tea (or just dissolve a little organic fertilizer) for watering. 

But, the best part of this stage of pre-frost preparation is getting out in your real outdoor garden (no lights, no flats, phew!).  I seeded peas a week or so ago, and this is a fine time to sow some early lettuce or spinach if you have a dry bed ready to plant.  This weekend I'm transplanting onions.  Since I had mentioned my method way  back in February, I thought I'd follow up with a few pictures of those seedlings.

Look, no snow!  And a chicken! Here are the flats, a nice healthy size for planting. 

 Popped out of the cell pack, you can see all the roots.       

I had watered these a few hours prior to planting, and could easily separate the seedlings.  Gently grasp just about the teeny root bulb and peel them off one at a time.  They look tangled but really they slide apart very easily.   These beds were prepped in the fall, all I did was rake off excess leaves and plant right through the leftover mulch.  No digging required.  I mass plant onions in beds about 4-6 inches apart.  You can plant even closer and harvest in-betweens as scallions early in the season.  Even though onions are quite tolerant of cold I cover these earliest planted beds with row cover, as I think it gives them a little heat boost and keeps out critters (mainly my dog, who has forgotten the difference between paths and beds over the winter).

Saturday, April 5, 2014

6 weeks to last frost: Gardeners, start your tomatoes!

Sorry I'm a little late on this one, but then again, so is the weather!  We've had a crazy week which included some good news, some bad news, and these little guys, which are pretty distracting.
Three new chicks to add to our flock:  our two oldest hens are five years old this spring, and while they are still laying well right now they are slowing down a bit. We lost two from their age-group last summer, so have started up a new generation to fill in as needed.

Sturdy Roma tomato: this is one of a few I started early to go in the hoop house. Confession: I also started my basil early.
So right, gardening.  Six weeks to the last frost is the timeline for starting tomatoes, basil, and some flowers such as calendula or marigolds.  As they are the big hitters in the garden, and so rewarding to grow from seed, they get more attention around here.  Tomatoes like heat for germination, though they are not quite as picky as peppers--I do put them on my warming mats if I have space.  This year my last round of peppers was lagging behind so the tomatoes had to wait, and ironically it was a non-heated variety that sprouted first (though it was brand-new seed).

I don't have a ton to add about starting sets at this point, except to mention that if you have been seeding all along, this is the stage where you have the most work cut out for you.  Learn from me:  don't have 17 flats of plants to take care of(!!).  But even with a few, you are watching the latest germinators, adjusting light heights, checking older plants for moisture levels, and maybe even hauling flats outside to get some real sun on some nice days (or if you have a cold frame or hoop, most days).  But it's also the stage where you start to see the rewards of all that labor.  Look at those sturdy plants!  You can almost imagine your future garden beds filled with all these babies you started yourself. 

Look at all those peppers!
And hopefully, 6 weeks to frost is also the time when you can actually get started in your outdoor gardening space.  I know folks up North are still getting snow (sorry about that!) but here in Madison we are finally getting a weekend with SEASONAL temperatures and some sun.  SO get out there, bond with your garden space, and start planning/imagining your lovely plants out there.  If I'm really lucky I'll find a dry spot to plant some peas!

Monday, March 17, 2014

8 weeks to frost - transplanting

Last week I seeded the brassicas:  Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.  These generally are advised to plant 6-8 weeks before setting out, but since most of these are fairly cold tolerant, that set-out date can be a little earlier than the average last frost.  Depending on the forecast and how warm the soil is on a given year, I start thinking about setting cabbage and broccoli out in mid- to late-April, with the protection of row cover or a low tunnel.  So I do start these on the early end of the range.  Another good idea with these guys is staggering planting--start a few indoors early, seed a few outdoors later, and you'll extend your harvest. 

On the schedule this week are the remaining peppers, and a few ornamental flowers.  But, also on the agenda was transplanting some of my earlier starts:

In general, I lean towards planting seeds with an eye for the least amount of transplanting--ie, plant in the size pot the seedling can live in until being set out in the garden.  This saves work and stress on the plants.  Still, sometimes you accidentally or intentionally have a few extra seeds planted, and have to thin your pot to avoid crowding.  In this case it's fine to cull the weakest plant--just snip the stem close to the soil to avoid disturbing the remaining plant's roots.

But, if you need that plant (perhaps the cell next door had poor germination) or you just can't stand to kill an otherwise healthy seedling, here's how I transplant young plants.  In my case, I have deliberately overseeded a few things to save some space under my lights during germination, and this week I was ready to move them into their future homes.

My tool of choice for this is a wooden skewer.  I poke the blunt end under the chosen seedling, and gently lift until it is rising out of the pot with no resistance. Very gently, lift the plant by the stem, just under the leaves.  If all goes well you'll have a barely disturbed baby root ball.

The target pots have been prepped and are ready to go before I start.  Using the skewer, I form a hole in the new spot, and gently reinsert the seedling.  Sometimes, if there's a long root, I use the blunt end of the skewer to carefully guide that root into the hole as I go.

The plant spends all of a few seconds exposed before moving into it's new digs, and that way experiences almost no transplant shock.  I like plants about this size for transplanting--they don't yet have their first "true" leaves yet, but they are sturdy enough to take a little handling.  And if you have two close together, their roots are not developed enough to make them hard to separate. 
Occasionally you will have a fatality in this process, don't stress over it.  Here's where I also admit I've killed sproutlings by "helping" them out of their seed shells.  I think we've all done that, right?
Next up:  I fight with myself over the realistic date to plant tomatoes--the end of March--or the overly optimistic March 19th that for some reason I wrote on my calendar.  Maybe I'll split the difference? 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cold Frame - Spring uses

FINALLY we had a break in the weather and I spent a quality afternoon outside.  My old cold frame is frozen to the ground from a winter sheltering leeks, so last weekend we built a new one to handle our burgeoning inventory of starter plants. In a few more weeks we should have both in full use. And since I've mentioned it a lot in my previous posts on seed starting, I thought I'd do a quick overview of how I use a cold frame this time of year.
As I've mentioned, I have a fairly minimal light set up, and the real estate under the lights gets more precious every year. So, as plants mature (meaning they at least having a set of true leaves), I begin to rotate flats outdoors into the sunny, warm, micro-climate of the cold frame.  I find the true sun and the warmth of the box makes for happy plants.  As the cold frame warms up, and the lid is propped open to ventilate, plants are exposed to direct sun and light breezes, creating sturdy stems and plants that are practically hardened off and ready for the real world, by the time the real world cooperates anyway.
One word of warning, using a frame requires a fair amount of effort and monitoring, especially at the beginning of the season when weather conditions change rapidly.  It takes some practice to regulate temperatures, and it's very easy to burn or freeze young seedlings.  And there is legwork involved: while a "hot box" greatly increases temperatures while the sun is out, it does not hold them well, so plants still need to come inside nightly.  There are a lot of trips carrying plants in and out.  For me, after a winter of being cooped up, I enjoy any excuse to spend time outside and frankly I need the exercise.  Babysitting a few flats at a time is do-able for me, but you may find your schedule or style doesn't fit this method as well.

A few basic tips:

  •  Keep it close to the house:  My hoop house is great for growing seedlings, but it's not very convenient. My hot box is set up on a picnic table right outside the back door (or as close as it can be and still receive sunshine).  I can swap plants in or out in a few minutes.  A deck or front stoop might be a good option.  
  • Avoid plant shock--especially at the beginning, the transfer from your house to shelter should not be too jarring.  After plants get hardier I am more lax with this, but at the start I wait for temps above freezing outside, and in the cold frame at least as warm as indoors.  For colder-hardy plants, I watch until the box hits 50ish degrees. Keep transfer times to a minimum.
  • Related to this, keep an eye out for adjustment issues--Even with venting the box can top 100 degrees easily, and plants dry out and overheat rapidly.  I water everything thoroughly and keep a close eye the first day out--often leaving plants for just a few hours to adjust.  Starting plants out on an cloudy day is a safe bet as well (did you know that an overcast day is still 1000-2000 lumens?)  And on gloomy days in the low 30s my greenhouse still hits mid-60 degrees easily.
  • Get a remote thermometer.  Seriously, these little gadgets have saved me lots of times.  I keep the base in a spot I walk by frequently, and a transmitter in the hoop and the cold frame.  It helps me gauge when to take things outside, and when to rescue things when the hoop hits 115 degrees and I need to open a vent.  Mine can also record highs and lows, which can be helpful when you are getting ready to leave things out overnight.  A regular thermometer works fine too, but the remotes are inexpensive and save you a few trips.  Bonus:  also useful for home-brewing and chicken rearing!
  • Ventilation:  Our original design used an adjustable prop.  Later we added a Univent--another super useful (but kind of pricey) gadget.  These have a piston which expands as the temperature rises, lifting the lid.  I love mine, and I think it's saved my plants more than a few times.  It gives you a little more flexibility as it will close the lid completely in the evenings, if you can't get to it right away.

Update:  We are excited to be partnering with a local store in Madison to offer cold frames for sale this spring!  2 models are currently available at the Madison Greenhouse Store!   More details are can be found here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

10 weeks to last frost (give or take) - how much to plant?

Well, the onions are up, and coming along nicely.

This week on the planting schedule:  eggplant, and some peppers. The first (and slowest-growing) of the heat-loving plants. 

Depending on your variety and seed packet, eggplants and some hot peppers are sowed between 8-10 weeks.  Last year these were slow starters for me, and although I have fresh seed for several of them I went ahead and started most of them on the early side of the range.

As these are heat-loving plants, and our house is at a chilly 60-something degrees, I wrestled my heat mat away from my home-brewing husband and put it under the flats to help with germination.  As I'm cheap and only have one small mat, I stack flats, and rotate plants out as they sprout.  Our bathroom is also for some reason the warmest room in the house (plus bonus humidity!) so I've used that in the past-- there are lots of other low-tech options for boosting heat.
One question at this time of year is:  how many plants to start?  This year I'm starting lots of extras in order to have a plant sale (consider yourself warned).  But, most years I aim at just enough plants for me, plus a few spares and gifts for friends.  How do I come up with a number?  I have a running list of all the majors (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, brassicas) going on 7 years now. I just pull out last year's garden map, and tally up the final numbers, and add it to my list.  Then I try to think back (this is a good time to re-read your garden journal or notes from last season):  was I swamped with tomatoes?  Did I wish I had more peppers to freeze or dry?  Did I need a pickle intervention?  Taking into account factors such as weather or pest issues, I adjust the quantities slightly year by year.

While it can be a little torturous to start thinking about preserving before your seeds have even sprouted, I find this is a good, realistic time of year to assess what you've been eating. At the beginning of winter, you are using up fresh stores, and possibly hoarding some of your more precious preserves. But by March, I think you have a better sense of what's left on your pantry shelves, and if those high summer ideas for meal plans are holding up in reality.  Are you craving green vegetables on your plate, or are you happy with the starchy, rooty, carb-laden comfort foods of winter?  Is your tomato shelf surprisingly full, or are you already skimping on opening jars of salsa?

So, back to the numbers game:  how many seeds to start?  My rule of thumb is 50-100% more than you want.  For example, if I want 2 tomato plants of a specific variety, I start 3 or 4.  That allows for a dud germination, plus a spare plant in case of calamity (death by frost/hail, or a being stepped on by a dog).  I usually end up with a flat's worth of spare plants at the end of the planting season, but there are always friends/neighbors to share with, or a food pantry or community garden that would love to take them.  It also lets you select the best/healthiest specimens to plant.  If I have a notoriously poor germinator (for me, parsley) or older seeds, I will double-up on the seeding to make sure I have enough starts, you can always thin out your pots later.

And, just because it's freezing cold and snowy out, one last summertime photo to remind me what this is all about:

Friday, February 21, 2014

Seed Starting - Alliums

I used up my last storage onions last week.  If I can't quite grow enough to last me until the next year's harvest (or chive season!), at least I can make it to the next year's sowing!

I started growing onions from seed about 4 years ago. Previously I purchases bundles of plants from our local garden center, but decided I wanted the variety control and price savings of growing my own. Plus: they need starting 10-12 weeks before planting out, which satisfies my craving for growing, and keeps me occupied until I can start the fun crops later.  Also, per my extension office*, onion sets (the little bulbs you see at groceries and seed stores in spring) are not as good to use:
Planting onion sets is not recommended for market-quality onions. Sets are the second year’s growth of storage varieties or multiplier onions and therefore tend to be less sweet than other onions. In addition, they may bolt or go to seed early.
It took me a few tries, but I finally have a system I like for alliums.  I plant in 12-cell inserts. I like the depth of planting in full flats, but the divisions make it a lot easier at transplant time.  In the basement, I mix up some damp starter media in a flexible bucket, and fill my flats.  Then I bring them up where it's more comfortable in the kitchen for seeding.

Using three fingers as a "dibble", I poke 15 holes in each cell, and drop a seed or two in each. Allium seed does not keep well--especially hybrids--so if you are re-using last year's seeds it may pay to plant extra. You can always thin later.  This year several of my (new) fedco packs were held over from last year, and they gave me extra, noting a 75% germination rate.  So I double-seeded those quite a bit.

This is a little bit tedious, but three or four flats is a ton of onions (well--180 or so plants per flat!), and I can seed them all in less than an hour.  If you were doing this commercially, it probably wouldn't be worth it, but at this scale I find it manageable.  Onion sets can be $8-10 for 50-75 plants at our local garden center, and a seed pack (well more than a flat's worth) is less than $2!  I label each flat with some masking tape, cover with a plastic lid or a bag to hold in moisture, and put them someplace relatively warm to germinate.

 In around a week you'll start spotting seedlings, at which point move them under your lights.

Alliums don't like to dry out, so try and keep them evenly moist.  I generally water from the bottom for these.  After a few weeks you can feed with a mild organic fertilizer, or some compost tea. 

One nice thing about starting alliums is that they are fairly cold tolerant, so they are great candidates for growing out in a cold frame or hoop house, or even a sheltered spot outside if conditions are good.  Later in the spring when I'm running out of indoor light space I carry these out for the day.  It's definitely legwork but again, it's usually a time of year when I'm looking for excuses to go outside.  Just be sure to watch your forecast and your temperatures (a remote thermometer is a tool I can't live without): you don't want to cook them or freeze them. But once they've adjusted and begun to harden off they can take 40 degrees if they are sheltered.

There's some debate whether or not to trim plants to promote thicker stock. I've done it both ways.  Mostly, I think trimming is useful if plants are getting leggy and tipping over, or they won't fit under the lights!  Experiment a little and see what method you like. It definitely doesn't hurt to trim them.  Our extension office recommends trimming to 5 inches at planting time, which encourages root establishment.

The reason I like this size flat insert is that when it comes time for planting, I just carefully tip one pack out at a time, and gently tease apart the plants--their roots will be intertwined but they are surprisingly cooperative to untangling.  Individual plug cells were a total PITA to transplant (poking each cell from below with a pencil to get them out, arg!), and whole planted flats meant that I had to plant them all at once or have an awkward half-flat leftover.

The varieties I've sowed this year are:  Blue de Solaize Leeks; and Copra and Rossa di Milano onions.  I also have Redwings (picture above) on back order from Fedco.  Onions can be used at any stage of growth from scallions to full grown.  For storage purposes, they need to be cured (I use my same greenhouse table again for this, as seen above).  Some varieties store better than others, check your seed cadescriptions for details.

*By the way, I've probably mentioned our University Extension office a lot in these last posts, they are an excellent resource. I find that publications aimed at market growers are super valuable for serious home gardeners, with a little adjustment for scale.  There's an entire series of PDFs available for free on growing vegetables in Wisconsin, and much of what I've learned about Onions is from this one:  They include information from seed starting through to harvest and storage, and are of course appropriate for Wisconsin climate/soil types.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

12 weeks to last frost

I hesitate to start a post with a title like this--it suggests I'll have a series.  It could happen!? In fact, I've already split this into two posts, so I could start with a general overview of seed starting.

In Madison, our average last spring frost occurs right around mid-May.  Frost dates are funny little statistics.  I found a good map of Wisconsin climate data here, at our extension office.  If you want to get all weather-nerdy (as I do) you can find charts with the percentage chances by date.  For instance, after May 10th, there is a 50% chance of frost, and after the 27th, there is a 97% chance we will not have below freezing weather.  Cool, right? 

If you're not in Wisconsin, you can do a quick google search for your frost dates by zip code, but check a few sources, I found a lots of variations between commercial sites.  Look for USDA data, and compare it to your own observations about your local micro-climate.  My little protected south-facing yard warms up pretty fast, so I tend to trust the slightly earlier dates.  If you've gardened for a while, look back at your notes from previous years.  Last year?  We had frost right up to May 12th, and the way things are going I think this spring will be a slow start too.

At the beginning of the year I create a basic planting schedule every two weeks from now until May 15th, with notes on the types of plants that are ready to start. First up:  alliums and slow-growing herbs like parsley and cutting celery.  Next come the brassicas, who can go outside bit earlier, along with the eggplants and peppers that need a long running start.  Finally, in mid- to late-March, I start tomatoes.   These schedules don't have to be perfectly followed to the letter, and don't worry if you run a little later than your plans, I find it's much better to have young plants in fine weather, than unhappy overgrown plants waiting out the last cold spell. Most seed starting recommendations have a range, and there is plenty of flexibility.

So, a few very basic overview details on starting your own seeds--I'll be more specific in later posts.  I use a very basic setup:  traditional flats and cell inserts (plastic), and a purchased seed starting media.  If your preference is homemade mix and soil blocks, even better.  Use what you like! 

I also wash, reuse and re-purpose miscellaneous pots for many years.  There is some concern regarding transmitting disease but I have not yet had a problem. 

My light setup is a utility shelf with regular shop lights stolen from the basement where they are used the rest of the year.  I try to have one warm and one cool bulb in each fixture, and am slowly investing in gro-lux bulbs (one for each).  Once sprouted, I have flats as close to the light as possible, and I rotate around as needed to keep similar sized seedlings together. With a simple 2-bulb fixture, I do end up rotating things a bit for even growth.  Some might find this tedious but for me, spring sets are all about puttering.

I also employ the use of my cold frame A LOT.  As soon as the afternoons are sunny and above freezing, I haul out the four most mature flats to the picnic table.  As much as I think regular fluorescent lights are fine, the real deal is of course better, and it makes more room inside for younger sets.  I get very sturdy starts with the cold frame, plus most of the time the temperature inside is a lot warmer than we keep our house. Again, you need to carry things in and out when there are cold nights, and keep an eye out for spiking temperatures or damaging wind. A little breeze, however, is good for strong stems.

Now that I have the hoop house, I use it as a giant cold frame too, but it's a lot farther from the house, which means many trips (including a flight of stairs).  It's better for hardier sets like alliums, and later in the season for hardening things off. 

Just a last note: this is my setup which has evolved over 10-15 years--it started out WAY smaller--one or two lights, a few flats, and lots of practice.  I find it fun, I know not everybody has the time or space (or inclination), and buying sets is a perfectly fine option.  But if you are yearning to have something green indoors to remind you that spring is indeed coming: don't worry about having the perfect equipment to start with, and go for it!