Monday, March 23, 2015

Big (realistic) Garden Dreams: Starting Seeds

Copra onion seedlings 2015

You might have already guessed this but, I love starting seeds. It kind of goes along with my obsession with love of seeds. Every spring I anxiously keep my itchy fingers in check until the almanac says I am in the right timing. I patiently and lovingly tuck those little plant baby makers in the soil, water and wait. The first year I did this it was a complete and utter fail because I knew nothing. I mean, how complicated should this be? Seeds fall on the ground and grow without anyone helping in nature... What I was forgetting was that I was not nature and I was not growing seeds like God intended. Agriculture is man made after all. So, most of my seedlings died that year. (Can you see a trend in my series here? I failed a lot before I got a clue). Because of my less than successful experiences, I have a few tidbits of wisdom for you.

I think timing is the first big one. So many times I have started way off the mark, either too early or late (um, starting tomatoes in June anyone?). It wastes money for one thing and it just doesn't make for a real productive year! I am a big fan of an almanac (either can be found online or purchased in a small local store). It will give you approximate frost dates and planting by the moon charts if that strikes your fancy. Always read your seed packets for exact instructions but here are some references that I also deem useful:

Almanac Chart, just plug in your zip code for personal dates.

This chart needs you to plug in your first frost free date at the top.

Water is the next big thing as it can be kind of tricky. I chronically forget to water my seedlings. Sometimes this works in my favor because my seedlings never become water dependent. Or, sometimes they just die. What can I say? I'm a bit scatter brained these days! If I were to water properly I would keep seeds and very young seedlings consistently moist and then once the first true leaves appear then I would back off on the watering a bit. I try to water about 3 times a week or every other day at this point while they are in single cells. Then after I pot on anything in need I try to only water them every 2 days. The reason behind this is preventing water dependence and shallow roots. When you soak thoroughly a few times a week it then forces the roots to drive deeper to access the water being stored in the bottom of the pot. Many people also like to bottom water with a tray but I am not a huge fan of this. Personal preference, experiment with what works for you!

Potting on is the last thing to seedlings. Most plants that need to be started more than a few weeks ahead will need potting on at least once to prevent root binding and "legginess". I like to pot my tomatoes on when they are about 3 inches high and I bury them right up to their top leaves. I have found that little 4 ounce yogurt cups are the perfect size for the first potting on. Tomatoes I tend to like to pot on 2-3 times depending on when I can get them in the garden. Things like greens usually don't need much start time and I try not to waste space with potting them on (the bigger the plant to bigger the container). Also, onions do fine in the little cells until it is time to plant outdoors once I transfer them from the flat and having them in cells if better for their roots when transplanting.

Potted up onion seedlings 2014

Starting seeds is a skill! It takes trial and error and perseverance but it is a very worth while knowledge. Happy Spring everyone!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Big (realistic) Garden Dreams: Choosing Seeds

I love shopping for seeds. Love. It. I am shopping for seeds pretty much as soon as Christmas is over an I can feel free to do so and not feel like a freak. There is just something so exciting about reading descriptions and day dreaming about the possible bounty. Hmm... do I want a funky heirloom tomato that looks almost to weird to eat? Or... no wait! The cucumber that claims to be the original pickling cuke. Yup, I am a seed lover. Tiny little miracles that all look so different and act just as uniquely.

After years of gardening and buying seeds I have learned a couple things. First is, try to find a smaller and most local company. This really will work to your advantage because odds are they are going to have many varieties that are just for your climate thus being the most productive. There is no point in buying a drought resistant variety if you live in Seattle if you get my drift. Second, don't buy without a budget! There are many years I have spent over $100 on seeds because I just couldn't help myself (see above... I LOVE seeds)! There is no need unless you are planting an acre. And, now we come to the realistic expectations and goals.

Before you start shopping, make a list of things you want to grow and then take inventory of your growing space and the number of growing days in your zone. It's not as complicated as it sounds but it might take an afternoon of dedicated time. Well worth the effort I promise. Once you have your info look up the space requirements of all your varieties and compare to your actual space. From here weed out your list (sorry couldn't resist the pun!). With your messy piece of notebook paper you are now ready to shop!

The first time you shop on your chosen company's site (or seed rack) don't buy. Make a wish list and then walk away. Just walk away. You will be overwhelmed by the many choices and you will bust your budget. Seeds are like any other thing in this world, there are trendy things that are there just to make you spend money so by really taking your time it will be easier to stay focused and not get caught up in all the "NEW!" and "EXCLUSIVE!". They might not be lyin' but if you are new to the garden go with the varieties that have good reviews. Because of my own preferences I tend to gravitate toward heirlooms from my area because they are truly time tested and are not as much a gamble plus are just more natural. I usually start my wish list months in advance and then whittle it down to my 'buy' list as I reason with my irrational seed loving self.

Now that I have told you to go slow, if you plan to start seeds please don't wait forever! Here in Maine we plant Memorial Day weekend. Most things need a 6 week head start (except for your cold weather crops). So I try to have my seeds ordered by the end of February so I have them by early to mid March. Onions for storage benefit from being started as early as 8-12 weeks early to get them to a nice size for planting in the garden. Tomatoes are one of those that can be easily started to soon, 6 weeks is plenty or you will to re-potting over and over with little benefit to the end result. You only need enough time, don't stress it or jump the gun.

And, lastly, have fun! Every year you can try another new something and slowly collect your favorites.

Til next time.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Big (realistic) Garden Dreams: The First Timer

Rainbow Chard is a great 'first timer' veggie!

You googled 'garden first timer', right? You clicked on this post thinking I am going to tell you the secrets of having an amazing garden cranking out pounds and pounds of produce with minimal effort when you have never even touched dirt before. Sorry to burst your bubble, but I'm going to give it to you straight... this year might stink. Your seedlings might die, your tomatoes might not ripen or all your corn will be eaten by deer. BUT, if you do take some of my advice you will probably have a fighting chance (no promises though).

I had my first garden at about 7 years old. I laugh now because my dad put it in a spot that only got about 3-4 hours of sun a day and filled the box with nothing but rotted cow manure from our neighbor. I can't remember everything we grew, only this one zucchini plant that would not stop cranking! Finally the frost killed it and that was the end of my first year 'gardening'. Then I expressed interest again and my dad once again lovingly set me up, this time with a little greenhouse complete with raised beds at the front of it. Being I was completely clueless and only 11 I let this beautiful gesture of faith fall into neglect. No more garden for me. Then I met my husband in Montana and moved in with him. This first house we shared was a shack, and we affectionately call it that! But, what it lacked in suitable housing, it made up for with low rent and... a backyard. Oh, my 18 year old fingers were itching to grow something, anything! So my loving husband-to-be made me a raised bed. Not much longer after my seeds sprouted, we had to move. So, again, I was left feeling the sting of failure.

Fast forward, we are back in Maine, married, and every year I keep trying with out much luck. Until last year. You want to know why last year was a success to me finally? I realized that I need to stop trying to cram my unrealistic expectations into a tiny greenhouse and some pots. Sure, this may have been a really long back story to tell you I learn slow, but gardens are like childbirth... you remember the beginning and end but forget about the details unless you write it down. So that's why we are going to start with:

Record keeping! No matter how much of a steel trap you think that brain of yours is, march yourself down to the office supply store and get a rocking notebook. I find if I get a pretty one I really like I will actually use it. If you're a guy, just cover that puppy with duct tape or trashy bumper stickers. Now use it! Write down everything. I won't bother to tell you how to organize your notes because this is always a very organic process to me (meaning I do it different every time). But, basically you want to keep track of seed names and types, germination rates, conditions, DATES, fertilizers/soil, and yields. This may sound tedious and sometimes it is, but trust me it is worth it.

Start small. Duh, right? No, really, SMALL. Pick no more than 5 things to grow including varieties. Meaning not 5 vegetables and then 3 varieties of each, 5 total. And, even limit the amount of the 5 despite how much room you have. That way you have less of a chance of becoming overwhelmed by weeding, watering and daily care. Do not let your advanced human brain trick you into thinking you can do something as simple as grow a dozen tomato plants, 500 carrots, 50 cabbages, 100 stalks of corn, 20 pepper plants and 5 kinds of pumpkins. It's like going to the huge buffet place and taking one of everything, you will regret it. 5 things! No more!

Learn to start seeds. Others might tell you to buy starts from the garden center. I think it's cheating... (don't hate me!). Listen, if you are gonna do this thing, do it right man! Seeds make plants and plants make gardens. It's not that hard, really! Even those elusive tomato plants are easy if you know what to do (more on that in another post). I will go over this sequentially I promise.

Choose your medium wisely. Do you have nothing but clay or rocks in your soil? Don't have access to a tiller? No yard at all? Do your research and pick something that will actually work for you. For example if you have lots of rocks and clay like we have here in our area of Maine, do raised beds and save your time. Make either a few small or one long one (no wider than 5 feet or you won't reach the middle). If you have no yard than choose varieties that do well in pots and get whatever kids of pots you like or can afford! As long as they have drainage and can hold enough soil for your plant types, you are good to go.

Do not underestimate water. For the love of peet, don't! Water is even more important than soil or fertilizer. If you have pots, water every day. Shallow raised beds at least every other day if not every day and regular 'in ground' beds and deep raised beds need a good soak 1-2 times a week. You might need to double this during high temperatures, droughts or when fruit it in it's peak of growing in size (not ripening).

Find a buddy. I have gleaned so much knowledge just by talking to friends, family and strangers who also garden in my climate. Don't try getting first hand advice from your aunt in Kansas if you live in Washington, pointless. There are garden clubs, strangers in the grocery store and vendors at the farmers market you can wheedle into giving you some advice. Don't try to compare your garden to theirs this first year. Just don't.

Now, I know lots of blogs and articles will enthusiastically tell you that this will be easy and so much fun! And, it can be if only you be realistic. I am not trying to trod on your confidence but rather feed you truth. Gardening can be hard at times. It is very rewarding though!

Til next time!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Snow Makes Me Think Green

The first year I started my own seeds.

Not money green, foolish, seedling green! Here in Maine if you want a decent tomato crop before September you have to get those babies going early. But, you already knew that didn't you? See, you've redeemed yourself already. Well all this cold and snow has me craving to anxiously peer at the flats for signs of sprouts, brushing my hand across those tender little tops and spending an evening tucking delicate onion seedlings in individual cells. While I will be the first to admit that I am no master in the garden, I love it more and more each year. I dream big even if I grow small.

So dream big I shall! Well, with a hint of meticulous planning cause that's how I roll. In honor of the pre-garden season I will be doing a series on how to start your growing season off on the right foot. This year I really need to be super organized and stay on top of my chores because I have a young baby. He's a little time thief I tell ya! But, if he loves the outdoors as much as his big brother and sister, he will love just hanging out with me while I tend the beds. He hung out with me all last summer (ok, he had no choice because he was still in my uterus, but a mama can hope)! Back on track, this series will take you through what and when to organize with lists, seed selections, space allowance and how to be realistic with your time. That last one I am still working on because I have a bad case of optimism and always think things will take me less time than it really does. Like writing.

While you are waiting for the wisdom that is about to ensue, here are some posts from last season to hold you over:

Seed Tapes

Welcoming May

Managing the Small Greenhouse

How to Re-pot Onion Seedlings



Record Keeping

Til next time!