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Category Archives: Digging In The Garden

Organic Plant Foods

Organic Plant Foods

tomatoesGardening the organic way is a challenge, there’s no doubt about it. After years of reaching for the synthetic fertilizers, dusts, and spray bottles, it is very hard to break the habit of running to the garage or shed for the trusty chemicals. It does take time and effort to discover and use alternative and more holistic gardening methods for problems that arise.

Let’s start with some information about the benefits of organic fertilizers:

Benefits of Organic Fertilizers

  • Organic fertilizers, while they do release more slowly than synthetic fertilizers, offer a steadier release of nutrients to plants.
  • Many organic plant foods supply micronutrients not supplied by chemical foods.
  • Some are good soil conditioners. They often supply extra organic material to soil that aids in the tilth and friability of the soil.
  • There is little harm to the soil with organic fertilizers. Synthetic fertilizers will often cause a build-up of inorganic salts over time. These insoluble salts will affect soil life, soil condition, and plant health. Microbial and beneficial soil insect populations will drop. All of this will affect the growth and performance of plants over time, while there is no build-up of salts to the soil when using organic fertilizers.
  • Organic foods help to increase soil microbial activity and beneficial soil insect activity.
  • There is a greater margin for error if a bit too much organic fertilizer is applied. Synthetic fertilizers can burn plants if too much is applied. Because they release more slowly than synthetic fertilizers, there is less chance of plant damage if a bit too much organic food is applied.

Here are some organic fertilizers that can be used as alternatives to inorganic or synthetic fertilizers. Some of them are readily available locally, while others can be found through mail order and online sources:

A List Of Commonly Used Organic Fertilizers & Plant Foods
Type Analysis (N-P-K) Comments
Blood Meal 12-1-1 Provides medium to rapid availability of nutrients, mainly nitrogen (N). Often used in combination with other organic fertilizers for a more complete blend. Also used in composting as starter or accelerator .
Fish Emulsion 5-2-2 Medium to rapid availability of nutrients, mainly nitrogen. Good for foliar feeding. Also used in composting as starter or accelerator. Often used with seaweed or kelp for liquid fertilizer.
Liquid Kelp 0.1-0.1-1 Medium availability of nutrients, mainly potassium. Has many micro-nutrients. Plant growth stimulant. Aids in protecting plants against stress. Improves plant health and immunity to diseases. Often used with fish emulsion.
Steamed Bone Meal 1-11-0 Slow to medium availability. Primary nutrient is Phosphorus (P). Promotes root growth and seed development. Often used in dry organic fertilizer blends. Used when planting bulbs as a booster.
Composted Cattle Manure 1-1-1 Slow to medium availability. Soil conditioner. Also used in composting as starter or accelerator.
Cottonseed Meal 7-2-2 Slow to medium availability. Primary nutrient is Nitrogen (N). Often used in organic fertilizer blends. Will acidify soil. Good for use around Rhododendrons, azaleas, and other acid-loving plants.
Alfalfa Meal 3-1-2 Medium availability. Good rose food. Supplies micronutrients and horrmonal growth promoter or regulator. Generates heat as it breaks down. Also used in composting as starter or accelerator.
Greensand 0-2-5 Medium availability. Primary nutrient is Potassium (K). Helps promote beneficial microbial activity. More absorbent than sand (silica), but of similar consistency. Good soil conditioner and for correcting potassium deficiencies.

So, now we have a list of commonly used fertilizers. You and I can blend our own equivalents of various synthetic fertilizers by choosing the right proportions of several of the listed fertilizers. Here are several recipes for organic fertilizers for use in the home garden. All of these are applied at the rate of 5 pounds per 1000 square feet:

 
5-10-15 Fertilizer # 1:

2.0 lbs. blood meal
4.5 lbs. bone meal
15.0 lbs. greensand     

5-10-15 Fertilizer # 2:

8.25 lbs. alfalfa meal
4.5 lbs. bone meal
15.0 lbs. greensand

10-10-10 Fertilizer # 1:

4.25 lbs. blood meal
4.5 lbs. bone meal
10 lbs. greensand

10-10-10 Fertilizer # 2:

16.75 lbs. alfalfa meal
4.5 lbs. bone meal
10.0 lbs. greensand

Fertilizer for acid-loving plants, 5-10-15:

4.25 lbs. cottonseed meal
4.5 lbs. bone meal
15.0 lbs. greensand     

Rose Fertilizer, 15-30-30:

25.0 lbs. alfalfa meal
13.5 lbs. bone meal
30.0 lbs. greensand

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Forcing The Issue

Forcing The Issue

If you have a firm case of the winter doldrums, here is a little antidote for your blues: Force a few branches of flowering shrubs and trees into bloom!

Plum Blossoms

Many different types of woody plants can be coaxed into an early floral display by cutting them and bringing them indoors.

Pussy willows are perhaps the easiest to force. Trim a few branches, plop them into a vase of tepid water, and Presto! Instant spring! Others are a bit more challenging and take a little more prep work to trick them into flowering. But, don’t let that discourage you. Just read on a little more to learn how to successfully force branches into bloom.

Most buds are set on woody plants during the fall of the previous year. After a period of winter cold dormancy, they will flower the following spring. One rule of thumb is to harvest cuttings closer to the plant’s normal bloom season for quicker and easier forcing. For example, if you cut the branches of a lilac in January, chances are you will have a difficult, if not impossible, chance of forcing this early May bloomer into flowering. However, if you cut the branches of early-blooming forsythia in February, your chances of successfully forcing the buds into flowering will significantly increase.

Mid to late winter is an ideal time for taking branches for forcing. This is when many of those who garden in the four seasons areas of the country tackle pruning chores. Instead of taking those clippings to the compost pile, take the thinned cuttings of fruit trees, shrubs, and ornamentals indoors to force. Here is the general technique that works for most of these branches:

  1. Prune during the warmest part of the day and on a day when the temps are above freezing. Force these branches no earlier than about six to eight weeks before their normal bloom period. For example, if forsythia normally blooms for you by late March, then wait until very late January on to harvest the branches.
  2. Cut and prune just above a bud or node. Take care to prune using good technique and sharp pruners to avoid injury to your plant. About 12 inches is a good length for your cuttings.
  3. Avoid withered-appearing cuttings or those with dried buds. Flower buds should be firm to the touch. These are generally larger, plumper, and more rounded in appearance than leaf buds. Once again, the closer to normal bloom time, the quicker and easier the branches will be to force.
  4. Once indoors, recut the stems, about a half-inch, under warm water. You can also hammer the ends of the branches to splay them open to receive water. Immerse them in 3 to 4 inches of very warm water for about 1/2 hour. Place in a vase. Fill with warm water and add a few drops of household bleach or hydrogen peroxide to to prevent bacterial contamination. Plan on replacing the water with more of the same solution every two days
  5. Keep the branches in average warmth but away from bright light. Mist the stems to prevent excessive moisture loss. It might take between one week and a month for them to respond, depending upon the type of cutting and when it was harvested. Continue to follow this routine and they should break dormancy and bloom!
  6. Once the buds are swollen and they begin to break, move them into bright, indirect sunlight. Enjoy the preview!

 

A Timetable For Forcing Branches For Indoor Bloom
Plant When To Take Cuttings
Forsythia Harvest cuttings from late January on
Plum and
Pussy Willow
Harvest cuttings from early February on
Witch Hazel Harvest from early February on
for winter or spring flowering varieties only
Viburnum Depending upon species, cultivar: Late February to early March
Rhododendron and
Honeysuckle
Harvest cuttings from late February on
Apricot and Peach Harvest cuttings from last week of February on
Redbud and
Flowering Almond
Harvest cuttings from last week of February on
Pear, Apple, or Crabapple Harvest cuttings from early March on
Dogwood and
Magnolia
Harvest cuttings from early March on

 

Read more of this post

Companion Plants

Companion Plants

About fifteen or so years ago, companion planting was all the rage. Numerous books were written on the subject: Don’t plant onions near beans, squash grows well with corn, etc. It was all so scientific and mind boggling! At times, it was enough to make a gardener throw in the towel in frustration!

Companion Plants

While it is true that some plants make better “marriages” together than others do, the art of companion planting doesn’t have to be complicated at all.

Companion planting can be defined in two different ways: First of all, there are those plants that enhance each other’s growth or add protection to one or the other plant by being planted together. Secondly, there are those plants that make great partners simply because they look good together. Let’s look a little into each of these concepts:

For two examples of the first definition: Plant garlic near roses. Pests such as aphids are repelled by the scent of the garlic. Native American culture that was passed along to the first settlers included the practice of planting the “Three Sisters” together: Corn, beans, and squash. In a symbiotic relationship, beans fix nitrogen in the soil, allowing it to be made available to the corn. In turn, the corn provides support and shade for the climbing vines of the beans and squash.

Herbs are a group of plants that also assist in helping their companions. One of the most classic examples of plant combinations is the pairing of tomatoes and basil. Since most herbs are aromatic, their essences attracts or repels insects, both beneficial and pests.

For a short list of what to grow and what not to grow together:

Hyssop is an herb that will attract white cabbage butterflies. It is a companion to the cole crops, and acts as a trap crop for the cabbage butterfly.

Cabbage and cole crops in general do well in the presence of onions, cucumbers, potatoes, marigolds, beets and bush beans. Interestingly, the cole family resents being planted near pole beans. Strawberries are also a bad combination with the cole crops.

Beets do well with cabbage, onions, radishes, and bush beans.

Basil is a great companion for peppers and tomatoes. Think Italian! Along with cabbage, pole beans aren’t very happy with beets or onions.

The vegetable kingdom loves lovage! It gets along well with just about everybody. About the only plant it has a “rhubarb” with is rhubarb!

Peppers will sulk in the presence of onions.

In addition to garlic, roses also do well around onions and tomatoes.

Artemisia helps to keep aphids off of roses.

Speaking of tomatoes: Don’t locate tomatoes next to corn. They feud.

Slip some chives around your apple trees, including crab apples, to deter apple scab. Other plants protected by chives are roses and carrots.

Garlic will help to prevent borers when planted around fruit trees and raspberries.

Marigolds repel many insect pests and are appreciated by most flowers and vegetables. They also act somewhat as a weed deterrent.

These are just a few of the companions and enemies of some of our commonly grown plants. There are many others, and there are many resources out there, some easy to understand, others more complicated. A good rule of thumb is experience. If you have ever grown peppers next to onions, you will have discovered that the performance of the peppers is less than spectacular. You will not be very likely to grow them together again.

The second concept of companion planting is not so much that it is for the function of a partnership as it is for the good looks in combination.

Roses are usually tops in anyone’s ornamental garden. The problem with roses is that while the tops of the plants are pretty, the bottoms of the plant can be somewhat sparse and leggy. Try to under plant roses with other plants that hide their bottoms. Lavender, catmint, and some of the taller growing dianthus are good companion plants for this purpose. For your taller growing or climbing roses, interplant with clematis. They look good together, and both will benefit from the application of rose food. Parsley is not only good looking and great for hiding the legs of roses, it also acts as a deterrent to insects.

When growing spring flowering bulbs, especially daffodils, add daylilies to the site. As the foliage of the bulbs starts to die down, the foliage of the daylilies will sprout up and hide the yellowing foliage of the bulbs.

Hostas and ferns are classics together in the shade garden. Ditto for hostas, ferns, astilbe, and Japanese Forest Grass, or Hakonechloa.

‘Silver Mound’ artemesia, with its feather-soft silver foliage, lends its naturally rounded form as a softening effect in the garden. Pair it with the exclamation points of ‘Sunny Border Blue’ veronica.

Many people plant rhododendrons, but shy away from planting other companions with them. Hostas, Dwarf mountain laurel, and ferns all make wonderful companions.

Monarda and feverfew are wonderful together. The red upright flowers of monarda blends well with the tiny, white, daisylike flowers of feverfew.

The blue of a German or bearded iris is stunning when planted with the bright orange of the Oriental poppy. Not only is the color combination spectacular, but the contrast in foliage form and color is also complementary, as well. The swordlike green of the iris pairs wonderfully with the feathery soft green foliage of the poppies.

There are many other plants that work well together. Whether grown together as beneficial partners or for artistic effect, try out a few of them. Not only will your plants thank you, but you can show off your green thumb and make your neighbors green with envy!

The Cutting Garden

The Cutting Garden

Mention a cutting garden, and perhaps the vision of orderly rows of flowers in a corner of the vegetable patch spring to mind. Certainly, this is how cutting gardens originated, but cutting gardens can easily be incorporated into an existing perennial bed or border.

The Cutting Garden

Flowers for the cutting garden

The plants used in a cutting garden are lovely to behold, and the flowers used offer double-duty both in the display bed and in the vase.

You probably are already growing many plants that work well in arrangements. Shasta daisy, tall coreopsis, and garden phlox are a few examples of plants that many of us grow that work well in flower arrangements. No surprise, peonies and lilacs can also double as extras in the cutting garden.

The principles are the same as when planning any garden site: Prepare the soil, add tons of organic matter and compost, use a balanced organic fertilizer, water, and mulch.

When harvesting flowers from the cutting garden, or areas of your perennial bed that have flowers you are going to harvest for arrangements, remember to cut blooms during the coolest part of the day, in the early morning. Keep a bucket of lukewarm water handy to plunge the cut ends of the stems in the water immediately. Some flowers begin to seal over the cut almost immediately, which will definitely shorten the lifespan of the flower in the vase. You don’t need to add a floral preservative at this point, just keep the stem ends immersed in water until you get back inside to arrange them in the vase.

Here are a few plants to consider for the cutting garden:

Ammi, Bishop’s Flower Asters Astilbe
Achillea, Yarrow Bells of Ireland Bachelor’s Buttons
Celosia plumosa Celosia, Cockscomb Carnations
Coreopsis, taller types Cosmos Calla lilies (tender bulb)
Garden mums Campanula, Bellflowers Digitalis, Foxgloves
Delphiniums Daisies Dianthus, Taller pinks
Echinops Echinaceas, Coneflowers Gypsophila
Gladiolus (Tender Bulb) Gaillardia Helichrysum
Heuchera, Coral Bells Heliopsis Lilies
Larkspur Liatris Lavender
Nicotiana Nigella Peonies
Snapdragons Statice Scabiosa
Sunflowers Sweet Peas Salvias, Taller Types
Tulips Tithonia Zinnias

A few things to keep in mind when selecting plants for a cutting garden: Choose plants that are taller varieties. For example, if a label states a snapdragon is a good bedding plant, it might be a smaller or shorter form. Tall varieties are what we are generally looking for. Another thing is to plant a large grouping of a particular plant. It is better to grow only three or four particular plants for cutting in a larger mass than a little bit of this and that!

Try adding a few annuals to the border that are also good for cutting. When spring comes, sow seeds of some zinnias, annual bachelor’s buttons, and other flowers for cutting among your perennials. Not only will they be there for your indoor bouquets, they will also help to carry over the color show as the different perennials finish their bloom cycles.

Once you have your flowers indoors, cut another quarter inch of stem off and plunge them into a 50:50 solution of lemon-lime soda and water with one or two drops of bleach to the gallon. This same solution can be used to feed the flowers in the vase, and will keep well in the refrigerator. Change water daily, and be sure no leaves or flower buds are left underwater in the vase to decay.

Grow your own flowers for arrangements! Cutting gardens are a great way to enjoy your flowers in the home as well as outdoors, so share your place and space with a few flowers for cutting!

Forcing The Issue

Forcing The Issue

Spring Blossoms

Spring Blossoms

If you have a firm case of the winter doldrums, here is a little antidote for your blues: Force a few branches of flowering shrubs and trees into bloom! Many different types of woody plants can be coaxed into an early floral display by cutting them and bringing them indoors.

Pussy willows are perhaps the easiest to force. Trim a few branches, plop them into a vase of tepid water, and Presto! Instant spring! Others are a bit more challenging and take a little more prep work to trick them into flowering. But, don’t let that discourage you. Just read on a little more to learn how to successfully force branches into bloom.

Most buds are set on woody plants during the fall of the previous year. After a period of winter cold dormancy, they will flower the following spring. One rule of thumb is to harvest cuttings closer to the plant’s normal bloom season for quicker and easier forcing. For example, if you cut the branches of a lilac in January, chances are you will have a difficult, if not impossible, chance of forcing this early May bloomer into flowering. However, if you cut the branches of early-blooming forsythia in February, your chances of successfully forcing the buds into flowering will significantly increase.

Mid to late winter is an ideal time for taking branches for forcing. This is when many of those who garden in the Southern Great Lakes region tackle pruning chores. Instead of taking those clippings to the compost pile, take the thinned cuttings of fruit trees, shrubs, and ornamentals indoors to force. Here is the general technique that works for most of these branches:

1. Prune during the warmest part of the day and on a day when the temps are above freezing. Force these branches no earlier than about six to eight weeks before their normal bloom period. For example, if forsythia normally blooms for you by late March, then wait until very late January on to harvest the branches.

2. Cut and prune just above a bud or node. Take care to prune using good technique and sharp pruners to avoid injury to your plant. About 12 inches is a good length for your cuttings.

3. Avoid withered-appearing cuttings or those with dried buds. Flower buds should be firm to the touch. These are generally larger, plumper, and more rounded in appearance than leaf buds. Once again, the closer to normal bloom time, the quicker and easier the branches will be to force.

4. Once indoors, recut the stems, about a half-inch, under warm water. You can also hammer the ends of the branches to splay them open to receive water. Immerse them in 3 to 4 inches of very warm water for about 1/2 hour. Place in a vase. Fill with warm water and add a few drops of household bleach or hydrogen peroxide to to prevent bacterial contamination. Plan on replacing the water with more of the same solution every two days

5. Keep the branches in average warmth but away from bright light. Mist the stems to prevent excessive moisture loss. It might take between one week and a month for them to respond, depending upon the type of cutting and when it was harvested. Continue to follow this routine and they should break dormancy and bloom!

6. Once the buds are swollen and they begin to break, move them into bright, indirect sunlight. Enjoy the preview!

A Timetable For Forcing Branches For Indoor Bloom
(The Southern Great Lakes Region)
Plant When To Take Cuttings
Forsythia Harvest cuttings from late January on
Plum and
Pussy Willow
Harvest cuttings from early February on
Witch Hazel Harvest from early February on
for winter or spring flowering varieties only
Viburnum Depending upon species, cultivar.
late February to early March
Rhododendron and
Honeysuckle
Harvest cuttings from late February on
Apricot and Peach Harvest cuttings from last week of February on
Redbud and
Flowering Almond
Harvest cuttings from last week of February on
Pear, Apple, or Crabapple Harvest cuttings from early March on
Dogwood and
Magnolia
Harvest cuttings from early March on

March Gardening Calendar

March Gardening Calendar

March brings with it a sense of change, a feeling among all that there is light at the end of the tunnel. While there will still be plenty of cold days and nights ahead, and undoubtedly some more snow before it is all finished, all can sense that true Spring is just around the corner.

While most of us might hardly notice the passage of Fall into Winter, we all notice the first day of spring this month. Be it balmy or blustery, the first day of Spring marks a mental turning point: Warmer days are ahead. March is also a time when the pace starts to pick up for those of us who garden in the Southern Great Lakes region:

1.  If the weather stays consistently moderate, gradually start to remove mulch from early flowering perennials as they break dormancy.

2.  If you haven’t already done so, finish removing foliage and dead flower stems from your perennials beds. Also start trimming ornamental grasses: Remove the dried plumes and foliage. Place back any perennial that has heaved out of the ground.

3.  Although it might be tempting, leave the mulch and soil mounds around roses for a few weeks longer. There are still plenty of opportunities for more cold weather and snow in the weeks ahead.

4.  Continue to prune fruit trees and grapevines this month. Finish this task by the second week of the month at the latest.

5.  When the temperatures are above 50, apply dormant oil spray to fruit trees and deciduous ornamental shrubs and trees.

6.  Look around your yard and see where things are starting to grow. Look to see where similar plants are still dormant. These are microclimates, and by observing frost patterns and where plants break dormancy early or not, you can use this information when siting new plants.

7.  Continue to start seeds indoors.

8.  Towards the end of the month, start removing your windbreaks around such plants as your rhododendrons. Keep your hydrangeas macrophyllas covered a little while longer.

9.  As leaves of your spring flowering bulbs start to emerge, scratch in a little bone meal or organic fertilizer in the soil around these plants.

10. Get the lawnmower and other power tools ready to go for the upcoming season. The time to mow will come sooner than you think!

11. Take advantage of pre-season sales to purchase yard maintenance equipment.

12. If you didn’t do this last fall, now is a good time to empty your soil from your pots and hanging baskets. Add the old soil to the compost pile or your gardens. Clean and sterilize your containers before using, and buy new containers while the selection is still good.

13. Get bids for any big landscaping projects. If you use a lawn service, now is a good time to get bids from several different services before the busy season begins.

14. Maintain your cold frame. Keep it open on warm, sunny days to prevent the plants from getting too warm.

15. Continue to take branches of early spring flowering bushes in for forcing. The closer to the time when they normally bloom, the easier they are to force.

16. Pot up some pansies for early outdoor color. They can stand it down to about 30 degrees. Bring them up to the porch or another protected spot if the temperatures threaten to dip lower.

17. Scratch in some cottonseed meal or other organic fertilizer around your azaleas and rhododendrons as their buds begin to swell.

18. Start your summer bulbs indoors such as dahlias and begonias the last two weeks of this month.

19. Don’t forget to keep feeding the birds!

20. Take in a flower show. Many cities host many home and garden shows. It is a great way to spend a weekend day. Also take a simple walk around the yard to see what’s cookin’. You might spy a crocus or more already in bloom!

Spotlight plant of the month for March: Crocus

Spotlight plant of the month for March: Crocus

 

Crocus

Crocus

Many people have their own ways of measuring when the change over to spring is imminent. Perhaps it is the migration of the geese. In California, it might be the return of the swallows at Capistrano. For me, it is when the first cheery blooms of the crocus appear.

True, there are plants that have already started to bloom by the time the crocus get with the program: Winter aconite, snowdrops, and even some shrubs have already started to bloom in our region. But, my personal sign that the arrival of spring is just around the corner is when these friendly little cupped flowers start strutting their stuff.

Crocus come in what my kids used to call, “Easter colors”:  Sky blue, striped purple on lavender, white, lavender, deepest purple, and buttery yellow, and all with the pretty orange stamens. They probably remind me so much of Easter merely by their colors, that this is the reason why I consider them to be spring’s calling card.

Crocus vernus, or Dutch crocus, are those huge, goblet-shaped crocus that most of us are familiar with. Planted in drifts, they are a sight for sore eyes after a long, harsh winter. Planted in the lawn, they are stunning! The only drawback is that lawns cannot be mowed for about six weeks after bloom time. The crocus are forming little cormlets. They are also storing food in the mother corms for next year’s bulbs. That is not a practical situation for many homeowners. So, naturalize them in the woods, or in the flower beds. They are just as stunning!

Those little bunching crocus, Crocus chrysanathus, or the Snow Crocus, have daintier flowers and are also smaller than the Dutch crocus. They are little miniature bouquets. Usually at least three flowers will break from one corm. They are also a bit earlier to bloom than the larger Dutch varieties. Another small variety to consider is Crocus tommasinianus, which sports many lovely blue and purple flowers.

Looks are deceiving! These perky little posies are anything but dainty! Often, as is usual in this neck of the woods, a warm stretch of weather late in the winter will coax them into blooming. Just as they start to hit their stride, they will often get walloped by a cold snap or snowstorm. Or so it may seem.

These little plants are so resilient, that only a truly bitter spell will cut their season short. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often this time of the year. Dips into the low twenties and snow on the plants usually won’t stop them once their blooming cycle is underway. When I think about it, that is precisely why I consider them to be the true heralds of spring!

Planting is easy:  Just plant them in the fall, and the following spring, they will arrive. The first year they might wake up a little later than usual, but after that, they will greet you when you need that shot-in-the arm the most! Like any endearing plant, they will spread and grow, but never become a nuisance. What a better way to say goodbye to winter and hello to spring than with a few cheerful crocus!

A Seed Starting Primer

A Seed Starting Primer

Seed Starting

Sooner or later, many gardeners will venture into the realm of seed starting. Many will also become a bit discouraged. While it is true that there is more to seed starting than popping a few seeds into moistened starting media, seed starting need not intimidate anyone. I encourage everyone to try their hand at starting a few plants this year “from scratch”. It is rewarding, and a great way to while away the waning days of winter.

Why start your own seeds when there are so many wonderful greenhouses, garden centers, and other places where you can purchase started plants? For me, the biggest factor is money. Seeds are less expensive than purchasing young plants or seedlings. Close on the heals of saving money is variety. Many new plant varieties simply are not available as started plants. If you want to grow unusual vegetables, annuals, or perennials, oftentimes seed starting is the only option for the home gardener to acquire these unusual or newer varieties of plants.

For a basic outline on how to start seeds, there are several things that must be present to ensure success: proper containers, proper growing media, proper moisture, proper light, proper temperature, good air circulation. A big must is cleanliness. Just as you would not dare can preserves or anything for that matter in jars with lids that were not absolutely sterile and clean, you must follow the same idea with seed starting. Containers must be clean and free of fungus spores, planting medium must be sterile, etc. The idea is to prevent disease formation in young seedlings, particularly damping off.

I generally use peat pots filled with moistened sterile soilless mix. I also use cell packs or 2×2 plastic starting pots. If I use containers that have been used previously, I clean them and then dip them in a solution of bleach and water, 1-2 Tbsp of household bleach to the gallon. Dip the scrubbed containers in this solution to kill any spores, then let dry thoroughly. If you are using old margarine tubs, whipped topping containers, be sure to poke at least three or four holes in the bottoms to allow for drainage. Don’t make the holes too large, though; the idea is to maintain drainage, but not so large that water and planting mix drain out. A good tool for doing this is an awl or the tip of a hot glue gun. Just use the tip, don’t force the larger part of the barrel tip through.

Start planning what you want to grow and purchase the seeds as early as possible. Some seeds require extensive time indoors for germination and growing. Be sure to refer to a seed-starting chart for length of time and the best method for germination and growing on indoors. Be aware that some seeds require pre-chilling, or stratification. Some seeds require nicking the surface, scarification, or benefit by soaking for a while before sowing. Some require bottom heat, and some require total darkness. Read up before purchasing so you will be prepared on how to properly start your chosen plants. If you are in a garden center, read the backs of the seed packet labels for the proper method and time to start seeds.

Find out what your average last frost date is. If a given variety of seed needs to be started 10 to 12 weeks before the last frost date, count back that time to when you can safely plant the seeds. For example, if April 30 is your last average frost date, then from about February 12 to 19 would be about right for something requiring 10 to 12 weeks for starting indoors.

Now for planting mixes or medium: Forget about sterilizing soil in the oven. It is messy, not the best medium for indoor seed starting, and stinks to high heaven while sterilizing! Be sure to use a good, sterile seed starting mix. I used to blend my own with milled sphagnum moss, perlite, vermiculite, and whatever else. Now, I am just as content to let others blend a good mix, and I am willing to pay the price. Most soilless mixes are relatively inexpensive, so why bother with some magic blend? My time is precious, as I am sure yours is, too. Follow the directions on the bag for moistening the medium, and fill your containers, as directed.

The best “tool” for starting some of the larger seeds is a pencil. Pop the point into the medium the required depth, and add the seed. Cover with sifted medium and spritz the top to moisten, not douse! For finer seed, adding a little sand to the seed packet will help to evenly distribute the seeds when planting. Press dust like seeds onto the moistened surface. Place your containers on trays, and add saran wrap or some other plastic wrap over the top of the containers and trays to seal in the moisture. Now, bottom heat is very helpful to absolutely necessary in order for most seed to germinate. You can supply bottom heat with a heating mat, or place trays of planted pots on a water heater or my favorite, on top of the refrigerator. Keep your plantings away from cold windowsills or drafty areas. If total darkness is required, then place newspaper on top of the plastic-covered containers, or place them into a dark trash bag before placing on top of the refrigerator. Check for signs of germination. When most of the seeds have sprouted and are showing their first set of leaves, or seed leaves, remove the plastic cover. Keep them moist, not soggy. Now is the time to add supplemental lighting.

Lighting is crucial. If you do not have a greenhouse or extremely bright southern exposure, you will need supplemental lighting. There are many different lights that can be used. Flourescent lights and grow lights that offer full spectrum lighting are the best choices for a reasonable price. LED lights are available, but often costly. Forget standard incandescent light bulbs. They do not supply the lighting required for strong plant formation and they give off too much heat. You can purchase pre-wired light stands for megabucks, or you can rig your own system.  I have a storage shelf system that I bought from a discount store for under $30. I used thin plywood panels cut to the size of the shelves, screwed in cup hooks, and added chains to suspend the attached lights so I could raise and lower them as needed over the seedlings. It is inexpensive and has served a good purpose for many years. I have used both grow lights and fluorescent lighting with this system with good success. When I use fluorescent, I combine one warm light with one cool light tube for the proper light spectrum. Also, I change my light tubes  every other year. After a while, the light spectrum does decline, although it might not be apparent to the naked eye.

When using a lighting system, keep a few principles in mind: Aim for about twelve hours of supplemental lighting per day. Just be sure the lighting is within a few inches, not feet, of the tops of your seedlings. As your plants continue continue to grow, the lights can be raised up a bit. Plants should be within two to three inches of the light source, but not touching.

If you do choose to use a bright windowsill, keep an eye out for cold drafts and spindly growth. Also, you will need to rotate your plants every day to keep them growing straight, as they will tend to bend towards the light source from your windows.

Once seedlings start to develop true leaves, thinning becomes an issue. If seedlings are not properly thinned, they are more susceptible to diseases such as damping off and will be competing with each other. Snip the excess seedlings with a pair of scissors so the remaining seedlings will not be disturbed.

Water from the bottom of your pots, and check the moisture levels every day. Warm winter homes means dry air. Seedlings will become stressed if they are allowed to dry out excessively. While they do not require the constant moisture level as starting seeds do, seedlings do require even, not soggy moisture.

Once the seedlings are up and running, so to speak, they will need to be thinned. Thinning assures that the strongest plants grow on and helps prevent the spread of disease and allows for better circulation as they grow on. Thin when the first true sets of leaves develop.

After the first true sets of leaves arrive, your seedlings will require food. Feed a half-strength solution of sea kelp, fish emulsion, or complete organic fertilizer. Add by bottom watering. As the plants develop, many will appreciate a foliar feeding as well.You may need to transplant your seedlings several times. If they become pot-bound or overly big for their containers, they will begin to suffer and weaken, so this is an essential step. Transplant them into larger containers and use more of the soilless medium. You may need to transplant your seedlings several times. If they become pot-bound or too big for their containers, they will begin to suffer and weaken, so this is an essential step. Transplant them into larger containers and use more of the soilless medium.

Keep good air circulation between your seedlings. Again, this helps prevent the spread of disease.

When it is time to transplant, you will need to harden off your seedlings. Do this by moving them outside for a few hours each day. Put them in a shaded, protected area. Gradually increase the time outdoors and increase the exposure to sunlight until they are basically outside during the daytime hours in the same light and exposure they will be when transplanted.

You can literally save hundreds of dollars by starting your own seedlings. It is a great way to spend the waning days of winter and a sure cure for cabin fever and a great way to get in a “dose” of gardening before the main gardening season begins!

February spotlight plant of the month: African Violets

February spotlight plant of the month: African Violets

 

African Violets

February is that month when every day seems to be in endless winter here in the Southern Great Lakes Region. Granted, there are a few “teaser” days, a preview of the coming spring. However, the norm for our area is a few more good cold snaps and snowstorms. Ice storms, cold rain, and windy days are not unusual, either. Many of our gardening ventures naturally turn to indoor pursuits. What better way to brighten up the remaining days of winter than with a few lovely ladies, the African Violets?

African violets are not that hard to maintain. Many people tend to think they are temperamental plants, but by giving them what they want and using a little common sense, nearly anyone can have success with them.

You do not need to buy the most expensive hybrid on the market. Here is one instance where dropping into the local discount store or supermarket can be a rewarding experience. Just be sure that the plant is healthy, disease-free, and that you don’t take any tiny varmints home with you. How to tell? Thoroughly inspect the plant. Check for aphids and thrips. Look at the joints of the leaves to the stems. If there are any cottony-appearing dots? Those are mealy bugs. They can be controlled, but why pay for headaches? Go to another retailer and buy pest and disease-free plants.

Keep your little tropical lovely protected from the walk to the car from the store and to the house. Now, check the container. If it is like most plants, that little violet will soon outgrow its digs. Go for a shallow pot, the next size larger in diameter. Not as shallow in height as a bulb pot, but a little less deep than a standard pot. Make sure it has at least two decent-sized drainage holes. African violets love moisture, but not to the point of drowning! Place some Styrofoam popcorn in the bottom of the pot or some pebbles.

Now for the soil: I don’t fuss with making my own mix. There are some relatively inexpensive African Violet soil mixes on the market; just pick a good one to use. Make sure it does not have any fertilizer added. You are buying this in February, and that little plant is in its resting phase. Add soil until about 1/3 to 1/2 full, take the plant gently from its old container, center it, and fill to the base of the plant with more potting mix. Now, the saucer you use must be deep enough to hold pebbles and water. It should be at least an inch tall. Add pebbles, and at this time, add room temperature water that has settled for a few hours. Water until the level is fairly high in the saucer. The idea is to water from the bottom. After about an hour or so, poke your finger in the soil. If it is moist, drain the excess until only pebbles are touching the bottom of the pot with a thin layer of water beneath to provide humidity.

Fortunately, African Violets like the same temperatures and conditions as we do. They do not like the temperature to drop below the mid-sixties and are not fond of the eighties. Keep them between 65 and 72 degrees F. throughout the day and night, and they will do well. Take care that they are far enough back from the window panes not to suffer from cold and frostbite, especially at night!

Remember to keep the humidity up. Check them every few days for dryness and water them as needed. Again, use water that has had time to dissipate the chlorine and water them from the bottom so that they will “wick up” the moisture. After an hour or so, drain the excess. This is the same routine as when you repotted them. Allow the soil to almost dry completely out between watering.

If you have a bright north or east facing window, this is ideal for these little girls. West works well if they are not smack dab against the window. African Violets need about twelve hours of bright light a day. If your home is relatively dark, you might have to supplement them with artificial light.

From early March until the end of October, fertilize with a good organic fertilizer every four to six weeks. Hold off fertilizing from late October until early March. Repot them when they start to become root-bound, and that should do it! The only other thing you need to watch for are pests and diseases. Isolate any infested or diseased plants from your other houseplants and African Violets. Cotton swabs dipped in alcohol can help to control mealy bugs if they are spotted before they become a real problem. For thrips and aphids, you can try insecticidal soap. Harsher chemical insecticides can be harmful to these delicate plants. Disease should not be a problem if you practice good sanitary techniques with these plants. Do not over water them, water from beneath, and do not allow water to collect in the crown of the plant. Groom the old dead leaves from your plants and provide good air circulation between your plants to ward off most disease problems.

If you haven’t had success with African Violets, this little bit of education should help! As I said, use common sense and good grooming, watering, fertilizing and lighting for them to perform their very best. They are happy-go-lucky ladies, from the classic purple and yellow-eyed singles to the really frilly prima donnas. They all require the same care, regardless of pedigree.

Instead of a dozen long-stemmed roses this Valentines Day, why not not give your sweetie a passel of posies of the African Violet kind? Well, maybe the roses AND an African Violet or two…

February Gardening Calendar

February Gardening Calendar

February is a month that can vary widely from year to year in the Southern Great Lakes Region. Some years, February is an extension of January, merely a flip of the calendar page. Other years, February is a preview of spring, with rainy days and a few pop-up flowers. It is really a roll of the dice; one never really knows what February might bring, or the March that follows.

Just when winter starts to wear thin, Valentine’s Day comes to the rescue. Young and old alike participate in the exchange of Valentine cards, gifts, dinners, and nights out on the town. Whatever it might mean to an individual, this little holiday offers a mental break from the sameness of routine that winter brings.

Many of the same gardening chores of January follow into February. But, this is also the time of year when the tide starts to turn for the gardener. Some plants can be started for the upcoming spring season, and there are some other chores that can be tackled towards the end of the month. Let’s see what the short month of February brings:

1.  Continue to order early from mail order sources. Many choice plant items sell out quickly, and many early ordering bonuses end in February.

2.  Continue to bring in pre-chilled pots of spring flowering bulbs for early season floral displays.

3.  If the snow melts and the lawn in matted, gently rake up the lawn to help get air circulation down to the crowns of the grass plants.

4.  Continue to fill bird feeders and maintain an open-water source of drinking water for the birds.

5.  Inspect flowerbeds during the thaw cycles for signs of frost heave. Place the plants back into the ground, and when the ground refreezes, apply mulch.

6.  Remove any storm-damaged branches from trees and shrubs, pruning away cleanly.

7.  Towards the end of the month and into March, pruning can begin now on deciduous trees, fruit trees, and grapes.

8.  Reapply anti-desiccant to broadleaf evergreens and exposed rose canes one more time. Do this when the temperature is above 40 degrees.

9.  Continue to inspect young trees for rodent and rabbit damage. Make sure tree wraps and tree guards are holding up to winter weather. Inspect windbreaks as well.

10. Crack open coldframes on sunny, warm days to vent. Again, check for any signs of trouble such as too wet, too dry conditions, diseases, etc.

11. Continue to check tubers, corms, and other summer “bulbs” for disease and excessive drying out. Mist the holding medium and bulbs if they are becoming too dry.

12. Towards the end of the month, branches of many early flowering shrubs such as forsythia and pussy willow can be taken indoors for forcing.

13. Check houseplants for heat stress. Maintain adequate humidity and light levels. Water appropriately.

14. Continue to remove newly fallen snow from evergreen branches and other shrubs and trees that can suffer breakage from the weight of the snow.

15. Some seeds of early plants or those plants that require a long indoor growth period can be started. These include pansies, seed geraniums, and seed-started begonias. Get a book or magazine with a timetable to help determine when to start seeds. For example, if your average last frost date is April 20 and a plant requires twelve weeks before the last frost date to reach transplant size, count back those twelve weeks from April 20 to determine when to start seeds.