Marilyn's Musings

Just another site

Tag Archives: Home & Garden

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…

Some of my favorite seed sources

Herbs: basil, scallion

Various Veggies

I figured this could go hand-in-hand with my posting about online and mail order shopping.

Here are some really great places to do a bit of winter dreaming and buying for your gardening needs:

Pinetree Seeds

It would be hard to top this company. A tremendous selection of vegetables, spices, herbs, flowers, and and and!!

The best things after the quality and wealth of offerings are the prices. Many of the seed packets offered are less than a dollar, many are an ounce or more of seeds, you simply cannot go wrong here!!

Reimer Seeds

Reimer Seeds, based out of North Carolina, is a great all-around seed source. Offering many favorites and some unusual seeds at fair prices, Reimer Seeds offers a loyalty points programs for customers to save even more on future orders.

The Cook’s Garden

From Warminster, PA, The Cook’s Garden is, indeed as its site states, ” Dedicated to cooks who love to garden and gardeners who love to cook.”

Emphasis here is on culinary herbs, vegetables, edible flowers, and anything for the gardener who also enjoys cooking. There are also other flowers and plants available. An added bonus: Recipes for the gourmet gardener as well.

Artistic Gardens/Le Jardin du Gourmet

If you are like me, a big bone of contention is receiving a humongous packet of seeds when only a few are needed. Sometimes they carry over for another year, sometimes, they don’t despite seed saving efforts.

Artistic Gardens/Le Jardin du Gourmet, offers many varieties not found elsewhere for the dedicated kitchen gardener. Seed packs for samples start at 35 cents apiece. This makes it very easy to buy many different “bits of this and that.” Also offered are flowers and herbs, bulbs and plants.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed

Sooner or later, most gardeners will try their hand at old and proven varieties of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Baker Creek offers many old varieties, many with great disease resistance and old-time color, fragrance, form, and flavor. I highly recommend them!

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Another great company with a good reputation. Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers many great offerings across the spectrum. It is one of the few places where I was able to find Hungarian Paprika Peppers. Perhaps a bit more expensive than some other places, it is still competitive and Johnny’s seeds have never failed to grow for me. Well worth the price.

Pantry Garden Herbs

If you love herbs, this is THE place to browse! The selection is great, the prices are fair. For herbal gardeners everywhere. I highly recommend this site!

For The Gardener: Online/Mail Order Shopping Tips

For The Gardener:  Online/Mail Order Shopping Tips


Garden Catalogs

Garden Catalogs

Winter here in the north is a tough season for many gardeners. Outdoor gardening chores slow way down this time of the year and it’s easy for us outdoor types to go a bit stir crazy. This time of year would be a true Purgatory here on Earth  it were not for the wonderful mail order catalogs and the retail gardening sites found on the Internet. Indeed, one of the most pleasant “gardening” activities during these cold months is browsing through the various mail order catalogs as they arrive in the mail or surfing the online nurseries and planning the additions for the coming year’s garden.

Mail order and online ordering can be a blessing or a curse, so it pays to go forth armed with a little knowledge and wisdom before making purchases. Here are a few tips to help you when you do decide to order those newest additions for your yard and garden:

Be aware that most of these catalogs and updated web sites are coming right at the time when we crave getting back into the swing of gardening the most. I always try to set a buying limit before I even open a link to a site or open one of those tempting catalogs that arrive in the mail. I also try to refer to my gardening journal for ideas on what I need or to refer to my wish list for what to add to the gardens. Definitely set a budget and try to refer to your wish list before viewing an online site or opening up a single page of a catalog!  Also, set your spending limit on the high side. You will probably go over the limit a bit, at least I do. But, the shock to the pocket book will not be as severe as it would be with too low of a shopping budget or no budget at all.

Whether shopping from a mail order catalog or online, try not to gamble:  Shop from reputable sources. Most vendors are honest, but go with established companies. If you do buy from a small specialty source, order only one or two items to see what the quality of the plant material is, to see if that transaction has gone smoothly, and to see if the plant has lived up to your expectations. Definitely make a journal entry so that in the future you can refer back to the experience you’ve had with that company and its plants.

Be aware of descriptions and enhanced photos. It isn’t unusual for a vendor to post an enticing photo of  a plant and a persuasive description. They are, after all, trying to make a sale. A good salesman will always sell the sizzle, not the steak itself. A case in point are photos I’ve seen of  “blue” daylilies. Almost everyone who is into daylilies knows the Holy Grail for a daylily aficionado is the elusive true-blue daylily.  Genetically, this is the only color daylilies cannot produce. Breeders have come close, but there is always a pink or red tone to the blue–more a mauve or purple. Yet, it isn’t uncommon to see enhanced photos showing a true blue tone to a particular cultivar.  This is particularly true of less than reputable vendors.

Along with that, beware of vendors who use catchy names for plants. An example is for creeping thyme. I’ve seen it called, “Walk on me plant”.  Common names are fine, botanical names are better. Often the vendors with catchy, uncommon names for a plant are also not known for good plants, products, or service.

Read the policies of the company. Often this information is on the same page as the order form. See if there is a daytime phone number you can call if you have any questions before you place your order. For online shopping, find out if there is a phone number and/or an e-mail address. Clear up any questions before you commit to a purchase! Read plant guarantees carefully. Some firms will not guarantee a plant after the first growing season. Some will offer money-back guarantees, others want the culprit plant shipped back to them, and finally, others will offer replacement plants or credits. One other thing: You must follow the rules exactly. If you drown a plant or fail to plant it promptly or in conditions that are contributing factors to its demise, you most likely won’t receive a refund, credit, or replacement. Most if not all nurseries and garden centers will only honor their guarantees if the gardener has followed planting instructions and expected cultural practices.

Use wisdom and care. You must be aware of your zone and your particular growing conditions. If a plant loves zone 7 conditions and you live in South Bend, Indiana, you are on your own. Yes, we all push the zone limits, but seasoned gardeners who do this are very realistic and are aware that the plant is out of its normal range. Overall, gardeners are gamblers. But, we hedge our bets and offer the best possible conditions and protection for that plant. Most companies state the zone conditions of a particular plant with the plant or seed descriptions. If you live in zone 5 and order zone 7 plants, you might not get a refund or replacement. Also don’t buy a ton of out-of-zone plants for your garden. One or two, here and there only. Stick with plants that will do well in your zone. Along the same idea, try to buy from sources that share a similar growing climate, particularly for shrubs and plants. A saucer magnolia grown in Georgia may not be able to survive a winter in a zone 5a to 6a region. However, bend the rules. You sometimes have to buy a plant that was grown in an area of warmer or dramatically different climate or growing conditions. Do grow that plant in a protected bed for the first two or three seasons to get it acclimated to your area before placing it in its permanent position.

Shop locally. Many garden centers and nurseries offer the same stock or items found online and in catalogs. For example, if you can find Burpee seeds on a rack locally, purchase them locally. If you can find a particular perennial, shrub, or tree locally, ditto. Reserve shopping online and via mail order for new or unusual plants and varieties. However, if you are on a budget and can’t afford a large shrub or tree grown locally and you simply must have it, then it makes sense to buy a smaller plant via mail order or online.

Check out the bottom line dollar figures for shipping and handling as well as the quantity, size, and price of your chosen plants or seeds. Do comparison shopping between the different catalogs and online sources. Also check for early bird specials, quantity discounts, and discounts for the amount spent.

Many print catalogs are also available online. Often a catalog that costs a few dollars via mail will be offering the same stock online and you can save the cost of paying for a catalog. Many offer PayPal or other alternatives to credit card purchases as well.

Keep a copy of your order and any order numbers, the contact person you have spoken with in any telephone conservations, and copies of your canceled check, credit card statement, money orders, or PayPal transactions. You might need all of this information in case of a refund request or dispute.

Fill out your orders on a separate sheet, before filling out an order form. Put it aside for a few days. If you have really blown your budget, go back to the orders every few days and take a long, hard look to pare it down a bit. After you feel comfortable with your order, mail it out or complete the online order. Sit back, relax, and wait for the adventure of “Christmas in April” when all of your plant purchases start to arrive!

One last point: Read reviews of different mail order/online businesses before purchasing. One of the best sources for consumer reviews is the The Garden Watchdog. Gardeners are quick to praise or criticize a nursery or garden supplier based on their experiences. To find out about a particular company, go to this link:  Garden Watchdog

Part of the fun of gardening is mail ordering and online shopping. It is often the best way to find seeds or plants that are not available locally. Use a little wisdom and common sense. You can prevent the possibility of an unpleasant shopping experience and still be able to have that showcase garden of your dreams!