Time to mulch your tender plants!

I know; it is 25 degrees outside and winter is already here. What is the sense in mulching plants at this time of the year? Well folks, this is the best time to do it. The ground is frozen and… it is only 25 degrees. Most people think that the mulch is put on before the ground freezes. That is not optimal.

Once the ground is frozen, it is much more difficult for voles to dig under the mulch and down to your yummy roots. Furthermore, the mulch will help to insulate the frozen ground. Again, that may appear backwards, but that is what you want to do. You want to buffer warm and cold extremes at your root systems and keep the ground frozen around the plants. It is the freeze-thaw cycles that kills and tears roots. Therefore, with proper mulch at the right time, your ground is frozen at a reasonably good temperature and will remain frozen for some time throughout the winter.

The best mulch for this time of the year is straw. It can easily be purchased and it is not frozen solid. It can also be easily removed in the spring when the danger of frost is past. In the spring, be sure to compost it or even re-use it as regular mulch around garden plants that are not part of ornamental landscaping. Straw does not look as attractive as bark mulch for landscaping.

You do not need to winter mulch established trees and shrubs for the winter. The plants you will mulch will be perennial flowers, perennial herbs, trees and shrubs that have not grown for two years in your yard, and biennial vegetables that are needed to re-sprout in the spring so they will bloom and produce seeds. Examples of the latter are kale, cabbage, parsnips, carrots, and beets.

I do not let all of my biennials stay outside for the winter. Instead, some are put into the refrigerator in perforated Ziploc bags that contain a mix of damp peat, vermiculite, and perlite. I do not try to get seeds from cabbage and I leave the kale out in the garden to over-winter.  If a catastrophic event were to suddenly take-out electricity, I would certainly change my method and have all of them over-winter in the ground with a good layer of mulch. However, I would also put hardware cloth around them that would extend into the ground to keep voles at bay. Or, if I had access to strong mouse poison, set poison bait stations out to eliminate the vole problem entirely. The latter is preferable if it is available.

Happy winter and the best of fortune with your plants!

Time to start your gardens!

Fortunately, nature gives us a break from the political upheavals and allows us to get back to our roots. (Pun intended)  We should capitalize on that opportunity while we can. Growing your food is one of the important factors to contributing to the care of our world and for building Time of Living. It is great for your health and also reduces our carbon footprint so future generations can enjoy this world… if it survives.

I know; it’s January 26 and there is snow on the ground. However, this is when some plantings begin. If you want to grow some onions in the Northeast and do not wish to select from the paltry selection of sets sold at Home Depot or Walmart later this spring, then you need to purchase some onion seeds and start them indoors now. Go to your seed catalog and pick them out so you can get them quickly. Read over the descriptions and select “your” choice. For the Northeast, select varieties for “Long-Day”. The southerners in the USA can select “Short-Day” onions. There are some onions that are intermediate that are supposed to grow well in either location.

I planted my onions, using my own seeds, several days ago and they are germinating nicely. It is a wonderful feeling to see plants come around full-circle. In most cases, the plants improve each year if you are selective when harvesting seeds and when planting plants that will be used for seed. If you plant onion seeds, you can plant several in each cell, just so long as they have a lot of light.

Onion seedlings just beginning to sprout. So exciting!

Onion seedlings just beginning to sprout. So exciting!

Another plant that should be started now are Amaryllis bulbs. You can purchase a kit or buy the bulbs and plant them in pots of potting soil. They are dormant bulbs that sprout up quickly and give you red lily-type flowers in your house. If kept in the house year-round, they may never blossom again. They require a cold period during winter to die back so they can re-sprout and send up new flower stalks. When the threat of frost is past in the spring, I move mine under a shade tree outdoors. The plant and bulb will grow in size over the summer and fall. In fall, I let the plant stay outside until the first frost. I then bring it into the garage where it does not go below freezing, but stay as cold as a refrigerator. (If you have a cold basement, then that will work too.) Do not water it while it goes dormant. I then bring it back into the house to regrow sometime in January. (Still in the same pot) By then, most if not all of the leaves had died back to the bulb. Water it as you normally would. (When I say “normally” I mean to use liquid fertilizer in the water every other watering) In a week you will begin to see new growth. Grown in this fashion, you get flowers every year and will never have to purchase another one. They actually look very nice outdoors during the summer. My Amaryllis is already growing inside and has a nice new bulblet growing next to it this year. I am anxious to see if it will bloom as well.

This Amaryliss began to re-grow about a week and a half ago.

This Amaryliss began to re-grow about a week and a half ago.

Other plants that you need to start now are tree seeds that you may have put into the refrigerator in the fall for stratification. These include apple, pear, plum, peach, and cherry, to name a few. I planted mine yesterday. One cherry seed had already begun to germinate in the storage bag. One thing to keep in mind is that these seeds will most probably not bear fruit identical to the parent plant because they are not grafts. Each will be a unique plant. That is what I find exciting! While some come out as pure junk, some come out with their own unique flavors and shapes.

For all other plantings, if you are going to purchase seeds through the mail, you better start now. They do run out. The company I use now posts how many remaining packets are left. My ordered seeds are already in the refrigerator in a zip-lock bag. The seeds last much longer that way.

If you live in the southern USA you may need to look into your last frost dates now to get prepared for plantings. If planted too late, the summer heat is not good for growing some plants.

A good place to get planting flats is from Walmart. Get the planting flat kits that have 72 plastic cells in them. Generally they come molded together in groups of 9. If not, simply cut them out that way with scissors. It makes it easier to carry 9 at a time to the garden when transplanting them outdoors. Be sure to feed them when watering them in their cells indoors. Water from the bottom. Keep the planting cells in good shape by rinsing the cells out after removing plants. Use them again next year after soaking them in a bleach/water solution before putting the seed starter soil in.

My hydroponics grower is doing great in the basement! This winter we are eating fresh lettuce (two of my own varieties now), kale, mustard, basil, Salad Burnett, and arugula. Yum yum! We will have fresh veggies right up to outdoor harvests in late spring. The system is amazing. (Yes, it is one I designed and sell through my company called New Wave Gardening.) The system I designed is made to grow plants to full-term, unlike other commercial systems. They literally can grow plants for months at a time. The picture below is of the plants thirteen days ago. They are twice that size now. Those rinky-dink systems can’t do this. That is why we will have veggies for months just from that one planting. The system is also mobile and can be moved outside when the danger of frost is past. (Actually it can be moved out before then if using a cover.) I have also purchased a rare tomato seed that I hope to use in my hydroponics tomato growing system. So far I am very happy with the progress it is making.

The red lettuce is a new variety I created in 2016. Both lettuces are my creation.

The red lettuce is a new variety I created in 2016. Both lettuces are my creation.

If you are going to order trees from private nurseries, do it now! They are already running out of some varieties. The smaller guys keep track of purchases and when they are out, they are out. Some are already out completely. Larger companies, owned by foreigners, will over-fill orders when they have no clue if they even have stock, but will continue to take your orders. Many times you will not get your order, even if they said earlier that they were in stock. Do a search on those mail order places and look for comments. As for those companies, they take all orders and fill them from the south going north, so it does not matter too much when you order, as the southern states will generally have first pick regardless of the time of order. If they run out of stock for the southerners, then they will note on their website that they are sold out… even if your order was placed months earlier than the southern orders and it hadn’t shipped yet. You are then out.

On a negative note, the winter has been too warm and some fruiting trees are already showing silver-tip on their blossom buds. Yikes! That is not good! What happens is that the sap will run into the buds and then swell them with moisture. The temperature then drops and freezes the moisture in the bud, fracturing it. The result is no blooms in the spring. Another problem is that the sap will freeze in the trunks of thin-barked trees and cause the bark to rip, effectively killing parts of the tree, if not the entire tree. Our new climate genius in the White House believes there has been no climate change. Well… that man has never so much as grown a weed. He has no understanding of nature whatsoever.

One might think that warming up the north would be great for growing. It is not! Yes, we get warmer days that some plants like; however, our planet spins on an axis that is titled. That is how we get seasonal change. Therefore, we are in a position on the globe that will always get frigid cold fronts coming down from the north. When the warmer temps are warmer than normal, plants try to grow. But when cold comes down because of the tilt of the axis, we continue to get cold blasts. That wreaks havoc with growing. The southern states are mostly protected from that by distance and their position on the planet relative to the tilt. Furthermore, some fruit trees require a significant number of “cold days” before a trigger is activated for bearing fruit. Have you ever wondered why you don’t see apple orchards in Florida or in the low-lying areas of the southern states, like Georgia? Only in the higher elevations is it possible in some of the southern states. So… maybe you can write to the yellow-headed guy in the White House and tell him climate change is not a hoax, but it is here NOW! It will only get worse with time if things do not reverse.

Another problem with climate change (that many now call “climate weirdness”) is that we are seeing more stretches of drought or rain. Both kill plants and one kills people. Those cycles also come with abrupt weather patterns that can be devastating when it turns into a storm.

On a positive note, the Speckled Sussex pullets (young hens) are beginning to lay eggs. I purchased them later in the year last year so they did not being laying at maturity because of the decrease in daylight hours. Now that daylight is extending again, it triggers their reproductive cycle. I plan to use them for creating the Seney Homesteader breed of chicken that will be hardy and productive in Northeastern winters. That bar is getting lower each year because of the mild winters. I will also use the poop in fertilizer experiments for organic growing. I already know I can make a manure tea that makes herbs grow like they are on steroids. This year I will lay down a sub-bed of manure below a test-bed of potatoes. Horse manure causes potato scab. I am curious if poultry manure is better. I know it works great on top of the soil for blueberries.

I wish you all a wonderful growing year! Now go out and grow some food!

Live Strong and True

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Spring Work

My spring in upstate NY began 1 month earlier this year. Last year it came 1 week late. Global weirdness reared its head once again. That has also prompted the wildlife to come out early.

These little tree frogs are a bit early this year and decided to come up to the house to check things out.

These little tree frogs are a bit early this year and decided to come up to the house to check things out.

I have been much too busy getting spring work accomplished to be able to write a blog entry. This one will be short because I have much to do.

So… what should we do in the spring?

1.      You first need to take a leisurely stroll around your yard so you can make mental notes of winter damage, spring growth, tasks that need to be done, and to determine locations for any new plants that have been ordered or that you plan to purchase.

Chamomile is always up early if it is seeded in the fall. I let it self seed so I get two crops.

Chamomile is always up early if it is seeded in the fall. I let it self seed so I get two crops.

2.      If you have spring flowering bulbs you may want to clear the leaves from around them so they do not need to struggle breaking through them. If you have mulched plants for the winter, you may want to keep it on for a little while longer. If removed too early it can sometimes cause the plant to grow as soon as the much is removed. Some plants will have their tips frost burned in that case. If you see growth coming through the mulch, then gently pull the mulch away and keep it around the base of the plant. If you wait too long the stem may be yellow and fragile. It is a balancing act.

3.      Fertilize the spring bulb flowers so they will have more energy to produce large blooms. You can use a general purpose fertilizer like 10-10-10. Do not fertilize trees and shrubs yet. You should wait until they begin to show green tips.

This little daffodil was planted in the fall. I purposely planted it and many others in the lawn around a summer sweet bush. With the grass competition I make sure to give these little guys a bit of spring fertilizer. Later, these will be mowed down and will come back up again next year.

This little daffodil was planted in the fall. I purposely planted it and many others in the lawn around a summer sweet bush. With the grass competition I make sure to give these little guys a bit of spring fertilizer. Later, these will be mowed down and will come back up again next year.

4.      If your ground has thawed you can move any outdoor plants that you planned to relocate. This is a job that should be done just as soon as the frost is out of the ground. I moved 21 honeyberry plants to their permanent location recently. I started them from seed almost two years ago and I was growing them in an unused garden. It appears that they will bloom this year and have berries. The nice thing about moving your own plants that you start is that you can take the soil with them and there is minimal to no risk of setback on young plants. FYI, honeyberries are wonderful. They are the absolute first berry to ripen, beating out strawberries by a week. They make a better jam than blueberries. I plan to make liqueur, wine, jam, and pies with mine. Hence, the reason for planting so many. By starting them from seed I do not need to worry about pollination and my cost was nearly nothing for 21 plants. The price for mail-order honeyberry plants is from $7.79 to 19.99 each. I did the same thing with my mulberry trees last year. The Mulberry trees grew 6’ in one growing season after being relocated from a garden.

5.      Prune your trees, especially your fruit trees. First cut the no-brainer limbs. Those are the dead branches and branches that have crossed over onto another limb and are rubbing. Next you cane prune to shape your trees. In regards to fruit trees, there are two methods; prune for esthetics or prune for production and ease of maintenance.

a.       Pruning for esthetics focuses on the shape and balance of the tree with no concern for fruit production. They are there for looks.

b.      Pruning for production and ease of maintenance is to prune the tree so it is low, spreading outward, and with the center more open for ventilation. It will be easier to spray the trees, harvest fruit, and keep the center of the tree from rotting. They are not too pleasing to look at during the winter, but once the leaves come out they look just fine.

6.      If you need composed manure get it now. There are a million uses for it. I get it by the truck load. If it is composted well with no sign of wood shavings you can mix it with your soil when planting flowers, trees, and vegetables. If you can still see wood shavings, then only use it as mulch. Do not use composted manure for starting seeds. There are too many negative attributes like fungus and bacteria. I used most of mine for making two mini-hugelkultur gardens for my Vidal Blanc grape plants that should be arriving soon. I also used it to plant hop rhizomes and will use it to plant my fruit trees that are on order.

7.      Plant your seeds in cells and flats indoors. I will plant mine on the 24th of March this year. If you are in a warmer zone you can plant them now. Depending on where you are you could have already planted them indoors. Be sure to give them LOT of light so they do not leg leggy. The T5HO florescent growing lights work well for these. Be sure to get the 6500k color temperature bulbs.

8.      Depending on your growing zone, you may be able to plant your onions outdoors. Be sure the soil is not saturated. If it is, then wait to do this.

9.      Fertilize your garlic. I use a 5-10-10 at this time of year and then will increase the nitrogen when the danger of frost is past. Fertilizing now gives them a little boost without putting them in too fast of a growth mode.

I planted these garlic bulbs in the fall. They are doing great. Only one did not make it.

I planted these garlic bulbs in the fall. They are doing great. Only one did not make it.

10.   It is tempting to fertilize everything, but be patient. Wait until you see green tips coming out from buds. Otherwise you may encourage buds to break prematurely and subject them to a late frost.

11.   Now is a good time to buy fertilizer. Some stores, like Walmart, will discount old stock from last year. I got mine for about half price this past week. I bought enough for two years.

12.   Buy your spring planted flower tubers. Once you get them home put them in the refrigerator until you are ready to plant them. I buy them early just so I can do that. The longer they remain dry in the store, the worse shape the tubers will be in. If you read my fall blog then yours are still tucked away in your refrigerator. I checked on mine and they look like they will make it. They do not always do so; however, my new method of using coco coir is proving to work marvelously. My corms are doing well too. So exciting!

13.   It is tempting to plant flowers, but you need to be patient. Wait until the danger of frost is past in your zone. You might be able to plant your flower tubers and corms a week before the average last day of frost. If you want a jump on things, then plant your tubers in pots and begin growing them indoors. Be sure to have grow lights.

14.   Cut your potato sprouts off to about ¼” long if you have been storing potatoes for planting this year. I found that if they grow too long the potatoes will not have enough energy once planted. Furthermore, long potato sprouts do not grow well. Short green sprouts forced to grow in the light of a window for a few days do well. I do this just before planting them.

15.   Weed out the onions that are growing in your stored seed onion bags. They should not be planted for seed if they are growing. That means that the genetics in that onion are not for long storage. I do this culling process twice while they are in storage. It also keeps some from rotting and spoiling the rest.

16.   Build any planting structures that you have plans to make. That way your plants can go right in when you get them. I have two more projects to build; a wagon wheel trellis for a special ordered clematis, and a grape vine arbor that will house a swing for two people.

Here is my new hop pole I made. There are four hop plants planted at each cable. The two mini-hugelkultur gardens are in the background. The large grape hugelkultur garden I made last year is behind them. Grape vines grow 3 time faster in these gardens.

Here is my new hop pole I made. There are four hop plants planted at each cable. The two mini-hugelkultur gardens are in the background. The large grape hugelkultur garden I made last year is behind them. Grape vines grow 3 time faster in these gardens.

17.   Fix any fences that are down or crooked.

18.   Clean out your herb garden and flower beds. Be sure not to pull out the perennials or biennials!

19.   Plant horse radish and hops. (if the frost is out)

20.   Clean out the dead stems from your chives. Mine are growing well and I should be able to start picking them in about a week, if not sooner. If you do not have chives growing, then plant some now. They are the easiest plant to grow and they come back every year. I am always anxious for the first mashed potatoes with chives!

21.   Plant rhubarb if you are going to do it.

22.   If the frost is out, plant any purchased trees. They should be dormant. You can plant them if the soil is wet. Some stores already have trees to buy, but their leaves are already out. That is never a good thing. The cold is not good for those leaves and they will need to grow more if they get killed. That is too much for a tree that has been dig up and stored all winter.

 I am sure there are more tasks to do, but I need to get back to editing my 4th book. (6th round)

My ordered plants will be in soon and I am so excited to get them! One hole is already dug and prepared. I will get the others ready next week.

Enjoy your spring gardening!

 

 

Climate Change

This has been a very unique winter for upstate NY. I’ve seen warm winters before, but this one was the most extreme. On December 24th I went into the garden to pick arugula, only to find honeybees working the flower blossoms on it. That was certainly a first for me. (And those little bugs)

This is Arugula on Dec 24, 2015. Look closely and find the honeybee! This picture made the news on channel 10. (Yes, this really was in upstate NY)

This is Arugula on Dec 24, 2015. Look closely and find the honeybee! This picture made the news on channel 10. (Yes, this really was in upstate NY)

On January 10, 2016 we had a beautiful rainbow that followed a thunder and lightning storm. I have never seen that in upstate New York before during that time of year. The odd things was it was displayed in a different part of the sky than is normal during the summer. I had never thought about that happening.

A beautiful rainbow on January 10, 2016. It was in a different spot than it is normally during the summer.

A beautiful rainbow on January 10, 2016. It was in a different spot than it is normally during the summer.

I periodically do reconnaissance around the yard in the winter to check on the plants, the vermin, and the varmints. I was out the other day when there wasn’t a flake of snow on the ground. The frost had already begun to go out on the top 3 inches of the soil. The voles were clearly coming out of their winter holes and were trying to find food.  But that wasn’t surprising because those little guys are known to make tunnels between the snow and ground. One found some Sweet Sicily popping up and made a small meal out of it. I took steps to eliminate the little bugger. Voles are devastating to the roots of shrubs, overwintering veggies, grape vines, and trees. They were particularly hard on my blueberry bushes last year and the year before nearly wiped out my rhubarb. They eat the roots during the winter.

Voles living around my blueberry bushes. You can bet they are eating the roots as we speak. I killed over 145 one summer, but they keep coming back. They live in the stone walls and come out to eat my plants or to move in where others have been exterminated. This is a war that cannot be won, but maybe I can reduce the severity of the damage.

Voles living around my blueberry bushes. You can bet they are eating the roots as we speak. I killed over 145 one summer, but they keep coming back. They live in the stone walls and come out to eat my plants or to move in where others have been exterminated. This is a war that cannot be won, but maybe I can reduce the severity of the damage.

What was surprising in my trek was that my daffodils alongside the house were half grown and had some blossom buds. Yeah, they will be toast tonight when it gets down to around zero degrees. That will kill of most of my southern exposure spring flowers. Fortunately the daffodils I planted in the hugelkultur garden have only shown me the tops of their leaves.

Another bush that will see no flowers this spring is the quince. The flower buds were 1/3 open. Crazy!

As usual, the deer have been coming through. There are two bucks ( a yearling and a two year old) that have decided it is more fun to buck-rub my young trees in the open yard than to use any of the half million trees in the wild. They killed several of my trees in prior years by rubbing the bark off them. It isn’t something to take lightly. I wrapped one tree with fencing and I will deal with them on a more permanent basis in the fall.

Tree damage by bucks rubbing the bark off. This one will probably not survive.

Tree damage by bucks rubbing the bark off. This one will probably not survive.

This young Mulberry tree was rubbed twice by bucks before I haphazardly wrapped it with some cheap fencing that was laying around. As you can see, the fencing  saved it, as the bucks came back to rub it again.

This young Mulberry tree was rubbed twice by bucks before I haphazardly wrapped it with some cheap fencing that was laying around. As you can see, the fencing  saved it, as the bucks came back to rub it again.

My other trees are faring well so far and have tight buds. That is the key. Once they crack and swell it is all over at this time of the year.

We finally received about 3 inches of snow. It is always interesting to see what type of animal tracks will be found in these light snowfalls. I found deer (of course), skunks, rabbits, and squirrel. There was either a small dog or fox track as well. The bad news is that last year’s fawns decided it would be fun to walk through my electric fence. (That was disconnected for the winter.) That is really bad news. I will need to train them all over again. I reconnected the fence, but the little buggers still went through. The snow must be insulating their legs from the ground. So out I was again stringing a ground wire. That should to take care of things.

On a good note, the deer are eating the apple drops in the orchard. The apples can harbor bugs for the next year, so it is always best to get rid of them somehow. I like it when the deer do it for me. They can have all they want, just so long as they don’t breach “the contract”.

The deer are having a field day with my yard. (Pun intended)

The deer are having a field day with my yard. (Pun intended)

On a similar note; I had so many hanging frozen apples this year that I made some apple ice wine. I must have looked strange out in the winter picking brown frozen apples. I love it! The wine finished fermenting and will be racked this weekend. So far it smells great!

This is an example of an apple that I made apple ice wine from. Note the juice freezing as it drips from the apple. 

This is an example of an apple that I made apple ice wine from. Note the juice freezing as it drips from the apple. 

I have no idea what will happen to my plants come springtime. The warm and cold shifts are the worst situation for plants. Some plants are mulched in nicely to keep them frozen, but others might not be able to take it. I sure wish we could get two feet of snow and then keep it until the spring melt.

Beekeepers are probably sweating it out too. If bees stay too warm they will come out of the hive too much and then chill. They will also eat more honey reserves because their metabolism will speed up during the warm days.

If you are wondering, my onion and leek seedlings are doing great! Best year yet. I made a few changes this year and it appears to be working. Two onion seedlings were albinos. Albino plants cannot live because they do not produce photosynthesis.

Onion seedlings for 2016. Look back at a previous blog post to see the transition!

Onion seedlings for 2016. Look back at a previous blog post to see the transition!

The apple seedlings are also doing very well. I experimented with them too. I have three from my Freyberg tree and two from my Cox Orange Pippin. They will not bear fruit like the parents when they mature because of the genetics involved. As long as they taste reasonably good I will be happy. They will be front yard border plants along the stone wall. I planted several Mulberry trees along that stone wall last year. In about seven years it will be a fruiting wall! The Mulberry trees were planted to draw the birds away from my good Mulberry trees. The apple trees are just for fun. Yeah; my form of entertainment is much different than most people's. Mine lasts for years!

Freyberg apple seedlings. They are much healthier than in the prior picture in another blog post. They needed more natural light and an increase in nutrients. Plants can be dynamic in their needs.

Freyberg apple seedlings. They are much healthier than in the prior picture in another blog post. They needed more natural light and an increase in nutrients. Plants can be dynamic in their needs.

The cheery seeds have been removed from stratification, were scarified, and then planted. I do not expect anything because the seeds were seriously neglected last year. (Dried up for months on top of my tool box.) Who knows? It was worth a shot. I ordered another tart cherry tree so I can eventually get enough cherries to make a grape wine blended with cherry wine. The cherry wine adds a bit of peppery flavor. Yum yum!

A cherry seed that has gone through stratification and was just scarified. It was planted after the picture.

A cherry seed that has gone through stratification and was just scarified. It was planted after the picture.

I have been eating fresh lettuce, arugula, and spinach from my indoor hydroponics system. No listeria tainted lettuce from the supermarket for me!

One lettuce plant from my hydroponics system. I have harvested from this plant four times already.  I have started a new business that will sell these systems for homes. I "grew" tired of playing Russian Roulette with tainted store produce.

One lettuce plant from my hydroponics system. I have harvested from this plant four times already.  I have started a new business that will sell these systems for homes. I "grew" tired of playing Russian Roulette with tainted store produce.

There is no rest for a farmer type and I’m not going to be the one to break that rule. I have been busy engineering new seed starting contraptions. One was placed into operation today and the other should be fully functional by next week. They will make my seed starting marathon easier.

On another good note, the germination rate for my lettuce and arugula is incredible. (I used my fall collected seeds for the hydroponic system) The germination rate for my onions was also incredible.

Unfortunately, the long-eared beavers (a.k.a. rabbits) destroyed my spinach crop last year so I will need to rely on purchased seeds for them. It never ceases to amaze me how much a little varmint can eat in one sitting. Hopefully the population has been reduced enough to protect the crops for this year. So far none of the fruit trees have been girdled by them like last year. I lost a beautiful Macoun apple tree to rabbits last year and may lose a Freyberg if it does not recover enough. I will bridge graft it this year to see if that will help it along. In light of the damage last winter, I wrapped many of the trees with hardware cloth. It is working well so far. I actually need to credit my have-a-heart trap for most of that success. They are a gardener’s best friend.

Amaryllis flowers are always cheery in the winter and mine has come through once again. I have found a method to get it to bloom twice a year. This year it is sending up two flower stalks and is growing a second bulb.

An Amaryllis flower that just opened. If manage properly, they can blossom twice a year. This is an older plant and will have two flower stalks. It is also growing a second bulb that can be planted this summer. How nice for winter enjoyment!

An Amaryllis flower that just opened. If manage properly, they can blossom twice a year. This is an older plant and will have two flower stalks. It is also growing a second bulb that can be planted this summer. How nice for winter enjoyment!

I need to get back to editing my fourth book. There have been many changes.

Don’t merely exist; get out there and live!

 

Starting Seeds

This post is a bit early in the year for some folks, but may be just-in-time for others. It will explain how to start seeds indoors, including timing, soil prep, hardware required, etc. It is not exhaustive and I could go into much more details, however, the post is probably too long for most internet browsing people’s attention to begin with. As I may have said before, I will try to be verbose enough to answer questions before they are asked. There are many people that will actually appreciate the details in my blogs.

A tray of cells planted with onion seeds for the 2016 season.

A tray of cells planted with onion seeds for the 2016 season.

 

So… you (maybe) took my advice and purchased your seeds for 2016. Now what do you do?

It all depends.

Hopefully you put them in a Ziploc bag and placed that in the refrigerator. Just be sure you do not place them against the vent where the cold air comes in or they may get frozen. We’ll go on the pretense that you have your seeds and they are stored away properly.

The next thing to do depends on what your goal is. If you are after simplicity, then wait until one to two weeks after the last average frost date for your area and then plant your seeds in a well prepared garden spot. By well-prepared, I mean an area that has at least 8 hours of sun, does not hold excess water, and has been tilled. If it is heavy clay or mostly sand, you will need to amend the soil with some peat moss, compost, or composted farm manure. Work that in before planting. (I know, permaculture people, you can plant without tilling, but remember I said simplicity at this stage.) The seed packet will give you instructions for planting each type of seed.

A map for frost dates can be found at Cornell to assist you with your planning: http://blogs.cornell.edu/horticulture/average-last-spring-frost/

Some seeds really do need to be planted indoors to get a jump on the growing season. And that is the topic of discussion in this blog post. This is especially important for those in northern growing zones that have shorter growing seasons.

The first thing you need to do is determine the timing for planting your seeds indoors. In general, you want to plant seeds indoors 6 weeks before you transplant your seedlings out in the garden. The date you plant them in the garden is determined by your average last frost date. (See link above for New York State) You generally want to transplant your seedlings two weeks after the average last date of frost. In simple terms, plant your seeds indoors 4 weeks before the average last date of frost.

If you plant them indoors to early, they may get leggy and root bound. That will stunt their growth and/or force them into bolting when they are planted.

Not all seeds should be planted indoors and for those seeds that should, the timing is different for certain plants. Here is a non-exhaustive list of seeds that will tell you if they should be planted indoors and if so, when they should be planted relative to the average last date of frost:

  • Lettuce – Plant indoors 6 weeks before the average last day of frost. They also do well direct planted into the garden on the date of the average last day of frost. If the weather is good, a week earlier will be fine.

  • Radishes – Plant outdoors on the date of the average last day of frost.

  • Peas – Plant outdoors as soon as soil can be worked. That means BEFORE the average last date of frost, but AFTER the frost is out and the soil is not saturated.

  • Beans – Plant outdoors one week after the average last date of frost.

  • Corn – Plant outdoors when soil is at the temperature required according to the seed packet. Some corn seeds require different soil temperatures for planting.

  • Tomatoes – Start indoors 4 weeks before the average last day of frost.

  • Peppers – Start indoors 6 weeks before the average last day of frost.

  • Petunias – Start indoors 6 weeks before the average last day of frost.

  • Marigolds - Start indoors 4 weeks before the average last day of frost.

  • Many flowering plants – Start indoors 4 weeks before the average last day of frost.

  • Beets – Plant outdoors on the date of the average last date of frost.

  • Carrots - Plant outdoors on the date of the average last date of frost.

  • Broccoli – Start indoors 4 weeks before the average last day of frost.

  • Cabbage - Start indoors 4 weeks before the average last day of frost.

  • Squash/pumpkin/cucumber – Start indoors on the average last date of frost OR alternatively, plant outdoors two weeks after the average last date of frost. If planted indoors, do not let these plants get larger in their pots before transplanting or they will become stunted. The most you should hold them is two weeks before transplanting. If I plant them in pots, I will leave them on the porch and not even bother germinating them in the house.

  • Kale – Plant outdoors on the date of the average last date of frost.

  • Spinach - Plant outdoors on the date of the average last date of frost.

  • Dill - Plant outdoors on the date of the average last date of frost.

  • Onions Seeds – In New York State, plant indoors mid-January to early February. Transplant outdoors as soon as soil can be worked. That means BEFORE the average last date of frost, but after the frost is out and the soil is not saturated.

  • Onion sets/plants – Plant outdoors as soon as soil can be worked. That means BEFORE the average last date of frost, but after the frost is out and the soil is not saturated.

  • Arugula - Plant outdoors on the date of the average last date of frost.

  • Rutabaga - Plant outdoors on the date of the average last date of frost.

  • Parsnips – I’m still learning the optimum time for this root vegetable because it germinates VERY slowly and then grows very slowly. Last year I planted the seeds directly in the soil at the time of the date of the average last date of frost. I harvested them a few weeks after the first frost of the fall. The root was not very large. This year I will plant them indoors 8 weeks before the average last date of frost and hedge my bets by direct seeding them outdoors as well. I have also switched varieties this year to see if that helps. Remember; some varieties will work for other people, but not in your environment. Don’t be afraid to try new varieties if one does not work out well.

  • Rosemary – Don’t bother planting seeds; it is not worth it. Buy a plant at a nursery or learn how to bring the plant indoors for the winter and then start cuttings for new plants at the end of January. Keeping Rosemary in a continuous cycle is not difficult and will even give you fresh Rosemary through the winter months when it is growing in your house.

  • Basil - Start indoors 4 weeks before the average last day of frost. This will assure you of getting seeds for next year if you want to try your hand at collecting seeds. (And I strongly suggest that you do) Basil can also be direct seeded outdoors two weeks after the average last date of frost; however, the plant may not reach maturity to produce ripened seeds.

  • Herbs (in general) – Start seeds 4 weeks before the average last date of frost.

That should cover the most popular plants. Now let’s get planting our indoor seeds!

Seeds will need a tidy home to grow in, good soil, and plenty of light. Firstly, procure a tray/flat for starting the seeds. There are a few options:

  • 72, 48, or 32 cell plastic tray kits. They will come with an open tray, sections of plastic cells that will go in the tray, and a clear humidity dome. The more cells in the tray, the smaller the cells will be. I use the 72 cell trays because the larger sizes (with less cells) use more soil and the plant does not need the extra root space if planted at the correct time. I can actually plant 288 onion seeds in a 72 cell tray. Each cell gets 4 seeds. Planting 4 seeds per cell is not recommended with other plants. My experience with onions has taught me that I can get away with it with onions. Plastic trays and cells will last for many years. Do not throw them away! I have been using mine for 10 to 15 years. Sometimes a corner of the tray will get a hole. You can put a dab of silicon sealer on it for a fix. What I do is to keep the carrying trays I get at nursery stores when I buy plants. They are heavy duty and are net-like. The planting trays fit perfectly into them and they protect the edges.
     

  • Peat pots. They will, however, require you to purchase trays to put them in. It is difficult to buy just a tray these days. Most come with plastic cells. (See above)  Furthermore, peat pots are significantly more expensive than using plastic cells and will need to be purchased every year. Peat pots are generally larger than plastic cells and require more soil per plant, and thus, more trays to hold the same amount of plants. From my experience, the peat pot does not help with the roots. In-fact, it makes them root bound most of the time after being planted. I do not recommend these.
     

  • Peat pellet kits. Many people like these because of the simplicity. They come with a tray, plastic cells and compressed soil plugs that are already in the cells. I do not use peat pellet kits because I mix my own soil. Mixing your own soil is VASTLY less expensive over time, and gives you better control. If you are new to gardening, peat pellet kits may be a good option for you. The trays can be used again the following year and you can decide then if you wish to switch to your own soil mix or not.

 

The plastic cells and peat pots need soil and the peat pellet kits do not. You can purchase “seed starting” soil in many garden centers and big-box stores. DO NOT buy potting soil for indoor house plants! It is too dense for starting seeds. Also, do not buy coco coir. I tried coco coir last year and was VERY disappointed. It dries out quickly and appeared to not hold nutrients. Do not use garden dirt. It is too heavy and is not sterile enough. You may be able to buy a LARGE bag of seed starting soil from a local garden/farm center that sells farming supplies and feed. I did that for years and it was very economical. This year I did more research and I’m trying my own custom mix of 50/50 peat moss and vermiculite. So far it is doing the best of all soils I have tested. It will be the most cost effective solution, and from what I am seeing, it may be the best medium to use. The down-side will be that you will need to store a big chunk of peat moss and a large bag of vermiculite. That is not a problem for me.

Note: Do not use hydroponic rooting plugs or rockwool for outdoor planting. You could use them, but my experience is that there are much better and less expensive ways to do it. The better ways are explained here.

You have your seeds, you have your trays, and now you have your soil. We need to hydrate the soil and get it into the cells/pots.

If you selected peat plug kits, simply follow the directions that come with it to hydrate them and then plant the seeds according to their instructions. I do not know if they use fertilizer in the pressed peat plugs, so I cannot recommend hydrating with fertilizer water (as seen below) or not. If they provide fertilizer within the plug, then only use water. You can skip the next few paragraphs because it will not pertain to you.

If you selected peat pots, you will need to soak them in plain water until they are saturated.

If you selected plastic cells and they are not new, then you will need to sanitize them. Otherwise they will be contaminated from fungus/mold spores from last year that are still alive on the plastic. Don’t worry, it is easy. Simply soak the used plastic cells in bleach water for 10 to 15 minutes and then rinse off. The ratio of bleach to water is not too particular. About a cup to a kitchen sink of water would be fine. Used flats should also undergo the same sanitization. Do not skip this step for used plastic cells and trays; once the humidity dome is placed on, the little fungus buggers will breed quickly and set your plants back or kill them if you do not sanitize your trays and cells. This is where most gardeners fail and later wonder what happened. Do NOT sanitize peat pots!

Sanitizing used planting cells.

Sanitizing used planting cells.

For peat pots and plastic cells it is now time to prepare the soil. If you mix your own soil, mix it well while it is dry. Put the soil mixture or seed starting medium into a plastic container that will hold enough soil for a complete tray.

Prepare a weak solution of liquid plant fertilizer for indoor plants. This is done by using either granular indoor plant fertilizer or liquid indoor plant fertilizer in some water. Read the instructions for mixing with water, but use only half the recommended dosage of fertilizer for the regular amount of water. Shake after mixing the water and fertilizer together.

Pour the fertilized water into the soil a bit at a time and then mix well with your hands. If you do not like dirt under your fingernails, then wear rubber kitchen gloves. Here is how to tell how much water to use: Squeeze a handful of soil tightly. If you hear the water “squish” between your fingers, but it does not drip out, then it is good. If it drips, then add more dry soil. If it makes no sound, then it is too dry, so add more water.

Pack the soil into the peat pots or the plastic cells. The level is determined by how you will plant your seeds. There are two methods:

  1. Fill to within ¼ inch of the top of the pot/cell. Use this method if you want to place the seeds on the soil and then top it will soil afterwards. If you top with soil after placing down the seeds, be sure to read the seed packets as to how much soil to use. Some seeds are VERY tiny and may not be able to push through ¼” of soil.
     

  2. Fill to the top of the pot/cell. Poke hole(s) into the soil and place the seed in the hole. Push the surrounding soil into the hole to seal it over.

When I say to “pack” the soil into the pots/cells, I do not mean to pack it hard. You want the soil to be tight enough so if you water from the top, the soil does not wash down. If you pack it too tight, it will be more difficult for the roots to grow through. I made myself a wooden packer from a junk piece of wood that I trimmed to the shape of the cell. It allows me to pack quickly. That is important if you are doing hundreds of cells.

Bin of mixed and wetted seed starting soil with packing wood block and filled cells.

Bin of mixed and wetted seed starting soil with packing wood block and filled cells.

When planting the seeds, you can either plant one seed per cell/pot or plant multiple seeds per cell/pot. Do not use the same hole for multiple seeds if you go that way. Space the seeds apart. I generally plant two seeds per cell because I have a lot of my own seeds and can spare them. My goal is to be sure every cell has a seedling. Not every seed will germinate. If you have limited seeds and want the maximum amount of plants from them, then only plant one seed per cell/pot.

Once the seeds are planted you can place the clear plastic dome on. It is not necessary, but if you do not plan to mist the trays with water then the dome is helpful. You can also cover the top with plastic wrap until you see the first seedling germinate. You DO NOT want the top of the soil to dry out during germination. With that being said, you also DO NOT want to saturate the soil. It should look damp, but not really wet.

The dome can be left on for two days after the seeds begin to germinate. Remove it after this time or you will risk damping-off fungus. That is where the seedling begins to grow, the stem withers, and then the seedling topples over dead. If you sanitized correctly, you will have less of this problem. Some plants are more sensitive to this than others. Furthermore, if you did not use good potting soil (not sterile) then you will see more of this problem.

Most instructions tell you to put the seed trays in a dark location until the seeds germinate. I am going to tell you that is non-sense. Plants want light as soon as they pop out of the soil because they need to begin photosynthesis immediately. The sooner the plants have good light, the stronger they will grow. With that being said, placing them in direct sunlight for several hours with a dome in place may create a greenhouse effect and heat the soil too much. Be sensible and check to be sure that inside the dome is not hot. That generally is not much of a problem when starting seeds in late winter.

Try to keep your seed trays warm at 70-75 degrees. However, I do not use heat mats and mine do fine. If you are a perfectionist, you can buy heat mats. I heard that they do not last for many years, though. Room temperature will work fine. If you place your trays next to a window for light during the day and it is drafty, I would move it away from the window until the plants have their second leaves. Some people put their trays on top of their refrigerator for some heat. The heat rising from the back of the refrigerators rises upwards.

The next subject is light. Seedlings require a lot of light. A south facing window will suffice. Otherwise, consider purchasing a grow light. You can buy florescent grow lights inexpensively at the big box stores or you could get a regular florescent light at a big box store. If you purchase a florescent light, be sure to get it with a “cool” temperature light spectrum.  A 6500k florescent light tube will do best. Do not buy LED shop lights. Their color spectrum is too narrow.

In regards to florescent lights, you can get T12, T8, T5, and T5 HO fixtures. The best are the T5 HO fixtures, but it is difficult to get the correct tubes for plants unless you order them through the internet. Therefore, the T8 fixtures might be the next best thing. Generally you can get them in stores like Home Depot or Lowes. Walmart does not carry many florescent tubes or fixtures, but they do carry grow lights. Their T8 grow lights are not very strong and will require two per flat. At $11 each, that is not too bad. Stay away from their new T5 HO grow light. It is a hazard and could cause a fire or a broken tube. It is cheap beyond use. Furthermore, it has a metal housing, but only has a two prong plug. That could be an electrical hazard around water.

Once the seedlings are growing, be sure to keep them watered with fertilized water. Use the half strength water for two weeks and then possibly switch to full strength. Let the plants tell you when they need more nutrients. They will generally yellow and possibly show green veins with yellow in-between when they are deficient. The top of the soil should begin to dry out slightly, but not completely, before watering again. You can water three different ways:

  1. Fill the tray with ¼ inch of fertilized water and let it be. That is generally enough for the plants unless they are larger and outside. This is what I do mostly when they are still in the house.
     

  2. Fill the tray with ½ inch of fertilized water, wait 30 minutes, and then pour out the excess water. This works well when the plants are getting larger and using more water. When I put my plants on the porch to harden them I use this method because it is easy to dump the overage outside.

  3. Water from the top. This is the least recommended way because the water pattern is irregular and some plants may not get enough water. I only do this if I am in a hurry and I see that they need water quickly.

Onion seedlings! It really is worth the little bit of work to get them started.

Onion seedlings! It really is worth the little bit of work to get them started.

 

About a week before the plants are to be transplanted outdoors, you will need to “harden” them off. That means we need to get our indoor plants acclimate to being outside without shocking them. We can do that by putting them in a shaded area that only gets one or two hours of morning sun for the first two days. If the nights get cold, be sure to bring them indoors. Some seedlings are a bit sensitive to the cold until they are hardened. The exceptions are onions and possibly leeks. (I’m new to leeks this year) Increase their sun exposure each day for up to a week. By the end of one week, they can be out in full sun. If the weather turns bad, you can extend the time period for two weeks. However, if you wait longer, your plants will become root bound.

To transplant do the following:

  1. Overwater your plants and let them set in the water for a half hour. You want them saturated in their cells/pot.

  2. Be sure that the garden area is ready. It should have loose soil that is not clumpy or saturated.

  3. Stake out a row with two sticks and some string or fishing line.

  4. Work a little 10-10-10 fertilizer into the soil along the string line. (for tomatoes, you may want a 5-10-10 or none at all until they begin to develop fruit)

  5. Bring the plants out to the garden. Dig a hole, pour water into the hole, and then put the plant into the hole so the garden soil line will be slightly higher than the top of the plant's soil. Fill the hole with garden soil so it covers the plant’s potting soil. I often will bury the plant up to its first set of leaves. It is okay for the hole to be muddy unless the soil in the garden is very wet. If it is very wet, then skip watering the hole. DO NOT LEAVE THE PLANT OUT OF ITS CELL/POT! Some people will pull the plants out and lay them down on the ground to “plan” how they will look. Do not do this! The roots are VERY sensitive to air and sun at this point. You will set them back for a week or permanently if you do this. Furthermore, it is always best to transplant on a cloudy day. A hot day in full sun is the worst, but if done correctly will be fine.

  6. Water the plants after you are done planting them. Be sure they do not dry out; the first couple of days are critical. If you see them wilting, give them more water. With that being said, do not make it muddy with too much water. Within a few days they will “take” and will look perky.

I wrote a lot of instructions because most new gardeners have a lot of questions and I tried to answer them beforehand. Planting seeds is VERY easy and enjoyable. And the best part is the anticipation of the germinating seedlings. You may find yourself looking at them several times a day to check on their progress. That is a good thing. Anything to get people off the couch or away from their electronic devices is a good thing.

Presently, my onions and leeks have germinated already. Yes, it is the end of January and my garden is already on its way. Growing plants is a real comfort to our spirits.

I also have some apple seedlings that are growing. That is a special project just for my mental health. The seeds came from my own apples. Generally speaking, apple seeds will not produce an apple tree with really good apples. They will NEVER have apples like the parent plants. There are just too many genes in a state of heterozygosity for that to happen. It is like rolling the dice. One in a thousand will be a great apple tree. I’m in! I find things like that to be exciting. In 7 years I will tell you how they taste.

(Actually, because I have an orchard with only good apple trees, my odds are slightly better and a LOT better than using seeds from store bought apples.)

These three seedlings began life in a damp paper towel in a Ziploc bag beginning in the fall of 2015.

These three seedlings began life in a damp paper towel in a Ziploc bag beginning in the fall of 2015.


I wish you well in your gardening!

Bure sure to “like” this page, share it with others, and/or write comments. Questions are welcomed.

Private Nurseries are already running low on plants!

This is a reminder to the procrastinators that they need to get their plant orders in soon if they will be ordering from private (smaller) nurseries. I just put my order in for apple grafting rootstock, a plum tree, and a cherry tree. Some varieties are either out or nearly out. This is the time when a lot are sold. Don't wait if you have your heart set on a particular plant.

If you are ordering a fruit tree, be sure to check to see if it needs a pollinator. There are many disappointed fruit tree owners that get no fruit after 8 years of growing a tree and wonder why. Generally, the nursery will list pollinators if they are needed. Do not rely on luck for pollination. If you do not want two trees for cross pollination, then stick to self fertile trees where you only need one.

Good luck!

 

Time for Seeds!

It is year-end and we really need to be thinking about seeds and/or plant orders.

I know; who has the time? Everyone does. You don’t need to make final decisions, so grab a seed catalog, cozy up in a comfortable chair with some warm tea or homemade wine, and then take a half-hour to begin. If you don’t know where to start, then merely turn the first page of the seed catalog or visit the home page of a seed website. That is where the new varieties of plants will be located to get you interested.

Do you need to be thinking of how to go about it? Do you just grab the closest seed catalog and go for it? Do you (gasp!) even have a seed catalog?  I guess we need to start at the beginning.

If you do not have a seed/plant catalog, then go to the internet and do a search in Google for “seed catalogs”. I assure you that the list will be endless. I just did one search and I found most of the common ones. Oddly enough, I did not see the catalog that I purchase from. They are called Pinetree Garden Seeds. Their web address is actually www.superseeds.com. Yes, they are legitimate. I have ordered from them for many years and they have been reliable so far. (I am not affiliated with them at all.)

On that note, should all of the seeds be priced similarly between companies? Yeah, they should, but they are not. Do your comparison shopping; the prices can be double in some of the fancier catalogs. With that being said, be sure you also compare the quantity in each packet or the weight of the seed packet to get the unit price. (Price per seed) Some packets may only give you a few seeds. Generally that is enough for the casual gardener. Gardeners that have serious gardens for processing veggies for the year may opt for larger packets. Not every company sells larger quantities. Also be aware of shipping charges. Some charge much more for shipping than others.

Generally speaking, the more glossy the pages, the higher the cost of the seed packets. Ignore the bling and determine the variety you want based on the descriptions.  Don’t be afraid to compare descriptions for the same variety. And do not be concerned that one company might have better seeds or plants than another. They all get them from the same wholesalers. These catalog companies buy from seed wholesalers or growers and package them with their brand name. With that being said, some seed companies have exclusive rights to “proprietary” seeds. Those seeds generally have some brand name as part of the variety name.

Many of these seed catalog companies are not based in the United States. If you call in an order you may need to listen with an accent. Yes, even the ones that make you believe that they are a true USA company.

There are some independent seed companies that are privately owned. They might grow their own seeds, but you would need to do some research to be sure.  Expect to pay more.

I did a little of the legwork for you just to point out two examples of cost. In front of me are four catalogs; Pinetree Garden Seeds, Burpee, Gurneys, and R.H. Shumway’s. I looked up the cost for Mortgage Lifter tomato seeds because that is generally one that you will see for sale in most catalogs. Here are the results:

  • Pinetree - $1.75 qty 25 seeds, unit price= $0.07 per seed

  • Burpee -   $4.95 qty 100 seeds, unit price= $0.05 per seed

  • Gurneys - $1.49 qty 30 seeds, unit price= $0.05 per seed (Price doubles after 2/10/2016)

  • R.H. Shumway’s - $2.35 qty 30 seeds, unit price= $0.08 per seed

I will now give an example for Danvers Half long carrots:

  • Pinetree - $1.50 qty 300 seeds, unit price= $0.005 per seed

  • Burpee -   $3.95 qty 3,000 seeds, unit price= $0.0001317 per seed

  • Gurneys - $1.49 qty 1,500 seeds, unit price= $0.000993 per seed (Price doubles after 2/10/2016)

  • R.H. Shumway’s - $1.85 qty 750 seeds, unit price= $0.002467 per seed

It isn’t a cut and dry decision. If you look at it on a per seed basis, your decision may be different than one in which you do not need a maximum number of seeds, but prefer an initial low cost per packet. (You may only need 10 seeds, not 3,000.) Don’t forget cost for shipping in the formula. Some companies make their money on the shipping end of the deal.

The above is an example of popular vegetables. The prices will vary significantly for other vegetables. If you think that you can shop by price for individual seeds and split your order between companies, think again. The shipping costs will negate any savings that you think you are making. Try to order from just one company to keep shipping cost down. With that being said, sometimes you must order just one packet from another company if you are specific about one variety.

Is it really that important to shop by price? If you order a lot of different seeds it could be important for somebody that is having financial difficulties. Ordering seeds is one of those things that look cheap until you total your order and it is $150.00 without the shipping.

My orders are never expensive anymore because I save seeds. I only order seeds that I cannot generate myself, that I need for crossbreeding, or are something new that I have not grown before.

“Why order so early? I can wait until spring for when I actually need seeds and/or plants.”

No, that is not wise. The seed catalog companies order what they think they will sell and that is it. If they run out they will not (or may not be able to) get more. You may have spent 2 hours finding a special veggie and when you finally place your order, it is not available. I’ve been there. You will lose a year for that veggie.

There is another reason for ordering early. The seed will be fresher. Who knows what their storage facilities are like? Are the seeds overheating in a warehouse? If you get your seeds now, you can store them in a Ziploc bag in your refrigerator. Refrigerated seeds last much longer than those stored at room temperature. You could actually use seeds for three years if you store them correctly. (Not parsnips; get them fresh every year.)

If you see my example above, you will also note that seed prices will change after a certain date. They will lower their price for a period to get you to buy early. If you wait too long, then the price goes up.

Many of these seed catalogs will also sell live plants. Let’s discuss that a bit…

There is a situation where ordering plants early is an act of frustration. That is most applicable to Northern gardeners. As with seeds, live plants are purchased by the catalog companies from wholesale growers. Most (if not all) of these catalog companies use the same growers. However, unlike seeds, live plants require special refrigerated storage units to keep the plants alive at the proper temperature and humidity. These catalog companies do not have these facilities. (Though they try to convince you otherwise) Therefore, they take live plant orders and tell you that the plant will ship in the spring.  The catalog company compiles their orders and sends them to the grower in the spring… just like the other 100 catalog companies. However, the grower may not have enough plants in storage to meet the demand from all of the catalog companies. Somebody is going to be shorted.

You placed your order in December, spring comes, and then you get an email stating that they ran out for the year. You call and complain that you ordered in December of the prior year, so how could they run out! Orders are distributed, not by order date, but by shipping times. (Plant zone numbers) Those in warmer climates get their orders first and you get the shaft.  And now it is too late to order that plant anywhere else because every catalog company is maxed out for that plant. How do you get around that?

You can’t. It is pot luck. Furthermore, some companies will “fudge” the order and ship you a plant that might look the same, but is not the real variety you ordered. (They might ship you a McIntosh apple tree instead of an Empire.) It will take you 3 to 7 years to find out that they screwed you over.

Yup! Been there too! You will be surprised to know that the largest and most advertised catalog companies do this. Paying a higher price guarantees you nothing. (Other than paying more money)

Another warning; do not select a “2nd choice” variety if yours is not available. That is their way of padding an order when they run out. They are guaranteed to make a sale and you will get a 2nd choice while somebody else (that may have ordered later) will get their “only” choice.

Are you getting discouraged? Don’t be. There is a way that is more reliable in regards to trees and shrubs. Do a search for nurseries in your state. There are many private ones that do a fabulous job with their plants. And they WILL reserve your plants. If they say that they are in stock, they mean it. And the money stays in your state instead of being moved out of the country like some of the larger catalog companies that may have been bought out. And generally speaking, the plants they grow will do better for you because they are closer to your growing environment.

You can also do a search for seed/plant catalog reviews. There is a website called “Dave’s Garden” (http://www.davesgarden.com/) where people can voice their experiences in a section called “Garden watchdog”. You can search through catalog names or enter a name yourself. Small private nurseries are also listed.

Another area to research is gardening forums. However, oftentimes you have to take what is said with a grain of salt. Much of what you hear is just regurgitated info that has been regurgitated probably a hundred times before. It is difficult to get quality info. What you might get from the forum, however, is information on a private nursery that might have a unique plant that you are looking for. Somebody may have already found that source and will share that information with you. Expect a plethora of pop-up ads on these forums now. The good old days of no ads is history for just about every forum in existence.

There are some catalog companies that have learned that they can have one company, but several names/catalogs. You could actually have 4 catalogs with different names all from just one company. When you see that, look elsewhere. They are playing you.

With the above being said, Miller Nurseries was based out of central New York State. They lead you to believe that they were a huge “real” nursery and that their stock was all NY State grown on their “farm”. It is not. The pictures are from a long time ago when they actually did cultivate their own stock. I took a trip out there many years ago and the company was the size of a small feed store. And there were no fields of trees and shrubs being grown. I asked the clerk where the fields of plants were. She told me that they order them from wholesalers, freight trucks unload them into a barn, and then they are packed and shipped out. I have to tell you that they screwed up 1 out of every 3 plants I ordered. What a waste of time and money! They have subsequently been bought out by Stark Brothers. (That also screwed me over at another time)

Is it better to purchase plants from a local nursery “store” or a big box store? No! They too purchase from wholesalers. They might even be worse. They get those 6 foot tall trees shipped in and many come from a warmer climate and are already blossoming or leafing out. The first frost that hits them in the spring sends them backwards. Furthermore, they sell them in a root ball or pot and tell you not to open it up; just plant it with the root ball in-tact so you do not disturb the roots. That is total BS! They don’t want you to open it because they filled it with sand, there are no root hairs, no native soil, and the roots have been cut off or are mangled and broken to fit in the ball. They had been stored as bare root plants without soil all winter and are trying to fool you. Furthermore, they have a tremendous amount of tree structure with very little root to support it. Most will not make it without receiving water nearly every other day and being trimmed to reduce its structure by about 50% or more.

The “real” private nurseries that grow their own plants will carefully dig out the plants to keep real roots in-tack and then store them in carefully monitored rooms. When you get them, the roots are wrapped in damp material with no soil. You don’t want the soil so don’t fret it. Most growers are not going to ship trees with native topsoil. (They would run out of soil quickly) You actually want your own soil around these roots. And their roots will look like real roots, not cut-off stubs. The plant’s top will be seriously shorter than the ones from the big nursery stores. That is a GOOD thing. You do NOT want tall trees. Smaller is better in this case. They will have a better ratio of root to stem, will require less watering, and will be able to bring up sufficient nutrients to support the top. After two years, the short good plants will be ahead of those tall things with no roots.

Plant catalogs also sell the smaller plants and generally will have a better root to stem ratio as well. You just take your chances that you are getting what you ordered or will get it at all. Some catalogs will only sell you a section of a root for some plants. That is lame and very unreliable. Unless you are purchasing plants that normally come up each year from a rhizome (like hops), you should be getting an established, (but small) plant. Flower bulbs are not included in this. It is normal to receive dormant bulbs or tubers for such plants.

I will now explain a little bit about plants before you go on your search for seeds.

Some plants will be labeled as “hybrid” or F1. That means that the seeds are the result of crossing two varieties of that type of vegetable. It would be like taking seeds from a tomato that was a cross between a Big Boy and Early Girl tomato.  It will give a third variety of tomato when grown that may be superior to both parents. However, if seeds are saved from that hybrid, then the resulting plants will be all over the place in type. In a simple genetics world, 25% will look like parent #1, 25% will look like parent #2, and 50% will look like the hybrid plant you planted. The reality is that every plant has many genes and you will generate many phenotypes. With that being said, I am never afraid to save seeds from a hybrid because it is like growing a box of chocolates. And sometimes those chocolates can lead me to a superior plant after 5 years. I love it!

Heirloom seeds come from plants that are a bit inbred. (The opposite of hybrid) They will generally produce plants true to form every year that you collect seeds, provided that you do not plant other varieties near them. Because many are open pollenated, you may find one plant out of 5 that does not look like what you ordered. Blame the bees and the wind for that. Nothing is perfect. Furthermore, it is impossible to produce millions of seeds that are identical in phenotype.

If you do not save seeds, you do not have to concern yourself with heirloom, hybrids, or such. Just order exactly what you want every year.

Also expect that not every plant germinated from the same packet of seeds will be identical, even with heirlooms. Wind and bees are going to cross pollenate a certain percentage of the plants. You might get 75% of the plants that grow as advertised, and the rest that will show other traits. Again, I don’t mind that because I select for unusual traits that I like.

“What about “organic” seeds?”

Frankly, I don’t see the difference other than price and availability. I’ve used both at some time or another. The best seed is generally the one you harvested yourself. If you grow organically and harvest seeds, then you will have organic seeds. If you don’t, then they will still germinate. Just because a seed is supposedly from an organic farm does not mean that it will be better or that there will be a difference in the vegetable produced. The energy in that little seeds is only useful to grow the first set of leaves. That is it. The rest is what you will give it and that is what will make your plant good or not.

“Do I want perennials, biennials, or annuals?” That is a good question. It all depends on what you want to do with the plant and where you want it.

Annuals will die after they bloom and go to seed. They come back the next year through the seeds. You will need to plant these every year or hope that the seeds deposited around the plant naturally will make it through a winter and germinate on their own. Some will and some will not. It is best to collect their seeds and store them yourself for planting the following spring. In regards to vegetable gardens, many of the plants are annuals and will need their seed to be brought inside so they will not rot through the winter.

Biennials will grow for two years and then die. They are vegetative for the first year and for the 2nd year they will grow stalky to produce a flower and seeds. These plants are more difficult to manage for a seed collector because the plant MUST be kept alive (although dormant) during the winter between years. Flowering (decorative) plants are generally left in the ground, while vegetables are generally dug up, kept in a cool environment in a root cellar (or refrigerator), and then replanted in the spring. Beets, carrots, and onions are biennial vegetables. Therefore, in order to save seeds, one must accept a two year commitment to the plant. Most people just buy the seeds every year. Again, that is not the best course of action if you want to create a plant that is the best for your yard.

Perennials are the Energizer bunnies of the plant world. They come up every year from the same plant and do not need to be replanted.  Oftentimes they will also seed like an annual. Many herbs generally fall into this category. Another example is horse radish. Not many vegetables are perennials. The one perennial that I like a lot is lovage.  Celery does not do well in my environment, so I have lovage. (It tastes the same) Lovage is a wonderful plant that will come up year after year. Eventually the perennial will need to be divided if it gets too big or it may need to be replanted if it gets too old.

As with anything in our time, you should do a little bit of research so you get the best results. Fortunately, there are many seed companies selling some really good stuff that is very unique. And that is where the seed catalogs shine. You will NOT be able to find the same variety of seeds at the local big box stores. Just try going to a local store and find Copra onion seeds. It’s not going to happen. It took me YEARS to find the right onion for my environment and it did not come from an onion plant or onion set at a big box store or a local feed/nursery store. I needed to purchase the seeds from a catalog in order to get it. If you buy locally, expect to only find the “usual” plant varieties that may or may not be optimal for your environment, but makes the stores the most money. This is the one case were not buying local makes sense.

This year I will grow some new plants. (New for my yard). They are angelica, salad burnet, Brussels sprouts, a climbing bean (seeds from a friend), and Mara Des Bois strawberries. I also ordered different varieties of a few other plants to see if they are a better fit than the varieties I have been using that are not as good as I had hoped. It can take years to figure out the best varieties for your yard.

Learn your environment, your soil, your lighting, your tastes, and then find “your” seeds. Good luck!

(Mine have already been delivered!) 

 

Natural Bird Feeders

The title of this article might make one wonder what a “natural” bird feeder is. Could it be a bird feeder made from a log?  Maybe it is a pine cone slathered with peanut butter and rolled in seeds? Is it a <gulp!> predator of birds?

Nope.

Think more natural. What has been around feeding birds since the beginning of time?

Dead flowers.

That’s right; dried dead flowers that keep their stems and seed heads through the winter.

Not every flower will work in this capacity. Some birds like to feed on the ground, while others will refuse to land on the ground and prefer to cling onto the stiff stem while plucking seeds from the flower head.  The interesting thing is that the birds feeding on the top breaks free seeds that fall for the ones on the ground. It turns into a partnership and the ground feeders are all too eager to follow behind the stem clingers.

The three flowers that I plant for the birds are anise, coneflower, and bee balm. The coneflower can take a lot of wind and continue to stand up for a long time. The anise stem is not as strong, but if planted en masse, will do very well by keeping the group upright. The bee balm will not last through the winter, mostly because the birds hit it well before winter. In-fact, it is near impossible to beat the birds to the seeds if you are trying to collect them. You would need to bag the heads just after the petals wilt in order to get seeds.

Bee Balm in the summer. Notice that it comes in purple and red. That is chamomile on the left, a wonderful herb for soothing tea. Bee Balm is also great for tea.

Bee Balm in the summer. Notice that it comes in purple and red. That is chamomile on the left, a wonderful herb for soothing tea. Bee Balm is also great for tea.

These plants are colorful additions to your flower gardens and landscaping. Because they carry a lot of seeds, they will self-seed and give you volunteer plants. Some people welcome this to establish a thicket of flowers, while others might not. The coneflower seeds will not germinate as readily as the anise. Anise might be a little fickle in where they will want to grow.  They generally do okay where you plant them, but when they self-seed, they will begin to find places that they prefer. I simply let them find their favorite spot and then I let them keep it. And while the plants mentioned do self-seed, it really is not a problem to pull out the seedlings early in the spring.

Coneflowers in late summer. Notice the thick stems and large seed heads.

Coneflowers in late summer. Notice the thick stems and large seed heads.

All three plants are perennial and will come back in the spring. The anise is not as reliable for making it through the winter, but if you keep them in a cluster, they will self-seed and be self-perpetuating, so it will not matter.

Anise in the summer. It has naturalized under a Hemlock tree. It either comes back from the crown or re-seeds itself. Anise makes a wonderful tea. I have also used it to make Anise liqueur.

Anise in the summer. It has naturalized under a Hemlock tree. It either comes back from the crown or re-seeds itself. Anise makes a wonderful tea. I have also used it to make Anise liqueur.

Bee balm does not self-seed as readily from my experience. With that being said, I know mine is not in its preferred location and rarely will a seed make it to the ground before a bird will eat it. It does keep coming back year after year, but I can tell that it is not as vigorous each year that goes by. It may need to be divided ever few years or have new plants started. I may move my bee balm to a new location to see if it grows more vigorously. And that is the interesting thing about plants; like humans, they have their individual preferences.

Another benefit from bee balm and anise is that you can dry the leaves and use it to make herbal tea. I use them regularly.

The same bunch of coneflowers in December with a Yellow Finch having a meal. Great entertainment that is free!

The same bunch of coneflowers in December with a Yellow Finch having a meal. Great entertainment that is free!

The mid-size birds will feed from the bee balm and the smaller birds will feed from the cone flower and anise. It is fun to watch them from the window, so be sure to plant some of these flowers where you can watch them from your living room or kitchen windows.  It is great winter entertainment. Furthermore, the birds that are attracted to your natural bird feeders seldom are a problem for your berries in the warmer months.

Can you find that little bird clinging onto a anise stem? This is that same bunch of anise from a previous picture, but in December.

Can you find that little bird clinging onto a anise stem? This is that same bunch of anise from a previous picture, but in December.

 

 

There is one of the ground feeders, looking for seeds that were cast aside by the top feeders.

There is one of the ground feeders, looking for seeds that were cast aside by the top feeders.

Here is a list of plants that flower, providing seed heads for over-wintering birds:

  • Allium

  • Anise

  • Black-eyed Susan

  • Bee Balm

  • Coreopsis

  • Sedum

  • Blanket Flower

  • Coneflower

  • Goldenrod

  • Aster

  • Switchgrass

 

Be sure to “like” this post below if you found it interesting so I can get a good idea of what people want to read about. You can also subscribe to the blog by first clicking on the “comment” block at the bottom of this post and then clicking on “Subscribe via e-mail.” Feel free to share the post by clicking on the “share” block. Even if you do not like gardening, you may have a friend or relative that does. Comments are also welcomed.

Flowers in December

Upstate New York is having some pretty warm weather as of late. That is quite unusual, relative to the pre-1970s; however, it follows the trend of global weirdness in regards to weather in our modern times.

Some call it global warming. That isn’t exactly how it works. If it did, then every year would be warmer by the same degrees. What “global warming” is really causing are drastic changes in weather patterns. We are seeing that everywhere in the world with flooding, giant storms, huge amounts of snow, drought, warmth, extreme cold, lack of snow, etc..

One of the responses to this situation will be Mother Nature attempting to adjust to it. How so?

Using genetic variability.

What the heck does that mean?

I will attach some pictures of flowers from my yard and garden that I took on December 14, 2015. (Normally we would have a foot or more of snow) You will see dandelion blossoms, broccoli flowers, and arugula blooms. However, if you were to look around the area you would notice that not all of the dandelions or arugula plants are blossoming. In-fact you need to look hard to spot the ones that are. With that being said, nearly all of my broccoli plants are in bloom. Is anyone curious as to why?

Because of genetic variability in seeds.

Dandelion flower in mid-December. They should be dormant at this time of the year.

Dandelion flower in mid-December. They should be dormant at this time of the year.

EVERY seed is unique in that its genetic “recipe” is completely different than any other seed. A genome (genetic mold for an organism) may be identical within a species, but the values in the mold (genotype) are different. If genotypes are similar (but not identical), then the phenotype (the way it appears) may look identical unless you look VERY closely for the finer points that would differentiate it from other plants that look like it.

Therefore… we can see that Mother Nature has created some seeds (that are unique) that created a plant that will flower in warmer winter weather. There are only two dandelion plants that I found in my entire yard that had flowers. That tells us that the dandelions in my yard are more genetically inclined for “normal” weather and will bloom en masse in the spring. The two plants that are blossoming are genetically inclined to blossom in “different” weather. Now, if the weather continues to favor the two that have blossoms in December, then eventually the dandelions in my yard will be nearly all like the two outliers after many years.

The same holds true for my arugula. The arugula that is growing and blossoming in my garden self-seeded itself this summer and germinated in the fall. Actually, there were literally hundreds of seedlings that were self-seeded. However, only ONE grew extremely vigorous and had blossoms. Only ONE had the genetic code that thrives in this weather. The rest of the arugula plants are growing and I am harvesting them daily, but none grew like this one outlier. I also have detected some genetic variability in the shape of the leaves on most of the plants. If I wanted, I could select for leaf shape and eventually create a new arugula variety based on a particular leaf shape. (I am actually working on a leaf shape project with Mulberry trees)

 

Arugula plant that is extremely hardy and blossoming in mid-December.

Arugula plant that is extremely hardy and blossoming in mid-December.

 

So… what about the broccoli blossoms?

My broccoli has been genetically engineered by me to grow very well in my environment. I started many years ago. I made this variety so that it would give me loads of little broccoli shoots right up to the beginning of winter. And that is why it is blossoming. I did the work for Mother Nature and created a plant that would push through cold weather and still create blossom buds. (That is what a broccoli head is)

My own broccoli variety that has blossoms in mid-December. This plant is not surprising because of the work I did to create it.

My own broccoli variety that has blossoms in mid-December. This plant is not surprising because of the work I did to create it.

 

Why do I even bother paying attention to all of this? Because it is important for our future. I hope to teach people how to help Mother Nature when it comes to selecting plants that will eventually feed us in the future.  Unlike Monsanto, we do not need to gene splice. They are trying to take short-cuts to create new varieties of plants (over-night) for commercial purposes and to make a ton of money doing it. Their plants are Genetically MODIFIED Organisms. (GMO) Note the world “modified”. They take pieces of genetic material from one organism and splice it into the genome of another to make a new variety. They bypass Mother Nature. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Who knows? It could go either way. Time will tell us.

The world has been doing its own genetic engineering for millions of years the old fashioned way. And that is the way I intend to do mine. I want to teach people to work with nature instead of circumventing it.  In order to do that, we must pay attention to the finer points of nature so we can identify those outliers that might be the next best development in vegetables for the changing climates. Are we “really” genetically engineering plants? Not really. We are simply helping nature to find beneficial plants and to focus their breeding in a fashion that helps us to eat.

Plants have been genetically engineering themselves since the beginning of time. That is how they get their seeds dispersed and assure that their species will survive. They keep changing genetically until an animal finds their “fruit” nourishing enough to eat it. And by eating the plant or fruit, the animal may drag the fruit or plant around to feed their young or to bury for later use. Eventually the seeds move around and start more plants with that genetic code for being tasty to a particular animal. WE are one of those animals that Mother Nature has adapted to over millions of years.

I took another picture of some vegetables that I picked today. It is a pot of arugula, kale, and mustard.  It seems crazy to be picking fresh greens in upstate New York in mid-December. Some of the mustard leaves are actually about a foot long, but are on the bottom of the pot. I have been letting the mustard plants seed themselves in several locations within my yard over the past several years. By doing that, I am creating “yard” vegetables that are adapting themselves to my environment and that are now hardier than when I first planted mustard seeds from the store.

A pot of fresh picked arugula, mustard, and kale in mid-December.

A pot of fresh picked arugula, mustard, and kale in mid-December.

 

On the surface it appears that creating "yard" plants is a good thing to do, however, there are some drawbacks. If I do not intervene occasionally to cut away inferior plants before they blossom, I may eventually get scraggly plants that do not taste good nor grow in a productive way for food. In other words, they may become annoying weeds that naturalize and "reverse evolve" to become wild plants like their ancestors. Sometimes these yard plants can out-compete with native plants. With that being said, sometimes that is a good thing when faced with an extreme change in climate.  Eventually you will see a shift in plant species that will occur naturally. It is Mother Nature’s way of adjusting so this world survives for as long as possible.

"Yard" mustard in mid-December. This stuff is REALLY good! (And still tender)

"Yard" mustard in mid-December. This stuff is REALLY good! (And still tender)

Be sure to “like” this post below if you found it interesting so I can get a good idea of what people want to read about. You can also subscribe to the blog by first clicking on the “comment” block at the bottom of this post and then clicking on “Subscribe via e-mail.” Feel free to share the post by clicking on the “share” block. Even if you do not like gardening, you may have a friend or relative that does. Comments are also welcomed.

Volunteer Plants

What the heck is a volunteer plant? I’ll bet many of you asked that question as soon as you saw the title.  Well, here is the answer… a plant that walks up to you and volunteers to give you fruit, just so long as you take care of it.

No, not really. They cannot talk or walk. (But the arrangement holds true.)

A volunteer plant is a known plant that springs up all by itself. Generally they come from a seed that dropped from one of your fruit trees, berry bushes, or vegetable crops.

So, why all the fuss? Should we not just pull it out like a weed? Isn’t a weed merely a plant (good or otherwise) that is growing in the wrong place?

No and no. And possibly… maybe and it all depends.

Nothing like being sure of one’s self. Ahum!

Why is the answer unpredictable? Because it really does depend on what type of plant it is, the location it is growing, the phenotype (Yikes! …Genetics!), and the need for such a plant.

Oftentimes volunteer plants will be extremely hardy. Why? Because some of them survived a winter before springing to life. Anything that tough (in Upstate NY) is worthy of consideration. Furthermore, they may have had to contend with weeds and grass to grow. Again, anything fickle and it never would have grown.

I am always on the lookout for such plants. In-fact, my tomato strain that I created began with one volunteer tomato plant that popped up in the midst of a row of other vegetables. It looked very hardy, so I let it live where it germinated. That year was one of the worst years for tomato plants. I got two tomatoes out of three rows. The weather was wet the entire summer and really did a number on the plants. …Except for this little volunteer. It had a bowl full of tomatoes. They were not deep red, but were blemish free and prolific. The flavor was good as well. I kept some seeds from that plant and the genes are still in my tomato line. (Arg! That “G” word again!)

You will hear many genetic terms throughout my gardening blog. Don’t run away in fear. You are made from genes and you would not want anyone to run away from you if you told them that you were full of genes. I will keep things simple.

The word phenotype is just a fancy word for “what it looks like” or “what it does.” The word genotype is correlated to the word phenotype because the genotype is a fancy word for “genetic recipe” that makes the phenotype that we can see. In other words, the genotype is all of those gene values that make up you, and your brunette hair color is the phenotype we see because of it.

Another example of a phenotype is a short hot pepper plant that ripens peppers early. The genotype is the gene “values” that is the genetic recipe to make that plant short and to ripen peppers early.

That was easy! (And it really didn’t hurt, did it?)

Back to my tomato plant…

Just by chance, the seed that it came from had just the right genetic recipe (genotype) that made the plant very hardy. (Hardy is part of its phenotype) Furthermore, it also had genes for being prolific in bearing fruit. Therefore, it had good genes for hardiness (surviving a brutal winter), being prolific (many tomatoes produced), good flavor, and being hardy through a wet environment. Those were some REALLY good genes to hang onto! And that is why I saved seeds from that plant.

But the color was lame.

Yeah, it was a blend of orange and some yellow. It boiled down to red when I made sauce, but they were not the most appealing tomato to the eye. If anyone here knows me well, then they know that my mind was churning, figuring out a way to improve the color.

So, how was I to do that? Simple! I opened up a catalog where they sold tomato genes. Yup, that’s right. A catalog devoted to selling plant genes! Wow!

Don’t be impressed so quickly. I’m only referring to a simple seed catalog that comes in the mail. (One of 15 that will arrive shortly after you buy just one packet of seeds through the mail.)

When I look at a seed catalog, I see genes, and lots of them! We are so lucky to have such diversity. There are so many genes to consider. I can get “big size” genes, “early ripening” genes, “indeterminate” genes, “red” genes… wait! Stop! I found my red gene!

Oh heck, I’m not just going to stop there! While I am at it, let’s find a plant that has red AND thick flesh so I don’t have to boil down my sauce as much. Bingo! Amish paste tomatoes!

And that is how one buys plant genes.

Or… we find that elusive volunteer that just sprouts up into your life.

Not every volunteer is worth hanging on to. If you ever plant a summer squash next to a pumpkin and let the extra fruit rot into the ground over the winter, you will find many volunteer plants in the spring. What will you get? Squampkins, of course! (I thought everyone knew that.) The fruit is neither a summer squash nor a pumpkin, but a fruit that one cannot really do anything with. I guess you could eat it somehow, but I never had an appetite for trying it. The verdict? Pull it!

There are times when one needs to pull out volunteers or risk losing a valuable plant. Those volunteers may be genetic “hybrids” that can out-compete the original parent plant. This occurs with perennials that shed seeds that will sprout in the spring. That is a really good reason to not let your perennial herbs go to seed.

A case-in-point is my oregano. I planted Greek oregano several years ago. The first year it did very well and had clusters of white flowers. Every year afterwards, the plant seeded over itself and eventually produced a plant that had pink blossoms. The pink blossomed plants eventually pushed out the white blossomed plants because they were hardier and grew vigorously. So what? I still had oregano, right?

Nope. I had oregamin. (My own fancy name for an oregano x mint plant) The two plants hybridized and created offspring that could out-compete the original oregano parent. Not only do I have them in my herb garden, but I now have oregamin in my lawn. Like I said, it is VERY hardy. It has “hardy” genes for my environment.

This is Oregamin. Can you find the honey bee and the bumble bee?

This is Oregamin. Can you find the honey bee and the bumble bee?

What was that “E” word? Environment.

Yeah, that is another piece to this genetic puzzle. (Who’da thought that I would be talking about genetics with a heading of “volunteer”?) I qualified the word “hardy” by saying that the plant was hardy in “my” environment. You see, genotypes and the environment that they exist in are interrelated as well. It is entirely possible that my tomato plant would suck if planted in Florida. But you see; the fact that it germinated in my environment already made it predisposed to growing well here. I didn’t have to experiment with hardy genes from a catalog for my environment. The plant took care of that for me. And that is how plants evolve over time if left to their own means. It is survival of the fittest in that environment. If the environment changes, then they too will change.

That leads us to another related topic… global warming. In-fact, it really needs to be called global weirdness. I have heard this term coined before, so I borrowed it. The weather is becoming drastic in swings of hot to cold, wet to dry, and stormy to still. Why bring that up under volunteer plants? Because it may be the volunteer plants that pop up randomly that will thrive in the future. Yes, geneticists are doing gene splicing (GMO plants) to create plants that can take the new weather changes, but (in my opinion) that is a fragile methodology. I would prefer that people use old-fashioned genetic selection of the hardiest plants to meet the future. And that is why I am interjecting genetic terms in my blogs. The more you read it, the more sense it will make and someday you may know how to create your own plants the natural way for your environment. The more people that do it, then the more genotypes we can select from.

Now… go out and play with some genes! Who knows? Maybe you will create a new plant that will help to feed the world in the future.

This is a volunteer Black Eyed Susan that found a place in my vegetable garden. It survived rototilling and two weeding events. That is one tough plant!

This is a volunteer Black Eyed Susan that found a place in my vegetable garden. It survived rototilling and two weeding events. That is one tough plant!

This is a patch of Anise.&nbsp; One volunteer germinated here and spread its seeds. These now like acidic soil with shade. The seeds provide food for small birds during the winter.

This is a patch of Anise.  One volunteer germinated here and spread its seeds. These now like acidic soil with shade. The seeds provide food for small birds during the winter.

This volunteer was found under a large Rose of Sharron that had 4 grafts of different flowers. This volunteer seedling was only 1 inch tall and had only two leaves. I dug it up this spring and planted it here. The plant grew very well. It is a crap shoot as to how the flowers will look. Eventually it will grow large enough to cover that old stump I planted it near.

This volunteer was found under a large Rose of Sharron that had 4 grafts of different flowers. This volunteer seedling was only 1 inch tall and had only two leaves. I dug it up this spring and planted it here. The plant grew very well. It is a crap shoot as to how the flowers will look. Eventually it will grow large enough to cover that old stump I planted it near.

These are volunteer seedlings I found under a red Barberry bush when they were about 1/2 inch tall. None of the seedlings are red like the parent. That's genetics for ya! Nevertheless, I prefer the green Barberry because they become brilliantly colored in the fall.

These are volunteer seedlings I found under a red Barberry bush when they were about 1/2 inch tall. None of the seedlings are red like the parent. That's genetics for ya! Nevertheless, I prefer the green Barberry because they become brilliantly colored in the fall.

This volunteer is a sucker that grew from the rootstock of a plum tree. I let it grow so I could graft good plum scions onto it next spring. I'll cover grafting in a future post. A year after grafting, this plant will be moved to a permanent location and will someday be a larger prolific plum tree. I make wine and jam with our plums.

This volunteer is a sucker that grew from the rootstock of a plum tree. I let it grow so I could graft good plum scions onto it next spring. I'll cover grafting in a future post. A year after grafting, this plant will be moved to a permanent location and will someday be a larger prolific plum tree. I make wine and jam with our plums.

That little plant in the middle is a Butterfly Bush volunteer. It is a long ways from "home." The parent is on the other side of the house. Butterfly bushes are wonderful shrubs that die back to the crown each winter and come back up to grow six feet tall with lots of beautiful purple clusters of fragrant blossoms. Butterflies and humming birds love them.

That little plant in the middle is a Butterfly Bush volunteer. It is a long ways from "home." The parent is on the other side of the house. Butterfly bushes are wonderful shrubs that die back to the crown each winter and come back up to grow six feet tall with lots of beautiful purple clusters of fragrant blossoms. Butterflies and humming birds love them.

 

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Garden Series Blog has an index

As of today, the Garden Series Blog will have an index to help viewers get to older blog entries without needing to scroll through all of the newer pages. Simply select the Garden Series Index from the main menu at the top of the page.

It will be quicker to view the newest blog entry by going directly to the Garden Series Blog page because it will always be on top.

Fall Planting and Preparations

I figured I had better squeeze this post in while the snow is light. Yes, it is mid-October and we already saw some snowflakes and my son drove through a blizzard in western New York. That tells us that we should get our act together quickly and get our fall preparations finished.

Who plants in the fall? That may be your initial response. The answer is those of us that think ahead.

My focus on fall planting in this post is with bulb type plants. There is not much time left in the North Country of New York State to get this done before it will be too late. When is too late? If the ground becomes frozen for most of a day, it may be too late. If you experience frost, but the ground continues to be soft, you might get by.

Fall planted flower bulbs (for spring blooms) can be purchased from any of the garden centers or large chain stores like Walmart and Home Depot. Look for the largest bulbs you can find that are firm. That will indicate that they are ready, with a lot of stored energy, to last the winter and grow well. If you do not plant them right away after buying them, then keep them cool and in a dark environment so they do not dry out.

Some of the most common bulbs to plant are daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips. While crocuses look like a bulb to the untrained eye, they are actually a corm and can be planted in the fall as well. Each bulb will have its own planting depth, so read the instructions for each. Generally, it ranges from 4 to 6 inches deep above the top of the bulb.

Bulbs need a lot of cold time in the ground to flower. That is why they need to be in the ground over the winter. Furthermore, they need to develop a root system so they are ready to sprout first thing in the spring. Planting before the ground freezes is essential.

You can fertilize when planting, but if you do, put it below the bulb and then cover it with dirt so it does not touch the bulb. Do not use high nitrogen fertilizer. Something like 5-10-5 would be sufficient. Remember, if you get a large healthy bulb, it already has the energy stored for next year. I do apply fertilizer to my bulbs in the spring to make them healthy and to grow larger bulbs for the next year. Again, they do not need a lot of nitrogen. One word of caution when using bone meal as a fertilizer; some rodents will smell it and dig the bulb out to get to it.

If you are very frugal, like myself, you will notice that some bulbs have little bulblets under the thin paper-like wrapper around the bulb. I break them off and plant them individually. They will not blossom next year, but it also will not take nutrients away from the larger parent bulb. If you supply them with the proper care over the next year, those bulblets will mature and give you blooms the following year. That is an easy way to propagate more flowers instead of wasting more money. Furthermore, every several years you can dig your bulbs up and divide them similarly. One indicator that they need dividing is when you get a mass of stems with no blossoms. There simply is not enough nutrients for one bulb to develop enough stored energy for flowers.

Is there anything we should plant in the vegetable garden in the fall? You bet! Get your garlic cloves in the ground. Notice that I did not say to get your garlic bulbs in. Never plant the entire garlic bulb. Each clove in the bulb would grow and they will have to share nutrients. You will not get good garlic that way. Break each clove off and plant them individually 4 inches apart. Use cloves from the best garlic bulbs that you have and plant the largest cloves. Remember; the best plants and the best seeds are the ones that we propagate, not eat. It’s all about sustainability and genetic selection.

Not much to see, but the garlic is in there and ready to sprout in the spring!

Not much to see, but the garlic is in there and ready to sprout in the spring!

 

Some gardeners will leave some plants in the ground (like carrots and onions) and mulch them in deeply for the winter. Those plants, if they survive, will be used to make seeds the following year. I do not recommend that procedure. Many of the plants will be heaved up from the frost, others are not hardy enough, and the remaining could be eaten by voles. I have experienced all of the above. Some plants actually made it through the winter; however, storing onions or carrots in the house is far more successful. I did have a neighbor in the Adirondacks that was able to keep carrots in the ground through the winter and would remove the deep mulch to eat them during the winter. He only did that one winter. My guess is that the carrots were not that great. A cold root cellar with a bin of damp sand would be much better for keeping them through the winter.

I will not focus on planting trees in the fall because it is problematic for several reasons, some of which are:

  • The roots do not have any time to grow and secure themselves in the soil.

  • If the tree has been in a pot all summer long, it probably does not have a lot of stored energy to last through the winter. That is why they may be on sale.

  • They may not be dormant and will experience transplant shock.

Some people will get lucky and the tree will survive, but I have had more luck with spring planting of dormant bare rooted trees from reliable nurseries. And no, I do not consider most of the so-called nurseries to be reliable, as they order their stock from other states and the condition they come in is horrid or is already growing out of season for our weather. They are more of a “garden center.” Find a nursery that grows its own trees and sells them themselves in a location within a couple hundred miles from your location. Most of the catalogs do not grow their own trees, but will imply that they do. Additionally, my advice for planting trees is the opposite as that for bulbs; select smaller (but healthy) trees to plant that have extensive root systems. They will have less transplant shock and will need less nutrients to grow their first season. The energy will go into developing roots instead of sustaining a large trunk and stems. Most trees sold at garden centers are the complete opposite; fewer roots with big tops. If you do get those big trees, then be absolutely sure you put them on a regimented watering schedule.

Fall planting would not be complete if we did not mention those plants that we need to dig up. If you have begonias or dahlias, then dig them up after the first frost kills the leaves. Store them through the winter as follows:

For dahlias, this can be an art-form and I recommend searching for a website devoted to them. The bulbs have eyes and you must keep an eye (that is at the junction near the stem) with the tuber. It requires cutting part of the stem to keep with the tuber. Broken tubers without eyes will not sprout. The next hardest part is getting them through the winter without rotting or drying out. Some people use fungicides to help. Regardless, they need to be kept cool, in the dark, and in some medium that will hold enough moisture to keep them from drying, but not too damp to make them rot. Expect that many will not survive.

This dahlia was purchased as a small plant in a pot in the spring. The eyes are not visible.

This dahlia was purchased as a small plant in a pot in the spring. The eyes are not visible.

For begonias, dry them for a few days until the stems easily break off, place in a paper bag, and then put them in a similar storage environment as a potato. (Cool and dark.)

Another plant that needs to be dug up is gladiolus.  Using a garden fork/spade, dig under the plant and pop it out of the ground. Use the stem to pull up on it to help it along. Cut the stem off at a point 1 inch from the corm. Dry the corm for about three weeks in a warm dry location. Discard the old corm if it is there and leave the new one. Store it in an onion type netting bag that is hung in the basement. Replant them in the spring two weeks before the last expected frost. The small cormels at the bottom of the mature corm can be removed after drying or you can remove them before planting and plant them individually if you wish to propagate more plants. They will not bloom the first year, however.

Various color gladiolus. Notice the small cormels

Various color gladiolus. Notice the small cormels

Now that we have completed our fall planting and dug up our others for storage, we need to direct our attention to fall preparations.

Fall preparations that I refer to are not strictly raking leaves. It involves protecting many of your vulnerable plants and trees. Some of the tasks are as follows:

  • Wrap the bases of fruit trees with hardware cloth. Rabbits (a.k.a long eared beavers) and voles will eat the bark off the trees during the winter. Especially if there is deep snow. They will girdle the tree and it will die in the spring. Young trees can be wrapped with spiral plastic protectors, but be sure to remove them just as soon as the snow is gone in the spring. Otherwise, they will protect borers and other nasties that will eat the bark under the plastic.

  • Mulch plants that are susceptible to sever cold. The mulch evens-out the temperature to keep the frost/melt cycle from heaving the roots apart. Wait until the ground is frozen before mulching. Otherwise, voles will move in under the mulch and eat your roots during the winter. One old gardener said that mulching with pine boughs helps to discourage voles.

  • Paint the trunks of peach trees or trees that have sustained sunscald damage. Use INTERIOR light colored latex paint that is diluted half with water. The light color will reflect the sun’s rays. It sounds like you would want the opposite during the winter. You do not, especially with peach trees. The south and westerly sun will heat the bark, and then it gets cold rapidly when the sun sets. This hot/cold change kills the bark of peach trees that are grown in the northern part of the United States. For trees that have experienced sunscald, it will protect them from borers. Clean the dead bark away, let it dry, and then paint the affected area.

  • Kill off as many voles and mice as possible. They wreak havoc with power equipment when they build their nests, and they eat plants and roots of plants. Furthermore, they transport ticks. For voles, simply place traps in their pathways without bait. For mice, use peanut butter on traps. If that is too slow, then put out poison bait blocks. Last year I kept track and counted 145 voles that I caught from traps. That did not include those that I killed with poison. It was the best year ever for rhubarb because they did not eat all of the roots. It was also the best year for my grape vine. Voles are devastating to your plants and most people do not even realize that they have them and that there are so many of them.

  • Remove debris that vermin can live under. That includes flat pieces of wood, logs, boxes, etc.

  • Clean out dead and rotting plants.

  • Do NOT trim your trees or bushes. As tempting as this may be, do not do it. It will leave cuts that cannot heal before winter and let in bugs looking for a soft spot to live through the winter. Wait until late winter or early spring when the limbs are dormant and the buds have not yet swelled.

  • Fertilize your trees and shrubs one month after the first killing frost. The roots will use it for health and growing roots. It will be too cold to produce top growth. Be sure to know your soil so you get the proper fertilizer. Take soil tests. If you do not test your soil, then use a general-purpose 10-10-10 fertilizer.

  • If you planted Rosemary, then dig it up, pot it, and bring it in the house for the winter. You can then plant it back outside in the spring. You can also use it to take cuttings from in the winter to make new plants to put outside in the spring.

  • You should have already cut your herbs to dry, but if not, then get right to it. Sage can be cut back to about 4 inches. Lovage can be cut to about two inches, winter savory can be cut down to one inch, as can mints. Thyme can be left to grow if it is mulched. Basil should have already been harvested completely. Oregano can be cut to one inch. Chives can be left alone. Tarragon can be cut to one inch.

Notice the vole hole next to the mouse trap. No bait is needed if the trap is placed directly in front of the hole. In 2014 I caught 145 voles. Yeah, they are a big problem, but you rarely see them.

Notice the vole hole next to the mouse trap. No bait is needed if the trap is placed directly in front of the hole. In 2014 I caught 145 voles. Yeah, they are a big problem, but you rarely see them.

 

 

Peach tree that is painted, protected with a plastic spiral, and fenced in because of deer.

Peach tree that is painted, protected with a plastic spiral, and fenced in because of deer.

One more piece of advice; take pictures of your plants! The pictures will help you to identify plant locations in the spring so you do not accidentally dig them up or pull them out thinking that they are a weed.

If all goes well with your fall planting, you could get this!

If all goes well with your fall planting, you could get this!

Enjoy the fall!

The Mighty Onion

Many of the Gardening Series blog posts will bring you through the life of a plant on my homestead. This is one of those posts. It not only gives you the common knowledge of the plant, but knowledge I gleaned from experience that refines the common knowledge in books. Some of the information will be tied to my specific environment, but can be useful similarly in another environment.

What I hope to give people are tools and descriptions of situations that they may confront should they decide to pursue some type of gardening. Some people will not like the format because I get very verbose at times. Why am I verbose? Because I explain situations that some will encounter and they may someday wish to refer to this blog for information that will help them in a similar situation. I could easily say, “Get some seeds, poke them into the ground, wait for a few months, and then harvest.” You see; I can be short and concise. However, that will not help beginners that are clueless. Furthermore, it will not help those with some experience if they are looking for new techniques that may improve their gardening experience.

Posts that will be created earlier in the Garden Series blog (especially this one) will be longer because I will be explaining things in more detail. I expect readers to remember some of these facts as they read later posts. Thus, I will not go into the same lengthy discussions in future blog posts. You can always come back here to refresh your memory.

At times, I will throw in genetics terms. (I am a self-taught poultry geneticist, but genetics also applies to plants) Don’t worry, I will not go into the bowels of genetics. (For now) The terms are put in here for you to become familiar with them. Good gardeners (especially seed savers) need to understand rudimentary genetics to understand their plants, especially if they are trying to create a new variety. And no, we will not be doing any gene splicing to create our own GMO plants. Genetic engineering can be done simply, like the old farmers did years ago. Note: Aunt Bea on the Andy Griffith show talked about crossing her Rosses to develop a new variety. If she can do it, so can you.

Onward we go…

 

Next to potatoes, the onion is the next vegetable that I would find difficult to give up. In-fact, I have potatoes and onions every day for breakfast/brunch.

In my previous post, you saw a flat of onion seedlings that looked like grass. They are planted 4 seeds to a cell and there are 92 cells per flat. That equates to 368 seeds. I know; that’s a LOT of onions! Not really. It depends on the germination rate. Oftentimes some cells have no seeds that germinate. And that is why I plant 4 to a cell; to hedge my bets.

When one gardens, you need to account for not achieving 100% germination. It is like hatching chicken eggs. When I teach youngsters about incubation in their classrooms, they all expect every egg to hatch. If they are not forewarned that some will not, then they get VERY upset when some do not hatch. If a gardener does not account for less than 100% germination, then they will have an insufficient harvest. So… what is a reasonable germination rate?

A good germination rate would be 75%. Anything below 50% is not good. I have even seen 15%. Yeah, that really sucks! Germination rates generally follow a bell curve. (Remember statistics? It is very important to use for plants and animals.) Rarely will you get 100% germination. Why not? The world is not perfect. Everything can affect pollination including rain, lack of bees, disease, animals, etc.. But wait! I was talking about germination, not pollination.

Pollination is the beginning of germination. Growing is a long process. If you have bad pollination, germination will suffer as well. Have you ever seen a misshaped apple? Chances are reasonable that some seeds did not develop because of the lack of pollination in that apple. Furthermore, if pollen is too close (genetically) to the existing plant, you will eventually get inbreeding depression. That leads to… poor germination! (Poor hatchability in eggs is the first sign of inbreeding.)

What else can cause poor germination? The storage environment for the seed. Storing seeds next to the kitchen stove over the winter will surely have a deleterious effect on the germination. Conversely, storing seeds in the refrigerator will have a positive effect on the life of the seed and the germination. Freezing will also negatively affect many types of seeds. And yet for others, they need it.

“But wait!” you might say, “I can run down to Walmart and get seeds. That will save me from worrying about pollination, germination, and storing seeds.”

Well, maybe. But within 3 generations into the future that will not be sustainable. Furthermore, seeds that you create will eventually outperform the ones from Walmart because they were proven to thrive in YOUR environment. In other words, they have a genetic advantage to do well in your yard. And if you are concerned about GMO produce, then begin to save non-GMO seeds now. Eventually many seeds that you buy will be GMO seeds and it will be difficult to get normal seeds.

One of the things I will mention again, and again, and again, ….okay, I’ll stop. Is that we always need to concern ourselves with sustainability. Can the process perpetuate itself through time from generation to generation? Where would you get your seeds if there was a catastrophic event? Every gardener needs to learn how to save seeds. It really is not difficult and it is a lot of fun to see what YOUR plants will look like in 5 years. So exciting!

Back to onions…

So, we have 4 seeds per cell and we hope, on average, to get 3 to germinate out of 4. That gives us… (Come on mathematicians!)  Yes, that gives us 276 plants. We have 365 days in the year, so if we use 1 onion per day… Yikes, we are short! Well… maybe. It all depends on how LARGE your onions are. Sometimes 1 onion can last for 3 days if they are large, while small ones will not be sufficient to provide enough for one day. To complicate matters, if you use store-bought seeds, there is simply no way to tell how large the onions will be when they grow. Only time will tell if your purchased seeds will do well… each year. It is always pot luck.

But wait! Can an onion be stored for an entire year? Why grow enough for a year if they only last for 1 month?

That is a valid point. And that takes us back to… YOUR own seeds. If you create seeds that give you long storing onions, then they will last through the winter. Have you ever tried to store Georgia Vidalia onions? You cannot. By the time you buy them they are already in break-down mode. They simply have too much sugar and too little protective skin.

To make things a bit more complicated, there are also long-day onions and short-day onions. The difference is that some onions are grown further south in the United States during the winter months. (Winter has SHORTer daylight hours) The onions we grow up north are grown during the summer where the days have LONGer daylight hours. The lesson here is to identify your environment and match the plant to it.

All right, so how do we make long storing onions? Firstly, you comb through your seed catalogs and do your research. (You may be a newbie and need to start somewhere) Find seeds that grow well in your plant hardiness zone. “WAIT! What is a plant hardiness zone!” you might ask. To make it simple, plants that thrive in Florida may not thrive in Maine. (And vice-versa) Here is a link to the USDA plant hardiness zones:

http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/

Simply enter your zip code and it will tell you what growing zone number you are in. For instance; if you live in hardiness zone 5, you can grow plants that are hardy in zones 1 through 5. Plants that are hardy for zone 6 and above may not thrive in your zone or may not be perennial. (Perennial means that they come back each year from the same roots.)

I want to point out that the hardiness zone numbers have changed from 50 years ago. (Maybe as close as 25 years ago) Climate change is real, folks. Just ask a farmer. Plants that would not grow in a particular zone 50 years ago can now be grown there. In other words, the numbers have shifted northward. This will keep changing if we do not change how we live.

Back to your seed search…

You now know your plant hardiness zone number. That may or may not eliminate several plants for growing in your area. Next, read the descriptions carefully. Learn to read around the “fluff” part of the description and get straight to the facts. Remember, they are trying to sell you every seed they have. You may find some comments that will tell you if they are long-storing onions. From that set, make the decision using the other parts of the description. Maybe you like red onions instead of white.

Let’s say you ordered your seeds, they have arrived, and you are very excited to plant them. Now what? Well, if you ordered EARLY, like you should, (December or January) you will have to wait. Put them in a zip-lock bag and store them in the refrigerator until you are ready to plant them.

Deciding when to plant them (in cells) is something you will need to experiment with to get right. If you plant too early, they will be spindly and root-bound. If you plant too late, they will be difficult to plant and might die for lack of root. The time to plant in Virginia will not be the same time to plant in New York State. In general, you want to plant ONIONS so they will be at the proper stage for transplanting out in the garden when the soil can first be worked in the spring. Again, this will be different for many areas, even as much as 30 miles away. If you are to err on any side, then plant them a bit early. With onions you can easily put the flats outside to grow as soon as the weather permits. Onions are very hardy and can take some cold. But do not let the frost get to them because the sides of the cells will let the cold to the roots too quickly. They can take light frosts in the ground because the roots are protected. You may need to bring the flats indoors at night.

Whew! Are we ever going to get through this?

Don’t give up. It really is not that difficult. Like any other thing you do, the more you do it, the more automatic it becomes. Remember the term “learning curve?” This is no different.

It is that magical day when we can finally plant our seeds. Yippee! “Oh, wait; what do I plant them in?” you say, exasperatingly. There are a few options. Some people sprinkle onion seeds in an open flat (with no cells) and then separate them upon planting outdoors. Others use peat pots. I suggest not going that route. They are expensive and can only be used once. Furthermore, if you plant several seeds in each pot, you will need to rip them apart anyway. Plastic cells can be reused for many years. They also allow you to grow many plants in a flat; much more than peat pots. Plastic cells will also save on costs because you will get more plants for the same amount of soil in the flat. Peat pots require one plant per cell because the roots become part of the peat pot and will rip apart if you try to separate plants that are growing in one cell. Some plants require being grown in their own cell. Onions are not one of them.

Well, we already determined that we will use plastic 92-cell flats earlier in this post. (You can use larger cells and the number of cells will be reduced per flat) But what about the planting medium? (soil) You have a choice here. Garden centers have a plethora of options. There is seed starting medium, regular potting soil, and coco coir, to state a few. You can experiment with all of them to figure out which works best for you. Personally, I go with a large bag of potting soil that greenhouses use. (That does not have fertilizer in it) It is fine enough for starting seeds, yet dense enough to grow them out a bit before transplanting. I have used coco coir in the past, but it does not hold nutrients as well as potting soil and it dries out very quickly. One missed watering and your precious seedlings could be flat-lined. (Dead and flat on the pot cells)

To prepare your cells, slightly dampen your planting soil with water only in a plastic container. (No fertilizer) You can tell how much water to use by doing the “squeeze test.” If you take a handful of damp soil and squeeze it, only a very little bit of water should seep out. If it runs out, then it is too wet. If is is too wet, add more dry soil and mix well. Do NOT plant seeds in saturated soil! Plants need oxygen at the root system to grow. Water logged soil stops that from happening. Essentially, they drown. (For those of you interested in hydroponics, that might be puzzling. That is another topic all-together.)

When the soil is moist, but not too wet, fill a block of 9 cells with soil. Pack it down a bit so the soil level is about 1/8 inch below the top. If you put less in, you may get damping off. If you put too much in and decide to water from the top later, the water will run off the dry soil.

Now it is time for the seeds. Pour them into a small clear glass container so they are easy to see. Pick up one to four seeds at a time and place it/them on the soil. Put 4 seeds separated from each other per cell. Now take a pencil or other object and poke the seed into the soil about 1/8 inch deep. Tamp the soil back into the holes. Note: Some people will fill the cell to within ¼ inch instead of 1/8 inch and instead of poking the seed into the soil, they will cover the cell with vermiculite. I personally use the poke method because I don’t want to spend extra money on vermiculite.

Put a clear dome lid on the flat and set the flat anywhere in the house where it is heated. They do not need light at this point.

Okay, we have our seeds planted, we waited a few days,  and they have germinated! How exciting! But wait… something is amiss… we only achieved 15% germination. Yikes! What happened to the 75% we hoped for? It could be one of many things. Too much water, too little moisture, too cold, or bad seeds. “Bad seeds! But I ordered them from a reputable seed catalog!” you might say.

Here’s the poop… seed catalogs contract out to seed growers to get their seeds. The seeds arrive, they are packaged, stored for a bit, and then they are dispersed to people that ordered them. How do they know if the seeds are good? Somebody is supposed to test the germination rate before you get them. It could be the seed grower or the seed distributor. (Probably the latter)

One year I got that dreaded 15% germination rate for my onions. When that happens you can call the company and get replacement seeds. They will generally send them for free. (If there are any left.) Or… you could put more seeds into the cells and hope for the best. (If you did not plant them all.) In my case, they sent me new seeds before I called them. They were proactive. Do not expect that type of service from every seed supplier. Most of the time you get a foreigner on the phone that can barely speak English because the phone lines are contracted out to another country. Generally, you end up giving up. I think it is part of how they save money… by frustrating you so you give up.

Is it beginning to look a bit more favorable to make your own seeds? Oh… one more thing before we continue… do not order late! There is nothing more frustrating than to find out that every supplier has sold out of the one particular seed you wanted. You will lose an entire year.

Unless you have your own seeds.

Let’s pretend that we achieved our magical 75% germination rate goal. Now what?

We nurture them. All plants need light, water, and nutrients. Yes, plants require food; they really, really do. I know… we are all guilty (at some point) of only supplying water to our houseplants and they somehow hang in there, but barely. You will not get away with it with your seedlings. They need to grow and have exhausted their reserves to push up through the soil. At this point, you can water with a liquid plant fertilizer that you dilute by half. Again, do not let them set in water! I suggest adding water to the tray, let the water soak up through to the top of the soil, and then pour off the extra water so there is no water left in the tray. Use the half strength solution for a couple of weeks and then switch to full strength. Let the flat dry out (slightly) before watering again so you do not get damping-off.

We are not done yet. Yes, we achieved the 75% germination rate, but some cells have 4 seedlings and some have none. When the seedlings have second leaves, take a small narrow tool and lift out a spare seedling and transplant it into another cell that needs it. Do not wait until the plants are large or you will wreck the roots of the seedlings you leave in.

If everything works, we should arrive at my fist picture in my first blog post; those grass-like plants. Unfortunately, I generally do not take pictures of my flats, so the one picture is as best as I can show you at the moment. When I plant in 2016 I will take more photos and edit these posts to include those pictures.

Suffice to say that as the plants grow in the cells they will require more nutrients. The plants generally tell you by turning a bit yellow. If so, then increase the ratio of fertilizer in the water. Furthermore, they need light and lots of it. If you do not have bright sunlight through a south facing window then you will need to supplement the light by using florescent grow lights or LED grow lights. The more light you have the better it will be. Keep the light very close to the plants, but not to the point where it gets them hot and burns them. Aim for 18 hours a day to keep the lights on. Some growers also use small computer muffin fans to move air around the plants so their stems toughen. I have used fans for some plants like tomatoes and it does help, but for others, like lettuce, it breaks them off and kills them. Use more light if they get spindly. Onions are more forgiving than other plants, but you should give them their best chance at thriving instead of merely surviving.

Begin to bring your onion flats outdoors during the day as soon as possible after they are two weeks old. Start by putting them in a covered porch and then after a week you can put them in full sun.

When the frost is out of the ground (the ground is no longer frozen) and the garden is not mud, but workable soil, you can transplant your seedlings into the garden. There are still frosts at night, but remember that onions can take it.

Most gardeners plant in a row at ground level to plant their onions. They simply push their finger into the soil, place the onion into the hole, and then lightly tamp the soil around it. I have found a better method.

Start by flooding the flat with the same nutrient water mixture that you water them with. Leave them flooded during the planting process. Next, make a slightly raised row in your garden, similar to a raised bed. It should be about 18 inches wide and 6 inches high. Using the corner of a hoe, drag it down the center of the row to create a small ditch in the middle of the row. Sprinkle 10-10-10 fertilizer (or an organic equivalent) in the trench and then cover it with soil. Now you can plant your onions on both sides of the raised row near the edge. For spacing, you will want them to be about 1 inch apart at the time they are full-grown. Depending on your type of onion, that can vary. Poke your finger into the soil, place the onion plant in the hole, and then firm the soil around the plant. Be sure to bury the bulb part, but leave the green stems out of the soil. Water the row immediately after planting.

Water the row if you do not get water for 6 days. Lack of rain will stunt their growth. Unlike garlic, they will rebound, but growth gets delayed and some plants will die. Garlic will survive, but stop growing, even if the water comes back.

By June you will be able to have scallions from your seedlings. They should look like this:

Onion plants in June.

Onion plants in June.

 

...and like this on your plate!:

Mmmmm! Oh, the radish is about a 10th generation yard seed. Wonderful radishes that can grow to be the size of a baseball. (And still be edible)

Mmmmm! Oh, the radish is about a 10th generation yard seed. Wonderful radishes that can grow to be the size of a baseball. (And still be edible)

 

When the onion is scallion size, fertilize it again with a higher nitrogen fertilizer. Something like 34-0-0 will work well if your soil has enough phosphorous and potassium. Sprinkle the fertilizer down the center of the raised row. This makes the roots grow toward the center of the row. (Do not use lawn fertilizer that has weed killer in it!) You can eat small onions as scallions when they are that size. If they begin to ball-up, then they are not good for that use anymore.

Eventually the bulbs will expand and push up through the soil to rest on top of it. The roots will be anchored well into the raised bed because they will have grown toward the center of the row to get at the fertilizer. This method allows the bulbs to expand easily when they are above the soil line. Being that they are at the edge, the soil will wash away a bit, helping the bulb to come up.

A bit of discussion about the fertilizer is warranted here. Many gardeners think that they should use low nitrogen fertilizer with onions because they think that the bulb is the root, and nitrogen will make the top grow and root will not. That is completely false in regards to onions. Think of onions as grass. The bulb and the stem are actually just a stem. (Blade of grass) The roots are actually BELOW the bulb. The bulb is not a root. When you cut an onion you see rings. Each ring is part of a stem above the bulb. The more stems you have, the bigger the bulb will get. If you get strong thick stems, you will get big rings in your bulb. Therefore, like grass, it LOVES nitrogen to get those stems going.

Be sure to keep the onions weeded. Onions find it difficult to compete with weeds. They will certainly be stunted if you do not.

If all goes well they should look like this in July:

Those are not all (bad) weeds between the onions. One is purslane, a powerhouse plant that is good for you. But be careful; it can become overbearing in your garden.

Those are not all (bad) weeds between the onions. One is purslane, a powerhouse plant that is good for you. But be careful; it can become overbearing in your garden.

 

Eleven days later, they will look like this:

But wait! How did those onions on the right get so big!

Those are the seed onions. What is a seed onion, you might wonder? It is an onion that was harvested in September and stored in a refrigerator until spring, when it is replanted into the garden. You see, onions are biennial. That means they grow green the first year, and then they bolt and have a flower in the second season. The seeds are then harvested about one to two weeks after the first-year onions are picked in September. The round white ball-like things on top of the stems are onion blossom balls that contain hundreds of flowerets. Honeybees LOVE onion blossoms. If you want to see honeybees, then plant some onion bulbs in the spring.

This is a picture of the seed-onion plants after their seedpods were harvested. I pulled the plant up and laid it on the ground after clipping of the dried seed heads. Eventually the dead stems will be rototilled into the soil.

Notice how a seed onion grew into multiple plants. Also note the shape of the seed stalk. It is hard and swollen.

Notice how a seed onion grew into multiple plants. Also note the shape of the seed stalk. It is hard and swollen.

 

The picture below is a seed head that was harvested a few days ago. Notice how each floweret holds a seed. The seeds can be brushed off and packaged away in a paper envelope. Leaving them in the seed head is okay too, but sometimes the heads harbor bugs that could eat your seeds during storage. It is best to shake the seeds into a paper envelope or bag and then store that in a zip-lock bag that will go in the refrigerator.

The seeds are on the right. One must wait until the seed heads turn brown before harvesting seeds. Otherwise they will not be mature and will not germinate. Don't wait too long, however, or all of the seeds will fall out before you get them.

The seeds are on the right. One must wait until the seed heads turn brown before harvesting seeds. Otherwise they will not be mature and will not germinate. Don't wait too long, however, or all of the seeds will fall out before you get them.

When everything comes together, you will finally get to harvest your onions! Hopefully, most of them will look like this:

This a first generation onion from seed. (F1 in genetics terms) Note the green in the stem. This onion needs to dry up a bit before being placed in a nylon netting bag for storage.

This a first generation onion from seed. (F1 in genetics terms) Note the green in the stem. This onion needs to dry up a bit before being placed in a nylon netting bag for storage.

Harvesting is wonderful to do! You are rewarded for your hard work with food for your family. Harvesting onions is one of the easiest crops to do. When you see that half of the tops on your onions have fallen over, that is the sign to bend them all over. This sets the plant up to stop growing and to toughen the skin. Leave them in the ground for another week. Now you can pull them out, cut the top off just a bit above the bend in the stem, and then trim the roots to be only 1/4" long. Place them in a dry area and lay them out to dry for another week. The stems should lose any green and be dry before you store them. You can also put them in crates to dry, just so long as they are well ventilated.

The onions should be stored in hanging nylon netting bags. Do not store them in plastic bags from the grocery store. They need air circulation. You can hang the bags in your basement where it is cool, dark, and dry.

If any bulbs begin to send out shoots during storage, discard them. They may rot. This is an indication that they do not have the proper genes for long-term storage. It may also indicate that they are getting too much light and/or warmth. This goes especially for your seed bulbs. You want to plant your seed bulbs with no sprouts if possible. Seed bulbs should be stored in a refrigerator; however, I have seen some last very well in the cool dark basement.

 Be sure to save the very best onions for next year’s seed crop! (At least 4 bulbs) Look for good outer thick dried skin, no rotting around the roots, and a firm bulb. In general, oblong (taller) bulbs will store better than doughnut shaped flatter onions. If you use only the best bulbs for seeds, you will be inadvertently narrowing down the genetic diversity with your plants. To a point this is a very good thing because it keeps the best alleles for your environment. However, do not save seeds from only one plant! Too much in-breeding leads to in-breeding depression. Plant seeds from multiple seed onions. One onion plant will give you more seeds than you can use for the next 5 years, but save seeds every year and from multiple best plants and you will always have decent germination and healthy plants. Furthermore, your germination will be better if you have pollination from more flowers in a small area.

Here are my seed onions for next year:

These are F1 generation onions that will be stored in the refrigerator over the winter. They will be planted in early spring to generate seeds for the 2017 planting. Gardeners must plan ahead and be patient.

These are F1 generation onions that will be stored in the refrigerator over the winter. They will be planted in early spring to generate seeds for the 2017 planting. Gardeners must plan ahead and be patient.

 

 I also have a small bag of backup bulbs hanging in the basement just in-case these don’t make it. In fact, if I see that the backups do not rot or sprout by spring, I might decide to use those because they survived the winter in a basement environment and not a refrigerator. The refrigerator is an artificial storage device that may suppress deficiencies in storing quality. However, a refrigerator guarantees me seeds for the next year. So, I hedge my bets.

Not every bulb will survive the winter. That is okay. It is a good thing because it weeds-out genes that are not conducive to long-term storage. As you should be able to detect by now, sustainability is always one of the variables I will address for my plants.

Some of my onions have been stored in the basement for up to 12 months. I have also had butternut squash do the same. In a time of famine, that will be an important trait.

I should note that you can leave an onion bulb (that will be used for seed production) in the ground over the winter instead of storing it in the refrigerator. From my experience, it is better to store them indoors. Left in the ground, voles will eat them, bugs will eat them, and sometimes they rot after being frozen and then thawed. And if you do not dig them up, then they will lie on the surface and may not root again in the spring. Therefore, if you decide to leave them in the ground over winter, you have to dig them up and then replant them deeper. Mulch them over as well for winter protection. (Wait to mulch until the ground is frozen or you will be making a really nice home, with food, for a vole family) I’ve had much better success with storing onion bulbs in the house.

In the spring, you can plant your seed bulbs as soon as the soil can be worked. Bury them to the top of the bulb, but have a bit of the stem poking above the soil line. It could take them a month or more to push up a new stem. Be patient. They grow their roots well before they will grow a stem.

It is obvious that I am on a seed collecting bandwagon. That is a sustainable way to garden and over time you will grow better vegetables. There is one caveat that I did not mention, however. When you first begin to save seeds you may experience a lot of variability in your plants. What does that mean? The plants will take on many independent characteristics and not look uniform. That is because 1) the seed grower’s plants were open pollenated, or 2) the seed growers plants were planted alongside another variety to produce a hybrid.

Hybrids are purposely created to make a plant that shows characteristics (phenotype) from both parent plants to create an offspring that is “better.” However, these hybrids do not produce seeds that are true to itself. In other words, the seeds created from a hybrid will not grow plants that have characteristic like themselves. Nevertheless, that is not entirely true. Some will look like the hybrid, but others will look like one of the grandparent plants, or have a unique characteristic all to itself.

Seed distributors will tell you not to collect seeds because of this situation. I, on the other hand, will tell you to go for it! It just might be one of those weird looking plants that will create a wonderful plant in your environment. That is how you create new plants for the future. After 3 to 5 years of selecting seeds from only the plants that show the characteristics that you desire, you will have a variety that continues to generate seeds that are relatively true to your plant. That is when you know that many of the alleles on the chromosomes are homozygous. In other terms, you have created a reproducible genotype that matches your phenotype. It will no longer be a hybrid.

So there you have it. I took you through selecting seeds all the way through harvesting the onion. You may never look at an onion the same way ever again.

And that would be a good thing.

January 8, 2016 update:

This is the time of the year when you go through your stored onions and weed out the bad guys. Referring back to my statements regarding seeds, every seed will have its own fingerprint (genotype). Therefore, you will get some odd traits in a certain percentage of plants regardless of where you obtained your seeds. In the case of my onions, even though they are long-storing onions, that only means that the greater percentage will store for a long time. There will be outliers that will not. And those outliers are the little buggers that we are going to weed out so they do not cause problems for the normal crowd of onions.

The bad onions will be those that think it is time to grow and the ones that died an early death. The ones that decided to grow will already have stems and the dead ones will be... stinkers. Literally. You REALLY need to get the stinkers out of the bags. Eventually the growers will turn into stinkers, so get them both out.

The five on the bottom are the growers, and the one at the top is a stinker. Remove them!

The five on the bottom are the growers, and the one at the top is a stinker. Remove them!

The bad onions in the picture were very obvious. The ratio is actually excellent! The bag they came from weighed about 25 lbs. and the rest of the onions were as hard as they were when I took them out of the garden in the fall.

Onion seed planting will commence in about 10 days!

 

1 - Beginning

This is the first post in the Garden Series. The series will consist of pictures and explanations that will profile a plant or garden through a period of several months. Some may begin as seeds, seedlings, or spring sprouts from the ground. Others may be of trees that change throughout the growing season.

I encourage everyone to grow something to eat. To coin a phrase, “Grow food, not lawns.” No, I don’t suggest that everyone run out tomorrow and bull-doze their property. (Especially if you rent) However, you can begin subtly by taking a small part of your yard to grow food. Start small and you will not feel overwhelmed. If you start out too big, you may become discouraged when things do not progress as well as you would have liked.

Give yourself time to learn. Any brain takes a while to learn something new. Nevertheless, it will begin to function much more efficiently with each new bit of knowledge you pack away in your brain cells. There is no better teacher than experience, so get out there and gain some experience. With that said, there are many books to help you along. Instead of reading a fiction book, maybe you can take home a non-fiction gardening book for a change. The difference is that the gardening book will stay with you and act like an investment.

Another advantage to gardening is that it saves you money! You might be saying, “No it does not. The grocery store is much cheaper than growing my own.” Well… only on the surface does it look that way. Let’s dig below the surface.

How many of you are overweight? How many of you go to the gym? These are only two of many examples of how gardening will save you money.

If you are overweight, gardening will help to burn it off. It will pull you away from weight-gaining activities like watching TV and video games. How does that save money? You will be healthier. There are millions of articles that have proven that exercise keeps you healthier and being healthier cost less than not being healthy. There will be less medical bills and prescriptions. Furthermore, you may not need that weight-loss diet program that costs you money

Go to the gym? Well, instead of spending money to keep in shape, you can get it for FREE! Yes, simply grab a shovel and start digging. It is that simple. I can assure you that you will feel muscles that you thought had left you years ago, even if you do work out. Gardening muscles are different from those created from machines.

Even if you look at the surface, have you ever REALLY priced out salad greens at the market? Do it! Don’t trust me; learn for yourself. You will quickly see that pre-mixed salad greens cost more than the best cut of beef. (Per pound) That salad you ate this evening may have cost you $11 per pound. Work the numbers.

Still resistant? I thought so. Change is difficult for everyone, even for those that say they love change. It is human nature. However, I am very persistent when it comes to important things and I will not give up on helping others. In addition, if I share knowledge, it will still be there after I die. Otherwise, it dies when I do.

I encourage all of you to share these pages with others. Trapped knowledge does nobody any good. If you like the post, it would be great to give it a "like." You can also post comments. I may or may not have time to answer questions in the comments. With that said, sometimes other people can learn from your comments. Keep the language clean, as this is a family oriented blog. Abusive comments and/or language will be deleted, so don't waste your time with it. Remember, at the end of your day, you will have one less day to make your journey home.

Here we go! …

Even when things look bleak, there is always an opportunity for growth.

Even when things look bleak, there is always an opportunity for growth.

Many plants are dead and the cold continues to kill others. Do not despair. Find a way to continue to grow, even if it is slow and unnoticed by others.

It is February in the picture and things really are growing! If you could turn around in the picture to look behind you, within a few steps you would see flats of honeyberry, mulberry, and onion seedlings. There would also be three Rosemary cuttings that are taking root in another room. Take a look…

Onion seedlings in the upper left and other seedlings that are just beginning to germinate. I will be improving my seed starting environment in 2016. The window no longer provides enough light because of a hemlock tree that now blocks most of the sunlight.

Onion seedlings in the upper left and other seedlings that are just beginning to germinate. I will be improving my seed starting environment in 2016. The window no longer provides enough light because of a hemlock tree that now blocks most of the sunlight.

Why do I start seeds in February? Actually, I do not start all seeds in February. Some are started in January and some are direct planted into the outdoor soil. In-fact, the onions in the picture (that look like grass) are the ones that I start in January.

Some tree seeds are also started in January. You see, there are seeds that need to be stratified before they will germinate. That takes time and we strive to plant our started plants just after the last frost in the spring. They need to already be growing vigorously if you are to get good yields or get them hardened and rooted before winter.

What is stratification? Some seeds need to experience cold for an extended period of time before the seeds will germinate. They also need moisture during this time. If these types of seeds remain damp and warm, then they will rot. The cold gives the moisture time to get through the outer shell of the seed while preserving it. Therefore, the seeds are potted up in a damp medium, placed into a zip lock plastic bag, and then put in the refrigerator for 1 to 3 months. Many fruit seeds need to be stratified.

The onion seeds are different. They do not need to be stratified. However, if one were to plant onion seeds directly into the ground in the spring, the onions would not have enough time to grow to a substantial size to make it worth the effort. (In the northeast USA) Most people go to a garden center and purchase started onion plants in bunches or as onion bulbs (sets) to plant directly into the ground. That works, but it limits the types of onions you can grow and it is not sustainable. Seeds give you much better control to match a variety to your environment and if you save seeds, can be perpetual. That leads me to another topic… plant genetics. We’ll save that for another day.

I will say, however, that I have a project to create my own onion variety and it is already showing good results. It generally takes me 5 years to create a new plant or animal variety. It will ultimately be a very good storing onion and will grow VERY well in my environment. (My yard with the weather and climate I get) You gotta love the power of genetics and seeds!

Don’t forget to “like” this post if you actually liked it and to share with others so they too may learn something interesting or unusual. There is MUCH more to come. It will become very interesting as the series progresses. I will also try to make it educational for those willing to learn.

See you in the next post!