Know when to use seeds vs. starts

6. Know When to Use Seeds Vs. Starts There are both pros and cons to using seeds or starts. Read more and find out which is best for your needs.

Seed

Seeds

  • Starting from seed is more cost effective and allows you to pick unique varieties, but it does require some pre-planning to make sure you get the seeds or starts outdoors at the right time.
  • Temperature is the key to germination, so follow temperature suggestions to try and optimize the range of temperatures a specific plant needs.
  • There are lots of seed starting kits available that really make it easy to set up and get going fast.
  • Plant 3 times the amount you will need to account for non-starters or seeds that dry out.
  • Look for a place where you can give them watchful care to ensure the seeds stay moist and warm.
  • Some plants are a real challenge to start from seed such as asparagus, garlic, and onions. We recommend getting starts, sets, or crowns for those plants either by mail order or at your local nursery.
  • Some seeds have need light to germinate, and some need to be soaked overnight.
  • Smart Gardener partners with the best seed companies so you can easily purchase varieties of organic and heirloom seeds online.

Starting Seeds

Seed Trays

  • Start by filling a flat with potting soil or a mix of your favorite compost.
  • Sprinkle seeds to evenly distribute them across the flat.
  • Cover seeds to the proper depth, as described by Smart Gardener, or on the seed packet, with potting soil or compost.
  • Water lightly with a mist spray until the soil or compost is fully wet.

Cell Flats

  • Fill the seedling cups with potting soil or compost.
  • Use the instructions on the seed packet to determine how far down to plant the seed. Then take a seed and place it down into the individual hole.
  • Cover the seed with soil or compost, and then water lightly with a mist spray.

Paper Towel or Newsprint

  • Begin by wetting the paper towel; then fold in half and sprinkle the seeds inside the fold.
  • Make sure to keep the paper towels damp and moist until the seed germinates.
  • Depending on the plant, you can transfer the seed, once it germinates, to a seed flat or tray and keep watered until ready to transplant outdoors.
Starts

Starts

  • Starts are very easy—they come ready to plant. On the other hand, starts are more expensive and give you a smaller selection of varieties to choose from.
  • Be sure to look for and purchase healthy looking starts with green leaves and healthy stems. Dying or yellowing leaves may indicate disease or lack of nutrients.
  • Don’t buy starts that are overgrown. Their roots can be bound if allowed to stay in the little pots, which deprives the plant of a healthy beginning. You also don’t want a leggy plant. While its height may look impressive it means it had to compete for light, which makes it less healthy.
  • A good test to tell if a plant is overgrown is to look at the bottom of the container.  If the roots are protruding from the holes in the bottom of the container the plants may be root bound.
  • Check out your local nurseries, farmers markets and special plant sales for some more unusual varieties that do well in your growing conditions.
Transplanting

Transplanting

  • Amend the soil according to the plant’s needs, which will help establish a strong root foundation.
  • Break up any compacted soil.
  • Water the area the day before you transplant to ensure the transplants won’t dry out in the ground.
  • Lay the transplants on the soil to map out where they will go.
  • Remove leaves from the plant that will be below ground level. This will help the plant spend its energy on establishing roots.
  • Dig a hole and place the transplant into the ground.
  • Lightly press the soil around the base of the plant and water the newly transplanted plants thoroughly.
  • Plants that don’t respond well to root disturbance should be transplanted carefully with as little damage as possible.
  • Don’t transplant during the hot, sunny parts of the day. Plants respond better during cooler, cloudier conditions.
  • To avoid shocking plants, allow starts to harden off one week prior to transplanting.
  • Smart Gardener will notify you when to harden off your seedings and when to transplant, and will track your plants’ growth once you check off your To Dos.
Starting Seeds Outdoors

Starting Seeds Outdoors

  • Some plants, such as carrots, cannot be easily transplanted. Direct sow these seeds in your garden.
  • Poke a hole in the soil to the proper depth, as described by Smart Gardener on the variety’s seed packet, place a seed in the hole, and cover with soil. Water seeds thoroughly after planting.
  • Young seedlings are susceptible to getting eaten, so try to protect them outdoors as much as possible, either with straw or row covers.

Also… Check out more vegetable gardening tips at hometalk.com… Smart Gardener was mentioned! http://www.hometalk.com/3437916/the-lazy-man-s-guide-to-starting-a-garden

Ask a Gardener: summer squash

Ask a Gardener: summer squash

This is the first post in a series we’re calling Ask a Gardener,
where you get to ask our resident experts your gardening questions.
Feel free to send questions to gardener@smartgardener.com.

 

Renee B. asks, “This is my first year growing summer squash. Any tips?”

Sue L. asks, “My zucchini plant isn’t making fruit. It has lots of flowers, but they just drop off. Help!”

The basics
Summer squash is justly famous as one of the easiest and most productive vegetables to grow and is ideal for the new gardener. Just put the large seeds in the ground and in a few weeks you will have plants that are a foot wide and producing big, beautiful yellow flowers. Most people know the Summer Early Crookneck and Summer Dark Green zucchini varieties, but there are also quite a few unique varieties, like the beautifully striped Cocozelle, the squat Yellow Scallop, the ball-shaped Ronde de Nice, and the stunning Climbing Trombetta.

Did you know summer squash and winter squash (including pumpkins) are all in the same family, and can easily cross-pollinate each other? And more interestingly, all squash plants are monoecious, which means there are separate male and female flowers on the same plant. It is easy to tell which is which. The first flowers are usually male and won’t produce any fruit. These have pollen producing stamens clustered together in a column (these shrivel without producing fruit). They will soon be followed by the productive female flowers, which have what looks like a tiny fruit behind the petals (this is the ovary). It quickly becomes obvious when a female flower has been pollinated because it starts to swell into the familiar looking fruit (if it isn’t pollinated it simply shrivels up).

Hand pollinating
If your plants aren’t producing fruit, it may not be attracting enough pollinators, and you may need to hand pollinate your flowers. Don’t worry, it’s quite easy. Find a male flower and a female flower (ideally, from different plants). Remove the petals from the male and brush the pollen-laden anthers on to the pistil lobes of the female. This procedure should work about 50 to 75% of the time, especially if you use two males flowers to pollinate each female.

Saving seeds
If you are only interested in obtaining fruit it doesn’t matter where the pollen comes from, but if you wish to save seed it is significant. Plants cross-pollinate readily and to keep a variety pure you have to ensure it is pollinated by another plant of the same variety. The easiest way to do this is to grow only one variety at a time, and have no others within a half mile. If you grow more than one variety you should hand pollinate the flowers. Since you want to control the pollination, you will need to go out in the evening and find some male and female flowers that are about to open the following day and tape them shut with ¾” masking tape. The next morning, use the steps above to hand pollinate the female flowers, and then tape it closed again (to prevent further pollination). This will ensure they aren’t accidentally pollinated by a different plant. It’s a good idea to mark the pollinated fruit so it isn’t accidentally harvested. And then you wait. The fruit must be left to mature fully on the vine. The fully ripe fruit will be big and woody like a Winter Squash. It can take at least 60 days for the fruit to ripen properly, so you need to allow plenty of time before frost.

Enjoy the flowers
To ensure there is always plenty of pollen available, the plants produce many more male flowers than females. These excess males don’t have to go to waste though, as they are edible and can be used to provide a variety of exotic dishes (just make sure there are no insects inside them). They can be eaten raw, fried, baked, made into soup, filled with cheese (they have been called natures ravioli) or placed inside a quesadilla. The pollen producing stamens are usually removed because they can be somewhat bitter. While they are becoming increasingly common at farmers markets, these flowers only last for a day or two, and are mostly a special treat for the gardener.

If you have made the common mistake of planting too many squash plants, you can reduce the volume of fruit you are harvesting by eating some of the female flowers too. These can be used in the same ways as the male flowers but are slightly more substantial.

 

Keep your berries healthy all summer

Keep your berries healthy all summer

Berry plants tend to be fairly low maintenance plants, put them in the right place, keep them watered and they will grow stronger, bigger and more productive every year (until they threaten to fill your whole garden and you have to start restricting them). Even so, there are a couple of things you can do to help your plants and increase the harvest for years to come.

In most places the most important thing you need to do for your berry plants is protect them from birds. Birds love berries just as much as you do (after all, berries were created to be eaten by birds as a way of transporting the seed). If given the opportunity they will strip the bushes of every edible fruit. You could try various ways to scare them away — shiny tape, inflatable predators, scarecrows — but birds will soon figure out that these aren’t a problem, so they don’t usually work for long. The only foolproof way to foil the birds is by carefully covering the plants with netting (this has to be done thoroughly because they will look for any openings). Applying and removing netting is a real pain because it snags on everything it touches (be careful it doesn’t tear) and is one of the few garden jobs I really dislike. If you have to do this every year, you might think about putting your berries inside a permanent fruit cage (the simplest of these is made from PVC pipe).

The other important maintenance activity is removing old stems to encourage vigorous new fruiting growth. Blackberry and raspberry canes usually die after their second year and can create a dense thicket if not removed (these can be removed after they have finished fruiting). Blueberries and currants fruit more vigorously on younger wood, so every year some older ones are removed to encourage new growth.

To keep the plants growing as vigorously as possible, you also need to keep them well watered. Keep the soil moist, but not wet. If the plants are bearing heavily then some fertilization may also be needed to keep them producing well. The best way to do this is to apply some mulch, which will also keep down weeds and conserve moisture. Just be sure to use an acidic mulch such as pine needles for blueberries, since they need a bit more acid.

Gardening in extreme heat

Gardening in extreme heat

This year has brought record high temperatures to much of the country (again, but don’t worry, Exxon says this has nothing to do with global warming), so I wanted to say something about keeping your vegetables garden happy when the mercury soars.

Pick the right plants
High temperatures don’t just make plants uncomfortable, they can actually stop them growing and seriously affect productivity. When it gets too hot we can simply stay in the shade, or go into the house, but plants are stuck in the full sun and have to deal with it. Your choice of variety is also significant as some are more heat tolerant than others. Look for those that were developed for the tropics, desert or southern states, as many of these plants have developed several mechanisms for coping with heat stress and these are the most reliable plants to grow in hot weather. They include cowpea, okra, melon, pepper, tomato, sweet potato, lima bean, watermelon, and amaranth.

But even heat-tolerant fruiting crops (beans, tomato, eggplant, pepper, okra) can have problems when it gets much above 90 degrees Fahrenheit because flowers may not pollinate and will drop instead of setting fruit (plant breeders are working on heat resistant varieties that don’t do this).

Water them well
Just as it is essential for humans to drink plenty of water during hot weather, so it is with plants. Your first priority should be ensuring they get enough water, as this will help them to keep growing and producing (without it they are toast). The best way to water in hot weather is with a drip system, such as in-line drip irrigation tubing or soaker hose, which allows the water to quickly soak in to the ground. Overhead sprinklers aren’t as good because a lot of the water will often simply evaporate in the heat. If you must use sprinklers then avoid watering in the middle of the day, do it in the cool of early morning or early evening (early enough that plants don’t stay wet all night). Water is especially critical when plants are sizing up fruit and blossom end rot is often a problem if watering is irregular.

Mulch to keep them cool
Bare soil dries out quickly when exposed to the fierce heat of the sun, so it is also important to keep it covered as much as possible (there is no point in supplying water and then watching much of it evaporate). The most convenient mulch is a 2 to 4” layer of straw, which is readily available at feed stores. Mulch also keeps the soil cooler by shading it from the heat of the sun (plants can cope much better if their roots are cool). It also prevents the growth of competing annual weeds.

Give them some shade
In extremely hot conditions strong sunlight can be a problem because it raises temperatures even further. In such situations plants may benefit from some kind of shade during the hottest part of the day. This could be provided by shade cloth over hoops, or some kind of wooden framework covered with trellis, or even sticks (to create dappled shade). You can also create shade by planting tall plants such as sunflower or corn, but of course these require water too.

Help them recover quickly
Many plants (especially those with big leaves) wilt naturally in the heat of the day to reduce moisture loss, but they recover quickly when it cools down. If plants don’t recover quickly when the temperature drops, they are severely stressed and need water. Prolonged water stress is easily identifiable because leaves (and sometimes fruit) become bleached or scorched and growth is slower.

Take care of the gardener
It is also important to think about yourself in hot weather. Drink plenty of water and keep out of the garden during the hottest part of the day (also wear a hat). If you are an early riser the best time to be in the garden is when the sun first comes up, it is so beautiful and peaceful. I tend to come to life in the evening and get most of my work done in the couple of hours before the sun sets.

Essentials of watering

Essentials of watering

While the rest of the country has been under severe heat warnings and drought conditions, summer has finally arrived for us in California, and in my garden we have already passed the point where the vegetables can get enough moisture from the soil. Until the rains start again in late October it is up to me to supply enough water to keep them alive. This is the most important summer gardening activity and if it isn’t done properly there won’t be much of a vegetable garden.

There are four important steps to keep in mind when watering to get the most benefit:

Watch your plants
If you know what to look for it is easy to tell when plants are suffering from lack of water. The first sign is that they lose the sheen on their leaves and start to sag slightly instead of standing rigidly upright. It is important to water immediately when you see this happening, as further stress will slow their growth. More extreme signs of water stress include curling leaves, floppy growing tips and dying leaves, all of which means the plant is severely distressed and has stopped growing.

Simple wilting of leaves isn’t always a sign of stress however. Many plants (especially those with large leaves such as squash and cucumber) do it intentionally in hot sunny weather as a means of reducing water loss. They recover quickly when the temperature drops though, whereas water stressed plants recover more slowly. This is why you should check plants for water stress in the cool of early morning or evening and not in the midday heat.

Sunflowers are particularly prone to water stress (they wilt before almost anything else) and can be used as a living indicator of when the soil is starting to get dry. Simply plant a few sunflowers in your garden bed and when they show signs of wilting, it is time to water the entire bed.

How much water to apply
The usual rule of thumb says you should give your plants 1″ of water per week in summer and about ½” in spring and fall. An inch of water means ⅔ gallon per square foot, or 66 gallons per 100 square feet and should be enough to penetrate 6″ to 12″ into the ground.

Though 1″ per week is a reasonable average to start with, it is only a guideline and will be altered by temperature, humidity, soil type, crop and more. You have to look at the plants and the soil to determine if you are watering enough and adjust accordingly. After watering the soil should be evenly moist all the way down. Probably the commonest mistake of beginner gardeners is to water only until the soil surface looks nice and wet and then move on. Appearances can be deceiving though and only an inch or so down the soil may still be completely dry. If your plants are wilting again within 24 hours you didn’t give them enough water.

Time of day to water
In hot weather you should avoid watering in the middle of the day, because any water that lands on the leaves, or the soil surface, will quickly evaporate and be wasted. Water either in the morning, or early enough in the  evening so that wet leaves can dry out before nightfall.

How to apply water
Water should only be applied to the soil as fast as it can soak in. If you apply water faster than this it will puddle and the surface structure may break down. Water may also run off of the bed and be wasted (it may also take soil with it).

How to mulch

How to mulch

I consider mulch to be an indispensable part of the summer vegetable garden.

  • reduces evaporation of water from the soil
  • prevents weeds (many weeds need bare soil)
  • supplies nutrients to the soil (when it breaks down)
  • protects the soil from damage by sun and air
  • reduces disease (by preventing soil splashing on leaves)

 

If a genetically engineered commercial product did as much, it would be patented, hailed as a miracle of science, promoted in all of the garden magazines and sold for a hefty price. Yet mulch does all of these things and more and costs next to nothing (or nothing).

The best all around material for mulching the annual vegetable garden is straw (avoid the similar looking hay at all costs, as it is full of weed seeds and can turn your soil into a weedy nightmare). Straw comes neatly compacted into a convenient (if rather heavy) bale, is clean and easy to use and looks quite attractive on the bed. If you are growing transplants, you spread a 2 to 3 inch layer around the newly planted plants (it will settle as you water). If you are direct sowing you have to wait until the seeds have germinated and the plants are a few inches high before you can apply it.

If you don’t have access to straw, you can use grass clippings or chopped tree leaves (run these over with a lawnmower to chop them, or put them in a metal bin with a string trimmer). Compost can be used as mulch too, if you have enough of it. You can also buy the hulls of cocoa bean, cottonseed and buckwheat for use as mulch, but they are expensive when compared to straw.

The only time I don’t recommend mulch if you have lots of slugs (it provides the perfect hiding places for them) or when you want the soil to warm up rapidly (it insulates it from the warming rays of the sun). Otherwise, it’s probably the most important thing you can do for your garden.

National Pollinator Week

National Pollinator Week

 

This week, June 18 – 24, 2012 is National Pollinator Week
which was initiated and is managed by the Pollinator Partnership
.

Pollination and pollinators
As you probably learned in grade school, pollination is vital to the successful reproduction of most plants. Flowers and bees and pollen, and all that good stuff, right? Grains of pollen are transferred from the stamen to the pistil, and voilá a seed is produced!

But pollination is rarely that simple. Not all plants are pollinated by insects. Some, like corn, are pollinated by the wind, while others, like peas, are self-pollinated. There are even plants that are pollinated by water!

That said, most plants do require a pollinator to help with the fertilization process. Did you know there are over 200,000 species that act as pollinators? And they’re not all bees! There are bats, hummingbirds, and even small mammals which play a role in the fertilization of many plants.

Other insects often act as pollinators as well. Butterflies, wasps, ants, beetles, and moths all serve an important function in their local ecosystems, pollinating plants, as well as controlling pests, and adding to the biodiversity of the region.

While quite a bit of attention has been given to the plight of honey bees, justifiably, it is important to remember that they are not native to the Americas. Instead, many plants and animals had developed a complex relationship ensuring the continued survival of both. These pollinators are often keystone species — they are critical to their ecosystems.

As gardeners, we are well aware of the the importance of pollinators. What good would all our hard work tilling the soil, starting the seeds and staking the tomatoes be if the flowers simply fell off, unfertilized? Can you even imagine a world without tomatoes? Do you want to?

Creating a safe haven for pollinators
Eliminate Dangers: Pesticides are one of the most dangerous threats to pollinators. While designed to control the populations of species considered to be pests, the chemicals involved have a negative impact on all insects and some animals as well. Reducing or eliminating pesticides in your yard and garden is the best thing you can do to improve the health of all the animals, including pollinators who may visit your plants.

Provide Food: Plan your garden so there are always some plants blooming, providing pollen and nectar nearly year-round. In the garden, you can plant perennial flowers that bloom at different times, attracting pollinators to your other plants regularly. In particular, you may want to favor heirloom or old-fashioned varieties, since many modern plants have been bred solely for color and have lost the scents and, in some cases, even the pollen needed to attract pollinators.

Include Natives: Since many pollinators are native species, it might be a good idea to create a pollinator-friendly space in your yard, making sure to include native flowers and other plants, which will give them the food and habitat they require. If you’re unsure about what may be a good list of plants to include, you may want to reach out to yourlocal Master Gardener group or agricultural extension program to see what plants they recommend.

Give them a Home: In addition to providing native plants for habitat, you should consider installing “houses” for pollinators. If your garden is large enough, you may want to build a bat box, to attract bats to your yard. Besides providing pest control for mosquitoes, you would be aiding an endangered species. For smaller gardens, building an insect hotel is a wonderful idea. Wood blocks with small holes, open patches of mud, or a collection of plant stems would attract many native bees and other pollinators.

Water them Well: Pollinators, like most all living things, need water to survive. Many older gardens come already equipped with dripping faucet, but if yours doesn’t, you can create other watering opportunities by suspending a milk carton or plastic bottle with a pinhole in the bottom and allowing water to slowly drip out, selecting a patch of yard to overwater so that it pools and puddles on occasion, or setting out shallow saucers of water. If mosquitoes are a concern, you can fill the saucer with stones.

Don’t feed the birds

Don’t feed the birds

There are few things more frustrating than preparing, planting and pampering a bed of peas or beans and then discovering that the newly germinated seedlings have all been wiped out by birds.

In most places birds are only a significant problem in spring when they seem to relish the abundant succulent green seedlings, but in my garden quail can be a problem anytime. In winter they go for the Brassicas, in summer they like any succulent greens, and in fall they eat newly sown, or emerging, cover crops. I’ve learned the hard way if I leave a seedbed unprotected I am pretty much wasting my time, as I will be lucky to harvest anything from it.

Tips on how to protect your plants:

Easy: The easiest method to keep birds away is to use scare tactics such as flashing tape, hanging old CDs, scarecrows, and predator balloons. The problem with these is that birds will eventually get used to them and start to ignore them, though they may work long enough for your planting to grow out of its most vulnerable stage.

Functional: The usual solution to serious bird predation is plastic netting. This is awkward to handle and put up (it’s an extra step after planting that you don’t need), and somewhat hazardous to wildlife (I have released several tangled snakes) but in these circumstances it is a necessary evil. I usually support the netting on hoops made from lengths of discarded ½” polyethylene irrigation pipe, weighted down at the edges with wood or soil. It’s not particularly elegant, but its quick and it works.

Extreme: In the most extreme cases you might decide to cage the whole garden (especially if you are also plagued by rabbits, deer, squirrels, or raccoons). The simplest and cheapest way to do this is to put an 8 foot tall chicken wire fence around the garden and make a roof out of plastic bird netting.

How do I prepare my garden for planting?

How do I prepare my garden for planting?

If you’re like me, when the first warm days of spring arrive, you can’t wait to get out into the garden and start planting. It means winter is finally over and the gardening season has begun. You’ve been looking at seed catalogs for months and have plenty of ideas you’re just waiting to try. However, before you plant anything you need to get the soil ready.

Don’t be intimidated
This can be quite a bit of physical work, but luckily it is pretty straightforward and doesn’t take a lot of explanation. It helps to do it methodically though, so I’ll go through the steps here. And, while it may feel overwhelming to considering tackling a large garden space, keep in mind you don’t need to do the bed preparation for your entire garden at one time. You can easily do each bed as you need the space for planting, and leave the rest for another time. Start small to keep it manageable.

When to start
Just because it is a beautiful day doesn’t mean you can just go out into the garden and get to work on the beds. I know it’s tempting, especially after a long, wet winter, but digging very wet soil can damage its structure and cause long-term harm (not to mention being harder to dig).

To determine whether your soil has the right moisture content, you can do a rough check by lightly squeezing a handful of soil into a ball and dropping it from approximately waist height. If it doesn’t break up when it hits the ground it is probably too wet to dig (you have to take into account that a sandy soil breaks up more easily than a clay one).

Another indicator of excessive wetness is when you walk on the soil and leave shiny footprints where water was squeezed from the soil. If your garden tends to stay wet every spring, it helps to use raised beds, as they drain and warm up faster than flat areas.

One very wet spring I was so desperate to get outside and get planting I covered some of my raised beds with plastic sheet to prevent them absorbing any more rain. This actually worked quite well, though such extremes aren’t usually necessary.

Clearing the space
If the soil is dry enough to work, you can start bed preparation by removing all of the surface vegetation. If there are only a few weeds or dead crops, it only takes a few minutes to loosen them with a fork and pull them out. If you have been growing a cover crop over the winter, removing it is a much bigger job. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to skim off the above ground parts with a sharp flat spade and compost them (cut right down at soil level, to sever the top growth but leave the roots in the soil). You could also dig the cover crop into the soil, but it will need a couple of weeks to break down before you can plant into it. This means you will have to prepare beds a couple of weeks before you intend to plant.

Amending the Soil
Now that you have your garden bed cleared, it’s the perfect time to add any soil amendments you need. Typically, I add a couple of inches of compost and some standard fertilizer mix. If you know your soil’s pH balance if off, this is also a good time to add some ground limestone for acidic soil, or some pine sawdust for alkaline soils.

These are simply scattered on to the soil surface and then incorporated into the soil. If the soil is already in good shape, you can simply dig them into the top few inches of soil with a fork. If it isn’t so good then single digging works better. If the soil is very poor or compacted you may have to resort to double digging (usually you only need to do this once though).

Once you have your amendments thoroughly incorporated, all that remains is to break up any large soil clods with a fork and then shape the bed with a rake. It is then ready for sowing or planting and your garden season has officially begun.