Indoor Seed Starting – Part One

Over the next few weeks we are going to talk about seed starting. I did three in-depth posts last year and I am going to rerun them this year by request. Spring is coming….

Just flipping through one garden seed catalog I found 89 varieties of tomatoes, 21 varieties of cucumbers, 20 varieties of eggplant and 26 varieties of sweet peppers, including three types of lunchbox peppers. Compare that to the different types of vegetable plants that you would find at your big box retail store. Add some variety to your life and try starting your own seeds!

The rule of thumb is to start your warm-season seeds 6-8 weeks before planting time so over the next weeks we are going to explore indoor seed starting in-depth. For beginners, follow along with me as you start your first seeds. For seasoned seed-starting veterans, you may pick up a trick or two. I also encourage you to share your experience through the comments.

Let me begin by writing that there are many effective ways to start seeds indoors. I am going to share with you the way that I like to do it. I have been starting seeds indoors for decades and I have found a way that works best for me. You may find a different way that works best for you and that is terrific. I look forward to learning from you all as well.

To start, I like these re-useable plastic trays. They are easy to store and come in many sizes. I have friends who save their old plastic milk jugs and trim them down for seed starting; that works well for them.

These trays are easy to use for seed starting.

Any plastic trays MUST be disinfected before adding soil media and seed. I use a solution of 9-parts water to 1-part bleach. This step is important to eliminate any pathogens that have been overwintering on remaining soil particles. Starting with clean trays is an important step towards healthy seedlings. Don’t skip it.

These soil particles could hold pathogens. Disinfect those trays!

I like to use the peat moss discs for my planting media. As a bonus, the peat moss contains properties that discourage fungal growth. This helps prevent the disease damping off which is a real problem for seedlings.

The pellets expand with the addition of water.

These pellets are readily available and are easy to store. Add water and the pellets expand. I use warm water to create a favorable environment for the seeds. It is important here to not oversaturate the discs with too much water. Too dry is better for the seeds than too wet. Too wet means that the seeds could rot or disease will become a problem. You want the planting media to be just damp. If you can wring water out of the media, it is too wet. If this happens you can let the discs sit outside the tray for a few hours so that they can dry out a bit. You will get the hang of how much is too much as you practice.

Okay, gather your seed starting equipment, and play around with the pellets. Next week we will talk about planting the seeds.

Happy Gardening!

Trying Something New in the Georgia Community Garden – Corn

Today we continue our series on a good replacement for tomatoes in our summer community garden plots. Today’s crop to consider is corn.

Usually corn is avoided in the community garden. The tall stalks shade other plants, there is not much yield in the amount you can grow in a small space, and corn takes a large amount of water. That being said, I sometimes find community gardeners who really want to grow their own corn. They remember eating corn fresh from a grandparent’s farm or working the corn patch with their parents. Often these gardeners are now city dwellers and the corn means a great deal to them.

Corn tassels waiting on wind to spread the pollen

Instead of totally abandoning the idea of growing corn, why not think about trying some of the short growing varieties? Several of the seed companies offer shorter varieties. Burpee advertises a corn for growing in a patio container called On-Deck Hybrid. The description of this type states that it grows 4 – 5 feet high. Compare that to Silver Queen which stretches 8 feet tall.

Park Seed offers a shorter variety called Early Sunglow Hybrid. Stalks from this corn are expected to top at 4 feet. Another thought is popcorn. Seed Savers offers Tom Thumb popcorn which grows only 3-4 feet tall. I have grown popcorn many times. It is fun to grow and fun to pop with children or grandchildren.

I will caution you that more than a few stalks need to be grown to get any kind of yield. Many stalks yield 1-2 corn ears per plant. If you are serious about trying corn in the community garden consider allocating at least half of your 4’X 8′ garden bed for the crop. Also, remember that the crop is wind pollinated. It does not hurt to shake those corn tassels yourself to make sure the pollen moves around.

Happy Gardening!

Tomatoes Aren’t the Only Choice for Community Gardens

The #1 crop grown in community gardens is tomatoes. I don’t remember visiting a community garden where I didn’t see tomatoes in the summer. I understand! There is not much better than a tomato from the vine warmed from the sun. BUT, growing tomatoes in the same space year after year creates disease and pest problems.

Over the next few weeks we will be exploring some food crops not typically grown in the community gardens. I am hoping that we can provide some options for that tomato garden space.

To get you ready to embrace new plant options, take a minute to view this video on tomato diseases!

Happy Gardening!

Making Use of Seed Catalogs All Year Long

The seed catalogs keep arriving. In my household that is cause for excitement. I save them until I have time to properly enjoy looking through them. What do you do with your seed catalogs after you have looked through them and placed your orders? If you throw them into the recycling bin you are missing out as these gems are full of useful information.

If you are a school gardener, or a community gardener that works with youth, the seed catalogs can be used throughout the year! To start with you can laminate the beautiful photos to use as plant markers.

You can use the information provided in the catalog for lessons:

The seed spacing guide can be used for students to create a garden bed design.

The days to harvest information can be used for students to determine the planting dates of their garden design so that all the produce is ready at the same time.

The cost of the seed packages can be used to calculate the cost of the garden design.

All of this information can be used to calculate how much produce can be grown per square foot (inch, meter).

Students can look through the catalog and pick a vegetable they have never tried before.

Students could look through the catalog, find a favorite vegetable, and re-write the plant description.

Happy browsing!

The Seed Catalogs are Here!

The Seed Catalogs Are Here

It is a great time of year for gardeners.  The seed catalogs are starting to arrive in our mailboxes.  What a thrill to open the mailbox and see the hint of one of the beautiful catalog covers.  These catalogs are mesmerizing.   The photos are works of art and the vegetable descriptions are literature.

The seed catalogs are here

Garden Catalog Tips

We have asked Robert Westerfield,  UGA vegetable specialist, to give us a few tips on navigating our way through these catalogs and all of the vegetable choices.

The Seed Catalogs are Here!

Tip #1  If you are gardening for high yields or dependable results, use recommended varieties for your area.  UGA’s Vegetable Planting Chart has a list of varieties that have proven to do well in Georgia.  These are the least risky choices.

Tip #2 When trying a new vegetable variety order only a small quantity to start.  Experimenting is one of the great pleasures of the garden.  Succeed or fail, it is fun to try.  Just don’t over-invest in seeds until you know how they will perform in your garden.

Tip #3 Remember the vegetables you grew up with may not necessarily be the best ones to plant now.   There are many improved hybrid varieties that can hold up to our disease and heat issues.  A good example is Silver Queen corn.  While popular, it is definitely not the best variety to grow in Georgia.  There are many new corn hybrids on the market that are much sweeter and maintain their sweetness longer when stored.

Hopefully, these tips will be a helpful guide as you enjoy making your 2019 garden seed selections.  One bonus tip especially for school gardeners – the photos in the catalogs can be laminated and used as plant markers or in gardening lessons.

Happy Reading!

Tiny Topics – Mulch

To finish our series on “tiny topics” I want us to think about mulch. Most gardeners already know that mulching our plant is a MUST. It helps even out soil temperature and moisture and it holds down weeds. But we can improve how mulch works for us if we take a minute to look at it critically.

Choose your mulch type wisely. The first rule of thumb is that you want mulch to be inexpensive and easily available. However, you also want mulch that is free from weed seeds. I have purchased hay as mulch that ends up contributing more weed seed than it prevented.

Using a lightweight mulch is best for a seed bed.

If you are using the mulch in a seed bed you want the elements of the mulch not to be a hindrance to seed emergence. If a small seed is pushing against a wood mulch nugget that is a problem. Lightweight mulch is best.

Often communities will give free mulch made from old Christmas trees. Be cautious of receiving this type of mulch. It is often full of large tree chucks which will be problematic for small seeds and can damage plant stems.

Consider changing your mulch. Especially if you are growing food crops, consider changing your mulch each season. Disease-casuisng organisms and pest insects can often overwinter in mulch and plant debris. Replace old mulch with new disease-free mulch. Another piece of the integrated pest management puzzle!

I hope with this series you have had a change to realize how even small garden elements can have a big impact on your garden’s health. I have appreciated the feedback and emails about this series!

Happy Gardening!

Tiny Topics – Plant Spacing

Today we continue our series on tiny topics and we are exploring plant spacing. We all want to get as many plants as possible in our garden space. That is understandable, especially when you garden in a small 4′ X 8′ community garden plot. More plants equals more vegetables, right?

These tomatoes are planted way too close together.

Reasons plant crowding is problematic:

#1 Seedlings planted close together do not have room to grow and develop. Tall plants can actually lean on small plants. This can cause damage to the smaller ones. I have seen tomatoes planted too close to bush beans. Inevitably the tomatoes arch over to the beans breaking stems, leaves, and blossoms off of the beans.

#2 The plants in your plot are competing for resources, especially soil nutrients like nitrogen. If individual plants are suffering because of lack of nutrients this could mean a less healthy plant and less food production.

#3 Plant crowding creates a microclimate where plant leaves do not have enough air circulation to dry out. As we all know wet leaves lead to (say it with me) disease!

The takeaway is to think about what each individual plant needs as it goes into your garden. Happy Gardening!

Tiny Topics – Watering Practices in the Georgia Garden

I hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful thanksgiving! Today we resume our series “tiny topics.” Our next tiny topic is watering. How we water our plants can make a huge difference in our plant health. There are three things every gardener needs to know about watering:

#1 Avoid watering overhead if possible. Many of our plant disease-causing pathogens thrive in wet conditions. By wetting the leaves and plant blossoms we are creating an ideal environment for the spread of disease. Most community gardeners do not have drip irrigation systems that add water at the soil line and that is okay. Just be mindful when you are watering to focus the water on the soil line and not the plant leaves.

Drip irrigation systems are ideal but not always practical.

#2 The best time to water is in the early morning. This allows the plant leaves to dry off as the sun comes up. Again, water spreads disease! For most community gardeners this is not possible. Many gardeners head to the garden in the evening after work. Just knowing that you don’t want plants going through the night with wet leaves will help you be a better waterer.

#3 Don’t work in the garden while it is wet. There is no better way to spread disease then by working in a wet garden. Not only is spreading disease a problem but walking on wet soil can create soil compaction.

You may have heard these best management practices before today. But hopefully by knowing why these practices are important will allow you to modify your habits and your garden will thank you!

Happy Gardening (Watering)!

A Community Garden Thanksgiving Story

Years ago I was privileged to visit a community garden full of senior citizens that loved to garden. Most of them were women of the old Southern tradition. Their leader, Mrs. Banks, was dedicated to the garden and called me “honey” when I visited. It was a special place. Thank you Fred Conrad for introducing me to it.

The garden had the support of their larger community and that allowed them to grow needed food for their tables. This garden facilitated neighbors visiting with neighbors and sharing meals. Very good stuff.

One year the entire group was growing collard greens to share on Thanksgiving. As all Southern gardeners know, collard greens are only good after a frost. We had an early frost that year so the crop seemed promising. The gardeners woke up on Thanksgiving morning to find that their collards had been ripped from the garden, stomped on and destroyed. There Thanksgiving feast was ruined. What had happened?

The group discovered that a young man, visiting his grandmother for the holiday, had done the damage. The group had a choice. They could notify the police. The young man could be charged with a crime that could follow him as he became an adult. The group decided they would handle it on their own. They had the vandal clean the garden and they put him on garden chore duty for quite a while. Thinking about it facing the police may have been easier than facing an angry Mrs. Banks!

I have thought about that young man. What kind of person is he as an adult? I suspect that his encounter with this group of Southern gardeners had a positive effect on him. By handling the problem themselves they showed him some very tough love. I think he was the better for it.

On this Thanksgiving I am thankful for the ladies of this garden, thankful for gardens like this everywhere, and thankful that community gardens are only partly about the food but more about the community.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tiny Topics – Microclimates in the Georgia Garden

Over the next few weeks we are going to explore “tiny topics” in the garden. These will be garden topics that are more in-depth than a horticultural overview. My goal is to have us all thinking about gardening in a more deliberate way. Our first topic is microclimates. What are they? How can they make a difference in your garden?

Most gardeners are familiar with the USDA plant hardiness zones. These are based on average annual extreme minimum temperatures. For example if your average annual extreme minimum temperature is 10 – 15 degrees F your plant hardiness zone is 8a. These zones are based on past climatological data. Suggested planting dates and many plant recommendations are based on these zone assignments.

But what if your garden is located close to the south side of your home? At this location the temperatures don’t get quite as cold as if the garden was located in the middle of an open field. This is a microclimate. By planting mint right next to the south wall of my home in an area also protected by a porch wall I am taking advantage of a microclimate that allows me to have fresh mint most of the winter.

On the other hand a garden located on a rooftop in Atlanta is brutally hot in the summer. The full sun in an area where building materials create radiant heat and reflected sun light means that cactus are happy there. Another microclimate.

This microclimate in Atlanta means a cactus garden.

What if your garden is in a bit of a valley in your landscape? You may notice fog settles there or dew seems to last longer in the mornings. In this microclimate you need to look out for fungal diseases that occur with cool moisture. Downy mildew may be a problem for you.

I recently visited a community garden in the North Georgia mountains. Even after officially reported night time temperatures of 32 degrees F the gardeners were still harvesting peppers. The group took advantage of a microclimate next to a shed that prolonged the growing season.

Late peppers in North Georgia

Using plastic to artificially warm up the soil in the early spring creates a microclimate that allows seeds to germinate early. I have used this technique in the past to plant squash early in an attempt to outwit squash pests.

I hope these examples have you thinking about the microclimates in your own garden. They may allow you to grow crop varieties that you would never have tried before or you may extend your growing season.

Happy Gardening!