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!

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!

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!

Why Don’t More Georgia Gardeners Plant Cool-Season Vegetables?

I am often amazed at the number of community garden plots that remain empty during the fall, cool-season growing time. Many times the plots are simply abandoned with warm-season crop debris mixed with growing weeds. Why aren’t these spaces full of edible leafy greens?

After speaking with many of these gardeners and garden managers, my anecdotal research reveals that gardeners are simply tired. I have heard it many times. They have spent many summer hours in the garden and they want a break. They associate a garden with tomatoes, squash and cucumbers instead of lettuce, onions, and broccoli. It is a shame because cool-season growing is often superior to summer gardening.

1. Pest and disease pressure is lessened.
2. The hot outdoor working conditions are over.
3. We can grow many types of vegetables in the cool-season garden.

On the other end of the spectrum I have met gardeners who plant a cover crop in the summer, purchasing their tomatoes and cucumbers at the local Farmers Market. They would rather take the summer off and do their planting in the cool-season.

I would like to challenge you to garden a bit differently in 2019. Try growing something new, grow in a different season, or expand your garden knowledge. Over the next several weeks we are going to explore these topics to have you all prepared to challenge yourself in the coming year.

Happy Gardening!

Fall Festivals and Your Community Garden

October means fall festivals and seasonal events across the state of Georgia. From Blue Ridge to Savannah, from Augusta to Columbus everyone is celebrating fall. What is your community garden doing to celebrate? This time of year is perfect for emphasizing the “community” in your garden. Some suggestions:

Host scarecrows in the garden! This is done with flair at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Research and Education Garden in Griffin. Why not your garden? Ask local businesses, civic groups or schools to create a scarecrow to exhibit. This could be a contest where visitors vote and a local celebrity awards the prize. For a twist have the exhibitors create/decorate crow birds which can perch with a spooky flair in the garden. Craft stores sell crow bird props at low prices, easy to decorate.

Season storytelling in the garden for all ages. Enlist some garden members or community leaders to lead a spooky storytelling event in the garden. Reading an Edgar Allen Poe story or poem dressed in period costume would create excitement for sure. If your garden is large enough you could station readers around the plots.

Have a pumpkin decorating contest. Even if your garden does not grow pumpkins you could purchase some from a church pumpkin sale. Or, you could use other vegetables. Have visitors decorate a pumpkin/vegetable and take the opportunity to educate community members about growing vegetables.

Celebrate with an open house. If your community already has a scarecrow exhibit or other events simply add an open house to be part of the larger town effort. An open house does not to be much work on your gardeners and would be an excellent opportunity to let your town know about your beautiful space.

Whatever you decide to do, enjoy the fall season! You’ve earned it!

Thoughts on Plant Disease in the Georgia Garden

Every year seems to bring a new set of challenges for the Georgia gardener. Some years the drought leaves our gardens in the dust and some years it never seems to dry out. Some years we break record heat waves and some years fall comes early. However, plant disease never seems to give us a break. As we try and coax healthy cool-season crops out of warm soil I thought it might be nice to take a look at some disease facts so we can come up with strategies to help ourselves.

Fact #1: Healthy plants can withstand disease better than stressed plants. Knowing what healthy plants look like (is that mottling part of the normal leaf or could it be a virus?), what your plants need in the way of fertility and water, and what conditions those plants need to thrive will go a long way in managing disease. If your plants need full sun, plant in full sun. Shade will stress your plants and open up the possibility for disease. Have your soil tested for fertility and use the results to meet the needs of your plants. Take away: Strive for healthy plants

Rust disease on a bean plant leaf

Fact #2: Most of our disease-causing agents are fungi. We do battle some bacteria and some viral diseases but overwhelmingly fungi are our problem. Most fungi need a wet environment. You probably notice during rainy periods disease symptoms seem to magically appear. Community gardeners tend to plant our plots as full as possible limiting air circulation around the plants. Moisture stays on the leaves creating a perfect environment for pathogens. Take away: Limit overhead watering as much as possible. Make sure your plants have adequate air flow around them.

Fact #3: Often pathogens overwinter in garden debris. Many times fungal survival structures, like spores and mycelia, will last for months(years) in organic matter, leaves, and garden debris creating an environment for a reinfection during the next planting cycle. Take away: Clean your garden plots after every season.

Powder mildew fungal spores under a microscope.

Fact #4: Most fungicides are used as preventatives and not as a cure for disease. Once a plant has been infected it is hard to cure that plant. The pathogen is already present, has done damage and gardeners cannot rely on fungicides to fix the problem. Take away: Plan ahead for disease management.

Fact #5: Some pathogens will infect many types of plants but many pathogens have a narrow plant host range. Rusts (Uromyeces spp.) are common among bean plants and powdery mildew (Oidium spp.) always seems to find all types of squash. Take away: Know what diseases normally affect the plants you have in your garden. Learn to recognize the pathogen signs and symptoms. Use your local Extension office to help identify the diseases that plague you. Your agent can also help you devise a plan of disease management.

Success in Planting Small Seeds

Fall planting often involved handling small seeds. Lettuce, spinach, carrots, radishes and all types of greens are started from small seeds and success with these seeds can be a challenge. Often it is a problem with seed germination. To help you with success we have compiled some tips to help you plant small seeds with confidence.

The seeds of kale and other greens are small and can be a challenge to work with.

Tip #1 Once you have planted your seeds use a tamper to gently tamp the seed bed. A tamper uses the right amount of pressure to ensure good seed-to-soil contact while not compacting the soil. If you think on a small level it is possible for small seeds to get lost in air gaps in the soil. Think like a small seed! Seed-to-soil contact is imperative for good seed germination.

A tamper is a useful tool when planting small seeds.

Tip #2 Mulch, mulch, mulch. Cool-season planting happens when our temperatures are still warm and rainfall is not plentiful. Sun can bake a bare soil affecting soil temperatures and moisture content. The right mulch can even out soil moisture and temperatures while protecting small seedlings. Using bark chunks for mulch is not advisable. Small germinating seeds cannot easy push a bark chunk out of the way. Again, we have to think like a small seed! Pine straw or clean wheat straw (with no wheat seeds!) is preferable.

Pine straw is a common mulch. Use a light coverage for your seed bed.

Tip #3 Know that your seed bed needs to stay moist until germination. Water your seeds in and aim to keep the seed bed moist but not soaking. If you visit your community garden plot only once a week to water and we don’t receive any rainfall, your seeds will dry out. On another note, if you experience an extreme rainfall event, like hard rains from a hurricane, your seeds will probably wash away. Not too much water and not too little water is the goal.

When working with community gardeners across the state I have found those who follow these three tips have a much greater chance of small seed success. Let me know how it goes!

Happy Gardening!

Upcoming Events for Georgia Community & School Gardeners

Fall is a busy time for gardeners and this fall will be especially busy with several exciting conferences scheduled in Georgia.

September 13th – 16th the American Community Gardening Association will have its 39th annual conference in Atlanta. Events will take place all across Atlanta with the hub of presentations at the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park. The theme is “Tending to the Beloved Community.” There are 36 presentations scheduled, tours of Atlanta area gardens, and a gala at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. Registration is open. The conference schedule features several notable speakers including Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black. I have heard him speak several times and he always delivers an entertaining and inspiring presentation.

September 22nd is the Monarchs Across Georgia Pollinator Symposium at the Monastary of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. This event will have fantastic speakers, nature walks, exhibitors and demonstrations. Many of you all feature pollinator spaces in your gardens and this would be a worthwhile day for you! Registration is open.

October 19th – 20th the Council of Outdoor Learning is holding their Outdoor Learning Symposium. It will be held at the Garden School in Marietta, just off the square. The Council of Outdoor Learning, an initiative of the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia (EEA), is a coalition of organizations and individuals who share an interest in the design, development, maintenance, use, and longevity of outdoor classrooms. COOL serves teachers, parents, principals, and community volunteers as a resource link, providing up-to-date training and information to those interested in building and using outdoor classrooms. This will be a fantastic event for school gardeners and community gardeners who are interested in finding additional ways to use their space.

All three of these events are worth your consideration. Don’t forget to check with your local UGA Extension office for fall classes on cool-season gardening.

Happy Conferencing!

Three Rules of Weeding in Your Georgia Garden

Weeding in Your Georgia Garden

All of Georgia has seen a large amount of rain this summer. Rain is great for our crops and also great for weeds and if you have gotten lazy with the summer heat your plots may have more weeds than crop. You are not alone! This may be a great time to review best management practices for weed control.

Weeds can be a big problem in a community or school garden.  A very big problem.  Knowing how to weed correctly will make this job less of a headache.   An informal poll was taken and we asked experienced gardeners to give their top three rules of weeding and we present them here:

Rule #1:  Get the roots out.

If you just remove the leaves above ground chances are the weeds will come back and you will need to perform the same weeding chore over again.  Many perennial weeds grow from underground roots and tubers.  Those need to be removed as well.

 

Weeding in Your Georgia Garden
Get those roots out!

Rule #2:  Remove the weeds before they make seeds.

If your weeds are allowed to flower and make seeds your work will get much harder.  Weed plants can make an incredible amount of seeds.  For example, common chickweed can produce 800 seeds per plant.  Dandelion flowers can make 40-100 seeds.   Crabgrass can produce 53,000 seeds per plant and pigweed can produce over 200,000 seeds per plant.  Don’t let those weeds flower!

Weeding in Your Georgia Garden
You don’t want this!

Rule #3:  Don’t let weeding get out of hand.

If you don’t routinely remove weeds you could be looking at a plot of weeds that seems overwhelming to tend.  Your vegetable production will suffer as the weeds take up the water, nutrients, and space that should be used for your plants.  And, it will take a lot of initiative to start the long process of taking back that space from the weeds.

Weeding in Your Georgia Garden
Don’t let weeds take over your community or school garden plot.

Knowing what weeds you have could be helpful in coming up with a long-term weed management plan.  Your local UGA Extension agent can help with weed plant identification and help you find strategies to minimize weed issues.

Happy Gardening!

 

Resources for School Gardening in Georgia

In most of our state, school started today. I have been contacted by several teachers who are interested in starting school gardens this year. Many of them have had little experience in the garden and they envision a beautiful space where learning takes place outdoors everyday. For those of you who are just beginning your school garden journey I want to recommend a few resources for you.

First, the publication Steps in Starting a School Garden. This guide will take you step-by-step through starting a successful, sustainable school garden. From gathering an effective garden team to what to plant, this guide will help you get started.

Next, bookmark the school garden resources webpage. This resource contains garden ideas, lesson plans, grant information, and supporting information on why school gardens are important. Visit it often!

Finally, make sure you know your local UGA Cooperative Extension agent. I may be biased but if you don’t know what is going on in your local Extension office you are missing out. Agents lead workshops in horticulture, nutrition, food safety, etc. They also may know what types of school gardening programs are already in your county.

Kickin’ it with Kale during 2018’s Farm to School Month

If you already have a school garden and are ready for the school year, don’t miss out on Georgia Organic’s Kickin’ it with Kale campaign for October’s Farm to School Month. Go to the website and sign up for resources. The first 300 people/groups to sign up can receive free seeds. I will be honest and say that I am not a big kale fan. Maybe this is the year I change my mind! Next week I will post information on how to plant those small kale seeds to ensure success.

Happy Gardening! And have a GREAT school year in the garden!