How do you satisfy the gardening itch in the middle of winter? Easily! Start plants from seed. Now is a great time to get a jumpstart on the gardening season. Just a little preparation will help ensure you seed starting success. Here is some of the equipment you’ll need:
Almost any type of container can be used to start your seedlings in, as long as it can hold moisture and is sturdy enough to handle a wet potting mix. Gardeners have always recycled yogurt & cottage cheese containers, milk cartons, & even egg cartons. You can make your own containers using newspaper and tools like the PotMaker. Whatever container you use, make sure that it has a hole through which excess water can drain or is porous and will eventually drain. Any sitting water at the bottom of a container can rob growing roots of oxygen and encourage fungal diseases.
Before filling your container with potting mix, wash it well to get rid of any food particles. This is especially important for containers that are reused year after year. Certain fungal diseases, such as Fusarium, can be spread through contaminated soil that is still hanging on to the sides of containers. If your seedlings succumbed to any diseases last year, make sure the containers are rinsed with a 10% solution of bleach to kill off any remaining spores.
One of the most important factors when starting your seedlings is choosing your potting mix. It is often recommended to use a sterilized, soil-free starter mix to prevent diseases such as damping-off from taking hold of tender seedlings. I still recommend soil-less mixes to beginner gardeners but I, myself, have started to add compost and worm casts to my own mix. Here are a few reasons why:
First, soil-less mixes are totally free of any nutrients whatsoever. While young seedlings don’t require fertilizers until they develop their first set of true leaves, I find having to feed them solely through a liquid feed quite cumbersome. Organic fertilizers like compost and worm casts release their nutrients slowly and don’t burn seedlings the way inorganic fertilizers may. Having these fertilizers already in the potting mix means I don’t have to worry about feeding for at least 5-6 weeks. By then, I’m usually potting up the seedlings and adding fresh fertilizer anyway.
Second, I have found that growing seedlings with organic fertilizers in the mix tends to produce healthier seedlings. The organic fertilizers help to mimic conditions in the garden where there is a multitude of fungi, bacteria and other soil organisms. Seedlings have to extract nutrients from the organic fertilizers just the way they would in garden soil. In contrast, I find that seedlings fed solely with liquid fertilizers tend to be less efficient at extracting nutrients since the liquid feeds provide them in a highly soluble form.
Third, the organic fertilizers help the soil mix hold moisture for longer periods of time. Most soil-less mixes are a combination of peat, perlite & vermiculite and drain very quickly. They require frequent watering, especially when seedlings grow their first set of true leaves and really begin to transpire. Both compost and worm casts retain moisture well and keep it available for growing roots.
Lastly, adding organic material into the potting mix helps to stretch the mix and make it go farther. This can be quite a cost savings, especially if your make your own compost or raise worms yourself.
One word of caution about adding organic fertilizers to your potting mix – remember that they will contain a wide variety of soil organisms and your soil mix will not longer be sterile. If you’ve had a problem with damping-off in the past, i.e. you tend to overwater your seedlings, you may want to only water your seedlings from the bottom or else stay with a sterile mix.
Have you ever tried starting seeds inside on a windowsill and found that they grew spindly and kept falling over? Early spring light just doesn’t have the intensity and duration that young seedlings need, forcing them to stretch for more and more light. Most seedlings require 12-14 hours of direct light in order to keep them short and stocky and producing healthy leaves. Therefore, artificial lights are required early in the season.
Although you can purchase grow lights in your local nursery or garden center, I find a combination of warm and cool fluorescent bulbs just as effective at a fraction of the cost. Since seedlings need high light intensity, these bulbs need to be no more than 3-4 inches away from the top of the plant. I attach the light ballast to the underside of a shelf or even the underside of a table and place my seedling trays under the tubes. If the lights are still too far away, you can also raise the trays on boxes. As the plants grow, the boxes can be removed so that the leaves do not touch the bulbs.
Last but not least, gather your seeds together and select what you’re going to grow this year and how much of each variety. If you have left over seed from previous seasons and are not sure if the seed is still viable, do a quick & easy germination test between moist paper towel to see if the seeds sprout. Plant any seeds that do germinate and discard any mould.
If you’re really itching to do some kind of gardening now, you can start the following types of seed indoors near the end of January/early February:
Arzeena is an agronomist and freelance gardenwriter. When she’s not working on her garden, she runs Terra Viva Organics.
Mulch and Feed Your Gardens for Free
by Ron Williams
In today’s throwaway society, there is absolutely no need to go out and purchase mulch material for your garden, unless it is for the particular aesthetic appearance sake of the mulch material.
Were you aware that there are a number of mulching materials that you can obtain from around your own community that are free, and some of which can be even delivered to you for nothing as well?
Impossible you might say. Well I mulch my gardens fairly heavily, and I never pay a cent for the mulch material. As a matter of fact, most of the mulch is willingly delivered to my home for nothing. As the former owners are only too glad to see the back of it, as it would cost them money, time and effort to find other ways of getting rid of it.
I also combine these outside sources of mulch with my own compost, weeds and other organic matter mixed through to achieve a great result in my garden, and so all that it costs me is time and effort.
So what am I talking about? While some of the below list is delivered free, other items I pick up myself, depending on time, circumstances, importance etc.
Grass Clippings from other people in the area or from lawn-mowing contractors.
Wood shavings from local wood turners and carvers, ( Do not use shavings from treated timber).
Small amounts of solid fill from friends who are excavating. This is to assist in raising garden beds, in my heavy clay soil.
Light prunings from shrubs which is shredded by me or put whole into garden.
Heavier sticks and logs, which are turned into trellis, garden stakes, garden edges, seats, frames, log planters etc. while they slowly decay.
Newspaper, cardboard, non-rubber carpet underlay, and even carpet and carpet squares – put under other mulch to prevent grass and weed regrowth.
Animal manures sometimes mixed with straw from places like Racetracks and Showgrounds, Pony Clubs, Stables etc. I contact them well beforehand to see if any is available.
To this I also add my own weeds, throwing away some which can still be a potential problem, or burying them below the bottom most layer of mulch material to stop them regrowing. Another item I add is any old potting mix from deceased plants or when repotting plants. Being a fairly lazy gardener, I throw the material around a bit at a time, as they are available, and let nature mix them for me. On a couple of occasions I have received a bit too much wood shavings so these became path material between some of the garden beds, with a heavy underlay of newspapers. People even tell me that it looks and feels good underfoot. Never put a large amount of fresh animal manure on any garden, as it will burn any plant around it. Be extremely sparing or let it age first for a few months before applying it to the garden.
So what can you do to start locating your own supplies of free mulch material? Here are a number of suggestions:
Put a little sign near your gate, something along the lines of ‘Organic mulch required’, or ‘Lawn clipping wanted’. There are sure to be a number of local people who are currently throwing theirs away in your community or even local area. Never mulch solely with grass clippings as they form an impenetrable layer that air and water cannot get through. Always mix it with other things to stop it ‘thatching’, just like a roof over the soil.
See if you can get into contact with local people who are into woodturning and carving, or even local sawmills. And come to some arrangement about unpreserved wood shavings. Check the local phonebook for local showgrounds/racetracks/stables etc, to find out if any have stable or manure waste to give away, for people willing to pick them up. In other words, start talking around the place that you are after mulch materials and they will soon start coming to you.
The only caution with using other peoples waste material is the chance that you might also import other peoples pests and weeds. I have rarely found it a problem because of heavy mulch on mulch routines. But it is possible.
One point being that when you first start applying mulch to your garden you may see some nitrogen deficiencies occur in some plants. This is because the organisms that are breaking down the mulch material are using up all the available resources of it during the initial breakdown. Once you have gotten past this time the old composted material provide more than enough nitrogen for future processes. Another thing to be careful of is not to bury or mulch up against the stems of wanted plants, as it may cause further problems for your plants in rot problems around the collar of the stems and introduced pests and diseases.
So get out there and talk around the community, find the contacts, believe it or not they will be as grateful as you to solve their particular problems of waste reduction. As well as that, you may start making some new friendships out of the deal; I know I have.
Ron Williams is a Freelance writer as well as being a Horticulturist and a Rehabilitation Therapy Aid at a Psychiatric Hospital in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. He writes ezines for wz.com. He runs his own Website called Bare Bones Gardening. He also owns a discussion group about Australian Gardening, called Austgardens at www.groups.yahoo.com email@example.com http://www.geocities.com/impatients63/
The Top 10 Things I Learned from my Garden
by Susan Dunn
Planting seeds means that at some point you’re going to have to remove some of the plants so that other ones have the chance to grow and thrive. In the same way, you only have so much space in your life and you need to get rid of the tolerations so you can have the room and the nutrients and the self-care to thrive and grow. In the same way that you let the bigger, stronger plants stay, concentrate on your strengths and let them grow.
2. If you keep doing what you’ve been doing you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting
There’s a place in my garden that just needed a rose bush. I planted 5 there. It’s like a blackhole. I went on to try other plants. Whatever I planted there died, and no matter what fertilizer, extra watering or xteme care I gave, I was finally forced to admit that for some reason nothing was going to grow there. I gave up what was essentially an ego position and went with the flow. It now is the place for my garden statuary.
3. On the other hand, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — and don’t listen to other people!
I have another place in my garden where the geraniums thrive all year round. My sister stayed with me a week and she didn’t feel like I was watering my garden enough. I started watering the geraniums and now they are spindly and their leaves have turned pale and I question their survival. It seems they were thriving on my benign neglect and were very happy with the way things were.
4. Stay in touch with the soil and water- Stay in touch with life
Some of my most peaceful moments take place in my garden. I don’t wear gloves and I take off my shoes and walk in the mud and turn the soil with my bare fingers. I work with people and with ideas, and bringing my body in contact with the soil keeps me grounded.
5. There’s a time to reap and a time to sow
You’ll learn the old elemental cycles of nature. There will be those magnificent sparkling snapdragons for just a few moments in the spring, panseys when it’s too cold for anything to grow, and chrysanthemums in the fall bringing back memories of high school football games and mum corsages. Eventually the tomato crop will come in and when they die, it’ll be time to plant the broccoli. It’s our traditions and the cycles of the year that bring meaning and order to our lives.
6.Delight in the abundant surprises of nature
The rose bush didn’t grow, and the impatiens didn’t take off, but a crepe myrtle arose, a shoot from another one about 5′ away, when I had no idea they propagated; and the biggest surprise of all — out of nowhere some chile petines arrived. I have no idea where they came from, but they’re welcome as the day is long. Nature provides.
7. Nothing tastes as good as something you grew yourself
Invest yourself in what you’re doing and it will always taste better. It’s the projects you really work hard on that have meaning.
8. Find a partner who compliments you
One year the man in my life and I had a vegetable garden. I planned it, with my usual enthusiasm, and plotted everything out. He dug the holes and planted what I’d planned with not much enthusiasm, but a sort of dogged determination. I watched the things come up and was thrilled, and then lost interest. He was the one who faithfully watered, and weeded, and fertilized and kept the crops going with no imagination, just hard work. Then when the harvest came in, I cooked up great things. He liked the meals and pronounced the garden a Good Thing after all. I’m a Strategist who likes to plan things all out and then turn it over to someone else, someone who’s not a dreamer, to implement it. We were a good team. Now the garden is all mine and I appreciate all the more his former contribution. He may never dream and vision as I do, and I may never have a taste for doing the same thing day in and day out as he did, so we made a good team and each learned things from the other to incorporate into our lives.
9. Thorns and beetles and hornets and snails and worms
I have cuts and scratches on my hands and arms, like the wrinkles on my face — signs that I’ve lived and been in touch with life. When I go out to the garden I meet all sorts of critters that are part of life on this planet and my companions on the journey. There are bugs that want to eat the roses; and snails, whose function I do not know; and worms that are making it all possible; and hornets I must avoid. They quietly go about their daily business, intent on their own thing, which may or may not conflict with mine, and sometimes we meet.
Butterflies, like happiness, just come and light on your shoulder. Though I planted a Butterfly Bush, it didn’t attract butterflies, but other things have. From time to time (I think it’s a migration) butterflies arrive in my garden while I’m doing other things. I can’t predict their arrival, and my attempts to summon them didn’t work, but still they come! I can’t make it happen, but I can count on it happening just the same. Like happiness. When it’s least expected it will arrive.
Susan Dunn coaches clients in a variety of different areas and offers teleclasses and ecourses on current topics. You can visit her on the web at http://www.susandunn.cc/
Pumpkin or Winter Squash Soup with Fried Sage Leaves
It’s best to use small hubbards, butternut, or any of those dark green skinned squash varieties like Honey Delight or Kabocha to make this soup. If you opt for the pumpkin variation make sure you choose a pumpkin intended for cooking rather than carving a jack-o-lantern. Except for butternut squash, most winter squashes are difficult to peel, so halve and bake them first.
12 fresh, whole sage leaves, plus 2 tablespoons chopped sage
2 yellow onions, finely chopped
Chopped leaves from 4 thyme sprigs or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 quarts water or chicken stock
1/2 cup fontina, pecorino, or ricotta salata, diced into small cubes
Preheat oven to 375*F (190*C). Halve the squash and scoop out the seeds. Brush the surfaces with oil, stuff the cavities with the garlic, and place them cut sides down on a baking sheet. Bake until tender when pressed with a finger, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile in a small skillet, heat the 1/4 cup of oil until nearly smoking, then drop in the whole sage leaves and fry until speckled and dark, about 1 minute. Set the leaves aside on a paper towel and transfer the oil to a wide soup pot. Add the onions, chopped sage, thyme, and parsley and cook over medium heat until the onions have begun to brown around the edges, 12 to 15 minutes.
Scoop the squash flesh into the pot along with any juices that have accumulated in the pan. Peel the garlic and add it to the pot along with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and the water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 25 minutes. If the soup becomes too thick, simply add more water to thin it out. Taste for salt.
Depending on the type of squash you’ve used, the soup will be smooth or rough. Puree or pass it through a food mill if you want a more refined soup. Ladle it into bowls and distribute the cheese over the top. Garnish each bowl with the fried sage leaves, add pepper and serve.
Serves 4 to 6
Organic Living ISSN 1492-5451.
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Early Spring Starter Kit
If you just can’t wait to start gardening, here are 6 varieties that you can start indoors in late January/early February to help you get a jump start on the season. Each kit includes 1 packet each of: