Sunday, April 19, 2009

My Sabbatical

Sorry about the absence as of late. Life got crazy, as it often does, something had to give and this was it. I have some new ideas as to how to better manage this blog and I will be trying them out this week. I'll see if it helps. Thanks for your patience. I appreciate it. Happy Gardening!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Divide and Conquer

I thought I would address a question my friend Ingrid posed to me. She asked about the right time to divide her shasta daisies. So lets talk division.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the phrase "divide your perennials" let me say it is just what it sounds like. When perennials get to packed into one place or grow past their prime they need to be divided into smaller, individual plants. For those of you who already knew that but have never actually done it, let me put you at ease. It is a pretty simple process that doesn't take a great deal of time or special tools. It is beneficial, even necessary, to your plants and as a bonus it will stretch your dollar by giving you plants to swap or replant in your own garden. As a general rule, I didn't divide my perennials every year. Probably this was laziness on my part, but I felt like every other season was adequate.
If you look at Ingrid's daisy foliage, you can see how large the clump is and how compact it has become. When I asked her about the last time she divided them, she told me it had never been divided and this is possibly its third season of growth. Now is a great time for her to make the division and replant so the roots will have plenty of time to grow before producing flowers. Different plants use different techniques in their division. Rather than posting an enormous entry, I'll refer you to an article I liked from Fine Gardening, a magazine/website I trust. There is also a fantastic video to watch that gives you more specific information. (Don't be alarmed by the crazy outfit the woman is sporting. She knows her stuff, so listen up.) I have divided my own perennials at various times in the year, the most common time for me being spring. I know some gardeners who swear by fall dividing, but I think the reason I divide in the spring is this: I simply have more energy and gusto for getting out in the sun and working than I do in the fall. If you read the accompanying article and watch the video, and still have questions, let me know what they are and I will address them.

As a side note, I was remembering how much I moved my plants in UT. I treated them like furniture. If I didn't like where they were, or if they didn't like where they were or they were getting too big for their space, I would dig them up and move them to a better spot. Point is... don't be afraid to move your plants. You don't want to do this in the heat of the summer - mind you, but most plants are pretty resilient and will take being moved with little problems. Just like people, give 'em a little love and they'll respond.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Go to Seed

More than once I have been asked about the expiration date on the back of seed packets and what it really means.
In the seed industry there is a six-month standard for germination testing. What that date on the back of your packet actually tells you is when that batch of seeds was last tested. For example, in the photo below it says 12/08. This means those seeds were tested for germination in 6/08 and had a high enough rate of germination to continue selling them. I believe this percentage must be somewhere around 94% rate. There are discount seed companies that offer seeds at a lower price, but generally the trade-off is a lower rate of successful germination - around 55-65%. Keep that in mind.
What I believe to be the most important factor in seed success is how they are stored. Seeds should be kept dry and cool. This could be in the fridge or a basement. They must be kept dry or they will rot. I have stored my seeds in their original paper packets, small metal containers and baggies. As long as they are cool and dry, they should be okay. In these conditions most will last well beyond their expiration dates. In general, vegetable seeds last longer than flower seeds. Below is a general guideline to follow, but loosely.
General viability guidelines:
beans - 3 years
beets - 2 years
carrots - 3 years
corn - 2 years
cucumbers - 5 years
lettuce - 3 years
peas - 3 years
peppers - 2 years
pumpkins - 4 years
radishes - 5 years
spinach - 5 years
tomato - 4 years
watermelon - 4 years
Remember these are just guidelines and if you take the time to store your seeds correctly you can expect a much longer length of time. I have used seeds with pretty old dates on them and they have still done well.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. Delphiniums seeds have a very low rate of success after one year. Also parsley should be planted according to the expiration date for best results.
If you're unsure, you can test your seeds. Simply space several out on a few layers of moist paper towels, roll up so that the seeds don't touch, and enclose the bundle in plastic wrap so it doesn't dry out. Place in a warm bright location (65 to 70 degrees is fine) but away from direct sun. Check the seeds every couple of days. If they haven't germinated — or only a few have sprouted — in a couple of weeks, chances are they're no good. If you prefer just throwing caution to the winds and not testing the seeds, be sure to sow more heavily to make up for lower germination rates.

Have fun planting!


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sow the Seeds

*I have had some comments asking questions about when to plant and for some reason, it is not letting me post my own comment so I thought I would just create a new post and answer your questions.

As soon as the soil can be worked, you can plant peas and lettuce and radishes and arugula and turnips and cabbage... Get the idea? :)Nearly all of these can be planted from seed. They will take longer to mature so choose one that has a shorter time til harvest. I will talk about some of those varieties later this week, so stay tuned. If you plan on sprouting them inside at this point I would just go to the nursery and buy them. They will have plants that are weeks ahead of yours. This doesn't mean you can't plant starts for your warm weather crops now. They will still be ready for your later round of planting.The ones I have found somewhat better success from plants rather than seeds are broccoli, cabbage and swiss chard. Radishes and any leafy greens will do better straight from seed, as will peas, both ornamental and edible. The snow will not hurt your seeds one bit unless you get a REALLY hard freeze, which is unlikely. Plus, if your garden is situated where it should be, it will be in a sunny place where the snow won't last long anyway. 

Okay for all you Utahns out there buried in snow... 5"+ can be a lot for little seedlings to survive. If you have seeds in the ground, but no sprouts yet, you should be fine. The snow will actually act as an insulator for the seeds. In the future, if you have sprouts poking their heads out and you know snow is imminent, put mason jars over the seedlings and they will be alright unless it snows and snows and snows. That's just how it spring goes in Utah! 

Let me know how your planting is going. Anything popping up yet?!


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Little Strokes Fell Great Oaks

*I feel like I need to apologize for using stock photos, but I am blogging from Cincinnati and I am not on my own computer with images from my own garden. I will not make a habit out of it, but until I am home again, these will have to do. Thanks.

I will be the first to admit, there is a lot to do to prepare a garden for planting. That being said, I don't want you to feel overwhelmed by this fact. I think this is one of the reasons people don't garden in the first place (or do a lot of things in life) is they feel like they don't know where to start or they don't want to make mistakes and feel they have wasted their time. Please don't let this feeling keep you from trying. Like anything worthwhile in life, gardening takes time and effort, but is well worth it!

Last post I mentioned that we would be figuring out the square footage in your garden, but first I felt I needed to backtrack a bit. I realized today that some of you may not have a prepared garden space all ready to measure and there were a few considerations I thought were worth talking about. (For those of you with a garden space already, read through these anyway and consider if the place you currently have prepared is best.

First... placement of the space is key. Full sun of almost fun sun is best. In warm climates a garden can get by with as little as 6 hours of direct sunshine each day. Cooler climates will need more than that. If you are placing your garden next to the house, your best success may be realized if you situate your space on the south or west of the house as sunshine is most abundant there.
Good drainage
is another factor to consider. Gentle slopes are good as they allow water to run off. It is wise to avoid low areas where water accumulates.
An absolute must, unless you live where there is abundant rain, is access to water. Most people think that this means if you can drag a hose to it, that is access. While that is technically correct, I think it is wise to consider how much work it can be to drag a hose around. Obviously an irrigation (sprinkling) system is best, but I can say from person experience that you can be successful with a hose. :)

Finally, and this is a big one... Make sure your garden is accessible. If you plant your garden on the back of your lot where there is nothing else of interest, chances are you will forget about it.

Before we talk about square footage, I also wanted to talk layouts. There are a number of different types, but I want to cover only four that I find the most common.
Containers: This type of layout is especially effective when you have limited space. This method doesn't work for everything but there are many dwarf varieties available. Don't forget about the vertical space that can be utilized too. I especially like how easy it is to control fertilizer amounts, ph levels and soil amendments with this method. Plus you can move containers around to conditions that suit their needs best throughout the season.

Spot Gardening: In my Provo garden where space was small, I often mixed edibles with ornamentals in my beds. Try planting sage or oregano in your flowerbed for a change or nasturtiums in with your edibles. Another place where spot gardening can be particularly appropriate is in kitchen gardening. Generally this refers to the placing of herbs and vegetables you use most near the kitchen door for greater accessibility.

Raised Beds: Along with spot gardening, this is my favorite way to plant. There are many benefits to this method. Soil in raised beds warms up earlier in the spring. You'll generally spend less time weeding and mulching. And one of the biggest "perks" I have found is how much more enjoyable it is to tend a bed 12-24" off the ground. (Your back will thank you.) This type of planting is more space efficient too. You will definitely get higher yields per sq. ft than compared to row planting. However, you need to consider the initial time and cost to prepare the beds and decide if you want make such an investment before going forward. We'll definitely talk more about this layout in the future.

Row planting: This layout is done by planting in parallel rows. It is easy to organize using this method. But as far as I am concerned it is the least effective as far as yields are concerned. It also is the layout that will need the most weeding and mulch. However, it is good for planting crops like corn or larger varieties of squash.

Again, I know this is a lot of information to process, but I feel like it is important to have the proper tools before you begin. Get out your notebooks and start writing down your thoughts. We will talk about space and varieties soon but until then decide how you want to organize your space and what you want to be eating for the next two seasons.


*I know some of you have questions about things I've posted. If you leave a comment/ question, I will respond with additional comments to answer your questions in the same post. So check back to get answers. If you want more personal attention :) leave your email address and I will get in touch with you personally. However, often the things you have questions about are things I am going to cover, so I may refer you to a future post for further details. Thanks for your comments and questions. I will do my best to answer them all.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Early Bird Catches the Worm

One of the reasons I love gardening so much is the way a garden rewards you, often in a very short time. . I love the quote, "A garden gives back in beauty and repose all of a gardeners' efforts." I absolutely believe that. Think of other things you do in life and how long you wait sometimes to see the results of your efforts. When you begin exercising after a down time, how long 'til you see or feel results? An hour? A day? What about when you are in school or at work? How about raising children? If I spend an hour in the garden in the early spring turning in the mulch or clearing out a bed I feel instant satisfaction and probably a little sore in my back. Something is made more beautiful by my having been there. What a gift!
Now that you know your USDA zone and your approx. frost date we can talk planting. It's still March and many things cannot handle the cooler temperatures, but there are plants that prefer the cold weather. Today let's start with edibles, meaning things you can eat. I think most people know that peas do better in cool weather, but there are so many others that get overlooked. In the past, I have had success with the following:
Spinach  -  Lettuce  -  Radishes  -  Swiss Chard  -  Arugula  -  Broccoli  -  Mesclun  -  Chives  -  Parsley  -  Onion  -  Cabbage

There are others I have not planted, but I know prefer the cool weather such as:
Brussels Sprouts  -  Turnips  -  Garlic  -  Leeks  -  Kale
I might have mentioned it before, but something I found to be really helpful when I was just getting started in the plant world was to keep a notebook. You don't have to make a big production of it, but when you are trying to decide what to do, or how to fill a space, or throw a bed, a notebook can be a lifesaver to help keep things clear. Also, when you are trying new things, it helps to record what worked and what didn't or what you liked or didn't like, etc. This is especially helpful from season to season so you don't have to make the same mistakes twice like planting 50 feet of beets only to discover you don't actually like beets. We'll talk more about notebooks later, for now just grab anything handy and start taking note of what you want out of your space this year.

Now the only thing left to do before you get out there and plant is to figure out how much space you have and what you need to get out of it. But... more on that tomorrow. For now, flip through your catalogs, get online, and talk to your fam about what everyone wants and what you eat the most of and WRITE IT ALL DOWN!! Oh and we'll talk varieties later in the week, so keep your pencil handy for that too.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Your Mark, Get Set, Plant! Well... almost.


Its that time again. Planning and planting are always on my mind this time of year. Actually, I start scheming in January after all the holiday craziness has passed. The seed catalogs start pouring in and plant magazines begin filling my mailbox and covering my bedside table. My mind drifts in and out of memories of past springtimes when I couldn't wait to get out and begin placing those first seeds in the earth. And then waiting for those blessed seeds to emerge no longer as seeds but transformed into living, growing things is magical. To see something so seemingly fragile and perfect push out of the ground is so rewarding.  

So where to begin? Some of you may think it is too early to be thinking or talking about planting, let alone actually doing it. But that is where you are mistaken my friends. Now is the time. When living in Utah I set St. Patricks Day as my start date. If I were doing my own starts, I would begin even sooner. Here in Baltimore, if I had a garden I would have put peas in the ground weeks ago.  
To know when the proper planting time is, you first need to know your zone. There are many helpful websites with this information or you could try to decipher the map above. haha Personally, I like the NGAs' because it is easy to use but they all pretty much have the same details. Another site I have found helpful is OFA with a table of frost dates. Keep in mind, these are guidelines only. There are variables that can alter these numbers. Take for instance when I lived in UT, using the USDA guide I would see that I am in zone 5A when really I was it was closer to 6B. What the finder that can't take into account is my specific location in that zone. You see, I lived near the downtown area and was effected by something called urban warming. (Quite simply put, when living in or near an urban area with a greater concentration of buildings and other man-made structures(garages, parking lots, highways, etc) the general temperature for that area can be significantly increased.) Knowing this helps to understand why someone living in the same zip code and technically the same USDA zone, could actually be in a completely different zone. Urban warming isn't the only thing to consider. Your home may face full south and the beds in front might actually support plants suited to a higher zone than the beds on the back - north facing side, which was the case with my Provo cottage. Finally, it may take you a couple of seasons to fully understand your garden and recognize the different growing areas and what you can expect. Don't worry about understanding it all right now. That will come as you spend more time getting to know your own space. BTW...the simplest and best way to do that is to spend time in it.
I don't give this information to confuse or overwhelm. Rather, I hope it helps explain why some things may or may not thrive in your garden. When I realized my front bed was much warmer than any other place in my garden, I could throw it earlier or just add plants that wouldn't survive anywhere else. 

But I am have gotten sidetracked.

Next post we'll talk more about what to plant, but until then figure out what zone you live in and consider what special circumstances you might have. Having trouble, let me know. We'll figure it out together.