Friday, February 28, 2014

Soil Improvement

 Rare is the garden with perfect soil, so, to get maximum yield in our short seasons, we need to look at improving the soil we have.  This requires a bit of effort, but the payoff is well worth it.  Soil improvement should go on all the time.

Since there is so much raw material available during the growing season, I will start with composting, a relatively easy and inexpensive way to improve the soil.

What is Compost?  It’s implied in the name—partially decomposed organic matter, mostly plants and the manures of plant-eating animals.  Because its origin is plants, it contains the nutrients that our garden plants need to grow, in roughly the proportions needed.  Basically, it is recycling plant materials.

What does compost do?
  1. Provides nutrition.
  2. Improves soil structure by separating soil particles, thus improving tilth and providing for better aeration.
  3. Increases the ability of the soil to retain moisture.
  4. Contributes to the health of plants.
  5. Moderates soil PH.  (acidity vs. alkalinity).
  6. Encourages soil microorganisms and other beneficial soil inhabitants (e.g. earthworms).

How do you make good compost?
There are 2 ways to make compost: 
Hot composting can be a little trickier because it requires:
 a.) That dry matter (straw, leaves) and green matter (vegetable scraps, grass clippings, garden waste) be in the right (about 6 parts dry to 1 part green) proportions, and be chopped small.
b.) The right amount of moisture, and
c.) Frequent turning to introduce air into the pile for aerobic bacteria.  If all these factors are in place, the compost heats up quickly, the temperature kills seeds and disease organisms, and the compost is ready in several weeks.

Cold composting is easier, since all the materials are piled up, and left until they almost look like soil.  This can take several years since new materials are added over a long period of time.  It is unwise to add weeds to this kind of pile, as the seeds do not die, and will be spread with the compost.  We have 4 cold compost piles.  We built adjoining pens about 4’x4’x4’ out of old lumber.  When one pile is full, we move to the next compartment, then the next.  By the time the 3rd is full, we are ready to use the first pile.

 What can go into a compost pile?
Kitchen vegetable scraps,  leaves and stalks of garden plants, straw, hay, manure from plant-eating animals, sod, grass clippings (in thin layers, not treated with weed killers), peat moss, coffee grounds and tea leaves, weeds that have not gone to seed, egg shells, crushed, wood ashes, chopped leaves (pile them up and run the lawn mower over them).
Don’t add too much of one thing at a time—layer them so there is variety throughout the pile.

A sprinkling of bone meal or alfalfa pellets will help to speed up the process.  Thin layers of fresh or partially decomposed manure will serve the same purpose.  Remember that most animal manures will contain viable weed seeds, except for sheep manure—sheep fully digest weed seeds.

What can’t go into a compost pile?
Roots of the cabbage family (root maggots), meat scraps or fat, cat/dog manure, inorganic material (metal or plastic), bones, branches or large pieces of wood, dairy products, diseased plants.

Does a compost pile smell? Attract flies?
Our piles smell very little as the materials decompose. We don’t notice many flies around our piles.  If the pile smells putrid, like a stagnant slough, that is because anaerobic bacteria have colonized it, usually because of too much moisture and compaction of wet materials, eliminating oxygen.  You can fork it over to let air in, and prevent this by adding layers of dry plant materials such as straw between green layers.
If I lived in town, and I wanted an open compost pile, I would do the Hot Composting method.  Better yet, purchase a closed compost bin and use it according to directions—this compost is ready quickly.

How do you use compost when it is ready?
You just spread it on.  Depending on how much you have, you can add 1” or 2” thickness around plants as mulch, you can spread it on the garden in fall or spring and till it in.  Or, you can make Compost tea:  Put about 1 ½ gallons of finished compost into a sack and tie the open end closed.  Almost fill a 5-gal (20L) pail of water.  Immerse the sack of compost.  Cover the bucket and let it steep for 3-7 days.  Pour the solution into a watering can or strain it and spray it on the plants.  Spread the contents of the bag into the garden.  You can make Manure tea the same way, but the manure has to be really well-rotted.

I’m sure glad that I planted some pots of mosquito plants this year.  Remember, mosquito plants don’t keep mosquitoes away just by sitting there.  Rub the leaves between your hands, and rub your hands all over your clothes and exposed skin.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Perennials or Annuals?

 Perennials above, annuals below.

I always smile to myself when customers come to the greenhouse and ask me to help them choose plants for a perennial flower garden because they are tired of buying plants every year, and they want “low maintenance”.  Those of you who have perennial flower beds know why I smile to myself.

There are advantages and disadvantages to having perennials, also with annuals.  To clarify the issue, Perennials are plants that come back every year.  Some die right to the ground, others keep their leaves, but they grow back in spring.  Annuals are plants that die when winter comes.  Hardy perennials are those that will survive winter in Zones 1-3 or 4; Half-Hardy perennials may survive if you take the time to protect them, or if you have an out-of-zone microclimate.  Tender perennials will only survive in high-number zones.

Need yearly replacing, but are relatively inexpensive
May be expensive in the
initial purchase
You might start your own from seed
Most can be divided to
multiply the plants
Seeds vary from inexpensive to very expensive
You can share/trade plants
with neighbors/friends
Plants that are grown from cuttings usually cost more than those grown from seed
Starting from seed is a very challenging process.  Seeds can be expensive; collecting seeds is not reliable as they might not be true to type
Preparation and Maintenance of
Flower bed
The bed can be totally
Cleaned in the fall, and
perennial weeds can be easily dug or treated with weed killer
Ideally you would start with a weed-free bed.
At the end of the season, cut back and clean plants.
In spring, clean up if necessary, look for signs of perennial weeds.
Weed control after planting
Regular cultivating and weeding during the summer
Regular cultivating and weeding during the summer
Some perennials scatter seeds which will grow in spots of their choice.  Most will have to be weeded out.
Use mulch that can be dug in when fall comes, such as compost or well-rotted manure (smells like dirt, not poop).
Semi-permanent mulch such as wood chips can be useful in retaining moisture. 

Mulch does not control annual weeds that grow from seeds blown in by the wind.
Slows down, but does not control perennial weeds.
Keep mulch about 4-6” away from the base of the plants.
Bloom all season long, many well into fall
No perennial blooms all season.  To have season-long color in a perennial bed, it is necessary to find a variety of plants that each bloom in their own time, yet the collection provides color all season long. 
There are many plants that have lovely foliage even when they are not blooming.

Why are perennials hard to grow from seed?  Some perennials are not difficult, usually the ones that produce masses of seed.  Think of perennials in nature.  The parent plants are likely to survive the winter, so fewer seeds may be produced.  The seeds of one plant are variable in their germination time:  some sprout next year, some may lay for years before sprouting—consequently the rate of germination for us growers is poor.  Most perennials need the freeze/thaw cycles of our winter and spring, to germinate.
(That’s why your delphiniums and columbines will germinate better if you seed them outside in the fall.)  Many seed-grown perennials take several years before they bloom.

Why are annuals easier to grow from seed? It’s like the plants are programmed for reproduction, since the parent plant is sure to die.  They produce many seeds which usually germinate more easily. (Note:  many seeds need to be left uncovered for light to trigger the germination process.  Some need a warm environment; others need a cool environment.).  Consult a good gardening book, or a good seed catalogue for advice on the individual needs for seed germination.
My Personal Preference:  Mixed beds of shrubs, perennials and some annuals tucked here and there for color the whole season long.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Count-down to Greenhouse Season

In two weeks I'll be seeding in the greenhouse.  In the meantime, I'll share some of the garden columns I had in the local paper.

So You Want to Start Your Own Plants from Seeds?

Have your seed catalogues come in, yet?  For me, the seed catalogues are harbingers of spring joy, not of spring work.  At our place, all the seed orders have arrived, except for some backorders, and we are (mentally) gearing up to go into the greenhouses next week.

Many years ago, BG (Before Greenhouse), I used to start most of my plants in the house.  There are many reasons why folks might want to start plants in the house:  from saving money (???) to enjoying the challenge. Here are some suggestions that might increase your likelihood of success.

  1. What equipment will I need? 
a. Containers (clean) that have drainage holes:  egg cartons, foil cake pans, recycled greenhouse cells, margarine containers…
b. Larger containers to transplant into.
c. Some kind of waterproof trays to hold the planting containers.
d.Good quality, sterile growing medium (one brand name is Jiffy Mix).
e. An artificial light source whose height can be adjusted.  Window light is not usually sufficient to keep the seedlings short and stocky.
f. Watering equipment.

  1. What conditions do seeds need to germinate? Assuming you have viable seeds, the following are required:
  1. The right temperature (this varies from plant to plant.  Some require as low as 60˚F, some as high as 80-85˚F.)
  2. Light/dark: (some seeds will not germinate if covered, others will not germinate well if uncovered).
  3. Water:  During germination, never let the surface dry out.  The best way to keep the seedbed moist without washing out the seeds is frequent misting with a spray bottle. 
  4. Time: of germination varies greatly.  Vegetable seeds generally germinate fairly quickly, as do most annual flowers.  Perennials can take weeks and even months to germinate.

  1. Where can I find out the above information?  Some seed catalogues/seed packets  provide adequate information.  There are many good gardening books, for example, the Lois Hole series.

  1. What conditions do the seedlings need to survive and thrive?

    1. Direct light:  this means that the light source (sun or artificial light) is shining directly on the seedlings for at least 8 hours (up to14 hours is better) per day.  Fluorescents are better than incandescents since they give off less heat.   The lights should be about 2-4 inches from the tops of the plants (hence the need to be height-adjustable).  If the light is not right, the seedlings will stretch and develop long, skinny, weak stems.
    2. Water:  Keep the soil moist, but not soggy.  The surface may be dry, as long as the root zone is moist.
    3. Space:  The first leaves do not look like true leaves.  When the seedlings have developed some sets of true leaves, the plants should be transplanted into larger containers.  Use 10-52-10 fertilizer after transplanting, according to package directions.  This promotes root development.  Overcrowded seedlings are at risk of disease or stunted growth.  Depending on the plants, you might transplant more than once as bigger containers are needed.
    4. Maintenance fertilizer:  When the transplants seem well-established, switch to 20-20-20 fertilizer, diluted.  Overfertilizing results in salt—buildup in the soil.
    5. Hardening-off.  Spring will finally arrive. The time will come when you will start thinking about putting the plants outside.  They will need to be acclimatized to the stress of outdoor conditions:  wind, sun and temperature.  Bring them outside into a warm, sheltered spot for about an hour the first time.  Avoid direct sunlight at first.  Gradually increase the exposure for longer periods of time, and gradually ease into the sunlight.

  1. When should I start the seeds?
In the greenhouse, we have a pretty tight planting schedule.  These dates are critical for us, since we need things to be at their peak, and blooming for sale.  For many plants, we have two or three seeding dates, so we can offer plants at their prime over the weeks of selling season. My advice to the home gardener is, “ Don’t start too early!”.  There is a risk of long skinny plants that may never be strong.  Some seed packets will tell you when to start (e.g.  start indoors 4-6 weeks before last frost).

And, if you do like I did one year—put your plants outside, forget to bring them in, and freeze them all during the last frost of the spring—then we’ll see you at the greenhouse.