Monday, March 31, 2014

So You Want to Start Your Own Plants from Seeds?

This article was originally published in the newspaper in February.  We are, in fact now very busy in the greenhouses.

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. Mainenance 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.      


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sneak Peek at some New Stuff

Just a sneak  peek at some colors new to our greenhouses:
African Sunset Petunias:
 African Sunset Thunbergia (Black-eyed Susan)
 Petunia Crazytunia Mandevilla
 Petunia Crazytunia Terra Cotta:

Dracaena Marginata--striped version and also Magenta version.  The neat thing about this plant is that it can be brought into the house and trained in interesting ways.  The great thing for me is that they prefer to be on the dry side.

Start visiting garden centers to see whats new!!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Twilight Zone? or Plant Hardiness Zones

 As I was going through my gardening books, I saw the Plant Hardiness Maps, and I recall that the Zone system for plants can be quite confusing for folks.
The Plant Hardiness Zones are numbered from 1 to 9, where 1 is the coldest climate, and 9 being the warmest.  It is not only the winter temperature which is considered in the assignment of Zone numbers.  Every factor that influences how well plants will grow is taken into consideration:  winter temperatures, length of frost-free growing season, quantity of precipitation, degree of humidity, and winds.  This results in general areas.  A plant that is hardy for Zone 1 can grow in higher zones.  But a plant that is hardy to Zone 6 will likely not survive in Zone 4 or lower.  Some plants need the winter dormancy for survival.
According to the maps, my area is Zone 2 (a or b), although we are safe to consider ourselves Zone 3.  The specific area where you live, e.g. high up on a wind-swept  unprotected hill, or conversely, a south-facing, well-sheltered flowerbed close to a heated building, may provide you with a unique microclimate, which would influence the plant choices for that spot.
My sister in Sherwood Park had a lovely, sheltered, south-facing yard—she grew all kinds of Zone 5 and Zone 6 plants successfully.  She was also fanatical about watering and mulching. One of our customers from Andrew (which is a zone 2 frost pocket) has also had good luck pushing the Zones in his sheltered yard.
You cannot assume that, if a greenhouse or nursery in this Zone sells certain plants, they are necessarily hardy for this area.  Always check the tags for the zone—they are generally fairly accurate.  Mail order seeds and plant catalogues generally do not give Zones. Some plants that are not winter-hardy in our Zone, are lovely plants if treated as annuals and enjoyed for only one season.  The best example I can think of here is that of Tea Roses.  With proper protection it is possible to winter tea roses, but probably only with 50% chance of success.  So, buy them if you love them, plant them in a large pot and enjoy them on your deck or patio, and just like your hanging baskets, let them go in the fall. We sell only hardy roses recommended for Zone 2 or 3.

Some shrubs which are “funny” with regards to Zone are Forsythias, Azaleas and Rhododendrons, to name just three.  These are listed as Zone 4 or 5.  The reality is, the plants will likely survive our winters with sufficient snow cover, but the flower buds are not hardy to Zone 3, so if they bloom at all, the blossoms will be only on those branches that were covered by snow.  Some shrubs like the Grace Smokebush will not die, but will die back to the ground every year, so they will never grow as large as we might see them in BC.
If you would like the challenge of pushing the Zone limits, don’t start with very expensive plants.  Buy smaller sized or less expensive varieties, and if you find Zone 4’s or 5’s work for you, then try more expensive plants.  Whether in-Zone or out-of-Zone, always water plants well in fall, and make sure there is enough snow cover or mulch.  What often kills our perennials isn’t the coldest days (or weeks) of winter, it is the spells of warm weather which we often get in February and March before Old Man Winter returns with a vengeance—these warm spells may fool the plants into breaking dormancy too soon, only to succumb to the cold later on.
Use the Zones as a guide only:  gardening is about experimenting and caring and bragging about your successes.  In our Greenhouse and Nursery, we stay on the conservative side, selling only Zone 2/3 and a few Zone 4 plants that have shown promising results in this area.