Monday, April 18, 2011

2011 Feline Turf Wars: Operation Garden Freedom!

Some of you have heard my rants regarding loose neighborhood cats, of which there are not less than six in my neck of the woods. While I'm sure they are loving and gracious pets in their respective homes, when released into the suburban wilds they become fence-walking, pooping, shedding fiends.

I have raised vegetable gardens that all of the neighborhood's cats seem to think is their litter box. I eat these veggies, people! Or I would, if they weren't being defiled on a regular basis. Ewww. Anyway, in my efforts towards good health and sanitation, I have come up with a new, double-pronged and potentially lethal defense:

My first line of defense is to make use of Infrared Transparent plastic mulch, otherwise known as IRT. Not only will this physically deter cats from digging in my freshly-tilled beds, it will also help warm the soil while inhibiting weed growth. I have my doubts when it comes to slug prevention as some have claimed, but we'll see what happens.

My second line of defense was the procurement of a Ground Utility Sentinel, also known as GUS. This highly trained operative has been charged with patrolling the territory's perimeter and deterring intruders by growling, barking, and/or chasing. I wouldn't mind a mouthful of fur or two if the assailant deserves it.

Mere minutes after this picture was taken, Gus spotted a cat in the yard and promptly growled and chased the thing away. My plans are coming to fruition...

This gardener will not go quietly into the night! 2011 Feline Turf Wars: It's on!! BRING IT!

Spring, and other Awesomeness

Even though there is still a bit of snow on the ground up here, most South-Central Alaskans* agree that it is finally, irrefutably, Spring. Evidence from my garden includes:

Big Fat Fatty Buds!

Most of my trees and shrubs have buds that are beginning to swell and take on a green or reddish color. Oh joy!

You won't find these babies down south!
As the snow melts, all sorts of winter treasures are revealed, including but not limited to: moose nuggets, missing gloves, neighbor's kid's toys, and things you were too lazy to put away in the fall.

All sorts of things have started popping up around the yard. Things closest to my house tend to come up first, such as daffodils, ligularia, and crocus.

My crocus are always early to come up, but this year they win the first-to-bloom prize. Last year it was the dwarf iris in the rock garden, but this time around they're only 1/2" out of the ground.

I have planted crocus in multiple areas around the yard, but the only ones that ever bloom are those next to the house. The rest tend to come up 'blind.' I've read this is sometimes due to the corms being improperly stored by the producer, but I've planted multiple varieties from different growers, and my results are all the same. This leads me to think it's more of a temperature issue. The crocus next to my foundation, which gets some heat from the house, bloom every year. The rest farther away from the house do not. What do you guys think? Any other hypotheses?

Saxifraga arendsii
I've discovered that rock gardens are great for visual interest in early spring. So many rock garden perennials have evergreen foliage, and they are up and running as soon as the snow melts off. With all the stones surrounding the plants to catch the sun's warmth, the few plants that aren't evergreen also tend to come up very quickly in spring.

So here you have my proof that spring is actually here despite large piles of snow still loitering about. What have you guys seen to prove winter is finally gone?

*Except for the cross country skiers. Those people hold on to the last vestiges of winter with more tenacity than should be considered healthy.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Seed Starting Secrets Part II: Your Questions, Answered!

So I'm sort of cheating for this post, since I copied these questions from the comments on my last post. Being the overly verbose person that I am, I figured by the time I finished answering them it would be blog-length anyways.

I didn't ask my friend from Minnesota if I could base a post around her questions, so hopefully she doesn't mind! I thought they were good questions that other people might want to read about as well. Here's what I've found in the past that's worked for me; hopefully it will work for all of you guys too.

Q: I'm bottom watering, just putting some water on the bottom of those spinach containers for the plants to suck up. Question there: Should I just keep half an inch or so of water down there at all times, or only when needed? Is there a chance that they'll get root rot or anything? 

A: In my humble yet accurate opinion, I would only put water down there when needed. Root rot is a definite possibility, and often much harder to correct than a plant that wilted a little.

I bottom water a lot of my seedlings too, but generally not until after the seeds have germinated. I found that a lot of the seeds that were right on the soil surface weren't staying very moist when watered from the bottom. So I mist lightly every day or two, just enough to wet the seeds and the top of the soil down a little bit. Once things germinate and there are some roots present I switch to bottom watering.

Q: I planted things about 10 days ago. We have a short growing season like you do (yes, Tundra Monkey, I tell people that I live in the tundra, too!). Do I have any hope of seeing anything bloom this year? And should I be seeing anything yet? (I'm not.)

A: It depends. (This is my answer to almost every gardening question, but it's true!)

If you planted annual seeds, they'll probably bloom for you this year. If it's a species that needs a little more time to mature, you may see the blooms closer to late summer.

If you planted perennial seeds, you probably won't see blooms this year. Many perennials don't bloom the first year anyway, which is why a lot of gardeners get them from nurseries unless they are cheap like me. However, there are some perennials that bloom fairly quickly, so you never know.

And I don't think you're starting things as late as you think you are. If it were July, yeah, that's a little late. But I believe you're still sort of thawing up down there, aren't ya? What's the official frost-free planting date in your area?

As for wondering when your seeds will germinate, your best bet is to look at the seed packet. They usually list the days to germination on the back. I've had some seeds germinate after two days (lupine,) and others after two months (thalictrum.) Perennials tend to take longer, but not always. Don't give up hope yet! Have faith in those little guys! 

Q: I'm planting everything in the 4" pots. But due to space, I decided I needed to economize. I put four little divots in each 4" pot. Was that wrong of me? I just don't have enough space or containerage for all the seedlings I want to grow.

A: You'll be fine. I tend to do the same thing if I don't know how fast they're gonna grow or what my germination rate is going to be, and then I just separate them later on. A lot of people will just sprinkle seeds in a big tray of soil and then transplant everything to individual pots once the seedlings have a couple leaves. Because I am lazy I like to minimize my transplanting, so I too struggle with the space issue. Here's the summery of what works for me so far:

Start in cell packs: smaller annual flowers like pansies, marigolds, sweet alyssum, impatiens, english daisies, and lobelia, veggies like lettuces, leeks, broccoli, cabbage, and kale, and some perennials that are really slow to take off like primulas, columbine, and dianthus.

Start in 3-4" pots: tomatoes, squashes, herbs, celery, nasturtiums, wave-type petunias (those suckers get big fast,) most perennials, and things that don't like being transplanted like lupine, zucchini, and cobaea vine. Some of these things, particularly the perennials and tomatoes, I will pot up to gallon-sized pots later on if needed. 

Q: I planted sedum. And then I read on the package that they may not germinate for 1-2 years?! What the! Seriously? Should I even hope for anything there? Obviously not doing those again...

A: This question totally made me laugh out loud, because I've been there! We have a native chocolate lily up here that is the same way. I always read seed packets thoroughly nowadays before I buy them. While I like a challenge, two years is a little ridiculous to me, especially considering that sedums are insanely easy to propagate by cuttings. (Hmmm. There may be a post on this in the future...) Personally, I'd probably just plant something else in those same pots and forget about the sedum. But if you have the patience, go for it!

Q: I've also used some seeds that are a year or two old. I've stored them in a washed and dried, large yogurt container, in a cool, dry, dark place. When do seeds go "bad"? At what point should I get rid of things?

A: Sounds like you are storing them well, so they'll probably germinate for you. (I stick mine in glass jars in the fridge, in case you were wondering.) While every species is different, many seeds will last you a few years. I have lettuce seeds I bought five years ago that still sprout reliably. Peas, on the other hand, tend to germinate poorly for me after a year or two so I buy them fresh every spring.

See this other lovely blog for a great seed viability chart:

So that's the best I can do for ya. I hope it helps! Since so much of gardening is trial and error, don't get too discouraged if something doesn't work out. Soon enough you'll be answering similar questions with the little tricks you've discovered along the way.

Anyone out there have any additional words of wisdom for my friend in Minnesota? Please feel free to share!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Seed Starting Secrets and Stuff

Some people have had great success starting plants indoors from seed. Some people have failed miserably. Unfortunately I was one of the latter, but I wasn't about to give up and claim a black thumb. Since I earn my keep as a horticulturist, having strong healthy plants I've grown myself is a matter of professional pride. I started to glean information where I could - books, garden club meetings, the internet. I now have happy healthy seedlings every year (for the most part - there are always some mishaps*,) and below you'll find a lot of the tips and tricks I picked up in my quest for a greener thumb. Maybe they'll make your thumb a little greener too.

1. Select plants and varieties that do well in your area. I would love to grow Brandywine tomatoes, but there's really no hope in trying to get them to produce fruit in Alaska unless you own a greenhouse, which I don't. So I stick with 'Stupice' tomatoes, which aren't quite as heavenly but do very well in cold summer climates. If you don't know what grows well in your area, ask a knowledgeable garden center employee or a master gardener.

2. Sterilize everything! Pots and cell packs and trays and all that jazz. A 10% bleach solution works well for me. Don't reuse soil when starting seeds. Your little babies are too vulnerable to diseases such as damping off.**

Yup. My bathtub is yellow.

3. Follow package directions. Unless, of course, you know better. Alaska has a short season so I start things inside earlier than the package directs. (And still I don't get some things to bloom until September.) But in general if it says to plant a seed 1/8" deep, don't put it down an inch. Some plants need light to germinate and vice versa. 

4. Don't expect 100% germination. It's a good idea to over plant if you need a specific number of plants. I tend to over plant by 20% unless I've had good/bad luck with that particular species in the past.

5. Label everything! It's really hard to tell some seedlings apart, especially if you have multiple varieties of the same plant. (IE purple, pink, and yellow petunias.)

6. Keep the light bright and the humidity up. You can make mini greenhouses or cover with clear plastic wrap. Use fluorescent or LED lights and keep them close to the plants, unless things are getting too hot. (Although they shouldn't with those types of bulbs.) Many people like to use one cool fluorescent and one warm to get a full light spectrum, or you can use daylight spectrum bulbs.

I leave the lid on to keep the humidity up before the seeds sprout.
Then I remove the lid for air circulation once things germinate.

I keep the plants REALLY close to the lights unless they are starting to looked scorched or bleached out. Shade loving plants like begonias don't like to be too close. Everything else needs it to grow well.

7. Don't fertilize for the first couple weeks after germination. Then fertilize according to package directions or whatever suits you. (I actually try to hold back on the fertilizer so things don't get too big too fast. I only have so much room.) Watch for nutrient deficiencies.

Although this variety of snapdragon has a natural purple tinge to the leaves, purple or reddish leaves could be a sign of phosphorus deficiency. Pale green leaves tend to mean a nitrogen deficiency.

8. Transplant when needed. Most plants grow out of those little Jiffy peat plugs in the time it takes to bake a batch of brownies. Unless you want pathetic stunted little Quasimodo plants, give them a home with more root space after some true leaves develop. Some plants can stay in little cell packs for a while (annuals like pansies, lettuces, forget-me-nots, etc.) Others need to be potted to 4", 6" or even larger sized pots (tomatoes, many perennials, supertunias, etc.)

9. Watch the watering.
Seedlings in little cell packs dry out fast! I check mine once a day. For unsprouted or newly sprouted seeds I gently mist water with a spray bottle. Older seedlings can handle being watered with a pitcher. Don't keep things too soggy or you'll get diseases and gnats and all sorts of unpleasantness.

10. A little adversity makes for sturdy plants. I have an oscillating fan that I turn on for an hour or so every day. It increases air circulation, which is always a good thing, and it encourages all the little suckers to put on some muscle and thicken up their stems.

11. Watch for pests, especially things like aphids, whitefly, and spider mites. And it my case, parrots.

The beak-shaped damage leaves no doubt as to the culprit!

11. Harden off your plants before planting them outside. If you've never done this or don't know what I'm talking about, I'll probably cover it in a later post. But the general idea is to gradually get a plant used to its new environment before permanently moving it there. This is especially important for plants grown under artificial light, since they'll burn if you put them straight into bright sunlight for too long at first.

So that's it. Do you guys have any hints to share? Any great successes for failures? Good luck with your seeds, and have a happy spring!***

*like when my parrot lands on the edge of a flat of newly planted seeds and sends it all cascading onto the carpet. So no variegated Korean Violets this year.

**I was lazy and didn't sterilize anything last year and lost over half my seedlings. That, and I had algae growing everywhere. It was nasty.

***Well, not yet. But soon. Oh, so soon!