Posts Tagged ‘heirloom varieties’

Starting Seeds

I really need a potting shed. On the other hand- it's nice to sit inside and watch a movie when it's snowing outside on a planting day.

I really need a potting shed. On the other hand- it’s nice to sit inside and watch a movie when it’s snowing outside on a planting day.

On March 11, I started my second round of seeds. I also repotted my first round of young plants. I still have a lot to learn.

I have been interested in the idea of starting my own seeds for a while. It’s less expensive than buying plants, and you can grow more exotic varieties. It’s also the only way to grow things like tomatoes from seeds you have saved. However, it can be a bit pricy to start. There isn’t a single south-facing window in this house, and I’m not sure we’d get good light even if we had one. That means I have to buy and somehow set up grow lights. The house isn’t kept all that warm, since it’s more energy efficient, but that means I really need a warm spot to help the initial germination. I also needed to buy a couple of seed-starter flats along with starting medium and potting soil. The lights in particular add up fast.

Squash seeds are so much easier to photograph than tomato seeds.

Squash seeds are so much easier to photograph than tomato seeds.

I did decide to start plants this spring for a couple of reasons. I had bought and hung a grow light in my bedroom for my own mental health. The combination of a gentle wake-up, since the light is on a timer, and the guarantee of at least a little full-spectrum light has helped to temper my seasonal issues a bit. Since I had made the first big purchase for the project, why not put it to more complete use? The plant heater is also doubling as a worm heater. My African nightcrawlers are not happy with a cool house, and there just aren’t any warm spots to keep them. I am also hoping to make at least some of my investment back by selling some of the plants that I don’t need for my own garden. (Let me know if you want to buy any . . . )

Too long in the starting medium plus erratic watering means that I don't think all the squash will make it.

Too long in the starting medium plus erratic watering means that I don’t think all the squash will make it.

Pro Tips:

  • Don’t start small perennials and large annuals in the same flat. You have to raise the light too fast for the perennials to keep up as they are slower to germinate and, in my case, just shorter.
  • Water daily. Check on them at least twice a day. Once they flop over, they may not recover.
  • Have enough lights to give even light to all of the plants. More plants means more or bigger lights.
  • If you write out a schedule, mind it.
  • Don’t wait too long to transplant out of the starting medium. It doesn’t have many nutrients.
  • If you live with a dog that eats anything and your potting shed is the living room floor- make sure you don’t have to dash to the store for more potting soil in the middle of the planting project.
  • Make sure you have enough pots for all of the plants.
  • Be willing to thin the herd if some of the plants aren’t up to snuff. (I need to improve on that.)
  • Start more than you need. They won’t all make it.
  • Just because the top of your seed-starter is all fogged over, it doesn’t mean the soil is all evenly moist.
  • Lable! New England Sugar Pie and Watham Butternut look a lot alike until they set their fruit!
Apple trees start pretty well in egg shells in the fridge.

Apple trees start pretty well in egg shells in the fridge.

I am starting plants on the early side for two reasons. One- we have a short growing season and I want them to have as many productive days as possible. Two- people like to buy bigger plants, so bigger ones should sell better. To set up my schedule, I went by the days to maturity for each variety. It broke them up nicely into a logical progression. The first to go in were squashes. The last will be my peppers. Tomatoes happen in between. Things like herbs and flowers  can be started on a less stringent schedule, so they can be fit in around the food plants.

Gently crush the shells so the roots can grow through. Starting them this way leaves a calcium source right at the roots.

Gently crush the shells so the roots can grow through. Starting them this way leaves a calcium source right at the roots.

My squash  went in right on schedule in early February, sharing the flat with some chives and calendula. I think the chives will be ok, but the calendula are so leggy that I don’t think many, if any, will recover. I’m going to need to just try them again. The round currently sitting on the heater should have been planted around February 25. Being two squash and two tomatoes, they should grow at a similar enough rate to share the flat. The moment they’re well enough sprouted to go under lights, I need to plant the round that should have gone in around March 5. If I’d done them as planned, it would be much less rushed. However, scheduling them as early as I did also gives me some leeway for being slow. The last round will also be a bit behind, as the heater won’t be ready by March 19th. If I get a chance, I also want to do a round of herbs and flowers sooner rather than later to give them a decent head start.

Before my next round of transplanting, I need to do a bit more planning. Specifically, finding a bunch more pots for the 36 seedlings that will need a new home!



Phelan Gardens was packed. Hello, Memorial Day weekend.

Phelan Gardens was packed. Hello, Memorial Day weekend.

As I’ve mentioned before, I got a slow start on prepping my beds and getting things in the ground this year. However, given how unpredictable the weather has been this spring (more so than usual for Colorado), I would rather get my plants in late than risk a late frost. Potatoes will do fine with one, but tomatoes, peppers, and squash will not. I got my Ranch Community Garden bed turned on Friday, and planted it yesterday- Wednesday. I purchased most of the plants on Saturday, but I waited to put them in because I wanted the blood meal to have half a chance to filter through the soil. Also, the straw and a couple of weeds that were turned in will start decomposing. This eats up the available nitrogen that my plants need. While a few days isn’t enough to really get things settled down, it was all the time I had.

These are ready to go in the ground.

These are ready to go in the ground.

I missed the plant sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens, so I went to Phelan Gardens to pick up most of my plants. By going there, instead of to, say, Lowes, or a grocery store, I was able to not only get some heirloom tomatoes, but I knew that many of the plants were grown right here in Colorado in their own greenhouse instead of shipped in from some lush nursery on the west coast. If it’s raised here, then there will be less shock when it deals with having to grow here. The other perk of waiting a couple of days to plant my plants after I bought them is that they were able to sit outside and “harden off” before they went through the shock of being transplanted. All of the frost-sensitive plants were sold from in the greenhouse, so sitting them on the back stoop for a couple of days let them get used to the harsh sun and wind that comes with not being under cover.

The Brandywine tomato (on the right) almost looks more like a potato plant at this stage.

The Brandywine tomato (on the right) almost looks more like a potato plant at this stage.

I’m most excited about my tomatoes. Nothing beats a garden tomato. Even the “vine-ripened” ones that you pay too much for at the grocery store can’t hold a candle to one you actually pick off the vine yourself. I got four plants, two of a size to slice, two of a size to eat whole. Three are heirlooms, and one of the heirlooms is yellow. It’s actually called a pear tomato, so I’m really excited to see what it looks and tastes like a little later this summer. One of the heirlooms even has differently-shaped leaves than the others. Genetic diversity is important. The more identical plants or animals are, the more likely it is that they can all be wiped out by the same disease or weather event. The tomatoes were planted with a pretty purple dwarf basil that contrasts nicely with the orange marigolds. The marigolds are to help attract pollinators, and to reduce the nematode population.

Don't forget to plant for aesthetics, too. Just because I'm planting food, doesn't mean it can't be pretty, too.

Don’t forget to plant for aesthetics, too. Just because I’m planting food, doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty.

For most plants, the general rule is to plant them as deep as they were in the pot you took them out of. However, there are a few exceptions. Tomatoes come in “determinate” and “indeterminate” varieties. The determinate varieties grow to a particular height and then bush out. They can also be called bush tomatoes. They tend to fruit all at once, which means that for a couple of weeks, you are swamped in tomatoes, but that’s it. Indeterminate varieties just keep growing taller, and they tend to fruit fairly constantly from the time they first flower until a frost kills them. All four of mine are indeterminate, so I got to take advantage of another cool thing about them. You can bury them pretty much up to the top. Any buried leaves will become roots. By doing this, you are automatically extending the root system. Strong roots make for strong plants. When you’re buying a plant, you want a short, bushy one. If you ended up with a tall, leggy one, you can also use this to take some height off the plant to help it hold itself up.

That big branch out to the left is at ground level.

That big branch out to the left is at ground level.

The other thing I planted in the RCG bed is peppers. I’m not so big on them, myself, but my roommate loves them, so that gave me an excuse to collect some. I might have gone slightly overboard with picking different varieties, but between freezing and drying the extras, we should be able to keep up with them. The cayenne already has a flower and two buds. She’s taking this reproducing thing seriously, getting a jump on the pollinators before the other peppers start making demands, too.

Hot to trot, baby!

Hot to trot, baby!

I think you can see fairly well that the plants all are each in their own little saucer of earth. The idea, particularly for new transplants, is  to catch all the available water and funnel it directly to the roots. Being transplanted is hard on a plant, so by making sure that they have easily accessible water, I am giving them their best chance at recovering and thriving. That’s also why I moved the drip lines to drip as close to the plants as possible.

That's a lot of peppers for a non-pepper person.

That’s a lot of peppers for a non-pepper person.

The wind may or may not let the straw stay in place, but I re-buried the garden in it to help retain moisture. As of the end of April, we are back to having only half of the expected moisture, year-to-date.  You will see that I planted the plants closer than the recommended distance. The peppers stated 18″ between plants, and I planted them 12″ apart. Once they mature, the plants themselves will do what the straw is doing now. Namely, shading out weeds and keeping the sun from stealing all the moisture from the soil. It also means that I got four peppers in a four-foot space instead of three.

Planting 016

Class: New Gardener Boot Camp

This was a full day of classes designed to get us set up for the upcoming growing season. There was a huge number of gardeners there, so it was set up like school, where you had a schedule and the instructors were each teaching their class several times that day. Apparently the instructors had been told they would have more time than they did, so the classes were all kind of rushed. However, as usual, they did their best to give us the information we needed to be successful.

Being the clever girl I am, not only did I arrive a little bit late, I then proceeded to lock my keys, and membership card, in my car. I missed most of my first class, Beginning Vegetable Gardening taught by Betty Cahill. What I caught at the tail end was interesting, and I did get some good handouts to study, including lots of reference material. She also pointed out that the lettuce we harvest will hold up better in the refrigerator if we don’t wash it until we are ready to eat it.

The second class, Annuals and Perennials for Color in the Garden with Marcia Tatroe wasn’t at the top of my list of things I was looking for that day, since I’m mostly interested in food, but I got some very good concepts. Things like, the only things that you can read off the label and be sure of are the dimensions of the plant and the color. Everything else should be taken with a grain of salt, especially if the plant wasn’t raised locally. Most green-house plants are raised on the West Coast due to their mild climate. Unfortunately, this doesn’t prepare them for our harsh sun and less-than-mild weather. Just because a plant is a perennial somewhere else does not mean that it can be a perennial here. Even more to the point, the instructor’s gardens are at an elevation just 800′ above Denver Botanic Gardens and she has to grow as annuals some of the things the Botanic Gardens grow as perennials. One point that applies equally well to vegetable and flower gardeners is to not be afraid to be harsh with and even kill your plants. They aren’t puppies! In other words, pulling out mis-placed volunteers and thinning young plants to the mature spacing isn’t just necessary, it’s actually good for the garden as a whole. If you are working with xeric plants, you also want to be sure to treat them in a way that they have evolved to handle. That means that amending your whole bed into rich, black, highly organic soil might actually kill the local flora. On the other hand, if your yard has a sandy patch and a clayey patch and a low, wet patch, you can grow a wide variety of plants.

Lunch was burritos from Chipolte and Gorgeous and Easy Container Gardens with Susan Evans. I think my favorite part of her lecture was the idea that you should build your gardens to your preferences, not to your neighbors or for the cars on the street. Your neighbor might look out their window at your front lawn every day, but that doesn’t mean they get to dictate what is in it. There was a lot of discussing how to put things together and classic design concepts. However, in the end, it is yours. Make something you like. She discussed fragrance gardens. She has one at nose-level beside her favorite chair and she suggests having one on the way to the car. That way you can pluck off a piece to lay on your dash as a non-toxic air-freshener. When you are picking your pots, plastic is probably the best bet. Clay is pretty, but it wicks water out of your plants. Given our dry climate, that’s a problem. You should also consider larger rather than smaller pots, as they also hold water better. She is an herbalist, so she gave us some tips on them. Basil and cilantro don’t dry well, so both of those can be pureed with a little olive oil then frozen in ice cube trays. The rest of the herbs can be cut, bunched, and hung to dry. However, she reminded us several times to remember to take the bunches down for storage. No one likes peppermint and cobweb tea. The herbs should be stored in glass and as whole as possible, as you lose the essential oils when you chop or crush them too early.

My next class was Soils and Composting 101 with Carl Wilson. This was the only class that didn’t feel rushed, but I got the impression that not much could rush him. I finally got definitions of silt and loam in this class. Silt is mineral particles that are mid-way between sand (large) and clay (very small). Loam is unlikely to be found around here, but it is about 20% clay, 40% sand, and 40% silt. Clay is so dominant that at only 20% of the amount, it has a significant impact on the texture. Given a choice between sand and clay, clay is actually preferred. It has a charged surface, unlike sand, so it holds the nutrients that you add far more easily, keeping them within reach of plants. However, if you go significantly in either direction, the mineral content can give you challenges to work through. I thought it was very interesting that managed Western soil is only 5% organic matter at the most. More than that and you can have trouble with the nutrients actually getting to the plants and not being stuck in the soil. A big part of that is having enough organisms in the soil to break down what you add to things that the plants can use. He also discussed the fact that residential soil, what most of us are working with, is not the same as agricultural or native soils. The top soil has often been removed during the building process, removing those microorganisms and hundreds or thousands of years worth of their work. That means that before anything else happens, that somehow needs to be replaced. For compost, he mentioned that most residential piles don’t get hot enough to kill seeds and disease. If you have diseased plants or weeds that have gone to seed before you got to them, it may pain you, but they need to go in the trash. Animal products in general aren’t added, but a lot of gardeners add eggshells. Given the naturally high lime- calcium carbonate- content of our soils out here, you may want to think twice before you add them. It does, of course, also depend on the makeup of your particular soil.

Starting Seeds was taught by Patti O’Neal that I had taken a class from earlier. Apparently the 10 easiest plants to start from seed are beans, cucumbers, radishes, pumpkins, cosmos, peas, lettuce, squash, sunflowers, and zinneas. There were a lot of definitions in this class, but one of the comparisons that stood out was hybrid versus heirloom. Heirlooms have been around for a long time. The minimum time for a plant to have been reproducing reliably to qualify is about 50 years. Hybrids, on the other hand, are a first-generation cross that won’t reproduce true to the plant you saved the seeds from. My main interest is heirlooms, but apparently hybrids are often easier for beginning gardeners as they have had disease resistance and other perks bred into them. I may have to rethink my stance on them. She also strongly suggested that, as in most crafts, you plan twice and plant once. This includes reading all the information provided on the seed packets to know when, where, and how to plant the seeds. When you are saving your seeds, as they can last from year to year, you need to make sure they are cool and dry. She uses a coffee filter with kitty litter as the desiccant in her glass seed-jar. You will have better success if you store them in a cool basement rather than a garage that will heat up in the summer. After all, it is warmth and water that cause germination. To start your seeds, what you need is a tray to catch the water, something to hold the seeds, and a cover. This could be like the spiffy, professional seed tray we were given, or it could be reclaimed materials. She likes strawberry boxes and toiletpaper rolls for kid’s projects. Bear in mind that the “biodegradable pots” that are popular right now will not biodegrade in our soil. She noted that if you are “gardening in Iowa in devil’s food cake” they work fine. However, as noted above, we have a low level of organic material which means fewer of the organisms needed to break them down. The seeds will need warmth of some sort and the seedlings will need light. If you have good windows, that can work, but they tend to grow better if you actually have a light installation. It can be affordable fluorescents as long as you get one warm and one cool to capture the full spectrum. The goal is to get short, stocky, bushy plants in varieties that you can’t find at most nurseries.

This post turned into something of an epic. I apologize for that, but I only scratched the surface of what we were given. Between those classes and some others that I will be writing about when they finish, my head might just explode from the information being stuffed in. However, it is all so very pertinent that I couldn’t be happier with finding the Botanic Gardens for classes. I knew I needed a sharp learning curve to get up to speed with local conditions and helping others learn the basics, and this is giving me that flood of information.


It’s that time of year- time to start pouring over seed catalogs and waiting for the flat packets to arrive in the mail. I just got the first

The first round of seeds this spring.

bunch this week for my garden and Showcase 1. I’m not sure which part is more fun- seeing all the possibilities in vivid color or holding the tiny bits of life that will feed me.

Because sustainability is a big part of why I am doing this, I was looking for two main things. I wanted open-pollenated or heirloom varieties, as they would breed true when I start learning how to save seeds. I also wanted to buy local if I could. That doesn’t just mean buying mass-produced packets from a local store. I wanted to support local farmers if at all possible. With these limits in mind, I have ordered from two companies so far this year.

The first was a little company over in Avondale, Colorado, Hobbs Family Farm. Their direct retail collection is fairly small at the moment, but they do cover the basics for a vegetable garden and far more than the basics for a garlic connoisseur. I found their Web site to be very navigable, and I am more than a little impressed that I had the seeds in my hand four days after I placed the order. We can’t always expect that the mail system will be that cooperative. However, I ordered the seeds on a Sunday, and my order was shipped on Monday. That’s impressive for any company.

The company I chose to cover the gaps in our needs is D. Landreth Seed Company. I heard about them when their catalog arrived as part of my Christmas box. You do have to pay for the catalogs, but even if I wasn’t gardening this year, it was still a fascinating read. They are the oldest seed company operating in America, having sold seed to every President from George Washington to Franklin D. Roosevelt. They are not local, being from Bristol, Pennsylvania, but they have a wide variety of heirloom vegetables to choose from. The ordering on their Web site was somewhat less navigable, and when I called to check on my order, it looks like the seeds should be shipping early next week, or a bit more than a week after I placed the order.

Why do I care about where I am getting my seeds from? Why didn’t I just get a Burpee catalog like we used to order from every year? It turns out that Burpee is only about 90 years younger than D. Landreth. When I looked them up to verify that they did not have the awesome purple carrots that I ordered from Hobbs Family Farm- it turns out they sell the same variety. However, not only are the heirloom and organic types separate from the rest of the offerings, they are mostly separate from each other. Most of the offerings are far more recent models, and many are hybrids. While a hybrid in and of itself is not a bad thing, the plants have to successfully cross to create it so you don’t have to worry about fish genes in your carrots, you can’t reproduce it yourself. If your carrots bloom and set seed, the seeds will not produce the same type of root that produced the seeds. It will be a carrot, but there is no telling the properties of that carrot until it’s grown.

This is, of course, good business. It means that you have to keep coming back every year whether you know how to save seeds or not. I can’t hold it against a company that they want to make a buck. On the other hand, choosing the modern seeds does not preserve the varieties that we know can reproduce outside of a lab as the heirloom and open-pollenated seeds do every year. Buying from such a large company also does not allow me to purchase seeds grown from plants that survived our local conditions long enough to reproduce. Given the uniqueness of our circumstances, just any plant may not be able to grow. This is not to single out Burpee as a bad guy. They just happen to be a company that I know. After all, given their heirloom and organic varieties, I may even order from them in the future if I need something they offer. However, they will not be my first choice.

I’m sure I’m not the only starting to get restless waiting for spring to arrive. I have my garden mostly plotted out, and I’m trying to decide whether I want to risk starting my leeks and onions inside due to the lack of direct sun and the less than stellar results in my window box. I’m also looking forward to future springs. The red carrots lost out to the purple carrots for this summer because the purple carrots had a cooler name. Dragon. I am also very curious about the black and white varieties of radishes, but I figured I should see if I can turn out some decent-looking red ones first. Ok, and a purple one, but they were only chosen for their heat tolerance. Really.