Posts Tagged ‘spring’

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!

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Why Grass?

Step 1: Pull the weeds. Preferably barefoot.

Step 1: Pull the weeds. Preferably barefoot. You won’t get them all, but this will give the grass seed a fighting chance.

Iiiinnnhale. Duuude.

Wait- wrong one. Don’t know all the rules about that one, so it’s on hold. Too bad, too. Hemp happens to be a super useful material as anything from clothing to supplemental animal feed. Selling the buds would really just be a bonus income. However, lawn grass happens to also be good for more than just ornamental purposes.

But who would plant grass during drought conditions? Despite the flooding up in Boulder, most of the state is still under some sort of drought condition. In fact, the drought conditions are part of the reason the flooding was as bad as it was. Water slides right off the surface of baked-hard ground. The reason I am planting grass now is, in part, to do my part to reduce future droughts and flooding. A lot of people assume that xeriscaping and other water- and environmentally-responsible landscaping techniques require scraping off your grass and installing rocks or concrete slabs. At best you get some scrubby-looking native flowers. That’s not necessarily true.

Step 2: Dig the ground over. I did it one shovel-full deep, but the further down you loosen it, the easier it will be for the roots to grow.

Step 2: Dig the ground over. I did it one shovel-full deep, but the further down you loosen it, the easier it will be for the roots to grow.

When you want to fill a bowl with water, you pour water into it from above. If you put a plate over the bowl, you catch a little water in the plate, but the rest of it ends up on the counter, completely bypassing the bowl. If you cover the bowl with a sponge, though, some of the water lands on the counter, but some of it does make it into the bowl. More soaks through if the sponge was damp to start with.

Our bowl is the aquifer that provides the water in our wells. We’re close to the Ogallala Aquifer. By putting in rocks and concrete, we are creating a plate-like surface which shunts the water off into streams rather than giving it a chance to soak into the ground. Water that ends up in the ocean does us as much good as water that lands on the counter. The dirt that is either left totally bare or covered with rocks quickly becomes about as permeable as concrete, so not actually pouring the concrete on it doesn’t give you much advantage. Healthy plant life, on the other hand, has roots that break up the solid soil. They also tend to keep at least some water around their roots, given half a chance, so you don’t just get a sponge over the bowl, you should have a damp sponge. This is the best we can hope for, since we can’t pour rain directly into the aquifer.

Step 3: Add the grass seed. Note that the ground is uneven. That helps the water to stay  long enough to soak into the ground.

Step 3: Add the grass seed. Note that the ground is uneven. That helps the water to stay long enough to soak into the ground.

Note that I said “healthy plant life.” Putting in a lush, mono-culture of Kentucky Blue Grass will pull more water out of the ground to keep it growing than it could hope to help return. It also tends to demand more fertilizers, herbicides, and maybe pesticides. Those kill off the fauna in the soil that help keep the soil permeable to both water and roots. You don’t necessarily have to plant local flora, though I would suggest it, but you do need to think about what flora will actually do well locally. Colorado is a harsh state. The details of why it’s harsh depends on your location, but all locations have pretty serious problems when it comes to growing plants.

Step 4: Cover with several inches of straw or clean leaves. This will keep the seed moist until it can get roots established.

Step 4: Cover with several inches of straw or clean leaves. This will keep the seed moist until it can get roots established.

Planting a variety of local grasses in your yard might mean that it’s not as perfect as the Jones’ yard, but it gives you a few advantages over them. For starters, you can spend less time watering, weeding, and fretting about it and more time enjoying it. You won’t have to keep your pets and kids off of it after chemicals are applied. It will also be able to handle more abuse from said kids and pets. When you plant plants that want to be here, they will grow willingly. When you plant a variety, the particular type that does well there will thrive. This means that you might have different grasses in the sun, the shade, and that weird dry spot, but you should have grass in all of them. Healthy grasses also out-compete most weeds. They may need some help in the first year or two, but after that, the grasses should take care of their own weeding.

The stepping-stones are so I don't walk on the new grass. I'm only doing a section at a time since the ground is hand-turned. Also, I don't want to steal too much of the dog's yard at a time.

The stepping-stones are so I don’t walk on the new grass. I’m only doing a section at a time since the ground is hand-turned. Also, I don’t want to steal too much of the dog’s yard at a go.

Possibly the most important reason for planting healthy, non-chemically-grown grass in your yard is that you are creating top soil for future use. Once upon a time, people grew a large percentage of their food right in their own back yard. When Big Ag fails- and it will- we will need to start doing that again. If you start creating a healthy soil now, you’ll have less work to do later to put in a garden. In the meantime, you could also experiment with eating the leaves of any dandelions or lambs-quarters that happen to shoulder their way into your lawn.

Going back to the original question- Who plants grass in the middle of a drought? Maybe you should.

Plant between August and October so cool-weather grasses sprout in the fall. This gives them a head start on weeds in the spring. You can overseed with warm weather grasses in the spring to keep your lawn green all year.

Plant between August and October so cool-weather grasses sprout in the fall. This gives them a head start on weeds in the spring. You can overseed with warm weather grasses in the spring to keep your lawn green all year.

Thank you, Colorado

I haven’t had much to say since my last post. Shortly after I put it up, I heard on the radio that due to lack of snowpack, we would still be in drought conditions with water restrictions come summer. I think it was the next day that the clouds moved in. Since then, it’s been overcast more often than not and it kinda feels like it snowed as many days in April as it did during the rest of the winter combined. We also got an inch or two on May Day. You know, the traditional day to celebrate spring?

As inconvenient as it is to be getting our snow when I should be turning over garden beds and planting my early plants, we do need the moisture. Naturally, I forgot to save the link, but I recently came across a local seed producer that closed their doors in 2011 due to lack of water. They were a small-scale grower, and working off of a house-sized well. The note they had up indicated that while the surrounding farms could still reach water with their farm-sized wells, there just wasn’t any water left at their level. Since I came across this note in early 2013, I think it’s safe to assume that they haven’t been able to resume operation.

Well, it sucks to be them, but as long as the big farms are still getting water, we’re cool, right? Not really. According to the UN, there’s enough water for 6 billion people. Well, we overshot that one. We are also in the habit of misusing and abusing the water that we do have. There are already places that are using oil wells to drill into “fossil aquifers.” I don’t believe we’re doing this in America, yet, but we just have to look to the Middle East and Africa to see what will happen if we run out of renewable sources of water. Once the fossil water is gone, it won’t be renewed within a human time-frame, if ever.

What does this actually mean? Humans, and most plants and animals, can not live without clean, unsalted water. That means that we need to figure out how to keep what we have and maybe how to make more. There are lots of ideas out there, and I am sure I’ll be looking into many of them more in-depth because water is such a big deal in the West. The idea for the moment, though, is to encourage water that falls in your yard to soak into the ground, instead of running off the surface. Dig holes, plant grass, plant trees. Anything to make the water stop long enough to soak in. If enough of us do this, we can affect the groundwater levels in a positive way, instead of a negative one.

The snow is nice, but it would be so much nicer against a properly blue sky.

The snow is nice, but it would be so much nicer against a properly blue sky.

Showcase Updates and Dogproofing- Again

She isn't even clearing the fences anymore. She's just sliding over the top.

She isn’t even clearing the fences anymore. She’s just sliding over the top.

Here we are again, at the beginning of a new growing season. I’m a little more on top of things this year, but only just.

The owner of Showcase 1 is back in school and in the midst of changing direction, so her garden will remain tucked under a layer of straw for this growing season, and we will review her available time next spring. I have signed up for my plots in the Ranch Community Garden, and Showcase 2 is still available. In fact, I’ve had to do a little work on Showcase 2. The owner’s dog has discovered that compost tastes really, really good.  At 10 years old with some arthritis, we figured that a second fence might be enough of a challenge to keep her out. It also set aside a strip of yard to start growing grass. Apparently, compost tastes better than we thought.

Mmm. Yummy.

Mmm. Yummy.

We opted for a compost pile behind a fence for Showcase 2 for a couple of reasons. One being that it doesn’t cost anything, since the fence needed to be there to keep the dog out of the whole garden anyway. I like compost that’s on the ground instead of in a barrel because it encourages the native decomposers to work harder, and to breed more prolifically. The more decomposers you have, the healthier your soil is going to be, and the more nutrients will be available in a form that your plants can use. The last reason being that you can have multiple piles going at a time without needing multiple barrels or other apparatus. The magic number seems to be three- one to add to, one that’s cooking, and one that you’re pulling mature compost out of to use.

It's terrible of me to lock away the good parts, right?

It’s terrible of me to lock away the good parts, right?

Our third try at dog-proofing the compost is sort of a hutch that we got for free. It is open to the dirt, so we will be encouraging decomposers in the garden soil, but the sides and top are covered, so it should discourage the dog. I wasn’t able to fit all of it in the hutch, but I did put in the newest kitchen scraps with enough “brown” material to balance it out. We will be using it for future kitchen scraps, but I think weeds will be safe enough in the open pile. They just aren’t as interesting to eat. A side perk is that since it is enclosed, it should retain moisture better than the open pile, which will help it compost faster.

The less interesting pile turned and watered. It would be further along if I did that a little more often.

The less interesting pile turned and watered. It would be further along if I did that a little more often.

As for being on top of things- I have missed the best time to start peas by about three weeks, but I may throw some in the ground anyway. I also need to get the order in for seed potatoes since they can be planted shortly. The potatoes did ok last year, but I think this year will be better.

Heirloom Gardens Big Dig

Lots of jobs to do

Happy Earth Day! I don’t think there’s a better way to celebrate the Earth than to spend a day covered in it.

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to hang out with the Heirloom Gardens crowd. Today was a mostly physical day. We met for about three hours to do the initial prep work for a garden they have been using for several years. I am no good at eye-balling sizes, but there is a lot of room for veggies in the plot. It even has a gnarled peach tree that has set fruit to be used by the CSA. There were almost a dozen of us there, so there was lots of work to go around, but we weren’t overwhelmed by it.

It was nice to run into a couple of familiar faces, but I met some new people as well. Including a young woman who had also been raised in Pennsylvania/Maryland and was now living out here. It was really interesting to hear that someone else just didn’t feel at home until she moved out here. I had always supposed that was just me. There wasn’t

Digging in the spread manure

quite as much talking, as we were spread over a wider area, but conversations ranged from the lack of right-corners in permaculture to the fact that Barbara Kingsolver reads her more recent books for the audio-books. Again, I didn’t hear any philosophy or reality TV discussions, but there were things to talk about, and there were quiet discussions going on all over the garden as people moved around and worked near different people.

In the gardens I’ve been playing in so far, I’ve been lucky enough that I haven’t really had to deal with a winter’s worth of weeds. The first step was to dig and pull up the biggest chunks of weeds that would be likely to foul the rototiller. Once most of us had gotten a good start on that, someone was assigned to measuring and plotting the long beds. Sundari plants in beds rather than individual rows, as it is a much more efficient use of space. That meant that each section was four feet wide, with two-foot paths between them. When the garden is planted, each row will then be divvied up into sections for each type of plant that is to be grown.

The tulip and the grape hyacinth under the peach tree were to pretty to disturb.

Once each bed was measured out, the tiller was run down both the beds and the paths to loosen the dirt and dig the remaining weeds into the ground to finish killing them. Most of them, anyway. The manure, chicken and goat, was laid on each bed and dug in by hand, as it seems that tillers and straw don’t get along very well. It did give me a chance to work more closely with some of the people, as they are in the habit of each person digging in half of the bed and working in pairs down the row, and have some interesting conversations. Someone mentioned that you got used to the smell. I’m more accustomed to cow, but manure smells like spring to me. Growing up in Amish country, you knew when planting season had come if you drove anywhere with your windows down. Sure, the smell was . . . not roses, but spreading manure was part of their farming practices to use what they had for all it was worth. Unlike the almost sterile agri-business farms, there was no hiding where this fertilizer came from.

The last step was to scatter clover seeds along each path and scratch it into the soil a little bit. If you use clover as a cover-crop or on your paths, don’t expect a clover-free lawn right beside it. Apparently, along with being a nitrogen-fixer and green mulch, clover is tenacious and willing to spread.

The lilac wasn't so lucky.

I ache, my feet are killing me from jumping on the shovel to dig out weeds and dig in manure, and I’m wondering if my palms are going to actually bruise from the “T” handle on my shovel. Fortunately, the tank-top worn today helped to even out the farmer’s tan started yesterday. I doubt I’m the only gardener nursing these pains and loving the fact that they signal the beginning of another season.

P.S. It seems that the garlic we planted in March is coming up nicely. If you haven’t gotten yours in yet, it might not be too late!

Early Spring Weather

Weather has been pretty warm and dry across most of the country this spring. In some places, that’s not such a bad thing. It means that people can get their gardens turned and started a little earlier than usual. Around here, though, it’s not such a good thing.

On the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, we get most of our moisture in the winter and in the form of snow. March is generally the month with the most snow. I heard somewhere that we should get about 20% of our snow in March. According to this site, the average snowfall is 8.1″ for Colorado Springs. That doesn’t sound like much, until you see 4.9″ each for February and April. This year, according to this site, we have had less than an inch in March. The lack of snowfall combined with temperatures that were frequently in the 60s and 70s instead of the 50s that were the historical average, means that we were losing snow this March instead of building it.

I am new to this area, and maybe if I were familiar with a typical March, I might be more appreciative of the “early spring” that so many people are enjoying. I am also enjoying it. It’s nice to be able to start my tan this early to banish the winter pallor. However, if it is this warm this early, what is this summer going to look like? With as dry as it has been, we have already had one wildfire this year. This doesn’t bode well for what is going to happen during the more typical wildfire season around here.

The drama of fires aside, the loss of snow means that there will be less snow melting this spring to provide the moisture needed to germinate seeds and bring annuals out of dormancy. Less water coming from the mountains means less water for our consumption. On the frivolous side, that means that Kentucky Bluegrass lawns may not be getting the water they need to exist in their lush glory. On a more practical side, watering bans I believe also include vegetable gardens. Most people grow vegetables that are from Europe and the east. That means that they need far more water than natives in order to produce the food we’re looking for.

April came in like a lion. Sunday was 80 degrees. Monday topped out at about 45 with the clouds rolling in to cover the sky from horizon to horizon. Tuesday was even cooler with snow falling for most of the day. It’s warming up again, and most of the snow in the city is gone now. It doesn’t tend to stick around very long. However, it’s comforting to me to see Pike’s Peak resuming its (his?) white mantle for at least a little longer this season. A little moisture in reserve for later.

Class: Planting the Spring Kitchen Garden

I took this class mostly as an informational class for me. After all, I’m all about food, and learning about how to get food out of my garden before regular gardening season sounds like a good idea to me. However, my community garden plot won’t be available until May, and Showcase 1 is currently buried under a large pile of composting manure. It turns out, though, that gushing about this really cool class you just took is a good way to get your hands on more gardening space. I visited what will be Showcase 2 on Sunday, to check out the space she would like to turn into her spring kitchen garden.

The class was taught by Patti O’Neal, a horticulturist in the Jefferson County Extension office. If you happen to be there, they have a walk-in diagnostic clinic that will be re-opening in mid-April. Unlike calling on Mom or Googling the answer, you do have to pay for it. However, you actually get a professional’s assistance. It’s definitely something I’m tucking away for future reference.

Before I take another one of her classes, I might want to take a class in shorthand. However, had she spoken any slower, I don’t think she could have gotten that much information into a mere two-and-a-half hours. She began by asserting that if you haven’t killed any plants then you weren’t really trying to grow anything. This theme was continued as she later tells us that we need to keep good records in part so that we can forgive ourselves for our failures. Some things will be our fault, and our records will help us to not make those mistakes again. However, there are a lot of things that aren’t our fault, like animals and weather, that we just need to accept and not take too hard.

The first question to be addressed is, what is a kitchen garden, anyway? It is a garden, preferably just outside the kitchen door, that has the things you will be using in the kitchen. That would be everything from your herbs and vegetables to the cut flowers for the dinner table. The closer you can plant it to your kitchen, the easier it is for you to pop out there to check on things and harvest what you need. The second question is, what makes it a spring kitchen garden? The techniques she was showing us are to extend the use of the garden beyond the traditional summer gardening. In fact, she was harvesting spinach all winter out of her garden due to the mildness of the winter.

65 years ago, 40% of our veggies were grown at home and another 40% were from local farms. In the spring of 2009, seed sales were up 30%, indicating a rising interest in growing our own food again. In 2010 it was up another 10% indicating that people were trying again and more people were trying for the first time. I’m very excited about the idea of people beginning to understand where their food comes from again.

Depending on what you have for room for, Patti prefers raised beds, but you can also plant directly in the ground or in pots. For the spring garden, it is about soil temperature, not daytime temperatures as it is later in the year. The raised beds warm faster than an in-ground garden and they don’t have to be wrapped against frost like pots. No matter what you use, once the soil has reached the appropriate temperature for a couple of days in a row, 50-55 degrees works to plant most that you would be planting in this garden, you can direct-sow most of the plants. The soil can be warmed either naturally or with some 4-6 mil clear plastic. The clear works better than black for trapping the heat in the soil instead of the plastic.

You will be planting vegetables that can germinate in soil between 40 and 60 degrees and can stand air that is between 40 and 50 degrees. They tend to like cool and moist soil as they tend to be higher in water content. Leafy crops that make up the bulk of them lose quality in heat as the water transpires out of the leaves too quickly to keep them sweet and tender. Once they have been planted, you can use a variety of things from plastic, to greenhouse or coldframe constructions, to the horticultural fabric Remay to protect the seedlings from frost and any inclement weather.

This is one of those classes that I am going to be referring to the notes and digesting it for a while. I am really looking forward to seeing what I can put into effect in Showcase 2. After all, I find that my retention of information relates to how quickly I can actually put it into use. The more useful it is, the more likely I am to remember it. I expect most of this information will be useful once I’ve had a chance to process it.