Tete a tete“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt” ~Margaret Atwood

Spring blooming bulbs are (finally!) underway and require no attention other than regular admiration but there is plenty to do in the garden during the longer spring days.

  • Start out with spring garden cleaning – cut down stalks of dead plants you left up all winter as habitat for overwintering insects, shake any remaining seed pods onto the ground (if you want plant seeds to self-sow) and clear away debris
  • Check your tools to see if any any wooden handles are dry (linseed oil is good for this) or need sharpening; check pots left outside to see if any have cracks.
  • If you haven’t had your soil tested, now’s a good time to do it. While local cooperative extension services often offer soil testing, UMass Amherst is also a good option.
    *  More useful information on soil testing in a previous post
  • Get going (if you haven’t done so already) on indoor seed starting – tomatoes and peppers and other plants that need to wait for warmer soils to be planted outside should be started 4-6 before average last frost date.  Useful instructions on seed starting from a previous post are right here, and instructions for an easy DIY seed starting stand (also from previous post) are right here.
  • Give the garden a good raking over to loosen the top soil and break up any clumps of dirt – this in preparation for sowing seeds for cool season planting.

GardenSeeds_2015What can be planted this time of year? Lots!

*  Greens: Lettuce, spinach, chard, mustard, kale
*  Root crops:  Carrots, radishes, beets, turnips, kohlrabi
*  Early peas such as snow peas and sugar snap

Here’s a planning calendar for what to plant and when plus an article on preparing your soil.

Late winter is prime time to think about seed starting, and with a big order coming from Pinetree there will be plenty of seeds to be started. While many seeds are direct seeded, others need a head start (and some seed starting tips from previous HeliosMonroe posts can be found right here).

I made two seed starting stands using a design created by my mother;  a diagram and her original instructions are here: Betsey’s Seedling Starting Stand (circa 1900’s). Each stand holds six seed starting trays. Yes, I start lots and lots of plants from seed.  And with a bit of wood, screws and hinges, some shop lights and a few tools (and some space) you can make a stand (or two). When seed starting season is over, the stand is easy to fold up and store out of the way until next seed starting seasons rolls around.

For one stand, you’ll need:

*  54′ of 1″ x 2″furring strip (choose pieces that are as straight as possible)
*  Two pieces of 1/4″ or 3/8″ plywood (exterior is better):  16″ x 48″ and 24″ x 48″ — Many stores will cut the plywood to size (although you usually need to buy the whole sheet of plywood)
*  Two strap hinges
*  Phillips head screws
*  Three 4′ shop lights (I use one cool and one warm florescent light per shop light)
*  2-3′ of chain and 6 ‘S’ hooks, or rope — chain and hooks are often included with shop lights

Tools:  Saw, drill with philips head screwdriver bit, measuring tape

  1. Cut the furring strips: 4 x 72″ for the legs, 6 x 54″ for the sides; also cut 8 x 3″ pieces for the shelves
  2. For each piece of 72″ wood, mark the following measurements: 1″ from top, 25″ from top, 50″ from top (hint:  use a dark color & mark all the way across the strip)
  3. Place two pieces of 72″ wood on the floor, 54″ apart and parallel to each other
  4. Place three pieces of 54″ wood across the legs to form the sides – one piece just below the 1″ mark, one just below the 25″ mark and the third just below the 50″ mark
  5. Drill two screws at each intersection to secure the wood together
  6. Form the other side of the stand by repeating steps 3 – 5
  7. Attach strap hinges to the top of each leg on the underside – the stand will open and close like a tent, or laptop computer
  8. Make the shelves by securing a 3″ piece lengthwise to all four corners of the bottom of each piece of plywood; use two screws (per 3″ piece)
  9. Open the stand and place the smaller piece of plywood across the sides at the top of the stand, the larger piece goes across the sides at the bottom of the stand; the small 3″ pieces you screwed to the bottom of the plywood will “catch” the sides and hold the shelves in place
  10. Use rope or chain to hang the lights, you can adjust the height as the plants grow; for the bottom lights, it may help to attach ‘S’ hooks to a short bar to keep them in place

Tip:  Take a look at the diagram linked to above, and here. It helps.

Seeds started indoors may need to be transplanted into larger container prior to being hardened off and planted out.

A strong seedling needs a healthy root system and a healthy root system needs room to grow. If your seedlings have outgrown their containers, you’ll want to move them to a bigger pot prior to planting out in the garden.

Start with clean (wash with a mild bleach solution) containers and good quality potting soil such as Premier Pro-Mix.  For plants with a single stem (such as tomatoes), pinch off the bottom set of leaves and plant deep – roots will form where the leaves used to be. Watering with a dilute fertilizer will help the plant recover from transplant shock.

Cool season vegetables can be planted outdoors before the last frost date but most plants need warm soil in order to grow. Once the ground has warmed and the danger is frost is over, you can prepare your seedlings for transplanting.

Start by putting them outdoors in a shaded spot when the days are warm. Bring them inside at night or cover with reemay. Gradually increase their outdoor time until they are ready to be planted.

You’ll find more resources on transplanting here and here.

Why bother growing plants from seed? Wait a few weeks and the big box retailers will have plants a’plenty, right? Well, yes and…

  • You’ll find a much wider variety of vegetables and flowers in seed catalogs than in any nursery or plant store.
  • Plants raised for the big retailers are a higher risk for diseases that could potentially wipe out your crop (and your neighbor’s crop as well).
  • You’ll save money. You could buy a four pack of marigold plants for $5.00 or so at your local nursery. Or, for under a dollar you could get a pack of 50 marigold seeds.

What you’ll need:
Good seed starting medium (look for medium without fertilizer), clean containers (use a mild bleach solution to clean) with drainage holes, and of course seeds. Good sources of seed include Pinetree, Southern Exposure, Territorial Garden Seeds and Park Seed.

Some Seed Starting Tips

Read the label
The seed packet is a valuable source of information – does the seed need warm or cool temperature to germinate? Light or dark? How deep should the seed be planted? Should it be started indoors or sown outdoors (peas, beans, root crops such as radishes and carrots are sown directly in the ground)?

When to plant
Work back from the average last frost date in your area to see when you should start your seeds, generally 6-8 weeks prior to the last frost date. Here in DC, April 10th is the average last frost date.

Seedling needs
Once the seeds emerge, they’ll need light. Florescent shop lights (mix of cool light and warm light) hung a few inches over the plants work just fine – no need for expensive grow lights. Move the lights up as the seedlings grow.

Disease prevention
Damping off (seedlings quickly collapse) is a result of humid, moist conditions – prevention includes providing air circulation, add a thin layer of sand to the surface of the soil,  thin seedlings so they’re not overcrowded, and be mindful of over-watering.  Watering from the bottom helps.

Some good resources on seed starting are found here and here. Next up, transplanting and hardening off~

While a March snowstorm is still possible, the milder temperatures this past week are a good indication that spring indeed is on the way.

Walking with Mazie around the neighborhood, we see snowdrops and forsythia in bloom, and some daffodils a sunny day away from blooming. In the garden,  salad burnet, rainbow chard and some fall planted arugula are all starting to grow.

It’s time to start cool weather vegetable seeds – greens and kale and such.  Some seed starting medium,  some peat pots and we’ll be ready to go!

It looks like we’ll be doing some turbo seed starting this weekend. We have lots of seed starting trays, Jiffy 7 peat pellets and pots, seed starting mix and, most importantly, seeds. We have lots of seeds.

Some seeds will be directly sown (sugar snap peas, cool season vegetables) and others require a bit more coddling.  But not too much coddling since the goal is to get things up and growing, hardened off and then planted.

If you are among the 40% starting a home garden for the first time, good seed starting advice can be found here and here.