Seed-Starting Overview (part two)

Photo of oak trees in winter

 

A reasonable schedule in zone 6b might be to start perennials, herbs in the mint family (many of which are perennial), and anything the packet says takes longer than eight weeks to reach transplant size, in late February (Feb. 25th for me). Start annuals with six-to eight-week maturing periods in March (March 10 for me). Start quick (2-3 weeks) annuals and vegetables, that will only get leggy indoors, in early April (April 1st for me). Also, you can do succession sowing to get later swaths of zinnias, marigolds, salvias, snapdragons, etc., ready to flower in late summer, as late as the first week of May. The reason for sowing anything in flats that can be sown directly is to get size on the plant, and make it less vulnerable. Corn is a good example—a sprouted kernel to a squirrel is just a snack with leaves attached, that need biting off. If you grow your corn in pots until the kernel is used up, and the roots are strong, you may get a harvest for yourself.

Last year I got too eager to grow things, and started perennials in January. I was also trying to use a potting medium instead of peat pellets, and it messed up my germination rate. I don’t find it as easy to go peat-free as the TV garden shows imply. The peat pellets’ advantage is that they’re resistant to fungus, and the protection they offer lasts a long time, until the seedling has grown past the danger of wilting. Also, they can hold moisture without heaviness. Heavy damp stresses seeds for oxygen, and more humus-y mixes retain cold, both inhibiting factors to germination and survival. Last year, many of my seeds never germinated at all.

Another problem with keeping plants indoors too long is the artificial environment. Indoor air is stagnant, allowing a foothold to disease, fungus gnats, and mites; plants need air movement for transpiration, the release of moisture through the pores in their leaves, which encourages the root system to draw moisture from the medium. In fact, a fan running in your growing room, at low speed, is a good idea.

The time when your plants are large enough to go outdoors should coincide well with the change in weather, from winter cold to spring daytime temps in the 60s and 70s. Find a shaded space with wind protection, or create one. Perennials should be first out; once they can stand on their own in full sun, and especially with the benefit of a few rains, you can take them out of circulation—either plant them, or at least place their pots where you intend to plant them. A number of perennials, such as coneflower, salvia, achillea, rudbeckia, monarda, and foxglove, have hairy, rumply, or ferny leaves, a sign that they’re adapted to frost tolerance.

Frost, also, harms hardy plants less after the equinox (March 20, 2023)—when daytime length equals night. Nighttime temps in zone 6b are usually above freezing. The ground warms up, and the hours of frost needed to burn leaves and harm roots are not available. Observe which plants already in your garden are pushing up strong new growth; the same plants from this year’s starts will survive through frost, if you have them well hardened.

 

(to be continued)

 

Seed-Starting Overview (part One)

Photo of bright yellow coreopsis blooms

 

Photo of seed-starting shelves and lighting

 

January is a good time to get your setup going, if you want to try stocking your garden with seed-grown plants. For the next few posts, I’ll provide what experience has taught me.

Any four-shelf unit really gives you three, unless you have a way of rigging lights above the topmost shelf; but this shelf makes a place to store your gear—spray bottles, pots, labels, etc. The ones I use are sold under the Amazon Basics brand, listed this year at 64.96, not including sales tax. They consist of wire shelves, hollow posts that screw together, and plastic fasteners that hold the shelves in place. They are not very trying to assemble, and also pretty attractive for use at other times as household furniture.

What you’ll want, if starting 500+ seeds (which sounds like a lot, but for any largish garden, is barely enough) is at least three sets of shelves. Each shelf can hold two flats, oriented short end to short end, for maximum exposure to light. When seedlings are large enough to be potted on (as in photo above), fewer will fit in a flat, and the shelves need spacing higher—the reason you need three units, instead of two.

For lights, daylight (blue-toned) LEDs work fine; I have not found any deficit in the light they provide to seedlings. The best choice is the shoplight type (at various stores, around $50 for a set of two), with two tubes per unit, and a four-foot length—and you’ll be happier if you buy lights that connect to one another, so that you have one cord per six lights in your surge protector, instead of a big tangle of cords. You can add up the wattage to be extra careful, but even three shelving units with eighteen lights altogether should fall well short of the load-capacity on a modern household plug.

Eighteen shoplights are a strong investment, true, but once you’ve purchased your seed-starting equipment, the cost-per-year over the lifetime of the equipment is reasonable, and even cheap. If you compare the cost of this same arrangement as sold by garden suppliers (as much as $300 for a two-shelf unit, or $1200 for four shelves), you’ll appreciate that a $700 (approx.) investment for three four-shelf units with lighting is a good bargain.

Any room with a door you can close against curious pets works as a growing room. I use a spare bedroom, and protect the carpet with drop cloths. Even LED bulbs will add heat to the room. I find I can’t use more than the three sets of shelf/light combos without the temp approaching the 80s (F), which is too stuffy for most outdoor plants, especially perennials. I move surplus maturing plants down to the garage. At this stage they’re fine, if not happier, in a cooler space, but if your seed-starting racks can only be in an unheated garage or porch, you’ll need heat mats.

The window of time for seedlings, from dropping the seed into the medium, to hardening off well-grown seedlings outdoors, should be about two months. This formula is usually calculated backwards from your local frost-free date, so that a May 5th date carries you to March 5th. But most perennials take longer than annuals to geminate; at the same time, the majority of perennials hardy in your zone can go in the garden earlier than the frost-free date, once hardened off (exposed to outdoor sunlight and wind until the leaves and roots toughen up). Exceptions are hibiscus and butterfly weed, both of which emerge from the ground after frost, and would be harmed if planted earlier.

 

(to be continued)

 

Pots and Seedheads

 

A collection of nursery pots I painted (using outdoor-rated paints), that will be fun to cluster on the patio, along the paths, and here and there in the beds. The largest sizes I’ll use for vegetables. Next year, I plan to do tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, potatoes, kale, and gourds in pots, with stakes and deer netting. Every year I refine a little, though I haven’t got a good harvest yet. I have two-year-old strawberries that may produce, and Romanesco cauliflower that looks like it will keep growing into the winter.

 

 

The two photos above show our native aster in seed, and looking like snow. It’s a love/hate plant for me because it sprouts up in droves in all my flower beds, and has to be weeded out everywhere, but it’s wonderful for pollinators, and really beautiful, both blooming and finished. The grass in the lower photo is pennisetum, which makes fabulous seedheads in fall, but is also a little problematic. The seeds are like burs and stick to your clothes tenaciously, plus the leaves are super sharp. With gloves and scissors, pennisetum sprouts have to be taken out of flower beds all the time.

Below, tiny leeks coming up, where I scattered seeds from one I grew last year. They can grow a little throughout winter and be good for harvest in June or July next year.

 

Habitat-Building and a Mystery Solved

Photo of garden path with stick fence

 

I cut back the old lilac that came with my property. It may be fifty years old, and had gotten leggy, ungainly, sparse below the crown, barely blooming. Old-fashioned lilacs are basically a one-act shrub, pretty and fragrant in spring, offering little the rest of the year. They typically (that leggy habit) aren’t dense enough to shelter birds for nesting, they don’t produce food for wildlife, and they don’t have fall color.

But the trunks and limbs of this one gave me material to finish out the above section of my stick-fence border.

Reusing fallen and pruned off debris does great things for habitat-building. The stacked wood makes instant shelter for your insects. Ants will gladly colonize here—and ants are huge consumers of insect eggs, newly hatched worms and grubs, slug eggs…pretty much anything they can eat as individuals or en masse. Our healthy ecosystem depends on the work of ants, which in turn are food for important bird species, like the Pileated woodpecker, and for many other creatures, including bears.

As the wood at the bottom of the pile breaks down, it provides the best slow-release fertilizer of all. The elevation of the pile, slight as it is, creates a lee side, sheltered from wind and temperature-moderated, making for a microclimate where plants appropriate to your zone thrive, and outliers may survive. The height of the bed also lets perennials planted there put down deep roots. And all of the bed’s material feeds the trees nearby.

Finally, spongy soil and leaf cover make their immediate environment water-retentive. Water-retentive means, in good time, water independent. And that is the crux of restoring habitat, of reversing severe drought patterns in our changing weather.

 

 

Photo of hickory sapling

 

For years I had a good stand of milkweed growing along my garage wall. A couple of summers ago, the milkweed started to deform, becoming stunted and yellowed, and dying off, to be replaced by goldenrod. Goldenrod is wind-sown, as is milkweed, so where the wind blows against a wall is a where you’ll find volunteer wildflowers (and trees).

The above hickory sapling (squirrel sown) was one I’d been cutting off when it reappeared each year. I can’t dig the roots because they’re tucked under an old yew trunk. But I thought keeping it cut back would kill it in time. Instead, it steadily built roots and shot up four feet tall this year. But that solves the mystery of what was killing the milkweed.

Hickories are related to walnuts, and their roots produce juglone. If you have a big lawn and want to covert it to habitat, hickories and black walnuts are fine to plant, both important native trees in eastern oak/hickory forests, which are declining. You just need to pick a corner for your hickory patch, and look up surrounding plants to install that are unbothered by juglone.

However, if you get hickory seedlings sprouting in your flowerbeds, or along any walls, ditches, fencerows, that you want nature to plant for you, it’s a good idea to root them up quickly.

In other tree news, my sweetgum is showing the full range of colors, from dark burgundy, to red, to yellow, that sweetgums are famous for. All these years, it turned only yellow in the fall, and I’d even surmised it was a cultivar that just didn’t color up. The answer must be that the Bradford pear growing next to it, which I had cut down this year, was taking up nutrients the sweetgum needed. Another good reason to replace a Bradford pear with something nicer!

 

More Insects and Some Projects

 

An Imperial Moth caterpillar that fell out of the oak. It isn’t dead, but the yellowjacket is eating its head, either because it was parasitized or injured, or from pure predation, if the caterpillar dropped to pupate. I’ve seen yellowjackets carry away entire green caterpillars, when only slightly larger than themselves. Another yellowjacket arrived, and they both took bites and flew away with them. 

 

 

A katydid (a type of cricket) on my aloe plant, taking bites. The camera caught the detail of its wings and legs nicely. Note its backwards-facing claws, that hook onto its perch.  

 

My back-border bed, with a little improvement. The steppingstone path looks good, makes working in the bed easier, and stone keeps roots protected, moister, and the temperatures they’re subjected to more even through the year. 

Next year’s vegetable bed, that I’m beginning this year. Assembling the box was easy; and it cost about $60 from Amazon. It measures 6 foot x 3 foot, by 1 foot high. A box this size would take dozens of bags of compost to fill, so I bought it this late summer, allowing me to keep topping it off with organic material (the bale of straw to start, then leaves and mower clippings, and homemade compost), that will decompose through the fall, winter, and early spring. The trellises are to support beans and peas. I had a so so year trying to grow veg in 2022, while learning a few more necessary facts about getting my edibles past the animals and the oak tree roots. Next year, I propose to have potatoes, corn, beans, and peas in this bed, and tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and carrots in pots.

And to protect them with deer fencing. I’m still thinking about my apple trees and what I can use to keep deer from stripping the leaves, besides bird netting, which either has to sit on the leaves and weigh them, or be suspended in some way, and risk catching butterflies. 

Around the Garden (Late Summer)

Green cicada

Here’s a beautiful cicada. I can’t quite tell what species, from the available information online. (Not to brag, but my photo is better than any of the others I’ve found, so I can’t easily judge if the Green-winged cicada, or the Swamp cicada, etc., has the same characteristics as this newly hatched celadon-winged creature.) He or she popped out on my bean pole, which accounts for the purple in the upper left corner–it’s paint. 

Photo of late summer flowers

 

A terrific black-eyed susan, that seeded itself in my yard from the neighbor’s, so I don’t know what variety. I collect these out of the grass, and plant them in the beds, and they produce dozens of two-inch flowers, instead of the fewer larger flowers of Goldsturm Rudbeckia, probably the commonest one you can find at garden centers.

 

Photo of red and orange flowers

Some of my best container displays at this time of year. The black-leaved colocasia has come into its own in the pitcher plant tub, after I wintered it over indoors. The other standouts are orange zinnias and red lantana.

Photo of walk up to patio

The path going up to the patio. I have lots of insulators, so I decided to just start sticking them outdoors for decoration.

Photo of portulaca in hanging basket

This orange portulaca has done well, cheerful and thriving, in a pair of hanging baskets I have near my apple trees. I bought the baskets on clearance, not wanting the plants, just the container (something for deer to bump their heads on). The baskets had petunias to begin with, that I didn’t expect to keep going, so I picked up the portulaca–and I’m impressed.

Photo of perennial eupatorium

Here’s a plant I love in my garden, and don’t see much of in catalogs. It looks like ageratum, but it’s a perennial eupatorium. It gives your garden blue hues in the late summer, and comes back every year. It’s a colonizing plant, but well-behaved. I’ve dug up sections of the original group many times, and added them to other beds. It does not appear to spread by seed, but by roots. Very popular with pollinators. 

Photo of perennials collected from garden

Finally, free additions to the beds I’m expanding. I have tons of foxgloves to harvest, and always lots of coneflower. Some white coneflowers have turned up in my front border, so I may get some variety from the seedlings. I’ve found three good columbines, and a few daylilies where they weren’t needed. The hollyhocks, I started from this year’s seed about six weeks ago, and now I have five good-sized plants and one straggler, that can carry on maturing.

Shady Places and Nice Surprises

 

Above, two shots of a pair of monarch caterpillars, eating one of my butterfly weeds.

I have a type that came on the wind, that I think is swamp milkweed. I’ve written about how it grows into a hedge along the garage in summer, and dies back in winter, and how popular it is with pollinators. The milkweed has been losing ground, though, for the past two years. I don’t know if a stand of goldenrod that’s taking over is killing it off, or if the hornbeam tree, rooting outwards, is the cause. Most of the milkweeds are stunted and yellowing. I’ve never seen a monarch among them.

Meanwhile, I always plant butterfly weed, and grow new ones from seed I collect. I came across these caterpillars one morning, and the next day, a single one was left. After that, they were both gone. But I don’t think they’ve been harmed. They are pretty toxic when grown to this size. I think they were both at the point of making their chrysalis, and dropped off into the shadier foliage to attach themselves. 

 

Front and center is a bargain I found, on a front door display at our local Menard’s. These pots and their contents were priced at five dollars each. (I should have got more.) I thought the decorative pot was enough of a bargain for that price, and I chose one with fairly healthy plants—while they were all on sale for being tired and dried up.

Petunias and geraniums are rated for full sun. But if I’d brought home a tired group of plants and put them out in the sun, they would die. My pot has revived into a great display because I have it in shade. That’s a good tip when you get the cheapest, last ditch plants, and want to save them for the fun of trying. If you place them in shade, regardless of what they are, they may perk up fine in a few weeks. 

 

The edge of my driveway border. I’ve been expanding it out this year with shrubs. This area is under a maple and looks like heavy shade, but the corner gets sun in the mornings, and parts of the border get sun all day. Another factor is the right angle of the driveway and street that frame this area. The pavements reflect light, so nothing is severely shaded. I put in a pair of spirea, and as you can see, top right and bottom center, they’re adding lots of new growth. That’s what I want them to do, reach towards each other, and fill in the space. I’m going to add two Encore azaleas, and a bird’s nest blue spruce. My goal is to plant over my steep little bank, so I don’t have to mow there. I’m also planning to move those iris, that have never bloomed, and are so thickety they block other perennials.

Thanks to shade, and the microclimate effect of the stick fence, seen in the background, I have pansies still blooming in late July. And they’re in the same bed as a dahlia that wintered over from last year. 

Finally, my other surprise. After our late freeze this year, my pawpaw sapling never leafed out. Once it got to be July, I gave up on it, figuring it was dead. But a rabbit came along and bit off the stem (at least the 45 degree cut implies a rabbit). Afterwards, new growth shot up, all you can see above in just a couple of weeks. The multi-stems mean the pawpaw will be more a shrub than a tree, and in the lower right corner, you can see an extra sprout well away from the base of the original tree, beginning a grove. 

My guess is that the stem had some tissue still sending signals to the roots that it was alive, and only when the rabbit severed that, did the tree decide it needed to grow back from the base. But if you have a seemingly winter-killed shrub or tree, you might try cutting off the dead top. 

 

Mini Post: Just a Couple of sights

 

My cactus, that I’ve had for fifteen years or so. It has suffered a few indignities: being pinched in a too-small pot, being chewed by squirrels, having its needles bitten off by chipmunks. This year the cactus is making only one flower (last year, two), but—a complete surprise—it has started a tiny arm. I thought all along it was a barrel-type cactus, but it may be more akin to a saguaro.

 

A venus flytrap I bought at Walmart, just to add another item to my pitcher plant tub. But it stuck up a flower head, and this is what the flower looks like.

Midsummer Pots

 

This beauty is a leek. Mine, that I planted last year and left to bloom this year, are in flower now, in July. The biggest is at least three, maybe approaching four, inches across. They have a pristine white quality in the sunlight, as the photo shows. I can’t give much advice for leek flower cultivation, since I don’t know that it’s especially done… I found out through neglect several years ago how great they are, and never tried it again until last year. But plant enough to enjoy for both recipes and pollinators (these flowers attract bees hugely), and in a spot where the leeks can winter over, with protection from cold, but not too damp.

 

 

 

It’s the time of the season to trim down overgrown pot flowers, and space things out for better air circulation. I had a few getting too little water, and a few getting too much. All the trimmings from things that root easily, like impatiens and coleus, become filler plants for shade gaps, where bulb foliage has died back.

 

 

 

Pots added to a flower bed work well, for the color and interest they provide in themselves, also because they lift the level of what’s growing in them to that of the surrounding plants. If a gappy area develops in a bed, you can thicken up its appearance with a few containers.

 

 

 

Here, again, I added pots where the daffodil foliage has finally died back. It won’t make sense to plant perennials in those spots, because the daffodils will smother out their new growth next spring. (This is the bed where I have the venerable daffodils that don’t bloom, and can’t be dug up because they’ve got themselves more than a foot deep, and I’d have to ruin the bed to exhume them. So I work around…)

 

 

 

This was a lucky outcome. For more than a year this oak branch was hanging on by an inch or so of wood, and I had to move around cautiously underneath. Every gusty thunderstorm, I hoped it would go ahead and fall. I’d judged it would land right on the path and not crush my plants.

So it came down, at last, just where it looked like it would. All I had to do was clear off the broken pieces.

 

 

 

When I took this picture, I had maybe nine corn stalks on the way. Now I have five. I thought I had them well baffled in, but I looked out the window and a squirrel was uprooting them and eating the root bulb. I’ve got even more baffling around the remainder, and if I can save them from the wildlife, I may have enough plants to pollinate one another, and get an ear of sweet corn or two.