Goji Seeds Hit the Dirt

The very first of the Uncommon Fruits to hit actual dirt isn’t actually one that Lee Reich covered in his book. I’m speaking of Lycium barbarum, or possibly L. chinense, I’m not clear if they are really different species or not. Either way, it is the goji berry, the wolfberry, one of those new fangled super fruits.

I’m not clear on whether they are really any better for you than most other more readily available berries, but I like the dried berries well enough that I’d like to sample the fresh fruit. In so far as I can tell, that means growing it myself. As is common with more obscure fruit plants, concrete cultural information tends to be a little sketchy. I’ve seen a wide range of cold tolerance reported for this plant. I suspect that actual cold hardiness depends somewhat on the cultivar, and somewhat on the growing conditions.

Regardless I’ve tried growing this before, and I’ve found the seed from several sources to be very easy to sprout. The seedlings tend to be challenging for me to keep going though. They seem very prone to slug attacks, and over and under watering take very high tolls on the seedlings.

This time around I’ve opted to start them under lights. I started some seeds outdoors in May, and I’ve lost nearly every single one to slugs already. I took the seeds this time from a bag of Heaven Mountain brand dried berries. Just soak a dozen dried berries in water for a few hours, mash them with a fork, and then the berry can be separated from the seed because the seed sinks more rapidly than the berry.

You can re-dry the seed if you like, or plant immediately. I haven’t noticed that it makes any difference. The germination rate tends to be great either way. Germination from commercially sold seed sources have also given high germination rates.

This time I just sprinkled the seeds on the surface of a small pot of potting soil, sprinkled a small amount of dirt over half the seedlings, and placed it a few inches beneath a florescent desk lamp. The reason for covering only half the seeds is in case I miss watering for a day or two, the covered seeds may survive better. The exposed seeds will have faster access to light, and perhaps that small margin faster start will help them get beyond the delicate stage just a wee bit faster.

Uncommon Fruits

I’ve recently been reading Lee Reich’s Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. I had read a number of recommendations for it online, but put off acquiring a copy of my own. It just seemed like the sort of book that I’d regret spending time on, because the information inside would be a regurgitation of what is available online in so many places.

I was mistaken. It is an excellent book, and Lee Reich brings more to it than you will find in many hours of reading on the internet. He also managed to include one plant, Shipova, that I’d not heard about before.

It occurs to me that doing a shotgun approach to see how many I could grow might be a fun project. There are 23 chapters in the book, and many of the chapters cover several related species. Trying to grow every single plant mentioned would be more than I could handle in a year, even if I were retired and had nothing else on my plate. It is also late in the spring to be ordering bare root plants. I restricted my options to plants that were readily available as seed, and would be reasonable to get started no earlier than late spring or early summer. I might also try a few that can be easily collected from empty lots, woodlots, and the gardens of friends and neighbors.

As it happens many of these uncommon fruits are not widely available except as seeds, and no particular preferred cultivars are available as cloned plants. I placed an order from JL Hudson, Seedsman a couple of days ago. I’ll give these a shot, and provide updates as I go along.

Juneberries (Amelanchier spp) are the subject of the first chapter. JL Hudson doesn’t carry seeds for these, and I’m not sure where I might pick some up. I have however acquired several different clones over the last few years.

Beach plum (Prunus maritima) is next on the list. Again I’m not sure where I would pick up seeds for this. However I have a 4 year old plant I grew from seed from Mary Beth Rauch. I also have several seed grown plants from Oikos Tree Crops. It is an easy to grow, fast growing shrub. Freshly collected seeds sprout readily after several months of cold, moist storage.

Alpine and Musk strawberries (Fragraria vesca and F. moschata) are readily available as both seed and plants. I ordered ‘Golden Alexandria’ and ‘Alpine Yellow’, both F. vesca varieties. “Wild” strawberries are also readily found in many backyards and woodlots. Look for the runners, and select an emerging plant that is just starting to show signs of root growth. Clip it off, push it lightly down into some soil, and it should strike roots very quickly.

Pawpaws (Asimina triloba) is quite honestly a beast to try to grow. Plenty of named clones are available from a number of different locations. They are all typically grafted onto seedling stock, they are all very often back ordered, and they tend to be pricey. Seed grown plants are also available, often at a more attractive price.

I’ve purchased seed in the past from the web. Pawpaw seed loses viability rapidly when it dries out. I know this from personal experience. Make sure that whoever you order seed from knew what they were doing when they collected the seed.

Fresh collected seed, stored cool and moist in the refrigerator for at least three months, sprouts readily. Plant it sufficiently deep, 1/4″ is decent, 1″ isn’t too deep. Then step back, water regularly, and have patience. In my experience the seedlings will break the surface within 4 to six months, assuming that you planted actual sprouted seed to begin with. Yes, it takes a long time. Some sources suggest that the seed may take one to two years to sprout. I’ve seen that happen in at least one instance.

If you manage to get the seedlings to this point without them drying out, bright sunlight can still make short work of them. This is how I lost every one of the seedlings I was growing in 2006. Partial shade for at least the first growing season is necessary to get the seedlings to survive, as well as avoiding drying them out.

I have quite a few pawpaw seedlings, but JL Hudson listed them in stock, and I figured I’d try growing a few more.

Raisin tree (Hovenia dulcis) is something I’ve read about, but never tried growing. I ordered a packet of these as well. Reich seems to indicate that these are fairly easy from seed, and that seed is the preferred means of propagation in this country. We’ll find out shortly.

Next up in lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idea). This is the first one I’m going to just flat out skip. I grow blueberries, and I’ve tried growing other Vaccinium from seed, with rather mixed results. I didn’t see a ready source of seed, and I decided to bow out gracefully on this one.

Kiwifruit (Actinidia spp) have been easy for me to start from seed out of the grocery store fruit. Unfortunately those are A. deliciosa and not cold hardy around here. I couldn’t find seeds for any of the hardier Actinidias, and as I mentioned before, I’m not going to try to find started plants this late in the planting season.

Mulberries belong to the Morus genus. The only mulberry really likely to be winter hardy here is M. alba. I actually have two of these in the ground already. JL Hudson offers seed packets of M nigra though, and claims they are hardy to USDA zone 5. I suspect that these are actually mis-identified seeds from a black fruited M. alba, and I also suspect that the seeds won’t be viable. I’ve tried growing M. nigra from dry stored seed before, with zero success. However for $2.50 I’m willing to gamble on the long shot. Sounds like more fun than a lottery ticket anyway.

Persimmons (Diospyros spp) are next on the list. The book focuses on kaki persimmons (D. kaki) and native american persimmons (D. virginiana). It also mentions the date persimmon (D. lotus). Kaki persimmons are out. Nothing I’ve read indicates they have a prayer of surviving a western Pennsylvania winter. American persimmons are in. I couldn’t find seed, but in 2010 I was at the outer banks where american persimmons were fruiting freely along the road ways.

Well, road way. There is pretty much one road up and down the island. Collecting the fruit was a little challenging. The nastiest possible biting flies hung out on the branches, and as soon as one of the fruits were plucked, they’d dive bomb me. At any rate, the seedlings have proven very hardy in Pennsylvania.

I also ordered a packet of D. lotus seed. Again it seems a bit of a long shot. I’m not entirely clear that the plant will be cold hardy here, nor how well the seed stores. It seems like a more likely success than the mulberry though, and I felt the $2.50 for a packet of seed to be a worthwhile investment.

Elaeagnus spp are one of those plant groups that seems to have a lot of names, but no widely identified common name. I have several name culivars, and I’ve grown this from seed quite a few times. I love the fruit, and the plant is a delight to grow. This one, more so E. multiflora and E. angustifolia have a reputation for invasiveness. Personally I’ve not seen that with E. multiflora in this area, but I can believe that E. angustifolia and perhaps other members of the genus could be invasive in areas with low soil fertility. I wasn’t able to locate seeds for this project, but I will have access to wild crafted seeds and my own plants’ seeds this fall.

Gooseberries are also in the book, and these are one of my favorites. Ribes spp is the best I can come up with to describe this one. Reich lists them as R. uva-crispa and R. hirtellum, but I’ve also seen a number of other species mentioned as contributing to the domesticated gooseberry gene pool.

I’ve grown these from seed, but bare rooted plants are so readily available, where this plant is legal to grow, and the bare rooted plants are so successful, in this particular case it seems wasteful of time and energy to try to grow them from seed. If you want to do so, fresh or dried seed can be stored moist and cold for 3-4 months, and then sown very lightly into good soil. Or just crush a few berries, mix them into the soil surface of a 1 gallon nursery pot, protect from rodents, and keep it evenly moist. Expect good germination the next spring.

I ordered a packet of R. divaricatum from JL Hudson, but it turns out that the packet I planted last year is actually resulting in plants this year. Looks like I should have lots of them shortly. A similar pattern of germination as described above for gooseberries works well with R. divaricatum, which is essentially a wild gooseberry.

Maypops (Passiflora spp) are something that I grew once for a number of years ago, without ever knowing for certain which species I was growing. I was told that it was P. incarnata by the friend that gave it to me. Other folks assured me that P. incarnata could never be contained by the single 1 gallon pot that housed it for several years. I eventually lost it when trying to plant it outside, so whatever it was, it was not winter hardy in western Pennsylvania. JL Hudson offers seeds for several Passiflora species, including P. incarnata. It looks like it can succeed here, we’ll see if it does.

Che (Cudrania tricuspidata) sure looks interesting, and should be hardy here. I’ve seen plants available, but no seeds that I can find right now. For right now, I’m going to skip this species.

Black currants (Ribes spp) are another one of my favorites. I have nearly a dozen name varieties that I grow, along with three different selections of R. odoratum, and several of R. americanum plants. The flavor of the raw berry is an acquired taste, I suppose, but I’ve acquired it! While I’m not going to grow this from seed for this project, it is relatively straight forward to propagate similar to gooseberries. Seed stored cool and moist for several months will germinate readily. Hardwood cuttings of last year’s growth will strike roots without much fuss in order to propagate a named variety.

Nanking cherry (Prunus tormentosa) I’m going to have to pass on. I don’t see a seed source, I don’t know of any nearby plants, and I’m unwilling to try to mail order this so late into the spring. The latin name, tormentosa doesn’t refer to any sort of torment, but rather indicates that the leaves tend to be downy. This plant is often available inexpensively and in bulk via mail order.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) unlike nanking cherry is not a member of the cherry family. Instead it is a dogwood. I love dogwoods, and one that can be eaten sure is appealing. I have seeds on order for this plant. This may be a longer term seed project, as several sources indicate it is slow to germinate, and may take 5-8 years to produce fruit after sprouting. Reich and JL Hudson both indicate that the fruit from these seed grown plants should be just fine.

Red, white, and pink currants (Ribes spp) can be grown just like black currants, which in turn are very similar to gooseberries. I don’t have any pink currants, and most of my red currants are actually taken from selected feral populations. These are easy to spot from the road and trail in early spring, with a little practice. It usually isn’t hard to get permission to take a 12″ clipping. Shove it all the way into a 1 gallon plastic pot of soil, and by the next spring you’ve got a plant ready to grow.

The named white currants I grow (White Grape and White Imperial) are the absolute slowest growing currants I have. I’m tempted to try to hand pollinate the two and grow out seeds from the resulting berries. I’m curious as to whether seedlings would show more vigorous growth than the named varieties.

Asian pears (Pyrus pyrifolia, P. spp) are easy to grow from seed. Cold, moist treatment will sprout the seeds within 3-4 months, at which point they can be planted into 1 gallon black plastic pots. Even if they don’t sprout while in the cold, after 3-4 months they can be planted out and should sprout shortly after moving to warmer conditions.

One down side to growing asian pears from seed is that fruits are probably the better part of a decade away from planting the seed. Another drawback is that there is no guarantee that the resulting pears will be as good as the parent fruit. I do it because it is fun to watch them grow! My largest is currently 4 years old, and was nearly 7 feet tall this spring. I pruned it back rather severely in hopes that it will bring on fruiting soon.

If you want asian pears and quickly, purchase a grafted tree. These will produce quickly soon after planting and will produce a known quality fruit.

Jostaberry is a complex hybrid between various black currants, one or more domesticated gooseberries, and sometimes some wild gooseberries (notably the R. divaricatum mentioned earlier). In reviewing this, it occurs to me that I’ve turned my nose up to this plant based mostly on descriptions from the California Rare Fruit Grower’s Fruit Facts, as well as a couple of experiences from people that might not have been well positioned to judge the plants.

At any rate this complex hybrid is not going to be available as seed, and I’m not going to order live plants right now. I may need to revisit this plant in the future.

Lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium spp, primarily V. angustifolium) are also reviewed in a very positive manner by Reich. Just like with longonberry, I am going to bow out gracefully. I’m not feeling up to growing this from seed, however there are several offerings of lowbush blueberry and huckleberry available in seed form. I may decide to hit up a neighbor for rhizome or shoot cuttings.

Jujube (Zizyphus jujuba) sounds fascinating. It might be marginal with regards to winter hardiness, and apparently does not come true from seed, but it seems like a worthwhile project to me. I’ve got seeds for this on their way.

Shipova (XSorbopyrus sp) is the one I hadn’t heard of before. It sounds like an interesting plant, but it isn’t going to be available as seed, and even clonally propagated plants look like they will be fun to locate. Above and beyond that, Reich didn’t convince me that the extra effort beyond planting an asian pear would be worth the trouble.

Medlar (Mespilus germanica) is the last of Reich’s list. It sounds interesting, and I’ve tried to purchase live plants in the past. Thus far I’ve failed to place an order while the plants were still in stock. Seeds do not appear to be readily available, and don’t seem to be a recommended method of propagation anyway. No matter, I’ll skip this one for now as well.

In addition to these I’m also going to try growing some Lycium spp (goji or wolfberry) and some Physalis peruviana (golden berry or Cape Gooseberry).

Stay tuned!


Setting Out Spring Annuals

Memorial day is the traditional planting out day in western Pennsylvania.

Earlier this spring I described the process of starting seeds indoors for things like
tomatoes, peppers, and flowering nicotiana. So now that you’ve got your seedlings started, what do you do with them?

The simple answer is take them outside and plant them!

In fact this is what my co-workers and I did last earlier this week when we slipped some
papste tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, some jalapeno peppers, and some unidentified flowers into
the ground in front of our workplace.

The devil is in the details though, and there are some steps that you can take to improve the odds for
those little plants.

The first thing to be aware of is that plants grown indoors are typically exposed to much lower light levels and
far less air movement than they are outside. This means that the leaves are likely going to wind or sunburn fairly easily.

This shouldn’t be a mystery. If we take the average couch potato and rip him from in front of the TV, tossing him into
bright spring sun for 4 or 5 hours, we can be pretty certain that he will sunburn. Plants do the same thing, and for the
same reason. Gradually exposing them to the sunlight for increasing lengths of time will allow the leaves to darken, toughen,
and handle the sun better. Fortunately plants adapt faster than humans. Start them off with a couple hours of early
morning and evening daylight, and in 2-3 days they should be toughened pretty well.

Windburn is pretty much the same thing, and the same approach that hardens the plants to sunburn will work here as well.
The only real difference here is that it isn’t the ultra-violet from the sun doing the damage, it is the wind sucking precious
moisture from the thin leaf surface.

Soil preparation is important. My co-workers and I turned the soil over with a garden fork, dug holes within this, and carefully
set the plants into the soil. We were careful to make sure we broke up large clumbs of dirt near the roots, so as to minimize air pockets.
Last spring I provided tips for a no-till approach to soil preparation. In essence you trade off some time, cardboard or newspaper, and plenty
of mulch in place of turning the soil. It takes longer to prepare the bed, but the soil will be healthier for it, and healthy soil makes
for healthy plants.

Trap the soil down firmly around the plants. Again you are looking to eliminate air pockets, which will dry roots and endanger the young plants.

For tomatoes, don’t be afraid to set the plants down in deeper than they were originally. Any portion of the tomato stem that ends up below
ground will strike roots and create a stronger, healthier plant.

Once the plants are in the soil, water them in well. Coming from a more protected environment, they are going to lose water faster and take
it up slower than they will once they get settled in, so plentiful water in the garden bed is particularly important right now.

Top dress the plants with an inch or so of well aged compost or double ground wood mulch.

Now step back and watch them settle in for the next week or two! Soon the roots will start to explore out into the soil, and it will be time to fertilize.

Remember that sunlight fuels plant growth, and plants usually alternate between root growth and leaf growth. Don’t be surprised if the plants take a week
or two to start really growing. They need to get those roots anchoring into the soil first!

Setting Out Spring Annuals

Spring Planting for Perennials

One of my co-workers caught me off guard a week ago when she asked me what she could plant in her garden right now.

My mind started running through the early crops, beets, peas, onion sets, lettuce can all go in very early in the spring. Before I could organize a suggestion she asked me about leeks.


Perennial veggies are an excellent addition to a garden. Food that doesn’t have to be replanted years after year appeals to me. I double checked to make sure she meant leeks, and not the ramps that will be available a few weeks from now. Either one can be grown in the garden, but regular garden leeks are probably a little more tolerant of cultivation. Their wikipedia entry suggests that they have been cultivated for at least the last 4,000 years.

Leeks, ramps, scallions, onions and garlic all have a lot in common. They tend to grow best in cool, moist conditions, usually benefit from a fertile soil, and are generally perennial. Top setting for garlic, setting seed for non-garlic plants, or for some onions very cold temperatures might bring an end to the plant. Leeks and ramps can be planted most any time of the year, but right now with cool temperatures and lots of moisture is a great time to get them into the ground.

One of my favorite seed dealers, J.L. Hudson, advertises four varieties of leek seed this year. Hudson is also offering a selection of onion seed, some of which will overwinter nicely here in Pennsylvania. Seed can be planted outdoors in tilled soil, or lay down 8-10 layers of newsprint covered with several inches good fine mulch, and place the seed on top of the mulch. The seed doesn’t need to be covered, or cover it very lightly. Rows 8 inches apart are fine.

Leek plants can also be purchased locally, Pennswoods.net Classifieds lists a number of people selling garden leeks right now. They can be planted right now along with onion sets, and in much the same fashion as onion sets.

In addition to members of the onion family, this is a perfect time to get fruit trees and bushes into the ground. There are lots of local nurseries that carry an abundance of fruiting plants. One of the advantages of shopping at a local nursery is that they tend to stock plants they’ve found to do well in the local area. It doesn’t work well for them to have people bringing them back dead plants over the next couple of months, and so they’ve got a lot of trial and error in offering plants that are likely to do well right out of the gate.

This spring I’ve worked in a number of raspberry bushes, gooseberries, currants, and some edible honeysuckles. As you move further out into lesser known plants, the advantages of mail order nurseries kick in. Where as the local nurseries are going to take pains to offer error-proof options, they are not going to want to expend valuable stock space into plants that will have a limited following. Most nurseries will carry heritage, bristol, and lathram raspberries, but if you want a Fall Gold, Anne’s Gold, or KiwiGold you might have to mail order them. Yellow Delicious apples and D’Anjou pears can be found at most nurseries, but Arkansas Black apples and Korean Giant pear are likely going to be mail order plants.

I planted raspberries for the first time last year, and decided to expand a little this year. I dropped this year’s plants in 10′ away from last year’s row, and put the plants 2′ apart in the row. I hope in a couple of years to have a solid hedgerow of Fall Gold.

Edible honeysuckle can also be known as haskap or honeyberry. Edible honeysuckle, at its best, is said to resemble blueberries. The advantage is that they barely care what sort of soil they grow in, compared to blueberries being fairly particular about a low nutrient, acidic and moist environment. Honeysuckle also tends to be faster fruiting, faster growing, and far more tolerant of shade and competition from other plants.

The down side is that honeysuckle has been bred for ornamental purposes as much or more than for eating, and it can be a gamble getting plants with berries that are tolerable, much less comparable to blueberries. Another gotcha lies in the fact that even eating quality honeysuckle really needs to completely ripen on the plant before harvest. Blueberries picked a day or two early won’t have quite the depth of flavor and sweetness, but honeysuckle berries picked a day or two early are hardly worth eating.

Edible honeysuckle, like blueberries, is not self pollinating and you need to plant at least two varieties for fruit.

I found edible honeysuckle plants labeled as “Lonicera caerulea ‘kamtschatica'” at a local nursery for $50 each. The ‘kamtschatica’ branding only means that the plants may or may not have had their origin in northeastern asia. Online I’ve found St Lawrence nurseries is now carrying several named, patented varieties from the University of Saskatchewan for $15 each, or not-named-but-bred-for-eating plants for $10 each. To me, this is a win for mail order.

St. Larwence requires orders for spring delivery be postmarked no later than April 10, so if you are thinking of ordering, now is the time.

I’ve also put in some hops within the last week. This is another a seasonally available plant. The obvious purpose of hops is for brewing your own beer. However non-brewers might also find interest in hops. The hops are used in crafting for making pillows. They also produce an absolutely amazing vine. Within the first year they are capable of growing up to six feet, making them an excellent privacy screen. The second year if they are properly cared for they can reach up to 20 feet.

For the plants I’ve mentioned, getting them in early in the spring is a key to success. Cool air helps slow top growth while ample spring moisture and bright sun on the soil warms the roots and helps the plant grow into its new location. The later into spring we go, the less time the roots have to dig in before dealing with the stress of providing moisture for early summer’s growth. Early fall can be just as good, with a cool moist fall, and a cool moist spring before summer hits. The disadvantage is that winter sits between the two, and might cull a plant that didn’t grow in quite fast enough.

Most berry bushes will do well to be planted just a little deeper than they were grown, but raspberries and grafted fruit trees need to be planted at the same level or just a touch shallower. Raspberry crown can rot if planted too deeply, and the graft of the fruit tree needs to be above ground. If you don’t know that the tree is not grafted, it is safe to assume that it is grafted. Berry bushes usually need to have any branch older than 4 years pruned, and having the base of the bush below soil level will help encourage it to send up new shoots on a regular basis. Planting a bit on the deeper side also helps encourage their roots to be a little deeper. For berry bushes with their shallow roots, this can be the difference between skating along through a hot dry summer, and producing a bountiful harvest.

Suppressing weed growth is important. Many fruit bearing bushes and trees don’t handle competition well. Two to four inches of mulch over top with either a commercial weed barrier, a layer of cardboard, or 8-10 sheets of newsprint works great. This also helps make sure that the shallow roots of berry bushes don’t dry out. The double ground style mulch is just about perfect for this. Being an aged, finely ground mulch it tends resist wind and stay in place, hold its color well, and it provides both mild nutrition and healthy building soil materials. Call Scotty here at Snyder Excavating and tell him you want to try some of the double ground mulch this season.

Have a Happy Easter!

Starting Annuals Indoors

With the warm weather we’ve been having, you’ve been in the same boat as me. Thinking about gardening, but knowing it is just a little too early.


Now is a great time to start putting seeds into soil indoors and getting ready for your own home grown plants.

Tomatoes and peppers are ideal. They come in a much wider variety as seeds than you’ll find at the garden center a few weeks from now. Colors, flavors,
growing styles, as wide and varied as the mind can envision. Cherry and grape tomatoes with their super sweet flavor, heirloom beef stakes like the local
nurseries don’t dare try to bring to market, and the German Green tomatoes, the black amish tomatoes, and the, er, peter peppers that look like aaahh,
well a wrinkled little peter are all available as seed.

There are also lots of flowers that are appropriate for starting inside. Petunias, marigolds, and a whole host of things you’ll never find at the big box

It is easy, inexpensive, and fun to get started. The first thing you are going to need is seeds. You can buy those the same places you can buy the plants
in the near future, including your local feed store. However for a much wider variety, try a mail order catalog. Some of my favorites are lesser known
shops like Pinetree Gardens (www.superseeds.com) where you can find smaller than usual packs of seeds for smaller than usual prices. JL Hudson Seedsman (www.jlhudsonseeds.com) has
an array of plant seeds that will baffle the human mind. Some flowers I’ve gotten from there are absolutely amazing, beautiful, and easy to grow!

In partuicular check his selection of Solanum plants, where I’ve searched for my own personal Audrey II ala Little Shop of Horrors. His selection of
flowering tobaccos is usually excellent. They make a great addition to a night blooming garden.

RH Shumway is also a good catalog to leaf through.

Once you have the seeds, you next need something to grow them in. The dollar store near where I work has seed starting mix and bio-degradable peat pots.
These are cheap and perfect. A co-worker also picked up a $1 tinfoil style pan with a clear lid to hold his seed starts.

Cheap seed starting mix can be difficult to wet, mostly because of its high peat moss or coir content. Since the dollar store sells small bags, you
can just add water right to the bag, and shake the devil out of it. Keep shaking and adding small amounts of water until it clumps together nicely when
you squeeze it. Be careful not to breathe the dust.

If you don’t like spending $3 on a bag of seed starting mix, or think you can do better, just dig up some topsoil. Most times it will work fine,
though you might get some early starting weeds as well. I like well composted wood mulch, maybe with just a tiny bit of fertilizer and possibly some lime
added. When in doubt, error on the side of too little soil additives.

Next up is a source of warmth. At this stage of the game warmth is more important than light. Most seeds require warmth and moisture to sprout,
but most will sprout with a relatively little light. Given the tendency for most people to bury seeds, light seems pointless at this stage.

If your house is decently warm, at least 70, you’re good to go. However if you park these next to a window sill, the soil temperature might be as much as
10 or 15 degrees cooler. In these cases the clear cover that my co-worker used will help bump the temperature a bit, as will a commercial heat mat.
Online distributors sell seedling heat maps for fairly low prices.

Placing the seed starts above a heat register, in a warm closest, or on top of the refrigerator might work just as well. You don’t need to cook them,
just get them up above 70 degrees.

Now sprinkle the seeds on top of the soil. Yes, just sprinkle them on top of moist soil. No need to bury a 1/8 inch tomato seed an inch an a half into the
dirt. The seed will wick moisture from the surrounding soil just fine, and once it starts to grow it is as easy for it to drive that root downwards as it
is to drive the leaves upwards. The difference is that as soon as the leaves hit the light, it can start to pick up energy and put on weight.

At this point you need a light source. Nothing fancy, any florescent light is as good as another. The expensive specialty grow lights are often are
designed to give off a particular wavelength, but at the expense of total light output. Put the florescent light as close to the seedling as possible.
One to two inches away is ideal. You can raise the light as the plants grow.

If the plants start to get a little too leggy, thin and weak looking, they probably are not getting enough light. Most window sills, even south facing
ones, are not going to give enough light at this time of year.

Something else that will help with thin, weak seedlings is a fan blowing lightly. This mimics the wind that hits plants naturally, and helps
thicken and toughen that stem. A fan won’t take the place of enough light, but it will help an otherwise healthy plant prepare for the great outdoors.

Generally you’ll want to start seedlings no more than 4-6 weeks before you think you can plant them outdoors. Young plants grow quickly, and I’ve
often found myself with rapidly growing, too-large-for-the-counter plants, weeks before last frost.

There are not many things more fulfilling and healthy than growing your own food, but doing so from the very start, from tiny little seeds, can make it that
much sweeter!

No-Till Gardening

Spring is here, and summer is just around the corner. If you don’t already have a garden, now is the time to do it.

You don’t need a rototiller. Pick an area with good sunlight,
and mow the grass short or chop away the weeds. Lay down a single layer of
cardboard. If there is a lot of weed stuble, you might want a double layer.
Plain is fine, but I like to use corrugated carboard.
Many grocery stores will give the boxes away for free. You can also use
layered newsprint. I’ve found that newsprint is not nearly as effective as
cardboard unless a fairly thick layer of newsprint is used. I would recommend
no less than 10 sheets.

Make sure to overlap the pieces of cardboard or newsprint, otherwise the weeds
will find their way up through the cracks.

On top of the cardboard, apply a layer of mulch, 1 to 3 inches.
Then water the mulch pretty thoroughly. This will work its way down
to the cardboard, softening it, and making it conform tightly to the ground.

Between the cardboard and the mulch, you should have nearly eliminated any
weeding through the course of the summer, as well as helping to conserve
moisture during the heat of summer.

If you use the same location for your garden year after year, this layer of
mulch will decompose and act as fertilizer and soil building organic matter.
Top dress with 1 inch of so of mulch each year, adding new cardboard every
other year or so.

By the way, bushes and trees can also benefit from a 1 to 3 feet circle of
mulch, thinner towards the center, thicker at the outer edges.

Aged mulch is better. It has had the chance to compost somewhat, and is not
as nitrogen leaching as fresh mulch. Because it is partially decomposed, aged mulch
usually has a nice natural dark color. Dyed mulch is quicker to produce, but
it is often made of lower grade wood, pallets or demolished home debris. With dyed mulch the
addition of some nitrogen may be necessary to balance the fact that the
freshly decomposing wood will draw some nitrogen from the ground.
I also find the dye tends to stain everything it touches.

In my area I’ve found that it is easy to locate a double ground tree top mulch
that is undyed, and aged for a year before being delivered for retail sale.
This makes an excellent mulch that helps build a biologically active soil.

In the absence of a good wood or bark type mulch, straw can be used.
I’ve used baled straw, taking sections off of the end and laying them over
the cardboard. Every year my wife and mother in law set up a Halloween
display using a couple of bales of straw. By spring time it makes an
excellent, long lived mulch. You can fluff it up to make it look prettier,
but in my mind this makes it a lot less useful as a mulch.