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

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 ( where you can find smaller than usual packs of seeds for smaller than usual prices. JL Hudson Seedsman ( 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!