Archive for April, 2013

April 24, 2013

Timing: Seed Starting, Planting and Beyond

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Timing.  It can mean making it big or missing it all.  It can mean coming in with the choir or sticking out like a sore thumb.

Timing, in so many areas of our lives can “make it or break it”.  Timing in the garden isn’t quite as cut and dry as other situations in life, mostly because we’re dealing with Mother Nature and that means what we do and when we do it depends upon the weather, which can make timing a bit of a guessing game.  Even though historically speaking weather has been a certain way in April or May, Mother Nature is going to do what she wants to do. (Take our never-ending winter for example.)  So when you garden, you need to be willing to be flexible regarding timing.

Timing: Seed Starting

That said, there are some basic timing guidelines that will help us at least aim in the general vicinity of when things “should” happen in order to have a fruitful season.  Take seed starting for example: When you look at a packet of seeds, it is loaded with information.

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Let’s use my packet of Wapsipinicon Peach Tomatoes. For the sake of this post, we’ll only focus on the information pertaining to timing.

Start Indoors: 6 weeks before last frost

Germination: 7-14 days

Green Thumb Tip: … Tomatoes are sensitive to freezing temperatures, so wait to transplant outdoors until the soil is warm. …

Okay, so what does that mean?  To begin with, “Start Indoors: 6 weeks before last frost” means you need to determine when the last frost is going to happen in your area.  When I first started gardening my thought was, “How the heck do I know when the last frost is going to be?!?”  Turns out, we aren’t expected to look into a fortune teller’s crystal ball.  No, instead, we are to look at the history of the weather in our area over the past 10 years to determine when the average last frost occurred.  Luckily for us, there are people out there who track this information so we don’t have to figure it out!  If we search on the web for “average last frost date” along with the city we live in, we should see either a map of our state which shows the average last frost dates across the state or a list of major cities in our state and the average last frost date for each city.  In Minneapolis, our average last frost date is May 21st (recently adjusted from May 15th).

Okay, so now we know that we (in Minneapolis) should plant our tomato seeds indoors 6 weeks prior to May 21st.   If we count 6 weeks backwards from May 21st that puts us at April 9th. Oh, April 9th has already passed.  Hopefully we already planted our seeds around that time frame. But let’s say we didn’t. Now what?  Well, now, we look to the next piece of information, “Germination: 7 – 14 days”.  This piece of information is actually more beneficial to knowing whether our seed was viable or not.  (If we haven’t seen any signs of life by 14 days, we are probably not going to.)  However, it’s also good to know that we need 1 – 2 weeks just for the seed to start growing.  Hmmm… we’re about 2 weeks behind schedule and it’s going to take 1 – 2 weeks just for it to germinate?  That puts us at May 1st – May 8th before there are any signs of life.  That’s going to be a pretty young plant to put in the ground by May 21st.

But here’s the good news, “Tomatoes are sensitive to freezing temperatures, so wait to transplant outdoors until the soil is warm.”  That sounds pretty vague, doesn’t it?  It is, but a little research will show you that tomatoes typically need soil temperatures higher than 60 F for the seed to germinate and they won’t grow unless the air temperature is at least 55 F.  In fact, it is recommended not to put them outside until the nighttime lows are at 55 F or higher.  In Minneapolis, that nighttime average temperature doesn’t come until the end of May or beginning of June.

Ha, ha!  Did you catch that?! We just bought ourselves a little time!  The end of May or beginning of June is another week and a half (past May 21st), which just so happens to be roughly the same amount of time that we are “behind” schedule if we didn’t already plant our tomato seeds.  So can we still plant our tomato seeds today?  Yes! (But we need to hurry up and do it!)

When thinking about how to time planting seeds, the other thing to consider is when you plan on planting your garden.  Personally, I don’t like to plant my warm season crops (those that prefer warm weather and really dislike or won’t grow under colder conditions) until around Memorial weekend.  At that point we can (typically) safely assume there won’t be any further chances of frost, the daytime and nighttime temperatures are rising and the soil is starting to warm up.

In summary, to figure out timing as to when to plant your seeds, you need to know:

  • The average last frost date in your area
  • When to start seeds indoors (number of weeks in advance)
  • When you plan on planting your garden

With those pieces of information, you can simply count backwards (in weeks) from your average last frost date and mark on your calendar or organize your seeds by weeks so you know what to plant when.

It’s also important to note that some seeds are to be “direct sown“, in other words, they do not need to be and typically shouldn’t be started indoors, but instead planted directly into the garden (such as peas, carrots and radishes).  This too, should be noted on the seed packet.

How To Get From A Pile of Seeds To A Planting Schedule

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I lay out all of my seeds by type (tomatoes, cucumbers/squash, peas, beans) because typically, plants in the same family are going to require the same timing (give or take a week).

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Then, using my calendar, I figure out when each seed packet needs to be planted and group them together by week.  I put them all in a box with the seed packets behind their proper week.  This makes it quick and easy to look and see what needs to get planted each week and I can simply grab the packets, plant the seeds and move onto the next group the following week.

Timing: Planting in The Garden

As far as timing the planting of your garden, it’s important to remember that different plants prefer different conditions, so you should plan to plant your garden in phases.

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and beans are all warm season crops, so I wait to put them into the ground until things warm up.  Cool season crops, on the other hand, (cole crops such as broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, etc.) prefer colder temperatures, as do peas and spinach, so as soon as the snow melts and the soil starts to dry out, it’s time to get those plants in the ground.

Don’t try to get your whole garden planted in one day. Give yourself a week to plant, whether it’s planting seeds indoors or planting in the ground.  Shoot for “the week of…” rather than a specific day.  That way if the weather or life gets in the way of the exact day you targeted, you’ll have a little wiggle room.

If you live in Minnesota you may be wondering whether we are still on track for spring planting given the late winter weather and seemingly endless amounts of snow…  The bad news, is, yes, the cool/cold season crops are a week or two behind, but the good news is that forecast is for the 50s F, 60s F and even 70s F in the coming days in Minneapolis and with a few days of sun and dry weather the soil will begin drying out and warming up pretty quickly.

That said, I realize many of us are anxious to get out into our gardens, but again, we need to be flexible and need to keep the plant’s and soil’s best interests in mind.  In other words we need to make sure the soil is “ready to be worked” prior to diving into the garden or we can do both our soil and our plants harm which can set us back years instead of just a couple of weeks.  So how do you know if your soil is “ready to be worked”?  Test for moisture content and temperature.

To test soil moisture content, simply grab a handful of soil and squeeze it.  If it stays together in a clump it is still too wet to be worked.  We want the soil to break apart in our hand when it is squeezed.  Working soil when it’s too wet will cause compaction, which is detrimental to the soil and can take years to repair, we can prevent soil compaction by waiting to work the soil until it had properly dried out. Planting seeds when the soil is too wet can also cause the seeds and/or seedlings to rot and invites disease problems into the garden if the plant were to survive.

To test soil temperature, simply use a soil thermometer.  Soil thermometers will help you observe whether your garden is ready for your plants.  They are relatively inexpensive to buy and are available at most garden centers or nurseries and some hardware stores even carry them.

Keep in mind, when it comes to moving seedlings outdoors, if the air and soil aren’t warm enough, it is actually better for the plants to keep them inside under lights and in consistent temperatures than it is to put them into unfavorable conditions.  In the long run, your plants will be stronger and do better if you keep them inside just a little bit longer.

Beyond Timing:

I highly recommend having a calendar just for gardening.  You can mark the average last frost date, average first frost date (in the fall), when to start seeds and even when to harvest (by using the harvest information on the seed packet).  You can also include when to do succession plantings and jot notes as to what you planted when (vs. your target planting dates).  This is a great reference tool later and an excellent companion to a gardening journal!

Remember, gardening is supposed to be enjoyable.  The timing is important, but not critical.  Observe and be flexible!

Kate

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April 24, 2013

Natura Pet Food/Treat Recall

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I realize this is a bit of an odd post, and it wasn’t what I had intended on posting for “N” (the original post is about nitrogen fixers in the lawn and garden, but we’ll get to that another day).

Instead, this is a public service announcement.

April 19, 2013 – Natura Pet Products is voluntarily expanded its March 29, 2013 recall of dry pet foods because they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. The expanded recall now includes all dry pet food products and treats with expiration dates prior to and including March 24, 2014.

This recall includes the following brands:

Innova
EVO
California Natural
HealthWise
Karma

I’m using this post for this notification because I first heard about this recall last night on the news and I figured that if I hadn’t heard about it until now, there might be others that missed this information as well.

Salmonella contamination can make our pets sick as well as transfer to other animals and humans.

If you use one of the above listed brands, please visit the Natura website for further information about this recall.

Kate

April 22, 2013

Seed Starting 101 (An Earth Day Project)

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Happy Earth Day!

What better way to celebrate Earth Day (and for those of us in Minnesota to forget that it’s snowing again) than starting seeds to plant a garden?

So here we go…

Seed Starting 101

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1.  Wash your hands.  This feels like an oxymoron. Wash your hands before getting them dirty?  In this case, yes.  When handling seeds and the soil they grow in, we are trying to start a life.  We want to make sure that we have a sterile environment in order to minimize as much bacteria, virus and contamination as possible.

Note: Hand washing is extremely important for smokers because Tomato-Tobacco Mosaic Virus Disease can be spread by the fingers of smokers touching plants, particularly those found in the Nightshade family (tomatoes, peppers, etc.).   More info on Tomato-Tobacco Mosaic Virus Disease can be found here.

2. Start with a new or sterilized seed tray, pot or other container with drainage holes.  Again, we’re looking for a clean sterile environment to start our seedlings in.  All containers must have drainage holes to allow water for proper drainage and to prevent drowning our precious seedlings.

Note: To sterilize containers, soak in a solution of 1 part household bleach to 10 parts water for 30 minutes.  Rinse thoroughly.

3. Pour soil-less seed starting mix into a sterilized container.

Note: Soil-less mixes work best because they are light weight and retain moisture while also providing air space and drainage necessary for seedlings.  Soil-less mixes are also sterilized to limit disease.  Soil (garden soil, top soil and potting soil) is not recommended for starting seedlings because there is an increased risk of disease, weed seeds and typically does not have adequate drainage required for seedlings.

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4. Moisten seed mix, gradually adding water until the soil mix is like a damp sponge but not dripping wet.

Note: If using municipal water, make sure to “air out” water prior to using on plants.  To “air out” water pour tap water into a sterilized milk jugs or similar container.  Leaving the cover off, allow it to sit for for 24 hours to allow chlorine to evaporate.  Chlorine will cause leaf-drop and can kill plants.

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5.  Gently fill seed trays or containers with damp soil mix, and level off.  Do NOT pack the soil into the container.  Seedlings need air space for their delicate roots to get established.

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6. Using a sterilized dibble or dull pencil, make a small impression on the surface of the soil in the middle each cell or container, about 1/4- inch deep.

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7. Place 2 – 3 seeds in the hole (unless otherwise noted on the seed packet).

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8. Label as you go.  Include the date you are planting and the variety planted.

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9. If seed packet says to plant 1/4 inch deep, lightly cover seeds by sprinkling a thin layer of seed starting mix or vermiculite onto the surface of the soil.

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10. Place seed tray or containers into a solid tray (without drainage holes).  Water seeds by gently misting the surface with a spray bottle filled with “aired out” water or by bottom watering.  If bottom watering, make sure to drain off extra water after soil is thoroughly moist to prevent “damping off” (a fungi which will kill seedlings).

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11.  If using a “green house” seed tray, cover, keeping vents closed if available, and place under plant lights (or a sunny window).

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12. Watch for seedlings to sprout.  If using a green house cover, adjust vents to allow for air circulation.

13. Check seedlings daily for water.  Do not allow seedlings to dry out or to sit in standing water.

Tips:

As seedlings grow, raise plant lights, always keeping as close to the plants as possible without touching them.  Don’t worry, plant lights do not generate enough heat to burn or harm the plants.  Keeping the plant lights close to the seedlings will keep the seedlings compact and prevent them from getting “leggy” (stretching for the light).

When the seedlings have developed 2 sets of leaves (the first set of leaves are the cotyledon or seed leaves, the second set of leaves are the “true leaves”) transplant to a larger container, if necessary.

Run an oscillating fan near the seedlings to mimic wind in order to grow stronger plants and help prevent damping off.  Place the fan close enough to provide a gentle breeze, but not so close as to be a gale-force wind.

Have fun!

Kate

April 21, 2013

Urban Farm Beginnings

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It’s hard to start an urban farm when… it won’t stop snowing!

What the heck is an Urban Farm?  Glad you asked!  Basically, an urban farm is, well, kind of like it sounds, a farm in an urban setting.  In other words, food production for personal or business use right here in the city.  Chances are if you haven’t already heard the term, you will in the near future.  The term is popping up almost as fast as the farms themselves.  Right now, in our area, they are limited to crops and chickens, however some areas have goats too.  From what I hear other small livestock are in line to be a part of this program too!  But just so everyone is clear… what you will see in my front yard is purely plant related.  The chickens are in back yard.  And I’m not sold on having goats yet… although, I might be interested in the Rent-A-Goat program down the road!

I have to be honest, when I started in the Urban Farming Certification Program, I didn’t really have a definite plan for my “farm” and the plan that I have now is still evolving, but one piece of what I want to do in my yard is plant the seed, so to speak, to get people thinking, realizing, that they too can grow at least some of their food in their yard too.  It doesn’t have to be the back.  It can be the front or the side.  You need to do what works for you.

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Here is a picture of what my yard looks like today.  Essentially a blank slate.  The space where I will be growing food has, quite honestly, been simply ignored pretty much since we moved in.  Over the past few years we lost two large, old elm trees, which took that space from mostly shaded, to full sun and the lawn from lush and green to simply fried. It could use some TLC and since there is an abundance of sun and space, why not grow food?

Regarding the space, for a point of reference, this space is about 60 feet wide by 60 feet long.  I won’t be farming the whole thing, at least not this year, but I will be farming a good portion of it, but any piece of what I’m going to be doing could be put into a smaller or larger scale yard.

Here are some of the challenges I face with this project, not necessarily in an order:

  1. Fencing: Find inexpensive, attractive, yet effective fencing or fencing alternatives to keep the deer and other wildlife that will do heavy damage out (we have a Nature Center behind us and a small lake a block to the North) while at the same time keeping it open enough to welcome people in.  This may include shrubs to provide food for both the wildlife and people as well as a barrier.
  2. Grading:  The grade change is not drastic, but it is currently sloping toward the driveway, the residential street in the front as well as the main street on the side.  This means I’m losing water to run-off (not good!).  I’m working on possible ways to alter the grade slightly to slow the water down and store it where it is most effective: in the ground.
  3. Curb Appeal: Since this garden will be in the front yard, I want to maintain, or in this case, add, curb appeal.  Granted, not everyone is going to love seeing a garden in the front yard, but part of my challenge is to make sure it’s not offensive to most (and hopefully if they get a tomato or two out of the deal it won’t bother them as much)!
  4. Maintain set-backs/easements:  You’ll notice we don’t have a public sidewalk in the front like many urban communities do.  At first this seems like a bonus, and while it is regarding additional space, there are still limitations as to what I can do in the “boulevard” space.  In fact, if I decide to alter the boulevard, I need to submit plans to the city, pay a one-time fee and apply for a permit.  They would need to approve the plan prior to starting the project.
  5. IMG_3834Maintain sight-lines:  Corner lots come with restrictions.  The most important restriction is to maintain a maximum height of 30 inches in a triangle going from the corner, fifty feet back on both sides of the corner and a line connecting those two points in order to not block the vision of vehicles turning into or out of our street onto the intersecting street.
  6. Water:  One goal I have is to capture and store the water that is on site, meaning, when it rains, I want to make sure I store as much of that water in the ground as possible.  I want to limit the amount of municipal water that is applied to this site by redirecting water from the downspout that is currently getting wasted or turning into run-off. At the same time I hope to eliminate current water puddling/ice nuisances.
  7. Community Space: As I mentioned before I want this space to be welcoming.  I want it to be welcoming for our neighbors who live here, welcoming for visitors and passersby.  I want to “plant the seed” for others to consider doing even a small piece of this.  I want it to be welcoming to the community and I may be holding classes and/or events in this space, so I want it to be a space people want to come to and hang out in.
  8. Art/Music:  I’ve had thoughts of including art and music.  I’m not sure what that will look like yet.  My son and I like the “READ” sign at the local library, I suggested we put “EAT” in our yard.  He suggested it be “EAT WELL”.  I like his idea better. 🙂
  9. Compost space: I will need to have a place to store compost.  I believe this may need to be on the other side of the fence, because if I recall correctly, compost cannot be in the front yard in our community according to city code.
  10. Permaculture: And finally, all of this needs to happen within the context of Permaculture, because my Urban Farming Certification is designed within the Permaculture framework.

So that’s where things stand today.  I’ve given a lot of thought over the past few months as to how best to go about this. I’m trying to accomplish this without spending a ton of money, because I want people to see that gardening doesn’t have to take a ton of time, labor or resources.  I’m also trying to figure out how to “work smarter, not harder”.  In other words, are there ways of doing this project that will be less detrimental to people, the environment and the soil and yet, still achieve the ultimate goal, which is an abundant urban farm?

I have some ideas, and the final plan will be posted soon.  Until then, I’ll give you all of those things to chew on, because even though “easy” can be nice sometimes, challenges encourage us to get creative!

All my best,

Kate