Senior Gardening

One of the Joys of Maturity

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The Old Guy's Garden Record

Our Senior Garden - 1/2/2013

Tuesday, January 1, 2013 - Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Having used the same New Year's graphic the last few years, I decided last week to do a new one from scratch for 2013. I'd planned to just use images from our 2012 garden, but the snapdragons on the lower left from last year sorta snuck in there. But all the rest of the images are from 2012, reminding me that even in a season of drought, we had a lot to be thankful for.

Help for New Gardeners

Crockett's Victory GardenA new year and a new gardening season approach. For those readers new to gardening, let me recommend an old gardening guide long out of print, but still available via various book resellers. Crockett's Victory Garden was the companion book to the late James Underwood Crockett's acclaimed PBS television series. It takes a month by month approach to gardening with an incredible amount of time tested gardening tips that can make starting ones first garden a much more enjoyable experience. For more experienced gardeners, it also helps with reminders of generally what to start or care for and when.

If you decide to give yourself (or another gardener) a late Christmas gift, it will pay to check price and shipping amongst the various used book resellers. I recently picked up a hard cover backup copy of the book from Alibris for under $10 shipped. A quick survey of Alibrisicon, Amazon, and Books-A-Million today suggests you might find a paperback copy shipped for around $4! You'll be glad you did.

Full disclosure: Alibrisicon, Amazon, and Books-A-Million are Senior Gardening affiliated advertisers. That means that if you buy a copy through one of the links above, I'll make about a 4¢ commission on the sale. mixed More full disclosure: Emoticons used occasionally on this site are "borrowed" from the excellent, open source course management system, Moodle.

A Big Suggestion for New Gardeners: Start Small!

If I could give any piece of advice to someone new to gardening, it would be to start small. There are few things more defeating than turning over and planting a good sized garden, only to find it weeded over and going to seed mid-summer because one hasn't had the time (or the tricks) to keep it fairly weed free.

A second suggestion like many writers give would be to "Read my book," except that I don't have a book. I do, however, have months and months of searchable gardening archives here on Senior Gardening that may contain answers to questions (that you may not have even thought of yet). The Google search at the top of each page is site specific: It searches only Our archives are also indexed by year and month, with each month having navigation links at the end to the previous and next month's entries.

We also have a growing section of feature stories and how-to's, covering gardening topics I think I know something about. Fifty years of gardening and eight years of farming and market gardening have taught me a little. Most importantly, I've learned that there's an awful lot out there on gardening that I still need to learn! Reader comments, suggestions, and tips are always appreciated, even if you write to just say "Hi."

Coming in January on Senior Gardening

We've already started an egg carton of petunia seed for next year, more because I just couldn't wait to start something than it being time to start petunias. A little later this month, we'll be starting a seed flat or two of onions and seed geraniums for the garden. We'll begin seeding more annuals towards the end of the month.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

Egg Carton petuniasPetunia closeupI shouldn't have been surprised. You put good seed in sterile planting medium, give it appropriate moisture, warmth, and light, and stuff grows. But I was surprised yesterday when I checked our egg carton of petunia seed started on December 30 and found the plants off to a good start, if a bit dry. The bottom heat apparently drove off more moisture than I expected, so I caught the baby petunias just in time. Had I waited another day to check them, I think at least some of the tiny plants might have dried up. They received a good watering and had their humidome cover and bottom heat removed. In a day or so, they'll go onto a windowsill in the kitchen until it's time to repot them into fourpacks or three inch square flower pots. These plants may never get out into the garden, as the Supercascade variety is an excellent choice bred for use in hanging baskets. At just a bit over $2 for a hundred pelleted seeds from either Stokes or Twilley, Supercascade remains one of the real values in flower seed available.

Saturday, January 12, 2013 - Getting Well

Like possibly a lot of you, I've recently gone through a round of the flu and respiratory infection that have precluded any gardening. But during that time, a warmup and some heavy rain have cleared our snowcover, so we're finally seeing greens and browns again when we look outside. Before things cleared, we had one morning of with heavy fog that froze to treetops, leaves, and branches, making for some pretty scenes.

Foggy morning Frosted leaves Ice tipped branches

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - Starting Onions

Perfect size onion plantsI started our first flat of onions today. Last year, I seeded the first of our onions on January 15, and they turned out to be a perfect size for transplanting in April. Of course, the drought cut our growing season short, the onions got rained on while curing on the porch, and we ended up losing almost the whole crop. But...they sure were just the right size for transplanting in April.

Our Starting Mix

I start all of our transplants in a homemade starting mix based on a light commercial potting soil that does not include fertilizer granules that can burn or even kill nearby germinating seeds. We vary the mix by adding peat moss, compost, and other items to fit our specific needs. Today's starter mix was mostly potting soil with a bit of peat moss and compost added, along with some perlite, ground limestone, and bone meal.

After thoroughly mixing our starting mix ingredients and wetting them (if necessary), we bake our starting mix for at least an hour at 400o F in an old kettle in the oven to kill off any damping off fungus that might have been in the mix. Damping off naturally occurs in soils and is often present in commercial potting mixes. The fungi don't cause much of a problem when transplanting older, established plants, but can wreak havoc on emerging seedlings, killing them right at the soil line. Using a soilless starting mix, pouring boiling water on ones starting mix, and/or baking ones starting mix are all ways to avoid having damping off fungus kill your transplants.

Fresh Onion Seed Only

labelsOnion is one of those seeds that may or may not store well from year-to-year, even in the freezer. We always start our onion plants with fresh seed to avoid disappointments later in poor germination. We do save our leftover onion seed for a year, but only for supplemental use or to fill in spots where our first planting hasn't germinated well and we've exhausted our supply of fresh seed.

While I had grand plans to start a couple of flats of onions, shallots, and leeks today, I only had enough sterilized planting medium for one flat, so I ended up just starting our main onions that we'll transplant into the garden in April or May. Having filled a perma-nest seed flat with sterilized planting medium and watered it with warm water, I opened up furrows for four rows, marking each row at either end with plastic plant markers that we bleach and reuse each year. The furrows were about half an inch deep and wide, but when pinched shut cover the seed with about a quarter inch of potting mix.

Onions seededOur varieties planted are the same ones we've used for several years now. Pulsar and Milestone are both excellent yellow storage onions. Red Zeppelin stores about as well as any red onion we've tried and has great flavor. And Walla Wallas almost always produce lots of sweet, large, white onions for us that we have to use, give away, or freeze in a hurry, as they don't store very well.

Egg carton petuniasOur germination mat wasn't in use, so I put our flat of onion seed on it with a setting of 70o F. Onion seed really doesn't require bottom heat to germinate, but the gentle, even heat really can't hurt.

The previous resident on the heat mat, our egg carton of petunias, got moved upstairs into a kitchen window today where they'll remain until they need repotting...or I forget to water them and kill them! Note that stuff grown in egg cartons may need far more frequent waterings than plants grown in other containers.

Thursday, January 17, 2013 - Shallots

I didn't take any pictures today, but I did get that second flat planted that I ran out of starting mix for yesterday. I was sort of motivated to get some more starting mix sterilized and the stuff started, as one of the items was a packet of shallots, something I've not grown before.

Shallots are said to have a milder, but somehow better flavor than onions in some dishes. They're also reportedly easier on touchy stomachs. I started two rows of Ambition shallots from Twilley Seed in the flat that we'll transplant into the garden in April or May. Starting shallots early inside like we do our onions is something not a lot of other gardeners seem to do, so this may be interesting.

I also seeded a row of Exhibition onions, another large, white, sweet onion. And since there's generally room for four rows of small transplants in a standard seed flat, I split the last row between Blue Solaise leeks and Conquistador celery. It's been a few years since we've grown either leeks or celery.

Not one item that I started today is currently on our garden plan for next season! This was all fun stuff...impulse items I just wanted to try. If we get good starts, I'll have to work the items in somewhere in our garden plots.

Friday, January 18, 2013 - Trays

plant rackThe image at right shows the flats (under clear domes) of onions and such we planted on Wednesday and Thursday. I used a single perma-nest flat for Wednesday's planting and standard 1020 seed flats yesterday. Perma-nest flats are heavier (and more expensive) than standard seed flats and can hold a full tray of wet potting mix without bending or breaking. The perma-nest flats also don't seem to puncture on the bottom as easily as do standard flats, although stepping on them certainly makes a mess of them. While they have drainage depressions along the bottom of them, one can easily overwater a perma-nest flat.

Amazon - perma-nest tray
Perma-nest tray
Tripled flats
Tripled standard flats

I started switching over to the heavier perma-nest flats several years ago after having problems with the rough shelves on our plant rack punching holes in the bottom of the increasingly flimsy standard 1020 seed flats we were getting. But with perma-nests running $8-10 each, the changeover has been slow. In the meantime, I began doubling and then tripling our remaining standard flats to make them strong enough to hold a flat full of wet potting soil and also to prevent leakage. I use a slotted flat for the top layer with a solid (no holes) flat under it to provide a moisture reservoir, something the perma-nest tray setup lacks. A final standard flat, slotted or no holes, goes on the bottom to protect the solid flat from the roughness of our plant shelves and other surfaces the combined flats sit on.

Thermostat and heat matNow three years into the changeover, I find that I really like the perma-nest trays for their sturdiness and durability. But our plant rack was built to hold four standard flats under each bank of lights. It will hold two perma-nest and two standard flats in a very tight fit. But to take full advantage of the heavier, wider flats, I'd have to widen our plant rack (not a bad idea and a chance to smooth out the shelves a bit, but it takes time and money...and the darn thing has worked as designed for over thirty years). Also, I'm finding that the cost of three standard flats is a bit less than one perma-nest tray. Tripling the standard flats has turned out to be a good way to keep using some older, damaged standard flats as bottom trays in my three tray combination. And standard flats hold commercial inserts (fourpacks and such) perfectly, while they tend to scoot around a bit in the larger perma-nest trays.

One job I now use the perma-nest trays for almost exclusively is for holding inserts, trays of soil, or pots over our soil heating mat. Even with a thermostat controlling the mat, standard flats do get melted a bit on the bottom by the heat mat! No such damage has occurred with the perma-nest flats. I also have one clear dome that fits the perma-nest flats with a couple of carefully placed holes to admit the thermostat's temperature probe.

My Recommendations

Amazon - Hydrofarm thermostatOur thermostat for our soil heating mat is one commonly available from many garden outlets, the Hydrofarm Digital Thermostat For Heat Mats. Ours has been a dandy, performing well for years. Sadly, I can make no positive recommendation for heat mats, as the one we use is no longer available, and we found the Hydrofarm soil heating mat we used for a year (lasted one day longer than its warranty) to be little more than junk. (Update on heat mats below: found'em.)

The old saying, "You pays your money, you takes your chances" pretty well describes my feelings on heavier trays versus lighter, cheaper standard flats. Each type has its advantages, with the heavier perma-nest trays obviously being far more durable. But cost-wise, I'm finding that using old, standard 1020 seed flats (tripled) is a bit cheaper than the heavier perma-nests. It's certainly not a long term solution, especially as standard flats continue to become more flimsy and expensive each year. But I have slowed down my conversion to perma-nest trays as I use up (and wear out) the last of my standard 1020 seed flats in tripled configuration.

I haven't purchased any trays, flats, or inserts yet this year. We survive the high cost of gardening accessories by buying just a few each year and then reusing them as long as possible. Since I have built up a good supply of heavy trays (and also destroyed a couple by stepping on their corners), I may order some half-length perma-nest trays this year instead of any full size ones. If I order any standard 1020 seed flats, it will be with my order for inserts if it provides some kind of volume discount.

Not Tonight Deer!When we order perma-nest trays, we get them through Amazon, as our usual vendor for pots, trays, hanging baskets, and such is far too wise to sell something their customers want and request. Even with their poor judgment and horrible manners (not answering my request they carry perma-nest trays), we still get our standard flats, inserts, and especially hanging baskets from the Greenhouse Magastore, who seem to do a good job at everything except carrying the flats I want and answering my emails!

And since I'm already out on a limb making recommendations and criticisms left and right, let me add an impulse item I added to our Heirloom Seeds order that may bring a smile to your face. I bought a bag of Not Tonight Deer! deer repellent based more on the product's catchy name and funny package graphic than anything else this year. I can be a sucker at times for impulse purchases, even when doing my highly controlled seed purchases each year. And I like the fact that Heirloom Seeds still sells granular soil inoculant at a fair price. They have reasonable shipping rates as well, possibly because they apparently charge for what shipping costs and not for "free" seed that so many seed houses add to ones order (along with insanely high shipping rates).

Saturday, January 19, 2013 - Precipitation

Precipitation (Inches)
  2013 2012 2011 Ave.
Jan. 4.39 3.20 0.84 2.48
Feb.   1.10 2.28 2.41
March   1.52 3.79 3.44
April   3.80 11.51 3.61
May   1.19 3.38 4.35
June   0.15 5.53 4.13
July   1.89 3.25 4.42
Aug.   1.99 0.32 3.82
Sept.   4.59 3.76 2.88
Oct.   3.31 2.31 2.76
Nov.   1.28 5.63 3.61
Dec.   1.48 3.62 3.03
Totals 4.39 25.50 46.22 40.94

2011 & 2012 precipitation data from the Kinmerom2 weather station, Merom, IN. 2013 precipitation data from the Kinmerom3 weather station.
Average precipitation for Indianapolis, IN

Drought Monitor 130115After rather dry months in November and December, January has already proved far wetter than our area's hundred year average for precipitation. That should help as we continue to recover from last summer's drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor report this week still lists our area as "Abnormally Dry," a classification "used for areas showing dryness but not yet in drought, or for areas recovering from drought." We, of course, fall into the latter description.

Looking at the Drought Monitor's maps and our own rainfall chart at right really doesn't answer the collective question of many farmers and gardeners across the United States, "Are we out of the drought pattern yet?"

Large areas of the plains states and west are still listed under the Drought Monitor's most severe drought classifications. The lack of precipitation in November and December, after good months of precipitation in September and October that pretty much broke the drought for us, still make one wonder if we're not in for another dry season this summer.

While it won't make anything wetter, we're changing our local reporting station for precipitation to one closer to us and hopefully, somewhat more accurate. We're fortunate to live in an area where there are four nearby independent weather stations sharing their data through the Weather Underground. Since we live close to a natural formation, Merom Bluff, that heavily influences our local weather, local reporting stations are generally far more accurate than the nearest "official" NOAA reporting station some thirty miles north of us in Terre Haute, Indiana. Winds sweep across Illinois where they meet a several hundred foot rise in elevation at Merom Bluff. What were higher level winds crossing the plains of Illinois suddenly become ground level winds after passing the bluff until they begin to sweep upward again. The end result is that our wind speeds generally run 10-20 MPH greater than is reported by weather stations somewhat away from the bluff. Unfortunately, we don't have a weather reporting station in the city of Merom or between there and our house (about 2-3 miles) that would give an accurate reading for us on wind speed and precipitation.

Wunderground Stations

Having noted how much more accurate our local weather stations can be at times for our locale, there is a whole lot of variance just between those stations. Current monthly rainfall totals reported include 5.32 inches by the Weather Channel's Robinson (IL) reporting station, 4.55 inches by the Weather Underground's Robinson (IL) reporting station, Lake Doogaroo at 4.39 inches, the 3 miles southeast of Merom Station (power generating plant) station at 2.38 inches (They were offline for a day...suspect they had an equipment failure or problem.), and the RAWS Sullivan reporting station, the easternmost of the bunch, at 5.97 inches of precipitation.

The ultimate answer might be buying and installing our own weather station here at the Senior Garden. But such instruments are expensive, and there is a bit of a learning curve involved. So for the time being, we'll switch between our four or five "local" weather stations and try to estimate the true wind speed and precipitation here.

Follow-up: I received an email from the Greenhouse Megastore's David George this morning. While he seemed more concerned with verifying my dropped customer service request than in stocking perma-nest flats, I appreciated the contact.

Sunday, January 20, 2013 - Starting Geraniums

World's Top 6 MixI started what I planned to be just a few geraniums today. This definitely won't be our main planting of geraniums this year, as over half of the seed I used today was year-old seed that had been stored in the freezer. I had a couple of Maverick Red seeds leftover from last year along with at least three seeds each from the six varieties included in Thompson & Morgan's World's Top Six Mix (Picasso, Geronimo, Hollywood Star, White Orbit, Horizon Salmon, and Tango Orange). The Thompson & Morgan mix sometimes has rather iffy germination when fresh, so that part of today's planting was really just playing around.

More serious plantings included opening a packet of Maverick mixed from Twilley Seeds and also getting into a new packet of Maverick Red from Stokes Seeds. As I've noted on this site before, I get my best germination rates from Stokes' geranium seed with Twilley Seeds geranium seed coming in a somewhat distant second. The Maverick mixed from Twilley was supposed to have been a large packet of 50 seeds. Since they substituted five packets of ten seeds each (the packet planted actually held eleven seeds), popping open one of the packets a bit early was a no brainer for me. The Stokes Seeds' Maverick Red geranium seed was from a packet of twenty seeds. But after drawing out ten seeds for today's planting, I could tell there were easily fifteen seeds still in the packet.

Starting geranium seed

Geranium seed on coffee filterfolded filterSince I was really just messing around today, I made this planting a soilless one, starting the seed on moistened coffee filters. I've had great success in the past germinating geranium seed on paper towels, which allows one to set in starting mix only the seeds that sprout. Seedling roots don't seem to penetrate coffee filters as much as they do paper towels. I've often had to cut a bit of paper towel out that surrounded a germinated seed and moved the seed and its root that was embedded in the towel to sterilized potting mix. Of course, those bright white coffee filters probably got white with the assistance of lots of bleach, of which there could be some residue remaining that might injure the germinating seeds! I know that we only brew coffee now on brown, unbleached coffee filters which break down far more quickly in our compost pile than the white ones used to.

Update - Warning (1/26/2013): This planting proved to be a pretty miserable failure. After six days, a few seeds appeared to have started to germinate and then died. At this point, my best guess is indeed bleach residues in the coffee filters. I have another small planting started using the same warm shelf and similar seed going, only this time on paper towels and brown (unbleached) coffee filters to try to see what the problem was.

I fold and label each coffee filter dry, wet them under the faucet, and unfold them to place the seed near the center of the filter. Then I fold the filter sides over, covering the seed and closing up the filter into a nice, square package that goes into a zip lock freezer bag. The freezer bags of geranium seed in coffee filters went into a half seed flat, got covered with a newspaper and a black plastic trash bag, and went onto a warm shelf to germinate.

Geranium seed likes germination temperatures in the 80-85o F range and total darkness. If you're planting into sterile potting mix, you might get away with the soil covering the seed providing the necessary darkness, but a layer of opaque cloth or plastic over your seed flat isn't a bad idea.

And please note that I've specified sterile planting medium for geranium seed. Obviously, if direct seeding into potting soil, the soil should be sterilized first to kill off any damping off fungus. But also, as I was sadly reminded of a few years ago, when moving geranium seed germinated on paper towels to pots with potting mix, the soil mix must also be sterilized. I killed around 20-30 baby geraniums a few years ago because I ran out of sterilized mix and thought the potting soil I had on hand would be okay.

If you want to jump ahead on the growing geraniums from seed process, I did a day-by-day blog for two years of our efforts in starting seed geraniums. We had some giant disasters in those years, enough so that I'm snakebit enough not to do another daily blog on the subject. It seemed that I had jinxed myself on a process that had become almost automatic over the years. But...since the 2010 piece draws more hits (over 20,000) each year than any other feature story on the site, I leave it up, possibly as a bad example, although there's lots one can learn from the two feature stories:

Geraniums at bed cornersIn a week or so when our soil heating mat is free, I'll do our main planting of geraniums with fresh seed from Stokes and Twilley. For that planting, I'll be direct seeding into fourpacks or three inch plastic pots of sterilized planting medium...usually a very light mix high in peat moss content. And yes, we grow a lot of geraniums each year. I love to use the showy red varieties as corner plants in our raised garden beds, as they bloom profusely in the rich soil from shortly after transplanting in the spring right up until our first hard frost.

Update on Heating Mats

I guess I didn't look very hard when writing about heating mats on Friday. I wrote then that the Gro-Mat brand we use was no longer available. seems that the Greenhouse Megastore carries it, and Amazon carries the larger size Gro-Mat. The Gro-Mat is a bit more expensive than the cheapie Hydrofarm mat that almost everyone seems to sell, but in my experience, lasts a good bit longer. And while poking around for heating mats, I found that the Greenhouse Megastore carries some professional grade mats that might serve my purposes better.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The tray of onions I started last Wednesday are now well up and on their way. They're still growing under a humidome which I pulled for the photo below and receiving some gentle, 70o F bottom heat from our heat mat. By tomorrow, they should be ready to come off the bottom heat and have the humidome removed.


Once one gets a tray of onion seedlings germinated, they don't require a whole lot of care. Regular watering and keeping plant lights just a couple inches above the tops of the plants is about all they require. As the plants get taller and possibly a bit leggy, I cut them back to a height of two to three inches to keep them manageable under the plant lights. That also prevents them from putting out lots of thin, limp foliage that tangles and makes transplanting them difficult.

Our second flat of shallots and onions planted just a day later but not over a heat mat isn't showing much action. I saw one shallot that had emerged this morning, so I may move the flat onto the heat mat tomorrow. Ambient temperature in our basement plant light area runs around 65o, certainly warm enough to germinate onions, but a little bottom heat may speed things up a bit.

I have to be a bit careful with plantings that require bottom heat at this time of year, as our geraniums will soon lay claim to the heat mat for a couple of weeks. When I checked the geranium seed today that I'd started on coffee filters and put on a warm shelf on Sunday, I didn't notice any signs of germination as yet. I was checking more to make sure the seed had adequate moisture in the zip lock bags, as they can dry out even in freezer bags over the heat coming out of a furnace register just below the shelf. I should begin to see germination tomorrow or Thursday, at which point I'll begin moving the germinated geranium seed to 3" square pots filled with sterile planting medium. The 3" pots then go into a tray over the heat mat with a humidome to hold in heat and moisture for about a week.

Occasionally, when I feel I have to start something else that requires bottom heat but not light, I'll place a tray or pot on top of one of the fluorescent lights' ballast units which are always warm. It's not a very exact bottom heat, but it does work.

Egg carton petuniasAnd our egg carton of petunias started on December 30 are looking better every day on our kitchen windowsill. They're large enough and the house is dry enough that I have to water the petunias every day. There's not much planting medium in the egg cells to hold moisture, and even with the egg carton top functioning as a plant tray to hold a bit of extra water, the soil dries out in just 24 hours. As the petunias get larger, I'll have to step up the watering routine to twice a day until the plants outgrow their egg carton and get transplanted into fourpacks or 3" square plastic pots...and go under our plant lights.

Once our onions and geraniums clear the heat mat, I'll need to get busy starting a good many of our slow growing annuals on the heat mat and under the plant lights (for those that require light for germination).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - Dreaming of Spring

Dorothy Gilman quote
This article originally appeared in NatraTurf's blog, a blog for organic lawn & garden care. Please visit or call 800-255-8196 for more information.

One of the writers groups I belong to led me yesterday to a posting on Courtney Tompkins's NatraTurf blog, Are you buying seeds? An earlier posting by Courtney of a photo with a quote by the late spy novelist Dorothy Gilman, Dreaming of Spring, caught my attention. Wikipedia notes that Gilman "was best known for the Mrs. Pollifax series. Emily Pollifax, her heroine, became a spy in her 60s and is very likely the only spy in literature to belong simultaneously to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the local garden club." While that description made me ready for a trip to the library, Gilman's words about gardening ring true and deserve to be shared with other gardeners.

Along the same line of thought, I recently responded to a reader comment about life being reduced "to the purity and simplicity of vegetable gardening," even if it's just an illusion for a few hours. I wrote him:

Without weeds to pull and heavy lifting to do in the garden and for a few years on the farm, I might not have made retirement without strangling a school administrator, fellow teacher, or parent. I also shared a lot of secrets with our cats, dogs, cattle and pigs that they never once betrayed. (And no, I still don't trust goats and ducks, either of whom I believe to be total blabbermouths who would sell you out in a second.)

I often think the many hours I spend in the garden might make me a better person. As Gilman wrote, one works with the soil and time seems suspended, the gardener becoming a bit tired but certainly more reflective and contented. Like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof, I often find myself in long conversations with the Lord while working in our garden plots. And just like Tevya, I don't ever get any direct verbal responses to my words and prayers, but life always seems to go better when I'm talking to the Lord all day long.

A Little Gardening

When my wife, Annie, got home from work last evening, I had supper underway, but the kitchen counter was still cluttered with perma-nest trays and 3" square plastic pots drying that I'd washed and sterilized with bleach earlier in the day. I was getting the trays and pots ready for the first of our geranium seed that is hopefully sprouting on coffee filters in zip lock bags on a warm, dark shelf in the dining room. When I checked the geranium seed this morning, we still didn't have any sprouts, but I just set the seed to sprout on Sunday. I think I'm a bit eager.

Our first tray of onions came out from under its humidome this morning and off our soil heating mat. It appears we're getting excellent germination on all four varieties planted. Our second tray of onions, shallots, etc., took over the space on the heating mat, as just a few shallots have germinated so far.

And as I was doing a bit of organizing in our downstairs plant room (formerly our coal/wood room), I ran across a brand new, unused perma-nest tray from a bunch I bought last January. That told me that even though I'd stepped on and cracked a couple of the heavy trays last summer, I'm probably okay on that kind of trays for this year.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

July midwest drought
January drought report
July Drought Map
January Drought Map

Tuesday's U.S. Drought Monitor report (released today) shows our area to finally have emerged from any drought or abnormal dryness classification. Considering that our area moved into most severe D4 - Exceptional drought classification last July and August, that's pretty good news. It obviously takes a long time to recover from a drought. And while we're out of the official dryness classifications by the Drought Monitor, we're going to need a lot of precipitation between now and spring for us to have a fairly normal gardening season this year.

Not so fortunate are the states west of us that were in bad shape on soil moisture in July, only to get and stay worse throughout the rest of 2012 and into this year. Winter wheat and last and next year's hay crops will probably be heavily impacted. An NPR story from December, Forget Horse Thieves, Now They're Stealing Hay, relates just one of the negative effects of the drought. We'll all probably begin to see the effect of the drought on beef prices at the grocery meat counter soon, if not already.

Seed Savers Exchange Announces 2013 Free Webinar Schedule

An email from the Seed Savers Exchange today announced the first of this year's Seed Saver's webinars. Start Your Own Seed Collection is scheduled for January 29, 2013, at 7:30 P.M. (CST). The webinar will feature stories from SSE members "discussing why and how they began, highlighting the resources they used along the way."

The full 2013 Webinar Series Schedule is also available with registration for just the January 29 online meeting currently available. Previous webinars are available free online from SSE's Webinar Archive page.

Burpee Fruit Seeds & Plants

Saturday, January 26, 2013 - Starting Geraniums Again

Steam on traysI started our main planting of seed geraniums today. After playing around a week ago with an unsuccessful test planting on some leftover white coffee filters, today's planting was mostly a more traditional planting into sterilized planting medium. I did put a bit of fresh geranium seed on a brown coffee filter and a paper towel to see if the white filters may have been the problem with our first test planting. That seed went into zip lock bags in a black trash bag and onto the same warm shelf I used last time.

Today's task went pretty quickly, as I'd washed and sterilized planting trays and pots and baked planting medium over the last week. I filled three inch square plastic pots with sterilized planting medium and gave them a good watering with some very warm water, as the potting mix was pretty cold from sitting in the basement. I like the three inch pots over fourpack inserts, as they hold just a bit more soil than fourpack inserts (also good for this job) and of course, can be individually moved.

Seed in soilI made a quarter to half inch depression in the center of the soil in each pot with my finger, dropping the seed into the depression and covering it thoroughly with the planting medium.

Flats labeledI had a couple of possibly germinated seeds from last Sunday's planting that went into a couple of pots, but the rest all got seeded with Maverick Red seed from Stokes Seeds and Maverick Mixed from Twilley Seeds. I labeled the two Horizon Salmon that germinated from Sunday's planting and the Maverick Reds. Any pots without a plastic label were planted to the Maverick mix. I obviously had far more of the mix seed than anything else.

Plant rack End view plant rack
plant tray on desk
Thermometer in humidome

One tray of geranium seed went downstairs to our plant light rack, sitting on a soil heating mat set to 80o F. It is covered with a humidome and the soil heating mat's thermostat probe is pushed into one of the pot's potting soil. Our previous plantings of onions and shallots moved down a shelf, as they no longer require bottom heat or a humidome to hold in moisture and heat.

The second tray of geranium seed went on our extra heating mat, the old one, on a desk in an upstairs bedroom. I simply don't have the wiring to run two heating mats at once under our plant lights. And the second tray wasn't completely full, as I ran three pots shy of sterilized planting medium. To monitor temperature in the second tray and mat that does not have a thermostat, I punched a hole through a humidome and inserted my 40 year-old Weston darkroom thermometer. It isn't designed to measure ambient air temperature, but still does a pretty good job in these situations. It excels, of course, at measuring liquid temperatures in the 60-100o F range. The second heating mat has to rely on its own, internal shutoff thermostat, which we override with our own thermostat downstairs. I've used this upstairs setup before with good success. Do note that the upstairs setup does use the wire rack that comes with Gro-Mat heating mats, as the Gro-Mat could scorch the desktop and/or damage the tray. (I have a few standard 1020 seed flats with melted bottoms from using the Gro-Mat without its wire rack and without an external thermostat.)

Middie on shelfSince we had what appeared to be a couple of viable seed starts from our otherwise "failed" planting last Sunday, I didn't throw that seed away. I rinsed it off in a strainer, put it on a damp paper towel, bagged it, and put it in the black plastic bag holding our other test seed on our warm shelf.

The Warm Shelf and our Pets

Our "warm shelf" was first identified by Middie, one of our cats (now departed of old age). She'd crawl onto the shelf in her later years to stay warm. When I checked the shelf with a thermometer, it turned out to be just about right for starting seed that needed fairly strong bottom heat. The shot at right shows Middie in 2011 sharing the shelf with some trash bag boxes and a half flat with a humidome painted black for total darkness. Again, the Weston thermometer was stuck through the humidome into the potting soil to monitor temperature.

MacMiddie was a stray cat who got dumped on us already pregnant. We still have two indoor-outdoor cats from her only litter, Dolly and Callie Jo. Both have been featured elsewhere on this site, Dolly notably for keeping an eye on me while working out in the garden. Neither offspring inherited Middie's front six-toe paws, but did inherit her Siamese yowl.

All of our current pets are strays, castoffs, or saves from shelters and such. Sadly, a lot of folks still think it's okay to dump a pet they no longer want out in the country to fend for themselves and possibly starve to death. Many of our past and present pets are featured on my Facebook album, Pets, which I just marked as public, although I don't know if that will allow you access or not. Like Middie in her later years, Mac, our senior dog, comes inside to sleep on cold days and nights now. He's old enough that even the heated dog pen in the garage doesn't give him enough heat to stay comfortable. Inside, he's like a big, fluffy (shedding) pillow to the grandkids and our indoor cats.

Monday, January 28, 2013 - Growing Gloxinias Outdoors

Glox 1It's a warm, rainy winter day here. I'm still eagerly checking our geranium plantings and cleaning up trays and such as we prepare for starting more garden transplants later this month and in February, but I'm pretty well caught up on gardening chores. That gives me a chance to share a wonderful email exchange I had last week with Robyn Wood (no relation). He'd chanced upon our Gloxinias feature story, which spurred some interesting questions. He wrote in his first email (edited):

I live in Sydney, Australia, and I discovered these truly wonderful plants [gloxinias] last year and planted them (four plants) out in my garden where they get filtered morning sun. Unfortunately, one of them died, but the other three have just emerged and are growing brilliantly. I appear to be doing everything wrong. I water them with a sprinkler and haven’t ever fed them, but they are growing beautifully. I have just bought eight more plants - should I continue to do as I have done or not?

Following the adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," I suggested to Robyn that he may be doing everything right. Losing one of four gloxinia corms over the "winter" during dormancy isn't all that terrible a rate. In a subsequent email, he shared that they rarely have frost in Sydney and never snow, with winter temperatures generally in the 50s or 60s. His four gloxinias, now three, but soon to be augmented with eight more he purchased, grow in a lovely east facing area "where they get filtered morning sun," with rather humid conditions in the spring and summer. It would appear that the climate in Sydney is just about ideal for growing gloxinias.

Robyn's Garden

I've universally recommended to readers that they not try growing gloxinias out of doors for a number of good reasons, but Robyn's situation clearly negates such recommendations for folks with growing conditions similar to his. And gloxinias obviously grew in the wild at one time somewhere before being domesticated. Wikipedia notes that some types of gloxinias and related species grow in the wild today in Central and South America.

Crockett's Indoor GardenThe late Jim Crockett attributed our modern, "florist's gloxinias," in Crockett's Indoor Garden (pg. 301) as having come from a sport from one gloxinia in the 1800s:

In 1845, a Scottish gardener named John Fyfe discovered among his gloxinia seedlings, which normally had nodding slipper-shaped flowers, one whose blossoms were symmetrically bell-shaped and held erect. All of today's varieties, with their vivid colors and single or double flowers, are the descendants of that single, chance seedling.

Glox 2Based on Robyn's experience, I need to update our gloxinia feature to reflect that folks living in climates where winter temperatures are extremely mild maybe able to successfully grow the gorgeous plants outdoors in partial to full shade. I've previously received emails from folks who've had good luck growing gloxinias on porches that are somewhat shaded, bringing the plants inside over the winter, but never growing them year round outdoors.

My thanks to Robyn for writing and sharing his experiences and the great photos of his plants, especially his gorgeous garden shot. It makes me want to pack my bags and visit Sydney!

And this experience reminds me once again that learning is a lifelong activity and that sharing gardening information, both ways, is always fun.

Light House Mission

Tuesday, January 29, 2013 - Moving Sprouted Geranium Seed

Geranium seed on coffee filter
Geranium seed germinating on coffee filter

Our geraniums that I seeded to 3" square pots on Saturday aren't showing any action as yet, but it's still a day or two early to see sprouts emerging. But the geranium seed I put on a brown coffee filter and a bit more on a paper towel is beginning to germinate, making it time to move the sprouts into pots with sterilized planting medium.

Seed transferred to potI lifted the seeds off the coffee filter with a plastic plant label, as I was afraid of damaging the sprouts by using tweezers. Each sprout went into a depression in the sterilized planting mix of a 3" pot, getting a very, very light covering of planting material. The pots then went into a flat, were bottom watered with warm water, and went under our plant lights with a humidome cover on the flat to hold in moisture. If I'd had space available, I would have moved the pots onto a heating mat, but our main planting of geraniums pretty well has our heat mats covered up right now.

The germinating seeds should push up through the planting medium in just a day or so. You can lose some plants doing this process, but usually, almost all of the seed that has germinated on coffee filters or paper towels will emerge from the potting mix, producing a good plant.

The other bunch of new seed I started Saturday on a paper towel side-by-side with the seed on the brown coffee filter only had one sprout (out of ten seeds). So far, we had seven of thirteen seeds germinate on the brown coffee filter. It will be a day or so before I know if there's a problem there, as the currently ungerminated seed will continue germinating for another day or so. One can usually expect at least 80% germination with this method when using top quality seed.

But it seems pretty clear to me at this point that the Bunn white coffee filters I'd used for our first test planting that totally failed were the cause of the failure. Whether they contain bleach or some other residue, something in them prevented the seed on them from germinating. And, it was seed from the same batch that just germinated on the brown filters.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - SSE Annual Yearbook

2013 SSE YearbookOur copy of the 2013 Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) Yearbook came in the mail yesterday. The yearbook contains the listings of heirloom and open pollinated varieties of fruits and vegetables available maintained by exchange members. According to the yearbook, some 12,495 unique varieties from 693 SSE members are included this year. The annual yearbook used to be the heart of the non-profit's efforts in "passing on our garden heritage by collecting and distributing thousands of samples of rare garden seeds to other gardeners." In recent years, SSE's mission has expanded into preservation gardens, seed banks, direct seed sales, and other activities.

While our seed orders are done for next season, including a couple of already filled orders from SSE members from the online yearbook, I always enjoy looking through the print yearbook to see what folks are saving and possibly find something unusual to grow. The welcome letter from SSE's president included mention of Green Nutmeg muskmelon growing well in Indiana. I may have to try that one.

Moira packet Moira back

We've been listed members (offering saved seed for sale to other members) of the Seed Savers Exchange off and on since the late 70s. When we had a farm in the 80s, we preserved and offered the then endangered Reid's Yellow Dent field corn. We've also offered a number of tomato varieties, but in the last few years have limited our offerings and preservation efforts to just a few varieties.

The yearbook will never make the New York Times' bestseller list, as it simply is hundreds of pages of vegetable listings available for SSE members to order and grow. But for heirloom growers, seed saving advocates and old time SSE members, it's a winner.

Moira Earliest Red Sweet
Moira Earliest Red Sweet
Quinte closeup Japanese Long Pickling
Quinte Japanese Long Pickling

Our offerings in this year's yearbook include Earliest Red Sweet bell peppers, and Quinte and Moira tomatoes. All are open pollinated varieties introduced in the 70s and 80s and later abandoned by seed houses. They're also all varieties we like. Our Moira tomato seed is descended from the last packet of Moira seed we purchased from Stokes Seeds in 1987. Moiras have incredibly deep red interior coloring, excellent flavor, and are good for either canning or slicing.

We lost our starts of both Earliest Red Sweet (ERS) peppers and Quinte tomatoes over the years. I was able to get a new start of ERS from another SSE member and just secured some Quinte seed last winter via the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Germplasm Resources Information Network. ERS are rather small, but flavorful early red bell peppers. Quintes were often featured as "Easy Peel" tomatoes, although we like them for the same reasons we like Moiras.

Absent from our listings this year are our Japanese Long Pickling (JLP) cucumbers. I thought I'd secured some JLP seed from a commercial vendor last year that we could cross with ours to invigorate our strain. It turned out that the potential commercial JLP seed was a completely different variety! I'm sure some crossing occurred between our JLPs and the other variety, making the seed unfit for distribution as the JLP variety. So I'll be carefully shepherding our few remaining Japanese Long Pickling seeds and plants this year to insure the variety isn't lost. No other SSE members currently list the variety!

The Seed Savers Exchange annual yearbook is a members only deal. SSE membership runs $40/year with a reduced income memberships running $25.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Precipitation (Inches)
  2013 2012 2011 Ave.
Jan. 6.33 3.20 0.84 2.48
Totals 6.33 25.50 46.22 40.94
2011 & 2012 precipitation data from the Kinmerom2 weather station, Merom, IN. 2013 precipitation data from the Kinmerom3 weather station.
Average precipitation for Indianapolis, IN

Weather Channel AlmanacAfter several warm, wet, windy days, we're winding up January with plummeting temperatures, strong winds, and snow. Some fairly serious thunderstorms towards the end of the month have pushed our January precipitation total to over six inches, with a nearby weather station in Illinois reporting over eight inches of precipitation for the month!

While the moisture situation is looking up for us, the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report released today shows that drought areas in the United States didn't receive the relief we did, but have some prospects for improving conditions over the next week or so.


Our geraniums started last Saturday are finally beginning to emerge. Most of the ones pushing up through the potting mixture are those that I germinated on brown coffee filters or paper towels and transferred to pots when the seed had germinated. I'm still a bit worried about how many plants we'll get, as germination has been a bit slower than what it should have been, with one packet of supposedly good seed only germinating a little over 50% under ideal conditions!

Emerged geraniums

What SSE Webinar?

If you attempted to participate in Thursday's Seed Savers Exchange webinar on Starting Your Own Seed Collection and ended up seeing only the Adobe Connect screen, it turns out that such sessions are limited to the first hundred viewers to log in, not necessarily the first hundred to register. SSE's Grant Olson related that almost double that number attempted to attend Thursday's webinar and that they're working to have a message displayed when the room is full and also on the possibility of multiple sessions. At this point, SSE has still neglected to send out any general explanation to those who registered and got shut out. Fortunately, the webinars are archived and this one will be available at some point on the SSE site.


Heavy snowJanuary - 2013 - anigifOur animated gif for this month shows we both began and ended the month with snow, with a lot of gray skies in between. The snow today just barely made the month, blowing in late in the afternoon, but with a real fury.

Our new gardening season is well underway with onions, shallots, leeks, petunias, and geraniums started already.

Our ground water appears to be recovering from the drought, as we can now wash a big load of clothes without running the well dry!

So with snow on the ground, optimism abounds for a new gardening season.

December, 2012

From Steve, the at Senior Gardening


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