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The Old Guy's Garden Record

Our Senior Garden - 3/24/2013

Friday, March 1, 2013 - Soil Preparation

Crockett's Victory GardenIn his introduction to the March section of Crockett's Victory Garden, the late Jim Crockett emphasized the importance of soil preparation, writing, "Nothing, but nothing, matters as much as soil preparation." Of course, he also pointed out that soil preparation is best done in the fall, so the soil amendments will have time to work in the soil over the winter.

For those who haven't fully prepared their garden plot in the fall, spring soil testing, adding organic matter, and other amendments such as peat moss or lime will improve ones gardening experience. If you're gardening a new plot, soil testing should give you a good idea of what your soil needs. Home soil test kits are available online, although for really accurate and detailed tests, sending off soil samples to a lab is the way to go. Monica Hemingway's Soil Testing for the Home Gardener is an excellent source about taking and sending soil samples to extension or commercial soil testing labs. Note that lab testing can include tests for heavy metals if you're worried about contaminants in your soil.

John Deere tillerWe did a lot of our soil preparation last November, but still have a lot of work to do yet this spring. Our large East Garden received over three hundred pounds of lime (sulfur instead in the potato area) last fall, so it should be in pretty good shape on soil pH. It will still require a good bit of tilling to break up grass clumps to get it planting ready. That job became a lot easier last fall when I invested in a pull type rototiller that mounts on our lawn tractor.

Our raised beds in our main garden are pretty much ready to go, although I'd like to work in some composted manure to raise the soil level a bit in two of the beds. Since we have so much organic matter in the soil of our raised beds, our soil levels go down a bit as the organic material decomposes and the soil compresses. Both our large main raised bed and the newer narrow raised bed could each use a couple of inches of soil or composted manure.

MTD TillerDepending on whether the main raised bed dries out enough in time, I may fluff the soil there with our old MTD tiller which will be starting its nineteenth season on the Senior Garden. And if I can get a truckload of composted manure, it will definitely need to be tilled in. But the raised beds are actually pretty much planting ready without any spring tilling, as we worked them well last fall.

We sometimes get a dry spell in March where our garden plots dry out enough for an early tilling. As to when soil it dry enough to work, another gem from Crockett holds the key, "There's a simple test for soil readiness: if a handful of soil remains in a moist ball after it's squeezed, the soil is still too wet to work; if it crumbles like chocolate cake, it's ready."

Also, watching to see when area farmers begin working their soil can be a good indicator. I should note that I find that a lot of farmers work ground that appears to be far wetter than I would have worked when I was farming. Or, maybe their ground is just better drained than ours.


Other than peas, we really don't do any direct seeding or transplanting in March. Our last frost date here is around May 1-10, and we still get a lot of really cold weather in March. Our first transplants, broccoli, cabbage, and other hardy brassicas, won't go into the main garden until early April.

Plants under cold frame and on porchPlants in kitchenIndoors is another matter altogether. Almost all the stuff I've been telling myself to wait to plant will need to be seeded this month. First up will be lettuce, followed by more broccoli, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, melons and cukes, and lots of flowers. I also need to start a couple of sweet potatoes in drinking glasses, suspended in water by toothpicks, to produce our sweet potato slips for this year.

If you missed our posting about it last month, Johnny's Selected Seeds has a great, free, online Seed Starting Calculator that is a good guide for when to start and transplant stuff. (You'll need your last frost date to use the calculator.)

Once we're able to use our cold frame, we'll begin moving hardier plants under it to harden off and to make room for more plantings under the plant lights. As the weather improves and congestion under the plant lights and cold frame increases, our hardiest plants, such as onions and broccoli, will move from under the cold frame to the edge of the back porch to make room for...more transplants. On those cold, cold nights that are certain to occur every March and April, our kitchen gets filled with flats of transplants and hanging basket plants that won't fit under the cold frame. We sometimes have to throw a blanket over the cold frame on the coldest of nights.


If we're really lucky, we may begin to harvest a few asparagus shoots towards the end of the month. I picked one small mess of asparagus in the middle of March last year, but that was an unusually mild winter and warm spring.

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Saturday, March 2, 2013 - Starting Lettuce

March 1 SnowLettuce softbedWith an inch or so of fresh snow on the ground yesterday morning, I turned my attention to getting some indoor gardening done. Getting our lettuce transplants started was at the top of my list...possibly because I find starting lettuce to be a lot of fun.

Folks as early as Thomas Jefferson have recommended seeding lettuce every few weeks for a constant supply later. Unfortunately for us, our early planted lettuce is usually the only good, spring lettuce we get. Shortly after our lettuce is ready to pick, our weather usually turns hot and dry, and the lettuce bolts. I faithfully replant another lettuce transplant close to the space where we've harvested from in case cool weather prevails. But while I may start and transplant lettuce more than once in the spring, the first lettuce is usually all we get to harvest.

Possibly to compensate for our short harvesting season, I grow a lot of different varieties of lettuce. I don't get into the designer salad leaves, but grow lots of romaine, summer crisp, iceberg, Boston, butterhead and leaf lettuce. While our spring harvest lasts, it's great. And a well kept bed of lettuce can be as pretty and colorful as a flowerbed in bloom.

Organizing lettuce plantingSeeding flat of lettuce in sinkLettuce seed is fairly inexpensive and has kept well for us in frozen storage. Since we're always trying something new, we've ended up with over fifteen different varieties of lettuce. Just deciding what and how much to start is a job in itself, so we planted some of each.

I start our lettuce in a half flat using half of an #1804 insert, giving us 36 cells to fill. I use sterilized starting mix which I drench with warm water before planting. For the sake of tidiness, I filled the half flat with starting mix downstairs in our plant room before plopping it into the kitchen sink for watering and planting.

Planted half flat of lettuceLettuce doesn't require light to geminate, so planting is just a matter of making a depression or hole in the soil, dropping in the seed, and lightly covering it with soil. Since I was using seed as old as from 2005, I was pretty generous with my seeding, often getting three seeds in a cell. I'll have a lot of "fun" thinning later on if every seed germinates.

You also don't want to use bottom heat, as lettuce germinates well in cool soil. Once I had the seeding all done, I freed one of the connected cells with a paring knife and bottom watered the half flat with warm water. I then let it sit and absorb what it would for an hour before pouring off the excess water, covering the half flat with a clear humidome, and setting the flat on a non-heated shelf of our plant rack to germinate at its own speed.

We'll again seed lettuce this summer for a fall crop that finishes under floating row covers. Two years ago, we had fresh lettuce right up to Thanksgiving.

The varieties we planted included Barbados and Nevada (summer crisps), Crispino and Sun Devil (icebergs), Nancy and Indiana Amish (butterheads), Winter Density, Defender M10, Colored Romaine Blend, Green Forest, Red Romaine, and Valmaine (all romaine/cos or romaine), Red Lollo (red leaf), Skyphos (Boston softhead), and Baby Star (bibb). Indiana Amish, Green Forest, Red Romanine and Valmaine are all new varieties for us this year.

Hanging Basket Petunias

Healthy SuperCascade PetuniaTransplanting petunia into hanging basketWith our perpetual traffic jam under and around our plant lights getting worse by the day, I transplanted our Supercascade petunias into hanging baskets. The SuperCascades were already quite large and bushy, some showing signs of blooms (which got pinched off). The plants obviously had benefitted this year from going into individual three inch pots, rather than the smaller fourpacks I'd used in the past.

I usually just make up a mix of peat moss and potting soil for our hanging basket plants and older plants we may be transplanting. But the bag of potting soil I was using was one that had sat, half full and open, on the back porch last fall. Wondering what had crawled into it and laid eggs made me cautious enough to sterilize the planting mix in the oven. Two twelve quart loads of potting mix eventually got baked for an hour and a half each at 400o F, considerably slowing down my gardening efforts for the day.

The hanging baskets currently have to sit on the floor outside our plant rack, getting just what light that leaks out to them. But transplanting them opened up some space that I'll quickly employ with all the stuff we're seeding now.


Gloxinias breaking dormancyMy monthly check of our dormant gloxinias revealed eight corms that had broken dormancy and put on tiny green leaves. A couple more appeared to have done so sometime in the past and then dried up and died because I hadn't found and watered them. I think I'll need to check them a bit more often. Despite varying times of going into dormancy, the gloxinias seem to sense the coming spring and break dormancy in greater numbers this time of year.

As gloxinias break dormancy, they should be repotted into fresh growing medium, or at the very least, have some of the soil around them refreshed. Ours will all eventually get repotted, although it will take a few days to get it all done in between other gardening chores. The gloxinias got a good dose of water and went into a flat along the outside edge of our plant rack where they'll get some light.

A Bit of Crow for Lunch

Germination testI wrote Stokes Seeds' president that if I was wrong about my conclusion that they had provided hard geranium seed, I'd have to eat a bit of crow here online. Our initial reading of our most recent germination test of their seed produced mixed results, but did clearly show that unscarified Maverick Red seed germinated far better at 68o F than Stokes previously recommended 72-76o F. At the four day mark from starting the test, six out of ten of the Maverick Red seed had produced healthy sprouts. The scarified Maverick Red seed only had two healthy starts, while the Multibloom test, both scarified and non-scarified seed produced somewhat similar results. So far, and it's early in the test, the four test groups are germinating at 60%, 20%, 30%, and 40%. That's a far cry from the 97% and 98% germination test figures printed on the seed packets, but we'll have to wait a few days to make any conclusions based on these tests.

Unscarified Maverick Red test Unscarified Multibloom test
Scarified Mav Red test Scarified Multibloom test

Packed plant roomSo at this point, and it's a bit hard to write with a few feathers in my mouth, it would appear that temperature was the variable I needed to adjust to successfully germinate geranium seed. I'd not have known to lower my germinating temperature if Stokes' Wayne Gayle hadn't fully responded to my concerns. (Sorry, Wayne. I did hunt online for a royalty free image of "eating crow," but couldn't find one.)

But so far, three of the four germination tests are showing disappointing results, with the other having barely acceptable results. We're not out of the woods yet on this issue. I'll be checking the remaining seed at 2-4 day intervals to see if the germination rates pop up a bit.

Plant Rack Overloaded

I've mentioned several times recently how overloaded our plant rack becomes at this time of year. Once we can use our cold frame for hardier plants such as broccoli and onions, things will ease just a bit, but not much. As you can see at left, the plant rack is full, and I've placed hanging basket plants and gloxinias on three sides of the rack.

Obviously, the plant rack being overloaded is a good kind of problem to have, as we have lots of vegetable and flower transplants growing under lights. I've contemplated modifying the plant rack at time to accommodate the larger perma-nest trays we're making more and more use of, but have finally discarded the idea. The rack is over 30 years old, has been torn down and reassembled multiple times as I've moved from place to place, and did not reassemble gracefully when we moved to the Senior Garden.

I think I need to add designing and building a new plant rack to my endless to-do list. Lumber isn't all that expensive, but the light units aren't cheap. And a bigger problem is having enough power to run another plant rack at our peak growing season. We're currently running six, 48" light units plus a soil heating mat on one circuit. I doubt the circuit can handle much more. We do have two newer shop lights that are capable of running the energy efficient T-8 bulbs, although I've never tested how well such bulbs would do as plant lights. A new circuit plus using units with T-8 bulbs could actually lower our electric bill some.

Or maybe I just need to grow less stuff.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

With a strong winter storm coming in this afternoon, I'm more than happy to be staying inside. We're supposed to get just a bit of snow, while folks further north of us may get a half foot or more.

Starting sweet potatoesOur sweet potato crop last summer failed in the drought, but provided a couple of fairly good sweet potatoes to place in water to produce our own sweet potato slips again this year. I'd just plain forgotten to get this easy job started until yesterday, and it only takes a few minutes. Hunting two fairly good sweet potatoes from a small gunny sack of mostly thin tubers was the hardest part. Then I put three heavy toothpicks around the midpoint of each sweet potato, and plopped them in some old drinking glasses full of water.

Once the sweet potatoes put out roots and green shoots (slips) as topgrowth, it's surprising how much water they use each day. I've come close to letting ours dry out several times in the past. When the topgrowth is around three to four inches long, I trim it, dip the individual slips in rooting compound, and put them in fourpacks to establish root systems. As long as you start with healthy sweet potatoes from the previous year, it's an easy task. Note that the process made a real mess of the old drinking glasses I used, with green slime growing in them along with a nasty lime buildup that was tough to wash out. Some scrubbing with Spic and Span took care of the slime, while I had to use hot vinegar to remove the lime.

And after searching and searching, I discovered that I didn't get a good shot of our sweet potatoes growing slips in the kitchen window last spring. There are lots of shots of pretty gloxinias, with some sweet potato leaves sticking out around and behind them as a tribute to my poor image composition. But I do have shots of our 2011 sweet potato slips. They look pretty bad, but once rooted in potting mix and given a bit of time to grow roots, they produced a nice crop. And as I've written here before, growing sweet potatoes is pretty new to us, so almost any gardener probably knows more than I do about the process!

Glox hiding sweet potatoes Slips growing in glass Slips in potting mix

I also checked our last round of geranium seed germination tests yesterday and today. Sadly, there wasn't much difference from the results I wrote about on Saturday. Some of the seed had begun to rot, possibly from my getting too much water into the baggies I use to hold the seed tests. Light striking the seed when I last checked it may have curtailed germination also. But at this point, I'm not comfortable drawing and publishing any further results from this test here. I'm not at all pleased with the initial results of the test, but fear that I screwed it up somehow. Grrr....

Saturday, March 9, 2013 - Cold Frame Season

Weather Channel 10-day forecastIt's finally cold frame season for us. I start watching our weather forecasts around the first of March for a break in overnight low temperatures that will allow us to begin using our old, homemade cold frame. Two years ago, that break didn't come until March 16. Last year, we brought out the cold frame on March 6. The weather change, characterized by a period of days where overnight low temperatures aren't predicted to drop below 28o F or so, usually occurs sometime in early March. As we're coming off a stretch of winter storms where overnight lows ran 25-30o F, a forecast of at least nine days (and nights) without a hard freeze may indicate we're really headed towards spring.

Hanging baskets around porchOur homemade cold frame is rather small and comfortably holds around six standard flats of plants. It's covered with 6 mil clear plastic which generally will withstand overnight lows to around 28o F. Part of our reason for using a cold frame is to free up space on our plant rack for all the late, warm weather transplants we'll be starting in the next few days and weeks (tomatoes, peppers, melons, etc.). A more important reason to use a cold frame or something similar, is to harden off our precious transplants to outdoor growing conditions. UV radiation, really warm days, and wind can easily wilt a transplant moved directly from the protected environs under our plant lights to the garden. A week or so under a cold frame with the top usually raised during daylight, allows the transplants to toughen stems and adapt to the harsher growing conditions outside.

And of course, using a cold frame really gives one a jump on the growing season. Hanging basket plants that got moved to our cold frame on or a bit after March 6 last year were ready to add some welcome color to our back porch by March 18 (the earliest we've ever been able to do that stuff).

We almost certainly will have a few more nights where the low temperature drops into the mid-20s. On those nights, hanging baskets just come into the kitchen and the cold frame gets a quilt over it. Every few years, we may have a really cold night predicted, and if I'm on my toes, everything comes back inside on those nights. Actually far more dangerous than frost to our transplants is forgetting to open the cold frame a bit each morning. On sunny days, heat quickly builds up under the plastic and can easily harm or kill ones transplants!

Cold frame

Cold frame propped openTwo flats of onions, another of brassicas, two hanging basket pots of petunias and a wax begonia quickly populated the cold frame today. I could have packed it a bit tighter, but that seemed enough to risk for one day. Who knows if I have a severe air leak, or if the dogs will decide to play with the frame. While shown open above, the cold frame is more often propped part way open to dissipate heat a bit while still protecting plants from the sun and wind. The frame gets closed completely at night, of course.

In the days and weeks ahead as the cold frame fills to overflowing and plants harden off, the hanging baskets will move to hangers around the porch. Flats of hardy plants such as the onions and brassicas will move to the edge of the back porch to make room under the frame for tender transplants such as tomatoes, peppers and melons.

Sunday, March 10, 2013 - Planting Peas

Opening furrowSeeding peasI planted the first of our peas this afternoon in our long, narrow raised bed that I'd prepared for them last fall. The soil was way too wet for tilling today, but was just about right for a good hoeing before opening a wide furrow for the seed. I sprinkled a little lime, fertilizer, and granular soil inoculant into the furrow and worked it into the soil with a garden hoe. I used granular soil inoculant that helps peas fix nitrogen, as all of the seed I planted today was treated with captan to prevent seed rot. The captan can also zap the inoculant, so I'm hoping that by getting the inoculant in the region of the seed, some of it may survive and do some good.

I planted four tall pea varieties today, Amish Snap, Champion of England, Mr. Big, and just a few Spanish Skyscraper that a fellow SSE member had sent me. I didn't go end to end in the bed, as I plan to transplant a tomato plant at either end of the bed. I also didn't put in t-posts for our trellis, but will do so in a week or so after the peas have begun to emerge.

Getting the first of ones peas planted really early helps produce lots of early sweet peas and allows one to use varieties that don't handle summer heat very well. I'll be planting more peas later on this spring, but the varieties I use for that planting, Eclipse and Encore, don't germinate well in cold soil. The peas planted today will get harvested early in the season with the bed then repurposed for cucumbers on the trellis.

David's Cookies

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cold frame - March 14, 2013

Freeze damaged begonia
Trimmed begonia

Weather Channel 10-day forecastWe had a hard freeze (21o F) last night that tested the limits of our cold frame's protection. An air leak along the bottom of the frame allowed enough cold air in near a wax begonia to freeze off most of its foliage. When trimmed later, it was obvious that just the top foliage was lost, rather than the entire plant. (I needed to trim, divide, and repot this one, anyway.) Our onions, brassicas, and pots of petunias came through the freeze just fine.

Temperatures didn't get above freezing this morning until after 10:30. While I thought I was prepared for the freeze, I'll need to lay a bit of loose soil along the edge of the cold frame to seal the leak before our next really cold night comes around.

Lettuce upBesides working on taxes this week, I've been busy thinning and transplanting some of the stuff we already have seeded. The fifteen varieties of lettuce I started all came up, often with three or four plants per cell. So a good bit of thinning was in order. But all of our varieties of seed were and are still good!

I also got around today to starting several more fourpacks of broccoli and a little cabbage and kohlrabi. Although we have lots of brassicas doing well under the cold frame, they're pretty much timed to be ready for transplanting into our main garden plot in April. I wanted some fresh, 6-8 week old broccoli for when I get around to putting brassicas into our East Garden sometime in May.

More broccoli seededThe bulk of the broccoli I seeded today was Premium Crop and Goliath, but I did seed a couple of cells to Belstar, a variety we'd tried a couple years ago. It's described as having "stress tolerant plants with good side shoot production" (Johnny's Selected Seeds) and "excellent field holding capacity...ideal for both warm and cold weather planting" (Territorial Seed Company). We didn't see those characteristics when we tried it in 2011, but thought it worth another try...especially in the harsher growing environment of our East Garden. (The round pots of impatiens shown at left are one of our less successful starts this year. Some have germinated, but they're definitely taking their own sweet time of it.)

Our parsley, shown below surrounded by celery, geraniums, and petunias, transplanted well into fourpacks this week.

Parsley & Friends

Dianthus seedlingsGeraniumsOur dianthus from saved seed continues to do well, also. The plants started in mid-February and transplanted into small fourpacks a few weeks ago haven't outgrown their current cells as yet, but will do so very soon.

And after all the problems we had getting geranium seed to germinate, we ended up with more plants than we'll need this year. From the various seedings, we have geraniums of various sizes now. The Vinca in the flat of geraniums shown at right are another slow go for us this year.

All the gloxinias I previously wrote about breaking dormancy nearly at the same time are now all repotted or at least have had a refresh of soil. Since some of these plants are coming out of their third and fourth periods of dormancy, we should have some good, strong blooming plants by early summer.

Gloxinias breaking dormancy

AmazonI hope to get our tomatoes and peppers started yet this week. We're about seven weeks away from our projected transplanting date for them.

Oh, yeah. Our peas seeded last weekend are beginning to swell and put out roots. I wouldn't have known, but one of our dogs dug just a bit in the raised bed before the repellent I'd spread over the bed apparently deterred him. From where he'd dug, I could see Mr. Big seed that clearly was in the process of germinating in the cold soil.

Friday, March 15, 2013

I had good intentions about starting our tomatoes and peppers today, but one doesn't often get such a gorgeous day in March as we had today. Partly cloudy skies and a high temperature in the upper 50s quickly made me decide some outdoor chores were more important than starting transplants. I also realized that I still had some pruning to do on our fruit trees that was a bit overdue.

Pruning our Granny Smith and Stayman Winesap apple trees only took a few minutes, as I'd kept the Granny Smith well pruned since its brush with fire blight that killed our standard Stayman Winesap apple tree. Our replacement dwarf Stayman Winesap just went in last spring, so there wasn't much pruning to be done there, either.

AmazonAmazonBut the volunteer apple tree that we care for, although it sits just off our property, was desperately in need of a heavy pruning. It also was showing a lot of lichens on some of its growth, which I cut out. Lichens preceded sooty mold on the apple tree we lost a couple of years ago. While lichens, sooty mold, and fire blight may not be related, I wasn't taking any chances.

Tomorrow, all the fruit trees will be sprayed with dormant oil. The volunteer tree will probably get a dose of fire blight spray (streptomycin) mixed in with its dormant oil, just in case. (Note: Amazon doesn't carry Bonide Fire Blight Spray, but I'd bet your garden shop can get it for you for around $10 a bottle.)

Burpee Fruit Seeds & Plants

Saturday, March 16, 2013 - Dormant Oil on Apple Trees

Apple treesAmazon - Spreader Sticker solutionYesterday I mentioned needing to spray our apple trees with dormant oil. Dormant oil is an organic treatment that hopefully envelops, wets, and smothers overwintering eggs of various insects. I usually try to spray our apple trees in February when the buds are fully dormant. With the off and on warm days we've had this month, I suspected the buds are a bit less than fully dormant and needed to consult the product label for later sprayings. Of course, the label had come off the bottle and gotten lost, so I went online to find the right dilution. Besides finding the instructions for making a 2-3% solution (rather than the 4%+ one might use earlier in the year), I also read that the product includes its own spreader sticker solution, allowing me to put away my bottle of the stuff.

By the time I had the info I needed, the wind had picked up, and I backed off spraying. Just after noon, the wind died down a bit, so I got out our sprayer, cleaned it, and filled it with a 3%ish dormant oil solution. Of course, by the time I got outside, the wind had picked back up, but I went ahead and sprayed the trees (and a lot of the environment downwind of the trees).

I ended up not using any fire blight spray, as I couldn't find our bottle of it. A quick visit to our local garden store revealed that they didn't have any, either, but put some on order for me. Since I was there, I picked up a bag of dog and critter repellent and another bag of potting soil. I would have bought a bale of peat moss as well, but they wanted $17 for a 2.2 cubic foot bale! We use a lot of peat moss when we transplant our melons, so I'm going to have to hunt an affordable source for the stuff. (It appears Rural King has 3.8 cubic foot bales for $12 each.)

Tomatoes - Adding Another Heirloom...maybe

I was going to wait another day before starting our tomatoes and peppers, but after reading what little information I could find online about the Earlirouge variety, I got excited about trying to grow out our old saved seed. Earlirouge is a sister variety to the Moira and Quinte varieties from which we already grow and save seed. All three were developed by Jack Metcalf at the Agriculture Canada Smithfield Experimental Farm, in Trenton, Ottawa, in the 1970s. The Moira variety has long been one of our favorite tomatoes for its excellent flavor, deep red interiors, near ideal size for slicing or canning, and healthy growth habit.

We were able to obtain the Quinte variety from a seed start provided by the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Germplasm Resources Information Network last year. We'd grown and saved seed from Quintes in the 70s and 80s, but lost our seed start somewhere along the line. Quintes are similar to Moiras, although not quite as flavorful, but have an extremely thin skin which is said to be good for canning.

Earlirouge saved seed packetI had hunted off and on for Earlirouge seed from various sources for some time, as it was probably the most popular and successful introduction of Metcalf's tomato varieties. A number of Canadian vendors still carry the variety, but to the best of my knowledge, it is commercially unavailable in the United States. Then while working on our seed inventory last fall, I discovered that I still had some very old saved Earlirouge seed in our "archival storage" bag of frozen tomato seed. The seed packet with well over a hundred seeds in it is dated 1988!

Lots of Earlirouge seedStarting very old tomato seed actually isn't all that different than starting fresh tomato seed, other than desperately hoping at least one seed will germinate. To compensate for an expected low rate of germination, I sprinkled 31 seeds (tried for 30, but got an extra) across a small flowerpot of moistened sterilized soil and lightly covered the seed with soil. If any seed germinates, I can easily move the plants to fourpacks or individual pots later. If no seed germinates, well, we still have around a hundred seeds left in the packet.

Under humidome
Heat mat thermostat

I went ahead and started the rest of our tomatoes for this year, as we just barely had room for them in a seed flat over our soil heating mat. As our family is grown and mostly moved out of state, I've cut back our tomato starts for this year. We had more tomatoes than we could eat, can, or give away last year.

Our current garden plan calls for just four Moiras, two Quintes, two Earlirouges (if we get really lucky with germination), one Bella Rosa, and one grape tomato plant, a Red Candy. Only the Bella Rosa and Red Candy are hybrids, as we try to move to as many open pollinated varieties as possible. I am a little concerned with growing so many related varieties, as they could all be susceptible to similar plant diseases or failure to adverse growing conditions. And I may still have to find room in our garden plan for some old favorites such as Wonder Boy or Better Boy.

Once I had everything seeded, the fourpacks and pot went into a covered flat over our soil heating mat. It's thermostat is set at 75o F, just about ideal for tomatoes and the vinca that are sharing space in the flat. (Note: The 77.1o F reading shown at left is due to the warm water I used in moistening the soil for the tomato seed.)

Over the years we've lost a few varieties of saved seeds for various reasons, mostly from not growing them out often enough. Our most recent loss was our strain of Moon & Stars watermelon. It had apparently crossed with another variety, but produced giant Moon & Stars marked melons that had great flavor but way too many seeds. While we grew it out and saved seed from it regularly, our seed went bad one year, and we lost the strain.

We've also been fortunate to germinate some very old seed at times. Just a few years ago, we got about 10% germination from some commercial Moira tomato seed we'd had in frozen storage since 1987! And after having our saved seed go bad in storage, we had one, just one, Japanese Long Pickling seed out of 25 in an old (1994) commercial packet germinate, saving the strain for us.

This year we will be growing out, saving seed, and hopefully, offering seed the following year via the SSE annual yearbook: Moira, Quinte, and Earlirouge tomatoes; Earliest Red Sweet peppers; Japanese Long Pickling cucumbers; Eclipse peas; and possibly Mohon's greasy pole beans (Dennis Mohon thinks they may be Tennessee Cornfield beans.). Most of these varieties simply aren't available commercially in the United States anymore. Canadian gardeners should be able to find the Metcalf tomato cultivars fairly easily, as there are several organizations and seed houses in Canada working to preserve them.

Since I really am rambling tonight, let me add an interesting descriptor of the Moira tomato variety and its ancestry from the Long Island Seed Project:

MOIRA- determinate, canning or juice processor, very meaty, firm red, nice interiors, oblate, deep 2-3", early, a compact development from HIGH CRIMSON, a cultivar with dark crimson, red interiors (ripen from the inside out). Developed in 1972 by Jack Metcalf, Smithfield Experimental Farm/Agriculture Canada. The original source of the high crimson gene used to breed HIGH CRIMSON was KANATTO, a selection by Canadian breeder T. Graham of an ungainly sprawling Philippines wild tomato. Graham developed HIGH CRIMSON and a sister-line, CRIMSON SPRINTER. Metcalf, in turn used this to genetic material to breed QUINTE, BELLESTAR and EARLIBRIGHT, all sister lines of MOIRA .

I find it intriguing to see where some of our current varieties came from. Were I a younger man choosing a career, plant breeding would seem an exciting option.

I hope to get our peppers started tomorrow or early next week, without any long winded seed saving explanations.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I didn't plant anything new today, but did move some impatiens from their starting pots to fourpacks. But the big deal of the day came when my wife and I took our granddaughter back home to Terre Haute and stopped by the Rural King there. It turns out that 3.8 cubic foot bales of peat moss are on sale at Rural King this week for $10.99! We use lots of peat moss to mix with potting soil to make our seed starting mix. We use even more peat moss in the holes/hills we plant our melons in. Without the peat, I don't think we could grow good melons on our ground.

Full disclosure: Nope, Rural King isn't a Senior Gardening affiliated advertiser, but the peat moss deal is too good not to pass along to readers.

Monday, March 18, 2013 - Lots of Rain - Freeze Warnings

Standing waterI hadn't written much about it this month, but I was beginning to get worried about rainfall and potential summer droughts again. Until yesterday, we'd only had about a half inch of precipitation this month, but all that changed overnight. I widened out our usual "top photo" a bit today to show the standing water in the field next to our garden. We've gotten well over an inch of rainfall in the last 24 hours with more apparently on the way. That's good, as we're still at a bit less than half of the average rainfall for March.

We're also looking at rather worrisome weather forecasts that include overnight lows midweek in the low 20s. That's more than our cold frame can handle, so we'll have flats and hanging basket plants lining the kitchen walls a few nights this week. Although a hassle, bringing in our transplants for a night or two is something that we usually have to do once or twice each year.

Starting Bell Peppers

I evicted some slow germinating vinca from their spot in a flat over our soil heating mat today to make room for our bell pepper starts. If I waited any longer to start our peppers, they'd be rather small at transplanting time.

PlanningWhen I start transplants, there's usually a bit of planning that goes along with the task. Of course, I've already selected some varieties by what we ordered over the winter. But with just ten or eleven slots in our garden plan for peppers, I really have to think about what I'm going to want. We like to have a good mix of red and yellow peppers, something that doesn't always turn out so well.

Fourpacks seeded to bell peppersI seeded our peppers to fourpack inserts filled with moistened, sterilized planting medium, covering the seed with a light layer of planting medium. Our usual Earliest Red Sweet, Red Knight, Ace (our best producer), and Mecate all got one seed per cell along with a backup seed in the corners here and there. I also started a couple of cells of Sweet Chocolate, an open pollinated brown pepper we've not grown before. For our yellow peppers, I seeded a couple of cells of Mecate, a new yellow pepper we started growing two years ago. But I also heavily seeded a cell each of Summer Sweet 8610, Labrador, and Sunray, all yellows. None of the three germinated well last year, so I thought I'd see if the seed was still any good. Personally, I think any of the three is a better pepper than Mecate! If they all germinate, I'll have to pick and choose between them, as we only grow two or three yellow pepper plants each year. With one open cell left after seeding what I wanted, I went ahead and started some Lipstick, a slender red pepper with fairly good flavor. (Note: Labrador and Sunray are hybrids that have disappeared from seed house listings in the last few years.)

When transplanting time rolls around, I'll have to make some choices. Four Earliest Red Sweets will go into the East Garden for isolation and seed production. Two each of Red Knight and Ace will go in our main raised bed, leaving just two or three slots for the chocolate and yellows. While I'd like to grow some of everything that comes up, we usually have all the peppers we can use and give away with 10-12 plants each year. Last year, we had nine pepper plants, and once the drought broke, we were overrun with peppers.

I'd still like to start some paprika peppers for this year's garden, but simply don't have a spot for them in our garden plan as yet. We are going to turn some new ground to isolate some tomatoes, so maybe I can squeeze in some Feher Ozon, Alma, and Paprika Supreme plants in that area.

Light House Mission

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Damaged flat of brassicasSad cauliflowerWe're into a period with some nasty, freezing weather predicted for the next few nights. As a precaution, I brought in the plants we had under the cold frame last night. Upon inspecting our flat of brassicas, it was obvious that the hard freeze we had a week ago did more damage than I'd originally thought. Many of the plants showed frost damage with some having had their top leaves frozen off! The hardy cabbage was pretty much unaffected, with some damage to the broccoli apparent. Our cauliflower transplants took the worst hit, looking pretty ragged but already putting on new leaves.

AmazonThe flat of brassicas will have to go back under our plant lights for a few days to recover. Before taking the flat back downstairs, it had to be treated for insects, as bringing in plants from the outside is a good way to introduce insects to ones whole plant population. I generally use a systemic insecticide on flowers we plan to bring back inside, but food crops require a different treatment. The flat of brassicas got a thorough spraying with pyrethrin, the most effective while least toxic material I could use. (Yuck, I washed and washed and still smell like insecticide!)

5 Day ForecastOur two flats of onions and two hanging baskets of petunias will go back outside each day when possible for the next few days. But from the current Weather Underground Forecast and others, I think I'll just bring everything back inside each night the rest of this week. Around 28o F is about as low as I trust our cold frame without putting some kind of additional cover over it at night. We're looking at predicted lows of 27o, 23o, 25o, and 27o over the next four nights, making bringing the plants in and taking them back out each day well worth the effort.

Senior Garden - March 19, 2013It's sorta sad. It looks gorgeous outside this morning with the sun shining and deep blue skies. The temperature is only 34o this morning with steady winds of 20 MPH and gusts of 30 MPH or more. For now, the onions, petunias, and I will just have to stay inside!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 - First Day of Spring...Brrr

It may officially be the first day of spring, but it's relatively cold outside today and will be getting colder tonight! The temperature has struggled all day just to reach freezing and is now predicted to drop to 19-20o overnight, well below normal temperatures for this time of year. Our flats of onions and pots of petunias brought in yesterday from the cold frame won't even get to go outside today.

Of course, our cold weather is a relative thing. Folks in New England are digging out after receiving up to 15 inches of snow on the first day of spring!

Even so, an aging gardener hoping to be getting outside has to hunt for little victories on a day like today, other than the Lord granting us another day. Ours came with several tomato varieties germinating just four days after seeding.

Tomato plants emerging

Plant rackMost of our tomatoes and peppers seeded recently aren't showing any action yet. I was just getting antsy with the tomatoes, which generally don't begin to emerge from the soil until about five days after seeding.

I frequently begin to get a Dr. Zhivago complex in the winter (or the first day of spring), desperately wanting to just see something really green. A trip to our basement plant rack is often therapeutic, as there are usually lots of colors, green and beyond, on display there. Our trays containing celery, geraniums, parsley, and a few petunias provided my necessary shot of green for today. Also, receiving a small seed order of some basil, dill, kale, and another lettuce variety just four days after placing the order with Annie's Heirloom Seeds gave me some more seed to play with.

Celery, parsley, geraniums, and petunias

Saturday, March 23, 2013 - Crazy Spring Weather

Our "spring" weather here is becoming almost comical. It got up to 61o F today, so I got out and trimmed bushes and hedges, actually working up a sweat. But tonight, tomorrow, and Monday, we have a forecast that includes snow...possibly lots of it. The current Winter Storm Watch states:

Accumulations: 5 to 9 inches with locally higher amounts north of a Sullivan [That's us.] to Bloomington to Columbus line... 3 to 6 inches south of this line.

Other impacts: winds will gust to 25 to 30 mph Sunday afternoon and evening... causing blowing snow. These winds combined with the heavy wet snow may cause some localized power outages.

Oh, my.

Plants on porchAfter getting some of our plants under the cold frame nipped by a hard freeze a week or so ago, I've just been bringing our flats of onions and pots of petunias inside each night, as our overnight lows frequently drop into the lower 20s. Instead of putting the plants back under the cold frame in daylight hours, I just put them on the porch, as they're already pretty well hardened off. Of course, we've had a few days recently where the plants had to stay inside all day, as it never got above freezing during the day. But for the most part, the onions and petunias are thriving in the cool, outdoor weather by day and staying toasty inside at night.

Our current forecast includes lows in the mid-20s through the middle of next week, so I'll need to continue bringing in our plants for several more days. That's beginning to impact our seeding plans, as our plant rack is full, and I have nowhere to go with seedlings ready to be moved outside and be hardened off.

Got One!

Earlirouge upWhen I checked our plant rack this morning, I immediately noticed that one of the Earlirouge tomato seeds I started a week ago was up. We may, of course, see several more of the seeds germinate in the next few days, but one is all it takes to preserve our strain of the variety. I hadn't grown out this seed since 1988 and actually had forgotten I had the seed. That gives us three tomato varieties (Moira, Quinte, and Earlirouge) to isolate and save seed from this summer, just about the limit we can effectively isolate from each other.

Our first planting of brassicas continue to slowly recover from the freeze damage they suffered a week or so ago. I had to reseed some of the cauliflower, as several of those plants were actually killed by the freeze. That flat remains under our plant lights in the basement, possibly setting back our usual early April transplanting of the first of our broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.

While I may get some herbs, dusty miller, alyssum, snapdragons, and/or marigolds started in the next week or so, our next major planting will be our melons and cukes. We usually seed our melons to four inch square pots to avoid any transplanting shock from having to uppot plants started in fourpacks, which they quickly outgrow. The downside of using four inch pots is that they take a lot of space and use a large amout of expensive planting medium. The upside is that one can seed a whole "hill," two or three plants, per pot. And, we get little to no transplanting shock when we transplant melons in four inch pots into the field.

So, we're sorta waiting on the weather to even out so that we can move stuff from the plant rack to the cold frame. Once space opens up on the plant rack, we can seed our cucumbers, muskmelons, watermelons, and squash.

Sunday, March 24, 2013 - Snow

SnowI'd begun to wonder if the weather folks had gotten it wrong, but late this afternoon it began to snow about as large of snowflakes as I've ever seen. In less than an hour, we had an inch of snow on the ground with more on the way. The evergreens shown at right are some of the ones I was trimming yesterday in 62o F comfort! Our overnight forecast suggests up to seven more inches of snow, a pretty heavy snow event for this late in the season in our area.

While things are going to be a mess until the snow melts, it sure is pretty.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Plants inside Plant rack, March 25, 2013

The overnight snow, while not nearly as much here as was predicted, has us marking time again. Our kitchen and dining room have plants in them that normally would be under the cold frame at this time of year. Likewise, our downstairs plant rack is full to overflowing. So...we'll just have to be patient and wait for the weather to cooperate so that we can plant some more stuff.

Earlirouge potOur pot of twenty-five year old Earlirouge tomato seed planted on March 16 now has nine sprouts showing! That's nine out of 31 seeds planted with more possibly to come, not bad for such old seed. The seed has been in constant frozen storage for all those years, a tribute to saving seed by freezing (and also a whole bunch of good luck).

Our half flat of lettuce started on March 2 is already to the point of needing more space. I started the seed in rather small fourpacks, knowing that I'd have to uppot the seedlings to larger fourpacks or pots later. Of course, when I seeded the lettuce, I was hoping we'd have lots of free space under our cold frame for onions, broccoli, and the lettuce. Sadly, the cold frame has 4-6 inches of snow on it, and we still have three or four fairly cold nights ahead of us that will keep the cold frame inactive until the end of the week at best.

Lettuce seedlings

Geranium rootingWife's geranium todayWhile I had the camera in the kitchen this morning, I grabbed a shot of my wife's windowsill geranium. It's a dwarfed plant that grew in a clay pot for years, eventually becoming rather stringy when the stem began getting woody. Having once before tried taking a traditional cutting from the plant, I used rooting gel last March to help the good part of the stem root, but not removing the cutting(s) until I was sure they had taken and rooted.

Potting the stem actually produced two cuttings, but one quickly failed. The other has produced a clone of the original geranium, although a good deal healthier and better looking.

Looking towards our other kitchen window shows a potted sage plant, an egg carton of petunias, and a potted parsley plant. Just outside the window are some of the bushes I was trimming in warm (62o) weather on Saturday.

Sage, petunias, and parsley on windowsill

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mother Earth News

Our mail came early today while I was out swapping seed into and out of our big freezer. There wasn't much mail, but the April/May (2013) issue of Mother Earth News was there. This month's cover story is Cheryl Long's excellent How to Make Cheap Garden Beds. Long doesn't necessarily favor raised beds, and in fact, actually has some good reasons where one would not want to use them. But she gives a lot of practical advice on how to start garden beds with walkways between them that most anyone can do and afford. In the past, I've used several techniques similar to what she describes and found they worked well. If you're just starting gardening or planning on turning new ground, this article could prove to be gold for you.

No, I'm not ready to tear out our raised garden beds. Our first raised bed started out as some essential terracing to prevent soil erosion. Having two sides of the bed enclosed for the terrace, I later added the other two sides to make an enormous (16' x 24') raised bed, something I really don't recommend. But it worked for our peculiar and particular situation.

The seed going out to the big freezer today included brassicas and lettuce that we won't need again until we start our fall garden transplants. Seed that we're done starting for the year, tomatoes and onions, went back into the big freezer. I brought our melon and cucumber seed in from the big freezer, as we need to get that stuff started just as soon as we can clear some growing space under our plant lights.

Outside, things are a good deal more pleasant than they've been over the last few days. It was still snowing a bit when Annie and I went to bed last night. By this morning, it sounded like it was raining outside from all the snow melting off the roof. Things will be pretty messy outside for several days, but it appears winter has had its last hurrah for this year and we're on our way into real spring weather.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

We still have a bit of snow lingering on the ground here and there, but things have warmed up enough to begin putting plants back under our cold frame.

Cold frame plants, March 27, 2013

Porch and cold frameWith a predicted overnight low of 28o F tonight, we're not out of frost/freeze danger yet. But the overnight lows forecast for the next week are high enough that I was willing to put onions, brassicas, parsley, lettuce, and celery under the frame. I did close the cold frame early in the afternoon to help retain the day's heat. Four potted petunias and a wax begonia also went outside, sunning themselves from hooks along the edge of the porch. They'll still need to come in each night for several more days.

Light Frost? Hard Frost?

I often use the terms "light frost" and "hard frost" on this site, but sometimes am a little iffy in defining them. I ran across a page online that does a good job of describing the temperature ranges involved and which plants can stand what temperatures. Frost Tolerance of Vegetables on Botanical Interests describes a light frost as being in the 28-32o F temperature range, while a hard frost being below 28o F.

The page also categorizes a number of vegetables by their frost hardiness. I found it interesting that they list most brassicas such as broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts as able to withstand a hard frost, but put cauliflower, also a brassica, in the light frost only category. That listing exactly mirrors our experience a couple of weeks ago with our cauliflower under the cold frame sustaining serious frost damage, while other brassicas in the same flat not being damaged as seriously or at all.

Botanical Interests also sells flower and vegetable seeds and has an excellent rating on Dave's Garden Watchdog.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

As I shut down my computer late last night (actually early this morning), the desktop background photo changed to the one below.

Cold frame plants, March 27, 2013

I took the shot while working on our original Gloxinias feature story, and it's always a reminder of why I grow gloxinias. They're absolutely gorgeous.

The image is available for others to use in a similar fashion from our Desktop Photos page on The version I use shown above is a pretty close crop of the image offered on Desktop Photos. Also please note our standard and somewhat tongue-in-cheek disclaimer that all photos on this site are copyrighted, but may be used for desktop photos or classroom use without permission or payment. All other use requires prior consent, massive royalty payments, your left pinkie finger... (Actually, I'm a pretty soft touch on non-commercial use of my photos. Just , please.)

If you're into gloxinia shots, there are several more on our Saving Gloxinia Seed and Gloxinia Photos feature stories.

Desktop Photos

Friday, March 29, 2013 - Starting Melons

I kept looking at the calendar this week, counting ahead six weeks. Each time I did so, it came up that it was time for me to get our melon transplants started. We like to have them around 4-6 weeks old when transplanted into the field. With melon transplants, younger is usually better than older, as all sorts of things can go wrong when the plants get large.

Drying trays and potsStarting melonsSo I got busy yesterday sterilizing planting medium and washing and sterilizing trays and pots. We start our melons, cukes, and squash in rather large containers, frequently in some old, white, 4 1/2" square pots. The pots use up a lot of planting medium (about a flat or 8-10 pots per kettle of sterilized planting medium), so there's a built in delay in the process while more potting soil mixed with peat moss "cooks" in the oven at 400o F for an hour or so to kill off any potentially harmful organisms in the planting medium.

The trays and pots get washed in dish detergent with a little bleach added. The bleach helps zap any bacteria hiding in planting material I didn't get completely washed off.

Usually, I shallowly plant three seeds per pot to make sure I get at least one and preferably two good starts per pot. With older seed, I may use four or five seeds per pot and thin back to two plants if necessary. Because the pots are large, more than one plant can thrive in them until transplanting time, when the entire contents of the pot, unseparated, goes into a hill in our East Garden.

Filling potsI used some of our larger, sturdier, but more expensive Perma-Nest trays for the planting. The Perma-Nest trays are just enough larger than a standard 1020 flat and their humidomes are a bit taller to allow ten pots in each flat, where a standard flat will only accommodate eight. I did have to use a couple slightly smaller (4") green pots per flat to make things fit correctly. While I did yesterday's planting in the kitchen, it was so nice outside today that I seeded the second flat of melons on the back steps.

Flat on main soil heating mat
Extra heating mat

The covered flats go onto soil heating mats, as melons, cukes, and squash all seem to germinate better with a bit of bottom heat. Seedless or triploid watermelon need really warm temperatures for optimal germination. I set the thermostat for our main soil heating mat at 85o F to accommodate the needs of the triploids. And even that figure is about 5o less than a seed house plant specialist told me they use to germinate seedless watermelon.

Our backup heating mat, the one with the wire base, is in an extra upstairs bedroom (and on a different electrical circuit). It doesn't have an external thermostat on it as our main heat mat does. When I checked the soil temperature of the upstairs unit this evening, it read 88o F, just a bit warmer than I would like. Overheating was part of the reason I invested in an external thermostat and also retired, other than for occasional use, the backup heating mat.

I started a total of twenty pots of melons yesterday and today. Even with that many, I'm about four plants short for the space I've allotted to melons in our East Garden. But twenty pots is all I have room for over our two soil heating mats, so I'll need to start a few more melons when this batch germinates. I also have cucumbers, squash, and eggplant that will need to be started over the soil heating mats.

Our muskmelon/cantaloupe planting today included favorites Athena, Roadside Hybrid, Sarah's Choice, and Sugar Cube. New to us this year are Avatar, Charentais, and Pride of Wisconsin. I also started the same three varieties of honeydew we grew last year: Boule D'or, Passport, and Tam Dew.

Our watermelon planting included Ali Baba, Crimson Sweet, Farmers Wonderful, Kleckley Sweet, Moon & Stars, Picnic, and Trillion. These are all varieties we've previously grown and liked. Farmers Wonderful and Trillion are seedless (triploid) melons and obviously, hybrids. The rest are all open pollinated varieties.

Warming Up

Dianthus seedlingsCold frameOur overnight low temperature Wednesday night was a bit less than predicted (25-26o F). I was glad to see that our plants under the cold frame were still in good shape, other than some leaf bleaching probably caused by to much strong light, too soon. We may still see some 28-30o nights in the next week or so, but I think plants under the cold frame should be safe from frost at those temperatures.

Our cold frame is now getting full, as it only holds five or six standard flats. I brought our flat of dianthus upstairs to go under the cold frame today and had to move a flat of onions to the back porch to make room for the flowers.

Our dianthus are all from seed saved in previous years from the Carpet Series. While dianthus are sometimes listed as annuals, they really are biennials that for us have acted like true perennials! I have noticed that with saved seed, the plants tend towards being almost all red blooms, so I may need to spend a few bucks next year to refresh the colors in our flowerbeds.

Saturday, March 30, 2013 - Restarting Onions

Onions usually aren't one of our transplants or crops with which we have much trouble. But our two flats of onions caught quite a shock from the hard freeze a few weeks ago when they were under the cold frame. During our recent series of cold nights, I set the onion flats on the back porch during the warmth of the day, bringing them back inside overnight. One flat of onions rebounded well, but the other has whitened, withered, and over half of the onion starts have died.

Flats of onions

Then I remembered that one of our pets had gotten into the onions on the porch, digging in them a bit. It would appear the pet, probably one of our cats, did more than dig! I'm guessing that the dying onions got peed on and burnt from the nitrogen in the cat's urine. So today, while the onions once more resided on the porch, I put some lime and pet deterrent on the injured flat, but have little hope of saving much there.

New flat of onions Warm shelf

Kat and Brady making Easter eggsInstead, I pulled our onion seed out of frozen storage and seeded another whole flat of Pulsar, Milestone, Red Zeppelin, and Walla Walla onions. These are our main varieties of onions, with all but Walla Walla being excellent storage onions. The cat, of course, had to pick the flat with our main onions, rather than the one containing a new sweet variety we're trying this year, some shallots, and a few leeks. With the cramped conditions on our plant rack, the new flat of onions went on our "warm shelf" until it begins to show signs of germination.

To make matters more interesting, the new flat got seeded on the dining room table while my wife supervised Easter egg making in the kitchen.

This last flat of onions will be very late in being ready for spring planting. But it also contains the varieties we most value, so starting over is just one of those things that happen sometimes. And maybe what's left in the original flat will recover enough to be used when I put in our onions and carrots.

Turn the Auto-Focus Back On

Foggy morningAuto-focus switchWhen I grabbed our header shot of the garden shrouded in fog this morning, I had to turn off the auto-focus on my Canon Digital Rebel XSi to get the shot. That's often necessary when I take shots early in the morning from our sunroom window, as there's not enough contrast for the auto-focus to lock onto.

When I later took the original set of shots of the grandkids making Easter eggs and of the new flat of onions, they were all out of focus. I had, of course, forgotten to turn the auto-focus back on. So I went back and retook the shots, having the grandkids pose for the Easter egg shot, rather than the cute, but quite blurred, candid shot I'd gotten of them earlier.

Canon XSi w 17-85mm lensEven the smartest of cameras can't overcome user incompetence!

BTW: My XSi looks a bit ungainly, as I quickly ditched Canon's 18-55mm "kit" lens in favor of their 17-85mm lens, a much better "walking around" lens. If you're looking for a digital SLR, I can enthusiastically recommend Canon's Digital Rebel series. And to save you some trouble, I'd also recommend buying the camera body without a lens, as their kit lenses are really disappointing. Something like my 17-85 mm lens or the newer 15-85mm model should make you a happy photographer.

Sunday, March 31, 2013 - A Little Housekeeping


CobraHead WeederThanks to the folks at CobraHead LLC for sending along a freebie CobraHead Weeder and Cultivator. I haven't had a chance to try it out in the garden as yet, but the balance of the tool feels to be about right, and it certainly gets a lot of positive reviews on Amazon. If it turns out to be a "keeper," I'll write about it here later this gardening season. And if it's a dud, this will probably be the last you'll hear of it.

Weston ThermometerMy thanks also to Colorado reader RW, who surprised me by sending along copies of Nancy Bubel's The New Seed Starter's Handbook and Victoria Boutenko's Green for Life. I've been devouring Bubel's book, and really appreciated her tables for optimal germination temperatures for various vegetable crops. One table confirmed what we're almost doing right now with our melon starts. It suggested a 90-95o F optimal temperature for germinating cantaloupe and watermelon. Our upstairs soil heating mat is keeping one of our flats of melon starts at a pretty steady 88-90o, while our downstairs mat is struggling a bit in the cooler basement to keep its flat up to 85o. (More about our melons later in this posting.)

Note: I don't know if they still make them as well today as in the past, but that's my 40 year-old Weston darkroom thermometer faithfully monitoring the soil temperature of the upstairs melon germination. I just poked a small hole through the top of the flat's humidome and inserted the thermometer, with its clip on the underside, aiming to keep it away from the seeds but well into the planting medium.


I seeded trays of melons on Friday and Saturday, and both trays have pots showing germination. The tray seeded yesterday has melons just breaking the soil surface. The tray seeded on Friday had four pots that needed to be moved off the soil heating mat and into a regular tray without a humidome where they'll catch more light and better air circulation.

Melons germinating

Moving four pots out of the tray over the soil heating mat opened up space there for pots of Moon & Stars, Farmers Wonderful, and Crimson Sweet watermelon, along with a pot of Avatar cantaloupe, a new one we're trying this year.

March Precipitation

Precipitation (Inches)1
  2013 2012 2011 Ave.
Jan. 6.33 3.20 0.84 2.48
Feb. 2.24 1.10 2.28 2.41
March 2.10 1.52 3.79 3.44
Totals2 10.67 5.82 6.91 8.33
1 2011 & 2012 precipitation data from the Kinmerom2 weather station, Merom, IN. 2013 precipitation data from the Kinmerom3 weather station.
Average precipitation for Indianapolis, IN
2 to date (Jan. - Mar.)

Drought Prediction CenterTotal precipitation for March has been disappointing, but not disastrous. We're still well ahead of last year's totals to date and the hundred year average for our area. But the yearly total (to date) is mostly because of an unusually wet January. Both February and March precipitation totals were below monthly averages.

The folks who do the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook for the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center still show our area as being in pretty good shape for the early part of the coming gardening season. Sadly, the outlook for much of the west, southwest, and parts of Florida shows little improvement in their continuing drought.

It did rain just a little bit overnight, which was encouraging.

Odds 'n' Ends

Flat of geraniumsI spent a pleasant hour this morning working our plants under the plant lights. One full tray of geraniums was ready to go under the cold frame. It probably will have to come back inside Monday and Tuesday nights, as we have lows of 27 and 28 degrees forecast for those nights. The cold frame actually does fairly well protecting our transplants down to about 25-26o, but I hate to take a chance with the geraniums after all the problems we had getting them started. We have another almost full flat of geraniums from late plantings that will need a week or so more under the plant lights before going under the cold frame to harden off.

Lots of our other starts needed to be thinned by snipping off extra plants. I also transplanted some crowded fourpacks, often splitting one with eight or nine seedlings into two fourpacks with a seedling per cell. Our second planting of brassicas, mainly intended for our East Garden, and our tomatoes all appear quite healthy so far. Even our slow growing vincas are now beginning to look like real plants, putting on their first true leaves.

Plants under cold frameLettuce transplantsWith the sun peeking in and out today, and with a new flat of geraniums out, the cold frame is just propped open a couple of feet. That allows some light in and good air circulation while protecting the seedlings from the full sun and wind. I opened up the cold frame for the shot at left. And, it appears that I may need to uppot our lettuce seedlings unless we get to transplant them in the next week or so. They're really getting crowded in their tiny fourpacks.

Kitchen window plantsSweet potato sproutOur west kitchen window and windowsill continues to be filled with plants. Besides the wandering jew hanging basket and the sage, petunias, and parsley on the windowsill, one of our sweet potatoes is finally showing green sprouts (one circled in red) that will produce our sweet potato slips for this year. I didn't have much to work with in sweet potatoes this year, as last year's crop was pretty much a failure.

Sadly, we've never had much luck with purchased sweet potato slips or plants. They arrive in the mail terribly dried out, with half of them dead. They also seem to always arrive at the wrong time, either way too early to put out or way too late.

So, we just go with what we have. The sweet potato at right is a Nancy Hall, a whitish variety we got our start of from R.H. Shumway. We like the Nancy Halls better than some of the more popular varieties available, so doing our own starts really isn't all that much trouble. And once the plant really begins putting out green shoots and leaves, they're really quite pretty.

March Wrap-up

March animated gifWe haven't gotten any asparagus yet this year like we did last March, but maybe that's a good thing. We also haven't had a warm and dry late winter.

We've survived one serious freeze with some damage to plants under the cold frame. That's made me a good bit more cautious about putting stuff under the cold frame, and also has me checking the frame's seal to the ground each night.

We now have the bulk of our transplants started for this year, although there are lots of flowers yet to be started. As space opens up over our heat mats, I still need to get cucumbers, eggplant, and butternut and yellow squash started there.

And, we didn't have any of those March dry spells that allow the soil to dry out enough to do some early tilling. That's a good news - bad news deal. We need all the moisture we can get, but I would have liked to have started working up our large East Garden plot. It's picked up a lot of weed growth over the winter, no doubt from seed in all the grass clippings mulch we use in that area.

So on this Easter Day, let me wish you good gardening and glory in that "He is risen!"

February, 2013

From Steve, the at Senior Gardening


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