Link to StumbleUpon

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gardens and a Colorado Spring

Spring can be a confusing time in Colorado. Plants are growing, animals are returning, and gardeners are preparing. And it's snowing at the same time. My garden received four inches of snow on April 26 this year. That isn't entirely abnormal, but it's not welcomed after teasing temperatures near 70F degrees.

The storm caught many of us unaware. When the sun disappeared, I suspected it would be worse than the forecast and brought in firewood for the woodstove that had lain cold for the last month. A number of birds were foraging in my yard and garden when the first snowflakes blew in and they didn't seem to notice, until visibility decreased and the size of the flakes increased. They sought refuge quickly in unusual locations.

A bird on my deck rail

I was most surprised by the garter snake curled up on the floor of my shower. It was unexpected to see something dark and twisted at the edge of the water I'd just turned on, a ribbon or cord perhaps? It was quite shocking to see the ribbon move and flick its tongue. I rescued it and placed it in a bucket for the evening. It was not a fit night out for man nor beast.

The shower snake bedding down for the night

My guess is that the snake was caught unaware like the birds. When the snow and cold hit suddenly it was probably hunting and away from its warm home in the ground. It detected the warmth from the pipes in our septic system and followed the heat through the pipes, through the drain, and into our shower. Better a small garter snake than something larger.

The plants were shocked too; most spring plants are adapted to sudden changes in temperature and they seem none the worse for wear a few days later. Snow and cold temperatures can slow their normal germination and growth, but isn't enough to kill them. The peas, lettuce, and radishes I planted a few weeks ago are still alive and doing well under their plastic hoops, but they haven't grown as quickly as I hoped given this recent week of cold temperatures.

The rhubarb will be fine

Once the sun came out the snow became a distant memory. Four inches disappeared in one afternoon. The birds went back to foraging through the wet ground, the snake was released and quickly slithered away, and I ventured back outside checking on plants.

The shower snake back outdoors

We're not out of the woods yet. The last official frost date is still a few weeks away and the relatively safe date for planting warm season plants is still a month away. Another storm is coming this weekend and the first of May should be downright cold.

I do wonder about new gardeners in our region who lost some plants in this recent weather mishap. Lowe's had a sale last week with tomatoes two for a dollar. Quite a bargain, unless freezing temperatures and snow hit right after planting. Even the supermarkets have flowers and herbs for sale. It's tempting to buy the pretty plants and put them in the ground on a warm day, without thinking.

Summer is coming with its hot days and abundant sun. We're nearly halfway through spring and the warm days and cool nights should happen soon. But our daily weather is still unpredictable.

It's beneficial for gardeners to experience extremes of weather in their gardens so they know what can happen. That's one reason experienced gardeners have much more success than newcomers. Pay attention to your conditions and keep a garden journal. When you're tempted to plant early, take a look at years past and remind yourself about the late spring snows in the Rocky Mountains.

I won't soon forget the snake in the shower or the bird on the rail. I didn't have anything planted that couldn't survive a snow because I've been through this before, though without the snake. I'm anxious for new plantings, but patience truly is a virtue when it comes to gardening. The season will start soon enough and when it does I'll be ready.
Spring can be a confusing time in Colorado. Plants are growing, animals are returning, and gardeners are preparing. And it's snowing at the same time. My garden received four inches of snow on April 26 this year. That isn't entirely abnormal, but it's not welcomed after teasing temperatures near 70F degrees.

The storm caught many of us unaware. When the sun disappeared, I suspected it would be worse than the forecast and brought in firewood for the woodstove that had lain cold for the last month. A number of birds were foraging in my yard and garden when the first snowflakes blew in and they didn't seem to notice, until visibility decreased and the size of the flakes increased. They sought refuge quickly in unusual locations.

A bird on my deck rail

I was most surprised by the garter snake curled up on the floor of my shower. It was unexpected to see something dark and twisted at the edge of the water I'd just turned on, a ribbon or cord perhaps? It was quite shocking to see the ribbon move and flick its tongue. I rescued it and placed it in a bucket for the evening. It was not a fit night out for man nor beast.

The shower snake bedding down for the night

My guess is that the snake was caught unaware like the birds. When the snow and cold hit suddenly it was probably hunting and away from its warm home in the ground. It detected the warmth from the pipes in our septic system and followed the heat through the pipes, through the drain, and into our shower. Better a small garter snake than something larger.

The plants were shocked too; most spring plants are adapted to sudden changes in temperature and they seem none the worse for wear a few days later. Snow and cold temperatures can slow their normal germination and growth, but isn't enough to kill them. The peas, lettuce, and radishes I planted a few weeks ago are still alive and doing well under their plastic hoops, but they haven't grown as quickly as I hoped given this recent week of cold temperatures.

The rhubarb will be fine

Once the sun came out the snow became a distant memory. Four inches disappeared in one afternoon. The birds went back to foraging through the wet ground, the snake was released and quickly slithered away, and I ventured back outside checking on plants.

The shower snake back outdoors

We're not out of the woods yet. The last official frost date is still a few weeks away and the relatively safe date for planting warm season plants is still a month away. Another storm is coming this weekend and the first of May should be downright cold.

I do wonder about new gardeners in our region who lost some plants in this recent weather mishap. Lowe's had a sale last week with tomatoes two for a dollar. Quite a bargain, unless freezing temperatures and snow hit right after planting. Even the supermarkets have flowers and herbs for sale. It's tempting to buy the pretty plants and put them in the ground on a warm day, without thinking.

Summer is coming with its hot days and abundant sun. We're nearly halfway through spring and the warm days and cool nights should happen soon. But our daily weather is still unpredictable.

It's beneficial for gardeners to experience extremes of weather in their gardens so they know what can happen. That's one reason experienced gardeners have much more success than newcomers. Pay attention to your conditions and keep a garden journal. When you're tempted to plant early, take a look at years past and remind yourself about the late spring snows in the Rocky Mountains.

I won't soon forget the snake in the shower or the bird on the rail. I didn't have anything planted that couldn't survive a snow because I've been through this before, though without the snake. I'm anxious for new plantings, but patience truly is a virtue when it comes to gardening. The season will start soon enough and when it does I'll be ready.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Do a Soil Test for Your Garden

Testing soil in your garden is a good idea. Knowing the quality of your soil is the best forecast of plant success. If you know you have good soil, you should expect good plant results. If you know you have poor soil, you shouldn't be surprised by poor growth. To determine the quality of your soil you can grow a garden for years and see how it turns out, or you can have the soil tested.

There are two basic ways to test soil: buy a home test kit and do it yourself or send a soil sample to a laboratory and have it done professionally. The best answer is to have the pros do it.

A laboratory analysis only runs about $20 for a basic test, but can run much higher if you want to test for specific elements. Generally, a home gardener only needs to know four things about soil: the pH, and the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (or potash). I would recommend a fifth, the level of organic matter. Basic professional testing by a university or private lab should include all of that info plus salinity levels. You can find a list of testing labs at this link to Colorado State University fact sheet 0.520, Selecting an Analytical Laboratory. Results should be send back to you in a few weeks.

A home soil test kit usually costs about half the price and can be done quickly. It will give you the same basic information, but not nearly as accurately as a laboratory test. Most home kits work best for acid soils and are less accurate for alkaline soils, but they'll still give you a basic idea of soil quality. A slightly inaccurate test is better than no test at all.

A home soil test kit

If you are just starting your garden and have a plot of bare soil, I highly recommend getting a professional soil test. That way you'll know exactly what you need to add to the soil in the way of amendments and fertilizers to prepare it for the type of plants you plan to grow. If your garden is in place and you're just concerned about basic nutrient levels, a home soil test kit will give you an basic, though not precise, idea of what is in your yard.


To begin either test you need to gather samples of soil from your garden. With a clean trowel or spoon, dig a hole in four to six locations about four to six inches deep. You're getting a soil sample at root level. In a typical garden plot collect five samples, one from each corner and one from the middle. For your average soil status, combine the soil samples into one bag. If you really want to know how the soil differs from one end of your garden to the other, you can do multiple tests.

Collecting soil

Bag the combined sample and send it to the laboratory per their specific directions for submitting soil. Or carry it to your kitchen or shed for a do-it-yourself test.

The basic process for doing a home soil test kit is to combine your soil with distilled water and various chemical tablets in small plastic vials. You'll use different tablets in different vials for different test steps. The water will change color and you compare the color with a chart to determine the respective test result.

Don't expect accurate results. The outcome of my pH test showed it to be somewhere between 6.0 and 7.0, not too extreme. Depending on how you interpret the color, it could be close to either end. That's good enough for most plants, but if you're trying to grow something with specific pH needs you'd be better served by an accurate reading.

Soil pH test result

The other tests showed similar vague results and weren't surprising. I already knew my soil was deficient in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. That's why I'm amending it and adding fertilizer. But based on the home soil test kit I don't know how much fertilizer is enough, or too much. Many professional soil tests will provide guidance on how to add nutrients.

Checking home test results

A home kit is best suited for determining if the location you've chosen for your garden is appropriate. If you find that one location is extremely poor while another is average, you can save time and effort by gardening in the location that is less work.

Regardless of whether you do it yourself or have it done by the lab experts, get a soil test done. A professional test is advised. It will keep you from guessing about plant problems. It will help you provide appropriate levels of fertilization. It will set a foundation for proper soil amending.

By knowing your soil you are better able to know your garden. Eighty percent of plant problems are soil related. Understand your soil and you have a great advantage in understanding why things go wrong with your plants.
Testing soil in your garden is a good idea. Knowing the quality of your soil is the best forecast of plant success. If you know you have good soil, you should expect good plant results. If you know you have poor soil, you shouldn't be surprised by poor growth. To determine the quality of your soil you can grow a garden for years and see how it turns out, or you can have the soil tested.

There are two basic ways to test soil: buy a home test kit and do it yourself or send a soil sample to a laboratory and have it done professionally. The best answer is to have the pros do it.

A laboratory analysis only runs about $20 for a basic test, but can run much higher if you want to test for specific elements. Generally, a home gardener only needs to know four things about soil: the pH, and the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (or potash). I would recommend a fifth, the level of organic matter. Basic professional testing by a university or private lab should include all of that info plus salinity levels. You can find a list of testing labs at this link to
Colorado State University fact sheet 0.520, Selecting an Analytical Laboratory. Results should be send back to you in a few weeks.

A home soil test kit usually costs about half the price and can be done quickly. It will give you the same basic information, but not nearly as accurately as a laboratory test. Most home kits work best for acid soils and are less accurate for alkaline soils, but they'll still give you a basic idea of soil quality. A slightly inaccurate test is better than no test at all.

A home soil test kit

If you are just starting your garden and have a plot of bare soil, I highly recommend getting a professional soil test. That way you'll know exactly what you need to add to the soil in the way of amendments and fertilizers to prepare it for the type of plants you plan to grow. If your garden is in place and you're just concerned about basic nutrient levels, a home soil test kit will give you an basic, though not precise, idea of what is in your yard.


To begin either test you need to gather samples of soil from your garden. With a clean trowel or spoon, dig a hole in four to six locations about four to six inches deep. You're getting a soil sample at root level. In a typical garden plot collect five samples, one from each corner and one from the middle. For your average soil status, combine the soil samples into one bag. If you really want to know how the soil differs from one end of your garden to the other, you can do multiple tests.

Collecting soil

Bag the combined sample and send it to the laboratory per their specific directions for submitting soil. Or carry it to your kitchen or shed for a do-it-yourself test.

The basic process for doing a home soil test kit is to combine your soil with distilled water and various chemical tablets in small plastic vials. You'll use different tablets in different vials for different test steps. The water will change color and you compare the color with a chart to determine the respective test result.

Don't expect accurate results. The outcome of my pH test showed it to be somewhere between 6.0 and 7.0, not too extreme. Depending on how you interpret the color, it could be close to either end. That's good enough for most plants, but if you're trying to grow something with specific pH needs you'd be better served by an accurate reading.

Soil pH test result

The other tests showed similar vague results and weren't surprising. I already knew my soil was deficient in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. That's why I'm amending it and adding fertilizer. But based on the home soil test kit I don't know how much fertilizer is enough, or too much. Many professional soil tests will provide guidance on how to add nutrients.

Checking home test results

A home kit is best suited for determining if the location you've chosen for your garden is appropriate. If you find that one location is extremely poor while another is average, you can save time and effort by gardening in the location that is less work.

Regardless of whether you do it yourself or have it done by the lab experts, get a soil test done. A professional test is advised. It will keep you from guessing about plant problems. It will help you provide appropriate levels of fertilization. It will set a foundation for proper soil amending.

By knowing your soil you are better able to know your garden. Eighty percent of plant problems are soil related. Understand your soil and you have a great advantage in understanding why things go wrong with your plants.

Monday, April 25, 2011

How to Transplant, Part 1

It's time to transplant your seedlings into a bigger pot. You sowed the seeds, kept them moist, gave them light, and now they have some true leaves. They're a little crowded in the planting tray with the rest of their siblings and they need more room. So move them to a pot of their own.

I sowed my tomato seeds a few weeks ago and they're strong enough to move (see my blog, "Growing Tomatoes From Seed"). The first set of leaves that appear on a new sprout are the cotyledon leaves. They begin the photosynthesis process and get the plant growing. Typically they're oval shaped and don't look like the leaves of the adult plant; that's why it helps to label your seeds so you know what's growing. Soon after, true leaves develop. At that point there is enough root growth to support the plant and avoid the stress of transplanting. Wait for one or two sets of true leaves before transplanting.



Lots of seedlings ready for transplant
My tomato seeds were sowed in small peat pots. When done properly you can expect all or nearly all of your seedlings to survive the transplanting process. Just for extra insurance, I leave some of the seedlings undisturbed in the original pot while I move the overcrowded ones to their own new pots. After the danger of frost I'll transplant all of them into the garden.

To begin, fill the new containers with fresh, sterile, moist, potting soil. Place the new pots and old pots together on your workspace. You don't want to be walking across the room carrying a tender seedling. Keep all of your activity confined to a small area.

Using a fork, a chopstick, a spoon, a popsicle stick, a knife, or any other small utensil, gently dig out out the seedling or group of seedlings that you are ready to move. Try to dig deep enough that you don't disturb too many of the young roots. Digging out the seedling with a clump of soil attached is fine.

Digging out a clump of seedlings

If there are multiple seedlings in the same clump, lay them down on a clean surface and gently pry them apart. Try not to tear the little roots. I use a wooden skewer for this. Gently grasp one or more of the seedlings with the tips of your fingers. It's important that you hold them by the leaves. Don't grab the stem! Pulling or holding these young plants by the stem can crush it and cut off all nutrients. This is a primary reason some transplanted seedlings don't survive the process.

Gently separating seedlings

Dig out a small hole in the new container and gently place the seedling in it. I use the same wooden tool to rough up the soil and then cover the roots lightly while I support the seedling with my fingertips. Most seedlings should be planted at about the same depth as in the old pot. For tomatoes you can plant them deeper because roots will develop along the buried stem and help make a stronger plant.

Placing a seedling in the new pot

I always sow more seeds than I'll use in my garden. I also transplant more seedlings than I know I'll plant. When I move them to a new pot I'll put two or three in the same one. This helps ensure that at least one plant will endure the stress. I may be overcautious because I rarely lose a plant. What results is multiple plants growing strong and I choose the strongest, removing the weaker ones.

From seven pots to 19

After the seedlings are in their new homes, water all of the pots, old and new. If you're using fluorescent grow lights, go ahead and put all of the plants back under the light. If you're growing on a windowsill, keep the plants out of direct sunlight for a few days while they adjust to their new pot.

All of the seedlings back under the light

If you moved them to bigger pots they won't need to be moved again until they're ready to go outside. If they begin to outgrow the new pot before the weather cooperates, you can repeat the transplanting process again by choosing a new, bigger pot.

That's all there is to it. Transplanting seedlings will double or triple the amount of space required to store them, maybe more. Anticipate where you'll put the new pots before you begin the process. If you don't have adequate light for all seedlings, it may be better to leave them in the original pot and just thin out the smaller seedlings. That's one reason I recommended starting seeds in pots and avoiding transplanting.

With proper water and light all of the seedlings will continue to grow and be strong enough for the garden soon. I'll cover that step in a few weeks.
It's time to transplant your seedlings into a bigger pot. You sowed the seeds, kept them moist, gave them light, and now they have some true leaves. They're a little crowded in the planting tray with the rest of their siblings and they need more room. So move them to a pot of their own.

I sowed my tomato seeds a few weeks ago and they're strong enough to move (see my blog, "
Growing Tomatoes From Seed"). The first set of leaves that appear on a new sprout are the cotyledon leaves. They begin the photosynthesis process and get the plant growing. Typically they're oval shaped and don't look like the leaves of the adult plant; that's why it helps to label your seeds so you know what's growing. Soon after, true leaves develop. At that point there is enough root growth to support the plant and avoid the stress of transplanting. Wait for one or two sets of true leaves before transplanting.



Lots of seedlings ready for transplant
My tomato seeds were sowed in small peat pots. When done properly you can expect all or nearly all of your seedlings to survive the transplanting process. Just for extra insurance, I leave some of the seedlings undisturbed in the original pot while I move the overcrowded ones to their own new pots. After the danger of frost I'll transplant all of them into the garden.

To begin, fill the new containers with fresh, sterile, moist, potting soil. Place the new pots and old pots together on your workspace. You don't want to be walking across the room carrying a tender seedling. Keep all of your activity confined to a small area.

Using a fork, a chopstick, a spoon, a popsicle stick, a knife, or any other small utensil, gently dig out out the seedling or group of seedlings that you are ready to move. Try to dig deep enough that you don't disturb too many of the young roots. Digging out the seedling with a clump of soil attached is fine.

Digging out a clump of seedlings

If there are multiple seedlings in the same clump, lay them down on a clean surface and gently pry them apart. Try not to tear the little roots. I use a wooden skewer for this. Gently grasp one or more of the seedlings with the tips of your fingers. It's important that you hold them by the leaves. Don't grab the stem! Pulling or holding these young plants by the stem can crush it and cut off all nutrients. This is a primary reason some transplanted seedlings don't survive the process.

Gently separating seedlings

Dig out a small hole in the new container and gently place the seedling in it. I use the same wooden tool to rough up the soil and then cover the roots lightly while I support the seedling with my fingertips. Most seedlings should be planted at about the same depth as in the old pot. For tomatoes you can plant them deeper because roots will develop along the buried stem and help make a stronger plant.

Placing a seedling in the new pot

I always sow more seeds than I'll use in my garden. I also transplant more seedlings than I know I'll plant. When I move them to a new pot I'll put two or three in the same one. This helps ensure that at least one plant will endure the stress. I may be overcautious because I rarely lose a plant. What results is multiple plants growing strong and I choose the strongest, removing the weaker ones.

From seven pots to 19

After the seedlings are in their new homes, water all of the pots, old and new. If you're using fluorescent grow lights, go ahead and put all of the plants back under the light. If you're growing on a windowsill, keep the plants out of direct sunlight for a few days while they adjust to their new pot.

All of the seedlings back under the light

If you moved them to bigger pots they won't need to be moved again until they're ready to go outside. If they begin to outgrow the new pot before the weather cooperates, you can repeat the transplanting process again by choosing a new, bigger pot.

That's all there is to it. Transplanting seedlings will double or triple the amount of space required to store them, maybe more. Anticipate where you'll put the new pots before you begin the process. If you don't have adequate light for all seedlings, it may be better to leave them in the original pot and just thin out the smaller seedlings. That's one reason I recommended starting seeds in pots and avoiding transplanting.

With proper water and light all of the seedlings will continue to grow and be strong enough for the garden soon. I'll cover that step in a few weeks.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Viability of Seed

The viability of seeds is a common concern of home gardeners. Most of us get a little carried away in spring with the sight of new plants in the stores and rows upon rows of seed packets. It's too easy to pick up a packet of peas, and then carrots, and then corn, and then before we know it we have more seeds than we can plant. Some of them end up in a shoebox or forgotten drawer until they're discovered the next spring or even years later. The first question that pops to mind when we find those packets is, "I wonder if these seeds are still good."

Seed viability is all about how many of the seeds are alive and will grow into plants. It varies based on the type of seed and how it was stored. Most seeds are intended to be planted the year they're packaged and you'll see that date printed on the seed packet. You can expect close to 100 percent viability in that first year. This year, initial results show that just about every tomato seed I planted has sprouted.

My young tomato seedlings

Seed viability is usually identified as a percentage. Each year fewer and fewer seeds will germinate and there is less viability. The most accurate way to determine viability is with a germination test. This is something you can do and something I would recommend before you toss the seeds out.

In a laboratory setting you might start with 100 or 200 seeds for your test, but for a typical home test I suggest using 10 seeds. Randomly select 10 seeds from the packet of seeds you're wondering about. Put a paper towel or coffee filter on a plate and place the seeds spaced apart on top. I use a paper towel.

Seeds laid out


Add another filter or paper towel on top or just fold over the same one. Wet the paper and seeds until well moistened. The seeds are now ready to begin germinating. You have a few options at this point. You can loosely roll up the paper towel or leave it flat.

Wetting the seed

 The seeds need to be labeled so you know what you're germinating. I prefer to place each set of 10 seeds into a plastic food bag that is labeled. You can also place multiple rolls of seeds into a large bag; in that case make sure each roll is labeled.

Seeds in the bag and labeled

The seeds will still need oxygen so poke a few holes in the top of the bag or leave the end slightly open. You don't have to use plastic bags, but it's important that the seeds remain moist and the plastic helps maintain that. It's easy for the seeds to dry out and given our busy schedules we may not be able to add moisture when we need to.

Place the seeds in a warm spot out of direct sunlight. If the seed packet tells you how many days until germination, you can mark that on the label and come back to check within that time. If you're not sure how long it will take, you'll need to check the seeds after five or six days and again every few days after that. What you're looking for are signs that the seeds are sprouting.

When you're ready to determine the viability, after indication that germination has taken place, open the paper towel and count the seeds that have little white growths popping out. The math should be easy if you use 10 seeds for your test; the number of germinated seeds tells you the percentage. If eight seeds germinated then you have 80 percent viability, if you had five seeds sprout then you have 50 percent viability. In my test of 10 old squash seeds, three seeds had fully germinated with little roots and two more were showing signs of new white growth, for a 50 percent viability.

The seeds 10 days later

What this means for me is that I can still plant seeds from this packet, but I need to plant twice as many as I need. The packet directions say to plant five seeds over a 12-inch tall hill and thin to the three strongest seedlings. To achieve the same result, I should sow about 10 seeds.

Old seeds may also be dormant or dead. When you do your viability test the dormant seeds should swell or remain hard once they get the boost of water. Dead seeds will flatten, soften, and may begin rotting. The dormant seeds can still germinate when all of the conditions are good, they may just need extra care. The five seeds in my test that didn't germinate were plump and showed no signs of decay. Given warmer conditions and more time they may still germinate.

You will probably have leftover seeds each year after planting. Rather than throw them in a shoebox, save them to reuse. By doing it right you can increase viability. You want to store seeds in cool, dark, dry locations. Left in a shoebox on a shelf, vegetable seeds may only remain viable for one or two years; temperature and humidity fluctuations can spell doom for them. If you want to keep seeds for more than a year, put them in a sealed jar with a package of desiccant, those little packets that come with shoes, electronics, and many other products. Place the jar in the refrigerator or freezer.

When frozen, with humidity below eight percent, many seeds will remain viable for decades. The National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, was built in 1958 to store seeds and test for seed viability. The name was changed in 2002 to the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. Their collection includes more than 500,000 seed samples of nearly 7,000 species. The seeds are stored at a temperature of minus 18C degrees. They regularly test the seed viability and replace samples that fall below 60 percent.

Home gardeners certainly can't match their expertise, but when properly stored you can extend the life of seeds by many years. When it comes time to plant, you can guess at their viability or conduct your own home test. It's a great way to save money by not buying new seeds every spring.
The viability of seeds is a common concern of home gardeners. Most of us get a little carried away in spring with the sight of new plants in the stores and rows upon rows of seed packets. It's too easy to pick up a packet of peas, and then carrots, and then corn, and then before we know it we have more seeds than we can plant. Some of them end up in a shoebox or forgotten drawer until they're discovered the next spring or even years later. The first question that pops to mind when we find those packets is, "I wonder if these seeds are still good."

Seed viability is all about how many of the seeds are alive and will grow into plants. It varies based on the type of seed and how it was stored. Most seeds are intended to be planted the year they're packaged and you'll see that date printed on the seed packet. You can expect close to 100 percent viability in that first year. This year, initial results show that just about every tomato seed I planted has sprouted.

My young tomato seedlings

Seed viability is usually identified as a percentage. Each year fewer and fewer seeds will germinate and there is less viability. The most accurate way to determine viability is with a germination test. This is something you can do and something I would recommend before you toss the seeds out.

In a laboratory setting you might start with 100 or 200 seeds for your test, but for a typical home test I suggest using 10 seeds. Randomly select 10 seeds from the packet of seeds you're wondering about. Put a paper towel or coffee filter on a plate and place the seeds spaced apart on top. I use a paper towel.

Seeds laid out


Add another filter or paper towel on top or just fold over the same one. Wet the paper and seeds until well moistened. The seeds are now ready to begin germinating. You have a few options at this point. You can loosely roll up the paper towel or leave it flat.

Wetting the seed

 The seeds need to be labeled so you know what you're germinating. I prefer to place each set of 10 seeds into a plastic food bag that is labeled. You can also place multiple rolls of seeds into a large bag; in that case make sure each roll is labeled.

Seeds in the bag and labeled

The seeds will still need oxygen so poke a few holes in the top of the bag or leave the end slightly open. You don't have to use plastic bags, but it's important that the seeds remain moist and the plastic helps maintain that. It's easy for the seeds to dry out and given our busy schedules we may not be able to add moisture when we need to.

Place the seeds in a warm spot out of direct sunlight. If the seed packet tells you how many days until germination, you can mark that on the label and come back to check within that time. If you're not sure how long it will take, you'll need to check the seeds after five or six days and again every few days after that. What you're looking for are signs that the seeds are sprouting.

When you're ready to determine the viability, after indication that germination has taken place, open the paper towel and count the seeds that have little white growths popping out. The math should be easy if you use 10 seeds for your test; the number of germinated seeds tells you the percentage. If eight seeds germinated then you have 80 percent viability, if you had five seeds sprout then you have 50 percent viability. In my test of 10 old squash seeds, three seeds had fully germinated with little roots and two more were showing signs of new white growth, for a 50 percent viability.

The seeds 10 days later

What this means for me is that I can still plant seeds from this packet, but I need to plant twice as many as I need. The packet directions say to plant five seeds over a 12-inch tall hill and thin to the three strongest seedlings. To achieve the same result, I should sow about 10 seeds.

Old seeds may also be dormant or dead. When you do your viability test the dormant seeds should swell or remain hard once they get the boost of water. Dead seeds will flatten, soften, and may begin rotting. The dormant seeds can still germinate when all of the conditions are good, they may just need extra care. The five seeds in my test that didn't germinate were plump and showed no signs of decay. Given warmer conditions and more time they may still germinate.

You will probably have leftover seeds each year after planting. Rather than throw them in a shoebox, save them to reuse. By doing it right you can increase viability. You want to store seeds in cool, dark, dry locations. Left in a shoebox on a shelf, vegetable seeds may only remain viable for one or two years; temperature and humidity fluctuations can spell doom for them. If you want to keep seeds for more than a year, put them in a sealed jar with a package of desiccant, those little packets that come with shoes, electronics, and many other products. Place the jar in the refrigerator or freezer.

When frozen, with humidity below eight percent, many seeds will remain viable for decades. The National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, was built in 1958 to store seeds and test for seed viability. The name was changed in 2002 to the
National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. Their collection includes more than 500,000 seed samples of nearly 7,000 species. The seeds are stored at a temperature of minus 18C degrees. They regularly test the seed viability and replace samples that fall below 60 percent.

Home gardeners certainly can't match their expertise, but when properly stored you can extend the life of seeds by many years. When it comes time to plant, you can guess at their viability or conduct your own home test. It's a great way to save money by not buying new seeds every spring.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day and Your Garden

It's Earth Day! First begun in 1970, April 22 is now recognized around the world as a day to pay attention to our environment and take action to improve it. In the popular parlance of today, it's a day to "do something green."

Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, first proposed the idea of an "environmental teach-in", a celebration to support environmental education. Denis Hayes, a Harvard graduate student, organized the first Earth Day in the United States. It is recognized as an important start to an environmental movement that extends to today. Twenty million people participated that first year. Now, 41 years later, over a billion people around the world are expected to participate. Earth Day Network's theme is "a billion acts of green."

Typical suggestions by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (which began in  late 1970, partly a result of the first Earth Day) include doing things like using less electricity, using less water, commuting without polluting, reusing and recycling, and not topping off your gas tank. Communities in every corner of the planet have organized activities to improve the environment, at least for one day.

An avid gardener, I consider every day earth day. As I've written before, I look for new and innovative ways to recycle in my garden. I take effort to establish habitats for local wildlife. I plants trees and plants for sustainable landscapes. I grow and preserve food for myself, friends, and family.

These are actions I and many other gardeners do on a daily basis, not because of Earth Day, but because it's a good thing to do.

Look to your garden as a way to celebrate Earth Day. Today and tomorrow. To honor this annual tradition, think about trying something extra this year to benefit the environment. Use your garden to benefit the planet and in the process maybe educate someone near you about your efforts. Here are a few ideas:

-- Instead of using gas-powered tools like a chainsaw and tiller, use a bow saw and shovel. You release no pollution into the atmosphere when you use physical labor instead of fossil-fuel machines.

-- Start or expand a compost pile instead of throwing your organic waste into the trash can.

-- Instead of using disposable plastic bags for leaves or grass or garden waste, try re-usable vinyl or cloth garden totes.

-- Plant one more tree. Make it a fruit tree so you can enjoy the effort and maybe save a few trips to the store.

-- Use less water by: choosing plants that require less water; using soaker hoses or drip irrigation; checking the soil moisture before watering; using mulch; watering in the early morning; only planting plants that you need or will use.

-- Share your gardening activities with a child who can carry on the experience.

Earth Day is a nice time to stop and reflect on why you garden or want to garden. For many people it may be the only time of the year that they focus on doing something to help the environment. For gardeners it is just another day that they help the environment.

Be proud of your gardening. Be proud that because of Earth Day your efforts carry some esteem. Be proud that you regularly act to make your world and our world better.

Earth Day is a day when others get to experience what gardeners experience on a regular basis. For Earth Day 2011 I will continue to do what I normally do, but maybe with a little extra focus on how I can do it better.
It's Earth Day! First begun in 1970, April 22 is now recognized around the world as a day to pay attention to our environment and take action to improve it. In the popular parlance of today, it's a day to "do something green."

Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, first proposed the idea of an "environmental teach-in", a celebration to support environmental education. Denis Hayes, a Harvard graduate student, organized the first Earth Day in the United States. It is recognized as an important start to an environmental movement that extends to today. Twenty million people participated that first year. Now, 41 years later, over a billion people around the world are expected to participate. Earth Day Network's theme is "
a billion acts of green."

Typical suggestions by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (which began in  late 1970, partly a result of the first Earth Day) include doing things like using less electricity, using less water, commuting without polluting, reusing and recycling, and not topping off your gas tank. Communities in every corner of the planet have organized activities to improve the environment, at least for one day.

An avid gardener, I consider every day earth day. As I've written before, I look for new and innovative ways to recycle in my garden. I take effort to establish habitats for local wildlife. I plants trees and plants for sustainable landscapes. I grow and preserve food for myself, friends, and family.

These are actions I and many other gardeners do on a daily basis, not because of Earth Day, but because it's a good thing to do.

Look to your garden as a way to celebrate Earth Day. Today and tomorrow. To honor this annual tradition, think about trying something extra this year to benefit the environment. Use your garden to benefit the planet and in the process maybe educate someone near you about your efforts. Here are a few ideas:

-- Instead of using gas-powered tools like a chainsaw and tiller, use a bow saw and shovel. You release no pollution into the atmosphere when you use physical labor instead of fossil-fuel machines.

-- Start or expand a compost pile instead of throwing your organic waste into the trash can.

-- Instead of using disposable plastic bags for leaves or grass or garden waste, try re-usable vinyl or cloth garden totes.

-- Plant one more tree. Make it a fruit tree so you can enjoy the effort and maybe save a few trips to the store.

-- Use less water by: choosing plants that require less water; using soaker hoses or drip irrigation; checking the soil moisture before watering; using mulch; watering in the early morning; only planting plants that you need or will use.

-- Share your gardening activities with a child who can carry on the experience.

Earth Day is a nice time to stop and reflect on why you garden or want to garden. For many people it may be the only time of the year that they focus on doing something to help the environment. For gardeners it is just another day that they help the environment.

Be proud of your gardening. Be proud that because of Earth Day your efforts carry some esteem. Be proud that you regularly act to make your world and our world better.

Earth Day is a day when others get to experience what gardeners experience on a regular basis. For Earth Day 2011 I will continue to do what I normally do, but maybe with a little extra focus on how I can do it better.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Soil Amendments in the Garden

Almost every garden can benefit from soil amendments. I'd say every garden, but I once lived in California's famous San Joaquin Valley and the soil would grow just about anything with very little help from me; spit out a watermelon seed and in a few months you'd have a watermelon plant. But Colorado and most regions of the world aren't so blessed. Your garden and mine will benefit from soil amendments.

Amending made my garden better

Amending your soil is simply adding a material to improve the soil's physical properties. The soil amendment can be organic or inorganic. Organic amendments are alive, were once living, or come from a living creature. We typically think of peat, compost, and manure when talking about organic amendments. Inorganic amendments are mined or manufactured. Perlite, vermiculite, sand, and gravel are typical inorganic amendments.

The purpose of adding amendments is to make your soil better by improving the tilth. Soil tilth is important for good plant growth (see my blog "The Dirt on Soil" for a more thorough explanation). It is the combination of a soil's texture, structure, and fertility. When it's deficient or downright terrible, you have to intervene to improve it.

Soil structure is how the individual soil particles fit together. In sandy soil the particles are large and loose with lots of air pockets, or pore space, in between them. That's why water drains so quickly through sand; it travels easily through the pore space. In clay soil the particles are very close together and the pore space is very small. That's why water is absorbed in clay and it stays wet for so long; the water fills the pore space and has nowhere to go.

Soil amendments will change the structure. While inorganic amendments are a definite option, they tend to be more expensive for a home gardener and don't improve the third component of tilth, soil fertility. Soil fertility is what enables roots to absorb the nutrients in the soil. Because organic amendments improve both structure and fertility, they will be my primary focus.

Organic soil amendments increase the organic matter within the soil. That sounds obvious, but it takes decades or centuries for nature to increase soil organic matter naturally. Organic matter is important because it's the fuel for the billions of microorganisms that live in your garden bed. Microorganisms make plant growth possible. They convert the nutrients in the soil into the ions that plant roots can absorb. Increased soil organic matter means increased root growth.

Organic amendments can be small or large. Small amendments include peat, compost, crushed leaves, aged manure, sawdust, and dried grass clippings. Large amendments include bark, wood chunks, and straw. Generally, small amendments are best for sandy soil and large amendments are best for clay soil. In sandy soil the smaller pieces act as little sponges to fill the pore space and soak up water and nutrients. In clay soil the larger pieces act to push aside the small soil particles and make space for water and air.

You can buy organic amendments or make your own. Nurseries, garden centers, and big box stores will all sell bags of compost, manure, and soil blends. You can buy compost and decomposed manures in bulk from many landscape or sand and stone companies. Depending on how much you need, it may be worth filling your truck or paying for the delivery of a large quantity of amendments. Starting your own compost pile, bagging fallen leaves, and saving some grass clippings are free ways to accumulate good soil amendments. If you have or know someone with horses, use the manure.

Dumping compost

For amendments to do their work they need to be thoroughly mixed into the soil. Spreading a bag of compost on top of the soil won't work. You need to get a spade and dig it in. Buy or rent a tiller to make the work a little easier. Regardless of the method, the organic matter needs to be completely blended with soil. In the beginning of amending your garden's soil it will be more difficult to change the soil structure, particularly in clay soil. It may be hard to dig and hard to break up, but over time the soil becomes looser and more able to accept the gift you give it.

Tilling in compost

Avoid just digging a hole and dumping the amendment in. Yes, eventually earthworms and other soil organisms will incorporate it, but that will take a long time. You're not benefiting the overall soil, just the area of the hole. Make your entire garden soil better by amending all of it.

The amendment will eventually decompose in the soil. That's the result of microorganisms at work. Bigger pieces will decompose slower than small. If you're amending sandy soil with compost you probably won't see any indication of the organic matter in the next year; it's there in small amounts, but hard to see. On the other hand if you're amending clay soil with wood chunks, you may see the wood pieces still evident in the soil for years.

For your initial application, spread the amendment over the top of the soil to a depth of two or three inches. This may seem like a lot, but for poor soil or soil that has never been amended it is necessary. In subsequent years you can use less. In well-amended soil you may only need to add an inch of amendment each spring when you get the beds ready.

The quantity of amendment will be printed on the bag, usually in cubic feet. Determine how big your garden bed is and buy enough to cover it. One cubic foot of compost will cover an area of six square feet with two inches of compost. You can buy in bulk by the yard; a yard of amendment is 27 cubic feet. One yard of compost is enough for about five average four feet by eight feet raised beds. Three yards of compost will cover an area of about 500 square feet with two inches of compost.

Two yards of compost ready to spread

After spreading it, dig it in as deep as possible. You want the amendment to get down to root level. I like to make two applications of amendments when I first amend a garden. I dig deep and turn over the soil so that the amendment falls to the bottom of the hole. After digging up the entire bed, I spread more amendment and then use a tiller to incorporate it. Tillers don't usually get as deep as a spade can so I use both tools to get more amendment into the soil.

Digging in compost

Adding organic soil amendments is different than adding fertilizer. Fertilizer is a specific nutrient for plants. Organic amendments will improve the fertility of the soil and the ability of microorganisms to make nutrients available to plant roots. Once the organic level of the soil exceeds five percent, you'll be able to use less fertilizer. A well-amended garden may not need fertilizer at all, except for a few plants that are heavy feeders and may need more nitrogen.

Also, adding "topsoil" is not the same as amending the soil. Topsoil is rarely regulated by states, while amendments often are. That means when you're buying compost you know you're buying compost, but when you buy topsoil you may not know what you're buying. Topsoil from bag to bag or truckload to truckload can be drastically different and it's possible that the soil you're buying is worse than what you have in your garden. Except for filling large holes outside the garden, stay away from topsoil.

The finished job, hours later

It takes a lot of labor to add organic amendments to your garden soil. The initial application as I described is hard work, but it usually only needs to be done once. Annual amendment application is easier, but still time-consuming. Don't avoid doing it just because it's hard. Your plants will grow better and in the long run you'll save time that would be spent weeding and fertilizing. Make the effort and your garden will be better for it.
Almost every garden can benefit from soil amendments. I'd say every garden, but I once lived in California's famous San Joaquin Valley and the soil would grow just about anything with very little help from me; spit out a watermelon seed and in a few months you'd have a watermelon plant. But Colorado and most regions of the world aren't so blessed. Your garden and mine will benefit from soil amendments.

Amending made my garden better

Amending your soil is simply adding a material to improve the soil's physical properties. The soil amendment can be organic or inorganic. Organic amendments are alive, were once living, or come from a living creature. We typically think of peat, compost, and manure when talking about organic amendments. Inorganic amendments are mined or manufactured. Perlite, vermiculite, sand, and gravel are typical inorganic amendments.

The purpose of adding amendments is to make your soil better by improving the tilth. Soil tilth is important for good plant growth (see my blog "
The Dirt on Soil" for a more thorough explanation). It is the combination of a soil's texture, structure, and fertility. When it's deficient or downright terrible, you have to intervene to improve it.

Soil structure is how the individual soil particles fit together. In sandy soil the particles are large and loose with lots of air pockets, or pore space, in between them. That's why water drains so quickly through sand; it travels easily through the pore space. In clay soil the particles are very close together and the pore space is very small. That's why water is absorbed in clay and it stays wet for so long; the water fills the pore space and has nowhere to go.

Soil amendments will change the structure. While inorganic amendments are a definite option, they tend to be more expensive for a home gardener and don't improve the third component of tilth, soil fertility. Soil fertility is what enables roots to absorb the nutrients in the soil. Because organic amendments improve both structure and fertility, they will be my primary focus.

Organic soil amendments increase the organic matter within the soil. That sounds obvious, but it takes decades or centuries for nature to increase soil organic matter naturally. Organic matter is important because it's the fuel for the billions of microorganisms that live in your garden bed. Microorganisms make plant growth possible. They convert the nutrients in the soil into the ions that plant roots can absorb. Increased soil organic matter means increased root growth.

Organic amendments can be small or large. Small amendments include peat, compost, crushed leaves, aged manure, sawdust, and dried grass clippings. Large amendments include bark, wood chunks, and straw. Generally, small amendments are best for sandy soil and large amendments are best for clay soil. In sandy soil the smaller pieces act as little sponges to fill the pore space and soak up water and nutrients. In clay soil the larger pieces act to push aside the small soil particles and make space for water and air.

You can buy organic amendments or make your own. Nurseries, garden centers, and big box stores will all sell bags of compost, manure, and soil blends. You can buy compost and decomposed manures in bulk from many landscape or sand and stone companies. Depending on how much you need, it may be worth filling your truck or paying for the delivery of a large quantity of amendments. Starting your own compost pile, bagging fallen leaves, and saving some grass clippings are free ways to accumulate good soil amendments. If you have or know someone with horses, use the manure.

Dumping compost

For amendments to do their work they need to be thoroughly mixed into the soil. Spreading a bag of compost on top of the soil won't work. You need to get a spade and dig it in. Buy or rent a tiller to make the work a little easier. Regardless of the method, the organic matter needs to be completely blended with soil. In the beginning of amending your garden's soil it will be more difficult to change the soil structure, particularly in clay soil. It may be hard to dig and hard to break up, but over time the soil becomes looser and more able to accept the gift you give it.

Tilling in compost

Avoid just digging a hole and dumping the amendment in. Yes, eventually earthworms and other soil organisms will incorporate it, but that will take a long time. You're not benefiting the overall soil, just the area of the hole. Make your entire garden soil better by amending all of it.

The amendment will eventually decompose in the soil. That's the result of microorganisms at work. Bigger pieces will decompose slower than small. If you're amending sandy soil with compost you probably won't see any indication of the organic matter in the next year; it's there in small amounts, but hard to see. On the other hand if you're amending clay soil with wood chunks, you may see the wood pieces still evident in the soil for years.

For your initial application, spread the amendment over the top of the soil to a depth of two or three inches. This may seem like a lot, but for poor soil or soil that has never been amended it is necessary. In subsequent years you can use less. In well-amended soil you may only need to add an inch of amendment each spring when you get the beds ready.

The quantity of amendment will be printed on the bag, usually in cubic feet. Determine how big your garden bed is and buy enough to cover it. One cubic foot of compost will cover an area of six square feet with two inches of compost. You can buy in bulk by the yard; a yard of amendment is 27 cubic feet. One yard of compost is enough for about five average four feet by eight feet raised beds. Three yards of compost will cover an area of about 500 square feet with two inches of compost.

Two yards of compost ready to spread

After spreading it, dig it in as deep as possible. You want the amendment to get down to root level. I like to make two applications of amendments when I first amend a garden. I dig deep and turn over the soil so that the amendment falls to the bottom of the hole. After digging up the entire bed, I spread more amendment and then use a tiller to incorporate it. Tillers don't usually get as deep as a spade can so I use both tools to get more amendment into the soil.

Digging in compost

Adding organic soil amendments is different than adding fertilizer. Fertilizer is a specific nutrient for plants. Organic amendments will improve the fertility of the soil and the ability of microorganisms to make nutrients available to plant roots. Once the organic level of the soil exceeds five percent, you'll be able to use less fertilizer. A well-amended garden may not need fertilizer at all, except for a few plants that are heavy feeders and may need more nitrogen.

Also, adding "topsoil" is not the same as amending the soil. Topsoil is rarely regulated by states, while amendments often are. That means when you're buying compost you know you're buying compost, but when you buy topsoil you may not know what you're buying. Topsoil from bag to bag or truckload to truckload can be drastically different and it's possible that the soil you're buying is worse than what you have in your garden. Except for filling large holes outside the garden, stay away from topsoil.

The finished job, hours later

It takes a lot of labor to add organic amendments to your garden soil. The initial application as I described is hard work, but it usually only needs to be done once. Annual amendment application is easier, but still time-consuming. Don't avoid doing it just because it's hard. Your plants will grow better and in the long run you'll save time that would be spent weeding and fertilizing. Make the effort and your garden will be better for it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Making Aluminum Can Plant Tags

Keeping track of plants can be difficult. Even after making a planting plan, I'll often walk through the garden and forget what I've planted where. It may be a symptom of age or a cluttered mind.  Whatever the reason, having a way to identify plants without relying on memory can be a beneficial part of a garden.

You can buy wood, plastic, and metal plant tags of every shape and size. I've tried many and am often disappointed. Writing on a plastic tag with a permanent marker sounds good, but every one I set out last year quickly faded in the sun and weather. Wooden markers seem to dry out or rot too quickly and metal ones are too expensive and can tarnish.

An easy option is to recycle a few of your aluminum cans and make your own durable tags that won't decay or lose the lettering. And they're practically free.

Start with any aluminum cans

Begin by cutting the ends off of an aluminum can. I use a utility knife, but scissors will work too. You'll have a cylinder. The edges aren't normally sharp enough to cut you, but any metal burs will prick your skin. Be careful to avoid minor injury.

Cut off the ends

With the ends off, make a straight cut through the cylinder and you'll have a sheet of aluminum that is printed on one side and bare metal on the other. It will retain the curved shape of the can so gently roll it into another cylinder in the opposite direction with the bare metal on the outside. This will help it achieve a flatter profile.

Rolling it inside out

Now cut the sheet into strips. You can make them any width. These will become your plant markers. If you want you can cut one end into a pointed shape, but it really isn't necessary; the finished marker will easily slide into the soil. If they still hold a curve, try rubbing them with a flat spoon or wooden handle to flatten them entirely.


On a piece of tissue paper, write the name of the plant. Be as plain or as flowery as you want to be. Turn the paper over so you see what the name looks like backwards. This is your template to creating the plant tag.

Take one of the aluminum strips and using the backward name as a guide write the backward lettering on the printed side of the can. An old ball point pen that doesn't write any more is perfect. You can use a sharp stick or a stenciling tool. The idea is to press the metal hard while you're writing.

Writing on the metal using the paper as a guide

Turn the aluminum strip over and you'll see the name popping out. That's your plant tag. At this point it's nothing fancy, but it will hold up to the weather and not fade. You can push them into the soil or tack them to the side of your wooden raised beds. You can even add paint or glitter if you choose.

My parsnip tag

There are other methods for making decorative tags, but this one is a fast, easy, inexpensive way to recycle waste and identify your plants. I don't make these tags to please others, but to help me remember what is what. This simple label makes me feel better about the memory I have left.

Marking my new seeds

To see more photos of the process as a slideshow, go to my website:

www.gardenerscott.com
Keeping track of plants can be difficult. Even after making a planting plan, I'll often walk through the garden and forget what I've planted where. It may be a symptom of age or a cluttered mind.  Whatever the reason, having a way to identify plants without relying on memory can be a beneficial part of a garden.

You can buy wood, plastic, and metal plant tags of every shape and size. I've tried many and am often disappointed. Writing on a plastic tag with a permanent marker sounds good, but every one I set out last year quickly faded in the sun and weather. Wooden markers seem to dry out or rot too quickly and metal ones are too expensive and can tarnish.

An easy option is to recycle a few of your aluminum cans and make your own durable tags that won't decay or lose the lettering. And they're practically free.

Start with any aluminum cans

Begin by cutting the ends off of an aluminum can. I use a utility knife, but scissors will work too. You'll have a cylinder. The edges aren't normally sharp enough to cut you, but any metal burs will prick your skin. Be careful to avoid minor injury.

Cut off the ends

With the ends off, make a straight cut through the cylinder and you'll have a sheet of aluminum that is printed on one side and bare metal on the other. It will retain the curved shape of the can so gently roll it into another cylinder in the opposite direction with the bare metal on the outside. This will help it achieve a flatter profile.

Rolling it inside out

Now cut the sheet into strips. You can make them any width. These will become your plant markers. If you want you can cut one end into a pointed shape, but it really isn't necessary; the finished marker will easily slide into the soil. If they still hold a curve, try rubbing them with a flat spoon or wooden handle to flatten them entirely.


On a piece of tissue paper, write the name of the plant. Be as plain or as flowery as you want to be. Turn the paper over so you see what the name looks like backwards. This is your template to creating the plant tag.

Take one of the aluminum strips and using the backward name as a guide write the backward lettering on the printed side of the can. An old ball point pen that doesn't write any more is perfect. You can use a sharp stick or a stenciling tool. The idea is to press the metal hard while you're writing.

Writing on the metal using the paper as a guide

Turn the aluminum strip over and you'll see the name popping out. That's your plant tag. At this point it's nothing fancy, but it will hold up to the weather and not fade. You can push them into the soil or tack them to the side of your wooden raised beds. You can even add paint or glitter if you choose.

My parsnip tag

There are other methods for making decorative tags, but this one is a fast, easy, inexpensive way to recycle waste and identify your plants. I don't make these tags to please others, but to help me remember what is what. This simple label makes me feel better about the memory I have left.

Marking my new seeds

To see more photos of the process as a slideshow, go to my website:

www.gardenerscott.com

Friday, April 15, 2011

Selecting Plants for Food Preserving

When asked why they grow fruits and vegetables, most gardeners would probably answer with something akin to, "Because I want to eat them." There's little debate in recognizing that we grow food crops to eat. But what do you do when the plants produce more than you, your family, and even your friends can eat? I hope there are only three top answers: preserve it for later eating; donate it to a food charity; compost it.

As a Master Food Preserver, I advocate preserving food at every opportunity. I'm referring to canning, pickling, dehydrating, and freezing as your primary options. Rather than waiting to see what you have left over before you think about preserving, I suggest you plan some of your garden activities with preservation in mind. Grow to preserve.

I grow four specific crops with food preservation as my primary goal. My wife and daughter love my pickled green beans (that's not news to loyal followers; see my blog: "Your Garden in a Pickle") so I plant an entire bed of green beans devoted to a tasty end in the pickle jar. I'll continue that tradition this year and expand it by planting a new variety of purple-striped green beans. We may eat a few of the beans after harvest, but the large majority will be pickled.

Pickling green beans.

My grape jelly is a huge hit as a Christmas present for family and friends. In my old garden, two Concord grape vines allowed me to make as many as 36 jars of grape jelly in a typical year. One of the first things I did when I established my new garden last year was to plant grape vines. It will still be a few years before the new vines produce enough fruit to make jelly, but that's the reason they're in my garden.

Pre-jelly grapes.

Tomatoes are one of my favorite crops and I use them fresh in salsa, pasta sauces, and salads. The six to 12 tomato plants I put in my beds each year produce far more fruit than can be eaten fresh. The reason I plant so many is so that there will be plenty of juicy tomatoes to can. Canned tomatoes may not work well in a salad, but they're perfect for salsa and sauce. Making a fresh salsa in January or February with tomatoes from my own garden is a special pleasure.

There are varieties of cucumber that are bred specifically for pickling and I grow them. They taste good when eaten fresh, but they taste better when pickled along with some of the dill in my herb garden. I also add some of the garlic and hot peppers that I grow, for a little extra zing in each crunchy bite. Homemade pickles are a wonderful thing.

There are other plants in my garden that I grow for the preservation option too. When I harvest the raspberries, it seems that few make it to the house; they're too delectable to pass up. Those that make it to the kitchen are eaten by the handful, added to yogurt, or sprinkled on ice cream and other desserts, but in banner harvest years there are enough left over to freeze for future desserts or to make into raspberry jam. The same holds true for my blackberries and strawberries.

My fruit trees serve a dual purpose too. The apples, apricots, plums, and cherries are grown to enjoy fresh, but when they produce enough fruit they end up in the pickle or jam jar. Yes, I mentioned pickles when talking about fruit. Pickled apples, pear, and peaches are very tasty.

Making apricots into jam.

Though garlic, onions, and potatoes are not technically preserved after harvest, they are grown for later use. You store them in a cool, dry place so that you can use them long after the snows begin to fall.

I also have to add herbs to this list. While I pick fresh herbs for use in the kitchen, I always harvest every last leaf before bitter cold hits. After drying the herbs, they're available in the kitchen throughout the winter until fresh ones appear in the spring.

What do you grow that could or should be preserved? Everything I've mentioned is easily preserved. How about carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and zucchini? They can be pickled individually or together, especially at the end of the season when you have small amounts of each. I've also pickled jalapeno and banana peppers.

Try planting a variety of bean that can be dried and stored; I'm doing that this year. When you have leftover pumpkins after Halloween, cut and freeze the flesh for pumpkin pie, soup, or ice cream. When you have bushels of zucchini and no one left to unload them on, freeze them for making bread or stew. Think about planting similar squash plants specifically to freeze and use later.

Too much garden produce ends up unused. Too few gardeners preserve, donate, or compost their extra harvest. When you plant your first seed or potted plant with a specific use in mind, you're helping to eliminate waste. I support planting a row for the hungry. I encourage you to compost everything that can be composted. Food preservation is another option that should be part of your planning.
When asked why they grow fruits and vegetables, most gardeners would probably answer with something akin to, "Because I want to eat them." There's little debate in recognizing that we grow food crops to eat. But what do you do when the plants produce more than you, your family, and even your friends can eat? I hope there are only three top answers: preserve it for later eating; donate it to a food charity; compost it.

As a Master Food Preserver, I advocate preserving food at every opportunity. I'm referring to canning, pickling, dehydrating, and freezing as your primary options. Rather than waiting to see what you have left over before you think about preserving, I suggest you plan some of your garden activities with preservation in mind. Grow to preserve.

I grow four specific crops with food preservation as my primary goal. My wife and daughter love my pickled green beans (that's not news to loyal followers; see my blog: "
Your Garden in a Pickle") so I plant an entire bed of green beans devoted to a tasty end in the pickle jar. I'll continue that tradition this year and expand it by planting a new variety of purple-striped green beans. We may eat a few of the beans after harvest, but the large majority will be pickled.

Pickling green beans.

My grape jelly is a huge hit as a Christmas present for family and friends. In my old garden, two Concord grape vines allowed me to make as many as 36 jars of grape jelly in a typical year. One of the first things I did when I established my new garden last year was to plant grape vines. It will still be a few years before the new vines produce enough fruit to make jelly, but that's the reason they're in my garden.

Pre-jelly grapes.

Tomatoes are one of my favorite crops and I use them fresh in salsa, pasta sauces, and salads. The six to 12 tomato plants I put in my beds each year produce far more fruit than can be eaten fresh. The reason I plant so many is so that there will be plenty of juicy tomatoes to can. Canned tomatoes may not work well in a salad, but they're perfect for salsa and sauce. Making a fresh salsa in January or February with tomatoes from my own garden is a special pleasure.

There are varieties of cucumber that are bred specifically for pickling and I grow them. They taste good when eaten fresh, but they taste better when pickled along with some of the dill in my herb garden. I also add some of the garlic and hot peppers that I grow, for a little extra zing in each crunchy bite. Homemade pickles are a wonderful thing.

There are other plants in my garden that I grow for the preservation option too. When I harvest the raspberries, it seems that few make it to the house; they're too delectable to pass up. Those that make it to the kitchen are eaten by the handful, added to yogurt, or sprinkled on ice cream and other desserts, but in banner harvest years there are enough left over to freeze for future desserts or to make into raspberry jam. The same holds true for my blackberries and strawberries.

My fruit trees serve a dual purpose too. The apples, apricots, plums, and cherries are grown to enjoy fresh, but when they produce enough fruit they end up in the pickle or jam jar. Yes, I mentioned pickles when talking about fruit. Pickled apples, pear, and peaches are very tasty.

Making apricots into jam.

Though garlic, onions, and potatoes are not technically preserved after harvest, they are grown for later use. You store them in a cool, dry place so that you can use them long after the snows begin to fall.

I also have to add herbs to this list. While I pick fresh herbs for use in the kitchen, I always harvest every last leaf before bitter cold hits. After drying the herbs, they're available in the kitchen throughout the winter until fresh ones appear in the spring.

What do you grow that could or should be preserved? Everything I've mentioned is easily preserved. How about carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and zucchini? They can be pickled individually or together, especially at the end of the season when you have small amounts of each. I've also pickled jalapeno and banana peppers.

Try planting a variety of bean that can be dried and stored; I'm doing that this year. When you have leftover pumpkins after Halloween, cut and freeze the flesh for pumpkin pie, soup, or ice cream. When you have bushels of zucchini and no one left to unload them on, freeze them for making bread or stew. Think about planting similar squash plants specifically to freeze and use later.

Too much garden produce ends up unused. Too few gardeners preserve, donate, or compost their extra harvest. When you plant your first seed or potted plant with a specific use in mind, you're helping to eliminate waste. I support planting a row for the hungry. I encourage you to compost everything that can be composted. Food preservation is another option that should be part of your planning.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Selecting Herbs for the Garden

Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow and can produce a wonderful harvest in a small garden space. While tomatoes can be finicky and zucchini can be too zealous, herbs quietly produce fragrance, texture, color, and, of course, taste.

Herbs in my garden

Some gardeners think selecting appropriate herbs for the garden can be a challenge given the large selection available, but I think it can be quite easy if you take a few moments to identify your desires. Herbs are used in just a few basic ways: the culinary use in the kitchen; as fragrances for items like sachets or soaps; to add variety and interest to the garden; or for the medicinal benefits some plants can offer. Within each of these categories it's easy to choose the best plants.

A primary benefit for me personally is the culinary aspect that herbs offer. I love to cook and like to use natural ingredients. When I make a nice homemade spaghetti sauce, it's a simple chore to step to my herb garden, snip off some thyme, oregano, rosemary, and sage, and add them to the simmering sauce. For a special flavor when roasting chicken, I'll pull off some tarragon leaves and slide them under the skin before placing it in the oven. The basil is great in salads and pesto. I make tea from the mint and lemon balm (see my article "Tea in the Garden II"). When I make pickles I use my own dill.


My wife has discovered the special quality that herbs add to handmade soap and bath products (see her products at www.sudsnbuds.com). She'll make a luxurious batch of lavender soap and sprinkle lavender flowers on the top before it hardens. She has made silky soap with mint fragrance and added some of my crushed mint leaves for extra aroma and texture. Lemon balm, rosemary, and sage have found their way into her bath products. I added a new bed to the garden devoted to new herb plants specifically for her use.

My wife's lavender soap

We've identified how we like to use garden herbs and that's the first step in deciding what to plant. Rather than select plants at random and then try to find a use for them, determine how you currently use herbs and plant accordingly.

Are you a cook? If you cook Italian food, plant parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, and oregano. If you like Mexican food, go with basil, cumin, cilantro and parsley to match with the tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos in your vegetable garden. For French cooking try tarragon, chives, parsley and chervil. For Greek food grow mint, marjoram, fennel, and dill. Look in your spice cabinet and see which herb bottles are empty and grow those.

Tarragon and oregano in my garden

If you want to focus on making tea, start with mint, lemon balm, and chamomile. Lemon verbana, sage, anise hyssop, and lemon thyme make fragrant teas. Lavender, fennel, and rose hips can be brewed too.

Do you want to make sachets or fragrant pillows? Lavender, mint, rosemary, lemon balm and thyme will hold their aromas for a long time.

I won't spend much time on the aesthetic or medicinal values of herbs. To me, every herb can add visual interest to a garden. The colors, textures, and shapes of herb plants will benefit your landscape even if you never use the leaves, flowers, or seeds for any other purpose. As to the medicinal aspect of herbs, the uses are quite subjective with some people strong advocates of their qualities and others doubtful. If you use herbs medicinally, then growing them in your garden makes perfect sense.

By beginning the selection process with your intended use, choosing the types of plants to grow is easy. The next step is to figure out which herbs are appropriate for your garden. While most herbs can be grown in a typical garden, some do better than others. Identify the space you have to grow in and how much time you want to invest. Few of the plants take up a lot of space, so a small area can be home to many different types.

Basil grows easily from seed and is available in almost every garden center and nursery as starter plants. It will produce throughout the summer, may wilt in a the hot sun, and will die in the cold of winter. You have to plant new basil every year. Chives grow well from seeds or starter plants, but can handle the cold and will return every year in a bigger clump. You'll only need to plant once.

Cilantro, or coriander, offers two uses. The leaves are great in salsa, salads, and a number of ethnic dishes, and the seeds can be ground or used whole. The plants will die in the cold, but they produce seed graciously and grow quickly. Dill is similar, with leaves and seeds producing vibrant flavors in food. I plant my dill in a wine barrel half and new plants pop up every year from the previous season's seeds.

Dill setting seed

Mint returns with gusto every year even after a cold winter. It grows so well that it can easily overtake a garden and become a weed. I strongly recommend planting it in pots or containers that will limit its growth. You can find pineapple mint, chocolate mint, spearmint, peppermint, and many other types, each with a slightly different minty fragrance.

Thyme, tarragon, oregano, and sage will faithfully return every spring. In most Zone 5 gardens, and above, they should be considered perennial plants. Rosemary and lemon balm will return if the winter wasn't too harsh.


Sage ready for harvest

If you have a particular herb in mind, look at a seed packet, ask about it at a nursery, or do an online search. You might be surprised to find that it will be perennial. Even if it is considered an annual, you should be able to plant seeds or potted plants and be able to harvest during and at the end of the season.

If you don't grow herbs, consider starting. If you do grow herbs, think about adding more. Fresh, dried, or frozen, they're easy to grow and easy to use.
Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow and can produce a wonderful harvest in a small garden space. While tomatoes can be finicky and zucchini can be too zealous, herbs quietly produce fragrance, texture, color, and, of course, taste.

Herbs in my garden

Some gardeners think selecting appropriate herbs for the garden can be a challenge given the large selection available, but I think it can be quite easy if you take a few moments to identify your desires. Herbs are used in just a few basic ways: the culinary use in the kitchen; as fragrances for items like sachets or soaps; to add variety and interest to the garden; or for the medicinal benefits some plants can offer. Within each of these categories it's easy to choose the best plants.

A primary benefit for me personally is the culinary aspect that herbs offer. I love to cook and like to use natural ingredients. When I make a nice homemade spaghetti sauce, it's a simple chore to step to my herb garden, snip off some thyme, oregano, rosemary, and sage, and add them to the simmering sauce. For a special flavor when roasting chicken, I'll pull off some tarragon leaves and slide them under the skin before placing it in the oven. The basil is great in salads and pesto. I make tea from the mint and lemon balm (see my article "
Tea in the Garden II"). When I make pickles I use my own dill.


My wife has discovered the special quality that herbs add to handmade soap and bath products (see her products at www.sudsnbuds.com). She'll make a luxurious batch of lavender soap and sprinkle lavender flowers on the top before it hardens. She has made silky soap with mint fragrance and added some of my crushed mint leaves for extra aroma and texture. Lemon balm, rosemary, and sage have found their way into her bath products. I added a new bed to the garden devoted to new herb plants specifically for her use.

My wife's lavender soap

We've identified how we like to use garden herbs and that's the first step in deciding what to plant. Rather than select plants at random and then try to find a use for them, determine how you currently use herbs and plant accordingly.

Are you a cook? If you cook Italian food, plant parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, and oregano. If you like Mexican food, go with basil, cumin, cilantro and parsley to match with the tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos in your vegetable garden. For French cooking try tarragon, chives, parsley and chervil. For Greek food grow mint, marjoram, fennel, and dill. Look in your spice cabinet and see which herb bottles are empty and grow those.

Tarragon and oregano in my garden

If you want to focus on making tea, start with mint, lemon balm, and chamomile. Lemon verbana, sage, anise hyssop, and lemon thyme make fragrant teas. Lavender, fennel, and rose hips can be brewed too.

Do you want to make sachets or fragrant pillows? Lavender, mint, rosemary, lemon balm and thyme will hold their aromas for a long time.

I won't spend much time on the aesthetic or medicinal values of herbs. To me, every herb can add visual interest to a garden. The colors, textures, and shapes of herb plants will benefit your landscape even if you never use the leaves, flowers, or seeds for any other purpose. As to the medicinal aspect of herbs, the uses are quite subjective with some people strong advocates of their qualities and others doubtful. If you use herbs medicinally, then growing them in your garden makes perfect sense.

By beginning the selection process with your intended use, choosing the types of plants to grow is easy. The next step is to figure out which herbs are appropriate for your garden. While most herbs can be grown in a typical garden, some do better than others. Identify the space you have to grow in and how much time you want to invest. Few of the plants take up a lot of space, so a small area can be home to many different types.

Basil grows easily from seed and is available in almost every garden center and nursery as starter plants. It will produce throughout the summer, may wilt in a the hot sun, and will die in the cold of winter. You have to plant new basil every year. Chives grow well from seeds or starter plants, but can handle the cold and will return every year in a bigger clump. You'll only need to plant once.

Cilantro, or coriander, offers two uses. The leaves are great in salsa, salads, and a number of ethnic dishes, and the seeds can be ground or used whole. The plants will die in the cold, but they produce seed graciously and grow quickly. Dill is similar, with leaves and seeds producing vibrant flavors in food. I plant my dill in a wine barrel half and new plants pop up every year from the previous season's seeds.

Dill setting seed

Mint returns with gusto every year even after a cold winter. It grows so well that it can easily overtake a garden and become a weed. I strongly recommend planting it in pots or containers that will limit its growth. You can find pineapple mint, chocolate mint, spearmint, peppermint, and many other types, each with a slightly different minty fragrance.

Thyme, tarragon, oregano, and sage will faithfully return every spring. In most Zone 5 gardens, and above, they should be considered perennial plants. Rosemary and lemon balm will return if the winter wasn't too harsh.


Sage ready for harvest

If you have a particular herb in mind, look at a seed packet, ask about it at a nursery, or do an online search. You might be surprised to find that it will be perennial. Even if it is considered an annual, you should be able to plant seeds or potted plants and be able to harvest during and at the end of the season.

If you don't grow herbs, consider starting. If you do grow herbs, think about adding more. Fresh, dried, or frozen, they're easy to grow and easy to use.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Growing Tomatoes From Seed

All gardeners know that a tomato tastes best when it's grown in your own garden. They are the number one home vegetable crop: more people grow tomatoes in their backyard than any other plant. It's no surprise that nurseries and home centers sell tomato plants by the millions.

Buying a plant and putting it into the garden is the primary method most people try. Quite a few gardeners have attempted growing tomatoes from seed, not had success with it, and reverted back to buying plants. By following a few key steps, growing tomatoes from seed is very doable. You'll save money and after all your effort the fruit tastes even better.

My young tomatoes.

Start by choosing seeds that will do well in your garden. Just because seeds are sold in your neighborhood store, it doesn't mean they'll do well in your garden. One variety named "Delicious" sounds too good to pass up, but it takes 90 days to produce fruit after planting; that may be too long if you live in a cool region. One variety I'm trying this year, "Rose", takes just 70 days; that means I'll have a nearly an extra month of harvest compared to "Delicious".

Tomato seeds should be started indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date. Then the seedlings should be planted about two weeks after the last frost date. That means you'll have tomato seedlings in your house for a full two months or more before they go in the garden. Anticipate the space required and choose an area that you can spare for two months.

You can fill a large planting tray with sterile potting soil or seed-starting soil mix and sow your seeds. Plant about 1/4 inch deep, lightly cover with moist soil, and keep moist until they germinate. If you follow the large tray method, at some point you'll have to transplant the individual seedlings into larger containers of their own. Transplanting can help develop stronger root systems. This is also a good method if you are planning to grow dozens of plants, but transplanting can be stressful to the plant and the gardener if not done correctly.

You can use large peat pots or pots filled with potting soil as the primary growing location to avoid transplanting. Spread five or six seeds per pot. You'll probably have very good germination and all of the seeds should sprout. This means that at some point you'll have to sacrifice some of the smaller seedlings so that one one or two plants remain in each pot to grow strong. Thinning out or cutting the small seedlings can be stressful for the gardener too, so you have to decide which method of sowing you prefer.

My new seeds in peat pots.

Your planting container should be kept in a warm location to aid germination and growth. That means a spot that stays at least 70 degrees F (21C). A few degrees cooler is okay, but germination may be slower. Cover the tray or pots with a plastic cover to help keep the soil surface from drying out. In just a few days you'll see the seedlings start to emerge.

I covered them with plastic bags from the produce department.

As soon as you see the little stems, it's critical that they begin receiving a strong light source. Let me repeat that point because it is the most important aspect of starting tomato seeds indoors. As soon as the seedlings begin to emerge from the soil, they need to receive strong light.

The seedlings just emerging from the soil.

Many people think they can put the tray on a south-facing windowsill and the sun will do the work for them. This leads to the reason most seeds fail when started indoors. The spring sun is not strong enough to provide the best light. The seedlings that result in this case are spindly, weak, and light-colored because they're reaching for the light. If you do this, occasionally turn the pots to try and balance the light levels.


To get the strongest plants, the light source should be directly above the plant by just a few inches. This may mean the tray or pots are placed in special grow racks designed for this purpose. I built a wooden frame that holds a fluorescent shop light. The chains that support it can be shortened as the plants grow so that the light is always just above them. You can buy grow lights with stands that do the same thing. Whatever light source you use, it must remain as consistent as possible, with the light remaining on 12-16 hours per day. I attach my light to a plug-in timer.

My grow light.

You don't want to over water the seedlings after they have their first few sets of true leaves. Letting the soil surface dry out very slightly will help keep them growing strong, but don't let them wilt from lack of water. It's better to keep the soil moist, not wet. If you occasionally blow hard on the seedlings or drag a pencil or chopstick gently over their tops, you can stimulate growth that will produce a stronger stalk too.

You can grow tomatoes in just about any container. Paper milk cartons is a perennial favorite. Starting the seeds in egg cartons can make transplanting to a larger container easier. Yogurt cups work well too. You can even try planting them in eggshells.

When growing seeds in eggshells, punch a few small holes in the bottom of the shell to allow water drainage. Use a small nail from the inside of the shell for best results. Fill with potting soil and sow the seeds. When the plants have grown large enough for transplanting, put the entire shell (gently crushed) and plant into a larger pot. One of the most common issues with tomatoes in the garden is Blossom End Rot. One of the causes of this problem is a deficiency of calcium in the soil. By planting tomatoes in an eggshell you are introducing the roots to the calcium in the shell. Though not all of the calcium in the shell is available for the roots directly, it is an innovative way to add minerals to your soil.

Egg shell pots.

Growing tomatoes from seed can be done if you follow the few suggestions above. The most important key is the strong light for the seedlings. If you can solve that step in your home seed starting setup, you are almost assured success.
All gardeners know that a tomato tastes best when it's grown in your own garden. They are the number one home vegetable crop: more people grow tomatoes in their backyard than any other plant. It's no surprise that nurseries and home centers sell tomato plants by the millions.

Buying a plant and putting it into the garden is the primary method most people try. Quite a few gardeners have attempted growing tomatoes from seed, not had success with it, and reverted back to buying plants. By following a few key steps, growing tomatoes from seed is very doable. You'll save money and after all your effort the fruit tastes even better.

My young tomatoes.

Start by choosing seeds that will do well in your garden. Just because seeds are sold in your neighborhood store, it doesn't mean they'll do well in your garden. One variety named "Delicious" sounds too good to pass up, but it takes 90 days to produce fruit after planting; that may be too long if you live in a cool region. One variety I'm trying this year, "Rose", takes just 70 days; that means I'll have a nearly an extra month of harvest compared to "Delicious".

Tomato seeds should be started indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date. Then the seedlings should be planted about two weeks after the last frost date. That means you'll have tomato seedlings in your house for a full two months or more before they go in the garden. Anticipate the space required and choose an area that you can spare for two months.

You can fill a large planting tray with sterile potting soil or seed-starting soil mix and sow your seeds. Plant about 1/4 inch deep, lightly cover with moist soil, and keep moist until they germinate. If you follow the large tray method, at some point you'll have to transplant the individual seedlings into larger containers of their own. Transplanting can help develop stronger root systems. This is also a good method if you are planning to grow dozens of plants, but transplanting can be stressful to the plant and the gardener if not done correctly.

You can use large peat pots or pots filled with potting soil as the primary growing location to avoid transplanting. Spread five or six seeds per pot. You'll probably have very good germination and all of the seeds should sprout. This means that at some point you'll have to sacrifice some of the smaller seedlings so that one one or two plants remain in each pot to grow strong. Thinning out or cutting the small seedlings can be stressful for the gardener too, so you have to decide which method of sowing you prefer.

My new seeds in peat pots.

Your planting container should be kept in a warm location to aid germination and growth. That means a spot that stays at least 70 degrees F (21C). A few degrees cooler is okay, but germination may be slower. Cover the tray or pots with a plastic cover to help keep the soil surface from drying out. In just a few days you'll see the seedlings start to emerge.

I covered them with plastic bags from the produce department.

As soon as you see the little stems, it's critical that they begin receiving a strong light source. Let me repeat that point because it is the most important aspect of starting tomato seeds indoors. As soon as the seedlings begin to emerge from the soil, they need to receive strong light.

The seedlings just emerging from the soil.

Many people think they can put the tray on a south-facing windowsill and the sun will do the work for them. This leads to the reason most seeds fail when started indoors. The spring sun is not strong enough to provide the best light. The seedlings that result in this case are spindly, weak, and light-colored because they're reaching for the light. If you do this, occasionally turn the pots to try and balance the light levels.


To get the strongest plants, the light source should be directly above the plant by just a few inches. This may mean the tray or pots are placed in special grow racks designed for this purpose. I built a wooden frame that holds a fluorescent shop light. The chains that support it can be shortened as the plants grow so that the light is always just above them. You can buy grow lights with stands that do the same thing. Whatever light source you use, it must remain as consistent as possible, with the light remaining on 12-16 hours per day. I attach my light to a plug-in timer.

My grow light.

You don't want to over water the seedlings after they have their first few sets of true leaves. Letting the soil surface dry out very slightly will help keep them growing strong, but don't let them wilt from lack of water. It's better to keep the soil moist, not wet. If you occasionally blow hard on the seedlings or drag a pencil or chopstick gently over their tops, you can stimulate growth that will produce a stronger stalk too.

You can grow tomatoes in just about any container. Paper milk cartons is a perennial favorite. Starting the seeds in egg cartons can make transplanting to a larger container easier. Yogurt cups work well too. You can even try planting them in eggshells.

When growing seeds in eggshells, punch a few small holes in the bottom of the shell to allow water drainage. Use a small nail from the inside of the shell for best results. Fill with potting soil and sow the seeds. When the plants have grown large enough for transplanting, put the entire shell (gently crushed) and plant into a larger pot. One of the most common issues with tomatoes in the garden is Blossom End Rot. One of the causes of this problem is a deficiency of calcium in the soil. By planting tomatoes in an eggshell you are introducing the roots to the calcium in the shell. Though not all of the calcium in the shell is available for the roots directly, it is an innovative way to add minerals to your soil.

Egg shell pots.

Growing tomatoes from seed can be done if you follow the few suggestions above. The most important key is the strong light for the seedlings. If you can solve that step in your home seed starting setup, you are almost assured success.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Growing Rhubarb: The Foolproof Garden Plant

I don't know if there is a perfect vegetable garden plant, but Rhubarb comes close. Rhubarb is a perennial plant that has a place in many vegetable gardens in cooler regions. Even when confronted by extreme variations in soil, temperature, water, and sun, it races back and screams, "Look at me!" Its red stalks and huge leaves make it a great garden showpiece.

Rhubarb.

When asked for my opinion on an easy plant to grow, Rhubarb is always at the top of my list. When asked about interesting plants, I volunteer Rhubarb. And when asked about foolproof plants for new gardeners, Rhubarb springs to my tongue.

Rhubarb is categorized as a cool season plant. That's apparent at this time of year when it becomes one of the first perennial plants to break out of the winter doldrums. My Rhubarb plants are showing red, purple, and green growth now, even after a snow a few days ago. It actually requires temperatures below 40F degrees (5C) to break dormancy in spring. It will continue growing well as long as average temperatures remain below 75F degrees (24C). When temperatures regularly rise above 90 F degrees (32C), it will cease normal growth and bolt like many cool season plants.

Rhubarb breaking through in early spring.

Rhubarb can give you two harvests a year. Because low temperatures stimulate growth, you'll get the initial foliage burst in early spring and good stalks to harvest in late spring. The heat of summer will suppress cellular activity, but when temperatures begin to cool in fall you will see the foliage begin to grow again. You can often harvest stalks just before the first snows fall.

Of course, because it excels as a cool season plant, Rhubarb may not do well in very hot gardens. It can survive in excessively hot and dry regions, but will only produce thin stalks with very little color. If you have four seasons, or at least a long period where temperatures are below freezing, Rhubarb should do well in your garden.

Rhubarb will grow in just about any soil though it prefers well-drained soils with lots of organic matter. It can also handle a wide range of soil pH, but does best when it's slightly acidic; my soil is alkaline and I've never had a problem. I recommend amending the soil well before you first plant and then mulching with partially-decomposed compost. Adding a balanced fertilizer when growth begins in the spring will benefit the plant but isn't always necessary if your soil is amended.

Rhubarb is best grown from dormant crowns and roots that you can purchase at nurseries, garden centers, or online. Plant the crown just below the soil surface in early spring to get the best start. Rhubarb plants can get quite large so allow space when planting, as much as four feet between crowns. Remember that it is a perennial plant that will come back every year for as long as 15 years, so choose its location carefully and wisely.

You can try growing from seed but it takes longer for the plants to establish. I do pot up seedlings from the established plants that I let go to seed. Be aware that the seedlings from hybrid cultivars will not be true to the parent plant. I've had great success with "Victoria", a sweeter variety that isn't as red as other Rhubarb, but that does well from seed.

During the first year, water well, remove the round, tall flower stalks when they appear, and do not harvest any of the stalks. You want a maximum amount of the plant's energy going into root development. In subsequent years the plant will require much less water and care. In the second year, minimize your harvest to encourage strong development, but by the third year and every year after you can harvest every stalk if you choose, but I don't recommend taking more than half of the plant.

Depending on how you use it, you can harvest a few stalks at a time or harvest the entire plant. You can pull out the stalks individually or cut them at the soil line. For at least a month, you'll be able to select stalks for harvest. Only the stalk is edible so throw the leaves in your compost pile.

I leave a number of stalks with leaves on the plant at the end of the season. When the cold of winter comes and the leaves dry out, I use them as a mulch to help protect the crown through the most severe cold. Rhubarb can easily handle -20F degrees of a zone 5 garden. My plants have survived -30F with the mulch protection of the dried leaves. Straw or other autumn leaves will work too.

After the Rhubarb is established it can handle just about any challenge including drought. Even if you stop watering and fertilizing, it will keep producing, though not as well as when you give it proper care. I've had seedlings that I potted and forgot about. Six months later, after sitting abandoned in a field during the cold winter with no watering, the plants sprang to life in early spring.

There are very few pests and diseases that affect Rhubarb. You can let it grow strong with very few worries. About the only thing to concern yourself with is overwatering. A young crown may rot if it is covered with too much soil or if it is saturated too much, but even that is unlikely. Remember that an established plant can handle drought, so don't try to pamper it with too much water.

Many Rhubarb gardeners recommend removing the seed stalk that appears when the air temperature gets high. The plant energy that goes into flower and seed production will reduce the leaf stalk production. I agree that you should do this in the first few years, but I think that flowering Rhubarb is a beautiful sight and for well-established plants I let it flower. I may lose out on some stalk harvest, but I'm rewarded with an amazing view.

Rhubarb in full bloom.

Rhubarb has a tangy, tart taste and eating it raw is usually not done. It's most often cooked with sugar in pies, breads, and cakes. I like to juice it for making jelly. Even if you never plan to eat it, it is a beautiful leafy plant that will look good in your garden. Because it is such a champion, by growing Rhubarb you can always have something to brag about. Try it.
I don't know if there is a perfect vegetable garden plant, but Rhubarb comes close. Rhubarb is a perennial plant that has a place in many vegetable gardens in cooler regions. Even when confronted by extreme variations in soil, temperature, water, and sun, it races back and screams, "Look at me!" Its red stalks and huge leaves make it a great garden showpiece.

Rhubarb.

When asked for my opinion on an easy plant to grow, Rhubarb is always at the top of my list. When asked about interesting plants, I volunteer Rhubarb. And when asked about foolproof plants for new gardeners, Rhubarb springs to my tongue.

Rhubarb is categorized as a cool season plant. That's apparent at this time of year when it becomes one of the first perennial plants to break out of the winter doldrums. My Rhubarb plants are showing red, purple, and green growth now, even after a snow a few days ago. It actually requires temperatures below 40F degrees (5C) to break dormancy in spring. It will continue growing well as long as average temperatures remain below 75F degrees (24C). When temperatures regularly rise above 90 F degrees (32C), it will cease normal growth and bolt like many cool season plants.

Rhubarb breaking through in early spring.

Rhubarb can give you two harvests a year. Because low temperatures stimulate growth, you'll get the initial foliage burst in early spring and good stalks to harvest in late spring. The heat of summer will suppress cellular activity, but when temperatures begin to cool in fall you will see the foliage begin to grow again. You can often harvest stalks just before the first snows fall.

Of course, because it excels as a cool season plant, Rhubarb may not do well in very hot gardens. It can survive in excessively hot and dry regions, but will only produce thin stalks with very little color. If you have four seasons, or at least a long period where temperatures are below freezing, Rhubarb should do well in your garden.

Rhubarb will grow in just about any soil though it prefers well-drained soils with lots of organic matter. It can also handle a wide range of soil pH, but does best when it's slightly acidic; my soil is alkaline and I've never had a problem. I recommend amending the soil well before you first plant and then mulching with partially-decomposed compost. Adding a balanced fertilizer when growth begins in the spring will benefit the plant but isn't always necessary if your soil is amended.

Rhubarb is best grown from dormant crowns and roots that you can purchase at nurseries, garden centers, or online. Plant the crown just below the soil surface in early spring to get the best start. Rhubarb plants can get quite large so allow space when planting, as much as four feet between crowns. Remember that it is a perennial plant that will come back every year for as long as 15 years, so choose its location carefully and wisely.

You can try growing from seed but it takes longer for the plants to establish. I do pot up seedlings from the established plants that I let go to seed. Be aware that the seedlings from hybrid cultivars will not be true to the parent plant. I've had great success with "Victoria", a sweeter variety that isn't as red as other Rhubarb, but that does well from seed.

During the first year, water well, remove the round, tall flower stalks when they appear, and do not harvest any of the stalks. You want a maximum amount of the plant's energy going into root development. In subsequent years the plant will require much less water and care. In the second year, minimize your harvest to encourage strong development, but by the third year and every year after you can harvest every stalk if you choose, but I don't recommend taking more than half of the plant.

Depending on how you use it, you can harvest a few stalks at a time or harvest the entire plant. You can pull out the stalks individually or cut them at the soil line. For at least a month, you'll be able to select stalks for harvest. Only the stalk is edible so throw the leaves in your compost pile.

I leave a number of stalks with leaves on the plant at the end of the season. When the cold of winter comes and the leaves dry out, I use them as a mulch to help protect the crown through the most severe cold. Rhubarb can easily handle -20F degrees of a zone 5 garden. My plants have survived -30F with the mulch protection of the dried leaves. Straw or other autumn leaves will work too.

After the Rhubarb is established it can handle just about any challenge including drought. Even if you stop watering and fertilizing, it will keep producing, though not as well as when you give it proper care. I've had seedlings that I potted and forgot about. Six months later, after sitting abandoned in a field during the cold winter with no watering, the plants sprang to life in early spring.

There are very few pests and diseases that affect Rhubarb. You can let it grow strong with very few worries. About the only thing to concern yourself with is overwatering. A young crown may rot if it is covered with too much soil or if it is saturated too much, but even that is unlikely. Remember that an established plant can handle drought, so don't try to pamper it with too much water.

Many Rhubarb gardeners recommend removing the seed stalk that appears when the air temperature gets high. The plant energy that goes into flower and seed production will reduce the leaf stalk production. I agree that you should do this in the first few years, but I think that flowering Rhubarb is a beautiful sight and for well-established plants I let it flower. I may lose out on some stalk harvest, but I'm rewarded with an amazing view.

Rhubarb in full bloom.

Rhubarb has a tangy, tart taste and eating it raw is usually not done. It's most often cooked with sugar in pies, breads, and cakes. I like to juice it for making jelly. Even if you never plan to eat it, it is a beautiful leafy plant that will look good in your garden. Because it is such a champion, by growing Rhubarb you can always have something to brag about. Try it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Try New Gardening Ideas

Every year I try something new in my garden and I encourage other gardeners to do the same. It might be a new plant, a new seed, a new method, or a new location. Last year I tried hanging tomatoes (more on that in a future article) and three types of potatoes. This year I'm sowing more different types of seeds than I ever have before and I'm trying varied methods to lengthen my growing season.

Many gardeners specialize in a particular gardening arena. My friend Cathie has a theory that there are two types of gardeners: vegetable gardeners who plant a few flowers and flower gardeners who plant a few vegetables. Cathie is a flower gardener and I'm a vegetable gardener and yes, we each have a few of the other type.

When you expand your gardening world beyond what you've always done before, you can find some wonderful success. A vegetable gardener, I have flower gardens too. Though my coneflowers and daylilies didn't do well last year, my hollyhocks and snapdragons did. If I only focused on my vegetable garden, I wouldn't have enjoyed the hummingbirds savoring my penstemon and honeysuckle. If I hadn't planted roses, I wouldn't have had a lovely backdrop for my daughter's wedding.

Gardening outside of your comfort zone exposes you to opportunities and new adventures. While looking for new vegetable seeds you may stumble across an amazing catalog of unique flowers. While choosing new flowers you may encounter edible plants. By adding flowers that attract bees and hummingbirds to your garden you can improve the pollination of your beans and tomatoes. You may discover a method of weeding your vegetable beds that carries over to your Hostas. There are many things to discover.

One of my new adventures this year will be fish in the garden. That's right, fish. Do you remember the story about Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to plant corn? He buried a fish and covered it with a mound of soil into which he put the corn seeds. My friend David has a freezer full of fish. When the weather and soil are warm enough for me to plant corn, I'm going to take David's donation and plant the way that Squanto showed the early settlers. It will be a fun experiment.

I covered some of my raised beds with mini greenhouses (see my blog, "Extending Your Growing Season With Mini Greenhouses"). My lettuce, radishes, and peas are under cover, planted a few weeks sooner than they would have been without the aid of the soil-warming protection. I'll be savoring the results of my labors earlier than I ever have before.

Last year I planted sunflowers that thrilled my wife. This year I'll add many more varieties and will grow a virtual forest of sunflowers. The birds, bees, and my wife will all be very happy.

Of course, I will still have the standard tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers that I grow each year, but I'm adding some unique varieties. A few new short-season tomatoes, "Dragon's Blood" beans, and heirloom cucumbers will liven up my typical summer fare. I'm even planting "Minnesota Midget", a small melon that should provide fruit well before the first frost of fall.

Think about what you can try in your garden. Fish may not be the answer, but there are thousands of varieties of flowers, fruit, and vegetables that you haven't tried yet. If you're a vegetable gardener try a few new flowers. If you're a flower gardener, plant a new vegetable bed. Expand your horizons and enjoy some new adventures in gardening.
Every year I try something new in my garden and I encourage other gardeners to do the same. It might be a new plant, a new seed, a new method, or a new location. Last year I tried hanging tomatoes (more on that in a future article) and three types of potatoes. This year I'm sowing more different types of seeds than I ever have before and I'm trying varied methods to lengthen my growing season.

Many gardeners specialize in a particular gardening arena. My friend Cathie has a theory that there are two types of gardeners: vegetable gardeners who plant a few flowers and flower gardeners who plant a few vegetables. Cathie is a flower gardener and I'm a vegetable gardener and yes, we each have a few of the other type.

When you expand your gardening world beyond what you've always done before, you can find some wonderful success. A vegetable gardener, I have flower gardens too. Though my coneflowers and daylilies didn't do well last year, my hollyhocks and snapdragons did. If I only focused on my vegetable garden, I wouldn't have enjoyed the hummingbirds savoring my penstemon and honeysuckle. If I hadn't planted roses, I wouldn't have had a lovely backdrop for my daughter's wedding.

Gardening outside of your comfort zone exposes you to opportunities and new adventures. While looking for new vegetable seeds you may stumble across an amazing catalog of unique flowers. While choosing new flowers you may encounter edible plants. By adding flowers that attract bees and hummingbirds to your garden you can improve the pollination of your beans and tomatoes. You may discover a method of weeding your vegetable beds that carries over to your Hostas. There are many things to discover.

One of my new adventures this year will be fish in the garden. That's right, fish. Do you remember the story about Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to plant corn? He buried a fish and covered it with a mound of soil into which he put the corn seeds. My friend David has a freezer full of fish. When the weather and soil are warm enough for me to plant corn, I'm going to take David's donation and plant the way that Squanto showed the early settlers. It will be a fun experiment.

I covered some of my raised beds with mini greenhouses (see my blog, "
Extending Your Growing Season With Mini Greenhouses"). My lettuce, radishes, and peas are under cover, planted a few weeks sooner than they would have been without the aid of the soil-warming protection. I'll be savoring the results of my labors earlier than I ever have before.

Last year I planted sunflowers that thrilled my wife. This year I'll add many more varieties and will grow a virtual forest of sunflowers. The birds, bees, and my wife will all be very happy.

Of course, I will still have the standard tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers that I grow each year, but I'm adding some unique varieties. A few new short-season tomatoes, "Dragon's Blood" beans, and heirloom cucumbers will liven up my typical summer fare. I'm even planting "Minnesota Midget", a small melon that should provide fruit well before the first frost of fall.

Think about what you can try in your garden. Fish may not be the answer, but there are thousands of varieties of flowers, fruit, and vegetables that you haven't tried yet. If you're a vegetable gardener try a few new flowers. If you're a flower gardener, plant a new vegetable bed. Expand your horizons and enjoy some new adventures in gardening.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mulch Blowing

Mulch is one of the most important components of a well-maintained garden. Mulch moderates soil moisture and temperature, it hinders weeds, it reduces soil compaction, it increases soil microorganism activity, and it adds to the aesthetics of the garden. Spring is an ideal time to add mulch to perennial flower beds, around the bases of trees, and throughout your garden.

Mulch in Roger and Della's landscape.

I witnessed an amazing process of mulch application last week. Until now, I thought the basic method of adding mulch was fairly standard: you buy it in bags from a nursery or garden center, you open the bags, and you spread it over the soil; or you buy it in bulk, wheelbarrow it to your garden, and rake it as evenly as possible around the plants. Either procedure is pretty labor intensive, especially for a large garden. Now I know about mulch blowing.

A team from Rocky Top Resources in Colorado Springs applied a new cover of mulch to the gardens of my good friends Roger and Della. A little more than 30 yards of mulch was distributed. That's more than 800 cubic feet, about 400 bags that you would buy at the garden center. The two-man team was able to complete the task in three hours. A team of five professional landscapers would have taken the better part of a full day to do the same job.

The wood mulch began the morning in the bed of a specialized truck that can hold as much as 35 yards of material. A conveyor belt on the floor transports the mulch chunks to the rear of the truck where they enter a hopper that feeds them into the pressurized blower system. Attached to the truck blower is a series of interconnected hoses. As the mulch makes its way through this long, winding snake of 4-inch wide tube, the man at the head adjusts the pressure and flow with a control panel on his belt. It blows out in a gentle spray of wood pieces.

John blowing mulch.

John, the general manager of Rocky Top Resources, was the man at the end of the hose. With expert precision he swung it from side to side aiming the spray of mulch into the spaces underneath bush branches and on top of bare patches of soil. In surprisingly little time, a consistent layer of fresh mulch was applied to a very large space.

As the job progressed, the truck remained stationary while the length of the hose changed. At it's farthest reach in Roger and Della's yard, the hose extended well over 120 feet. As he backed his way through the garden beds, John would occasionally stop the flow of blowing mulch, his assistant Jestin would remove a long section of hose, and they would continue with a shorter tube. By the time they finished blowing mulch in the last section of the yard nearest the truck, the hose was only about 30 feet long.

John and Jestin controlling the hose.

This was an amazingly efficient method of distributing mulch. A team of workers and countless wheelbarrow loads of mulch would have compacted the very soil the mulch is designed to protect, in addition to disturbing the plants with feet, wheels, and tools. John and Jestin were very careful about where they stepped, where the hose lay, and how forcefully the mulch was propelled from the hose.

Precision mulch application.

The mulch blowing truck is one of only two in the state of Colorado. John said that their workload increased from only about six jobs in 2002, after the company first purchased the machine, to daily jobs from March through November in 2008. As both the weather and economy improve in 2011, they're looking forward to a busy season of mulch blowing.

The mulch blowing truck.

For many gardens, applying spring mulch is a low-key process. The winter snows and winds have caused existing mulch to shift or settle and you may only need a few new bags to cover bare spots. If you already have a thick layer, simply raking it can loosen the pieces and distribute them evenly.

For new landscapes and others with large areas that need a lot of mulch, blowing is a wonderful alternative. However, there are a few limitations when blowing it. The 4-inch hoses only allow smaller wood chunks to be used, though newer trucks have 5-inch hoses that allow bigger mulch pieces. Fibrous wood mulches like Cypress don't work well in the system. But even with those restrictions, the finished application under current blowing methods looks great.

As with any landscaping job, the cost of professionals doing the work should be weighed against the do-it-yourself option. I like applying mulch and getting intimate with my plants while I spread it, but it would take me about two weeks to complete the task of applying 400 bags. Seeing the same amount expertly applied in three hours makes me a convert to mulch blowing for large jobs; there are many other gardening tasks I could accomplish in two weeks.

Look at your landscape and think about mulch. If you have a big job ahead, think about how you'll apply it. If you have a company that offers mulch blowing like Rocky Top Resources, it might benefit you to take advantage of their expertise.
Mulch is one of the most important components of a well-maintained garden. Mulch moderates soil moisture and temperature, it hinders weeds, it reduces soil compaction, it increases soil microorganism activity, and it adds to the aesthetics of the garden. Spring is an ideal time to add mulch to perennial flower beds, around the bases of trees, and throughout your garden.

Mulch in Roger and Della's landscape.

I witnessed an amazing process of mulch application last week. Until now, I thought the basic method of adding mulch was fairly standard: you buy it in bags from a nursery or garden center, you open the bags, and you spread it over the soil; or you buy it in bulk, wheelbarrow it to your garden, and rake it as evenly as possible around the plants. Either procedure is pretty labor intensive, especially for a large garden. Now I know about mulch blowing.

A team from Rocky Top Resources in Colorado Springs applied a new cover of mulch to the gardens of my good friends Roger and Della. A little more than 30 yards of mulch was distributed. That's more than 800 cubic feet, about 400 bags that you would buy at the garden center. The two-man team was able to complete the task in three hours. A team of five professional landscapers would have taken the better part of a full day to do the same job.

The wood mulch began the morning in the bed of a specialized truck that can hold as much as 35 yards of material. A conveyor belt on the floor transports the mulch chunks to the rear of the truck where they enter a hopper that feeds them into the pressurized blower system. Attached to the truck blower is a series of interconnected hoses. As the mulch makes its way through this long, winding snake of 4-inch wide tube, the man at the head adjusts the pressure and flow with a control panel on his belt. It blows out in a gentle spray of wood pieces.

John blowing mulch.

John, the general manager of Rocky Top Resources, was the man at the end of the hose. With expert precision he swung it from side to side aiming the spray of mulch into the spaces underneath bush branches and on top of bare patches of soil. In surprisingly little time, a consistent layer of fresh mulch was applied to a very large space.

As the job progressed, the truck remained stationary while the length of the hose changed. At it's farthest reach in Roger and Della's yard, the hose extended well over 120 feet. As he backed his way through the garden beds, John would occasionally stop the flow of blowing mulch, his assistant Jestin would remove a long section of hose, and they would continue with a shorter tube. By the time they finished blowing mulch in the last section of the yard nearest the truck, the hose was only about 30 feet long.

John and Jestin controlling the hose.

This was an amazingly efficient method of distributing mulch. A team of workers and countless wheelbarrow loads of mulch would have compacted the very soil the mulch is designed to protect, in addition to disturbing the plants with feet, wheels, and tools. John and Jestin were very careful about where they stepped, where the hose lay, and how forcefully the mulch was propelled from the hose.

Precision mulch application.

The mulch blowing truck is one of only two in the state of Colorado. John said that their workload increased from only about six jobs in 2002, after the company first purchased the machine, to daily jobs from March through November in 2008. As both the weather and economy improve in 2011, they're looking forward to a busy season of mulch blowing.

The mulch blowing truck.

For many gardens, applying spring mulch is a low-key process. The winter snows and winds have caused existing mulch to shift or settle and you may only need a few new bags to cover bare spots. If you already have a thick layer, simply raking it can loosen the pieces and distribute them evenly.

For new landscapes and others with large areas that need a lot of mulch, blowing is a wonderful alternative. However, there are a few limitations when blowing it. The 4-inch hoses only allow smaller wood chunks to be used, though newer trucks have 5-inch hoses that allow bigger mulch pieces. Fibrous wood mulches like Cypress don't work well in the system. But even with those restrictions, the finished application under current blowing methods looks great.

As with any landscaping job, the cost of professionals doing the work should be weighed against the do-it-yourself option. I like applying mulch and getting intimate with my plants while I spread it, but it would take me about two weeks to complete the task of applying 400 bags. Seeing the same amount expertly applied in three hours makes me a convert to mulch blowing for large jobs; there are many other gardening tasks I could accomplish in two weeks.

Look at your landscape and think about mulch. If you have a big job ahead, think about how you'll apply it. If you have a company that offers mulch blowing like Rocky Top Resources, it might benefit you to take advantage of their expertise.