Garden Diary 2020 - March 1-15
It's been a busy couple of weeks! I successfully transplanted my tomato seedlings to larger pots and expanded my seed starting operation considerably. Get all the details and photos below. I've also been conducting a few experiments to try and test the limits of nature. Check my intro article to this series here, where I'm add links to my Garden Diary 2020 posts throughout the gardening season.
Preparing the Beds
With the weather bright, sunny and in the upper 40s, I resumed my outdoor kitchen garden bed preparation.
In another trip to the garden store, I purchased more organic soil conditioner to amend my clay soil and 13 bags of composted cow manure. This is where it gets expensive. Though I do make my own compost, I don't have nearly enough to amend my new large planting bed. But hopefully, I shouldn't have to repeat all of these steps in future years.
After breaking up the clay chunks with my shovel and mixing in the soil builder, I smoothed it out with a rake. I had gone about 6-8 inches down as recommended. Once smooth, I spread the manure on top, raking it in slightly. Since I won't be planting here for about 6 more weeks, the soil will have time to settle with the coming late winter and early spring precipitation. Here's the result. I'll be adding a layer of mulch in a few weeks.
Cost of Amending the Soil
4 Bags Organic Garden Soil - $29.92
3 Bags Organic Soil Builder - $50.97
13 Bags Composted Cow Manure - $64.87
Total - $145.76
Hardening Off Overkill
The nice weather also allowed me to bring some of the seedling trays outside for several hours to continue the hardening off process. I kept a close eye on them and saw no signs of distress. It was not until I brought them inside that I noticed the color of the leaves had faded a bit. Lesson learned. I'll take it easier on them next time.
Tomato Transplant Day!
As I mentioned in my introductory post, this is a learn-as-I-go exercise. The tomatoes I had planted in the peat pellets were getting leggy and overcrowded. I had planted 2 or 3 seeds in each one as recommended, but since almost all of them survived, they were getting tangled and spindly.
Most garden experts recommend throwing out the weaker seedlings leaving in one per cell or pellet. But then I stumbled on the Joe Gardener TV show Growing a Greener World with tomato expert Craig LeHoullier and learned about his mass planting technique. In a nutshell, he mass plants seeds in a seed tray and transplants each individual seedling to a larger pot after they've gotten their true leaves. He also gets rid of the "legginess" by burying the stem up to the true leaves. Watch how he does it in this video starting around the 12 minute mark (but do watch the whole episode!). Now this approach makes sense to me, and I decided to give it a go for better or worse.
In order to bury the stem and roots, I knew I would need taller pots. I purchased a set of 4" pots in bulk, along with proper plant labels, instead of the blue painter's tape I had been using. I also purchased more high quality potting mix.
Since it was a beautiful day, I was able to set up my transplant station outside. I got into a pretty good routine and finished in a few hours. Between the tomatoes I planted in the peat pellets and the ones I had in the cell packs, I ended up with over 100 tomato plants! Yikes! My garden can't hold that many!
I've already started recruiting family and friends to take a bunch of them off my hands, assuming the plants survive. The next major challenge will be making sure they're getting enough light. I may have to order more grow lights to supplement the natural light that pours into my basement.
To hold the new pots, I grabbed every available plastic container in the house, including the new extra large cat litter tray that I hadn't filled with litter yet. They have to go inside a tray because the drainage holes at the bottom of each pot make a mess each time you water. Also, I'll need to be able to carry them around to different light sources to keep them all happy.
I finally quit transplanting for the day when I ran out of pots and tags, and had to order another set to move some of the other types of plants. The bulk ordered pots are pretty flimsy compared to the few I purchased at the garden store, but the price was right and they are still reusable. And, since I'll be giving most of the plants away, it's better to go cheap on the containers knowing that I won't be getting them back.
After the cat-astrope, many of my herb seedlings had been either destroyed or weakened. Since I'd emptied out the tomato seedlings, I now had an empty seed starting tray to use all over again.
Though some of the plants had survived, I planted new batches of cilantro, chives, thyme and rosemary. I still have enough time to get them started indoors.
Thoughts on Peat Pellets
I think these are a great concept, but I wouldn't use them for tomato plants again. The plants get too tall and outgrow the little pot pretty quickly. Granted, I had used the smallest size, but that's the only size my garden store carried. I probably will use them again for shorter plants like thyme that stay low to the ground.
The fact that I ended up transplanting them to a larger pot also meant that the benefit of being able to plant it directly in the ground was lost. I had to remove the netting that holds it together, and pull each pot apart to separate the seedlings, which defeats the purpose.
Also, when I was transplanting them, I noticed that the roots of the tomato plants were not as well developed in peat pellets as they were in the cell packs. Though they were different tomato varieties, that seemed to be the case across the 3 varieties I planted in the peat pellets versus the 3 varieties I planted in the cell packs.
Finally, I would definitely remove the netting before planting it into the ground. It looks like it would cause the plants to become root-bound before long, and there doesn't seem to be a benefit of keeping it once the plant is in the ground.
My second set of bulk pots and plant tags arrived, along with a much-needed garden marker. This may seem like a small thing, but not having one slowed me down. The tags are plastic for the sake of weather resistance, and a ball-point pen barely leaves its mark. So, the best choice is a marker specifically designed for garden tags that resist fading in the sun. I hope it works!
I got through all of the tomato transplants and moved onto herbs and other veggies. The cat-astrophe I had back in February resulted in overturned herb pots. I salvaged what I could at the time and moved them to larger pots. Parsley, cilantro, oregano, and thyme all have their own pots.
The lettuce, which the cat stepped on and tried to eat, and the chives are very thin and spindly. I have no expectation that they will survive, but in the spirit of experimentation, I transplanted them anyway.
More Seed Starting
Moving seedlings to larger pots freed up another seed starting kit. I replanted the sage, since my earlier attempt resulted in only one seedling. I used the same seed pack as the first batch, which came in the form of coated beads for easier planting. Water had seeped into the pack and many of the seeds had started to germinate inside the seed pack. I planted all of them, this time at a shallower depth than before.
I also planted more thyme. Not only is it a great herb for cooking, it's a nice ground cover that helps prevent erosion and smells nice when you step on it. I like to plant it around the fieldstone paths in my yard. I planted more parsley as well.
I decided to give zinnias a try, too. They may not be food for people, but they are for wildlife, particularly hummingbirds. I discovered how much they love zinnias last year in my mom's garden, which I wrote about in this article, and decided to give them a try from seed. My mom has always casually mentioned that she "just throws the seed in the ground and up pop these zinnias." While she really means that she plants the seeds, she does not use any special effort to plant them in an orderly way to get huge, beautiful blooms each year. So I planted two varieties of zinnias this year, too.
Outdoor Bed Prep Continues
Mission Accomplished! Blessed with beautiful weather, I finished preparation of the new kitchen garden bed. I inserted a liner around the bed to prevent the grass from growing into it, and covered the bed with a thick layer of mulch purchased from Lowe's. The bed preparation did get a bit expensive this year, but some of those costs won't have to be repeated again. There are less expensive ways to load the beds with organic material, and I'll be exploring those options when I'm better prepared.
In addition to finishing the main veggie bed, I'm tidying up the bed where I planted my herbs last year. The fieldstone footpath needed to be reset because the stones had slipped down the slope over winter. I've decided to plant thyme in between each stone to prevent slippage and erosion. Though I've got some seedlings started, I'm going to need a lot more. Time to buy more seeds!
Also, the new sage, thyme and zinnias started sprouting.
So far, all of the new transplants have survived and are happy in their larger pots. Even the herbs that the kitties had nearly destroyed are still alive. All of the tomatoes are doing great! They appear to be thriving.
More Grow Lights Ordered
I still only have the one grow light that I purchased in February, but I've got a couple more grow bulbs on order. In the meantime, I've been rotating the light between plant groups so that they each plant grouping gets some time under the light.
Cottage Garden Preparation
Another beautiful day meant another day to tackle the planting beds. More tidying and planning today. My home remodel project from last year also opened up planting space in the front yard. I'm thinking about planting taller, cottage garden-type flowers such as delphinium and foxglove. I may try to grow these from seed as well.
Looking ahead in the forecast, it's possible that we won't be seeing anymore freezing temperature this winter. So, I decided to take a chance and plant more seeds in outdoor pots. Catnip and cat grass will make the kitties happy. And I also planted an herb seed pack on discs. Each disc contains one seed type - parsley, cilantro and basil. I planted chamomile seeds in another pot, since I love it for tea. Each got their own medium-sized pot. If the temperature drops again, I can easily move them indoors.
I also started tarragon and marjoram seeds indoors. I don't use these herbs all that much in my cooking, but since I'm experimenting, I thought it would be worth a try.
For today's seed planting, I actually read the seed packet instructions this time. Yeah me! No wonder my first attempt at growing chamomile didn't turn out so well. The seeds are so tiny the instructions say to plant them open and not cover them. I didn't want them to blow away, so I placed a very thin layer of seed starting mix on top and watered them in right away.
New Grow Lights Arrived
My new grow lightbulbs arrived. I purchased two of these. They have a very low wattage and coverage, but I thought I'd give them a try. After all, I have plenty of light pouring into my windows, so the grow light is really only needed as a supplement. My photography equipment is coming in handy. I've got one of the grow lights set up on a boom stand. The other is screwed into an old reading lamp I had sitting around for years unused. So far, so good.
Cat Strikes Again!
And there went a lettuce plant. Banjo! Just one seedling remains.
Clearly, the kitties want some plants of their own. I started more cat grass seeds indoors, but this time I'll set them in a place they can't reach!
Cottage Garden Prep Begins
Another day of digging. With the weather pleasant enough, I worked on improving the bed in front of my house where I intend to plant cottage garden flowers. I made another trip to a big box store for organic soil to amend the heavy clay, and purchased a variety of seed packs for flowers. Some can be started indoors and others are simply broadcast onto the ground after the last frost. The soil will have to be loose and fluffy, not hard and clumpy in order to plant the seeds directly into the ground. I broke up the clumps as best as I could and topped it with a layer of organic soil. Mission complete.
For the plants that can be started indoors, I purchased a couple of larger seed starter greenhouse kits and planted delphiniums, cosmos, snapdragons, lavender, phlox, daisies and more zinnias. The rest of the seeds I purchased will be sown directly into the ground after the last frost, as directed on the seed packets. I also planted numerous cells of thyme to tuck into my stone path. Though I had recently planted rosemary seeds, I planted even more. I did some homework and found that rosemary is hard to grow and has a long germination time, which explains why I never saw any sprouts on my first attempt.
I decided to push the limits with outdoor planting. Even though our last frost date is typically around mid-April, the forecast looks like it's on a permanent trend above freezing temperatures. I planted six lettuce transplants from the hardware store and three varieties of lettuce seeds directly into the ground in my new veggie bed. Lettuce is supposed to tolerate colder temperatures anyway. The amended soil is so easy to work with!
Hot Pepper and Basil Transplant Experiment
For the indoor plants, I've noticed that the pepper and basil trays are growing very slowly, where the tomato plants that I transplanted to larger pots were growing more quickly. So, I decided to do a little experiment. For each of the 5 hot pepper varieties, and each of the 4 basil varieties, I transplanted one cell to larger pots. The hot pepper roots were well-developed but the basil seedlings were not. I'll have to figure out what's going on there. Since one of the hot pepper cells contained 5 seedlings, I planted 3 in larger pots and 2 directly outdoors in the veggie bed. For the latter, the mulch is so thick and the seedlings so tiny that I planted them in the mulch. In a few days, I will compare them with the ones left in the seed starter cells. We'll see what happens!
March 15 Wrap-Up
Planting Bed Prep Continues
Outdoor cleanup and organic soil amendment purchases continue. Things are shaping up, but I have a long way to go. In addition to cleaning up the old beds, I intend to expand the beds along the fence line. I have big plans for them! My husband loves that I'm cutting into the yard - less mowing for him!
Seed Germination Struggles
For some reason, my seed germination rate has not been very successful lately. The zinnias I planted on March 5 only yielded 7 usable seedlings. Several sprouted and died before their leaves came in. Sage, the ones that were coated and sprouted in the package, yielded only 7 small sprouts. The parsley still hasn't come up.
The herbs I planted on March 2 have had mixed results. Two of nine thyme cells, three of nine chive cells, four of nine cilantro, and all nine rosemary cells have not sprouted at all.
In contrast, the tarragon and marjoram seed pots planted March 9 are coming up nicely. And the cat grass I planted on March 11 shot up like a rocket once it started to sprout. The blades are already 2 to 4 inches tall.
I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong, but perhaps there's too much of a draft coming into the windowsill. I ordered a couple heat mats to see if that would help. Since I've decided to start flower seeds indoors, they will still be useful this season.
Struggles aside, the new flower seeds are starting to sprout. Cosmos, snapdragons, and zinnias are beginning to emerge, as well as the thyme I planted on the same day.
Salvaging the Hot Pepper Plant
As for my hubby's favorite cayenne pepper plant I brought indoors for the winter, it's almost gone. I don't know what happened to it. BUT, it did produce a couple more peppers on its way out and we harvested the seeds. We couldn't believe how many seeds came out of that one little pepper! We're waiting for the seeds to dry out now, but in a few weeks, we will start a few indoors. Recycling at its best!
Overall, my seed starting project has been a success. The tomato transplants are growing beautifully. All of them survived the transplant. Burying the original leggy stem in the deeper pots worked perfectly. Now they are growing strong and straight, and on their second and third sets of true leaves. Of all the varieties, the Romas are growing the slowest. I have moved them around to different locations in the windows and under the grow lights to see if I can catch them up to the others.
The two surviving cucumbers are getting leafy. The one surviving lettuce plant is still alive. The basil is still very short and their first set of true leaves are emerging ever so slowly. The herbs I transplanted after the cat-astrophe are doing well, too, though the oregano and thyme are also growing very slowly.
A New Challenge
As I've continued cleaning up my flower beds, I'm giving myself a challenge - try to start almost all new plants from seed this year. I figure it would cost me thousands of dollars to replant all the plants that have died or gotten unhealthy after several years of neglect, so now that my indoor seed operation is set up, I might as well give flowers a try. It's going to be a busy spring!
And by the way, my car smells like cow manure….