Planting from Seed

Starting plants indoors allows you to get a leg up on the growing season and to grow things that aren’t native to your area.  The general rule of thumb is to start transplants indoors 6 – 8 weeks before the last frost date for your area (around April 15th in my area of Northern California).  I recommend that you do a series of plantings to extend the harvest.

I have been planting seeds over the last several weeks.  I’ve thinned the beets, kohlrabi, carrots and broccoli some already and will need to thin the spinach and some other things soon.  I realized that I don’t need to plant so many carrots and broccoli in seed containers, as they take quite readily.  A key ingredient in viable seedlings is keeping the roots moist – don’t let them dry out or your seedlings may not survive.


I recently cleared my seedlings out of the kitchen at my spouse’s request.  Under the back arbor in the rain, they have suffered and I will likely lose a number of the ones out there.


To avoid making my mistake, make sure your seedlings get plenty of sunshine, and a reasonable amount of water – keep the soil moist, but not soaked.  Shade and too much water will cause plants to become leggy (see photo above).  It can also cause “Damping Off Disease” – a white mold that forms in the top of the soil. Damping Off disease flourishes in cold, wet damp weather and little sunshine, and quickly spreads across the soil and wilts the seedling. However, it is reversible, as the disease can’t survive in sunnier drier conditions.  In any case, it is always best to give your seedlings the best possible chance of becoming strong, healthy adults.

If, like me, you don’t have a sun room where you can keep your seedlings, you can create a mini greenhouse with some low-cost materials.  Often these are called “cold frames” and they are basically some hoops and clear plastic (attached with clips) that create a tunnel for your plants to live under.  The plastic holds in heat and protects the tender seedlings from harsh elements (too much rain, etc).

Seeds are typically viable for about a year, so if you have saved seed, you may want to test it first before you make the effort of planting a lot of it.  Just plant a few seeds and see how they do.  Soil temperature for most seeds is on the 70 – 85 degree F range.  Hotter weather plants like tomatoes, peppers and squash like hotter soil temperatures, while cooler weather plants like peas and fava beans can germinate at much lower temperatures – which is part of why they work as cover crops for the winter.

In terms of container selection, using the individual planter trays is nice because then you don’t have to disentangle young seedlings from one another – a process that can traumatize the plants.  However, using such small containers may mean transplanting the seedling more than once, as you may need to graduate it to a larger container before you move it to a spot in the ground of your raised beds.

An organic seedling starting mix is a good way to go to get your seedlings started.  It can provide the nutrients it needs to be on its way.  I have started many seedlings in mushroom compost with success in the past as well.  In terms if depth, read the seed pack to determine how deep to plant the seeds, but best to plant them slightly less deep than recommended because you can always add soil on top, but it’s difficult to push the seedling deeper once it’s established.  The seed pack will tell you how long they should take to germinate.  You want to let some substantial growth take place before you transplant the seedlings either into a larger container or to their final destination, but try to avoid letting them get root-bound (when you pull a seedling out of the container and there’s a massive dense array of roots, it’s root-bound).

Some plants are easier than others to grow from seed, but the appropriateness of the variety you choose in relation to your locale is probably the largest factor in determining your success.  Read the seed pack carefully for instructions, as they will tell you when to start them, how long they will take to germinate, etc.

Growing from seed is a uniquely satisfying experience -especially when you have saved seed from a particularly delicious tomato, squash, pepper or other vegetable that you want to enjoy again.  If you are using seeds retrieved from last night’s dinner, you will want to wash them thoroughly and lay them on a plate to dry them out for several days.  Then put them in an envelope and label them.  This is important!  There is nothing more frustrating than getting to the following growing season and having no idea what seeds you have saved.  While seed packs have instructions that tell you when to plant, seeds from heirloom tomatoes at the grocery store do not.  Be aware of your growing seasons so you don’t plant things at inappropriate times.  Just do a search online like this: Growing season + (name of vegetable).  You can always ask your local nursery as well.

I do not recommend buying seedlings from Big Box stores.  They are typically shipped long distances, treated with chemical fertilizers, and often sold in regions where they will not even grow at that time.  I have had much more success with my local nurseries.

Thanks to the Gardener’s Network for some tips that contributed to this posting:

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 at 5:17 pm and is filed under Planting From Seed. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

Cooking with Garden Greens

I harvested quite a lot of arugula over the last several weeks and have been using it in various dishes. I add some to salads, but much of it I put in my Cuisinart and chop finely for use in curry dishes, quiches, casseroles, or anything else I can think of.


A non-exhaustive list of your options for growing garden greens follows along with a couple of great recipes for using them.

Greens: arugula, dandelion, butterhead, mustard greens, endive, red endive, curly endive, mesclun, radicchio, mache, minor’s lettuce, escarole, green-leaf, iceberg, romaine, tat soi, lollo rosso, red orach, mizuna, oakleaf, swiss chard, kale, and tree collards.

Lasagna with dandelion greens, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts
Preheat oven to 375ºF.  Boil a package of lasagna noodles.  Set aside.  Finely chop a couple of cups of mushrooms in a food processor.  Coarsely chop a bunch of dandelion greens and sauté greens in garlic and olive oil.  Oil a baking dish and spread your first layer of lasagna noodles.  Top with the garlic greens, a layer of mushrooms, and handful of artichoke hearts.  Sprinkle layer with parmesan and drizzle olive oil over the entire layer.  Add another layer of noodles and repeat until all ingredients are used up.  Sprinkle top with parmesan as well.  Bake for about 30 minutes.  Then broil to brown the cheese on top.  Remove from oven, cool, and enjoy.

Greens, Hot coppa, and Onion Pizza

Dough: Preheat oven to 550ºF.  Dissolve one package of dry yeast in one cup of warm water.  Let sit for 10 minutes.  Stir in one teaspoon of sugar, one teaspoon of salt, one tablespoon of olive oil, and 2.5 cups of flour.  Knead for about 10 minutes.  The dough should be springy, but add more flour as needed.  If possible, allow the dough to sit for about two hours before rolling out and adding toppings.

Spread a surface with flour and roll out dough thinly.  Spread a 50/50 combination of tomato sauce and tomato paste on your dough.  Sprinkle some shredded mozzarella over the top (about 1 cup – not too thick).

Toppings: Sautee some thinly sliced onions in olive oil.  Finely chop several slices of hot coppa.  Put about 3 cups of selected greens (see list above) into food processor and chop finely and then sautee them with 3-4 cloves of minced garlic and olive oil.  Add all prepared ingredients to top of pizza and bake for approximately 6 minutes.  Ideally the dough will bubble up in places.  Cool and enjoy.


This entry was posted on Monday, April 5th, 2010 at 3:07 pm and is filed under Seasonal Cooking. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

Growing from Cuttings

cuttings-butterflyIn my late winter garden assessment, I featured a picture of my butterfly bush cuttings sprouting. It was a thrilling moment when I realized that I could essentially clone this bush that I love so much. I had put about 5 sticks of butterfly bush on the ground to make a teepee-like structure for my beans to climb, and these sticks all started sprouting new growth in late winter. I discovered that one of them has even grown roots. I love it when gardening proves easier than expected! It was an equally thrilling moment when I discovered the “Scion Exchange” in January of 2009. The California Rare Fruit Growers Association sponsors the event to allow all its members to share scions (cuttings) from fruit trees and even some vines like kiwis and grapes. The possibilities for replicating your favorite woody plants are endless. Below is a bit of information – much of it gleaned from – explaining how cuttings work.

Cuttings are really just twigs – carefully selected with the right qualities – that can be saved and installed to form new plants that are nearly identical to the parent plant from which they came. Cuttings typically come from stems, but sometimes from roots. Such cuttings can be divided into three categories: softwood, semi-hardwood and hardwood.

lilacSoftwood: These cuttings are taken from the current growing season. They tend to be deciduous shrubs (the opposite of evergreens) and are generally the easiest to root, requiring not special handling. I have a lilac bush that falls into this category (pictured at right) and I have already taken a cutting that I plan to install at the Petaluma Bounty Farm demo garden I am creating. The best months to take softwood cuttings of shrubs are June and July, although I just took some from my lilac, so we’ll see how that goes. Softwood cuttings are taken while stems are succulent and not yet woody, but mature enough to break when bent sharply. Avoid very young, tender shoots.

Semi-hardwood: Semi-hardwood cuttings are taken during late summer but are made from current season’s growth that has partially matured and is becoming woody. These cuttings are used to propagate broad-leaved evergreens. The term semi-hardwood is also sometimes applied to partially matured cuttings of deciduous plants. A rhododendron is an example of a semi-hardwood plant.

Hardwood: Hardwood cuttings may be taken from deciduous plants and narrow-leaved evergreens and are taken during the late fall or early winter after a hard frost when the plants have become dormant. Some deciduous plants suitable for hardwood cuttings are willow, poplar, honeysuckle, and grape. The length of these cuttings may vary from 4 – 24 inches, although most are made 8 – 10 inches long. Diameter may vary from 1/4 to 1 inch, depending on the type of material to be propagated. Most narrow-leaved evergreens are propagated by using hardwood cuttings. The cuttings should be taken from terminal shoots of the previous season’s growth and should contain a small portion of year-old wood at the base.

Jasmine is one of my favorite flowers because of its fragrance and incredible flavor in tea, so I will give it special attention here. Jasmine can be grown from cuttings as well: Take cuttings that are 2-3 inches long with the base cut just below a leaf. Remove bottom leaves to leave nodes. Dip the ends in a rooting hormone powder and press them into moistened, sterilized soil. You can use a clear plastic dome for humidity, but this can cause fungus problems, so you can also just simply mist the cuttings several times a day. Put them in a place with good light but no direct sun, but keep them warm at temperatures above 75′ F if possible – a little bottom heat can help. Different types of Jasmine can root at different rates, but many are slow and take at least a month to establish a beginning root system. Once your cuttings have formed a small network of roots, gently move the plant to a larger container. A 2-4 inch pot is ideal with potting soil, keeping it moist and warm until they are solidly rooted. Then you can move them to their final indoor pots, plant them up into one-gallon pots or plant them directly into the garden when the weather is warm.

Selecting Cuttings
lilac_cutChoose cuttings from healthy wood from the upper part of the plant during cool portions of the day, if possible. Place the cuttings immediately in a plastic bag to avoid excessive wilting. Cuttings should be 4 – 6 inches long, slanting slightly below a node and done with a sharp clean knife for best results. Remove leaves from the lower half of softwood and semi-hardwood cuttings and dip the base in a rooting hormone for faster and better rooting. Rooting stimulants are generally available in most garden supply stores.

Growing Medium
The medium used for rooting cuttings must be free of fertilizer and clean and sterile. The Savvy Gardener suggests using a mixture of one-half sand and one-half peat moss or vermiculite – a lightweight expanded mica product. As little time as possible should lapse from the time the cuttings are taken until they are inserted into the medium. The prepared cutting should be stuck into the medium up to the remaining leaves and then watered thoroughly to settle the medium around the base of the cutting. Keep the propagation medium moist at all times during rooting, but avoid excessive watering. Since cuttings don’t have a root system, high humidity must be maintained. Enclosures help maintain high humidity. If only a few cuttings are to be rooted, use a miniature greenhouse or place individual pots in large plastic bags. Monitor the plastic bags for condensation, and water the medium when condensation disappears. Never place plastic-enclosed containers in direct sunlight, because excessive heat will build up and cook your cutting.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 at 3:27 pm and is filed under Cuttings. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

Raised Beds

Heritage Salvage and Petaluma Bounty have joined forces to install raised beds in the demo garden I have begun at the Petaluma Bounty Farm.  While the soil was good enough that it wasn’t necessary to use raised beds, it will be a nice demonstration for people who don’t have such good soil and prefer to build up the soil instead of digging down into Adobe or other difficult soil types.


Below is some video from the day we put these together. Click here for easy instructions on how to construct a raise bed.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 17th, 2010 at 7:37 pm and is filed under Raised Beds. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

Cover Crop Composting in Place

Today I began really cutting down the cover crop in my raised beds in the back. I cut the favas down towards the soil surface, but left their roots intact so as not to disturb the soil structure.


I opted to leave all the snails I could find in the bed so that they can help to break down all the fava that I cut and laid on the surface to compost in place in a “lasagna garden” fashion. I put some of the fava and also some arugula in my compost bin and put some snails in there as well to let them chomp and help break it down.

Treating the nitrogen-fixing cover crop in this manner is time-intensive initially, but will help the soil maintain its structure and thus, will promote soil life and retention of moisture and nutrients. Snails are particularly good at processing the thick stalks of the fava, so are worth keeping around for that purpose, although I keep them away from my seedlings!

At the Bounty Farm demo garden, I am also doing some composting in place in my lasagna gardening raised bed (pictured below).

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 17th, 2010 at 7:10 pm and is filed under Compost, Lasagna Gardening, Natural Fertilizers, Raised Beds, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.