Making better dirt (guest entry)

on Sunday, March 28, 2010

After I recently posted the guest entry from Chicken Thistle Farms, I've discovered that, hey, I can populate this blog with all sorts of growy advice without having to do all the work of typing it up and taking pictures!! Sweeeeet!

Nah, seriously though, there are so many great garden bloggers out there, and they're some of the folks I'm still learning from, that why not help them share their knowledge?? First it was all about lights that are good for starting your veggie seeds, and now that I'm thinking I need to start amending my garden soil, my good friend Finny out in California has coincidentally posted the perfect three-part bit on how to test and amend your soil - and she shares her sad experiences that helped convince her this is something we all need to consider doing every year!

So - enough babbling from me... I'm going to post a teaser from each of her three posts here, and then a link over to the remainder of her incredibly informative AND entertaining posts, and hopefully you'll head on over to "Finny Knits" to get educated. (That's right, "Knits" - she's not just a cute gardener ya know!)

Part I in Soil Testing - This sounds boring (her words, not mine!):

Is it just me or does the process of soil testing seem like a swift pain thy ass?

See. I knew it. It does. Seem like it.

And, to be truthful, it is. But it's so worth it. At least it's proven to be worth it for the past few years that I've been doing it.

But, for whatever reason, I've gotten a lot of questions about this soil testing stuff despite its boring outward appearance, so rather than give you all random answers when you email me all separate like, I thought I'd offer up my soil testing process and experience here so you know what I'm doing back there when I say I'm doing The Science known as soil testing.

Be warned though, this is just how I do it. So, probably, it's not 100% perfect or right or legal or PC or safe to show children under 13 or feed to your gremlin after midnight and so on. So, like, don't get all, "That's not how you do that, Finny!" because I'll just be, like, "Um, actually, that's exactly how I do it, so stow it." and all.

You know how I am.
Read the rest of the posting...

Part II in Soil Testing - More tedious than boring:
Do you like how I'm enticing you with these post titles? I'm really making soil testing seem like a fun outdoor activity for the early springtime. Go me! Really putting that marketing degree to work!


Well, whatever. You don't need candy-coated messages to convince you to test your soil, the reward of 200+ lbs of tomatoes should be enough.

Though - let me revert to my marketing background for just a moment and add the disclaimer that I'm not guaranteeing you 200+ lbs of tomatoes if you follow this soil testing process. I'd get all legal-ease on you, but my degree is not in law, it's in marketing - so you get the dumbed-down don't blame me if you only get 199 lbs of tomatoes because HI - this isn't McDonald's and no one here cares if you burn your lap with hot coffee because it's coffee and it's supposed to be hot and these results aren't typical, etc.
Read the rest of the posting...

Part III in Soil Testing - Being done. It's the best part:
So, when we last left this wildly exciting series, the tests were finished and the numbers jotted down in my handy, if not nearly destroyed, little yard notebook (and online spreadsheet - DON'T FORGET THE ONLINE SPREADSHEET!)(I love it.)(In case you can't tell.)

Which is all fine and good, but, like - now what?

Well, now we amend. This is when we take that valuable knowledge of what organic nutrients we can add back into the soil to make it healthy and viable so that it will produce food that won't give us a tail...
Read the rest of the posting...

Gardening Presentation follow up

on Friday, March 26, 2010

Well, yesterday's gardening presentation was a lot of fun. Thanks to all the other things going on in the library right now, we didn't have a huge turn out, but I think the 7 people who showed up enjoyed themselves, learned some stuff, and even shared information with the rest of us - so I think everyone came out with some new knowledge. Thanks to Tina, Ken, Edith, Sue, Pam, Rochelle, and Sandy for joining us. (I hope I didn't forget anyone!)

Big thanks to Sandy for setting up a video camera (I might be able to post that later - we'll see), and to Tina for taking pictures. I've uploaded the photo album, which you can see here, or by clicking on the image below.

Pics 2010-03-25 Gardening presentation

If you guys have any questions or comments about the presentation or what we covered, or something we might've missed, please feel free to post your comments here or email us directly!

Gardening Presentation

on Thursday, March 25, 2010

Here's the outline for the presentation

Print it out to bring with you to the presentation, or just for gardening tips any time!

An advantage to starting your own seeds

Look at just a small percentage of the varieties of tomatoes you can grow - and each often has it's own distinctive flavor and appearance. How can you resist when there are named varieties such as these!?

  • Aunt Gertie's Gold
  • Aunt Ruby's German Green
  • Ball's Beefsteak
  • Beefmaster Hybrid
  • Beefy Boy
  • Big Raspberry
  • Black Cherry
  • Black from Tula
  • Black Krim
  • Black Prince
  • Black Zebra
  • Bloody Butcher
  • Brandywine, Black
  • Brandywine, Red
  • Brandywine, Red (Potato Leaf)
  • Brandywine, Yellow
  • Caspian Pink
  • Chocolate Cherry
  • Dagma's Perfection
  • Early Wonder
  • Giant Belgium
  • Giant Tree
  • Glory
  • Green Giant
  • Green Grape
  • Green Zebra
  • Hard Rock
  • Horizon
  • Ildi
  • Isis Candy
  • Italian Sweet
  • Japanese Trifele Black
  • Juliet
  • Lemon Drop
  • Lucky Cross
  • Marianna's Peace
  • Opalka
  • Parks Whopper
  • Persimmon
  • Persimmon Orange
  • Razzleberry
  • Red Alert
  • San Marzano
  • Snow White
  • Sugary
  • Sun Sugar
  • Sungella
  • Supersteak
  • Sweet Baby Girl
  • Sweet Gold
  • Tobolsk
  • Wayahead
  • Yellow Pear

Get some help planning when to start your seeds!

Johnny's Selected Seeds offers a free seed-starting calculator. Just download the spreadsheet, enter your last average frost date in each of the spreadsheet pages, and it'll tell you when and how (indoors or out) you want to start many popular seeds. Here's where to go on Johnny's site, or just click here for the download! (And just FYI, if you're wondering about any of the info for various plant varieties, Johnny's site offers amazingly detailed information for just about every veggie!)

Here's a preview of the calculator spreadsheet in action. As you can see, I've entered May 21st as our last average frost date. Hard to believe, isn't it!?

When starting seeds in flats, you might find it's helpful to have a reference chart for which seeds are where such as the one below. Go to the gallery of charts/grids I've set up to see if there's one already made for your seed starting needs!

From Seed Starting Charts

Some plants appreciate vertical support

Snow peas climbing twigs collected from the woods:

Tomatoes do really well when they have vertical cages, either pre-made ones purchased at the store, or ones made at home from concrete support mesh like these, which are extra sturdy and taller.

And here are gourds and cucumbers sharing a vertical trellis with nasturtiums - I had bumper crops of the cucumbers and gourds, plus the nasturtiums were beautiful and might help deter pests. There's even basil tucked in on the corners of the bed.

It's okay to crowd AND mix your veggies!

These kale and swiss chard plants don't fact, they're creating a micro-environment that retains humidity and helps choke out weeds.

If you think these little lettuce plants look crowded... about lettuce interplanted with broccoli? Since lettuce hates heat and will bolt when the weather gets too warm, the larger broccoli plants will help shade them and help prevent them from bolting too soon. The floating row cover supported over this bed also helps keep things cool PLUS keeps out pests, such as the cabbage moth that lays eggs on broccoli, which will then hatch into little green caterpillars. Extra protein, sure - but not very appetizing!

Here's snow peas (barely visible on the left), lettuce, onions and swiss chard, all playing nice with each other. It's believed onions might help deter some pests. And since most of these veggies like (or don't mind) cool weather, you'll notice the tube-support for floating row cover over the bed to help shade them while the peas and lettuce are still in the bed.

Your plants need to drink!

And setting up a drip irrigation system sure does help. You can either have this permanently plumbed and use a timer, or just hook a hose up to it when you need to water and check back when you think the soil's sufficiently soaked. This type of watering has benefits over the usual overhead watering with a hose or watering can - such as no splashing of the soil means less likelihood of scattering soil-borne disease.

Let's get it on...

It doesn't take long before you learn which critters you do NOT want to see in your garden. And the ones you're least likely to want to see seem to be those that don't you seeing them, no matter what they're doing. Here Cucumber beetles (which come in both spotted and striped varieties) are having a party on a squash blossom. My trick? If it's a male blossom (which I can more easily spare), I'll fold the blossom shut around all of those bugs, pick it off, and either step on it or throw it in the pond...that way I don't have to squish them directly, nor do they get as much a chance to fly away. Cucumber beetles are fast fliers!

And here's evidence that squash bugs have been in your garden - most often on the underside of pumpkin and squash leaves. My first year of gardening I convinced myself these might be the eggs of beneficial insects - and left them. There were HUUUNDREDS of squash bugs killing all my zucchini, summer squash and pumpkins. Never again! Tear off this piece of leaf and stomp on it, burn it, squish it between your fingers, or send it off-site somehow! Trust me - you'll never get them all!

Cool gardening gadgets:

I've found many markers fade in the sun and rain. Paint markers work better than Sharpies. I've geeked it up and like printing my own labels with more detailed information - partly because I enjoy planting so many different varieties of a vegetable each season. If I have 25+ varieties of pepper or tomato, I may not remember some of the main characteristics of each variety by the time they're fruiting. Thankfully with my label printer, which can be hooked up to a computer and pull the data from a spreadsheet, I can cram lots of info onto a UV-resistant label, which I then stick on recycled miniblinds. For a blog entry on how I do this, see here... And here's a video of the label printer in action (although I wasn't putting as much information on the labels at the time I recorded this video).

Here's an example of one of my more detailed labels in the garden right now:

You can buy a weather station to track the temperature, dew point, rain, wind speed and direction and more in your yard - and then have that submitted to online services such as Wunderground. You can even set some weather stations to then send you email alerts if there's a frost, if the temperatures drop or rise in great amounts, if there's a lot of rain, etc...

Additional Online Resources

Here's a list of great blogs and podcasts for gardening tips:

Some favorite online resources for seed ordering:

Big pile-o-poo!

on Wednesday, March 24, 2010

At last - the poo has arrived!

Seriously - that's a lot of horse manure!

Why did I just pay $65 to have a bunch of horse manure dumped in my yard? Because most of it will go into the in-ground bed you see in the right of the picture above, and the rest will get turned into the raised beds.

Now before you go getting all squeamish about your veggies growing in horse poop, think about it. Sure, it was gross when it came out the back end of that horse, but all of the stuff you see above was gathered, along with sawdust bedding, back in August at Sun Beau Horse Farms in Ravenna. They piled it all up outside, and left it over winter. Mother Nature then took over, using chemical reactions with the "super hot" (high nitrogen) horse manure, the shaved wood that was all dried out, the worms crawling through out consuming it and leaving castings (worm poop) and tunnels in their path, and then there's all the micro-organisms that went to work on it. Trust me, this stuff has seriously been worked over!

Now it's still steaming a bit - again, that's because of the chemical reactions going on in the pile. I would've liked to have had it slightly more aged before delivery, but that just didn't work out. Trust me, once it gets tilled into the garden, mingled with the soil that's already there (and it's host of organisms ready to go to work), plus about 10 bags of dead leaves I added to the garden last fall, it'll finish composting in no time.

And that will all make for some seriously good plant food!!! If the stuff were TOO fresh, it'd burn/damage the plant roots. But it should be far enough along that, by the time the plants go into the garden, they'll just think it's the best thing around. And that'll make for better plant growth, which in turn will make for better veggies!

One of the disadvantages of horse manure (along with many other farm animals) is that they eat a lot of weeds - and yet aren't able to digest all of the seeds. That means I'll be real busy fighting weeds in the garden this summer. Trust me, I'm used to that. Cow manure would be better - cows have multiple guts and do a better job of digesting anything that goes in their mouth before sending it out the other end. Unfortunately, I don't have a good source for composted cow manure without buying it by the bagful at the local garden centers or Walmart. I'd love to get my hands on some...well, you know what I mean.

Oh and hey, speaking of composting stuff, have you seen the new Sun Chips bags??

That's right - by eating snack food, you too can help the environment!!! I promise you, this Sun Chips bag will be going in our compost to break down and then be added into the garden...

Sphagnum moss may be your best friend

Perhaps you've noticed in many of my pictures of sprouting seeds that there's a light brown mossy stuff covering the top of the seed starting mix (let's just call it soil). Here's a good example:

What is it? It's milled sphagnum moss, and you can get it at most of the garden centers (I don't think I've seen it at Walmart). Here's what my new bag of the stuff looks like - it cost $4.99 this year. I was just about to run out of the bag I bought two years ago, and figured it was time to get more.

I first learned about the benefits of using sphagnum moss at a gardening class a few years back. Before that I always assumed it was added to soil to lighten the mix (so it doesn't compact as much), and also because it looks decorative while retaining moisture in potted plants, especially hanging baskets. But check it out - it offers more than that...

I've started using it sprinkled on my flats just after I've planted seeds for two main reasons - moisture retention, and the biggie - it's supposed to prevent damping off. I CAN say I don't think I've had any instances of damping off with seedlings where I've remembered to use the sphagnum moss, so it appears to be doing the trick. Damping off is one of the last things you want to see after your little seeds have sprouted. It's caused

"Damping off" is a general term used to cover a variety of soil-borne plant diseases and fungi, all of which can kill young seedlings. When your plants have it, you'll know it - and by then it's usually too late. One day your little seedlings will be reaching up towards the light, and the next day you'll check on them to find many appear to have withered near the base of the stem, right at soil level. Usually they look like a scaled down version of a forest that's had a crew come through and chop down all the trees - you'll find your seedlings lying over on the soil, dying. You can't save them - the base of their stem has already rotted through.

Now in reading around I do find some conflicting information... Sphagnum moss retains moisture so your soil doesn't dry out as fast. Some sites suggest using something other than sphagnum moss, such as vermiculite, sprinkled on top of the soil. Or you can supposedly use cinnamon, as it has anti-fungal properties like sphagnum moss is supposed to have. Cold, damp basements are supposed to be notorious for promoting damping off (another reason it's good to use heat mats - we'll cover this later). Plus the stagnant air that you'll find in many basements can cause damping off - a small fan aimed near the seedlings should keep the air moving gently.

I can't speak for sure for any of the tips out there on the web - I just know what I've tried and that SO FAR seems to have worked. That's why after planting seeds that I'll be sprouting indoors I sprinkle on a thin layer (about 1/4") of milled (chopped up finely) sphagnum moss, and then give it a light misting of water just so it doesn't suck all the water out of the top layer of soil (the seeds need that to sprout!). If you're uncertain, or feel it's an unnecessary expence, try starting your seeds without sphagnum moss or any of the other added preventatives, and see how things go. NORMALLY things will be just just have to see if your setting doesn't promote damping off.

Plant Lights (part 1) - Guest entry

on Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Since Andy over at Chicken Thistle Farm posted such an informative entry recently on plant lights (the good, the bad and the bright), I got permission from him to include part of his posting here to lure you in, and then I'll link over to the rest of his posting. Trust me, if you're thinking of setting up your own grow lights for your plants (and I DO recommend it), you should read his posting. It'll definitely save ya some money! And then later I plan to do a follow up posting with my dad's very handy trick for hanging grow lights from basement ceiling joists - this technique makes it so you can easily raise and lower the light as your plants are growing.

But first, let's see what Andy has to say about the ballasts and bulbs!

Plant lights - The good, the bad and the bright

If you plan on starting seeds indoors you are going to need lights to accompany your efforts as plants need light for photosynthesis. The question often asked (see the previous post’s comments) is – what’s the “right” light for starting plants indoors? Since I spent a fair amount of time researching this very topic years back I figured a concise post about what I do might offer some mild guidance and insight (or not).

First off – the reason why home seed starters struggle with this question is the fact that the light you “see” is slightly different than the light plants “use”. On a technical level there are really 4 peak light wavelengths that plants use for photosynthesis. The goal of seed starters – hit as many of those peaks as you can so your plants don’t grow up leggy, tall and unhealthy.

Back when I spent a good deal of time looking into this I referenced articles published by Cornell and Purdue’s agriculture departments. The classic question being – incandescent or fluorescent. And if fluorescent – which bulbs? The easy starting point was NOT incandescent.

Read the rest of Andy's article at Chicken Thistle Farm...

What's sprouting!?!?

on Monday, March 22, 2010

About time I gave an update on what's growing in the basement, hunh?

Well, first off, I've decided to try an experiment. I was going to give up on ever growing beets again because I just didn't LOVE how I was preparing them, and thought maybe I just wasn't a beet person. Then I had some of Kelli's amazing home-canned beats when we were up at Chicken Thistle Farm during the holidays, and she's convinced me to give 'em another go. Rather than roasting, I'm looking forward to canning them in water and seeing if they turn out better (this means I'll need to buy a pressure canner - regular water-bath canning won't work for non-acidic and non-pickled beets).

Anyhow, the experiment here is that I'm starting these beets indoors. I learned from the latest "Tales from Terry's Allotment" that you can start the beets indoors, and also, rather than thinning them early, you can harvest smaller/young beets and then just leave one remaining to plant out. It turns out the "seeds" you get in a packet of beet seeds aren't actually individual seeds. Each of those "seeds" is really a small cluster of seeds - so even if you plant just one, you'll have multiple sprouts pop out from that spot. Normally we want to thin seedlings such as this so they don't overcrowd each other and fight for nutrients. Well Terry, let's hope your technique works!

Oh, and as you can see in the pic below, some of these guys are leaning a bit. I have their tray a little out from under the edge of the lights and they're not too happy about it.

Other goodies are starting to sprout in the basement - such as the eggplants...

...and the tomatoes! It seems the peppers are a little behind these other two crops that I started at about the same time. I figured the eggplants would be the last to sprout.

The lettuce seeds I started way back on January 18th are doing great! I seriously need to think about getting these guys used to the idea of living outdoors, which means putting them outside in a sheltered, shady area a little bit each day for awhile, and then building up their exposure. I'll also need to make sure to protect them from nightly frosts for awhile, which will mean cloches or floating row covers.

I've never started bunching onions (aka scallions) before - looks like they do really well being started indoors!!!

And from my direct-sowing of radishes, lettuce, spinach and bunching onions outside a week and a half ago?

It looks like the radishes are definitely the first to come up! No big surprise there - radishes are incredibly eager to get growing. I'm not the biggest fan of radishes, but I do enjoy growing them for others to eat, plus I wanted to try some new varieties this year.

I ordered two varieties of garlic online last year, which were planted in the fall. When I've tried growing garlic before, I've just gotten heads of whatever garlic is in the grocery store and planted it. Those heads are often treated with something to persuade them NOT to sprout....but if you buy garlic you know it'll sprout sooner or later anyhow.

Since I was ordering "real" garlic for planting, I decided to try one hardneck variety and one softneck variety. Different varieties of garlic offer different flavors, some are spicier than others, and their days til harvest may differ. And then there's the difference between hardneck (which has a stiffer central stem rising out of the center of the head) and softneck - both in the firmness of the central stalk, and I believe storage.

The garlic seem to be doing really well now! Will I have enough to include in the CSA shares? Eh, I'm not sure - I'll probably include a head in each share even though these were planted looong before I'd decided to go in on the CSA plans with Mary. We'll just have to see how they do!

Holding it all

on Thursday, March 11, 2010

With all this talk of pots, you're probably wondering what's going to hold all of your plants, right? You could use inexpensive storage tubs, cookie sheets, or who knows what else you'll come up with. I personally like getting these seed starting trays.

They come in two styles - those that have a solid bottom, so they'll hold water, and those that, well...have holes:

I prefer to either fill a tray-with-holes with soilless seed starting mix as-is, or fill the same type of tray with pots (such as peat pots or newspaper pots), and then put that tray-with-holes down into a tray that doesn't have holes. That way, when I water, I can feel safe I'm much less likely to have overflow water running all over the place. If I DO overwater, I can then lift the inner tray out to empty the bottom one, or carefully tip the two trays over a watering can, lifting just the corner of the inner tray to filter out the water without losing my growies.

And when you're first starting your new seeds, many benefit from a warm, humid environment. To help keep humidity in, you can purchase clear growing domes that fit over the seed starting trays.

Here's a side-shot to show their height comparison. When the lid is set on top of the tray, their combined height is probably about 3-4 inches total?

And in case you're not looking to start a TON of seeds, check out the smaller size trays with matching grow domes! (I've also seen other shapes and sizes, including trays/domes that are about a quarter the size of the full tray, and also grow domes that are about 3x as tall as the domes you see here).

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying you have to go out and spend a fortune to start your seeds. Do you get carry out food - such as chinese or salad bar fixings? Often times you'll find these places provide the food in a plastic based container, sometimes with a clear dome on top. Or you might get a cheesecake, pie or cake from the bakery with something you can easily rig into a seed starting tray. I've used the leftover rotisserie chicken containers before as well (and they come with convenient carrying handles!)

Just make sure you THOROUGHLY wash out the food storage container, and you'll want to consider water drainage options - either poke holes in the bottom tray and set it in something larger to catch water, or after you've watered and your plants have absorbed as much water as they're going to, pour out the excess water. If you don't, you run the risk of rotting your plants!

What, do you think it's too early?

on Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The temps hit the 60s today! Well, the low 60s, but still - the 60s! Already! And it looks like we're going to stay a bit warm for awhile - definitely well above freezing. So I thought I'd take a risk and appease my itchy green thumb:

That's right, I seeded some lettuce! Not a ton of any one variety, nor did I plant out any of the seedlings I've already started in the basement. But I figured, hey, what the heck - let's give this a shot and see what happens. I DO know that I've read you can sprinkle lettuce seeds out on snow, and when the time comes, and the snow has thawed, they'll settle down into the soil and grow. So hey - let's see if we don't start seeing some frost-hardy lettuce seedlings sprouting in the next week or two!

Here's the varieties of lettuce that got planted this afternoon:

  • Cherokee (Summer Crisp)
  • Winter Density (Cos)
  • Sylvesta (Green Butterhead)
  • Adriana (Green Butterhead)
  • Antago (Red Lollo)
  • Panisse (Green Oakleaf)
  • Crispino (Green Iceberg)
  • Buttercrunch (Green Bibb)
  • Red Sails (Red Grand Rapids)
And I'm hoping to sow some radish seeds out there tomorrow!

More pot talk...

Yesterday I talked about making your own pots from recycled newspapers, and a few weeks ago I covered using Jiffy-7s to "grow your own" peat pellet pots. I guess there's a chance you don't want to go to that much work, and maybe you'd rather just hit the store and buy something ready to go, hunh? Well, here's yet another option...peat pots (or, going by the brand name, Jiffy-Pots):y

As you can see, they come in many different shapes and sizes, and there's plenty more than what you see here! A nice thing about peat pots is that you can start your seeds in them, and when your seedlings are ready to be planted out in the garden, you just bury the peat pot and all - no need to gently wrestle the plant and its soil out of the pot like you do with plastic pots. The theory is that the plant's roots will grow through the moist peat pot and into the soil of your garden.

I purchased the strips of small square ones last year, and found I wasn't really fond of them. I guess they just seemed like they were a high peat-to-soil ratio when you're dealing with such small pots. One disadvantage of peat pots is that you HAVE to bury them below the soil line when you set your transplants out in your garden. While this stuff is great for many reasons, it does have one big disadvantage. If part of the peat pot is exposed in your garden, the air/breezes will wick moisture from the peat pot. The peat pot will continue to pull moisture from the ground right around it as the air wicks it away, resulting in the soil around your seedlings to dehydrate faster.

So these little square peat pots just seem too thick-walled, and with that small of a pot, I figure the plant inside is also going to be small, and there's too much risk I won't bury it deep enough to cover all the peat.

It's a little different with the larger peat pots. I've included two shapes (square and round) purchased at different locations. I got the square ones at Donzell's last year, and the packages of round ones were purchased quite inexpensively at Wal-Mart just a few weeks ago. Maybe something like $2 for 22 pots? A plant needing that big of a peat pot is more mature, and so I can be a little less gentle with it at the time of planting. I LOVE these larger peat pots for starting large vining plants like summer squash (that includes zucchini) and pumpkins! I'll start some of these indoors early, and I'll direct sow others outside once the soil has warmed up. This gives me two ages of plants in the soil at the same time, and a better chance of hopefully surviving an attack by squash bugs or cucumber beetles. When I set out the plants I started earlier indoors, the peat pot has already been softening up for weeks, and it's for a plant that's pretty hardy. I still like to break up the edges/base of the peat pot some when I plant my squash and pumpkins, just in case the initial roots aren't strong enough to grow through the peat.

Oh, and just for comparison, I've also including the little Jiffy-7 pellets in the same picture....

Sprout progress

on Tuesday, March 9, 2010

This week's seeds have been planted, and with this birds-eye view you can see the progress of the last two weeks' seeds. As you can see - last week's tomato planting has it's first two leaves, which aren't actually leaves at all...they're the cotyledons. They were all curled up inside the seed, and act as the first food source for the developing plant. Before long they'll shrivel up, having given up all their resources to get the plant started. The tomato seedling started two weeks ago has the original cotyledons still (the large green, non-descript leaves), and has just started forming it's first two "true leaves". These leaves will start photosynthesizing, turning light into the plant's food.

Behind the Brandywine tomatoes are last week's and this week's Black zucchini peat pots. So far there's no externally visible progress with the zucchini seed sprouting. I was a bit concerned that this part of the experiment wasn't going to go well - say if the seeds were no longer viable. That would be a bit odd since I'm sure I've used squash seeds older than a couple of years before.

So I dug around in the soil and found one of the seeds, and it's juuuuust starting to have a sprout push through the edge of the seed pod. I tucked it back under it's cover of seed starting mix, told it "good night", and I bet in just a couple of days it's peeking up through the soil!

If you're interested in more information on seed starting, has an excellent series of pages on the subject.

And for more interesting pics of the basement sprouts growing, check out these two pictures of the spinach growing in the basement! I actually took today's picture to compare it to yesterday's just to see if I noticed any sprouts MISSING. It seems we've had a mouse in the basement, and while it doesn't appear to have touched the leek seedlings, the other side of the very same seed starting tray has been STRIPPED of parsley seedlings! This has made me a bit paranoid - "Are there fewer spinach seedlings than there were yesterday? I'm sure there are! It seems like there's less!" So - remembering about where I took one of yesterday's pictures, I took another one there today. See for yourself...

Taken Monday, March 8, 2010

Taken Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Well whaddaya know!? Looks like these spinach seedlings are doing just fine! In fact, I set up a humane mouse trap on the table, and there's been no new evidence of mouse activity today. Over the last three days he's been moving Christmas cactus pieces I've been trying to root (and eat them), but today - nothing's moved. Maybe he's realized I'm after him? Either way, it's cool to have the daily pictures of the spinach progress!

Make your own pots!

When starting your own seeds, you have to decide what you want to plant them into... What sort of container do you want to use to hold your growing medium (what you're thinking of as "dirt")?

One option many folks love is small bio-degradable pots made from newspaper, which are made with what's called a paper pot maker. You can either buy a gadget to help you with this job (or receive one as a gift, like I did), or you can do the same just by wrapping paper around a drink glass or similar cylinder. A quick search of the web will provide many vendors selling devices to help you make paper pots, as well as tips on how to make paper pots without purchasing a gadget to help you.

Just like with plastic pots and peat pots, pots made out of recycled paper can come in many different sizes and shapes. My paper pot maker creates 2 1/4" pots that are about 2"-3" tall - depending on how you wrap the newspaper.

You start with a long strip of newspaper. The instructions for my pot maker call for a piece approximately 10" long by 3" wide - different pot makers or techniques will require different sized pieces of paper. I've found for my pot maker I can take a section from a newspaper and get six strips across (which I then cut down the fold) - it doesn't take more than a minute for me to get a stack of newspaper strips ready to turn into pots!

To start, you wrap a strip of paper around the pot maker, making sure to have roughly 3/4 - 1" of paper hanging off the bottom of the wooden dowel. Too much paper will result in extra material to be wadded up underneath the pot.

Working your way around the base of the pot maker, fold the newspaper towards the center of the're creating the bottom of the pot here.

Here I have the last of the newspaper folded across the bottom of the dowel. If you have too little newspaper extended beyond the end of the pot maker, you'll find you have an opening here at the bottom of the pot. Too much newspaper will result in extra folded up newspaper here, which just results in a pot that doesn't sit quite as level.

Now you could stop here - the weight of damp seed starting mix or soil in the pot would weigh down the bottom. Some people recommend putting a piece of tape across the bottom, but then you have to assume that won't break down in the soil. This particular pot maker comes with a second piece - one that the wooden dowel nestles down into. You push the newspaper-wrapped dowel into the base, and twist/push to give the bottom of the pot an extra crimping.

Now that the newspaper has been removed from the base unit, you can see a crimped groove to help lock the newspaper in place. Don't count on this being super sturdy, so that the newspaper won't unfold - it probably will a little. But again, the damp seed starting mix will weigh the whole thing down.

Once you get going, you'd be surprised at how fast you can crank out a bag full of homemade, recycled newspaper pots!

Here's 18 newspaper pots in a long, narrow planting tray, loaded up with rosemary and parsley seeds.

Seeing how this the first time I've made/used newspaper pots, I'm considering this a learning experience. The newspaper quickly starts absorbing moisture from the seed starting mix, plus you water the seeds right after planting them. Now that the newspaper is soaked, will it hold up for 6 weeks, 10 weeks or even more before these herbs are planted out?