Seed Starting 101

Sunflower seedlings, just three days after ger...

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Starting seeds indoors is a great way for gardeners to get a head-start on the growing season.  As a budget-conscious gardener, be aware that an initial investment of time, effort and space will provide you with a wider variety and greater quantity of plants at a fraction of the cost of purchasing seedlings.

All plants need light, water, nutrients and somewhere to grow. Plan your growing space in advance to make sure you will be providing the basics. Choose a space in your home that will hold the number of plants you plan to start – and keep in mind that once your seeds sprout, the new plants will have to be transplanted into larger containers and will need even more space! I use a spare bedroom in the house to start. As the transplanting progresses and I have more containers than space, I move plants to every available nook and cranny in the house – along the walls behind furniture, under tables, on top of book cases if necessary. Be creative, but be prepared.

Buy an adequate number of lights for your plants. Light won’t be needed until the seeds germinate, but I prefer to set up the lights in advance. Even though I won’t be turning them on for a week or two, having them in place before I plant is more convenient and easier before the room is full of containers.

As a cheap gardener, I passed on expensive plant lights and bulbs. Instead, I bought 48-inch shop lights with standard fluorescent bulbs. As long as the light is placed no more than 4 to 6 inches above the top of the plants, this kind of lighting is adequate.

You can start your seeds in virtually any inexpensive type of container that has adequate drainage, but don’t try to cut corners on the growing medium. Seed-starting mix is worth the small expense. It is far more porous than other soils and allows the roots of tender seedlings to get a good start. Never, ever use dirt from the garden, as it is too dense to allow proper root growth.

Your seed packets will tell you how far in advance of the last frost date to start your seeds. Mark the start dates for each crop on your calendar to remind you when to plant.

Also refer to package directions for sowing instructions. Planting depth is important. As a general rule, the smaller the seed, the closer to the surface it has to be planted.  Thoroughly moisten the soil with a mister to avoid disturbing the seeds.

Covering the containers with plastic wrap to help retain moisture and humidity until the plants germinate. Germination time varies; estimates are given on the seed packets. Keep the soil moist.

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DIY Garden Tips: Construct a Raised Bed

Raised Bed Garden

If the hard, physical labor involved in gardening has taken some of the joy out of a previously pleasurable hobby, raised beds may be the answer. They eliminate the bending, reaching and digging required with traditional beds.

Raised beds offer a number of advantages to gardeners. The greatest benefit is that they bring the soil surface to a height that is easier to access. This eliminates the need to work on your hands and knees and prevents the strain and injury that repetitive bending and reaching may cause.

Raised beds also make it easier to maintain the garden. The following design is for a 4-foot wide bed, making it easy for the average person to get to the plants from either side. Staking, pruning, harvesting and weeding can all be accomplished without strain, since the entire bed is within easy reach. Another advantage is that raised beds extend the growing season, since the soil will warm earlier and freeze later.

To construct a 10’ by 4’ raised bed, you will need the following supplies:

• Two pieces of 2 x 12 untreated wood, each 10 feet long

• Two pieces of 2 x 12 wood, each 4 feet long

• 8 deck screws, 3-1/2 to 4 inches long

• Saw, measuring tape, screwdriver

• Top soil

• Compost

Step One: Choose the location for your raised bed. Be sure the location receives a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight per day.  You’ll want enough room on all sides of the bed to allow you to move freely. If you are constructing more than one bed, leave enough space between them to easily move a wheelbarrow through the paths. Till the soil that will be beneath the new bed to prevent drainage and root penetration problems.

Step Two: Build the frame. Lay the two 10’ boards parallel to each other. Attach one of the 4’ boards to the longer pieces, using two screws to secure each corner. Place the remaining 4’ board at the open end, screwing the corners together to form a rectangle. (Note: To make it easier to insert the screws, drill small starter holes into the wood first.)

Step Three:  Add enough top soil and compost or other organic matter to fill the bed, and you’re ready for planting. Be sure to observe the recommended spacing between plants, but disregard instructions for row spacing. Install supports such as cages or stakes right after planting to avoid root damage later.

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Ornamentals: Pansies for Cool Weather Color

A Pansy exhibiting the flower's morphology: tw...

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Want a little inexpensive, early season color in your garden? Try pansies. They thrive in cool temperatures, tolerate mild frost and cold nights, and are readily available at your local garden centers.

Pansies, related to the viola family, can be found just about anywhere in the United States throughout the year. In the Midwest, they do well in early spring and again in autumn when daytime temperatures have cooled.

Pansies come in solid and bi-color varieties, with hues including white, yellow, orange, pink, red, purple and blue. They grow well in-ground or in containers and only require watering to stay healthy. Deadhead spent blooms to encourage continued flowering.

If you’re starting pansies from seed indoors, do so about 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date for your area for spring planting. For fall planting, start the seeds 6 to 8 weeks before the end of summer. They should germinate in 10 to 20 days.

After hardening off, plant seedlings about 8 inches apart. Crowded conditions will inhibit bloom production. Incorporate fertilizer into the soil at planting time.

Pansies are sun lovers, so be sure you transplant them to a location that gets plenty of direct sunlight. Well-drained soil is imperative. Add organic matter such as peat or compost to improve drainage if necessary.

In addition to bringing early season color to your garden, pansies are edible and can be used in salads or as decorations on a cake.

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Vegetable Gardening: How to Mix Plants


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Combining plants in your vegetable garden is both an art and science. The way you intermix plants creates an interdependent relationship that keeps plants healthier, lengthens the growing season, makes the most of the space you have and increases the harvest. Basic planting rules help, such as keeping taller plants behind shorter ones, and leaving the right amount of space between rows so the plants have enough room for root growth.  You can also take an additional step, known as companion planting, which pairs crops based on their specific needs and common problems to enhance growth.

Make the most of your garden space with vertical cropping.  Train vining plants like peas, cucumbers, pole beans and squash to climb up a trellis or fence. This frees valuable ground space that the vines would sprawl across with a support structure. Provide extra support for heavier crops like squash.

Plant crops in succession.  Some like cool weather while others prefer warmer temperatures, and this fact can work to your advantage. Plant a cool weather crop like spinach. After the harvest, when temperatures are too warm for continued growth, plant a fast growing summer crop like beans. When cooler autumn weather arrives, take out the bean plants and sow more spinach. Succession plant makes the most of your garden real estate and increases the volume of your harvest.

Intercropping is another way to maximize your available space. University of Illinois Extension says faster growing vegetables can be interspersed between slow-growing crops for increased yield. Plant rows of lettuce or green onions between tomato plants, for example. The harvest of the slow-growing crops will be complete by the time the tomatoes start bushing out and need the space.

You can also interplant herbs and flowers for insect control.  Many common herbs and flowers repel pests that feed on vegetable plants. Coriander, nasturtium, mint and garlic repel aphids, a common enemy of cucumber and pumpkin plants. Horseradish will protect potato crops from potato bugs.  Sage and rosemary repel the cabbage moth. (You can also use herbs to repel pests from your patio. Basil, for example, repels mosquitoes and flies. A few pots of basil placed around the deck will keep you more comfortable.)

You can also mix plants in a way that is mutually beneficial. Heavy feeders such as cucumbers and potatoes, for instance, will benefit from the nitrogen that is added to the soil when bush beans are grown nearby. Onions benefit when growing near chamomile; corn and squash benefit from peanut plants; basil and okra enhance sweet peppers; and marigolds enhance the growth of tomatoes and beans.

A few other companion planting tips are in order. Bee balm in the vegetable garden will attract bees, which will help pollinate your food crops. Plant beets, comfrey and chamomile to add beneficial minerals to the soil. Grow basil and garlic near tomatoes to improve flavor. Grow clover to inhibit aphids and cabbageworms in your cabbage patch. Plant caraway for a season or two so its deep root system can loosen compacted soil. A Google search for “companion planting” will provide you with more information on how to benefit your garden.

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DIY Garden Tips: The Garden Calendar

USDA Hardiness Zones in North America

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From cleaning up winter detritus to closing down the gardens in autumn, we gardeners are continuously busy once spring arrives. A garden calendar will help keep you on track, ensuring all the garden tasks that need tending get done on time.

Start by making lists of garden activities, organizing them by category: seed starting and transplanting, lawn and tree care, and harvest.  Know your U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zone and the dates of the last spring frost and first autumn frost in your area. Life in the garden revolves around these dates.

Assign the date for each task.  In my zone 5A garden, Mother’s Day weekend is the transplant date for tender plants, while cool weather crops go out almost a month earlier. Prepare tools and purchase supplies in the early spring, just before the growing season begins. Flowering bushes are pruned as soon as their blossoms fade, weeding is done weekly, and special projects are scheduled during lulls in between the planting frenzy and the beginning of harvest.

If you are starting seeds indoors, calculate the sowing dates.  Seed packets recommend the ideal amount of time to sow prior to transplant. Record these dates on your garden calendar. Some plants are best seeded directly in the garden; record these dates as well. List each plant you plan to grow and record its sowing date.

Record planting dates for seedlings. All plants do best when soil and moisture levels have reached appropriate levels. If you plant too soon, the soil won’t be warm enough and will still hold too much water from the winter thaw. Pansies, for example, can be transplanted much earlier than tomato seedlings. Plants that you purchase from a nursery are generally made available at the appropriate planting time, but check with the seller to be sure.

Record the expected harvest dates for your herbs and vegetables. Herbs can be harvested throughout the season, as can indetermine producers such as cucumbers and some tomatoes. Seed packets and plant information labels will tell you approximately how many days until harvest.

Finally, choose the best method for you to keep track of your important dates. Large wall calendars work well for some people, while pocket calendars or simple chronological lists work for others. Be sure to save everything, because this will be a very useful reference as you plan the next year’s garden calendar.

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Ornamentals: Perennials for Shade Gardens

Astilbe koblenz

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Gardening in a shady yard can be a challenge, but there are many flowering plants bloom abundantly in partial shade. Areas that receive 2 to 4 hours of dappled sunlight each day are considered partial shade gardens, according to the University of Illinois Extension. Choose plants that are ideally suited for this condition, observe a few simple tips, and your shaded beds will be as lovely as any that receive full sun.

When I first set out to bring color to a shaded backyard, I feared I was limited to daylilies and hostas. These are most definitely good staples for the Midwest shade garden. I soon found to my surprise and delight that many other perennials do well in shaded locations.

One good choice is bleeding heart, which has fern-like foliage and is named for its flowers that look like a heart with a small drop of pink, white or purple blood at the base. They bloom summer through fall and require little care.

Virginia bluebells also grow well in shade gardens. They display clusters of pink and blue flowers each spring and the compact foliage remains attractive throughout the growing season. Bethlehem sage also blooms in pink, but its flowers gradually turn blue.

Columbine is a woodland flower that comes in single and bi-color varieties. Blossoms are yellow, white, pink, blue, and purple. It blooms from late spring into early summer. Columbine is a self-seeder, but its offspring are notorious for popping up in unlikely places, making it ideal for informal gardens.

Poker primrose blooms in early summer in shades of red and purple.  The plant grows 6 to 12 inches high depending on the variety, with distinctive flower spikes that last more than a month and attract butterflies to the garden.

Astilbes produce flower plumes in white, pink and red in early summer. The deep-lobed, fern-like foliage is attractive prior to and after the flowers have bloomed. The plant grows up to 4 feet tall and the flowers stay in bloom for a few weeks, then fade very slowly as they dry.

Lily of the valley produces fragrant bell-shaped white blossoms in May and spreads prolifically to fill heavily shaded areas. While I find it a joy to grow, be aware that it is quite aggressive and will spread far beyond its original location. For this reason, it makes an excellent groundcover in places where little else will grow.

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Container Gardening 101

Potted plants, container garden

Image by ranti.junus via Flickr

Just about any plant that can be grown in the garden can be grown in a container as well. Any container will work, as long as it has holes in the bottom for drainage and is large enough to allow room for roots to grow without crowding.

Before choosing your containers, decide what plants you will grow, and make a list of the containers you might use for each. Clay pots in a range of sizes, for example, are suitable for most herbs and small flowers. Window boxes or other shallow containers with wide openings work well for lettuce and spinach. Half-barrel sized containers are suitable for root crops like potatoes and carrots. Tall plants like tomatoes, which thrive when allowed to develop deep root systems, prefer deep containers such as 5-gallon paint buckets.

Armed with your list, purchase the needed containers or be resourceful and gather suitable items to repurpose from around the house.  Choose the location for your containers based on the amount of light that is available. The containers will need at least six hours of full sun each day. Group them with an eye toward complimentary heights and colors, and be sure any vining plants are placed where they will have supports on which to climb.

Use a lightweight potting mix along with compost to fill your containers after you’ve moved them to their permanent location. The lightweight mix promotes air and water circulation beneath the soil and lets roots grow freely. Filling the pots after they’re positioned saves you from having to move them when they’re heavier. Sow seeds or transplant seedlings into the pots when temperatures have reached the appropriate range for the specific plants’ needs.

One difference between in-ground and container gardening is that containers require more frequent watering. Check them daily and water as needed to keep soil adequately moist. Soil in clay pots will dry more quickly than glass or plastic containers, since the porous clay allows the air to leech moisture from the soil more readily.

You’ll need to observe container garden feeding instructions for the fertilizer you intend to use. Rapid growth and frequent watering deplete nutrients from the soil more quickly than in garden beds. Water-based commercial fertilizers have to be re-applied every two to three weeks.

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