Transplanting, Instead of Culling, Makes Me a Much Happier Gardener

Ever had a hard time thinning or “culling” those extra seedlings that spring up from over-sowing or volunteering?  It’s very common, in my garden, to find seedlings that are way too tightly packed together.  Even though I know it is the absolute right thing to do, I can’t tell you how it pains me to remove these sweet little gems from my garden.

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The other day I was working in a bed of lettuce that I had sown a few weeks prior – one that I sowed an over-abundance of seed in to ensure better germination rates.  It was now time for the weeding and thinning to take place.

I like to let my seedlings grow a couple of sets of true leaves before starting the thinning process.  Crickets and grasshoppers around our homestead love those first little, tender leaves and often chew them right off, leaving nothing but the stem and roots, essentially killing the plant, but they don’t tend to bother them once they get larger.  So, rather than thin early and risk losing what’s left to these pests, I leave them to grow until they are large enough that the pests won’t bother them and then begin the thinning.

As I started the process of locating the lettuce among the weeds, to my happy surprise, I also noticed that there were a ton of carrot seedlings scattered about – no doubt from seeds that had dropped off and germinated earlier in the year  from a carrot plant that I’d let go to seed for the purpose of seed saving…

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If it were spring or summer, I’d thin any unwanted plants by gently pulling them up or cutting them off at the soil line and then toss them aside. But now that it’s fall, and the days are shorter, the weather is cooler, and the ground is staying saturated longer,  I’ve decided to try and salvage as many seedlings as possible.  I know it’s a risk with the carrots because transplanting can cause the roots to fork, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take to save these dainty little volunteers!

Digging up a clump of soil – plants, weeds, and all – I take care to pry the weeds away,  and then I gently divide the seedlings…

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Although I try not to disturb the roots, I find that in this cooler weather the plants don’t mind having their roots exposed as much.

Then, using a hand trowel,  I pry open up a small area of soil, slip the transplants into place (evenly spacing them out as I go), and give them a good watering to get them off to a good start in their new homes.

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What a joy it is to have a few more beds of lettuce and carrots growing, now.  It makes me very happy!

So, if you’re like me, and you absolutely can’t bear to sacrifice all of those perfect, albeit not so well placed, vegetable seedlings that you’ve sown or have volunteered, and if it’s the right time of year, you might just want to consider taking the time to transplant them into another area of the garden where they’ll have adequate space for proper growth, ensuring happier, healthier plants.  Knowing that you’ve save those little beauties, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot happier, too! 🙂

Successful Gardeners Persevere!

So, you tried your hand at a backyard vegetable garden, this year, and it didn’t turn out so well?  Seeds didn’t germinate?  Plants didn’t set fruit? Some (or maybe even all) of them up and died on ya? And you’re thinking, “I give up; I’d better just leave the growing to the experts”?

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Hold on!   Let’s not be hasty — Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Like fine wine, friendships, and love, building a successful garden takes a lot of hard work and plenty of time, too.  If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to keep at it!  Learn from your mistakes.  Build on your successes — no matter how small.  Every season brings another opportunity to begin again and create the garden of your dreams!

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In the meantime, let’s do a little trouble shooting and see if we can’t figure out what might have gone wrong, this year…

First, how was the quality of your soil?  When I first started gardening, I knew nothing about healthy soil.  I figured dirt was dirt, and that I could just plop my seeds and transplants any ol’ where I wanted and they’d grow like weeds and produce like the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.  Um.   No.   I absolutely set myself up for failure when I failed to deal with the health of my soil.

Could your soil be the source of your problems?  If so, I suggest you curl up with your computer and a nice cup of tea, and do a Google search on “how to build healthy organic soil”, or “permaculture”, or “sustainable gardening”, and prepare to be amazed at what you will learn!  I also highly recommend watching this video to learn about one of the best ways to prepare your garden beds for planting.

Next, did you plant often, and at the right time?  I know.  I know.  As soon as that first frost-free day of the year hits, Spring Fever takes over, and we all want to get everything into the garden at once.   While it is often necessary for people who live in places with short growing seasons to take this approach to gardening, those of us who live in more temperate climates will often have much more success when we slow down, and take our time sowing, transplanting, and harvesting at different times throughout the growing season, taking into consideration the full number of growing days we have available and making the most effective and efficient use of each and every day, week, and month we have until the weather turns and we must put the garden to bed for the winter.  When we fail to start seeds or transplant seedlings into the garden at the right time we often sabotage our efforts in the garden.

How do you know when to plant what?  Again, a quick Google search, or trip to your local library will turn up loads of useful information.  Search for “vegetable planting guides”, or “vegetable planting schedules”, and then learn all you can about growing vegetables in your area (know your USDA hardiness zone, first).  One of my favorite resources for month to month garden planning is The Backyard Homestead by Carleen Madigan.  At the back of the book, you will find a planning calendar, based on the number of growing days in your region, that tells you, month by month, what plants to start in flats, sow directly, and transplant into the soil.  Armed with this knowledge, just see what a difference it makes in your gardening success!

Finally, did you make adjustments and corrections as you saw problems arise?  As squash bugs began to appear on your zucchini, did you take measures to eradicate them, or did you leave them to spread and destroy all of your plants?  As pests began to nibble away at young seedlings, or maturing fruit, did you look for ways to protect your precious crops, or let nature take it’s course and devour the fruits of your labor?  When seeds failed to germinate, did you re-plant time and time again, or leave the ground fallow, and figure you’d try again next year or never again? A garden is not something to be planted and then left alone.  We must tend it.  We must nurture it.  We must constantly interact with it so that we are aware of problems, immediately, when they arise and then take care of them.  Gardeners who neglect their gardens will almost assuredly reap what they sow.  I know, ’cause I get just as neglectful as anyone else.

But, if I can bounce back and find success in gardening, then you can too.  So, don’t you ever give up! Just stick to the advice of Winston Churchill, who wisely stated, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”, and I’ll bet someday you’ll be the expert that everyone else comes flocking to for sage vegetable gardening advice! 🙂

10 Tips For Selecting Seeds For Your Garden

This is the time of year when I love to cuddle up in a warm blanket on the couch with a cup of hot tea, a highlighter, and my favorite source of pleasure reading, seed catalogs, and create a shopping list of seeds for this year’s garden.

Starting plants from seed is a most rewarding experience.  All it takes is a little time and effort.  The most difficult part, for me, is deciding what not to plant!

This year, I’ve come up with a list of qualifications for choosing seed that will make narrowing down the field a bit easier for me.  If you’re looking to start a glorious vegetable garden from seed, perhaps these tips will help you, too.

1.  Choose seed for foods that you are familiar with and know you are  going to consume.  Although I have a soft spot for growing exotically-named heirloom veggies, and one’s that we’ve never eaten before,  this year’s garden is going to be full of veggies that will end up in our tummies (lots of melons, tomatoes, and beans), not on the compost heap (mustard, huckleberries, and spaghetti squash).   When choosing seed, it’s good to ask yourself first, “Are we really going to eat this?”

2.  Choose seed for foods  that are based on the amount of  room you have for growing. I’ve got a large garden, so I don’t have to worry about this too much, but if you’ve got a smaller garden, you should.  Even if you love fresh broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and corn, you’ll probably be better off buying it from the store or farmer’s market, since these plants take up a huge amount of space for the amount of food they produce.  In small gardens, you’ll get a much better bang for your buck when you choose seeds like lettuce, beans, peas, onions, and garlic, where you’ll use up the entire pack and can plant a lot in a small area.  In a larger garden, like mine, it’s good to be selective about the varieties you’re going to grow.  You may want to grow three different types of corn, but do you really have the room?  It’s wise to plan ahead, and put your garden down on paper, plotting out the growing area so that you don’t order an over-abundance of seed, or try to grow foods that won’t be accommodated in the space…ask yourself, “Am I going to have room for this?”

3.  Choose seed for foods based on the number of days to harvest, or particular growing season.  This year, I’m paying particularly close attention to these two items, which can be found on most seed packets, or listed in catalog descriptions.  In the past, I haven’t, and have been overwhelmed by harvests coming in all at once.  It is a good idea to choose seed for plants that will produce early, mid, and late season harvests, so that you have things coming into season at different times.  For example, select one tomato that ripens in 50 days, another at 70, and still another at 90.  (You can also start seedlings at different times and get a similar effect, but early and late season varieties are usually particularly suited to that time of year for growing, and will probably produce better when grown at the right time).  Growing season is also important.  Is your growing season short or long?  If it’s short, you do not want to select seed for plants that are going to take a long time to produce.  If it’s long, you can be more choosy…ask yourself, “When am I going to be harvesting this plant, and do I have enough time to grow it?”

5.  Choose seeds based on the climate of your growing area.  Do you live near the coast, where there is not much fluctuation in temperature, or in a desert, where temperatures skyrocket during the summer?  It’s important to select seed according to how well it is going to perform under your climate’s particular conditions.  Here, in the Central Valley of California, it’s rather hot and dry, so I look for seed packets that boast words like, “slow-to-bolt”, or “holds up well in hot weather”, and tend to stay away from ones that say, “does best in cool weather”, or “doesn’t tolerate the heat”.  Since the places I purchase my seeds from sell seed from all around the world, I hone in on seeds that come from places with similar climates to mine — places like Asia and the middle east, rather than Russia, or Scandinavian countries.  That does not mean that I won’t try to grow something that isn’t particularly suited to my climate, but the majority of my seeds are chosen for climate compatibility.  When choosing seed, ask yourself, “Is this plant well-suited to my climate?”

6.  Choose seeds based on last year’s production and quality.  It’s a good idea to keep a garden journal so that you can keep track of all of the different plant varieties that you grow and chart successes and failures.  I purchase a lot of seed each year, and have high hopes that each will produce and abundance of fruit and look and taste great, but the reality is, not all plants are created equal — some produce well, but leave something to be desired in the taste category, and others taste amazing, but have relatively low production.  I almost always choose taste over production, so once I come across something I don’t like, I make a note of it and make sure not to order that particular seed the following year.  If you’ve got a small garden, you might prefer quantity over quality, and choose your seeds accordingly.  When choosing seed, pull out your handy garden journal from the previous year and ask, “Is this one worth re-purchasing or, if you’ve saved seed, worth re-growing?”

7.  Choose seeds based on their ease of germinating, growing, and harvesting.  When it comes to these qualities, not all plants are created equal, either.  Some plants require cold stratification before they will germinate, others need soil temperatures to be above seventy-five degrees.  Some plants like dry conditions, others like perpetually wet feet.  Some grow neat and tidy, while other sprawl and take over the garden worse than an out-of-control weed.  Most veggies are easy to harvest, while others grow spikes, and itchy hairs, or need machines to take their hulls off.   If you’re a beginner, you want to look for words like, “easy to grow”, “compact”, and “bush habit”, so that you will experience success in your gardening.  Even if you’re an experienced gardener, it’s a good idea to be familiar with the plant before you get started.  Last year, I grew hull-less varieties of barley, oats, and french lentil beans.  They were the easiest seeds to sow, and grew wonderfully with hardly any attention being paid to them, but when it came time to harvest, they were the most difficult plants I’ve ever had to deal with.  Although I cherish the experience, I will not be growing any more of these plants until I find an efficient and inexpensive way to harvest them.  Lesson learned:  when choosing seed ask, “Is it easy to sow, grow, and harvest?”

9.  Choose a few seeds for their novelty, or to try something new.  This may seem like it’s a contradiction to point number one, but I think a small portion of the garden should be devoted to growing something purely for experimentation and/or  fun – you never know what great and wonderful things you’ll love to keep in your garden until you give them a try!  This year, I’m introducing pineapple ground cherries and dinosaur kale into my garden.  I chose the ground cherries (a relative of the tomato) because they look pretty, and I’m curious to know what they taste like.  The dinosaur kale I selected just because I love the name!  So, when choosing seed ask yourself, “What do I want to grow just for fun?”

10.  Choose seeds that will allow you to reproduce the plant.  First, this means that you’ll only want to select seeds that are heirloom, open-pollinated, non-GMO (genetically modified), and non-hybrid.  While I don’t have time to go into all the details here, suffice it to say that these types of seeds are far more likely to allow you to reproduce “true” offspring year after year than hybrids, which may contain a “terminator” gene that will not allow the plant to reproduce at all, or will not breed true, and you’ll end up with unpredictable results.  My favorite sources for heirloom, open-pollinated seeds are: Baker Creek (which I sell, and you can purchase by visiting my What’s For Sale page), Bountiful Gardens, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  While seed saving from all fruits and vegetables is possible, some are easier to save than others.  Self-pollinating plants are the easiest to save seed from and include peas, peppers, tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, lettuce, and grains.  Saving seed means saving money and makes a lot of  sense.  To learn more about it, check out the book Seed to Seed, the gold standard for learning how to save and store seedAfter you do, when choosing seed ask, “Will I be able to save this seed?”

These are the criteria I’ve decided to use, this year, to help me create a more focused shopping list of fruit and vegetable seeds for my garden.  If you decide to start a garden from seed, I hope you’ll find these tips helpful, too.