Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sow many seeds, so little time

This week, one of the sunniest February weeks I can remember, was my school's mid-winter break. I could not have asked for better weather and as you've probably already guessed, I played outside in my yard all week. Since I had so much free time, I was able to start my lettuce bed under the cloche outside and was able to start my pepper and tomato seeds inside. I even planted the heirloom seeds I saved last year! This is the earliest I have ever started spinach and lettuce outside, but the cloche is doing an amazing job warming up the soil – the soil thermometer registered 60 degrees in that bed! Those little seeds will germinate in no time.

Recently, several people, who are planning on growing vegetables for the first time, asked me for seed suggestions and gardening tips. So, in today's post, I'm going back to the basics and will share a few things I've learned about growing veggies.

Despite getting tons of seed catalogs each year with beautiful photos of unique and exotic varieties, I select seeds of vegetables I like to eat. The beets always look beautiful, but I don't like to eat them so they never make it into my garden.

When I choose seeds, I also consider what will grow well in our climate because I want to set myself up for success. We have long cool springs, so it's a good idea to choose vegetables that do well in cool weather, like kale, lettuce, spinach, chard, and peas.

If you're just getting started, I would suggest planting a salad garden. Lettuce is pretty easy to grow from seed and can provide you with a continual harvest – just pick off the outer leaves and they'll keep on growing back! If you plant several of the beautiful and delicious varieties, you can have an amazing mixed green salad. I buy most of my seeds from the local seed company, Territorial Seeds. Last year, I grew Jericho, Deer Tongue, and Merlot lettuce from Territorial. This year, I'm growing the same varieties plus the Cascade Lettuce Mix that I got for free from the Cascade Harvest Coalition at the Flower and Garden Show. There is nothing better than a salad, just picked fresh from your garden.

Lettuce seeds are really small, so plant them carefully. In a nut shell, seeds need water and warmth to germinate. Since lettuce seeds are so tiny and could get washed away with a watering can, I water the soil thoroughly before sowing my seeds. Then, I make a little indentation in the soil, pour some seeds into my hand, grab a pinch of seeds, and put them in the little spot I created. I carefully cover them with a little soil (not too deep!) and give it a little press to ensure that I got good soil to seed contact.

I also have to plug the Nasturtiums. I LOVE these beautiful edible flowers and grow them every year. I can't tell you how lovely it was last year to watch huge bumble bees squeeze themselves inside the big red and orange blooms. Plus, you can harvest the flowers and put them in the salad you just harvested. It's important to pick out a variety that is compact, since they have the potential to trail like crazy. I love the Empress of India variety. This year, I'm going to try the Black Velvet variety as well. It's important to note that in addition to attracting lovely beneficial pollinators, they also tend to attract aphids (in my case, little black aphids), so if that happens, just spray them off with a strong stream of water or pull them out and plant something new.

Finally, if you haven't done so already, plant some peas. According to my Seattle Tilth Maritime NW Garden Guide, it's tradition in our area to sow peas by Presidents' Day. Peas are easy to plant, fun to guide up a trellis, thrive in cool weather, and will provide you with a generous harvest. The Maritime NW Garden Guide, a planning calendar for year-round organic gardening, is worth the money, by the way. It is designed for gardeners in our area and gives recommendations as to what to plant and where (i.e. sow outdoors, sow indoors, sow outdoors under a cloche) for every month of the year.

Starting seeds indoors merits a post of its own. It's not terribly complicated, but requires some special materials and a little extra planning. So, if you're not ready to dive into indoor seed starting this year, but still want to try growing some delicious heirloom tomatoes or some other interesting vegetable, you're in luck. There are two amazing plant sales coming up that will have tons of fabulous starts (young plants) for your garden. The Master Gardener Foundation Plant Sale will be on Saturday and Sunday, May 1 and 2. After King County cut the funding for the Master Gardener program, the Master Gardener Foundation took over and made it possible for the program to continue. Without the MG Foundation, I wouldn't be in the program right now! The MG plant sale is one of their biggest fund raisers, so you can buy the vegetable starts you want to grow and support an amazing community gardening program. Seattle Tilth is also having an Early Spring Edible Plant Sale on Saturday, March 20.

A garden journal can be a handy tool for keeping track of your garden experiments. Jot down what and when you plant and note later if it worked or not. Your notes can help you make decisions when you're planning your garden next year. Remember, practice makes perfect. Pardon the pun, but it's best to just dig in, plant some seeds, and have fun with it. You'll probably have more success than you expect. Happy planting!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

All in a day's work

When I started making plans to start my seeds indoors again and decided to sterilize (bake) the seed starting medium I already had on hand, visions of this scene popped in my head – an old fifties ad with a put-together woman in pumps and an apron, single-handedly managing to keep a clean house, cook a balanced meal for her family, and prepare soil for the seeds she'll cultivate for her family's future meals. An ad that convinces housewives everywhere that sterilizing their own soil is a snap. You can have dinner on the stove and your soil in the oven and both will be ready in a jiffy!

Actually, it was a pretty easy process and since I'm trying to use as many sustainable gardening practices as possible, re-using soil I already have makes a lot of sense. Using sterile soil is critical for healthy seedlings. Most garden supply stores or nurseries sell sterile seed-starting medium, so if you're starting out with that, you're already good to go.

To sterilize used seed-starting medium:

1. Spread the soil on a baking sheet. The soil should be moist, but not too wet. I moistened the soil and mixed it around a bit to make sure that it was moist throughout and not just on the surface.

2. Cover the baking sheet with foil and put in a preheated oven set at 200 degrees. I have an oven thermometer in my oven so I was sure that my oven wasn't hotter than what I set it at. Gauging temperature during this process is pretty important because over-heating the soil can produce plant toxins.

Here is the slightly tricky part. According to my Master Gardener handbook, the goal is to get the soil to a temperature of 140 degrees and keep it there for thirty minutes. In other resources, I read that it should be 180 degrees, but no higher than 200 degrees. I set the timer for 10 minutes, then pulled it out and checked the soil temperature by inserting a meat thermometer in the center of the pan, right through the foil. I found that I had to do this several times before the soil temperature registered 140 degrees. Once I got the soil to 140 degrees, I set the time for 30 minutes. When I checked the temperature after 30 minutes, it was registering 170 degrees, but since it was still below the 200 degree range, I think I'm OK.

3. After 30 minutes at 140 degrees, take the pan out of the oven and let it cool. Keep the foil in place – the smell of fresh baked soil is not nearly as appetizing as bread. Trust me on this.

4. Finally, make sure you sterilize the container you're going to use as well. I used a very diluted bleach and water solution to clean out the flat that I use to start my seeds.

That's all there is to it. Just a few simple steps and you're on your way to a bountiful harvest. Now isn't that swell?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Making Room

When Jake walked in yesterday evening, I greeted him with an enthusiastic squeal, "The chicks are coming!" The chick delivery schedules are out at several local feed stores, which means it's almost time – this is happening for real. For over a year now, I've said that I would get my chicks in March and now I have a real, prospective date: March 17. Of course, when I called the Grange to ask some questions, the woman told me that it's first come, first serve and that people line up, waiting to get their chicks. I don't think I can justify calling in "sick" and getting a substitute to go get my chicks, so I'm just going to have to hope that by the time school ends that day, there will still be three healthy chicks for me. I've got my hopes up for one Buff Orpington, one Rhode Island Red, and one Americauna (for the fun green-colored eggs). Seeing as how they're expecting a delivery of 300 chicks of each of those breeds, I think I'll probably be OK.

In the meantime, it's time to make some room. Last weekend, I went through the process of moving one of three garden beds from the space where we're going to put the coop, to the lawn, just above the first garden bed terrace. In my Master Gardener class, I learned that it is not a good idea to till the soil when it is really wet because it can damage the soil structure, but I had to make the sacrifice in order to make some room.

I dug out all of the soil in the raised bed and made countless trips with the wheelbarrow to a large tarp on the lawn. Then, I found the spot on the lawn where I wanted to put the new bed and turned over the sod to ensure that it would smother the grass and not start growing up into my veggies. It probably would have died off without this step, but after hearing about my friends' experience trying to control the grass taking over their raised beds, I wasn't taking any chances.

Finally, I put the frame over the new spot, lined the bottom of the bed with landscape fabric, and filled it up with all the soil that I had transferred to the tarp. Now, all it needs is some early spring peas, which I plan to plant on Tuesday, some lettuce and spinach seeds, and a spring cloche.

Today, for Valentine's Day, Jake and I are going to work on designing our coop. Last year at this time, he was building me a retaining wall and now we're moving on to a bigger project. I know I am a lucky girl. When I told my sister what we were doing for Valentine's day, she said, "Birds of a feather flock together." I couldn't have said it better myself!

Friday, February 5, 2010

The NW Flower and Garden Show: Where Garden Junkies Convene

Today, right smack in downtown Seattle in the immense convention center, I got my first taste of spring. A fellow gardener in my Master Gardener cohort described it perfectly when she said you walk in to the NW Flower and Garden Show and the smell of soil immediately meets your nose. She wasn't kidding. And when it did, I felt like I'd made it home.

Needless to say, the show was amazing. I went by myself and was perfectly content, wandering around in garden bliss for the entire day. Here are some highlights:

Turns out, I have a thing for rusty garden art. You might have noticed the rusty flowers I have "growing" in my garden already. Well, the booth of Home and Garden Art of Ballard was just too much to bear. I've been looking for a rooster to accompany my future hens and I found one today. I also managed to snag an amazing metal sign. Pictures of these new additions to my garden will be coming soon.

The Seattle Tilth and NW Bloom display garden was stunning – complete with a chicken coop and a goat! These cold frames were the highlight though. Cold frames keep crops like lettuce warm during the colder fall and winter months so you can have fresh veggies all year long. I loved the chartreuse-painted reclaimed window that they used for its lid - and a wagon wheel hatch to boot!
Seattle Urban Farm Company had an amazing vegetable garden display in an old truck. Wild strawberries grew vertically out of the side of the truck. Stalks of corn filled the bed. To top it off, there was a chicken coop along side the old truck with a couple of beautiful hens inside. Their nesting boxes were in the cab of the truck.

Speaking of reclaimed materials, I discovered that Re Store offers classes on how to transform new finds into treasures. I also attended an amazingly entertaining seminar by one of the co-authors of the book, The Salvage Studio. I haven't actually gotten my hands on the book yet, but judging by the pictures I saw and awesome ideas I gleamed during the presentation, it would definitely be worth purchasing.

Also, the recycled bottle rain chain (created by Bedrock, the company that keeps me stocked with all the tumbled stained glass for my mosaics) was amazingly beautiful. If I hadn't just purchased a metal rooster, I just might have splurged on the chain to funnel rain water into the new rain barrel I'm going to install next week.

Finally, I stumbled upon the Cascade Harvest Coalition, an organization dedicated to connecting farmers and the community, thus supporting the local food system. They gave me this super cool farm guide with all the user-friendly information I could want about tons of local farms in our state, from CSAs to U-pick farms.

In the end, I left with some 4 inch pots of sage, some metal accessories for my garden, lots of new information, and inspiration to make my garden as beautiful as it can be. I think it's safe to say that I will be a repeat visitor to the show in the years to come.