Gardening 101 and beyond


Seed Starting 101 

The following is a brief introduction to starting seeds for the spring. 
Many plants will benefit by a head start, getting started in your house or greenhouse, about 6 weeks before your last frost date.The best way to calculate this date is to look up your frost date( the last day you should have frost in your zone) and count back 6 weeks. If you don't know the date contact your county Ag. or Extension agent, they will be able to assist you. The reason this date is so important is that your transplants( we will discuss how to do this at a later date), will not survive a frost if they are put out too soon. 

Basil, parsley, chives, marjoram, annual camomile and dill are just a few which will benefit from this head start. These herbs are either annuals or biennials, which have a short germination period. 

After pouring over the catalogs all winter I know you are itching to get busy in the garden. Once your seeds are ordered, take some time to assess the other things you will need. A soilless mix, containers( flats, peat pots, mini greenhouse etc. ) a location to place your container which will remain warm and moist, and some labels. The mix I prefer is called a soilless mix; it is man-made( no dirt) and contains various mixtures of peat,ground bark, some sand vermiculite and perlite. It is available at any home and garden center. This is important to decrease chances of damping off( we will also deal with this in a later issue).

When purchasing your seeds be sure to keep in mind the restrictions of your own garden. Your zone, whether you have sun or shade and soil makeup. Annuals should not be a problem regardless of your zone, however how much sun your site has will make a difference, as will how dry or moist your site is. The catalog will list the requiremnts for the plants, pay attention. Why take all the time to germinate seeds for Basil if don't have enough sun for it to thrive in. If you have shade , Basil, Dill, Marjoram, Oregano and Lavender will sulk because they require sun. If all you have is sun, Mints, parsley and Chervil will fry. Keep this in mind while you are drooling over those catalogs and don't insist on growing those things you know will suffer. All this does is increase your frustration level. Herbs and gardening are supposed to be fun.

Now that you have ordered those seeds get all the other items ready and look for a place to place them to germinate. A good place is on top of the refrigerator, it remains warm by providing bottom heat, a TV also works well. I can hear families all over saying "Why are there seeds on the TV?"

When your seeds arrive, READ the directions, and plan to put seeds with like needs together. Seeds may all seem the same but plants have various requirements. Some need light to germinate, some need dark, a few also need more moisture than others. This does not mean you keep them in the dark it just means you have to vary planting depths. The directions on your seed packs will guide you to the specific needs of each seed you purchase. We are currently creating content for this section. In order to be able to keep up with our high standards of service, we need a little more time. Please stop by again. Thank you for your interest!

Seed starting -Part 2 

Now that you have decided what to grow and where you are going to plant them once they are grown, you are ready to plant your seeds.
One last thing about your seed containers- they need holes. This may seem redundant, but keeping your seeds moist instead of drowned is important.
The container will need to be able to drain off excess water so I suggest placing it an a cookie sheet so you can empty the run off.

Let's plant!

Fill your container with the potting medium ( see part 1) to within 1/4" of the top. I suggest wetting the medium and allowing it to drain prior to sowing the seeds. An easy way to do this is to place the container in a couple inches of water and allow it to soak up from the bottom. This is also a great way to water after your seeds are planted because you will not displace any soil or seeds .When the soil is thoroughly saturated remove from the water and allow it to drain.
Prepare your labels, the name of the plant and the date is all you need. If you are planting many seeds this will help you keep track of what you planted - when they germinate you seldom can identify one plant from another. 
Your seed pack will tell you each specific plants requirements. Follow them closely and plant like seeds together. Poke a hole( making sure of the depth required) pop in a seed and gently return the soil. Seeds usually are buried at 3-4 times the thickness of the seed,so the larger the seed the deeper you plant. If you have tiny seeds I suggest sprinkling them on the soil and then sprinkling soil over them. Once your seeds are planted,water again- same method from the bottom. Once they have drained place them in a bag( I suggest a dry cleaner bag) which will become a mini greenhouse.If you are growing in greenhouse flats, you have just to put the lid back on for your greenhouse.Place these seeds on a warm surface( see part 1)and your job is done. Kind of!.
The "greenhouse" will fill with moisture which will help your seeds stay moist, but you will need to vent this once a day( just open the bag for a few minutes). This will allow fresh air in and excesss moisture out. Your seeds need to be damp but not to rot. 
One other thing to keep in mind is whether your seeds require light to germinate. All seedlings will need light once they have sprouted but some actually need light to germinate. The seed packs will tell you that- remember to read them carefully- and follow the specific directions.
Now monitor the humidity, watch for growth( the date on your label will give you an idea as to when you can expect growth) and get your pots
and location ready for the next step. 

Pricking out and Potting Up 

Once your seedlings are a couple of inches high( and have true leaves), it is time to remove them from your seed bed and put them in their own pots. Let me explain- the first leaves which sprout are not the real leaves. The ones that sprout directly below these or after these first ones are the true ones.You don't touch them until they have TRUE leaves. These will usually look different than the first ones and are characteristic of the plant it will soon become.
If your seedlings aren't transplanted they will have to compete with the others and will struggle and may die. Those in the center will grow tall and lanky, trying to get to the light and the ones around the edges will grow one sided.

When your frost date is more than 6 weeks away, you will need to pot them up. Prepare pots with the same medium as your seed trays and moisten them thoroughly.Using your finger make a hole in the center of your pot. 
Gently remove the seedlings, do not pull by the leaves , they will come off. Tug at the base of the stem and seperate from the others at the roots, and place it in the hole in the pot you prepared. Cover the roots,compact the soil around the stem and water thoroughly, preferably from the bottom. This will remove any air pockets and then top off with soil if necessary.

Place your seedlings in a window( if there are no drafts) or under a light source. Make sure you turn your pot daily,otherwise the plant will grow one sided, toward the light. If you are using a grow light from above be sure not to have the light more than 12" away. To do so would make the plants too spindly( reaching too far for light) and it would not be a healthy plant. However, should this happen you can carefully pinch off the small growing leaves at the tip of the plant( or even pinch back half of your growth. This will cause growth farther down the stem and your plant will become a little bushier. This is not a one time deal some plants, such as Mums,require quite a bit of this.We do this to our Basils, we like them fat and full of leaves so we can harvest more. This is also a way to keep your plants producing longer and will give you a compact , but robust plant. 

Hardening Off and Planting out 

Well you have checked the calendar and your frost date is here and you are just itching to get your plants in the ground. Slow down for one minute and lets go over some things you need to be aware of before you put your babies in the ground. 
1. Your plants need to be hardened off. Simply, this means getting them used to the outdoors. This process entails placing your plants outside for a couple of hours a day ( increasing to 6 hours ) by the end of the week. remember your plants have been protected from wind, rain, sun, by being in the house. If you just put your plants in the ground, you will be shocking them and all your work may be for nothing. Hardening means getting them ready for the rigors of the real world, which is quite different than your protected house.
2. The area you are going to plant in needs to be prepared. If your plants are perennial- all the more important. They will be in this same spot for years and you need to get them started on the right foot.( Can you tell I think of plants as my babies?- when you go through as much to raise them , you will too. )
Your site should be well amended for their needs. Mediterranean herbs -Lavender, Rosemary, oregano, thyme, savory all require optimal drainage. Do not add sand to your site, if you have clay you will be making brick. You need to add grit or gravel to your planting site. This will provide trace minerals while giving the roots the drainage they need. 
If you are growing fennel,mints, comfrey, beebalm, lemon balm or Tansy you just need lots of extra compost( these are heavy feeders and need organic matter).
If you are planting annuals, basil, marigolds, dill, chamomile etc. add lots of organic to the area. This will be reworked at the end of the season so although important it is not as critical as your perennials.
Once you have your beds ready and your plants hardened off- plant your babies and be sure to mulch the area. The meditteranean herbs do not get an organic mulch- I suggest gravel or even crushed brick.The remainder should be mulched with your preference of organics. 
Check that frostdate with your County Ag. department and let's get those plants in the ground

Propagation 101- Division of perennials 

Garden chores can become just that CHORES, however propagating is a fun activity and the reward are outstanding. Where else can you start with one plant and end up with several -FREE.

What exactly is propagating- well a simple definition would be increasing your quantity of plants without buying new ones.

Division: many perennials and herbs will begin to die out in the center while the plant is expanding outward. This is Mother Nature's way of letting you know they need to be divided. Early spring is an ideal time for this task, just as the foliage breaks the surface( even though some plants can also be divided in the fall).Oregano, lemon balm, yarrow, valerian, soapwort, tansy, sweet woodruff, artemesia and mints are just a few of the herbs which may be divided easily.

Using a shovel dig out your clump of herbs and gently cut down through the center of it with your shovel. This will not hurt the plant and depending on the size of your root ball you may cut it into several pieces.By cutting through the roots, you are doing a form of root pruning whih will give the plant a signal it needs to put on a growth spurt. ( Isn't it great to understand the language of plants). Either pot up,and sell or give as gifts, or replant these new plants and discard the older center clump if needed.You have just increased your plants at no cost, while making them healthier at the same time. Some herbs such as chives can be gently pulled apart rather than cut and some perennials such as daylilies will need to be forced apart with pitchforks or even cut with a sharp knife.

When you replant your new babies make sure you amend the soil, add compost or organic matter and work it in the soil, this will give your new plants a fresh start.

Although spring is also a good time for this chore I prefer fall for most of my herbs. They have a chance to prepare for winter and in the spring they will be prepared to strut their stuffand provide you with lush growth and an abundance to harvest.

Some of my favorite plants are those divided and given to me by a friend. These Pass-a- Long plants are a wonderful way to share your love of herbs and gardening with others. 

 Stem cuttings 
Cloning your plants. Why do I say clone? Well some plants, such as Lavender, do not come true from seed. To truly duplicate them you need to make a cutting from the original plant.To do this you will need a flat filled with moist sand, rootone( a rooting hormone), sharp pruners, and lots of light. Pack the flat with the moist sand and using a pencil, poke some holes in the sand to accept the cuttings. 

To take a cutting, snip the non-blooming growing tips of your plant about 4-6" long. Remove any lower leaves,leaving just the top couple. The small nubs where you removed the leaves are called nodes, this is where yournew roots will grow from. Dip this cutting into
rootone and gently place in the hole you previously prepared in the sand. Gently tamp the sand around the cutting so good contact is made. When you have prepared all your cuttings moisten the flat again and make sure it is in plenty of light. Keep the flat moist and watch for signs of new growth. You can check for roots by GENTLY tugging on the cutting, resistance means you have roots. This generally takes 4-6 weeks.I suggest not transplanting until you have a little top growth. Be patient, this will reward you with a stronger plant, not to mention all the new plants you will be able to create.These type of cuttings may be done any time you have an actively growing plant. If you have a greenhouse or herbs growing inside in the winter you can take cuttings. This is a great winter project. Your cuttings will root faster in the summer but then what else can you do in the winter. This also is a way to grow what are usually are annuals from one year to the next. One examples of this would be Pineapple Sage. By taking cuttings before frost you can,grow them all winter and have a nice sized plant ready to go out next year. Some annuals can be snipped and then just stuck in a glass of water to root.
Coleus is a great plant to try and teach kids with, they will be able to watch the roots sprout.Start thinking about which plants you would like increase in your own garden by taking cuttings. 

Softwood cuttings!

Although similar to taking stem cuttings this process requires some patience due to the length of time involved, from 2-4 months. However this is one of the main methods of propagating woody plants. 

Materials required are oasis blocks( the preferred method), a location with plenty of light, availability to keep the blocks moist , warmth( very important) and a sharp pair of pruners and sterilizing medium. It is very important to keep your pruners sterilized, especially when making cuttings .

The softwood method will be used on new growth of woody shrubs and perennials, such as salvias or artemesias( even old woody lavenders). Let me explain why this is different from the regular stem cuttings. Stems of woody perennials may sound odd , but let me give you some examples. Salvias, lavenders, artemesia, and even santolinas are decidous not herbaceous perennials. In the winter they leave a stem above ground,from which new leaves pop the next season, just like shrubs. Other herbs such as fennel, oregano or Tarragon come back from the base. These are considered herbaceous- they die back to the ground every year. You take stem cuttings from herbacsous herbs and softwood cuttings from any herb which will leave a woody stem in the winter. -Let's get startedYou will take these cuttings in mid to late summer. With sterile pruners cut 4-6" stems of the desired plant, gently puling off all but the top couple of leaves( which you will cut in half). Place the cut end in a moist oasis block , and keep moistened and wait. There is a test to determine if you have chosen the right time to make your cuttings. Take your hands and gently try to snap off a piece of the plant you wish to root. If it snaps it is ready to root , if it bends you will need to wait a couple of weeks. It will rot rather than root if it is not ready.
In about 6 weeks there should be a bit of resistance if you try to dislodge your cutting from the block. This means roots are growing, keep on watering . In about 2 months you should see new leaves developing and eventually a whole new plant will take shape. By now it should be late fall and you can transplant your new baby into a pot with soiless mix, fertilize it and grow it on over the winter. You will have a nice size plant to plant in the garden next spring. 
I know this can be a long involved process but it will provide you with a good size clone of your original plant in the shortest time. 
I have been doing just this at the farm to replace a couple of the lavenders in our lavender walk. Unfortunately, lavender may need to be replaced every three to five years. This means I have plants in waiting, to replace one that is on the way out. 

Give it a shot. You might just surprise yourself!!!