New Tricks

You’re never too old to learn something new.

Saturday morning, I knew the rest of the family would be otherwise occupied, so I checked out the website of a local garden center. Molbak’s was holding not one, but two seminars that I found intriguing. So instead of making pancakes or waffles, I headed in to town.

My dad had a garden when I was a kid, and I wanted nothing to do with it. Digging in the dirt was not my thing, but ever since me and the MR became homeowners over 20 years ago, I’ve been hooked.

Our first house had an immaculate yard with roses, hydrangeas, dahlias, and fruit trees. In the spring, the daffodils and tulips came up. I figured the MR didn’t get all the fun of working outside. I started weeding flower beds; and next thing you knew, we’d added a vegetable garden. I remember Sweet Miss sitting on the floor shelling peas when she was just 2.

Sweet Miss and the Peas02042013_0000

Sweet Miss before she became a grown up college girl.

Growing carrots and beans has just become a way of life for us. So I’m not a newbie to this whole gardening thing. We had a greenhouse at the old place, and starting seeds early is just what you have to do with our chilly springs. Have you heard the term “June-uary”? Unfortunately, some years that’s how it feels.

But I thought I’d check out Seed Starting 101, just in case the speaker had some good ideas. Willi Galloway, author of Grow Cook Eat: A Food-Lover’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening and blogger at Diggin’ Food, shared a bunch of great information. Seeds need 16 hours of light; currently we’re getting about 9 1/2 hours. I guess grow lights aren’t a bad idea. Then she explained that shop lights with new fluorescent bulbs are perfect-especially the four-bulb ones. There’s no need for fancy, expensive equipment–a woman after my own heart. By putting your lights on a timer, you don’t have to remember to turn them on and off; does she know me? If you put the lights on a chain, you can raise and lower them to keep them two inches from your plants. This keeps the plants short, stocky, and robust rather than long and leggy. I go for long and leggy–just look at the MR–but in this case it’s not the best.

A small fan blowing on them all the time will make the seedlings stronger and aid in air flow. Damping off disease is a problem in the Northwest, so we want to keep that air moving.

It’s great to reuse plant trays or even yogurt cups or other plastic food containers, but they need to be sterilized to give your plants the best chance. Well goodness, I’ve been very lax on this. Run the trays through the dishwasher, and then dip them in a 10-percent bleach solution. This is all very doable, and gives my seedlings a better chance to thrive.

Another great idea was to use a clean spray bottle (don’t recycle your Spray ‘N Wash) to water the plants. It’s hard to keep from washing away tiny seeds with a watering can. A spray bottle babies tiny seedlings with a gentle mist rather than a flood. Don’t let your plants dry out. Basically, you don’t want to do anything to stress these guys.

Willi also suggested fertilizing the young plants with a half and half mixture of fish and seaweed fertlizer in a spray bottle. A lack of nutrients is one of the big problems with seedlings. They only have a very small amount of nutrients stored in the seed, and the seed-starting mix is also lacking in them.

She offered an interesting perspective on which seeds to start. Instead of something you want a variety of, such as tomatoes, try greens, kale, broccoli, and warm season flowers. These are plants you want a lot of; you can always buy a variety of tomatoes at the nursery.

When it comes time to thinning the seedlings, use scissors to snip them off at the soil level that way you won’t disturb the roots of the plants you want to save.

She explained that cucurbits, like squash and melons, hate to have their roots disturbed. They need that extra boost of being started inside in order to do well in our climate, but you just want to wait until the first set of true leaves is about to unfurl before setting them out. Laying plastic for a week on the area where you will plant them, will heat up the earth, and aid in transplanting. I guess all those melons that where trailing when I set them out and simply stalled were not happy with me.

And finally, store your seeds in a mason jar in the freezer to make them last longer. You can check their viability by placing 10 seeds between two dampened paper towels in a plastic bag. Check back in a week to see how many have sprouted. If it’s less than five, you’ll have better luck with a new packet. She uses that same method to pre-sprout her peas before planting them outside.

That’s just a small bit of the wisdom this cute little pregnant lady imparted. While I haven’t been following her blog, I think it’s time to check it out.

The next seminar was Selecting and Planting Fruit Trees with Larry Davis from the Seattle Tree Fruit Society. Larry is a very nice older gentleman who answered a lot of questions rather than giving a more formal presentation.

I was hoping to hear his recommendations on how to control a few common pests and diseases our fruit trees at the old house had faced. I love how when gardeners get together so much knowledge and ideas are bandied about. All these people had dealt with coddling moths, apple maggots, apple scab, and leaf curl. I no longer felt like a failure.

One of the best ways to combat the diseases common to this area is to plant disease-resistant trees. Yea, me and the MR had taken that into consideration when we were buying trees last fall. Larry explained that these cultivars often have names linked to freedom; like liberty and independence.

If you have a problem with the pests, you can put foot socks on the fruit in early June at the same time you thin the blossom heads to one fruit. Huh, we’ve never thinned the fruit, but this opens up the tree, improves are flow, and results in larger fruit. I don’t know about the socks, but I think we’ll have to do some thinning this year.

Apple Scab is a fungal disease–imagine that in this soggy corner of the world. You can spray a fungicide when the bud is ready to break, a week later when the flower is in blossom, and finally a week later when the petals drop.

Now Larry is an aggressive pruner. Lots of fruit trees produce heavily on alternating years. He suggests pruning on the abundant year. Pruning during the dormant stage encourages growth and during the summer discourages growth. Drag down those silly pears that want to grow straight up. OK, maybe that’s me talking; Larry was more refined. Pull pear branches off to the side to get a better shape–it’s all the same thing.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see how our new fruit stock fares before we start worrying about pests, disease, and strange growth patterns. I like having a few remedies in my bag of tricks. If Larry is representative of the Seattle Tree Fruit Society, it’s a very knowledgeable group. I’m going to have to check out their website as well.

Inspector Cocoa

The MR propped up some of that apple trees branches since it’s going a little wild.

It’s amazing the free classes and wealth of information you can find at your local nursery. A gardening club used to meet on Saturday mornings at True Value. I’m going to have to see if they’re still around.

Until the weather warms,  I’ve got my seed catalogs to look through. Molbak’s is offering 25-percent off seeds and supplies until February 15. I need to figure out what I want, so we can make this garden a reality.

Have you been looking through your seed catalogs? Any great seed starting or gardening tips?

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5 thoughts on “New Tricks

  1. What a great blog! It is now time for we folk in Mesquite, NV to start our planting or our gardens. Once you get your soil ready with all kinds of good things the paper article advised, I can plant radishes carrots, beets, spinach, lettuce, chard, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, peas. Our growing season now and into early March, these vegetables will mature in April and May. Then, we are pretty much done. Will keep you abreast of my progress with my first desert garden.
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