Raising Plants from Seed – Planting Dates

Planting Dates

If you are planting seed to grow the plants out doors, you need to find out what the average dates for the first and last frost for your area. These two dates will help you determine when to plant each kind of seed. Some seed can be planted early and will tolerate some cold, for example, broccoli can be planted in the ground between mid-February and mid-March in my area. This is before our early April date for the last frost. Other varieties, like sweet potatoes, should not be put out until all danger of frost has passed. Check the seed packet, it will usually say something like, “Plant when all danger of frost is past.” Here in the Atlanta area the average date for our last frost in the spring is between March 30 and April 10. In real life, this can vary by two weeks in either direction, so be warned.

Check with your state’s Cooperative Extension service website for gardening publications. They are usually available in PDF format and free for the downloading. For example, I have one named “Vegetable Planting Chart.” It’s a two page chart that, for each variety of each vegetable, lists the days to maturity (50-60), the cultivars that grow well here, the Spring (March 15-May 1) and Fall (July 5-Aug 10) planting dates, and the depth to plant the seed. Although the chart is specific for Georgia, most states have similar publications for their local conditions.

When it comes to actually starting the seed in early spring, you have two basic choices; indoors or out. As I mentioned, some plants don’t do well until the soil has warmed up and all danger of frost is past. Again, your Cooperative Extension Service can help you out here. You can wait to plant or, if you’re like me (impatient), you can try starting them indoors and transplant them outside once the weather is warmer.

To be continued.

Raising Plants from Seed – Part 1

I originally published the following in Feb. of 2011. I’m re-publishing it now in preparation to continue the discussion of starting plants from seed.

The expense involved in gardening can be enough to make you question the wisdom of trying to grow your own vegetables (see $64 Tomato). 

Let’s set aside the argument that you can buy vegetables at the grocery store for less than what it ultimately costs you to grow them. (It’s true, but gardeners have many reasons other than price for growing them themselves.)

Besides, paying $2.50 for a 6-pack of indifferently cared-for seedlings may not be the wisest investment.

There is an alternative. You can start your own from seed.

You can buy a packet of seeds for the same amount (or less) that could grow dozens of plants. (Admittedly, this argument is weakened if you only want two or three plants.)

Note that I said could.

Let me confess up front that I’ve had mixed success growing plants from seed. Yet, the case for starting your own plants remains compelling:

  • You get to choose the varieties. While you can often find a few varieties as live plants, the number of varieties available from seed are often much larger.
  • The cost of a packet of seeds is usually less than a pack of 4-6 plants and can produce dozens of plants (or more).
  • You can buy the seed weeks or even months before the plants come available in the stores. This allows you to time your plantings around your local Last Date of Frost.

Furthermore, you are not limited to the selection of what is on the rack at your local garden center or big-box store. The major seed companies usually package their selections for large regions of the country and send them out to all the retailers in that region. They won’t have a selection that is specific to, say, the Atlanta area or even for Georgia. Instead, their selection would be for the southeastern United States. (Let me assure you that gardening in Florida and gardening in Virginia are two different things.)

Check with your state’s Cooperative Extension Service to find out which varieties do well in your area. For example, I have a leaflet from them that lists which varieties of each vegetable do well in Georgia. It took a little searching, but I found it available for download in PDF format on their website.

If your local retailer doesn’t have the selection you want, there are online seed sources, including some that specialize in heirloom varieties not carried by the big seed companies. Numerous places sell seed online. For example, one I’ve used is Renee’s Garden (http://www.reneesgarden.com/), but there are many others. (However, note that these smaller seed companies may not distinguish varieties that do well in different parts of the country.)

Patio Gardening

The following is a post that was in my draft folder for a couple of years. 

I shouldn’t complain about how little space I have to grow in.  In urban areas, a condo can be almost indistinguishable from an apartment. There, all you have are some rooms on an upper floor. No yard at all. In those cases you would be lucky if you even had a balcony. There you could at least have containers – pots, urns, etc. Fortunately, our condo is in the suburbs and so we have a little scrap of land around it.

When we first moved in, I was somewhat intimidated by the rules of the condominium compact. They state that all land around the units is held in common. That meant it wasn’t really mine to do with as I wish. That required a real change of attitude from owning a house. Since we had a small patio on the back, it seemed reasonable to buy clay pots and grow in them.

Many years ago, I came across an article on container gardening in Italy. In cities that have be established for hundreds of years, there is little or no open ground to grow in. There was a picture of  a large stone-paved plaza and a number of large terracotta containers arranged like a garden. We took that idea and lined the edges of our patio with clay pots. After the first year, I realized that the small 6-8 inch clay pots I had bought dried out quickly during the day, subjecting my plants to water stress. The obvious solution was to get bigger pots. After all, bigger pots equals a larger mass of soil which could hold more moisture.

It took a couple of years to realized that clay, despite its aesthetic value, wasn’t the best material in our situation. Since we had so little room, the pots and soil were left outside during the winter. In the spring, I would find some of the pots had cracked or pieces had flaked off caused by freezing. The flaking wasn’t bad in itself – gave the pots a weathered, rustic look. But after a few years of this the pots were falling apart.

Strangely enough, I had the most success with terra cotta colored plastic. (I know, I know… It is heresy for a gardener to succumb to using plastic pots… but I’ve been using the plastic for ten years now with only a crack or two in all that time.)

Growing in Containers: Clay or Plastic?

Ideally, vegetables should be grown in the ground. However, for those of us living in apartments and condos, that may not be possible. While I do have a scrap of land between my condo and the parking lot, the lawn maintenance people are somewhat indiscriminate in their use of weed-killer. There is the fear that the chemicals may be taken up by the root system of any vegetables growing nearby. That led me to growing in containers. After all, anything growing in a pot is, by definition, not a weed, right? (Definition: Weed – any plant growing where you don’t want it to.) The hope is that being in containers will protect them from the spray.

Clay or Plastic?

I originally started with clay pots. And when I say clay, I’m talking about old-fashioned, unglazed terracotta. Rockin’ it old school. I like them because they have a classic look, but after a winter or two they were cracking or flaking from having been frozen, thawed, frozen, thawed, etc.. If you live where the winters get below freezing, they don’t last all that long and are expensive to replace – particularly in the larger sizes. The problem is that clay is porous. Water wicks through it and evaporates off the outer surface. However, when the temperature drops below freezing, any water in that porous clay may freeze. Water expands when it freezes and this can cause the pots to flake or crack.

Clay’s porosity can be both good and bad. If you’re the type who habitually over-waters their plants, clay is more forgiving. Some of the excess will evaporate through the sides of the pot. The downside of that is that clay dries out faster and your plants will need watering more often.

After losing several clay pots to cracking, I began buying plastic pots in the same terracotta color. Since plastic is not porous, it does not dry out as fast. I was a little concerned that the plastic, exposed to sun and extremes of temperature, would deteriorate and crack as well. I’ve been surprised at how well they’ve held up. Yes, a few have begun to crack, but I’ve gotten 5-6 years of use out of them before they did. Also, plastic pots are lighter when you have to pick one up and move it, soil and all.

What size pot? Growing vegetables in containers – especially tomatoes – calls for a large volume of soil – 16-20 inches across the rim is a good size for plants with a large root system.  Leaf vegetables like lettuce can go in smaller containers, maybe a 10″ or so.

Drying Oregano

I have a nice little Oregano1 patch of oregano that always looks good and lush in the spring, but by early summer it blooms and its appearance goes downhill. I had heard that many herbs do not taste as good after they bloom, so right now would be a good time to harvest and dry some of it.

In the past, we dried it peasant-style; tying the stems in small bundles and hanging them up to dry. The problem is that it’s easy to forget that you hung it up and when you finally remember, it’s gotten dusty after hanging for a few months.

Another way was suggested by Alton Brown; use a box fan and cheap paper air filters. You spread the herbs over one air filter and place another filter on top of it. Then you bungee-strap the filters to the intake side of the box fan and turn it on. The filters hold the herbs in place and prevent them from getting dusty. I’m not sure how long it takes, probably a day or two.

A third way is to use a food dehydrator. They are not cheap, costing about $40-50 and up, but I’ve heard that you can often find them at garage sales for a lot less.Oregano

One of my favorite food blogs (SeriousEats.com) had a different take. Use a microwave. So we tried it.

We took a dinner plate and laid two layers of paper towels on it, then stripped the leaves from the stems and spread the leaves out in a single layer. We placed another layer of paper towels over the leaves and put it all in the microwave. We ran it on full for one minute and then for as many 10-20 second bursts (usually no more than one or two) as it took to get the leaves dry. We were amazed at how easy it was. In about 15 minutes we stripped and dried the whole bundle of oregano stems, crushed the leaves and filled a reused spice bottle almost half-full. The herbs maintained their color as well. Instead of being brown like supermarket oregano, they were a little darker than their original color.

The only down side was that after about third plateful, the plate got very hot. So hot that I had to use hot pads to handle it. If we had a larger amount to dry, it would have been better to have several plates and switch to a cool one when the first one got hot.


Years Later

I’m back.

I should probably know better after being gone so long, but here I am.

My condo gardening experience has had ups and downs in the last several years. The main thing that has changed is that I’ve stopped growing in the ground and am using large plastic pots filled with potting soil instead. (I’m talking 16-17 inch across the rim.) Since we live in a condo, the grounds are managed by a landscaping company that sprays weed killer too liberally around the units. My wife worries that the chemicals will get in the soil and be absorbed by the vegetables, so we grow in pots now.

But it can be expensive. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself whether it’s worth it. The potting soil to grow them in is not cheap, nor is buying 4″ pots of vegetables at the garden center at $2-$4 a plant. (I remember an article some years ago about the $45 Tomato. Pointing out that, given the expense, you could buy many times the numbers of tomatoes at the store than you could get growing them yourself.)

So why do it? I don’t really have a convincing answer other than, for a gardener, there’s a gravitational pull to plant something every year when spring comes. I find myself turning off the road when passing a garden center or wandering over to the garden department when at one of the big box hardware stores. I may have come in for a part for my grill, but leave with a handful of spring bedding plants.

So I’ve taken up this blog again. It’s not that I’m an expert in small space gardening. What I really want from this blog is a conversation with other people who want to garden, but also have very limited space in which to do so. I want to learn what they are doing and how they have met the challenges of their own version of condo gardening.

Retrospective: Reviewing this year’s garden

Now that the growing season is almost over, it’s a good time to review how my experiment went this past year. What worked, what didn’t, and why. What to do differently next year?

I’d sucker the tomatoes for one.

Mass of Tomato Vines

The plants got much too big with too few tomatoes. Of course, to a certain extent, plants getting too big is unavoidable in my situation. If you’re growing full-sun plants in just a half day’s sun, you’re going to get stretching and plants are going to outgrow your space. The less sun you have, the more important to stake them. Hard to get long enough stakes/cages in a front bed.

I’d also like more tomato plants. I had three in the front and two in the back yard – the ones in the back didn’t do much at all. More plants for more tomatoes. Maybe I should try to root the suckers I remove for more plants? Or, conversely, maybe if I had suckered them, they would have produced more. Hmmm… Sounds like an experiment for next year.

Don’t plant so many cucumbers, and plant only the burpless variety next time – for whatever reason, the pickling cukes didn’t do well. Poor yields and a lot of misshapen fruit.  The burpless variety looked much better and my wife says they tasted better as well. Also, I should have staked them, even though they were supposed to be a short ‘bush’ variety. They began sprawling out onto the lawn and tried to grow up into a rosebush (ouch!) and the shrubbery planted nearby.

The tomato cages I bought at the local big-box hardware store were too short and too lightweight. They are fine for beans, but too flimsy for tomatoes – especially the indeterminate variety. The tomatoes just keep growing and producing. (The determinate kind set fruit all at once and are done with it.) The increasing weight of the vines and fruit crushed the cages and it looks very messy. I’ve thought about using wire fencing, but its kind of a bad look for the front of the condo.

The zucchini was a bust. Huge plant, but only 2-3 zucchini for the whole season. So I pruned it with a shovel. I’ve recently seen a seed company advertisement for a smaller plant that you could grow in a pot. Hmm…

The miniature watermelon wasn’t worth the space it took. To make matters worse, it was a mini watermelon – the fruit was smaller than a volleyball – and even as small as it was, it just wasn’t worth it.

Despite planting 4-5 basil plants, just one vigorous plant would have been enough for our needs. The one in the front bed is four feet high and almost three feet wide. The problem is that I never know if the one plant will be a good grower – I may plant four, but only one or two do well, that’s only a 25-50% success rate – so I plant several.

Next time, plant more beans. The wife really enjoyed them. For the fall garden, I’ve planted five pole beans and 3-4 half-runner beans. They’ve pretty much swarmed up the four foot tall tomato cage I put around them and are trying to find something to grow up even taller. It might have been better if I had made a tall tripod of bamboo stakes for them to grow up. The bush beans I planted in the spring did very well, but she wanted pole beans…

Leeks in a Planter

The leeks have done surprisingly well. They are nowhere near as big as the ones you find in the grocery, but I’m surprised they did as well as they have. They are still growing, so we’ll see. However, next year, I’ll put less soil in the planter’s to begin with. That will allow me to mound it up as they grow to produce more of the white part of the leeks.

The garlic started turning yellow in June. I dug them up and they had formed bulbs – tiny, but quite hot-tasting. The bulbs were bigger than marbles – more the size of shooters, if you know what I mean. What I didn’t know when I started was that garlic needs to be planted in the fall. There isn’t enough time for them to form good-sized bulbs if planted in the spring. I’m planning on planting some fresh bulbs next month. We’ll see how they do over the winter.

Square-foot gardening This was a mixed bag. Almost everything I grew got too big for the square it was in. Now, I’ll grant you that the way I’m going about it is more of an adaptation of the techniques than purely by the book. While I do have raised beds, they are not raised very far. I don’t have any kind of edging to hold the soil in, I didn’t have clearly defined squares, and I’m using topsoil rather than the growing media that they recommend. (Though, I have to say, from my experience back when I ran a greenhouse, their light, friable growing medium would have resulted in even bigger plants!) I love the square-foot gardening concept, but the actual practice… not so much.


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