Georgia Garden Girl

Garden Great in Zone 8!

Irrigation Intimidation

Hello all!

I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since my last post.  It’s been quite busy here.  I’ve been harvesting lots of tomatoes and beans and cucumbers.  And my flowers are looking great — zinnias and dahlias and daisies.  Everything even survived my two-week trip to Africa.  Why?  Irrigation on timers!

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If every day were like today — steady light rain — I would not need an irrigation system.  But summer in Georgia can be hot and dry and unforgiving, so it’s a good idea to have an irrigation plan.  Some of my friends water by hand.  But that’s a huge time commitment, and we all know that I’m lazy.   Fortunately, my house came with an installed sprinkler system for the grass, and I’ve got my veggies on a drip irrigation system.

If you have grass, a sprinkler system can be helpful (some day, I will get rid of grass and go to an all drip system, but today is not that day).  You just have to know how much water it emits.  I like to use the pie pan test.  I place pie pans at random places in the yard and see how much water is in them after ten or so minutes of sprinkling.  Then I can calculate how long I need to leave the sprinkler on in each zone.

Sprinkler heads are a lot like smartphones.  They last for a while, and then they just die.  For years, I shelled out money for the sprinkler guy to come out and replace broken sprinkler heads.  But after watching him replace the last one, I realized that it’s not that complicated.  So now I can save the $50 service charge and replace the sprinkler head myself!

Step One: Confirm that the sprinkler head is, indeed, broken.  Sometimes, a sprinkler head just gets stuck and needs a little push to start working again.  But this sprinkler head stopped oscillating and could not be fixed, so it needed to go.

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Step Two: dig up the broken sprinkler head.  Be careful around the pipe!

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Step 3: obtain a new sprinkler head.  Make sure you have the right connector!

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Step 4: Attach the new sprinkler head to the pipe and bury.  Make sure that the top of the sprinkler head is level with the ground.  Then, you’re ready to adjust the sprinkler head so it conforms to the pattern and distance you need.

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I do like the sprinkler system.  But I LOVE my drip irrigation system.  It saves me a ton of time and water.  My raised beds and all of my large pots (including the hanging pots) are on drip irrigation systems.  All you need is: 1) a timer, 2) a backflow preventer (if your timer doesn’t have one), 3) pressure regulator, 4) hose-to-tubing connector,  5) tubing, 6) connectors and emitters and end pieces, and 7) an emitter “punch” tool.  If you’re a beginner, you might try a kit.

Step One: connect your timer, backflow preventer, pressure regulator, and tubing connector to the spigot.  You may need to use plumber’s tape.  Check for leaks and fix before moving to step two.

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Step Two: connect the tubing.  Check for leaks and fix.

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Step Three: use connectors to place the irrigation lines where you need them.

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Step Four: use the emitter punch tool to insert the emitter.

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Step Five: If your main tubing is not close enough to your plant, use 1/4 inch tubing to irrigate your plant.

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Step Six: Check for leaks (if an emitter is not installed correctly, you may have a small geyser).  And then set your timer!  Now you’re ready to sit on the porch and have some lemonade.  Enjoy!

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Glorious Day!

We survived last week’s frost warning and rain and made it to Easter!  Though the day started out chilly and gray, the afternoon could not have been more beautiful.  After I worked the early shift for the mission trip pancake breakfast, attended an excellent Easter service at The Ridge, and took a walk with my trusty Great Dane Clementine, I headed outside to spend a lovely day in the yard.

As I walked around making my mental to-do list, I saw it.  My first peony blossom.  I planted peonies two years ago, but they never bloomed.  I think the cold winter encouraged the blossoms:

My First Peony Blossom

My First Peony Blossom

I also had a surprise amaryllis bloom.  I usually dig up all the amaryllis bulbs in September so I can have them blooming for the holidays (seems like they always bloom right after the holidays), but I missed this one:

Surprise Amaryllis!

Surprise Amaryllis!

After I admired the flowers, I had to get to work.  There was a lot to do!  I spent most of yesterday afternoon pulling up pansies (and weeds) to make way for summer annuals.  Today, I finally trimmed back the tea olive (I hated to cut them while they were blooming, so I just now got around to this task).  Then I planted some zucchini and basil.  Right. In. The. Front. Yard.  Yes, people, I am a rebel.  I figured 1) I’ve already got the tomato teepee, so I’m not destroying any fancy aesthetic by adding more veggies;  2) zucchini and basil are pretty; 3) there aren’t any draconian anti-vegetable restrictive covenants in my neighborhood (as far as I know); and 4) I was out of room in the raised beds.

I planted my dahlias right behind the zucchini and basil.  I had dug up the dahlia tubers last fall and then started them in pots in March. I planted all of the ones that had shoots (only one didn’t—oh, well).  I’m trying a new approach to weed maintenance: newspaper and pinestraw.  That’s right.  My Ledger-Enquirers will serve an important second purpose: weed barrier.  I have tested this approach in several areas in the past, and it really does work for about a season.  So I’ve decided to expand.

Why newspaper when the stores sell fancy weed barrier fabric?  Friends, I’ve tried the fabric, and I’m here to tell you: don’t waste your money.  Weeds are going to grow on top of the fabric after a year or two anyway.  It’s a pain in the neck to cut holes when you want to plant something in the fabric covered area.  And it’s expensive.  Newspaper just lasts a season, but it’s easy to cut, and it’s free.  If I want something a tad more durable–like for paths between my raised beds–I use cardboard or old towels and sheets that are too grungy for Goodwill.

A couple of pointers.  The Ledger-Enquirer is so thin that I just lay out a whole section at a time.  I find that it’s helpful to have a hose handy, particularly on a windy day.  After I lay a few sections of newspaper, I wet them so they don’t blow away.  Also, after experimenting with several different methods, I’ve determined that the best method is to cover the bed in newspaper and pinestraw, THEN plant the plants.  Here is the finished product:

Zucchini, Basil, Dahlias, Knock-Outs, and Tomatoes

Zucchini, Basil, Dahlias, Knock-Outs, and Tomatoes

After I got the zucchini/basil/dahlia bed done, I used a similar approach with my strawberries and onions.  I hope it works!  I’ll keep you posted.  Happy gardening.

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Shelter Them

In case you haven’t heard, we are expecting a freeze TONIGHT, March 25, in middle Georgia. So, if you have started hardening off your summer annuals outside, double check your local forecast. If you’re expecting below the low 30s, bring those babies inside! And if you got a little ahead of the weatherman and already planted your tomatoes, be sure that you cover them tomorrow evening.

I went ahead and brought in my plants yesterday evening. They will go back outside later in the week. But for now, they have taken over the dining room.

I hope you and your plants weather the freeze!

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Time to Get Ready

Y’all may as well know.  I love to-do lists.  I love making to-do lists, and I especially love crossing things off my to-do lists.  It’s just about time for the weekend, and that means that my garden to-do list is getting long!

We’ve had some glorious weather in middle Georgia over the past couple of days (though it did get downright cold last night).  I’m sorry to say that our friends at the Weather Channel are not predicting similar gloriousness this weekend.  It is supposed to be cloudy on Saturday and rainy on Sunday.  But that will not stop me from trying to cross a few things off my list:

  • Divide perennials and give leftovers to friends.  I didn’t get around to dividing my spring and summer perennials at the ideal time (October).  It was football season—give me a break.  But now is also a good time to divide.  Mama says, “If you have to buy hostas, you don’t have any friends.”  So get digging and share your wealth of daisies, hostas, black eyed susans, sedums, etc.
  • Weed and mulch perennial beds.  While I’m dividing the perennials, I may as well pull some weeds and then put down some mulch.  If I’m feeling extra industrious, I’ll mulch with old newspapers and then pinestraw—that will save me some weeding time in the summer.
  • Start hardening off vegetable seedlings and coleus plants.  I overwintered my coleus plants inside and rooted some new ones.  Now, I have six flats of coleus plants, and I’m ready to get them out of the kitchen/dining room/living room.  And I started my tomato and pepper seeds back in January, plus some other veggie seeds in February.  They are getting too big to stay under the lights.  Here’s what they looked like last weekend:
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    (Yes, those are pumpkins in the middle on the bottom—I was doing some germination tests, and I’ve decided to keep on testing.  Don’t judge).
    Anyway, before I plant any of these babies outside (which I will NOT be doing this weekend), I need to get them used to the sun and the temperature.  So, I will put them outside in a shaded, sheltered location for a few days, and I will gradually transition them into the sunny spot where they will spend the summer.  And if I receive a frost warning, I will bring them right back inside!
  • Check outdoor faucets and hoses for leaks.  My plumber friend is coming by next week to give me an estimate on a bathroom remodel.  While he is at my house, I may as well see if he can fix any outdoor faucet leaks, which means that I need to figure out where the leaks are this weekend.
  • Prune the dwarf yaupons.  It’s a good time to prune ornamentals like hollies and boxwoods.  And if your oleander froze, you probably want to cut that back too.  For pruning tips, click here.
  • Trim the liriope.  Okay, I’ve already done this one.  Isn’t it nice to have something already off the list?  But if you haven’t trimmed your liriope, you probably want to go ahead and get that done before the new growth starts.  Just take a string trimmer to it.  Or, if it’s a large area of liriope and there are no nearby barriers (say, metal or concrete edging), just take your mower, set it to its highest setting, and mow the liriope.

One thing I will NOT be doing this weekend is planting my summer vegetables outside.  I know they’ve got them in the stores, but that doesn’t mean you need to plant them.  Our 50% frost date isn’t even until next Sunday, March 23.  Plus, the soil temperature isn’t warm enough yet.  It is getting mighty close, though.  Remember, we need the soil temperature to be at least 60°F for tomatoes, 65°F for okra, and 70°F for peppers.  Down in Quitman County, the 2 inch soil temperature was about 60°F earlier today, and the 4 inch soil temperature was 56.8°F.  Up in Harris County, the 2 inch soil temperature was 58.7°F, and the 4 inch soil temperature was 53.7°F.  You can check your soil temperature using a meat thermometer.  Or you can go to http://georgiaweather.net/.  The upshot: don’t plant your summer vegetables outside now unless you want to (a) stunt their growth and (b) cover them or dig them up in the event of a frost.  All right.  I’ll get off the soapbox now.  If you really want to plant your tomatoes now, that’s your journey.

I hope you have a marvelous weekend.  And I hope you cross many tasks off your to-do list!

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The Scoop: How (Not) to Dispose of Your Dog’s Waste

This week’s article was going to be about proper pruning techniques.  But when I went to Target after church today, my conversation with the friendly cashier led me to the exciting topic of dog waste.  We have at least three weeks before we need to start pruning here in Middle Georgia, so pruning can wait.  Just don’t prune anything now (unless you’re cutting out some dead wood.  That’s fine).

So there I was at Target.  I only had two items, so I told the friendly cashier that I did not need a bag.  The cashier seemed concerned.  Cashier: “Are you sure?”  Me: “Yes.” Cashier: “Really?  You can use them again.  I use the bags for my dog.”  Okay.  So far, this makes sense.  I told the cashier that I like to use the biodegradable pick-up bags because they’re biodegradable and usually hole-free.  He replied, “Oh.  I use puppy pads for my dog.  I just trained him to go on the puppy pads.  Then I put the whole thing in the bag.  It’s a lot less work.”  Hmmm.  A lot less work than taking the dog outside to do his business?  “Yes!  The puppy pads aren’t just for one-time use.  I only have to clean it up once in a while, and I don’t have to walk my dog all the time.”  Um, GROSS.  I could see that it would be futile to attempt further discussion, so I said thank you, took my receipt and my two items, and left.  I figure it’s his journey if he wants to have a bored dog and a mess in his house.  But I don’t, and I’ve spent a good bit of time trying to figure out the best way to dispose of dog waste, and today I’ll share that saga with you.

A year after I bought my house, I got my very first puppy, Clementine.  She was the runt of the litter.  A tiny, sweet, precious little thing.  Well, relatively tiny.  Tiny for a Great Dane puppy.

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Clementine at 6 weeks.

As Clementine grew, so did her poop.  So what was I supposed to do with it?

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Clementine all grown up.

Initially, I tried picking up the poop with a pooper scooper and flushing it down the toilet.  This was not an easy task, and there were a lot of potential pitfalls that made the job hazardous and unsanitary, so that idea was short-lived.  I realized that it would be a bad idea to leave Clementine’s land mines all over the yard, so I decided to do some research.  Could I use it in the garden?  Quick answer: heck, no.

The basics.  You should remove pet waste from your yard (well, from anywhere your dog poops) because it contains bacteria that can contaminate your local waterways and cause diseases in humans.  See, e.g., http://gardening.wsu.edu/stewardship/compost/petpoop.htm.  Nonetheless, I have read some internet articles that advocate composting pet waste.  Some articles say that doggie compost can even be used in a vegetable garden, but other articles suggest that it should not be used on vegetables because the compost does not heat up enough to kill pathogens like E. coli.  What do my trusted experts say?  The UGA extension service says, “Do not use human or pet feces [in your compost pile] because they may transmit diseases.”  Clemson’s extension service and Walter Reeves agree, and they are unequivocal about it: do not put pet waste in your compost bin if you will be using that compost in your garden or landscape.  So that’s it.  No Clementine waste in the compost bin.

In my research, I came across the Doggie Dooley Pet Waste Disposal System.  It’s basically a mini septic tank for your dog’s waste.  The instructions sounded pretty easy: “Just dig a hole, drop in the Doggie Dooley, add water and the Waste Terminator Digester Powder, and your system is ready to go.”  It even has a foot-operated lid opener.  Sweet!  I was convinced.  I ordered the larger steel “silver” model that is intended for two large or four small dogs (I figured that if the XL dog clothes at the pet store are for dogs under 70 pounds, my 130-pound dainty princess would be considered giant—therefore two large dogs).

When the Doggie Dooley arrived, I learned that the instruction “just” to dig a hole was a tad deceiving.  Really, you need to dig a hole that is 14 inches wide and four feet deep.  The instructions suggested that if it is not possible for you to use a post hole digger, you should use a “garden spade.”  I did not have a suitable garden spade for such a project, so I went and purchased a post hole digger (what a fabulous tool!  I now use it all the time.).  It took some effort, but I dug my 14 inch by four foot hole and dropped in the Doggie Dooley so that only the shoulder flange and the lid were above ground.  So far, so good.  I followed the remaining start-up instructions and then began depositing Clementine’s nuggets in the Doggie Dooley.

The Doggie Dooley itself is 16 inches tall – it has a tank that holds the dog waste, and the manufacturer claims that the system breaks down that waste with the enzymes and bacteria in the “Waste Terminator Digester Powder.”  When you add water, the treated liquid goes through the built-in overflow tube and into the hole below the unit, where it will seep into the ground.  One caveat: you have to make sure that you’re just depositing dog waste.  I was fairly confident the digester powder would not prevail against some of the nuggets Clementine produced during her sock-eating phase, so I did just bag those and throw them in the trash.

The system seemed to work well for a while, but then I noticed that when the water overflowed from the overflow tube, it did not look very deep.  Either the treated liquid was not percolating through the ground or the hole below the Doggie Dooley had caved in.  I decided to extract the Doggie Dooley to investigate.  I did have sense enough to refrain from adding water for about a week before the extraction, but it was still not a pretty task.  Don’t worry.  I wore gloves, long sleeves, safety goggles, and a mask.  When I dug up the Doggie Dooley, I learned that one of my theories was correct: the hole had caved in.  I have fairly loose, sandy soil, which has been great for my garden but is apparently not ideal for the Doggie Dooley.

I decided to come up with a way to reinforce the hole underneath the Doggie Dooley, but I needed some back-up.  Enter my parents.  Daddy and Mama are smart people, and they are both very handy.  The three of us concurred that we needed something like a “stent” to hold up the sides of the hole.  But what could we use?  We were unable to find a 14-inch diameter pipe, so we decided to look for a round trash can.  Unfortunately, we did not find a tall trash can with a 14-inch diameter, so we settled on a 20-gallon galvanized steel trash can (diameter = 24 inches, height = 29 inches).  We had to cut a hole in the thing.  For this project, Daddy bought me a jigsaw.  Then Daddy remembered the time in sixth grade when I injured my finger by sewing right over my fingernail with the sewing machine.  He also remembered the more recent time when I cut my finger while trying to pit an avocado (three stitches!).  Therefore, Daddy determined that I should not have any part in actually cutting the hole in the trash can.  Mama and Daddy took turns and did a beautiful job of cutting a hole in the bottom of the trash can, and they decided to cut a hole in the top, as well, so that the top of the hole for the Doggie Dooley would be reinforced.  Mama and I dug a bigger hole, buried the trash can, and re-installed the Doggie Dooley.

The Doggie Dooley worked great for several months.  The bacteria in the system appeared to be happily digesting Clementine’s waste and then the treated liquid went into the ground.  No odor, no mess.  But then I noticed a problem.  The shoulder flange, which is made of plastic, began to crack, and I decided that I should probably stop making deposits.  I’m so glad I did.  Slowly but surely, the shoulder flange cracked all the way around, and the Doggie Dooley fell right in the hole (which, BTW, was not nearly as deep as it had been initially).  That was the end of the Doggie Dooley.

I was able to extract the Doggie Dooley and dispose of it without a lot of hassle, but I had that darn galvanized trash can still in the ground.  And that thing was not coming out of the ground without a fight.  I dug around it and pulled and pulled and pulled.  Mama tried to help.  Even the handyman was stumped.  In all, I tried for at least a year to get that trash can out of the ground.  Finally, when I had local horticulturist Dewayne Gallatin help me with a landscaping project, his excellent team was able to remove the trash can.  Thank you, Dewayne.

Now, it is possible that the Doggie Dooley is a great idea if you have the right soil.  My sandy soil was not conducive to the Doggie Dooley, and the manufacturer specifically warns that it will not work in clay.  I now realize that I should have done a little more research on the Doggie Dooley system before purchasing it.  According to Walter Reeves, Larry West of UGA hypothesized that the system would not really work unless the “Waste Terminator Digester Powder” is actually a magic potion.  And Walter Reeves himself warns that it may just be a bad idea because of the danger of flooding or improper installation.  Oh, well.

After the epic fail of the Doggie Dooley, I tried burying the poop.  But my yard is not that big, and I quickly ran out of burial sites.  Now, I tend to make sure that Clementine poops when we’re on a walk in the park.  I just pick up her poop in a biodegradable plastic bag and deposit it in a park trash can.  That is what Walter Reeves says to do, anyway.  But if you have other suggestions (that are backed by good research), I’m certainly open to them.

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Seed Starting 101

It is finally time.  When the trees in middle Georgia start to wake up from their winter naps, it is time for me to get started on my spring/summer vegetable and flower seeds.  Hooray!

I like growing plants from seed for two main reasons.  First, it’s cheaper.  I can buy an entire packet of tomato seeds for less than the cost of a plant, and my zinnia seeds are free to me because I save them.  Yes, I had to spend some start-up money on my seed starting set-up, but in the long run I’m saving money.  Second, I get more variety.  By starting plants from seed, I can have flowers and vegetables that are not available at my local garden center.  Let’s face it, people, variety is the spice of life.  No offense to all you “boy” and “girl” fans (Big Boy, Early Girl), but I’d prefer a Cherokee Purple or a Black Krim any day.  Now I’m daydreaming about a Black Krim on white bread with Duke’s mayonnaise and a little salt and pepper.  Yum.  But I have no Black Krims right now—I need to plant some seeds so I’ll have some in May.

Before I dig in, I need to review my plan.  Last week, I figured out which of my vegetables are direct sow and which need to be started indoors.  See It Helps to Have a Plan.  The vegetables I plan to start inside and transplant are tomatoes, eggplant, okra, and peppers.  I’m going to start with the tomatoes because they can be started six to eight weeks before the last frost date.  I’ll start the rest in a couple weeks.  The only flowers I plan to start inside are my vincas, and those can be started now because I want to transplant them to my flower beds in late March.

The Set-Up
I have a pretty decent set-up in my laundry room for starting seeds:

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What’s so great about it?
Temperature.  The laundry room stays relatively warm.  Seeds and seedlings do best if they are in a warm (70° to 80°) environment without a lot of drafts.  I’ve never found it necessary to have a heat mat in the laundry room, but the folks at Fine Gardening recommend a heat mat, and it’s a good idea if you don’t have another option for regulating the temperature.  I’ve heard of people putting seedlings on top of the refrigerator, but (a) I store my cookbooks there and don’t want to move them, and (b) it would be tacky to install a shop light in the kitchen.
Light Source.  Seedlings need a lot of light to grow strong and stocky.  Without enough light, seedlings will be leggy, spindly, and sad.  The window in my laundry room faces north and is not terribly great, which means that I cannot take the cheapest route and use the sun as my light source.  Alas, I do not have a large, unobstructed south-facing window.  What I do have: fluorescent shop lights on a timer.  I know that my seedlings will do best if they get between fourteen and eighteen hours of sun per day, so I set the timer accordingly.  I also know that the top of the seedlings need to be about an inch or two from the fluorescent lights (a little farther if I used a heat-producing light bulb).  So I can either adjust the lights themselves or I can elevate the seedlings and reduce the amount of elevation as the seedlings grow.  Clemson’s extension service says I should consider attaching aluminum foil to the light fixtures to reflect onto the plants.  I am considering it, but I don’t want anyone to think I’m growing something illicit.
Water Source.  The seed starting mix needs to be kept moist, so if you’re lazy like me it’s good to have access to a sink near your seedlings.  Could I go all the way into the kitchen to fill up a spray bottle and spritz the seedlings?  Sure.  That’s a great way to water seedlings.  But I have a sink in the laundry room, so I like to use the indoor hose that attaches to the sink, which my sweet cousin gave me for Christmas a couple years ago (Sweet Cousin: “I saw this on your Amazon.com wish list.  Seriously? THIS is what you want for Christmas?”  Me: “Yes, please!”).  I don’t water the seedlings directly, though, especially when they’re small.  Instead, I water them from the bottom by spraying water into the trays that hold the individual seed pots.
Space!  I don’t want my seedlings to crowd me out of my living space (says the girl with one refrigerator shelf full of potted daffodil bulbs she’s trying to force—oh, well).  In the laundry room, I have plenty of space.

The Stuff
I’ve got a good set-up.  Now what stuff do I need?
Containers.  Some of my gardening friends swear by peat pots, so I purchased a ton of them a couple years ago.  Then I realized that I could use lots of other things that are much more cost effective.  I could recycle small pots and plastic cell packs from plants I’ve previously purchased (it’s a good idea to wash these in soapy water before reusing).  I could use egg cartons.  I could use virtually any kind of plastic container (yogurt cup, cut-off milk jug, clear plastic spring mix box).  I could even make small pots out of newspaper.  Whatever type of container I use for the seedlings, I do make sure that they have adequate drainage, and I put the containers into a plastic tray.  Actually, I put the containers into a mesh bottom tray (recycled, of course—I always save those trays that I get when I purchase a flat of plants from the garden center), and then I put them into the plastic tray.  The plastic tray helps me keep the plants organized.  It also keeps water contained and allows me to water the seedlings from the bottom.  And the mesh bottom tray is helpful in case I overwater and need to dump a little out—I just lift out the mesh bottom tray containing all the seedlings and don’t risk spilling the seedlings themselves.  I love the Perma-Nest trays, and I do have a nice set of them.  They’re a little pricey, though, so I also picked up a few $1 trays from the hardware store.
Seed-Starting Mix.  It’s important to have a good growing medium for your seedlings.  There are plenty of commercially available seed starting mixtures.  The key is to find a mix that drains well but can also hold moisture.  I make my own soilless mixture.  There are tons of recipes out there, but I use Daddy’s recipe: 4 parts peat moss, 2 parts compost, 1 part perlite, and 1 part vermiculite.  A couple of notes.  (1) This recipe has not been endorsed by the UGA Extension Service—it just works for me.  (2) Buy the perlite and vermiculite in huge bags from your feed and seed store.  If can only find the small bags, it’s much more cost effective to buy a pre-made seed starting mix instead.  (3) I would like to switch from peat moss to coir (peat-like product made of coconut husks) because it is reported that peat is being harvested at an unsustainable rate, but I have not been able to locate reasonable quantities of coir at my feed and seed store, my local garden center, my local hardware store, or a big box store.  I’ll keep looking.  Meanwhile, if you see coir in Middle Georgia, let me know.
Seeds (Duh).  You need seeds, of course.  I order a lot of seeds from catalogs—it’s a good way to get varieties that are not available in local stores.  If I’m buying a lot of seeds (like beans), I go to the local feed and seed store.  I’ve also been known to impulse buy seeds at the big box store or even the grocery store.  I’m seldom disappointed with seeds I order from the catalog (except hybrid petunias—I never had great luck with those), and I always have success with feed and seed store seeds.  The impulse purchases are not always as successful.
Labels.  I want to remember what I planted where.  I use plastic plant markers for individual plants.  If I’ve planted an entire flat with the same plant (white vincas, for example), I just label the flat with masking tape.

The Planting
I’ve got the set-up and the stuff.  Now what?  It’s time to plant!  This year, I’m trying to use up the aforementioned peat pots, so I’ll start my tomatoes in those.

First, I fill the containers to the top with my seed starting mix.  Then I need to moisten it.  If I have time, I try to get the containers filled and watered a few hours before I plant the seeds—overnight works great.  Once the containers are prepped, I gather all of my supplies and my list of how many plants I need of each variety, and I’m ready to go.

1 Setup

Next, I plant the seeds.  I plant between two and four seeds in each individual container and make sure they’re covered with the right amount of dirt.  Most of the seeds I plant are pretty small, and they do not need to be planted too deep—I usually double check the seed packet to make sure I’m planting at the right depth.  I learned a neat trick from a gardening magazine—use a small wooden skewer or a pencil to plant small seeds.  If you dip the dull end of the skewer into water and then touch the seed with it, the seed will adhere.  When you stick the skewer into the dirt, it will stay there.  Also, I find it useful to place the label in the pot before I plant—that way, I know what I’m supposed to plant where.

2 Planting

Next, I water in the seeds and cover them with a clear plastic lid, which will lock in moisture and heat.  Plastic wrap would work, too, but I like the dome lids because they are a little more forgiving and don’t have to be removed as soon as the seeds germinate.
3 Done

After Planting
I’ll be sure to take photos of my seedlings as they grow, but there are a couple of things that I might as well address while I’m thinking about it.

Watering.  I need to make sure that the seedlings’ soil stays moist, but not wet.  I try to remember to use room temperature water so I don’t shock the tiny roots with cold water.
Thinning.  Remember when I said that I plant between two and four seeds per container?  That’s in case one of the seeds doesn’t germinate.  If all of the seeds germinate, I need to thin the seedlings by cutting off the weaker of the seedlings (I was told to use scissors because pulling the weak seedling may disturb the roots of the one I’m keeping).
Fertilizing.  Because I’m growing my seedlings in a soilless medium, I need to feed them with a water soluble fertilizer.  I do not feed them until they’ve got their first true leaves (as opposed to the cotyledons—the embryonic leaves that are the first to emerge).
Hardening off.  I’ve spent all this time and energy growing my seedlings in the comfort of my laundry room, so it would be terrible if they died because I exposed them to the elements without giving them a chance to adjust.  One year, I put my tomatoes in the Middle Georgia sun without adequately hardening them, and they got sunburned.  I felt awful.  Plus, it took time for those babies to recover, so my fruit production was delayed.  That’s why it’s important to harden off your seedlings—they’ve got to be tough to make it outside.  A couple weeks before transplanting, I take the plants outside during the day and put them in a relatively protected place away from strong wind, strong rain, and intense sun.  I bring them inside or at least into the carport at night.  About a week before transplant, I can leave them outside at night, and I gradually increase the amount of sun they get during the day.

Good luck to you as you start your own seeds!  And let me know if you have gardening questions.

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It Helps to Have a Plan

There is a narrow fenced stretch of land on the northern side of my house that gets plenty of sun in the summer.  In a previous life, that little plot was a dog run.  I decided to make it a vegetable garden.

I had my first vegetable garden in 2008, the year I bought my house.  I tried a few tomatoes but wasn’t incredibly successful, mainly because I tried to water everything by hand.  This approach does not work well if you go out of town, run out of time, or just plain forget.  The next summer, I discovered “Zone 7” on the irrigation system that came with the house; if I turned on “Zone 7,” little misters popped up in the middle of the dog run-turned-vegetable garden.  It wasn’t perfect, but it’s what I had.  I added a few more tomatoes, some cucumbers, and some bush beans.  It was an okay harvest.

My vegetable garden improved dramatically in 2010.  There are three main reasons why.  First, I took the master gardener course in the fall of 2009, and the vegetable gardening class by Bob Westerfield was highly informative.  Second, Daddy built me raised beds for Christmas in 2009.  Third, I discovered drip irrigation (which was especially helpful since the Zone 7 misters were buried under the raised beds).

Since 2010, I have taken the same basic approach to my vegetable garden.  I plot out on paper what I am going to plant in each bed and when, then I figure out when I need to plant the seeds.  For vegetables that need to be started indoors and then transplanted, I start the seeds (it’s certainly not necessary for you to start your own seeds, but if you have time, space, and adequate lighting, go for it).  Later, I run a soil test through the UGA extension service, I prepare the beds, then I plant the veggies and keep notes on my successes and failures.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My vegetable garden site meets the main requirements for a good site:

  • More than eight hours of full sun per day in the summer.  If you don’t get six to eight hours of full sun, you won’t have good results with vegetables like beans, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.  You can still grow leafy greens in less-than-ideal light situations, but they do need some full sun during the day.  If you do not have a good site for a large-scale garden because you don’t get enough sun, I highly recommend trying containers in a sunny spot—you can grow just about any vegetable in a container.  More on that in a later post.
  • Conveniently located near the house so I can keep an eye on things.
  • Near a water supply.
  • Not near trees and shrubs with extensive root systems (which can affect nutrient and water uptake of veggies).
  • Drains well, especially after a heavy rain.
  • Quality soil.  I filled the beds with quality soil, peat moss, and compost, so I am confident in the quality of the soil.  I add compost every year, and I add lime if the extension service soil test tells me to do so.  More on soil preparation in a later post.

The only downside about my vegetable garden site: I cannot use it year-round because it does not get enough sun during the winter.  So I plant my collards and broccoli in the flower bed on the south side of the house, and I plant my lettuce and parsley in containers on the front porch.

In the vegetable garden area, I have five raised 5×4 beds for vegetables and two smaller raised beds for herbs.  In the herb section, I always have basil, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, lavender, and mint.  With the exception of the basil, the herbs are perennials, so I don’t have to worry much about them other than summertime irrigation.  In the vegetable section, I only grow the vegetables I like most and will therefore eat.  Don’t grow vegetables you (and your neighbors/local food bank) don’t like to eat regularly.  Several years ago, Daddy grew radishes because he heard they were easy to grow.  They are.  So Daddy and Mama were overrun with more radishes than they could eat, and after a while none of their neighbors wanted them, either.  Daddy is no longer allowed to plant radishes.

My list of favorites: tomatoes, okra, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, pole beans, lima beans, eggplant, and snow peas.  I’d like to try asparagus, but asparagus is a perennial and I’m not ready for that kind of commitment.  Anyway, with the exception of the snow peas, these are all summer crops.  After hours of leafing through catalogs and deciding on the perfect line-up based on my available space, I selected and purchased the seeds.  If you’re not sure what you should to plant, get started with the UGA cooperative extension’s list of recommended vegetable varieties for Georgia (Table 7).

Now I just need to figure out where the plants will go and when to start the seeds.  I know that tall-growing plants like pole beans and okra should be planted on the north side of the garden so that they will not shade other plants.  I also know that the east side of the garden tends to get a little more sun than the west because of my neighbor’s tree.  I try to do “succession planting,” which means that I plant another in-season crop soon after the last harvest of another crop.  This technique works especially well with short season crops like beans and snow peas.  For example, I plant snow peas in February, and they are finished by May; when I take up the snow peas, I plant pole beans.  I must make a note on my garden plan to remind myself of these intentions.  Also, I have decided this year that I will start one row of beans much earlier than the second row of beans so that I’m not eating beans at every meal.  Based on these considerations, I’m ready to plot out the garden plan.

Plot 2013

Now that I’ve got my map, I can figure out when I need to plant what.  Pole beans are not easily transplanted, so I definitely want to sow those directly into the ground sometime near my 50% frost date, March 23 (note: the 50% frost date is the date after which there is only a 50% chance of frost—for more info on frost dates, see What is a Frost Date?).  Cucumbers, zucchini, and peas can be transplanted, but they require extra care in the process, so I usually direct sow those, as well.  I will start the snow peas by mid-February.  The rest I will start near my 50% frost date.

As for the rest of the plants, I can start them indoors or purchase plants at a nursery for transplant.  If I purchase plants at a nursery, I try to purchase them very close to the time I will transplant them—if I buy too early, I may forget to water them.  Usually, though, I start the seeds myself.  Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants take between six and eight weeks to reach transplant size, so if I want to transplant them outside in March, I need to start the seeds in late January or early February.

Next week, it will be time to start my tomato seeds, so next week’s post will focus on seed starting.  Meanwhile, let me know if you have gardening questions!

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Take Stock and Carry On

The beginning of January.  The promise of a new year, fresh, with no mistakes in it.  Yet.  I have managed to keep most of my resolutions thus far: pay more attention to skincare regimen; floss more regularly; keep poinsettias alive to see if 2013 will finally be the year I can actually reuse them at Christmas time.  But the most exciting thing for me about the new year is preparing for my spring/summer garden.  Anticipation may be the best part of it.  Looking through seed catalogs, perusing my stock of saved seeds, imagining the taste of that first Cherokee Purple tomato.  And I have one more year’s worth of gardening experience—so of course this year will be even better than last year.

Early January is an excellent time to take stock and plan ahead.  What worked well last year?  What didn’t?  What new things do you want to try this year?  What new things do you have to try this year?  Do you want to start a vegetable garden for the first time?  Do you need to reduce the amount you spend on irrigation?  Did you have any major changes, like the loss of a large shade tree, that demand a transition in your plantings?

For me, I had pretty good success last year.  I did eat green beans twice a day, every day for a month, so I may scale back on those by planting one four foot row instead of two.  And I was overrun with eggplants, so I will plant four instead of eight.  I had enough okra, cucumbers, bell peppers, jalapeños, collards, broccoli, snow peas, herbs, zinnias, daisies, dahlias, vincas, and coleus—I’ll probably stick with the same number of plants this year.  As for tomatoes, I love trying new varieties, so I’ll increase the number of plants.  I’m running out of room in my official vegetable garden behind my carport, so I’ll have to try growing them in the front yard (my mama says it’s tacky to plant tomatoes in the front yard, but I’ll put them behind the knock-out roses.  She’ll never know).

The only thing that did not work well last year was squash.  I cannot grow squash.  I till the earth, I add compost, I make a mound, I plant the seeds, I mulch, I irrigate, I fertilize, and I pray.  And every year, I have a beautiful group of squash plants with lovely blossoms and sweet little baby squash.  But every year, before those squash babies are ripe, each plant withers up and dies overnight.  The culprit?  My evil nemesis, the squash borer.  With all due respect to E.O. Wilson, that is one bug whose disappearance would not be a great loss to the diversity of life.  I’ve tried the soda bottle collars and diatomaceous earth.  I’ve tried looking for the eggs and washing them off.  I’ve tried looking for the places where the insect has bored into the stem so that I can cut it out.  Last year, in a fit of desperation, I even tried Sevin Dust (no offense to those of you who swear by pesticides, but I’m more of an integrated pest management girl, and to me Sevin Dust is a “nuclear option”).  Even that didn’t work.  Last summer, after the squash plants imploded despite my deployment of the nuclear option, I talked with organic farmers at various farmer’s markets I visited.  They had lots of quirky suggestions, but the one piece of common advice was that I should start the seeds earlier than I had in the past.  I had interpreted the “do not sow until danger of frost has passed” warning on the seed packet to mean that I should not sow the seeds outside until after the last average frost date, which is the date after which there is only a 10% chance of frost.  These farmers did not wait nearly that late.  Instead, they only waited until the 50% date (note: I love footnotes—bad lawyer habit—but I think parentheticals might work better for a blog, though they’re still annoying—sorry.  For more info on frost dates, check out the frost date calendar from Dave’s Garden; you can also check out the primary data from the National Climatic Data Center, but Dave’s calculator is a lot easier).  This year, I’m going to follow the farmers’ advice and plant the squash around my 50% date, March 23.  I’m also going to study the excellent book my mother got me for Christmas – Good Bug, Bad Bug by Jessica Walliser.  I’m optimistic that I’ll be so overrun with squash that I will make zucchini bread and squash casserole for my whole neighborhood.

Now that I’ve reviewed my “lessons learned,” I need to take an inventory of the seeds I purchased during years past, as well as the seeds I saved last season.  I might also take a look at some seed catalogs just to see if anything new catches my eye.  Another good thing to try: a seed swap.  Most seed packets contain more seeds than a typical home gardener needs in a year.  If you want two Cherokee Purple plants, you do not need thirty seeds.  The good news is that most seeds can be saved for a year or two (or three).  Another option: have a seed swap with your friends.  Just remember to label your seeds!

When I take the seed inventory, I will update my annual spreadsheet.  I know.  Nerdy.  But it really helps.  I can look at the spreadsheet and see what seeds I have, what I seeds need to purchase, how many seeds I want to plant, whether the seed is direct sow or must be started indoors, and where I plan to plant each type of plant.  I can also have the spreadsheet tell me when I need to start seeds indoors so that they will be ready to transplant by late March or early April.  That way, I can make a project plan for seed starting and other garden prep work.  Here is an excerpt of my flower worksheet for this year:

Plant Name

Order?

# Seeds

Days to Bloom

Sun

Projected Use

Plant Time

Start Seeds

Notes

Zinnia – White

N

12

60

Full

Front/front left

3/17/2013

3/17/2013

Plant outside in pot; transplant in April

Zinnia – Red

N

12

60

Full

Front/front left

3/17/2013

3/17/2013

Plant outside in pot; transplant in April

Zinnia – Light Pink

N

12

60

Full

Front/front left

3/17/2013

3/17/2013

Plant outside in pot; transplant in April

Zinnia – Dark Pink

N

12

60

Full

Front/front left

3/17/2013

3/17/2013

Plant outside in pot; transplant in April

Zinnia – Yellow

N

12

60

Full

Front/front left

3/17/2013

3/17/2013

Plant outside in pot; transplant in April

Vinca Pacifica Polka Dot

N

100

60

Full

Front/front left

3/23/2013

1/22/2013

Sow indoors.

Vinca Pacifica Red

N

100

60

Full

Front/front left

3/23/2013

1/22/2013

Sow indoors.

Vinca Pacifica White

N

100

60

Full

Side Bed

3/23/2013

1/22/2013

Sow indoors.

Vinca Tropicana Pink

N

150

60

Full

Side Bed

3/23/2013

1/22/2013

Sow indoors.

Vinca Punch

N

150

60

Full

Side Bed

3/23/2013

1/22/2013

Sow indoors.

Dahlias (BULBS)

N

20

Full

Side Bed

3/23/2013

3/23/2013

Dig up after plants fade.

Now I’m off to finish that seed inventory.  I plan to get my tomato seeds started in the next couple of weeks.  I’ll keep you posted!

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