Cool spring weather is just right for growing peas

April 21st, 2014

Many years, I don’t even bother planting peas.  More often than not,  the spring weather around here is just too warm to grow much of a crop.

Peas need cool growing temperatures to grow, otherwise, if the temperature gets too high, they just quit growing and never produce. That goes for all types of peas: shelling peas, snow peas and snap peas.

Shell peas are the type of peas we buy in the frozen food department. Those have already been shelled from their pea pods and quick frozen.

Snow peas are the flat-podded peas used in Chinese cooking. Snow peas are harvested while the pods are still quite flat and the peas inside are just beginning to swell.  I like to plant snow peas. I use them in stir fry dishes.

Snap peas have edible pods too but they are not snow peas. They are harvested and eaten much like a green bean, when the peas are larger but still tender. ‘Sugar Snap’ was one of the first snap pea varieties on the market.

This spring is shaping up to be a good pea growing year. I plan to get an extra large spot planted just as soon as the soil temperature warms up to 45 degrees F.

Treated seeds are dyed a bright color. The chemical treatment keeps the seeds from rotting in cold, moist soil. Most pea seeds sold in small packets are untreated.

Treated seeds are dyed a bright color. The chemical treatment keeps the seeds from rotting in cold, moist soil. Most pea seeds sold in small packets are untreated.

You might want to try planting peas too. You just might end up with enough peas to make a meal or two with some left over for freezing.

By the way, the flowering plant called “sweet peas” are not edible. They belong to an entirely different genus.


Seedling heat mats speed up germination

April 11th, 2014

For many years I started seeds without using a seedling heat mat.There never seemed to be any problems doing it that way as long as I was able to find a warm spot for my seed trays. Those were the days when the tops of refrigerators radiated heat and were nice and warm. That was the best place to germinate small amounts of seeds because the constant heat warmed up the seed starting containers to the ideal temperature. Small heat mats for home use were not readily available back then.

It wasn’t until I worked in a large private greenhouse that I really found out the advantages to using bottom heat. I needed to grow thousands of flower and vegetable plants from seed. Time was, and still is, a valuable commodity, I couldn’t afford to wait for seeds to sprout.

Seeds I grew on heat mats seemed to jump up through the soil surface compared to their unheated brethren — germination percentage went up too. After the first transplant growing season, I invested in a few large commercial heat mats.

These days, nearly all garden centers sell small heat mats. They are usually preset at a specific temperature and are not adjustable, unlike the commercial mats.

Heat mats last a long time if used properly and are carefully stored.

Heat mats last a long time if used properly and are carefully stored.

The small mats work just fine for small amounts of seeds. By small amounts, I mean you can still germinate enough seeds to grow hundreds of plants. That’s more than enough for an average home garden.

If you are even a little bit serious about growing plants from seed, a seedling heat mat is an essential investment, especially now that refrigerators aren’t warm anymore.


Artificial light for growing seedlings

April 4th, 2014

Plants need light for photosynthesis and without light they can’t grow. But not all light is equal.

If you remember from your middle school science class, sunlight contains many colors or wave lengths of light. Plants mainly use the blue and red part of the light spectrum and not much else.

Seedlings need good quality light to thrive. The ideal place to grow seedlings of course,  is in a greenhouse or sun-room where there is plenty of natural sunlight. However, not everyone has access to a space like a greenhouse. A south window can help, but even in that case, supplemental lighting may be needed.

An adequate substitute for natural sunlight is light from fluorescent bulbs. Special “grow lights” are available but are quite a bit more expensive than standard fluorescent tubes and they don’t last as long. Research has shown that plants do as well or even better under “cool white” bulbs. Cool white bulbs provide plenty of blue light.

Even with the most recent research, some gardeners still feel that seedlings grow better if the light is “blended”. So, they’ll add a “soft white” bulb to a florescent fixture to provide some red light for their seedlings. Shining light from an incandescent bulb onto the seedlings will also add some red light.

You don't have to spend a lot of money on light fixtures. I bought this on at a garage sale for less than a buck.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on light fixtures. I bought this one at a garage sale for less than a buck.

Most vegetable and flower garden seedlings need bright light, at least 500 to 1,000 foot candles. Placing the light fixture within six inches or so will provide them with that amount of light. Still, that is not a bright as a sunny day where there can be 10,000 foot candles shining on a plant.

Plants require some darkness every day so lamps must be on a timer. Six to eight hours of darkness is sufficient for most plants — just about the same number of hours as a good night’s sleep.

If you are really serious about growing a large number of plants under artificial light, special high output light fixtures are available starting at around $300 each.


Grow mushrooms at home in your fridge

April 1st, 2014

There’s a new product out on the market that make’s you want to say:  ”Why didn’t I think of that!”

The scientists at a bio-tech company called Genetic Dynamics, have come up with an easy way to grow mushrooms from seed at home.

Head researcher, Dr. Fred Kim, said: “Nearly everyone I know already has some kind of fungus growing in their refrigerator. Our research team  decided to take advantage of that fact”.

Using a combination of conventional plant breeding and cutting edge DNA technology, the scientists created a mushroom that will grow under conditions found in a typical refrigerator.

The new variety called ‘Shrooms’ uses any leftover food as a substrate to grow on. Dr. Kim noted: “The older and more forgotten the leftovers are, the better the mushrooms grow”.

Here are the Shrooms I grew on what I think is leftover mashed potatoes.

Here are the Shrooms I grew on what I think is leftover mashed potatoes.

Walter Tupper, the Executive Chef at Top O’ the Cave Restaurant in Grosse Point Farms, Michigan, uses them almost exclusively in dishes calling for mushrooms. “They have a taste reminiscent of baby portabellas. We obtain ours from a local grower.” he says.

I was able to get a hold of a packet of seeds to try out. I have to admit they are very easy to grow and tasty too!

To order seeds visit the Genetic Dynamics website.





Seed savers legacy

March 28th, 2014

Many long time gardeners have tried to save seeds only to let them go after a year or two. There’s been a few times in years past when, for one reason or another, I’ve let varieties slip through my fingers.

The best luck I’ve had is keeping my own variety of tomato seeds for years, as I’ve written about in past blog posts. But that pales in comparison to a gardener in a nearby community who died recently. He left behind a collection of seeds that he had been saving for decades. Over 60 varieties of heritage annuals, biennials and vegetable seeds are in this treasure trove.

All of that valuable plant genetics could have been lost in a single year if not for a group of like-minded gardeners. Several of his friends got together and came up with a plan to save the work of that dedicated seed saver.

Each person took a few varieties and agreed to grow them. Then, at the end of the season, they would harvest the seeds and share them with the rest of the group. That way no one particular gardener had to take on the responsibility of growing all 60 varieties.

Many of those plant varieties were around before the gardener was born. The seeds passed into his hands for awhile, he nurtured and propagated  them. Now they are passing into new hands.

What a terrific gift to pass on to a new generation.


Grow sweet potato slips

March 25th, 2014

I’ve started growing some sweet potato vines that I will use to take cuttings for planting sweet potatoes. These cuttings are more commonly known as slips.

It’s not always easy to find sweet potato slips to plant when you need them. In years past I’ve had to visit a few garden centers before finally tracking them down. Calling ahead doesn’t always seem to help either.

The best way to be sure you have sweet potatoes to plant is to grow your own. It’s really a very simple process.

I’ve seen all kinds of contraptions that people have come up with to grow sweet potato slips, most of them involve suspending a sweet potato root over water. All you really need to do is to place a sweet potato root into a container of damp potting mix  about two inches deep. Keep the container in a warm spot — 75 degrees F and be sure it stays moist. An electric heat mat will help if you don’t have a warm spot.

This sweet potato is making good growth. I'll cover the root with soil entirely at this point.

This sweet potato is making good growth. I’ll cover the root with soil entirely at this point.

After a couple of weeks, the sweet potato will begin to root and produce sprouts. Pull the new sprouts off of the sweet potato once they reach eight inches or so in length. They should have a developing root system at that stage and are ready for planting.

Using this method you can grow your own slips year after year.


Laboratory test tube tomato vs homegrown DIY tomato

March 16th, 2014

The last tomato I had in storage finally started to spoil a few weeks ago. That was a very long time for a tomato to keep without using any kind of special equipment. It was one from my own heirloom strain that I have been keeping for several years now.

This was a great opportunity for me to select for another trait in my tomato line: long term storage.

The fruit looked fine on the outside but, by the time I finally opened it, it was starting to break down inside. The slippery capsules surrounding the seeds had dissolved due to fermentation setting in. A small amount of fermentation is OK when it comes to saving tomato seeds. The alcohol produced helps to preserve the seeds to some extent.

I took my time separating  the seeds from the pulp. After all, it was one gardening related project I could do even though it was snowing outside. I ended up with quite a few sound seeds.

Picking through tomato pulp doesn’t require a lot of concentration. I found my mind wandering a bit and starting thinking about an article about genetic engineering I read in a trade publication. Part of the article talked about the very first genetically engineered tomato variety to reach the market, Flavr Savr.

One thought I had was that I was selecting for genes inside my tomato to get a specific characteristic. The method I used is one that farmers have used for thousands of years. The Flavr Savr biologist’s method was so brand new that it was patented. In their laboratory, they took a short cut by moving pieces of DNA from one tomato variety to another — if you call taking 8 years and twenty million dollars a short cut. I wish I had that kind of budget.

The Flavr Savr tomato and it’s technology was eventually sold. The tomato itself has been off the market for many years.

I need to think about sowing my seeds soon.  Right now they are safely in storage waiting to be planted. I’m interested in finding out my seed germination percentage this spring. Next winter I’ll find out how well the storage trait gets passed along to this year’s generation of tomatoes.

The website Retro Report has a video about the Favr Savr. It’s interesting to watch whichever side of the GMO debate you’re on.

Hmm, I wonder if any gardener ever thought to save any seeds from that variety.


Unheated hoop house no match for record cold winter

March 10th, 2014

I promised to update you on how my lettuce did through the winter. Things were going quite well, I was harvesting lettuce after the first round of the Arctic Vortex.

Even after the second round of the vortex, most of the plants were doing well. This was mainly due to the secondary, inner plastic covering I added as the temperatures got colder.

Later, I started using bubble wrap insulation at night to try to keep the plants from freezing, it worked pretty well too — for a while.

I picked plenty of lettuce even after the second round of the Arctic Vortex.

I picked plenty of lettuce even after the second round of the Arctic Vortex. The blue material is plastic bubble wrap.

Eventually, the protracted, record-breaking cold did them in. During any other winter I’m convinced I’d still be harvesting lettuce.

Now it’s time to look forward to planting early spring lettuce in there.



Hoop House lettuce in the winter – Part One

January 25th, 2014

In my last blog posting I wrote about building a hoop house out of reclaimed shade canopy parts.  After covering the structure I amended the soil with composted chicken manure.

Once the soil was improved, I planted a few short rows of lettuce seedlings. And they made good growth early on.



Not only did this crop of lettuce survive the single digit overnight temperatures back in December, it actually looked even more robust. It didn’t however make a whole lot of new growth after that.

Because the days are so much shorter during the winter, we can’t expect lettuce to grow like a spring crop outside in the garden. That’s because there is not as much sunlight energy for photosynthesis.

With all things considered,  the lettuce did quite well in the hoop house before the Arctic Vortex hit.  A few days later, after the temperatures finally moderated, I opened the door to peek inside.

I’ll let you know what I found in my next post.







Home made hoop house made from re-purposed shade canopy

December 31st, 2013

This fall I put together a homemade hoop house, which is just another name for an unheated, temporary greenhouse.

I’ve had small hoop tunnels in the past, just big enough for plants to grow but that’s all. This one is big enough to walk into.

My new structure is allowing me to grow cold weather crops such as spinach, kale, and lettuce well into the winter. I also plan to use it to get an early start in the spring.

This one I made from parts to an old shade canopy that I haven’t used for a few years. We used it during the summer months to keep the sun off the picnic tables when we had outdoor get togethers.

Actually, I used only half of the pieces. Using all of the parts would have given me more square footage than I need. I just wanted a modest space to grow lettuce this winter.

Looking at the pile of structural parts from the canopy I had in the barn, it occurred to me that I could re-configure them into the size of hoop house I was looking for.

I did have to buy some materials for the project: plastic greenhouse covering, splicing tape, and pipe hardware. Since I didn’t want to cut any part of my shade canopy  – in case I ever wanted to use it for that purpose again — I also bought one length of metal electrical conduit and four connectors to use as post extensions. Since the electrical parts were the same diameter as the parts I already had, it made it easy to splice the old and new parts together.

I also added  some thin pieces of wood  to make a door and give a place for me to attach the plastic sheeting. I used 4×4′s for the foundation.

I ended up with a greenhouse measuring 10 ft by 10 ft, that’s 100 square feet of growing space.  Next year, if I feel the need, I can expand it up to its original size of 10 by 20 feet.


Even the wooden parts to my hoop house are made from re-cycled material.

Even the wooden parts to my hoop house are made from re-cycled material.


If you’ve ever considered a hoop house or greenhouse, this may be an inexpensive way to get started on a small scale. And what if you don’t have a shade canopy of your own to recycle?  Well, I’ve seen used shade canopies for sale at yard sales. Some of them had their shade cloth or other parts missing. That’s OK though since the parts will probably be re-assembled in a different configuration like I did with mine.

So far, my hoop house is standing up to the wind and winter storms we’ve had. I’m optimistic that it’ll still be standing come spring-time.