Still Time to Prune Grapevines

Well above average temperatures are being predicted for the later part of this week.  This will tend to hasten bud opening in all plants including grapes.

Pruning grapes involves a lot of untangling, tugging and pulling to get the pruned canes out of the way. All of that pulling on the canes can scrape off  the buds you want to keep.   Right now the buds on our grape vines are still hard and fully dormant and and as such can handle that kind of treatment.

Later this week the high temperatures will stimulate the buds out of dormancy and they will begin to swell and become very fragile. This will be an unwanted complication to your grapevine pruning.  Many of the buds that you intend to keep can be easily broken off. The solution is to prune right now, before the buds swell.

I’m guessing probably 90% of the volume of a grape vine is cut off during pruning.  Even though the grapevines shown in the photos are being trained for a decorative use rather than maximum grape production, you can still compare the two photos to get an idea of how much was pruned from the vines.

Judy is getting ready to prune the grape arbor in The Gaffield Children's Garden located at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.
The grape arbor after pruning. Most of last year's canes have been removed. This arbor is being trained to form a "tunnel" for young visitors to crawl through.

Typically,  the “arms” growing off of the main trunk are the only ones left and contain the buds that will grow into this year’s canes. It is from this growth that the grapes will be produced.

Long time readers of this blog may remember some posts in the past about pruning grapes. Check out “Prune Your Grapes Now” and “Grapes are Pruned”

There’s plenty of daylight after work this week  to get this job done. Plus you’ll have it all taken care of before Michigan State’s basketball game on Saturday and you won’t have to worry about it until next year!


Starting Seeds at Home VI

If  you have sown your seeds correctly and placed them in a warm area, they should germinate and emerge from the soil  within a few days.

Take your germinated seeds off of the heating mat and get them into some bright  light. Your heat mat can be now used to start the next batch of seeds.

Not all of us have access to a greenhouse or a sun room to grow our newly emerged seedlings.  A bright, sunny window with a southern exposure works almost as well.  The other alternative is to place the seedlings under florescent lights. Two 40 watt fluorescent tubes  will provide all the light your baby plants need.  Special “grow lights” or “full spectrum” are really not necessary just use an ordinary shop light.  The trick is to make sure the seedlings are about 2 inches from the lights, certainly not more than 3 inches.

Use an ordinary shop light for your growing seedlings

The young plants need only about 15 to 16 hours of light a day.  They must have a dark period in order to grow properly.

Direct the air from a small fan onto your growing seedlings.  The movement caused by this small amount of air helps strengthen the young plants and helps prevent fungus from infecting them.

If you notice that your plants are getting “lanky”, top heavy, or lean toward the light, then you know they are not getting enough light, so make the necessary corrections to improve the lighting conditions.  Often they will get so top heavy that they will fall over.  If this happens, transplant them into another container at a deeper depth.  Many times you can salvage your seedlings in this manner.

Fluorescent tubes do give off some heat. This heat combined with the fan may tend to dry out the potting mix a little so be sure to check on your seedlings a couple of times a day…they are babies after all!

As your seedlings start to grow, keep an eye out for a problem called “damping off”.  It is disheartening to get to the point where the seeds are up and growing fine only to find one morning that the plants have fallen over and are starting to die.

Damping off is caused by a fungus that usually infects the seedlings’ stems right at the soil line.  You will notice that the stem of the seedling is shriveled. The plant cannot recover at this point. The most common cause is using potting containers that were not properly cleaned or using seeding mix that was not sterilized. Lack of air movement and soggy soil can also make the problem worse.

Fertilize your seedling every other watering or so with a diluted half-strength solution of soluble plant fertilizer. Use distilled or RO water for your seedlings. Chlorine from city water can damage them.  If you don’t have access to distilled water, leave a potful of tap water out overnight to let the chlorine “gas off”.  Placing the growing container in water and letting it soak up from the bottom will help keep your seedlings from being knocked over by a stream of water from the watering can.

Eventually your seedlings will need to be transplanted. We’ll discuss that and other things in the next post.


Starting Seeds at Home V

There are two schools of thought on how to best fill containers for starting seeds.

One idea is to fill the flat with dry soil mix and then moisten it by watering it from the top with a sprinkling can; or you can set the flat into a pan of water and let it wick up into the mix.  Both ways are fine although watering from the top is often quicker if you need to get it moist in a hurry for some reason.  The overhead water also packs down the soil mix slightly making it somewhat denser.

The second idea is to moisten the soil mix before placing it into the pot.  This is done by adding water to the mix either directly into it’s original bag or by moistening only part of it in a bucket or tub.  It’s easy to over-do the watering and end up with a water-logged soil mix which then has to be allowed to drain before using.

If you are using starting mix that you have moistened ahead of time, scoop up some mix and place it into the flat or pot and level it off.  Then lightly bump the tray on the table top once or twice to settle in the mix.  Resist the urge to pack the soil into the container with your fingers, that will reduce the needed air space in the soil.  Remember, it’s  not like making sand castles!

Different seeds have different germination requirements.  Some need a cold period, some need to be soaked, some need to be treated with growth hormones, some even need to pass through the digestive tract of an animal! We won’t worry about any of those types of seeds in this discussion, for now we’ll stick to the most common requirements.

The most important thing you need to know is whether or not the seed requires light to germinate.  Generally speaking, the larger seeds can be covered while the very tiny seeds need to be sown on top of the mix.  Check the seed packet to be sure.

Seeds that need to be covered should be placed about 2 or 3 times their diameter below the soil.  While small surface sown seeds should  be lightly pressed into the top of the mix so the seed makes good contact with the soil.

You can choose to sow your seeds into rows in the container, in which case you will need to transplant them later. Or you can sow two or three seeds per cell in your flat (or pot).  Later you will save the strongest seedling and discard the others.

As a guide, sow large seeds about an inch apart; medium seeds about 1/2″ to 3/8″ apart; and tiny seeds about 1/4″ apart.

Since germinating seeds need high humidity,  cover your container with clear plastic of some sort.  Be sure to keep the plastic propped up off of the surface of the soil.  For greenhouse flats, clear plastic “domes” are available.

Put your newly planted container in a warm spot to hasten germination. Placing them on a seed starting heat mat is ideal. These electric mats usually come with a built in thermostat to keep your tray at the ideal temperature for germinating most garden seeds.

Heat mats for seeds are readily available at garden centers.

Some seeds will emerge from the soil within a day or two while others take longer.  After they are up, they need to be cared for, we’ll discuss how to do that and how to avoid potential problems in part six of our series.


Starting Seeds at Home IV

Gardeners can be quite resourceful when it comes to finding containers to use for starting their seeds.

If you have purchased plants from a greenhouse in the past, you are familiar with a black thermoformed plastic tray called the greenhouse “flat”.  These typically measure about 11″x21″ by 2-1/2″ deep .

The flat in turn has a black plastic liner or “insert” placed into it. The inserts are commonly divided into sections ranging  from 24 to 72 “cells”.

This system of greenhouse flats works wonderfully for use in the greenhouse because all of the starting and growing containers are standardized and easy to handle.

Flats are also available for use at home, either at well stocked garden centers, on-line, or through gardening catalogs. They work just as well at home as in the greenhouse if all of your seeds require the same growing conditions.

Back in the old days, greenhouse people used to make their flats out of untreated wood. A typical size was 16″x24″x3″. This is still a good option for some gardeners.

If you only have a few seeds of each variety and they have widely different sowing and growing conditions, then a flat might not work for you. Several smaller containers must be used to accommodate the different seed requirements.

This is where you can use your imagination to find containers in which to start your seeds.  Most commonly you see folks using recycled milk cartons or jugs cut to size.  With today’s over-packaging of food products, we have a huge selection from which to choose. Previous generations didn’t have this wide variety of choices.

Look around in the trash and you can find yogurt cups, egg cartons, snack containers, frozen food packaging, fast food packaging and more; all of which has potential to be recycled for use in starting seeds.

Whatever you decide to use for your container, it absolutely must have drainage holes. Cut or punch out several holes in the bottom to allow excess water to drain away.

You can use newspaper to make your own paper pots.  Cut the newspaper into 3-1/2″ wide strips and wrap them around a glass jar a couple of times. Tape the paper where it overlaps and fold the bottom of the paper to make the pot bottom.

Since I’m a “saver” type of guy, I like to save my plastic flats, liners and pots from season to season. Many people say they don’t like plastic pots because they don’t degrade in the land fill. I say that’s their best attribute, the plastic holds up well from year to year and can be re-used. Just don’t be in such a hurry to throw them away every year.

Some of last year's greenhouse flats waiting to be washed, disinfected and re-used.

When re-using pots, make sure they are washed to get off all of last year’s soil. Then sterilize then by using a 10% bleach solution:1 part bleach to 9 parts water. If you don’t thoroughly clean them, you run the risk of transferring disease to your seedlings.

Common garden soil cannot be used to start seeds indoors no matter how good it grows crops outside. Soil dug from the garden is just too dense and will form a hard mass in the container making it extremely difficult for the plants to grow.

Seedlings need a soil that is able to hold water, yet can still drain away excess moisture. The roots also need a certain amount of air in order to grow properly. Some gardeners try to blend their own starting mixes but this is not recommended for beginners.

The soil that is used to fill your containers must be sterilized for the same reason you sterilize the pots: disease prevention.

To get all of the characteristics of a good seed starting soil, it is easiest to purchase a bag of packaged seed starting mix. These have already been sterilized by the manufacturer.  Be sure the mix is labeled as a seed starting blend and not a potting mix.  Potting mix is usually to coarse for starting all but the largest seeds.

In the next blog we’ll discuss filling your containers and sowing your seeds.


Starting Seeds at Home III

“Timing is everything”.  We’ve all heard that from people ranging from comedians to investment advisers; it is also true when starting seeds at home.

If seeds are started too early, the seedlings you are trying to raise will out-grow their space before you have a chance to transplant them out into the garden.  On the other hand, if you start them too late, well, you might as well have saved yourself all of the trouble and sowed the seeds outside directly into the garden.

The timing revolves around the weather, specifically the last frost of spring, also known as the “frost free date”.

Climatologists and weathermen being the scientists they are,  have very specific dates dealing with specific spring temperatures.  For our purposes in the garden, we shoot for Mid May as our date.  There still is a fair chance of  some chilly temperatures at that date but not  too much of a chance of an actual freeze happening.

The other factor to consider in your timing is whether you are sowing what I like to call ‘warm season’ crops or ‘cool season’ plants.

Vegetable plants such as  onion, lettuce, and cabbage family (which includes cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts and others) are considered cool season plants and are tolerant of freezing temperatures to a certain extent.

Flowers such as pansy, snapdragon, alyssum, sweet peas and others are cool season plants as well.

Most other annuals can be considered warm season plants for our discussion here.

The cool season plants can be transplanted into the garden as early as four or five weeks before the frost date. The warm season plants will never survive in those cold conditions and need to be set out into the garden after the soil has warmed up and there is no chance for frost, usually late May.

Right now we are in the beginning of the main part of seed starting season. During the next week or two you need to get some of your seeds started. Tomatoes and peppers should  be started soon because they take so long to get to a size that can be transplanted into the garden.  Cabbage takes less time to get to transplanting size but remember, they can be set out much earlier.

Often seed packets give you suggestions on when to sow the contents.

Some seed companies include very detailed sowing instructions on their packets.

Next time we’ll discuss soil mix and containers for your seeds.


Starting Seeds at Home II

During the seed starting class, some participants confided in me that they had tried seed starting in the past but were frustrated by the lack of success.

My suggestion is to start out with the easier seeds in order to gain experience and confidence before moving on to the more exotic seeds.

Some easiest  vegetable seeds are the cabbage family, which in addition to cabbage, includes broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts.

Onions, head lettuce, tomatoes and peppers are also considered easy to start.

You can gain some valuable experience starting flowers such as alyssum, cosmos, marigold and zinnia. This may seem like a short list, but there are a wide variety of shapes colors and sizes of these varieties available now days.

I would also venture to say that nearly all seed varieties  available from a hardware or department store would fall into the category of easy to start. This is because the seed companies also want you to have a good gardening experience, so they offer the seeds which are most likely to grow in the hands of a beginner.

Different varieties of seeds need to be started at different times so we’ll cover that in the next blog.


Starting Seeds at Home

This past Saturday Judy and I taught a two hour class at the University of Michigan‘s Matthaei Botanical Gardens on the topic of starting seeds at home. We covered a lot of information during the class but two hours wasn’t nearly enough time considering the subject of seeds and seeding would be covered in one or two semesters if you were to attend an agricultural college.

Our participant’s experience covered a wide gamut from those who never attempted it to those with a fair amount of success.

About half of the class was interested in growing  flowers while the other half vegetables.  Although the primary discussion was about starting annual plants, we did touch on perennials briefly.

We spent the first hour in a classroom going over many of the basics.  During the second hour we moved into the greenhouse and actually sowed seeds and transplanted seedlings.  A couple of the participants weren’t really prepared to get their hands into the dirt but happily joined in anyway.

Since the class was such a success, we plan on holding it again next year.

If you are interested in starting your own plants from seed, follow along here at All Things Green for most of the information we presented in the class.

In the next post we’ll  get into some things to consider before you begin sowing your seeds.


Agriculture and Natural Resources Week

The 95th annual Agriculture and Natural Resources Week began Friday and runs though Saturday March 13 in East Lansing.

A wide variety of topics are being presented in a classroom setting including, herb gardening, small poultry flock management, horticulture therapy, general gardening and much more.

I remember attending back in the early 80’s when it was called “Farmer’s Week” so many  more areas of interest have  been added since those days.  If you have the time, I encourage you to attend.

There’s also a rabbit show, a wildflower conference, organic farming symposium, displays and more.  Most events are free of charge.


Become a Storm Spotter

We’ve all seen or heard the warnings…they go something like this: “a funnel cloud has been spotted 3 miles south-west of Carlton,  people in the path of the storm should take cover immediately”

Have you ever wondered who these people are who spot these weather events and how they get reported so quickly? Well, they are a combination of emergency personnel and regular folks who have an interest in the weather and  volunteer their time to watch out for the rest of us.

Last week I took the opportunity to join about 100 others  in the weather spotter training that was held in Monroe.  The class was taught by representatives of the  Detroit office of the National Weather service.  This two hour session was a great introduction to evaluating severe weather and how to report it. I have been wanting to do this for years and finally got the chance to do it.

You by no means become a severe weather expert like Dr Forbes of the Weather Channel. The class did inspired me to learn more about severe weather however.

In the meantime, I am certified as a storm spotter, all be it an un-experienced  one.

There are a number of classes scheduled in our area if you are interested in participating.  Admission is free.  Click here for the Spotter Training Schedule.


Soil Conservation District Tree Sales

You know spring can’t be far behind when the area Soil Conservation Districts have their annual tree sale.  Here’s the line up in our area for this spring.

The Monroe District deadline for ordering is March 22;  Lenawee District: March 19; Washtenaw District: March 18;  Wayne County: Mid May  ;  Lucas County Ohio: April 2.

Other Districts in Michigan can be found here.

The Soil Conservation sales give the general public an opportunity to purchase tree and shrub seedlings that would otherwise be difficult for us to find.  Proceeds from these sales help fund various conservation and environmental educational programs.