Going through my seeds

This is the time of year I drag out all of my old seeds from last year and years before that. I always like to take inventory to see what I’ve got on hand before I order anything. We’re in the middle of winter and not all of the seed catalogs have arrived yet.

You would think that after all these years I would have come up with a better system for keeping track of my seeds since I have dozens of different varieties. You know maybe a spreadsheet, color-coded vials, a numbering system things like that, but I don’t.

Some of my current seed collection.
Some of my current seed collection.

Seeds don’t last forever. In rare cases however, seeds can germinate after decades or even centuries. One famous example is a Judean date palm seed that germinated and grew after 2000 years. Seeds that we use in the home garden typically last just a few years unless special steps are taken to preserve them. If they’re in an unopened, original envelop, they’ll have a better chance of remaining viable for longer periods of time. That’s the principle behind the survival seed kits that are sold on line.

Seeds that are kept dry and in a cool place fare better than those that are exposed to moisture or heat. Located above the Arctic Circle on a remote island, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault takes seed saving to the extreme and is able to store seeds from around the world for expended periods of time. Home gardeners on the other hand, can only do so much. Most of the time we seal up our seeds the best we can and keep try to them away from temperature extremes.

Here’s a chart I put together a while back that you can refer to when deciding whether or not to keep a particular type of seed. I’ve only included the more commonly planted food crops. This assumes that seeds are kept under typical conditions found in a home. Clip it out and save with your seeds.

SEED VIABILITY CHART

 

Five years Four years Three years Two years One year
Broccoli Beets Beans Chives Onion*
Brussels Sprouts Squash, winter Leek Corn Parsley*
Cabbage Squash, summer Lima beans Okra Parsnip*
Cauliflower Swiss chard Peas Pepper Peanut*
Celery Tomato Soybean (Edamame) Popcorn† † may lose viability after one year * may retain viability for two years
Cucumber
Eggplant
Kale
Lettuce
Muskmelon
Pumpkin
Radish
Rutabaga
Spinach
Turnip
Watermelon

Many people believe that the larger the seed is the longer it will stay viable. Looking at the chart you can see that seed size is not a factor. Compare corn which are large seeds with celery seeds that are quite small. Corn can be stored only for two years before it loses viability while celery lasts five years.

Bob

Poinsettia care after the holidays

For a vast majority of people Christmas poinsettias are a disposable commodity. There are a few of us however, who adopt them as part of our permanent plant collection.

A while back, for several years in a row, I kept one particularly bright red poinsettia that eventually grew to almost four feet tall. You can imagine it was pretty impressive at Christmas time while in full bloom. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of it to share with you. The computer I was using at the time crashed and took all of my plant photos with it. I learned a hard lesson that day.

To keep your poinsettia going for as long as possible,  keep a couple of things in mind.

Most poinsettias die from over-watering and that is related to growing conditions. Your home probably has a lower quality of sunlight than the greenhouse from which it came, so your plant will be less actively growing and therefore need less water. So, let the soil dry out some before watering. Then water the plant thoroughly until water flows out of the bottom of the pot.

Most poinsettias come with a waterproof foil or plastic wrapper to keep water from leaking onto furniture. After watering, dump out any water that remains in the wrapper. It is this extra water held in the foil that is the main reason poinsettias die prematurely. Poinsettias standing in water develop waterlogged roots. Eventually the roots begin to rot and the plant rapidly declines.

Pour our any excess water that collects in the foil pot wrapper.

Don’t worry about fertilizing your plant, it won’t really need much until spring. A half-strength dose of water soluble houseplant fertilizer once in a while should be more than adequate until growth resumes in the spring.

Also, bear in mind that poinsettias weren’t meant to last too much longer than the Christmas season.  They were bred for color, not hardiness. On the other hand, I’ve seen some poinsettias growing under abysmal growing conditions that survived until spring when the owners set them out in the sunlight to grow again.

At the very least, enjoy your poinsettia as long as possible this winter as a reminder of wonderful Christmas memories.

Bob

Use old camera as light meter for plants

If you are like me, you find it hard to toss or give away any of your really good stuff, even if it is obsolete. I still have my old SLR film camera, a Pentax K1000 that I bought way back when. It was one of the first things that I splurged on during my early adult life when I really couldn’t afford it. That is probably why I feel so attached to it even though I haven’t taken any photos with it for many years.

There is however another alternate use for that old camera of yours still bumping around in your closet. It can be used as a light meter to determine the amount of light available in the spots where you are planning to keep your plants indoors during the winter.

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This method measures the reflected light from an area as opposed to some light meters that you point at the light source. Set the shutter speed to 1/60 and the ASA to 25. Take a sheet of white paper and place it in the spot you want to measure. Point your camera at the paper and look through the viewfinder. Move so that the white of the paper is the only thing you can see in the viewfinder. Follow the meter inside the view finder and adjust the f/stop until the the meter is in the optimum range for taking a photo. From there you can use the f/stop to get a fairly good approximation of foot candles (fc): f/2 equals 40 fc; f/2.8 =75; f/4=150 fc; f/5.6=300 fc; f/8=600; f/11=1200 fc; f/16=2400 fc. Each f/stop move indicates a doubling of  foot candles from the previous setting. If you own an older camera like this you probably remember what ASA and f/stop means, everyone else will have to look it up.

Foot candles reading below 75 is considered low light. Readings up to 200 fc is moderate light while anything over 300 fc is bright light. That will give you some idea where to place which plants over the winter.

Now, if only I can figure out how to blog using my manual typewriter.

Bob

 

 

 

Make plant tags from broken window blinds

A new winter gardening project presented itself yesterday. The frame on one of our window blinds snapped as I was pulling on the cord to open it and the whole works crashed to the floor.

As it turns out, mini-blind slats make fine pot markers, you know, those small white tags that gardeners use to identify trays and pots of seedlings. The slats are just about the same width as the markers that are sold in gardening departments every spring.

One big advantage homemade markers have over the garden-store variety is that you can easily cut them with a pair of scissors to whatever length you need, short ones for flats of seedlings, or longer ones for potted plants.

Just this one set of window blinds will provide enough material for dozens of plant tags
Just this one set of window blinds will provide enough material for dozens of plant tags

Homemade tags decreases the chance that seedlings will be mislabeled. Since each set of blinds will yield dozens of markers, you won’t be tempted to skimp on labels, that way every pot or six-pack divider can have it’s own tag.

Re-purposing old blinds reduces the amount of plastic debris that eventually finds it way into the landfill. And you save a few bucks along the way. Plus, it’s fun making your own gardening supplies and this happens to be a very easy project.

I’m looking at that high-quality braided pull-cord on those blinds too, but I haven’t figured out a use for that yet.

Bob

Why does a jade plant bloom?

One of our jade plants has started blooming this week. Anyone with a jade plant knows this is fairly uncommon. I have had a few jade plants through the years that produced flowers but not very many. So whenever it happens, I get a little excited about it.

Jade plant flowers are white with a pink hue near the edges and are about 3/4 inch across.
Jade plant flowers are white with a pink hue near the edges and are about 3/4 inch across.

There seems to be no way of predicting when a jade will blossom. Lots of people, horticulturists included, have their theories about it. Some folks on the internet say they have it figured out. If that were the case, we’d be seeing truckloads of jade plants in the stores blooming just in time for Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day — pick your favorite holiday.

Flower production in plants can be a complex proces. Before a plant can flower, it has to go through several steps before vegetative cells change into  reproductive cells, ie. a flower bud.

A basic principle in botany is that a plant, like most other organisms, will not reproduce until they reach maturity. One familiar example of this is an apple tree which might not bloom for six or eight or even ten years.

We forget sometimes, that our houseplants’s ancestors originally grew out in the wild with no help from people, thank you very much. Jade plants belong to the genus of plants called Crassula. Many Crassula species go through an annual a rest period in their native habitat. In their part of the world, the rains stop for a while and the Crassulas  go into a rest period. It’s critical for the Crassulas that the humidity falls to an arid, desert-like condition during this time.

Once the dry period is over, the plants resume growing and that completes one lifecycle. So, to induce flowering, it would make sense that we try to reproduce those types of conditions found in the wild.

OK, so here is my theory of the erratic flowering of jade plants. Many gardeners or houseplant fanciers love their plants and don’t want to hurt it, I don’t blame them. So they keep watering and feeding the plant all year ’round which keeps the plant in a continuous growth stage. The jades never get a chance to rest and they never get a chance to complete a full annual life cycle. This either delays maturity or fails to trigger the reproductive response.

Many factors are involved in stimulating plants to flower: fertility, moisture, intensity of sunlight, length of daylight, temperature extremes both warm and/or cold, length of time exposed to temperatures, air movement, insect damage, and others. The timing of all or any one of these factors can determine if and when a plant will bloom. Some easy-blooming plant species will bloom despite not growing in ideal conditions. Others, like jade plants I’m guessing, require a more complex sequence of events in order to produce flowers.

All that being said, I have noticed that jade plants are more likely to bloom is they are slightly pot-bound. So does this mean that the plants have been growing long enough that they’ve reached reproductive maturity? Or does crowding their roots induce flowering? Maybe sometime in the future a budding horticulturist will discover the secrete.

Bob

 

 

Up-cycle an old light fixture into a grow light

There was a small project that I had to get done this week. I needed to add another bank of lights in my seed starting area.

You would think that after so many years as a professional gardener my seed starting room would look like some kind of laboratory complete with stainless steel racks, electronic equipment and all other sorts of really cool stuff. A few years ago when I was starting many thousands of plants, that was pretty much the case. Now days, I’m gardening at a much smaller scale.

My seed starting area is probably much simpler than what the average serious garden has. My general rule for these types of things is to not buy anything fancy or brand new if I can make it myself without sacrificing functionality.

I have a a pair of three foot, single bulb fluorescent light fixtures that I bought for a couple of bucks at a garage sale last fall. My plan was to attach them together to make a single assembly that I can easily adjust up and down depending on the growth of the seedlings.

Used florescent light fixtures from a garage sale.
Used florescent light fixtures from a garage sale.

There were no florescent tubes when I got them. That actually was a good thing since, over time, the amount of light  florescent bulbs produce dramatically diminishes over time. I didn’t have to dispose of any used bulbs which saved me some hassle. The bad thing was that I only had the seller’s word for it that the fixtures worked.

The first thing I did was open up the case to inspect the innards to be sure there were no wires shorting that could be an electrical hazard — they both looked sound.

The inside of the fixture looked clean and no signs of electrical shorts.
The inside of the fixture looked clean and no signs of electrical shorts.

Next I tested them with my new bulbs and sure enough, they lit up nice and bright.

The bulbs lit up without hesitation or flickering.
The bulbs lit up without hesitation or flickering.

Fixtures like these usually have pre-drilled holes that are used for mounting onto various surfaces, these were no different. I had some metal drawer brackets in my inventory of useful stuff that I saved from an old dresser. They were the perfect size for joining the two fixtures together.

I used self-tapping sheet metal screws to attach the brackets to the light fixtures.  I bent pieces of heavy-duty fencing wire to make hangers for each end of the fixture assembly.

Self tapping screws work great for this application.
Self tapping screws work great for this application.

 

Heaves wire bent into shape makes a fine fixture hanger.
Heaves wire bent into shape makes a fine fixture hanger.

The assembly is hanging by leftover ceiling light chain from a section of shelving that someone gave to me.

I used part of a used plastic shelf unit to hand the lights from and hold trays of seedlings.
I used part of a used plastic shelf unit to hang the lights from and hold trays of seedlings.

Even if you don’t have parts like I had laying around, recycling center that sell building materials often have fixtures, shelves and other parts for sale at very reasonable prices. I noticed while visiting Recycle Ann Arbor today that they had five nearly new florescent fixtures in stock.

A couple of these fixtures were still brand new and in their original boxes.
A couple of these fixtures were still brand new and in their original boxes.

For a very modest investment in cash and time I ended up with an additional seedling grow light.

 

 

 

Seedling heat mats speed up germination

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.

Bob

Artificial light for growing seedlings

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.

Bob

Unheated hoop house no match for record cold winter

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.

Bob

 

Hoop House lettuce in the winter – Part One

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.

Bob

 

 

 

 

Bob