The flu has occupied most of my time for the past few weeks. It worked its way though much of the household, leaving me little time to focus on seedlings or garden planning. Luckily, while an exacting schedule is important for commercial growers, for the home grower we have a lot of flexibility. I appreciate my box system when I don't have a lot of time - I go to the envelope, grab a pre-filled seed tray, and go go go.
Speaking of pre-filled. I like to make my own seed starting mix from local organic seed starting blend, a potting mix with kelp and compost, worm castings, and a sterile type of renewable coir mix. It is important to me that our potting soils, composts, and seed starting mixes don't contain certain our allergens. I am happy that when I can't find the methods or ingredients on a package or website that my local garden/hydroponics store is always happy to call and ask for me. Because of that, I tend to stick with only a few brands that I know have good practices, pay close attention to all that goes into their mix and their sources, and use hot composting methods where things are fully broken down where applicable. I also like local when possible. Because of that I tend to buy all of my soil/compost/fertilizer from just one or two local places where I know exactly what I am getting. You can find recipes for seed starting mixes online that will best suit your climate and seedlings. I start with a large storage bin and mix all of my seed starting medium in that right in my garage. I can store it there and it is easy to step out and fill another tray. To keep everything streamlined I really like pre-filling a bunch of trays so I can grab and go. Less mess and less time. As my big bin of seed starting mix gets low, I make another batch. Right up into plant out time where I use a little different blend to fill my pots and containers.
Most people who garden know how easy it is to start tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, and peas. They have been cultivated to where we can rely on good germination and pretty easy starting. Where I see people get unsure is often when you go into medicinal herbs, prairie or native plants, and more exotic or uncommon flowers and herbs. The packets talk about scarifying, stratification, scarification, and cold dormancy or extended germination. It used to seem confusing, but when I started categorizing my seeds in my box system, categorizing them into the basic types of germination wasn't too hard. I don't like to go overboard, I just like things that work well, simply. These methods may seem picky and delicate and time-consuming, but if you break it down it is pretty simple. And the bonus is you can grow some pretty cool plants you would never find in a garden center. These native plants, herbs, and flowers are also often those which are great for pollinators, attracting beneficials to your garden.
Most general seed packets will tell you to when to plant in ground, or how many weeks before last frost to start your seedlings and when to plant out. Natives, medicinal, prairie, and many more exotic plants may often require a bit more care to get them going. These seeds also often come in packets with very few seeds, meaning you want a high germination rate/success rate. There are a few common techniques specified on these seed packets, and while they may seem like a lot, it really only takes a few minutes to get things rolling.
Cold stratification means the seeds like a feeling of winter before they are ready to go. Putting the seed packs into the refrigerator for a few week gives them a kickstart. The easiest way to do this is by putting them in a baggie and labeling in/out dates for your fridge.
Another cold stratification is the moist type. I put these in a baggie in my fridge for a few weeks as well, but in a moist paper towel in the baggie, not in the packet. Be sure to note the in/out date on the bag. Some of these seeds like to get a scratch on the sandpaper first too.
Some seeds, like lavender, like cold stratification in a medium such as sand or soil. For these, I put them in a baggie in the fridge at the same time as the rest, I just put them in some potting soil in the baggie and note in/out date.
Scarification is when a seed needs to be scratched or penetrated a bit to begin the germination. A cool and moist scarification germination just means rub the seed on sandpaper, plant at the surface and lightly cover with soil, and keep cool and moist for 1-3 weeks until it germinates. Then treat it as you do the other seedlings until planting out.
There can also be warm germinators which needs soaking and scarification to germinate. For these, give a quick nick or rub with sandpaper, soak in warm water overnight, and plant, lightly covered in soil. Keep warm and moist until germination occurs, and then treat as you do other seedlings.
That may seem like a lot to do, but in reality each type only takes a few minutes. The rest of the time is watering or waiting. I like to print out blank monthly calendars from March through June and keep it in my seed box. I note how each week by week number until last frost date, so it coordinates with all of the folders with seeds. I also can easily write down when to pull the baggies out of the fridge and plant them, etc. It makes it pretty foolproof. I like that I have basically a noted calendar of each year that I can look back on next year too.
I'm feeling the effects of March. It is windy and cold, we are cooped up (with one kid after another sick). Everything is muddy over frozen so no hiking or garden work can be done yet. I am definitely stir-crazy. I know seed starting and planning the garden is one of the things that actually gets me through to spring here in Wisconsin. On the one hand I'm starting seeds!!!! On the other hand we still have 3 MONTHS before our CSA even begins. Each little tray of soil and seeds is a lifeline to warm sunny days and green grass and hours spent outside. So even though some of the seeds require a little more care and attention to get going than some of the more common vegetables and herbs, they are worth every moment in potential. I can see bees buzzing, hummingbirds swooping, smell the fragrance as the sun sets and my kids rock in the hammock. It is all good.
Speaking of good, we are picking up our mason bees and beneficial insects this week. Spring really is coming!
More seed starting and greenhouse assembling to come. :)
I also like to keep any printouts about the plants in my garden notebook. Since I grow more uncommon medicinal and tea herbs, it helps me to have detailed information on their planting, growing, and harvesting requirements. Heirloom Organics has growing guides for many medicinal and culinary herbs, vegetables, and fruit. I use their guides every year.
Over the past few weeks we have also been working on getting the seed starting setup going. We have our growing setup in the basement. It is an unfinished space, but we have my art studio, a few couches, craft & art supplies, a treadmill, rugs, a trampoline, and an office down there. With kids running around and a lot of foot traffic, I wanted to tuck the seed starting under the stairs so that it is away from the action but easy to access. We use standard shop lights for our seed starting. I have several types of bulbs, and use warm, cool, and full spectrum grow bulbs so that seedlings get a healthy dose of everything. The nice thing about under the stairs is that it is easy to install hooks to securely hang the lighting, and we have room to put the light timer, a fan, and keep supplies stored safely. We don't have anything fancy, but I can fit over 500 seedlings at a time in here (and I still have several shop lights left over at this point, so plenty of opportunity to expand). I will also have some flats on trays in sunny windows upstairs as we go along, but most seedlings will easily transition from basement to our popup outdoor greenhouses this spring. We have two small popup greenhouses, and then I added a 6'x6'x4' walk in which can hold another 2 dozen or more trays. I should be able to grow a LOT of seedlings in a pretty small amount of space. And my neighbors will only see peeks of the backyard greenhouses for a month and a half or so, before the bigger ones go back in storage.
Growing from seed takes more attention and care than buying plants at a nursery, but you can get SO MUCH MORE variety, grow organic end to end, and save a lot of money when you look at the final output. Seed starting isn't HARD, it just requires organization and a little bit of time and attention. You could easily have just two shop lights with warm and cool bulbs over a few seed trays in your basement or closet and have enough plants for your garden.
So I have my garden notebook setup and ready, my seeds are in their folders, the lights are setup, and I have all of my seed starting medium ready to mix and start. NEXT...seed starting (really)!
I find myself often attempting to describe garden planning from a purely logical DIY perspective, and failing. As much as I like to approach design with an overall organized and cohesive whole, it really is an emotionally driven thing. In our last house it took years, but I achieved the feeling I was searching for in the garden. It was private, lush, green, and vibrant. It felt like walking through a secret garden, dusk was a magical in-between time of twinkly lights and exotic floral fragrance. It was filled with a palette of colors, buzzing with bees and every kind of pollinator. Birds bathed in the the bath, hummingbirds swooped by our heads, mourning doves nested in hanging baskets. Kids played and ran and hid behind bushes or under the hammock, hands full of sticky raspberries. It was like a secret magical wonderland bursting with warm soil, sticky sweet fruit, and climbing vines.
So to this garden, where do you begin. We let it sit last summer other than some basic plantings to get the feel. It isn’t a tucked in moist rich secret garden up here. It is wide open, big sky, windswept, prairie grasses, bald eagles, stunning sunsets, starry nights. It is the singing of toads, the buzzing of grasshoppers. It is views for miles of pines, oaks, corn fields, silos and Epic. It is dry, sunny, windy, and alive. Yet I also know as more homes are built it will morph to more closely resemble mowed lawns, fences and afternoon shadows. So the big plan this year is to get a basic outline into which everything will be planted into over the years. We want rain barrels to help with watering up on this dry windy hilltop. We want fruit trees in the ground so that in a few years they will be there to not only give us apples and cherries, but also to give us some privacy and shade. We want some annuals to fill in all of the areas where the landscape plantings are still small and immature. We want to espalier more caning and vining fruit along the south side of the house. We want raised beds for some easy to water or cover spots for strawberries, greens, and delicate water lovers. We want some shade trees that will rustle and sway in the breeze.
In our last house we had some flowers, but without a lot of full sun, we really didn’t have a huge selection, not to mention our space was very limited. In this house we not only want fruiting trees, bushes and canes - we want herbs that can return every year. And I want a riot of color, fragrance, and color. I want mason bees and native pollinators buzzing. And as the sun goes down, I want my kids in the hammock inhaling the rich, exotic fragrances of thousands of flowers. I want bouquets on all of my tables. Annual flowers, and a LOT of them, is going to fill in the gaps until our garden is more established, giving us a magical, enchanting garden, somewhere to sit and walk and lie and enjoy. So with that in mind, we have a few plans.
The plan Home Garden 2016: 2-4 fruit trees, mason bees, an espalier infrastructure for the grapes/blackberries, 4-5 raised beds on south facing wall (medicinal herbs, tea herbs, cutting flower bed, greens), fruiting shade tree up front, flowering fruit bushes for future privacy as more homes built around us, a larger greenhouse for growing a lot more seedlings (got it last week - will put it together in spring!), 3-4 rain barrels, paths around raised beds, and possibly starting the integrated beds throughout yard for additional herb plantings. An attractive yet functional good sized composting system. This may not all be done this summer, but we have a master plan.
The plan Community Garden 2016: a greater variety of medicinal and tea herbs, bigger variety of flowers for cutting, remove all the duplicates from our CSA, add more unique vegetables to supplement CSA share. The community garden plot is just 20x20, so it is small enough to not be overwhelming, and big enough to grow a good variety of things intensively. It is very sunny and dry, so plants that don't need as much attention can go there, where the plants needing more water or care will be at home.
The big seed list. I decided to grow a nice big variety of cutting flowers, medicinal and tea herbs, culinary herbs, fruit, vegetables and greens this year. With more space in this house I can now grow more seedlings (and I now have 3 popup greenhouses). I figure if I start a lot of everything and have extra, I can sell my extras - it will be more rare or uncommon plants that won't be found at local nurseries, so the time/cost/effort of growing extras will be worth it and that way I know I will have enough for my own needs. I prefer to plant in integrated permaculture beds, and will have a lot of these integrated throughout the yard, but will also have a few raised beds where I can more easily control the climate and soil. Here is my list of seeds that I am growing this year.
2016 Seed List:
We have a CSA share with a local organic farm in the summer, so we don't need the more common vegetables. So for us, we plant the unusual varieties or things we always are short of. Plus of course extensive selection of tea, herbs, and flowers. And I am *excited* to have a big cutting garden this year so we can have bouquets inside and outside all summer long. With fragrance! I also plan to photograph all of the flowers and herbs this summer so that I can make prints. Big plans, I tell ya.
So this is my step 2. It sounds like a lot. So when I say the important thing about planning a garden is to go in small steps, adding a bit at a time, but into an overall grand design scheme, it may seem comical. But a lot of this list is to make the outline and base structure to get it going - and we will likely end up breaking some of that up over more than one season, depending on how it progresses. But this year we will have color, movement, beauty, fragrance, the buzzing of bees, a hammock surrounded by a riot of blooms, and places to walk through and experience, or sit and enjoy. One step at a time.
Next...seed starting time!
I am a certified aromatherapist, herbalist, organic gardener, photographer, writer, designer, artist, nature lover, whole foods maker, and mother of two unschooled boys in south central Wisconsin.