The waiting is the hardest part: Hardening off seedlings

I have three weeks to go until our average last frost date.

coldframe full

I did really well this winter, getting seeds sown and potting things on. Now, I’ve got to hang on until the tender things are safe to plant. The cold frame is jammed full.

Hardening off seedlings, though, is too important a process to skip. I skipped it all the time until I built my cold frame–mostly because I didn’t want to spend half the morning bringing trays of plants in and out of the house–and my plants performed correspondingly poorly.

Hardening off is a process of gradually exposing seedlings and tender plants to larger temperature variations and stronger light levels than they experience indoors. The process produces slower, sturdier, more resilient growth, preparing plants for life in the open garden. Without a cold frame, gardeners place plants in a sheltered location outside–maybe in a shaded site, close to the warmth of the house–for a short period of time, lengthening the exposure to outside conditions every few days.

Using a cold frame–basically a tiny greenhouse–makes the process far less tedious. It’s not quite a matter of set-it-and-forget-it, but it frees up lots of the time and space other parts of life demand. My cold frame, which I constructed myself from recycled materials for about $30, faces south and backs up to my house. I start hardening off my seedlings in mid-February, when we begin to see a few 50-degree (10C) days. I start with the hardy perennials, then move in the hardy annuals. Tender plants come last. Space permitting, I sow vegetable seeds in flats directly in the cold frame.

During the first few days in the frame, I place plants on its south side so they sit in slight shadow from the frame’s front wall. They gradually move towards the back as more plants come in. On unusually warm days, I vent the cold frame by propping open the glass doors, made of discarded windows. This keeps the temperatures inside from getting too hot–such fragile plants can quickly dehydrate and die if the temperatures climb too high. Sometimes I’ll prop open the windows entirely, but cover the opening with a bit of horticultural fabric. This practice lets the light in but keeps hungry foraging birds and squirrels and early insect pests out.

coldframe full 2

The second quadrant of the cold frame.

We’re getting close enough to the last-frost date that I may move out some of the plants with the longest tenancy–particularly the perennials–into permanent locations. They’ve withstood some cold nights already, so a late frost won’t likely bother them.

Believe, gardeners! The digging season is nearly here.

 

 

 

GBFD: March 2015

Christina at My Hesperides Garden hosts Garden Bloggers Foliage Day each month. I missed it yesterday, but better late than never:

daff buds

My snowdrops and crocus finished their show a week or two ago, but the daffodils will take their place very soon. We bought our house at the end of March, many years ago, and I remember the day we closed on the house we drove by, and the front garden was full of waving yellow blossoms.

nettles and comfrey

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) grow in a half-barrel in my garden, providing an enduring source of fertilizer.

The fertilizer barrel woke up last week as well. For two years now, I’ve grown stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) in a half whiskey barrel to produce homegrown liquid fertilizer. Concocting this homebrew is not for the weak of stomach: It reeks. But the nettles provide a terrific source of nitrogen, and the comfrey provides nitrogen, potassium, calcium and phosphorus, which helps promote root growth and blooming/fruiting. My garden plants love it, and the tea feeds the soil.

Red stems and budding green leaves of Salix 'Hakura-Nishiki.'

Red stems and budding green leaves of Salix ‘Hakura-Nishiki.’

And my willows are leafing out. I’m new to growing willows but love the fact that I can whack them back in early spring and they’ll produce lots of lush growth each year. I’m not whacking them this year; I only planted them last fall, so I plan to give them a season to get settled in. I have, however, cut a few twigs to make willow water, which promotes rooting in cuttings. I’ll talk about that in a separate post.

I hope you northern-hemisphere types are enjoying spring wherever you are.

Garden log, 3.11.15

Moved two blueberry bushes today. They’re loaded with buds, so I might have planned the timing of this project a bit better, but I hope this new location will be, um, fruitful.

Moved and divided Christmas ferns yesterday. Amazed at how brilliantly these plants grew with absolutely no help from me. Now they’re in a spot where they’ll get more attention. Can’t wait to see what becomes of them next.

On a walk-around late this afternoon, I spotted this:



Do you know what these wormy little things are? The unfurling leaf buds of Sanguinaria canadensis, also known as bloodroot. One of my very favorite spring epherals. It’s a bit early for them, I think, but I am glad to see them anytime.

Ice storm survival 101: Fill your birdfeeder

Two weeks ago, we received an inch of ice at the MHM garden. Because it’s the South, and we have no snow-and-ice infrastructure, life shut down until we thawed. I think the only thing that kept me sane (a housebound beagle and two kids out of school were decidedly unhelpful in that mission) was the birdfeeder in the back yard.

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis ) and House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis ) and House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

I’m dependent on Merlin Bird ID to tell me who my visitors are. This app, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers a brilliant beginners’ guide to identifying local birds.

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), showing his winter coat. His spring-and-summer one is much livelier.

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), showing his winter coat. His spring-and-summer one is much livelier.

I keep my feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds, which is what they want to seem to eat. These seeds pack protein and fat into a very small, easy-to-shell package. When the temperature plummets, birds need these extra calories to maintain energy and stay warm. And when berries and fallen seed may be encapsulated in ice, a full feeder can make a big difference in birds’ ability to survive.

As the weather warms and more plants come into bloom, I will taper back on the feed to encourage them to scavenge insects from the garden. I hope that they’ll be enough in the habit of visiting my garden that they’ll stick around and enjoy the buffet.

American Goldfinch, showing his distinctive wing markings.

American Goldfinch, showing his distinctive wing markings.

Postcard of spring: Crocus tommasinianus

My first purple crocus, Crocus tommasinianus, bloomed over the weekend. When I see these fellows poking through the mud, I know spring really is nearly here.

tommies sunning

They’re not the first flowers to bloom in my spring garden, but they do seem to be the first ones to signal that warm weather is genuinely on its way.