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.

 

 

 

Garden log, 1.4.15

Despite 70F (21C) temperatures today, it’s winter and I must govern myself accordingly in the garden. I went through the seed packets and found a handful of treasures to winter sow:

I’ll keep an eye on the anemones and spinach. For now, I’m growing the spinach in the cold frame, though I may transplant some of it into a larger bed as the month progresses. The anemones will need a second cold, moist period, so in late spring they’ll migrate to the refrigerator for a month or two. I hope to be able to transplant them to the garden this fall.

January here can be terribly unpredictable: This week, we’ll swing from a high of 70 to a high of 29F (-1.6C). I’m sure we had winter temperature swings when I was growing up, but I don’t remember anything like this. And we always had at least a few snows; that’s not a guarantee now. The more time I spend in the garden, the more I worry about climate change.

My snowdrops are blooming and the foliage of daffodils and crocus stands just above the mulch. I’m closer to my goal of having something in bloom all year round.

This year’s bumper crop of acorns has meant that the deer have stayed away up to now, but two days ago I saw seven (seven!) adult deer at once in the neighbor’s backyard. I hope my garden looks more trouble than it might be worth to them. Thinking more and more about the necessity of a fence, especially with Henry‘s addition to the household. Perhaps he’ll frighten off the squirrels and voles, who are making one heck of a mess in the soft, wet ground.

Trash into treasure: Decorating with weeds

Holiday decorations from the garden delight me in ways other ornaments can’t. I’d rather have pots of forced bulbs, a Christmas cactus, or fresh garlands of mixed greenery than anything else. Well, except for a tree.

It is not in my nature to decline a free giveaway, so when the gentlemen at the tree lot offered scrap trimmings (all I could cart away!), and my spouse was preoccupied with tying the tree to the car’s roof, I grabbed an armload. I kept them in a bucket of water on the deck until I discerned a future for them.

Yesterday, armed with a paddle of florist’s wire and a pair of hand pruners, I crafted a garland for our mailbox.

mailbox left profile full view

It began as an 8-foot-long rope of Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), wired together from cuttings 18 inches long or so, and annotated with silver wired ribbon. But it suffered acute dullness.

Pondering what might give it some verve, I remembered the cardinal rule to add texture. And what luck; I have never, in the ten years I’ve lived here, conquered the English ivy (Hedera helix) that I inherited on closing day. So I yanked up a few yards’ worth and tucked them in amidst the fir. In the winter, the marbling of the leaves seems more pronounced.

A march around the garden yielded leaves of Magnolia grandiflora, seedlings of privet (Ligustrum) and loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), and clippings of Nandina domestica‘s leaves and berries.

mailbox right profile detail

I uprooted an entire plant of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ that has never done well. Off with its evergreen heads, and into the mix they went. They drooped quickly, but no one driving by will notice.

mailbox left profile detail

Not bad for compost-in-waiting, I think.

My seed-grown cyclamen

Last year, I planted cyclamen seeds. Last month, I saw their first stirrings to life.

This month, they’re going nuts. Every time I pass by the pots, I find more leaves pushing up from the gravel.

Cyclamen seedlings

Cyclamen seedlings

Two species are doing very well: Cyclamen coum album, and Cyclamen graecum ssp. anatolicum. I’m surprised that Cyclamen hederifolium isn’t doing as well, as that’s supposed to be the easiest to grow. I have heard that C. graecum is supposed to be quite finicky, although plants from Greece and Turkey tend to perform well here as long as the drainage is good. I can’t wait to see their foliage take on its pattern. Here are two images  from John Lonsdale of the Pacific Bulb Society:

Cyclamen graecum ssp. anatolicum foliage. Photo by John Lonsdale, via Pacific Bulb Society.

Cyclamen graecum ssp. anatolicum foliage. Photo by John Lonsdale, via Pacific Bulb Society.

Cyclamen graecum ssp. anatolicum leaves. Photo by John Lonsdale via Pacific Bulb Society.

Cyclamen graecum ssp. anatolicum leaves. Photo by John Lonsdale via Pacific Bulb Society.

I can transplant them after they have 3-4 sets of true leaves–no idea how long that will take. The Pacific Bulb Society indicates fertilization with an 18-8-18 formula, alternating with a fertilizer based on calcium nitrate. I’ll show in a future post how to mix your own fertilizer blends.

For now, I must sow the rest of the seeds and see if I can get another batch going. The prospect of having such wonderful foliage to get me through a grim winter cheers me up immensely.

What are your favorite winter plants?

Water garden inspiration

I visited a garden center the other day that had a very humble water garden–just 4 x 4 timbers stacked into a large box, basically, and lined with EPDM rubber. But water gardens enchant us, regardless of design.

This simple water garden was constructed by layering 4 x 4 posts , installing a pond liner, securing it to the top post, and covering the rim with 1 x 4 trim.

This simple water garden was constructed by layering 4 x 4 posts, installing a pond liner, securing it to the top post, and covering the rim with 1 x 4 trim.

It wasn’t the aesthetics of the garden that appealed to me, but the simplicity of the construction. Water gardens don’t have to be elaborate, in-ground structures with lots of expensive stone work and magnificent waterfalls. Just about anyone can build a box like this, and the height makes it safer and more accessible. While the fountain the nursery used doesn’t suit my personal style, I could easily envision other options to keep the water aerated.

What I really loved, though, were the plants on display.

water lettuce

Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes)

Water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) is a floating aquatic plant. I find its almost succulent, fuzzy leaves charming, but it’s a plant to be cautious with. It’s not on the US Federal List of Noxious Weeds, but it is problematic in Florida, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, and a few other locations. It can rapidly cover lakes and as a result, may hinder boat navigation and reduce oxygen levels in the water. In a small water garden, a few plants can provide cover for fish and landing spots for insects. If they reproduce too rapidly, compost them. Never dispose of them in bodies of water or in sewers.

Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), as lovely as it is, can be a real nuisance.

Water hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes

Water hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes, can be a dangerous weed if it gets into natural bodies of water.

Water hyacinth is also a free-floating plant. It is not cold-hardy, dying off at 54 F (12C), but it grows quickly, doubling in population in less than a week. To combat the problem this plant poses in tropical climates, some artisans use water hyacinth to weave baskets that get sold in tony home stores. The downside of this lemons-to-lemonade approach is that the baskets get marketed as being made from a “rapidly renewable resource,” implying a sustainability that isn’t really genuine. A market for what is essentially a recycled waste product is wonderful, so long as it doesn’t encourage people to grow more of the stuff.

Many more wonderful water plants exist, most obviously water lilies and lotuses, but because it’s the end of the season they weren’t on display and I don’t have photos of them.

If you’re toying with the idea of installing a water garden in the upcoming growing season, consider some ways you can use water plants responsibly.