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, 1.23.15

Yesterday I planted seeds of Papaver somniferum (Hungarian blue breadseed) and Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape,’ as well as larkspur (Delphinium ajacis) ‘Apple Blossom’ and ‘Pink Queen.’ The breadseed poppy is perennial, but the others are annuals.

Larkspur ‘Apple Blossom’ (Delphinium ajacis ‘Apple Blossom’). Photo by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape.’ Photo by Annie’s Annuals.

I plan to include more self-seeding annuals in my garden this year, though I’m afraid it’s late to be planting poppies in Zone 7b. Perhaps they’ll get a decent zap of cold in February and take hold by early summer. I’ve never had much luck with poppies, but last fall a friend shared her planting technique with me and so far, things seem to be working:

How to Plant Ornamental Poppies

  • Spread a layer of compost 1-2 inches deep over the area where you wish to plant. Smooth the compost with the back of a rake.
  • Scatter the seeds over the compost.
  • Use the head of the rake to tamp the seeds gently but firmly into the compost.
  • Leave them alone. Don’t water; don’t cover.

The seeds are tiny and need light to germinate. In the past, I didn’t plant them in compost, or sometimes I’d forget where I planted them and would mulch them over with shredded leaves. The ones I planted in November have germinated and their cotyledons hover just above the compost. They’re quite tough, having survived heavy rain and some wild temperature fluctuations so far.

I also, against good advice, transplanted some crocuses just before they burst into bloom. Crocuses are tough; they’ll get over it. Some tasks you just have to tackle when you have the time.

(c) 2013 AWH/MissingHenryMitchell

The garden could easily be mistaken for a mud-wrestling pit these days, thanks to  frequent rains and plagues of squirrels that dig up my unfrozen ground to hide their found treasures. I wonder why the squirrels haven’t dug up the poppy seedlings (yet?).

January gardening chores

You may have just gotten the last of your holiday houseguests out the door and the decorations packed away into the closet, and you were probably hoping to spend 10 minutes with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Ha. It’s only 14 weeks until the last average frost date. You think you have time to sit around?

You wish. It’s time to get organized for spring.

First task: Go through that shoebox full of leftover seed packets. If you cannot remember when you purchased the seeds, throw them out. As for the rest, test their viability.

hollyhock seeds

Second task: Clean out the seed flats. Make sure you have enough potting soil and perlite. Winter sow your perennials and hardy annuals and get them out of your house.

Third task: Get out the garden notebook you faithfully kept last year (it was your New Year’s resolution, remember?) and consider your successes and failures. Which tomatoes performed brilliantly and tasted like the perfect summer day? Which ones (which looked so promising in the catalogue) tasted like cardboard and attracted aphids by the bucketful? Which of your experiments in the annual or perennial bed won your heart or turned your stomach? Make notes of the edibles and ornamentals you want to grow this year, and those you will not repeat. Clean out your seeds accordingly.

Fourth task: Look at your photos from last year, or your map of your garden beds (which you made so you won’t accidentally dig up your dormant plants), and analyze where the gaps are. What plants look great in their current spots, and which ones seem to suffer? Will one of those plants perform better if it gets more, or perhaps less, light? Make a plan to transplant poorly performing plants to better spots, and plan which plants to grow in their vacancies.

2014 catalogues, first harvest

The first harvest of the 2014 gardening catalogues.

Fifth task: If you are begging for a break, fine. Take that stack of gardening catalogues and magazines and a pack of post-it notes to the table, along with your coffee or tea. And bring along your maps and plans and notebooks. And something to write with, for goodness’ sake.

Using all of your accumulated data, choose the plants you can no longer live without. Circle them, flag them with the post-its, dog-ear the pages. Prioritize. Of course, you are not going to order more plants than for which you have identified space, because you have learned that lesson already, haven’t you? Plus, your budget is still on life support after the holidays, and wasn’t that another of your New Year’s resolutions, to stay on budget in your gardening pursuits?

Now place your plant orders. The nurseries will ship live plants at an appropriate planting time, but you don’t want to place your order late and find that the Uvularia grandiflora you desperately want, that will be just perfect in that spot near the door, has sold out (again). If you procrastinate you know where this will end: You will find a poor substitute on a clearance rack somewhere that you know will recover under your tender care, and you will plop it in the spot (never mind that it wants full sun and this gets three hours, at best, in the height of summer), and be shocked–shocked!–when it cries uncle six weeks hence.

Your garden is going to have its finest year ever. Your organization and discipline will pay off so handsomely in five months’ time that the local gardening clubs will be clamoring for your wisdom in lecture form, and the neighbors will be resentful because of the traffic slowing down to admire your handiwork.

Count on it.

 

 

Zone 7 Gardeners, Start Your Seeds!

If you live in USDA Hardiness Zone 7 or warmer, it’s time to sow seeds (indoors) of

  • Onions
  • Hot peppers
  • Artichokes
  • Celery

If your onion seed is left over from last year, pitch it out. Onion and leek seed seldom remains viable longer than one year.

How to sow vegetable seeds:

  1. Fill a clean, sterile flat with a soilless mix. Ideally, choose one made for seed starting.
  2. Moisten the mix and tamp it down firmly.
  3. Sow the seed according to package directions.
  4. Cover lightly (if indicated) with sand, perlite, or grit to thwart damping off.
  5. Water lightly again.
  6. Cover with clear plastic and place in a warm, well-lit location.
  7. Monitor every day or so to maintain good moisture levels. When seedlings emerge, remove the plastic covering.

If you’re looking for good varieties to try, consult Cornell’s Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners website. This citizen-science database includes reviews of thousands of vegetable varieties by gardeners across the country. You can filter results by your state, frost-free season, or soil texture.

A simple search of recommended tomato varieties for my state.

A simple search of recommended tomato varieties for my state.

You won’t transplant these outside for some time yet, but these crops need an extra-long head start. Aren’t you glad you have some indoor gardening to do when it’s so cold and nasty outside?

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.

Garden log, 12.19.14

A bit of garden clean-up today gave me a soul-nourishing break from holiday hubbub. Did some raking (oh, endless leaves); planted Cyclamen rohlfsianum (4 seedlings) at the base of an oak tree just above the rain garden. I sowed these seeds last year and set them outside to suffer winter. Just as I was about to throw the pot out, leaves emerged.

The Cyclamen Society says that C. rohlfsianum must be kept frost-free, but life prevented me from getting the pot indoors this fall, and these seedlings have endured a few frosts. I intend to press my luck a little bit. I shall put at least one seedling in a pot in my cold frame, but the others are under a blanket of gravel and dried shredded leaves. Wish me luck.

Raked out the rain garden and dug and divided some Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain,’ making one plant into about a dozen and setting them near the yew, the dwarf Alberta spruce, and a couple under the gardenia hedge. Cut back all the tattered and slug-munched foliage. New leaves are already emerging.

Pulmonaria 'Trevi Fountain'

Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’

Potted up an acanthus and planted out two leatherleaf viburnums, Viburnum rhytidophyllum. That’s in addition to the nine I planted a few weeks ago (I acquired a pile of seedlings from a neighbor’s woods). I’m working on an evergreen screen until I can get enough pennies saved to install a nice, high, deer-proof fence. The English ivy is out of control in the back garden, near the gardenia hedge, but that’s a project for another day.

Did myself a favor and decided not to grow bulb onions from seed this year. They take more work than I have time, and since we go through about 3 pounds of onions a week, I couldn’t hope to save myself a trip to the grocery out of my effort. More room for cut-and-come-again greens instead.

The weather should be perfectly foul tomorrow, high 30s (~3C) and rain. Fine weather to curl up with the deliciously fat catalogue from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and figure out what to plant in place of those onions.

Garden log, 12.15.14

A quick reminder to myself that I sowed in-situ seeds of Nemophila discoidalis ‘Penny Black,’ Verbena bonariensis, Anagallis monellii, and Primula veris. I’ll try some in flats in my cold frame as well, later in the winter, but when it comes to seeds I find that plants do better with less intervention from me. We’ll see whether these follow the trend.

Work on shredding leaves continues. I hope to have a healthy pile of leaf mold come spring.