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.

 

 

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Seed viability, part 2: Potting up the sprouts

I began the germination test on my hollyhock seeds on January 7. Yesterday, I opened up the bag to find ‘The Watchman’ ready for duty.

germinated hollyhock seed

From your test, gently unfold the paper towel and see what’s happening. The photo above shows an excellent germination rate, and indicates the seed is still quite viable. In fact, of the 17 seeds I tested, 15 sprouted (88% germination rate, or 15/17). I’ve opened up towels to find the seeds exactly as I left them, which is depressing until you remember that that means you must purchase fresh seed.

What to do with them now? Keep them going. And here is a tip: They don’t care to grow on in paper towels. Pot them up!

Potting up bag-germinated seedlings

The seedlings at this stage have only their cotyledons, or seed leaves. Any handling of these seedlings must be done by grasping (gently!) the leaves, not the stem (more properly, the hypocotyl). And to slightly complicate matters, some of the roots have grown through the layer of paper towel.

seedlings embedded in towel

1.  Prepare a seed flat as you would if you were sowing fresh seed (which, clearly, you are).  Use a clean container and fill it with sterile seed-starting mix. Moisten the mix and tamp it down well.

seed pan ready

A clean seed pan filled with moistened, sterile seed-starting mix.

2. Grasp the seed leaves and pull slowly, firmly, but gently. Some of the seedlings may be just beginning to penetrate the paper towel, in which case you may be able to free them entirely. They’ll look a bit like bean sprouts you might find on a salad bar.

bare hollyhock seedlings

3. Make a slit or trench in the seed flat using a spoon or knife. Your finger will work just as well. Lay the seedling into the trench up to where the leaves fork from the stem.

seedling entrenched

4. Gently firm the soil back over the stem and root. Follow the same procedure for additional seedlings, but don’t overcrowd the flat. I’ve allowed six seedlings to a flat 3 inches wide by 6 inches long. None of the roots overlap.

seedlings potted up into the seed flat

5. Keep the flat warm (65-70 degrees) and well lit, either in a sunny windowsill or under a grow light. A fine dusting of sand, vermiculite, or even chicken grit can help to fend off damping-off.

In one more post, I’ll show you how to pot up those seedlings that refuse to release their security paper towel.

Checking seed viability

If, like me, you have flower and vegetable seeds older than your children, it’s not a bad idea to test their viability prior to sowing them. Better to know now whether you’re in for heartbreak, and need to place an emergency seed order with your favorite catalogue.

Seed viability

Seed viability is another term for the likelihood of a packet of seed to germinate. Seeds are living things, and different plant seeds may be viable for longer than others. Onion seed, for example, is generally understood to be viable for one year, while some melons may be viable for longer than 4 years. But these are rules of thumb; if kept in proper conditions, meaning low light, low temperature (but above freezing), and low humidity, seed may remain viable for many years past their average.

A simple way to test seed viability

To test whether those seeds you found in the back of the storage shed are viable, gather together the following supplies:

  • The seed packet
  • Paper toweling
  • Plastic sandwich bag with zippable closure, or a clear plastic container with a lid.
  • Misting bottle of clean water
  • Masking tape and pen or pencil

1. Lay out a sheet of paper toweling and empty a portion of the seeds onto the towel. Ten seeds, or a multiple of 10 for small seeds, makes for convenient estimating.

Hollyhock seeds laid on a clean paper towel

2. Lightly mist the seeds and the paper towel with water.

seeds misted

3. Fold the towel in half, and then in half again. seed towel folded into quarters

4. Lightly mist the folded towel one more time.

5. Slide the folded towel into the sandwich bag or plastic container, and label it using the masking tape. Note the seed contents and the date on which you prepared the sample.

bagged seed viability samples

I’m testing three varieties of hollyhock seed: a “colorful single mixture”; ‘The Watchman,’ a black-flowered strain, and ‘Indian Spring.’

6. Keep the bag or container in a warm place, but out of direct sunlight. I test mine on a corner of the kitchen counter. I also keep the bags for additional seed tests.

After a few days, you’ll be able to check the germination rate. I’ll show you how in a separate post.