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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Seed-starting 101

As I write this, we are smack dab in the middle of winter. The snow is being especially stubborn about melting, which has a lot of gardeners even more wistful for the arrival of spring. But there is one gardening project you should be seriously considering: starting some garden plants from seed.

It's easier than you think!

No garden center I know of has a better springtime selection of bedding plants than Tagawa's. But there still might be something different you'd like to try.... or maybe you're just up for a little adventure while you wait out winter. Starting plants from seed may be just what you need!

It's so easy, a child could do it. In fact, if you have any children handy, recruit them to help you. For big folks and little folks, there's a special wonder to eating a bright red tomato in the summer, knowing that it started out as that tiny cream-colored seed back when.

Equipment list

The first item on your list: seeds, of course. Tagawa's seed racks are bursting with hundreds of choices of flowers and seeds that can be started indoors. Be careful of left-over seed from a past gardening season. Seeds' viability.... it's vigor.... can diminish quickly, and result in a poor germination rate.

You'll also want to use a seed-starting mix sold just for this purpose. These mixes are sterile, which cuts down on disease problems for your delicate seedlings. And I don't have to tell you not to use soil from your garden, right? Right. Soil from your garden should stay in your garden, and never end up in flower containers or in the tiny pots your seedlings will be growing in. Just too much risk of importing problems you don't need.

Here a pot, there a pot...

Any small, spanking-clean container with a hole for drainage can be used for starting seeds. Or you can treat yourself to ready-made products especially designed for this project.

There are lots of combinations of small cell-packs and plastic pots that work perfectly for starting seeds. Kris, Tagawa's Annuals Co-director, also likes the ease of peat pots, Jiffy pots and something new: "
Root Riots." Check 'em out. They're little pre-formed cubes of seed-starting mix. They're cute as the dickens, and making planting the seeds a snap.

Let the seed packet be your guide!

There is so much information on seed packets that can help gardeners succeed. The packet will say whether a particular flower or veggie is appropriate for starting indoors. And it will tell you when to plant... usually referring to your area's last frost. For metro Denver, the average last frost is mid- to late May.

The seed packet will also tell you how deeply the seed should be planted. Planting seeds too deeply is one of the most common reasons that a seedling "crop" fails. The standard rule is to plant a seed twice its depth. Twice a tomato seed's depth is about and eighth of an inch. Some very tiny seeds aren't "planted" at all. They're just dusted sparingly on top of the moist planting mix, and gently pushed down just a bit.

And yes, I said "moist" planting mix. It's much easier to moisten the planting mix with warm water before any seeds go in. Set the pots or cell packs in a tray of warm water and let the planting medium soak up the moisture through the drainage holes in the bottom the pots This is also how you'll water the seedlings until they're strong enough to stand up to gentle overhead watering,

Two more steps

Trying to start seedlings in a "bright window" often doesn't work. The seedlings simply need more light that most "bright windows" can deliver.
The answer is to set your seed trays under florescent light fixtures... what you might think of as "shop lights," the kind often mounted above a work bench. Hanging the lights from chains that can be adjusted for length is perfect.

And trust me on this one: the lights will need to be almost touching the plants.... within three inches or so, for about 14 hours a day. That's how much light the seedlings will need to be robust and stocky. Spindly seedlings are usually trying to tell you that they're not getting nearly enough light. And once a seedling gets leggy, it doesn't make for a good transplant.
The clear humidity domes that are generally used when the seeds are planted can be removed once the seedlings are up, letting you put the lights right down at plant level.

Also make sure the seedlings get good air circulation to prevent a fungal disease called "damping off." With too much moisture and too little air flow, damping off can cause your seedlings to collapse right at the soil line. It's a sad sight to see a whole tray of vigorous little plants just laying down.... done for.

A little heat would be nice....

A lot of seeds respond very well to "bottom heat." And the easiest way to deliver that is with a special heat mat made just for this purpose. Tagawa's has heat mats in stock. One of our gardening pro's will be happy to explain how to use them.

Bottom line...

With the right seeds, the proper planting mix, good planting technique and lots of bright light, there's no reason you can't have bragging rights come summer, letting folks know that you grew these flowers or those veggies from seed. Well done!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Tired of snow? Your landscape isn't...

Okay, so I've never been to Minnesota. I'm sure it's lovely. But I'm just not in the mood for what feels like a Minnesota winter.... where you can't see the grass from fall to spring 'cause there's always snow on the ground, and it just won't melt!

I'm spoiled. Colorado winters frequently give us blue-skies and sunshine breaks between storms, so the snow actually has a chance to disappear.

But I'll stop whining now, and look on the bright side, and there definitely is one! Moisture!! And lots of it out of this last storm. Officially, snowfall is measured near DIA, which reported 15 inches of snow from last weekend's storm. The National Weather folks say there was .8" of moisture in those 15 inches of snow.

So those of us who were shoveling out 22 inches and more must have recieved over an inch of moisture, right? Just knowing that makes me feel better about my three hours of shoveling and snowblowing. (And truth be told, I'm still not done.)

Winter water is a big deal?

You bet! (spoken with an adorable Minnesota accent.) Water in winter is a very big deal if you're a landscape plant in a semi-arid place like Colorado.

A lot of people seem to think that when plants go dormant in the fall, they basically take a full "time out!" Not so. The visible portions of the tree or shrub may seem to be frozen in time. But the parts of the plant you can't see, the roots, are still on duty, collecting whatever moisture they can find
and "delivering" it up into the plant on warm days.

So when we get a nice, soaking snow like this past storm gave us, I should be doing more cartwheels than complaining. Then again, you haven't seen my cartwheels

Those tricky trees

I'm convinced that trees have a vindictive streak. If a tree doesn't get enough water during winter, some (or all) of the roots will die. This is especially true of younger trees, those planted during the past few seasons. But the damage to the roots may not show up right away.

Spring rolls around and the tree leafs out and looks vigorous and healthy, using food and energy stored up last season. But it's a trick! When the heat of summer moves in, and the tree is calling for more water, the root system can't deliver. Too much of it dried out and died last winter. The tree's leaves may suddenly discolor or start to dry up and fall off. "Winter dessication" is the technical name for it. I'm cutting to the chase, and just saying the roots dried up and died.

Roots don't have to die!

The general rule of thumb for winter watering is this: If your landscape hasn't received about an inch of moisture in the past four weeks, get ready to drag around some hoses on a warm winter day when the ground isn't frozen. (Don't use the sprinkler system unless you want to blow it out again.)

For young trees and shrubs, set the sprinkler or hose over the outer edges of the root system. The root ball will still be fairly small. Don't water right at the very base of the tree or shrub. That's not where the roots are.

For older trees and shrubs, put the water down in a zig-zag pattern just inside the outermost point of the branches, what's called the "dripline."

Make sure you finish that day's watering in time for the moisture to soak in before freezing termperatures return. We're not trying to make a skating rink.

If trees or shrubs do show winter damage once summer's heat sets in, begin to water them appropriately for their type of tree or shurb, its age, size, and location. Over-watering at that point will only make things worse. The Garden Experts and Tagawa's can help you if you have specific questions.

Don't cheat the lawn!

Lawns routinely show winter damage once spring rolls around. Turf on south and southwest exposures, and turf grown on a slope, can be especially challenging. Again, a hose.... a sprinkler...a warm morning... You get the idea.

If you do this one thing....

If you can push yourself (or your kids) to winter water during dry spells, it can be one of the best things you can do for your landscape. Really!
If it helps, think of it in terms of dollars: trees and shrubs that go into spring strong and healthy, thanks to winter watering, are trees and shrubs you won't have to pay to replace.