Blog Archives

The First Time Gardener: How I Decide When to Start Seeds

Figuring out the right time to start your seeds isn’t really that difficult. In fact, some people just start them at the same time every year and consider it done. That is certainly one option. I tend to go about it the long way around, even if it does usually end up the same. Here’s the process I use:

Step 1: Make a list of everything you are planning to grow.

This might seem very basic, but not everyone makes a list before planting! There are people that just go buy plants and seeds and stick them in without even considering anything else. If you were ordering seeds from a catalog, you probably already have a fairly comprehensive list. Here’s what my list currently looks like.

Veggie List

Step 2: Figure out what you need to start from seed indoors.

This step isn’t always as straightforward as you might think. A number of things can go either way. For example, lettuce. Are you going to direct seed it into the garden or are you going to transplant it? Are you harvesting it for baby salad leaves or as a whole head? Sprouting Broccoli? I don’t know…I’ve never grown it before! In the picture above, you can see I have a column marked DS/TP. That is my code for Direct Seed/Transplant. I’m going to go through the entire list and fill in one or the other. This way I can sort my list by that characteristic later if I need to.  It also gives me a quick reference for when I’m filling in the other columns so I don’t have to think.

If you aren’t sure what gets planted from seed outside vs. inside, here is the ever-handy Vegetable Garden Planting Guide. (You want to check page 2, column 2, where it says “Type of Planting.” Things you start indoors are labeled as “transplant.”)

Step 3: Decide how many of each thing I’m going to plant.

Again, this is a little trickier than you might imagine. If I were starting seeds for myself, I might just plant one extra of each thing. (I’ve told our Master Gardeners in the past that I always expect everything to grow, so I don’t like planting multiple seeds in each pot! Same goes here.) Because we are demonstrating a wide variety of different things, sometimes we are only planting one of each variety. Not much room for error! Because of that I typically will plant 3 when I only need one. That allows for germination problems and transplant problems. In my spreadsheet, I will just note the row length for direct seeded (DS) plants. (In the Veg. Garden Planting Guide, page 2, the columns labeled Avg. Spacing will help you figure this out if you aren’t sure how many plants fit in your space.)

TP and Number

Step 4: Determine when you are going to be transplanting all of these different vegetables.

Trust me. You have to decide when they are going out in the garden before you can determine when to start them. This year is a little trickier than normal, because we have a lot of things that are going to be transplanted in the latter half of the summer. If it is horribly hot, I would probably prefer to wait until August to plant. If it is an average summer, we could plant just before Tomato Day, which would be nice. Refer to page 3 of the Vegetable Garden Planting Guide to see approximate “plant outside” dates.

Obviously the things that will be direct seeded I mark with “NA.”

Transplant Date(Also note that I pick a specific day because we always have Demo Garden work days on Tuesdays. Occasionally the weather will outsmart us, but it usually works out.)

Step 5: Decide how many weeks you need to grow something and count back on the calendar from the projected transplant date to the projected seed planting date.

I typically allow 4 weeks to start tomatoes, because they are usually plenty big in that time. I would rather have them slightly small than slightly big. Basil is a quick grower, so that gets 4 weeks as well. Peppers and eggplant can be a little slower to germinate, so I will allow 6 weeks for them. In the fall, most of the brassicas only need 4 weeks to be large enough to transplant.

Complete Seed StartingHere you can see the completely filled in spreadsheet. This is the base plan, divided by garden. From here I will manipulate it so that everything is in chronological order. That way we don’t forget to plant something!

If you are interested in seeing the complete spreadsheet, here it is: Seed Starting Plan

Step 6: Start Planting!

If you are looking for some more in-depth information on seed starting, here’s another article: Seed Starting.

The First Time Gardener: Getting to Know Your Soil

There’s no doubt that our soil is an incredibly important part of our gardening success, and there’s a lot that you can learn from your soil by doing a couple of simple tests. You can also learn a lot just by going out, feeling your soil, and paying close attention to what you feel! Here are 4 simple tests you can do in your garden to get to know your soil better.

Simple Test #1:

Pick up a handful of moist soil and form it into a ball. (The soil shouldn’t be dry or muddy to do this test.) Then gently squeeze the ball of soil. If it crumbles gently, it is probably a loam soil. If it doesn’t crumble at all, it probably is some type of clay soil. If you can’t get it to form a ball, it is probably either very sandy or too dry for the test.

Simple Test #2:

Take your ball of soil and moisten it a little more if need be. Now try to flatten it into a soil “ribbon.” Can you make a ribbon? If so, estimate how long it is. The longer your ribbon, the more clay in your soil. A loam soil will form a very short ribbon or no ribbon at all. A sandy soil…well, you couldn’t even make a ball, right?

Simple Test #3:

Take your ribbon/ball of soil from the first two tests, and break off a small piece. Pour a little water into your hand and massage the soil into a muddy thin paste (almost watery). Feel the thin paste. Does it feel gritty? That’s sand. Does it feel sticky? That’s clay. Does it feel smooth (but not sticky)? That’s silt. Depending on how much you feel one characteristic, that indicates how much of each of those 3 components is in your soil.

Simple Test #4:

Take about 1 cup of your soil and put it in a quart jar. Add a teaspoon of granular dish detergent if you have some. Fill the jar about 3/4 full with water, and put on the lid. Now shake the jar thoroughly so there isn’t any soil on the bottom. Set the jar down and set a timer for 2 minutes.  When the 2 minutes is up, measure the amount of sediment in the bottom of the jar with a ruler and write it down. After 2 hours, measure the amount of sediment again and record it. In 24-72 hours (whenever the water is mostly clear again), record the amount of sediment in the jar again.

The measurement you took after the first 2 minutes is the amount of sand in your soil. The amount of sediment that accumulated after 2 hours minus the first number is the amount of silt. The last measurement (minus the earlier measurements) is the amount of clay. Use those 3 numbers to calculate the relative percentage of sand, silt, and clay in your soil.

From there, you can plug your percentages into the Soil Texture Triangle to get an idea of what type of soil you have.

Using this chart, I would classify the soil pictured above as a Sandy Loam, with quite a bit of organic matter as well!

So why is it important to know what type of soil you have? What difference does it make if you have lots of sand, lots of silt, or lots of clay? You’ll have to check back next week to find out!

The First-Time Gardener: A Round-Up of Posts

No, I don’t mean RoundUp as in the herbicide product that you spray to kill any and every plant. I mean I’m going to provide you a list of some posts from last year that may be a helpful review of information OR if you are a newer reader, they might give you some tidbits to help with your 2010 garden.

The First Time Gardener: Preparing the Site

The First Time Gardener: Preparing the Soil to Grow

The First Time Gardener: Getting Started with Raised Beds

The First Time Gardener: Succession Plantings

The First Time Gardener: How Wet is too Wet?

The First Time Gardener: Understanding Fertilizers

The First Time Gardener: Hardening Off Plants

The First Time Gardener: Scouting for Insects

The First Time Gardener: Plants Need Fertilizer!

Fall Vegetable Gardens

Bean PlantingIt may seem kind of crazy, since it isn’t even August yet (almost!), but it is time to start thinking about our fall vegetable garden in the Demo Garden. We had some kids from a day camp plant another round of beans last week, and then one of the Master Gardeners filled in some of the holes on Tuesday.

Since we harvested the carrots and beets in the Family of 4 Garden (and the onions a few weeks back), we have some space there for fall veggies. We’ll also see how the tomatoes and peppers do – we may pull them out some time in September to plant another lettuce or spinach crop.

The Salad Garden is fairly open for planting as well. We have some cucumbers, arugula, and bull’s blood beets planted right now. There’s also a very young (2 weeks old) planting of lettuce and arugula. There’s lots of space for planting fall salad vegetables…we just have to decide what we’re going to plant!

Here are some things that could be planted for fall vegetables in Kansas:

Vegetables to Plant in Early August

  • Beets
  • Bok Choy
  • Broccoli (transplants)
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower (transplants)
  • Fall Radishes (Such as daikon, etc.)
  • Kale
  • Swiss Chard

Vegetables to Plant from Late August to Mid-September

  • Bok Choy
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Mesclun mixes and other salad greens
  • Spinach
  • Spring Radishes
  • Turnips

The First Time Gardener: Plants Need Fertilizer!

It seems so obvious, and yet it can be a challenge for even an experienced gardener at times. Plants need nutrients. Most soils contain at least some of the necessary nutrients for plant growth, but sometimes there are deficiencies. The soil can lack nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium – one of the essential nutrients. Sometimes we will see a deficiency of one of the less important nutrients (less important in that plants need smaller amounts), but that is not common.

You may think that a new garden won’t need fertilizer. That can be true, but not always. Some of our city soils are pretty depleted! In the Demo Garden right now, we have some good examples of plants that are healthy and plants that are hungry – they could use some more fertilizer.

Nitrogen Deficiency These are some cherry tomatoes that are in gallon pots. (They are for a youth gardening project I’ll be starting next week.) The potting soil doesn’t have fertilizer, and I haven’t been doing a good job of watering with fertilizer either. The plants have kind of a sickly yellow tinge to them. Some of the lower leaves also show some purple color. The yellow is indicative of nitrogen deficiency, and the purple indicates phosphorus deficiency. However, to clearly see the deficiency, let’s compare to a nice, healthy, dark green tomato plant.

Healthy Cherry TomatoesCan you see the difference? This is the row of cherry tomatoes, and we incorporated compost and a pound of an 11-15-9 granular fertilizer before planting. These plants are dark green, healthy, and growing well. They are not over-fertilized because they are setting fruit, but they certainly aren’t starving!

The other place we are seeing nutrient deficiencies is in our Family of 4 Garden. The reason for this is that we have had it continuously planted since the spring of 2008. This garden has hardly had a break! Because of that, it didn’t get very much compost this spring, nor has it had a full dose of fertilizer. Pepper deficiency Look at these peppers. Can you see the differences? The back two rows are nice and green, while the front two rows are small and yellowish. I fertilized the back rows almost 3 weeks ago, and they have really taken off. The front two rows were planted amongst the lettuce plants, and didn’t get fertilized until a week ago after the lettuce was harvested. They are starting to green up, but they are still behind.

FoF Tomatoes The tomatoes in the Family of 4 Garden are also a little bit yellow. They just haven’t been growing as well as the other tomatoes in the Demo Garden. This is a good example of the dangers of interplanting different crops. Undoubtedly these plants need some additional fertilizer. However, cabbage plants are a notoriously heavy nitrogen feeder. They are probably using a lot of the available nitrogen, depriving the tomatoes!

The best solution to deficiencies like these is to sidedress a granular fertilizer (either synthetic or organic) around the plants. Don’t use too much, or you’ll burn the plants! I’ll probably use about 1/6 pound in the  4 x 4 tomato area. You can also use a water soluble fertilizer if you prefer. Topdressing with an inch or two of compost can also help provide additional nutrients.

I’d better go fertilize before I forget!