Saturday, January 31, 2009

Alien Invaders, Part II

Our most recent aliens are not actually at my house yet (and hopefully never). They were discovered in Worcester, which is about an hour west of us. It hasn't been long since they were first spotted in August of last year though the estimate is that they have been in the area for at least five years based on how far it has traveled.

Imagine huge black spotted beetles about 3-4 cm long. Now imagine their young have a taste for the inside of your maples trees and you live in New England, the land of beautiful fall foliage and maple syrup. It is not a pretty thing to think about.

(Photo: Donald Duerr, USDA Forest Service,

These beetles bore into maples slowly killing them over several years. There are other trees that are susceptible - birch, willow, elm and horse chestnut - but Worcester's trees are predominantly maple.

There have been previous infestations in isolated spots around the country. It gets here from China. Our love for imported goods is what brings it in since it hitches a ride on wooden material, like packing crates and pallets. In the US the control for this insect in the past (and for here) has been eradication.

Luckily it is a lazy insect. It doesn't fly far. Usually it is a home body and sticks to the same area it was born in. It doesn't travel more than a mile and a half and the adults don't over winter. They die after the first frost, though their eggs live on. The most important thing for us to do is not to transport it out of its area via plants, firewood and the like. Currently they have a delineated area that is being quarantined.

The second thing is to find all of the infected trees. Then after the first hard frost (so the adults don't decide to travel more) cut them down and burn them inside the infected area. Infected trees have dig spots in them which can be identified. This is where the adults lay their eggs.

It is a very scary infestation. Much scarier than the one I talked about yesterday. Though it has been eradicated from the US during other infestations, we have never had an infestation found before that is so close to heavily forested areas. The possibility for this getting out of control is much greater than in the past, so if you live in Massachusetts, especially near the Worcester area, please learn how to spot it and what it looks like and take a look around your yard. In the beetle's native area, the trees are all pretty resistant to the beetle. In the US this is not the case.

The photo above is of a dead beetle. It actually has little blue socks when it is alive. If you want to see lots of photos so you can identify it and its dig spots, the UMass Extension has a nice PDF (warning the file is large). It also tells you how to report a find of the beetle on the last slide.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Alien Invaders, Part I

I like to stop by my state's extension service on occasion to read the news. The news for the last couple of months have been all about alien invasions and how to control them. The first alien invader that we noticed showed up at our house in 2006 around Thanksgiving time. Their little triangular shapes swarmed out of the sky towards the house trying to break in. "Take me to your lights," they wanted to say. Yes they were moths - winter moths.

They coated any surface outside that was white. They beat themselves futilely against the glass at night. They totally covered our white doors, making it an effort to get inside without dragging a dozen with us each time. They were very annoying and we hadn't seen them before. They had probably been around the year before, but not in enough profusion to make us sit up and take notice. Now we do.

What weird moths they are too. They are most prevalent in December. Their biology must be very different to be able to function in the cold. I really wonder what their antifreeze is. Northern New England doesn't get them. It is too cold. We live right on the border of their range. We had some very frigid temperatures in November and December. I'm hoping it killed a lot of them off, because they have become a very big pest to our forests.

In springtime their children munch on the trees. I haven't seen such caterpillar poop rain since the last gypsy moth invasion. It comes in such quantities, I keep thinking of sweeping it off my patio and collecting it for fertilizer for the garden. On Cape Cod the invasion is so bad, the oak trees have started dying. They can only take so many years in a row of getting defoliated in the spring before they start to die (the invasion started in Plymouth in 2003 and has spread).

The one good thing that seems to have come out of it in my yard has been the influx of birds. I have seen more different species of birds in my garden than I ever have before (especially warblers). Those caterpillars make good baby food.

Luckily we have a good weapon against our invader. Our own little dive bombing aerial weapon is a fly. Though maybe it is more like ground troops setting mines. They lay their eggs on the leaves which the caterpillars eat. The parasitic fly grows from the soon to be ex-caterpillar. When Nova Scotia was invaded with the same moth, it took ten years for that control to work. Massachusetts started releasing flies in the area about four years ago, so we have a few more years of heavy infestation to go yet. I hope my trees survive.

Our other invasion is also taking down our trees, but deserves its own post.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Precious Seeds

Many people have been getting their seed orders and showing how they store and organize them. It is fun to see all the weird boxes people use. Kathy of Skippy's Vegetable Garden, organizes them planting date, which is a smart system. I tend to organize by type (Nightshade, Lettuce/Greens, Brassica, Cucurbits, Root Crops, Flowers, Herbs, Beans/Peas/Corn). Half my box is taken over by my biggest seeds - beans, peas and corn. I really have too many peas. I had some left over from last year but wasn't sure I would have enough to plant. I think I over did it.

It may be hard to tell in the photo, but I'd better not get too many more seeds. It is bursting at the seems. I'm not sure I can shove anymore in. Luckily peas get planted first. Then I will have space.

I love the box even though it could be a couple inches longer. It is just the right height for seed packets and it has an airtight seal. I usually store it in my fridge. Yes. I give prime refrigerator space to my seeds. I should put them in the basement since the seal is airtight, but I like the low even temperatures of my fridge. I'm hoping my onion seed can be used again next year.

Most seed lasts a long time, but if you store them right they will last longer. They need dark, even cool temperatures and low humidity. A lot of people will say that cucumbers will last 5 years, but the truth is they can last twice as long if they have been treated right by you and the people you buy them from. I've heard they can last up to 10 years. Everyone will give you a different number for how long seeds will last. I tend to think of them as short, medium or long keepers.

Short keepers are the onion family, parsnips, corn, and spinach. Most people will say to buy new seed every year, but I like to try to keep them for a second year. I never finish a whole packet in a year and the seed must earn its keep.

Medium keepers are beans, carrots, peas, peppers and eggplant. These are said to last about two to three years, but you just know that I'm going to plant them at four and five years if they still are hanging around my seed box.

Long keepers are the tomato, cucurbits, brasiccas, beet family, lettuce, and radish. If kept in a good storage space, they can be kept almost forever. Ok others say four to five years. I say my seeds could last longer, but if I haven't used it up by then, I'm probably sick and tired of that variety and will try something new.

I mean really, five years? If I haven't used it up by then, they are wasting the precious space in the seed box and will be told in no uncertain terms that they are unwelcome. Ok tomatoes get a exemption from the chopping block. You can never have too many varieties of tomatoes in your seed box, but if I haven't used a packet of lettuce or radish up in that time, there is something wrong with them.

Of course your seed won't last long if you don't take care of it. My kids are off at college so my mothering instinct gets all used up on my seeds and seedlings - hmm maybe that is why I'm growing all my plants from seed this year. I do remember years when I kept seed in a clear container in my pantry where it can get up to 90°F in the summer.

Now, however, I'm doing it right. I store their container in a nice, dark, cool place. I don't open it up straight from the fridge during the summer when humidity will condense on it. I plan ahead and let it sit on my counter for a few hours to get to room temperature. In the summer I never open the main box except twice (for getting out all the fall seeds then putting them back in). Ok maybe more often. I do have a bad memory and forgot some seeds last year, so had to open it again...and again. My intention is to just open it twice, or three times, maybe four.... At least for succession crops like lettuce and tatsoi, I leave those out all summer. It isn't worth risking my main stash of seed anymore than I already do. I try to treat them right, but sometimes I'm just a bad mother.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Do Follow

I was over at Dirt Digger's blog, "Blunders with shoots, blossoms 'n roots", the other day and noticed an icon I hadn't seen before. "Spread Link Love Do Follow," it said. What in the world? So I clicked on the "Read More" link. Yes, I'll follow any link given a chance, even ones I have no clue as to what they are and who doesn't want to spread the love?

It turns out our wonderful blog hosters automatically put the "nofollow" HTML attribute on our comments. I had no clue. I don't go in and read the source code from my blog very often. For those that are clueless to what I'm talking about, "nofollow" tells the robots that spider the web to not follow the link, but more importantly it means your link is considered not important and isn't counted in calculating your ranking on search engines.

They do this to try to keep spammers out. They figure if spammers can go up in search engine rankings by posting, then there will be a lot of spam out there just waiting to happen. Does it? I doubt it. People still have to type in that annoying list of letters to post a comment. And I have power. Muhahahah! (I was actually at an evil laugh contest the other day and the guys can do it so much better than the girls, but in print we are all the same). I can delete any comment that I don't like. I haven't used it yet, but I can.

Also I take umbrage to them calling my commenters unimportant. I love my commenters. So from now on you will be counted. I've changed my template to get rid of that tag. Now if I could only figure out how to change my comments page, I can add an icon.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Onion Seedlings

We have had some really frigid temperatures since I planted my onion seed on January 15th. My blog says I planted on the 16th, but it lies. Never trust a blog where you can schedule your posts for another day and the blogger is going on vacation.

Anyway I digress. Our temperatures have been frigid and my poor little twelve-packs have been pressed against the window pane shivering. I don't like to get up on cold days either. I stay under my warm covers and hope it will get warmer. However a few hardy souls popped up on the 22nd. Slowly over time more have been emerging. Yesterday I moved the ones near the window, that had very spotty germination to the back row, where most of the seeds are already up. In the above photo the ones that were in the back are to the right and the ones that shivered are to the left.I'm hoping now that they have moved around the other packs will germinate.

Yesterday I planted my leeks and decided to forego the freezing window in favor of behind my computer monitor. The heat comes up there and it is much warmer. I'm thinking their germination will be quicker. Even cool season crops like lettuce and alliums prefer to germinate in the mid 70°Fs. It isn't worth bringing out my heating mat for them, but I will do that in March when the first warm weather crops get seeded (chili peppers).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Reaping the Rewards?

As I said a while ago, my New Year's resolution is to find out if I do indeed save money on my vegetable garden, or if I have the $64 tomato. I think I spend about $300/year and get about the same amount out of my garden. If true, my garden would be a really inexpensive hobby. Even if I do lose some money it would still be a pretty inexpensive hobby. Maybe I save money.

The first thing I have to do is define what my garden is. My garden is the fenced vegetable garden and surrounding perennial beds. It also includes the fruit garden on the other side of the yard. I'm not including the whole yard. I hate the lawn. I'm not including it. It is not my vegetable garden. My foundation plantings aren't included either. Though to be fair, I've basically planted that and have ignored it since. The only addition is a layer of mulch every couple of years. It doesn't get watered. It doesn't get fed (except the mulch). The plants mostly thrive. It really doesn't need me except to weed on occasion.

On the cost side of the equation I have tools. Many of them were hand me downs from my husband's grandmother. Some I bought myself. This year I bought myself a small hand tool that was recommended. I'll find out if I like it or not. My husband gave me a birthday gift this year of a garden fork. I don't spend much. I figure whatever I spend in tools this year, it will probably be about average, so I'm not amortizing the cost of my tools.

However the cost of the garden fence seems a reasonable thing to amortize. It cost about $1200 at the time it was put up. This was 17 years ago and would probably cost a lot more now, but if I spread the cost over 20 years it comes out to be $60 a year. So that is getting added into my costs. In addition I've bought a few things this year to start out. Here is the list:

Total 150.33
Fence 60.00
Pinetree order 56.75
Johnny's order 9.90
Huband' gift 0.00
Ace Hardware 19.50
Fedco 4.18

I'm keeping the records in excel (so I don't have to add) and my list is more detailed to tell me what I really spent it on. The Fedco order is small because I got $100 from my MIL and that is what I spent it on, or to be exact I spent 104.18. I've debated with myself if I should add the gifts in, but decided not to. If I wasn't having this as a hobby, it would get spent on another hobby. But isn't it nice to have a birthday at the beginning of the year, right at seed catalog time?

The incoming into my garden is the poundage of my vegetables times the cost per pound (sorry all those that use the metric system, I like it much better myself, but currently it is in use in the US). The chart below will give the totals. This is also just copied from Excel. I'll keep this and my other one updated, along with a little sidebar tally at least every month, but hopefully once the season starts I'll update it every Monday along with The Veggie Patch Re-imagined. She does a Monday harvest meme, which is great for those of us who eat from our gardens. (And as a side note to her, she ought to look into Mr. Linky when the harvest season starts. I've loved it when participating. Just add my own link to the post. It is really easy to visit all the people who join. The best part is, very little work on your part. We do all the link adding. Of course I've never used it. I'm just assuming it is easy to add :/)

Before I give you the long veggie chart (and you leave due to boredom), I could use some advice. I've found some prices of organic veggies that you can order on the web. I know things are seasonal, and I'll probably change things once they get in season here and I know the real local price, but I'm having some issues.

Flowers are my biggest problem. Flowers are not sold by the pound. They tend to be sold by the bunch or stalk. Oh yes, I am going to give myself credit for the cut flowers from my garden. How in the world am I going to do this? I didn't add them to my sidebar tally since it is based on poundage (though the price will be reflected in the total monetary value). Anyone have any clues? I don't usually buy cut flowers from the store except tulips in spring when I'm dying for things to start growing in the garden.

The herbs, bunching onions, and lettuce ought to be easy once I know how much a bunch weighs. I can do this at the store. I can just imagine what the market will think when I take a pad of paper in hand and start weighing all their herb bunches. I wonder if people will stare or just pretend to ignore me.

Other things are harder. No one sells strawberry spinach or typhon Holland greens. I'll just have to pretend they are some other vegetable when determining the price. I'll probably do this based on use.

Well onto my veggie list. Dang I forgot the oregano and who knows what else. I guess it won't be complete until the end of 2009.

$ lbs $/lb
Total 0 0
Allium, Nabechan 0

Allium, Tropea 0
Allium, Copra 0
Alliums, Garlic, German Extra Hardy 0
Alliums, Garlic, Georgian Crystal 0
Alliums, Garlic, Unknown Softneck 0
Alliums, Garlic, Bogatyr 0
Alliums, Leeks, Lincoln 0
Beans, Dried, Trail of Tear 0
Beans, Dried, Vermont Cranberry 0
Beans, Kentucky Wonder 0
Berries, Blueberries 0
Berries, Raspberries 0
Broccoli, Packman 0
Carrot, Big Top 0
Carrot, Atomic Red 0
Carrot, Sugar Snax 0
Corn, Bon Appetit 0

Cucurbits, Cucumber Diamant 0
Cucurbits, Costata Romanesco 0
Cucurbits, Dark Green Zucchini 0
Cucurbits, Winter Squash 0
Eggplant, Slim Jim 0
Eggplant, Lavendar Touch 0
Greens, Cabbage, Gonzales Mini 0
Greens, Chard, Bright Lights 0
Greens, Chard, Rubarb 0
Greens, Chinese Cabbage, Rubicon 0
Greens, Lettuce, Red Sails 0

Greens, Lettuce, Merveille de Quatre Seasons 0

Greens, Lettuce, New Red Fire 0

Greens, Mizuna 0

Greens, Mustard Spinach 0

Greens, Pac Choi, Fun Jen 0
Greens, Strawberry Spinach 0

Greens, Tatsoi 0

Greens, Tyfon-Holland Greens 0

Herbs, Basil 0

Herbs, Basil, Holy 0

Herbs, Basil, Lemmon 0

Herbs, Chamamile 0

Herbs, Chives 0

Herbs, Cilantro 0

Herbs, Dill 0

Herbs, Lemon Balm 0

Herbs, Parsley 0

Herbs, Peppermint 0

Herbs, Thyme, English 0

Herbs, Thyme, French 0

Herbs, Thyme, Golden Lemon 0

Peas, Snap, Cascadia 0
Peas, Snap, Super Sugar Snap 0
Peas, Snow, Mammoth Melting 0
Peas, Snow, Snow Bird 0
Peppers, Cayenne 0
Peppers, Jalapeno 0
Peppers, Serrano 0
Potato, Kennebec 0
Radish, Reggae 0
Tomatillo, Pineapple 0
Tomato, Sungold F2 0

Flowers Total 0

Borage 0

Digitalis, Dwarf Red 0

Marigold, Ground Control 0

Monarda, Panorama Mix 0

Nasturtium, Jewel Mix 0

Sunflower Music Box 0

Tithonia, Fiesta Del Sol 0

So there you have it. The gardening seaons is barely underway and I'm already $150 in the hole. I get a much better appreciation for how useful CSAs can be for the farmer. You know it will get better, but you still have to dish out all the money at the beginning of the season.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Solutions to a Different Problem

While looking for the cost of organic tatsoi on the web (research for my New Year's resolution), I ran across someone who wrote a thesis in the '90s about raising vegetables on roof tops. Though it didn't give me the answer I was looking for, I couldn't help but read it.

The article was a bit dry, not that that would deter me from reading it. His beds had soil that was only 3" deep to keep the roof from collapsing, but he did succeed in growing things. Sadly he concluded that it wasn't an economically viable enterprise. The useful tidbit that I got out of it was from his use of soil blocks.

Since I'm trying soil blocks this year and they can be eroded by watering from above, I've been contemplating how to water them. I had decided to just bottom water and hope they hold up. I don't like the idea of misting the little seedlings which is the recommended solution. It promotes disease in our humid area. However this author watered with a capillary mat. Yes! That is the perfect solution. I think even my husband can take care of my seedlings with a capillary mat.

I'm not using the author's route to a capillary mat which was buying a commercial one. Surely one would be easy to make with materials at hand. I have lots of cloth of different kinds: leftover bits from making things, old t-shirts and the like. I'm sure I'll find something that will prove appropriate after a little bit of testing. Before testing however another web search was at hand. What do other people use? I've found the most often recommended cloth is an old acrylic blanket.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Pretty But Deadly

No I'm not talking about Foxglove or Monkshood, but my icicles which are the only things growing in my garden - well that and the snow piles. The views you see are of my garden in the winter. Ok so you really don't see the garden much in the top one. The icicles made it to over 5' long. It is hard to see that they are that long from the perspective in the photos but they are. The strange light patterns that you see on the snow in the garden are not window reflections. They are the sun bouncing off the icicles, which gives you a better perspective for their size.

Today I was out hacking away at the 5" of ice on the driveway under the icicles and looked up. Ack! 3' monsters on that side of the house. I went inside and knocked most of them off. I figure it is safer that way.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Desert Island Challenge

Shirl is doing a meme about what three plants you would want with you on a desert island, with the caveat that the food crops are already available, you don't have to worry about the climate, and any plant will grow.

I'm such a practical sort that my first choice would be a large bamboo plant (though it might already be available since people do eat bamboo shoots). I could construct fences, houses, furniture frames to make my life more comfortable. I could make wind chimes and flutes to feed my soul. I could make fish spears to supplement my diet. I can't come up with a more useful plant. Plus I love the look of bamboo groves.

My second choice would be rattan (one of the thinner species) to be used for basket weaving, ties for my bamboo construction, comfortable seating, even carpets. The berries also make a nice peach dye. It isn't a pretty plant, it is just practical, but hard to beat for its usefulness.

I thought about using my third choice for some clothing, if I did it would be flax (cotton is much harder to process by hand), but I decided to pick a frivilous plant that would make me smile. Flowers are wonderful, but to me the scent of a plant is much more important. I grow box in my garden just so I can brush by it and smell it. No, box is not my pick. Jasmine is my pick. It is one of my favorite scents and I can't grow it here in the north, so I'll put it on my island.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Birthday Presents

It was my birthday recently and my MIL gave me a check to spend, but what am I going to spend it on? I have for many years wanted to know what soil blockers were like, but hadn't been growing many seedlings myself for a few years. The few that I grew got reused six-packs and flats. Now that I'm growing most of them, I think I don't have enough six-packs saved up. It would be a good time to try soil blocks.

I'm not sure what size to get. Should I just get one at 1 1/2"? Should I get a potting up system with the 3/4" and the 2"? The 1 1/2" would be able to fit more seedlings on the tray. I need at least 50 to fit in a tray. That would be squishy with the 2" ones, but I think possible - or maybe not. Maybe I can only fit them in at 4x9 instead of 5x10. If I pick the 2" size, there will be more soil in the block and the seedlings can be held indoors longer if necessary.

Of course EG is going to come in here and say just make them yourself. I did look into that. I could do it. I have the materials. They would be really cheap. They would also have to be round, since I would make them from pill bottles. To me round seems like wasted space under the lights. If I do a 4" one, I'll make it myself, because at $100 for one there is no way I'm going to buy one.

In addition I've looked at the soil mixes to use. It seems I need soil from the garden to make it. Ha! That garden is frozen solid until March sometime. Where do you get garden soil without a garden to dig it from? Potting soil perhaps? So if any of you have suggestions, or have used a soil blocker in the past. Give me some advice. I could really use it.

Oh and speaking of birthdays presents. My DH gave me a garden fork. My old fork came from his grandmother 20 years ago. She moved out of her house into an apartment and I inherited all the tools. The fork at the time was old, rusted and bent. I used it anyway. After 20 more years the handle eventually rotted away. I really need a new one and hubby got it for me. This one ought to last me for the rest of my life - as long as I don't lose it like I did my compost fork. Never let the kids play with you tools unless you don't want to see them again.

Working on my Blogroll

I've been working on my blogroll like I promised. I decided just to use Blotanical's widget for the blogs that I follow there. I'm using it since it doesn't take up a ton of space; it is easy to drop in; and it updates itself if I update my Faves (thanks Stuart). There are a few on this list that haven't posted much recently. I'm not going to remove them yet since we are under a blanket of snow and no gardening posts seems reasonable right now.

I'm still working on my non-Blotanical blogroll. I chose to put in a drop down list so you won't have to scroll down terribly if you want something else from my sidebar. Do people like that choice? Do you prefer to see them all at once? I personally hate scrolling so try to minimize that. If I could put my labels in a drop down list I would.

As to the blogs on the list, I'm trying to keep to the people that have been keeping up with posting, at least up to the end of the gardening season. Right now it is just alphabetical and as you can see I'm hardly done.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My Rant About Other Bloggers

I have a beef with some of you bloggers out in blogland. My husband has been traveling for work a lot recently. No I'm not blaming THAT on you, but my husband being gone leaves a lot of my evenings free to waste time on the internet. What do I do (besides studying up on tomato breeding)? I play "Follow the Blogs".

The game involves taking one of my favorite blogs, then following a few links from their favorite blogs, then following a few links from their favorite blogs, then.... Well you get the idea. It is fun to see what kind of blog pops up. Some are funny, some are serious, but mostly they are good to read. I do however have issues.

The first issue is that I don't know who these people are. Some don't have "about" pages and some people put their about pages on the bottom - after I've had to scroll down pages and pages. Really I'd love to see the photos of your pets, but I'd like YOUR blub above theirs. I tend to follow the gardening blogs and without the info of where you are, I can get freaked out. I start reading about you picking your first tomato and I have to look outside at all my snow to assure myself I haven't gone insane. Yes you live in Australia or Florida, but my mind is still firmly rooted in New England. Ok not so firmly rooted. Really my mind is trying to break free from all the snow, but it's stuck in the frigid weather.

My second issue is with comments. I love someone's site and want to tell them so. I spend a little time writing then click to post it and I can't. I have to log in. In some places at least they tell you that before you log in. But either way, I'm not logging in to a site I'm not already a member of. I have enough user IDs and passwords to remember already.

The third issue is your blog rolls. First why don't you have one and if you have one, why don't you keep it up to date? I hate clicking and finding out that person hasn't blogged in two years. Umm. . . you noticed that I myself don't have a blogroll. Err really I had one at one point. I started updating it and messed it up totally. The easiest thing was to just take it down and start over. I promise I'll get to it. Stop nagging. But in all seriousness, so long and thanks for all the blogs. This weekend I'm off to an enchanted land where everyone would understand my last reference.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Official Start of the Gardening Season

The gardening season doesn't officially start until the first seed is planted. Yes this morning would freeze the feathers off of an arctic owl, but it is the start of gardening season in my house. My first onion seed has bit the dust . . . err dirt.

The seed packet pontificates, "Plant the seed 6-8 weeks before the last frost". Who believes such stuffy rules? Not me. It is three months before my last frost date but still the onions will be planted. Whether I should have listened to my seed packet has yet to be seen. I may be pushing the season a bit too much. I haven't grown them in years. I vaguely remember planting seed at the end of January in the distant past. But I can't be sure. I had no blog years ago to help me remember.

I planted two varieties. Copra is an excellent storage onion (supposedly since I haven't actually grown it before) , despite this it is high in sugar. I am anticipting the joy of carmailzed onions next winter. My other choice was Tropea which is an Itallian red torpedo onion. It doesn't keep - not at all. I've planted about 1/3 Tropea and 2/3 Copra. I'll eat the Tropea over time as it matures. Some as little bulbs, some as bigger ones.

I don't have the typical flats that you broadcast onion seed into and was too lazy to root around in the recycling to find an appropriate container, so I just planted two seeds in each cell of the twelve packs - four of them in all. That ought to give me 48 little seedlings to transplant. I use a pencil as my dibbler. The packet said 1/4" deep. This time I think I listened, it is very hard for me to see the onion seed without my glasses.

If you notice in the top photo, I put the remaining onion seed in a tiny plastic bag. I'm going to try to keep it until next year. Onion seed is notorious for not keeping well. Usually you use it for one year and that is it. I'm going to immediately stick it into my fridge in my airtight seed storage box. I won't open it again until next winter (or massive seedling failure this year). Next year I'll still order seed, but maybe I can have more varieties.

I'm really doubting that 48 plants would be enough onion for any family even my vegetable hating one, but it is a start. At least if the poor little things grow and if they can overcome my lack of regard for common garden wisdom.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day January 2009

We are locked in the dead of winter here in Boston. The prediction is for us to break the 0°F barrier tonight - yes cry for my hardy rosemary since it has definitely bit the dust. It doesn't happen often here, but it is the reason we are in zone 6 and not zone 7. I will point out that it makes it very hard for the flowers to bloom right now.

But I can picture in my mind the white flowers with their six petals slowly unfurling, growing into the cold like a six pointed star. I can also see the little crystalline bee fluttering by, waiting to pollinate it, or it might just be a snowflake, it is hard to tell. My brain is frozen in the cold.

I looked down on my frozen, snow covered garden and only saw a blanket white. No flowers. Not even pretty snowflakey ones. Just small tracks of the dreaded chipmunk in the snow. He hunts for my tomatoes even now. However once I looked up I saw the prettiest of flowers growing from my roof. It was the Makeupius iciclium.

It had opened in all its glory, so I will share that one with you today.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tomato Breeding

To help me with my tomato experiment, I spent all my free time yesterday reading about tomato breeding and genetics. Wow. There are a ton of genes that they know about (and that link is just a sample). I learned some interesting facts, not all of them about tomatoes either.

The most important fact was that unlike most modern tomatoes, the Sungold plant has long stigmas that stick out from the cone of the anthers. Most modern tomatoes hold the stigma inside the anther cone, so the modern tomato is always self-pollinating. Well Sungolds aren't always, nor are some old Heirlooms and wild tomatoes. They are free to cross with any tomato close to them, though still often cross with themselves. I had two other tomatoes in my garden - Aussie and Orange Blossom. Did they cross with my Sungolds? I did have bumble bees working the tomatoes last year.

I read that sometimes you want to select plants that have some traits that you like then recross them back with the origianal plants. I'm not going to do that. To do that you have to isolate the flower and strip it of its anthers before the pollen is viable, then hand cross it. Nah. Maybe some year. Right now I'm just going to let them grow and see what I get. I'll pick the best and save seed from those.

I learned that the Mi gene gives resistance to the root knot nematode (along with some aphids and whiteflys), but it works much better as a hybrid. If it carrys two copies of the gene (which an open pollinated plant would), it doesn't work as well. Too bad. I'd love to have that resistance in an OP tomato.

The most shocking thing I found out was not about tomatoes at all. Brassicas are self-incompatable for pollination. I knew that apples and blueberries need different pollinators, but figured all the garden vegetables have been bred in the past to be open pollinated homezygous plants that would breed true from themselves. Brassicas actually don't like being homozygous. Even if you cheat and bud pollinate them (a technique where you polinate the stigma while the flower is just in bud) they oftens still don't like to grow because they like their genetic diversity.

With all this new knowledge, I'm still going to do just what I was before. Plant them; see how they grow; save the ones I like. I would love to learn more however. The subject of plant breeding is really enthralling. I've followed Daughter of the Soil this year in her amatur plant breeding of peas and was facinated. I've been looking at books too. I'm thinking Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's & Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding & Seed Saving would be a good introduction. It is an older book and some of the story line is a little out of date, but the breeding and saving parts are still up to date.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tomato Dreams

Yesterday the Ottawa Gardener wrote about trading tomato seed. I've been debating what to do with my tomatoes this year. Should I buy transplants from Verrill Farm like I did last year? They have thirty varieties to choose, including lots of heirlooms. Or should I play with my seed? Isn't playing lots more fun?

I saved seed from last year's Sungold plants. Sungold is an F1 hybrid, which means it won't come true from seed. Usually. I've been told by the Seedman that sometimes the seed companies have already stabilized it while still calling it a hybrid. And then again, sometimes not.

This year I'm going to grow that seed and see what I get. I could get lots of Sungolds, which would be yummy, but fairly boring. They could be red or yellow . They could be large or small. Or I could get something tasteless and diseased. I haven't yet looked into tomato genetics so I'm not sure what which genes are recessive. But it will be fun to find out and even more fun to see what turns up on the plants.

And before you think that I have a chance of not getting any yummy garden tomatoes to eat next year, just know that I have a fabulous farm nearby - Wilson's Farm. In August and September they sell their tomatoes, which taste like real ripe picked garden tomatoes, in heaping gallon containers for just 2 for $10. They are hard to beat. My garden tomatoes don't taste any better than theirs. In addition I still have some Busa Bucks to spend next year. So I can go pick some real Sungolds or Black Cherry tomatoes if I really need them.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

From Seed to Seed

You may have noticed a couple of days ago a new banner appeared on my sidebar. Melinda of One Green Generation has offered up a new challenge this year - The Growing Challenge, From Seed to Seed. "Grow a new crop from seed this year, nurture it organically, and then successfully harvest enough seeds to grow next year." I had to get a clarification and found out that the crop didn't have to be new to me as long as I hadn't saved seed from it before. Also it was actually collecting seed. Letting a crop self sow doesn't count.

Last year I saved seeds from Cosmos, Pink Mallow, Parsely, Dill, and Tomatoes. This year I want to save more. I'd like to save seed from the two bean varieties I was given and the one zucchini, also, Neck Pumpkin, tomatillo, lettuce and bunching onions (if they survive the winter under their row cover). I'd like to save seed from the chili peppers too, but am worried about how they might cross. Though they are self pollinating plants, they can still easily cross pollinate.

A new challenge is always fun. This one will make me look at all my plants and contemplate if it is worth the effort of saving seed from them. Some won't be worth the extra space and time required, some will. I do have 47 open pollinated varieties that I'm growing from seed this year and only 10 hybrids, so I have a lot of possibilites.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Lighting Setup Finished

I finally got out and bought my plant brackets. They cost way too much. I wanted little $5 brackets, but since they had to be at least 15" the only ones that fit the bill were very heavy duty brackets. The light is incredibly lightweight and really doesn't need all that metal.

When I put them up I brought out my handy dandy stud finder, only to find that the battery died. When I took it out the whole plastic/metal part that connects it to the rest broke off. So I tried doing it the old fashioned way, rapping my knuckles on the wall, to no avail. I have thick real plaster walls and the window and ceiling are very close together. So I just put the brackets in the plaster. As I said the light is very lightweight and the plaster is thick. I think they will hold just fine.

The light is plugged into a timer and that will be plugged into the wall. They hang from chain so they can be adjusted. The whole setup is ready to go when I need to start seed in exactly one week. In the bright midday sun the blue LED light seems pretty weak. I was worried about seeing my plants, but during the daylight I should have no problems. Now I'm just crossing my fingers that the LEDs can make stocky seedlings. I'll let you all know in a month or two.

March Update: go here to see how the LEDs did. See the last paragraph on the page.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Planting Schedule

Yesterday was another fun day. My Pinetree order showed up. I was a little worried when I went over what I ordered and what was in the box. Two of the seed packets were missing. When I was looking in the box to see if I missed them somehow, I found the little pink slip telling me that they were on backorder. So my Neck Pumpkin and Pineapple Tomatillo will show up later.

I have a basic list of what I'm growing and when I should be starting all my plants (shown at the bottom, "In" means date to plant indoors, "Out" means date to transplant or direct seed outside). This list is not totally complete. I do succession crops for most of the greens and lettuce. So every couple of weeks more will be seeded. I only have the first date listed.

Also The plants at the bottom don't have dates. They go in when I feel like it. The three sister's plants are very reliant on temperature and how their sisters are doing, so their planting dates are really more up in the air even though there is a date to plant each one on the list.

My last frost date is May 1st. Last year it was actually April 16th, but May can be a cold wet month even if there is no frost. I really look at the weather before I put out things like tomatoes, peppers, cucurbits and eggplants. Dates are really just a guideline.

Also My MIL just told me when she was taking me to Canyon Ranch (don't I have a great MIL?). I'll be gone May 4th to May 10th. I'm really hoping my husband can keep my tomato and pepper seedlings alive while I'm gone. I'd love it if I could get all those seedlings out to the garden before I leave. Maybe the weather will cooperate, but that would be really pushing our spring season.

Plant Name In Out
Onion Cobra 1/17 3/20
Onion Tropea 1/17 3/20
Leeks Lincoln 1/17 3/27
Onion Bunching Nabechan 2/21 4/3
Lettuce Prizehead
2/28 3/20
Lettuce Red Sails 2/28 3/20
Lettuce Merveille de Quatre Seasons 2/28 3/20
Lettuce New Red Fire 2/28 3/20
Asian Greens Purple Mizuna 3/13 4/3
Asian Greens Tatsoi 3/13 4/3
Asian Greens Fun Jen 3/13 4/3
Chard Bright Lights 3/13 4/3
Chard Rubarb 3/13 4/3
Parsley Flat Leaf 3/13 4/3
Asian Greens Chinese Cabbage Rubicon 3/13 4/10
Broccoli Packman 3/13 4/17
Cabbage Gonzales Mini 3/13 4/17
Marigold Ground Control 3/13 5/1
Monarda Panorama Mix 3/13 5/1
Pepper Cayenne 3/13 5/15
Pepper Early Jalapeno 3/13 5/15
Pepper Serrano 3/13 5/15
Potato Kennebec 3/20 4/3
Tithonia Fiesta Del Sol 3/20 5/1
Tomato Aussie 4/3 5/15
Tomato Sungold 4/3 5/15
Basil Holy 4/17 5/15
Basil Lemon 4/17 5/15
Basil Sweet Basil 4/17 5/15
Eggplant Slim Jim 4/17 5/29
Eggplant Lavender Touch 4/17 5/29
Cucumber Diamant 4/24 5/15
Tomatillo Pineapple 4/24 5/15
Peas Snap Cascadia
Peas Snap Super Sugar Snap
Peas Snow Snow Bird
Peas Snow Mammoth Melting
Carrot Big Top
Carrot Atomic Red
Carrot Sugar Snax
Nasturtium Jewel Mix

Sunflower Music Box
Corn Bon Appetit
Squash Costata Romanesco
Squash Dark Green Zucchini
Squash Neck Pumpkin
Bean Pole Kentucky Wonder Wax
Bean Pole Cherokee Trail of Tears
Bean Pole Vermont Cranberry
Digitalis Dwarf Red

Greens Mustard Spinach

Greens Strawberry Spinach

Greens Tyfon-Holland Greens

Radish Crimson Giant

Radish Reggae

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Seeds from Another Garden

Several weeks ago I offered some seed from my garden. Some of it was saved from my garden and some was leftover seed that I wasn't going to plant this year. I didn't get any takers (still available - free for the taking), but I did get a couple of responses in the other direction.

Ottawa Gardener offered me some Cherokee Trail of Tears and Vermont Cranberry pole beans saved from his garden. These provided much excitement as they showed up in the mail yesterday. Then Ali from Henbogle offered me some Costata Romanesco seed. I'm awaiting that one with as much anticipation as my whole order from Pinetree.

A lot of people love to save seed and trade. They do it for all different reasons. One of the best is to keep rare breeds of plants alive. It is important to keep the genetic diversity of our food crops. One only has to look at the lesson of the 1970 corn blight to understand that issue.

However my desire is different. To me growing seed from another's garden reminds me of the person and their garden. It provides a connection. When I plant the seed, tend, harvest and eat it, I will think of them and their garden. If someone were to grow my dill seed and I saw it in the photos of their blog, I would know its history - over 10 years of self seeding here in my garden.

Because the seed has meaning, I'll work to save that seed every year and replant it. Maybe pass it along myself if I've saved enough. Beans are easy to save, they mostly self pollinate without any work. I'm hoping they are like peas and corn and show their differences if they actually do cross. Since they are dried beans I'll just save the best ones for planting (from the most prolific plants) and I'll eat the rest.

The zucchini will be a bit more work. I'll have to keep both the male and female blossom bee free and pollinate it by hand. I'll mark that squash and let it mature. I'm curious how big it will get when it ripens. It is a zucchini. I'm betting huge, but I've never actually had one of those baseball bats in my garden. I always pick them earlier.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Visiting Turkeys

I've been very busy posting about other things, but wanted to share a couple of fun photos. New Year's Eve brought a heavy snow storm for us, maybe 9 inches. We were supposed to go to a friend's party, but their town was having a snow emergency (no street parking) and we thought it was the height of folly to drive in the snow storm with all the not quite sober people.

So we stayed home and invited over a few friends that live close. Two families could just walk, but two had to drive in. They had to park in the driveway so the plows could get by. I went downstairs (we have a split) to check out front to make sure the driveway was still clear for them to park in. Who should I see in the front yard but the neighborhood turkeys.

I was getting worried about them. I hadn't seen them in a long time. I wasn't sure if they would get enough food this year. Like the rest this quadrent of the US, we had no acorns this year. I figured the squirrels and chipmunks that usually collect them would have to be eating other things and the turkeys would have more food competition.

They are still there, all 14 of them. It put a smile on my face. They came in to the yard to eat my holly berries. I have two female hollies that flank either side of my front landing. DH took these photos just inside our door and he was just three feet from the closest birds. Now I'm really hoping holly berries aren't poisonous to birds like they are to people.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Crying Over Onions

I put in my order for seed week ago. Though it didn't quite go through like I planned, the seeds are on their way. For most gardeners this is a very early order. We love to ponder our choices. What would January be without a hot cup of tea and and a seed catalog in hand? Why would I deny myself the great pleasure of catalog gardening?

It is because I've planned to start seeds in January and they must be on my doorstep before my chart says it is time to start onions. This year my chart says January 17th, in just 11 more days. Eeekk. I'm used to starting in April, or March if I'm putting in my peas at the right time, which in the past was very, very unlikely. But this year I'm trying to grow almost everything by seed. So early it is. Sniff. I'll miss my seed porn (as Burbanmom was calling it yesterday over at the Green Phone Booth).

I actually think of the end of January as the perfect time to start onions. It is what I'd done in the ancient past, but I have an issue with my new light setup. It has one and only one light - well 225 itty bitty lights, but only one ON switch. My old setup had different shelves and if one veggie needed 12 hours of light and another 16 hours, all was good with the world - well ok I would use too much electricity and it would cost me, but I could do it. This year it is just one light and all the seedlings must put up with it.

This is an issue because I'm growing onions. Onions are strange things. They live by how many hours of light they get. When the day length reaches a critical level, they quit putting on vegetative growth and start to bulb. Premature bulbing means tiny little bulbs.

Onions come in different types according to the length of day that they start to bulb. I live in the north, so I need long day onions. Long day onions bulb when the plants get 14-16 hours of light each day. I will have to keep the the artificial light on for no longer than 12 hours each day. Copra should be fine with that. The other onion I'm growing is Tropea, which is an intermediate to long day onion. I'm hoping it can handle 12 hours.

Will my new light be bright enough for my other plants with just 12 hours of operation? I really think they need more like 14 or 15 hours, so I'm pushing my onions up a bit. I'm going to take them out of house on 3/13 to start hardening them off. They will live for a week on my kitchen windowsill or outside, then they will be planted on March 20th which is 6 weeks before my last frost date. This is really, really early. It is the time we plant peas around here if the ground is workable. I haven't heard anything bad about planting onions in the cold. In slightly warmer climes they plant them in the fall and over winter them. So I'm hoping they work. I'll put a row cover on them to help out a bit.

I need to get them out by March 13th because that is the date I'm starting the majority of my other plants. A few plants like my extra early lettuce and my leeks will have to live with the low light for a few days.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Indoor Growing Setup - My New System II

In the last installment I told you that I bought a new blue grow light. I want to put it in the laundry room where my old system was. The laundry room has a nice bank of windows facing southeast. There are deciduous trees outside, but in the spring there is still a lot of light. I don't want something permanent or complicated since I haven't a clue as to how long I'm going to still be in this house. More importantly I don't want to buy anything. I just want to use something I already have.

The laundry room windows are about 4' off the ground and I want the shelf for the plants to be at that height to get the best light. I might have artificial light, but that is no reason to waste the natural wide-spectrum light.

I looked around the house, in the basement, and in the garage for something I could use to put my flats on. I finally found the perfect shelving unit. The only flaw was that my kids were using it for their D&D equipment in the playroom. I know my kids are adults now, but they are still in college and store their stuff here. I'd have to find a place to put it.

The shelves however are perfect for me. They are wooden and actually two units stacked on top of each other. They are only 16" deep. But I had a plan. I took two shelves from the inside and put them across the top perpendicular to how they usually go. To make sure the shelves were stable near the window end where they stick off the unit, I stacked a couple of paperback books on the windowsill. I now had a totally stable 32"x32" working surface. But where would I put my kids stuff?

There are other shelves in the playroom, including three long ones that I took over years ago for my National Geographic collection. The magazines start at 1949 and go to 2006. This is about 18 linear feet of magazine. That would be a perfect place for the kids stuff. I no longer use the magazines. I've been wanting to get rid of them for ages, but just haven't taken the time to do it.

I listed them on freecycle and a day later a science teacher from Lexington asked for them. The perfect home. She came on Saturday to pick them up. Now my house is even more decluttered. I'm happy and she has nice reference material.

I had just a couple of problems left to solve. Plants grow best in strong light. My old system just had some white boards to reflect the light back onto the plants. I debated a white surface or a mirrored surface. The mirror reflects more light, but can cause hot spots. White colored surfaces don't reflect as much light but they are safer. I decided to try the mirrored surface this time. My reflector is very simple. It is just three sides of a cardboard box with aluminum foil taped to it. In the photos below the left one is how it will be set up when the plants are growing. In the photo to the right the reflector is turned around so you can see it better. This is not a particularly pretty setup with the cardboard box, but I could make it pretty by putting photos on the back side.

So I have a shelf to put the plants on, a light to grow them with, a reflector to maximize the light and I already own a light timer. All this cost just $50 for the light and a couple of cents for the aluminum foil. The only thing left is just a way to suspend the lights over the shelves (and maybe a small fan). Should I put hooks in the ceiling? Should I put plant hanger brackets in the wall? Or do I build something to put on the shelves that will hang it? I'm at a dilemma. I'd rather not put holes in the ceiling and I'm feeling really lazy and don't want to build anything. I'm guessing 18" plant hangers from the wall will work, or maybe I'll wander through Home Depot looking for answers. Or maybe one of my readers has a good idea? Whatever happens, I'll need the system to start my onion plants before the end of January.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Indoor Growing Setup - My New System

So my last post showed it would cost me $4.26 each month to grow two flats of seedlings under a fluorescent light fixture with two 40 watt bulbs. I can do better with LEDs. A few months ago I bought an LED light that is a foot square and has 225 little LEDs. It draws just 13.8 watts and can handle two flats (give or take, I do hear that is can handle anywhere from 2.25 sqft to 6 sqft - two flats are 2.8 sqft so we will see). For a month this is just 17.25% of the draw of two 40 watt bulbs or just $0.74/month.

They do have a major drawback though. Number one is that their start up costs are expensive. Mine ended up costing about $50. You can get a fluorescent light fixture for under $10 and bulbs for $3. So a set up can be just $15. Over time however you save yourself money. I'm guessing for me it will be $12/year in electricity costs (3 1/2 months). Also LEDs last years and years, probably close to 50 years if all you use them for is starting seedlings in the spring. Fluorescent lights don't last as long (and they fade) and ballasts also have to be replaced. But if I just look at electricity costs it will be about 3 years before it pays off. So in the long run it is cheaper and better for the planet.

The biggest issue with LEDs is that you have to know what you are going to grow. You need different LEDs for leaf growth than flower growth and if you are going for caratenoid levels in your plants you might choose even different LEDs. Unlike fluorescent lights which put out light in a wide spectrum, LEDs put out light in a very tiny spectrum, so you have to choose what exact color you want.

For those that have forgotten your high school science, the wavelength of light is measured in nanometers (nm). We see light from about 380nm (violet) to 750nm (red). Plants will absorb many wavelengths of light, but certain different wavelengths will make the plant grow differently. Chlorophyll absorbs the visible spectrum fairly well, except green (that is why it looks green to the eye). The different forms of chlorophyll absorb light best at different wavelengths, but they have big peaks in the blue and red.

Blue is very conductive to leafy growth. Blue light will stimulate nice green leaves and stocky growth. Caratenoids in the plants are formed best when the wavelength is between 450nm-470nm. Plant growth is probably best a little lower in wavelength. However if a plant gets nothing but blue light, the plant will not flower.

Red light promotes flowering of plants. Many sites claim that for growing you should have at least 90% red light because plants grow best with red. There is a caveat with that. The far red, at about 680nm, starts to be a problem. The plant will grow, but it will get leggy. Plants will grow best right before you hit that point so an LED close to that but below would be a good choice.

Of course you don't have to know all the wavelength issues if you are just buying a ready made grow light like I did. All you need to know is the difference between red and blue lights and pick the lights based on what plants you are growing. The people that make the grow lights have picked the wavelengths out for you already.

I'm growing seedlings for vegetables. I want stocky, leafy growth. I don't want anything to flower inside. I like promoting caratenoids since I'm eating the plants - though I'm unsure how long the benefits last. I went for an all blue. The LEDs are 460nm. I would prefer a 440nm light, but you take what the technology gives you. This one is pretty close to what I was after.

And the last problem with LEDs is that you only have one or two wavelengths of light so it looks funky to the naked eye. Everything near my blue light is hard to see. The colors are all off. If you used LEDs for an indoor plant in a living area it might be ugly and distracting. You would have to balance the light. A mixture of blue, red and green would probably be more appropriate for a setting where you have to see it all the time.

I still haven't gotten into where I'm putting this light, but again this post is getting a bit long and I'll get into that tomorrow. I promise no more science in the next installment.

Update from March: I have results how the LEDs did on my seedlings here. Go to the last paragraph on the page.