A reader emailed me earlier this week with the following question:
I started some broccoli seed last month and they have been growing really well, but now some of the seed leaves are turning yellow and falling off. Is this normal? What should I do?
The answer is yes, this is completely normal!
The seed leaves (cotyledons) is where a seed’s energy is concentrated. These initial leaves are what supplies the forming seedling with the energy it needs to form roots, extend a stem, and ultimately start to grow into a little plant. By the time the energy in the cotyledons runs out, the seedling has developed roots and true leaves, and is starting to draw its own nutrients from the soil and sun. Having served their purpose of transitioning the seed to a self-sustaining plant, they will eventually fully expend themselves and fall off (typically after 2-3 true leaves have emerged).
The timing may vary, depending on the type of plant and the variety, and the process may happen gradually, where you can see the cotyledons slowly yellow, wither, and dry up, or it might happen a little more abruptly where the plant simply lets go and the cotyledons drop, but is a natural part of the plant’s life cycle and generally speaking, you don’t really need to do anything to help the process along. However, if the seed leaves are still attached when you are ready to transplant it into the garden, go ahead and snip them off with a scissors (assuming, of course, that there are at least a couple sets of true leaves), as by that point they are very close to the ground and can be an entry point for pests and disease.
Now, if your seed leaves are discolored or dropping and you do not see any true leaves yet, that would be reason for concern. In this case, you’ll want to check out the growing conditions in your seed flats to figure out what is going on. Damping Off, over/under watering, or cold soil/air temperature would be likely culprits.
Do you have a gardening question you’d like to see answered on the blog? If so, please contact me!
And speaking of ways to contact me, I have set up a Tubmlr feed for the blog, so Tumblr users can now follow, share, and comment directly from their Tumblr dashboard (social media icon to follow).
It has been about a year since I divided my rhubarb patch and I am happy to report that each of the new divisions is making a vigorous comeback this year. After harvesting only a small handful of stalks from the recovering plants last year, I am looking forward to pots of bubbling jam, Saturday morning scones, and all of the other possibilities that await in the queue of rhubarb recipes that have been accumulating in my Pinterest account.
It will be a few more weeks before the long pink stalks of tart rhubarb will be ready for their transformation into tasty treats, but meanwhile, this is the perfect time to feed the rhubarb.
Rhubarb thrives in rich soil. It needs a lot of energy to support its growth, so it is also storing a lot of energy in the rhizome just beneath the surface. Even though gardeners let the plants rest and recharge for the second half of the growing season (from the 4th of July on), rhubarb benefits greatly from continually adding organic material back into the soil as a steady release fertilizer.
One of the easiest ways to do this is give your rhubarb a side dressing of compost and manure. “Side dressing” is a method of feeding your plants where the fertilizer is placed alongside and/or around the plant on the surface of the soil. I use about three parts compost and one part aged or composted manure (do not use fresh manure as it may get too hot as it continues to compost), but it’s not an exact science. If you don’t have access to a chicken coop or other livestock bedding, you can purchase bags of aged manure to mix in with your compost (you can also pick up bags of organic compost with aged manure already mixed in; a 40 lbs. bag is about $1.50 at my local garden center).
No special preparation of the garden bed is necessary; in fact, you can even let the debris from last year’s growth go directly back into the soil. Rhubarb has a high water content, which means that the debris will decompose quickly (and enrich the soil as it does so). Every spring I pull the dried remains of last year’s stalks and leaves back just enough to make room for the emerging new buds and then leave it right there. Unless the plant itself showed signs of disease or pests the year before, the plant material can be left to act as mulch, holding moisture in and weeds down.
When you apply the side dressing, you want to make sure that it doesn’t go on too thick, too close to the rhubarb crowns. A heavy scoop of the mixture can break or damage tender growth, and you don’t want to cover the rhubarb buds or crowns, which should be right at soil level. I use a small plastic pot to scoop out the mixture and spread it out a little at a time, around the plant. Let the compost and manure mixture fall loosely around the plants; it will settle into place on its own with time and rainfall.
As I have been watching the rhubarb wake up over the past few weeks, I noticed that the soil around the rhubarb has settled a bit since I transplanted the new divisions last spring, so where the soil had settled, I filled in with a little extra compost to bring the soil level up.
Spread the compost mixture right over last year’s debris as well; even a thin layer of compost over the top will help speed up the breakdown and encourage worms to come up towards the surface and contribute to the effort. By using compost and manure instead of a liquid or granular fertilizer, you will be building up the soil around the rhubarb with a more diverse spectrum of nutrients and microbes, which will in turn, create a rich and fertile environment to support great rhubarb harvests for years to come.
There’s just something about these colors that I love. They’re so warm and happy! The late day sunlight in the kitchen is a welcome a sign of spring, as is the fact that the last of the peppers germinated while we were gone. I love it when some of the distinct characteristics of the different varieties start to show through, even at this early stage, like subtle differences in shades of green and size. By far, my favorite is Black Hungarian; the purple is so deep it almost looks black at times.
It’s finally tomato time! Every year I test the strength of my resolve as I try to hold out as long as possible before starting my tomatoes. I do have to say that I have done pretty well, with the notable exception of last year. Hot off the heels of 2012′s unbelievably early spring, I was overly optimistic and gave in earlier than I should have. I knew it was a risky move, even as I was doing it, but the lure of little tomato seedlings growing in the midst of winter is strong, and in my defense, that kind of measurable snow in May is a bit ridiculous, even by Minnesota standards. I exercised a lot more restraint this year, holding off on starting the tomatoes until the end of March.
I may have started my tomatoes three weeks ago, but for many of these seedlings, things started quite a bit earlier than that. Last summer and fall, I saved tomato seed from some of my favorite varieties in the 2013 garden.
The process of saving tomato seed can be intimidating at first, but it’s really not that complicated or difficult once you get the hang of it. Tomato seed is saved through a “wet” process, where the seeds are scooped into a small jar along with a splash of water. The contents of the jar are swirled together and set aside to ferment. After a few days, a moldy film will form on the surface of the liquid containing the seeds, which is an indication that fermentation is taking place. That top portion is removed, along with the nonviable seed that will float at the top, leaving only the viable seed in the liquid at the bottom of the jar, which can then easily be strained out with a small kitchen sieve. The seeds are then spread out to dry before storing.
[Side note: I do plan to dust off the draft I started last summer and publish a more thorough post on saving tomato seed sometime in July, so keep an eye out for it if you are interested in saving tomato seed from your garden]
Tomato seed has a longer shelf life than most seed. There will, of course, be some variability, depending on they type of tomato and variety, as well as how the seed has been processed, saved, and stored, but it’s not unheard of to have tomato seed remain viable for 5-10 years. Whether you are starting with saved seed, purchased seed, or a little of both, a modest investment goes a long way with tomatoes. For me, the greater challenge is that there are just so many tomato varieties I want to try! The result has been a pretty substantial tomato collection in my seed stash.
Tomatoes and peppers are both members of the solanaceae family, so germination and early growth is very similar for tomatoes and peppers. I surface-sow my tomato seed (this year in soil blocks) and always start them under the lights right from the start. Tomatoes also do best in warm soil, so I always start my tomatoes on a heat mat as well.
Unlike peppers, tomatoes germinate much more quickly and more reliably within a narrower time frame. It usually takes about a week to germinate, though it can take a few more days if condition are a little on the cold side. I’ve always had near 100% germination with tomato seed, but this year I’ve had a tough time with two varieties: Carbon, a purple heirloom I received in trade, and Gezahnte, a ruffled red heirloom I purchased this year. It’s hard to say with any certainty what the issue is. It could be that the seed is older (obviously not the case with Gezahnte), improperly saved (fruit wasn’t fully mature or it was fermented too long), or it could simply be that these are more difficult varieties. I’ve reseeded these varieties in hopes that I’ll still get a couple of plants growing.
Because tomato seed is wet when it is saved, it is not uncommon to occasionally get “twins,” when two tomato seeds are stuck together after they have dried. Sometimes it’s easy to spot and separate the two seeds, and other times you might not even realize that there are two seeds until you have two seedlings.
If you end up with more than one tomato seedling per container, you can either thin out the weaker seedling by clipping off the stem at soil level, or you can keep the bonus seedling by carefully separating the two seedlings. Because tomato plants will quickly form roots along any part of the stem that is below the soil surface, they tolerate handling and transplanting a lot better than most garden plants. That said, I still wouldn’t do anything more than is necessary, as stress will delay flower and fruit set and leave a plant more susceptible to disease.
Tomatoes (indeterminate varieties in particular) are vigorous growers, so they can grow quite big, quite fast if conditions are favorable. This can be either an advantage or a challenge, depending on how limited your seed starting space is and what the weather is doing outside in spring. There are ways to control tomato growth if you need to: keep seedlings within a couple of inches of the lights and give them more room to grow out, than up, provide fertilizers to seedlings sparingly (and always diluted), and wean tomato seedlings off of heat mats after the first true leaves have set, but ultimately your best strategy is to wait to start tomatoes until at least 8 weeks before last frost.
This year I cut way back on the number of tomato plants I’m growing. I ultimately made the decision give up my community garden plot, so I have much more limited space available this year, which also made the decision making process much more difficult this year when it came time to narrowing down the list of tomato varieties I’d like to grow.
My selections this year ended up a little less diverse (color-wise, at least) than in years past. I am growing mostly reds, with a couple of red-orange bi-colors, and a purple in the mix. I passed on the sweet, citrusy yellows that I grown to love, and I also passed on a cherry type tomato this year (if you’re wondering about the Sungold label in the photo above, I’m growing that one for my sister in law).
Of course, the majority of my tomato plants are paste varieties, which I use for salsa, sauce, and canning: Opalka (seed saved from the variegated plant) and Amish Paste are making return appearances, and I’m trying out Jersey Giant and Speckled Roman, both highly recommended paste-type tomatoes for good flavor and cooking qualities.
Also returning to this year’s garden is Anna Russian, an oxheart-type pink tomato that is a good all-around tomato, along with slicers, Sioux, an early variety that has done well in northern zones, and Carbon, a purple/black variety that many gardeners rave about.
As much as I loved the ruffled Costoluto Genovese and Purple Calabash tomatoes I grew last year, I was drawn to try out another interesting ruffled tomato this year. Gezahnte is supposed to do double duty as a good paste tomato, too. As I mentioned earlier, a couple of these varieties have been tough going, so last week before I left on vacation, I started an Old German (a large red-orange bi-color slicer) as back up, just in case my last attempt at reseeding doesn’t work out. So far, Old German has germinated and and Carbon is looking very promising, but I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that Gezahnte may have to wait for another year. Time will tell!
Just before we left for California last week, I discovered an exciting surprise in the garden: horseradish! Even though I carefully and purposefully planted the horseradish there last fall, I wasn’t confident it was going to take off, so I was pretty thrilled to see it that it was actually growing this spring!
For the past number of years, my brother has been sharing pieces of horseradish root from his garden with me, but because I didn’t have a good permanent location to grow my own, I never replanted any portion of the root. Last fall, as I started to plan for the addition of a new herb and pollinator garden, I finally had the perfect spot to grow my own!
And so last September, when my brother gave me this:
I was ready for action!
Most of what you see here was promptly turned into delicious, pungent, sinus-clearing homemade horseradish (SO GOOD!), but the top inch and a half or so just below the crown was reserved for planting in the garden.
After planting the top of the root in the garden in September, I was careful to keep it watered and gave it a good side dressing of fresh compost, but much to my disappointment, it never showed any signs of growth last fall. I’m not sure if my expectations of seeing the root take off in the fall were off or if the root had simply been out of the ground too long, but I had pretty much given up on it. In fact, as I was covering the plant with mulch in preparation for the hard frost, one of the pieces was accidentally knocked out of the ground and I noticed there was a little bit of mold on the cut end of the root, so my expectations for horseradish success were quite low. I stuck that piece back in the ground and carefully covered it anyway, if for no other reason than to mark the spot, and just figured that I’d have to try again in spring.
But then last week, there was this:
I dug into the mulch a little further and found a total of four little horseradish plants that are alive and growing!
They are fascinating little spidery plants right now, with fringed edges in shades of purple, pink, white, and green, and I can’t wait for them to grow out and start bulking up the roots for future harvests!
For the past month or so, I’ve been watching other gardeners that I follow in other parts of the country get their garden on. They’ve been out working in the garden, preparing, planting, and even harvesting already, while those of us here in Minnesota have remained on the frozen sidelines, watching. As this same scenario plays out year after year, it always makes me more keenly aware of the pressure that a lot of northern gardeners feel to hurry up and catch up when spring finally does arrive.
I’ve lived in Minnesota my whole life, so I get it: one day it’s winter, the next it’s spring, and because we all know that our growing season is short, we don’t want to waste a single minute and we want to get that garden growing as quickly as possible. Not only that, but we’ve really missed gardening! We’re anxious and ready to get out there and grow something.
This enthusiasm to get back into the garden is all well and good, but a more tempered, patient pace in early spring will pay off in the long haul, because here’s the problem with early spring: it looks and feels like spring on the surface (the snow gone, the grass is turning green), but below the surface, the ground is still frozen and is not quite ready for us yet. There’s also that pesky little problem of the very real potential for more snow and freezing temperatures.
Resist the pressure to get into the garden too early by following these 5 Simple Rules for Gardening in Early Spring:
Stay out of the garden
One of the biggest mistakes you can make in the garden is to do too much too soon. Right now, the ground is very soft and wet, and that makes it especially vulnerable to compaction. I know it’s hard to resist, but as much as you want to make regular walk-throughs to check for signs of growth, or want to take advantage of a gorgeous spring day to do a little clean up, stay outside the garden boundaries until the ground has firmed up and dried out. Once the ground is reasonably dry, you can venture in to have a closer look without compromising the soil structure you’ve worked so hard to build.
Take the time to understand your soil
Before you go all-out, investing a lot of time, energy, and money into adding everything from bone meal to coffee grounds to your garden soil this spring, take the time to find out what it really needs. Early spring is a great time to test your soil. Whether you use an at-home test kit or send off a sample for professional analysis, understanding which nutrients are present and which nutrients are lacking will help you avoid unnecessary effort and costs, and understanding the texture of your soil will help you work more appropriately with it. Monitor the moisture content and hold off until it has dried out enough to work with.
Limit soil disruption
Turning in compost or other soil amendments with a fork or loosening up the top few inches with a hoe or a rake to prepare for planting is okay; tilling your soil into a fine, powdery oblivion is not. Excessive or aggressive digging and tilling will break down soil structure and cause compaction, so opt for no till practices whenever possible. Patience is also crucial. You may think you are getting a head start by getting the soil “ready” now, but when we get a heavy spring snowstorm or several weeks in a row of rainy weather, you’ll want do it all over again, and all of that early and frequent work will ultimately result in soil with the consistency of concrete. Wait until you are almost ready to plant your garden, and then only move the soil as necessary for amending and planting.
Let the ground warm up
Don’t let a good run of warm air temperatures lure you into planting seeds or transplants in the garden prematurely. Even cool weather crops that can tolerate a mild frost have a minimum threshold for cold soil, and until the ground has completely thawed out and warmed up to that minimum temperature, germination will be hit or miss at best and transplants will struggle to take up the nutrients they need to become established in the garden. Soil takes time to warm, and this year the frost line is much deeper than usual, so it will likely take some additional time to work itself out of the ground. Save your seed and wait it out until the soil is at least 45-50 degrees, if not warmer.
Take the time to properly harden off transplants
No matter how warm it might be right now, we still have a pretty good chance of dipping below freezing for a number of weeks, so take all the time necessary to properly harden off your seedlings before moving them into the garden. Remember that it’s not just a matter of temperature, but of direct sun exposure, wind, and rain as well. Rushing the process can cause even more stress during transplanting or even the loss of the plant entirely, instantly wiping out any time that might have been saved by the shortcut.
Join in the conversation: Do you feel the pressure to rush into the garden as soon as spring arrives? How do you resist the urge to do too much too soon?
For many gardeners, moving seedlings up into a larger pot as they grow is one of those chores that is not nearly as fun as starting the seeds in the first place. I happen to enjoy the process (dirt! seedlings! fun!), but I totally hear you if you’re thinking, I don’t have time for that! Many gardeners avoid up-potting all together by starting seeds in larger containers and by sticking to a conservative seed starting timeline, which is great if you have plenty of space with adequate light and spring arrives “on time,” but Mama Nature often has other plans. Cold weather can linger longer than it’s welcome, seedlings can grow faster than anticipated, and practical considerations like efficient use of space definitely come into play as well.
Two years ago, when spring arrived unusually early, I didn’t have to pot up a single seedling. About the same time the seedlings were getting to the size where it would have been beneficial, it was warm enough to harden them off and put them in the ground. If only seed starting (and spring) could be that easy every year! Last year, when it continued to snow into the first week of May, I lost track of how many times I had to re-pot my seedlings and it became a very labor-intensive process. This year, I’m hoping for a happy medium.
I look at it this way: I want my seedlings to grow vigorously, because I want my garden to be lush, healthy, and productive. So while I could be disappointed that I have an extra step to do, really, the fact that this step is necessary is a good indication that my garden is off to a good start.
I wouldn’t recommend doing it just for the sake of doing it, but there are a number of reasons why it can be very beneficial to the health of the seedlings (and ultimately the garden) to pot up when conditions warrant: It encourages good root formation by preventing seedlings from becoming root bound or from having the roots exposed to dry conditions outside the pot; adding fresh starter mix provides additional slow-release nutrients to feed the seedlings; it improves the texture of starter mix that has started to become compacted from frequent watering; and it also gives seedlings the room they need to continue growing low to the ground and sturdy, and minimizes tall, leggy growth. If you notice signs that any of the above are issues for your seedlings, you should consider potting up to a larger container.
This year I am using a variety of containers for seed starting. Though newspaper pots remain my go-to seed starting container, this year I’m experimenting a bit with soil blocks, and I’m also using up some coir pellets and coir fiber pots that I had on hand because I don’t want to continue to store them. Going in, I knew that some of these seedlings were going to need potting up earlier than others, and as I expected, the broccoli seedlings outgrew the coir pellets pretty quickly, so I did my first round of potting up last weekend.
I would normally have waited until the second true leaves were a little further along, but since the roots were already growing through the pots, I wanted to transfer the seedlings into larger pots before they started to get too tangled and risk damage to the roots. I carefully removed the outer layer of the coir pellets (not a necessary step, but I tend to think that most “plantable” pots don’t break down quickly enough) and transferred the seedlings to larger newspaper pots that were half filled with fresh starter mix. I’m always amazed at how many roots such a small little seedling has already grown in such a short time!
After topping off the new pot with some more fresh starter mix and giving them a good drink of water, they look happier and healthier already! I’m confident that they’ll be good to go in these pots for another few weeks, and then maybe, if we’re lucky, conditions will be favorable to start hardening off.
This gritty, muddy photo isn’t likely to win any beauty contests, but to me, it is one of the most beautiful sights in spring!
After a week of steady snow melt, I was finally able to forge a path into the backyard to take a peek at how things are progressing yesterday. We still have a lot of snow on the ground, but the sun is definitely making good, steady progress (hitting 60 degrees yesterday didn’t hurt, either!) and the earthy smell of spring is thick in the air. I felt like it was a long shot, and I honestly wasn’t expecting much from the rhubarb crowns, but I made my way over to check, and what do you know!? There they are!
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