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!
I don’t know about you, but it has been an unusually busy week in my little corner of the world. The days have been long and full, and I’m not exactly sure how we ended up at Friday already, but I am grateful that we’re here! I’m also grateful that yesterday’s precipitation arrived as (mostly) rain, and we have a shot at a high temperature near 60 this weekend! And of course, there will be more seed starting this weekend, too! With the brassicas off and growing, most of my attention has been on the peppers lately.
I started all but three varieties of my pepper seeds two weeks ago, and then started the last few about a week and a half ago when my seed orders arrived. In previous years I’ve pushed the start date for my peppers up a little, to give them more time to grow, but this year that didn’t happen, so I started them “on time” with 8 or 9 weeks to go. Given how deep the frost line is this year, I think they should still have plenty of time to grow to a good size before they make the move out the garden.
My collection of pepper seed is beginning to rival my collection of tomato seed, which is something I never expected when I first started gardening. I’ve grown to have a great appreciation of all of the deep diversity of varieties, shapes, colors, and flavors. I have purchased quite a few different varieties over the years, but I have also started to save seed from the varieties that I grow year after year. The number of seeds you can save from one fruit are more than what is contained in a typical packet, but then again, you really don’t need that many seeds. A little seed can go a long way, and though the seeds will maintain viability for several years, they do lose their germination mojo a little faster than a lot of other seeds.
Starting peppers from seed is definitely an exercise in patience and trust. It’s not that they are that difficult to grow from seed, but unlike some seeds that seem to sprout up over night, peppers take their sweet time and germinate (and then grow) at their own pace. They also are pretty particular about the conditions they like.
I surface sow all of my pepper seeds, meaning I simply place a seed on the surface of the soil, making sure it makes good contact, but I do not cover it so the seed will still be exposed to light, which helps with germination. Avoid using an all-peat seed starting medium for pepper seeds, as peat can inhibit germination. The soil temperature must be warm (between 60 and 80 degrees is ideal) for pepper seed to germinate, so I put my filled, but not- yet-planted, containers on the heat mat for a couple of days before sowing to prepare the soil and then keep them on the heat mat for several weeks after they have germinated to get them off to a good start. If the soil temperature is too cold, the seed will likely remain dormant until conditions improve, and the seed may even begin to rot. This past winter, I did a little reading up on peppers, and learned that it is best to water pepper seedlings with a spray bottle, as it has less of a cooling effect on the soil than bottom watering, so I’ve been doing that this year with good results so far.
Even under the best conditions, pepper seeds will germinate slowly over time. Some will germinate in as quickly as 4 days, while others will germinate more than a month later, long after you’ve given up on the seed. On average, pepper seeds take about 2-3 weeks to germinate. If I don’t see any signs of germination by then, I usually put another seed in, so as not to lose too much time waiting on a stubborn seed. Nine times out of ten, both seeds end up germinating eventually.
During the first few days after sowing, the seed coat will start to soften, and it will gradually start to develop a little opening where the radicle (what will become the main root) will eventually emerge, like a little tail. Once the radicle starts to poke out, it will tap down into the soil to root the plant in place. Then the stem starts to elongate, and eventually, the cotyledons begin to push the seed coat up and off of the new little seedling. This can also take some time. As tempting as it might be to help the seedling along by trying to remove the seed coat, resist the temptation, as you can easily damage, or even break off the cotyledons (I learned this the hard way!).
When it comes to starting peppers from seed, I always use two trays. One tray is the pepper “nursery,” where I sow the seeds and use a germination cover to hold in the heat and humidity. As soon as a seed germinates, I move it into the second uncovered tray, where the seedling will get more intense light and good air flow. Because even pepper seed from the same packet will germinate at very different times, it is a method that has worked really well for me, allowing for optimal conditions for both the seeds and seedlings. For ease of transition from one tray to the other, I use individual pots for all of my pepper seedlings.
This year I am growing a pretty decent selection of heirloom pepper varieties:
I have a few garden standards, like Jalapeno (the first to germinate and the first to have 100% germination this year), Anaheim (another one with a great germination rate this year), and King of the North (75% germination so far), a bell pepper well-suited for northern gardens.
The new-to-me varieties I’m trying this year are: Fatalii (still waiting on germination), a vibrant bright yellow hot pepper that my friend Peggy, a gardening rockstar from Ohio, gave me last year; Red Mushroom, a uniquely shaped red hot pepper that I have been eyeing for a few years in the Baker Creek catalog; Fish, a seasoning pepper with variegated foliage and multi-colored fruit; and Joe’s Round, a cherry-type hot pepper that is supposed to be excellent for pickling (the last three are the last varieties I started, and they are just starting to germinate now).
Almost all of these peppers will eventually find a home in my raised beds this year, but I am planning on growing a few of them (Fish and Joe’s Round) in containers on the deck as an edible ornamental, which I think will be a fun experience. They certainly have a ways to go until then, but so far I’m pleased with the germination rates and the progress the seedlings are making!
The first seeds of the 2014 garden went into the soil exactly one week ago. Spring was in the air, we had a good run of days in the 40s, even a brief stint at 50+ degrees. This morning the world outside my window is covered with fresh layer of sticky March snow that will mostly melt into a sloppy mess by the end of the day. Such is life in Minnesota in March! It is as sure a sign that spring is on its way as the happy little seedlings growing under the lights in the house!
If you are like me, and are aiming (hoping) to plant your garden in early to mid May, it’s go-time for starting brassicas from seed. If you haven’t already started your cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale indoors, do it now (but hang tight on kohlrabi, radishes, turnips, and arugula; they’ll do best when directly sown in the garden).
This year I’m focusing my efforts on broccoli, cabbage, and kale. I had my eye on a beautiful purple cauliflower, and I’d love to give brussels sprouts another go, but they didn’t make the final cut and will have to wait for next year.
The Brassicacae family are prolific seed producers, but since they are biennial (producing seed in the second year of growth), there is the challenge of being able to successfully overwinter a plant in Minnesota in order to save seed. It’s the kind of challenge that is right up my alley, but at the same time, brassica seed is a pretty good deal. An inexpensive packet of seed will easily contain a hundred, if not two or three hundred, seeds. Obviously that’s a lot more than most gardeners can use in a lifetime, but the seed will maintain its viability for quite a long time and as long as the seed is untreated, you could also grow the extra seed as sprouts or microgreens.
Starting brassicas from seed is super easy. In fact, they are a pretty great instant gratification start. The germination rate is excellent and reliable. I have never had anything less than 100 percent germination (and yeah, I had no intention of sowing more than one seed per container, but apparently I was distracted and sowed a couple of them twice – oops!). They need a lot of time to grow, but they do germinate quickly (in the course of only a couple of days, under the right conditions). And I mean, really, is there any better sight than two plump, green broccoli cotyledons? Seriously, there’s so much to love!
This year I’m using a variety of different seed starting containers (time to use up some odds and ends!). I started my broccoli in a packet of coir pellets I had on hand, and the cabbage and kale in soil blocks. The broccoli will be moved into larger newspaper pots eventually (as may some of the seedlings in soil blocks, depending on how the spring goes), but they’re sturdy little seedlings and they tolerate transplant well, so that will be an easy task when the time comes.
I am also experimenting with a few winter sown kale plants this year. I re-purposed a grocery store sprouts container by filling it with starter mix and planting four kale seeds inside. I then snapped the cover on and set it outside on our deck where it will wait until Mother Nature wakes it up and the seeds sprout.
The idea is that these seeds, already exposed to the cold, will sprout earlier, giving them a head start and resulting in more cold hardy seedlings. This is the first time I’ve tried winter sowing, so I have no idea what to expect, but I am curious to see how these plants compare to the indoor starts throughout the season.
So which brassicas are growing in my garden this year?
Kale: I selected Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch for it’s extra cold hardiness, and rounded it out with Lacinato and Red Russian/Rugged Jack for some color and texture interest. Red Russian is also supposed to be really tender and good in fresh salads.
Cabbage: I had a really hard time narrowing down my cabbage selections, but I ultimately landed on Red Express Cabbage and Premium Late Flat Dutch for traditional heads of red and green cabbage. I am also trying Cour di Bue, an heirloom with oxheart-shapped heads, and Wong Bok, a Chinese Napa-type cabbage.
So many salad opportunities lie ahead this summer, I can hardly stand it!
So far, we’re off to a great start! The broccoli is growing, and the kale and cabbage that I started yesterday are already showing signs that germination is eminent, thanks to our cast iron radiators that double as germination heat mats this time of year. The next big milestone will be the first sighting of the true leaves!
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