Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, maker and plant enthusiast


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Garden Planting Time! (Or Ghetto Greenhouse Part III)

ready to plantOk, HERE is the planting article I started to write before I got distracted by the raised planting bed subject.
Only our peppers and tomato plants were started in the house and transplanted as seedlings, everything else I sowed directly into the garden as seed. The seed planting was fun with the kiddo, but I learned the hard way not to let her handle delicate new vegetable plants, even ones that have been well hardened off. She broke several before I found her an alternate job to do. I left the broken ones in their original plastic bottle containers. Maybe they’ll grow new leaves, maybe they won’t. As you can see from the pictures, I didn’t have any shortage of tomato plants, so I wasn’t too upset about the loss of a few.

These were the plants that I started from seed back in February or March. In the past couple weeks, when it FINALLY stopped snowing here and the night temperatures were above 50F, I began the process of hardening off the plants. Pepper plants shouldn’t be transplanted to the ground until the earth has warmed to at least 50F; to do so earlier could kill them or hinder their growth until warmer weather comes. Tomato plants are a bit more forgiving, but you have to cover or shelter them if there is any danger of frost.
EggshellsHardening seedlings off basically entails getting those house-protected seedlings acclimated to being outdoors in a less controlled environment. The absolute best time to put them out is a cloudy day with a slight breeze. The breeze helps the stems to stiffen up so they can support the plant’s top growth and the cloud cover helps keeps the sun from scorching them. They’ll love all that sun later, but when they first come out from inside, they are a bit sun-shy. If you don’t have cloud cover, just sit them in at least partial shade. I put mine out for a week before transplanting them to the garden, starting off with only a couple hours and working up to 6-8 hours a day. The day I planted was also partly cloudy, which was helpful to avoid a lot of stress during transplant.
I don’t use my plastic containers more than one season. I’m not absolutely sure whether or not those water or Gatorade bottles are BPA-free and since I’ve read that the chemicals can leach into soil or be absorbed by plants when the plastics begin to break down, I just cut them off the roots and toss them when I plant. Cutting them off also means I don’t have to disturb all those tiny little roots any more than absolutely necessary.

I dug the holes, making them deep enough to plant each seedling at least as deep as it had been in its container- deeper for all the tomatoes, since they will grow new roots along the buried stems. Soil additives are the perfect task for little helpers; I had a bowl full of crushed eggshells and another of used coffee grounds to add to each hole. I instructed my daughter to get a big handful of eggshells and put it in the bottom of each hole. Coffee is a good green soil additive and gives the plant a nitrogen boost; we followed the eggshells with a handful of coffee grounds.PlantTomato
I’ve planted my tomatoes with crushed eggshells since my first attempt at growing tomatoes resulted in about 25% of them getting blossom rot. Blossom rot is fairly common in tomato plants and can often be prevented with good watering practices and adding calcium to the soil. Since eggshells release their calcium slowly, I add some to the hole when planting and top-dress more around the plants throughout the season. You can also save water from boiling eggs, cool it and use it to water the plants. They are also a great slug and snail deterrent; they don’t like to drag their soft little bodies over all those sharp edges. I don’t add extra fertilizers or plant food to seedlings, since I already grow them in soil amended with Miracle Grow Garden Soil and home-made compost.
After my daughter broke several plants trying to separate them from each other, I put her on additive and seed planting duty so I could pull the delicate plants out of their containers- I told her this was a Mommy job since it required sharp scissors 😉 – once the plant was in place, I helped her scoop some dirt back into the hole and pat it down very gently (don’t break the stems) to hold them in place. If you have trellis or stakes to add, you’ll want to do it NOW while your plants are small, even though it may seem unnecessary until they actually need the support. Add it later; you may damage the roots when you jam the spikes or stakes into the ground or snap off the vines trying to weave them through your supports. I have a sort of permanent trellis attached to our house of thin, bendable wire. I originally planned these to support climbing roses, so they are quite strong and support cucumber and tomato plants well. I found I preferred them to cages, since they keep the plants spread out, the fruits are easier to get to, there are less areas for bugs to hide and plenty of air circulation to prevent fungus or mildew. Whatever you use, make sure it’s going to be strong enough to support fully mature plants with fruits on them. I was surprised at first how HEAVY they can actually get!

GardenPlantsSince I was planting full size plants and not direct-sowing seeds, I went ahead and added mulch around the plants. Mulch really helps new seedlings retain moisture since they don’t have deep, established roots yet. The chunky pine mulch also helped some of my floppy plants stand up a bit straighter until their stems strengthen enough to support themselves. I skipped the mulch over the areas where we put just seed, to make sure the new seedlings are able to get enough light and heat to germinate. Once the plants are up and established, I’ll weed around them and add mulch then.

At the height of summer, it easily reaches the 100 degree mark here; I usually have to water at least every third or fourth day if there’s no rain to supplement. Too frequent watering won’t encourage your plants to develop deep roots and they will dry out quickly and have little support for bushy top growth. Soak them really well when you do water. Aside from this, there are really no hard and fast rules on watering; check your soil and watch your plants, a little common sense will tell you whether they are dry and need a drink or not. Morning and evenings have worked best from my experience; mid-day burns off quickly and seems to shock the plants that get doused with cold water when they’re really hot. I’ve read lots of advice about not getting the leaves wet because it causes fungal diseases, etc. This is fine advice if you can avoid it, but if you get the leaves wet, it’s not the end of the world. Rain doesn’t JUST water the roots of a plant when it falls.GardenPlanted
It helps to plant things like lettuce, broccoli and other plants that bolt in hot weather behind your trellised plants to provide them with some shade. Our garden area gets blasted with full sun from around noon-thirty until 4-ish in the afternoon, so the sun really beats down during that part of the day. I’ve noticed that my tomato plants will look a bit wilted during the really brutal summer days, but they always perk back up in the evening when it cools off a bit. I’ve read somewhere that this is a normal defense-mechanism of the plant and nothing to get excited about.
So I guess that’s finally it for the starting plants from seed subject; since I’ve seen them from package into the garden and it’s all maintenance from here. I’ll try to remember and post at least a few photos of our garden once it is well established and producing. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for no beetle horror stories this year in the meanwhile, but we’ll see. 😉


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Winter Gardening

I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape- the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show. – Andrew Wyeth

IcyTreesWait a minute… winter gardening? What is there to do besides read gardening books and wait for spring to arrive? Unless you’re hibernating with the bears, there’s plenty you can do during the winter months to get you ready for spring planting.

Like the above quote suggests, winter is an excellent time to really take a look at the bone structure of your garden. Like the bones in a face, your garden’s foundation will show through, support and give shape to everything layered on top of it. Architectural elements support the greenery, flowers and fruits of spring and summer.

Moderate winter days are a great time to walk about your yard and consider your  landscape  plan for the coming year. Is a too large plant overwhelming a small space? Does a certain spot lack interest, need repairs or maybe additional WinterBonessupport?
Now is the time to plan and take care of it, before the area is covered in vigorous growth and becomes an issue in the middle of your busy growing season.

If you’re hiring a  landscaper this year; schedules tend to be less chaotic during the winter months and you can set up your installs for early spring, before the rush begins.

If you haven’t already; clean and sharpen your garden tools, clear out junk in the shed, pick up extra gloves and start browsing those seed catalogs. When I can’t get outside during icy or especially cold spells, I love to shop and plan for what I’ll be doing when it does warm up a bit. Seeds may arrive as soon as early February for starting indoors- 8 weeks or so before the last frost. Order early so you can avoid delays and get the best selection!

I like to prune and clean out brushy areas on mild winter days. It’s much easier to see the underlying structure of a tree without leaves blocking half your view. Also, pruning during the cold months helps protect trees from contracting some fungal diseases and pest issues that are prevalent during the wet spring or hot summer months.  Our red-oaks are prone to oak wilt in this area- the disease is dormant in below freezing temperatures and MUCH  less likely to be passed from tree to tree through infected wood or cause stress to a tree susceptible to infection.

icedberryIf the plant flowers in spring, wait until after it finishes blooming to prune. Vigorous winter pruning of a spring blooming plant means it won’t bloom again until next spring; already, there are small, tight buds forming on several of my blooming shrubs and trees. The early bloomers, like forsythia, burning bush, saucer magnolia (a cold-hearty cousin to the trees in the South) and wisteria shouldn’t be pruned or cut back until they finish flowering in mid to late spring. Pruning may be especially necessary to trees following ice storms or heavy snows, due to broken branches.

Make a date with your soil. If you’ve never had a soil analysis done, the tests are relatively inexpensive and getting results now will give you plenty of time to learn about what amendments to add when the soil becomes workable in spring. County extension offices should be able to direct you to soil testing labs; some may even provide free testing.

Spring clean your window space as soon as those holiday displays are stored away. Growing seedlings need ample light, and warmth to be ready for spring planting. Make room for this temporary garden space before your seeds and sets arrive.icicles

You can still amend garden beds for spring, if you didn’t do it in the fall. I’ve been adding cardboard to various areas of my yard and garden since December. Don’t work the soil if it’s frozen or too wet, you can damage the structure. What you can do is add coffee grounds, tea grounds, egg shells, cardboard and leaves until the compost pile begins to warm and the soil isn’t frozen solid. This will give you a jump start on enriching the nitrogen and calcium in your beds as well as helping to warm the soil faster when the snow and ice finally exit stage left.

I’ve also read that a thick layer of cardboard in the fall/winter months can all but eliminate the need to till or weed a garden plot before planting in spring. I covered our beds in late fall with a layer of cardboard and black weed barrier that I could easily remove when I’m ready to start moving seedlings outside. This is my first year trial, so I can’t vouch yet personally for its success. I’ll be sure to post comments or updates this spring when I find out.

Happy planning folks, don’t forget to oil up those shotguns in case Mister Groundhog sees his shadow next week! 😛
-Belle