Category Archives: Basics

Four Ways to Prevent Dampening Off

One of the many reasons I haven’t been blogging is that whenever I started writing about gardening I found myself on another rant about climate change. There is nothing like paying close attention to the weather to make one notice strange patterns. So rather than going on another rant, I will simply reference this Sac Bee article on the changes in the jet stream that has made this winter-spring so cold in much of the West.

A mixed bunch of seedlings (with the names in notes, roll your mouse over ...)
Creative Commons License photo credit: hardworkinghippy

Here in the Williamette Valley temperatures are still below normal. I lost some basil to dampening off. When conditions are cold and damp they stress tiny seedlings and promote the growth of fungus. If this happens seedlings will suddenly just fall over and die. So sad.

So here are four things to do to prevent dampening off.

1. Clean your containers. Recycling old containers is very environmentally friendly, but without a good cleaning they can harbor diseases. Before reusing your containers, wash them with very hot water and a biodegradable soap. If you still have trouble, you can mix a small amount of bleach in to help sterilize things.

2. Sterilize your seed starting mix. If you are reusing old potting mix it also could be hiding diseases. Commercial mixes aren’t always sterile either. You can bake your potting soil in the oven at 200 degrees for about 30 minutes. However this process does involve a smell that some might not enjoy. Another option is to cook your seed starting mix in the microwave. Cover and cook for about 8-10 minutes until steaming. Allow to cool.

3. Provide ventilation. Seeds need to stay moist in order to germinate, but there can be too much of a good thing. Providing a little fan for your seedlings can help them grow strong and stocky as well.

4. Avoid overwatering. You don’t need to water unless you see the top of the soil is starting to get dry, especially once the seeds have germinated. I find that even tiny seedlings without their first “true leaves” often have roots going right down to the bottom of the container.

Truthfully most of the time I find I can just buy some seed starting mix, pop it in a container, water, add seeds, water again, and presto! Baby plants! However, if you are starting seeds when it is cold and wet, dampening off can be a problem. Depending on what seeds you are starting, you might need to provide a seedling heating mat to avoid stressing your little darlings. In general, the more ideal the conditions, the less you have to worry. So give them lots of warmth and light too!

Hopefully warm, sunny weather will be on the way soon and we can forget all about the dreaded dampening off.

Garden Dirt – Dealing with Dirt Clods

Creative Commons License photo credit: gregor_y

Deb asked a very important question, about how to get you garden ready for planting, what to do with those nasty dirt clods. First, I think of clods as signals to your that your garden dirt needs something different.

Clods happen often in heavy clay soil. Clay soil can be great for growing plants because it contains lots of nutrients, but it’s also very heavy, making it difficult for the roots of your garden plants to penetrate. There are various solutions for this, but adding large amounts of organic matter to your garden beds has always worked for me. I like getting loads of old horse manure and then mixing a thick layer into my soil a few weeks before planting. You will get some grass seeds mixed into your soil when doing this, but I find that those weeds are easily pulled when they are small.

The most important thing to remember about dirt clods is that you shouldn’t be digging up your soil when it is too wet. I learned this from John Jeavons’ classic book, How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits. This is the book to buy if you are gardening in a small area and want to grow a lot of food for yourself. Jeavons’ recommends “double digging” your soil. This deeply loosens your soil and adds a ton of nutrients to create super fertile soil. Once that is done you can plant your vegetables much closer together than the standard recommendations and still expect each plant to produce well. The result is a ton of produce is a tiny area. I don’t always do this, but if I had the energy and a very small garden it would be the best way to grow a lot in a small area.

As Jeavons’ explains, if you dig while you soil is too wet you will break down it’s delicate structure and compact it, resulting in clogs. Think of your garden dirt as a cake; It has a crumb with a mixture of tiny rocks and bubbles of air and water. You don’t want to dig right after a rain, wait at least a couple of days. If you start digging and the soil sticks in big clumps to your shovel you know the soil is still too wet. Don’t dig when your soil is bone dry either. In California’s Central Valley where I use to garden, dry soil was like cement, making it impossible to dig. Even if you soil isn’t so heavy, you shouldn’t dig when it’s too dry because you will compact the soil and dry soil turns into dust and blows away very easily. They say it takes 1000 years to create one inch of good topsoil, so you don’t want any of that good stuff to blow away.

Sometimes I don’t dig or turn my soil at all, but rather clear away the weeds, mulch the soil with organic matter, and plant straight into that. If you want more information about planting a garden without having to dig and turn your soil, I would recommend Lasagna Gardening, by Patricia Lanza. Either way, it’s worth it to invest time and effort into preparing your soil before you plant. A little extra effort at the beginning will save a lot of effort and produce stronger healthier garden for you all year long.

Squirrels! How to deal with Animal Pests in your Patio Garden

This weekend I did some work to get my patio garden really going. I mixed up some of my very own potting soil mix and bought a few winter greens and flowers to put out in my containers. I also pulled out my box of ancient seeds to see what I might be able to sprinkle on the soil. Now November is not the best time to start seeds of anything because many seeds are dependent on light to germinate, and shorter days doesn’t make for great sprouting. But I figured that if they didn’t sprout now, they might sit in the soil, getting ready for next spring. I sprinkled some mache, arugula, and watercress seeds in some containers on my patio, pressed them firmly into the soil and figured all would be well.

Little did I know that in a few hours I would discover squirrels digging in my newly planted containers! So now the question is what to do about the squirrels. Mammals can do a lot of damage to a garden, both through digging and by eating newly planted seedlings. Now if we manage to get our patio door latch fixed so that we can let the cats in and out easily they could guard my patio plantings. But the cats sleep at least 12 hours a day, so that isn’t a complete solution.

Since I’m mainly gardening in containers I don’t have to worry about groundhogs and moles like many gardeners do. (The solution there is to dig down into your soil, lay down some sort of gardening fence, like chicken wire, underground and then place the soil on top. Imagine making an underground cage for the roots of your plants so that the digging animals can’t get inside.)

For rabbits, squirrels, and mice or rats, which can all be garden pests, I would advocate protective coverings for your new plantings. There is nothing tastier than newly sprouted seedlings and mammals know that. Essentially, you need to make a cage above ground for your plants. The problem with this is it’s not very attractive. The other alternative is to fence your entire garden, but building a squirrel proof fence is a lot of work! My grandparents regularly put out poison and traps for rats and moles, but I can’t imagine trapping for squirrels. Anyway, once you start down that road you will have to continue, periodically to maintain your traps or put out more poison because new individual animals will move into the area around your garden, replacing those you kill. I kind of enjoy watching the squirrel hop around on the lawn, so I’m not planning to kill them. I would rather limit their access to my delicacies.

Garden Dirt- Preparing your Garden Soil for Spring

Alexander: Watching for Grubs
Creative Commons License photo credit: dok1

One task you should be thinking about in your fall garden is preparing your sustainable landscape now for spring planting. There are lots of different ways to prepare your garden dirt for spring planting from double digging to lasagna gardening. If you prepare your garden beds now then you can plant earlier in the spring, when the dirt is still too cold and wet to dig.

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Tree Care at Aurora House

Below are some horrible pictures of tree torture, so sensitive readers may not want to read any further. I don’t know why people engage in tree torture, but I think it’s simple ignorance. Many people just don’t understand the basics of how trees grow and what kinds of care they need. People also don’t think about how the tree might grow and change in the future.

When this Bradford Pear was planted in the 70s (?) it had plenty of room. Now it’s almost outgrown it’s tiny square of soil, making it difficult to water. Since it’s planted next to our sloped driveway it’s basically only getting water from the soaker hose on the other side.

tree trunk

Frankly, it looks kind of sickly. Now maybe it’s just the fact that it’s an older Bradford Pear. Bradford Pears have some problems, such as weak branches that break easily in stormy weather. Our tree, in fact, has a broken branch hanging off of it right now. We need to figure out how to get it down without hurting ourselves or the tree or just hire an arborist.

Below is my roommate Kym, attempting doing surgery on the japanese maple in our back patio. For some reason a previous resident of Aurora house tied a piece of thick black plastic rope around the trunk of this little tree. If you look closely you can see that the tree trunk had started to grow around the rope.

Kym and the Japanese maple

I have seen trees grow to incorporate lots of foreign materials, but this situation is dangerous for the tree because if the tree trunk became completely girdled, the rope could cut the tree’s circulation systems, making it impossible for the tree to pass nutrients and water back and forth from its roots and branches. I’m hoping that by cutting off the rope we have saved this little tree, although we couldn’t fully remove the rope since the tree had already grown over most of it.

Japanese maple damage

I’m not sure if the damage to it’s canopy was caused by the rope. It might be sun burn or frost damage. Most of the tree is sheltered by the walls of the house. I’m going to try to get up there and cut out the damaged areas before I leave in the fall.

The Itinerant Gardener

For the moment, GardenGrrrl is an itinerant. This summer I’m living with some friends in a shared house. In September I will be moving to a new city to begin a new graduate school program. Lately it’s been one move after another with little time to establish a garden. In the meantime I have still be assisting friends in getting their gardens started. I will be posting more on various gardens that I have coached clients through.

For now, here’s a picture of some Lantana in the front yard of my summer home. Mostly the garden here is a mess, but despite the neglect the Lantana is doing beautifully. Gardening snobs might not be fans of Lantana because it is so ubiquitous in this part of the country, but it’s the kind of plant that can make anyone feel like a successful gardener. It’s a great groundcover or perennial for places you don’t want to spend that much time on. Lantana does well in summer or part shade and tolerates forgetful watering. In some parts of the country it can become invasive, but I have never seen it cause a problem here in California.

Since I’m only here for another six or eight weeks I have a limited amount of time to get the garden here straightened out. Luckily my roommates have both expressed an interested in learning more gardening, so expect to see more posts in the coming weeks as I attempt to get them started.

Cheap Alternatives to Expensive Mulch

The Portland Tribune reports that Bark dust prices bite gardeners.

“Bark dust — the landscaper’s finish coat — is now selling for roughly $232 per unit (which is 7.4 yards, or about two and a half pickup loads), up 62 percent from last spring.

Bark, a byproduct of lumber milling, is in short supply because of the dramatic housing slump. Reduced demand for lumber translates to idle mills and less bark.”

Luckily there are lots of cheap alternative to buying bark. In Sacramento SMUD, the local power company collects all the trimmings from their work keeping power lines safe and supplies gardeners with free wood chips.

Even if your city doesn’t produce anything similar you can call local tree trimmers and ask them if they have an extra load wood chips they would like to get rid of. Often it cost them to get rid of the stuff so you are doing them a favor. You might think you don’t need an entire truck load of wood chips, but a thick layer of mulch is the best thing you can do for your garden. It keeps your soil cool and moist during these long Western summers.

Compost, either homemade or municipal is another great alternative. Davis, my home town offers free compost, made from local green waste twice a year. Residents have to shovel and transport the stuff back to their own gardens, but with a little planning local gardeners are able to get a few large bags or a trunk full each April and October.

If you live in San Francisco, then you can participate in their groundbreaking municipal composting program. Residents and restaurants compost food and yard waste and it all gets processed in a huge facility near Vacaville. The resulting compost can only be bought from Jepson Prairie Organics if you are a wholesaler. Technorati Tags: , , ,

Law Mowers on Scientific American

I would like to comment on this article about buying a “green” lawnmower. While electric lawn mowers are better than gas, the writer could have offered some other options. Maybe if you aren’t fit enough to push a reel mower it’s time to find a neighborhood teen who needs some extra cash. If your yard has so much grass that you need a huge mower you might think about whether you really need all that lawn. Lawn is very resource intensive. There are many other options available that use less water, fertilizer, and time. Reel mowers, if kept sharp can be surprisingly easy to use. Many of us just assume that a gas or electric mower would be easier, but we have never tried a reel mower or don’t know how to maintain one. Unfortunately I didn’t get to say any of that because I have to create a login in order to comment. I understand they don’t want a ton of spam, but there has to be a better way. If they want to spam me with adds about Scientific American ask for my email, but I’m not going to create a new password and log in for every website I visit.

Grass Clippings Flying
Creative Commons License photo credit: Dan4th