Garden Resolutions for 2019

It’s that strange time of the year when every day seems like a Sunday, and there’s plenty of time to think about what you’ll change for the year ahead. For gardeners, the failures of the previous season have faded enough and it’s time to stiffen our backs, page through the seed catalogs arriving daily and make some garden resolutions.

Here are five I’m pondering for the year ahead:

light on house plants
My house faces south but a number of large trees affect the light on the boulevard in summer. Knowing your light helps gardeners choose the right plants.

Watch the sun, know its path. Gardeners in the North especially face extreme differences in sun paths and sunlight between the shortest days in December and the long ones in June. In my new urban garden, I’m planning a boulevard native plant garden for the front. But as I stood in the yard in September, removing sod for another project, I could not help but notice that the area seemed shadier than I’d thought. The trees from nearby yards and the planted median in front of our house were throwing a lot of shade in a full-south spot. Maybe all those grasses and coreopsis and coneflowers I had planned might not work? So starting this month, I’ll be watching the sun and shade patterns on that stretch of lawn. By May, when I plan to plant, I’ll have a good idea of where the sun falls and for how long. Knowing how much sun you have and when it hits is vital to making plant selections.

Mexican sunflower big
I may have let these get a little out of control. I am standing on a raised bed and still are shorter than the plants.

Plant BIG plants on the edges. Last year, I grew Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) in my backyard. If you have ever grown them, you know how big they can get. And, while I loved the bright orange flowers (see the photo at the end of the post to see why) and the incredible privacy they gave us, it started to feel claustrophobic by fall. I still plan to plant them, but only on the edges of that yard. A gal’s got to breath.

Work on that second (and third) crop. While we don’t have a long vegetable growing season in Minnesota, it is possible to get more than one crop of many short-season vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach and radishes. Last year, I harvested all my ‘Minnesota Midget‘ melons by early August—leaving a big hole in a section of the vegetable beds. I ended up adding herbs that I purchased to the bed, but paying more attention to timing and planning for second or possibly third crops is a good goal for 2019. Speaking of timing….

Hold off on seed starting. I’ve gotten a lot better at this as I’ve matured as a gardener, but you really do not need to start a ton of seeds for Minnesota before late March or even April. Tomatoes, for example, can’t be planted outside without protection before Memorial Day (or the first week of June) most years. So, unless you plan to use row covers, cold frames or other season-extenders, starting seeds with the proper amount of time between germination and planting out will result in stronger plants. Check the back of the seed packet, count back from your last frost date (early to mid-May in most of Minnesota) and plan from there.

morning glory on fence
Growing flowering vines, like morning glories, on a trellis and fence increases privacy.

Grow up! As an urban gardener, my space is limited and growing plants on trellises and climbing apparatuses is the best way to grow more. I have a number of trellises in the garden, and by the end of summer, my back fence is covered with flowering vines. But I’ve got my eye on a couple of new places where I can grow vining crops. As the famous garden writer, Katharine White said, “onward and upward in the garden!”

Whatever your resolutions or plans for next year, I wish you a happy, productive and meaningful 2019!

monarch on mexican sunflower
Why let a sunflower get so large? Because of monarchs, of course.

Best Tips for Starting Seeds Indoors

Over the years, I’ve had lots of successes and failures with indoor seed starting. While seed-starting time is in February or March in many parts of the country, early April is actually a really good time to start seeds indoors in Minnesota, especially if you are planning to grow warm season crops such as tomatoes.

So, here are my top six tips for starting seeds indoors successfully.

seedlingNo. 1 — Put them where you will see them. Many gardeners have to put their seed-starting set up in the basement. They end up forgetting to check them and before you know it, the seeds are dried up or overgrown. Put them in a prominent place so you are inclined to coddle them.

No. 2 — Let the breezes blow. Outdoors, your little seedlings will experience wind (where I live, it’s gale-force a lot of the time), so get them used to it with a fan set up near your seed starting area. Keep the fan on low to get the seedlings used to wind. This will also help reduce fungal diseases.

Tomato seeds planted and labeled.
Tomato seeds planted and labeled.

No. 3 — Label, label, label. You think you will not forget which of the six varieties of tomato seeds you started are in which pots — but you will. My latest trick is to use a label maker to create labels on the seed starting trays. This is much neater than writing it out on a popsicle stick and less likely to fall off or get washed away. When the plants move to the hardening off stage, the label maker will be employed again.

No. 4 — Water gently and sparingly. More seedlings have been killed by drowning than by drying out. Water regularly, not too much, and if at all possible, from the bottom. My current set up includes really great trays I got when I ordered prairie plants from Prairie Moon Nursery. Each cell is 5 inches deep and the cell tray stands in another tray. I just pour the water into the lower tray and the plants drink it up from below. This encourages the roots to go deeper. When seed-starting season is over, I wash the trays thoroughly and give them a dip in a 10 percent bleach solution to kill any bacteria.

No. 5 — Don’t spend too much. If you only are growing a few tomatoes, it may not be worth your time and money to start from seeds. Just buy a few plants at a local farmers’ market or a garden club plant sale. You don’t need a fancy grow system either — a basic shop light, a couple of flourescent bulbs and a way to suspend the shop light above your seed trays, trays of some kind and seed starting mix — that’s all you need. Do buy or make your own seed starting mix rather than using old potting soil or garden soil.

No. 6 — Pot them up. Depending on the size of the cells you use to start your seeds, you may have to move them to larger pots as the plants get bigger. This is particularly true in my experience with those little pellets that expand when you add water. I’ve got some seedlings that were planted about two weeks ago that are going to need to go into a bigger pot very soon. Save small yogurt cups or the pots that purchased plants came in, add some potting soil and very gently move the seedlings into a bigger pot. Pot them up gradually. A tiny seedling might go to a 2-by-2-inch pot or a 3-by-3, even if it eventually will fill a large container.

For more information on seed starting:

Getting Ready for Seed Starting

Looking at a forecast that includes several days of 60 degree weather, in March, in Minnesota — well, it’s hard not to be thinking about seed starting. But hold off — this too may pass and, in fact, I’m hoping it does. A very early spring can wreck havoc on Minnesota’s outdoor plants as we found out in 2012 when an unreasonably warm March caused fruit trees and other plants to start acting like it was spring only to get zapped by a nasty freeze in April.

I organize seeds by whether I'm starting them indoors or out and on which day.
I organize seeds by whether I’m starting them indoors or out and on which day.

So, while this weather is tempting, stay off the grass and out of your gardens to avoid compacting the thawing earth, and think about indoor seed starting instead. I’m getting ready to start seeds in the next couple of weeks. I’ve checked my light set up to make sure it’s still working and organized my seed box so I know when to start what. This year I’ll be starting a few more annual flowers than I have in the past. I find the home-started annuals do just as well as those I’ve bought as starts and there is a big savings on costs.

This is not a cosmos I started from seed, or grew at all, but isn't it pretty?
This is not a cosmos I started from seed, or grew at all, but isn’t it pretty?

Most of them can be started about the same time as many of your vegetables. Here’s a typical schedule for starting annuals. The “last frost” date in Minnesota is typically in early to mid-May, so I use May 15 to be on the safe side.

8-10 weeks before last frost: Baby’s breath, viola, vinca, alyssum

6-8 weeks before last frost: Snapdragons, ageratum, gomphrena

4-6 weeks before last frost: Celosia, cosmos, sunflower, marigolds, salvia

This year, I’ll be starting baby’s breath, violas, cosmos, sunflowers, marigolds and salvias, in addition to a fair number of vegetables.

What plants will you be starting from seed this year?

Update on the Winter Sowing Containers

winter sowing containers
Lots of germination; lots of rain.

I wrote some time ago about starting native perennials in winter sowing containers, and thought now would be a good time for an update.

Given our especially long winter, the plants in the containers are still pretty small. The good news is, germination occurred in almost all of the 28 containers. The two that have not germinated yet — and I do not expect them to — got pretty water-logged and the seeds may have rotted.

Because of the long winter, I did not end up following the usual winter sowing procedure. Normally, winter-sowers will put their plants out sometime during the winter and leave them there until it starts to warm up. Gradually, they will open the containers up, closing them at night to keep the plants warm. Minnesota springs are not usually gradual and this one was light-speed. On May 2, we had about 10 inches of snow on my garden and a temperature around 28. On May 14, the temperature flirted with 95. (Are we crazy to live in this climate? Very likely.) In any case, once it started to warm up, I just took the covers off of the winter sowing containers and called it a day. Of course, since then, it has been cooler, grayer and pretty wet.

I’ll let the plants get up to size and then, over time, transplant them out to the meadow where they will add color to the grasses and other plants I purchased from Prairie Moon Nursery.

My experiences with winter sowing have always been mixed. It does work — no question about it — but it does not work as well as starting plants under lights. It’s great for a situation like this one: I want a lot of plants and I want them cheaply.

What’s been your experience with winter sowing?



How to Use the Winter Sowing Method to Start Seeds Outdoors

It’s still a bit early for starting seeds indoors in the North, but I’ve been getting ready for it and setting out several winter-sowing containers. You’ll find a new how-to page on indoor seed starting on the header above, which gives the basics and a few tips based on good experiences (and bad ones) that I’ve had.

A couple of years ago, Northern Gardener ran an article by Michelle Mero Riedel on a seed starting technique called “winter sowing.” It was probably the most popular article we have run in the past five years. Basically, winter sowing is a way to start seeds outdoors.

winter sowing containers in snow
Winter sowing containers waiting for spring.

Here’s how you do it: Collect a bunch of clear plastic containers. Michelle often uses clear 1 gallon milk jugs. I also like the larger plastic containers that salad greens come in. You clean the containers, poke holes in the bottom and top, and fill them with 2-4 inches of very moist seed-starting mixture. Then plant your seeds, tape up the containers tight, and put the containers outdoors. Tip: Be sure to write what you have planted in the container in a permanent marker inside the container. That’s all you do until spring.

Come spring, you’ll start to see little seedlings in the containers. At that point, you’ll want to poke more holes or open the containers up a bit during the day to keep the plants from over-heating.  When the temperatures are warm enough, you just plant the seedlings in your garden or containers as you would any other plant starts.

Winter sowing works best for hardy perennials, I think, but some people use this method to start tomatoes and other plants. Since I have a meadow area that I plant out, I use winter sowing for additional plants for the meadow. This year, I started two kinds of lupines, a native coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) and tall rudbeckia (Rudbeckia hirta). These all do really well in winter sowing containers.

For a demonstration on how to set up your winter sowing containers, check out Terry Yockey’s video. There’s an organization for winter sowers, as well, at this web site.

Seed Starting Basics

It’s still too early to start seeds indoors but that didn’t prevent a large group of eager seed-starters from attending the Just Food Co-op class Saturday. Sara Morrison, a home gardening consultant, offered a thorough and practical overview of why and how to start seeds indoors.

Sara noted that if you plan to grow only a few tomatoes or peppers, indoor seed starting may not be worth the bother. Instead, pick up some plant starts at the local nursery. (Or, for more interesting offerings, try farmers’ markets in early spring when the farmers have lots of plants they don’t have room to grow.) However, if you are planning a more substantial garden, seed starting is a way to increase the variety of offerings, save money, and control the kinds of plants you are growing. And, when it comes right down to it, you can get a pack of seeds that will produce bushels of food for less than the price of a latte.

seeds in pots
Seed starting is a fun way to try new varieties of vegetables.

Here are some of the most important take-aways from Sara’s class:

  • Study your seed catalogs. Make sure the seeds you buy are appropriate for our zone. If they have a long growing season, you’ll need to start them indoors or forget about growing them. The catalogs will also give you information about days to harvest, the kind of plant you are growing (bush beans or climbers? indeterminate tomatoes or determinate?), and whether the varieties are heirlooms, hybrids, or something else. I would add, read the seed packages and keep them for reference during the growing season.
  • If you are new to seed starting, don’t spend a bundle on it. A simple florescent light will provide most of the light you need. You don’t need fancy pots or a special table just for seed starting. Basics you need are: sterile soil, seeds, something to put them in with drainage holes, a light source, and a small fan to keep the air moving once the plants are growing.
  • Make sure your seeds are cozy for germination. Tomatoes, peppers, and many herbs want soil between 75 and 85 degrees to germinate. If you have hot-water radiators, near the radiators is a great place to start plants. You may find that the lights create enough heat to start many plants in a moderately warm (65ish) room. If you are starting seeds in a cold basement, get a heat mat.
  • Pay attention to your seedlings. My results with seed starting improved dramatically when I set the seeds up near my home office. It just became part of my day to check whether they needed water, the lights adjusted, or just a little pep talk.
  • Water gently and sparingly. If possible, try to water from the bottom, by placing your seedlings in a pan.

For a more complete review of seed-starting procedures, check out this overview from North Dakota State University.

Seed Starting: Things Are Looking Good!

While I have started vegetables and flowers indoors from seeds in the past, my results have been spotty at best.  Damping off, drying up, keeling over for no apparent reason — that’s the story of seed starting for me. This year, I changed several aspects of my approach and have been pleased — OK, bursting with pride — with the results.

I’ve got about half a card table-ful of stout little seedlings of  tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, sunflowers, peppers, and the special salvia for attracting hummingbirds that I heard about at the Rice County Horticulture Day in March. What worked this time that hadn’t before? Two things: Putting the plants where I can watch them closely and adding air circulation.

tomato seedlings under lights
It’s not pretty, but it works!

Recently, I moved my office to the lower level of our home. It’s near a west-facing sliding glass door, so I set up  the card table and simple shoplight right next to the desk. With the plants right there, I’m much more likely to notice that this tray or that one needs more water, more likely to rotate them so the seedlings get more or less even light, and more likely to notice that they need to be potted on. Because I can see them — and even smell them — I’m less likely to neglect them. The one trick with this location was how to hang the light. Since it’s a finished room, I did not want to drill holes in the ceiling and hang the lights. Instead, I commandeered a hanging rack from the laundry room and hung the light chains from hangars on the rack. It’s a bit odd looking — and yes, family members have asked a) when all the seed junk will be out of this room, which doubles as a TV room; and b) when the hanging rack will be available again for clothes. But all in all, it’s a great set up.

The second improvement was the addition of a fan. I learned this from an article by Don Engebretson. A small fan set on low provides just enough air circulation to prevent damping off and other fungal diseases. With the fan, the shoplight, the window for extra natural light, and my extra attention, the seedlings are thriving.

The next challenge: Getting them safely into the garden. I’ll be reading up on hardening off seedlings over the next few weeks.