Planting for the future

Starting Seeds
Young seedlings
People often ask: why go to the trouble to plant seeds? Plant plugs are available in nurseries and big box stores. Yet there are reasons to plant. The most common one is that you can then grow varieties that you otherwise would not get. Recently, heirloom seeds have become really popular. Heirlooms often have unique qualities that make them desirable. Last year, I tried the variety Brandywine Pink which turned out to be a winner – pinkish skin but deep red, juicy flesh, large and prolific too.

Many plants are simply not easily available in stores. I enjoy growing Swiss Chard for its ornamental leaves that do well in salads and cooked in stir fry’s or soups – these are rarely available in stores and are so easy to grow from seed.

What do you need?
Once your seeds have arrived, all you need is seed starting containers and seed starting mix. You can use a seed starting tray, or any other container – food take-out containers and egg cartons come to mind. The seed starting mix is preferred rather than potting soil because it is finer. First make sure to dampen it – at least an hour before you plan to use it. Then fill the tray, make a little dent in the soil, drop your seeds in and cover. The seed should be placed at a depth double its size. Do remember to spritz with water and cover. Many seeds need light for germination, so cover with something that lets light in. Place just inches below a source of light. Many folks use the lights in their kitchens under cabinets, if you do not want to set up a light source. Check every few days – most seeds take 1-3 weeks to germinate.

The truly best part of this endeavor is seeing young sprouts. The germination of seeds reveals again the magic that a little soil, water and light can do. As soon as seeds sprout, you need to remove the cover. The young seedlings need light. Make sure the source of light is just very close to the sprouts.

Wait for the leaves to be visible and strong before transplanting. Fill small pots with potting soil. Make sure to dampen well. Make a hole in the medium with a pencil or small stick. Gently pick up the seedling, using a pencil or small stick. I use the sharp end of the plastic label. Drop seedling into the hole and gently firm soil around. Spitz with water. Make sure seedling stay damp but not wet. Too much water encourages damping off which can decimate your seedlings. Damping off is caused by fungi which like cool and wet conditions.
As the seedlings grow, you can fertilize with water soluble fertilizer but only at half strength. Make sure the light source is just a few inches above seedlings all along for optimal growth. Another tip; hold the seedling by its leaves. If you lose a leaf, another one can grow – but a plant has only one stalk!

Hardening off
Seedlings need to be transitioned gradually to the outdoors. So before planting outside, on a still day, take the seedlings tray out to the garden and place under a tree. Bring them back indoors at night. Do this for a week. This makes them ready for the outdoors.

Planting Time
Whether planting in the ground or in a container, prepare the site well. Plant the seedling to the right depth – the depth that it was in its pot. Firm around and water well. Soon you will have the flowers or vegetables or fruits of your labor – and you can be proud that you started from scratch – from just a tiny seed.

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Seeds of Change…Seeds for a Change

There is a fresh sprinkling of snow on the frozen ground that just fell the past few hours. But for an avid gardener like me, it is an exciting time of year. It’s time to order the seeds. The catalogs arrived in the beginning of the year, just after the holiday greeting cards. The number of catalogs have been reduced to a sprinkle now that online catalogs are available. I enjoy both of them. The online ones change the sale coupons every week, while the mail-order catalogs have only one. For me it means double the fun. After hours of perusing, I set out to actually plan by garden.

First, I need to inventory my existing seeds. I pore through them all, throw out the empty seed packets. After looking through them, it is time to make some decisions.  I finally settle on which seeds I will be using this year.

Now, back to the catalogs.  I first look through them to find the new offerings. Truly whoever gets the task of naming seeds has a very fun job. This year, one that catches my attention – ‘Strawberry Blonde,’ the name of a new marigold. Most of us are familiar with marigolds that are yellow, orange or red. Try to imagine a blossom with a mix of all three colors. I can’t wait to see this one.

Every year, I also look out for a few heirloom varieties to add to the basket. The scientist in me does so to ensure the preservation of genetic diversity.  But for the other part of me, it is the quirkiness of them that attracts.

It is of course important not to be totally taken by the eye candy of the attractive pictures. Yet, some offerings do surprise. I was curious about the Celosia ‘Dracula’ but its strong, dark purplish colored leaves and beautiful burgundy blossoms were truly spectacular. Some years ago the petunia with the intriguing name’ Pretty as Picaso’ did not disappoint – with its purple-maroon trumpet-shaped blossoms with a lacy, lime green edging.

Another aspect I might look for is which seeds have been designated All American Selection Winners. These are new varieties that have been tested in trial grounds across the country that have been designated winners. Judges are horticulturists who volunteer their time and compare the growth of the new varieties to existing ones. Trials are conducted in 80 trial sites throughout the country. One trial site is just in our backyard so to speak at the Illinois Central Garden. It is a way for us home gardeners to find the new varieties that are most likely to succeed in our gardens.

After carefully perusing the descriptions, selections are made based on the plan for this year – at the Demonstration garden at ICC (which I am involved with as a Master Gardener) and for my home garden. The advantage of starting from seed is that one can try out varieties not available in the nurseries. One year, I tried several varieties of Rudbeckia – and was happy to see the range of blossoms available in these daisy-like flowers.

Once the decisions are made, it takes just a few more minutes to fill out the order forms – either online or on the mail-order form. The advantage of the mail-order form is that it settles me. It is as if the lines define the task and restrict me. Regardless, the selections are made and the orders are completed. Then its days or weeks of anticipation until the package arrives.

As you remove the seed packets from the cardboard box and handle them, the wonder hits you. It is truly the magic of nature that these tiny seeds – mere specks- given the right conditions of soil, sun and water will, in a few weeks transform into what?  This small round seed will grow into the thick, red stems and large dark green leaves of Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights.’  These slivers – black and straw-colored, sprinkled on to a pot will unfurl feathery leaves and those strawberry blonde blossoms.

So I encourage you to try some seeds this year.  Burpees, Johnny Selected Seeds and Gurney’s are all sites I have frequented.  Whether you follow my example and check out the catalogs, or pick out a few packets from your local store, don’t hesitate to try starting some seeds this year. It is an inexpensive experiment – and may turn out to be a very satisfying one.

With the growing season around the corner, this is the first of a series of blogs that I am starting for this year on Gardening. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome. Happy Gardening!

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Fall Project : Plant a Tree

With September here, Autumn is round the corner.  This is a great time to plant a tree. I would like to suggest it as an activity for grandparents to do with their grandchildren – not just because of Grandparents day. There is nothing like the planting of tree that speaks of a grandparent’s optimism for the future. You are doing something, the full result of which you may not see. A tree may take 40 years to reach its full glory. Or plant one with your children or as a memorial to someone who passed away this year. There is nothing better you can do for the environment – trees provide shade thus helping to keep the house cool.  Trees take in carbon dioxide which is good for the environment.  Trees are fun things for children and grandchildren to climb on or swing from.  Trees provide flowers in spring, fruit for us and for the birds and nuts for those pesky squirrels.

I live in a park-like setting – on over two acres, generously sprinkled with trees. Some I have planted, others I inherited. My recommendations come from living in this setting for 25 years. Central Illinois is not the easiest place to live in –for us or for the trees. Snowstorms, ice storms, tornadoes, heat, humidity, hot, dry spells and flooding are all things to expect. So it is only natural and necessary to first consider which trees have withstood these conditions the best – after all you are planting something that you hope will live for decades.

On the south side, many trees have not survived; others have struggled. The ornamental pear got knocked down one spring in 2001. The tree became fire wood – but something came back from the ground. Two saplings emerged. I did not cut any of them so they grow as one tree. This may be in their best interest because we all know the tendency to split open.  In this setting right now, as each has its own trunk, perhaps it will survive. The Buckeye gets pretty, white flowers every spring but ever since the advent of Japanese beetles in the past five years, by August, the tree has been stripped. The sugar maple which I had planted, I later learned it does not like a southern exposure. The top leaves are scorched, but it does provide welcome shade to the sunroom. The cork willow is a great addition with its whimsical, crooked wavy branches, which are very sought-after for flower arrangements but it has a huge gaping hole in it. The silver maple is huge and offers great shade, but everybody knows its disadvantages – shallow roots which get into the way of the mower and its tendency to drop branches.

Among fruit bearing trees, the Peach tree died some 23 years ago. We enjoyed the peaches for just two seasons. A sour cherry tree gets the sunscald and is not looking pretty. Its companion is already history.  A bing cherry tree planted on the northeast, lived a few years but did not survive the 9 inches of rain we received last June.  Two apple trees have not survived – I was told they are not expected to last more than 20-30 years. Among recent additions of dwarf apple and pear trees planted – three and two of them respectively – the winner is yellow delicious apple – the much touted Honey crisp gets consumed by Japanese beetles.

For the newer additions to the garden, I planted a Linden tree a few years ago, but gave up when the Japanese beetles came to town.  I even covered the young tree up one season with bridal netting! In its place, I planted a Magnolia Butterflies over a year ago. I was anxiously waiting for the pretty yellow flowers – instead the ice storm that destroyed so many trees last winter knocked off several branches– though it did leave a few. The next few years will tell if it can survive in this setting.

Finally the Ash trees – what can I say about them? Two beautiful specimens provided welcome shade to the deck. One large branch of one did break off a few winters ago. But it seemed to be doing well last season.  After this winter, one look at it was enough to confirm the worst – the emerald ash borer has taken over – they will both be history soon.

Other sides of the house the trees fare a little better – although the Austrian pines have not survived nor the Serbian spruce. So given this history, what are my recommendations?

First, for an understory trees there is not better choice than a Redbud.  An understory tree is one that grows in the shade of larger trees. The one we have was literally a twig handed out one Arbor Day at the Forest Park Nature Center – to my son. Being 10 years old and an optimist and energetic, he and his friend dug the hole, dragged over a bag of good soil and planted it. Now over a decade later, every spring we can enjoy its beautiful pink flowers and the heart-shaped leaves that follow.

For smaller spring flowering trees another winner is Crabapple Prairie fire. Having had to look at the two prominently displayed  specimens in the yard  opposite and seeing how dreadful they looked by late summer – I was very cautious, but have been won over by Prairie fire. It still has leaves in fall, berries that the birds love, and pretty spring flowers.

     Sweet Gum. This tree also had an unfortunate first few years- a summer drought when I was away and the main leader all dried up. But I let one of the adventitious buds grow and now the 20 foot tree- which is columnar, has neat star-shaped leaves all season and gorgeous fall color well worth the wait. I have not encountered any annoying fruits, which I was warned about. I suspect I was able to get one of the non-fruiting varieties, which are available.

      Honey Locust Skyline. This I planted by myself and is easily by best success. The thorn less varieties now available have no problems- no known pests. They provide good green leaves in spring offering dappled shade, and pretty yellow fall color. The leaves are so small they do not need raking.

In our area, maples and oaks are favorites and considered safe options. In our town of Washington, a recent post-tornado tree inventory found 30 percent of the trees on common areas were maples –so we like to suggest other alternatives to people. Incidently, the one tree I notice that survived the tornado amount the newly planted trees were the beeches – their ability to bend perhaps.

Among evergreens, few are able to withstand the weather conditions here. One good choice is a Colorado Blue Spruce Fat Albert is a good choice. The needles are pretty blue color and the tree does not grow too tall. It did bend over during our last ice storm but was straightened right back.

Finally another surprising winner in my park-like garden – the Walnut tree. Common in older yards one rarely finds them in nurseries. The positive aspects are the angle – the crotch between the stem and the branch – almost providing a 90 degree angle helps it withstand storms, rain and ice storms.  I have two of them – they grow slowly but are gradually providing delightful shade. I was told that the roots give out juglone, a poison for other plants but have not found that a problem. I have successfully grown both hostas and irises under them. There are several plants that do well under them.  The leaves start turning yellow in late summer itself and are small enough that they do not need raking. How about those walnuts? Well the squirrels enjoy them, and anything that can keep them away from the birdfeeders is a plus!

Just do not let this fall go by without planting a tree. Then, as you sit back and enjoy the beautiful spectacle of the falling leaves this autumn – the yellows and purples, tawny oranges and browns, you can feel good that you have done something – be it a small something to help this planet we call our home. Happy Gardening!



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