Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hardening Off is Hard to Do

Let’s start with a moment of silence for my lost lettuce.

And a short prayer for my departed poppies.

Now a “so long” to my cilantro.

Apologies to any sensitive readers who weren't expecting this post to start with hard-core plant horror. What in the name of all that is green and good happened, you ask?

It’s a sad, sad story to tell. So sad, in fact, that it’s taken me a few days to muster up the mood to tell it.

Turns out, the journey of a house-germinated seed to the promised land of garden soil is even more treacherous than I believed. The perils are positively Odyssian, I’ve discovered, and believe me, I’d already built up a healthy respect for the process.

So where did things go so wrong this time around?

Our story begins about a week or so ago (give or take a week to account for the blogging time warp). I decided the time had come to transition some seedlings outside to the garden. Not all of them, mind you.  No, sir. Most of the seeds I’ve germinated are warm weather plants. They won’t be scheduled to make the their Big Trip To The Great Outdoors until around May 15-- after the last killing frost. But my lettuce, my poppies, and my cilantro, well, as I understand it, these plants can tolerate some cold, even a light freeze.

So I began the process of hardening off. For those readers who aren’t up on their high falutin' gardening lingo, “hardening off” is the plant equivalent of kicking the kids out of the house when they're 18-- but only to the apartment down the street where you pay the rent. See, life inside a home is pretty cush for a seedling: no wind, no cold nights, consistent light. So to prepare your starts for harsh realities of the Real Garden, you train them up.  The process involves taking them out to an outdoor but sheltered location for a few hours a day, and gradually increasing their exposure over a few days. The process actually thickens up or “hardens” the cuticle on the leaves so they don’t lose so much moisture.

In the past, I’d simply set my seedlings out in a partly-shady location on the patio. But this year, to continue my high-tech theme, I purchased the Posh Plant Palace…

… otherwise known as the $25 grocery-store greenhouse. Not too shabby, huh? Those are bricks in the bottom to keep it from blowing away.

My husband, who assembled this lovely green getaway, claims it is absolutely a piece of garbage. I admit,  when I move it from place to place, I have to carry it very carefully to keep it from disassembling in my hands-- but once in place, it is a winner. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.

First I set it up close to the house where it was mostly shaded, then moved it to the sunny position you see here.  Here’s a close up of my seedlings perched on the top shelf inside. My lovely lettuce is on the right. The poppies are on the left. The cilantro is hidden behind the poppies toward the back.

Aren’t they positively radiating plant promise? Don’t they exude utter confidence in the skills of the gardener who germinated them? 

They were doing fantastic. They’d made it through three days of steadily increasing exposure, and then a pivotal event occurred. My husband and I decided to have a getaway of our own. One of the marriage-boosting, overnight variety where the kids get dropped off at his sister’s.

It was in this state of heady anticipation that I made the following decision: the seedlings were ready for their first sleepover in the Palace.

What sort of irresponsible, devil-may-care Mommy am I? Well, it may seem rash and premature now, in hindsight. But at the time, like most doomed decisions, it seemed to have a lot in its favor. Like the fact that I was already three days into the hardening off process, and if I kept them inside while we were gone, I would have had to start all over again when we got back. Clearly, a little patience would have gone a long, long way, but if my past posts haven’t convinced you that patience isn’t one of my virtues, then this story should clear that right up.

Just to be precise, I don’t think it was cold that did my plants in.  Nope. The forecast predicted a comfortable 48 degrees the night I left them out. Their itty bitty peat pellet homes just dried out. All the way out. When I removed them from their Palace the afternoon after our getaway, each had about the same heft as a ping pong ball. Next time, I’ll make sure they’ve had a good drink the evening before their first night camping out. Or I’ll move them into bigger pots first.

So that’s the story. Which may leave you wondering: is hardening off really that hard to do? Well, probably not. I imagine a Master Gardener would no sooner write a post about hardening off than they would about tying their shoes. That’s why I call myself a Gardening Enthusiast rather than a Gardening Expert. Now, if only enthusiasm could bring back my lettuce…..

Anyone else have any hardening off horror stories? Or never-fail tips? Do share.

 P.S. My husband has accurately pointed out that while my blog is called green out every window, I’ve spent most of my posts sharing indoor photos of my seeds germinating and growing. This observation is entirely accurate, and tied to one fact: in Northern Nevada, no gardener, expert or otherwise, makes serious attempts to green up anything outside until after May 15. If readers can just bear with me, there will be actual outdoor gardening posts to come. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Happy Earth Day

For the next few days, this space will dedicate itself to Earth Day (April 22nd) in the form of the Earth Day Reading Project.

It's a  little idea cooked up by fellow garden blogger, The Sage Butterfly.

So I’ll use this space to share three books that have moved me to care more about Earth and the creatures and plants living here.

You may notice these books aren’t necessarily about Green Living.

They are also some of the best books I’ve ever read.

Here they are:

The Cosmic Serpent  by Jeremy Narby

 Anthropologist Jeremy Narby has written an account of Shamanic communication between plants and people that reads like the best mystery or thriller. It also humbled this reader with its perspective on the “intelligence” of non-human life forms, especially plants.

Siddhartha  by Herman Hesse

This account of how Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha is inspiring throughout, but ends with an unforgettable description of the interconnectedness of all things. “This is a stone,” says Siddhartha at the end “and within a certain length of time it will perhaps be soil and from the soil it will become plant, animal, or man… [But] I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything.” This book also comforts me when I fear that the world is falling apart. Siddhartha says to his friend, Govinda, “The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people—eternal life…Therefore it seems to me that everything that exists is good—death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly.”

Ishmael  by Daniel Quinn

 This book, published as a global wake-up call in 1992, is probably more relevant today than ever. It was the first book I’d ever read that detailed exactly how humans violate the natural laws of competition between species, and what has happened as a result.

Here are some other great blogs with green themes:

Partly Sunny Chance of Rain : a hilarious mother-of-two blogs about trying to hold it all together in a mad, mad world. Here’s her most recent post about living green.

South of Sunnybrook: A talented, creative mom blogging about living, gardening, and eating simply. Her posts include making seed starting pots from toilet paper cores  and making your own, extremely effective, multi-purpose cleaner

The Gardens at Melissa Majora: Kris, an Ohio gardener, turned her 1.25 acre property into a bee and pollinator sanctuary. You’ll find loads of lively posts as well as links for planning your own pollinator garden.

A Year in a Gippsland Garden:  An Australian garden blog with engaging writing and loads of links about attracting bees and butterflies and worm composting. Here’s her post about her (organic) battle against bugs on her tomatoes.

Jean's Garden: A sociologist and gardener with mean green skills. If gardening is what she’s second best at, then she must be a kick butt sociologist. Here’s her post on earth-friendly plant choices.

Visionary Gleam: Okay, I don’t actually know if Jim Lewis, garden blogger, is green or not. But I sort of don’t care.  His blog is an irresistible treat. He's funny, he’s a fantastic writer, and he’s gardening! What more could you ask for? Consider this link the toy that comes with the meal.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Man vs. Misery

Mention the Ghost Chile to most people, and you’ll probably get an uncomprehending “huh?”

Mention the Ghost Chile to select males, however, and you’ll be greeted with a guttural “OH YEAH!” accompanied by the wagging of eyebrows and maybe even the crushing of a can on the head. 

Recognized as one of the hottest chile peppers in the world, the Ghost Chile's burn registers at 1 million Scoville units, compared to the puny 3,000 to 4,000 units scored by your average jalapeno.

Those of you already familiar with this villainous vegetable may have learned about it the way we did: through the daring example of Adam Richman, Food Network personality. Richman groaned and sweated his way through a cheeseburger laced with Ghost Chiles in a popular episode of his show: Man Vs. Food.

But the Ghost Chile, officially known as the Bhut Jolokia, doesn't just count its victims among television celebrities.

Oh no.

The ever-growing roster of crazy  brave people who see food as fighting and want to Bring It On include:





Oh yes, and the list will now likely include my husband, Steve, and his good friend, Todd.

Though neither of them is the Flex-Biceps-And-Roar type, they both enjoy that peculiar type of male bonding called Shared Pain.

To speculate here about the origins or functions of this behavior would definitely put me way beyond the scope of a garden blog.

Growing a ghost chile, however, is right up my alley. Which is exactly what I'm setting out to do.

Let me say right now: I have no attachment to my husband actually eating this wicked pepper, and furthermore, I would in fact be relieved if he decided to forgoe the madness completely. (I love you, sweetie.)

Now, Todd got us started last November by giving my husband a kit to grow a Ghost Chile plant in a can for his 37th birthday.

(As a quick aside, anyone who has noticed that the Magic Plant company spells their product Ghost Chili and I spell it Ghost Chile can be assured my spelling is intentional. As someone proud to have been raised in New Mexico, I know that a spicy pepper is a "chile" and a spicy stew made with meat and sometimes beans is a "chili." 

The top of the can showed an image of the sort of plant we can expect if we follow the directions and give the can proper care:

See how this mature, fruiting plant is clearly growing out of the top of the can? Given the size of pots I've used to grow container peppers in my yard (which measured at least 12 inches across the mouth) I'm skeptical. It takes some effort for a plant to produce fruit, and I'm not sure this beverage-sized can will allow enough root expansion to cut it.

No matter, I proceeded to follow directions. After taking off the paper wrapper, I opened the bottom of the can, which opened like a typical beverage can, to create the drain for the planter. Here's what it looked like after I opened it.

The material you see in the opening is some sort of fabric to allow water to pass through without losing any planting medium. Keep in mind this is the bottom of the can.

The top of the can opened like a modern soup can, with a ring that peeled back the entire lid.

What I saw when I opened the can brought my skepticism to all new levels. The planting medium filling the can resembled nothing if not tiny little beige and green Styrofoam peanuts.

I can only assume that this is because 1) it makes the can nice and light for cheap shipping and 2) the peppers appreciate exceptional drainage.

But as I stared, mouth agape, at this planting medium, I couldn’t ignore the voice in my head screaming “GIANT FUTURE POTENTIAL PROBLEMS” for any Bhut Jolokia grown here.

It’s not that I don’t believe a plant could get started in this can. I absolutely do. But, I’ll say it again: The notion that a pepper plant could produce fruit in this can seems laughable. So laughable, in fact, that it makes me wonder whether the company avoids litigation for pain and suffering inflicted by the pepper by poorly designing this kit. In other words, designing the kit to produce a darling plant which, conveniently, refuses to fruit.

Some of you may be wondering, at this point, why not just transplant from the can to a more suitable place?  Yes. Great question. But how would we get the plant out?

I posed this problem to Todd, who purchased a Ghost Chile kit for himself, as well as for my husband. Todd said when the plant seemed ready to outgrow the container, he would saw it down the side (with an adequately manly power tool) and then move the plant.

I liked this idea, except for one problem: As far as I know, when you move a plant in its active (non-dormant) state, success usually lies in disturbing the roots as little as possible. So you carefully protect the clod of soil surrounding the roots as you move them to their new digs.

But how could we achieve such a thing with nothing but loose pellets surrounding the roots? Another conundrum to be filed under the heading of  “protection from liability for Magic Plant kit company."

I could think of only one solution. And I’d never tried it before. And it seemed really sketchy.

After I had germinated the can on the windowsill, and I had two sprouts poking out of said can:

I very gently pulled the smaller of the two sprouts out, being extremely careful not to sever the stem.

Then I quickly nestled it into a peat pellet I had moistened for the occasion. (Note the bit of planting medium clinging to the roots.)

It worked. Three times.

Here is a picture of the can with the original sprout, along with three additional sprouts transplanted into peat pellets.

I’ve left a sprout in the can because I’ve decided, after all my ranting, to try my best to make it fruit there. If it works, I promise a full apology, in writing, on this blog, to the Magic Plant company. Either way, I’ve increased our chances of producing the dreaded chile, and the chances that Steve and Todd will become the Bhut of everyone's Jolokia.  

Stay tuned for updates….

P.S. I found out yesterday that Todd opted not to employ the power tool method for transplanting his peppers, and successfully moved them by tipping the can on its side and gently shaking his sprouts out of the planting medium. Then he quickly moved them to peat pots filled with soil. As of yesterday , he had several ghost pepper sprouts sitting under a table lamp. Our chances of producing deadly hot peppers is on the rise.....

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Seedling Lessons Part II

In this continuing saga of seed starting, I left off celebrating and bemoaning my success this year, and sharing the lessons of 2011. Here are a few more things I learned:

5. You'll have to be a bit heartless
When you plant several seeds in one pellet (to compensate for the inevitable duds) you set yourself up for hard choices. After using all the technology and tenderness at your disposal to help your seeds sprout, you will have to let some go. Let’s not mince words. You will have to kill some seedlings. A peat pellet is like a studio apartment, or, more accurately, an efficiency apartment. It won't support more than one plant for six weeks with just three tablespoons of soil. So you’ll have to get out your scissors and cut. Cutting (and this awesome tip comes from my mom) is preferable to pulling out by the roots. When plants share such tight quarters the roots intermingle with one another, sort of like they’re holding hands under the soil. Pulling one will likely disturb the other. So we cut. Here I am cutting a sunflower seedling for the sake of his taller brother.

Which brings me to my next lesson:

6. You’ll also have to be judgmental and petty.
In other words, you’ll need to come up with some criteria for choosing one seedling over another. It’s best to have no tolerance for stunted growth or deformed leaves. Anyone with an equal-opportunity sort of heart will suffer a bit. I did. Or, you could go ahead and create your own patch of misfit plants. Then write a blog post about it and send me the link.

7. You may have to perform minor surgery.
In some cases, there may be no good reason to sacrifice one seedling over another. Like with these two cardinal climber vines.

They were nearly matched in every way. A set of perfect twins (and we know I have a soft spot for twins). They were also spaced widely enough that their chances for survival after separation were good. So I set up my surgical table…. 

Pressed the soil with my finger to firm it up…..

And sliced the pellet like a birthday cupcake.   

I nestled each one into its own four inch peat pot, and packed them with extra soil from spare peat pellets.

 Then I sprinkled on a sincere apology in the form of fertilizer...from a free sample I got at the nursery.

 Finally, I ran the outside of the pot under cool water to prevent it from wicking moisture from the soil (you’re supposed to moisten the pots first, but I forgot).

 Though this surgery procedure is risky and injurious to the roots of both parties, 5 days later, the plants were still alive, and the procedure was declared a success.

8. Good seeds will find a way.
After my seed planting fiasco that resulted in six tomato seeds being haphazardly planted at different depths in a single pellet, I was surprised to find all six germinated and thrived.

That is, until I was forced to cut out all but one. (See lesson number 5)

9. It’s fun to take risks
I love poppies. But my poppy seed packets warned against starting the seeds indoors. The problem, you see, is the seedlings resent the disturbance of transplanting, and often die when moved to the garden. So after reading the warning, like any prudent gardener, I proceeded to plant 14 pellets with poppies. It’s like they triple-dog-dared me not to. And my success will be that much sweeter if I pull it off, see? And, after all, ignoring instructions without the threat of a time-out is one of the few perks of adulthood. Here is a photo of the forbidden poppies sprouting:

Take that, Burpee!

Next Post: The Ghost Chile Project, otherwise known as Man Vs. Misery

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Let's Not Do the Time Warp Again

Confession time.

Blogging about seed starting is so much harder than I thought it would be. Why? Because life intervenes, and suddenly, a strange blogging time warp is created.

It looks like this: I plants seeds on March 22nd. Meanwhile, I have a household to run, twin boys to care for, and a husband returning from Afghanistan on March 25. Naturally, blog post on seed planting doesn’t get written for several days. To make matters worse, after writing said post, several days pass before I can find time to publish it on blogger-- a laborious process involving the uploading of 19 photos. 

(Any experienced bloggers out there hoarding tips on beating the time warp, please share. Unless you're going to share that you always have time to write.)

Why am I bothering you with all this mundane blogging minutia? Because when the post about planting seeds actually appeared on March 29th, my soil pellets already looked something like this:

Feverfew Sprouts

And this:

Hollyhock Sprouts

And this:

Tomato Sprouts

See my problem? When I can't find time to write, the seedlings don't get the memo to slow the heck down.

In fact, today, as I write on April 5th, (note any discrepancy with the actual publication date above for further evidence of the time warp), my little prospects are looking more like this:

Feverfew Sprouts

And this:

Hollyhock Sprouts

And this:

Tomato Sprouts

Because of my past failures when it comes to getting seeds off the ground, I’m now pulled between twin impulses: to scream SUCCESS!  out my front window, or bury my head in my hands and concede that my posts will never keep up with my pellets.

Such is life. But to say we have some catching up to do is putting it too delicately. In the interest of keeping this post on the shortish side (because long posts further stretch the time warp) I’ll skip the day-by-day chronology of seeds emerging from soil and jump to the important stuff. Namely, what I learned this time around:

1. Seeds will germinate with heat alone, but they’ll emerge looking like pale yellow extraterrestrials. Observe:

These morning glory sprouts were the first to emerge on day number two. Interestingly, since these were the first seeds I ever germinated on a home-made heating mat , rather than a windowsill, they showed not a trace of green. Here is a photo of my germinating set up:

 Luckily, as soon as I perched my grow light on top of them, they began to green up within hours:

Next year, to avoid the creepy yellow sprouts, I'll probably use the warmer and light together like this:

2. Some seedlings will quickly demand special treatment
After six days, when many of my pellets were showing no signs of life, my sunflower sprouts were already pushing up against the lid of my greenhouse. I felt like a school teacher faced with a tracking dilemma. I was forced to create an advanced program for my agricultural overachievers. I pulled out 10 pellets (6 sunflowers, 2 morning glory, 2 cardinal climbers) and placed them on the “tall and talented” track with their own set of lights.

Those are clip lights I bought from Home Depot many years ago for my first (and only other successful) seed starting attempt. Here I've clipped them onto the leg of my hanging light system. You can see they are quite a bit clumsier than the hanging light, and they have fallen on top of my seedlings more than once. You may also be wondering about the space-age foil reflector you see in the background of the photo. That's something I rigged to capture more of the light from my hanging flourescent rod. I just cut the top and bottom off a cardboard box and wrapped the inside with aluminum foil, then lowered it over my seed tray.

3. Sometimes, even coddled seedlings flop.
Here are my dill seedlings (which I had such high hopes for in the bring-beneficial-bugs department) showing absolutely no gratitude for the high powered light perched over them for 16 hours a day.

Leggy Dill Seedlings

These are supermodel seedlings if I’ve ever seen them. I’m stumped for now. Any readers who have spotted my blunder with these babies are encouraged to comment.

4. Not every leggy seedling will flop
Check out my chives! I’d never grown chives before and was totally fascinated with the way they emerge looking like green stork legs with their knees poking out first.

Chives Seedlings

Once the leg straightened out it was very long, very thin, but very sturdy.

Chives Seedling
That black speck on the end of the sprout is the seed. I usually resist the temptation to remove the seeds when the sprouts emerge wearing them. Pulling off the seed, in my opinion, would be sort of like helping a baby chick out of its egg. I like to think the little sprouts require the struggle to build up some strength to face the world.

Next Post: Seedling Lessons Part II (When hard choices and surgery are called for)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bayer and the Bees

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a tremendous amount of luck luring good insects, or what garden-types call “beneficials” into my garden. Aphids? Got ‘em. Thrips? Absolutely. Earwigs? Check. But Ladybugs? Mmmm….not many. Green lacewings? Don’t think so. Tachinid flies? Nope.

My most recent issues of Garden Gate and Horticulture magazines both boast articles detailing the wonders of these elusive critters, and their ability to go munching through a garden, consuming vast quantities of bad bugs, while leaving your leaves, flowers and vegetables unscathed. Beautiful.

The only bug I’ve ever been able to entice en masse is bees (my favorite animal). And even on that score I have flopped in fairly dramatic style.

I blame Bayer. Yes, the company that makes the aspirin. They also happen to make gardening products like Tree and Shrub Protect and Feed, a systemic fertilizer and insecticide. The bottle I bought looked like this:
Now, my mother, who earned a Masters degree in marketing, always told me I was a sucker for advertising (to save my feelings she called me a “perfect consumer.”) Guilty as charged. I took one look at the Bayer bottle and my mind was made up: I wanted my trees and shrubs to look like the lush, right-hand side of the tree on the label, not the left-hand side. And if I failed to “Protect & Feed” my yard Bayer-style, I would end up with yellow, insect-ridden plants in return for my negligence. A shameless scare tactic on the part of Bayer, no doubt, but as a new gardener, I was powerless in the face of it.  I handed over a hefty share of hard-earned money, and took my new wonder product home.

The first indication that something was amiss came in the form of a raw, sore throat I developed after spending a good hour mixing the product in my watering can and sprinkling it on my favorite plants. A quick examination of the bottle showed the insecticide was called imidacloprid.

Afraid for my health, I did a bit of web research and discovered that, according to a report compiled by a team of universities, imidacloprid (a pesticide modeled after nicotine) is only “moderately toxic.” No cases of human poisoning had yet to be reported.

Somehow, I was only moderately relieved. It occurred to me that maybe, if inhaling the product bothered me-- a full-grown human-- then perhaps the earthworms I hoped were living in my soil would not survive having the stuff poured directly over their naked, wriggly bodies. If I had to identify the moment I began to shift my loyalties toward organic gardening, this was it.

But the real clincher came later, when my June 2009 issue of Horticulture magazine arrived. Inside was a brief piece on pollinators by an east coast Master Gardener named Peter Garnham. Discussing the colony collapse disorder (CCD) decimating the global honeybee population at the time, Garnham said “A combination of stress and the insecticides imidacloprid and fipronil is the likely cause of CCD.” More web research revealed that the jury was still out, but that some people, most notably French beekeepers, believed imidacloprid was responsible for the massive bee die-off in the mid 1990s, leading the French to ban the product for certain uses in 1999.
It was about this time I suffered my first bout of full-blown gardener angst. I couldn’t stop thinking about a rose in my yard that I’d treated with the Bayer product. It was a John Cabot climbing rose, and, at that very moment, it was absolutely covered in brilliant pink blooms. It was also, during most hours of the day, positively swarming with bees. This is what it looked like back then, in all its glory:

If there was one thing worse than the thought of cutting the blooms off my rose, it was the way I felt watching the bees, eager and oblivious, as they bobbed about the flowers, sipping the tainted nectar that might spell their doom.

So cut I did.  Wielding my beloved Corona bypass pruners, I lopped off every last bud and flower. It was a tragic, poignant, moment. You would have been on the edge of your seat. Imagine me, pruners in hand, while the mournful notes of Bohemian Rhapsody played in the background:
Mommaaaaa…..just maimed a rose.
Pulled my gardening gloves on,
snipped the flowers, now they’re gone.
(I was gonna stop there, but the rhymes just kept coming.
I know, it’s a gift)
Goodbye, little roses,
 I had to choose
 Between you and the bees--
 I can’t choose you!
(Stick with me, now, I’m going for broke)
 Bayer!  Ooooh oooooh  ooooh ooooooh
 Your noxious, nasty brew
 Now I wish I hadn’t bought it at all.
 Carry on!  Carry on!
 Let’s all go organic
 ‘Cause anyone can see
 The best way is organic……
 For bees.

Today, instead of Bayer’s fertilizer and insecticide, I fertilize using compost, along with a stinky brown sludge known as “fish emulsion”. I think it’s basically putrefied fish remains in the form of a brown, smelly sludge. In other words, I’m using the same trick the Native Americans taught the pilgrims to get their crops to grow (and shoot, the pilgrims were so impressed, they teamed up with their teachers to slaughter enemy tribes) But where was I?  Ah yes, fish emulsion from a bottle. The stuff makes my flower beds reek like a Red Lobster dumpster for two days, but it offends not one single worm or bee. (I can’t speak for my neighbors). 

I’m also poring over magazine articles about “beneficial” bugs and dreaming about getting in on that natural bad-bug-beating action. This year I’ll try planting more of the specimens they supposedly love (dill, parsley, coriander, daisies) and see if my luck improves. Stay tuned!