Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Better way to Start Seedlings

Patricia Vance

        I’ve heard all the excellent arguments for starting your own seedlings at home: better selection, control over timing, less risk of introducing microbes and other pests into your garden. And I tried for years to start seeds indoors with poor results: spindly, weak, sallow seedlings that did poorly even when properly hardened off.

        The reason, I knew, was that I couldn't provide them with enough light.  Even windows that face south simply filter too much sunlight. I’d seen the grow lights set-ups for sale in seed and gardening catalogs, but they run around $100 for a 2-foot light set-up. The less expensive models only have one bulb. I found that a  little too pricey for what you get. So I balked and bought young plants in the garden centers instead.

       With a little ingenuity, last year I came up with an inexpensive growing station that I installed in my basement.

This is what I used:
An existing workbench large enough to support my tray of seedlings
Seed starter tray with peat pellets
1 2-foot, 2-bulb T8 fluorescent shop light ($18)
2 T8 grow light bulbs ($10 apiece)
2 chain hangers ($4.50)
2 screw-in hooks (less than $1 apiece)
1 plug-in electric timer ($10)
1 basic extension cord (less than $5)

       I did pony up for the seedling mat because I was concerned about keeping the correct temperature. You can get heating pads from the drug store, but I was afraid of cooking my vegetables before they were big enough to put into the garden!

       Since I provide the light and heat, I set my system up in my basement on a worktable.  I placed the seedling tray on the bench and then screwed in the hooks directly above the ends of the tray. I hung the light up on the hooks using the chain holders (found in the same area of the hardware store as the shop lights).

       The lights must be within an inch or two of the tops of the seedlings. Using chain hangers, I can easily move the light up incrementally as the plants grow. I can even make one side higher than the other, to accommodate seedlings growing at different rates. I put all of my tall seedlings on the right and then allow the light to hang lower on the left. I plugged the shop light into an inexpensive timer, and set it to go on for 12 hours each day. However, I kept the warming mat on all the time

        I check on seedlings daily. It's also an opportunity to check water levels and make sure the seedlings are moist but not wet at all times. 

       My seedlings are now growing so well, that I am considering buying a free-standing metal 4-shelf unit for about $30. I can hang the hooks from the metal grids on an upper shelf and put my seedlings on the lower shelf. More shelves also means more seedlings. Just adding another light and another warming mat, and I can double my growing space. While this also increases the price, the total expenditure will always be significantly lower than purchasing a ready-made unit. And I also find that my set-up is sturdier than the frames available through catalogs.

       The ultimate proof is a tray of hardy, vigorous seedlings that thrive when I put them out in the garden.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Wild Flowers??

It is hard to remember sometimes that every ornamental and flowering plant we grow in our gardens and houses has its origin in a plant that grows wild somewhere in the world. This was brought home to me when hiking in southern Italy this fall.

Ivy-leaved cyclamen
Along the sides of the roads and carpeting the oak forest floor are thousands of wild cyclamen in various shades of pink. Gardeners are most familiar with the fickle florist’s cyclamen -- Cyclamen persicum -- with its gaudy and large white, red, or pink flowers. The wild Italian plants are ivy-leaved cyclamen – Cyclamen hederifolium. There are some reports that it can be hardy in our area. Older plants have tubers of as much as 10 inches in diameter, and are known in Italian as “pan porcino”, as they are a favorite food of pigs, including the wild boar that frequent Italian oak forests.

Sternbergia lutea

Rocky limestone slopes are often carpeted with beautiful yellow fall crocuses – Sternbergia lutea. Although not related to true crocuses they are similar in flower structure. These can be grown in our region if you can find the bulbs, and have an alkaline patch of soil, for example, near a wall.

Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale)

Finally, a fall favorite everywhere is the autumn crocus -- Colchicum autumnale. We came across several patches of these poking through the leaf litter. They are easily recognized by the pale violet or pink flower with no accompanying leaves. The leaves, which emerge then die back in summer, are extremely poisonous and are the source of the drug colchicine. They are easily grown in our area. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Our Living Soil

Our Living Soil
by Pat Vance
The United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils in an effort to draw attention to the extremely important role soil plays in the health and welfare of humans around the world.
Most of us are aware that the soil in our gardens is teeming with living creatures, some visible to the eye, like our old friend the earthworm, and many, many more microscopic critters. This piece is about some of those tiny critters.
The densest population of microorganisms in the soil is near the roots of living plants, an area called the rhizosphere. Here, plants exude excess carbohydrates that soil microbes consume.
Here are some of the most active parts of this ecosystem:

Bacteria make up the largest group of denizens of the dirt. With as many as a billion bacteria in one teaspoon, there could very well be more bacteria than humans in the entire world in a mere half cup of fertile soil. Bacteria are simple single-celled organisms that are more primitive than animals and plants. Most of the bacteria in soil are decomposers that consume the carbohydrates and other organic materials in decaying plants. The by-products of this consumption include simple molecules that the living plants can then consume as nutrients.

In addition, there are bacteria that alter nitrogen, an essential elements for all living organisms. Many gardeners are familiar with rhizobia, bacteria that fix nitrogen in a partnership with legumes. Rhizobia form nodules on the roots of the legumes in a mutually beneficial collaboration. The legume exudes carbohydrates at the roots and rhizobia consume the carbohydrates. As a sort of payment, the rhizobia convert atmospheric nitrogen in the soil into ammonium, which the legume can utilize.  Additionally, if the roots are left in the ground, the next generation of plants to occupy the site will benefit from the excess ammonium that remains.
In turn, bacteria themselves are food sources for other organisms in the soil. Protozoa, for example, consume bacteria but need much less nitrogen. This results in more nitrogen available for plants in the immediate area.
Bacteria also contribute to soil structure by producing gummy substances that help hold soil particles together and help retain moisture.

Dig up a shovelful of fertile garden soil and in breathe in. That characteristic smell is produced by actinomycetes, a special group of bacteria that grow filaments much like fungi. Actinomycetes make up the second largest group of organisms in soil. They are found in soils on the alkaline, or higher, side of the pH scale and they break down more complex, harder to digest materials like lignin and cellulose. Actinomycetes produce several dark colored pigments, which add to the brown color of fertile soil And they produce many substances that are toxic to pathogenic microbes. The antibiotic streptomycin is a product of one group of actinomycetes.
Fungi are found in acidic, or lower pH, soil and, like actinomycetes, they break down more complex materials like lignin and cellulose. Fungi are sometimes single-celled organisms, but they can also be enormous and complex. Mushrooms are the so-called fruiting bodies of fungi. The visible mushroom is only a small part of a very large fungus that can continue underground for great lengths. Some people consider a honey fungus in Oregon to be the world’s largest organism, extending over two miles underground.
Mycorrhizae are a special group of fungi that form associations with the roots of plants. Like rhizobia, the metabolic activity of these fungi provides nutrients for plants. In some cases, the plants will not grow properly without the presence of the correct mycorrhizae.
Filaments produced by fungi as well as actinomycetes provide structural support for soil.
Other Microbes in Soil
There are other groups of microbes present in the soil in smaller numbers.
Nematodes are microscopic worms that may feed on living plants, bacteria, fungi or other nematodes. Some are pathogenic, but others simply contribute to the release of nutrients in much the same way as bacteria and fungi.
We discussed protozoa, however, the amount of protozoa present in most typical garden soil is quite low.
There are undoubtedly a number of viruses in the soil. Viruses are not always classified as living things because they must be inside another living cell to reproduce. Despite this limitation viruses can lie dormant in soil for a long time, in some case many years, waiting for the opportunity to infect a living cell. Soil virology is a largely unexplored arena. Perhaps we will learn more in future years.
How much microbiology is going on in your garden soil?
There are many factors that influence the growth of microbes including moisture content, organic matter, and acidity or alkalinity. Also, the population of macrofauna (worms, insects, and other larger groups) will make a difference. Higher organic content in general usually means higher microbial activity.
To keep them happy, most beneficial microbes need air, so keeping soil from becoming compacted, and keeping soil moist but not waterlogged is vital. Unless you are courting some special mycorrhizal relationships, soil that is close to neutral pH (around 7.0) will also promote microbial health.
Are they all beneficial?
Not all dirt denizens are welcome in the garden. Some cause diseases in plants. For example, Crown gall is caused by bacteria. And a few, such as Clostridiun botulinum, can cause disease in humans. And we mentioned nematode pathogens. But that’s a topic for another time.
I consulted several reports, but most of the information in this piece comes from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Take a look at their newsletter PDF “Soil Microorganisms and their Functions” online.
Graphics used with kind permission from “Life from Soil: Soil Microorganisms-a picture story”
By Thomas Fester from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research. You can find a Power Point presentation here: