Weedling vs. Seedling – How to Tell the Difference

There comes a point in every gardener’s life when he or she is faced with one of life’s toughest questions: “Is that a weed or something I planted and forgot about?”

I forgot what i forgot - Dory | Meme Generator

If you’re like me, that question comes up more times than you care to admit. 

Spring is a tough season for plant identification because there are a lot of tiny plants growing and you usually only have a few seed leaves to base your ID on. But today, we’re going to attempt to sort out what’s a weed and what’s a seed.

 

The Importance of Weedling vs. Seedling Identification

I’ve heard it said that a weed is just a plant out of place. Before you bust out the Round-Up on what you think might be a weed, think about what role that weed might be performing for you in your home landscape. 

Weeds can be beautiful, functional, and do many of the things that purposely sown plants do. For instance, they can attract pollinators with their blooms, mine nutrients trapped in deeper levels of the soil (tap roots of dandelions), and sometimes even be eaten!

Henbit

Henbit – A beautiful, flowering weed! (Source: Wikipedia)

 

Weeds only become problematic when they are invasive, out-compete the things we intend to grow, or have a noxious or negative attribute (poisonous, attract pests, ugly). 

Giant Hogweed

Giant Hogweed – phototoxic (its sap prevents skin from being able to protect itself from sunlight, resulting in scarring and skin inflammation). Ironically, a member of the same family of plants as Carrots and Queen Anne’s Lace (Source: NY Times)

If a plant’s negative attributes outweigh the positive, I’m all for getting rid of it! In fact, if a plant is harmful to children or pets or can be easily confused with an edible plant, it’s best to get it out of there as early as possible so the weed doesn’t bear seed and breed a whole new generation of weeds. That’s where weedling vs. seedling identification comes in.

 

Questions to Ask

Here are a few things you can ask as you’re trying to determine if something is a weedling or seedling:

  1. LOCATION: Do you remember or have a record (planting diagram) of planting something in this space? Is it coming up in a uniform pattern (i.e. you spaced them 2 inches apart, etc) or is it random? Unless you scattered your seeds or a heavy rain washed the seeds away, random patterns usually indicate a weed.
  2. TIMING: When did you plant your seeds? How long is the germination period for those seeds? Germination typically takes a few days to a few weeks for things we intentionally plant. If it’s outside of that window, it could be a weed.
  3. SPREAD: How contained is this plant? Does it seem to be spreading? Choking out other plants? Those are usually signs that a plant is a weed.
  4. IDENTIFIABLE PLANT PARTS: Are there any true leaves on the plant? Is it flowering? Producing seeds? The larger a plant grows, the easier it is to identify.

 

Resources for Weedling vs. Seedling IDs

These days, it’s pretty easy to hop online and figure out what’s a weed and what’s a seed. 

My go-to resource is our State Extension’s website. One of the best pages I’ve found in their plethora of weed-related content is this one on turf weeds, since a lot of the weeds I encounter are probably blowing in from our lawn or other lawns in our neighborhood. Just like intentional plantings, weeds vary by location, so if you’re outside of North Carolina, check your own state’s extension website for what’s endemic to your area. 

There are also plant ID apps available. A friend just recommended LeafSnap to me, but I haven’t given it a good test run yet. I’ll report back in a future post once I’ve had time to review it.

LeafSnap

Your neighbors who garden are also a great resource, since they’re likely dealing with the same things you are. Everyone has that one neighbor who loves to complain about their crabgrass!

Another resource, though less convenient and accessible, are reference gardening books from your local library.

 

Examples

Let’s look at some weedling and seedling pictures from my garden to get a feel for what’s what!

 

ChickweedSwiss ChardLambs QuartersField Milk Thistle - Field Sow ThistleBeansRutabagaRedrooted PigweedTomato SeedlingBroadleaf Plantain & MaplePokeweedCorn

 

Have you been able to identify weeds and seeds in your garden this year? What are some of your favorite tips/tricks/apps for weedling vs. seedling IDs? I’d love to hear what has worked best for you – share in the comments below!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: 2021 Goal Check-In

Next Wednesday: Garden Update – The Bolt & The Beautiful

 

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How to Make a Herb Spiral

Herb spirals are a fun and easy way to fit your favorite herbs into a small planting area. I learned about this technique from a book on Permaculture called Gaia’s Garden. Check it out from your local library or get your own copy using my Amazon Affiliate link below:

The idea behind a herb spiral is that circular patterns in nature are innately space-conserving. You can minimize how much pathway vs. planting area you’ll need by organizing your herbs into a spiral pattern and also utilizing vertical space. Here are a few examples of what they can look like:

Herb Spiral Example 1

https://www.reddit.com/r/gardening/comments/8iho24/my_husband_built_an_herb_spiral_i_cant_wait_to/

Herb Spiral Example 2

https://www.buildwithrise.com/stories/herb-spirals

Herb Spiral Example 3

https://www.permaculturenorthernbeaches.org.au/how-to-build-a-herb-spiral

 

So you want to make one? Great! Here are the steps to build your very own herb spiral:

 

1. Pick Your Planting Location

Your herb spiral should be as close to your home as possible. In Permaculture, this is called Zone 0 or Zone 1. You can think of zones as a bulls-eye mapped over your property, where Zone 0 is your home and larger number Zones radiate out from that center point). The closer your herbs are to where you’ll be preparing food, the more likely you are to actually use them!

 

2. Add Some Rocks or Pavers in a Spiral Pattern

Add football to fist sized rocks or pavers, creating a spiral pattern from the base upwards. Essentially you’re delineating the planting area for each layer. If you’ve got leftover pavers, bricks or something similar, that will work fine, too. The goal is to make it ~3ft tall and 5ft wide. In the Northern Hemisphere, build it clockwise, with the opening on the North side.

 

3. Fill with Soil/Compost

Pile up some good garden soil/compost into the open gaps between your pavers/stones.  You can save some money by making this a hugelkultur bed (using sticks and twigs at the base, then filling in with soil – the twigs will eventually break down into compost).

 

4. Plant Some Herbs (and Other Garden Goodies)!

You’ve created a garden structure that has microclimates! Lay out your herbs on the spiral, taking advantage of each herb’s preferred growing conditions. You don’t have to limit it to just herbs, either. Here are some general ideas of where to put things based on whether they like more or less sun and drier or wetter conditions:

 

Plant on North (cool) / East (morning sun) Side near Bottom (wetter)

  • Lettuces
  • Parsley
  • Mint (in a sunken container so it doesn’t escape into the rest of the spiral)

Plant in the Middle (East or West side)

  • Chives

Plant Middle, East side

  • Cilantro

Plant on South (hot) / West Side (afternoon sun) near bottom (wetter)

  • Basil

Plant on South (hot) / West Side (afternoon sun) near top (drier)

  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme

Plant on North (cool) / East (morning sun) Side near Top (drier)

  • Dill (likes the heat, but gets pretty tall so you don’t want it to block sunlight for other herbs)
  • Sage

 

Here’s an example of a layout that could work for most gardens in the Northern Hemisphere:

Herb Spiral Layout

 

5. Water!

Water your herb spiral or install irrigation tubing for automatic watering.

 


 

Here are a few additional resources explaining how to construct the spiral and where to place your favorite herbs and plants:

ARTICLE: The Magic and Mystery of Constructing a Herb Spiral and Why Every Suburban Lawn Should Have One

 

 

 

If you don’t already have a permanent solution for your herbs, I hope you’ll give this a try! Do you have a herb spiral in your garden? What do you like/dislike about it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Why so much garden imagery in the Bible?

Next Wednesday: Weedling vs. Seedling – How to Tell the Difference

 

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Top 5 Herbs You Should Be Growing This Year

Herbs are MY FAVORITE thing to grow in the garden. Why? 

  1. They’re the most useful of any garden edible, since they can go into a variety of dishes
  2. They’re super simple to maintain
  3. Many are perennials or self-sowing annuals, so you only have to plant once
  4. You don’t have to waste money on cut herbs at the grocery store – they always give you way too much and they go bad before you can use them
  5. You can divide plants and share them with friends!

If you’re not growing herbs, go out TODAY and get some! Here are my top 5 herbs you should be growing this year.

 

Number 5 – Cilantro / Coriander (Annual)

Cilantro

https://www.almanac.com/plant/coriander-and-cilantro

I’m officially a cilantro convert. I know some people hate the taste of cilantro (which is actually a heritable genetic trait, believe it or not!), so if that’s you, just skip on over to #4…but for those of you who love a little something fresh in your salsa, read on.

I failed with growing cilantro for several years until a neighbor told me that she talked to a farmer who said the trick here in NC is to plant it IN THE FALL, not the spring, since it doesn’t love the heat. Fall planting DEFINITELY worked this year, and I’m so pleased! I’ve used our fall-planted cilantro more times than I can count this winter – in salsas, Mexican dishes, vegetarian dishes, and Thai/Asian dishes. Plus, if you let it go to seed, you can actually use the seeds as a spice (it’s ground coriander!). 

 

Number 4 – Oregano (Perennial)

Oregano

https://www.almanac.com/plant/oregano

It’s a perennial and it goes in so many dishes! If you haven’t used fresh oregano in a dish, you haven’t lived. The dried stuff is good, but fresh is just so different and delicious. It comes back year after year and makes a great ground cover, too.

 

Number 3 – Basil (Annual)

Basil

https://www.almanac.com/plant/basil

There’s nothing like basil in the summertime! It’s a great companion plant to most garden vegetables and can even deter some insect pests. There are a ton of varieties to choose from (Thai, Cinnamon, Lemon, Lime, Purple, Holy, African Blue…), though I usually just go with the standard Genovese. We use fresh basil on homemade pizzas and Italian dishes, and I love to make my own pesto (I leave out the pine nuts) and freeze it to use throughout the year. Pollinators (especially bees) love this stuff when it’s flowering. After flowering, save the seeds for next year’s planting (or let it self-sow)!

 

Number 2 – Chives (Perennial)

Chives

https://www.almanac.com/plant/chives

Ya’ll. I don’t ever buy green onions anymore. Chives can substitute for almost any onion-y ingredient in recipes. Chives are harvestable most of the year here in NC, so I always have a fresh supply. My clump of chives gets larger every year, so I get to share transplants with neighbors and friends. They’re a great deterrent for animals that like to browse (read: eat all your garden goods), so they make a great border plant. Plus, they have beautiful purple blooms in the spring! Want some from my garden? Please let me know!

 

Number 1 – Parsley (Biennial)

Parsley

https://www.almanac.com/plant/parsley

Parsley goes in EVERYTHING. Do a quick inventory of your favorite recipes, and tell me, how many of them add parsley as the finishing touch? It’s like ALL of them, right?! Having a little stand of parsley has saved me so many grocery trips. Plus, I can make tabbouleh anytime I want! Parsley is a biennial (focuses on foliage growth in year 1, then flowering/seed production in year 2), so start a few transplants (or seeds) in 2 consecutive years and then you can just let it grow on its own. You’ll always have some available!

 

Honorable Mention:

  • Dill – I love that you can eat multiple parts of the plant – the foliage and the seeds! I use the seeds for pickling my cucumbers. Also has beautiful yellow flowers in the summer that pollinators love. 
  • Peppermint & Spearmint – Mojitos. Homemade mint ice cream. Need I say more? Grow it in a container though, so it doesn’t spread around your garden like wildfire!
  • Thyme – my small stand of thyme has gotten overrun with other plants, so I need to re-plant this, but I LOVE some fresh thyme! Perfect for my favorite roast chicken recipe!

 

What are your favorite herbs to grow at home? Let me know in the comments!

 

Coming up:

 

Sunday: What does it mean to be an Easter People?

Next Wednesday: How to Make a Herb Spiral

 

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Square Foot Gardening Techniques

Have you heard of Square Foot Gardening before? No, it’s not about people who have really angular feet gardening. But for a minute, let’s just imagine someone with cartoonish, block-like feet attempting to garden – the mental picture is hilarious!

 

What is Square Foot Gardening?

Square Foot Gardening (SFG) is all about maxing out what you can grow in a square foot (12” x 12”) planting area. Most SFGs are no more than 4 ft wide (to allow for easy reaching into the bed without stepping into the planting area) and can be any length. If you don’t have a copy already, I highly recommend purchasing the creator, Mel Bartholmew’s, book. I use it as a reference every single growing season. This book never collects dust at my house.

(This is an Amazon Affiliate link. If you choose to purchase using this link, I’ll get the world’s tiniest commission ever). 

 

SFG: AN Answer to Inefficiency

SFG eliminates gardening inefficiencies that are carryovers from traditional row farming. Here are some of the issues with traditional row gardening/farming that SFG solves:

  1. Eliminates wasted space (i.e.  huge aisles and footpaths in farming or traditional row growing methods)
  2. Reduces weed competition by growing densely and shading out weeds
  3. Conserves water by utilizing a smaller planting area
  4. Reduces seed waste (no thinning seedlings)
  5. Spaces out harvests through succession planting and planting reasonable numbers of plants
  6. Starts with healthy soil – a soil recipe so light, airy, and nutrient-dense that plants have a healthy start from day 1

 

The late, great Mel Bartholomew invented this method of gardening in 1976, and with it, revolutionized home gardening. With the common-sense ideas listed above, can you guess what Mel’s background was prior to developing SFG? If you guessed engineer, you’re a winner! Mel was a civil engineer, specializing in eliminating inefficiencies in construction and manufacturing prior to his foray into gardening.

5 second T.O. (Time Out): Isn’t it amazing how our God-given gifts and talents can be utilized in such different and cool ways? I find that fascinating. Anyway, I digress.

Back on topic now. 

 

Here’s what I love about SFG:

  1. It’s accessible. The small size of square foot gardens (as small as 3×3 or 4×4 ft), makes it an approachable start for beginning gardeners. 
  2. It’s easy and efficient. Less weeding (plants in SFG grow so closely together that they effectively shade out most weeds), few tools needed, less hauling hoses around a gigantic garden, no digging, no fooling with trying to improve your native soil.
  3. It’s tidy and compact. You can fit a SFG just about anywhere. If you only have a tiny bit of land, you can still probably fit a 4×4 ft bed. Heck, you can even make SFG raised bed tables that can go on a deck or patio. 
  4. It’s adaptable. Building the beds can be a pain if you’re not confident with tools, but I’ve learned that you really don’t have to make a border if you don’t want to or it’s not in your budget. You could make a 4×4 ft patch of soil with no border (just watch out for erosion) or you could make a border out of large tree branches (hello pruning upcycling!), bricks, pavers, large rocks, cinder blocks, or whatever other random things you have lying around. You can also make the SFG any size you want, for any types of plants you want to grow. You can do all vegetables, all herbs, all flowers, all perennials, or a combination of any of those. The world is your oyster!
  5. It doesn’t require a ton of maintenance. Unlike row gardening, you don’t have to till the soil every year. You just top up the beds with a little bit of compost in the fall, and you’re good to go in the spring!

 

So how do you make a square foot garden?

 

Step 1: Decide on where you want your SFG to go.

Consider what areas of your property get the most light during the day (best for most vegetables) and how far you’ll have to haul water. Don’t forget to think about things that might cast a shadow on your planting area or cause a microclimate where things get too hot or cold (buildings, trees, fences).

 

Step 2: Determine the size of your SFG.

Start small! For your first year, I recommend going with one 4×4 ft bed or 4×8 ft bed if you’re feeling ambitious. 

Our first SFG bed

This was our first SFG bed, back in 2017. We made 2- 4×4 beds and put them side-by-side to make it 4×8. I ultimately didn’t like having a bed that long and 4 ft across was too wide for me. I’m glad we only made one bed that year so I could easily make changes to the layout.

 You can supplement with container gardening (pots) if you think you need more space, but it’s best to start small when you’re building any sort of garden structure. It gives you a growing season or two to decide if you like the orientation, make changes, and decide how you might like to expand (or if you even need to expand).

If you’re short like me, having one of the sides be 3 ft instead of 4 is helpful – it can be hard to reach all the way across a 4 ft bed without stepping in it if you’re small (and stepping in a SFG is a big no-no!).

SFG bed layout

An example of how you might lay out your SFG beds. This was back in 2019 when we added 2- 3×4 ft beds to our SFG setup.

 

Step 3: Choose your material.

You’ve got some options here:

      • Sloping edges on a mound of soil can work as an SFG! You’ll need to stay on top of weeding, but it can work. Check out Charles Dowding’s method.
      • If you’re using lumber, untreated or heat-treated pine is fine and cheap! Thicker stock is better (1 in is great). Some sites will say you need to use cedar, but it can get cost-prohibitive. We initially got 1/2in cedar boards and they warped and fell apart at the joints within 3 years, probably due to the thinness of the wood and the way we fastened the edges together. Thick pine should last you at least 5 years. Cedar has longevity (some claim 20 years), but think about the reality of whether you’ll even be living in the same place then. Thick cedar boards can also be difficult to source – the Home Depot and Lowes near us don’t carry them.
        • A note about wood/logs/natural edging for SFG beds: they attract roly polies, slugs, and other detrivore pests that make their living decomposing things for us. They’re just trying to do their job, but here’s your warning that using this material could introduce some pests to your garden that you weren’t counting on.
      • Bricks, pavers, and cinder blocks have the best longevity, but can be expensive and require some heavy-duty labor at the outset to move everything to the site and get things level. 
      • Pre-made SFG kits are available, but they’re mostly a rip-off.
      • Materials to avoid: rubber tires, railroad ties, chemically treated lumber, some types of cinder blocks that contain fly ash. Basically, avoid anything that could possibly leach harmful chemicals or heavy metals into the soil.

 

Step 4: Lay down plain cardboard to kill grass and weeds and assemble your bed edges.

 

Step 5: Add soil.

You want ⅓ certified organic compost (bulk or bagged), ⅓ perlite or vermiculite, and ⅓ peat moss or coconut coir. Don’t use your native garden soil for this.

Optional: Mark your beds so you have a square foot grid. You can use nails to hold some twine in place or create your own grid from rocks, bamboo canes, or anything that makes a straight line.

 

Step 6: Plant your seeds or transplants using the guide below.

  1.  

Here’s a list of the most common vegetables and their spacing in SFG method. If you’re planting something that isn’t listed here, use the “thin to” instructions on your seed packet as a guide and follow the simple calculation I outlined in All About Seeds Part 1: Deciphering Seed Packets.

Have you used the SFG method? What’s your experience been like? What thoughts or recommendations do you have for beginners trying out SFG? Share your wisdom in the comments below!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Palm-Waving Groupies

Next Wednesday: Update and Pictures from Our Jubilee Garden

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Nitty Gritty – How to Prune

Pruning is both science and art. Last week we looked at the why, when, and what of pruning. Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty – how to prune. Here are some thoughts that can help guide your cutting.

 

Immediately Remove:

  • Anything diseased or damaged.
  • Adventitious growth. Look like suckers but are coming from an area that was improperly cut or damaged in a previous pruning session or storm.
  • Limbs that are criss-crossing or growing towards the center of the plant. The goal is for limbs to go OUT and AWAY from the center so the foliage can get more light for photosynthesis.
  • Suckers. These are shoots that come up from the base of the plant, trying to be new leaders (primary limbs). 

Suckers at the base of a shrub There's a sucker born every minute (PT Barnum)
All of these tiny shoots coming up near the base of the plant are suckers. PT Barnum would welcome them, but he’s no gardener.

 

Determine Desired Height

How tall do you want this to be once you’re done pruning? Choose a height to guide your cuts (ex. I aim for waist- or chest-high for shrubs since that’s easy to approximate). 

 

Shaping 

Look for little buds (AKA lateral meristem/axillary bud) on the limb in question. They might be clearly visible on a naked branch or they might be hidden right where a leaf attaches to the limb. The way these nodes are pointing indicates which way the plant could grow if you chopped right above that point. (Obviously if you chop below, the bud would be gone and couldn’t direct the growth).

Fun with Biology:

A meristem is a plant’s version of stem cells. Stem cells can differentiate into any type of cell that’s needed (sort of like our bone marrow and umbilical cord blood). An apical meristem is just plant stem cell tissue found at the apex, or top, of the plant. 

Lateral meristems are stem cells found near a bud or side shoot

Plant hormones from the apical meristem called auxins send chemical signals to the lateral meristems that inhibit lateral growth. Cytokinins (another plant hormone) allow for some lateral growth. For more on this, check out this cool article

Here’s the REALLY cool part: if you chop off the apical meristem (AKA  pruning), auxins can’t be delivered and whatever lateral meristem is closest to the top becomes the new apical meristem through cell differentiation. It’s crazy-amazing! Check it out:

Apical meristem is at the top of the limb, lateral meristems/buds are on the sides of the limb. Each bud shows the direction a new limb could grow if the top of the limb were pruned.Cutting above a lateral meristem/bud will turn that bud into the new apical meristem and the limb will grow in the direction of that bud.Here's what the new limb would look like if pruned (new growth going in the direction of the new bud with foliage at each lateral meristem/axillary bud.

 

Science and pruning are so cool!

 

Here’s an example of my pruning before & after, using the tips above. Subtle, but effective!

Shrub after pruning

 

Tree Limbs: 3-Cut Method

Growing a Greener World, one of my favorite gardening shows, has a great episode on pruning. I recommend watching the entire episode. If you just need to know how to best remove a tree limb, check this out:

 

A Note About Tree-Topping/Crape Murder

Ugh. I hate this so much. I hate that I have to tell people this AND I hate that tree service companies actually suggest this to their customers. Trees SHOULD NOT have their canopies removed. It’s atrociously ugly and it is usually fatal to the tree. At the very minimum it’s extremely damaging (to the tree’s health and to your property when the tree eventually fails and falls on something). Crape Myrtles are frequent victims of this treatment, hence the term “Crape Murder”. If a tree is overgrown, here are your best options:

  • Remove an entire limb from where it joins up with the trunk or a large branch using the 3-cut method
  • Cut down the entire tree – it will look better than topping AND prevent you from having a huge insurance claim after it falls down on your or your neighbor’s property
    • Bonus: this frees up space to plant something better (more appropriate size or native species)

A tree that's had it's canopy removed improperly using a topping method.

An improperly pruned tree. Tree topping is murder!

Results of tree topping - scraggly limbs, knots, and decay

For the love of Pete, don’t do this!!!! See how sickly the new growth is? The knots? The decay? It’s awful!

 

Additional Resources

Here are a few other resources if you have more questions about how to prune:

Now you know the why, what, when, and how of pruning! It’s not that hard once you understand the biology going on behind the scenes. 

I’d love to hear your stories about pruning (horror or otherwise)! Did you inadvertently kill a plant by pruning at the wrong time (guilty here!)? Have a bumper crop of flowers or fruits after a hard prune? What did you do with the harvest? Let me know in the comments!

Coming up:

Sunday: Good Soil

Next Wednesday: Square Foot Gardening Techniques

 

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We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming for Pruning – It’s Not That Hard!

I know you’re probably excited to get your transplants in the ground, but I’m going to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming. Before we do anything else, we need to get outside and do some pruning before spring kicks into high gear!

What types of plants should you prune? 

For the most part, pruning is for perennial plants, shrubs, and trees since annuals typically don’t make it through the winter.


Plants Need Pruning If They Are:

  • Overgrown or unruly
  • Patchy (insufficient light to center or lower parts of the plant)
  • Touching a structure
  • Crowding out other plants
  • Unproductive or you want to increase productivity (more blooms/fruits)

Why Now? 

Late winter/early spring is when plants are dormant and not actively growing. I like to aim for Valentine’s Day (this year, I was a little behind). The plant has time to recover from the wounds of pruning during dormancy,  plus pruning actually stimulates new growth which is perfect for this time of year – it kick-starts spring growth.


Exceptions to Pruning in Early Spring

There is one notable exception to early spring pruning, and that’s pruning flowering shrubs.

As a general rule, you should prune AFTER a plant flowers. It’s safe to prune any plant during early spring (dormancy) – your plant will still survive, BUT if you prune something that flowers before June (a sign that your plant flowers on the previous year’s growth), you’ll miss any blooms/fruits for that season/year. If something flowers after June, it usually means it flowers on new/this year’s growth, so it’s best to prune now.

NEVER PRUNE IN LATE SUMMER/FALL! It encourages new growth, which is susceptible to frost damage and can kill your plant.


What Tools Do You Need?

All you need is something to cut with. I find the following three items to be all that’s necessary. (Note: these are Amazon Affiliate links, so if you choose to buy anything, I’ll get a small commission. These are what I use to do my own pruning):

  • Hand Pruners (for twigs with diameter of about a finger or less). Be sure they’re bypass pruners, NOT anvil pruners.

  • Loppers (for anything from the diameter of your finger to diameter of your wrist). Again, be sure they’re bypass loppers and not anvil-style (which crushes instead of giving a clean cut)

  • Hand Saw (for anything bigger than that – typically trees or very big/old limbs on a shrub)


A Note About Safety

Don’t be overly daring when it comes to pruning. Especially with trees, if a limb is too big or too high to reach, leave it alone. If it bothers you that much, have a friend help you or hire a certified arborist (yes, make sure it’s not just a tree service!). If you’re using a ladder, have someone there to spot you/help hold it, or you’ll need to have 9-1-1 on speed-dial.

The Simpsons - A caller at this hour? You dial 9-1, then when I say so, dial 1 again

Now that we have the basis of why, when, and what to prune, come back next Wednesday for the nitty gritty on how to prune – the science behind pruning, deciding where to cut, and how to cut the right way. 

Have you started (or completed) your pruning for this year? How’d it go? Let me know in the comments!

Coming up:

Sunday: Spring Forth

Next Wednesday: Nitty Gritty – How to Prune

 

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All About Seeds – Part 3! Selecting Varieties for Planting

Hooray! You’ve made it to week 3 of All About Seeds. Now that we’ve learned how to decipher a seed packet and understand some of the lingo, we can get down to business. It’s time to choose your varieties!

Here are some things to consider:

 

Step 1: Finalize your planting list

Decide what types of plants you want in your garden.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What do you have space for? 
  • What do you/your family eat the most of?
  • What might be tastier grown at home rather than buying from the store?
    • What bruises or goes bad quickly after being harvested?
  • Which items have a big mark-up at the store that you could grow more cheaply yourself?
    • Berries? Rare veggies? Spices? Herbs?
  • Which company (or companies) do you want to buy from?
    • What’s in stock?
    • Can you buy all your seeds from them and get a discount or free shipping?
    • Who’s got the best prices? (Don’t forget to take into consideration the unit/weight for each seed pack)
    • What’s their lead time on shipping?

Step 2: Determine your seed “rules”

Selecting varieties can be overwhelming and it’s easy to over-buy. So create some rules for yourself before you even crack open a seed catalog or peruse a seed company’s website. Here are some examples of rules that you can use or adjust for yourself:

  • I’m limiting myself to x number of varieties of the same plant (i.e. 2 tomato varieties)
  • I’m limiting myself to varieties that are bred for containers (dwarf size)
  • I’m limiting myself to varieties that support my convictions about GMO vs. Non-GMO, Organic vs. Non-organic, and/or Open-pollinated/Heirloom vs. Hybrid.
  • I won’t pay over $x per packet of seeds
  • My total budget is $x, and I will stick to that number

Are all these rules really necessary? The Big Lebowski

Yes, yes they are. Because you’re about to…


Step 3: Crack open a seed catalog / seed company’s website

Now you’re armed with some defenses against overspending on seeds. Here’s an example of a spread you might see (this one’s from Baker Creek):

Baker Creek Seed Catalog - Example of Bean Options

 

It’s so alluring, am I right? The photography is on point – look at all those beautiful green beans you could have in your garden!

 

Thriller - I'm just here to watch people in denial rationalize their excuses

REALITY CHECK. Your garden is not a farm. Your plants will not look like these pristine, beautifully arranged specimens. So let’s keep it real, shall we?

  1. Go to the section for the first type of plant you want to order. 
  2. Immediately mark out any varieties that break your rules. If you’ve got a physical copy of the seed catalog, mark it out with a big X. I’m not kidding. If you’re looking at the website, write down the “hard no’s” on one side of a sheet of paper. 
  3. Assess what’s left. Of the varieties that are left, which ones will work best for you and your garden? You can compare the following to help you further narrow the list down:
    • Is it appropriate for your growing zone? (ex: “long day” onions do best when grown in zones 6 and colder)
    • What are the # of days to maturity? Do you prefer an earlier or later harvest?
    • Does it have any special advantages over others (ex: resistance to verticillium wilt in a tomato variety)?
    • Are there any disadvantages? (ex: beans that need to be trellised vs. ones that grow in a “bush” habit and don’t need support)
  4. Put your final “yeses” in your online shopping cart or write them down on the other side of your piece of paper that had the hard no’s on them.

Step 4: Wait 24 hours

Have a neutral third party (spouse, friend, mail carrier, local dog-walker) review what you have in your shopping cart. Give them permission to gently remind you of your seed rules and which selections might be breaking those rules. Get real with yourself. Have you gone over budget? It’s time to make some hard choices. YOU CAN DO THIS! Just don’t be like Cindy:


Step 5: Place your order

Enter that credit card info and click submit. Now sit back, relax and get ready for the next step in the process – preparing your planting area for your seeds or transplants! But before we do that, we’ve got some pruning to do…

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Pruning Time!

Next Wednesday: We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for Pruning – It’s Not that Hard!

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All About Seeds – Part 2! Seed Lingo Decoded

Let’s learn some lingo, real quick. There are some buzzword-y things that go on seed packets, a lot of which we just smile and nod at because, yes we’ve heard those words before, and if it sounds science-y and not natural-y it’s probably bad, right? 

WRONG

Let’s shut down that sort of thinking right now. This blog is a hearsay-free zone. No, we’re going to do the work to understand these concepts, not just be influenced by vague notions we’ve heard. 

So without further ado, going head-to-head in ring tonight are:

Hybrid, GMO, Non-organic versus open-pollinated & heirloom, Non-GMO, and Organic


 

Open-pollinated/Heirlooms Vs. Hybrids

Open-pollinated: When a parent plant self-pollinates or is pollinated by another plant of the same variety, the next generation will be similar to the parent plant. This is how pollination happens naturally, with no human intervention. 

Heirlooms: are just open-pollinated varieties that can be traced back a long time (like 50+ years).

VERSUS

Hybrids: Humans intervene in the pollination/breeding process, selecting which plants to cross-pollinate. Think Gregor Mendel and his pea plants, if you’re familiar with that story from your High School Biology class. Essentially, you’re inbreeding the plants so that you get desirable phenotypes (how a gene expresses itself physically… let’s say a pink flower color instead of a purple flower color). Ultimately, hybrids WILL NOT have offspring that look like the parent. Hybrids are called “F1s” because that’s the nomenclature used in genetics to indicate the offspring of a cross-breeding; the “f” stands for filial, meaning “generation”, hence F1 is a 1st generation plant. So if you buy hybrid seeds, and you want to save your seeds from a F1 tomato, next year’s tomato isn’t going to look anything like the tomato you grew this year. It’ll still be a tomato and it might even taste good (or better!), but it’s not consistent. Another thing to note is that hybrids that make it to market usually have better yields (something known as hybrid vigor) and have better disease resistance. They are also typically more expensive because you’re paying for the labor to do all the cross-breeding and management, ensuring that nothing wild gets mixed in. Think buying a pure-bred dog versus adopting a mutt.

Main take away: Open-pollinated and hybrids each have their place. I opt for open-pollinated when I want to save my own seeds. I go for hybrids if I know I’ve got a problem that a hybrid can solve (say, tomatoes that won’t crack easily or beautiful flower colors). “Heirloom” is just a marketing ploy.

And since I can’t resist a good Biology meme, you’re welcome in advance for the following Gregor Mendel memes.

 

Gregor Mendel - Give Peas a Chance Gregor Mendel - BRB doing science

 


 

Non-GMO Vs. GMO

Non-GMO: Not a Genetically Modified Organism. Meaning, the DNA sequences of these varieties haven’t been manipulated in a lab (no gene insertions, deletions, or substitutions). 

VERSUS

GMO: Genetically Modified Organism – a scientist in a lab somewhere has been fiddling with the DNA. Why would someone do that? Well, it turns out that scientists have found ways to change the DNA sequence that can result in a more desirable outcome, usually to make Big Agriculture easier, but sometimes for even GOOD, humanitarian reasons. For instance, adding DNA sequences that make the plant resistant to viruses (yes, plants can get viruses, too!). Or enabling a plant to secrete a substance that’s undesirable to a common pest. Or enhancing vitamin content so a staple food (like rice) can be more nutritious (this is a major public health win in the developing world). 

So, overall, GMO is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to us consuming the plant (unlike pesticide use in non-organic growing methods). The problems with GMOs are primarily ecological and legal. 

    • Ecologically speaking, do we really know the full impact of messing with an organism’s genetic make-up? How might the changes we make impact soil conditions (nutrient uptake, water requirements) or other levels of the food web? 
    • Then there’s the question of genetic diversity. If every large agricultural outfit is using the same GMO seeds because they need their corn to be resistant to corn borers (an insect pest) for a profitable harvest, what happens when corn borers begin to adapt (which they inevitably will) and suddenly no one has seed that the corn borers aren’t adapted to? You’re up a creek without a paddle, or a corn, that’s what.
    • Legally speaking, who owns the rights to those seeds? Many of the companies who create GMO seeds (you’ve probably heard names like Monsanto and Syngenta), make it illegal for farmers to save seeds from GMO plants they’ve grown. Due to these patent laws and other regulations, farmers are dependent on GMO developers to supply seeds, which can get expensive.

Dwight Schrute on GMOs

Main take away: GMO and non-GMO are buzzwords that don’t have a lot of bearing for the home gardener. I think it’s fine to plant GMO seeds, and see the benefit of their use in agriculture and public health applications. But it’s probably a better option to not put all our eggs in one basket, so to speak, and maintain the supply (and demand) for non-GMO. For more on the GMO debate, check out this site!

 


 

Organic Vs. Non-Organic

Organic: No pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic pest or disease controls were used on the parent plants that produced your seeds.

VERSUS

Non-Organic: The parent plants that produced your seeds might have been sprayed. 

Main take away: For seeds, organic vs. non-organic has very little bearing on the quality of the seeds themselves. You MIGHT WANT TO BE CONCERNED about whether your PRODUCE is organic or non-organic because you could be consuming whatever pesticides were sprayed on the plant. Plus, organic farming practices are gentler on the soil and larger ecosystem, which I think it worth promoting. If you want to get gung-ho and vote with your dollars to encourage organic practices in seed production, that’s fantastic. But ultimately, it’s less of a concern with seeds than with produce.

 


TLDR:

When it comes to seeds, a lot of these buzzwords are marketing ploys to appeal to different segments of consumers. However, if you’re fundamentally opposed to or in support of certain business practices or environmental justice issues, then dig in and pick your seeds according to your convictions. 

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Flood

Next Wednesday: All About Seeds – Part 3! Selecting Varieties for Planting

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All About Seeds – Part 1! Deciphering Seed Packets

Do seed packets simultaneously inspire you AND overwhelm you? Well, I’m glad I’m not alone! Today, I’m going to show you how to decipher seed packets. If it’s Greek to you now, hopefully by the end of this post you’ll either be speaking Greek or at least be proficient in reading it.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding - Give me a word, any word. I show you how root is greek.

Let’s take a look at a seed packet. Here’s an example of a lettuce mix I got from Seed Saver’s Exchange:

Front of Seed Packet Explained

The front is pretty self-explanatory, with the company name, plant type, and variety/mix name, except for the bottom which says “Always Open-Pollinated and Non-GMO”, which I’ll cover in next week’s post. So let’s skip that for now and move to the back of the packet:

Back of Seed Packet Explained

So at the very top we have “packed for 2019, sell by 10/31/19”, then the product number & lot number, then the number of seeds or weight of seeds that come in the packet. 

“Packed for” and “sell by” dates ARE NOT expiration dates, so don’t throw your old seeds away. Your seeds will still be viable for many years (but fresher seeds always germinate best). It depends on the type of seed, but many stay good for 5-10 years (some shorter, some longer). If your seeds are getting up there in age, you can always sow more seeds than you intend to grow to maturity as extra insurance in case they don’t all germinate.

Then we’ve got the product number and the mix name again, plus the Latin Genus and Species name for lettuce (Lactuca sativa). This is helpful because it gives you a clue about how plants are related. For instance, onions are “Allium cepa”, while garlic is “Allium sativum”. Guess what? They’re related! But that was an easy one. Here’s another neat connection: tomatoes are “Solanum lycopersicum” and eggplants are “Solanum melongena”. Yes – tomatoes and eggplants are part of the same family – commonly called nightshades – and even grow similarly! This is helpful to know when planting so you don’t put cousins right next to each other in your garden bed – they likely have similar nutrient needs (they’ll deplete the same soil nutrients meaning you’ll have to fertilize) and they might even attract the same pests (together, they’ll act like a giant neon “eat me!” sign to any bug in the area). Is your mind blown yet?

Mind Blown
Next, we’ve got a description from the seed company. Since this is a mix, they’re telling us the variety names that they’ve included (some packets for mixes don’t even go this far… it’s a smorgasbord of whatever seeds they had left, so I give SSE props for disclosing their varieties). 

Okay now we get to the VERY IMPORTANT INFORMATION.

40-45 days- this is the days to maturity (number of days from planting the seed to harvesting your lettuce). Extremely important information to have so you know when to harvest.

Seed spacingignore the “direct seed” spacing“ if you’re doing square foot gardening. The direct seed spacing information given on the seed packet is how to grow these using traditional gardening rows. This particular packet is instructing you to sow seeds one inch apart, then once seedling sprout, to cut down excess seedlings so that the ones that remain are 6-8 inches apart. It’s extremely wasteful and stupid, in my opinion. However, it’s a great way for the seed companies to get you to buy more of their product. We aren’t going to be fooled by their shenanigans, though.

No, what we’re going to do is look at the final spacing from the “thin” instructions (6-8 inches for lettuce) and think about how many plants with that spacing could fit in a 12” x 12” square. NOW DON’T FREAK OUT. We’re going to do some math. It’s not hard and it’s simple to remember.

Oh No! Not Math! Kitty Screaming Meme

You can do this! I believe in you! Now STAY WITH ME. We do this quick calculation:

  • Width of your planting area (12 inches) ➗ seed spacing (6 inches) = 2 plants across
  • Length of your planting area (12 inches) ➗ seed spacing (6 inches) = 2 plants down
  • Multiply your two answers together to get the total number of seeds to plant per square.

2 x 2 = 4

(see, you can do this!)

ANSWER: At 6” spacing, you can fit 4 lettuce plants in a square foot.

There are also handy dandy charts online with this information pre-calculated for different types of plants.

Planting depth is VERY important. Don’t just shove your seeds as deep as you want. You want them to be close to the surface. Rule of thumb is sow 2 times as deep as the seed is wide.

Germination info is just what you think it is – how long it takes for seeds to sprout into seedlings once planted, in this case 7-14 days.

The instructions section has other notes that might help you like sunlight and temperature needs (does it need full sun or partial? Frost tolerant? Heat tolerant? etc)

Lastly, we’ve got more company contact info should you have questions or problems.

And that’s it! That wasn’t so bad, was it? I’m sure you’re speaking Greek fluently now! And you’re polished up on your multiplication tables. Wondering about some of those buzzwords like “Open-Pollinated” and “Non-GMO” we saw on the packet? If so, great! Because that’s what I’ll cover in next week’s post – All About Seeds – Part 2! Seed Lingo Decoded!

What other seed packet variations have you seen? Which seed companies do you think have the most useful information on their packs? Let me know in the comments!

Coming up:

Sunday: Where are you planted?

Next Wednesday: All About Seeds – Part 2!  Seed Lingo Decoded

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Step-by-Step Planting Preparation Guide

This Step-by-Step Planting Preparation Guide will help you with all the planning you need to do in the coming weeks to get your garden off the ground. Here’s a quick run-down of what you’ll need to get your Spring garden going this year! 

  1. Know your last frost date. This dictates how much time you have left before you need to really get things going. You can find it by putting in your zip code here. The date the calculator spits out  is the average range of the last frost in your area (+/- 2 weeks). That’s a month long window, so it’s really an estimate. 

You can plant up to two weeks earlier than the official date, BUT you’ll need to watch the nighttime temperatures like a hawk. If it dips to below 32F, you’ll need to get ready to cover any tender seedlings. Some years you win the gamble of planting early, and sometimes you end up like Linus, covering your plants every night for three weeks. It’s up to you how much effort you want to put into it.

Linus covering Christmas Tree

2. Decide how you’ll start your plants. If you haven’t made your decision yet, check out last week’s post about the pros & cons of transplants vs. direct sowing vs. indoor seed-starting

Here’s my honest opinion on the matter:

IT IS OKAY to buy transplants from a local nursery. You can buy nursery plants and STILL GET THE SAME DELICIOUS PRODUCE! You are not a “lesser” gardener for buying transplants. Anyone who judges you for going with transplants over seeds is probably a little full of themselves and not someone you want to be taking gardening advice from anyway.

Want more of a challenge than buying transplants? Do you like to live dangerously? Well, danger is my middle name. If you’re really sold on seed starting, then I HIGHLY recommend direct sowing.

Austin Powers: Danger is My Middle Name

3. Make a plan for what you want to plant and where it’s going to go. 

Consider these three things:

SPACE: How much space do you have? Will you be planting in containers? A garden bed? Make a paper chart (or spreadsheet you can print) of where everything will go. And make sure it’s to scale. Take into account plant spacings using the Square Foot Gardening method (post coming in the next few weeks!) and/or underplanting for getting the most out of your space. Ignore traditional row spacings on seed packets unless you’re a farmer. 

SELECTION: Every gardening website in the history of the world will tell you “plant what your family eats”. I didn’t take this advice for the first six years I gardened, because I wanted to see what I could grow, how plants in different families grow, and maybe because I thought deep down that I would enjoy eating Malabar Spinach (reality: slimy, gross texture) and Nasturtium (reality: smells like wet dog). I was wrong. Look at what your family eats regularly and plant that. Think about things you get at the grocery store every week (or at least every week in the summertime). Eighty percent of your space should be dedicated to those things. For our family, those are things like potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, and lettuce. Not Nasturtium (though this makes a great companion plant!).

FUN FACTOR: Growing plants is also about learning and having fun, so I recommend getting 2-3 plants that will bring you joy or be a challenge to grow. WARNING: DO NOT experiment with things like PUMPKIN, MELONS, GOURDS, or WINTER SQUASH. They require a huge amount of space, so unless you’re trellising them over a massive arch or have a patch of grass you really want to kill, don’t do it. 

4. If you’re sowing seed, order seed catalogs/peruse seed websites NOW. Most companies send them for free, though Baker Creek has a coffee-table like book you can also buy for $14 if you just want to drool over some botanical eye candy. You can also peruse their websites if you don’t want the clutter/temptation of seed catalogs in your house. My favorites are: – Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds & Seed Saver’s Exchange

**Special Note for 2021: There may be issues with seed shortages due to a boom in COVID gardening. You may have to get creative here… see step #6.

5. DO NOT PLANT ANYTHING OUTDOORS RIGHT NOW. Let me remind you that it is February, and unless you live in Zones 9 or 10 (think FL/south GA), we’ll be going through some menopausal weather from now until mid-April (at least here in NC). If you try to plant now, your seedlings will get tricked into thinking it’s Spring about eight times between now and then, it will freeze and those poor little babies will bite the dust. Control yourself! Spring is coming but it’s not here yet.

Winter is coming... no wait, warm again. Ok it's cold, winter is coming... nope, warm again.

6. Buy/source your seeds or transplants. ONLY do this once you’ve planned out your space. Get your order in as early as possible for seeds (February or early March at the latest). Have a back-up plan in case something you want is sold out. Share or swap seeds with a friend or neighbor to keep costs down. Many public libraries also have “seed libraries” where you can give/take seeds for free!

Example of a Seed Library: https://www.blounttn.org/1464/Seed-Library

7. Prep the planting area. Have you made your planting beds yet? If not, now’s the time. If you did step #3, you should know how big to make your beds or how many containers to source/buy. If you’re doing raised beds, get yourself a load of certified organic compost (make sure it’s certified, meaning they test for heavy metals & persistent herbicides!) from a local landscaping company (they’ll deliver by the truckload for cheap compared to getting bags) and spread it over your planting area (at least ⅛ in thick, but more is better). For my garden (2- 4’x4’ and 2- 3’x4’ raised beds, plus 4’ wide beds around most of the perimeter of my house), I get 5 cubic yards (the minimum the landscape company will deliver, since I don’t have a truck to pick it up myself). It costs ~$180. It’s a huge pile of compost, so I end up laying it on thick. It takes 2-3 full afternoons to wheelbarrow and spread it by myself, but it’s worth it – I rarely fertilize my plants because the compost does such a great job providing nutrients. A good mix for raised beds is 1/3 compost, 1/3 coconut coir/peat moss, and 1/3 vermiculite/perlite. You can get a few bags of the coir/peat moss and vermiculite/perlite at Home Depot or Lowes.

Compost delivery

This is what 5 cubic yards of compost looks like.

8. When it’s time to plant, water the planting area BEFORE you direct sow OR after planting if using transplants. Why? Because tiny seeds will get washed away by a stream of water from a hose, whereas transplants need to “settle” into the soil by being watered in. Better yet, plant right before/after it rains and you can skip watering entirely! Note that for transplants, you’ll need to harden them off (acclimate them to being outside for gradually longer periods each day for about a week) before planting.

9. Plant your seeds/transplants. Bring a written diagram/chart outside with you so you know where everything goes. If you need to make adjustments when planting, write down your changes on that paper so you know what got planted where. Then, take a picture of it because YOU WILL LOSE THAT PAPER. You can also label with plant tags, but the diagram should be the source of truth. Seedlings all look VERY similar. A diagram helps you know what’s a weed and what’s something you planted when things start popping up! Pay attention to the proper plant spacing as outlined in the Square Foot Gardening Method or for underplanting. Seeds should be planted twice as deep as they are wide. A 1 cm seed would be planted 2 cm deep. 

Planting chart

My planting chart from last year with some edits.

10. Keep an eye on seedlings until they are established. This means not allowing them to dry out, protecting them from potential frosts, and shielding them from critters like birds, rodents, and insect pests that enjoy munching on the fresh new growth.

That’s it! Now go order some seed catalogs and curl up with a mug of hot chocolate. Enjoy this time of preparation and rest before the mad rush of planting in a few short weeks!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Kingdom First

Next Wednesday: All About Seeds! Choosing Varieties and Deciphering Seed Packets

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