The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

March 28, 2019

Fixing seed starting mix that won’t absorb water

We’re sowing our seeds right now for growing transplants that we’ll plant out in the garden. It takes some work, but you can save quite a bit of money growing your own transplants.

Another huge advantage that may be even more important is being able to grow the varieties you want rather than relying on what the garden center grows. They usually chooses varieties that are the easiest to grow, not necessarily the tastiest. That makes sense in their business model. People who have success with their plants are more likely to return the following season.

Starting your own seeds is not without its problems. Some of them you can plan ahead for and minimize, others pop up out of the blue.

We’ve had a great start with our seeds this spring, the cabbages and related cool weather crops are up and growing well. We were using the last of last year’s seed starting mix but ran out. The local hardware store had plenty of bags of mix in stock so we bought a small bag so we could keep working. It felt a little light and fluffy when I carried it, that should have been a warning sign but I was in a hurry.

When we got it home and started working with it, we found that it would not absorb water. Even after sitting  in water overnight, not a drop was absorbed by the mix! It was a “hydrophobic” mix; it was repelling water. That happens whenever potting soils dry out too much. Usually manufacturers make sure a minimum amount of moisture is present to keep that from happening or they include a small amount of  a”hydrophillic” ingredient in the mix to help it absorb water.

The soil on left has absorbed water normally, the other on is hydrophobic.

The soil on left has absorbed water normally, the other on is hydrophobic.

One explanation is we grabbed one of last year’s bags of soil that had completely dried out while in storage. But who knows?

To avoid this in the first place, always make note of how heavy the bags are compared to one another. Mixes are sold by volume, not weight so you don’t have to worry about wasting money on buying water. Pick the one that feels a little heavier because it is more likely to have the proper moisture ratio.

If you do happen to pick a bad one, like me, you can still fix it by applying small amount of surfactant. Even professional greenhouse have this problem from time to time. They use specially formulated surfactants that are not available to the general public but dish washing detergent will work just as well.

Here’s the recipe: dissolve one teaspoon (not tablespoon) of liquid detergent to one pint of water. Use the cheapest off-brand detergent you can find, there’s a practical reason for it. The name brands like Joy, Dawn or Palmolive make too many suds for this purpose. I have a bottle of off-brand detergent left over from several bottles I picked up many years ago when Farmer Jack went out of business. How long ago was that?

Place your solution in a spray bottle and spray it on the surface of your mix, that should give you enough surfactant to allow the water to soak in.

Sometimes the soil in a container will dry out and become hydrophobic even when a plant is growing is growing in it. When that happens, the plant will quickly die from lack of water. Your surfactant spray will fix that situation too. Just spritz a light spray on the top of the soil. It will help water penetrate but won’t harm the plant.

Bob

January 12, 2017

Re-purpose broken window blinds into plant tags

A new winter gardening project presented itself yesterday. The frame on one of our window blinds snapped as I was pulling on the cord to open it and the whole works crashed to the floor.

As it turns out, mini-blind slats make fine pot markers, you know, those small white tags that gardeners use to identify trays and pots of seedlings. The slats are just about the same width as the markers that are sold in gardening departments every spring.

One big advantage homemade markers have over the garden-store variety is that you can easily cut them with a pair of scissors to whatever length you need, short ones for flats of seedlings, or longer ones for potted plants.

 

One set of broken window blinds will provide materials for years worth of plant tags.

One set of broken window blinds will provide materials for years worth of plant tags.

Homemade tags decreases the chance that seedlings will be mislabeled. Since each set of blinds will yield dozens of markers, you won’t be tempted to skimp on labels, that way every pot or six-pack divider can have it’s own tag.

Re-purposing old blinds reduces the amount of plastic debris that eventually finds it way into the landfill. And you save a few bucks along the way. Plus, it’s fun making your own gardening supplies and this happens to be a very easy project.

I’m looking at that high-quality braided pull-cord on those blinds too, but I haven’t figured out a use for that yet.

 

May 20, 2015

Thoughts about tomato planting

Filed under: Transplants,Vegetables — bob @ 9:00 am

I’m sure someone somewhere has done a survey on what is the most popular vegetable grown in home gardens. My guess is that it would be tomatoes.

In virtually every vegetable garden I’ve been in and on every deck or patio with a planter, I’ve seen tomato plants.

Since we are past the average frost-free date in southeastern Michigan, it’s now safe to plant tomatoes outside without any frost protection. That’s not to say that a frost won’t happen this spring, but it is very unlikely. So now is the time to get those tomatoes planted.

Beginning gardeners should keep in mind that although tomato seeds are available, tomatoes are grown in the garden using young seedlings called transplants — plants that were raised to plantable size in a greenhouse or under grow lights. Tomato seeds sown directly into the garden at this point may not have enough time to produce tomatoes before the growing season ends.

If you are buying transplants, the best ones are those that are short, compact and leafy. This early in the spring most transplants fit that description but later on as they grow older, they will eventually become spindly and leggy. However, even leggy plants are usable, if that’s all that is available.

Over time, through natural selection, tomato plants have developed the ability to grow roots anywhere along their stems. These types of roots are called “adventitious roots”.  Adventitious roots help tomato plants survive during times of stress when their main roots would be damaged, such as during a wet spring when soil becomes water logged or flooded. The adventitious roots in that case would form and replace the damaged roots allowing the plant to continue to grow.

By setting tomato transplants deep into the soil, we can use adventitious roots to our advantage. Roots will quickly form all along the buried part of a tomato stem.

A leggy transplant, instead of sticking up above the soil surface, should be set on an angle into the garden soil so that its stem is covered with soil up to the first set of leaves.

Even well-shaped tomato transplants can be placed in the soil lower than the level they were growing in their pot or flat container.

Tomato plants are tougher than you think. Often plants purchased on-line or from a catalog will be shipped without a pot or even soil, they’re just tied together in a bundle and shipped in a box or envelop. These plants recover nicely if you take them out of their mailing container and transplant them soon after they arrive.

We still have time to plant tomatoes. Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the date when many gardeners plant tomatoes. Depending on the season, many times those later tomatoes end up producing fruit almost as soon as those planted earlier.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

March 11, 2014

Starting sweet potato slips

Filed under: Transplants,Vegetables — bob @ 9:39 am

I’ve already started growing some sweet potato vines that I will use to take cuttings, more commonly know as slips. It’s not always easy to find sweet potato slips to plant when you need them. In years past I’ve had to visit several garden centers before finally tracking them down. Calling ahead doesn’t always seem to help either.

The best way to be sure you have sweet potatoes to plant is to grow your own. It’s really a very simple process.

I’ve seen all kinds of contraptions that people have come up with to grow sweet potato slips, most of them involve suspending a sweet potato root over water. All you really need to do is to place a sweet potato root into a container of damp potting mix  about two inches deep. Keep the container in a warm spot — 75 degrees F and be sure it stays moist. An electric heat mat may help if you don’t have a warm spot.

For the next step, I'll cover the sweet potato with soil.

For the next step, I’ll cover the sweet potato with soil.

After a couple of weeks, the sweet potato will begin to root and produce sprouts. Pull the new sprouts off of the sweet potato once they reach eight inches or so in length. They should have a developing root system at that stage and are ready for planting.

Using this method you can grow your own slips year after year.

Bob

May 23, 2013

Acclimate new plants before transplanting into the garden

Filed under: Transplants — bob @ 2:09 pm

Memorial Day weekend is traditionally the time when gardeners buy plants to transplant into their gardens.

Most plants sold in garden centers, especially the small plants in trays, have spent their whole lives growing under glass in a greenhouse.  As a result, they are quite tender and not always able to handle the conditions outdoors.

The tips of the leaves on these tomato plants show symptoms of sunburn.

You can help your new plants get off to a good start by acclimating them to your garden. The horticultural term for this is “hardening off”.

Here’s what I do with new plants: After bringing them home, I water them and set them in a sheltered area under partial shade for the first day.

On the second day, they get moved to a spot that gets a couple hours of direct sunlight; the rest of the day they’re back in partial shade. Each day after that, I expose the plants to another additional couple of hours of direct sunlight until they get full sun for an entire day. I usually stretch the process out over four to seven days, depending on the condition of the plant.

By the time the conditioning period is done, the plants are tough enough to handle the sun, wind and rain.

If you don’t have days to wait before planting, even a couple days of hardening off is better than nothing.

Bob

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