Tag Archives: seeds

10 Tips for a Better Garden

During my consultations, in friend’s gardens, and on Facebook I see people making the same mistakes over and over again.  Follow these simple tips for your best garden ever.

IMG_12931. Put your garden as close to your door as possible, where you will see it every day.  Put it right next to your back patio or along the walkway to your car. If you see it every day, you will notice when it needs to be watered, weeded, when to put down some Sluggo, and and when the broccoli needs to be harvested.  It will become a part of your life, it will be easier and give you more joy as you can watch things grow change every day.  Please do not banish it to the neglected back corner of your yard, where it will become a chore to drag the hose over only to discover that the weeds have entirely taken over and you missed harvesting your only head of cauliflower.

2. Make permanent raised beds, no more than 4 feet wide.  Raised beds dry out and warm up quicker in spring than ground-level beds.  This means you will be planting and therefor harvesting earlier. They don’t need wooden sides; ours are just mounded and the soil stays put just fine.  You could also use logs, rocks, bottles, or urbanite (concrete chunks) to border them if you wish.  The important part is that you never walk in them so they don’t get compacted and you never have to dig them up or turn them.  Keeping them no wider than 4 feet across ensures you can reach into them to plant, thin, weed, and harvest without stepping in the beds or killing your back.  If your bed is against a house or fence, it should be no wider than 2 feet.

IMG_16043. Think outside the box.  Vegetables don’t care what shape the bed is that they are planted in. While a agree that rectangles are easier to determine spacing or put a hoop house over, I find them uninspiring.  Your bed can be triangular, curvy, keyhole shaped, or whatever you desire.  My main garden bed is a bunch of keyhole gardens put together, resulting in an amoeba-shaped garden.  Each lobe gives a distinct planting area, plus a large area in the middle.  We also mix our vegetables, flowers, and perennials all together for more diverse plantings that are more beautiful and confuse pests.

4. Become a worm wrangler. There are millions of organisms below the soil from bacteria and fungi to worms and beetles.  Most of them we can’t see, but they are there, working to keep the soil aerated, breaking down organic matter, and making nutrients available for our plants.  We can help our soil life proliferate by not walking on our garden beds, not tilling or turning the soil, providing a lot of organic matter for them to feed on, and keeping mulch on top of the soil to keep it moist.  Sheet mulching is a great way to start garden beds that are rich with soil life.  See my post on how to build a sheet mulch bed.

5. Start seeds at the proper time.  Seedings starting inside should be still small when transplanted outside otherwise they will not transplant well.  This differs for each type of plant and some don’t like to be transplanted at all so you must plant them directly in the ground. This is not a contest to see who can start their seeds earliest.  You will not get any squash from a squash planted in December.  Squash hates to be root-bound, and doesn’t like to be transplanted very much.  Start them in the beginning of May in 3-4 inch pots and your plants will be plenty big to go out in the garden when the soil warms up in June.  Likewise, if you try to start your celery now, they are so slow-growing that they won’t have time to mature.  Check out my planting chart on the resources page for more information on when to start your seeds.

IMG_32266. Start your seeds in plastic flats.  Each cell in plastic flats is the right space for one plant to grow.  They are easy and efficient to fill, water, move around, provide light to, and get the seedling out when transplanting.  They can be reused year after year. Can you use egg shells? It might look great on Pinterest, but they are too shallow, they don’t drain, they tip over and make a big mess.  And don’t waste money on peat pots or those expanding jiffy cells.  The peat doesn’t break down in our cold soils and you will be fishing the netting out of your garden for years to come.  Soil blocks also work great but require a greater up-front investment.

7. Give plants their proper spacing.  I know it is tempting when you have all these little tiny seedlings to crowd them in, but if you do, you may not get anything at all.  Especially for things like broccoli and cabbage where you are eating a “head” or an unopened flower, each plant needs to get big enough to form a decent sized head.  If you crowd them they will get stressed out and bolt, which is where they go straight to flowering.  Each broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower needs 15 inches of space.  Measure it out!  I use a planting stick 15 inches long to get the spacing right.  Again, refer to my planting chart for proper spacing.

IMG_10568. Get in the ground early.  Most plants that like to grow up here can withstand freezing temperatures, especially when they are young, and can be planted well before the last frost.  I have lettuce, arugula, and other hardy greens growing from seed in the garden already and I’m not worried about them, even with the snow coming down outside today.  I plant them as soon as the ground thaws out a bit.  You can also plant potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, peas and radishes right now.

9. Use floating row cover.  Probably one of my most indispensable garden tools, row cover is a spun polyester fabric that you lay on top of your seedlings.  It lets air, water, and light through, but creates a pocket of warm air right on the ground that the wind can’t blow away as easily. Seeds started under row cover germinate and grow faster than uncovered seeds.  It also keeps cabbage root maggots off of your plants as long as you bury the edges so the flies can’t get underneath it.

10. Use the finger test and water deeply.  You can’t really tell by looking at the surface of the soil if your garden needs water.  You need to stick your finger in the soil as far down as it will go to see if it is moist underneath where the plant roots are.  Sometimes if will be dry on top but moist underneath… other times if we get a sprinkle of rain it will be moist on top and dry beneath.  When you do water, make sure you give your garden enough that it soaks down into the root zone.  Once your plants are established, you should only need to water once a week or so, as long as you keep the mulch on.

All About Seeds

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders. 
–Henry David Thoreau

This time of year I go seed crazy.  I sort and count them like money, only they are more valuable because each one can grow delicious, nutritious food which, unlike money, we can eat.  In each seed I have high hopes for a beautiful and successful garden.

In January the seed catalogs start coming, and even though I have more than enough seeds from last year, dreaming of my garden is a fine way to pass a cold winter night.  When I see a new variety that promises bigger, better, faster, more beautiful and tastier vegetables my knees go weak and my lip trembles. I could easily spend a fortune on seeds, wiping out our savings and dooming us for bankruptcy.  So mostly I just “window shop” in the seed catalogs.

You can actually learn a lot about gardening from reading seed catalogs.  They usually have sections on how to grow each vegetable, and other interesting facts.  For instance, did you know Brussels Sprouts were first recorded in Belgium in 1752?  Of course, you have to be careful because it might say to start something in February and plant it out in mid-March, but of course that won’t work here.

Always take a look at where the seed company is located to get an idea of the climate, and try to find seed companies with a similar climate to us.  I like Fedco or Johnny’s in Maine and Territorial out of Oregon, but there are many great seed companies.  Denali Seed Company supposedly makes its seed for Alaska, although they do not grow the seed here due to our short season and wet autumns.

It also helps to have a general idea of what will or won’t work up here. Cold-season crops like lettuces, the cabbage family, peas, and most greens do great up here and you can choose any variety that looks good. Dry beans, corn, melons, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, basil, and even tomatoes are all warm-season crops, and don’t do very well here without some sort of help; greenhouse, cold frame or hoop-house.  Other vegetables are in between and you do need to pay attention to what variety you get.

Here is the down-and-low about other terms you might run into:

Heirloom: This just means it is an old variety that has been around a while.  It might be well-known and available like Detroit Dark Red Beets, or an obscure variety you can only find in one place.  Oftentimes heirloom seeds are bred for taste rather than holding capabilities, so they can be really rewarding to grow.

Hybrid: No, this does not mean GMO! A hybrid is simply a cross between two varieties.  If you collected the seeds from a hybrid, you would not get anything resembling the hybrid or the parents. The advantages of hybrid seeds is “hybrid vigor,” which means they have superior qualities such as better germination, faster growth, and higher disease resistance.  If you are not planning on saving seeds, there is nothing wrong with planting hybrids.  They are usually denoted by an F1 on the seed packet.

Incidentally, you do not have to worry about inadvertently buying GMO seeds because they are not yet made for the home gardener market.  However, you might be interested to know that Monsanto owns Seminis, one of the largest seed companies that supplies smaller seed companies.  See the bottom for a list of Monsanto-free seed companies.

Open Pollinated: This is opposite of hybrid.  You may save seeds from these plants and get something that resembles the parent plant, although there will be some variability.  All heirlooms are open pollinated.

Organic: This means the seed is grown on a certified organic farm, without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  It’s a good idea to buy organic seeds because they will be better adapted to growing with less inputs.  The production of conventional seed requires greater chemical inputs than their food counterparts because the crop is in the ground longer and they are not regulated the same as food crops.

I recommend buying your seed from a locally owned store such as Alaska Mill and Feed or Sutton’s Brown Thumb on Tudor.  That way, you are supporting the local economy and avoiding shipping costs.  If you can’t find what you want, there are many small seed companies online to try.  But be careful, you will soon have more seed catalogs than you know what to do with, and you might develop a seed addiction like me!

Seeds do last for several years, especially if they are kept cool and dry, so don’t throw your old seeds away.  If you are unsure if they are viable, you can put some in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag and check on it in a week.  Even better, share your seeds with some friends so you can all try something different.

This coming Tuesday, March 20th from 7-9pm there is a free seed exchange at the Cooperative Extension Service (1675 C Street) in Anchorage.  It is a great opportunity to share seeds and advice from other experienced gardeners. There will be mini workshops on starting and saving seeds and making your own seed tape.  If you live somewhere else, why not host your own seed exchange?  It is a great way to meet other passionate gardeners and spread the miracle of the seed!

Seed companies that do not sell Monsanto seeds.
Abundant Life Seeds
Amishland Seeds
Annapolis Valley Heritage Seed Company canada
Baker Creek Seed Co.
Berlin Seeds – they don’t have a website. Atleast I didn’t find one.
Botanical Interests
Bountiful Gardens
Diane’s Flower Seeds (she has veggies now, too)
Fedco Seed Co. – phasing out seminis seeds.

Fisher’s Seeds – 406-388-6052 They don’t have a website, but they will send you a catalog if you give them your address
PO Box 236, Belgrade, MT 59714
Garden City Seeds
Heirloom Acres Seeds -I’ve heard from several people thier seed germination is poor and so is thier customer service.
Heirlooms Evermore Seeds
Heirloom Seeds
High Mowing Seeds
Horizon Herbs
Irish-Eyes
Kitchen Garden Seeds
Lake Valley Seeds
Livingston Seeds
Local Harvest
Mountain Rose Herbs

Native Seeds  for the Arid Southwest
Natural Gardening Company
New Hope Seed Company
Organica Seed
Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
Pinetree
Renee’s Garden
Richters Herbs
Sand Hill Preservation Center
Seed Saver’s Exchange
Seeds of Change
Southern Exposure
Sow True
Territorial Seed Company *Tom Johns, the pres. of Territorial posted in the comments on my blog about Seminis being owned by Monsanto, and said customer service will provide a list of seeds they buy from Seminis, so you can avoid them. He also said that Seminis is providing less varieties every year (typical of Monsanto) and they are finding suitable replacements. So, don’t count them out completely.* (info from AdinaL)
Tiny Seeds
Tomato Fest – ask for bubble pack when ordering from them for seed viability
Trees of Antiquity
Underwood Garden Seeds
Uprising Seeds
Victory Seeds
Wildseed Farms
Wood Prairie Farm

Seed Miracles

Yesterday’s snowstorm was no match for today’s sunshine, which means that spring is becoming a reality before our eyes.  Many of my friends are getting impatient, ready to throw all their seeds into pots, desperate for the new life of spring.  “Patience,” I tell them.  “Everything in it’s time.”

Some things need lots of time to grow big enough to go outside, but some grow really fast, and will outgrow their pots in a hurry, becoming spindly and unhealthy.  A good rule of thumb is that smaller seeds, like celery, tomatoes, and most herbs, have less energy in them and need longer to get growing, while larger seeds, like pumpkins and sunflowers, tend to shoot right up.  Some vegetables, like all root vegetables and generally beans, peas, and grains, don’t like to be transplanted at all, so it is best to start them right in the ground.  Root vegetables, in particular, can be planted just as soon as you can get into your garden…. they know when it is the right time to come up!

Right now we have about 6 weeks before our last average frost (May 15, in most parts of Anchorage) and about 8 weeks until most people start planting outside (usually Memorial Day weekend).  The moon is also growing bigger and will pull those leafy green vegetables right out of the soil.  So, this is a great time to start most everything in the Brassica family (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, but not turnips, which are also in the family but a root vegetable!) as well as an early crop of lettuce and chard, and any herbs you still want to get going.

The Brassica family of crops tend to do exceptionally well in our cool climate and long days, and will play a major part in our Alaska Food Challenge.  How lucky that these vegetables are also extremely healthy for you, packed full of vitamins, minerals, and cancer-fighting compounds!  I’m pretty sure we could survive the winter on sauerkraut alone, but just to add variety, we will put away tons of broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, mustard, and kale. Today we are starting a half-flat (36) each broccoli, cabbage, and kale, and a 1/3 flat each basil, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, chard, and lettuce.

If you have a small to medium-sized garden, you will probably only want to start one flat with all these goodies.  It’s really easy to plant too much!  Sow your seeds shallowly, only 1.5 times the diameter deep, firm them in, and keep them evenly moist until they germinate.  Before you know it, you will witness the miracle of the seed as it comes to life.