Winter Sowing – How To

The cold temperatures keep most of us cooped up for the winter, and this simulated hibernation begins to take it’s toll on us mentally.  Too bad we can’t simply sleep through it! So, as promised, I am providing a few ideas to satisfy the gardening bug when it inevitably bites.  My last entry gave instructions for creating a beautiful terrarium, very suitable for gifts.  Quite possibly you could find a way to turn the following project into a gift, as well!

What is winter sowing?  It is the centuries old practice of germinating seeds outdoors during late fall and winter months, generally within a protected container of some type. Sometimes farmer’s fields are even planted in the winter to allow the crop plants to germinate in their own time, when conditions become favorable.  If you have ever grown plants from seed indoors and have found it somewhat tedious and time consuming, you have to try this method!

Just about any outdoor plant can be winter sown, including annuals, but some will be much more rewarding than others.  So…why not just toss the seed onto the bare soil in the fall?

Wind, birds, insects and rain can all easily disturb or eat the seed which will either be destroyed or carried to an undesirable location.  In addition, many wildflowers do not like to be transplanted, so shifting them to another location is risky and at best will set back their growth progress.  Winter sowing is actually fun (get the kids involved, they will love it!) and very rewarding in the spring when you see your first sprouts emerge inside their snow covered containers.  Let’s get started!

What you will need:  Here is a basic list of supplies (your imagination may expand this list somewhat) and yes, Suburban has everything!

  • SeedsSuburban Lawn & Garden stocks many different varieties of seeds, come and pick our your favorites!
  • Soil – I prefer to use Fertilome Ultimate Potting Mix which comes in a 25 or 50 quart size.  This soil is the perfect consistency for seed starting and has very few sticks or bark pieces.
  • Containers – I will elaborate on the wide range of possibilities, but a general “rule of thumb” is that it should hold about 4 inches of soil and translucent enough to view your thumb through it.  Suburban Lawn & Garden carries 4 inch plastic reusable pots (ideal for this project) which are either used inside a larger covered container or bagged.
  • Spray bottle (optional)
  • Paint pens to label your pots or containers.  Sharpie marker seems like an excellent choice until you go out one day to find all of your labels clean as a whistle.  You can get a paint pen at almost any craft store.

Container choices will vary greatly as there are many scenarios to choose from.  Your needs and availability of space in your yard or patio will play a role in what you choose to use.  Some of the recycled options may be more unsightly than others, so keep your neighbors in mind when deciding what to use and where to place them in your yard.

  • Recycled containers such as milk jugs or soda bottles (toss the lids, cut them in half to sow your seeds, then duct tape them together for their time outdoors)
  • 4 inch plastic pots nestled within an under the bed storage bin or other large translucent container.  Holes will need to be drilled in the lid and base to allow excess moisture to escape.
  • 4 inch plastic pots in a crate which is placed inside a clear plastic bag with ventilation holes.
  • Zip lock baggies also work well, but will need to be handled carefully.  The very tips of the bottom corners are cut to allow drainage and one corner of the bag is left unzipped to allow for ventilation.  The main drawback for this container is that they are not easy to water when needed.

Do not use fiber pots or pellets to winter sow with.  The fiber will wick the moisture out of your soil and the pellet would need to be watered almost daily.  Both are completely unreliable.  There are many other items you can use as containers, if you have an idea, try it!  You would be surprised at the options.  Now that we have everything gathered together, it is time to get started!

The first thing you will want to do is insure everything has ventilation and drainage.  Less is best as far as the ventilation goes, you can always add more if necessary.  I will cover this in more detail a bit later.

Next you will need to fill your pots with 4-5 inches of soil lightly tamping it down, but don’t pack it.  Now you will want to wet your soil with hot water.  Do not use cold water because the soil is far less receptive to it and you will undoubtedly retain dry spots.  The weight of the pot will be a good indicator of the moisture content.  I slowly flood mine (faucet on a small steam) to insure every bit of soil is reached.  Once the pot is drained it is ready for the seeds.  For this part, I usually use a few layers of towels to place under the pots, but you can use plastic or other material to protect your furniture or floor.

Sowing your seeds is very easy.  Note the suggested seed depth within the instructions of your seed packet.   Usually, the smaller the seed, the less soil will be covering them. But this is not always the case.  Sow accordingly and dust with a bit of fresh soil to even out the disturbances.  Mist the surface with water and you are done!

Assemble your containers into their bins or holding areas, insure all of them have proper drainage and ventilation, park them outdoors and then go back inside to your warm and cozy house.  Don’t worry if they become buried in the snow, they will be just fine!

For the initial week or so you will want to monitor for proper humidity inside the containers.  Select a “warm” day above freezing to inspect your handiwork.  If there are large droplets of water on the inside of the container, you may want to add a few more holes for ventilation.  Ideally you want to see a haze of moisture, but not a rain forest.

The only other thing you will be checking on is moisture.  If we are below freezing, there will be no need to do anything.  As the temperatures begin to fluctuate, moisture will be lost and you may have to gently water your little dependents from time to time.  Be careful not to disturb the soil as you water.  Be aware that frozen soil will look dry, so let the weight of the pot help you decide if they need a drink.

Depending on the seeds you selected, you may find seedlings as early as February. The lids of your containers will need to remain in place until the weather warms up a bit, but could be opened if the sun is out and temperatures are above freezing (around 40-50° F).  The first set of leaves you will see are called the seed leaves or cotyledons.  The next set of leaves are considered true leaves and, once those appear, you can begin to transplant into your garden or large pots.  I prefer to let mine grow on inside their pots until they have a few sets of true leaves and a larger root system.

Stop by one of our three locations and pick up a few seed packets, pots and soil and your are ready to sow!  Winter sown plants are hardier and have a  much more extensive root system than those started indoors.  Unless you don’t give them enough fresh air on nice warm days, they will not experience the dreaded damp off, nor will they become leggy.  This really is the easiest way to insure a bumper crop of your favorite flowers. Have fun and don’t forget to get the kids involved!!

Feel free to email me if you have questions, I will be happy to help!

The Garden that is Finished is Dead

Indoor Gardening – Terrariums! – How To

Well, winter is indeed inevitable at this point and before long we will all be building snowmen.  Those who have a passion for gardening might be looking for a little break considering the summer we have had.  But, alas, the itch for green begins to creep back in sometime between now and January.  What to do, what to do??  I have the perfect answer.  Indoor gardening.  Sounds difficult but actually there are many gardening projects you can complete while the ground is covered with snow.

I will cover more subjects in December, but for now I would like to start with the fabulous art of building a terrarium.  Using a tightly closed or open transparent container for growing and displaying plants is a fantastic way to grow many plants which would not generally appreciate our normal home atmosphere.  When set-up properly, these miniature gardens require minimal care.  If you get started now, they can make excellent Christmas gifts!

Supplies needed are:

(Suburban Lawn & Garden carries almost everything you will need):

  • Almost any type of clear container (fish bowl, glass jar, etc… thrift stores are a great resource)
  • Drop cloth (so you can be a little messy and have more fun)
  • Long-handled spoon (used to distribute soils and gravel)
  • Scissors (to prune plants prior to planting)
  • Atomizer or Bulb-type sprayer (for watering)
  • Growing medium (clean and sterile peat moss based potting soil preferably)
  • Horticultural charcoal (to keep the soil from becoming sour)
  • Sphagnum sheet moss
  • Clean gravel (fish tank gravel, expanded shale or sterilized pea gravel will work)
  • Plants (insuring light/moisture requirements are the same for each terrarium)
  • Distilled water
  • Decorations (optional)
  • Rain-X rain repellent (optional if your terrarium will be a plant only environment)
  • If you are using a container with a very narrow opening, you may need some long sticks, and one with a wire loop on the end for lowering plants/decorations into the container.

Be sure to ask for Janet or Nancy in our tropicals department for help finding your supplies and for other tips they may have to offer!  Now that you have everything you will need gathered together, it is time to get creative!

If you are opting to use the Rain-X, this will be the first thing you do.  Apply it to the inside of your container as directed by the product instructions.  This is a spray on/wipe off product so use in a very well ventilated area and be sure to wipe all excess off of the jar. Never place animals in a terrarium with Rain-X applied as it can be toxic for them to be near.  

Next you will fill the bottom of the container with a layer of gravel keeping in mind that approximately 1/4 of your container will consist of your base substrates.  A 1/2 inch thick layer of horticultural charcoal will be applied over the gravel.  The next step is optional, but will keep a cleaner looking presentation.  A layer of sphagnum sheet moss is placed over the charcoal layer which will help to keep the soil from mixing into the gravel.  You will need a minimum of 1 1/2 inches of potting soil on top of the sheet moss.

I have provided a list of appropriate plants for this project below.  Be sure to select those which will be well suited in the container you have chosen and can be satisfactory companions (same water and light requirements).  Click in the upper right corner if you would like to view a printable copy to take shopping with you.

When installing your plants, consider the visibility of your terrarium and arrange accordingly.  Before placing them, loosen the soil from their roots.  Make sure the leaves are not touching the sides of the glass, particularly if your container is closed.  The excess moisture collected at the site of contact will cause the leaves to rot.

Don’t forget to water your creation!  The initial watering will be about the same for closed versus open containers,  Quite simply, you will want to moisten the soil (do not cause it to be wet.  Many people prefer to use an atomizer (sprayer) or bulb type sprayer for this task. Keep in mind that your closed containers may be able to go for a few months without adding any water.  This is an excellent time to add decorations if you would like to.  The soil is moist and will easily accept objects.  Replace the lid on your closed terrarium after the foliage has thoroughly dried.

Your little plants in their glass house will need light, of course, but never direct sunlight.  The temperature inside the jar will heat up very quickly and all of your hard work will be destroyed.  Place in indirect light and monitor for plant happiness.  During the first few weeks you will want to check on moisture retention, plant satisfaction and overall cleanliness (smell, etc…).  If everything seems to be set up and in tune, the essential microbes will begin to grow which will complete the cycle of life within your bio-bowl.

Don’t be afraid to have some fun with this project, it should reflect a bit of your personality, particularly if you are giving them as gifts.  Unlike standard houseplants which require frequent attention, terrariums are easy keepers.  Aside from the occasional misting of water, your terrarium will then be fairly self sustaining for quite some time!!  Enjoy!!

The Garden that is Finished is Dead

The Great Divide – How To

Oh my…the weather is ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC!  I guess we are being rewarded for putting up with the horribly unbearable summer we have had.  Everyone seems to be excited to get outside and make everything beautiful for autumn.  At Suburban, the mums and many other bits of fall color are pouring in the doors (and flying back out).   We are also gearing up for our fall festivities which will include visits from Cowgirl Kate and Witch Hazel!  I hope you and your family will come out and see us, you will have a great time!

There are so many things that can be done in the yard at this time of year: aerating and seeding, laying sod, cleaning beds, trimming shrubs, planting bulbs (later), preparing tropicals to return indoors, installing new plants and cleaning and/or dividing perennials.  This is the best time to

plant new trees and shrubs.  They will have the entire fall and spring to settle in before the summer heat rolls back around.  For the same reason it is also the best time to divide perennials.  Not only that, you have a larger window to work with.  Hostas, Daylilies, Liriope and Iris are all perennials which benefit from being divided every few years.  Sedum should still be divided in the spring since it is just getting ready to bloom.  Liriope is easy to divide but you might wait until they are nearing the end of their bloom cycle.

Hostas can be divided in two ways.  I usually “shave off” sections that I wish to move elsewhere.  Using a sharp shovel, it is simply a matter of cutting a section of the plant away.  Usually it is best to try to retain the shape of the original plant.  The other method is to dig the entire plant and cut it into sections, each of which can be replanted.  Dividing Hostas will also insure that your plants will bloom the following year.  When disturbed in the spring, they will occasionally sulk and refuse to bloom during the initial year. The picture below depicts a hosta which I would consider in need of division.

If Daylilies get too crowded, they will begin to produce fewer blooms.  It is necessary to give them some elbow room every few years.  Enthusiasts of these plants insist that the best way to divide them is by placing to pitchforks/garden forks back to back through the center of the unearthed plant and then prying the roots/tubers apart.  This does less damage to the plant than cutting through with a shovel.  A clean division will help the plant establish easier and make it less open to diseases or pathogens in the soil.  When dividing your Daylilies, you will want to cut the foliage down to a manageable height, keeping in mind that the foliage is what nutrients to the roots.  Try to remove only what is necessary to keep the plants from flopping over onto the soil.  Green foliage that comes in direct and flat contact with the soil will invite slugs and other pests, rot and other problems.  Daylilies love sunlight and will bloom profusely if they have enough of it.  Be sure to find a location which will be easy to water in a time of drought, too.  While the drought will not kill them (generally), they will go dormant, turn brown and become very unsightly.  Consider spacing, as well.  A small clump of Daylilies will quickly take up quite a bit of space.  A bit of forethought will save you the work of moving them before you would have needed to.

This is also the ideal time to divide or plant Bearded Iris and others.  They are not the easiest plant to correctly install in the ground, but I hope to relay the important factors to you.  The first thing you will want to do is to cut the foliage down about half way (leave about 6-8 inches).  I cut mine at an angle with a point in the center, but it shouldn’t matter.

The next thing to think about is placement.  Bearded Iris are rhizomes which seem to grow “backwards” and this year’s rhizomes are finished blooming.  The offsets produced by this year’s rhizomes will bloom next year.  If you visualize the rhizome as a “foot”, it will be easier to place them taking into consideration the fact that they will spread “backwards”.

The new rhizomes (next year’s blooms) will appear near the heel.  The other important step is insuring that the top of the rhizome remains slightly above the soil level, exposed to the sun.  If planted beneath the surface, they will not perform well, probably won’t bloom and may even have weak foliage.

You may have to check on them periodically to make sure they haven’t fallen over.  If you have landscape fabric staples, they can be pinned into place.  Installing Iris properly will insure gorgeous blooms for years to come!

Above all, have fun in your gardening adventures and remember:

The Garden that is Finished is Dead