Monday, April 25, 2016

Garden chores: Spring clean-up, up-planting tomatoes

With weekend of brilliant sunshine, albeit accompanied by an occasional chilly breeze, it was prime time to start cleaning up the garden.

Signs of life are everywhere with the daffodils and hyacinths in full bloom, the peonies starting to sprout, the rhubarb slowly awakening and sending up shoots and the buds on the lilacs, roses, clematises and the Bing cherry tree all plumping up.  Not to mention the profusion of dandelions, plantain and chickweed!

Before I started in on garden, I thought I would bring the seedlings out for their first taste of sunshine and fresh air.  The corner of the deck where the patio table is stored is nicely sheltered from the breeze and with the sun it was quite cozy.  The two square side tables made a perfect shelf for the trays to sit on under the frosted glass top of the patio table, so the seedlings were protected from direct sun to allow them to acclimate to the outdoors.  I left them for a couple of hours only before returning them to nursery under the grow lights so as not to shock them.  I will continue to bring them outdoors for longer and longer periods as the days warm up so they can harden off and become used to outdoor temperatures.

Later this week I will set up my portable mini-greenhouse, a great find at Lowe's a couple of years ago.  I usually set it up initially in a corner of my dining room as it has a door out to the deck with a large window in it.  I bring up seedlings from the nursery as soon as they are large enough and graduate them into the mini-greenhouse. From there, it's a simple move of the entire greenhouse outside onto the deck. If cold weather threatens, it's an easy move of the greenhouse back into the warmth of the dining room.

The biggest chore I wanted to finish was raking all the protective leaves off the beds and allowing the sprouting plants underneath to bask in the sun.

The most finicky area to clean up was the rockery on the back side of the pond, but now that it's done it looks so much better. And I was heartened to see that both the sage and the oregano which earlier I was convinced I had lost over the winter have tiny leaves beginning to sprout. 

It's just so energizing to see all this life bursting forth around me. I love spring as much as I love autumn because both are seasons of change, but while autumn has a mellow, cozy melancholy about it, spring is fresh, vibrant and awake and the urge to get outside in the fresh air is strong.

Still, I did have to spend a bit of time in the basement, tending to the nursery and up-planting the tomatoes.

I had originally hoped to plant all the tomatoes in 3-inch pots, but due to poor planning, I actually ran out of potting soil, so I only managed to get my "babies" up-planted, the cherry-sized version of the Black Brandywine tomatoes I discovered in my garden last year. The maddening thing is, I was at Canadian Tire earlier this afternoon and was actually looking at potting soil, but decided against (why? why????) buying some, thinking I had enough.

It works really well planting the entire peat pellet "pot-let" directly into a plastic 3-inch pot, although for a few of them, there were multiple sturdy seedlings in one, so wanting to save them, I gently removed the net casing from the peat and carefully broke the pot-let apart, teasing apart the roots of the multiple seedlings.  With each seedling now in its own pot, I now have 18 Black Brandywine Cherry tomato plants.  I am more excited than ever to see how these grow.

Later in the week, I will pick up some more potting soil and finish up-planting the rest of the tomatoes.  I will also start some dwarf marigolds to plant along the edge of my vegetable beds as the giant marigolds I started earlier will take up too much room.  I will use them around the pond and along the edge of the property to help deter the raccoons.

Now, if it would just warm up a little more!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Garden chores: Tree pruning

Finally, finally! Mother Nature decided to get with the program and give us a glorious spring weekend! Gorgeous sunny days with some real warmth to the sun, although the air itself is still cool so the shady spots are chilly. Nevertheless, there are continuing signs of spring popping up in the garden.

These pure white crocus made an appearance late last week to join the miniature iris and the daffodils are getting ready to join the party.  Another day or so and they should be out.

In 2008, I planted this Bing cherry tree in memory of my mother who had a fondness for cherries and who had passed away the year before.  It's in dire need of another trim, so that is my main task for this weekend. The biggest part of the job is to remove that large branch that is slanting away to the left of the main trunk and knowing I would be cutting it off flush with the trunk and leaving a rather large wound, I thought ahead and bought some grafting wax to seal it.

I have never used grafting wax before so I wasn't sure what to expect, but the package states that you can soften it by warming it in your hands and then apply it like putty or you can melt it into a liquid and paint it on with a brush.  That seemed like the more practical and efficient method to me for this situation, so that's what I chose to do.

The wax is very sticky, like toffee, and I totally guessed that I would need about half the stick, so using an old paring knife, I chopped half the stick up into cubes, placed them in an old mixing bowl and microwaved them on high in 30 second intervals until they were fully melted. This took 2 1/2 minutes in total.

I made a small cut upwards on the underside, so that when I cut down through from the top, the branch would come off cleanly and not tear off a strip of bark. I really should have cut the branch off first before I melted the wax, because by the time I had the branch down, the wax had hardened back up. It's nothing that a quick re-zapping in the microwave couldn't fix and it was easy enough to paint the liquid wax onto the wound, sealing it up and protecting the tree from infection while keeping the sap flowing.

That done, I used a pair of telescoping pruners to trim down the top branches, keeping the tree from becoming too tall and making it easier for picking fruit.

Now comes the fun of clipping all the pruned branches into 2 foot lengths and tying them up into bundles to be put out at the curb for collection on garbage day.

Meanwhile, my marigolds, zinnias and tomatoes are all doing wonderfully. They are now past the cotyledon stage and have their first true leaves.

The tomatoes should be ready to up-plant into 3" pots soon and if the weather keeps up like this, I will be able to bring all the seedlings outside for short periods to take advantage of the sunlight and start hardening them up.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Signs of life!

Despite the fact that we've had another mixed bag of weather here in Toronto today, and all of it wintry and not at all conducive to thoughts of gardening, I was thrilled to discover signs of life this morning in my seed nursery!

As there were only a few sprouts up in each of the trays (except the jalapenos -- no suprise there!), I left the clear covers on the trays through the day and checked on them again when I got home this evening. What a difference a day makes! I came home to sprouts in most of the pots/cells so I removed the clear plastic covers to give the seedlings air and reduce the humidity level.

I have sprouts up for each of my five tomato varieties including my Black Brandywine "cherry" tomato!  I am thrilled to see these brave little sprouts reaching for the light and I can hardly wait to see how they grow and whether or not they will actually produce more cherry-sized versions of the Black Brandywine tomatoes from last year.

My marigolds and zinnias are also up, but nothing from the jalapenos so far. It's only been a few days so I'll leave them for a while and see what happens. The seeds could quite well be sterile, but I won't know if I don't try, right?

I had raised the grow lights in order to take the photos above, so I've lowered them again, leaving the covers off. I will continue the daily monitoring, watering from the bottom by adding water to the trays as needed avoiding wetting the sprouts themselves.  We are off and growing!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The 2016 gardening season has officially begun! (... well for this blogger, anyway!)

Some may argue that it's a little early to be starting seeds here in the Toronto area, but with the weather being what it is today, I just couldn't help getting the gardening season started!

Oh, Mother Nature, you sure do love to toy with us! With that thought, I headed down to the basement to get the seed nursery set up.

My first job was to gather up all the trays, cell packs and pots that I had washed earlier and clear some space for the nursery. Next, I gathered together the planting materials and the seeds I was going to start.

There are many types of methods and equipment for starting seeds, but one of my favourites is a system from Jiffy, the makers of the original Jiffypots®, consisting of a specially partitioned tray covered by a clear plastic dome and sitting on a heated base. 

The tray is partitioned to hold 72 peat pellets in a 6x12 grid.  I counted the peat pellets I had on hand and discovered I had 45 of them and as I have 5 different varieties of tomato seed saved from last year, I can start 9 seeds of each type.  I prefer using the peat pellets for tomato seeds since tomatoes do not like to be transplanted and this allows me to up-plant the seedlings directly into 3" pots for hardening off, thereby minimizing the shock of transplanting by deferring it until the plants are large enough and hardy enough to be put into the garden.

I thought I had some popsicle sticks that I could use for plant markers, but I was mistaken so I had to cast my mind about for another solution. Doing laundry while I was preparing the seed nursery provided me with such, when, hanging up the latest load on my indoor clothesline with clothespin in hand, inspiration struck!

I wrap a length of 1 1/2 inch masking tape around one "finger" of a clothespin, making a flag large enough to write the name of the seed on both sides. I write the name on one side and then flip the clothespin vertically (i.e. if the "fingers" were pointing up, I flip them so they point downwards) and write the name again on the other side. The two sides should appear upside down to one another. This allows me to clip the pins on the edge of the clear dome cover while waiting for the seeds to germinate and then later, once the cover is removed, I can flip the pins over and clip them to the edge of the tray while the seedlings grow.

Next, I add enough warm water to completely submerge the peat pellets (the specially designed grid inside the tray holds the pellets firmly in place so they don't float) and I leave the tray alone for about 5 minutes to allow the pellets to absorb the water.

As they absorb water, the pellets expand upwards, contained within a biodegradeable mesh which forms the pellets into a small planting pot. There is a divot in the center of each pellet which becomes a planting hole to receive a seed once the pellet has expanded.

I find a bamboo satay skewer works wonderfully to fully open the seed holes and working variety by variety, I carefully place a seed in each peat pot then use my fingers to work a little of the peat back into the planting hole, filling it in.

When all peat pots have been planted, I place the tray on its heated base, clip the names on to the cover, place the cover over the base and plug the heater in. Next up are the giant marigolds.

Marigolds are the guardian angels of my garden because they keep so many pests, both insect and mammal, away from the vegetables. I usually plant them around the perimeter of the vegetable beds as well as around the pond to keep the raccoons out. I read recently that raccoons also do not like the smell of many common herbs, especially thyme and this seems to be borne out by experience. I do have a couple of common thyme plants growing along one edge of the pond and I have noticed that the raccoons always approach the pond from the other side. The trampled down ferns and irises are a dead giveaway of their nocturnal frolicking. So, this year I will try increasing the coverage of herbs around the pond and hopefully between them and the marigolds, I can, if not deter the raccoons then at least control their movement.

Having used all my peat pellets on the tomatoes, I decided to start the marigolds in cell packs.  I chose a half-tray to hold six 6-cell packs for a total of 36 plants.  I may need more, so I may be starting some later, but for now this it.

I fill each cell pack with sterile seed starting medium. I always use a mix that is labelled specifically for starting seeds rather than regular potting soil or soil from the garden to give my seeds the best chance for successful germination. 

Using the bamboo satay skewer again as a mini-dibber, I make a small seed hole in the center of each cell, then drop in a marigold seed and cover the hole in. Once all six cell packs are planted, I mist the tops of them using a spray bottle, thoroughly wetting the planting medium without disturbing the just-planted seeds.

Using the same technique, I sow two 4-cell packs with jalapeno pepper seeds. These are a total experiment as I saved the seeds from supermarket peppers last year, processing them as I did the tomato seeds. The peppers they came from could quite well have been irradiated or gassed for transport and the seeds could very well be sterile, but who knows? I could end up with jalapeno pepper plants! I always figure it's worth a try.

Once I have all the seeds planted, I add enough warm water to each of the trays so the bottoms of the cell packs and peat pots are sitting in water, cover each tray with it's clear plastic cover, lower the grow lights until they are barely above the tops of the tray covers and put the lights on a timer to come on at 6am and turn off at 10pm.

The covers are just slightly ajar to allow a bit of moisture to escape and outside air to circulate in. I'll check daily for signs of sprouting and add water if needed.  Fingers crossed!

Meanwhile, despite the wintry weather, I was heartened to discover three more miniature irises bravely in bloom in another spot in the garden. I definitely did not plant these ones, so they are spreading on their own (or maybe with a little assistance from the squirrels!).  At any rate, I think they are lovely and they make me believe that spring has indeed arrived.