Monday, February 25, 2013

Now is the time to Start Tomato, Pepper Seeds...Indoors

Every summer, I make the same promise to myself: "Next year, fewer tomato and pepper plants!" And every winter in late January, I try to start small. But somehow, things managed to get out of control...But not this year.

I used to say that late January and early February were the ideal times here in Northern California for starting tomato seeds indoors. Ha! On that schedule, there would be a veritable jungle of scrawny, too-tall tomato plants in the greenhouse come late April (BTW, "official" outdoor tomato planting date in Sacramento: April 28).

I have successfully resisted the urge to start 17 different tomato seed varieties, until this week. Seeds in the pots on Feb. 28 ... plants plopped in the ground on Apr. 28. Eight weeks is plenty of time for tomato plants to develop before they are set out.

Right now, the only seeds waiting to pop up in the greenhouse are the 19 pepper varieties, which were just planted last Saturday, Feb. 23. Peppers are a bit slower to develop, so they get a head start. And because peppers like warmer soil temperatures than tomatoes, I'll resist sticking them in the ground until early May.

But while I'm at it this week in the greenhouse, I'll rip open a few more seed packets, such as more cool season leaf crops and summer annual flowers and herbs, especially basil. Those leaf crops (lettuce, spinach, chard) can be transplanted outdoors after about three weeks worth of growth indoors (take a few days to gradually introduce them to the outdoors, perhaps bringing them and their containers back in at night).

Those tomato and pepper plants, along with the summer flowers and herbs you start from seed? Keep them protected, indoors, until mid-April. Then, gradually acclimate them to the outdoors as well. Patience will pay off.

And yet the nurseries have been getting requests from over-eager gardeners for tomato plants for their outdoor gardens...since January. It's the Solanum Siren call of sunny, warmer than usual, winter weekends here. People want their homegrown!  

The main problem with outdoor planting of tomato and pepper plants this time of year? Soil temperature. Those summer vegetables do not start actively growing until soil temps reach the mid-60's, and don't really take off with food production until soil temperatures are above 70. Right now? Soil temperatures are hovering below 50 degrees here in the Sacramento area.

Another good reason to delay outdoor planting of those young vegetables until late April-early May: the wind. March is a very windy month in the Central Valley, with northerly winds hitting 20-30 miles per hour, for several days. Oh,  and the occasional thunderstorm...with hail.

What you need to start your seeds:
• A sunny, indoor window or greenhouse.
• Small pots or flats with good drainage. Clean thoroughly.
• An easy draining, pathogen-free soil mix, preferably soilless.
• No greenhouse? Use good quality light fixtures.
• Air movement.
• Small amounts of fertilizer.
Propagation heating mat (optional for tomatoes; nearly mandatory for peppers).

If you are starting your seeds indoors, you would benefit from an extra lighting system, such as fluorescent bulbs hung a few inches above the plants. If the light source is too far away, the plants will get leggy.

I like to use 3"- 4" azalea pots for starting seeds of tomatoes and peppers. I will plant three or four seeds per pot. When they come up and put on two sets of leaves (about three weeks after germination), I'll transplant them to their own pot.

(NOTE: this is how a small number of plants becomes wayyyyy too many, in a hurry!).
Those old six packs and partitioned flats are ideal for starting green, leafy crops. Thin out the seedlings so that there is only one remaining in each cell.

The real key to seed starting success? The soil. More exactly, the soilless mix. Using soil from your garden to start seeds is filled with threats to seed survival: competition from weed seeds, soil-borne diseases, and too heavy a soil. Damping off, a common malady of new seedlings, is due to cool, wet, heavy soil, a perfect environment for pathogens, especially pythium.

Using a soilless mix to start seeds helps avoid introduction of those pathogens. You can purchase bags of "Seed Starting Mix" at your favorite nursery. 

Or, make your own. The recipe I use:

4 parts well aged compost
2 parts peat moss or coir (be sure to thoroughly moisten the peat moss first)
1 part perlite (aids drainage)

If you are worried that the mix you are using is too heavy, you can help your seeds get off to a good start with bottom heat, via a propagation heating mat. These are especially useful for germinating pepper seeds, which need higher temperatures to germinate.

Put the seed starting mix in each pot or flat, and then thoroughly soak it. Although it isn't necessary for starting seeds, you can add a diluted liquid fertilizer at this time. I tend to use fish emulsion, approximately a ratio of 5-1-1 (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium) and a sea kelp product, which promotes root production. Generally, there is no need to fertilize until the seed has produced two sets of true leaves. 

"True Leaves" look like the finished product. The first two leaves that emerge from a seed are usually oval shaped cotyledons, which are embryonic leaves.

The seeds are planted just below the soil surface in each pot, no more than a half inch deep.

Once the seeds are up and growing, introduce some air movement into the room, such as a house fan. This helps the new plants avoid diseases. And, air movement can help strengthen tomato stems, according to Debbie Flower, professor of horticulture at American River College, where they use fans in their greenhouses, for up to 16 hours a day.

Coming in March: those containers of tomato and pepper starts will easily become many more containers of tomato and pepper plants, after separating out the three or four starts per container.

Yep, despite a later start ... it will be another year of too much. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Global Warming and Gardeners: It’s Not Just the Heat

Should gardeners be concerned about global warming? Politics aside, climate change is already manifesting itself in our yards. The Climate Nexus think tank explains that what we are seeing is called “season creep”: winters are shorter and milder, causing some plants to bloom earlier than we would normally expect. For example, many area fruit and nut trees were ahead of their typical blooming curve, sending out blossoms in an atypically warmer early February before gardeners were ready to apply their last round of dormant spray.

Although that is more of an inconvenience than a problem, climate change is producing other, more profound effects in our yards, according to Climate Nexus:

• Frost vulnerability.
High winter temperatures can create earlier flowering schedules, leaving blooms at risk of a late freeze. Although it sounds counter-intuitive given the warming we are experiencing, cold snaps are still projected to happen even during warmer-than-average springs. This is of greatest concern to commercial fruit farmers, who lose their crop if a frost destroys the flowers. Or fruit. At the other end of the calendar, early freezes in the fall can cause losses to many summer crops that are still being harvested. 

Frosty the Pummelo

On November 10, 2011, our area shivered through one of the earliest freezes on record: 32 degrees, 11 degrees below average. Bell pepper and lettuce growers reported crop losses after that incident. In addition, backyard gardeners who were still harvesting tomatoes suffered, too. And this week's forecast? Rain, thunderstorms, hail ... and cold. Overnight lows are expected to dip to 30 degrees in parts of Sacramento on Tuesday night. A normal low for mid to late February is 44 degrees. The record low temperature for Tuesday? 33 degrees.

• Species mismatch. Research shows that species differ in their ability to adjust life cycles to warming temperatures. If one species adjusts and the other does not, for instance, flowering times can end up out of sync with peak pollinator activity. 
Mismatches can also occur between predators and their prey, which may affect gardeners interested in attracting birds to their gardens. For example, the pied flycatcher now migrates at the wrong time relative to the availability of its insect prey, and as a result has experienced population declines of 90 percent in some areas.

• Pests and invasives. Season creep provides favorable conditions to many pests and invasive species. In the western U.S., harsh winters normally cull the bark beetle population, but recent mild winters have allowed their population to skyrocket. Gypsy moths and tent caterpillars are also expected to expand their ranges thanks to the changing seasons. Invasive plant species are by no means uniform in their response to climate change, but research indicates that in many cases they will be able to adapt more effectively to season creep than native species. This was the case at Thoreau’s Walden Pond, where invasive species slowly drove out native plants as the climate shifted.

So, what is a gardener to do? Be vigilant. And keep those frost covers handy this week.