An excellent way to preserve a favorite vegetable variety is to harvest and save the seed from your own garden plants.  This can be done with all open-pollinated (non-hybrid) vegetables.  Hybrids are pollinated by humans for a specific resulting plant.  (Seeds saved from hybrids will not produce the same fruit or vegetable you grew.)  Many rare, open-pollinated heirloom vegetables and flowers have been saved and passed down for generations.  Some Native American kinds of squash, corn, beans and sunflowers have been passed down by various tribes for over a thousand years!  Several heirloom kinds of lettuce, peppers, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and other vegetables still exist from Colonial and Victorian times.

Locally adapted varieties will be the most successful and productive.  You will need to save about 100 to 150 seeds of each cultivar you want to save.  Some easy vegetables to begin with are tomatoes, beans, peas, and lettuce, which are all self-pollinating and easier to keep true to type; they can also be cross-pollinated.  Other vegetables need to be cross-pollinated to produce seed and will cross with other nearby plants of the same genus or species.  Each variety needs to be isolated so it will remain true to type.

Isolation may be accomplished by distance; staggering maturity dates; by caging, or bagging.  For most vegetables 200 feet of distance is enough to retain genetic purity, but some, such as corn, need a mile or more.  Staggering maturity might be accomplished by planting two strains of corn, one maturing at 65 days and another at 80-85 days.  Pollination of the early variety will be finished by the time the later one is ready to pollinate.  Cages can be built and covered with row cover fabric to isolate radishes, beets, turnips, carrots, parsnips and onions.  A bait of honey spread upon a plate will attract bees into an uncovered cage.  When about 15 bees are present, cover the cage for an hour or two; release the bees before sunset. There are three species of squashes and pumpkins commonly grown so you must research this if you want to keep your strain pure.  Corn, squash and pumpkins can be hand-pollinated if bagged.

In the garden, give plants grown for seed more space to accommodate tall seed stalks.  Select the most healthy, robust plants to save seed from.  The fruit should be riper than that used for eating.  Usually fruit will turn yellow, soften and sometimes even begin to rot before seeds are mature.  Pea seed turns green or yellow; beets, beans and watermelon seeds darken; peppers and squash seeds are usually white, and corn seed (especially sweet corn) will dent and shrivel.

To process seed for storage, remove pulp, juice or flesh and dry the seeds on a fine screen because seeds will stick to paper or cloth.  A float test will show viable seeds.  Those that float will not grow.  Dry the seeds to about 10% moisture before storing away in glass jars with metal lids.  Glass jars are the best way to keep out humidity, which might cause your seeds to sprout and die in storage.  A cool, dry place is best for storage, or you may place the jars in the refrigerator.  Label your seeds carefully to keep good records.







Harvest beans and other crops; remove blossoms from eggplant and peppers to ripen remaining fruits.  Cover sunflowers from birds, pinch tomato tips.  Lay down grass turf.  Watch for slugs and snails, cultivate to destroy grasshopper eggs.  Also, watch for corn earworms.


Cultivate or hoe around cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips and celery.  Keep late maturing cauliflower and broccoli well-watered.  Transplant out starts of endive the first week of September.  Plant garlic and shallots and over-wintering onion sets.  Direct seed outside: arugula, lettuce, radishes, cress, corn salad, chervil and kale.

If you plan to grow crops under tunnels or in a cold greenhouse over the winter, plant seed (early in the month) of crops for winter use: chervil, kale, spinach, lettuce, radishes, corn salad, and winter cress.  Later in the month, from the 20th to the first week of October, plant seeds of cabbage, cauliflower and other brassicas for transplanting out into tunnels in OctoberHave winter cover ready by October 1.

Make beds for growing mushrooms.  Well-rotted horse manure is excellent for mushroom beds.

Gather ripe seeds of any vegetables (or flowers) you want to save seed from.

Watch outdoor temperatures and bring in house plants if frost threatens.


Prepare beds for planting bulbs.  Sow seeds of bulbous flowers collected in summer.  Take cuttings of violets and pansies; plant cuttings out in early spring.  Transplant peonies and lilies.  Dig dahlias after killing frost.  Transplant pinks and carnations with root ball intact late in the month.  Late in the month, plant out perennials and biennials where they are to bloom.  Also, most perennials can be divided now and replanted where they are to bloom.



Gather ripe fruit from apples and pears.  Remove diseased fruits and “mummies”, rake up leaves under fruit trees and destroy them (to prevent apple scab).  Prepare equipment to make cider.  Finish budding apples.  Prepare beds for planting fruit trees, using well-rotted manure, digging down 18 inches.  Take cuttings or make layers of gooseberries, currants, honeysuckle, and other trees and shrubs.  Plant seeds of fruit trees: cherry, plum, apricot, apple, pear, etc.

Keep strawberries free of weeds and the soil moist.  If you plan to force strawberries in winter, now is the time to take them up and pot them.  Cut a root ball out with a knife, trim off dead leaves and runners and pot into 7 or 8 inch pots.  Place them in shade and water well.  Then plunge the pots in earth up to the rim.  Take them up and into frames or greenhouse before cold weather.

Protect ripening grapes from birds with netting or gauze; keep weeds away from plants.  If wasps are a problem, hang containers of sugar water to catch them.  Prepare to make wine if desired.


Trim branches of evergreens and walnut trees, so wounds will heal before winter.  Keep weeds cleaned out from nursery beds and plantings of young trees.




When we think of primroses, the first thing that comes to mind are the ‘Pacific Giant’ hybrid primroses we see in garden centers.  Actually hundreds of species of Primula are in existence, and some species have been brought into gardens and significantly developed.  The auricula primroses, members of the species P. auricula, have been grown in gardens since the 1500s.  They have evergreen leaves that curl around in a way that resembles the ear of a bear.  When first cultivated, they were called ‘Bear’s Ears’.  Charles l’Ecluse (known as Clusius) is the first person known to have grown auriculas in a garden.  This was after 1573; he grew two kinds.  The first auriculas grown in England are illustrated first left above, in a woodcut from Gerard’s Great Herbal of 1596.  By 1639, at least 15 different colors and even striped forms were grown.  Auriculas were a popular plant beginning in the early eighteenth century when keen collectors began to grow and exhibit them in competitions.  These growers were called ‘florists’.  Several specialized classes of auriculas came into existence over the following centuries.  Potted plants were (and still are) exhibited in flower on black painted shelves in a stage-like display.  The black background highlights the beautiful colors of the flowers.  Auriculas do have an extremely wide color range, much greater than practically every other kind of flower.  The second picture shows a tawny-colored auricula, a color popular in the 1600s.  Auriculas were extremely popular in the nineteenth century, but curiously, are not well-known today.

Auriculas are native to the Alps and prefer gritty, moist, well-drained soil with a good amount of humus.  They are tolerant of alkalinity and extremely winter hardy to USDA climate zone 3, or even zone 2 if covered with snow all winter.  This means they are perfectly suited to growing all over Montana.  They are shade plants, especially when grown at lower altitudes.  The individual plants are small, only about 8 to 12 inches tall when blooming.  The engraving third from left depicts a garden auricula from 1908.  A gardener must watch that vigorous neighboring plants do not overtake them.  Being evergreen, they grow rather slowly.  I found that a mulch of sharp grit, about the diameter of turkey grit, is excellent for them and will discourage slugs.  Auriculas thrive when grown organically and enjoy soil amendments such as bone meal, composted manure, kelp meal, wood ashes, and grit for excellent drainage.

The classes of exhibition auriculas are usually grown in pots and are smaller and less vigorous than garden auriculas.  The pots used to grow them are taller than average, as the plants have a long tap root.  Growers commonly use an organic soil potting mix with added grit, bone meal and wood ashes.  Grit is especially important for drainage, but also for itsmineral content.  Indeed, the flowers have a wonderful mineral-floral fragrance unlike any other.  The last picture above shows a double exhibition auricula.

Auriculas are available from specialist growers as plants or seed.  I grow mine from seed planted in a fine, fast-draining seedling mix, covered with glass and placed in a shaded cold frame.  I plant seeds in late fall or winter, so the seeds have a cold period before they sprout in the spring.  The plants are usually large enough to pot on by midsummer.  Mature plants are best divided  midsummer.  I would urge gardeners to try auriculas; they are beautiful and rewarding to grow.  If grown in the garden, they might be best appreciated in raised beds, where their delicate flowers can be observed.





Soil pH is a measure of acidity or alkalinity.  This measurement can range from a very low pH of 1.0 to an extremely high pH of 14.0.  7.0 is considered neutral and several vegetables will thrive in soil with a neutral pH.  Some vegetables do prefer a more acidic soil while others prefer a more alkaline soil.  Fortunately most will grow and produce well in a pH range of 5.5 to 7.5.   Areas with high rainfall, such as coastal Washington, tend to have acidic soils high in organic matter, while areas with lower rainfall, such as most of the mountain valleys in Montana, tend to have alkaline soils low in organic matter.  Here in the valleys of the Flathead region, where most of us garden, soils tend to be somewhat to highly alkaline.

Before you amend your existing soil to plant vegetables it is a good idea to test the pH.  An easy way is to purchase a test kit.  Most of them are easy to use and give fairly accurate readings.  Your county extension agent can do a soil test also.  Once you have determined your soil pH and which crops you intend to grow, you can amend your garden soil.  Adding lime will increase pH and make acidic soils more alkaline; adding sulfur will lower pH and make soils more acidic.  Organic matter usually helps reduce alkalinity.  Aged manure, pine needles, compost and coir dust are a few amendments that will help do this while they improve soil structure and encourage beneficial soil micro-organisms.  If your garden is divided into separate beds or raised beds, it is easier to adjust the soil in each bed for what you plan to grow.   I rotate my vegetable crops in a four-year rotation plan, so I try to keep a basic soil pH around 6.0 to 6.5.  This way I can grow almost every vegetable, but I slightly adjust pH each year before growing a particular plant.  For example, I add sulfur before growing potatoes.  Conversely, I add a small amount of lime before planting any of the Brassica family (Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, etc.).   Having soil pH correct for each crop will reduce pest and disease problems as well as increase yields.

Here is a listing of pH tolerance ranges for specific vegetables.  (The optimum pH for each is usually the median between the two extremes.)  I have listed vegetables preferring more acidic soils first and those preferring more alkaline soils last:

Potatoes, 4.5-6.0; sweet potatoes, 5.6-6.5; horseradish and rhubarb, 5.5-6.8; butternut squash, carrots, corn, eggplant, lettuce, peanuts, peppers, pumpkins and watermelon, 5.5-7.0; cucumbers, garlic, winter squash, and tomatoes, 5.5-7.5;  celery, 5.9-6.9; soybeans and strawberries, 6.0-6.8; onions, radishes, shallots and spinach, 6.0-7.0; beets, any of the Brassica family, peas, summer squash, Swiss chard, and zucchini, 6.0-7.5; okra, 6.0-8.0.




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I wish I had more pictures to illustrate this article; but I include a few of hardy shrub roses.  All the shrubs described here grow well with organic gardening practices.

Flowering shrubs brighten our home gardens.  They bring beauty and fragrance while providing cover and nesting places for birds.  Listed below are a few shrubs well-adapted to the cold climates of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado.  Some of the plants described will grow in the northern prairie states.

Lilacs, especially the common and French lilac hybrids (Syringa vulgaris) appreciate our climate.  The flowers of common lilacs are soft, pale purple.  The bushes are tall, up to 20 feet when aged.  Once established, lilacs can really take care of themselves, tolerating cold winters and dry summers without care.  They flower more heavily if old bloom spikes are trimmed off, and plants are fertilized in the fall with bone meal, wood ashes and a light dusting of compost or manure.  Lilacs make a great hedge and deer tend to leave them alone, as the leaves have a bitter taste.

Shrub roses are terrific, hardy plants for our area.  The relatively new Canadian hybrid shrub roses are excellent.  Two Canadian-bred climbers, growing 10 to 12 feet, are ‘Henry Kelsey; with double red flowers; and ‘Champlain’ with bright pink flowers.  Both of these will not winter kill here and are hardy to USDA zone 3, so can be grown all over Montana.  Another repeat-blooming Canadian rose, growing 3 to 4 feet tall is ‘John Davis’, with double red blooms.  It makes a good bedding rose and is hardy to zone 4.  ‘John Davis’ would not require protection in Western Montana.

Some heirloom roses that do well in cold climates are described here:  ‘Suzanne’ a hardy rose from the 1930s, shown in the first two pictures above.  ‘Suzanne’ blooms in late spring with a wonderful display of color.   The plant is hardy to USDA zone 2.  Two other old roses frequently seen in the dry Western States are ‘Harison’s Yellow’ from the 1830s and “Austrian Copper’ (Rosa foetida bicolor).  Both are winter hardy to zone 4, bloom in late spring and are drought tolerant once established.  One occasionally sees other related roses, such as white Pimpinellifolia roses.  The third picture above was taken in a roadside garden of a farm house on the foothills of the Mission Mountains in Western Montana, USDA zone 4.  The plant was covered with flowers in late May-early June.  Pimpinellifolia roses  are very hardy, their ancestors originated in northern Scotland.  If you grow any of these once-blooming, drought tolerant, hardy shrub roses remember to place them in full sun and water well until established.

Our beautiful, ubiquitous wild rose, (Rosa woodsii) is shown in the last picture.  It makes a broad, suckering shrub useful for the edges of your garden.  It is drought and cold tolerant, but blooms only once a year, in mid spring.  Plants are sun-loving, but tolerate shade well, where they will grow taller.  Their foliage is healthy and the fragrance of the flowers is delightful.  The only other rose with a similar fragrance is the true ‘American Beauty’ a very rare hybrid perpetual rose.  I grew it once, and when cuttings were taken they failed to strike.  ‘American Beauty’ has infrastipular prickles, little thorns below the leave stipules, just like Rosa woodsii, which makes me surmise that ‘American Beauty’ may be descended in part from Rosa woodsii.  Keep in mind that roses often sold as ‘American Beauty’ are usually ‘Ulrich Brunner Fils’, a similar hybrid perpetual with no infrastipular prickles.

Silver Buffalo Berry (Sheperdia argentea) is a tough, drought tolerant native shrub growing 6 to 12 feet tall and wide.  It can spread by suckers, so give it room.  This sun-loving shrub is a good food plant for wildlife, providing red berries and protective cover for birds.  Buffalo Berry makes a sturdy hedge or windbreak requiring no care once established.  It is also very winter hardy, to USDA zone 2.

The shrubby Potentillas (Potentilla species) are drought tolerant, colorful shrubs frequently seen in public landscapes.  They are hardy native shrubs, growing 3 to 4 feet tall, available in several colors.  Potentillas tolerate drought and heat, but best of all, bloom all summer.  Full sun is best for them.  It is easy to shape your plants in the fall, trimming off the oldest stems.

Two native shrubs that prefer moisture and part shade are mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) and Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum).  Mock orange grows 8 to10 feet tall and produces deliciously scented flowers in late spring.  Rocky Mountain maple is a beautiful, small maple growing 6 to 10 feet tall, with dark red wood and golden fall color.  Both of these plants could be placed on the north side of a building where their roots would be in shade and tops in sun.  Be sure to leave 3 to 4 feet or more between the shrubs and the building.





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Tomatoes are native to the Andes Mountain region, a region of varied climates.  The kind of tomatoes most frequently grown in our gardens are botanically classified as Lycopersicon esculentum.   Tomatoes are easy to grow in Western Montana if given the right conditions in the garden.  The site should be sunny and protected from wind, but with some airflow.  If grown in too close or crowded conditions tomatoes can succumb to disease.  Fortunately, in our area, the air is usually pretty dry, meaning humidity is usually low (when the sun is out).  Good soil is important.  I amend my existing soil with manure, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal or wood ashes and greensand.  A good, dark compost will enrich your soil, feed the tomatoes and retain moisture.  If you prepare your soil well, as organic gardeners do, you will not have to feed them at all the rest of the season.  Tomatoes prefer even moisture; if given too little water they will produce fewer and smaller fruit.  If given too much water all at once, especially when the soil has dried out, the fruit often crack and split.  An even, slow watering is best, so the moisture goes deep into the soil.  Leaf roll, blossom-end rot and cracked fruit can be prevented by careful, even watering—aim for moist soil always, not wet or dry.

Tomatoes are naturally a vining plant, though they have been selected over the centuries to be shorter and bushier.  This is especially true of more recent seed strains.  Many of the oldest heirloom tomatoes are tall plants that require support in the form of a tomato cage or wooden frame, or a trellis.  One example of a tall heirloom tomato is ‘Purple Cherokee’, which grows over six feet tall!  It is important to keep the fruit of the ground and leave space around your plants.  This will help prevent disease.  It is best to water tomatoes in the morning and avoid wetting foliage in the evening.  This will reduce or prevent late blight (spots on leaves and fruit).  Other diseases include: powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, and fusarium wilt.   If you suspect disease, your county extension agent or other specialist can help you diagnose these problems and recommend remedies.  This is important in our region, to protect our potato industry.  Potatoes are related to tomatoes and subject to many of the same diseases.  Sulfur and copper fungicides are two available OMRI listed, certified organic disease controls.

Deer are a primary pest in our gardens; gophers and voles are quite damaging, too.  A tall (seven foot) fence helps prevent deer, and hardware cloth under a raised bed is a good way to prevent gophers and voles.

One more issue to watch is proper pollination of your tomatoes.  Fruit will not set well if daily high temperatures do not reach 55 degrees; conversely, fruit will not set if temperatures are over 100 degrees.  Historically, we have had troubles setting fruit with our cold days and nights, but nowadays with warming temperatures, the daily high temperatures might become an issue.

Here is a list of some wonderful open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes that do not have too late a season for Western Montana:

‘Glacier’ (55 days) is a dwarf, bushy variety with potato-like leaves.  The fruit are 2” to 3” and red to orange.  ‘Glacier’ produces well in cool climates and has excellent flavor for an early tomato.  No pruning or staking is needed for this variety.

‘Bison’ (65 days) was developed in North Dakota in 1937.  It is another dwarf variety that sets 3” deep red tomatoes even in cool weather.  ‘Bison’ can produce as much as 40 pounds of tomatoes from one plant.  This variety requires no staking or pruning.

‘Persimmon’ is an orange, persimmon-colored tomato that originated in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.  It is rare today and reasonably early, (75 to 80 days).  The flavor is very good, low-acid; the fruit reaches about one pound.  This is a great tomato for salsa!

‘Large Red’ (80 days) is one of the oldest and rarest tomatoes.  It originated in Massachusetts, in the 1820s, and was grown by the Shakers.  Pioneers brought is west on the Oregon Trail.  It is a tall plant with convoluted red fruit resembling the pumpkin that became Cinderella’s coach.  12 oz. fruit is common, as it is a beefsteak-type.  ‘Large Red’ has a sweet and rich flavor.

‘White Shah’ (80 days) is an heirloom from the 1880s; a very mild, flavorful, white tomato.  The fruit are quite large, 8-12 ounces, and the plants have potato-like leaves.  ‘White Shah’ was the healthiest tomato I grew last year, and one of the best for flavor.

‘Pink Brandywine’ (80 days) is another tall plant, potato-leaved, with delicious, pink fruit.  It is the most popular heirloom for flavor, though the plants are more disease-prone than most tomatoes.  Good culture should prevent or minimize these problems.  ‘Pink Brandywine’ is one of the best for tomato sauce.

‘Cherokee Purple’ (80 days) originated with the Cherokee people and was brought west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.  The plant is very tall—six to seven feet!  Staking and/or caging is necessary.  The fruit are large, flavor is among the very best, and fruit sets fairly early.  Prepare your soil well, as this variety is not usually as productive as some.


Photographs of Historic Florist Pansies


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This week I thought I would show pictures of the Historic Florist pansies I grew from seed.  The top photo is of my pansy bed; the others show the diversity of blooms and colors of antique pansies.  The flowers are fragrant and almost all of the blooms have a “face”.  More information is available in my first blog on this WordPress site, which describes the origin of pansies in England during the 1830s.

This week I am moving to Montana from Oregon, so this blog is one day late and quite brief.  I will manage a new organic nursery and greenhouse—a new division of Westland Seed, Inc., Ronan, Montana.

Happy growing!

April Gardening Calendar


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April is another busy month for gardeners; usually a month characterized by ups and downs in temperature.  Keep watch for frosts; protect cold frames with mats if frosts are imminent, and admit air daily as weather permits.  Finish pruning fruit trees if not done, plant grapes; fertilize and prune blackberries.  Check your fruit trees and roses for pests as soon as they bud and leaf out and set out apple pest traps two weeks before bud break.  Weed and amend all your beds now while it is cool and moist.

Finish planting fruit trees, shrubs, roses, and perennials.  This month is a good time to direct sow (where they are to flower)seeds of several flowers: sweet alyssum, cornflowers, carnations, pinks, poppies, stocks, rose campion, Lychnis, columbines, valerian, honesty, foxglove, snapdragons, mignonette, larkspur, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate and four-o’clocks.  Perennials still may be divided if weather has not become too warm.  Violets can be divided after blooming and cuttings taken of pansies.  Make cuttings of chrysanthemums, gauras, Helianthus, lupines, Lychnis, Liatris, knautias, saponarias, scutellarias and veronicas.  Dahlias and tigridias may be started inside in cold climates and planted out later after frosts are over, or planted outside if the soil temperature is above 60 degrees F.

Several vegetables can be direct sown if weather permits and it is not too cold: beets, arugula, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, collards, mache, fava beans, cress, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, rhubarb, turnip greens, onions, pasley, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, salsify, scallions, spinach and Swiss chard.  Sunflowers and tomatillos can be sown two weeks before the last expected frost.

Corn may be sown after April 15th in cool maritime northwest climates, or a week or two later in the inland and mountain areas.  Usually corn is sown about 10 days to two weeks before the last frost.  Native Americans of the Hidatsa tribe living in the Dakotas planted sunflowers first, then corn, and after frosts followed with beans and finally, squash.  Sunflowers were grown by themselves in a field, but corn, beans and squash were grown together; with corn in hills of 6-8 and beans and squash vining through.

Vegetables started last month indoors may be planted out this month: the brassicas, parsley, Asian greens, rhubarb and tomatoes; once frosts are over.

Prune established roses before bud break and seal the cuts with water-based glue or wood glue.  This prevents drilling wasps from injuring the canes.  Fertilize organically with Epsom salts, manure or compost, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal and seaweed or wood ashes.

A few things maybe grafted now: grapes, hollies, pears, maples, pines and clematis.  Layers can be made of Cotoneaster, Cotinus, Hydrangea, Lavandula, Lonicera and Parthenocissus. 

Enjoy spring!

Starting Seeds Indoors


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Many of us get a good feeling from planting seeds and watching them grow when outside it is still dark and cold.  But inside, we are planning for spring planting.  We can start the varieties we want—perhaps a favorite is not available locally as a transplant or as seed; we can raise it ourselves from seed!

Most everyone I know has good luck starting seeds in a sterilized seedling mix.  It may be difficult to find an organic seedling mix; and it must be sterile or seedlings might dampen off from fungi present in the air and abundant in unpasteurized soil mixes.  A mix I make is soil free: 6 parts sterile (pasteurized)peat moss + 3 parts fine perlite + 1 part washed coarse sand.  If you are unsure if your mixture is sterile or not the mix may be heated in an oven at 160 degrees for one hour.  Do not allow the mix to heat above 180 degrees.  A mixture including compost would need to be sterilized by heating to use for seedlings.

Several types of containers might be used to start your seedlings.  In the first picture above, I used a milk carton cut laterally, providing two useful containers.  Shown are pepper seedlings.  Peat pots work well for plants that are difficult to transplant, because they minimize transplant shock and biodegrade into the soil.  Be sure to keep them quite moist once planted, because if the peat pots become too dry, roots will not penetrate the container.  Some plants that benefit from being raised in peat pots and are difficult to transplant are: portulaca, nasturtiums, sunflowers, poppies, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins.  Peat pellets also work, but they sometimes are so hard that roots have difficulty growing in them.

Timing is another important factor in raising seedlings.  Your transplants should be big enough to mature and produce in your season, but not too big, or they will not take off well and will take up a lot of room in the house.  Here is a basic seed planting guide, categorized month-by-month, of which seeds to plant at what time for success in northern climates of 100 to 170 days.  (Adjust timings to your local climate):

In January plant impatiens, begonias, geraniums and salvias.  Late January or early February is a good time to start eggplant, peppers, onions, petunias and pansies.  March is probably the best month to start cole crops (brassica family).  April is a good time to start tomatoes and balsam; late April or early May for pumpkins, squash, melons, cucumbers, and nasturtiums.

Florescent grow lights with an adjustable chain are a great help in starting nice seedlings; the lights can be lowered with the chain to keep the newly emerged seedlings in bright light.  This will prevent your plants from getting “leggy”.   Temperatures vary for germination: cole crops about 65 degrees, onions about 70, tomatoes about 75 and eggplant, peppers, squash, melons, cucumbers and nasturtiums about 80 degrees.

Make sure your seedling mix is not too wet.  Some seeds like to germinate on the dry side, such as tomatoes and peppers.  I cover my newly-planted seeds with plastic wrap, but check them twice daily for moisture and rotate them if necessary.  Once the seeds are just up, I loosen the wrap (a little more each day) to harden the babies off to the air.  Grow your plants on in cooler conditions than you germinated them and they will grow stockier.  A cold frame is just about the best place you can put them if it is not too cold outside.  In a south-facing cold frame the soil will remain warm at night, and daytime venting will give the plants fresh air.  Keep shade cloth handy if it tends to get too hot during the day in your area.  This is a common occurrence in dry, sunny climates with warm days and frosty nights.  The second picture above shows newly transplanted seedlings in a cold frame vented for the day.  A cold frame will harden-off your plants before planting out.  Don’t forget to place open-ended containers around plants as you place them in the garden to deter cutworms.  Good luck!

Cloches and Cold Frames


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We have to face the fact that here in much of the Northwest we have a short frost-free growing season.  Those living at higher elevations have an even shorter growing period.  Most gardeners in the area look for ways to extend the vegetable growing season: everyone wants to have ripe eggplants, tomatoes, squash, melons, etc. before the season ends and frosts return.  A great help for gardeners is to purchase or construct covers, or cloches, to protect our plants early and late.  In the nineteenth century, glass bell-shaped cloches were used, as well as cold frames glazed with glass.

Today, one popular and inexpensive alternative cover is a polyethelyne tunnel, a series of metal hoops over which plastic is stretched.  The spring vegetable season can be started up to four weeks earlier with tunnels.  The same is true of fall, when it is possible to have crops ready up to six weeks later, because the soil will be warmer in fall and hold its heat longer if cloched.  Tunnels are quite useful for heat-loving crops in our frequently cool summers; cantaloupe, watermelons, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, and cucumbers are some examples.  Floating row covers will also protect plants at night from colder temperatures.  The heaviest will protect plants from frost up to seven or eight degrees of frost.

Plastic jugs, with the caps taken off and bottoms cut out, work well for small plants planted out before late frosts occur.  Covers can be placed before nightfall and removed during the day.  Gluttonous and ubiquitous cutworms will be discouraged from chewing by the subterranean sharp edges of the jugs; this is important because these creatures feed at night.  Large metal cans and paper milk jugs are other inexpensive cloches.

Cold frames are excellent cloches or protectors of young plants.  The soil inside them stays much warmer at night than the outside air.  If mats or fabric floating row covers are used to cover plants they will protect crops to lower temperatures than uncovered plastic tunnels or jugs.  I constructed my own cold frames, though they can be purchased from many sources at a considerable price!  An important factor with cold frames is to open them in the morning as soon as temperatures permit and close them before it gets too cold, in late afternoon or early evening.

Paper, glass, water-filled plastic covers or wax coated cloches are other quick solutions to save plants if a late frost is expected.  In Montana, in a mountain valley at an altitude of 3,000 feet I have used cloches to save bleeding hearts, primroses, lilies and early spring flowers from sudden freezes that would have set them back considerably.

Have a great spring!