Sunday, February 22, 2009

How To Grow Vegetables from Seed: Ingredients

As we enter autumn planting season in Australia, and as Northern Hemisphere gardeners approach spring, growing vegetables seems to have come back into fashion. It's partly due to the global financial crisis, I suppose, but also due to the quiet, long-term influence of the green movement. Long may it continue!

Most of us start gardening with plants in punnets from a nursery, or with the large, easy seeds that can be sown directly where they are to grow, like sweet corn and beans. Growing plants from seed in punnets is the next step. Below are the things you'll need:

Seed raising mix. This isn't potting mix; it's much finer in texture. Buy a smaller rather than a larger bag. The mix should feel damp, but not wet. If you need to rehydrate the mix, put a few scoops of it into a bucket, add water (say two cups) and stir. If you can, let the mix sit overnight to absorb. It is easier to handle if it's damp rather than sopping wet.

Empty punnets. You do have some in your garden shed, don't you? Left over from the seedlings you bought last time? I have the kind that are divided into individual cells as well as the older kind where all the seeds bunk in together. I use the cell kind for larger plants, where I have specific numbers in mind. The older style are good for lettuces, leeks, spring onions and other vegetables that don't take up much space or where you don't really care how many you have. I also use plain punnets for out-of-date seeds, which I sprinkle thickly, as germination rates are much lower.

Seeds. For most gardeners, this is the fun part, where we tend to get carried away. My preference is for heirloom seeds, which are better suited to home gardeners. Heirlooms tend to crop over longer periods, while modern varieties tend to be produced for farming, where an all-at-one-go harvest is preferred as it lowers production costs. Besides, the heirlooms have interesting names and stories and are sold by interesting people.

A place to keep sown punnets. I stand punnets in shallow trays, usually saucers from big pots. In winter, I use a mini-greenhouse to start off my warm-weather crops, but my climate is mild enough that it is unnecessary most of the year. The punnets usually stay on my back porch, which has a north-easterly aspect. The gentler morning sun won't cook them. Your climate and hemisphere may vary. The basic requirements are: morning sun, close to your house (you need to talk to them every morning and keep an eye on their water needs), not in anyone's way, and not too cold, hot, light or dark. 20-25 C is the temperature you want: most vegetable seeds will germinate and grow optimally there.

A workspace. I use the potting bench in my garden. I have a tray where I fill the punnets, which makes clean-up much easier. There's also room for my other gear...

Something to store your seeds in. The metal biscuit tin is traditional. I have an old rectangular ice-cream container: it is wide enough to allow my seed packets to stand upright.

Identification tags and a pen or pencil, and storage for them. You can buy blank tags, or just cut up a plastic container. Permanent marker is always legible, but a good gardener's pencil lives in my shed in a jar with all the unused tags; you can reuse tags for new things. Always tag your punnets, preferably with cultivar name as well as plant name -- you quickly find out which plants will and won't work in your garden, and re-buying a dud variety is terribly frustrating!

I think I've mentioned everything, but if I haven't, please comment!

The subsequent posts in this series are Method and Mistakes and After Germination.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Garden Roundup

It has been a quiet couple of weeks in the garden. First, we had the hot weather. Too hot to do much work in the garden when it's still 30 C in the late afternoon! It's a matter of keeping plants alive -- and I lost most of my seedlings, though my recent purchases of native plants survived.

Now we have rain. We have had nearly 80mm since Tuesday; half of it fell yesterday. Again, it's too wet to do much gardening, though we need the rain... but like most of Sydney, I'd send it to Victoria if I could. Today, the number of confirmed deaths from the terrible bushfires is 181, but that number is expected to rise. 1800 homes have been lost, and that number is also expected to rise. Overseas readers may wish to view the photos at the ABC website for a better understanding. It may help to know that our previous worst fire event, the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983, took fewer than 80 lives across a much larger area.

This afternoon the rain let up enough for me to replace some of the old rusty chook-wire on the chook dome with nice new chook-wire, and position the dome in my vegetable garden. At dusk, we caught the girls and popped them onto their perch. Penny has never been keen to share her sleeping quarters; she's never really been convinced that Annie and Clarabel are part of her flock. It was entertaining to hear the three of them complaining together about the indignity of being caught and carried, then arguing about who got which bit of the perch! There's plenty of room; the issue is precedence. I wonder how they'll get on tomorrow?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Pets in My Garden: a Multi-Meme

This month's Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop asks: Have you made any design changes to your garden to accommodate your pets? Care to share how you use their manure in your garden? Have you designed part of your garden specifically for your fuzzy or feathered companions? Care to share your strategies for keeping your pets out of places you don’t want them to be?

I also thought I'd answer some questions from my Backyard Chook Primer post here, as promised. But I'll start with my guinea pigs.

Guinea pigs are, as most people know, small quiet herbivores. In Sydney, they can live outside (with shelter, and protection from dogs and cats) all year round. Ours live inside at night and on wet/hot days. They love hiding in long grass, so pen them in the unweeded wilder parts of your garden. I use a very simple corral of one-inch mesh, about 50cm high, with bricks to cover any holes, and a simple weather-shelter. This photo shows Lilac in the corral eating sweet-corn husks.
Occasionally, when the chooks are elsewhere, I'll put the piggies into the chook dome.

The handy thing about guinea pigs is that they eat quite a wide variety of food, from fruit and vegetable scraps to most grasses. As long as other food is ample and varied, guinea pigs do not need the prepared food from pet shops. As a matter of fact, the prepared pet food is harmful: it usually contains a lot of lucerne, which can cause kidney stones. Their chief diet is and should be grass. Being small, an escaped guinea pig is unlikely to cause enormous damage even if it does escape into the vegie patch for a night, so I have not altered my garden much for their sake.

Whatever the guinea pigs don't eat can be offered to your chooks. In fact, I put all the used piggie bedding (grass, hay, uneaten scraps, and piggie poos) into the chook dome for the chooks to scratch in. Spoilt fruit should not be given to guinea pigs, but your chooks will eat it happily. So these are two animals that complement each other. Children like chooks, especially friendly, hand-reared pullets, like the Isabrown the Twig is holding. It isn't one of ours: Penny is an adult Isabrown, and our pullets, now about 17 weeks old (almost point of lay), are a White Leghorn and an Australorp.

Unlike guinea pigs, chooks will wreak havoc in a vegetable garden in a very short time. Their strong legs will scratch up shallow-rooted plants, and they have a good appetite for seeds and seedlings. Any new plantings will need protection. My vegie patch is surrounded by star pickets and one-inch mesh a metre high, to keep out my free-ranging girls. I'd like something a bit more attractive, but slightly loose mesh is something that a chook can't perch on. A permanent fence would need to be much higher, too.

I use the chook dome (described in the Primer) in the vegie patch for about half the year, so the poo is used where it falls. The other half of the time, I let the chooks free-range and fertilise my other plantings. Much of my garden is pretty low-maintenance, and autumn, our main planting time for perennials, is when the chooks are in their dome. So I can't say that I've done much altering of my garden for my birds. I suspect my children have driven my planting choices as much as the animals have!

Home Handymum wanted to know what the chooks' feed containers look like. They are made from two-litre milk bottles. The handle is on one corner, so I cut a hole from the opposite corner. There needs to be plenty of room to get the feed or water in easily, without causing the bottle to rip or collapse.

It's easier to have a hook than a tie: trying to tie on a full water container is an exercise in frustration. The hook is made from fencing wire. There is a hook at one end and the wire is doubled back on itself at the other. Flatten the handle of the bottle and slip it into the doubled-back section. Hope the pictures help make sense of this description.