Ten Lessons Learned

By Kathryn Hamilton EMGV

As master gardeners, we learn things. But we don’t learn everything, and because we are human, we often forget what we learn or think we are so smart that we are smarter than what we learned. I find each growing season to be a lesson in humility, but also an opportunity to learn … sometimes it’s something I knew, sometimes it’s relearning what I’ve learned. Here are 10 things I’ve learned or relearned in 2018.

  1. You can start tomatoes too early. Last year, I started my tomato seeds on Christmas day. In a sense it was a gift to myself, but I was also determined to have the biggest, strongest tomatoes to put into my garden in May. Although I planted, and transplanted, and have a south-facing location for them, I got leggy tomatoes that didn’t necessarily grow into the big, bad boys I’d hoped for, and I didn’t really get a jump on the season.
  2. Take the time to keep track of what you’ve planted. Last year, I planted two different kinds of cucumbers. General Lee, which is recommended for the South, and Tokiwa, “Tokyo Green” which was researched by a friend of mine. By the time I had gotten my “started-too-early” plants to the garden, I’d lost the markers and decided I’d be able to tell which cuke was which. Fat chance. Too bad, because one of them produced fantastic, sweet cucumbers well into August. I’ll have to try again this year.
  3. Plants need water to thrive. My first home had a well, which continues to make me inordinately careful about how much water I use, even though today I have city water. Someplace in the middle of last summer I realized I could capture the condensation from my air conditioning unit which gave me 10 “free” gallons of water a day. (Rain water collection is not permitted here.) After watering my rose bushes, my trees, my hydrangeas, and cleaning my patio, I began to toss the excess water onto my gardenias. Although they had been planted in the right location in terms of sunlight and we had quite a bit of rain, in three years, they hadn’t really blossomed, and I didn’t have the time to figure out why. Suddenly with regular water, I had flowers. Said a friend: “They were using whatever water they had to survive, they didn’t have enough to bloom.” And he wasn’t a master gardener.
  4. It’s not necessarily wise to be greedy. I had
    small veggies tiny but tasty december 30 harvst
    Even though they were small, I chose to harvest these at the end of December rather than try my luck for “even bigger” produce. Photo Kathryn Hamilton

    four beautiful heads of red sail lettuce and refused to pick the outer leaves in quest of the biggest head I could grow. In the end all four matured at the same time and were on the verge of bolting. Yes, I had some heads to share with my neighbors, but I also missed those fresh leaves every day and was forced into several days of red leaf lettuce salad. Not necessarily a bad thing … but I could have enjoyed it all season

  5. Know when it’s time to “fold ‘em.” A plant that’s at the end of its life and is literally hanging on by a few thready stems isn’t going to produce any good fruit. Doesn’t matter that there’s an heirloom tomato “on the vine.” Still not going to taste very good.  I had a similar story with eggplants. Rather than pick them mid-sized, I pushed them to the max and had seeds.
  6. DO NOT over-plant your tomatoes. I know VERY experienced gardeners who still do this. The tomatoes will compete for food, water, and air. You are not likely to have a bumper crop.
  7. Plant your spinach in a hurricane. Spinach is one of those crops that has thwarted me at every turn. No matter what I do, I can’t get this vegetable to start from seeds. This past summer out of desperation, I threw a bunch of seeds into a planter during the hurricane. Within a handful of days (poor record-keeping again), I had spinach. At first I thought it was the wet, wet, wet conditions. But other spinach seeds sown under the same wet conditions went nowhere. I haven’t done a full set of experiments on this, but I’m thinking it’s a combination of wet and warm that helps the seeds jump start. The conundrum around starting spinach seeds in the summer is that they like cool growing weather. I’m sure we ate the spinach that sprouted … but then again, no records.
  8. Start your lettuce on sponges under lights.
    small-lettuce-9-days
    Cutting the sponges into smaller sections allows you to start a variety of seeds in a small space. Growing here: Two romaines and a red. Photo: Kathryn Hamilton

     

    Starting lettuce from seeds has been another stumbling block for me. One day I decided to experiment by growing them on a sponge. I put the soaked sponge in a cleaned out (10% Clorox solution) plastic domed container (you can often get them when you buy cooked chicken at the super market but be SURE to sanitize them). Under grow lights (no heat on the bottom), I’ve seen the lettuce sprout in 2 – 3 days, compared to “never” before. This lettuce is nine days old. I also buy new sponges whenever I grow lettuce. If they are thick I cut them in half lengthwise so they are not so deep. If I’m planting several varieties at once, I cut the sponges into little cubes, one for each variety. A friend, who is not a master gardener but owns a garden shop, says he mixes his seed with packaged cow manure and broadcasts it. In addition to providing nutrition, he says the cow manure also holds moisture.

  9. Pay attention to soil temperature. Even if against all conventional wisdom, you start seedlings like peas indoors, without the right soil temperature they will struggle at est. (And don’t forget to water.)
  10. If you get into a battle of wills with Mother Nature, she will likely win. I have a history of trying to grow things in the wrong spot … simply because I wanted to them to go there. Of course, I had minimal luck at best. How rewarding to know that the gardener’s mantra: “the right plant for the right spot” can be a very rewarding rule of thumb. (And don’t forget to water.)

This winter, take time to reflect on your last year of gardening and consider what changes you can make as you begin anew in 2019. Happy New Year!

 

Struggling with Lettuce: Germination

by Kathryn Hamilton, EMGV

By rights, I should never have to buy lettuce. I own heat pads and grow lamps. I have both a patio and a covered porch that face south and are warm in winter. I have exposures east and north. I buy every lettuce seed packet that waves at me. By any stretch of the imagination I should have at least one pot of lettuce growing some place at any time of the year. But, my nemesis has been getting seeds to sprout.

Lettuce needs light and water to germinate. It is supposed to germinate in seven to 10 days. In my experience a generous sprinkling of seeds on top of soil-starting medium might generate two or three weak sprouts after weeks of tender care and gentle spritzing to keep the seeds moist.

Over the last several years, I’ve started all my

After-6-days-little-forrest
Seeds sprinkled on top of a sponge covered with a dome. Germination in three days; within five days a little forest of sprouts.

other seedlings in a domed enclosure that relies on sponges as growing medium. Knowing that the seeds need light to sprout, I never considered dropping the tiny lettuce seeds into the little sponge holes. But after another frustrating failure with seed-starting medium, I decided to try placing the seeds on top of the sponge plugs. And within three days, sprouts. Within five days, a forest of healthy lettuce starts. By the two-week mark, sprouts healthy enough to transplant.

At the same time, I decided to experiment with a low-tech approach. I found an old low-tech-plasticsponge, cut it in half so it wouldn’t be too thick and sprinkled the seeds. A big advantage of sponge over plugs was that I could clearly see where the seeds were sprinkled and using the tip of a knife they could be spread out. I put the sponge in a clean plastic container from roasted take-out chicken. I poked holes in the top, wet the sponge and added water to the bottom of the container.

All seeds were grown indoors, in a temperate environment that was low-to mid seventies. I started four experiments: two high-tech (sponges and domes from a seed house) and two low-tech  (chicken take-out plastic and household sponges) at the same time.  All seeds were started under grow lights, but one of each set was placed on a heat pad.lineup-cropped

Within two days my heart sank. It looked as if the low-tech

After-2-days-not-mold
Not mold! Plants with furry stems breaking out of their seeds.

container without heat had turned into mold. But, on closer examination, my seeds had begun to sprout. The high-tech seeds took a little longer to sprout. In both cases, those without heat did better than those with heat, especially in the low-tech plastic. Those in the high-tech sponges got their second set of leaves a day or so before the low tech and in general, looked a little stronger. After they sprouted, I watered with a highly diluted fertilizer. Fifteen days after the seeds were planted I transplanted the high-tech sprouts into cell-packs.  Getting the tender sprouts out Roots-through-spongeof the sponges was at times a little tricky. Rather than pull the seedlings I had to cut around the sponge, and I often planted part of the sponge with the seedling, being sure to bury the sponge below the soil line. In the end I had 54 plants that I put back under grow lights until they could get over transplant shock.

 

36-hour-seedlings
Perking up 33 hours after transplant.

For this experiment I used Marvel of Four Seasons (Lactuca sativa), a butter-head lettuce described as “delicious and tender, very easy to grow.”  Once these are strong enough and I can reclaim my grow lights I am planning to try several other varieties including iceberg, which is difficult to grow in North Carolina, and Tennis, a small-head heirloom variety I couldn’t resist.

Best lesson learned: The optimum temperature for lettuce germination is 75 degrees. The low-tech chicken container was less-insulated than the high-tech dome and none of the seeds emerged, but germination in the high-tech container was high with or without heat.

Here’s where you can find some additional information on growing lettuce:

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/lettuce

https://extension.psu.edu/seed-and-seedling-biology

http://www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-1061/ANR-1061.pdf

http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agcomm/pubs/ho/ho56/ho56.htm