Thursday, March 18, 2010


Soil is to a garden as a foundation is to a home, or as the tires are to a car; it supports everything above but is understated and too often neglected. If you want a healthy garden you must never take your soil for granted.

The best start to maintaining a healthy soil is to learn about the soil in your gardens. Is it clay, sandy or loam? Is it acidic or alkaline? Is it lacking any vital nutrients?

You can figure out the first question yourself very easily. Pick up a handful of the soil when it is moist but not saturated and squeeze it. If it sticks together and doesn’t want to fall apart it is clay, if it sticks together but easily falls apart it is loam, and if it doesn’t stick together at all it is sandy. The ideal is loamy soil; if you have either of the other two you will need a great deal of amendments to get the soil to the best consistency for growing the most number of plants.

To find the pH of your soil, whether it is acidic or alkaline, you will need to purchase a test kit. You can find these at most garden centers. There is not an ideal pH, but you need to know what kind of soil you have to know what will do well in your gardens. If you have alkaline soil with a high pH, over 7.0, you probably should not bother with trying to grow blueberries or rhododendrons, as these are plants that need acidic soil to thrive. On the other hand, Clematis and asparagus like their soil to be on the alkaline end of the spectrum. And despite the claims of some products, it just is not feasible to completely change the pH of your soil. Now, if you have soil that is too extreme one way or another, you may be able to lower the pH some with sulphur or raise it with lime.

As for the last question, whether or not your soil is lacking nutrients, you’ll need to send away a sample of your soil to the labs at Cornell University. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, 203 North Hamilton St., Watertown,
(315) 788-8450, ext. 243, will be able to provide you with a sample kit. The fee is minimal and is well worth the information they will provide you with.

Now that you know all about your soil, how do you maintain it to keep it producing the best produce and the most beautiful flowers? You must continually amend it to replenish the minerals and nutrients used by the plant throughout the growing season.

I am a big believer in compost. I use a simple 2-pile method for composting. Kitchen scraps (with the exception of meat or dairy), yard leaves, grass clippings, saw dust, etc. all go onto a pile. When the pile is big enough (about 3x3x3) I start a new pile and let the first one sit and break down. If the pile is turned a couple times it will heat up and start to decompose. This process will only take a few months. You’ll know it is done when it looks like soil and smells like soil.

A tenacious gardener never has an overabundance of compost. Each fall after a few heavy frosts when most of my perennials have died back, I throw a nice layer of compost on the beds. In spring, compost is added to the vegetable beds before they are turned and planted. In summer, when I start new garden beds with the lasagna gardening method (another article topic), compost is always used as a layer.

Compost is the number one, best way to amend your soil. You’re also saving that material from going to a landfill.

Manure from grazing animals is another good source for a soil additive. If you have access to a pick-up truck and don’t mind a little labor, you can usually get all the free horse manure you want from a local farm. Just be sure that it is aged and well rotted before using it in the garden.

Products like Miracle Grow are not recommended for long-term fertilization of garden beds. These will cause salts to accumulate in the soil leading to a decrease in productivity. They do, however, have a place and help with a burst of growth in situations such as potted annuals. They’re like steroids for plants, useful for some situations and short-term use, but dangerous if over used.

So, remember, before you plant, pay attention to your soil.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

In the last issue I mentioned a method I use for growing perennials from seed called “Winter Sowing.” As the name implies, now is the time to employ this technique.

Winter sowing works like a charm for most perennials that will reseed themselves naturally. At the same time it offers control that the gardener would not have if he were to simply throw seeds out into a garden bed. The basic idea is that the seeds of many cold hardy perennials need a period of cold in order to germinate (stratification.) Here you will be giving the seeds the conditions closest to how Mother Nature would do it all on her own, without risk of the seeds being lost to foraging animals or being washed away in a heavy rain.

To begin you need seeds. This time of year you almost have to order them through the mail. I have a couple favorite sources you can check out. Johnny’s Seeds ( is my go-to company for anything gardening related, and perennial seeds are no exception. If they don’t have what I’m looking for, I will try Select Seeds (, which has an awesome selection of unusual, and heirloom varieties. One very important factor that I look for when choosing a mail order source for plants is that the company is based in the Northeast. I’m really not interested in plants from California. Johnny’s is in Maine and Select Seeds is in Connecticut.

Next you need containers in which you’ll plant your seeds. Just about anything with a clear plastic cover will do. My favorites are those salad containers from McDonalds or Wendys with the black bottoms and the clear domed lid. You can also use milk jugs or soda bottles. For those you slice the jug in half horizontally, leaving just a hinge uncut, so that you have a 3-4 inch base to fill with soil. Then you can duct tape it back together later.

And finally, you need soil. This is easy; just about any bagged potting soil will suffice. You just don’t want regular garden soil as it will likely contain too much clay and will compact to a point that you will lose maximum germination.

Now you need to create drainage and ventilation in your containers. I have an old knife that I heat up on the stove to make nice slits in plastic containers. Slice drainage holes in the bottom of the container you are using, and a few holes in the top. If you are using milk or soda bottles the open mouth of the bottle is enough ventilation and you do not need to cut any additional holes.

Make sure you label your container with the name of the plant you intend to plant in it; Sharpie marker on duct tape on the bottom of the container holds up well. Then fill the container with soil and moisten it well. Let the excess water drain and plant your seeds. The seed packets should include instructions on how deep each seed variety should be planted. Regardless, a good rule of thumb is to plant the seed twice as deep as the size of the seed. Hence, a very large seed such as 4 O’clocks would need to be planted about ½ inch deep, whereas some very miniscule seeds may just need to lay on the surface.

All you do next is put your containers outside in a shady spot. Let the snow cover them and forget them for the next couple months. Once April comes around and the snow has receded you’ll want to start checking them to make sure they don’t get dry but it will be a surprisingly long time before you see any seedlings emerge.

Once you do see seedlings (likely not until late May and well into June) you will need to pay closer attention to the containers. Keep them in the shade or the sun will fry the tender seedlings. Take the lids off during warm days to prevent the mini-greenhouse from overheating and be sure to put the lid back on during cold nights and heavy rains.

When the seedlings have a set or two of true leaves (as opposed to the cotyledons which appear first) you should transplant them individually into a bigger pot. I like to use empty yogurt containers with drainage holes punched in the bottoms. This is the most tedious part of the process and should not be attempted on a day when you have little time or your patience is not at 100%. Often the seedlings will be close together and need to be delicately teased apart. If they are too thick to separate easily, take a spoon and plant a hunk of seedlings together in one pot. Later you can thin them down to just one in the pot.

After that you just let your new young plants reach a good size, start putting them out in more sun to harden off and plant in your garden beds. I have found that these plants are stronger and hardier than greenhouse grown plants. Some examples of plants that I have had fantastic luck with growing from seed in this way are Delphinium, Foxglove, Rudbeckia, Echinacea, Columbine, Rose Campion, Penstemon, Balloon Flower, Dianthus, Baptista, Heliotrope, and Monkshood.

For more information go to:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Winter Break - 1/6/10

Oh, how I love this time of year. Christmas is over and I’ve dragged the tree outside to sit under the bird feeders so the Chickadees have a place to hide, and I’ve swept up the swath of needles that fell off on the tree’s way out to be thrown on the compost pile. I’ve put away all the decorations and taken down the lights. Now I have the leisure to sit curled up in my favorite chair with my blanket and a cup of tea and study all the seed catalogues.

If you’re not a serious gardener you may think that this time of year is down time for gardeners. After all, not much digging can get done when the soil is frozen solid, with the obvious exception of digging your car out of the snow. Winter is down time in a way, but we gardeners spend the season dreaming, and dreaming is more important that you might suspect.

Personally, I grow most of my plants by seed. It’s very unusual for me to buy a perennial or vegetable plant at a nursery. I do at times, particularly when it comes to plants such as lavender, which I cannot live without and are very difficult to grow from seed. I learned to grow healthy plants from seed because I am frugal (nice word for “cheap”) and I simply could not afford to stock my garden every year with nursery grown plants.

Most of my perennials I winter sow, which is a method I will discuss next week. The vegetables that need a head start, such as tomatoes and peppers, I start inside in mid-March. For annuals I use a lot varieties that are easily grown from seed. Sunflowers, cosmos, poppies, morning glories, nasturtiums and alyssum are some very nice annuals that I use every year.

The math is easy. I can pay $2-3 for a packet of 100 seeds, or I can pay $5-10 for a single perennial. I’m a mother with young children. I have to stretch the budget to feed and clothe my family before I even get to feed my gardening habit. HGTV (although there’s really not much “G” on that channel I’ve found) will have you believing that you need thousands of dollars to buy large, nursery grown plants to make your landscaping beautiful.

When the seed catalogues come in the mail, I’m in heaven. I go through each one, comparing and contrasting, imagining what I want the gardens to look like, and thinking about what new plant varieties I’d like to try this year. Then I diagram out the vegetable garden and any new perennial gardens with paper and pencil.

People in the South think that our weather makes gardening difficult. I, however, can’t imagine never having the winter break in which to dream.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Wow, it's been awhile!

In my last entry I talked about possibly moving to a 9 acre farm. That deal fell through but we did move. We bought a 3.5 acre property with a gorgeous old house that needed little for repairs and renovations, unlike the 9 acre place.

Oh, wait, that's not our new home. This is our new home....

We are very happy but things have been very busy with the move. Then, just after getting somewhat settled, I took a new job, working for my new neighbor actually, at a small local newspaper just down the street. So, I've been very busy and not doing much gardening.

Then, at the beginning of the new year, I started writing a gardening article each week for the paper. My very own column! I figured if I was going to sit and write an article here on my computer I might as well start posting them here on my neglected blog.

So, coming soon. A Cracked Pot

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Will my dream come true?

We have signed all the paperwork to sell this village house with little property and to buy a farmhouse with barns and 9 acres. I'm completely consumed with thoughts of this real estate deal. We have a few months of waiting for the paperwork and applications to go through. Right now we expect the move to take place in mid-July, if nothing goes wrong. Not good timing for a vegetable garden. I've decided that I will not put a garden in here at this house at all this year. Fortunately we will have the garden at our friend's house from which we will have a portion of the produce.

Imagine the possibilities! I have visions of an orchard, berry bushes, huge gardens, chickens and a stand at the farmer's market.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It's seedling mania around here!

Yesterday my husband and I sat down and started the tomato seeds. Spring must be here! In past years we had always run out, or were very close to running out, of tomato sauce by this time. I'm happy to say that we still have plenty of sauce still in the pantry. My hope is that it will last us until we have tomatoes and are starting to can this year's sauce. We canned 72 quarts of tomato sauce last season, which I used for spaghetti sauce and chili mostly, and that appears to be a year's supply for a family of five.

The types of tomatoes that we are planting this year are different from our normal choices. Since I am doing this little community garden I asked for some input about what the other people would like to grow. I'm really excited to grow some different varieties. My husband is resistant to change for change's sake. We planted San Marzanos, which we did plant last year and were very pleased with. I did insist on them because it is important for us to have a reliable sauce tomato. The big change is that we did NOT plant Big Mamas like we have for the past 3 years or so. They were disappointing last year and the San Marzanos outperformed them by far. The San Marzanos may be much smaller but they more than make up for it in production. We also chose a hybrid called Campbells as a back-up sauce tomato.

Of course we are keeping the standard Sun Gold cherry tomato. I don't think I'll every deviate from that choice. We picked a few different heirloom varieties. Old German, which looks a lot like Striped German that we planted the past 2 years, is one. Another is Black Sea Man. The name makes my husband and I snicker every time it is said. So I'm sure that will be a big joke once the tomatoes are on the vine. "Oh honey, this Black Sea Man is delicious!"

We also started a large hybrid called Watermelon Beefsteak. The other freebee from Totally Tomato is a hybrid called Jetsonic and we planted that as well. In all we should have 144 tomato plants, the majority of which we'll use ourselves. The difference will go to the Master Gardener plant sale. There are about 40 pepper plants growing now. And of course we can't forget the artichokes which are looking wonderful. They are scheduled to go out to the cold frame for the rest of spring this week. That's their 6 week portrait there at the top.

The pepper seeds were started on March 13th. They don't germinate or grow nearly as fast as the tomatoes and I've found that they need more time. They are all sprouted now and doing nicely. I planted 4 varieties; a bell called Fat & Sassy, Jalepenos, a mild chili called Mariachi, and a Hungarian type called Volcano which came free from Totally Tomato.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This year's challenge; artichokes

Every year I like to try a different plant that has a bit of a reputation as a challenge, or that no one else around here is growing. Last year I did eggplants which turned out to be very easy.

Artichokes are actually a tender perennial that cannot be over wintered this far north. They can be grown as annuals but they need to be tricked into thinking they are 2 years old to get them to set fruit. So, it's the old fooling mother nature routine, and she doesn't always fall for it. The way to do this is to start them early, let them grow for a few weeks, and then put them out in a cold frame for a few weeks. The hope is that they get enough cold temperatures that they think they've just experienced a mild southern winter. It's kind of like taking your toddler and dressing her up like a 20 year old show girl in Las Vegas in the hopes of winning a pageant. But this isn't nearly so freaky.

I started the artichoke seeds, a variety called Imperial Star, on Valentine's Day. They haven't germinated yet, but I expect they will have by the 21st.