Sunday, March 18, 2012

'Tis Seeding Season

Well, the wait is finally, for the most part, over. You have been tormented and teased all Winter long with a constant barrage of seed catalogs. Those beautiful red tomatoes, green peppers, golden corn on the cob and just about every herb that you can think of, and some you may have never heard of. Just sitting there on those full color pages, waiting to be ordered and planted. For many of you the time to plant seeds is NOW! Or at least a few weeks ago, so get a move on. Some are still just getting to that window of planting time. Still others, WAY up North.....well, I think Summer is scheduled to be on a Friday this year, so wait for it.
Joking aside, hopefully you have either already ordered and received your seeds or will be picking some up your next trip to the garden center.
Let's just say for the sake of argument, it is time to plant your precious seeds, and you want to get this thing in gear.
I am going to assume you know what you want to plant, peppers, tomatoes, okra, basil, whatever. The next thing you need to figure out is, what do you want to start them in?
This is going to be more of a financial decision. You can go out and get the peat pots, peat pellets and the like. More on these later. Depending on how many plants you are planning on starting, this could get pricey. Let's just say you are cheap like me, read also poor into that. I like to start my seeds in whatever I happen to have available. Luckily, I have a wonderful wife who gets me those mini greenhouse sets when they go on sale. Side note, these can make GREAT Christmas, Birthday, Anniversary gifts....I am just saying. If I do not happen to have anymore of the mini sets, I tend to improvise.
Three inch plastic pots are a perfect size to start seeds. They don't dry out as quickly, they are of a manageable size and still have enough room for the roots to get a strong start.
Clay pots will work, but they tend to dry out too fast.
Milk Containers. Any size will work. Just make sure you punch holes in the bottom to allow for drainage.
Margarine and Cottage cheese containers. Again, make sure there are holes in the bottom for drainage.
You may even remember a science project from school, using egg cartons. Being that these are rather small, you may want to transplant at least once into a little larger pot before planting outdoors, just to get a little larger root system going.
And of course, peat pots.

These can be planted directly into the ground once the seedlings are good and strong. One piece of advice here though, make sure that no part of the pot is sticking out of the ground when you plant it. It acts as a wick and will dry out your seedling very quickly. To encourage roots to spread out into the garden soil, you will also want to carefully cut or tear holes in the bottoms of these pots, because they usually don't break down completely in the soil, and may inhibit root growth.
These are just a few examples, I am sure your imagination can come up with lots more.
Okay, you got what container you want to use, now you need some kind of stuff to put in the container to plant the seed.
The medium used for starting seeds should be loose, well-drained, and of fine texture. You may use commercially prepared mixes or you may mix materials yourself.
Let's start with an easy and clean way.
Compressed peat pellets. When dry, expandable peat pellets are about the size of a silver dollar, but somewhat thicker. When placed in water, they swell to form a cylindrical container filled with peat moss, ready for seeding or transplanting.

These may also be planted directly into the garden. Use the pellets in trays so they are easily watered and held upright. Be sure they are placed so the open side is up. A word of caution here. Hopefully you are aware that seeds and seedlings should not be allowed to dry out completely, they will die. Should the peat pellets get forgotten and dry out, it is VERY hard to re-wet them.
I have not tried this one personally, but I may have to one day.
Vermiculite. This material when used alone provides good seed germination. It is clean, and if not contaminated during handling, will not need sterilization. If other seeding mixes are used, it is useful for covering seeds. It does not form a crust, and seedlings can easily emerge.
Soilless mixtures. Mixes that contain no soil are available for growing seeds. These contain either a combination of peat moss and vermiculite or peat moss and perlite. Get the best stuff you can afford, there are some really cheap ones and the money you save here may cost you dearly in germination.
Now comes the hard part, you have the seeds, the containers and the soil medium, now what?
Fill the containers with the medium and stick the seed in, right? Not so fast. How deep should the seed be planted? I would venture a guess that millions and millions of seeds have been lost to rot because they were planted too deep. Trust me on this one, I probably have lost half that number.
The general rule of thumb is, twice to three times as deep as they are wide. I have come to the conclusion that I say "HUH"? to that general rule of thumb. Have you ever seen a lettuce seed? If you have bad eyesight, probably not.
I use this theory and my germination rates have improved 100 fold.
Small seeds, lettuce and such, are best planted by scattering them thinly over the surface of the soil and then patting them down. I usually water with a fine sprinkle and that helps set them in also.
Medium-sized seeds might include things like radishes, peas and beets. These are easier to see and can be planted their own width deep into the soil. Pat the soil down to firm it around the seed. Again, water them in.
If you are planting a large seed, maybe something like an almond or something like that, plant them as deep as they are long. Water in.
Experience will tell you that something is wrong. If you have planted 100 seeds and 3 have come up, you probably are too deep. There is a chance that you have old or expired seeds. If you are not sure, plant some more, but plant a little higher this time and see what happens.
You will want to place some kind of covering over the container. The seeds need warmth, humidity, moisture and a few things will need light to germinate. Do not place covered containers in direct sunlight. It will get way too hot and it will cook the seeds. Remember I told you about the mini greenhouse, they look like this:

Watch daily for germination. Move them to more direct light, and remove plastic or glass coverings as soon as germination is well underway, usually when you see the first set of true leaves. The first leaves to appear when the small plant breaks the surface of the soil are not true leaves, they are cotyledons or seed leaves. These are filled with starch and other things the plant needs at the beginning of life.
This will also be the time to thin your young seedlings. As difficult as it is, if you planted two or three seeds in a hole, some of them will have to go. They will just compete with each other and in the end make for a weak plant.
When it is time to transplant the seedlings into their new home, care should be taken. Lift seedlings by the rootball, using a spoon or plant tag for support if necessary. Never hold the seedling by its stem, as you may crush it. If you feel the need to steady the plant from above lightly hold the plant by a leaf. A seedling that has lost a leaf can grow another, but a seedling that has lost its stem cannot survive.
One problem I seem to always encounter is sunburn of my plants. I get so eager to get these things growing that I push the timetable.

Plants which have been growing indoors cannot be planted abruptly into the garden without danger of injury. To prevent damage, they should be hardened off before planting outdoors. Ideally, about two weeks before planting outdoors, start hardening off the seedlings by moving them outside for increasingly longer periods each day. Start by putting them outside for a few hours in the shade during the warmth of the afternoon. Choose a spot protected from wind. Bring them back inside for the night before temperatures start to drop. Each day, leave the plants out a little longer, and expose them to a little more direct sunshine. By the end of two weeks, unless freezing temperatures are forecast, the seedlings can stay outside in a sunny area until you are ready to transplant them into the garden.
Starting seeds has so many pros to it. They are much cheaper to buy than plant starts. You can get a much wider variety of things to grow, the big box stores can only carry just so many varieties of already grown plants. The satisfaction you will get knowing that you started a plant that has pounds of something edible on it from a seed is immeasurable. It is also a great way to get your kids involved in something wholesome.
I will leave you today with one other tidbit of useful information. My mother will surely think this is aimed at her, and to a large degree it is, TAG YOUR PLANTS!!
I promise you, even if you only plant one kind of pepper or one kind of tomato, you will forget what the name of it is. I hear my mother now, "but I know that it is a pepper or a tomato, why do I need to know what it's name is?"
For everybody else in the world, you will want to know what the name of it is so if it does not grow well for you, it does not get planted again next year.
Happy Growing!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Puncturing Post

I got a phone call from my Clemson Extension agent this past week. She had a client in the office with a Meyer Lemon problem. She could not have called at a better time. She wanted to know if I could receive pictures on my phone, which I can't, or if I happen to be close to my computer? I was actually in the process of sending out some e-mails, so I was right there.
Both she and the client thought maybe that the problem was some kind of an overspray of chemicals by both the homeowner and landscaper. Luckily this was not the case, it was much more benign that that.
The tree was actually hurting itself. If you have ever grown Citrus you know that many of them have thorns.....Kind of like this:

Pretty evil looking huh?
Well, what was happening was, every time the wind started to blow it would knock the fruit against these thorns. As you can see, they are very sharp. The resulting damage will then look like this:

and this:

For the most part, this is just a cosmetic damage. If you are planning on eating the fruit in a short period of time, there should be no problem. The interior is usually unaffected.
However, if you are planning on storing your fruit for any length of time or want to ship it to a friend, this is where there could be problems. Those little puncture wounds, numerous in many cases, are entry points for an array of bacteria and fungi.
Let's check a few of these out.
We will start with the most colorful, Green and Blue Molds.
Green mold, the most important of these two post-harvest diseases, is caused by the fungus Penicillium digitatum. A rapid breakdown occurs in fruit punctured or bruised during harvesting and packing operations. The fungus enters the fruit through wounds. Therefore, the disease can occur on fruit on the tree, in the packinghouse, in transit, in storage and in the marketplace. A white mold is first seen growing on the peel. The mold later turns green because of the large number of green spores produced. Decayed fruit becomes soft and shrinks.
Blue mold, Penicillium italicum is less common than green mold, but the blue mold grows faster. Both infections develop in damaged areas in the rind.
If you see something along these lines, then you know there was probably some kind of damage:

I think this was a science project from my 5th grade class, if not it should have been.

Another post harvest problem can be, Diplodia Fruit rot caused by the fungus Diplodia natalensis. This infection occurs most frequently at the stem end of the fruit but occasionally can occur via injuries on the side of the fruit. The fungus grows rapidly through the spongy central axis of the fruit. It grows unevenly through the rind, which produces finger-like projections of brown tissue on the infected fruit.

Photo courtesy of visualsunlimited

So as you can see damaged Citrus peel can be a nasty problem. There are a couple of easy ways to fix it.
You can snip off those thorns with a pair of toenail clippers. I know this sounds like a long and tedious task, and it is, but the fruit will thank you and anything else that happens to bump up against the tree will thank you. You do not necessarily need to do the entire tree, just where there is fruit.
Thinning the branches of the tree to open it up more is something else that can be done. This is actually a good suggestion anyway, it allows more airflow into the tree which will cut down on the possibility of other diseases.
You can plant buffers by your Citrus trees to help cut down on the wind or plant them in non windy areas. Shielding your trees from the wind is probably the easiest to do. Yes, you can cut off the thorns, but small stubby branches can do the same kind of damage.
Something that many people don't think of when harvesting Citrus. You really should snip the fruit from the tree instead of pulling. This can lead to a problem of the peel leaving a little button on the tree and the fruit is then susceptible to all of those nasty problems I mentioned above.
I should mention one other puncturing type of problem. This one also happens semi-frequently and there not many ways to stop it from happening.....our feathered friends can become a nuisance. I actually watched a Mocking Bird do this before I could scare him off.

Thankfully this was just a one time attack and I have not had a problem since. Maybe he didn't like it, or maybe me yelling at him like an old man yelling at a bunch of kids in his yard did it.
So, in a nutshell, protecting your harvest should be your number one priority. You have fed, watered, pampered and protected your tree to get some glorious fruit...wouldn't it be a shame if a gust of wind ruined all those months of hard work?
Happy Growing!