Monday, February 25, 2019

How To Harden Off Plants

Tomato seedlings outside being hardened off 2018

Start slowly. Put the plants outside on a partly-cloudy day the first time, with not too much wind.

Make sure they’re well-watered. Leave them out for about 20 minutes the first time, and not at noon (before 11 or after 1 is ideal.) Keep an eye on them, and if they start to get droopy, bring them back in and cut back on the time the next day to 15 minutes, or 10 if need be.

If it’s windy, put them in a cardboard box so they get light but not knocked over.

Gradually every day increase the amount of sunlight by about ten to fifteen minutes. Again, keep an eye on them, don’t let them get sunburned (it will make their leaves turn brown and fall off, so to be avoided!)

Work your way up to about four hours a day, then you can leave them out at night as long as the temps are above 40 degrees.

Once the nighttime temps are above 55 degrees, they’re ready to go in the garden. If you plant them before that they won’t do well. So being patient is worth it.

If you have them in pots for more than two weeks, give them a small amount of fertilizer, at about half the strength showing on the bottle. I like to use fish emulsion; it’s gentle but gives them nitrogen, which they need.

Best of luck! 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A New Seed Saving Technique

I learned of this seed saving technique this past summer and really like how easy it makes the process.

Sometimes, when fermenting seeds, it's easy to leave them in just a bit too long, and then they sprout, which makes them useless for saving.

Here's the way I've been saving seeds this summer (I have only done this with tomato seeds, just fyi):

     1 pint mason jar
     1 cup measure
     Oxyclean washing powder (just the regular version.)

  • Squeeze the juice and seeds from a tomato into a one cup measure.
  • If the amount is less than one cup, add water to make it one cup.
  • Add 1 TBSP Oxyclean to the cup of liquid.
  • Stir gently.
  • Wait 30 minutes.
  • After 30 minutes stir again, then rinse the seeds in a fine mesh strainer until they no longer feel slippery.
  • Spread the seeds out onto a non-coated paper plate to dry and store as you normally would.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Hardening Off Plants

Seedlings out being hardened off.
I start seeds under grow lights in my house. Before the plants can be put in my garden, I have to put them through a process called hardening off. It's not hard, but somewhat tedious if you don't work from home as I do.

I start when the plants are about seven weeks from sowing, especially the tomatoes (the superhot peppers I grow take a lot longer to germinate, so their timetable is extended.) Ideally you want the plants to have several pairs of leaves after the first cotyledons, and be about two to three inches tall (depending on the type.)

I try to start out on a slightly cloudy day with not too much wind. If it's windy, I put the plants in a box, so they can get light but not be too knocked about too much (or knocked over if I have them in cups, as shown at left.)

I begin with well-watered plants set outside to get 20 minutes of sunlight at about 11 am or 1 pm. Keep an eye on the plants the first time, if they start to get droopy, bring them in sooner. The next day I increase the time by five to ten minutes, depending on the time of day and the intensity of the sunlight. I also begin letting them get wind on them by the third time out.

This is not an exact thing, you have to wing it somewhat, depending on the variables and how the plants look. Pay attention to browning of leaves and droopiness. If need be, scale back. Better to take a bit longer than give a plant sunburn.

By the end of a week of this, your plants should be able to spend the night outdoors, as long as the temps don't drop below about 40 degrees F. Keep increasing the time in the sunlight until you've hit between three and four hours, and from that point onward, you should be able to leave them out all day and night.

Before transplanting the seedlings into your garden, it's helpful to know how warm the soil is. Not everyone wants to invest in a soil thermometer, but a good rule of thumb is to not put plants in the garden if the evening temperatures are still below 55 degrees F. That should mean your soil temperature is at 60 degrees F or above.

You can plant seedlings before that soil temp, but it could stunt their growth, and will certainly slow it. Better to wait a bit to be sure they get a good start.

Good luck!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Using Winter Sowing to Start Seeds

Winter Sowing
Yellow onions in their winter sowing jug.
This is the first year I am using a seed starting technique called Winter Sowing. It's pretty simple, and allows you to start seeds without using grow lights, heat mats, or a greenhouse or cold frame.

You start out with simple plastic jugs, like milk, water, or even cat litter jugs. (Note, I'll take more photos of this process, but wanted to describe it today for a friend.)

It's pretty easy. You need a clean, empty plastic jug, some soil (not seed starting mix, but actual potting soil), scissors, duct tape, a Sharpie or wax pencil, and some seeds.

1. Cut the clean plastic jug almost in half, leaving a hinge on the backside so you can flop the top open.

2. Using a drill or a nail, put some holes in the bottom so the soil will drain. Not big ones, but about eight or ten holes.

3. Wet down your soil in a bucket. I do this before I use it so it doesn't have any dry pockets later.

4. Add about four inches of the pre-moistened soil so it's filled almost to the cut.

Winter sowing techniques
Jugs seen from above.
5. Plant your seeds as the packets instruct with regards to depth and spacing.

6. Mist the top of the soil so some water trickles down and ensures the seeds are nicely wet (but don't flood them!)

7. Close the hinged piece and duct tape it all around the cut.

8. Use a Sharpie or wax pencil (I prefer wax pencils, as they don't bleed or fade) to note the seed sown and the date you're sowing them.

9. If you're using a large jug (like a cat litter jug) put several small strips of duct tape across the open top of the jug, so some water gets in when it rains but not too much cold air gets in.

10. Place the jugs in an area that gets full sun, (but not too windy) and wait. Check about once a week or so and when the seeds are ready, they'll sprout!

When it's sunny as spring advances, you'll want to open the tops and let the seedlings get some full sun, but be sure to close them up again at night.

And prepare to be amazed at how easy it is to start seeds without expensive setups, just some old jugs and some soil.

This blog post lists seeds that work well with Winter Sowing.

In another post I'll describe how to separate seedlings for transplanting which might have grown together very thickly without damaging their roots.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Flower Jellies for Canning

Every spring I wait for the Redbud trees to bloom, because I know I can make a gorgeous and tasty jelly from them. But they're not the only flower from which jelly can be made, there are many more!

Flowers that can be made into jelly include: Black Locust, Honeysuckle, Violets, Lilac, Dandelion, Sunflower, Kudzu, Queen Anne's Lace, Lavender, Elderflower, Hibiscus, Clover (red and white), Rose petals, Nasturtium, and Forsythia.

Here's my method:

  • 4 tightly packed cups of flower blooms
  • 1 quart of hot (but not boiling) water
  • Approximately one cup of pure water
  • 1 package of Sure Jel pectin
  • 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice
  • A pinch of butter (about one teaspoon)
  • 8 half pint jelly jars (NB: this may make only 7 half pints and one quarter pint.)


  • Pick over the blooms, removing dirt and insects.
  • Wash the blooms gently in a colander.
  • Put the 4 cups of blooms in a quart mason jar. 
  • Pour 1 quart of hot water over the blooms.
  • Let jar cool, and then put in a refrigerator for 24 hours.
  • After 24 hours, strain the liquid through a coffee filter or jelly bag. That should leave about 3 cups of liquid.
  • Wash the jars, lids and rims, and put the jars into a pot with hot but not boiling water to keep warm while you prepare the jelly.
  • Add enough pure water to the flower liquid to make a total of four cups. Place it into a large pot and bring it to a roiling boil.
  • Add one package of Sure Jel pectin and one tablespoon of lemon juice to the mixture. 
  • Bring it to a roiling boil that cannot be stirred down.
  • Add five cups of sugar and return the mixture to a roiling boil that can’t be stirred down. Once you reach that stage, boil for one minute.
  • After one minute, remove from the heat.
  • Stir in a pinch of butter at this stage to help remove bubbles.
  • Fill the clean hot jars to the ¼” headspace line. 
  • Wipe the rim of each jar, then apply a lid and a jar rim, tightening to fingertip tightness.
  • Follow your canner’s instructions and water bath can the jars for ten minutes.
  • Remove from the canner and place on a towel to cool. After 12 hours, remove the rims and check the jars to ensure the lids have sealed. Any which have not, place in your refrigerator and use within a week. Those that have, store in a dark place.

Note that Redbud blossoms make a gorgeous pink jelly, but the color fades over time. So if you’re gifting them to someone else, do so sooner rather than later. They will still taste the same.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Seed Saving with Blossom Bags

Once I became hooked on growing my own tomatoes and other food, I wanted to start saving the seeds from what I grew so I could use them the following year.

The principle is simple: make sure the plant you want to save seeds from doesn't become cross-pollinated by another plant of a different variety.

So if I want to save seeds from my San Marzano tomatoes, I want to be sure the blossoms aren't pollinated by my Striped Roman plants.

An easy way to do this with self-pollinating plants like tomatoes is to use blossom bags. You can make them yourself out of fine mesh organza if you have the sewing gene, or you can buy them online. I like the ones that Seed Savers Exchange offers, they're not too expensive and well made. They work well for things like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and even beans.

Blossom Bags from
Seed Savers Exchange
Place the bag over the blossom before it opens, to ensure no other pollen has gotten in. Close the ribbon gently but completely around the stem. You may need to strip a leaf or two off to ensure you can do so and leave enough room for the growing fruit. Some people will tap the plant once a day or so in order to be sure the blossom is pollinated. But do so very gently, as sometimes that will cause the blossom to fall off.

Once the fruit is formed you can gently remove the bag, and mark the fruit for later collection and saving. (I use a twist tie or piece of a pipe cleaner.) Let it ripen, and once it has, harvest it.

Certain seeds, especially tomatoes and cucumbers, should be fermented for a few days to remove germination inhibitors and soften the gelatin coating that covers them. Doing so is simple, and you can use a mason or other jar. Others, like pumpkins and squash, can just be cleaned and dried.

For wet vegetables like tomatoes, rinse the tomato well in water to remove any dirt or fungus clinging to the skin. Then cut it open, and scrape the gelatinous material that the seeds are in out into a jar. If the tomato is very dry (like a paste tomato) you can add some water, but you don't always need to if the fruit is wet.

I cover the jar with a piece of paper towel secured by a rubber band, and put the date on the jar. You want to let the seeds ferment for several days at about 70 degrees (the top of a fridge is a good place for this.)

Once or twice a day give the jar a swirl, during which you'll notice some of the seeds sink to the bottom. Those will be your most viable seeds, and the ones you want to save.

After three days, put another one or two inches of lukewarm water into the jar, and swirl it around again, then let the seeds settle for a minute or so. Then gently pour the top later of gunk out of the jar, which will take with it some of the seeds that didn't sink. Rinse the remaining seeds several more times using a very fine mesh strainer, making sure there is no gelatinous material clinging to them.

Next comes a step you can skip if you're just saving the seeds for yourself, but you really should do if you're going to sell or give the seeds to anyone else. You want to ensure there are no fungi or molds on the seeds before you dry them, so a quick rinse in a 10% bleach solution is needed.

Be sure to use just a plain old 5.25% bleach, not concentrated or with any fragrance. Just the cheap stuff. Make a ten percent solution by adding 4 1/2 teaspoons of beach to one cup of pure water, or 1 1/2 cups of bleach to one gallon of pure water if you're doing a lot of batches at once. Note, you must discard each batch after use (don't reuse it on another batch), and it will only keep for about 12 hours. So smaller batches works better I find.

Now sources differ on how long to leave the seeds in a bleach solution, some say you must do so for 30 minutes, some as little as a minute. I leave mine in the solution for about five minutes, swirling them around about once a minute to be sure all the seeds make contact with the solution.

Note that some people use a stronger solution (1 part bleach to four parts water), they are the ones who leave the seeds in for the shorter amount of time.
Drying seeds on a paper plate

Once you've finished the bleach soak, rinse the seeds very thoroughly to make sure no traces of the bleach remain. Then dump them out onto a coffee filter or paper plate to dry, labeling it with the type of seed and the date processed. Be sure to spread them out so they dry evenly, and swirl them around on the second day and each day afterwards (they may stick to the filter or plate, if so gently pry them loose and stir.) I leave mine on top of a bookcase for about a week. After that, you're done!

You will want to put them into a small paper envelope for storage, and then into an airtight container like a mason jar (I don't like putting the seeds in small ziplocs for long term storage, although I do use those to ship seeds to friends.) Some people store their seeds in the fridge, I don't have room in mine for seeds so I keep them in my cool basement.

And there you are! Seeds kept from your own plants which you can use to grow more of them.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Should You Buy Chickens?

I am editing this for April of 2020. With the Corona Virus upon us, a lot of people are considering getting their own chickens. As someone who's had them since 2001, I have some thoughts on this.

The first thing you need to know is, owning your own chickens will not save you money. Not at all. Not on eggs, not on meat. Just walk away if you're thinking that. It will cost you lots of money at first, and more than the food would cost down the road. My grandfather had chickens (as did his father) and my grandmother used to quip about "The $10,000 Eggs" he'd get. But if you're sure you don't care about the cost, read on. Also remember, you can find a farmer near you from whom to buy eggs at Local Harvest.

There are two basic types of people who own chickens: those who treat them as pets, and those who treat them as livestock.

Of course, there's a lot of grey in there, it's not all black and white. But if you boil it down, that's what you get. Most people who breed chickens seriously treat them as livestock. I am one of those. If you ever catch me kissing a chicken or putting a diaper or sweater on it you will know I've gone 'round the bend and should have my keys taken away.

But either way, there are some cold hard truths that people need to face before they get poultry. And the main one is, what will I do when a chicken needs to be culled?

There's that word, culling. It means, bluntly, usually, to put to death. To remove from the breeding pool. To kill.

And if you own chickens, sooner or later, you're going to have to kill one (or more, more likely, as time goes on.)

There are very few vets who deal with chickens, and the ones who do, generally don't know as much as the seasoned poultry breeder does about the birds. Poultry health is typically not something vets learn in university, and for the most part, most of the medications breeders use on chickens are off-label, as there just aren't that many developed for chickens.

I don't know who said it originally, but I'm pretty sure it was poultry judge and longtime breeder Matt Lhamon who quipped to me early on in my chicken adventures "The best cure for a sick chicken is an axe." And sadly, it's true.

Chickens are peculiar. When they become ill, they hide it very well until they are very ill, and close to death. So once a chicken starts showing signs of illness, they are usually too far gone to do anything about.

As well, there's the problem of the law of averages when it comes to hatching chicks. Give or take, about half of the chicks that hatch will be males. And unfortunately, most people don't need a flock of half males and half females for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that a lot of males will fight each other, sometimes to death. I find a good ratio of males to females is about 1 male to every 8 or so females. So then you have to decide, what will I do with all those extra males?

You can try to sell them of course, or give them away, but if you do it's likely they'll wind up being killed anyway to make dinner for someone. No one wants a yard full of cockerels as pets. And I prefer to keep my extra males and eat them myself.

So ideally, before a person gets chickens, they need to ask themselves, "Will I be able to kill a chicken when the time comes?"

If you can't answer that question with a yes, then you shouldn't get chickens, in my opinion. Of course, your mileage may vary, and I am sure there are lots of people who get chickens who don't ever kill one. I suppose a vet, paid enough money, will euthanize a chicken, but I know I've never gone that route. But over time that would get relatively expensive, and isn't a really practical way to go.

I encourage friends who have the space for them to get chickens, I think it's a great thing for kids to learn about animal husbandry, and nothing beats an egg warm from the hen when it comes to taste. But anyone thinking about it should also be sure they can answer that question. Because sooner or later, the time will come when you'll have to kill a chicken.