Monday, March 30, 2009

Transplanting time!

All the little tomatoes are in their root-trainers now! It's beginning to look a lot like spring... well, except for the snow outside. I transplant into pro-mix Bx - it has specialized root fungi - or mycorrhizae - included in the mix. This means I do not have to add any extra mycorrhizae when transplanting. I usually add 10% worm castings to my soil when mixing it prior to transplanting but my Magnesium and salt levels were so high when I had my castings tested that I decided not to do that this time. I am trying to figure out why a fruit and veg diet for worms has created such a high Mg level. The trouble with Mg is that it ties up nitrogen and at levels this high it might mean nitrogen is not available to the little plants. Anyway my worms are eating like crazy so I have a lot of castings.... I will use them up on the lawn later.

In previous experiments, purchased worm castings worked in at a 10% by volume ratio  kept plants stockier and less likely to sprout so tall and fast. Just a note on that: if tomato seedlings are longish as you do your transplanting, it is easy to plant them deeper than they were in their seedling flats. They are one of the few plants that can be planted deep and it definitely keeps them shorter. Now get out the grow lights and keep the small plants 20 cm from the light source.... that is only 8 inches. I personally like to have 12 hours of light and I do that by keeping the lights on a timer.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Soils Need Available Calcium

Okay- this just in. I went to a two day seminar that was as low tech as these things come. Two overheads the first day - a few more the second. No outline - just free-form talking.  I did  learn something about "soil health" but only some focussed thinking about it will reveal how much I learned and the quality of information taken in. 

What is this electro-field you feel as you plant your garden? It is the natural flow of energy from west to east.... okay I am not sure what all the electricity talk means but this I do believe:

1. Conventional soil tests do not always give a clear understanding of what is actually available in the soil and therefore available to the plant. They simply give a mining report - possibly not ideal?.

2. Cracked carrots are deficient in copper. Narrow pears are not as high in food value as round heavy pears. Thin skinned heavy oranges are better for you than thick skinned light-weight oranges. 

3. The farmers I met are willing to learn new techniques and listen to knew ideas. Several have promised to phone or e-mail me when the results of their studies with this "calcium theory" fertilizer is underway. 

4. Calcium is "available" in our soil and in our water in Calgary but is often tied up with carbonate - ie the white scum (Calcium carbonate) inside the kettle. I think I heard colloidal calcium in our soils  will bring it into our bodies via food grown on these soils. This is the part I need to study more. 

5. Race horses as well as people have thinning bones from poor quality feed (ie low weight, low brix, low Calcium). More available calcium in the soil will mean heavier oats and stronger bones for horses. People eating heavier foods such as good quality pears or apples will get health benefits.

6. Get your best food by growing your own in soils that are high in good micro-nutrients.

7. Adding colloidal calcium will raise the "energy" of our food. Okay- I am not sure about this energy thing or if I even got it right because gardeners and cooks usually refer to energy as calories but this is not the energy that was discussed. Again, I need to study this further.

8. When fertilizing in response to a conventional soil test we tend to over-fertilize soil with Nitrogen and Potash. This pollutes our water and ruins our clay structure. Consequently everything falls apart.

More to follow as I sort this out. Who knew there was so much more to the soil than what I had already been teaching people for years?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sustainable Soils

I am taking a soils and fertility course in the coming days. Okay I have taken dozens of these courses over the years including four full term courses at University years ago. And to tell the truth nothing is really changing in how we classify soils or deal with one soil type or another.

What is changing is how we deal with fertility in soils.  "In Defence of Food"  ( by Michael Pollan - published 2008) says that food quality is going down and that this is largely attributed to soil quality going down over time as land is used and reused with traditional farming techniques. Does a plant really know where it's nitrogen source originates? No - but in soils kept growing with only the use of chemical fertilizers the lesser known nutrients are also diminishing and not being replaced. In an organically managed soil, the micro-organisms provide a lot of the nitrogen to plants and in doing so provide many other  little know benefits. 

If you have time for any late spring reading pick up a copy of Teaming with Microbes, by Jeff Lowenfels (Timber Press) and learn how to manage your soils better and more naturally.

Stay tuned here as I report back from the Sustainable Soils conference being held March 23-24, 2009.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Self-Watering Plant Boxes

I picked up some new grow boxes today. Not just any old boxes - these ones have a two-week water reservoir and the stress plants face when the pot dries out is eliminated. I already have twenty or so of these boxes in different applications. I use them in my greenhouse as a modified hydroponic system for growing cucumbers and tomatoes. I also use them at my cabin  for flowers since there are extended periods of time when I can't be at the cabin in the summer to water but I want some colour there.

Anyway these are not boxes for starting things indoors right now - I just wanted to get ready to get ready for spring. I have hauled them up to my second floor balcony which will be my veggie area this summer because it has the most sun. I have also bought one for my step-daughter's new balcony in Vancouver. She wants to make use of her new 500 square foot balcony and I suggested she raise herbs for her other new venture - cooking. So this is just a heads up, if you have a growing area where it is inconvenient to water or if you just don't have time to water, try a Maxikap (self watering plant box) for your gardening ventures this spring.

Have  a look on-line at Maxikaps ( and think about whether you need to add one to your garden this spring.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Seed Leaves vrs. True Leaves

In my little tomato world there is action. The seeds have germinated and the seed leaves are sitting there taking in energy until the true leaves grow. I mention this only because many people don't know you can't transplant anything until the first true leaves appear. At that time the seedlings need to be held by the leaves only and not the stem. A leaf is disposable but a stem.... not so much. 

When taking hold of your seedlings do not grab the plant by the neck (ie stem) - instead hold it by the arm (leaf). Let the soil dry a bit so it is not soggy and lift it with a pencil (or similar sized dibbler) and then pull the plants out of the soil by tugging on the leaves. A tomato can be planted deeper than it was - which is unusual in the plant world. Most things like to be replanted in the next container at the same depth they were planted in the first container but this is not true of tomatoes. Plant them deeper so that they are sturdier than they were before.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tomato Time ....

Yes, this weekend - March 15 - is the time to start tomatoes. I say this only because the temptation in a cold climate, under grow lights, is to start tomatoes anytime they arrive in the mail. But I have found they get too big by June - our normal plant outdoors time of year. So the seeding date is March 15 - except that this year I am going to be away in early April and will miss the first transplant date and just can't leave a task like that to my house-sitter. Oops! So rule breaker that I am I started my tomatoes last weekend on March 8 and meant to blog about it but before I knew it they were already up! How did I do it? Easy, really.

As usual I started tomatoes in the little seedling tray designed especially for this purpose. Of course I washed the tray out with soap and water because even though they are plastic, they may have diseases of some kind because they have been used several years in a row. Seeds can also be started in a pot but believe me the bigger the pot, the more soil and the bigger the chance you will get damping off diseases because big pots of wet soil stay stay wet longer. So start seeds in a small container.

Use special seed starting mix. I like the big bags of Pro-mix but I also like Sunshine brand Organic soil mix. When you open the pro-mix it has been compressed - the sunshine is already fluffy so is ready to go. Add enough water to make a moist mix that looks like a damp sponge. It is not a soggy sponge dripping with water but a damp sponge. Fill the containers with this moist soil mix and tamp it down lightly so that it is just below the rim of the container. Sprinkle the seeds in a measured way in the rows. Measured means spread out - not all in a pile at one end.

I try to make tags for the rows first because otherwise I forget which tomato was seeded in which row and guess what? Every tomato cultivar looks exactly the same to the novice eye when it germinates. In the past I had old venetian blinds that I cut into small pieces with scissors. They were ideal for labels. I have finally run out of venetian blinds so I used little wooden labels this time because they were on hand. Either way, write on it with pencil. Permanent pens always fade and the end result? You just don't know what you have.

Once the seeds are spread out along the row, you can take a little of the dry soil mix and crumble it between your hands to lightly cover the seed. Once all tomatoes are seeded and labeled and covered I water sparingly. This is a technical term meaning don't water too much. I like to use luke warm water that has been sitting out overnight so that it doesn't have any chlorine in it. Finally I put on a plastic cover (not a sheet of plastic that will stick to the seeds and soil but a rigid clear cover made for this purpose). The real secret to success is that I put the whole works in the basement on my heated floor. It is so cozy down there and I check my seeds daily and mist them with a little misting bottle because they could germinate at any time and the soil surface could dry out because of the heat given off by my floor. Voila! They are up. Today. Which is a good thing because I am heading off for the weekend so I need to check the water and mist again before removing the cover and placing the whole tray under the grown lights set up in my office.

It is tomato time again ... can spring be far off?

PS Photo above is the lovely Cohen - at age one - eating his first Zebra Green heritage tomato from Aunty Kalen's garden.
Commercial greenhouses do have their plants well grown by now because they have the light and conditions to keep plants alive. Marianne at E & M Woodland Gardens (1-403- 224-2771) informs me they are just moving their tomatoes up to 3 gallon pots this week. By Mother's day they will be in 5 gallon pots and already have little tomatoes on them. Quite a different world from the home garden where we want to plant outdoors in the soil.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Rosemary Cuttings- Grocery Store Gardening

It happens to even the best gardeners. We leave our favorite and critical herbs outdoors come fall and unless you garden in Palm Springs it is long gone and buried under the snow by March.

While buying fresh rosemary for my favorite toasted pecan recipe I realized most of it would go to waste. You know how it is - you leave it on the counter or in the fridge or in water and next time you need rosemary it is black and dead and in the compost.

I am happy to report I put my leftover grocery store Rosemary to better use a few weeks ago. After using the two tablespoons I needed for the pecan recipe I cut the rest into 2" pieces (about 5 cm), pulled off the lowest leaves of each piece, dipped the end into liquid kelp (to take advantage of the natural growth hormones in kelp) and then stuck the pieces into a pot of moist potting soil. I put several cuttings into one pot and put the pot in a plastic bag so they won't dry out while the cuttings are rooting. The bag keeps the hunidity up while the cuttings root. They are all growing in my sunny windowsill although none show roots yet. (I cheated and carefully pulled a few out to check)

Grocery store gardening - who knew?

Basil is Busting Out!

It's a humble beginning to spring but the basil I started at Christmas is ready to eat. Wow! My first crop of 2009. I really hate buying basil in the winter and I have been spoilt - I really hate using dry basil at any time of year.

Having trouble with basil? Keep it warm. It suffers from life in a cold greenhouse or cool attic room and easily gets damping off disease in a cool overly wet environment. (this happened to me in my cool attic where I have my grow lights - I over-watered before going away so that the plants would not be forgotten and some plants perished in my absense).

A warm sunny south window is ideal for a heat loving plant like basil and for me that sunny space is in my kitchen. What could be better than fresh basil in the kitchen?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Peas and Beans and Barley Grow

Let me get this straight right from the get-go. You can't start peas and beans in Calgary this week or even this month. On Vancouver Island, however, where the weather is a little kinder and softer -  Linda Gilkeson, Ph.D. was encouraging participants in a course at University of Vancouver Island to do just that. She brought along her props to class including peas that had been directly seeded into vermiculite and she showed how easy they are to pull out.

After years of experience gardening and a record of producing 95% of what she eats (in the veggie department) Linda knows what she is talking about. In the cold March soils on the Island the seeds would rot or be eaten by insects before they could sprout so she developed this technique of allowing the seeds to germinate in a warm indoor setting before pulling out the small pea or bean plants and plunking them directly in the garden. So easy and so effective. Well, our soils aren't just cold in Calgary, they are frozen solid and they are likely to be that way for a while yet. But come late April, a full month before I usually seed my peas and beans, I will be trying Linda's technique.