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Containers for starting seeds--save those yogurt cups

You can start seeds in almost any kind of container, provided it's 2 to 3 inches deep, with small drainage holes at the bottom. Take a look around the house and you'll discover great seed-starting containers like yogurt cups, cottage cheese tubs, and plastic salad trays from restaurants. I don't recommend using egg cartons. They don't hold enough soil and they dry out too quickly. I'm also not keen about peat pellets. When soaked in water, these compressed wafers expand into fist-sized blocks. This might seem convenient, but cost per seedling is pretty high. Also, the outer mesh bag doesn't break down very well, especially in cool soils, so plants often become root bound.

The scoop on dirt

After collecting your containers, the next step is to fill them with soil. Buy a good quality seed starting mix, available from any good garden center or nursery. Seed starting mixes are blended to drain well, yet retain moisture. Here's an important tip: Avoid using soil from the garden. If placed in small containers, garden soil packs down and drains poorly. By using unsterilized garden soil, you also run the risk of introducing "damping-off," a disease that causes seedlings to rot at soil level and keel over. It's not a pretty sight. Seed starting mixes have been sterilized. (Seeds contain enough food to nourish themselves through the first stages of germination).

Moisten the planting mix before you fill your containers. Seed starting mixes are mostly peat moss, so allow time for it to absorb water. Scoop pre-moistened mix into the containers to within 1/2 to 1 inch from the top, then tap it gently to settle it in. Smooth the surface but don't pack it down.

How to sow seeds, or a pinch to grow an inch

To sow seeds, make individual holes or tiny furrows with a pencil, chopstick or plant marker. Drop or sprinkle seeds onto the soil. Check your seed packets for specific sowing recommendations, but here are some general guidelines:
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Sow large seeds (nasturtiums, sweet peas) at least 1 inch apart. Plant medium-sized seeds (lettuce, Swiss chard, marigold) 1/2 to1 inch apart. Plant tiny seeds about 1/4 to 1/2 inch apart.

To sprinkle tiny seeds evenly, shake them from the corner of the packet or pinch some seeds between your thumb and forefinger. When it comes to handling small seeds, I can be all thumbs. Then I discovered the #2 pencil, which has become my favorite seed starting tool. I think you'll be amazed, too.

A tomato seed performs chin-ups on a pencil tip.

Pick up a sharpened, but dull-tipped pencil. Moisten the tip by touching it to the damp soil and then pick up one, or as many seeds as you like. It's so easy, you'll want to tell all your friends. To learn more about how a No. 2 pencil can do extraordinary things, especially for the gardener looking for the right tool to do the right job, read my article A Pencil is a Gardener's Best Friend. Cover the seeds to a depth of about 3 times their thickness by sprinkling them with dry seed starting mix. (Tip: Shake dry soil from a parmesan cheese container). Spritz them with water and press down gently. Write a label for each kind of seed you plant and put it in the flat or container as soon as the seeds are planted. Place the containers of planted seeds in a warm place where you can check them daily. You can cover them with plastic, but be sure to keep an eye on them. As soon as they germinate, remove the plastic.

How to raise a healthy litter of seedlings

Seedlings, like children and puppies, need constant attention. By providing the right amount of light, heat, air, and moisture you'll have a healthy litter, er uh, crop of seedlings that will thrive in the great outdoors. Here are some helpful pointers: Light Lack of light is the single, most common problem when raising seedlings. And it's probably the #1 reason why people become discouraged over starting their own seeds. Seedlings need more intense light than full-grown plants--14 to 16 hours a day is ideal. If they don't get enough light, or if the light isn't intense enough, they become spindly, leggy and weak. Windowsills are popular for starting seeds indoors, but they don't provide enough of the right light for healthy seedlings. Direct sun from a southern exposure can be too harsh, resulting in wilted plants. In northern latitudes, light might be in short supply, or the windowsills are too cold. I prefer low-cost fluorescent shop lights over the coslty grow lights for raising seedlings. Suspend the lights from chains, keeping them 2 to 4 inches above the tops of the seedlings, adjusting the lights as they grow. You can also add aluminum foil reflectors. If you do use a sunny windowsill, remember to rotate your plants every couple days so they don't have to stretch and reach for the light. Seedlings that are pale and weak are light-starved. Moisture Water is the highway that delivers nutrients and seedlings need a steady supply of it. Since dry air in a house or office can draw moisture right out of soil, check your seedlings often. Poke your finger into the soil or lift the containers. A container with dry soil weighs

noticeably less than one that's well watered. Also, when seedlings have matured, water from the bottom to encourage roots to "reach for it." Last but not least, nobody likes a cold shower, so use tepid rather than cold water! Temperature Seedlings thrive in an average room temperature of 60 to 70 degrees during the day and dropping by about 10 degrees at night. Cool weather plants such as lettuce, parsley and cabbage prefer cooler temperatures after they reach 2 to 3 inches in height. Air and Ventilation Proper ventilation is important for a number of reasons. It helps plants "breathe" by circulating carbon dioxide and oxygen and it prevents damping-off disease. Moving air also keeps pests at bay and it helps strengthen plant stems, getting them ready for outdoor breezes. If necessary, set up a fan. Generally a small one is all you need. Finally, if your containers are covered with plastic or other covering, remove it as soon as the seeds germinate.

Fertilizer (no junk food served here!) When seedlings have developed their second set of leaves, also called their true leaves, this is a good time to give them small doses of plant food. Organic fertilizers such as fish and kelp emulsions, compost tea or PlanTea are ideal. Apply fertilizers half-strength directly to the soil or as a foliar spray.

-------------------Tickle your plants! Brush your seedlings occasionally with your hand to strengthen your plants and get them accustomed to air movement. --------------------

Transplanting to larger containers

Seedlings grow faster, develop better and are less prone to disease and bolting (prematurely going to seed) if they have plenty of space and good soil. When seedlings reach 2 to 3 inches tall and have developed their first set of true leaves, it's time to transplant them into larger containers. If you've every worn a pair of shoes that were too tight, you know how a plant feels when its roots are too crowded.

Fill the new containers with pre-moistened soil. Gently squeeze the bottom of the seed starting container or poke a fork down to the bottom and lift the seedling out. Try not to disturb the roots. For soil cubes, simply separate a cube from the others. Make a hole in the new container and nestle the seedling into its new home, pressing it down a little deeper than it was before. For tomatoes, broccoli and other cabbage plants you can actually bury the stem up to the bottom of the first leaves.

Gently press more soil around the seedlings and water them gently. Follow the tips listed above, continuing to provide the right amount of light, moisture, temperature, and air.

How to transplant seedlings outside

Before planting your seedlings out in the garden, you must prepare them for life outdoors. Sheltered plants are not accustomed to wind, direct sun, cold air, and see-saw temperatures. They will have a better chance of surviving if you help them develop tougher tissues before planting them outside. (Imagine a "couch potato" sports enthusiast from Hawaii moving to Alaska in the winter to participate in a 1,000 mile sled dog race. You get the picture). In a few weeks, when the soil and weather has warmed sufficiently, it's time to "harden off" your seedlings by gradually acclimating them to the great outdoor. Hardening off takes about a week. On the first day, set them outside in a shady spot, out of the wind, for a few hours. Then bring them back inside. Gradually increase their time outside to a half day, a full day, then 2 or 3 days. Give them a sun bath occasionally, too. When your seedlings are well acclimated, the next step is to plant them outside in the garden. Wait for a foggy or overcast day, or plant them in the late afternoon. Seedlings will suffer less if they're not set out during a hot, sunny day. If you plant them while it's drizzling or just before a rain, they'll get off to a great start.

After planting out, keep an eye on the weather. You may need to protect your seedlings from wind, frost or heavy rain by covering them with berry baskets, floating row covers or plastic milk jugs, minus their bottoms. Keep the young plants moist but not soggy, until their roots take hold.

Let's begin this lesson by de-mystifying compost. We'll make it easier by following a recipe. And as you'll see, making a compost pile is a lot like making a cake. And we can do it in 3 easy steps. 1) Gather up your ingredients, 2) Stir them together, and 3) let it cook. Even Bette Midler knows the value of compost...

Step 1: Collect your compost ingredients

For a hot, active compost pile, you need to build it all at once, not over weeks or months.

Therefore, you want to try for a nitrogen (N) to carbon (C) ratio of about 1 to 3. Nitrogen (N) materials include: "Stable scraps" such as horse, rabbit, goat, chicken and other manures, green grass clippings (minus any chemical fertilizers and herbicides), fish meal, bloodmeal, cottonseed meal, trimmings from grocery store produce, and garden waste, such as weeds and trimmings.

What about putting URINE in the compost pile?

Do it. According to wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, urine is sterile and contains large amounts of urea, an excellent source of nitrogen for plants. Recommended dilution: 10-15 parts water to 1 part urine for application growing season. Urine is also a good source of phosphorus and potassium, and is widely considered as good as or better than commercially-available chemical fertilizers. Urine is also used in composting to increase the nitrogen content of the mulch, accelerating the composting process and increasing its final nutrient values.

Carbon (C) materials include: Straw, dried leaves, sawdust (in small amounts), wood chips (also in small amounts), and shredded newspaper, cardboard and brown bags.


of the best and easiest combinations to come by occurs in the fall. Mix 3 parts dried leaves to 1 part green grass clippings to make a

compost that is light, airy and fine. Now that's gourmet!

Gourmet compost: 3 parts leaves + 1 part grass clippings.

Materials you DON'T want to add to a compost pile include: meat scraps, oily products such as salad dressings, peanut butter and mayonnaise, pet litter and food, branches and other large woody materials, slick magazine pages, and waxed cardboard.

Step #2: Stir your compost ingredients

Once you assemble your ingredients, you're ready to build your compost pile. Here are some basic guidelines:

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Work with a minimum size of 3x3x5 feet. (If you live in a milder climate, then 3x3x3 feet is large enough). The key is to make a compost pile large enough to retain heat and prevent ingredients from drying out. Expect temperatures of 120 to 160 degrees (F), which is enough to kill most weed seeds and pests. Use an enclosure, either ready-built, or one make of heavy wire screen, wood pallets, etc. Coarse materials should be chopped or shredded. Build the pile in layers, like a cake, alternating nitrogen and carbon materials. Hose down the layers with water. The ingredients should feel like a damp sponge.

Step #3: Let your compost cook

Turn the pile every 4 to 7 days to aerate it and to provide the microorganisms with fresh food. With tumblers, simply give it a spin occasionally. For bin enclosures, use a pitchfork to turn the pile, moving the inside materials to the outside, and the outside materials to the inside-just like folding cake batter. This is a good upper body workout. How do you know when the compost is done? The compost pile is done cooking when it no longer warms up within a few days of turning it. Incidentally, the pile will shrink to about half of its original size.

Roses are red, violets are blue. Compost works, so gather the "doo" --Nursery rhyme from Marion Owen's organic gardening class

Troubleshooting the compost pile

With a little practice, you'll be able to read the symptoms and know what to do to correct the problem. Here are some common problems and their solutions:

Problem: The compost pile doesn't get very hot, even though it has enough materials. Possible Solution: You might need to add more nitrogen ingredients such as green grass
clippings or manure to correct the nitrogen to carbon ratio. Make sure the ingredients are damp. Too dry, and they won't start cooking.

Problem: The compost heap heats up and cools down like it's supposed to, but a lot of the materials are large and not broken down. Possible Solution: Because the materials are big and chunky, they don't provide enough surface area for the microorganisms to finish their work. Chop the materials as best you can. A Crocodile Dundee knife, or machete, works great for this. Problem: Whew, the compost pile has a strong odor. Possible Solution: The pile is undergoing what's called "anaerobic decomposition."
Anaerobic means "without oxygen" which is why it smells like the beach at low tide. You need to add introduce oxygen back into the pile by turning it at least once a week.

Problem: Animals on the loose! Possible Solution: If dogs, mice, rats, cats or raccoons are getting into to your compost
pile, fence it in, cover it with wire and avoid adding meat scraps, bones, and fish waste to the pile.

How to use compost

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Apply a 4 to 6-inch layer of compost-mulch around woody perennials in the fall to reduce damage from winter winds. After the soil has warmed up in the spring, apply compost around warm season vegetable crops such as zucchini and tomatoes. Spread compost on the garden a couple weeks before spring tilling. Add compost to container gardens, hanging baskets

During the growing season, side-dress your plants with compost to provide a slow-release source of nutrients.
Make compost tea. Add a shovelful of compost to a 5-gallon bucket of water and allowing it to steep for a few days. For larger quantities, add compost to a 55-gallon drum. Use the nutrient-rich tea to fertilize lawns, shrubs, perennials, containers,

hanging baskets, as well as annual vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Dilute the tea for younger plants.

Adding compost tea to raised beds, Juneau, Alaska. y y

Apply a 1 to 2-inch thick mulch around flowers, trees and shrubs in the spring to maintain soil moisture and discourage weed growth. Use compost as a growing medium for seedlings and potted plants. After screening out large particles, you'll need to pasteurize it before using it.

Paper napkins Freezer-burned vegetables Burlap coffee bags Pet hair Potash rock Post-it notes Freezer-burned fruit Wood chips Bee droppings Lint from behind refrigerator Hay Popcorn (unpopped, 'Old Maids,' too) Freezer-burned fish Old spices Pine needles Leaves Matches (paper or wood) Seaweed and kelp Hops Chicken manure Leather dust Old, dried up and faded herbs Bird cage cleanings Paper towels Brewery wastes Grass clippings Hoof and horn meal Molasses residue Potato peelings Unpaid bills Gin trash (wastes from cotton plants) Weeds Rabbit manure Hair clippings from the barber Stale bread

Coffee grounds Wood ashes Sawdust Tea bags and grounds Shredded newspapers Egg shells Cow manure Alfalfa Winter rye Grapefruit rinds Pea vines Houseplant trimmings Old pasta Grape wastes Garden soil Powdered/ground phosphate rock Corncobs (takes a long time to decompose) Jell-o (gelatin) Blood meal Winery wastes Spanish moss Limestone Fish meal Aquarium plants Beet wastes Sunday comics Harbor mud Felt waste Wheat straw Peat moss Kleenex tissues Milk (in small amounts) Soy milk Tree bark Starfish (dead ones!) Melted ice cream Flower petals Pumpkin seeds Q-tips (cotton swabs: cardboard, not plastic sticks) Expired flower arrangements Elmer's glue BBQ'd fish skin Bone meal Citrus wastes Stale potato chips Rhubarb stems Old leather gardening gloves Tobacco wastes Bird guano Hog manure Dried jellyfish Wheat bran Guinea pig cage cleanings Nut shells Cattail reeds Clover Granite dust

Moldy cheese Greensand Straw Shredded cardboard Dolomite lime Cover crops Quail eggs (OK, I needed a 'Q' word) Rapeseed meal Bat guano Fish scraps Tea bags (black and herbal) Apple cores Electric razor trimmings Kitchen wastes Outdated yogurt Toenail clippings Shrimp shells Crab shells Lobster shells Pie crust Leather wallets Onion skins Bagasse (sugar cane residue) Watermelon rinds Date pits Goat manure Olive pits Peanut shells Burned oatmeal (sorry, Mom) Lint from clothes dryer Bread crusts Cooked rice River mud Tofu (it's only soybeans, man!) Wine gone bad (what a waste!) Banana peels Fingernail and toenail clippings Chocolate cookies Wooden toothpicks Moss from last year's hanging baskets Stale breakfast cereal Pickles 'Dust bunnies' from under the bed Pencil shavings Wool socks Artichoke leaves Leather watch bands Fruit salad Tossed salad (now THERE's tossing it!) Brown paper bags Soggy Cheerios Theater tickets Lees from making wine Burned toast Feathers Animal fur Horse manure

Vacuum cleaner bag contents Coconut hull fiber Old or outdated seeds Macaroni and cheese Liquid from canned vegetables Liquid from canned fruit Old beer Wedding bouquets Greeting card envelopes Snow Dead bees and flies Horse hair Peanut butter sandwiches Dirt from soles of shoes, boots Fish bones Ivory soap scraps Spoiled canned fruits and vegetables Produce trimmings from grocery store Cardboard cereal boxes (shredded) Grocery receipts Urine (It's true! Read the letters below)

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