Notes from Forest Gardening Workshop with Eric Toensmeier

On May 7th & 8th, I had the opportunity to attend a Forest Gardening workshop with one of my permaculture heroes, Eric Toensmeier, in West Chester, PA. There were so many awesome aspects to the weekend! To minimize driving, I took the train to Paoli, had a beautiful 10 mile bike ride to the workshop location, and met and stayed with some awesome folks through couchsurfing!

The workshop took place at the home of  sustainability educators Alan Wright & Paula Kline, who had hired permaculture designer Aaron Guman to work his permie magic on their property. We spent some time discussing the clients’ needs and Aaron’s design concepts before helping to install some perennial plantings (above).

Mollie Caitlin Brigid communing with cultivated King Stropharia

Special guest lectures included a whip-and-tongue grafting demonstration with Backyard Fruit Growers founder Chris Manning, and mushroom cultivation tutorials with Jared Urchek. Jared came out from Boulder, CO and discussed mushroom life cycles, varieties, and inoculation techniques with woodchips, straw, and logs.

We also broke off into groups to do site assessments throughout the property, later designing polyculture systems for different patches. Here are some general notes taken during the workshop:

Edible Forest Garden (EFG): Edible ecosystem modeled on the forest; perennial & low maintenance, providing ecosystem services & useful products.

By optimizing impact on land, we can work with its desire to become forest. Diverse polycultures minimize pest problems, and can achieve higher yields than annual cultures.

Utilizing Multipurpose Plants

Direct uses:

Edibles:
nuts, seeds, beans, fruits, flowers & flowerbuds, roots, tubers, leaves, shoots, tea & culinary

Other:
firewood, medicine, craft material, income, livestock fodder, honey, cut flowers, charcoal, mushrooms, seed & nursery stock, silkworms

Indirect uses:
Nitrogen fixing plants
insect nectary plants
habitat
mulch
groundcovers
decomposers (i.e. edible mushrooms)

Imitation

Architecture: layers, soil horizon, density, patterns, diversity

Social structure: niches, guilds, communities

Succession: patches, disturbance, non-linear evolution (mimic mid-succession)

Best Forest Gardening Species (N-fix means this species fixes nitrogen):

Tall Trees

walnut/ butternut/ heartnut
pecans/ hickories
oaks
nut pines
black locust (N-fix)
Japanese pagoda tree (N-fix)

Medium Trees

Chinese Chestnut
persimmon
paw-paw
mulberry
mimosa (N-fix)
alder (N-fix)

Small Trees & Shrubs

pears/ Asian pears
sea buckthorn (N-fix)
mayhaw
hazelnuts
native plums
bamboo
Amur Maackia (N-fix)

Shrubs

Amelanchier (serviceberry, juneberry, etc)
fig
Nanking cherry
goumi
bayberry
elderberry (native insectary)
highbush cranberry (viburnum)
Florida star anise
Ribes (currants, gooseberries, jostaberries)
running juneberry
blueberry
raspberry/ blackberry
New Jersey tea (N-fix)
Amorpha (false) Indigo (N-fix)

Vines

grape (fox & muscadine)
kiwi (hardy & arctic)
groundnut (N-fix)
hog peanut (N-fix)
Chinese yam
Hablitzia (climbing spinach)
maypop (native passionflower)

Herbs

jerusalem artichokes
rhubarb
fuki
Turkish rocket
taro
ostrich fern
comfrey
asparagus
giant solomon’s seal
nettle/ wood nettle
baptisia (N-fix)
thermopsis (N-fix)
sea kale
good King Henry
native perennial ground cherry
sweet cicely (insectary)
skirret
mayapple
large-flowered comfrey
ramps
sylvetta arugula
coreopsis (insectary)
Asclepias verticillata (whorled milkweed, insectary)
sorrel
Astragalus glycyphyllos (wild licorice, N-fix)
Chinese artichoke
water celery (insectary)
camas/ quamash (wild hyacinth)

Ground Covers

alpine strawberry
strawberry
foamflower (insectary)
wild ginger
toothwart
violets
prostrate birdsfoot trefoil (N-fix)
green & gold (insectary)
white clover
Waldesteinia (barren strawberry, inedible)
wild geranium (insectary)
fungi

Tomato Season: Recipes for Making the Most of It

It’s no wonder they’re the most popular vegetable in the home garden – nothing beats a fresh tomato. But how do you make the most of them when they’re coming in full force? Here’s how we’ve been using ours:

Caprese Sandwiches

This is an easy appetizer or a casual, build-your-own meal for guests. Just slice some hearty artisan bread, & top with tomato, basil leaves, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Fresh mozzarella is optional.

Lunaria Farm Salsa

Essentials:
2 lbs tomatoes (any type will do), diced
1/2 – 1 onion, finely chopped
1  jalepeno or other hot pepper, very finely chopped
juice of 1 lime or 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp salt
Extras:
1 bell pepper, finely chopped
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, minced
tomatillos, husked & diced

Combine all ingredients, toss, and, ideally, let sit for an hour before serving to allow flavors to develop. Save the remaining juices to use as a base for sauce, marinade, or salad dressing.

Clove-spiced Ketchup/ BBQ Sauce

This recipe was inspired by Aunt Janet at High Oak Farm in Humboldt county, CA. There we picked wheelbarrows full of paste tomatoes, which she transformed into delicious, clove-spiced ketchup – a most excellent pairing with her homemade meatloaf.

3 lbs paste tomatoes
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar (or substitute with white sugar plus some molasses)
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp onion powder
1/8 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt to taste
pinch cayenne to taste

If desired, remove skins and seeds from tomatoes. Blend in food processor or blender. Cook down on stovetop for a couple of hours until thick and almost paste-like. Stir in remaining ingredients. Will keep in refrigerator for several weeks.

Freeze Now, Sauce Later

Slaving over a hot stove on a 90 degree day? Doesn’t sound very enjoyable to us, either. Last fall, we worked at Dandelion Farm, which runs entirely on solar power. Being conscientious about energy use, we would sometimes let sauces simmer down on the woodstove all night, since it was already heating the house. That gave us an idea – why not freeze tomatoes during the steamy summer, then boil them down when we need to warm up the house anyway?

You may want to blanch the tomatoes to remove the skins, but supposedly they can come off easily with warm water once frozen, so we’ve been freezing them skins and all.

How have you been using your tomatoes?

The Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, & Squash

Corn, beans, and squash effectively comprise the collective staff of life of the New World. These crops were so important and complemented each other so well, that they were known as “The Three Sisters,” with many legends celebrating their sustaining virtues.

A Hokkaido Stella Blue squash grown on a fence.

We try to do these New World native plants justice here at Lunaria, but none more than the winter squash, with whom we have a tasty love affair. I personally got so excited about them that I planted a few seeds on March 1, far before any sane gardener would think about squash. These tender crops are typically direct sown outdoors once the soil has thoroughly warmed up; they don’t like being transplanted. Well, ours were potted up and most were kept alive in sunny windows until last frost, and now they’re threatening to take down the fence of “Gary’s Garden” (named after the groundhog that kept infiltrating its perimeter). We have some ripening sugar pumpkins and stella blue hokkaidos that we expect to be ready in a few weeks. This should perfectly fulfill my intense craving for curried tomato-squash dishes.

Another one of our many experiments this year is corn. I’d always thought it somewhat inefficient, as it takes up a good amount of space relative to its cropping. Then, during my residence at Women’s Studio Workshop, I learned that the husks and stalks can be used to make a gorgeous, pale golden-green paper. Well that was enough to convince me to go ahead and try it. We planted 3 successions to stagger the ripening times, including a succession of transplanted corn. This is another crop that dislikes root disturbance, but we take the word of Elliot Coleman quite seriously, and decided to try it. We were elated with the results, as not a single transplant was lost, and they’re all still going strong.

Our Hooker's sweet corn planting in early July. The upper row was seeded a week earlier, transplanted, then mulched with grass clippings.

With most of our meals being vegetarian, we tend to eat a lot of beans – dry beans, that is. We can’t imagine a world without black bean quesadillas, chickpea hummus, or pinto bean chili. But when it comes to green beans… meh. Most gardeners think we’re crazy – “You don’t like green beans??!” – but we think we’re being quite rational. Besides not appealing to our particular palates, beans will always be produced at a loss for the small farmer. They are tedious to harvest, and they must be picked every day, yet they must be sold at rock-bottom prices to compete with industrial farms. Even our so-loved dry beans are uneconomical to dry, harvest, and shell, when organic dry beans are so readily available now. The main advantage of growing beans is their special characteristic of being nitrogen fixers. The legume family, including beans as well as peas, clover, peanuts, indigo, and lentils, capture the nitrogen from the air and “fix” it in the soil, making this essential nutrient available to other plants.

The Three Sisters planting in early July.

So this year’s garden includes a small amount of beans, a good stand of corn, and hopefully a year’s supply of squash. We’re really excited about a certain portion planted in the traditional, Native American, Three Sisters formation. We chose to plant heirloom varieties that would all be ready to harvest in autumn: blue dent maize for cornmeal, drought-tolerant tepary beans, and several varieties of cucurbits, including pumpkins, winter squash, and moon & stars watermelons.

Lee arranging cardboard around The Three Sisters to thwart weeds until the squash vines fill out. (Photo by Theresa Boles)

Corn is wind-pollinated, its tassels releasing their magic dust to the air to settle on the ear silks below. This fact of life prompts a break from the modern American row system – to ensure that each kernel develops (they are seeds, remember), the corn must be planted in blocks, or in this case, mounds. The first mounds, which are 18 inches across, staggered about 5 feet apart, and amended with aged horse manure, are each planted with 4 corn seeds. Then, when the corn germinates and reaches a height of 4-6 inches, a pole bean seed is planted in the same mound, 3 inches away from each corn seedling. In between the corn and beans, we create squash mounds of the same size, with 3 seeds planted in each.

The effect, once everything grows in, is a mutually-beneficial companion planting. The corn provides something on which the beans can climb. The beans fix nitrogen to provide nutrients to the other crops. The squash sprawls along the ground, suppressing weeds and providing a living mulch to retain soil moisture, while its prickly vines help deter hungry critters. And, come harvest, the delicious crops complement each other nutritionally. It’s hardly surprising that these crops were considered to be special gifts from the Creator. All of this botanical, gastronomic, and divine harmony kind of makes you want to enjoy some succotash while you plan your own Three Sisters garden for next year, doesn’t it?

What’s Pickin’ in the Heat of July

Here’s just a glimpse of what’s pickin’ at Lunaria right now, where change is the only constant. The delicious snap peas that started so early are finally winding down in this hot, dry start to summer. The broccoli are plumping out the last of the main florets or sending out their rays of side shoots. We’re starting to get a handful of tomatoes every day, mostly Romas and cherries with the heirlooms not far behind. With the June strawberry season long gone, we’ve stopped pinching the flowers on our first year everbearing varieties so they can focus on fruiting. We planted a few zucchinis only to be met with just as many volunteers, and so starts the season of squash at every meal. The herbs are coming full force; loads of basil, cilantro, chives, parsley, dill infusing the kitchen. Although one of our hens recently molted for 2 weeks (thereby creating feathers instead of eggs), they’re all laying spectacularly once again. and And our standby greens – the kale, chard, lettuce, cabbages – are chugging away through the heat of summer, obliging us with leaves for the taking.

That’s what’s picking, but there’s so much more just focusing on vegetative growth, sending out new stems and leaves and vines every day. Check out what some of the gardens are looking like lately:

The eastern half of the Helen Nast Memorial garden: zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, winter squash, and more.
The sorry-looking slips that arrived in the mail are beginning to look like lush, promising, sweet potato vines.
The mystery brassicas that we thought were broccoli, then maybe cabbage, have revealed themselves as brussels sprouts, to which we say "Yum!"
Our attempt at a sun-trap garden on the shady property: melons & cucumbers on the fence, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, peppers, & ground cherries, undersown with radishes & lettuce.
We've had the delight of bringing in a few of these yellow straightneck "siamese squash."

Organic Garden Workshop/ Work Party: 6/12/10

It’s our first workshop in Pennsylvania! And what better way to kick off the curriculum than with an organic garden work party! Come learn how to turn your lawn into an thriving, abundant, edible paradise!

Lee has designed a simple raised bed vegetable garden for a woman who was interested in growing her own food. We will be erecting an 8 foot deer fence, as well as a skirt extension to keep groundhogs out, assembling a raised bed, filling it with soil, and planting lots of veggies!

Come learn about organic gardening, lend a hand, eat some food (lunch will be provided at 1:00), bring an instrument, and have fun!

Please RSVP on the Facebook event or email if you’ll be joining us.

Saturday, June 12, 2010, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM

@ Dorothy’s House, 1751 East Saw Mill Road, Quakertown, PA map

UPDATE 6/23: Photos!

Before the workday, Lee dropped off the soil on site
The wood was cut to size to create a 3' x 15' box, secured with L-brackets.
We lined the bottom with uncoated cardboard to suppress any grass or weeds.
The box was filled with soil.
Our helpers arrived and began working on the fence while we raked the soil level.
To deter groundhogs, we made a skirt around the perimeter out of a 4' roll of 1"x4" welded wire.
Deer netting was installed overhead and around the perimeter.
We planted seeds and transplants and watered them in.
The final garden, ready to thwart critters and feed a family!

Transplanting Time: The Move Outdoors

Great news! Our little corner of Upper Bucks County seems to be beyond the reach of frosty nights until fall. That’s right, our last expected frost date is May 15 around these parts. I might have just jinxed it, but we gotta talk transplanting.

So hopefully all of you have followed the directions in our first post, and now your windowsills and newly-built coldframes are full of little tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, basil, and all those other yummies that would quickly perish in cold weather. If they have at least one set of true leaves, the seedlings are ready for the next stage of life. Here’s what to do with them:

Hardening off seedlings on the porch

Step 1: Hardening Off

If they’ve been started indoors, those seedlings have led a very sheltered life thus far. They’ve never felt a northwestern wind, a driving rain, or the full force of a sunny day. Experiencing all of these new sensations can sometimes be quite a shock. Take care of your young ones and ease them into the elements. You can start indoors by opening the windows or putting a gentle fan on them or even jiggling the table they’re on. This kind of movement will encourage the seedlings to grow the sturdy stems necessary for life in the great outdoors.

A warm, cloudy day is the best time to expose them to the outside world. Place them in the shade, where they’ll be sheltered from strong winds. This first day they should only be out for a few hours. Gradually, over the course of a week, the length of time they’re left outside, as well as their exposure to full sunlight, is increased, until they are macho enough to be out day and night. After acclimating to nighttime temps, they should be ready to go in the ground.

Step 2: Transplanting

So hopefully while the little guys have been hardening off, you’ve been thinking up the best spot for them to live and prepared a bed for them. Depending on the plants’ needs, that might mean loosening the soil or mixing in organic matter, so the roots can start growing deep and strong as soon as they’re put in the ground. To avoid baking your tender transplants, choose a cloudy day or evening. We like to go on transplanting binges before rain, so the roots can get watered in nice and deep.

Hold like so, & tap the pot until the root ball releases

When you’ve figured out the best spot and spacing for the plant, cut a hole with a trowel into the soil, carefully release the seedling from the container, and place it into the earth, disturbing the roots as little as possible. It is well known that tomatoes can be transplanted deeper than the original soil line – they will send out roots at any point on their stem. Some research has shown that peppers and brassicas (cabbage family) can be planted a little deeper, but if in doubt, transplant to the original soil line. Fill in any gaps in the hole and pat the dirt around the roots, making sure the plant isn’t sunken below, or mounded above the soil level. Then, water your transplants deeply, promoting good contact between the roots and soil.

Step 3: Tending the Transplants

Keep your transplants well-watered for the first week or so. This will buffer them against shock and guard against withering in the hot sun. Some plants, like sweet potatoes, benefit greatly from some protection from direct sun at first. One trick is to cut the bottoms off of plastic pots and put them over  the plants for a few days. Let the transplants focus on root development for a couple of weeks before adding any manure or other nitrogenous fertilizer. Then just keep an eye on the weeds and water occasionally, and wait for the harvest!

Red Express cabbages in the great outdoors

Poultry Care: Figuring It Out as We Go Along

It seems lately, that each time I go for a trip, I come back feeling an increasing urgency to keep up with the demands of spring. It’s not a stressful kind of urgency, but the voice of a season that says in each breath, “Look alive.”

This time the excursion was to Brooklyn, to visit foodie Daniel Delaney, artists Brandon CoxJennifer Grimyser, and the sustainable butcher shop The Meat Hook. I came back to find the ducklings about twice as big as when I left them, excitedly trampling the chicks as they raced between the food and water dishes to maintain a constant grain slurry in their bills and all over the bedding and the other birds. The chicks, with their more reasonable growth rate but innate sense of pecking order, preferred not to eat out of the provided containers, but to chase the ducks around trying to peck the food off of their sloppy bills. Sixteen birds in one box meant the shredded paper bedding needed to be changed twice a day and they couldn’t make it through the night without drinking the water dry. This had to stop.

The next day we went to the feed store and bought a mason jar feeder and waterer and some straw bales. We got another box set up and moved the chicks to a home with higher walls so they could practice flying safely. We figured the ducks should get the new, deeper waterer so that they could submerge their bills. An hour later we realized that this allowed them to spill most of the water they were drinking, putting almost a whole quart onto the floor of their cardboard box. Oops. But the straw is working out quite well. It doesn’t get as compacted or soiled as the shredded paper, and is better for the compost pile. And it’s probably safer for the ducks to eat, although they will munch on both (have you figured out that ducklings are a handful?).

For the past few days it’s been rainy, which keeps us from focusing on most farm tasks. Today’s precipitation let up enough for us to address some wanting farm tasks. Since their move, we had been ignoring the state of the duckling’s cardboard box, but this morning it was definitely leaking and reeking, no doubt about it. The results of our emergency meeting concluded that a purchase of a huge plastic storage container was in order. The swell and smell are solved, and now, instead of having to scoop out their nasty bedding, we can just dump the contents into the compost.

Next on the agenda was dealing with our laying hens’ lice problem. We got our hens as adults with clipped beaks. They do this at some commercial hatcheries to prevent chickens from pecking each other when they’re kept in those inhumane and stressful factory farm conditions. However, clipped beaks also prevent them from effectively cleaning themselves, and as a result, our chickens are being plagued by poultry lice. These parasites are host specific and can not be transferred to humans. But they seem to be irritating and can potentially spread to our young chicks and ducks, so we’ve made it a priority to get rid of them. Our research shows that it may be impossible to do without Monsanto-made poisons. So far we’ve tried dusting with diatomaceous earth and today, spraying with orange oil. We applied it to one hen today, and noticed that hundreds of lice began crawling away from the skin only to be met by the inaccurate, blunt pecks of her sisters. It’s nice that they try to clean each other, but they’re not very good at it. After spraying that one chicken, she seemed so damp and grumpy that we decided not to soak the rest until a sunnier day when they could dry themselves properly.

By lunchtime I was feeling like I’d had enough of dealing with dirty birds, but then we had our latest version of the egg sandwich – Happy Farm duck eggs on whole wheat sourdough with steamed garden greens and feta cheese. Biting into a bright orange, perfectly runny yolk is a certain kind of  bliss, the taste of which forbidding you to enjoy another lifeless, factory farm egg ever again. This winter in Austin, I got so hooked on these “yard egg sambos” that I found I didn’t feel quite right if I didn’t have one in the morning. Four months later and I’ve hardly skipped a day. I’m not sure if you’d call it an addiction or a passion, but in either case this is precisely when I realize it’s all worth it.

How to Build the Easiest Cold Frame Ever

A cold frame is kind of like a mini greenhouse, protecting tender plants from frost so you can harvest salad through the winter or get a head start on summer crops. Plants grown in a cold frame will be stronger than those started indoors; a day with the glass removed is enough to harden them off before transplanting. We’ve discovered that cold frames can also give protection from hungry deer and chickens!

Lee started building these easy cold frames when we were living in Austin, and he’s been banging them out ever since. It basically consists of finding a window, building a box to fit it, and sloping the whole thing toward the south.

Things you’ll need:

– An old window, a scrap pane of glass, or a piece of corrugated roof plastic. Anything that is at least 2′ x 3′ or so and will let light through

– 4 pieces of lumber, about 2×10″, 2 pieces cut to same length as the glass, 2 pieces cut to the width minus 4″

– 4 pieces of 1×1″ lumber, cut to the same width as the larger lumber or a little smaller

– Some nails or screws

1. Arrange your 2x10s to form a box, the shorter pieces set inside the longer. It’s okay if its smaller than the glass, which will just rest on top and can have an overhang. If the height of all the pieces is a little off, just make sure their tops edges line up on one side. Then the glass can rest flat and the plants will have more protection from the cold. Put a few screws in the corners to brace it.

2. Place the 1x1s vertically in the corners to further reinforce the box and keep it square. Make sure they don’t stick out past the top and put some more screws in there.

3. Decide where you’re cold frame will live. It can fit over a garden bed which you plant directly into, like one above, or sit on an unused part of the yard and protect potted things, as below. Either way, the location should receive a good amount of sunlight each day, and be sloped toward the south (or the north if you’re below the equator). This doesn’t mean the ground already needs to be graded that way, although that would be cool. We just dig a little dirt from the south side and mound it in the back to give us a slope.

4. Put your plants inside the box, and the piece of glass on top.

Viola! Didn’t we say it was easy? The hardest part is remembering that those little plants in there still need air. Try to open the cold frame up at least a little every day. We crack the glass by propping it up with a rock, or more so with a stick prop. Most days, though, we just take the whole thing off during the warm hours.

This can get a lot fancier. Try adding hinges to the glass, angled sides, mitered corners… or just get bigger. Show us some of your cold frames!

Chicken Tractor, version 1.0

Here’s our new chicken tractor, housing 5 happy hens, built with scrap wood and chicken wire. It’s 4′ x 8′ with a 1′ skirt all around to keep digging predators out. It has 2 nesting boxes above (they ended up only laying in one of them), with perching bars and food and water access below.

Even though we move it every day or so, there are many advantages of a chicken tractor over a stationary coop. We don’t have to let them out early in the morning or close them up at night (we get to take vacations!), or clean out a coop, and they mow the lawn. Plus we’ve been letting them scratch at our future garden beds, eating the grass, aerating the soil, and fertilizing with their poops. It’s the portrait of mutual benefit!

Some things we’ll change for chicken tractor 2.0: designing it as a 45-45-90 degree triangle (less complicated cuts), using lighter material for construction (all that wood makes it a 2-person moving job), and giving the chickens more protection from rain.

For further inspiration, check out this city chicken page with over 170 pictures of different people’s takes on the chicken tractor idea.

Seeding Time: Sowing Indoors

Seed starting is one of my favorite farm tasks. Watching a tiny seed germinate, leaf out, and flourish in the garden is quite magical. We sometimes buy starts if we just want one or two of a common plant, but for a staggering selection of varieties, and to have enough to share with friends, sowing your own seeds is key. Here’s how we do it.

Step 1: Right Plant, Right Time

Different plants need different growing conditions, and therefore should be sown at different times. Some seeds, like corn, are best direct sown in the ground outside. But many things can be started inside, while it’s still snowing, to get a head start on the harvest. Seed packets will tell you what’s best for each variety, based on your last frost date. If you’re planting more than a few things, or you want to sow every few weeks for a successive harvest, try to create a seeding schedule to keep everything on track.

Step 2: Gather Your Supplies

Here at Lunaria, we like to keep it sustainable… and cheap. That means we try to find resuse old items instead of buying new things. Of course, you can buy all of these things at any garden store.

Containers: There are many different options for containers, from plastic pots to egg cartons to beer cups from last night’s kegger, even soil blocks that use no container at all. What ever you use, just make sure it has some drainage holes in the bottom. If water can’t drain, your beautiful plant roots will drown and the seedling will quickly perish.

Soil Mix: Some gardeners swear by a sterile, soilless mix of peat moss and vermiculite, while others wouldn’t use anything but rich compost. After experimenting with different mixes this year, I’m personally a partial to a balanced native soil. If you don’t feel like guessing, you can buy a bag of potting mix and relax.

Watering Trays: You’ll want to do much of your watering from below to prevent the dreaded “damping off” (more about that soon). We use old baking sheets and plastic bins, but anything that can hold your pots and water will do the trick. Soil will wick water up through capillary action, but you can also use a capillary mat with one side under your pots and the other end in a container of water. They sell fancy ones at stores but you can use any scrap of natural fabric, like a towel, jeans, wool felt, or blanket.

Light Source: We’re making do with a south-facing window because they’re located in the kitchen where we often have the light on at night and on cloudy days. But ideally your seedlings should have more light than that. Without enough light, plants become leggy – thin, spindly, struggling things. Give your plants a good start and offer plenty of light for at least 12 hours per day. They don’t need special grow lights, any florescent or incandescent bulb covering a wide area will do. Make sure you don’t burn your plants with a light placed too close; you can raise it as the plants grow.

Seeds: There are endless sources for seed out there, and seed patent technology is a lucrative business, indeed. Many commercial seed companies sell F1 hybrids, which take advantage of “hybrid vigor” to be unfailingly productive and uniform, but will not breed true if you try to save seeds. Saving seeds from patented varieties may also be illegal! If you want to collect seeds from plants that will carry on genes specific to your growing conditions, make sure you select open pollinated varieties. All heirloom varieties are open pollinated, as they were selected and bred for flavor and regional uniqueness instead of uniformity and shipability. Seed Savers Exchange was founded to save endangered varieties from extinction. Selecting organic seed will ensure that your seeds are not genetically modified. Try to choose a local company, because your seeds are more likely to be adapted to your growing region. The only thing better than buying local is trading with fellow gardeners! Mail your friends packets and give handfuls to neighbors. When you save your own, there’s always some to share.

Plant tags: My all-time favorite tagging method is a popsicle stick with the variety name and sowing date written in Sharpie. Whatever you use, make sure it can stand up to being wet.

Step 3: Sowing

Put the soil mix is in the pots within a half inch of the top, tamp down slightly, and water (overhead watering is fine). Figure out how deep the seed needs to be planted. It will say on the packet, but, as a rule, 2 – 3 times the width of the seed is good. Put a dimple in the soil to that depth, and drop your seeds in. Some gardeners sow a few seeds in each hole and thin to the strongest seedling. I personally think that wastes a lot of seed so I plant one seed to each pot, but plant more many pots than I need, and just remove the ones that haven’t germinated after a while. Inevitably, some seedlings won’t make it, and its nice to have extras for gifts, so make sure to oversow. Once your seed is in there, cover it up with a little bit of soil, and tamp it down a little. Soil contact is important for good germination, but you don’t want to compress the soil. Tag your seed so you know what’s what, and relax for a little while. Most seeds don’t need light to germinate, and although warm conditions can speed germination, we keep our seeds at room temperature.

Step 4: Tend your sprouts

Hopefully you’ve been keeping your seeds well-watered, and if conditions are right, within a week or so you should see little sprouts with a set of cotyledons, their baby leaves. Congratulations! But once you see them germinate, lay off the H2O a little and make sure they receive good ventilation. Maintaining drier conditions is the best defense against damping off, a general fungal rot that is the biggest killer of seedlings. Keeping the soil line way at the top of your container is one way to promote good airflow, in addition to turning a fan on or opening the windows. That little bit of wind will strengthen your little sprouts’ stems, and prepare them for the outside world. Water from the bottom now that they’ve come up, until the soil is moist, not wet. Let them dry out a bit between waterings, and sit back and watch your babies grow.

Seedlings have all the food they need for a little while, so there’s no need to give them extra nutrients. Fertilizing this young can harm your plants. But once you see true leaves, your seedlings are in active phosynthesizing mode. Now it’s okay to give them compost or other fertilizer high in nitrogen or potassium to promote healthy leaf and root growth. It’s also safe to move them, either into a bigger pot, the cold frame, or outside in the garden.

We’ll have another post on transplanting soon. Until then, you can check out Hudson Valley Seed Library’s blog. They have a great 6-part series called Seed Starting 101.