Saturday, April 30, 2016

On Starting Seeds and Greenhouses

Another couple of rainy, windy, cold days here in Iowa, so I'm inside again, starting a few last seeds and thinking about the process and how I might improve it. The seedlings in the picture above are the petunias I experimented with growing from seed this winter.

I was feeling spendthrift and lazy just going to the nursery and buying flats of petunias and other annuals already started, so I decided to try starting some petunias from seed in mid-March to see how it went.

I have started seeds before and it's usually worked fairly well -- the vegetable seeds I've started for my husband have been quite easy, and I've also started biennials like wallflowers and perennials like the 150 dianthus that edge my four L-shaped pond garden beds (although those are started in late spring and potted up outside until they are planted out in late summer, so they are different than starting seeds indoors under lights in winter and spring).

I bought a soil blocker this spring and used it for the first time with these petunias, and it worked quite nicely. As you can see in the photo, the petunia plants are coming along fairly well, although I had problems with uneven germination and size of plants.

Petunias are not the easiest plants to start from seed and grow inside -- first, they require at least two months of growing in warm, bright conditions, during which many things can go wrong: damping off (I run a small fan nearby to keep the air moving gently), drying out if you forget to water them or go away for a few days, and probably numerous other maladies that can afflict them. And the seeds are quite tiny, so Burpee's (the ones I found locally, so I didn't have to pay for shipping) are pelletized for easier handling, which is fine with me, but that makes them more expensive, and only half of the 50 seeds (2 packets) that I bought germinated, which is disappointing.

I also have some sweet peas and dahlias started from seeds on the top shelf, as well as some freesias just coming up in the pot below. The lights plug into a timer on the wall, and a small fan is on the floor nearby.

To grow them in my basement, I use florescent lights and a heat mat under the flat, both of which cost money to operate (even independently of their purchase cost). I calculated that the 24 petunia plants that I have managed to grow to this point have cost me more than three times as much, per plant, as buying them already in flower from the the least expensive nursery near me:

Cost of 24 Petunia Plants:

$ 3.00    50 Seeds (2 packets @ $1.50 each, only 24 of which germinated)
$ 2.00    Seed Starting Soil
$ 6.50    Cost of running two 32W light bulbs for 14 hours/day for two months
$ 2.50    Cost of running heat mat for two months
$ 3.00    Cost of running small fan (for all seeds)

At the Amish nursery near me, a six-pack of petunias costs only $1.29, so 24 petunia plants costs $5.16, less than a third as much as it cost to raise them myself. Even if all 50 seeds had germinated, it still would have cost $17 for 50 plants, compared to $10.75 for 50 purchased plants, which would still be nearly twice as much. Hmmm!

Now, I know that not all plants take as long to start as petunias, and that there are other reasons to start plants from seeds besides saving money: only a limited selection of plants are available as starts locally, so if I want special varieties, I will have to grow them myself. Also, I'm serious about my hobby of gardening, and there's the argument that I really can't consider myself to be any sort of knowledgeable gardener if I don't know how to successfully propagate plants.

So I still want to be able to grow things from seeds, but I might have to re-evaluate how I do it. Much of the cost in my calculation comes from the long periods of running lights, which I would not have to do if I had a small greenhouse.

A Greenhouse?

Now, greenhouses are very common among British gardeners, who can hardly imagine gardening without one. But they're fairly uncommon here in the US, for several reasons: first, it gets MUCH colder here, so it costs a lot more more to heat a greenhouse in winter. (In England, many places hardly get below 20°F, compared to below 0°F here.) Also, it doesn't get as warm there -- in England, many gardeners grow tomatoes in greenhouses, because they just don't get enough heat to grow them outside. Here, a greenhouse is practically unusable in the hotter months (unless it is to sterilize soil).

Many British gardeners can hardly imagine gardening without one of these. (Hartley Botanic)

But this is more like what I'm eyeing: a 4'x8' lean-to style greenhouse.
(EarthCare Greenhouses)

I've been considering getting a small, relatively inexpensive greenhouse for several years now, but I wasn't sure where I would put it, until a few months ago a place occurred to me: The south side of my garage.

I had tried planting sunflowers and iris there to make it look less ugly, but I have realized that I should just consider it a "utility area" and use it as such. I removed most of the plants last week and will at least put a cold frame or two in this spot.

This area on the south side of my garage will never be pretty, with the gas tank, vinyl siding and tiny, ugly window. But it does get full sun and is relatively protected from wind, as well as being near electrical outlets inside the garage.

The eight-foot-long greenhouse would be just to the left of the gas tank, and the garage window could be replaced with a small insulated door, as the inside framing is already appropriate for that. Opening the garage greenhouse door on cold days would release less heat from inside the greenhouse than an exterior greenhouse door would.

I would probably only use the greenhouse in late fall, to protect tomatoes and herbs from frost, and in early spring, to start seeds. I could run a small portable heater on a thermostat in spring to keep the temperature above 50° or so. There would be a cost of heating the greenhouse (I have calculated using an online greenhouse heating calculator that during the months of March and April it would cost about $25/month to keep it at 50°), but the cost could be averaged over a number of flats being started at one time. Perhaps I wouldn't be able to start warm-season flowers and annuals in there until mid-spring, but cool-season annuals and vegetables would probably do well in there earlier in the year.

Of course, I can buy a hundred flats of petunias for the cost of a greenhouse, even the the inexpensive one I'm considering. Realistically, I will probably never justify the nearly $1,000 it will cost me to set up the greenhouse. But on the other hand, it might be fun to have one, and it might make me a more knowledgeable and experienced gardener (or it might just be a place to sit out of the wind on sunny, cold days, or just end up as a place to store pots, like so many gardeners' greenhouses end up...).

I'd like to ask readers, particularly ones gardening in cold climates, whether you have ever used a greenhouse successfully, and for any tips or recommendations on doing so (or not doing so, if you recommend against it).

Thanks for reading, and I hope your own seed-starting efforts are going well this spring! -Beth

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Real Work Begins


Greetings! It's been nearly three weeks since my last post, because I have been Busy with a capital "B". Busy in the gardens, which is what most gardeners are in springtime. But this year I'm even busier than usual, having started a massive amount of work in my garden areas, many of which are undergoing big changes.

However, today is rainy, extremely windy and cold, so I'm taking a break from working outside and can post an update. I don't even know where to start (please forgive the length of this post)....

I'm not sure if others feel an occasional panic when walking around their gardens, but I know I had one the other evening. Several of my borders have serious issues dealing with invasive plants that require the Nuclear Option: a total clearing out and Rounding-Up of the borders.

My Front Border, shown in the above photo one week ago, is one example: It has been taken over by the flagrantly-named Obedient Plant, which is anything but well-behaved. (I had the white variety for years without any issue, so I decided the pink kind, Physostegia 'Vivid', might look nice too -- and it did, but it's apparently a near-invasive cultivar, something that only now is noted on the plant tag, I noticed the other day in the plant store.)

Everything has to come out except the roses. Some plants I was able to move to other borders, but only ones with open root areas, so I could be certain that no Obedient Plant was tagging along. Many other plants had to be composted, so as to avoid being "penny wise and pound foolish."

And I thought the Obedient Plant looked so great in the Front Border that a year and a half ago I moved a couple clumps to the Pink Section of the Rainbow Border too -- great thinking! I've been re-designing the Rainbow Border to shorten the length and to mix up the colors more, but there are a couple of sections in it that also need the Nuclear Option:

Here's the Pink Section of the Rainbow Border in late May last year.

And how lovely it looks this year! This is the several days Post-Round-Up look. I was able to save a few of the desirable plants in here, either moving them or hand-clearing around them and flagging them as not to be sprayed by my husband. This area will need to be left empty for at least a year, to be sure that the OP doesn't return.

The former Green Section of the same border. I'd love to be able to plant things here too in my re-design of the border this spring, but the Artemisia 'Oriental Limelight' that I thought would look so pretty four years ago has spread. I'll have to lift the 'Spring Green' tulips and replant them somewhere else so my husband can spray here too. I don't think it's as pernicious as the OP, and I hope it might be safe to plant here later this year.

One more area that needs a total rejuvenation is the pond and pond gardens. First, last year the edge of the pond collapsed and we had to shore up the sides with a 6"x6" lumber frame, but now the liner is too small in the corners and leaks water there. So I ordered a new liner, which is sitting in my garage. I'll have to drain the pond, put the water lilies in a tank of water, remove the (very heavy) liner and replace it, and then re-level the edging stones -- all with the help of my long-suffering husband, because of the heavy nature of this work.

Then, the four L-shaped beds surrounding the pond will need the Nuclear Option: grass has been invading the Dianthus surrounding the edges for several years now, and it has gotten so bad that I can't even laboriously pull it out as I have done every spring for the past few years. So after the Dianthus are done blooming, I'll trim all ~150 of them back and move them to a holding area until next spring, along with the phlox. I'll dig out the declining tulips, but leave the boxwoods and roses in place, and we'll spray the grass, more than once if necessary. I'm thinking about installing metal edging around the pavers to try to keep out grass in future -- any recommendations for metal edging?


On a more positive note, the garden areas that I planned to change this year are progressing well.

First, I've moved nearly all the plants out of the old part of the North Border into the new curvy section in front of it. Then, the heavy infestation of creeping charlie will be sprayed (I assure you, we don't usually use this much Round-Up, but things are pretty desperate this year). I hope to be able to start planting the purchased evergreen trees and shrubs that are accumulating by the side of our house by the first week in May.

The North Border last May.

I know it doesn't look better right now, but this is actually coming along as I had hoped, with almost everything out of the back section, and the front section slowly filling up with perennials, with spots left for annuals later on. The back part will be planted with evergreen shrubs and trees and heavily mulched to discourage weeds.

Also, the new Iris Bed that I made adjoining the Peony Border is coming along nicely. I transplanted iris clumps from the North Border and other areas, plus I purchased several new varieties. I also moved many of the Asiatic Lilies from the North border for later summer flowers, and planted some poppy plants that I purchased, plus I'll move some alliums from the Purple Section of the rainbow Border that I'm reducing in size.

I hope that there will be a good late May show here next spring when the peonies bloom.

The new Iris Bed next to the already-existing Peony Border is coming along well.

Finally, I'll share a few photos of things that are actually flowering this year, so that this post isn't just dreary scenes of post-Nuclear-Option beds and half-constructed new planting areas:

Spring bulbs in front of the our addition. This has been a beautiful show this spring.

Orange tulips 'Ballerina' in the Orange Section of the Rainbow Border.

The Yellow Garden is starting to come alive with golden hues.

Grape hyacinths and 'Ollioules' tulips next to my east patio.

It's a lot of work, but I've been reading a book about Giverny, Monet's garden in France (Monet's Garden by Vivian Russell), and it makes me feel fortunate in my own garden work load to read about how much work the gardeners have to do there every single year (to spectacular effect, of course).

I hope spring in your gardens is filled with lots of beautiful color (and no invasive plants...). Thanks for reading! -Beth

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Early April Scenes

No, that's not my garden above (!), but a beautiful scene from the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where my family and I were lucky enough to visit last weekend, on a beautiful, warm, sunny day. The flowering trees were magnificently in bloom, the bulbs were flowering their little heads off, and everything was lushly green and growing.

St. Louis, about 250 miles south of us here in Iowa, is usually about two weeks ahead of us each spring, and this spring is no exception, even though spring has come relatively early this year in both locations. It was nice to see a preview of the flowers that will soon be blooming here (if not in such impressive quantities as in the MOBOT).

A scene from the MOBOT bulb garden. This was just one tiny corner of a huge area filled with
massive beds of flowering bulbs, spring perennials and annuals. It was lovely.

I have visited the MOBOT every spring (and at other times of the year too) for more than five years now, and every time I take away one main idea. Last spring it was "More bulbs!"

This year, it was "More scented plants!". I was really entranced by the many lovely scented flowers in the gardens: lilacs, hyacinths, and those of the many tender plants in their Linnean House (the oldest continuously operating display greenhouse in the United States), including jasmine, fragrant olive and numerous citrus. So I made a note to myself to try to plant more scented plants in my own gardens, and perhaps I can even grow some of the tender scented plants in the sunroom that I am hoping to build this year.

But back to Iowa. Here are a few scenes from my own modest plot. Things are just starting to get going this spring:

The border in front of our library. This south-facing border warms up earlier than almost
any other part of my gardens, so last year (inspired by my MOBOT visit) I planted a number
 of early-blooming bulbs here. Crocus and iris reticulata are done flowering, and miniature 
narcissus, grape hyacinths and Single Early tulips are flowering now. 
They seem to glow in the sunshine.

A closeup of the Single Early Tulips 'Flair'. These are supposed to be 14" in height, but I think they somehow became stunted,
as they are blooming on stubby, short stems. Has this ever happened to anyone else?

Some Libanotica Puschkinia or striped squill, with a leftover blue hyacinth on my West Terrace.

A 'Royal Star' magnolia. I don't think our recent light frosts have hurt the blooms on this small shrub that I planted in 2014.

A progress report on the new iris bed that I am making as part of the Peony Border: It will contain iris, alliums, poppies and perhaps some lupines, if they will take full sun here. I'm inspired by the magnificent May displays at Schreiner's Iris Gardens in Oregon, and I hope I can bring a little of that May magic to my modest Iowa gardens. I rented a sod cutter on Monday and removed the sod, loading it into our pickup truck and unloading it in one of our compost piles (hard, dirty work, but I hope the end result will be worth it!). I just have to dig in a thick layer of leaf compost and it will be good to go, and I can begin moving in divided irises and other perennials over the season, and planting bulbs in fall.

It's been cold and windy for the past few days, so I haven't been very motivated to work outside -- if I had to, I could, but it's still early in the season, and I garden for the enjoyment of it, so why not wait until sunnier, warmer days? (I guess I embrace being a fair-weather gardener....)

Hope you are enjoying some sunnier, warmer days in your own gardens. Thanks for reading! -Beth