Starting Transplants for the Home Garden

Starting Transplants for the Home Garden

Winter is in full swing and home grown produce is probably not the first thing that comes to mind.  But it should be!  It’s time again to start thinking about spring vegetable gardening.  While a number of crops can be started by direct seeding in the soil, success rates are higher when plants are started indoors or in a covered structure.  In order to be successful, it’s important that you follow some simple steps.

Germinating watermelon seeds

Seedless watermelons planted in a 128-cell flat. Photo Credit: Gene McAvoy, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Hendry County

  • Transplant Trays/Flats – Trays are made from different materials such as plastic, polystyrene, and compostable materials.  Different cell sizes are also available.  Generally, smaller cells are used for smaller seeds and larger cells are used for larger seeds.  It’s important to think of the life cycle of the crop.  For example, lettuce and other leafy greens have much shorter life cycles compared to tomatoes.  Because of this, they have smaller root systems at transplant time and may not develop a good rootball in a large cell.  Therefore, lettuce would perform better in a smaller cell.
  • Media – It’s important that you choose a germination mix instead of a potting mix.  Definitely don’t use garden soil!  Germination mixes are typically a combination of finely ground peat, perlite, and other soiless substrates.
  • Seed – Purchase seed from a reputable source with a germination guarantee.  If you save seeds for future gardening, then store them in a cool, dry place.  Seed can be stored in the refrigerator.  However, do expect the germination rate of stored seeds to diminish over time.  Coated seed is recommended for smaller seeds to make seeding easier and more efficient.  Seeds should be planted in media at a depth of approximately 3 times the diameter of the seed.  Check the seed package for additional planting recommendations.  For more germination and storage information please see this publication from the University of Nebraska.
  • Fertilizer – Too much fertilizer can result in leggy and possibly burned plants.  A 20-10-10 (or similar ratio N-P-K) water-soluble product is generally used in commercial production.  Rates are dependent on crop, sunlight, and temperature.  The media should be kept moist, but not continually wet.
Kale transplants

Well-grown kale transplants ready for field planting. Photo Credit: Gene McAvoy, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Hendry County

Seeds can take up to 14 days to germinate depending on species and conditions.  Most transplants are ready for the garden by 6 to 8 weeks.  To improve success rate and accelerate production time, most farmers harden off their transplants before planting.  Hardening off is the process of stressing the transplants for about a week.  Generally, transplant trays are taken out of the greenhouse (or other transplant area such as a window sill) and set outside.  Watering frequency is reduced and fertilization is halted.  It’s important that the plants aren’t completely neglected, but just stressed enough to prepare them for the elements.  A good place to put the trays is under a tree in partial shade.  After this hardening off period, the transplants are ready for your garden.  Hopefully these tips will make you a more successful gardener!

Spice Up Your Salad with Unusual Leafy Greens

Spice Up Your Salad with Unusual Leafy Greens

Many Americans have a remarkably unrefined taste in salads; my brother has long counted himself in this group.    Dice up some crunchy Iceberg type lettuce, splash on a dollop of ranch dressing, maybe chop a leaf of romaine up if you’re feeling frisky and call it a salad, this is the way we’ve been trained to eat.  I’m here, a voice in the supermarket produce aisle wilderness calling, to tell you it’s time to open up your palate, look beyond lettuce, live a little, and add some spice to your life and salad bowl with three of my favorite easy to grow leafy greens:  Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion.

Mature Mizuna plants in the author’s container garden.

Before we get into species specifics, let’s cover a couple of reasons you should grow them at home!  Growing your own flavor-packed greens has many benefits.  First, leaves from these plants can be difficult to find anywhere but specialty health food stores or high-end supermarkets.  Growing your own ensures a consistent supply, especially if one utilizes the “cut and come again” harvesting method (just remove the leaves and stems you need that day, leave the crown intact and allow the plant to regrow for next week’s harvest).  Second, you do not have to worry about the too common food safety recalls and other health scares involving “leafies”.  If you follow standard safety practices (clean irrigation water, wash picked leaves and store properly, etc.), you’ll be eating scrumptious salads when everyone else is begrudgingly trashing entire bags of recalled store-bought greens.  Finally, each of these species double as gorgeous accent plants in

‘Scarlet Frills’ Mustard in the author’s container garden.

raised beds or containers.  I love plants that do heavy lifting as both eye-catching ornamentals and delicious edibles!

Mizuna is a little known member of the mustard family that is quickly becoming one of my favorite leafy greens!  It faces no major pest or disease problems in the garden and it is extremely tolerant of the cold weather Floridians periodically face through the winter, laughing off frost.  Mizuna possesses lovely, deeply cut, pale green, fringy leaves complete with crispy white stems, all of which are edible – no need to separate stems when processing to eat!  This lovely little Asian green has a mild peppery taste (think a toned-down Arugula) and adds perfect flavor and texture to any salad!

Many Southerners are well acquainted with traditional Mustard greens and their preparation (more than a little bacon and salt) but may not be aware of newer Mustard cultivars that give the species a bit of refinement and make it a salad celebrity!  This winter, I’m growing a cultivar of Mustard called ‘Scarlet Frills’ (aptly named with finely serrated burgundy-red leaves) and really enjoy its peppery horseradish taste as a foil to the mildly sweet taste of traditional salad greens like lettuce and spinach.  Mustards are extremely cold tolerant and slow to bolt, making it a mainstay in the salad garden all winter long; you really get your money’s worth from a few Mustard plants!  However, even if this leafy green wasn’t delicious, it would be worth growing.  The “fancier” Mustard cultivars are highly ornamental and deserve a spot in any cool season container garden.

‘Italiko Red’ Italian Dandelion in the author’s container garden.

Finally, the one that turns up the most noses when I mention growing and eating it, Italian Dandelion (Cichorium intybus)!  I’m not advocating foraging in your turfgrass to find dinner, in fact, Italian Dandelion is not a true dandelion (it’s actually a chicory).  However, it does share a number of features with its weedy cousin, including leaves that are similar in appearance and a vigorous taproot.  That’s where the comparisons stop though, as Italian dandelion is a superior garden plant, more upright growing, much larger, and deeper green (some varieties including the one I grow ‘Italiko Red’ have red veined leaves) than its wild cousin.  Unlike Mizuna and some of the milder mustards, Italian Dandelion is a bit of an acquired taste.  It imparts a strong bitter flavor that may be cut with milder greens in a salad or cooked down to reduce bitterness. Either way you try it, put Italian Dandelion on your cool season garden next year!

Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion all require similar growing conditions.  In Florida, leafy greens are cool season vegetables, growing through the fall, winter and spring months.  Seeds should be sown in late September and can be stagger-sown (plantings every couple of weeks) to ensure a steady supply through spring.  As a rule, they prefer rich, well-drained soil high in organic matter.  These soil conditions are achievable with either quality commercial potting mixes or homemade concoctions of compost and pine bark. The beds or containers you fill with the aforementioned soil should be sited near a good water source (plants that aren’t convenient to water get neglected, trust me) in an area that gets 6-8 hours of full sunlight.  I like to topdress at planting (if using transplants) or after germination (if using seed) with a good general purpose, slow-release fertilizer, many formulations and brands that work are widely available for purchase.  Finally, be sure to purchase seed from a quality source.  Online purveyors Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, and Sow True Seeds are good places to start, though the options are nearly endless!

Next year, when planning your cool season garden, remember to add a little spice with these three leafy greens, Mizuna, Frilly Mustard, and Italian Dandelion!  For more information about cool season gardening and other topics, consult your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.

Fatsia japonica Provides Gorgeous Winter Blooms

Fatsia japonica Provides Gorgeous Winter Blooms

Fatsia japonica, common name Japanese aralia, provides tropical texture to your landscape.  That coarse texture is attributed to its large (nearly a foot wide) leaves that are deeply lobed (maple leaf shaped).  This shade-loving plant performs well in moist (not soggy) locations.  Upright stems originate near ground level usually near the base of older stems.  The stems grow to about eight feet tall before bending toward the ground under their own weight.

Even though the foliage of this species is enough to make you want it in your own garden, you will absolutely fall in love with its blooms.  Upright clusters of showy, creamy white flowers begin to appear in fall.  These little snowballs provide wonderful color to your garden.  The shiny, black fruits appear in winter and are prominent for several weeks.  The fruit are know to attract birds to the landscape.

Fatsia japonica Blooming

A Fatsia japonica specimen in full bloom. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension

Fatsia japonica thrives in the shade in slightly acidic, nutrient-rich, moist soil.  Older stems become leggy and can be cut back to encourage branching.  In the right place, Fatsia japonica is low-maintenance and not typically bothered by pests.  It is also known to perform well in coastal landscapes.  It fits well in entryways, in containers, or in mass plantings spaced three feet apart.

 

Distorted Leaves Caused by Mites

One of my favorite native plants is winged sumac.  I like this plant not only for its ornamental beauty, but also for its fruit that can be dried and used as seasoning and to make tea.  So you can understand my concern when one of my prized winged sumac plants had distorted leaves.

Eriophyid mite damage on winged sumac

Eriophyid mite damage on winged sumac. Photo Credit: Matt Lollar, University of Florida/IFAS Extension – Santa Rosa County

After doing a little research and speaking with one of our UF/IFAS Specialists, I was able to determine that the leaf distortion was caused by eriophyid mites.  Mites are not insects and are more closely related to spiders.  They normally have four pairs of legs, however eriophyid mites only have two pairs of legs.  They are microscopic, elongate, spindle-shaped, and translucent.

Eriophyid Mite

An eriophyid mite. Photo Credit: USDA, Agricultural Research Service.

Eriophyid mites cause galls (sometimes called witch’s broom) on various species of ornamental shrubs.  Symptoms include early and late bud distortion, distorted leaves, and possibly plant death.  In fact, the species Phyllocoptes fructiphilus is the vector for the viral disease of roses called Rose Rosette Disease.  Sometimes the damage can be confused with herbicide damage.

Control options are currently being evaluated for eriophyid mites in the home landscape.  Removing distorted plant material and removing it from the site can help prevent the spread of mites.  If you suspect eriophyid mites are the cause of your distorted plants then samples should be collected.  To collect samples: 1) Prune off symptomatic plant material and immediately place into a vial with rubbing alcohol; 2) label with collection date, plant species, and location; 3) mail to the Landscape Entomology Lab in Gainesville at P.O. Box 110620, Gainesville, FL 32611.

For more information on eriophyid mites and the sampling process, please see the fact sheet “Unusual Galls on Woody Ornamentals” from Erin Harlow and Dr. Adam Dale.

For more information on other mites that could be infesting your landscape, please go to this link from the Mid-Florida Research and Education Center in Apopka, FL.

Overwhelmed by Weeds

Overwhelmed by Weeds

Just when you think your battle against weeds is over for the summer, cooler nighttime temperatures and shorter days spark the beginning of a new crop of your least favorite plants.  The question of many homeowners is how did all the weeds get to my landscape?

There are many ways that weeds make it to the landscape. They can be brought in with new soil, mulch, container plants, dropped by birds, delivered on the fur of animals, carried by wind, or on the deck of a lawn mower.  If that is not enough to depress you than also realize that regardless of outside sources of weeds, your landscape already has plenty onsite that you don’t even know about.

The deck of a lawn mower can collect plant debris, including seeds, that are spread through the landscape. Photo by Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County.

In the soil, there is a large number of weed seeds ready to germinate when the conditions are just right.   Understanding how your common landscape practices can encourage or discourage the germination of these seeds, can help you begin to manage some weed infestations.

Many of the seeds of common annual weeds are very small.  They require exposure to sunlight in addition to the proper temperatures and moisture to germinate.  Sunlight is critical though and seeds will not germinate without adequate sunlight.  If the small seeds are deep in the soil, you will probably never know they are there.  When you turn soil or disturb soil such as when installing plants, you bring the small seeds close to the surface and closer to light.  They can then be stimulated to germinate.  The next thing you know is that you have an area covered in weed seedlings.

What does this mean for your gardening practices?  Try your best to block sunlight from hitting exposed soil.  You can do this by keeping a healthy turf, free of thinning spaces.  A 2-3 inch layer of mulch in plant beds and vegetable gardens will reduce weed seed germination.  Finally when you are installing plants in an established bed, try not to mix soil with surrounding mulch.  Seeds will easily germinate within the mulch if it becomes mixed with soil.

It is inevitable that your landscape will have some weeds but a few easy gardening practices can reduce some of your weed frustrations.