Tag Archives: vegetable gardening

Beginner Gardeners: Walking You Through What You Need To Know

The Specter Of Drought

Spring is on the way! It’s already almost a month past our normal last freeze down here in Texas but thanks to this year’s unusually cold weather we’re only about two weeks into the season. This year I thought I’d get back to basics and start publishing pieces of my gardening advice from my page: Gardening Basics. For the novice gardener: read on and stay tuned! This is pretty much everything you need to know to grow a successful garden.

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So, take a walk with me through what every gardener can use in their tool belt: a great source for general gardening information! Good luck this season and go get your hands dirty!!!

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Gardening Basics:

Have you ever wondered what sets seasoned gardeners (the ones that have the photo perfect gardens and never seem to lose a plant) and new gardeners (people who seem to kill everything they touch) apart? Three main things: For one, what you think is going on in those perfect gardens is usually an illusion. It is a gardener’s photographic slight of hand. Not many people who garden will post photos of their failures, mid-season ratty plants and weak or neglected rows of corn. They certainly can’t sell books about it. They probably don’t live where you do, they have decades of amended soil, and are not running after kids in diapers (they also probably don’t have a full time outside job), grow only what does well for them and have a lot of years photographing (at just the right time) to look like they are gardening Gods. In the real gardening world we all experience failure, seasoned gardeners included. Part of what you learn as you accumulate experience is that there is no perfect garden, no perfect year, no one person who knows it all. Four years ago I traded living in a dry short season with zero insects, for a nearly year round season with more insects than I can identify without a degree in Entomology. Success is relative and so was my gardening knowledge. One of the things I truly love about gardening is: that I never get to “the end”. I’m always learning and my experience puts my failures into perspective. It is true, that with experience, you will learn to garden more effectively and your successes will begin to outpace your disasters. It takes a lifetime to learn to garden. That puts all of us on the same level at some point in our gardening careers and makes gardeners and plant people an incredibly inclusive group.

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The second part of this is real world experience. When I first started out: I pushed my growing zone; I planted things people said I couldn’t grow; and I defiantly told mother nature she couldn’t put limits on me. I actually encourage trying this (at least, if only, once!). You will learn what the difference is fairly quickly. Your choices are: having a large scale garden that you tend or, a small scale defiance garden that you have to put a million times more effort into. It helped me learn to respect what I was given. I learned to work closely with what nature would encourage rather than trying to impose my limited human thinking with it’s arbitrary rules and goals. I began to see why America’s farmland works so differently than a backyard garden. Organic growing conditions are achievable (if it’s your goal) but it is incredibly labor intensive and impossible on the scale my grandfather farmed: with multiple acres of wheat or corn. You will learn to really enjoy the grocery store as the back up to your crop failures (rather than the old standard of starving). At least, that’s how I see it. So, you can look up reams of information on the internet, read a library full of books and talk ‘one on one’ with a thousand Master Gardeners but you will still learn the most getting out into your own garden and getting dirty.

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Having said that, those of us that have been doing this for a while also know some pretty important basic pieces of information. The following list is essential to learn BEFORE you go out into your garden, BEFORE you buy your plants or order your seed. Learn what you need to know to successfully grow:

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Know your zone. Your USDA zone can be found using your zip code at: http://www.garden.org/zipzone/ This wonderful site not only offers zone information but will also list links under your zone like: View your regional report, Find public gardens in your zip code, Find plants in your zone and Find events in your zip code.

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Know your chill hours (If you are in warm winter areas, pay heed to your chill hour range!) Planting a fruit with a chill hour need that is too high for your region will mean your plant will not come out of dormancy at the right time and fruit for you, even if the tree itself is healthy. Too low of a chill requirement and your tree will break dormancy, flower and freeze back before your winter is over and you will not get fruit. Growing fruit in the South depends on working with your chill hours. If you are in the South: do not order a fruit tree if you cannot find its chill hour information. A lot of people use a map by raintreenursery.com (I like this nursery a lot and they sell nice plants) but it is incorrect for Texas. The best chill hour map I have seen for the South is here:  http://plant-shed.com/planting-fruit-trees-in-north-texas/ The best sources are your local county extension office and nurserymen. My favorite southern nursery is: http://www.justfruitsandexotics.com/JFE/ Absolutely fantastic plants but again: they cater to the very southern US regions. I have purchased fruiting trees and plants from http://www.raintreenursery.com/ for several years. I recommend them as well, and they sell fruits for the rest of the country.

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Know your season length and first and last frosts. If you have a short season, you won’t be able to grow long season vegetables without turning it into a defiance garden, and you still may be unsuccessful. Also, if your average last frost is a month away but you’ve got great temperatures now, you will want to wait to avoid losing your plants to a frost that is just around the corner. Find your frost dates and growing days here: http://davesgarden.com/guides/freeze-frost-dates/

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My season length down here is unbelievable! My growing season (usually) starts around Feb 28 and ends Nov 25! That averages between 271 and 280 days in my growing season (actually, I can grow spring/fall veggies all through winter and summer is usually my down time.) My long season seems like it would be perfect, but we get really hot really fast. My season for tomatoes is super short. It’s either too cold or too hot (tomatoes won’t set fruit in high heat). I really struggle with tomatoes and most people can’t imagine a vegetable garden without them. Being aware of your natural limits will help you work around the edges. For instance: I can grow short season and small fruited tomatoes. I have pretty much given up on the larger varieties…but with a little effort, I still get my fill of tomatoes! Learn what limits your garden and keep most of your efforts inside of that natural structure.

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The season length also brings unimaginable amounts of bugs. I get multiple rounds of problem insects so I have to build spider and other predatory bug friendly beds. You can see them here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!  and here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas I totally recommend cinder block beds because spiders love the damp deep holes they provide. More spiders equal: low to no insecticides. I also use nematodes for insects below the soil. They don’t affect ground worms and they are my only answer to the twice a season squash vine borers we have. They kill pupating insects before they have a chance to come up from the soil and attack my plants. You can find my post about those here: When Life Gives You Grubs, Serve Them Nematode Tea! With these two approaches my garden is pretty much covered. If you add in some nectar producing flowers that feed the larval stages of predatory insects: you basically have my completely insecticide free approach to gardening.

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Know your soil. This is something your county extension office can help with. Use a search engine to find one in your county. Put your county’s name in the search bar with “extension office”. This should guide you to your specific regional growing information including what soil tests your county extension office offers. You can also buy very basic test kits at home improvement stores. It’s is vital to know your soil pH as well as it’s nutrients. (For instance: my clay soils have only needed regular applications of nitrogen fertilizers with iron. That cuts down on my garden expenses and makes fertilizing effective.) Do it yourself: http://organicgardening.about.com/od/soil/a/easysoiltests.htm and from the Colorado State University: You can figure out what you have with this simple test using a mason jar or just your hands. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/mg/gardennotes/214.html Scroll down to the part that says: Identifying Soil Texture By Measurement. Right below that is Identifying Soil Texture By Feel. These are both excellent and easy ways to tell what kind of soil you already have.

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Cinder blocks equal tons of predatory insects. LEAVE the holes OPEN! Spiders = a SCORE for team organic!

I know this is a hard one for beginners: but get your soil ready the Fall before the Spring you plant. That means don’t order plants and seed with the thought that you will be able to fix everything before they come. Get out and get it done (and put the breaks on the credit card.) Never buy a tree before you have dug the hole, or at the very least: have an exact spot you want to place it. (You should not be impulse buying large plants.) If you buy a bunch of plants before you have a place for them, you may have to watch your plants waste away while you are breaking your back trying to quickly dig twenty holes (“quickly” is a goal you will not be able to achieve in gardening.) Even after amending, my soil always does better after being allowed to settle (or planted with low expectations) the first year. If this sounds too daunting: begin working on a larger area, do it in small bits and in the mean time focus on a few large pots (like 22 inch pots) to start your garden with. You can grow almost anything in a big enough pot and I always have a use for mine! (Pots will dry out fast, so they need more: water, shade and attention. For the beginner: this is not a bad thing. I usually keep my pots in morning sun and afternoon shade. This will help keep the heat out of the soil in mid-afternoon and your pots will retain water better.)

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Now you can be completely prepared while looking for spring additions at your local nursery or when you are purchasing seed. If this isn’t enough to satisfy your quest for knowledge: look at the top of the page and you will see the “Gardening Basics” tab. It includes all of the main information I will be posting in the next few weeks (minus any new material I add in these posts.) I’m currently working backwards updating links. These posts include my newest favorite links for information. (Some links on the “Gardening Basics” page are no longer functional or I’ve found better examples. The links in this post are all working as of today, please let me know if you ever find some broken ones!)

There’s more to come! Tune in next time for my latest and greatest: links and advice!

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Australian Shepherd undercoat! Oh my gosh, he had a lot of hair!

On a much sadder note: my family has been dealing with an enormous amount of stressful and challenging happenings. My dog passing away was one of the worst. I’m dedicating this year’s blog to my awesome companion of 13 years: my dog Christmas. Christmas passed away this year because of his advanced age (for his breed) and that he developed exercise induced collie collapse disorder within the last two weeks of his life. If you have a collie related dog: you need to know about this disease. It was certainly a surprise for my family. These active dogs will actually run themselves to death when they develop these symptoms. (This is not my dog in this video. The disease can be fatal, as it was for my elderly dog. I am grateful for the owner that posted this video. I would not have known what to look for without it) Exercise induced collie collapse disorder youtube video.

Christmas was born on the 1 year anniversary of 9-11 and he was the perfect antidote to the anger and hurt that that 9-11 had caused. He was full of love, life and compassion. My heart is completely broken without my dog. I don’t regret a single moment I spent with my loving, loyal, deep, sensitive, and wonderful Australian Shepherd. Here’s to you sweetie. You will always be my “pooh bear”! I miss you every moment of my day.

I have had many dogs in my life. He was the absolute best.

You can read more about my awesome pets here: A How To: On Animals and Life My family owes a lot of their greatest experiences to these wonderful, loyal and incredibly special animals.

Winter: Garden Planning

Winter is a wonderful time to read up on gardening literature. When your garden is fast asleep, it is the perfect time to make preparations for next year. Whether you are new to gardening or an old hand: this is the yearly time for reflection. What has worked for you? What have you struggled with? What are you sure of? What would you like to learn about?

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Follow along and learn how to create a long lasting, low maintenance gardening experience. There’s a lot of practical knowledge in here that I would love to share with you! Below is a list of articles by category. You can quickly find solutions to past problems or plan your garden design to avoid those problems altogether.

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My instructions are heavy on preparation, but they create gardening solutions that will last for decades.

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Does it seem like you are spending $20 for each tomato you grow? If you are struggling to get anything from your garden the problem could be your soil. Raised beds are a great way to create the perfect conditions for vegetables. Unfortunately, a lot of instructions out there look nice: but they are ideas from novice gardeners. Frequently the beds are too shallow, too expensive or built from materials that will quickly rot. Building raised beds is a lot of work and I don’t want to have to redo everything in a couple of years. I doubt you want to start over every couple of years, either. Here is my solution involving a sheet mulch, hugelkulter and keyhole bed combination with cinder block walls. This is the cheapest, most fertile, longest lasting solution I could come up with and it works beautifully: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed and a second article here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas

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If you need help choosing products to either amend soil or to build raised beds: these are my picks for choosing bagged soil and soil additives and also my choices and suggestions for building your own soil with cheap sheet mulching supply ideas. Making sense of old sayings

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Once you’ve created good planting conditions your next step is efficient watering. This will help you whether you are in an arid area or just need to save on your watering bill: Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

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Are you struggling with pollinators? If you aren’t getting abundant squash, melons, cucumbers and other veggies in the cucurbit family you may just need more bees. While you are waiting for your newly planted flowers to attract pollinators this year, here is what you can do: Be The Bee! How And When Hand Pollinating Makes Sense This also explains how to help plants that are wind and self-pollinators.

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If you are brand new to gardening or if you are really struggling overall: this is my “all in one stop” to learn your way around common mistakes. You must know the subjects in orange and you can add the rest as you get more success under your belt: All You Need To Know To Grow The same information is also at the top of this page under Gardening Basics

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If you are struggling with clearing Bermuda grass and are impatient to have finished beds I suggest this approach: Beds Over Bermuda grass Or: Landscape Fabric Sandwich

Inexpensive Vine Support

Inexpensive Vine Support

If you would like to try to train your vining plants on a cheap support next season: this is a fast, inexpensive and strong solution- Simple, Inexpensive Vine Support

Seed Starting: Tips and Tricks

Seed Starting: Tips and Tricks

My tips for starting seeds in milk jugs and my recommendations for mail order seed and live plant companies: The Seed Collector’s Insanity (Tips And Tricks For Starting Your Seeds)

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If you dislike the hardening off process (getting your seedlings ready to plant out in the garden) like I do, here is a short cut: Short Cut Through The Hardening-Off Process

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If you would like to see what other people have been interested in on here, this is Crazy Green Thumb’s most read article. I don’t advocate using gravel in the landscape and this is why: Please Don’t Rock Your Yard!

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If you are longing for a fun craft project for this winter, here are a few ideas. These are the projects I have enjoyed creating this year:

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Melted Perler Bead and Pony Bead Craft Projects

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Last Minute Kid Friendly Halloween Decorations

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Come On, You Know You Want To! Recycled Glass Flowers In The Garden

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Solution For Sore Shoulders: Microwavable Rice Sock

Want some new ideas for using plants that you may already enjoy growing? Here are some of my favorite recipes from this year. These are my own recipes. They may make you interested in adding a few of these plants to your plans:

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Ever Had Spiced Hibiscus Flower Tea?

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Cooking With Lettuce?!?! Yes! And It’s Delicious!!!

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Garden Huckleberry: A Completely Nutty Science Experiment!!!

I love my short winter down time! I get to look at my successes and challenges, plan my garden for next year and organize and choose the seeds I want to grow. I hope you have a productive winter planning your garden! Here in the Northern Hemisphere our season is at an end. If you’re on the Southern part of the globe: Happy Spring/Summer!!!

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See you all in the garden next year!!!!

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Reaping The Rewards Of Spring Planning

This month is heavy on the picking and light on the work. Why? Because I worked hard in the spring to create this exact scenario. Water-wise, deep beds have yielded incredible amounts of produce. See how we built them here: Hugelkultur, Keyhole Gardens: Bridging Ideas  and here: Mother’s Day Raised Hugelkultur Bed!

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Hugelkultur/keyhole garden inspired bed. These will have worm bins in the middle in a few weeks.

Instructions for creating a carefree, water-wise layer for a raised bed can be found here: Efficient Summer Watering In A Raised Bed

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Newspaper, landscape fabric, wood mulch, soaker hoses and a water-wise raised bed are a few of the things I use in my garden.

Sealed beds have created areas for flowers with no invading Bermuda grass and little to pull as far as seed born weeds. This is how I beat the Bermuda: Beds Over Bermuda grass Or: Landscape Fabric Sandwich.

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Attracting pollinators is easy with annual seeds. Bachelor buttons and zinnia are a few of the flowers I have growing right now.

All I have to do at the moment is to sit back and enjoy my garden. Down here in the South Texas summer, as the mercury rises and the afternoons become unbearably hot: that’s all I want to be doing outside.

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Organic gardening conditions are doable if you have planned ahead and removed the labor from the summer garden. After considerable planning and spring work: all I have to do mid-summer is watch for disease and insects and hook up the watering hose. Planning ahead will make the extra effort required to use more organic practices possible.

Right now I just add water and watch for the summer bug invasion. Armed with Neem oil and a watering hose I have much to enjoy and not much to worry about. I do my heavy work in the spring when the weather is nice and I am motivated.

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With our long season I am planting corn in February/March and harvesting in June. We have two corn seasons down here. Smaller gardens have the ability to produce large quantities because of the extended growing season.

We have a short winter downtime. Our growing season is close to 280 days. But it wouldn’t be this much fun if I hadn’t thought ahead and prepared. Two years after buying our home I have slowly eked out a great garden space, despite our: heavy clay soil, invading Bermuda grass and my annoying health issues. Here’s what I am currently enjoying in a near maintenance-free garden:

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Figs are ripening.

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The corn hit 7 feet and started tassling last month. I have already harvested the majority of the corn. Because I live so far South, my growing season is ahead of most of the rest of the country. If you watch my blog you can plan ahead and have the techniques that I use ready as your spring, summer and fall approaches.

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2014 has been a great year for corn for me. I grow only heirloom vegetables (outside of tomatoes) and corn is one of the most genetically modified and hybridized vegetables you can grow. Avoiding gmo contamination is huge problem with seed corn because it is wind pollinated and pure strains of older varieties are becoming harder to find. Check out heirloom seed sites like seedsavers.org and help ensure genetic variety for our future.

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The kitty who makes his own rules. I can’t keep him out! As you can see the netting I used to keep him out in the spring has totally failed at this point. He’s an antique (20+ years old!) and a good friend, so sometimes I let him win in the battle of the right to rule the garden!

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Tickseed (Coreopsis) is a favorite of mine. Virtually carefree and in constant bloom. It just takes some deadheading to keep it beautiful all summer.

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Love in a mist (Nigella damascena) is fun annual to grow. Look for seeds, you won’t find these annuals in pots in a garden center! The great thing about older garden staples is they are extremely easy to save seed from and grow year after year: just like your (great+) grandma used to!

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Keep pollinators happy with old time favorites. They offer great diversity in pollen and nectar for our garden friends like: hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Find flower lists online or just order an annual flower seed mix. Seed mixes of heirloom varieties are the most appealing to the bugs you want to attract.

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I grew canna lilies from seed this year. (They are perennials down here and a fun addition to an edible garden.) I belong to a seed train (a group that shares seed between it’s members for the price of postage.) I found mine on yahoo groups. If you can’t find one: start one! You will soon find takers. Getting a box in the mail is like Christmas for seed train members. You will receive favorites from random gardens across the nation!

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Culinary oregano in bloom. A great addition to salads, sandwiches and cooked dishes. I recommend growing lots of herbs. They are easy to care for and are usually pretty mild when they are picked fresh. Because of this: you can enjoy fresh herbs in all kinds of meals and they attract all kinds of good bugs.

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Persimmons.

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Tomatoes from one of my monster cherry tomato plants. If you live in the deep south and wonder why you have trouble with tomatoes: it’s because the temperatures in the summers stay too hot. Tomatoes will abort fruit and flowers once it hits our summertime temps. I know it seems counter-intuitive but tomatoes are pretty picky about their growing temperatures, even hot ones. Since we don’t cool off at night, the summer won’t give you many tomatoes. Our viable season for tomatoes, down here by San Antonio, is very short in both the spring and fall. Try smaller varieties and determinate types that will set all of their fruit at once. Because the season is so short for them I don’t bother with seed. I go with transplants from a garden center and I am usually pleased with the result.

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Basil in bloom. Letting my herbs flower and go to seed has been one of the best ways to attractant bees and other beneficial insects to my yard.

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Bouquet of zinnia, echinacea, day lily and cosmos. I have bouquets like this all season long.

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Kumquats.

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You can never have enough fresh figs!!!!

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Would you like to know what I know about successful gardening? Check out the tab at the top of the page titled: Gardening Basics There’s a lot to digest on that page, so book mark it and come back as you need more information. It covers all you need to know to grow, and the information is free. You can do this and I can show you how!

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Short Cut Through The Hardening-Off Process

Oh, I love my milk jugs! I start my seeds in them. I root cuttings in them. I short cut the hardening-off process with them.

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Yes! That’s right you can now be lazy like me and get past the long and annoying process of getting plants into your garden. Hardening off plants is necessary but I hate it. It requires patience, planning and organization. I am not good at any of those. Moving a plant from indoor light to your outdoor location (especially in full sun) without having the plant sunburn and suffer from wind burn takes more effort than I enjoy using for a seedling: out in the shade, back in the house, in the shade, in the sun…moving trays of plants ad nauseum.

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Granted I don’t have acres of garden area to deal with, but I have enough plants hardening off at the same time that I was on the lookout for an easier way to do it.

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Enter the milk jugs. Luckily for me I have some major milk drinking kids (Okay, I admit it. I am, too) and I always have gallon jugs. The nice thing about milk jugs is they are semi-opaque. They keep the sun down to a reasonable level, keep the wind at bay and let the transplanted seedling establish itself. Just cut the base off and you’re good to go. You will need to raise the jugs to water.

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I am also using water bottles with some parchment paper or wax paper run inside it and vents cut around individual seedlings for a few days. The water bottles will only allow a small plant. You could probably use it on any nightshade family plant that starts off looking like a pepper seedling (including: tomatillo, peppers, husk cherry, garden huckleberry.) If we drank pop: I would also be using two liter bottles with the parchment/wax paper. I use what we have, therefore: I use milk jugs (and well rinsed out vinegar jugs when I get an empty.)

 

Run a stick next to your transplanted seedling to hold bottles in place. I’m only using water bottles because I don’t have thirty milk jugs hanging out to cover everything. Like I said: I use what I have. I’m certainly saving more jugs for next year!!! Go ahead and cut some vents in any clear container you are putting paper in. All of the covers will need to vent or you will cook the plants.

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Next: nestle the jug or bottle into the soil. If you live in a windy area like I do, run some chicken wire over your bed (flatten it out first.) The chicken wire and your stick you ran down the center of the bottles will hold the jugs and bottles in place. Do not put the caps back on. I also put some iron based natural snail bait down because I was getting holes on the plants overnight. Slugs and snails are sneaky!!!

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Don’t let them dry out, keep them watered daily until they establish. Leave the small ones on for several days, the jugs up to a week. You can then make a judgement call when you think they will make it without the cover. You are looking for things like: solid growth, no major wilting and generally healthy, happy seedlings. You can pop these on and off during the day/night for a few days before you are ready to remove them for good. This will get the plants past wind burn and sunburn. Look at what you are dealing with weather-wise and try to remove the covers permanently on a calm/cloudy/wet day or when you will experience lower temperatures. You could certainly use row cover to do the same thing, but I prefer the milk jugs (I’m now addicted! Good thing I love milk!)

 

I could deal with row cover (which really isn’t much different, but here are the cons:) Row cover falls apart quickly, gets full of debris, can blow off and into your neighbors yard with enough wind (the winds in Colorado would blow so hard the row cover would rip away from the landscape pins!) some seasons I can find it easily, other seasons it’s a huge search that results in serious frustration and a purchase online, lastly: I bleach most things I reuse between seasons to cut down on fungal spores. Alternatively: I can store a bunch of milk jugs in my garage every winter and use them for years! Quicker, easier, already on hand…the jugs have my vote!

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My peppers made the transition beautifully! I love shortcuts that work!

Since I’m enjoying my garden so much this year, I thought I’d throw in some random photos from this week:

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Chard down here is a perennial. These are green through winter.

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Corn on one foot centers.

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Tomatoes from the local nursery. I don’t grow tomatoes from seed because the summer is too hot to set fruit and the spring here is short.

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Tomato babies!!!

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Peas are close to harvest time.

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Beautiful radish!

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