Direct Sowing II: Things I Wish Gurus Would Remember to Mention

So.  We established in Direct Sowing I that sowing seeds in the soil isn’t as obvious as gardening gurus imply.  I hope I made the point adequately that it’s as fussy and delicate a business as indoor seed starting.  If so, why bother with direct sowing at all?

A reasonable enough question.  There are some pretty good answers:

1) You can grow a g’zillion plants for a few dollars instead of purchasing a few plants for a g’zillion dollars;

2) There are many cold weather vegetables that need to be planted before the “garden season” begins, as the term is defined by commercial nurseries and garden centers.  This is especially true if you live in the far north or the far south;

3) There are many plants that do not tolerate being grown in pots, handled or transplanted.  If they do not stay where they first put down roots, They Are Goners;

4) Some vegetables that “tolerate” being moved nevertheless do well only when they are directly sown;

5) You can grow a g’zillion plants for a few dollars instead of buying a few plants for a g’zillion dollars;

6) There are a g’zillion lovely vegetables in the world that are not commercially available in the US.  If you don’t grow them from seed yourself, you don’t get to eat them.

7) There are a g’zillion lovely varieties of vegetables in the world that are not commercially grown for nurseries or garden centers.  If you don’t grow them from seed yourself, you don’t get to eat them.

8) Did I mention you can grow a g’zillion plants for a few dollars instead of buying a few plants for a g’zillion dollars?  I did?  Oh.  Sorry.

Stick with me… because this is a mountain you can climb if someone would just wave a few warning flags for you.  Well here I am, waving:

The Devil is in the Details

Assuming that we played the waiting game correctly, we will be rewarded when cute little seedlings poke their heads up from the earth, starved for sunlight.  Though our seedlings are far stronger and healthier than their indoor cousins (another good reason to practice direct sowing) they face stressors that we will need to address if later we hope for juicy vegetable munching.

Weeds

Weeds are going to show their faces before your seedlings do.  I can almost guarantee it.  Why?  Because weeds are the best, the brightest, the quickest out of the starting gate.  The earth doesn’t like to show her bare arse to the sky.  When we cultivate, we’ve basically pulled the poor gal’s pants down.  Weeds are what she yanks over herself until she can find something better to wear. Yaddah Yaddah.  What are we supposed to do about the weeds that spring up out of nowhere?

Leave the durned things alone.  No, I really mean it.  Straight from the hip.

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I have cultivated a degree of weed tolerance that drives Grandma Juanita bonkers, even from beyond the grave. I plant spring greens beds densely to shade out weeds because pulling weeds brings more seed to the surface. You can see twists of struggling grass among the lettuce heads. The lettuces don’t mind.

I know you want to pull that dandelion up, the one that sits so smugly in the middle of your carefully tilled seed-bed.  The thought of it probably jerks you awake at night, covered in cold sweat.  You “know” in your bones that a good garden is supposed to be weed-free, and good gardeners are those who Make It So.  Plenty of companies make plenty big profit off your mysteriously acquired knowledge that “weeds’re bad, m’kay???”

Don’t.  Touch.  That.  Weed.  Yet.

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A violet and two “volunteer” Tithonia seeds growing alongside  my bulb fennel seedlings. Bulb fennel is so very delicate, and violets are so very grumpy about being weeded that I don’t dare to remove the violets until the fennel seedlings have established sturdy roots.  Violets are aggressive enough that when I encounter them in the garden, I remove them without fail.

Pulling weeds in a seed-bed can uproot the seedlings that are trying to develop underground.  In addition, until you know your garden ecosystem very well, you can’t always differentiate between weed seedlings and those you’ve planted on purpose.  For these reasons, Leave Weeds Alone until:

→enough of your seeds have sprouted that you can tell the seedlings apart;

→your seedlings are established enough to tolerate a bit of soil disruption;

→the first ‘true leaves’ appear.  “True leaves” are teeny versions of the adult leaf.

Leave Weeds Alone.  I don’t know how to shoot much straighter from the hip than that.  Sho’ Nuff.

Thinning

Saving space: turnips, raspberries, and garden peas share the same bed

Saving space: turnips, raspberries, and garden peas share the same bed. Too many turnips. Too. Many. Turnips.

These are the turnip seedlings my kids planted for me on April 2nd.

Turnips are a great plant with which to learn outdoor sowing  because they have an extremely high germination rate.  I bet you guessed that, looking at this photo.  The next time I ask my kids to plant something for me, I’ll choose something with a lousy germination rate… parsnips, maybe.

What to do, what to do…

I used to have a hard time making myself thin seedlings adequately.  I cherished each plant so much I couldn’t bear to pull them up without finding some other place to try to transplant them.  I have since grown quite savage.  I would rather have fewer very productive plants to care for than many unproductive plants to care for.  Remember: it’s the economy, shnookums…

I’m going to tell it to you straight: seedlings do best with tough love.  I tore the extras out of the ground by the fistful and composted them right in front of the garden peas.

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Thinned by the fistfuls until each remaining clump is the recommended planting distance. I continued to thin each clump until only a single plant remained.

Lookit this haircut:  in ten minutes of yanking I took this turnip patch down from a full 1960s Black Power ‘fro to a pitiful grandpa’s three-hair comb-over.

Three turnip seedlings

Three turnip seedlings

This is important: Although I yanked these turnip sprouts up roughly in tufts (I was irritated because I told my son not to sprinkle the seeds too thickly.  Silly me, he’s thirteen.  What was I thinking?), you really need to approach thinning with some delicacy, or risk disturbing the roots of the seedlings you want to keep.

There are a couple of ways to prevent this: pinch the competing seedlings off at the ground rather than pull them out of the ground.  You can also pull the seedling out of the ground horizontally, away from the seedling you want to keep.

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When I say thin savagely, look at the last photos of my 2013 turnip and spinach patches: I mean it.  Beginning gardeners under-thin.  Don’t hold back.

Fertilizing

In principle, I don’t actually like the idea of fertilizing plants.  My job as an organic gardener is to establish conditions that allow the plants in the garden to feed themselves.  I want to spend my resources making the soil rich, not feeding individual plants. There are dozens of reasons why I think that home gardeners fertilize more than they ought, more than they need.  It’s worth talking about in a separate blog post.

I suppose I wish gardeners would think about fertilizing as something one does only when a plant goes, “hallooooo!!  I could use a little help over here.” Except…  to catch a plant that needs help before it is downright sickly, you have to be the kind of gardener who observes their garden carefully and constantly. Remember those old railroad crossing signs?  STOP.  LOOK.  LISTEN.  Fertilizing-by-schedule (once weekly whether plants need it or not) takes away the need to Stop.  Look.   Listen.  It  trains us out of the habit, and eventually even the ability to stop, look, and listen.  Instead, it pours nitrogen into our waterways, leeches fertilizer salts into our soils, and flushes our money down the toilet.

Honey,  this year’s crop of  radishes, spinach, beets and lettuces are hollering, “yooo hooo… we could use a little help over here.”  Significantly, the turnips are keeping their own counsel;  I won’t fertilize them until they change their tune.  Why do some of my seedlings need help?  Why don’t others?

On April 1, I planted beets, spinach, lettuces, and radish.  On April 2, I planted garden peas while the kids planted turnips.  The first week of April was unseasonably hot and dry.   However, we were deluged in 14 inches of rain for the next two weeks, with temperatures hovering just above freezing.

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Radishes planted between two rows of leeks. These radishes were planted on April 1st.  The  photo was taken on April 24th. Note the total lack of true leaves. These seedlings are struggling because of unseasonable April weather conditions.

Radishes normally sprout in 7 – 10 days, and are finished, ready for harvest in 29 days.  This year’s sprouted in just under three weeks and they don’t even yet have true leaves yet.  Spinach usually germinates in 10 – 14 days and is ready for harvest in 45.  As of yesterday, they were just developing their true leaves.  The beets and lettuces are similarly “behind.”  They will perk up fine when the temps come up a bit, and when the sun shows its face more steadily.  In the meanwhile, I want to give them just the tiniest touch of fertilizer so that when weather conditions improve, they have a chance to catch up on lost growth.

Fish fertilizer.  1 tablespoon per gallon of water means a bottle of this stuff can last for years.

Fish fertilizer. 1 tablespoon per gallon of water means a bottle of this stuff can last for years.

Seedlings are sensitive to powerful fertilizers.  High nitrogen fertilizers can burn them to smoking stumps. I use a low-nitrogen fish fertilizer on my seedlings.  It gives a tiny nitrogen boost with no danger of tissue damage.  I think the formula is 1 tablespoon/gallon of water, which means unlike dry fertilizers that are sprinkled in or along the row,, fish fertilizer provides a gardener years of gentle bang for the buck, without adding to the nitrogen run-off problem that harms our waterways.

I will not be fertilizing the turnips because, as you saw,  they are doing quite well.  They sprouted on time, developed true leaves on time… and if they are not bigger it’s because they were so terribly over-crowded. These lucky guys were planted on the south side of my house, a warm micro-climate caused by sunlight being reflected off of the light-colored siding.

As you cultivate your garden, allow it to cultivate your “stop. look.  listen” reflex.  It is a critical tool for low-intervention organic gardening.  I suspect that it is a critical tool for life.

Things that Go Bump in the Night

I’ve been FRAMED!!

Bunnies get blamed for a lotta stuff they didn’t do.  I’m not trying to say that they don’t get into mischief, but … brand new seedlings just don’t make enough of a meal for high-metabolism critters like bunnies to bother with.

If you find your seedling’s leaves lying on the ground, neatly sheared from the stem… if the very next day you find the entire seedling itself lying on the ground, neatly sheared off at the stem…if you pull your radishes up out of the soil, and find that “someone” has enjoyed crunching the yummy red flesh from around the root’s shoulders…???  A bunny didn’t do it.

Organic pest control is a month’s worth of blogging at least; our purpose here is to discuss controlling pests that are a particular problem to directly sown seedlings.  In my backyard ecosystem, only 1/100 or so violent assaults against plants are perpetrated by bunnies.  The perps, in descending order of frequency are slugs/snails, cutworms, and flea beetles.  Each gardener has to determine which pests are a problem in his or her own ecosystem.  The ones I’ve mentioned are fairly common around the USA.

I treat all of my seedlings prophylactically against slugs and snails with diatomaceous earth., but only after true leaves have emerged.  Diatomaceous earth is the collected exoskeletal remains of microscopic sea creatures that slice open the dermis of insects that crawl over it, causing them to dehydrate and die.  Diatomaceous earth works especially well against soft-bodied creatures like cabbage white larvae, cut worms, and slugs. You can purchase it treated with pyrethrin, an insecticide approved for organic gardening that is extracted from chrysanthemums.  I use diatomaceous earth with pyrethrins to control for flea-beetles when I grow eggplants because eggplants, when young, are particularly susceptible to attack from sucking insects.

Final Helpful Hints

Let me wrap this up by first reminding all novice gardeners: seeds are mortal.  Honest to goodness, watch any nature program with a title like, “Life and Death on the African Savannah,” reduce it to the microcosm of the plant world, then give yourself a break if your seeds go kaput.  Like most things that are food for small creatures, the true destiny of the vast majority of seeds is to be gobbled up, drowned out, trampled down, dug up, or sizzled to death under a blazing sun.  We would be wading hip deep through lettuces if lettuce seeds were fool-proof.

I may be only gardener I know who loves starting seeds but will nevertheless tell novice gardeners straight up, “ahh, it’s a pain in the patootie.”   Whether you start them indoors or sow them directly in the soil out-of-doors, it requires a delicate hand and the ability to pay attention to fussy detail.  Before you decide, “to hear Sho’ Nuff tell it, there is no way I will ever get into starting my own seeds,” I want to remind you that delicate hands and the ability to pay attention to fussy details are not inborn talents.  Rather, they are character traits.  Character traits, like muscles, become strong only when exercised; Worse yet, they atrophy quick, fast, and in a hurry when not put to regular use. Vegetable gardening is an exercise of character, not just gastronomy.

As I said elsewhere, I don’t think my grandmother or her sisters “enjoyed” gardening per se.  But they enjoyed the accomplishment of having gardened well.  I highly recommend persevering with seed starting, especially direct sowing.  There is a powerful return on the investment, knowing you grew something magnificent from a teeny bit of nothing much, a humble seed.

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