Thursday, February 19, 2015

Faster Pepper and Eggplant Seed Germination

One issue that many gardeners face is that pepper and eggplant seeds can take forever to germinate. I’ve had some eggplants that took about 2 years to germinate—at least it felt like it! Luckily, there is an easy way to speed up the process without buying anything extra. It's known in the gardening world as the "paper towel method" (or some variant of that) and I can say that it works quite well for peppers and eggplants.

These poblano peppers were in the seed packet 9 days ago!
I will preface this by saying that I would always suggest starting your seeds much earlier in the traditional fashion if possible. For example, my goal for next year is to get the peppers and eggplants started on January 1st. But that’s next year. This year I was trying to decide on which peppers to grow, and by the time I had everything ready it was mid-February. Given that it typically takes weeks for peppers to emerge on my grow table—and even longer for the eggplant—I needed to play catch-up if we wanted to be eating peppers in late June/early July (and we do!).

Supply list: labelled ziploc bag, mister, paper towel, seeds
Here’s what you will need: a Ziploc bag, a paper towel, a mister, and seeds. Begin by wetting the paper towel. No need to soak it, just get it damp. Next, sprinkle the seeds onto the wet paper towel. You'll be folding it over, so just use one side.

Sprinkle seeds on one side of the paper towel
Then, fold the paper towel over. To make it easier, fold it unevenly so that when it is wet you can more easily peel it apart. Otherwise, it will seal and be extremely difficult to separate without tearing.

An uneven fold makes it easier to unfold later
Finally, carefully place the paper towel in the bag and seal ¾ of the way. I know some people seal it all the way, but this is how I do it, and it has worked for me. Last but not least, find a warm spot to place your bag. I put mine on top of our DVR box, which is the perfect temperature. Anywhere that stays warm to the touch will work. If you have a cable/DVR box, that is the perfect temperature, so even if you don’t want to use that space you’ll have an idea of the temperature to shoot for. 

Ready to go!
So, how about some results? I used this method with 6 types of peppers this year: Oda, Fort Knox, Jimmy Nardello, Poblano, Anaheim, and Cayenne. The seeds were put into their bags on 2/10/15. This is what they looked like on 2/15/15.

A poblano sprout... 5 days in the bag
Here are some photos from tonight, a mere 9 days into the process. The Poblano seeds are by far the most advanced, although the Fort Knox are right behind and most of the other peppers are at least popping above the soil.
We have poblanos!
Speaking of eggplants, I used this technique on some eggplant seeds Sunday night. Below is a picture of them taken just 3 days later! Rather than wait, I decided to get them in the soil tonight. This leads me to another tip: don’t wait too long to plant the seeds. You might get longer roots, but the downside is that the longer the root the more fragile the sprout becomes, and therefore the more difficult to transplant without damaging it. To plant, simply unfold the paper towel to reveal the sprouts.Then, gently remove the seeds from the paper towel and place on the surface of your seed starting mix.

Emperor's Best eggplant seeds after only 3 days in the bag!
Finally, just barely cover the root sprouts with soil. If a tiny bit of the top of the seed is visible that is perfect. Don’t bury them too deep! Also, don’t worry too much about getting them perfectly oriented. It’s best to place them sprout (root) down, but get it as close as you can and the seed will orient itself quickly.

Do your best to place the seed sprout (root) side down, but these were placed sideways and they found the light just fine in only a few days!
Keep in mind that temperature will influence the speed at which your seedlings emerge and grow. The warmer it is the faster the seeds will germinate and the faster your seedlings will develop into plants. Our grow table is in a room that does not have its own heat run. During the day we set our heat at 67. At night, we drop it to 60, so the grow room can get a few degrees cooler than that. During the day the heat put off by the grow lights is easily captured and held by the plastic greenhouse tops (worth every penny in my book) but at night the temperatures drop, and short of putting a space heater in the room there isn’t much I can do. This means that when it is frigid outside (as it has been here in Western New York) the plants get a bit of a chill in the evening, which can slow them down some. On the plus side, they are more cold hardy when they go outside in early May.

Cheap and worth every penny!
On the subject of those plastic seeding domes, this is the first time I’ve tried them and so far I couldn’t be happier. In the past I used peat pots for all my seedlings, but I found them to be difficult to deal with because if they dried out they would suck all of the moisture out of the seedlings and it was difficult to re-moisten them without soaking them in water. As a result, they were seemingly always too wet or too dry. This year I switched to the black plastic nursery trays you see in every nursery or garden department. I also decided to try the greenhouse lids to keep the seedlings warmer, and they work wonders! By simply placing one of my grow lamps (which is a 2 bulb 54W T5HO aquarium grow light fixture) about 5 inches from the top of the lid I was able to raise the temperature inside from 67 degrees (the air temperature in that room) to 76 degrees, which makes the peppers very happy. Of course at night it does drop, but much more slowly than if it were open to the air, so that by the time it drops down to 60-62 degrees it is almost time for the lights to come back on for the day.
A Fort Knox pepper!

So if you are running behind on starting your peppers and your seeding space is on the cooler side, this is a great method to get your seeds to germinate more quickly. Another plus is that you only plant seeds that have sprouted, so you know every planted seed is viable and you don’t end up with wasted cells. This method will work for just about any seed, but it isn’t really necessary or beneficial for tomatoes, herbs, and other vegetables or flowers, as they all seem to germinate quickly even at slightly lower than optimal temperatures.

If you found this post useful, please like us on Facebook or click the "Join this Site" button in the right panel to receive future updates from the container garden! My hope is to keep the blog updated with 1-2 posts per week, so check back often, and if you have any questions/comments please submit them below or on the Facebook page.

Until next time, happy gardening!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Ultimate Seeding Table

For today’s post, I thought I would share my latest project: the ultimate (for me anyway) growing/seeding table!
Front view
For some time I’ve been toying with the idea of a all-encompassing grow table for seedlings, winter herbs, and the citrus trees when they come in for the winter. Of course, my preference would be to put the citrus trees in a nice south-facing window, but in our current apartment we are in a bit of a predicament when it comes to that. We have many windows (and it is nice and airy and bright in here) but the vast majority of them face north, west, or east. The only south facing windows we have are in the kitchen, bedroom, and one small window in the current growing room.
Side view
So I needed a table that could accommodate not just seedlings, but also large plants, cuttings, and other over-wintered plants. It also needed to be somewhat tall so that I could store things underneath it, and it also needed a strong shelf above for additional storage. My thought was to take the table’s footprint and essentially triple dip: storage underneath, the table surface with adjustable lights, and a nice strong shelf for storage above.
Corner view

Here’s what I came up with. The footprint of the table is 55x50, so it’s large. I purposely over-built it, because I also home brew and all of my empty glass bottles are stored on the top shelf, so it needed to be quite strong. I wanted to have around 30 inches of space under the table for storage so that we could store large items underneath and out of sight. The table height is also a comfortable height for access.

Since we live in an apartment and have moved several times, I also wanted to make it both future proof and easy to disassemble and reassemble. By “future proof” I mean that it would be designed to fit in a place with a lower ceiling and that it would fit nicely in a corner. Right now we are lucky to live in a place with pretty high ceilings, but that hasn’t always been the case. The lowest ceiling height we ever had was 7.5 ft, which is 90 inches. That’s how I arrived at the self height of 70 inches. That would allow 20 inches of clearance for the empty bottles even in that scenario, which is plenty. To make it easy to take apart and reassemble I put block underneath each rail so that they could be set in place, clamped, and then attached quickly and easily.

Don't can trust me...
Here’s another consideration: I wanted to cat-proof it. As anyone with cats knows, you’re more making something cat resistant than cat-proof! Our two cats seem to share in my love for the garden, although their way of showing it involves chewing on and/or stepping on the seedlings. To accomplish this I toyed with many different ideas, but there was always a double-edged sword involved: anything that made it harder for the cats to get onto the table would also make it harder for me to access the table. I wanted to do just enough to stop them from getting on the table and still allow for ease of access when I watered or checked on the plants.  

Table with panels installed (the screen is hard to see)
Since we had some old scraps of screen left over I decided to construct 2 removable screen panels that would block the sides that were open to the room (the other two are against walls in the corner of the room).
So far, it has worked well. Of course, it is physically possible for the cats to jump from their nearby cat tree over the panels, but I think the panels are just high enough that they don’t feel secure doing that. The table has been up for about 6 weeks now and so far they have never been able to get on it (and every time I water the plants they go crazy and try to find ways up).  I would have made the panels higher, but the screen scraps were only a certain height, and I was afraid of having a seam that the cats could either get through or get stuck in somehow.
The panels hook in place at each end for easy and quick removal
Today it is -7 outside, so I am going to start some seeds! I’m behind (calendar-wise) where I wanted to be, especially for the eggplants and peppers. However, look for a post this week about my experiment in getting peppers to germinate faster! I began this experiment last week on 6 types of peppers, and this afternoon (about 5 days later) it looks like I will be able to plant all 6 types of seeds as they all have small taproots!

Until next time, happy gardening!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Blue Beauty Tomato Report

It's blue! And it's a beauty!

One of the most unique crops in last year’s garden was the Blue Beauty tomato. I knew as soon as I saw it in the Baker Creek catalog that I had to try it; after all, it’s a blue tomato! However, as I mentioned in a previous post I had grown black krims one year that turned out to be more like red, tasteless krims, so I was skeptical.

Would these tomatoes really be blue? Would they produce in a container? Would they taste good?

Luckily, the answer to all three questions was a resounding YES!
Bunches of tomatoes!
First, let’s talk germination. I planted extra seeds thinking that these tomatoes were so unique and so cool that obviously the seeds would be tough to germinate. Not true at all! In fact, I ended up with pretty much every seed germinating, and these were also among the earliest tomato seeds to do so. They were also the earliest tomatoes to produce a ripe fruit last summer.

Now onto the question of containers. In short, as large beefsteak type tomatoes these are not supposed to grow in containers. For that matter, most of what I grow in the garden is not supposed to work. Sikkim cucumbers in containers? Everyone online said they would probably not work well. But I like to push the limits (and as a renter with an upstairs porch I really don’t have much choice other than to use containers). This is why I encourage people to just try new things in gardening. Many varieties are easier to grow in containers than others, but if you use a big enough container you can grow pretty much anything. I just watched a YouTube video of a guy planting a large pomegranate tree (with fruit on it) in a 30 gallon half barrel. So where there is a will, there is a way.

Next year I am going back to tomato cages!
But therein lies the key. You need a large container. I used a 12 gallon container for these Blue Beauty plants. I planted two plants in the 12 gallon pot, and used Miracle Gro potting mix for the soil, amended with some extra perlite and regular applications of Tomato Tone. Regular watering is probably the most important aspect of container gardening, because once these plants get big (and the Blue Beauty tomato plant gets BIG) they require a great deal of water, and the only water available to them is what is in the soil. This is why container size matters. The more soil, the more water and nutrients it can hold. It also reduces the need for constant watering. As it was, I watered these about every 2-3 days once they were full grown. You want to give them just enough water to thrive, but no more. Extra water seems to result in more watery, less sweet tomatoes!
Blue Beauty plant early in the season
As you can see, the plants were huge, healthy, and very productive. In fact, these were probably the most productive tomatoes in the garden last year. We harvested at least 100 from the two plants. In fact, I ended up skinning and freezing them (along with the Roma tomatoes) and we are still using them in sauces and curries in January!

Beautiful late-season harvest!
What about taste/texture? I would rate these as very good. They are fairly firm inside, with good structure and just the right amount of juiciness and sweetness. They are also very consistent, with very few cracks or spots. They turn very dark blue wherever the sun hits them, resulting in beautiful tomatoes with dark blue tops and deep red bottoms (where the sun does not directly hit them). This is how you know when they are ripe. Look for a deep crimson color underneath the blue tops. 

Blue Beauty sliced in half
These tomatoes are absolutely fantastic for slicing, fresh eating, and make great sauce as well, since they are not overly juicy. I would definitely say that they are my favorite tomato to grow so far. The flavor is not quite as good as a Brandywine, but it is close, and these plants will be absolutely loaded with tomatoes, whereas Brandywines seem to be less productive (in containers anyway).

In the coming weeks I will be posting similar write-ups on the cucumbers and peppers from last season, so check back often!

Until next time, happy gardening!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Sikkim Cucumbers in Containers

From top to bottom: Marketmore, Sikkim and Lemon cucumbers
Last week I harvested the first Sikkim cucumber of the season, so I thought I would share some thoughts on this unusual looking cucumber. As you can see, it is a bit thicker than a typical cucumber. It also has a very melon-like skin, which isn’t as tough as it looks (we ate a couple of slices with the skin on and it wasn’t anything like the almost plastic tasting skin large cucumbers can develop).

Tasty and cool looking!
In terms of flavor, I would say the Sikkim cucumber is slightly sweeter than an average cucumber, with a very pleasant mild taste. The seeds are tender, and the fruit is nice and firm. This is definitely a delicious cucumber, but I don’t think the taste is radically different from other cukes.

Sikkim cucumbers in various stages of development
One important factor to consider with the Sikkim cucumber is the yield. I harvested this one, and I have 5-6 others on the plants in various stages of ripening. There are also 1-2 small cucumbers on the way. This is on 3 plants in a 7 gallon pot. Just for comparison’s sake, I planted 3 plants of Marketmore and I have already harvested three 9 inch cucumbers and have probably a solid dozen about that size ready to pick, with at least a dozen smaller cucumbers coming right behind. The same is true with the lemon cucumbers; we’ve already eaten 4-5 and we have at least 12 almost ready to pick now with many small ones coming.

Sikkim cucumbers ripening
Given all of this, the Sikkim is a somewhat low yielding plant, which backs up what reviewers online said about the variety. If there is a negative at all, it’s that the Sikkim cucumber doesn’t produce a large number of cucumbers relative to other varieties. This is not a big deal to me (I do this mostly because I enjoy growing unusual varieties) but if you are into square foot gardening and high yields are a crucial component of your plan then I would consider a different variety.

However, if you want a tasty, exotic, and unusual cucumber then I highly recommend the Sikkim cucumber! 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Blue Beauty Tomato Update

Another crop that is new to me this year is the Blue Beauty tomato. When I saw this online I absolutely had to have it! I mean, it’s a blue tomato. If that isn’t reason enough I don’t know what is!

Blue Beauty tomatoes! Notice they are bluest where the sun hits most
Of course, given my experience with red, round, “Black Krims” I was skeptical. Would this tomato really be blue? Would it be all cool and gnarly looking like the description said? To minimize the possibility of crossing with my other tomatoes I made sure to put it on the opposite end of the porch, away from all others of its kind.

I am happy to report that so far it looks good! As you can see from the photos the plants are doing very well, and the fruits are a dark blue where they are touched by the sun. Tomatoes that are more in the middle of the plant are dark green with no blue at all, and the ones on the outside are dark blue where the sun hits the fruit.

Close-up of a Blue Beauty
From what I have read (and there isn’t a ton out there on Blue Beauty Tomatoes) they turn red “underneath” the blue when they are ripe, resulting in tomatoes with varying degrees of dark blue and dark red. I am excited to see how these turn out, and I will definitely provide updates as these “beauties” continue to grow.

Until next time, happy gardening!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Growing Cucumbers in Containers

As many of you know, cucumbers are one of my absolute favorite things in the garden. Of course so are peppers! And tomatoes! And the herbs! But I digress. There’s just nothing like the crisp, sweet, delicate flavor of a freshly picked homegrown cucumber. It will spoil you though, and those watery logs you buy at the store just won’t seem the same.

Sikkim Cucumber plant
This year I am growing 3 varieties: Marketmore, Lemon, and Sikkim. Lemons I have grown before, and if you’ve never tried them I highly recommend them. They are large vines that produce round fruit roughly the size of a lime, but as they mature they turn from an ivory color to a dark yellow (thus the name “lemon”). Contrary to their namesake they are a slightly sweet cucumber—perfect for munching or adding to a salad. I prefer to harvest them before they turn dark yellow, as the skin will get tough and if you let them go long enough the fruit will get a bit tough as well. They also make incredible pickles because they hold their crispness well.

The other two types are new to me this year. Ever year since I have had a garden I have grown Straight 8 cucumbers, but as you know from reading the blog they were absolutely inundated with powdery mildew every summer. After fighting the mildew with sprays, tonics, home remedies, and aggressive pruning I decided to search out a mildew resistant variety, which led me to the Marketmore.
Lemon Cucumber

So far I have harvested one Marketmore cucumber, and it was tasty. It was probably about 7 inches long, and I think it would have kept growing had I let it. The favor was good (a bit strong) and the skin is tough, so this is one you’ll probably want to peel. The flavor probably mellows and becomes sweeter as they mature, so I am going to see how big the next few get. There are two things I love about this plant. One, it gets HUGE. As you can see from the picture below it is growing up the side of the house (I have 3 plants in a 7 gallon pot). It quickly grew to the top of the tomato cage and began its ascent toward the roof. It is also quite a heavy yielder, as there are probably 20-25 cucumbers on the plant between 3 and 5 inches long, and 2-3 that are around 7 inches. It is also loaded with flowers and very small cukes, so we’ll be making some pickles!

Perhaps equally important: not a single spore of my powdery nemesis! I can tell you without hesitation that this plant is mildew resistant, as my Straight 8 cukes would be dead by now (or close to it) without constant spraying and pruning. I have done absolutely nothing to control or prevent mildew this year, and the plants are extremely healthy and productive. I did see a few leaves with the early signs of mildew on the bottom of the Lemon cucumber plant, but I just pruned them off and I haven’t noticed more. That is right next to the Marketmore (and even growing intertwined with it) and there have been absolutely no signs of it spreading.

Lemon Cucumber (left) and Marketmore Cucumber (right)

Last but not least, one of my “I have to try that!” plants: the Sikkim Cucumber. What a cool looking fruit! The plant looks like any other cucumber, and the young cucumbers look like any other young cucumber. I was starting to wonder if I got the wrong seeds. However, as the fruits mature they begin to turn yellowish orange, and eventually are covered in a melon-like brown skin. That’s when they are ready (although I have read you can eat them anytime). The one in the photo below is just starting to develop the cantaloupe-like skin that makes these distinctive. Once I harvest expect a fill write up! I can also vouch for the mildew resistance of the Sikkim, as I have seen no mildew at all. Again, this is with no special steps taken to prevent it.

Tiny Sikkim Cuke (bottom) and larger Sikkim cucumber just starting to develop its distinctive color and skin pattern
 In terms of container size and watering, you will want a large container. The bigger the better. Cucumbers get huge and need a lot of water, which is why you want a large container. The more dirt the more water it can hold for the plants, and the more nutrients are available as well. I have mine in 7 gallon pots, but that is because I live upstairs so I am wary of using pots that are too heavy. I would rather use two 7 gallon pots and grow 2 different kinds of cucumbers than one 14 gallon pot and only get to try one. A 7 gallon pot is still quite large and I have to water the cucumbers every day unless it pours (a little sprinkle will barely wet the dirt as the leaves form a tight canopy). A bigger container would mean less watering and probably even larger plants. I also use a tomato cage for the vines to climb because I use round pots, although a trellis could also work if you used something longer and narrower.  

I typically water every night, and I am very careful to water only the dirt in order to keep the plants dry. Wet conditions are wonderful for mildew, and as we’ve been through already there are few garden problems I can’t treat or deal with, but mildew seems to be one of them. So keep the leaves dry by watering just the dirt. Plus, once the cucumbers get as big as you see in the photos above, watering the leaves will result in most of the water running off onto the deck and never making it to the thirsty roots.

One final note on watering: don’t worry if you skip a day and find your cucumbers wilted. They will wilt, and sometimes so badly you think you’ve killed the plant. This happened to me today in fact. Since it rained yesterday I skipped my daily watering. This morning I went out to find the lemon cucumber so wilted I thought it was dead! I quickly watered the plant and within an hour it was back to looking like nothing happened. Don’t let this become a habit though. It weakens the plant (which invites the mildew) and can result in bitter cucumbers.
A developing Lemon Cucumber!
People often wonder how often to fertilize. I fertilize with Tomato Tone early in the season, and then switch to Miracle Gro tomato food (the pink powder) as the summer progresses. I fertilize with the Miracle Gro once every 10 days or so, but I go light on the mix—probably ½ of what it calls for. If I ever see a particular plant getting lime green I use some of the typical blue Miracle Gro plant food for a quick boost of nitrogen. Within a week it will be dark green again. I follow this regimen for the entire garden: cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants get the pink Miracle Gro. Cooking greens, herbs and flowers get the blue Miracle Gro (since the cooking greens and flowers don’t fruit). You can use one fertilizer for everything and be fine too; I just happen to have both since I have a lot of houseplants as well.

To sum up: grow cucumbers in your container garden! They are fun, very easy, heavy yielding, and there are countless varieties out there. Choose a variety that is mildew resistant. If you are in an area susceptible to powdery mildew avoid Straight 8 (as much as I love them) because you will have issues with it, and once it gets settled into your garden and kills off your Straight 8’s it finds a lot of other plants to infest that it might have otherwise passed over. And use a pot no smaller than 7 gallons for best results. A bigger pot buys you more of a buffer for water and nutrients, which is a tremendous benefit when you can’t always be home to water your plants every day.

Until next time, happy gardening!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Perpetual Spinach

Perpetual Spinach before the harvest

One crop that is new to the garden this year is the Perpetual Spinach Chard. Perpetual Spinach is a type of Swiss Chard that looks and tastes a lot like spinach, but doesn’t bolt in the summer heat and is easy to harvest several times from the same plant.

Just like chard, if you cut only the larger outer leaves the plant will continue to grow new leaves all summer long. In terms of yield, one 6-7 gallon container can easily produce a meal every week to 10 days for two people. We have three containers of chard going (2 rainbow and 1 spinach) and we almost never run out during the summer.

After the harvest

If you plant 5 plants in a square with one in the middle, there will typically be 3-4 large plants and one smaller plant. As soon as you harvest some of the greens, the smaller plants doubles of triples in size to fill the void. With several containers, you can take a few leaves from each plant across all of them and it won’t look like you even harvested any!

Good pattern for planting
For our first try cooking it, we sautéed it with a touch of olive oil and some freshly chopped garlic. It was delicious!

Until next time, happy gardening!