March 30, 2012

Growing with Floating Row Cover

By Tanya Wohlsclagel, Master Gardener

A couple of years ago, as I wandered around the Hubbards Farm Market in early May, I looked on with envy.  Beet greens, kale, swiss chard.  These growers had perfect, robust, mouth watering greens to sell at a premium, early season price when I just had seedlings emerging.  In early June they had green and yellow beans, a whole month ahead of my crop.  I finally asked a grower how they are so far ahead of me.  She replied “Floating row cover, dear.”

At that time, I had been operating a small CSA, where I provided members with produce all growing season long.  I was so interested!  Not only would it be nice for me to be eating veggies sooner but it also would be impressive to my customers.  In 2010, I first experimented with floating row cover.   I ordered 5 x 250 feet from Stokes Seeds which was, at that time, about $85, tax and delivery in.  I purchased # 9 gauge wire from Home Hardware that had to be special ordered and took about a week to arrive.  My store charged just under $30, tax and delivery in. 

There are different grades of floating row cover which offer different levels of thickness and protection  Most grades are able to lay directly on sturdy plants.  As the plants grow, it will lift upward.  This is a helpful insect barrier for broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.  For less sturdy plants and seedlings, floating row cover can be erected with wire supports and used to construct low tunnels, also known as “caterpillars” and Johnny's Seeds has trademarked the name “Quick Hoops”.     

To build low tunnels, I cut the wire into 63 inch lengths and create hoops by pushing both ends into the ground.  Each hoop was placed about 3 feet apart.  I then dug a shallow trench on both sides along the length of the hoop area just outside of the hoops.  Before unraveling the row cover, I secured one end with rocks.  Then, with a helper, we unrolled to the length of the hoop area we were covering.  We cut that end, leaving lots of extra so we could secure it with rocks.  On the sides, we placed the row cover in the shallow trench and covered with the soil that was removed from the trench and also additional shovelfuls of soil, to further secure it.  The ends we twisted like a tootsie roll wrapper and secured with rocks.  Most of our vegetable garden area consists of raised beds surrounded by wood.  If I  placed a row cover near the edge, we wedged a 2”x2” by 8' or 2”x4” by 8' board between the wood and the outside of the hoops.  I weighed that down with rocks.  These low tunnels were a little easier to open for weeding and planting.  It is important that there are no flaps or gaps in the edge where the wind can get in and lift.  If you take the time to carefully secure your row cover in the beginning, you will spend less time chasing row covers around your yard.   

I used these row covers for more tasks than I initially imagined.  Very early in the season, as soon as the ground could be worked, I erected a row cover over a bed to warm the soil.  Using a thermometer after a few days, I found that the soil temperature inside the row cover was consistently a few degrees warmer than in the soil outside the row cover.  Some seeds will not germinate until a certain temperature is reached, so the row cover allowed me to start seeds earlier and have better germination.

The row cover also created a micro climate.  The soil would warm through the day and then at night, when temperatures dropped, the air inside the row cover would stay warmer.  The warmer temperatures allowed even cold tolerant plants to grow better.  Beets, chard, kale, carrots, peas, onions, spinach, and lettuce, to name a few, will germinate better and grow faster under a row cover. 

In my area, 15 minutes inland from Chester, last frost is often the long weekend in May but you can't really be sure until about June 10th.  The row cover allowed me to change my last frost date.  I could plant frost sensitive plants like tomatoes, beans and cucumbers as soon as most nights were above freezing.  If the occasional cold night set in, the row cover micro climate kept the plants from freezing. 

I also used the row covers for heat loving plants.  Basil was twice as successful at germinating under the row cover versus not under the row cover.  It also grew faster and was bigger than the plants subject to the wind, cooler temperatures and insects.  Eggplant and peppers, notorious heat lovers,  also preferred life under the row cover. 

The row covers even made hardening off easier.  Transplants normally taken from under lights and then put outside would have to be done gradually over the course of a few days.  The row cover protected the transplants from wind and shaded them from the sun just enough that you could transplant most plants without hardening off at all.  If, later in the season you decide to uncover your plants permanently, you may have to do so gradually at that point, if the weather is very hot.  In the long run, the row cover saves time with hardening off because life under the row cover is “part way” to outdoor life. 

The row cover was a great insect barrier.  I started zucchini and cucumber seeds under the row cover and kept them covered until they were well established plants.  This allowed them to survive attacks from the cucumber beetle.  Lettuce, beet greens and spinach didn't have holes in the leaves.  If you secure the row cover over insects that are already there, you will have to find and remove them.  The row cover even protected plants from predators like deer and rabbits. Even chickens that escaped from the nearby pen could not invade the row covered areas.

The row cover also extended the season into the fall.  We started seeds late in the summer for a second crop of beans and carrots.  We also covered established plants, like kale, so we could harvest right to December.  At the end of the season, the row cover material and the hoops can be stored and used again in future years. 

The row cover in our vegetable garden turned out to be much more useful and successful than initially thought.   There were a few drawbacks, including drought.  Once the row cover fabric gets wet the first time, rain will penetrate the row cover, but things will be drier inside because of the warmer temperatures and vigorous  growth.  Watering and checking soil moisture is essential during warm, dry weather.  Also, the cover has to be pulled back for weeding, watering, harvesting and then carefully secured every time which is a bit inconvenient.  Another disadvantage is not seeing what is growing as you stroll around your gardens with a morning cup of tea.   If you use the row cover to start plants but then later want to uncover them when the weather warms, they do need to be uncovered gradually over a few days.  One last important consideration is that if your plants require pollination to fruit, the cover will have to be removed prior to or at least during flowering.

Though more effort is required, gardening with floating row covers has many advantages to the home vegetable gardener.  Extending the season, earlier fruits and veggies, producing healthy, more robust plants and protection from a wide variety of predators is worth the extra work. 

Happy Gardening!

March 23, 2012

Successfully Growing Plants From Seeds

by Tanya Wohlsclagel, Master Gardener

Did you ever sit inside, watching the snow fall, wondering how you will ever make it to spring?  Still months or weeks to go before you can get the spade into the ground and get back to work on your next gardening project.  Winter used to be long and boring for me, but now, beginning as early as December, the glossy and colorful seed catalogs start filling my mailbox.  Time to get busy planning for another year!  Many of the seeds you choose can be direct seeded outdoors when the temperature warms.  Others need more time and must be started indoors.  To my delight, some need to(or in a pinch could) be started as early as January!

Growing your own plants from seed is more economical, gives you a broader selection of plant varieties, can give you a jump on growing certain plants and is a nice hobby for gardeners in the winter and early spring.  In the following text, I will give you some information on how to successfully grow plants from seed indoors.

Some people do have success growing on a windowsill.  Unfortunately, I am not one of those people.  The problems I experienced with tiny, emerging seedlings is that they did not get enough light.  This caused most plant varieties to stretch and fall over.  If you are lucky enough to have a large, south facing window or a south facing sun porch, then you likely could grow well.  I am lacking good south windows so I grow with fluorescent lights in my basement.  I use one “grow” tube and one cool tube that I purchase from the hardware store to give the full spectrum of light that the plants need.  The “grow” tube could also be a “plant tube”, “aquarium tube” or just a “warm” tube.  It is important that the fluorescent light be on an adjustable chain (fig 1) or be in an adjustable plant stand (fig 2) so you can raise the light as the seedlings grow.  Keep the tubes within 6 inches of the top of the plants.  The basement is a nice growing area because it is slightly cooler than room temperature that is in the rest of my house.  Most seedlings prefer 60-65 degrees F.  Warmer and they may become leggy (tall and spindly)  I also make sure I do not use old tubes.  Tubes loose their effectiveness over time, so be sure to replace them every 2 years.  The fluorescent lights should be placed on a timer or you can turn them off and on, giving the plants 14 to 16 hrs of light per day.



Something that took me a long time to realize is that plants germination requirements vary greatly and are sometimes far different from their growing requirements.  For example, the Geranium seeds I bought from Vesey's Seeds need to be covered lightly, kept at 75 degrees and kept in total darkness until they germinate.  Wave Petunias on the other hand, need only to be pressed into the soil surface, kept at 75 degrees and do not desire total darkness. 

Many seeds like warm temperatures and it can be difficult to get these temperatures in your house during the winter.  Consider buying a heat mat.  I purchased mine from Halifax Seed about 6 years ago for around $30.  It will give you a constant, appropriate temperature source of bottom heat that most of your seeds will enjoy.  When you germinate, warmth and moisture are generally the most important things with which with to be concerned.  Once germinated, bright light, cooler temperatures, nutrition, moisture and infection control are the most important things to consider.

To grow from seed, you will need a good quality growing medium.  I like Pro-Mix.  I have tried many other types but I have found I have had the most success with Pro-Mix.  You will also need a good fertilizer.  I like “Miracle Grow Quick Start”.  It is designed for seedlings and does seem to work better than an all purpose fertilizer. 

To begin, mix weakly with half of a cap of fertilizer into a 1 gallon jug of water.  Seeds do not need fertilizer to germinate but as soon as the seedlings start growing, nutrition will already be taken care of.  Put some Pro-Mix into a big bowl or bucket and add enough water to moisten the soil.  This will take some good mixing, a good amount of time and a surprisingly large amount of water.  You want the soil to be very moist, but not dripping.  If you squeeze the soil, it should at that point, drip.  Put the well moistened soil into new or very clean, sterile containers.  The container that I prefer for this step is the one celled seed pack.  Fill the container to ½ or 2/3 full.  Gently firm soil in place. 

Start seeds at the appropriate time.  Some need to be started 10-12 weeks before last frost date and some need to be planted 4-6 weeks before last frost date.  Though eager to start seedlings, I do mostly try to plant at the suggested time.  Planting too early will occupy more space and the plants may need to be transplanted into bigger pots. 

A majority of your seeds will need to be sprinkled onto the soil and then covered with a thin layer of moist soil, but check the individual seed packet because as mentioned before, the requirements do vary.  Some seed packets will have very little information or no information but the internet can provide you with lots of tips and details on the specific plant you want to grow.

Once your packs are seeded, place them in a seed flat that is solid (no holes), add a little water to the bottom of the flat and place a clear dome over top.  (fig 3)  Place the flat on a seed heat mat, if you are using one.  This flat with a clear dome is useful in keeping the seedlings from drying out.  If you don't have one, put your pack in a clear plastic bag and loosely tie the top.   


Monitor your packs every day.  If the soil surface begins to dry, add water to the bottom of the flat.  As soon as many or most of the seedlings begin to emerge in a particular pack, remove the pack from the dome and put under your lights.  A seed flat is useful here too, for future bottom watering. 

Continue to monitor your seedlings at least once per day.  (fig 4) Now that they are no longer in the dome or in a bag, they will dry more quickly.  When water is required, always water from the bottom.  If your seedlings are in a flat, pour water into the flat.  Don't add more water than the soil will absorb.  If you add too much, pour it off.  Plants will die if they sit in water for too long.  The reason to water from the bottom is so the water stream will not flatten your seedlings and it is also your best defense against “damping off”.

                                                                         Fig. 4
Damping off is an invisible fungal infection which will cause new seedlings to topple over at the soil surface and die.  There used to be a water additive product on the market called “No Damp”, but since it has been removed from store shelves, indoor seedling growers have had to use other forms of control. 

Bottom watering is important to reduce splashing and moisture at the soil surface.  Though you don't want the plants to dry out to the point of wilting or stress, it is good to allow the soil to dry a bit between watering.  A sign that your conditions are too moist is the presence of green algae on the surface.  (fig 5)  Though harmless in small quantities, it may become so thick that it keeps plant stems more wet, risking rot.  To resolve, gently cultivate the soil surface.  Putting a fan on your seedlings on a low setting is helpful too.  Always use sterile soil and sterile equipment.  Sanitize your work areas, grow areas and tools every year.  Don't plant seeds deeper than needed and do not overcrowd your containers.  Do not over or under fertilize or your plants will be stressed and more susceptible to infection.  Fertilizing once per week is enough, I use half strength while they are small.  If a damp off infection occurs, remove the infected plants immediately, sanitize the area and do not handle healthy plants with contaminated hands or tools.  One last defense against damping off is to sprinkle cinnamon, a natural  anti-fungal, on the soil surface.
As your seedlings grow, you will first see the seedling leaves, or cotyledons.  Soon after, true leaves will emerge and the seedling leaves will wither away.  Now is the time to prick your seedlings out. 

I always start the seeds in a “one cell pack” because I want to choose which plants to grow on in multi- cell packs.  This will also ensure you will have a plant in every cell. 

Move your pack to a work area.  Make sure the soil is moist.  Prepare your 4, 6 or 9 unit cell packs by gently packing full of well moistened soil and then using your tool, make a hole to the bottom in all of the cells.  Your tool could be any kind of pointy thing.  I like to use a sharpened but dull wooden pencil.  Grasp a plant by a true leaf with your index finger and thumb.  Place your lifter (pencil) in the soil under the plant and with effort by both hands, gently lift it out.  Guide the roots into the hole in the cell.  Plant the plant at the same level it was before and gently firm soil around the roots with the pencil.  Be careful to never plant the plant deeper than it was.  (there are just a few exceptions, such as tomatoes)  Also be careful to never handle the plant by its stem.  You may crush the delicate cells and it may topple the plant over. 

Continue to do this for every seedling that you wish to grow.  If there are any left over, it is nice to continue to grow them for a few days just to be sure that every plant you pricked out survives.  Continue to monitor your seedlings daily, water when necessary, fertilize weekly, practice infection control, keep the lights within 6 inches of the plant leaves with 14 to 16 hours of lights per day.  Increase the fan speed and turn it onto oscillate so the plants will become more rugged and sturdy.

When the plants are big, and hopefully healthy and vigorous, it is time to move them outside.  But just think about the comfortable life they have had as you babied them for months!  Regular amounts of water, relatively constant temperature and a gentle breeze from the fan.  Before they go outside into the elements, they will need to be hardened off.  Start by putting the plants in the shade, outdoors.  Gradually increase the time outside, and gradually move into the sun.  Don't allow the seedlings to wilt and protect the seedlings from strong wind and heavy rain.  After a few days of gradually introducing your seedlings to the outdoors, the plants are ready to transplant into their new location.

Starting plants from seed is a fun and rewarding hobby that can be done while the ground is still frozen and the snow is falling.  With some planning and following a few rules, you can grow sturdy plants of varieties that you just can't find at local nurseries, at a fraction of the cost.  Get growing!