February 17, 2014

Winter Garden Delight...

Flowering Kale-- Winter Garden Delight

After moving back to Florida from North Carolina over a year ago, I am still accustoming myself to the difference in the seasons and the gardening rhythm. In NC,  I did not start my seedlings until late February or early March. Here, I barely got down the Christmas decorations before it was time to plant the seeds. Outdoors, there are also a great many adjustments to make. Last winter here was mellow and mostly warm. It was predictably dry, winter being the arid season in this part of the country. However, this winter, while marked by only sporadic freezing and the occasional frost, has been for the most part cool, damp and drearily overcast. Water in the pond is at its highest mark since we have lived here, and the yard, brown and withered last year, is mostly green.

Many other plants in the yard and flower beds remain green and flourishing also. Lots of others don't fare so well at this time of the year. Flowering Kale has become a fast favorite for winter gardening since I have moved back to Florida. I had one in a pot last year by the back door. This year they are tucked into spots all around the back door, breezeway and garage. I had grown them before, but never with such success. Another success story here last year was with the patch of snapdragons I planted next to the birdbath.

Spring snapdragons
 Snapdragons are another plant that I have grown before, but never with as much success. I planted those in late fall of 2012 and they bloomed and flourished through most of last summer. I finally pulled them out in mid fall of last year, so I could plant some new ones. Gardening so often has to do with not only finding plants that thrive in your particular micro-climate, but also the right place to plant them. It is more an art than a craft—more of a natural magic than a science. Though I have lived and gardened in Florida before, much more of my horticultural experience lies in scattered garden beds across Wisconsin, Texas and North Carolina.  Every new gardening venue is an experiment, and I believe, an alchemical interaction between gardener and the land.

I have always been partial to nasturtiums, and they thrived the summer through in NC. Those I planted last spring never did much though,  and soon shriveled in the scorching summer heat. Having some left over seeds in late summer, I tossed them in a window box style planter. Six months later, they are thriving, sending tendrils of green across an otherwise brown patch in front of the patio. I need to add that I have carried them into the garage when freezing temperatures threatened. Several volunteer nasturtiums graced other garden beds. Some succumbed completely to the freezing weather, and others are trying to come back from the roots. Only time and the weather will tell if they will be successful.

Flats of spring seedlings started indoors

On the indoor front, I have been  very much enjoying observing  the progress of the tiny plants I started about a month ago now. My table garden in front of the south facing dining room window includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and artichoke seedlings as well the herbs, chives and basil. I do not purport to be an expert on gardening, and particularly gardening in Florida, but I have started my own spring seedlings for many years now.

 There are several reason for this:
  • I am Cheap
  • Seeds, though much more expensive than in the past, are economical and most can be saved from one year to the next.
  • There is a much wider availability of varieties and colors. You can tailor your garden to your own tastes and even to your own region.
  • You can experiment with plants not likely to ever grace the shelves of your local garden store.
  • It is just as easy to grow enough to share. Plant starts make good spring gifts, and it is fun to be able to exchange varieties with other gardeners.

Seedling Tray-- Tomatoes, peppers and basil
Of course, there are problems and drawbacks with beginning your own plants as well. I have grown quite tired these past few years of buying the trays offered at the big-box stores for starting seeds. You know the ones—the tray with plastic greenhouse cover and inserts for planting. They get more expensive every year, and seem to last a correspondingly shorter time. Frequently, by the time you go to use them a second year, they are cracked or leak. The inserts are flimsy and do not stand up to the washing they need for repeated use. The covers, only necessary for a few days anyway, warp or yellow in no time. Since I save the trays from buying plants at the nursery, some to reuse and others till I get around to returning them, I usually have an ample supply on hand. However, the drainage at the bottom presents problems for the time the plants spend in the house. This year, I decided to try lining these with plastic sheeting I had on hand for other gardening purposes. I cut it to generously fit into the flats and then nested the peat pots on top. So far, so good. When I am through with them, I think that I can wash and fold the plastic linings for at least one more year.

I use the peat pots almost exclusively now. The price of these is still not as prohibitive as that of plastic pots, and I can purchase them in the bulk packs rather than as part of a planting system pretty reasonably. Having had various problems in the past with damping off, fungus and even last year's cutworm fiasco, I am acutely aware of the importance of cleanliness with these tiny plants. Using the peat pots, which can be planted in the ground or tossed in the compost bin, eliminates the need for washing those tiny plastic inserts that refuse to stand up to much abuse anyway. I have an ample supply of larger pots I have saved when it comes time to re-pot some of these into more roomy quarters. The peat pots, along with sterile seed starter mix (I use organic) give them a good start. Before the seeds emerged, I just covered the whole table with a sheet of clear plastic to hold in the warmth and humidity. Once they began to come up, I continued to only cover them at night until most of the seeds had germinated. I bottom water, and have tried a couple of things I read on other blogs after finding the links on Pinterest. Last year, after some early damping off and frenzied searching for answers, I began throwing a chamomile tea bag into my water pitcher for the plants. I know there are recipes and such out there, but I just toss the bag in and change it out every several days. This year, I also started adding a capful of peroxide to each pitcher, and to the spray bottle I keep for spot watering. So far, so good. I will continue to update on the progress of my tiny charges.

I have already thinned them once. It is a chore I dread. I absolutely hate the idea of discarding these living plants, but it needs to be done. I try not to overseed a single cell, but I want enough to make sure each one has a plant, and some seeds are just so tiny you can not help but end up with a clump. I have been waiting for them to begin having true leaves for this thinning. The emergence of these miniature replicas of the plant's leaf also signals me that it is time to begin mixing a weak solution of liquid fertilizer to feed them every week or so. I will also start setting them out for a short time on warm, sunny days very soon.

Hanging Pot
 Life in the cycle of the garden, just as in the cycle of our own lives, never ceases. There are always jobs to be done, preparations to make for the next season. Sometimes things are quieter or seemingly dormant, but as winter passes we can not help but dream, and perhaps yearn for the warm sunlight and green promise of spring.

Until next time— blessings, and sweet Dreams of greener days to come.

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