Green Thumbs and Victory Gardens

For most of my life, I have thought myself “bad with plants.” Over the years, I have been able to kill just about any flora with a combination of neglect and ignorance. But last year, I decided I was done with that mind-set. I decided to change myself from bad-with-plants to OK-with-plants. Growing plants is mostly a question of trial and error to find best practices, and many of those practices are older than civilization itself. So, I figured, anyone the the ability to read and take notes, like me, can certainly grow plants. I am a technology lover, and agriculture is the first, and most quintessential, technology.

My COVID 19 Victory Garden — tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and a few bee-attracting flowers

I have known people who are truly good with plants, and they clearly have some ineffable talent I don’t have. But as with any project of self-improvement, success is not about being talented so much as setting realistic goals and not lamenting the limits to one’s talent.

Now as we face this global COVID pandemic, and the resulting stir-craziness of shelter-in-place orders, growing plants is a therapeutic and interesting project. Plus, it helps the environment. And it’s spring, after all — the time to sow. So I am writing down my best practices, calculated for those who don’t have any particular talent for growing things.

Little shoots joining the world.
A few have graduated to peat pots. See method of transplanting below.

I live in a fairly urban neighborhood, in a house with little outside space, so my growing is mostly limited to pots. I live in California, where one can grow just about anything. (Most of the state is Zone 9 — no frost and moderate temperatures.) I prefer useful plants (edible or otherwise useful) to ornamentals. Considering those constraints, here are my suggestions for creating your own victory garden.

  • Gardening is fun. If you need an emotional pick-me-up, gardening is excellent. There is a basic human joy in seeing things grow that transcends culture, geography, class and the cynicism of the contemporary knowledge worker.
  • There is lots of free, helpful information. The Internet is an amazingly helpful source of information about gardening. A lot of it comes from home gardeners who face all the same challenges you do. And unlike in so many fields of endeavor, the desire to share this knowledge is apparently much stronger than the desire to be a troll or idiot. Online gardeners seem to me a particularly helpful and practical lot. So if you have a problem, look it up and chances are very high you will find help troubleshooting it.
  • Be prepared to fail. Gardening is about beating the odds. Some seeds will germinate faster than others, and some will live and some will die, and you may never know exactly why. Do improve your practices to improve your yield, but don’t kick yourself over some of your plants’ untimely demise. I have a practical philosophy about growing things: pick what you want to grow, try it, and hope it lives. If it does, great. If it doesn’t move on. Don’t bother with plants that are high-maintenance until you gain more skills.
  • Don’t worry too much about the mold. Mold may appear on your seed starts, and it does not hurt them. But it can be a sign of over-watering, so remember to water from the bottom. I apply a little turmeric powder (a natural antiseptic) with a Q-tip to cover the mold. It seems to work to keep the mold from spreading. Once you transplant the mold should go away.
  • Label your plants. Use something to indicate which seedlings are which. It’s easier to forget than you think.
  • Experiment! If you eat something and like it, save the seeds, dry them out, and try to plant them. This does not always work, for various reasons, but it’s fun to try. (Don’t try it with apples. For a fascinating explanation of why that does not work, read The Botany of Desire.)
  • Buy from good sources. Plants I have bought from big box stores often die, and I think it’s because they are not healthy or well cared for in shipping, or just not suitable for the area. I have had better luck with local nurseries and online vendors.
  • You can order almost all supplies online. Here are my favorites, with a preference for multi-taskers:
Peat pellets — perfect for germinating seeds.
Cookie sheet — good tray for lining up your peat pellets.
Also works well to make cookies!
Peat pots — good for transplanting seedlings as they grow from peat pellet to final pot.
Pots — suitable for final planting. These have holes in the bottom you can punch out. Plastic pots also make transplanting easy, and you can reuse them. If you use terra cotta pots, they can be hard to transplant from without breaking.
Tomato cage — good for tomatoes and other climbers. Plastic but reusable.
Squirt bottle — useful for pinpoint bottom watering, and lots of other uses. My pour-over tea kettle works for bottom watering as well. I found these bottles ultimately too leaky, though.
Grow lamp — this is actually not a grow lamp but a full spectrum lamp and generally a nice product.
Coconut coir — great planting medium with excellent drainage.
Bucket for re-hydrating coir.
Fertilizer — necessary but don’t over-do it
Use this tape to tie plants to stakes and cages.
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Plant bags are reusable, easy to store, and drain well.
  • Best practices. These are my suggestions based on trial and error.
    • Plant at the right time of year. Most plants sprout in spring, but some bloom in winter. Pick the best timing for the specific plant.
    • Use peat pellets for germination. They work very well, plus it’s fun to watch them expand when you hydrate them.
    • Do not cover seeds with soil. This technique works well for most seeds. Just moisten them and lay them on the top of the peat pellet. Be very careful when watering, to avoid dislodging them, but…
    • Water from the bottom, not the top. This is VERY IMPORTANT. The plant will suck up the water it needs if you water from the bottom. If you water from the top, the stem will get weak or the watering may be too rough on the seedling.
    • Soak difficult seeds. Seeds that have tough husks may need to be soaked in water prior to sowing. I like to just wait until they germinate in the water, then carefully plant them by laying them on top of the peat pot.
    • Use a grow lamp for a boost. Keep it on during daylight hours.
    • Transplanting. (See photos below) Once the seedling roots appear outside the peat pellet, put planting medium (soil or coir) in the peat pot, press out a pellet-shaped indentation, and nestle the pod in there. When you transfer to a new container like this, be very gentle. Backfill any gaps with planting medium. Getting the plant vertical is important. Generally, you should transplant when a plant gets pot-bound in its current container (meaning the roots are growing beyond the container). Using peat pellets and pots allows you to transplant seedlings gently.
    • Coconut Coir. This is my favorite planting medium, for planting in pots. It is not soil. It is made from the husks of coconuts. It comes in compact dehydrated form. I like to add fertilizer when I re-hydrate it. Because it is not soil it lacks minerals, which is why fertilizer should be added. I have found it to be much superior to soil for establishing plants. It had excellent drainage and prevents over-watering.
    • Do not over-water. Water established plants when the soil starts to feel dry. Seedlings must be kept moist.
    • Outside planting. Do not put plants outside until they are established and can stand changes in weather.
    • Stakes and cages. If the plant requires a way to climb, establish the stick or cage very early, when you first transplant to a pot, so you don’t have to manhandle the plant in order to train it up the trellis. Use flexible tape to tie the plant to the stake or cage, and be gentle to avoid breaking or uprooting the plant.
    • Drainage is Everything. Do punch the holes from the bottom of your pots, particularly if they will be outside. If they are inside your house, that will cause water to leak onto your floor, so you will need something to catch the water. I use extra dinner plates.

Transplanting

When the plant sends a root outside the peat pellet, it’s time to transplant. They key to transplanting is to be very careful and not harm the plant. If you use the method of laying the seen on top instead of covering it with soil, you need to be very careful about back-filling around it, so it doesn’t get uprooted.

Here you can see the root growing out of the bottom of the peat pellet (right). The peat pot has a little soil (coconut coir) in it, dampened with water.
Put the plant in the peat pot. Make sure it sits a little bit below the rim.
Backfill carefully with soil. I used a teaspoon.
Successful transplant ends with a little more water. That’s a morning glory plant.

Transition to Outdoors

This was where I hit a wall. I lost quite a few of my seedlings when I moved them outside, contrary to all the advice I found on the web. I dutifully moved them to planters, watered them, put them in the sun. I know that some plants like sun and others shade, but for me, even the reputedly sun-loving plants got fried when I put them outside. Their leaves turned white and fell off within days. The stronger ones grew back new leaves in time, but it was frustrating and a little sad to see so many of my seedlings die. I was able to save some by transitioning them from indoors to a shade area rather than full sun. (left hand picture) The ones that were put directly in partial sun, and never in full sun, did fine. (right had picture). This was true of all the fruiting plants: tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. My working theory is that seedlings started indoors may endure the sun less easily than those started outdoors.

And just for your entertainment, here is a photo I call “The Triumph of Hope over Experience.” Maybe someday that tomato seedling, which got fried in the sun and then grew back, will need that cage!

In sum, I did quite well with the herbs like basil in full sun, and leafy greens like cilantro and arugula, in the partial shade. My tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers still seem to be alive, and I am looking forward to some fruit.

So, as it turns out, I am actually pretty bad with plants, but I was able to improve to, perhaps, not-so-bad.

  • Here are some plants I have tried to grow.
    • Tomatoes — easy and they taste great.
    • Mint — virtually impossible to kill. I bought a seedling and it has lasted for years.
    • Shiso — they require soaking but are easy to start. They are very fragile until they are well established. I lost half of them in transplanting. After that they are hardy.
    • Carrots — very hard to germinate; this was a failure for me.
    • Capers — these are both ornamental and food plants; germination needs cold storage. Of all the seeds I carefully stored in the refrigerator and then planted, only one germinated. I hope it lives!
    • Wild roses — germination needs cold storage. Results TBD.
    • Cucumbers — easy to grow.
    • Peppers — easy to grow.
    • Saffron crocuses — easy to grow, beautiful and ephemeral, and very low yield on the saffron threads. They bloom in November/December.
    • Poppies — not hard to grow, beautiful and ephemeral, and may survive California winters. But all of my starts died when I put them outside.
    • Apricots — notwithstanding this excellent explanation about how to extract the seeds, I could not get them to germinate. It may be because I used seeds from dried fruit.
    • Zucchini — for pity’s sake, don’t grow it. No one wants it.
    • Herbs — focus on herbs that you can harvest without killing them, like basil, oregano, rosemary.
    • Cacti — in California these are very easy to grow. (Buy small plants rather than seeds.) Try blooming cacti for color.

Happy gardening! Please send me questions if you like.