Snicker if You Will

I don’t know about your propagation space, but mine is getting overcrowded. Yes, now with a greenhouse, I’ve got more room than in the the past when I grew seedlings in windowsills or in my basement under lights. But my greenhouse is small, and with greenhouse beds home to fig trees and early spring lettuce, arugula, and other greenery, seedlings are relegated to a 12 by 2 foot shelf along the north wall.

I make the most of that shelf by “pricking out.” Snicker if you will at this Britishism, but pricking out is a way to get a lot of bang for your buck space-wise, whether in a greenhouse, on a windowsill, or beneath lights. It also makes more economical use of seeds.
Seedlings in spring, greenhouse
The process begins, for me, with either 4 by 6 inch or 6 by 8 inch seed flats, which are plastic pans a couple of inches deep with drainage hole drilled in their bottoms. I fill one of these with potting soil, firm it, and then treat it like a miniature farm field, making 4 or 5 furrows along the short length. I press these furrows into the potting soil with a board that fits the flat to the underside of which I attached dowels where I wanted the furrows.
Seed flats and furrowmaker
The first cool thing about this whole process is that each furrow can be sown to a different variety. I generally sow the flat to different varieties of the same kind of plant so that germination of the whole flat is fairly uniform. Looking over at one of my larger flats, I see newly emerged sprouts of Nepal, Belgian Giant, Paul Robeson, Amish Paste, and Blue Beech tomatoes. All taking up a mere 48 square inches!
Sowing lettuce seeds in flats
Flats of tomato seed were planted April 1st, watered, and kept warm, and those sprouts emerged today, the 6th. No light is needed until sprouts emerge. After a week , now with good light, those cotyledons (seed leaves) will darken and true leaves will appear. That’s when it’s time to actually “prick out.” Mind you, for two weeks, all those potential tomato plants have been getting started in a mere 48 square inches, the first week of which they didn’t even need light!
Lettuce seedlings
Other kinds of seeds take longer to germinate. Or shorter. And temperature also figures in. Tables of optimum germination temperatures for various kinds of seeds are available on the web and in some seed catalogs.

The Process

Pricking out is transferring the still tiny seedlings from the seed flat to individual cells to “grow on,” another Britishism. For these containers I’ve used saved cell-packs from plants I’ve bought in the past; now I mostly use Growease Seed Starters automatic watering  system from Depending on how many plants you’ll be growing and what you’ve got, small yogurt containers, even jumbo egg cartons could also fill the bill.
Pricking out containers
To start, I take a dibble, for this use, a pointed plastic cylinder about 3/4 inch across, and make a hole in one potting-mix-filled cell. (Etymologically, “dibble” originally was, or is, Manchester British slang for a police officer, from a character in a cartoon. How did that become the name for the black plastic thing I’m holding?)

Back to the seed flat . . .  time to lift individual seedlings out of their seed flat and into their newly dibbled hole. Those seedlings are very delicate and will die if the stem is injured. So I take a knife or a spatula and scoop up underneath a clump of seedlings to loosen the potting soil around their roots, and then take gentle hold of one of their leaves to lift the plantlet free.
Pricking out lettuce
After lowering one plant’s roots into its waiting hole, I firm the potting soil around the roots. No, not pressing against the stem, which could injure it, but pressing down into the potting soil. And not too hard. Just enough to firm it around the roots. One advantage of pricking out is that you can set the little seedling deep in the hole, up to its true leaves, so that the leaves are no longer supported by the weak, young stem.

Water is needed right away, either from below by sitting the container in a pan of water for awhile, or with a gentle shower from above. The newly planted seedlings are not turgid for a few hours so water from above often accumulates on the leaves to weigh down the plant. The wet leaves, flopped down on wet potting soil, are apt to rot, so with my finger I go plant by plant flicking off the water, and then the plants stand up straight.

After about 5 more weeks of growth with bright light and slightly cooler temperatures, the plants will be sturdy and the season will be ripe for tomato planting. Sometimes I caress my plants to encourage stocky growth, raking my hand gently over their tops, ideally once a day. The effect, called thigmotropism, is the same as that which causes dwarf, stocky growth of pine trees on wind mountain outcroppings.
Pricked out seedlings
Not all seedlings follow tomato’s schedule. Celery, for instance, might take 3 weeks to germinate and then another 9 weeks to grow to transplant size. (For details on when to sow, based on the average date of the last spring frost where you garden, see the vegetable section of my book Weedless Gardening.)

Followup on Previous Weeks’ Blogs

My first batch of birch syrup from a couple of weeks ago was, according to a friend who boiled it down for me, awful. “Worst thing I ever tasted,” says he.

But some of that syrup was cloudy from microbial activity during the warm weather. That could have caused that distinctive flavor.

Colder weather followed, and I tried again, discarding any cloudy sap. Boiled into a syrup, the flavor was still distinctive, not awful, but also not really good. Something reminiscent of cough syrup or molasses. The sap is high in fructose, which burns at a lower temperature than sucrose, the primary sugar in maple sap. It more easily takes on a scorched flavor, which my syrup definitely has, in excess.

Perhaps a species other than river birch would have been better, even good. The syrup is usually made from paper birch. All I grow here is river birch, though. They are, at least, beautiful trees.

And a followup on my overwintered artichoke plants. Or, I should write, my non-overwintered artichoke plants. Perhaps something will eventually emerge. No sign of anything yet, and I’m not hopeful.


Heaven Scent Flower

I trace the origin of my present obsession with growing carnations – big, fat, fragrant carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) – to the movie, Jean de Florette, that I saw back in 1986. Not that I aspire to labor under the weight of hauling water long distances to care for my plants, as did Ugolin. And not that I’m hoping to get good money selling the cut flowers at a local market.

Actually, my only memories of the film are of the charming countryside of Provence, of Ugolin crouching over the plants and lavishing them with care, and of the pretty pink flowers. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Ugolin’s carnations even got as far as the flowering stage. Anyway, in my mind’s eye I see those pink blossoms and smell their spicy perfume.
Carnation, fragrant and pretty
With good soil and ample water, my carnations have an easier time of it that did Ugolin’s. Too easy, perhaps. Carnations don’t need or like overly rich or wet soil. When it came time to plant out my seedlings, I recalled those scenes in Jean de Florette. The ledge of soil held up by a stone retaining wall along the south side of my house provide the good soil drainage and sunlight that suits carnations. Lavender, another Mediterranean plant growing on a wall nearby, will help make the carnations feel right at home.

  The biggest threat to my carnations is winter cold and wetness. And even then, these carnations, although technically perennials, are typically short-live perennials that peter out after a couple of years. Luckily, they are easy to grow from seed or root from cuttings.

Like Ugolin, I’ll soon be carefully nurturing some new seedlings. Whether planting, picking, taking cuttings, or preparing them for winter, I’ll also be hunched over my carnations and lavishing them with care, in the months ahead. It’s worth it, for the pastel flowers, and especially for the flowers’ heavenly scent.

And Some Things for the Other Senses

What’s the attraction of southern Europe? The climate there is so different from here in the Wallkill River valley, yet I am attracted to and keep trying to grow Mediterranean plants such as carnations, figs, pomegranates, lavender, black mulberry, and rosemary. All these plants thrive in dry summers and cool, not frigid, winters; minus 20°F is not an uncommon low winter temperature here.

Large cardoon plant

Cardoon, last year

Add to the roster here artichoke and cardoon, two more Mediterranean plants that I set out last spring, for the artichoke, the spring before for the cardoon. (The very mild temperatures of the previous winter let the cardoons survive their first winter outdoors.) That was after sowing each plant in later summer and having it winter in the very cool temperatures of my greenhouse, which provided the vernalization the plants need to flower their first season outdoors.

Both cardoon and artichoke grow as a whorl of spiny leaves from the center of which rises a main flower stalk with smaller flower stalks branching off lower down. Like carnations, they are short-lived perennials. Like carnations, they are easily propagated, in this case by seed or by offshoots that grow at the base of the plant

Cardoon in bud

Cardoon in bud

Like carnations, the biggest threat to artichokes and cardoons around here is winter wetness and, especially, cold. Winter cold will assuredly kill them unless they are protected in some way. To that end, late last fall, I cut down the plants and covered each with a large, inverted flowerpot in which and on which piled leaves for insulation. 

Cardoon  & artichoke protected for winter

Cardoon & artichoke protected for winter

During the warm spell a week or so ago, I pulled back the leaves and uncovered the plants. Cardoon leaves had sprouted more than a foot high within their winter home! Without light, the leafy stalks were ghostly white.


Cardoon, after winter

Cardoon, after winter

That’s okay; cardoon is sometimes purposely blanched to make its flavor more mild. A few days of light will green them up. That’s okay too; I’m growing cardoon for its bold visual presence — last year the plants leaves formed a 3-foot-high, blue-green, mound of spiny leaves up the center of which rose flower stalks at the top of which opened blue flowers resembling enormous thistles.

Cardoon flower

Cardoon flower

As for the artichokes: Not a sign of life. Perhaps winter cold or moisture did them in. Perhaps mice lunched on the roots. Perhaps there’s life beneath the ground, still to awaken. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.


Next Year’s ‘Chokes

Ahh, such a leisurely time of year to sow seeds. And for some of them, I don’t care if they don’t sprout for months. You might wonder: Why sow now; why so laid back?

I’ll start with artichoke, from whose seeds I did want to see sprouts soon. And I did. The seeds germinate readily. Right now, a few small seedlings are growing, each in its own “cell” of a seed flat, enjoying the cool, sunny weather.
Cynara, artichoke seedlings
Artichoke is a perennial whose natural life cycle is (usually) to grow leaves its first year, then edible buds its second year and for a few years hence. Especially in colder regions, artichokes can sometimes grown from seed like annuals, with a wrinkle.

To make that transition from growing only leaves to growing flower buds, the plants need to get vernalized, that is, to experience some winter cold. Except that winter cold here in the Hudson Valley (and everywhere else colder than Hardiness Zone 7) will do the plants in. So we cold-climate gardeners need to trick the plants into feeling like they experienced winter cold, just not our winters’ depth of cold.

When growing artichokes like annuals, from seed sown in spring, you make “winter” by exposing the young, growing seedlings to cool, but not frigid, temperatures (32-50°F) for a couple of weeks. The problem with this method is that the plants are fairly small when they get this signal that “winter” is over. In my experience, these small plants make commensurately small buds for harvest.

I’m lucky enough to have a greenhouse that gets very cool in winter, but not below freezing. My young artichoke plants will continue to grow very large though the very extended “autumn” weather in the greenhouse. In midwinter, they should get plenty of chilling. Come spring, after frost danger is past, I’ll plant out the large plants to, I hope, make large, fat buds.

I got this idea from growing cardoon, which is essentially the same as artichoke, except it’s grown for its large leaf stalks.
Large cardoon plant
Or it’s grown as a flower, in which case it would require the same conditions as artichoke to make flowers. I don’t like cardoon as a vegetable but do like it as a flower, so last year, around now, I sowed cardoon seeds and grew the seedlings in the greenhouse just as I’ve described for artichoke. The result was big, fat, beautiful, blue flowers. I expect the same, except I’ll harvest the artichoke buds before they open.

Actually, I grew two cardoon plants, and for some reason one of them grew only leaves all summer, and is still growing them, the olive-green leaves each rising from ground level in a four-foot-high-whorl.

More Hucks’

A couple of months ago I collected huckleberry seeds from my huckleberry plant and sowed them. As expected, they still haven’t sprouted. They weren’t expected to sprout, at least not until they were “stratified.”

Like artichoke, huckleberry (Gaylussaccia baccata) needs to feel that winter is over, in this case before its seeds will sprout. Stratification, as this cold exposure is called, prevents small seedlings from being killed by winter cold after sprouting in late summer or autumn.

My huckleberry plant in fall

My huckleberry plant in fall

Again, it’s a certain duration of cool (32-50°F) temperatures that do the trick. Under natural conditions, these chilling requirements are fulfilled in late autumn and/or in spring. In this case, colder temperatures would do no harm, but would not put any hours into the “chilling bank.” Once the “chilling bank” has been filled, the seeds await warm enough temperatures to sprout.

(For more details and wrinkles about seed germination, see my latest book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden.)

The pot of huckleberry seeds has been sitting outdoors, covered, since they were sown. If I want earlier sprouting, I’ll bring the pot into the greenhouse in winter. 

Ramping Up

I collected seeds from my ramp plants about a month ago with an eye to increasing my holdings. You guessed it: Ramps also need cold. But given mere stratification, the seed will not germinate. The behavior of ramp seeds is a little different from huckleberry seeds in that ramp seeds have a double dormancy.
Ramps seed heads
Roots need to grow before the shoots will sprout. That first stage requires a couple of months or so of warmth. Only after then can the second stage, shoot growth, begin, except that won’t occur until after a stratification period, with cool temperatures, again between 32-50°F. 

Under natural conditions, ripe ramp seeds get their warm period before winter sets in and then are ready to sprout in spring. But further north, where seeds ripen later, that first stage, to get root growth underway, is delayed until the summer after the seeds drop. In that case, sprouts don’t poke above ground until their second spring.

I don’t want to wait that long so I sowed my ramp seeds in a seed flat which I’m keeping in a warm place for a couple of months. After that, I’ll move the flat to cooler temperatures. And then, come spring, sprouts — I hope.

My ramps planting

My ramps mother plants

What’s New, Or Going to Be

Some white tomatoes, grown
years ago

Two or three people have already asked me, “Are you growing anything special this year?” Each time I had to stop and think: Am I? Then I  feel, yes, I should be growing something new each year. Then, on the other hand, I feel, what with the vagaries of the weather and pest problems, that it’s interesting enough just to grow every year what I’ve grown in previous years. Reinforcing that last thought is a quote from Charles Dudley Warner (My Summer in a Garden, 1870): “I have seen gardens which were all experiment, given over to every new thing, and which produced little or nothing to the owners, except the pleasure of expectation.”

I’ve surely paid my dues in the “experiment” department. I’ve grown garden huckleberries, an annual that, cooked with lemon and sugar, is alleged to rival blueberries for pie. False! Garden huckleberries are tasteless. The pie would taste like a lemon-and-sugar pie. I’ve grown white tomatoes, touted as being sweeter than red tomatoes. One taste made me realize how welcome is the refreshing tang of red tomatoes. And then there was celtuce, supposedly combining the leafy qualities of lettuce and crunchy stalk of celery in one plant. Not so! It tasted like bad celery and bad lettuce. Celtuce is essentially a lettuce going to seed, the seedstalk trying to stand-in for celery.
Okay, now that I think about it, I am growing some things that are sort of new this year. Normally I would shy away from planting apricots, even though biting into a tree-ripened apricot — sweet, soft, and rich in flavor — is a heavenly experience. But apricot trees have serious insect and disease problems, their early blossoms usually succumb to late spring frost, and our fluctuating winter temperatures increase disease susceptibility so that the trees die either quickly or slowly.
Still, I couldn’t resist, while perusing Cummins Nursery ( website and happening upon the variety Jerseycot, the most reliable apricot for apricot-unfriendly regions of the northeast. Planting an apricot tree may represent a 20 year cycle for me; about 20 years ago I finally gave up and cut down an apricot tree I had planted a few years earlier. (The wood is beautiful and I reincarnated it as a coat rack. I hope this year’s tree sees many productive years before becoming a coat rack also.)
Apricots, in my future — I hope.

Another “new” plant for this year is honeyberry (Lonicera edulis), sometimes called edible blue honeysuckle. This is another plant I grew many years ago. It performed poorly because of the poor care I gave it which was mostly because of the poor flavor of the one berry I tasted. But honeyberry is a new fruit, in the same place, development-wise, as the apple might have been 2,000 years ago. New varieties have come down the pike and I’m ready to try these newbies.

A couple of other sort-of-new plants here are artichoke and citrus. The artichokes I planted last summer did nothing except grow leaves. I dug up the two plants, potted them, and have grown them through winter in sunny window. Age and last autumn’s exposure to cool temperature should get me some ‘chokes to eat this year. (Artichokes need a cold spell before they decide to make ‘chokes instead of just leaves.)
New citrus will expand my current collection. I’m deciding between Satsuma mandarin and Clementine which, in either case. will join the rest of the (citrus) family in pots here that winter indoors in sunny windows and summer outdoors in full sun.
I’ve gardened for decades, but with a mere 12 years of greenhouse growing under my belt, feel like a novice trying to keep the greenhouse green and productive all winter. The basic routine is to sow salad and cooking greens in late summer and autumn for late autumn, winter, and early spring harvest. Timing is key. Planted too early, some greens go to seed before winter even gets underway; planted too late, short days and cool temperatures don’t allow enough growth for reasonable harvest.
This year, all went smoothly, keeping our salad bowls amply filled right up until a couple of weeks ago. Here, for the record, is some of what worked well:
•Direct sown Green Fortune bok choy, Aug. 30th;
•Direct sown Oregon Giant spinach, Sept. 6th;
•Direct sown Runway arugula; Aug. 28th;
•Direct sown Rhapsody and other lettuces; Aug. 28th.
Lettuce sown in seed flats at the end of December and transplanted out in the greenhouse in mid-February is now big enough to contribute some leaves to salads and, in a few weeks, whole heads. I’ll round out those pickings with recent sowings of spinach, arugula, erba stella, and mustard greens in the greenhouse.
More record-keeping along with fine-tuning sowing times and what varieties to grow will make the greenhouse even more productive in years to come.