Saturday, September 26, 2020

Sowing seeds to ease the covid boredom

First up, a big, warm THANK YOU everyone for all your lovely messages saying things like “welcome back” “wondered where you got to” “was thinking of you only the other day” etc etc. (Not one saying "oh no, he's back"). You’re such nice people! 

On with the show.

Last posting I mentioned that I was going to do something about growing things from seed, because that’s been my main activity ever since the COVID-19 pandemic turned the whole world upside down early this year.

Like all other sensible people, I’ve been avoiding crowded spaces wherever possible. I do my supermarket shopping (mask on!) in the early morning hours, when it's fairly empty, and I haven’t been to a major gardening centre for more than six months — and yet I’ve been very busy growing crops of herbs, vegies and flowers during all this time.

The reason for that is simple: seeds. I’ve bought some of the seeds I need at the supermarket, and others that I can’t find there I have bought online.

So what have I been raising from seed?

Mesclun: this is just a mix of different salad greens, including several varieties of lettuce, plus rocket, lamb’s lettuce, a small Asian green like tatsoi, plus sharper tasting mizuna and red radicchio. Each seed supplier has its own mesclun mix. I'm growing mesclun in long, deep planter troughs that edge our outdoor entertaining area.

Coriander: one big pot is all I need. I sowed a batch in April, then when it started to tire in July, I sowed another batch.

Chives: this is the first time I've sown chives from seed, and it's worked so well I might do it this way every year. My chives pot always loses the will to live in midwinter, when it becomes a solid clump of pot-bound roots in its pot. In previous years I've either divided up the clump and replanted the best ones, or I've taken the lazy route and just bought another punnet of seedlings. From now on, it's seeds, ho!

Parsley: this is a pain to do, as parsley can take 3-4 weeks for the seeds to sprout, but it's a good reliable way to rejuvenate the parsley patch if you get started in late winter.

Poppies: usually I buy seedlings of Iceland poppies to grow for Pammy, but this year I started them off from seed a few months ago, and they're blooming nicely now. Nowhere near as easy and convenient as buying seedlings in late April, but not difficult to grow from seed, either.

Sweet peas: after last year's success with my first sowing of seed, I've expanded the size of the sweet pea patch and moved it to a sunnier spot. So far, so good.

Shallots (green onions): the thing I hate about buying punnets of shallot seedlings from garden centres is that even one punnet has too many seedlings, so I've got into the routine of sowing a small number of seeds every few weeks to keep production going. During the pandemic lockdown my culinary adventures have included lots of stir-fries, and learning all sorts of noodle dishes, and you end up getting through a lot of shallots when you start cooking a lot of Asian food.

Sowing seeds in pots

Sowing seed is easy in pots using my ‘scatter and cover’ method. Here's how I do it (I'm sowing coriander seeds, simply because they are pale and big, so you can actually see them in the photos). The basic principles apply to all sorts of other seeds (ie, chives, shallots, basil, parsley, chillies, tomatoes, lettuce, mesclun).

First up I smooth out a bed of fresh potting mix so it is flat and even, and reaches almost near the top of the trough, but not quite. 

Then I scatter the seed from the packet as evenly as I can, making sure to err on the side of scattering too many seeds, rather than too few (I can thin out the crop a few weeks later on). 

Here's a cool trick ... read the instructions! Seed packets will tell you how "deep" to sow the seeds. In this case, with coriander, it's 5mm deep.

So, I scatter seed-raising mix* fairly thinly over the seeds, about 5mm deep in this case (without getting too anxious about how accurate you are). But do make sure it's enough to cover the seeds so you can’t see them anymore. 

* (By the way, for people outside Australia, seed-raising mix is a very fine-grained potting mix. Maybe a cuttings or propagation mix is the closest thing if you can’t find seed-raising mix.) 

Finally I use a mist spray setting on my fancy multi-setting hose nozzle (that I bought in an Asian Bargain Shop for $8, and which has worked well for years) to dampen the soil well but not drench it messily.

I mist the pot every morning until the seeds sprout. And if I can manage it, I like to keep pots out of the hot sun in a shaded area until they sprout, then expose the pots to more sun as the plants grow. Sometimes, with big heavy troughs, that isn't possible, so I just make sure to keep seedlings exposed to full sun well watered at all times.

Here's how the mesclun trough looked like after about two weeks, with lots of babies coming up. With a mesclun mix the fast-sprouting seeds like rocket and mizuna are up within four days. Some of the other seeds can take several days more to appear, sometimes up to two weeks. 

Coriander grows at a more leisurely rate, taking about 10-12 days to appear, but it looks lovely when fully underway, like this pot full of babies that are probably about a month old.

With my first trough of mesclun I learned that I needed to keep a close eye on which plants are bullying the others and grabbing all the space, and that meant I had to occasionally pull out an over-eager bully plant so the tiddlers lower down could get going.

After a few weeks of sorting out the squabbles between competing plant egos, they all settled down to make the most picturesque and delicious mixed leaf salads. A mature pot of mesclun is so photogenic, and if you just use a pair of scissors to give the pot a light haircut you’ll have a nice mixed greens salad ready to go, with replacement leaves growing back rapidly in the next few days. Regular (fortnightly) liquid feeds keep the production humming along.

The alternative to mesclun, and also worth growing, is simply to grow several different lettuce varieties in the one pot. Though nice to look at and easier to manage, what a mixed lettuce salad lacks is a bit of that tasty pepper and spice in the leafy mix that you get with mesclun.

Managing the competition

The one trick to remember with my ‘scatter and cover’ method is that it's likely that you will have sown too many seeds, so you will at some stage (say, in the third or fourth week after sowing) have to play at being Charles Darwin and pull out several weaker plants so there is enough room for the healthy ones to grow on. Don't be squeamish, just imagine you are the David Attenborough of salad greens, observing that only the strong survive while you watch on, fascinated.

Breaking news ...

I am also growing basil from seed, just because I don’t want to visit garden centres to buy seedlings, not because basil doesn’t grow well from seedlings. 

All the seeds came up beautifully, they looked as cute as fat babies, but a few nights back the slugs ate everything. It was my fault — I had sat the basil seedling pot up on top of the soil under a potted lime tree, so it got nice dappled shade on a warm day, and I forgot to move it back to a safer space that evening. I found a bunch of slugs living under the rim of the lime tree pot, sneaky slimy seedling munchers ...

There was nothing left, just pathetic little white stumps where leaflets used to be. Such is life, and gardening, so start again …

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Has it been that long?


Hi everyone, how have you all been keeping? It has been a while since I last posted anything here at Garden Amateur ... *checks* ... has it been that long? Really? Just a few months short of two years? How time rushes forward slowly sometimes.

The reason I'm back here for at least an update post is that one of my readers, Jenny, attended an art class run by my darling girl, Pammy, and Jenny asked what was happening to my gardening blog.

I've wondered the exact same thing myself sometimes. All I ever intended to do when I wrote my last posting at the end of 2018 was to take a break, a sabbatical, and get back into garden blogging again "one of these days", as the saying goes. And here we are, with me starting up blogging again due to popular demand of one. Thank you Jenny.

Well, the short version is that all is well with Pammy and me. Both of us are healthy (which has risen in importance in 2020 in particular) and both happily occupied in a variety of different ways.

Pam is particularly busy as an art teacher these days, doing all sorts of watercolour art classes in a range of venues. You can check her out at her website, but if you are in Sydney some (but not all) of her courses are listed on Eventbrite.

Me, I'm retired! Hooray! Which means more time for gardening of course, but also more time for reading and cooking, but lots of my time is also taken up as being Pammy's support person, as I can drive a car and she doesn't. So we work as a team, which is what we've been doing for the last 30 years anyway. The teamwork never stops, but the projects are always changing.

"But what's happening in the garden?" you ask, as, after all, this is a gardening blog and not a Christmas-time catch-up letter sent out to all and sundry, whether they're interested or not.

The garden, like us, is happy. Right now it's the beginning of springtime, so it's time for a few photos with captions of random gardeny things that have either happened in the last two years, or are happening now.

All the garden favourites have flowered right on schedule, such as this
blue Louisiana iris, which has just started to bloom this week.

However, I am still impatiently waiting for the white Louisiana iris
to pop out. It always does its thing a week or two after the blues begin.

Last year (2019) I tried sweet peas for a change, and the results
were lovely. I've planted even more this year, and they are just
starting to bloom, but won't be in full bloom for another month.

Last year's Shirley poppies were all razzle dazzle, but for no
good reason I never got around to sowing their seed this year.
Never mind, there's always next year (I hope).

I was very pleased with my purple cauliflower. The seeds were
given to me by a wonderful gardener, Kerryn Burgess, who I met while visiting
friends Amanda and Mike in Kyneton in 2018. I'm a keen follower of Kerryn's
amazing Instagram feed at @kerryn.burgess where she is a virtuoso of all
the gardening arts. Superb espaliers, wondrous orchard and much more ...

Our succulent patch continues in its own quirky way, with oddball
dazzlers such as this stapelia bloom. But, to tell the truth, the supposedly
easy-care succulent area is a lot of work, primarily because of onion
weed and a rotten, fast-growing grass that can take over in no time. 
The succulents themselves need little attention, but the weeding!

I've just realised that this 'update' posting could turn into a marathon if I'm not careful, so I'll finish off here with a final trio of photos that summarise what I have mostly been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. I've been growing lots and lots of things from seed. 

It's slow, it gets easier the more you pick up the skills, and as I have oodles of time on my hands, raising plants from seed is a perfect garden project. I can guarantee you no instant gratification whatsoever with seeds. You have to learn to be patient, and savour the very real pleasure on those mornings when you first discover that your latest sowing of seeds has produced babies.  

This is our second pot of seed-grown coriander this cool season.
We ate the first lot, mostly in curries and stir-fries.

The chives are belting along, just a week or two away from ending up
in their favourite dish, Sunday morning scrambled eggs.

Baby spinach and yet more lettuce. The spinach is great in sandwiches.

So that's your update for now. Once I get my act together with photos, I'll fire up the Blogo-Matic 3000 ideas generator and will post something on seed sowing soon. 

See you then.