By Susanne von Rosenberg, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
It's almost the end of March, and we're getting close to the planting season for summer vegetables. At the same time, we're supposed to avoid any non-essential contact with other people.
What does this mean? It's the perfect opportunity to gain experience starting vegetables from seed. You can order vegetable plants through the mail, but you'll have a much wider range of choices and you'll save money if you start plants from seed.
Some seeds are typically planted directly into the soil; others need to be started indoors and then transplanted. Plants with larger seeds, such as beans and squash, are started directly in the ground. Plants with smaller seeds, such as tomatoes and some herbs, are usually started indoors.
Ideally you would have started tomatoes from seed by the beginning of March, but if you choose tomato varieties that ripen relatively quickly, you can still start them now. You'll plant them out in the middle of May and have a good harvest by August. Start planting beans and chard from seed when the soil has warmed up somewhat (the middle of April); cucumber, squash and melon seeds should be planted when the soil has warmed to at least 65°F—typically the beginning to the middle of May, depending on where you live.
You also still have time to get in some spring vegetables. It's not too late to plant peas. I love being able to eat sugar snap peas right off the vine. Radishes and most lettuces mature quickly. You can also grow mixed greens either for salad (mesclun) or braising greens. You should be able to harvest your first crop within 30 to 40 days of sowing. If you want to grow lettuce to a mature size from seeds planted now, plant it in an area that gets afternoon shade.
What do you need to be successful starting seeds? All seeds need air and water, and some seeds (primarily lettuces) need light to germinate. If you are planting outdoors, the soil should be moist but crumbly. If it's too wet or too cold, seeds can rot. If your soil feels like a wrung-out sponge, it's just right.
Amend and fertilize your soil before you plant. Rake the planting bed well. You want it to be easy for the seedlings to emerge. Never let your planting bed dry out after you've planted the seeds. Once they have started to germinate, they'll die if they dry out. Water your soil gently to moisten it without disturbing it.
Aside from keeping the soil moist, the biggest challenge with starting seeds in the ground is that many critters really appreciate a tasty green sprout. I used to have no luck starting plants from seed; it seemed like none of my seeds ever sprouted. As it turns out, I just had particularly diligent birds eating all the sprouts as soon as they appeared. If you suspect that you have interested critters, consider covering your seed bed with floating row cover or a wire cage with a fine enough mesh to keep out snails, birds and field mice.
If you're starting seeds indoors, you have greater control of your environment, and it will be easier to keep your seed-starting medium evenly moist. Using seed-starting medium rather than regular potting soil is important for smaller seeds.
Your biggest challenge will be making sure your seeds get enough light once they've sprouted. You can buy a fancy plant light, put together your own, or simply set seedlings outside in a protected location during the day. (Bring them back in at night.) When your seedlings are outside during the day, they're getting accustomed to the harsher outside conditions and will suffer less transplant shock when you plant them into the ground.
Start fertilizing your indoor seedlings with half-strength liquid fertilizer when the first true leaves appear (the ones that look like the plant you're growing). If you've grown your seedlings entirely indoors, you need to acclimate them to the tough outside world before you plant them in the ground. This is called “hardening off.”
Start by setting your seedlings outside for half the day in a shady area. Over the period of about a week, increase the amount of time they spend outside and the amount of direct sun they get, until they're outside all day in the full sun. Then they're ready to plant in the ground.
I have a few other tips for you to make your seed planting more successful. If you're starting your seeds indoors, plant two seeds per pot or cell. That will greatly increase the odds that you'll have at least one seed sprout. (If both sprout, pinch off the weaker sprout.) Use fresh seeds. They're more likely to sprout and they'll produce healthier plants. Finally, get your irrigation and any structures such as a trellis set up before you plant your seeds or seedlings. It's much easier than trying to install it later when you have to work around your plants. Trust me, I know.
The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are volunteers who provide UC research-based information on home gardening and answer your questions. In keeping with current precautions and recommendations, Master Gardener in-person events and programs are canceled through the end of April.
By Helen Dake, U. C. Master Gardener of Napa County
Something changes when you put fresh flowers or foliage in a room. I have always believed this and have always tried to include plants in my garden that I could cut for the house throughout the year.
I loved learning about recent behavioral research that supports this belief. Studies suggest that bringing nature indoors leads to measurably better emotional well-being. People who have flowers indoors report improvement in their moods and stress levels. People who lived with flowers in their homes for just a few days reported a significant decrease in their stress levels and improvement in their moods.
Additionally, flowers in a home induce positive feelings in visitors. The space feels more welcoming.
These findings are part of a growing body of research demonstrating how the natural environment affects well-being. Recent studies found that walking in nature at lunch improves people's creativity and attention span in the afternoon.
The message for those of us who garden is to include flowers and foliage that we can cut and bring indoors. And now is the time to plant seeds for annual flowers you can cut this summer.
Although many favorite cut flowers (dahlias, lilies, roses) require planning, expense and preparation, annuals suited for cutting can be sown directly in the garden over the next couple of weeks.
Whether you set aside an area in your garden for cut flowers or add them to an existing vegetable garden, prepare the soil first. Remove all weeds in the planting area, work in some compost and a balanced fertilizer, following package directions. Rake smooth.
Most flower seeds need warm soil (at least 70°F) to germinate, so wait until the ground has warmed up. I usually direct-seed summer annuals in early May. After sowing, keep the bed moist. Think of the planted seeds as tender babies and check on them daily or even more often.
Once the seeds sprout and grow a bit, you can worry less about them.
If you have birds in your garden (and who doesn't?), you may need to cover the emerging seedlings with floating row cover from your local nursery or tulle fabric from a sewing or craft store. Snails and slugs love baby seedlings. Hand-pick them in the evening or use an iron phosphate snail bait.
Sunflowers can cheer up any room, and they are one of the easiest flowers to grow from seed. As long as the ground is kept moist, they will pop up in 7 to 10 days or less. You can choose from many colors and shapes. For cutting, choose varieties labeled as “branching.” A single plant will produce multiple flowers.
Cosmos are tall, airy plants with multiple blooms. Seed catalogs offer new varieties every year, but the classics (Purity and Sensation) germinate more easily. Cosmos will generally bloom in less than three months from the date you sow them.
Sometimes gardeners don't cut flowers because they don't want to lose their beauty in the garden. However, with many flowers, including cosmos, the more you cut them, the more they bloom.
Zinnias are the queen of summer annuals. If you are accustomed to regular zinnias, you will be impressed with some of the new varieties. Benary's zinnias produce giant double flowers with long stems in wonderful colors, including pastel salmon and pale green. The zinnia variety Persian Carpet starts reliably and covers bare patches with airy bright color.
Herbs can be brought inside, too. Basil Amaretto starts easily and produces lovely scented purple foliage with small, spired flowers that mix well with others.
You can find flower seeds on racks at local nurseries, but there is still time to order online for May planting. If you don't have the time or energy to start plants from seed, visit a local nursery and buy some flower starts. A six-pack or two of State Fair zinnias will provide bright, colorful bouquets all summer. A six-pack of almost any cosmos planted in a blank space in the garden will lift your spirits in the garden and produce blooms to bring indoors.
Think about sharing your flowers with a friend or neighbor. Studies suggest that when people receive flowers, their mood brightens and stays brighter for days.
Workshop: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will hold a workshop on “Flowers and Foliage in the House” on Saturday, April 27, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m, at University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Something changes when you put fresh flowers or greenery in a room. This workshop will cover choosing and planting annuals and perennials that work well for cutting, starting seeds, preparing your soil, direct-sowing seeds, selecting pollinator-friendly flowers and flower arranging. Participants will take home seeds and flower starts. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
UC Master Gardeners of Napa County have begun the process of re-establishing a demonstration garden in Napa Valley. For further developments, please visit the Demonstration Garden link on our website ( http://napamg.ucanr.edu/).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County (http:/napamg.ucanr.edu) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.