Plant more peas

Plant more peas!

All About Planting Peas

by Sandy Swegel

Rev your garden engines folks.  Today is St. Patrick’s Day and the official start of pea season and there’s no need to wait.  You have jobs to do today — it’s time to plant more peas!

Make sure beds are weeded. Those mallows from last year are easy to spot….they’re the only green thing in parts of the beds.  But they weed easily this time of year. I lightly cultivate the top inch of the soil if I see lots of annual seeds starting. In my garden, every last larkspur seed that fell last year has germinated.  Cute…but not in the pea bed, please.

Put the Peas to Soak.  If your climate is high humidity, you may not need this step, but here in the arid foothills, I soak my peas overnight, rinse them tomorrow and then plant them.  Sometimes I even pre-sprout them (just like making mung bean sprouts) and plant them with the big white root already fattening up.

Put your trellis in place if you’re growing the kind of peas that need support.

Think about row cover. Decide if you want to use it to warm the peas and speed their growth.

Think about inoculant.  I’ve written about this before. Gardens that have grown happy peas before may not need inoculant but new raw beds with less than optimal soil would probably benefit.  If you forgot to buy it, you can always plant anyway and sprinkle the inoculant over the soil and water it in later.

Remember the flowers.  I’m so fond of peas for eating whether they are oriental peas  or snap peas or plain old shelling peas, that I forget about how beautiful and fragrant sweet peas are.  My neighbor plants sweet peas on trellises along the fence, at the base of vines, in a circle in the middle of the lettuce garden.  Her garden is so beautiful and fragrant come June that I get very jealous.  Time for me to plant more peas!

Straw Bales, Legos for Gardeners

Gardening Tips

by Sandy Swegel

Whenever I start to think about a new structure I need for the garden, straw bales are what first come to mind.  Having a bunch of straw bales is like having an entire box of Legos….there’s not much you can’t build. 

I started thinking about a cold frame today because I was a little over eager about starting perennial seeds.  They’re already emerging in my seed starting tray and the question did occur to me now, a little late, where was I going to stash all these plants when I have to plant them up in larger containers next month.  Then I remembered my first cold frame.   A rectangle of old straw bales with an old shower curtain secured on top by big rocks was a great cold frame.

I  tried storm windows one year in a community garden plot, but they are breakable if there are kids playing with rocks or loose dogs in the neighborhood.  I got a sheet of recycled tempered glass (old shower door) that worked great but was heavy for lifting.

The next great garden project is a compost bin.  I use spoiled hay bales from a nearby horse ranch because the bales are free and they also eventually become compost too.

Your imagination is your only limitation.  Think of any structure you’d like and do a Google Image Search with the name of the structure and “straw bale” and you’ll find someone who has done it already and posted a picture:  straw bale hoophouse, straw bale fort, straw bale lounge chair, straw bale chicken coop, straw bale bed, straw bale wind break, etc. etc.  Have Fun!


Bring More Color to Your Wild Areas

Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

At this time of year when we’re mired in cold and snow, I yearn for two delights of Spring:  when the daffodils and tulips bloom and when the meadows burst with wildflowers.  One thing about wildflowers though, especially in our suburban gardens.  A few years after planting it seems that just a few wildflowers start to dominate.  Often it’s the bachelor buttons and California poppies, both beautiful flowers, but we need diversity and variety and wild color to really shake winter off.

The secret to a lush wildflower area (besides good rainfall) is to over-seed the area every once in a while with some of your favorite flowers.  I usually take the easy way and just throw out a packet of our mixed wildflower seeds to get an overall refreshing of the original mix I planted years ago.  But for one friend who has created a “hot colors” theme of red and orange in her garden, we throw out packets of red wildflowers.  This year we just did a search for Flowers by Color and picked out the flowers we liked with the truest red colors.  We settled on red columbines for Spring, red firecracker penstemons for early summer and red gaillardia for mid-summer.

Finally, my absolute favorite reseeding in the Spring is to seed the Parade of Poppies mix.  There just are never enough poppies of any sort in my mind.  This year I’ve slipped a seed packet in my coat pocket for some guerilla gardening during my sunny day walks along old abandoned properties and ditches that grows lots of weeds.  Poppies will brighten my path this year!

This year I’m also going to try taking a baggie full of our new StrawNet (pellets of straw) when I do my wild area guerilla gardening.  The biggest problem with just throwing seeds out onto abandoned land is that I can’t water them every day.  StrawNet absorbs water and helps create a little moist barrier for new seeds so I expect it to help more seedlings survive even if we have a dry Spring.  Sometimes nature needs a little help to be as beautiful as she can be.

Photo Credit:

Winter Sowing

Seed Starting

by Sandy Swegel

My first packets of seeds have come in the mail and I’m so eager to start gardening, but the 10 inches of old snow that’s still all over my garden is a real obstacle.  My lights are reserved for tomatoes and peppers….but I want to Garden NOW.  When I’m in this predicament, there’s only one thing to do: head out to the recycling bins and dumpster dive for plastic milk jugs and salad containers and all other types of clear plastic to start some seeds in.

Winter Sowing is my favorite way to start wildflower seeds but it works for all seeds.  Winter Sowing is all about starting your seeds outside and letting nature’s natural rhythms stir the seeds to life at the right time.  It’s also all about getting LOTS of plants practically free without having extravagant indoor light setups or greenhouses.

There’s lots of info online about Winter Sowing…a term coined by the Queen of Winter Sowing, Trudi Davidoff, back in the early days of the internet on the Garden Web forums.  Trudi has it all consolidated on her web page  with answers to every question you can possibly have. We all love Trudi because she took something rather mysterious…making new plants…and made it easy and almost foolproof.

To make it even easier for you, here’s your “Short Form” Winter Sowing Instructions:

1. Recycle a plastic container. I’m fond of the gallon water jugs but any container with a clear lid that you can put holes in the bottom works.

2. Label your container at least twice.  Sharpies aren’t really permanent so I use an art deco paint pen from Michael’s to write directly on the container or on a strip of duct tape.

3. Put in 2-4 inches of potting soil.  Wet the soil. Sprinkle the seeds on top. Lightly water the seeds into the soil or press them with your fingers.

4. Secure the top of the container with duct tape. Place the container outside where the wind won’t blow it over.

5. Check periodically (twice a month) for watering. This is really important.  If the soil dries out completely, this seeds will likely die because germination had already started. If you can see condensation on the inside of the container you’re probably OK. A foot of snow on top is probably also a safe sign.

6. Beginning in April or May here in Zone 5, anytime after the seedlings come out you can plant them directly into the garden.

Timing is the beauty of this method…On cold winter days, you yearn for spring and have more time for starting seeds. In my experience, the plants started this way are much sturdier than ones started indoors under warm conditions.

Winter Sowing is an ideal technique for wildflowers.  You can start now and keep making containers when you have time until as late as March or April.


For more info:

First Frost: Is There Still Time?

Preparing Your Plants for the Coming Frost

by Sandy Swegel

Frost?  Are you crazy some might say? We’re finally hitting 90 degrees and the tomatoes are starting to grow. And you’re thinking about frost? But this isn’t about the last frost in the Spring…it’s about the first frost in the Fall.  Knowing when the first frost is, is how you know if you have enough time.  I’ve gotten behind in my planting and I really wanted winter squash this year.  Do I still have time to plant or has procrastination done me in this year? How about you? Do you still have time to plant the long-season crop you wanted?

There are two things we need to know: • What is the time to maturity of seeds you’re thinking of planting? • What is your area’s first frost average?

How Many Days to Maturity? The seeds I’m thinking about are the Hubbard Squash, a good meaty winter squash that’s perfect for baking.  The packet says it takes 105 – 115 days to mature and 5 – 12 days to germinate. So I’m going to assume the best case scenario….that I can use the heating pad to get the squash to germinate in just 2 days and then add 105 days till I get my first mature squash.  Delusional, I know.  Nevertheless, at the minimum, I need 107 days to make one winter squash. Today is June 3rd..  107 days from now is September 18th. (What? Summer Vacation will be over before I get squash?!)

When is First Frost? Now I check out my favorite, if obtuse, data chart from NOAA and find out there’s a 50% chance of 32 degrees occurring here in Boulder by October 8th.   There’s a 10% percent chance of freeze occurring by September 20 but I’m going to go the optimist’s route  (and keep the bed sheets ready in case I have to cover the entire plant one night) and say “YES!…I have time to get some winter squash ripe this year.”  Some years we have one night of frost and then weeks of warm weather.  I may not get many squashes that have time to ripen. I should have planted earlier. But still! For the dates for your area, here’s the chart:

Wow, it is later than I think. Gardening is the greatest challenge to the procrastinator…Mother Nature just hates being rushed. Still, I’m relying on her benevolence to give me a strong productive plant and a warm fall so I can enjoy my favorite roasted winter squash this year.

Very Basic Seed Starting

Try These Seed Starting Tips

I teach basic seed starting for beginners classes every year and while there are often some people who are true beginners and have never started seeds before, more people who seek out a class are gardeners who have tried starting seeds and had some failures. So I like to keep seed starting very simple.  All I want you to do is think like a seed.

All I want you to remember is:

Seeds WANT to live. The very meaning of life for a seed is to germinate and make a plant. Most of the time, we just have to get out of the way.

Seeds need 5 Things:

Water Seeds need to be well hydrated to germinate.  Think about how we soak our peas to speed germination.  But they don’t want to be sitting in water.  You need to check the soil each day and make sure the top of the soil isn’t drying up and hardening.  Sometime even misting is enough.

Temperature Each seed needs the soil (not just the air) to reach a certain temperature before it starts to grow.  I learned early that just because I liked to plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day, that didn’t mean that worked in Colorado. Our soil warms up later than other places and the peas weren’t coming up until it was warmer.  Each seed has a temperature it prefers and it just sits in the soil until it gets that.

Light A few seeds like lettuce need light to germinate….so you can’t plant them beneath the soil.  Seeds also need light to keep growing, which is why they get weak and spindly growing inside away from bright light.

Air Notice that soil isn’t in this list.  Seeds don’t care much if the soil is full of amendments or a special seed starting mix. (The plant will have opinions later….but for now we’re just thinking about the seed.) Seeds by design carry their own food. They do need air.  Air in the soil they are growing in for their tender little roots to move in.  Heavy clay soil is tough for a tiny root…there’s no place for it to go.  Seeds also need air above ground. Breezes lightly flowing among young seedlings make the young plants strong and protect them from fungus.

Time Time is the most important issue for beginners.  Most often when beginners think they have failed, it isn’t because the seeds didn’t come up.  It’s because they didn’t come up YET! Don’t give up too quickly. Some seeds germinate immediately, but some need an extra week or two until conditions are just right.

All the information you need is on the back of each seed packet.  Don’t over think seed starting….just offer the seeds a little hospitality with a comfortable environment and they’ll do what seeds want to do.

Seeds WANT to  live.

Info and Photo:

Succession Planting ~ Part 2

Two Week Intervals

Last week I talked about Succession Planting by using varieties that have different times to maturity. There are two more easy kinds of Succession Planting you can use to you have a steady source of the best-tasting food and to make the best use of your space.

Plant the same crop at intervals.

The seed packet again gives you the information you need.  It says things like “plant at two-week intervals.” This is a great idea for crops like lettuces and carrots and beets or similar crops that just taste best when young.  If you plant all your carrots at once, you’ll have nice young carrots mid-season but by the end of the season, you’ll be pulling big gnarly carrots out of the ground.  Sometimes these can taste great and sometimes they get too woody.   Likewise, you’re going to want to have fall carrots because they get so sweet when the weather gets cooler.  If you planted all your carrots in May, you’re either going to run out of them, or the stress they went through during the heat of summer will have made them tough.

I help myself remember to plant at intervals by picking specific calendar dates. I pick the 1st and the 15th of each month as days to plant again.

Plant two or more crops in succession.

This technique is especially good for people with limited space or who practice square-foot gardening.  You start a cool season crop such as greens or radishes in an area. When they are ready, you harvest and eat them, and then you plant a summer crop such as corn or beans in that spot.  It’s like having twice the garden space. Sometimes I’ll “interplant” crops such as green onions or carrots and tomatoes.  Tomato plants stay small until the heat of summer kicks in, so I’ll plant green onions and carrots in front of the tomato plants.  By the time the tomatoes start to get really big, I will have already harvested the onions and carrots and the tomatoes have lots of room.  The more things that are planted and growing in an area, the fewer weeds you’ll have to pull.  And that’s always a good thing. So keep an eye out…if you’re pulling up a crop that’s finished, plant something new.

Crops to plant every two weeks:

Beans Carrots Corn Green Onions  Lettuce Spinach

Crops to plant one after the other:

Peas followed by Corn Radish followed by Zucchini Green Onions followed by Peppers Cilantro followed by Beans

Super Easy Seed Starting: The Baggie Method

Seed Starting Tips

Are you insecure about seed starting? Or uncertain if your old seed is still good? The easiest, fastest way to germinate seeds is one actually developed by a scientist and involves a paper towel and a baggie. Not very hi-tech…but very reliable and easy. Dr. Norman Deno used this method to document the germination of seeds of over 5000 different plants. His three books on his life’s work of Seed Germination have recently been made available to the public domain in the USDA National Agriculture Library:

You’ll find more complicated versions of the baggie method on the internet, but this is the simplest and easiest. My only variation is that I store the baggies with the seeds and paper towels on top of the refrigerator where it is warm.

In Dr. Deno’s words and drawings:

Basic Procedure. The only materials needed for the basic procedure are (A) ScotTowels, a high wet strength paper towel made by the Scott Paper Company; (B) Baggies. a polyethylene bag made by the Mobil Chemical Company; and (C) Pilot extra fine point permanent markers made by the Pilot Corporation of America. A perforated section of paper towel is torn off and folded in half three times in alternating directions to give a rectangular pad 2.5 x 4.5 inches. The name of the species and any other information is written on the outside of the pad with the Pilot marker. The final (third) fold is opened, and the towel is moistened with water. The seeds are sprinkled on the moist open pad. The third fold is closed and the whole thing placed in a Baggie. Fold the Baggie several times so that evaporation of water from the towel is inhibited, yet leaving ample access to air to ensure aerobic conditions. The following drawings illustrate this procedure.

Dr. Deno gave credit for this method to Margery Edgren at an annual meeting of the American Rock Garden Society.

Drawings from Seed Germination Theory and Practice by Dr. Norman Deno, Second Edition. 1993.

See more photos:

What’s Growing on my Windowsill?

How To Still Grow Outside

It’s still too early to start seeds indoors in Colorado, but I’m yearning for fresh growing things instead of the brown stubble of winter that greets me outdoors. My growing space is an unheated solarium that dips down to 40 degrees at night but warms up to the 70s and 80s during sunny days.  Last month, I started three containers that now are steadily producing that vibrant spring green color.

Pea greens.  These give me special pleasure because I like the taste of peas and because tiny containers of pea shoots in the grocery store cost $4.99. I snip these for stir-fry or to toss into the juicer.

Microgreens. Yeah! Salad. They aren’t big enough for eating yet but it’s joyful to recognize tiny beets and lettuces growing on my sill.  Hardly any work involved….I just opened the pack of seeds and spread them on some potting soil. I’ll clip them in another two weeks or so and let them keep growing till outdoor greens are ready.

Wheatgrass. My little flat of wheatgrass is just beautiful with its promise of spring meadows. I put some into the juicer, give some to the chickens who love spring grass, and let the rest keep growing a mini field in the house.

Now if I were a hunter like my sister’s Texas family is, it would be much easier to provide my own food in winter. Yesterday, I opened my front door to find at least 100 Canada geese walking around my suburban yard.  If I had been fast, I could have caught one with my hands, they were that close.

Too Many Seeds, Too Little Space.

Winter Sowing to the Rescue!

I remember when I first started gardening. As I recall, I went to the hardware store and bought three packets of seeds which I planted that afternoon.  I’m not sure how I followed my lust for seeds until today when my saved and leftover seeds now require two shoe boxes….and that’s after I gave away many many seeds.  So I look at all those seeds…and the envelopes of newly arrived seeds I’ve gotten in the mail…and wonder how I’ll ever have enough room on windowsills one plant rack to get all those exquisite young plants going.

Winter Sowing of course!  As fun as it is to germinate seeds on the heat mat that creates new plants in a few days, that’s not very practical when it could be another three months until the soil is warm enough that it isn’t freezing at night.  I learned Winter Sowing back in the early days of the internet….and it is still the most effective method for starting winter seeds.

The basic idea is you have plastic containers (I used water jugs). You cut them in half. Put some soil in. Label the name of the seed. Water the soil. Sow the seed. Tape the container closed. Move the entire container OUTSIDE to the north side of the house where it’s protected from the wind.  And that’s it.  Now as the season warms, Nature will cause them to germinate at the right time when the temperatures are best suited for the seeds.  Monthly watering is all the maintenance that this needs….and of course planting out all those seedlings when the time is ready.

The phrase Winter Sowing was coined by our hero, Trudi Davidoff. For years she has tirelessly gathered info and shared her wisdom on Garden Web, then her own website, then Facebook,  There really isn’t much more to doing winter sowing than I’ve said….but there are dozens of web pages via her website and Facebook and Google, so enjoy learning.

You know all those seed failures you’ve had in the past? Probably won’t happen with Winter Sowing.  Seeds that need to be chilled get chilled.  Seeds that need a long time to germinate can sit there till they are ready. No leggy plants because they are outside in the bright light.  You’ll need to water every month or so….but that’s all you need to get 100s of plants going.  One plant I still start indoors is tomato because I want my tomato plants big sooner in my short season.  But otherwise….there is no end to what seeds you can try.  The biggest challenge will be getting them transplanted to the garden.