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Introduce Yourself to Husk Cherries

By guest writer Jennifer Burcke
(taken from the October Naturally e-magazine)

I remember vividly the first time I tasted a husk cherry. It was more than a decade ago while shopping at the local farmers market with my young daughter. One of the farmers had a small basket of papery lantern shaped fruits on his table. I asked if they were tomatillos based on their appearance. He was happy to offer us a generous handful of husk cherries to taste while he told us all about these interesting fruits.

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Two-for-One Plants: Amaranth

Amaranth flowers bloom in hot summer day

By Amy Renea
See full article in the September issue of Naturally

Amaranth is an under-appreciated native grain with a host of beneficial uses. It grows easily in most of the United States and can be found growing wild in many U.S. states. Typically, wild amaranth is ‘pigweed,’ but you might also find various cultivars popping up in your garden that have seeded from a neighbor’s garden. My initial exposure to amaranth was in our first house where a tiny seed of ‘Hopi Red Dye’ had managed to settle in the cracks of an aging sidewalk. I didn’t know what it was, only that it had beautiful wine red leaves, so I let it go. That tiny little seed in that tiny little crack with its tiny little red leaves grew and grew and grew until it was 6 feet high. Beautiful plumes developed and seed was set for the next generation. I was hooked for life.

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Dark purple sweet peas

Secrets to Growing Sweet Peas from Seeds Successfully

I covet sweet peas for their heavenly fragrance and old-fashioned simplicity. These little vining flowers are a delight to see and smell. Sadly, they can be a tricky annual for me to grow. They prefer cool temperatures but won’t withstand a frost. If I sow the seeds in early spring in my zone 7 garden they are likely to get wiped out by a late frost. Unfortunately, mid-South springs tend to be short, so if I try sowing them any later, the plants melt in the heat before they have time to bloom.

The solution is to start the seeds in the greenhouse in February and move the pots outdoors after the threat of frost has passed. Starting the seeds indoors gives them the head start they need to bloom before spring ends.

Gardeners in climates with long, cool springs can sow sweet peas outdoors as soon as the threat of frost has passed. If you are like me and need to sow the seeds indoors, do this about 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date in your area.

The secret to good seed germination is soaking the seeds in milk a few hours before you sow them. That’s right, milk. This helps to soften the outer covering of the seed.

Whether starting indoors or direct sowing in the garden, plant sweet peas in a spot that receives full sun. They like a sweet soil with a pH of 7 or 8, so if you know that your soil is acidic add garden lime to make it more alkaline. Be sure to following the package directions on the garden lime bag. Sweet peas have relatively extensive roots, so the soil should be friable at least 24 inches deep.

Provide immediate support for your young seedlings. Metal can get hot on warm spring days, so try twine or twigs.

Once they are up and flowering, you will want to do everything you can to keep the plants full of blooms. One of the best ways to encourage continuous flowering is to cut bouquets for the house. I like to cut the blooms about every other day. Flowers remaining on the plant will develop into seed pods. It’s a good idea to remove the flowers before this happens because you want the plant’s energy to go into creating more blossoms, not seed.

Seedling Diagnosis

Depending on when the last frost date is in your area, by early March you’ve either begun your seeds indoors, or are gearing up to start.  There is a lot of hope in those packets of seeds, but sometimes hopes can be dashed if everything doesn’t go as planned.

Even under the best circumstances, you might run into a few problems. Here’s a list of a common symptoms and the corrective measures you can take to solve them.

Symptom: Spindly or Leggy Growth
Causes: Low light, too much water, excessively warm temperatures, over fertilization, crowded plants.

Corrective Measures:
Some seeds will germinate without much light, but seedlings need bright light.  Use grow lights if a sunny window is not available.  Position the lights 4 inches above the seed tray and leave the lights on for 16 hours a day.  Don’t forget to raise the lights as the seedlings grow taller.

Provide an air temperature of 70 to 75 degrees during the day and night temperature of at least 60 to 65 degrees.

Soil should be kept consistently moist, but not soggy. Mist with a spray bottle or water from the bottom up by placing the containers in a pan filled with 1 inch of warm water.  Once the soil is moist, remove the seed pots from the pan.

Wait until seedlings have produced their first set of true leaves to fertilize.  This is actually the second set of leaves that emerge.  Use a liquid fertilizer diluted to half strength.  Feed once a week.

Sow seeds and thin seedlings according to the packet instructions to prevent overcrowding.

Symptom: Dwarf Plants
Causes: Low fertility.

Corrective Measures: Because there is so little soil, nutrient levels are hard to maintain.  As mentioned above, feed with a liquid fertilizer diluted to half strength after the first set of true leaves emerge. Feed once a week.

Some seed starting soil mixtures contain nutrients such as Mycorrhizae, a naturally occurring fungus that promotes strong root development.

Symptom: Decay or rotting of the stems of young plants near the soil surface.
Causes: Damping-off. Disease organisms attack germinating seeds and young plants, especially during prolonged cloudy weather.

Corrective Measures:
Use a sterile soil-mix designed for seed starting.

Mound the soil in the container so that it is flush with the edge of the pot.  This will allow air flow across the surface of the soil.

Symptom: Wilting followed by death of the seedling.  Tiny insects hovering around soil.
Causes: Fungus gnat larvae will feed on the roots of the seedlings.  Adult fungus gnats are those pesky, small flying insects that hover around potting soil.  They are attracted to moist potting soils that have a high organic content.

Corrective Measures:
Use a well draining potting soil.

If you see the adult gnats, cut back on water to make the soil less attractive to the adult female gnat. You don’t need to stop watering completely, just allow the soil to dry out between watering.

Placing a moist slice of potato on top of the soil will attract the larvae.  Throw out the potato slice to get rid of the larvae .

Seeds for Direct Sowing

I believe that seeds suffer from a case of mistaken identity. They are often described as being difficult or labor intensive. While it might take the right equipment and know how to sow seeds indoors, there are some plants that will spring right from the ground where the seeds are sown. These are “direct sown” seeds or seeds that you can sow in the garden rather than starting in pots or flats.

Some seeds are better suited to direct sowing than others. For example, tomato seeds can be finicky, so it’s a good idea to start them in pots first. Also, if you live in a region where summers are short, starting seeds indoors will give plants the additional weeks they need to mature for flowers or fruits. To check a seed’s disposition toward direct sowing read the back of the package. Look for clues such as “sow directly in the garden,” “volunteer,” “reseeds,” and “does not transplant well.”

Direct Sowing SeedsBecause you are planting outdoors you won’t have as much control over the environment so Mother Nature can throw you some curveballs. Excessively wet or dry weather, insect pests, and birds can reduce your success.

Before you get started read the directions on the seed package. It’s important to how and when to sow individual varieties. You also need an understanding of the mature plant’s requirements – light, water, soil – to know where to sow the seeds.

Sow seeds in soil that drains well and is mixed with amendments such as compost so that it is light. Follow the package instructions. I like to tamp down on the soil after the seeds are planted to make good soil to seed contact. Gently shower the area with water. Use a hose with a spray attachment or a watering can with a rose so you don’t wash away the seeds.

The most important part of seed sowing, whether indoors or out, is keeping the soil consistently moist. Not too wet or dry. Soggy soil invites diseases and dry soil will stop germination.

Once your seeds are sown, you can start the best part – going out every day to check on their progress.

Seeds for Direct Sowing

  • Arugula
  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Radish
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Beets
  • Peas
  • Beans
  • Chard
  • Okra
  • Corn
  • Nasturtiums
  • Sunflowers
  • Zinnias
  • Bachelor Button
  • Cosmos
  • Poppy
  • Moon Flowers
  • Morning Glories
  • Hyacinth Bean Vine

Sowing Seeds in Containers

I’ve always made space in my garden for sowing seeds of annuals such as larkspur, verbena-on-a-stick and gomphrena, but this year my habit has spread beyond the borders of my flowerbeds and into containers.

Because, truly, what could be easier than filling a pot with soil and sprinkling a few seeds around? That is about all it takes to create a beautiful container overflowing with colorful blooms.

The best varieties are those that can be direct sown and germinate easily. I’ve had luck with cosmos, heirloom petunias and cock’s comb to name a few. For large containers try dwarf sunflowers or cleome. Make sure you keep the soil consistently moist while the seeds are germinating. As they grow into seedlings, you may want to thin them a bit so they don’t get overcrowded.

And as an added bonus you can save seeds from many of these varieties for growing next year.

August is the time that I start collecting seeds from the annuals that are currently flowering in my garden. If you want to try your hand at seed saving just let some of the flowers mature and form seedpods. The pods are ready for harvesting when they are dry and brittle, but before they break open.

On a dry, sunny day, after the dew has evaporated, collect the seeds by shaking them onto a piece of paper. It’s important to make sure the seeds are thoroughly dry before you store them in labeled, airtight, plastic bags or mason jars. Once sealed, store them indoors in a cool, dry place until you are ready to plant them in your garden or containers next summer.

Starting Seeds

I’ve been starting plants indoors for several years and I’ve found it’s a great way to get a head start on the growing season. I can gain 4 to 8 weeks by setting out seedlings rather than planting seeds in my garden.

It’s also a way to insure that I will have just the variety and color of the plants I need as well as any unusual or heirloom plants on my list.

Here are some tips to help you get started:
Soil – A key to success is using a loose, fertile, disease-free soil mix. I find the packaged potting soil easy to use.

Containers – You can start seeds in almost any container; it doesn’t have to be fancy. I’ve used plastic flats, trays, clay pots, compressed peat pellets, and even a make-your-own-paper cup from recycled newspaper with a little gadget called an N. Viropotter. Cut-off milk cartons or plastic jugs, and egg cartons can also be used to start seeds. Last season’s flats, trays, and pots should be cleaned and disinfected before use. Wash the containers in soapy water, and then disinfect them in a solution of one part chlorine bleach and nine parts water. Be sure to add holes in the bottom of the containers to allow for drainage.

Timing – Find out when your area is likely to have its last frost. You’ll find this information in gardening books or check with your county cooperative extension service or local garden center.

Next, look on the back of the seed packet and find out how long it will take the seeds to sprout. Mark the last frost date on a calendar then count back the number of weeks needed for sprouting. That’s the date to start the seeds. If you want the seedlings to be larger, start earlier. The time varies from plant to plant. Peppers require 7 to 8 weeks and tomatoes 5 or 6 to grow to transplanting size, while squash and cucumbers require only 2 to 3 weeks. Seedlings are ready to transplant when they have the first set of true leaves.

Seed Size – Usually smaller seeds require less soil to cover them than larger seeds. Check on the back of the seed packet for the proper seed depth. Seed size also determines the size of container and sowing method. Fine seeds, such as begonias and petunias, are typically sown in flats or trays.

After germination, the seedlings are transplanted into individual containers. Large seeds, such as marigolds and tomatoes, can also be germinated in flats. However, they are often sown directly into individual containers, thereby eliminating the need to transplant the seedlings before planting outside.

Temperature – Soil temperature is important. Cool soil retards germination. I use an electric grow mat under my trays to make sure the soil is around 75 degrees or so until seedlings have emerged. Provide an air temperature of 70 to 75 degrees during the day and night temperature of at least 60 to 65 degrees.

Water and Light – After seeding, water the soil gently until water drains out the bottom of the container. Just be careful not to wash seeds away. Place containers in plastic bags or cover the soil surface with plastic film until the first sign of the seeds’ emergence. Then remove the plastic cover and be sure the container gets maximum exposure to light. Most seeds do not require light to germinate, but seedlings need full light exposure as soon as they emerge.

Five Great Flower Seeds

The first year I started my garden there wasn’t much in the way of color. Most of my budget went to structural plants and soil prep. Being the visual and, ahem, somewhat impatient person that I am I wasn’t about to go all growing season without blooms. My solution was flowers that are easy to grow from seeds.

Here are five flowers that you can sow directly in the garden and expect blooms in the same growing season.

  • Cosmos (Cosmos sp.)

    Cosmos (Cosmos sp.)

    Cosmos come in shades of pink, orange and white. Variety sizes range from 1 to 2 feet. They make good cut flowers if you cut them as soon as the
    blossoms open and put them in cool water, submerging as much of the stem as possible.

    After the last frost date sow seed in prepared garden soil in a spot that receives full sun. Space seeds 2- to 3-inches-apart and cover with
    ¼-inch of soil. When the seedlings are 2-inches-high thin them to 5-inches-apart. You can also start seeds indoors 6 weeks before last

  • Four O'Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa)

    Four O’Clocks (Mirabilis jalapa)

    This is a wonderful plant for adding fragrance to the evening garden and it’s very easy to grow. Four O’Clocks are large and bushy. They will
    quickly fill a bare spot in full sun to partial shade.

    The plant also acts as a Japanese beetle trap. The beetles love to eat the foliage, which is toxic to them. It’s also harmful to gardeners as
    well so be aware of that.

    After all danger of frost, sow the seeds directly in the garden. They aren’t particular about the soil as long as it is loose and well draining.
    Cover seeds with ½-inch soil. When plants are 4-inches-tall, thin to 14-inches-apart. Four O’Clocks will readily self-sow so remove seed
    pods to prevent them from taking over.

  • Globe Amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)

    Globe Amaranth (Gomphrena globosa)

    This old-fashioned annual is an everlasting indoors and in the garden. They are an excellent flower for drying to use in bouquets and wreaths.
    And, if you let the seed drop to the flower bed each fall you’ll be rewarded with volunteer plants in spring.

    If you grow globe amaranth, select tall varieties over the dwarf or “buddy” types, which aren’t nearly as interesting.

    Sow seeds in average, but well-draining soil in the spring after the last frost date in your area. Soak the seeds overnight to improve
    germination. Thin the seedlings when they are 2- to 3-inches-tall. Globe amaranth is fairly drought tolerant but performs best when given a
    regular supply of water.

  • Tithonia (Tithonia rotundifolia)

    Tithonia (Tithonia rotundifolia)

    This is a very dramatic plant that can grow to 6-feet-tall over the course of summer. The flowers are orange-red with a daisy form. It’s a favorite
    in the fall garden. Birds and butterflies love this plant. It’s beautiful paired with purple or pink.

    Sow the seeds in spring after the last frost date in prepared soil in full sun. Cover with ½-inch of soil. When plants are well-established
    thin them to 24-inches-apart. You can start the seeds indoors 5 weeks before the last frost date.

  • Zinnias (Zinnia elegans)

    Zinnias (Zinnia elegans)

    Zinnias come in a rainbow of colors. Even green! All shapes and sizes too. They are a must have for cut flower bouquets. Zinnias will attract
    butterflies and beneficial insects to your garden.

    Once temperatures stay about 50°F, sow seeds in prepared garden soil in a spot with lots of sunshine. Cover the seeds with ¼-inch soil.
    When plants are 3-inches-high thin them to 8-inches-apart. For earlier bloom, start seeds indoors about 4 weeks before last frost.

Storing Seeds

I have quite a few packets of seeds left over that I didn’t get planted this summer. Can I save them for next year?

The summer growing season often gets away from me before I have time to sow all of the seed that I purchased for my garden. At the end of the summer I make an inventory of what I’d like to save and discard the rest.

I store left over seeds in a labeled, airtight baggie or glass jar. I’ve had the best luck with seeds that I kept indoors rather than in my tool shed or garage. I simply place them in a cool, dry location. Some people recommend that they be stored in the refrigerator, but I have not found this to be necessary.

The same storage techniques apply if you are saving seeds collected from your garden. Just be sure that you have thoroughly dried them on newspaper before putting them in jars.

Next year when it is time to plant the seeds you can check their viability with this simple test. Place approximately 10 seeds of the same variety on a damp paper towel. Roll up the paper towel and put it in a plastic bag – do not seal the bag. Keep the bag in a warm area. The top of your refrigerator is a good location. Check the seeds daily and keep the paper towel moist. After 2 or 3 days count the number of seeds that have sprouted. This will give you a pretty good idea of how the seeds will do in the garden. If half the test group germinated, then it is likely that half of the rest of the seeds will grow in your garden.

Seed Collecting

I want to start collecting and saving seeds from my garden. I’m looking for information about how to collect seeds from flowers. Do all flowering plants produce seeds for collecting?

Seed gathering is a fun gardening activity with a time honored past. Before seed companies and nurseries made it more convenient to buy packets of seeds and flats of ready grown plants, farmers and gardeners relied on collecting and saving their own seeds for the following year’s crops. I recall my parents and grandparents collecting seeds from their flower and vegetables, not only to be frugal, but to make sure they had seeds for the varieties that they liked to grow.

Since those early times plant breeders have created all kinds of new hybrid varieties, which makes modern day seed saving a little more challenging for the home gardener. Here’s why. Hybrid plants often produce seeds that either won’t germinate or the resulting plants don’t have the same characteristics as their parents. So when you purchase seeds to get your garden started be sure they are from plants that are an open pollinated variety. How do you know? There are several seed companies that sell open pollinated flowers. Also, many companies have varieties they categorize as heritage or an old fashioned favorite. Those flowers are usually a safe bet.

Seed Producing Flower Choices

Bachelor’s Button
Corn Poppy
Globe Amaranth
Hyacinth Bean Vine
Morning Glory

Selecting and Collecting

Gather them from the best plants. Tie a piece of bright yarn on the plants that have the height, color, bloom size or disease resistance qualities you prefer. The string will help remind you not to remove the fading blooms.

Blooms need to fade and dry on the plant so the seeds can develop and mature. Let the seed heads or pods dry out as much as possible on the plant before collecting them. Keep an eye on them. If the seed pods start to break open or a heavy rain is predicted, go ahead and harvest them.

Seed collecting should be done on a sunny day, after the morning dew has dried. How you harvest depends on the plant. Some seeds like nicotiana (flowering tobacco) will fall into your hand if you gently shake the stem. Others like zinnias and marigolds take some gentle pulling to extract the seeds from the flower head. Plants such as hyacinth bean vine have seeds that need to be manually removed from the pod. So depending on the type of seeds you are collecting, you can either shake them in to a paper bag or envelope, or if you are gathering flower heads and seed pods, place a sheet or some newspapers on the ground in front of the flowers so you can prune and toss them on the sheet as you go. The important thing at this point is to label the seeds and keep the varieties separate from each other, unless you plan on creating your own mixture of seeds.

Drying and Storing Seeds

Before you store your seeds, make sure they are completely dry. Scatter them out in a ventilated box or container and put it in a warm, dry spot. If you keep the box outside, make sure it is protected from the wind, rain and birds. Try sandwiching the seeds between two old window screens to keep them in place. If you have the room, your best bet is to keep them indoors when it looks like it will take a few days to dry them completely.

Once dried, store your seeds in an air tight container such as a glass jar with a tight fitting lid, a plastic storage container or a zipper style plastic bag. Label each container with the plant’s name and the date and year it was collected. Then store your seeds in a cool, dark, dry place until you are ready to use them.

Some gardeners add a little packet of silica gel (such as those included in the package with new electronics or leather goods) to make doubly sure the seeds stay dry. If you don’t have those on hand, make your own using a spoonful of dry milk powder in a piece of paper towel secured with a rubber band.

Test Your Seeds Before Planting

When you are ready to plant the seeds, you can test them for germination to find out how many seeds you can expect to grow. Take a small sampling of the seeds, place them on a barely damp paper towel and fold it in half over the seeds. Slip the towel into a sealed plastic bag or enclose it in plastic wrap to keep the towel from drying out. Label the package with the seed’s name and date and set it in a relatively warm place (70 to 75 degrees) such as the top of your refrigerator or on a high shelf. Avoid putting it in direct sun as the seeds could overheat. Check the towel daily to see if the seeds absorb the water and swell. If the towel dries out, mist it lightly. A majority of the seeds usually sprout within a few days, however some varieties take longer. When the germination stops and no more seeds have sprouted for a few days, that will give you an idea of the germination rate you can expect from that batch of seeds.