All posts by Jordan Charbonneau

10 Unique Greens to Plant This Spring

Watercress

Only gardeners know how truly exciting greens can be. After months of cold weather, they’re some of the first seeds to go in the ground and the first harvests of the new season. Plus, when you grow your own greens you have access to so much variety. Here are 10 unique varieties for those still adding to their spring planting list.

Watercress

Like the name suggests this plant is grown in water! Though not popular as a salad ingredient until the 1800s, watercress has a long and storied history and was used by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Persians. It has mustard-like flavor and can be grown in a cool stream or even a pot if you continually add fresh water.

Yellow Cabbage Collards

This North Carolina heirloom is milder and more tender than other collard varieties. It has yellow-tinted leaves that form loose heads. Cabbage collard seed can be hard to come by, this variety was shared with SESE by Benny and Vickie Cox of the Collard Shack!

Red Giant Mustard

A beautiful, insect-resistant variety, red giant has well-savoyed leaves that are predominantly reddish-purple with an undercoat of green. It has strong mustard flavor, good cold tolerance, and is ready to harvest in 43 days.

Outredgeous Romaine Lettuce

This lettuce was chosen by NASA for space farming and was the first vegetable to be grown and eaten on the International Space Station! Ready to harvest in just 64 days this variety has dark red, ruffled leaves that form loose heads. It was bred by Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed.

This is an Open Source Seed Initiative variety. The OSSI pledge: “You have the freedom to use these OSSI-Pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.” Read more about OSSI here! >>

Alabama Blue Collards

Alabama Blue Collards

Collards may not be a unique feature to gardens of the mid-Atlantic and southeast but this blue-leaved heirloom is actually rather rare. The plants are smaller than other collard varieties so they can be spaced closer together. The leaves are green, blue-green, and purple with white, pale green, and plum-colored veins.

Lark’s Tongue Kale

This heirloom is a German variety dating back to the 1800s. It has long, narrow, silver-green leaves and is extremely cold-hardy, withstanding subzero temperatures. In warmer areas, this kale can live for many years and grow as high as 5 feet tall!

Tom Thumb Bibb (Butterhead) Lettuce

This adorable lettuce produces apple-sized heads that are great for small gardens. It also matures fairly quickly, being ready to harvest in as little as 48 days. Tom Thumb has tender leaves and is a pre-1850 heirloom.

Ruby Streaks Mustard

Ruby Streak’s lacy leaves are a wonderful addition to any spring salad. In cold weather, the leaves are predominantly purple but are purple and green in warm weather. Ready to harvest in just 40 days this mustard’s spicy flavor also does wonderfully in stir-fries.

Sword Leaf (Yu Mai Tsai) Looseleaf Lettuce

This lettuce has a unique appearance and flavor! It’s a Taiwanese variety with long, thin, pointed leaves. It’s sometimes used in cooking as well as in salads and has a distinct flavor with hints of almond and clove.

Barese Swiss Chard

Though rainbow chard may be more popular this Italian variety actually has sweeter, more tender leaves than other varieties. It has white stems with glossy green leaves which can be harvested for baby greens at 25 days or for mature leaves at 50 days.

Even if you just planted greens you could have a garden full of variety. The name “greens” is pretty deceiving with the abundance of shapes, colors, and textures that different varieties offer. This is just a small sampling of some of the great varieties that work well for spring planting. You can find more in our greens and lettuce sections.

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8 Common Mistakes When Starting Seeds

Starting seeds indoors is one of the best parts of gardening. You can finally get your hands in the soil after a winter break. A gardener’s shelf full of tiny seedlings is a sure sign that’s spring is on its way! Unfortunately as with everything in gardening growing transplants from seeds has its challenges. If you want to have awesome seedlings this year be sure to avoid these common mistakes.

Not providing supplemental light.

Unfortunately, setting your seedlings by a window probably isn’t going to give them enough light to become strong and healthy seedlings. Odds are they’ll become tall and spindly, reaching towards the light. You’ll have to provide them with some form of supplemental light. You don’t need to buy actual grow lights, simple garage or shop lights will do. You want the lights to be as close as possible to the tops of the plants without burning them. Setting up your lights so you can easily adjust their height as the plants grow is a great idea.

Not addressing a variety’s specific needs.

While many seeds are pretty simple to grow, just push it some dirt and water, others require a bit more care. Some seeds need to be soaked overnight before planting, some need light to germinate, while still others need to scarified. Always check package directions and do research as needed. 

Not hardening off your seedlings.

As your seedlings are accustomed to a climate controlled life indoors, they could succumb to shock if you decide to set them out without first acclimating them to their new environment. Start by setting them outside for just a few hours per day slowly adding time over the course of two weeks. This will allow them to adjust the intense sunlight, temperature, and wind. You can take this a step further by transplanting your seedlings on an overcast day so they don’t have to struggle with intense light on top of the shock of transplant.

Over or under-watering.

Seedlings should always be kept moist but they’ll rot if they’re just sitting in water. Whatever you plant your seedlings in should a hole or holes in the bottom and a tray underneath to catch any excess water. You also need to ensure that they don’t dry out completely which can happen surprisingly quickly as seedlings grow larger.

Not putting them somewhere noticeable.

Unless you’re a full-time market gardener it’s easy to forget about and neglect your seedlings. Setting up your shelf somewhere you walk by often will help you remember to care for them and make it easy for you to spot problems as soon as they arise. 

Not keeping them warm enough.

While some plants like spinach and lettuce germinate and grow well in cool weather, others like tomatoes and peppers like things pretty warm. If you notice that your seeds are taking a long time to germinate, are slow growing, or you live in a cool or drafty home you may want to invest in a heat mat. These can be placed underneath seedling trays and will help the soil stay at an optimum temperature. 

Using garden soil instead of a proper potting medium.

You don’t necessarily have to buy a potting mix but you do need something other than plain old garden soil. Potting mixes always include something like peat moss to hold some moisture but are also light so that they drain well. You can find many DIY recipes for potting soil on the internet. If you’re purchasing soil and want it to be organic look for something that’s OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified.

Starting them too early and/or not potting them up.

If you start your plants too early they can outgrow your pots before your ready to plant them out. In this case, you’ll need to pot them up. If you don’t do this they can become root bound which may stunt their growth and weaken them.  

If you’ve struggled with growing your own transplants in the past being careful to avoid these common mistakes can help you have a productive garden this year. 

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Everything You Need to Know About Plant Hardiness Zones

Photo of the USDA Hardiness Map (https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#)

One concept that’s often brought up in gardening literature and rarely fully explained is hardiness zones. While they are a simple concept, to a new gardener it can be helpful to know exactly what a hardiness zone is and how to find theirs.

What’s a Hardiness Zone?

A hardiness zone is a geographic area that has similar climatic conditions that affect plant growth. In the United States, the most commonly used hardiness zones are those 13 zones found on the USDA Hardiness Zone Map. The USDA map is based on the annual minimum winter temperature.

History of Hardiness Zones

Starting in the 1920s people and organizations in the U.S. began making efforts to create a system of hardiness zones. However, it wasn’t until 1960 that the system we use today was created by the National Arboretum in Washington.  Over the years the map has been revised by the American Horticultural Society, the Arbor Day Foundation, and the USDA. Many other countries employ the USDA hardiness zones or a similar system.

The Current Map

The current hardiness zone map was created by the USDA in 2012. The USDA based the map on temperature recordings that were taken between 1976-2005. It’s digital and interactive, allowing users to enter their zip code or click on their location to find out more about their zone. In the future, this map will no doubt need to be updated. In fact, some believe that it already is incorrect due to climate change. Certain zones may have experienced warmer than average winter temperatures in the past few years.

You can find the current map here: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#

How Accurate Are Hardiness Zones?

First, it’s important to note that though winter minimum temperatures are what hardiness zones are based on they are not the only factor that determines a plants survival in a specific area. Some areas within the same zone may experience low winter temperatures for months on end while others within the same zone will only reach anywhere near the minimum temperature for a couple of days.

Snowfall is another big factor. Snow acts as insulation and if plants are consistently covered it can help them survive temperatures they otherwise wouldn’t. Wind is another important consideration. Think about the areas referred to as “above treeline” in certain sections of the Appalachian mountains (particularly the northeast) even though it may be colder farther north where trees are still present, extreme winds play a huge role in limiting growth in the mountains.

What if I Want to Grow Plants Not Suited to My Zone?

While greenhouses and high tunnels are typically used in modern agriculture to extend the growing season of annual plants you can use them to grow perennials as well. Planting in a shelter like this can allow you to plant species that would need a whole hardiness zone warmer than your area.

Some people have also had good luck planting against large rocks or buildings. These features shelter plants from wind and can absorb the sun’s heat during the day and release it slowly as nighttime temperatures fall.

Lastly, some perennials can be grown like annuals or brought indoors during the winter. Keep in mind if you bring a perennial in during the winter that is typically found in warm climates it probably won’t be quite as productive. You may also need to provide supplemental light unless you have large, south-facing windows.

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