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I was all set to have a terrible day and then I checked my e-mail and remembered the moon!   Perigee moon folks.  The moon, having an irregular orbit around the earth comes closer at certain times of it's cycle.  Well, every 18-20 years ( there are different reports) we get a super perigee moon.  You know, that huge one that everyone takes great pictures of?  The best time to see it, is when the moon is at the horizon.

So, I was checking out KGI Kitchen Gardeners International the other day, and stumbled onto this article about seed starting.  In it, the author discusses a seed storage program conducted by a group in the USDA called NGRP National Genetics Resources Program which was established to:
 acquire, characterize, preserve, document, and distribute to scientists, germplasm of all lifeforms important for food and agricultural production.  Pretty exciting right? 

Well, one of the things they distribute is heirloom seeds and plants.  The author of the article said that you can go through their list, click on some seeds you're interested in, and basically request that they send them to you.  Really exciting.  So, I searched through their list, which is pretty extensive.  You want to know the scientific name for whatever plant you want.  This is primarily for research purposes.

Side note on the ethics of requesting seed.  I know I'm going to come off holier than thou at the time of this posting, but so be it.  I requested seed as a result of becoming more informed about the state of agricultural food systems today.  The US commercial agricultural industry is leading us into treacherous territory.  That territory is the world of monoculture.  Every scientist worth their salt knows that diversity is the strength that has kept living beings inhabiting the planet.  Through natural disaster, plague, human intervention, life has continued, and a big reason for that is that life on this planet is adaptable and able to change.  But, what happens when we engineer an existence that is focused on being the same?  Google Irish Potato Famine and you'll find out exactly what happens. 

Which is why NGRP is such an important occupation.  They catalogue and make safe haven for the diversity on our planet, on behalf of this country.   They do everything, plants, animals, microbes, invertebrate.   But it's not just their job to care for diverse species, it's our job too.  If you inhabit this planet, and especially if you have children, then there's a certain responsibility that you have towards protecting life.  If for no reason than we can conceive of the future without us.  So, if you order seed, understand that it is probably more valuable than the stuff that you get at the garden center or nursery.  It's like seed exchange valuable.  Rare, important, beautiful.  I will now stop stomping around, banging my morality stick across everything.

Anyways, I got an e-mail from Mr. B. Bartlett who said that they are sending me seed as soon as possible.  :::screaming inside:::  So, my day has gone from bad to pretty darn good.  I ordered two different types of lowbush blueberry,  fava beans, and calendula seeds.    I am hoping that starting the blueberry from see will be successful, and I know most people do transplant.  I'm going out tomorrow to purchase moss to germinate the blueberry seeds, waiting for those to germinate might actually kill me.  I've read that it can take a month.  As far as the fava goes, I am going to grow those in large containers, and simply harvest the beans to store for seed.  Maybe after about a season I will have enough to eat.  


Time to Dance

I broke up all the topsoil in one of my tulip patches yesterday and was rewarded with earthworm procreation.  Of course I didn't snap a picture of it because I was watering my tulips and they took off pretty quick, but it pretty much looked like this:

I don't want to jinx it, but if the earthworms think it's warm enough, that's a good sign.  Right?


Michael Pollan Documentary

Just watched this on PBS today.  Super interesting.  Hope that I'll be able to find some Peruvian Seed potatoes.

It's sunny and fairly warm out.  This morning, I saw some wild strawberries growing in my failed lasagna patch.  They look brighter and healthier than all the others growing in my yard.  I wonder if I can cultivate these along with the bare root stock I bought in the store.

We will see.


Never turn your back on Mother Earth

I am almost red-faced, if that were possible, at my previous exuberance, and declarations of spring.  The very next day, snow was in the forecast at least 2 inches with a possibility of 4.  I rushed outside to cover my raspberry bush and all the great leaves it has been sprouting.  I planted it a week ago in a 12 gallon plastic can, and then tied another 12 gallon trash can on top to give it enough airspace, should the snow decide to stick around.  Well of course it was all nearly melted away by late afternoon.

My raspberry bush did not look the worse for wear.  I think feeding it spent coffee grounds is really a good idea.

The tulips that have been poking up for about a week and a half now were just fine.  I grabbed some spare leaves that had collected around the corners of the house, and laid them on top with a  light dousing of water to keep them from blowing away.  Even during the winter, the air is super dry in Missouri.  The leaves stayed put and my tulips didn't look any worse than when the baby was tramping on them.

He really is a sweet child, it's just the predilection for stomping freshly dug earth that's the problem.  That, and the dirt eating.


Starting from Scratch

   In this pursuit of organic, cheap, and DIY style of gardening (for which I have not devised a succinct name for) I am compelled to start from seed whenever possible.  Starting seed from scratch is actually not that hard.  I've done it before and been fairly successful, but there is always room for improvement.

   This year, I am doing everything with the exception of some fruit from seed.  I have tried and failed with tomato plants.  Whether it was my soil, my care, or the plant, they always seem to die on me.  This is simply not acceptable this year as the expense for one plant is usually more expensive that a package of multiple seeds.  I can't spend $2.50 on a plant that's not going to survive.  Another concern is disease.  Many times plants that are grown in artificial environments are weakened and can suffer from disease, whereas plants that have proven hardy in your particular area, because they have grown up there, are less stressed and have less exposure to random diseased plants.  

     The first thing I did was search the last frost date in Kansas City, somewhere between zone 5b and zone 6.  By some account it is April 15th and by others April 30th.  To be safe I bet on April 30th so that I wouldn't have transplants ready to go to ground before the ground warmed. You usually want to start your seed 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date.  This way you can ensure you have a healthy, hardened-off transplant to put in the ground.  

Although this is not necessary, I started my early spring veggies first as they tend to be sensitive to temperature fluctuations and will bolt or simply not germinate if conditions aren't cool enough.
For me, this is three varieties of lettuce, loose leaf, spicy, and sweet mixes.  Also swiss chard,  carrots, radishes, parsnips, fava beans, sugar snap peas, spinach, and collard greens.  I calculated my start date to be on the eighth of March, and actually started in on the seventh.  

Now, a lot of seeds like carrots, and lettuces are tiny and nearly impossible to control when putting down.  To solve this problem I made my own seed tape.  Seed tape is great for having control of your plantings, but expensive to buy, and I was not about to pay someone for that extra little bit of work.  Basically, borrowing from an instructional video I saw on you tube, I took a roll of bath tissue, tore a 12 inch piece off and lay it down on a flat surface.  Then, taking a flour paste I made (1 part flour to 1 part water) and a small paintbrush, I dabbed a dot every inch or so down the length of the bath tissue.  After that I dropped two or three seeds down on the drops of paste, folded the bath tissue in half, and set it aside to dry.  Once the tissue is mostly dried, you can roll it up and either lightly rubber band it, or tie it with some twine.  

The next step is planting medium.  I know a lot of people will go out and buy special seed germinating medium, but I'm just too cheap to do that.  Instead I bought 5 bags (40lbs each) of topsoil, 3 bags (2 cubic feet each) of cotton burr compost, 5 bags (40 lbs each) of  peat, and 3 bags (30 lbs each) of sand.  In this way I get enough potting mix to start seeds and fill my containers of which I will have upwards of nine this year with extra to spare for the garden bed.  I don't even want to think about how much ready-made organic potting soil would cost me.   The great thing about seeds is that they don't need much fertilizer, just a well-drained, light soil.  In my mix I do 5 parts compost and soil, 3 parts peat, and 3 parts sand.  This combination always just seems to work for me, but can vary depending on humidity and quality of material.  I don't sift the compost.  Part of me wants to inflict a sort of trial-by-gauntlet on my seedlings.  Somewhere in the recesses of my mind this imitates a kind of natural order.  I mean sure seeds will grow well in sifted medium, but what happens when they get stuck in my clay- infested garden plot.  They gotta display some moxie before they move on to the next level.

This brings me to my seed trays.  I'm not the one to got out and buy neat little Jiffy seedling greenhouses, complete with peat and starting medium.  I'm the one to go to COSTCO and snag the flat, open boxes that pastries or plastic wrap come in.  Even the fruit boxes are wide and shallow enough to support seedlings, and you can get those at any grocery store.  Understand that if you use these types of boxes to start your seeds, you will not be able to move them very easily on their own.  You'll either need to set them on a sturdy plastic tray to move them into better light, if you have them in the home, or find a good spot that gets sun most of the day to put them in and stick to it. Perhaps a potter's bench with castors and wheels so that you can wheel it around?  This is why, my favorite DIY seed tray can only be found at COSTCO as far as I know.  The plastic apple tray.  It's a giant plastic clamshell with little apple-sized cups in it.  You simply eat the apple, then stab a little hole in each cup, fill with dirt, and plant your seed.  I also utilize egg cartons.

Being frugal, and a hoarder, and living with a procrastinator is a benefit for me as a gardener.  It means that any useful, and compact, bottle with a lid,  gets saved to put stuff in later,  Emergency preparedness water, loose change, juice, milk, daily use water.  It also means that the recycling doesn't go out as often as it probably should.  While all this creates a terrible mess in my kitchen, it also allows me to have a wide variety of transplant containers on hand.   Containers to transplant your seedlings to are something you want to have on hand right away if you are starting from seed.   For most seeds, you want to give them a week or two after germination to "prick out"  (gently tease out of the planting tray, and move to it's own transplant container) but time does fly and before you know it, your plants can get weak and leggy while you search for and end up buying a bunch of pots later.   We don't like paying money for stuff we had in our house anyway, right?

Which brings me to my last and probably most foolhardy instance of frugality.  Old seeds.  I cannot recommend using old seeds.  Whew, where to start?  I have seeds that were given to me that should have been sold in 2007.  It is now four years later, and lord knows, I was not keeping those seeds hermetically sealed or anything.  So, planting them this year is done at my own risk.  Except, many seed will last A LOT longer than seed companies will have you believe, some, even up to five years or more if stored properly.  I mean, scientists have pulled seed thousands of years old out of the permafrost and germinated them. The germination rate per package may probably decrease, but it you plant an entire package you'll probably get something out of it and if you don't, just go out an buy a new package, or not if you don't want that plant after all.  I guess what I'm saying is, don't throw out old seed unless it's moldy, because that can spread disease.  Instead plant it, if it grows it's a gift, if not, lesson learned.


Springtime in Kansas City

It is not technically springtime in Kansas City, that is sometime between April 15th and April 30th if you follow frost dates. But, for all practical purposes, it's spring. The mornings are chilly to cool and smell of that intangible freshness that perfumers always attempt to imitate, but fall short of. By two o'clock the temperature has, for the past three days, been above 55 degrees. My tulips are showing short green leaves, no matter the trampling from the boys, and there are little patches of wild strawberry leaves amongst whatever grass can manage in the neglected space of my lawn. Which, short of mowing, is everywhere in my lawn. Never been one to perpetuate the habits of of the British aristocracy. (More on that another time.)  
For the past 5 months I have been practicing a haphazard and scattered form of French Intensive,and Lasagna gardening. With the loss of my job in August, plenty of free time on my hands and noticeable loss of income I decided last September that I better make good on my intentions of cultivating a kitchen garden.  
     Unfortunately there were a couple of problems with this plan. One, I had attempted a super lazy form of lasagna gardening before only to be outdone by the lawn/weeds so I was really going to have to change my methods. Two, gardening although one of the oldest and most natural forms of food production in the world can be alarmingly expensive in this modern, post-industrial society. Because of this, especially for a renter, it is very rare to come across a ready-made garden bed. Usually what you get is a terribly root-bound lawn over a layer of broken concrete, glass, and just plain garbage that the builders decided they didn't have time enough to haul away.  
Enter French Intensive gardening. In this style you "double dig" your garden. Digging the top 10-12 inches of soil out, setting it aside, and loosening the remaining 10-12 inches with a gardening fork while adding compost, peat etc. You then replace that top soil you dug out and mix the whole thing up with the garden fork. Because of the depth of arable soil in your bed, you can plant closer together and the roots of your plants will naturally grow downwards. This gives you a perfect opportunity to "cleanse" your soil of rocks and whatever else people like to bury. I had one boss tell me he found carpet underneath his lawn. Nothing grosses me out more than used carpet, nothing. In any case the French potagers were developed in this style to compensate for decreased gardening space and to maximize output. Pretty much everyone who gardens in France uses this method. I don't even think they have a name for it, they just call it gardening.  
     I only had one problem with this method. By hauling the dirt up and out of the ground and stirring it up, you end up destroying one of your garden's best friends, worms. I mean, you could buy worms, but ninjas is broke and unemployed, and trying not to pay for things that nature can just give her. So I would have to find some other way to finish preparing the soil. I turned to my old, slightly suspect, friend Lasagna gardening. I figured, if I turned the sod, the grass would break down because there was no sun to feed upon and the roots would break down because they weren't able to extract nutrients from the soil hence no encroaching lawn in my garden plot.  

   I squared out two spaces in the yard on either side of our patio 4' X 6' each , and dug up the sod square by square in the French Intensive way, then following the habits of the Lasagna or Compost gardener I flipped each piece of sod over, grass side down and proceeded to litter it with the last of the grass clippings, sheets of unused newsprint, and broken down cardboard boxes. After that we got so into the habit of throwing kitchen scraps out onto the patch that even while visiting my "mother in love" (more on that later) I felt compelled to throw vegetable scraps out in her backyard also. Composting is addictive!

      Fast forward to March after the snow from 3 snowstorms had melted and I had this beautiful, brown, startlingly dirt-like soil. Sure, there were leftover onions and blackened banana peels that hadn't quite broken down scattered here and there, but even though they were recognizable they didn't seem to be attracting any flies. And by now there were plenty of flies hanging around the compost pile.  
     By then we were putting our kitchen scraps in an old popcorn bucket and I could move on to the next stage of plot development. I hauled it over to the local state run composting site Missouri Organic and got a trunk full of fresh (and by fresh I mean steaming and smelling like the cow it came from) garden soil and mulch for the startling price of $6.00 USD. Local, organic, and CHEAP! I spread those out, soil then mulch, and as a finishing act, I took the fork and loosened the soil bit by bit, 10 inches deep in 6 inch increments. After a final watering to jump start decomposition my beds were prepared.


Hopefully, after this year, I won't have to buy garden soil anymore. I think mulch will always be a necessity for water conservation and weed deterrent. I am attempting to garden organically in the ground, and in all containers but the raspberry bush and strawberry plants. So I will be employing several methods to dodge and confuse pests as opposed to using herbicides or fungicides (more of those next post)