Saturday, March 28, 2015

Hello from Zone 9

We all live in agricultural zones, as set out by the USDA. Zones are the basis for all successful gardening. Each zone is based on the average annual last freeze date.

The USDA divides North America into 11 zones. As you work your way north, each zone is 10 degrees (F) colder than the last.

It's important to know your zone. You want to buy seeds and plants that will do well in your area. Seed packets usually give the zone for which they are a good fit, so read labels and check with your county's Master Gardeners.

Wherever you live in the United States, there is a zone for you. Here on the Texas Gulf Coast, we are zone 9. You can find out your own hardiness zone with a simple Google search with your zip code and the word "zone."

So, what zone do you live in?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Use an ordinary shop light as a grow light

This spring I splurged on equipment that will serve me for years to come as I turn $3 worth of seeds into big, strong tomato transplants for my garden. Sure, Big Box Land has seedlings for $3 to $5 each, and those are convenient. But if you're planning to set out a whole bunch of transplants, you may want to try what I finally succeeded at this year.

The set-up was a one-time investment for saving money in all the coming years. Simple math.

In the past I have turned out sick, spindly little tomato plants. I thought I could just set them in a sunny window, but they just reach for the watery sunlight instead of growing up tall and strong. To overcome phototropism, you should rotate the plants every day, but it really doesn't work.

This year I installed a four-tube shop light. Yes, having a shop light hanging by chains over the kitchen table is pretty much of a monstrosity, but just think, it's only temporary. Once you've grown your seedlings for the season, you can put your equipment away in the garage or basement.

The shop light I bought is 1 foot wide and 4 feet long -- perfect for hanging over a domed seeding tray (mine is 1 foot wide and 2 feet long). Why did I get such a long shop light? I was thinking ahead to the time when I would be planting my seedlings in larger containers, and I would have 4 feet of space for these bigger cups. This worked out very well.

Getting a four-tube light is a key to this system. With a two-tube system, your plants would always be straining their necks toward the middle, resulting in thin, sickly, leggy little babies that won't do well in the real world. So spend a little more on a four-tube light.

I think I paid $50 for the shop light fixture, then I splurged on four T8 plant lights at about $10 each. While I'm reasonably certain you can use regular fluorescent bulbs, naturally I took it over the top and I'm glad I did.

My husband installed the lighting fixture with strong hooks into ceiling studs. I bought him two 6-foot lengths of white chain that have links that are about 1 inch long. These chain links are important because you'll probably need to raise the light every day in order to keep it 1 inch above the top of the plants.

Along with heating mat and seed tray (see yesterday's blog), the shop light allows me to bypass commercial seedlings. For sure, I had to put time and money into this system, but let me tell you, it's well worth the investment. I am a confirmed seed starter.

See yesterday's blog for how to start seeds indoors using a seeding tray and heating mat.

From crafty to colossal

I had some old tomato stakes languishing in the vicinity of the garden, so I decided they were going to become my next plant markers. Forget about the cute little craft sticks. Those disintegrate or get displaced. So I'm going with these 4-foot stakes, which I'm pretty sure won't get lost.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How to start seeds indoors

This spring I have studied and researched and thereby learned how to plant my tomato seeds in my kitchen, then be able to transplant them to my backyard garden in just five weeks.

My tomato seedlings grew to be 16 inches tall, sturdy as soldiers. And it was super fast once I invested time, energy and yes, some money, into my little system.

Now I have the equipment and know-how for starting seeds for every season in my life. You need to try this!
Beyond seeds, you will need these things:
  • Seed-starting tray with clear plastic dome lid
  • Potting mix
  • Heating mat made especially for seed-starting
  • Shop light from the hardware store with 4 plant light tubes
    (see Quirky Cultivator tomorrow)
I got the domed seed-starting tray and accompanying heating mat, sold together online as a "germination station."

The tray I used allowed me to choose the seed-starting soil mix. The big-box stores tend to have one or the other of these 8-quart bags: Jiffy Natural and Organic Seed Starting Mix (yellow bag) and Miracle-Gro Seed Starting Potting Mix (blue bag). They are $5 or $6 a bag, and it's well worth the money because it's high-quality stuff and it takes only half a bag to fill my tray. 

Here's where you get dirt under your fingernails, which is my favorite part. Pour your soil into a container and add a little water at a time, squishing it together between your fingers. You'll need to add water until the soil is the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. If you've done this properly, the soil will be wetted but not saturated. When you squeeze you'll want to see a few drops of water fall out, but that's all. Now put the soil into the tray holes.

Generally you'll plant tomato seeds at a depth of 1/4 inch, but double-check your seed packet. Place two seeds on top of each hole then cover with 1/4 inch of soil. Don't pack it down. Placing the tray over the provided under-tray to catch any drops.

Now you will make your own greenhouse effect by placing the clear plastic dome over the tray.  Check your seed pods every day and water if they are looking less than moist. Having the heating mat underneath and your shop light hanging overhead, you might need to water every day.

Set your domed tray on your nifty germination heating mat. This is the way the big greenhouses sprout seeds, and I never really believed it was worth the money, but no longer! The heat mat is a stiff, thin system completely encased in vinyl. I love this mat, which increases the soil temperature about 5 to 10 degrees above room temp. I keep it plugged in all day every day until the baby plants outgrow their dome.  I paid about $40 for the "germination station" tray and heating mat together. Now I will be able to plant a $3 packet of seeds instead of $3 to $5 transplants in Big Box Land.

This is just one way to start seeds. What tips do you have? Please leave a comment below and I will get right back to you.  

Next: Using a shop light as a grow light

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Vintage treasure

Here on  Quirky Cultivator, I love sharing beautiful things. This pendant from the early 1960s was in my grandmother's jewelry box. It's obvious that fine workmanship went into creating this and all its sisters of different art glass, shapes and colors. 
The pendant is made of high-quality brass, with filigree elements artistically arranged on the back. I think someone in West Germany had a lot of fun coming up with the designs! As you can imagine, me being me, I have quite a few variations of these pendants.
Each necklace has the same heart, pearls and chain, but there are enough differences to make collecting them a joy.  They're so alike but so different, sort of like my three sisters and me coming out of the same household growing up.
Most high-quality vintage costume jewelry has some kind of signature worked into one detail or another. This maker's mark is so small that I had to take a picture of it through a magnifying glass. "Made in West Germany" is imprinted in minuscule lettering on the jump ring! (The jump ring is what the spring clasp fastens onto.) I hope my personal Maker's mark is a lot easier to find!

Monday, March 23, 2015


My dill is actually producing this year.
Imagine pickles without dill! Some homemade ranch dressings call for dill; in fact, I think it is the secret ingredient. You can also use dill in dips, salads and soups. I've never had any luck with dill until this year. Must be the mushroom compost I'm using this year.

Dill needs full sun, a moderate amount of water, and good, rich soil. Dill can reach 3 to 4 feet in height. It's best to harvest the leaves when they're 6 to 8 inches tall and before flowering.

Dill is in the same family as cumin and parsley. So try it out! It's a delightful feathery plant that's as easy on the eyes as on the palate.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Showy hibiscus

Hibiscus is a beautiful addition to any landscape, and grows well here in Zone 9. The woody bushes get to be 6 to 8 feet tall. I have to prune mine several times a year to keep it from taking up too much room.

My hibisci do well in my yard until the temperature dips below 40F. Then they do their death dance, but they're faking it. At my house, after they've "died," I chop them down almost to the ground. All but one has made a comeback from the very base of the plant, all fresh for spring.