Living Roof in Vancouver, B.C.

Consider this the first of many posts about plants in urban areas and the benefits that plants can bring to these locations. As an example, a group of people in Vancouver, B.C. developed an amazing green (or living) roof that incorporates plants native to the coastal grasslands found in that region. Watch this video to see how this project is helping to turn a landscape dominated by concrete and asphalt into a thriving and diverse ecosystem.

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Microgreens!

Microgreens are quite popular these days. They are larger than sprouts and smaller than baby greens, and new research has verified that they are packed with nutrients. Microgreens are easily grown year-round on a countertop or windowsill, even if the lighting situation is less than ideal for growing other plants. I am growing some now in clear, plastic, salad mix containers. I punched a few holes in the bottoms of the containers for drainage, filled them with moist potting soil, scattered seeds on top of the soil, covered the seeds with a bit more potting soil, and placed them outside in a small cold frame. I planted two with lettuce mix and one with radishes and arugula. The plants are ready to cut in a week or two and can be eaten in salads, sandwiches, stir-fries, etc.

To be considered true microgreens, the plants should be harvested very young (up to 14 days old and about an inch tall). After they are harvested, they will need to be replanted – unlike baby greens and typical salad mix which will produce multiple harvests – because they will not be large to enough to recover from being chopped down.

A wide variety of seeds can be grown as microgreens, including lettuces and other salad greens, brassicas (radishes, mustards, arugulas, etc.), and herbs. You can select a pre-packaged lettuce mix, or you can make a special mix of your own. Microgreens are great for people who want to grow some of their own food but have little or no space for a traditional garden because they are easily grown in containers indoors. They can also be grown throughout the winter when outdoor gardens have been put to bed for the season.

Learn more about growing microgreens at You Grow Girl and Organic Gardening.

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Last week I enjoyed a solitary walk through Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center and Reserve near Kirkwood, Missouri.  All was fairly quiet.  A gentle, cool breeze swept through the bare tree branches and rattled the brown leaves still clinging to a few stubborn oaks and maples.  Leaf litter decorates the entire forest floor;  it crackles as I step through it.  While the day is still cool (mid 40’s), the Sun’s energy, like the breeze, sweeps past the trees and warms me as I walk.

All is quiet.  But I can feel the change in season coming.  Some trees are beginning to show their plump buds, ready to spring into action.  In just a few weeks, I can imagine the wonderful bluebells (Mertensia virginica –previous post) and wood sorrel (Oxalis violaceaprevious post)  emerging again and filling the brown forest floor with brilliant color.

But…

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Spring Arrives

Spring is finally arriving in the Treasure Valley. Evidence can be found at Idaho Botanical Garden.
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Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Dianne’ – Witch Hazel

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Alnus viridis ssp. sinuata – catkins on Sitka Alder

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Crocus spp.

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Dwarf Iris (photo credit: Ann DeBolt)

Onion Seed Viability, etc.

Seeds don’t remain viable forever. However, each species is different – the seeds of some species can remain viable for many years (decades even), while some species have seeds that will no longer be viable after a single year. This, of course, is something to keep in mind when planting seeds.

Recently I planted some onion seeds. I was curious to see if they would germinate because they were a few years old –  collected in 2007. My experience with onion seeds is that they germinate fairly quickly, within a week or so. However, three weeks have passed and my seeds have not yet germinated, despite being kept in moist potting soil in a sunny, warm corner of the house. This experience has led to me to think about seed viability.

Like I said, seeds of different species remain viable for different lengths of time. For vegetable gardeners, there are a variety of places to go to learn more about seed viability. Iowa State University Extension has a great chart which shows the number of years that the seeds of popular vegetable crops should remain viable. It is interesting to note that onion seeds only remain viable for one year. As it turns out, my seeds were far past their prime.

Seed storage can make a huge difference, though. Ideally, seeds should be stored in a cool, dry location. If they are exposed to too much heat or moisture, their metabolism will increase and their viability will decrease. This is because seeds are living organisms, despite appearing dead or dormant. Their metabolic processes are proceeding at an extremely slow rate,  but they are still proceeding. If metabolism increases (due to excessive heat or moisture, for example), the embryonic resources of seeds can become depleted, and viability (or germination potential) decreases.

Some sources recommend that you keep your seeds in the refrigerator, provided that they are sealed in plastic to keep them dry. Regardless, the ideal conditions for seed storage are cool and dry. I have always kept my seeds in a shoebox at room temperature (which isn’t always that cool because in the summer I refrain from using the air conditioner as much as possible). Thus, the viability of my seeds may in fact be reduced simply due to the conditions in which they are being stored.

There is a way to determine the viability of your seeds if you are curious. Just place some seeds on a moist paper towel, roll up the paper towel, and place it inside of a plastic bag. Wait a few days and then remove the paper towel from the plastic bag. Count the number of germinated seeds and divide that number by the total number of seeds originally placed on the paper towel. This will give you the germination percentage and will help you determine how many seeds to place in each hole or pot when you are planting them.

onion seed packet

This is the seed packet for the onion seeds that I planted. 2/15/2013 is the date that I planted them. After three weeks they had not germinated. I guess I’ll have to try some newer seeds.

Assessing Your Soil

The latest issue of the magazine, Heirloom Gardener, has a great article on assessing your garden soil to be sure that it is ready for the coming growing season. The article addresses four main points that every gardener should be thinking about at the beginning of each growing season.

  1. Soil pH. This is a measure of the acidity of your soil. A pH of 7 is neutral – anything below that is acidic and anything above that is alkaline. Soil pH is important because it affects nutrient availability. The ideal soil pH for a vegetable garden (depending on what you read) is somewhere between 5.5 and 7.5 – if a soil has a pH above or below this range, certain essential plant nutrients will become less available, affecting the growth of plants in your garden and their potential yield.
  2. Soil Test. Determining your soil pH can be done by doing a simple soil test. The soil test will also let you know what nutrients are available in your soil and to what extent. Knowing the fertility of your soil will help you decide what steps to take in terms of adding organic matter and fertilizer to your soil. What amendments are needed will also be determined by what plants you are planning to grow, but having that soil test will at least give you a baseline to work from. Check with your local county extension agent for more information on how to take a soil sample and where to send it for analysis.
  3.  Soil Amendments. The spring is a good time to add amendments to your soil. The ideal thing to add is mature compost. The best soil for a productive vegetable garden is one that is loamy (referring to a mixture of sand, silt, and clay particles) and contains a large amount of organic matter. The organic matter (especially when highly decomposed) provides structure, drainage, fertility, and a flourishing microbial population to the soil. I have to emphasize “highly decomposed” because organic matter that is not well decomposed could end up being detrimental to your plants. This is because soil microbes, whose job it is to decompose organic matter, need nitrogen to do their job and can “rob” available nitrogen from nearby plants, resulting in a temporary nitrogen deficiency and stunted plant growth.
  4. Soil Drainage. The water-holding capacity of your soil is incredibly important and is something you should think about addressing in the spring. Soil that drains too quickly or not quickly enough are both scenarios that are not ideal for a vegetable garden. To test soil drainage in your garden, dig several holes that are at least 2 feet deep and fill them with water. After the holes have drained completely, fill them with water again and keep track of how long they take to drain. A rate of 1-2 inches per hour is ideal. If the test results from your garden are more or less than this standard, the soil should be amended. Adding lots of compost to the soil should address the problem whether it is slow or fast drainage.

The health (or condition) of the soil in your vegetable garden is hugely important and will have a large influence on the success and productivity of this year’s crops. So while you’re thinking about all of the things you want to grow this year, take a little time and think about the soil that they’ll be growing in. While it may not seem as interesting as the plants that will be growing in it, good soil will certainly make a huge difference in the long run.

Read the article, “Is Your Soil Ready for Spring?”, in the Spring 2013 issue of Heirloom Gardener for more detailed information.

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Photo credit: wikimedia commons