March in the Low Desert

Spring is in the air, or is it?  It still is possible to have freezing temperatures early in the month, so don’t store your frost protection cloth yet.  By mid-March chances of below, freezing temperatures have diminished for the low-desert regions and spring gardening tasks can now be initiated.

Now is a good time to divide clump-forming Agave spp., Aloe spp., Manfreda spp., Hesperaloe spp., and Candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica) in the landscape or in containers.

Many deciduous trees will start to produce new leaves as the weather becomes warmer including Mesquites (Prosopis spp.), Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), Golden Leadball Tree (Leucaena retusa), Feather Tree (Lysiloma watsonii), and Kidneywood (Eysenhardtia orthocarpa).

Stem and flower buds are forming on many cacti at this time.  Look for these buds on Prickly-pears (Opuntia spp.), Chollas (Cylindropuntia spp.) and Hedgehogs (Echinocereus spp.).

Plant your Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) from March through May as these are the ideal months to achieve greater transplanting success.

November through mid-March is the ideal time to plant the Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia).  If unable to plant by mid-March, wait until November for increased chance of survival.  If planted during the summer months, they are more sensitive during the transplant process either from the ground or a container.  They will exhibit more signs of stress and dehydration as well as more prone to rot if over watered.

If rainfall was plentiful during the previous fall-winter months, look for colorful wildflower displays in the desert.

BLOOMING ANNUALS CAN INCLUDE:
•    Mexican Gold Poppy (Eschscholzia californica ssp. a )
•    California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica ssp. californica)
•    Desert Bluebell (Phacelia campanularia)
•    Scorpion-weeds (Phacelia spp.)
•    Chia (Salvia columbariae)
•    Bladderpod (Lesquerella gordonii)
•    Lupines (Lupinus spp.)
•    Owl-clover (Castilleja exserta)
•    Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii)
•    Monkey Flower (Mimulus guttatus)
•    Desert Stork’s Bill (Erodium texanum)
•    Emory’s Rock Daisy (Perityle emoryi)
•    Fiddlenecks (Amsinckia spp.)
BLOOMING HERBACEOUS PERENNIALS CAN INCLUDE:
•    Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi)
•    Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatonii)
•    Superb Penstemon (Penstemon superbus)
•    Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
•    Evening Primrose (Oenothera caespitosa)
•    Black-foot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)
•    Paperflower (Psilostrope cooperi)
•    Desert Verbena (Glandularia gooddingii)
•    Desert-marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
•    Deer Vetch (Lotus rigidus)
•    Fendler’s Bladderpod (Lesquerella fendleri)
•    Wishbone Bush (Mirabilis laevis)
•    Globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
•    Angelita Daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis)
•    Gopher Plant (Euphorbia rigida)
•    Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea)
•    Fleabane (Erigeron divergens)
•    Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)
•    Bush Morning Glory (Convolvulus cneorum)
•    Desert Zinnia (Zinnia acerosa)
BLOOMING SHRUBS CAN INCLUDE: 
•    Creosote (Larrea tridentata)
•    Bee Brush (Aloysia gratissima)
•    Desert-honeysuckle (Anisacanthus thurberi)
•    Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica)
•    Pink Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla)
•    Chuparosa (Justicia californica)
•    Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)
•    Mexican-honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)
•    Giant Bur-sage (Ambrosia ambrosioides)
•    Bur-sage (Ambrosia deltoidea)
•    Red Barberry (Mahonia haematocarpa)
•    Woolly Butterfly Bush (Buddleja marrubiifolia)
•    Bitter Condalia (Condalia globosa)
•    Texas Mountain-laurel (Calia secundiflora syn. Sophora secundiflora)
•    Bush Dalea (Dalea pulchra)
•    Tree Ocotillo (Fouquieria macdougalii)
•    Desert-lavender (Hyptis emoryi)
•    Ragged Rockflower (Crossosoma bigelovii)
•    Bush Germander (Teucrium fruticans)
•    Wolfberries/Thorn berries (Lycium spp.)
•    Little-leaf Sumac (Rhus microphylla)
•    Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata)
•    Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii)
•    Desert Sage (Salvia dorrii)
•    Hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa)
•    Paperbag Bush (Salazaria mexicana)
•    Feathery Senna (Senna artemisioides)
•    Parish’s Goldeneye (Viguiera parishii)
•    Trixis (Trixis californica)
BLOOMING TREES CAN INCLUDE: 
•    Sweet Acacia (Vachellia farnesiana syn. Acacia farnesiana)
•    Palo Blanco (Mariosousa willardiana syn. Acacia willardiana)
•    Blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia florida)
•    Little-leaf Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphylla)
•    Palo Brea (Parkinsonia praecox)
•    Mexican-ebony (Havardia mexicana)
•    El Chañar (Geoffroea decorticans)
•    Baby Bonnets (Coursetia glandulosa)
•    Blackbrush Acacia (Vachellia rigidula syn. Acacia rigidula)
•    Shoestring Acacia (Acacia stenophylla)
BLOOMING CACTI AND SUCCULENTS CAN INCLUDE: 
•    Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia basilaris)
•    Silver Cholla (Cylindropuntia echinocarpa)
•    Mother of Hundreds (Mammillaria compressa)
•    Mammillaria senilis
•    Viznaga Caballona (Ferocactus macrodiscus)
•    Mohave Yucca (Yucca schidigera)
•    Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)
•    Don Quixote’s Lace (Yucca treculeana)
•    Slipper Plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus)
•    Live Forevers (Dudleya spp.)
•    Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia milii)
•    Yellow Trailing Iceplant (Malephora lutea)
•    Coppery Ice Plant (Malephora crocea)
•    Ice plants (Drosanthemum spp.)
•    Kalanchoe orgyalis
•    Succulent Geraniums (Pelargonium spp.)
•    Aloes including Aloe x ‘Blue Elf’, Partridge-Breast Aloe (Aloe variegata), and Coral Aloe (Aloe striata)
 

Look for flowering Claret-cup (Echinocereus continues), Engelmann’s Hedgehog (Echinocereus engelmannii) and Green Hedgehog (Echinocereus viridiflorus) later in the mon

 

Watering

As temperatures rise during the month of March, turn on your irrigation timer.  Test the timer to see if it is working properly and replace back-up batteries if necessary. Check for leaks and clogged emitters and flush out the poly lines.

How much to water depends on many factors including: soil type, weather, rainfall, microclimates, cultural practices, plant size and species, and whether the plants is newly planted or established in the landscape (two years or more). Below are general guidelines to help you determine how much and how often to water your landscape and container plantings to keep them healthy when rainfall is lacking.

Established native or desert-adapted trees and shrubs should be watered at least once to twice monthly. Water at least three feet deep for your trees and two feet deep for your shrubs.

Natural rainfall may be adequate for most well-established cacti and succulents. However, if rainfall is insufficient, water may be needed at least once to twice during the month of March. Water your cacti and succulents to a depth of at least 8-12 inches.

Established herbaceous perennials, groundcovers, and vines should be watered every two to three weeks and at least one foot deep.

Wait a week after planting your cacti and succulents before watering to minimize the chance of rot. After the initial irrigation of your succulents, allow the soil to dry out and water every 10-14 days. Cacti may need to be watered once more after initial watering during the month of March, but allow the soil to dry out between watering.

Newly planted desert-adapted trees and shrubs need to be watered more frequently until established.  It can take up to 3-5 years for trees and at least 1-2 years for shrubs to become established in the landscape. After planting your trees and shrubs, they should be watered immediately and for the next few days to keep the root ball from drying out. Schedule your irrigation cycle for trees and shrubs every 7-10 days during the month of March. Allow the soil to dry out between irrigations and always water deeply, three feet for trees and two feet for shrubs.

Newly planted desert-adapted herbaceous perennials, groundcovers and vines should be watered immediately and for the next few days to keep the root ball from drying out. Schedule your irrigation cycle for herbaceous perennials, groundcovers and vines for at least once to twice weekly and to a depth of one foot. Allow soil to dry out between watering.

Continue to water your annual wildflowers at least every two weeks to prolong flowering.

Agaves and other succulents (Aloe spp., Dudleya spp., Cotyledon spp., Pedilanthus macrocarpus, Euphorbia spp.) in containers should be watered at least once to twice this month. Cacti in containers should be watered at least once this month. However, cacti and succulents in small containers may need to be watered more often including cacti and succulent seedlings.

Keep an eye on your warm-season annuals and herbaceous perennials in containers. Water them at least once to twice weekly.

WHAT TO PLANT

Plant warm-season cacti and succulents including:
•    Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)
•    Prickly-pears (Opuntia spp.)
•    Barrel Cacti (Ferocactus spp.)
•    Hedgehogs (Echinocereus spp.)
•    Pincushions (Mammillaria spp.)
•    Agaves (Agave spp.)
•    Yuccas (Yucca spp.)
•    Candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica)
•    Desert Spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri)
•    Red-yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)
•    Giant Hesperaloe (Hesperaloe funifera)
•    Elephant Food (Portulacaria afra)
•    Slipper Plant (Pedilanthus macrocarpus)
•    native Limberbushes (Jatropha spp.)

When transplanting cacti and succulents, mark either the south or west side and plant facing the orientation you marked to avoid the burning of tender tissues. Most nurseries will mark the side of the container to help you determine proper planting orientation. However, if the original orientation is not known, newly planted cacti and succulents need to be covered with shade cloth if plant surface appears to yellow or pale suddenly. Use a shade cloth rated between 30-60%, anything higher will block most of the sunlight and will not be suitable for your cacti and succulents. You may need to keep the shade cloth on the plant for the duration of the summer.

Plant native and desert-adapted trees including: 
•    Ironwood (Olneya tesota)
•    Blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia florida)
•     Little-leaf Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphylla)
•    Mesquites (Prosopis spp.)
•    Golden Leadball Tree (Leucaena retusa)
•    Chihuahuan-orchid Tree (Bauhinia lunarioides)
•    Texas-olive (Cordia boissieri)
•    Desert-willow (Chilopsis linearis)
•    Baby Bonnets (Coursetia glandulosa)

Plant warm-season shrubs including: 
•    Yellow Bells (Tecoma spp.)
•    Desert Cotton (Gossypium thurberi)
•    Sennas (Senna spp.)
•    Velvet-pod Mimosa (Mimosa dysocarpa)
•    Fire Bush (Hamelia patens)
•    Ruellia (Ruellia peninsularis)
•    Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha)
•    Sky Flower (Duranta erecta)
•    Bird of Paradise species (Caesalpinia spp.)

Plant warm-season herbaceous perennials including:
•    Datura (Datura wrightii)
•    Desert Four O’Clocks (Mirabilis multiflora)
•    Wine Cups (Callirhoe involucrata)
•    Arizona Foldwing (Dicliptera resupinata)
•    Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri)
•    Hummingbird Trumpet (Epilobium canum ssp. latifolium)
•    Plumbago (Plumbago scandens)

Many vines can also be planted at this time including: 
•    Queen’s Wreath (Antigonon leptopus)
•    Yuca (Merremia aurea)
•    Passion Flowers (Passiflora spp.)
•    Slender Janusia (Janusia gracilis)
•    Arizona Canyon Grape (Vitis arizonica)

When planting desert-adapted plants it is usually unnecessary to back-fill with soil amendments and vitamins or to add rooting hormones. However, a slow-release fertilizer high in nitrogen and phosphorous can be added to the back-fill, if necessary.

Many cacti can be started from seed at this time. Seed can be soaked overnight in water to help start the germination process.  Place seed in a well-draining soil mix (½ quality potting soil and ½ perlite or pumice) and lightly cover. Keep soil moist until germination occurs.

Sow seed of warm-season annuals and herbaceous perennials including:
•    Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnifera)
•    Red Sage (Salvia coccinea)
•    Mexican Chia (Salvia hispanica)
•    Tarahumara Chia (Salvia tiliaefolia)
•    Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
•    Numerous cultivars
•    Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
•    Summer Chia (Hyptis suaveolens)
•    Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata)
•    Tickseeds (Coreopsis spp.)
•    Golden Crownbeard (Verbesina encelioides)

Warm-season vegetable seeds started indoors in January can now be transplanted to your garden. Vegetables to transplant include:
•    Globe and Jerusalem artichokes
•    Eggplant
•    Peppers
•    Tomatoes
•    Tomatillos
•    Sweet potato slips

Try the many varieties of chiles such as Del arbol, Chiletepin, Mirasol, and Tabasco.

Vegetable seeds to sow include:
•    Beets (early half of the month)
•    Carrots
•    Sweet corn
•    Flour corn
•    Popcorn
•    Cucumbers
•    Jicama
•    Cantaloupe
•    Watermelon
•    Tomatillos
•    Muskmelon
•    Green onions
•    Pumpkins
•    Radishes
•    Summer squash
•    Winter squash
•    Gourds
•    Sunflowers
•    Black-eyed peas

By mid-month plant amaranth, Lima bean, snap bean, okra, and peanut. Try the many types of native beans such as Chihuahua Canario, O’odham Pink, Tohono O’odham Vayo Amarillo, and Yoeme Purple String from Native Seeds/SEARCH.

HERB SEEDS TO SOW INCLUDE:
•    Anise
•    Basil
•    Catnip
•    Chives
•    Epazote
•    Fennel
•    Feverfew
•    Horehound
•    Hyssop
•    Lemon balm
•    Salad cress
•    Parsley
•    Safflower
•    Salad burnet
•    Santolina
•    Fenugreek
•    Winter & summer savory
•    Thyme
•    Yarrow
•    Sesame

 

 

HERBS TO TRANSPLANT INCLUDE:
•    Basil
•    Bay
•    Cuban-oregano
•    Lemon grass
•    Lemon verbena
•    Mexican-oregano
•    Chives
•    Curry
•    Feverfew
•    French tarragon
•    Garlic chives
•    Germander
•    Horehound
•    Lavender
•    Lemon balm
•    Marjoram
•    Mint
•    Oregano
•    Parsley
•    Rue
•    Sage
•    Santolina
•    Winter & summer savory
•    Scented geraniums
•    Tansy
•    Thyme
•    Yarrow

 

 

PRUNING

Pruning should be done to maintain plant health (remove dead, damaged or diseased portions, cross branching, etc.), to highlight the “natural” shape of the plant, to train a young plant, and to eliminate hazards.  Excessive or heavy pruning causes significant stress to trees and shrubs.  The best practices are to prune the least amount necessary and prune for legitimate reasons.  How much to prune depends on the size, species, age, as well as your intentions.  A few good principles to remember–a tree or shrub can recover from several small pruning wounds faster than from a single large wound and never remove more than 25% of the canopy in a year.  For more information register for a Garden class offered on pruning that will teach you the proper pruning techniques for trees and shrubs or visit www.treesaregood.org for information on proper pruning of young and mature trees.

By mid-month frost damaged plants can be safely pruned. Prune evergreen trees and shrubs.

Pruning newly planted trees and shrubs is not recommended and in fact can be detrimental. However, corrective pruning off broken or torn branches and/or limbs can be done at planting time. Save other pruning activities for the second or third year. For more information on developing a healthy tree visit www.treesaregood.org

Now is a good time to prune summer and fall flowering shrubs including:
•    Texas Sages (Leucophyllum spp.)
•    Yellow Bells (Tecoma stans)
•    Lantana (Lantana camara)
•    Turpentine Bush (Ericameria laricifolia)
•    Black Dalea (Dalea frutescens)
•    Mexican-honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera)
•    Sky Flower (Duranta erecta)

Wait to prune your prickly-pears (Opuntia spp.) and chollas (Cylindropuntia spp.) until after flowering. Spent stalks of aloes, agaves and other succulents can be removed at this time.

Warm-season herbaceous perennials, groundcovers and vines can be pruned at this time including:
•    Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata)
•    Plumbago (Plumbago scandens)
•    Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnifera)
•    Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri)
•    Mealy-cup Sage (Salvia farinacea)
•    Rock Verbena (Glandularia pulchella)
•    Trailing Lantana (Lantana montevidensis)
•    Dyssodia (Thymophylla pentachaeta)
•    Queen’s Wreath (Antigonon leptopus)
•    Passion Vines (Passiflora spp.)
•    Yellow Orchid-vine (Callaeum macropterum)

Prune by cutting back to emerging growth or to the basal rosette (group of leaves arranged from a central point).

Continue to deadhead annuals and herbaceous perennials to encourage continued flowering including Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata), Red Sage (Salvia coccinea), Angelita-daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), and Gaillardia (Gaillardia pulchella).

FERTILIZATION

Most native and desert-adapted plants in the landscape do not generally require fertilizer as they are adapted to our soil conditions. In most cases, fertilizers are generally applied to prevent deficiencies. If fertilizers are needed, one application for the year is usually sufficient.

Now is the time to fertilize your warm-season cacti, succulents, herbaceous and woody perennials, and annuals in containers. Periodic fertilization may be needed for plants in containers as nutrients will have diminished in the soil over time. Depending on the type of fertilizer used, follow directions on the label.

Continue to fertilize your vegetable and herb garden as needed.  March is also a good time to apply a layer of composted mulch to your vegetable and herb beds.

PROBLEMS

Aphids can be found on landscape plants or on your vegetables. Allow natural predators such as lacewings, praying mantis, lady beetles and even hummingbirds to control the aphid population. You can also spray with insecticidal soap, but check to make sure beneficial insects are not presently working.

If you notice a tattered appearance on your landscape plants such as Evening Primroses (Oenothera spp.), Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) and Gaura (Gaura lindheimeri) it may be the flea beetle in action. A different species of flea beetle may also harm your vegetables including tomatoes, eggplants, carrots, and cabbages. The flea beetle larvae and adults can be destructive and they can be difficult to control.

You may notice small, circular cuts on the leaf margins at this time. This is the handiwork of leaf-cutter bees, important pollinators. The leaf-cutter bees use the cut leaf to line their nest and then lay an egg in each cavity. The damage is cosmetic and does not harm the plant. Control methods are unnecessary.

Look for mealybugs on your cacti and succulents. These scale insects can be difficult to control due to their ability to reproduce rapidly and they quickly acquire resistance to chemical controls. Spray mealybugs with a 70% alcohol-water solution.

Fine webbing between leaves or stippling on leaves may indicate the presence of spider mites. These plant mites cause damage by sucking contents from the leaves and are difficult to detect due to their small size. Plants that are water stressed may become susceptible to infestation. Dusty conditions can also lead to spider mite outbreaks. Make sure your plants are well-watered and wash off accumulated dust on plants to manage spider mite problems. You can also remove by using a fast spray of water or by spraying insecticidal soap to control populations. There are many biological controls that feed on spider mites including lacewings, predatory mites and big-eyed bugs. Using pesticides is not recommended as pesticides do not help manage the population, but can actually cause the population to intensify.

Cochineal scale, the cottony, white substance on your prickly-pears (Opuntia spp.) and chollas (Cylindropunita spp.) may be active now. Remove by using a fast stream of water or spray insecticidal soap.

Agave snout weevils become active during the warm months and infestation may not be apparent until it is too late.

Psyllids may be active during the month of March. Psyllids are sap feeders and many are plant specific or feed on a closely related group of plants. High populations of psyllids can cause distortion and die back of new growth, and in some cases defoliation. To keep populations under control do not overwater or over fertilize your plants as this causes excessive growth.  Yellow sticky traps can also be used to control the adult population.

A white, frothy substance may be visible on plant stems. This is caused by spittle bugs. Manage by spraying stem off with a strong jet of water to remove infestation. Spittle bugs generally do not cause much damage to plants.

Weeds that germinated with the fall-winter rains will begin to flower at this time. You can manually remove by hand. To manage weeds in larger areas, spray with glyphosate following directions on the label. Adding a small amount of marker dye in the glyphosate solution can be helpful to avoid spraying the same areas twice. When using a chemical spray use an old pair of shoes that will never be worn indoors.  The glyphosate product can be used around cacti and most succulents without damaging them.  It is also inactive in the soil, so it will not harm the roots of other plants.

You may notice rabbits eating new, tender growth on your plants or flowers. It may be necessary to cage plants temporarily, or spray Liquid Fence TM to help deter these animals.

February in the Low Desert

In February, continue to prepare for frost events and take necessary frost protection measures. Don’t let a warm week in February fool you into believing spring has arrived. The low-desert can still have periods of freezing temperatures during the month.

Mesquites may ooze an amber-colored resin; this can be normal or released as a result of an injury. The exudates are often sweet smelling and tasting. If the exudates are dark in color, sticky and odiferous it is caused by a bacterial infection called slime flux.  You can prune affected branches, but once it has been established the tree will remain diseased and take years to die.

February is still a good time to prepare a new vegetable garden bed for spring planting. Prepare your vegetable bed by using a digging fork or rototilling to approximately 12-18 inches deep. Do not work soil if it is too wet as it can permanently damage the soil structure. Apply compost generously (several inches) and incorporate it into the loosened soil. If you have an existing vegetable garden this is also a good time to add compost.

Think about constructing a compost pile for your vegetable and/or flower garden.

Sudden warm spells during the month of February can cause many of your winter vegetables to bolt into flowering such as cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, spinach, and bok choy. Harvest these vegetables before flowering as many of these vegetables may become bitter and inedible.

Blooming plants can include:
•    Red Barberry (Mahonia haematocarpa syn. Berberis haematocarpa)
•    Desert Holly (Atriplex hymenelytra)
•    Bur-sage (Ambrosia deltoidea)
•    Giant bur-sage (Ambrosia ambrosioides)
•    White bur-sage (Ambrosia dumosa)
•    Fremont’s Wolfberry (Lycium fremontii)
•    Feathery Cassia (Senna artemisioides ssp. filifolia syn. Senna nemophila)
•    Baja Senna (Senna purpusii)
•    Spotted Emu Bush (Eremophila maculata ‘Valentine’TM)
•    Indigo Bush (Dalea bicolor)
•    Emu Bush (Eremophila laanii ‘Pink Beauty’)
•    Emu Bush (Eremophila hygrophana)
•    Sweet Acacia (Vachellia farnesiana syn. Acacia farnesiana)
•    Succulent Geranium (Pelargonium magenteum x echinatum)
•    Succulent Geranium (Pelargonium klinghardtense)
•    Aloe ‘Rudikoppe’
•    Aloe ‘Cynthia Giddy’
•    Cape Aloe (Aloe  ferox)
•    Gariep River Aloe (Aloe gariepensis)
•    Aloe aculeata
•    Coral Aloe (Aloe striata)
•    Aloe x ‘Hercules’
•    Partridge Breast Aloe (Aloe variegata)

Some annual wildflowers may commence blooming at the end of the month.  Early-blooming annuals can include   Bladderpod (Lesquerella gordonii), Mexican Gold Poppy (Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana), Desert Bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) and Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus).

WATERING

Your irrigation timer should be turned off.  Consider an overall watering of landscape plants at the end of the month if rainfall is insufficient.  Remember to follow the 1, 2, 3 rule:  water mature trees to a depth of 3 feet, shrubs to a depth of 2 feet, and herbaceous perennials, agaves, vines, and groundcovers to a depth of 1 foot.

Young and newly transplanted plants need to be watered more frequently than established plants.  Watering deeply encourages roots to extend deeper into the soil and thus, helps the plant become established over time.

Annual wildflowers may need to be watered at least once to twice during the month of February if rainfall is insufficient.

Agaves and other succulents (Aloe spp., Dudleya spp., Cotyledon spp., Echeveria spp.) in containers should be watered at least once to twice this month.  Cacti in containers should be watered at least once this month.  However, cacti and succulents in small containers may need to be watered more often including cacti and succulent seedlings.

WHAT TO PLANT

Continue to plant cold-hardy and fall-winter growers:
•    Globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
•    Penstemons (Penstemon spp.)
•    Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)
•    Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum)
•    Golden Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha)
•    Goodding’s Verbena (Glandularia gooddingii)
•    Red Justicia (Justicia candicans)
•    Fragrant Evening Primrose (Oenothera caespitosa)
•    Desert Milkweed (Asclepias subulata)
•    Trixis (Trixis californica)
•    Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii)
•    White Sage (Salvia apiana)
•    Aloes (Aloe spp.)

Vegetables to transplant include Jerusalem and globe artichokes, leaf lettuce, potato, and watermelon.  Swiss chard, kohlrabi, and head lettuce should be planted the first part of the month. Plant tomatoes and peppers during the second half of February. Be prepared to cover your tomatoes and peppers with frost cloth if we get periods of freezing temperatures.

Vegetable seeds to sow include:
•    beets
•    bok choy
•    carrots
•    collard greens
•    eggplant
•    lentils
•    leaf lettuce
•    mustard greens
•    green onions
•    Irish potatoes
•    radishes
•    turnips

Spinach, mesclun, garbanzo beans, peas (English, snap, snow), and dry onion seeds should be planted before mid-February.

Vegetable seeds to sow the second part of February include:
•    sweet corn
•    cantaloupe
•    cucumbers
•    muskmelon
•    summer squash
•    watermelon

Seedlings will need to be covered with frost cloth to prevent freeze damage.

Herb seeds to sow include:
•    anise
•    basil
•    caraway
•    catnip
•    chamomile
•    cumin
•    epazote
•    fennel
•    feverfew
•    horehound
•    hyssop
•    lemon balm
•    oregano
•    parsley
•    safflower
•    salad burnet
•    summer and winter savory
•    thyme
•    sesame

 

Herbs to transplant include:
•    bay
•    catnip
•    chives
•    garlic chives
•    germander
•    horehound
•    lavender
•    lemon balm
•    lemon grass
•    marjoram
•    mint
•    oregano
•    rue
•    sage
•    santolina
•    scented geraniums
•    thyme
•    tansy
•    yarrow
•    French tarragon

 

Divide overgrown plantings of chives, garlic chives, mint, and lemon grass.

PRUNING

As tempting as it may be, do not prune any plants damaged by an earlier frost.  Frost-damaged plants should be pruned in the springtime.

Prune bunch and ornamental grasses such as Muhley (Muhlenbergia spp.), Purple Three-Awn (Aristida purpurea) and Grama Grass (Bouteloua spp.) to rejuvenate.  These bunch and ornamental grasses can be pruned within a couple inches to the ground.

Deciduous trees should be thinned and reduced by mid-month.

Continue to deadhead flowering annuals and perennials to encourage additional blooms.

FERTILIZATION

Landscape plants will not need to be fertilized until spring.

Do not fertilize warm-season plants in containers.  However, cool-season plants in containers may need to be fertilized.

Continue to fertilize your vegetable garden as needed.

PROBLEMS

Aphids can be found on landscape plants or on your winter vegetables.  Allow natural predators such as lacewings, praying mantis and lady beetles to control the aphid population.

Cabbage loopers (small, pale green caterpillars with light-colored stripes along their bodies) may be present in your vegetable garden.  Look for small, irregular holes on the leaf surface of your vegetable plants.   Damage is common on broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, beets, lettuce, peas and many other garden vegetables.  Control by hand removal or allow natural predators to keep the population in check.  An application of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) can also be used as a biological alternative to pesticides.

A ‘Greener Garden’

One of the greatest benefits of having a garden is controlling how your food is grown. Growing organically ensures your food is free of commercial pesticides—pollutants that seep into the ground or atmosphere. Starting an organic garden is the perfect way to ensure you are giving healthful eats to your family, and protecting the earth.

 

1. Right plant in right place. Don’t fight your site, but rather, embrace your sunlight levels, climate, and soil type, and choose varieties that will naturally thrive in your gardens’ conditions, reducing the need for excess water or amendment.

 

2. Compost. Reduce landfill waste by composting yard scraps and food waste. These organic products create methane in a landfill environment which, unharnessed, is a pollutant.

 

3. Water wisely. Conserve water by watering deeply and less frequently, encouraging plants to build deeper, water-mining roots. You can also improve your soil’s ability to hold water by adding organic material. Water in the evening or morning to prevent excessive evaporation. Mulch will insulate and protect soils, further slowing evaporation. Finally, make sure you are watering with just the right amount; under- or over-watering can cause plant stress, which acts like an open invitation to pest and disease.

 

4. Prevention is key to a healthy garden. Rotate plant families (see inside of packets) annually, so they are not grown in the same space but once every three years, reducing debris build-up and a potential for disease. Clean up the garden at the end of the season and avoid composting any disease or pest-infested material. Invite beneficial insects into the garden by sowing flowering varieties they are attracted to (like borage, alyssum, and dill). This way, when pests arrive, you already have a hungry, resident army waiting in the “wings”. Scout for pests, diseases, and natural predators weekly so you can identify problems early, and decide if action is needed. Use organic pesticide as a last option, to avoid harming bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects. If you must spray, do so in the early morning or evening when most bees are less active, and avoid spraying flowers.

 

5. Sow a cover crop! Cover crop enriches the soil, fights weeds, and breaks up compacted soil naturally. Cover crops can also be used to create an insectory (a dedicated area that provides habitat for beneficial insects).

 

6. Know your strengths. Submit a soil test for analysis. By understanding your unique garden site you can know exactly what amendments are needed, avoiding pests, diseases, and pollution, which can be caused by over-fertilizing. Improving soil by reaching the ideal, 5–6% organic matter also helps conserve water and prevent run-off.

Why Heirlooms Matter

For hundreds of generations, humans all over the planet have been growing crops and saving seeds from their best plants to sow the following season. Seeds have a rich history and are very important to agriculture.

For hundreds of generations, humans all over the planet have been growing crops and saving seeds from their best plants to sow the following season. No one had a degree in horticulture, and it’s safe to say the vast majority of them couldn’t even read or write since most of the work was done before the invention of the written word!

What’s important is that these gardeners knew what they liked and needed and, over millennia, domesticated crop plants emerged. With each new season, these crops became a little earlier, a little more productive, a little more suited to the local conditions.

Heirloom seed types are thus products of their environment and of their growers’ selection. They are often superbly adapted to the conditions under which they were developed — as, for example, the drought-tolerant varieties native to Southwestern agriculture.

Such is the immense work that had already gone into creating these precious crop plants when scientific breeding work began, slightly over a century ago, and this irreplaceable heritage furnished the building blocks of modern breeding.

Modern science, giddy with its initial achievements, was quick to tout the alleged superiority of modern lines, which were often only a few generations removed from the original types received from various native peoples around the globe. A credulous public bought into these claims and within the space of a couple of generations, the old varieties were cast aside in favor of “progress.”

Today, something like 90 percent of the varieties that existed at the beginning of the 20th century is extinct — just gone, never more to return. So it falls to the generations living today to try to salvage the tiny fraction that remains, and then pass along, renewed, to our posterity. Hence the designation “heirlooms.” What another legacy could possibly be more precious?

The fact that heirloom plants are open-pollinated means that all individuals within a variety share a fairly uniform genetic makeup. This, in turn, means the entire population “breeds true,” so long as no outside genetics are introduced into the population. That’s a fancy way of saying: “You can save seed from heirloom types, generation after generation, just as growers have done for centuries.” You can’t do that with hybrids!

There are lots of great reasons to save seed. If you save seed, you have the comfort of knowing that you have a secure supply of treasured varieties, no matter whether they remain commercially available or disappear. If pure food is important to you, you know just how the seed was grown, because you grew it. If you make careful selections of the best-performing individuals to parent the next generation of plants, over the years you’ll actually be creating a distinct strain, uniquely adapted to your own climate and growing conditions.

Saving seed adds a new dimension to gardening because it allows the closing and repetition of a natural cycle right in your own garden. It puts you in the driver’s seat — you get to select for whatever traits and qualities that are important to you. You might also save some money over time, yes, but what’s more important is you’ll be stepping up to the plate and taking your turn in the endless chain of generations of growers and generations of crop varieties.

Lots of excellent books and articles have been written about the ins and outs of saving your own home-grown seed, including many in this publication. No very comprehensive instructions can be given in this article. There are plenty of details to be considered, and a little advance study can save years of trial and error. Fortunately, with just a bit of attention and planning, saving seed from most veggies is ultimately very easy. After all, your plants are all set up to make their seeds — you just need to know how to step out of the way and let it happen.

Seeds are produced within flowers. It’s surprising how often experienced gardeners have missed this one crucial point. Some flowers, like roses or squashes, are very obvious, even showy. Others may be inconspicuous, barely noticeable at all. But in higher plants, the basic process is the same: Flowers are the plant’s reproductive organs, and seed is produced only after an exchange of genetic material. The medium for this natural transfer is pollen. Pollen is produced within the flower and gets distributed by wind, insects or many other means.

Pollination has to occur for seeds to develop. Exactly how pollen is transferred makes all the difference in planning seed saving. The reason is simple: For true seed, the pollen needs to come from a parent of the same variety. If a flower receives pollen from a flower of some other variety, the seed will be “crossed,” that is, it will not come out a uniform to either parent. So you need to make sure that chance pollination is reduced or eliminated. This is most readily accomplished by isolating the parent plants by a sufficient distance that chance crosses with other types are unlikely.

The usual way is to isolate by distance; you simply plant your parent plants far enough away from other types so that chance pollination is unlikely. The distance varies from crop to crop — some crops, like common beans or lettuce, are almost always self-pollinating and chance crossing almost never occurs even when many varieties are growing in close proximity. Other types need more distance. Wind-pollinated crops like corn, amaranth, and beets need the greatest isolation distance, as wind-borne pollen can travel a mile or more!

Once you’ve protected your plants from accidental crossing, wait for the seeds to mature. Everyone knows what mature bean or pea seeds look like, but with some other types, you have to let the fruit mature longer than you would for eating. Cucumbers and eggplants, for example, are usually harvested in an immature stage for eating. To get seeds, you must let cukes mature until they are very big, plump, and usually soft. Eggplants need to undergo a final color change — purple-fruited types will turn brown, white types will turn yellow and so on. It cannot be overstated: To get good viable seed, you need to allow full maturity before harvesting.

Harvesting consists of collecting mature fruits and extracting and drying the seeds. Some crops will yield dry pods or seed heads containing dry seeds. Beans, corn, okra, peas, and lettuce are examples. You simply pick the dried pods and shell out the seeds, or with lettuce, gently pluck the loose dry seeds from the dandelion-like seed head.

Other types are mature while contained in moist structures like tomatoes, peppers, squashes, and so on. With these, seed can be individually removed from the fruits by hand. Or, to get larger quantities, whole fruits may be crushed or scooped and fermented briefly to allow the seeds to easily rinse free of the pulp.

In either case, be sure to allow your seeds to dry fully before storage. Beans and peas should be too hard to be dented with your fingernail. Squash and melon seed should snap when bent sharply — if they only bend without breaking, they are probably too moist. Allow drying to continue. A small fan can keep air moving around the seeds, securing the quick dry-down that is preferred for good viability.

Obviously, most seeds will be stored at least until the right planting time the following season. Successful seed storage is crucial because often you can save far more than enough seed to plant in one or two years’ gardening. Storing the seeds frees you from having to save seed of a particular variety every season. Instead, you can save seeds from other varieties, which over time allow you to build up a very valuable home seed bank.

The best storage conditions for most common types is cool and dry. A common guideline is to add the temperature (in degrees Fahrenheit) plus the relative humidity. The lower the number you derive, the better. But so long as the total is under 100, you have adequate storage conditions. The figures given at right reflect average times that various crop seed may be stored, retaining good viability, in ordinary conditions figured according to the above equation. Often, seeds will store much longer than this, and with correct freezer storage, most seeds will be viable for decades.

Because so many crops need to be isolated for long distances, not all crops are suitable for seed saving in all locations. But what you cannot accomplish in your garden, someone else can manage in hers, and the converse is also often true. The solution is simple: trade!

The original and, to some, quintessential organization to distribute seeds is Seed Savers Exchange. A modest annual membership fee covers publication of the annual Yearbook, where hundreds of members list varieties whose seed they have grown and saved. Other members pore over the Yearbook and order fascinating seeds. You don’t need to list anything to join and order from the Yearbook, and it contains thousands of incredible varieties, many of which are available nowhere else.

Seed swaps are becoming very common. They are often hosted by local garden clubs, university ag programs, FFA groups, homesteading groups — the list is almost endless. Home seed savers gather their carefully saved seeds and head to the swap, in keen anticipation of the horticultural treasures they hope to encounter. The excitement is palpable as gardeners talk shop. How bad was this year’s weather? How much isolation do you need to protect peas? Why did my squash seeds mold? Other local and regional gardeners are your best resource, and you come away from a swap with so much more than new varieties of seed!

Online gardening forums have recently begun to enjoy huge popularity. There are dozens of them — some general, others specific to a single crop, like tomatoes, a particular region, and so on. But one thing they virtually all have in common is they all have a board for seed trading. Trading is usually done on the honor system, but gardeners tend to be good people and the vast majority of online trades go off without a hitch. Here are a few to get you started (but there are plenty of others): www.IDigMyGarden.com, www.Forums.SeedSavers.org, www.TomatoDepot.ProBoards.com, and www.Tomatoville.com.

More recently, seed libraries have emerged. A centralized seed bank is developed, and patrons borrow seeds instead of books. When the season ends, they are expected to return a new generation of the seeds they borrowed, preferably in larger quantities than they received. This offsets the occasional failure to make a return, allowing the seed bank to increase. Here are a few: www.SeedLibrary.org, www.WestcliffeGrows.Weebly.com, and www.RichmondGrowsSeeds.org.

Every region of the country has a history of growing and saving seed of unique, locally-adapted varieties. In fact, until the advent of the mail-order seed industry in the late 19th century, almost everyone grew and saved their own seed, trading it locally. Though much has been lost, there are lots of types still out there, waiting to be re-discovered and shared with gardeners the world over.

Such local heirlooms are most likely to be still grown and nurtured in rural areas, especially those where per capita incomes are low, often being cultivated and renewed by folks who’ve never heard of “heirloom seeds.” Growers like these maintain their treasured lines because they are often better than one-size-fits-all, store-bought varieties. You are apt to find them at farmer’s markets and roadside stands. Or perhaps an elder in your own family has been carefully maintaining a family-held type for time out of mind.

Savvy home seed-savers keep a watchful eye because there’s no telling where or when something unusual will turn up. Don’t be afraid to ask questions — original variety names may be lost in the mists of time, but often these seed-keepers will know that a family member brought the seeds with them when they emigrated from somewhere else or at least will have some idea how long the variety has been in the family or the area.

Be sure to document as much information as you can, because people move or pass on, and a single chance encounter may be the only opportunity to learn the history of your “new” heirloom. Take notes, because memory sometimes plays tricks.

And if you are lucky enough to chance upon a local heirloom type, cherish it, nurture it and share it.

Here are some helpful definitions and tables that could help you increase your seed knowledge.


Heirloom, Hybrid, GMO

Heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties that have been around 50 years or more—sometimes, a lot more.

Hybrids are usually first- or second-generation crosses of inbred parent lines. For example, an F1 hybrid is not open-pollinated. That means that if you save seed from F1 hybrid parents, the plants grown from the saved seed will not breed true. Often they’ll be nothing at all like the parents, and usually will be markedly inferior.

Genetically engineered varieties (GE or GMOs) could be open-pollinated or hybrid but all have had their genes tinkered with, with genes added artificially, often from some highly unrelated life form, including animals or even people! In nature, such genes virtually never mix, so GMO varieties are entirely artificial, new forms of life.


Crop Isolation for Beginners

Amaranth — Wind-pollinated, isolate by 1 mile (but few gardeners grow it); may cross with wild amaranth (pigweed).

Beans — Self-pollinated, isolate common beans by 50 feet; limas, favas, and runner beans need ½ mile.

Cucumbers — Insect-pollinated, isolate by one-half mile, fruits should be fully ripe; they will be large, yellow or russeted, and usually very soft. Will not cross with melons or watermelons.

Eggplant — Self-pollinated, isolate by 50 feet, red varieties need 500 feet; allow final color change (full ripeness).

Lettuce — Self-pollinated, isolate by 12 feet, don’t save seed from early bolters; may cross freely with wild lettuce, pluck dandelion-like seed before it scatters.

Melons — Insect-pollinated, isolate by a one-half mile; seeds are ready when fruit is at the prime eating stage, will not cross with cukes or watermelons.

Peppers — Self-pollinated, isolate by 500 feet; allow final color change (full ripeness).

Squash — Insect-pollinated, isolate by a one-half mile; squash comes in four species, and the species rarely crosses with other species so you can do one each of up to four species in one isolated garden.

Tomato — Self-pollinated, isolate by 50 feet; potato-leaf varieties like Brandywine need 500 feet.

Watermelons — Insect-pollinated, isolate by a one-half mile; seeds are ready when fruit is at the prime eating stage, will not cross with cukes or true melons.


Seed Storage Times

Here are some common seed varieties separated into appropriate average storage times.

1 Year: Lettuce, onion, parsley, and parsnips.

2 Years: leek, okra, pepper, and sweet corn.

3 Years: Asparagus, beans, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, carrot, celeriac, celery, and pea.

4 Years: Beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chard, chicory, eggplant, kale, and pumpkin.

5 Years: Cucumber, endive, and muskmelon.


Read of Seed

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties by Carol Depp

Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth

Organic Seed Production and Saving by Bryan Connolly

The Heirloom Life Gardener by Jere and Emilee Gettle

Get Ahead of Your Garden: Start Seedlings

With a plan, some simple supplies, and the right care, you can get a head start on your spring garden by growing seedlings indoors.

Heirloom enthusiasts interested in rare varieties will love the benefits of start seeds early.

Every gardener has particular moments that are his or her absolute favorites of a growing season — moments like receiving a much-anticipated seed order in the mail, harvesting the first of the spinach in spring, cutting into a ripe melon, or talking with fellow gardeners about successes and failures.

Me? I love the moment when my tomato seeds turn into strong seedlings, and I can brush my hand across the tops of the plants growing indoors and smell that glorious fresh tomato smell. It feels like a wonderful form of cheating getting to breathe in that lovely smell long before the heat of summer.

Seed-starting is an enjoyable process that affords many benefits to the home gardener. Here are 10 reasons to start your own garden seeds and 10 tips to help you achieve seed-starting success.

Why start your own seeds?

Endless Varieties. OK, maybe not endless. But your variety options will exponentially increase when you decide to start seeds at home. When shopping for starts at a garden center (or, more limiting yet, the garden section of a big-box store), you’ll typically find the same boring varieties over and over again: Big Boy tomatoes, Early Girl tomatoes, California Wonder peppers, maybe some hybrid broccoli. But in home seed-starting, the sky’s the limit. You can try all kinds of unique varieties, and match your seed starting to your gardening goals, such as wanting compact plants, out-of-this-world flavor, high yields, or disease resistance.

More Heirlooms. This goes hand-in-hand with No. 1, but it’s worth noting: Heirloom enthusiasts interested in trying all kinds of cool, rare varieties will love the advantages of having an efficient seed-starting setup at home.

Save Money. Purchased transplants aren’t cheap. One packet of seeds generally costs less than a single start at a garden center. To take that a step further, if you save your own seeds from open-pollinated varieties you start yourself, the next generation of seeds will be free to you. It’s true that to start seeds you’ll need to spend a bit of money upfront on supplies such as seed-starting mix and grow lights. But in the long run, you’ll save big bucks by not having to purchase your transplants.

Achieve Greater Success with Regionally Adapted Seed. Not every variety of every crop will thrive in every region. When you start your own seeds, you can choose varieties that are regionally adapted to your area, leading to healthier plants and better yields.

Give Crops a Head Start. You can start certain crops such as lettuces indoors, set out the seedlings as winter comes to a close, and then harvest heads weeks before you would have been able to if you’d direct-sown seeds in spring. (Bring a row cover into the mix, and you’ll be even further ahead of the game.) In many regions, the only way to grow certain slow-maturing crops is to give them a head start via indoor seed starting.

More Control Over Sustainability. The more self-sufficient you are in the realm of growing food, the more control you have over the sustainability of all activities involved. When it comes to seed starting, you can make a difference in several small but meaningful ways.

Consume fewer resources by reusing and recycling materials for seed pots. Use seed-starting mixes that don’t contain peat, which — even though it’s ubiquitous in the gardening world — is being harvested from bogs at an alarmingly unsustainable rate. Coconut coir made from coconut husks is a better option that retains moisture just as well. Finally, support seed companies using sustainable practices.

Nudges You to Plan Ahead. We all know that moment when life’s busyness gets away from us and we think, “Yikes — I need to start spring planting soon!” We’re thinking of compost, bed prep, seed ordering we should have done weeks ago, and on and on. If you get in the habit of starting seeds at home, you’re forced (in a good way) to think ahead, decide what you want to plant and what you’re going to start indoors, and order the seeds you need.

Goes Hand-in-Hand with Seed-Saving. If you save your own seeds — a worthy, wonderful pursuit for the self-reliant gardener — it makes sense that you would want to grow your own transplants. And, vice versa, if you’ve made the initial investment in a nice seed-starting setup, it’s that much easier and more inviting to dive into the science of seed saving.

Save Space in Your Garden. If you’re really tight on growing space, starting some crops indoors can help you take strategic advantage of every square foot of soil. For instance, let’s say you have a nice big patch of spinach you’re still harvesting from at the same time that you’re thinking of planting a couple of hills of cucumbers. Instead of choosing one or the other, start your cucumber seeds indoors. Keep harvesting from your spinach during the weeks when your cukes are growing into strong little plants indoors, and then, about the time your spinach will be thinking about going to seed anyway, you can hoe under that crop and pop in your cuke seedlings on the same day. (Choose a vining variety of cucumber and give it something to climb up to save even more space.)

Have Way More Fun at Seed Swaps. If you’ve ever been to a seed swap — or even just flipped through a lovely seed catalog — you’ve probably seen all kinds of intriguing, beautiful seeds for crops that don’t direct-sow well. Get the hang of seed starting, and you’ll never be held back again! I’m being a bit silly here, but it is truly nice to be able to swap or try seeds of all types.

10 Seed-Starting Tips

Create a Plan. One of my favorite aspects of growing my own seedlings is the wintertime planning. Just when I’m longing for days outside in the dirt, I can sketch out what I want to plant during the next growing season, read about new varieties I want to try, and create a calendar of when to start my seeds. Tomatoes, peppers (hot, bell and sweet), eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, basil, parsley, and onions are all perfect candidates for seed starting. These crops tend to do much better if planted as transplants and don’t direct-sow as easily.

If you have plenty of space in your seed-starting setup and/or if you have limited space in your garden, you can start lettuce, cucumbers, melons and squash, too. You’ll need to decide ahead of time what crops you’re going to start indoors and how many of each plant you want to grow (and have room for). Make a list, order seeds early, and map out a simple planting calendar.

Make Your Own Mix. Seed-starting mix needs to be a light-medium that holds moisture well. There are a lot of seed-starting mixes available at garden centers, but you can save even more money by creating your own at home (plus, mixing your own allows you to ditch peat and use coir instead). If you’d like to make your own mix, try this well-balanced, coir-based recipe:

• 18 quarts vermiculite
• 12 quarts coir
• 12 quarts mature,
• disease-free compost
• 3/4 cup blood meal
• 1/2 cup limestone
• 1-2/3 cups greensand

(Note: Coir comes in dehydrated bricks from garden centers and pet stores; the measurement here refers to the moistened, expanded material.)

Use Top-Quality, Regional Seed. To ensure the strongest, healthiest plants that will grow best in your micro-climate, choose high-quality, local seed. Purchase from local seed companies whose growing methods and business practices you trust. Look for those that do their own variety trials. Also, attend and get seed at local seed swaps, talking to growers about their varieties and seed selection practices.

Don’t Be Picky About Pots. While the grid-like seed-starting trays you’ve probably seen in stores work well, you can use all kinds of small containers to start your seeds: empty yogurt containers with a few holes punched in the bottom, seed-starting cups made out of old newspaper (plant the whole thing and the paper decomposes), and small pots you’ve saved from purchased flowers and plants. Also try making pots from eggshells, egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, or even a seed blocker, a neat contraption that allows you to stamp out a block of soil that acts as a “pot.”

Do start in individual containers (or individual seed blocks) rather than planting multiple seeds in, say, a large, shallow tub; this will ensure that you don’t disturb plants’ root systems when it’s time to transplant them. In addition to individual containers, you’ll need a shallow tray in which to place your containers and hold water. You can use darn near anything for a tray — I’ve borrowed baking dishes from the kitchen for this purpose.

Get Your Timing Right. This tip, of course, harkens back to No. 1: If you sketch out what you want to grow ahead of time, you can create a quick calendar of when you actually need to start each type of seed. In general, start tomato seeds six to eight weeks before your average last frost date, start peppers eight to 10 weeks before this date, and start most brassicas such as broccoli four to six weeks before your last frost. Start a second round of brassicas for your fall garden about 12 to 14 weeks before your first fall frost. Check seed packets for specific varieties and for other crops to see recommended times for planting seeds indoors.

Plant Two, & Use a Pencil. I always plant two seeds per container and then thin the seedlings later. If I’ve made a careful plan and I’m giving the real estate in my seed-starting setup to grow, say, 10 broccoli plants, I want to be sure I actually end up with that many. So planting two seeds is insurance. When you thin seedlings, never pull the seedling completely out of soil mix. Instead, just use scissors and cut the weaker of the two seedlings at the soil surface so you don’t disturb the delicate root system of the seedling you are keeping.

When you plant your seeds, use a pencil to do so. Dump out some seeds onto a flat, dry surface, and then dip the tip of a pencil in water and touch the pencil tip to a seed. The seed will stick to the pencil, and then you can easily poke the seed into your pot of mix. Trust me — it’s like magic, and is so much easier than using your fingers for planting, especially if you’re dealing with tiny seeds.

Water Well. Be sure to keep your seed-starting mix moist as your seeds germinate and as your seedlings grow. Don’t water tiny seedlings with a watering can, as the force of the water coming out of the spout can damage the delicate plants. Instead, water by spraying seedlings well with a spray bottle or, better yet, by adding water to the bottom trays holding individual containers.

Lots of Light. You have three options when it comes to lighting up the lives of your growing plants: natural sunlight, fluorescent light bulbs and specialized “grow lights.” There are pros and cons to each. Sunlight is, of course, cheapest and least energy-intensive — but you need really strong light in a south-facing window to make it feasible. If your seedlings don’t get enough light, they’ll quickly become “leggy” (spindly and weak) as they put all their energy into reaching more light.

If you use fluorescent lights or grow lights, keep the tops of the growing plants no more than an inch away from the lights. I start my trays out propped up on several books, and then slowly take the books away to lower the trays as the plants get taller. Keep your lights on the seedlings for 14 to 18 hours daily; an inexpensive timer hooked up to your lights can help you ensure this range.

Cozy and Warm. To ensure good germination and strong plants, keeping your seeds and seedlings at a consistent, warm temperature. They shouldn’t get too cold, but they also shouldn’t get too warm — about 70 to 80 degrees is a good range. Some gardeners use an electric heat mat underneath each seed-starting tray, but I don’t think mats are worth the extra expense if there’s another easy way to keep the seedlings warm. Try placing your seed-starting setup next to a heat source, like a heater vent or radiator — and if you do start seeds in a sunny window, always place a curtain or blanket between the seedlings and the window during nighttime.

Always Harden Off. At least a week before you transplant your starts, start getting them used to their new home: the great outdoors. It’s essential to put young plants through this hardening-off period. Set plants out for a couple of hours the first day, in a protected location where they won’t experience rain or strong winds. Build up from there, letting your plants stay outside for a longer period of time each day. At first, limit the amount of time the seedlings spend in the direct sun because they can get sunburned. After they adjust to their new environment, they’ll be ready to live in the garden and provide you with delicious, healthy food.