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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Save Time, Check Seeds First

If you start vegetable and flower seeds indoors like I do, then you probably have quite a few old seed packets tucked away from previous years. Rather than throwing them out and buying new ones, I have a trick that will save you both time and money. Try germinating seeds from those old seed packets prior to planting up an entire tray. This method will give you a germination percentage and you can use that knowledge to either throw the packet out if nothing sprouts or you can over seed each cell in the tray to give you a more even germination rate. Here’s what to do:
First, take out all the old seed packets you want to plant seed from this year and write the type and variety on a slip of paper–I like post-it notes for this. Count 10 seeds for each variety and place the seeds on a small paper towel square. In my example you’ll notice I’ve only counted out 5 Mangel seeds. That’s because Mangels are a type of beet and the seed is technically a fruit containing multiple seeds, so testing 5 fruits gives me more than 10 seeds. Why 10? It’s easy to calculate your germination percentage. If only 1 out of 10 germinates, that’s 10% germination and you should throw out the packet. If 5 germinate, you’ve got 50% and you can use that knowledge to put 2 seeds in each seed cell should you decide to keep the seeds.
Fold each paper towel square and moisten with water, then place each folded square into a plastic bag with the label facing out. Place the sealed baggies in a warm location, like the top of your refrigerator. Mark your calendar–or the slips of paper–with the date you started and the expected germination date for each seed variety using the seed packet information as a guide. Check back in the recommended number of days, count the germinated seeds and decided whether you’re better tossing them in the bin and starting over or getting right down to business and planting them up for good. You need not waste the germinated seeds, if you’re going to start planting right away, you can put the germinated seeds in a pot with soil and let them continue growing. Good luck!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Garden Tour: RHS Wisley

Several years ago my partner and I went on holiday to England. Our goal was to visit as many of the gardens that had inspired us in our own gardening. For sure we were beating down the well-worn tourist trail, but the gardens we visited have become iconic for very good reason. As winter trudges on and daylight hours begin to increase minute-by-minute, I find myself revisiting these gardens, looking to them for inspiration I’ll apply to my garden this spring. Over the next few posts I’d like to share some of the gardens that continue to inspire me--especially when it's cold, grey, and wet outside! 
I’ll begin with RHS Wisley, the flagship–and longest held–garden of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). Gifted to the RHS in 1903, Wisley is located in Surrey, England and serves as one of the exhibition and research gardens of the RHS. The RHS is probably the premiere horticultural research, education and preservation organization in the world. It publishes a monthly magazine, The Garden, dedicated to everything gardening, operates and maintains four exquisite gardens, puts on (among many others) the coveted and much publicized RHS Chelsea Flower Show. For many gardening enthusiasts, visiting Wisley is something of a pilgrimage. 
Many of the ornamental plants we grow in our own gardens had their coming out parties in Wisley’s trial garden plots. Every year, plant breeders send seeds from new varieties they hope to introduce to the public to Wisley. Wisley grows these plants on, and by the end of the season, decides whether or not to give them their stamp of approval. When visiting, it’s always a treat to see what’s on trial and to see firsthand how the varieties compare with one another.
Wisley houses a series of ‘model gardens’, to showcase different gardening styles on a scale the average homeowner could execute in their own yard. The model gardens are interconnected and vary in style from traditional to modern, monochromatic to riotous color. 
The alpine house is reserved for those plants which naturally grow in more extreme conditions or are so small that they need to be grown in a location that can do them justice. Just outside the Alpine house is one of my favorite features: a blooming wall. Stone walls are ubiquitous in Europe, but in the US, they are more of a luxury and to my eyes, a stone wall bursting with plants and color is the greatest luxury of all.
Rhododendron and Azalea enthusiasts will find much to marvel at if they plan their trip in May.
All around Wisley, topiary abounds. Most often in the form of hedges delineating and framing spaces, visitors also come across more extravagant examples, like the Hornbeam arch pictured below.
The gardens at Wisley are constantly being evaluated and evolving. The apple orchard is particularly impressive. If visiting in the fall, the garden holds tastings of their apple collection. A working vineyard exists where bottles of Wisley wine are put into the cellar every year. Almost one million visitors make their way to Wisley each year, aren’t you curious?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Paperwhites and Vodka!

Did I get your attention? I just learned a great trick to keep my Paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) from flopping over. It’s always been a pet peeve of mine; I plant the bulbs up, water them, turn the pot every other day to keep light exposure even on all sides, and then suddenly the leaves and  flower stems grow freakishly long and the whole affair flops over. Truth be told, I’ve abstained from growing Paperwhites for the past few years because of this problem. Resorting to staking a potted plant is a solution but one that requires one step too many for me. That is until I read Cornell University’s aptly named article ‘Pickling your Paperwhites, Ginning Up Paperwhites That Don’t Flop Over’. Cornell’s Flower Bulb Research Program found that adding a solution of 4-6% alcohol (hard liquor or rubbing alcohol) to the water you use to water the bulbs will result in a plant that is 1/3 as tall without having any effect on the size, quality, or duration of the flowers produced. Ingenious.
Paperwhites take 2-3 weeks to flower from planting, so if you start now you’ll have blooms in time for Christmas and the New Year. After potting up your bulbs, water as usual and after a week (when roots have begun to grow) switch to the 4-6% alcoholic pickling brew. Cornell has the ratios in its article here. I suggest we raise a glass to beautiful flowers and the holiday season. Happy indoor gardening!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Everyone Needs a Magic Wand

If you detect a theme in my posts lately, then you’ve already correctly guessed that winter has descended on my farm and the battle against frozen water has come full circle yet again. This week I’d like to share with you a product I’m calling my ‘Magic Wand’, because it certainly acts like one. Submersible water heaters or bucket water heaters as they’re alternatively called deserve a place on every farm with electric service to the barn. Fill a bucket with water, place the heater inside, plug in, and in a few minutes you have warm water. One of the many ways I use my magic wand is to defrost water bottles. I have a small rabbitry at Terravita Farms where I raise ‘American Chinchilla’ rabbits, and their water bottles frequently freeze overnight. This poses no problem for my magic wand. My first task upon entering the barn is gathering up the frozen water bottles and putting them into the bucket with the submersible heater. By the time my chores are finished the bottles have thawed! The only caveat with this product: don’t forget to unplug before leaving the barn!  This heater might be just the thing to give your favorite farmer this winter. Keep warm!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How Do You Keep Warm?

As we settle into the coldest part of the year I’m often asked how I keep warm doing the chores. After all, the animals still need to eat twice a day and the frozen water needs to be changed. Winter is all about enduring.
I find people fall into two categories when it comes to priorities around dressing for the cold: cold hands or cold feet. I fall into the cold feet lot and so my first pick on the list for staying warm is finding a warm pair of waterproof boots. For this task, after many, many contestants, I’ve picked Muck boots as the winner. They’re rated 100% waterproof and will keep your feet warm to -30–and they actually do both admirably well! Though, I have a love/hate relationship with the stretchy cuff. The cuff does keep out the cold but, from a man’s point of view, it chafes a bit around the calf and creates a perfect bald spot around the leg which might be why I never wear shorts in warmer weather! Still, the MuckMaster Hi gets my vote for warmest and most versatile farm boot.
Moving up the body, my legs get just as cold as my feet and I find a nice pair of long johns under whichever pair of pants I put on do a good job at keeping out the wind and keeping in the heat. Armed with my Muck boots and a pair of long johns I can concentrate on my farm chores and forget about the cold.
Finally, and this is a bit of a combo, I find a few layers topped with a hooded jacket will keep the rest of me in top condition to face the cold. I prefer a hood over a hat because I’m constantly moving in and out of the barn. Inside the barn there’s no wind and I need to take off any headgear, but as soon as I step out I want to cover my head again. Wearing a hat would mean losing the hat, but wearing a hood that’s attached to my jacket keeps it handy and impossible to misplace. What’s your formula for winter warmth?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Insulated Thermal Water Buckets for Horses

Before moving my two horses to my farm I boarded them for a few months at a stable that boasted fully insulated walls and ceilings. It was amazing. On even the coldest days the indoor temperature never fell below about 40 degrees and even better, the water in the buckets never froze. Fast forward to the winters in my barn, not insulated I might add! I anticipated frozen water buckets and researched my options. Many heated buckets exist and unless the power goes out they’re just the trick as long as you can find a way to keep the electrical cords well out of reach of horse mouths. The electrical outlets in my barn are nowhere near the horse stalls so using heated buckets means using many lengths of extension cords, as such I researched non-electrical options and stumbled upon thermal buckets. After using these for three winters in central Ohio I can say that they really do work. The unit consists of an exterior thermal container that a five gallon bucket slips into and a plastic float that fits inside the five gallon bucket. The float is designed to minimize contact of the surface of the water to the cold. Only on the very coldest days have I had a thin layer of ice form and even that was easy for the horses to break through if they desired a drink. If you’re looking for a way to keep the ice out of your horse buckets you might give these a try.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Wild Bird Care

As the cold snap descends upon much of the nation be mindful of the wild birds in your area. If you’ve started a feeding regimen, this is the time to redouble your efforts and keep those feeders full. Wild birds quickly learn to depend on the seed, suet and fruit pieces you put out for them and allowing the feeders to go empty when temperatures plummet and snow covers the ground–and with it possible food sources–can spell disaster for the wild bird population. If you’ve considered feeding birds, now is the perfect time but only if you can commit to feeding them through the spring.
Feeder designs abound, choose one that’s easy to open and easy to fill. If the feeder requires tools or screws to open, you’ll be less likely to fill it on a regular basis. Feeders with complicated access also tend to have their many pieces and parts freeze up when the weather begins to freeze and thaw effectively locking you out of the feeder and making it impossible to fill–opt for the most simple designs. If you’re feeling especially creative, you can even make your own!