Start Your Salad From Seed

It’s finally that time again. The sweltering Tallahassee heat is slowly giving up and it’s time to plant a salad buffet that will produce plentiful fresh greens through the winter. As visions of kale, collards, and chard dance through my head, I am reminded of the lessons I have learned through trial and error in my past fall gardens. The most significant improvement has been growing my vegetables from seed sown directly in the garden in blocks or wide rows. Not only is growing from seed the most economical way to start a garden, it also allows you to grow more diverse varieties of vegetables than are available as transplants. Most importantly, it is much more productive per square foot than standard rows of transplanted seedlings.

Starting from seed is easy and fun. Success starts with the right seed selection. You can find fresh, healthy seed varieties that are tried and true for Tallahassee at your local nursery. If replanting an existing bed, I just add a few fresh inches of compost before I plant. You can start a new bed by following these easy steps:

1. Select a mostly sunny spot and break up the soil with a garden fork or spade, removing sod and any existing plants and roots.

2. Prepare the soil. Add a few inches of homemade compost, mushroom compost or composted cow manure and mix with existing soil. You can also mix in some organic granular fertilizer such as Plant-tone that builds the soil and feeds the plants.

3. Plan out wide rows to plant, 2 to 3 feet for the best yields, but not much wider for ease in weeding and harvesting. Rake the bed out smooth before planting.

Now the fun begins! The easiest way to sow seeds in wide rows is by sprinkling or broadcasting them over the bed. This is an easy and carefree way to plant seed. A large bed can be effortlessly planted in a few minutes. For the most even distribution over the entire bed pass your hand over the area and scatter the seeds. It takes a little practice to get the hang of it. Ideally the seeds will be about an inch apart, but don’t worry if you get some unevenness, just come back afterwards and redistribute by hand or just thin them out later as they grow. Once the seeds are sprinkled over the soil, tamp them down gently with the back of a hoe, spade or board. To germinate well, a seed needs close contact with moist soil.

The next step is covering the seeds with the right amount of soil. Small seeds like lettuce and carrots usually need about one half inch of covering. Larger seeds like peas and beans need about an inch of soil. The basic rule for most seeds is to cover them with enough soil to equal three times their own diameter. Distribute loose compost over the tamped downbed, rake it evenly out to the proper thickness and water well with asprinkler. Keeping the seed bed moist will be especially important for the first few weeks or so. As the seedlings emerge you will need to thin them out to allow room for them to grow and mature. Don’t feel bad, those thinnings can go straight to your salad bowl! Lettuce, chard, kale, collards and other leafy green crops can be grown close together and thinned out periodically as you eat them, allowing the remaining plants to grow and mature. For heading crops like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, make sure to thin out any weak looking plants early, giving the healthy ones about ten inches of space to grow and mature. Once established, begin a fertilization regime. I use a diluted Fish and Seaweed emulsion early on, and then I switch to Plant-tone. Keep on top of your gardens’ watering needs and you will be rewarded with fresh greens to feast upon well into thespring. Enjoy!

The Value of Native Plants for Wildlife

Tallahassee Democrat 8/19/10

In Tallahassee, we have many fine non-native plants to use in our landscapes – camellia, azalea, crape myrtle all come to mind. The claims that native plants are easier to grow and require less water sometimes do not hold up.

For me, the main reason to choose native plants in the landscape is to promote the unique relationships between our native plants and animals, from the smallest microorganisms, insects and other invertebrates to birds and mammals. Simply put – what you plant in your yard makes a difference to wildlife. There are unique evolutionary relationships between native plants and wildlife that have developed over a very long time. Here are a few examples.

Red buckeye blooms in mid to late March, just in time for the return of ruby-throated hummingbirds from Central America. The hummingbirds drink nectar from red tubular flowers and, in return, provide pollination services for this native tree whose nuts are food for other wildlife.

Sweetgum trees have close relationships with several animals. When American goldfinch arrive in late fall or winter, they can be seen and heard high in sweetgum trees clinging to the prickly balls feasting on abundant sweetgum seeds. Many of our resident birds, like the Carolina chickadee, also depend on the seeds of sweetgum.

As valuable as seeds and fruit are to wildlife, native plants serve an even more important function. Native plants, from grasses and wildflowers to towering shade trees, form the base of the food chain. Our native insects are uniquely adapted to eat native plants; some are generalists and can eat a variety of plants, but many are specialists that can only digest certain types of leaves based on the chemistry of the plant. For instance, the luna moth would not be with us without the sweetgum tree and a few other native hardwood trees. Each female luna moth may lay 150 eggs, which then become 150 highly nutritious caterpillars, feeding chickadees, vireos, spiders and more. These in turn may be eaten by a snake, hawk or other predator. It is estimated that of the 150, only 2 or 3 survive to mate and lay eggs.

Most of our butterflies and moths depend on native plants, not just for nectar, but for sustenance while in the larval stage as caterpillars. For instance, spicebush swallowtails depend on sassafras, giant swallowtails on hoptrees and Gulf fritillaries on passion vine. Without their native food plants, these butterflies would cease to exist.

To make our yard more hospitable to wildlife, our goal each year is to increase the percentage of native plants. Over the last 18 years, we have transformed our front yard from a mediocre monoculture of lawn to a shady native oasis beneath a huge live oak on one side and a wildflower/butterfly garden on the sunny side. Judicious use of nectar rich non-natives like pentas, perennial salvias, Mexican sunflower and cardinal guard extend the blooming season of our butterfly/hummingbird garden and mix nicely with the native purple coneflower, ironweed, heliopsis, sunflower and other wildflowers.

We’ll always have room for a few azaleas, camellias and hydrangeas among the natives, but native plants provide the staff of life for wildlife. For further reading, I recommend Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas Tallamy.

Dawn Chorus

The Natural Garden, Eastside Chronicle, Tallahassee Democrat 3/26/07

Early one March morning our daughter woke us saying that a bird outside her window had woken her calling, “Feodore, feodore, wick, wick, wick feodore”. Feodore, as she took to calling this bird, was a cardinal calling from the bushes outside her window announcing his breeding territory or trying to attract a mate. He and other cardinals begin an early morning chorus while it is still dark, with other species joining in towards the approaching light of dawn. In my yard the brown thrasher joins in shortly after the cardinal.

This early morning singing by birds is hardly unique to our area. It even has an official name – the dawn chorus, which occurs when songbirds sing at the start of a new day leading up to breeding. In checking the internet, I found that there is an International Dawn Chorus Day, especially active in England, this year to be held on May 6. This is a little late for us, spring having arrived in mid March.

It is amazing to imagine this chorus of song that, in North America, begins at the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and sweeps across the continent as a wave of bird songs as dawn progresses. One of the best ways to enjoy the dawn chorus is to go for a walk half an hour before dawn. If you go by yourself, you will be more observant of the sounds around you. I walk regularly at this time of day. Last week (week of March 19th) I jotted down the times of the chorus:

6:40 am – voice of the first cardinal in our yard

7:00 am – chorus beginning to build (still dark out)

7:15 am – pale light of dawn, dawn chorus peaking to a crescendo

8:00 am – down to individual voices here and there

Each day dawn gets earlier and earlier so you will need to adjust the time you walk to correspond with dawn.

On my walks I try to identify the voices of individual birds. I usually can distinguish Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, tufted titmouse, perhaps a mockingbird, along with the cardinals and brown thrashers already mentioned as the leading singers. This morning I heard a rufous-sided towhee. Blue jays usually chime in late (I guess they like to sleep in). I am sure there are many other species singing – I just can’t distinguish their calls in the chorus. The cardinal can confuse you; besides his “feodore” call, he has several other interesting calls.

The quality of the dawn song is related to the quality of habitat that we create in our yards and parks in a neighborhood. Birds, like all wildlife, must have trees and shrubs that provide food and cover, places to make nests and raise their young, thickets for protection from predators and sources of water. What you plant in your yard will ultimately affect the dawn chorus of Tallahassee. I encourage all of you to experience this early spring dawn chorus by going out for an early morning walk by yourself or with a friend and listen as you walk!