Category Archives: The Basics

To Determine or Not…

Your tomato varieties that is!

Determinate and indeterminate varieties are all over the place, and are you at a loss to choose which one? The warm weather is upon us, and it is, or seems to be, safe for the tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers to go outside for the season.

And so, if you haven’t already, go pick up a tomato plant, or two!

But before you go, a couple of words of wisdom about determinate and indeterminate tomato varieties.

Determinate varieties are also known as bush tomatoes, and typically set all their fruit within a window of about 2 weeks. And then the plant dies. This sounds like a negative, but if you were to want to plant tomatoes for canning purposes, this is a great way to go.

Indeterminate varieties are varieties that produce throughout the season, until frost, and are great for the kitchen garden. The plant will typically keep you in fresh tomatoes for months, and then enough frozen for sauces later on as well. Indeterminate varieties get big. My long standing favorite, Tess’s Land Race, gets to a size of 3-4′ in diameter, and constantly produces. Last year, I didn’t even need to plant seeds! They came up on their own! I get my TLRs from Amishland Seeds in PA.

I hope this helps to explain the mystery of determinate and indeterminate varieties.

Next time… I will give a review on a grafted tomato and a “grow bag”.

Where to Start

So the new year is upon us. The seed catalogs have been beckoning us from the counter. But we have a handful of seed packets sitting in the shed, or in the fridge.

So what seeds are still good?

I’ve got seeds that are labeled for 2010. Are they still good? Do I want to waste possible time in the event that the seeds are now duds? I know that I don’t want to waste time, and I bet you don’t either.

So I’ve decided to perform a germination test.

And here it is, and how you can perform it too:

1. Gather what you’ll need.

  • Paper towels
  • Quart sized zipper plastic storage bags (I use 6 at a time, and reuse the bags, to prevent waste)
  • Permanent magic marker
  • Glass or plastic storage container to wet the paper towels

2. Fold the paper towels so that they’ll fit in the bags, but don’t put them in the bags.

Papertowel IMG_0491 IMG_0492

3. Put a paper towel in the storage container and wet it slightly with water. Think more than damp, but less than soaking.

Unfold the towel and place either 10 or 20 seeds onto the paper towel in an organized pattern. This will help later, I promise!


4. Fold the towel back up and place into a baggie named with the seed, date and quantity of seeds. For instance: “Golden CA Sweet Pepper 2/1 (10)”


5. Now let these baggies sit in a average temperature area for 4-7 days. The temperature in your kitchen would be fine.

When they’ve sat for 4-7 days, open up the baggies and check how many have sprouted. For example, if you have 9 of the 10 sprout, then you’ve got 90%, which is typically above the minimum seed germination rate.

The photos above are from my second set of germ tests, and here is the breakdown of what my first test produced.

  • Cucumber – Packed for 2010 – 90% germ
  • Pole Bean – Packed for 2012 – 50% germ
  • Cucumber – Packed for 2011 – 90% germ
  • Broccoli – Packed for 2012 – 85% germ
  • Tomato – Packed for 2012 – 80% germ
  • Lettuce – Packed for 2012 – 100% germ

Here’s the broccoli with 85% germination:


Based on the above, I would probably pitch the pole bean, but the others, even some being more than 3 years old, are good enough to plant and be done. So doing this quick test would possibly save you a seed order, or if you do need a couple replacements then its easy.

So – I urge you – do your own germination tests! And give me the results in the comments below! And if you’re up to it, let me know how much you’ll save!

Advice Response – Getting Started in the NW

Kayla, formerly from CA asks:

I just purchased my first house (YAHOO) and I would like to plant a fruit and vegetable garden on the property. I grew up in southern California so I’m used to basically everything growing without any issues. What would an ideal “grocery store” garden in the Northwest look like? What would grow well here and what should I shy away from? I’ve already accepted that I will need to grow avocado in a pot inside if I want to do that, but will things like leafy greens continue producing all year or would the weather get to them? I can build a greenhouse if I need to but before I went to that expense I wanted to make sure it was necessary. Also I am a single mom, so part of this garden/grocery store project will be educating my daughter that apples grow on trees not in the apple pie at McDonald’s. I want her to be able to take pride in the work she will do in the garden and learn where her food comes from and what she puts into her body.

Well Hi Kayla, and thanks for visiting the blog. And congrats on the home! Its a big step, and you have a blank canvas from which to work!

A Northwest grocery store garden… Well a great veggie garden here in the Northwest has a great variety! The gardens here have everything from tomatoes and cucumbers, green peppers, and lettuce. We’re also great at kale, spinach, green beans, and carrots. Asparagus is phenomenal as well. Here in the PNW, we also have some great luck with fruits. Apples, raspberries, and grapes, not to mention strawberries, and cherries. Some plants will require a different variety to adapt to the shorter summer, and some have to be chosen for their longer bolt tolerance.

As for avocado, yes, indoors is a must, though I am not sure of their happiness here in the Northwest. I have an avocado plant myself, but its more a little hobby as it grew from the pit. I doubt I’ll ever get it to fruit, but it’s a delight none the less.

Leafy greens grow well throughout the winter, with one caveat. In the winter, I like to grow my leafy greens under a row cover. These covers are a lightweight fabric that gives a couple of degrees of frost protection, allow air and water to pass through. Fabric doesn’t protect against everything though. A couple years back, we had a snowstorm that left the ground covered in about a foot of snow, and after it was all over, most of my lettuce was dead from being crushed under the weight of the snow, but my carrots did great through the entire ordeal.

Depending on the space you have,  I would suggest a 3-in-1 or a 4-in-1 apple tree and the same for a cherry tree. There are a couple of places here in the Puget Sound region that have a great selection of both of these types of trees. Raintree is always great to mention, as is Molbaks. But I’ve had the best luck with selection, affordability and convienence at FlowerWorld. If you decide to go to FlowerWorld, I’d devote an afternoon to it. They have a HUGE selection, and so many plants.

As for the greenhouse… I would hold off. They are great, and everyone wants one, but as you said, they are expensive, and quite a bit of work. If you feel that you’d like to get a start on, or extend, the growing season, think about a cold frame. They’re great, and easy to build. All you need is a little lumber and an old window.

Though I don’t have children (yet), I understand the want to educate your daughter, and I think that its great! I remember some of my best memories growing up were in the garden with my Mom and my Grandmother. I can remember eating tomatoes and beans right off the plants – no washing needed. Thats probably why I still do that today 🙂 Even a small garden to start with will help to instill great values in your daughter. Ask her to help you start the seeds in the springtime, give her the job of remembering to turn on the grow light in the mornings, and turn them off at night. She will experience the plants growing and will be thrilled!

I know that this is a lengthy response, but I hope that it helps to answer some of your questions. Your questions have also sparked a couple of thoughts that I can turn in articles for future installments on the blog.

Soil Amendments and How to Decide

Every gardener runs into the problem of a plant needing a boost. Do you want to feed the plant or do you want to feed the soil microbes to help the soil feed this plant and more in coming planting seasons? With our climate being so very wet many nutrients and minerals will leach out of our soils each fall-winter-spring season. There is no real differences here between these three seasons, they are all wet rainy and dreary. I know that some like this weather pattern, but our vegetables do not for the most part.

This creates an dilemma for us. We want to produce the best plants possible, but we also want to go the organic route. Well you could wait until about now and feed your soil. The end of April is about the time that the rain stops and the sun begins.

A little bit of a background on fertilizers. On commercial blends you will see a three number combination, such as  indicating the N-P-K blend. N stands for Nitrogen, P stands for Phosphorus and K stands for Potassium. Nitrogen is great for plant’s growth. It helps to develop the leaves and stem structures of living plants. Phosphorus assists with root and bloom growth. Potassium assists with the movement of water, nutrients and minerals throughout the plant.

Each year, I broadcast an organic supplement for my potatoes and asparagus. It is a fish bone meal and it smells like it. The fish bone meal has an NPK signature of 3-18-0. The bone meal is an excellant source of phosphorus for the growing plants, phosphorus assists with root growth, which is very important to both of the aforementioned vegetables.

I also provide a general organic soil amendment/ fertilizer for the other veggies in the garden. It has an NPK signature of 5-7-3. The tomatoes, cucumbers and beans all get a broadcast of the general fertilizer.

My blueberry bushes get a spring dose of soil acidifier. They get this because the soil near me is only slightly acidic, not low enough though for the blueberries to be happiest. This year the apple tree will get a 7-4-2 blend. This will assist in growth of the tree.

Fertilizing is important, choosing the right blend is just as important. Many times, blends will call out what they best work for. If you have a special circumstance, leave a comment below, and I will answer your questions.

Transplating – When to Upsize

Transplanting.  To uproot and replant (a growing plant).

From here….

To here… Don’t they just look happier?

With this I mean to move a tiny seedling to a much larger pot. When starting seeds in a flat, they will need to get out and get bigger, plus it allows the plant to keep getting bigger, before it needs to go outside.

Ideally one would transplant not long after the first set of “true” leaves emerge. True leaves are not the first leaves you see, those are called the cotyledon leaves. You can transplant into some extra 4″ pots, peat pots, or newspaper pots. Newspaper pots are a great way to reuse some of the Sunday funnies!

To begin, have all of your supplies ready. I usually have a bucket of soil mixture (some like to use moist soil, I have not tried this), a trowel, my up-pots, and if inside, a couple pieces of newspaper laid out (to keep the mess to a minimum).  If the seedling’s soil is in slightly dry conditions, this will help it come out of the cell much easier. Then you would hold the plant by the leaves, not the stem. Holding the seedling by the stem would possibly cause harm to its uptake and removal routes (for water and nutrients). Place 1″ of soil into your up-pot and then place the seedling into the pot, adding additional soil around the mix from the cell to fill up the pot. Gently push the added soil into place and add more if necessary. Water the new potted seedling generously and watch them take off!

Do you have any suggestions for transplanting? Please leave us some comments below!

The Basics – Starting Seeds

This is the first in a series on starting anything with the garden. There are three things that a seed needs to start growing. A growing medium, such as soil, light, and water. You can start a seed with these three things, Mother Nature does it all the time!

Starting seeds does not need to be an expensive endeavor. Some things that you will need:

  1. Seed tray
  2. Seed starting medium, you can use regular soil, but regular soil may contain pathogens that would be harmful to seedlings.
  3. Seeds

First you need to be sure that the item you are wanting to start from seed likes to be started from seed. Some root plants such as carrots and those with fibrous root systems, like corn, like to  be started in their permanent location. Transplanting may cause too much damage to the root system for the plant to recover from.

Second you want to be sure that you are starting the seeds at the right time in the season. You can find a good seed starting chart here. This is a chart that Mother Earth News put out some time ago. Some plants like carrots, broccoli, and lettuces should be planted later in the summer in the Pacific Northwest because of the fluctuations of our seasons. This will reduce the possibility of bolting due to a cool spell we may have in the middle of summer. Like this year.

So lets get started! You will want to get your seed tray out and fill the cells with the growing medium. It will shrink down once you have planted the seeds and watered them. Next plant seeds in the cells. Be sure to read on the seed packet how deep in the cell to plant the seed. Most plants need their own cell to start in, but planting multiple seeds gives the ability to weed out the less than best ones and allow for the best to thrive in each cell. I usually plant 2-3 seeds in each cell. Be sure to label the seed locations. I use masking tape and a permanent marker to distinguish each row of cells.  I usually devote one or more rows of cells to a specific seed. I only plant what I think we will eat throughout the summer/early fall. If I don’t like it, I won’t plant it!

You will need to find a warm southern window, or invest in a grow light and heat pad for the seeds. The light and pad will run you about $75-80 for a basic 50-cell tray setup. Many online retailers have them for competitive prices.   I decided early on that I wanted both. I figured that then I could choose where I wanted my seeds to be.  I also went to my local big box store and picked up a piece of rigid insulation and a spray bottle. I use the insulation as a a base for my seed setup, and it helps to insulate the heat mat from the floor below. The spray bottle is helpful for keeping the soil moist when the seeds are just starting and you don’t run the risk of flooding the seeds out.

If you do decide to get a heat mat and lamp, be sure to turn off the lamp at night, plants need to sleep too! Each and everyday, twice a day, remember to water the seeds, and check on them to see how they are doing. I usually water them when I turn on and off the lights. I am there already, so why not?

You will need to provide constant care for the seedlings for up to 12 weeks, depending on the variety. You will then need to harden them off prior to putting them out in the garden for good. Hardening them off requires you to first remove the heat mat, if applicable, and allow the seedlings to acclimate to the lower temperatures of its roots. Then gradually start leaving the seedlings outside during the day to get them ready to stay outside. Once the nightly temperatures have warmed beyond the threat of frost, and the daily temperatures are above 50 degrees, you can start to leave the plants outside overnight. On nights that may be cooler, you may want to think of a cover of sorts for your garden beds. There are many different kinds of row covers out there, you can see what works for you.

What have you learned starting your plants from seed?