More Garden Experiments

Spring is here, and my sargent cherry tree is in bloom. I felt like it was late to bloom this year, but for the last few years, I’ve kept notes. It bloomed two days earlier this year than it did in 2019, though about 2 and a half weeks later than it did in 2020 (which was unusually warm). The tree is mainly ornamental. I’m told that it can bear fruit, but that it’s only worth eating if you’re a bird.

I’ve had some limited success with my seed starting. I now have 1 okra plant that’s doing well, 3 baby tomato plants (2 sungold and 1 black cherry), and 1 buena mulata pepper seedling. In total, I had 3 okra seedlings germinate, but 2 had issues with the seed coat staying stuck on. That’s definitely something I’d like to learn how to manage better in the future. The flower seeds didn’t germinate at all, and I’m not sure if the petit marseillais peppers will germinate either.

I decided to experiment and also tried getting some okra and pepper to germinate using wet paper towels inside a plastic bag. So far, this got a few okra seedlings to crack open their seed coats. At that point, I put the seedlings into some potting soil, but they don’t seem to be doing anything more.

I have to say, though, that I am not known for my patience. That fact is only reinforced as I check my notes from previous years and realize that, last year, many of my plants returned from dormancy later than I remember.

Hoping to get some more seedlings, I put some seeds in plastic baggies with some wet paper towels.

When my vegetables are eventually ready to go outside, and assuming I don’t mess up with acclimating them to the outdoors, there’s a new raised bed waiting for them. I decided to go with a bed made of grow bag material over a PVC frame. I’ve filled it with Pittmoss, which I’m using despite the compression issues I’ve seen with it, because it was the easiest for me to get in bulk.

I’m planning to grow okra, peppers, chard, and dill in it. So far, the only thing that I’ve planted in it are and some okra seeds under a plastic cover and some chard seeds. No germination yet, but it’s still early. I don’t think I’ll get okra but it seemed worth a try as I had enough seeds and I’ve heard okra seeds don’t keep well beyond the first year.

We’ve had several days of warm weather this month, and I’ve taken advantage of them to work on the rest of the patio garden. Most of what I’ve done is cleaning up the old and dead stems and leaves from the perennials, pulling up last year’s annuals, and adding some plant supports to a few perennials that seem prone to flopping.

I also re-potted the Amsonia Blue Ice and Russian sage, both of which had been planted in Pittmoss that had compressed quite a bit. Now, both plants are in pots with a mix of Pittmoss and either coir or peat based potting mix. Unfortunately it turns out that re-potting plants that are in large pots is difficult, but I’m hopeful that both will recover from the experience and flourish in their new potting media. Interestingly, the pot with the Russian sage was full of (good) worms. (The worms often come in with the compost.) Most of the time, the worms don’t stay in the pots.

If you’re interested in a mini garden tour, see the video below.

Garden Tour: March 23, 2021.

Adventures in Seed Starting

This year, I’ll be trying to grow 3 types of food plants I’ve never grown before: okra, peppers, and tomatoes. All 3 need to be started indoors to get a head start on the growing season, so you either have to start them from seed yourself or buy starts from a nursery. Being a glutton for punishment, I’ve decided to try starting them indoors from seeds.

In addition to the vegetables listed above, I’ve also decided to start some cosmos and some bee balm as well. I’ve never grown bee balm before, so this is another experiment for the year. As for the cosmos, in the past, I’ve just scattered the seeds directly onto the soil where I wanted them to grow. I haven’t had the best of luck with this method, though, so this year, I’m going to try to baby the along for a bit before planting them outside.

A brief note: I’ll be mentioning some specific products in this post, but it’s not a sponsored post and I purchased everything I’m posting about.

7 seed packets are arranged on a white table.
The seeds I’m starting indoors this year.

Most of the seeds I’m growing are heirlooms:

  • Evertender Okra, from Southern Exposure Seeds, originally from India
  • Buena mulata peppers, from Truelove Seeds, an African American heirloom
  • Petit marseillais peppers, from Truelove Seeds
  • Bee balm, from Truelove Seeds
  • Black cherry tomatoes, from Renee’s Garden

The Sungold cherry tomatoes are a hybrid, and the cosmos are open pollinated but not an heirloom. Both are from Renee’s Garden.

I ordered a seed starting kit, pictured above. The set up includes a tray and vented cover, a heating mat, LED lights, a metal contraption for hanging the lights, and 72 discs of compressed peat. I would have preferred to avoid using peat, but it came with the kit.

A plastic tray with a cover and lights hung above it. Several rehydrated discs of peat are sitting in the tray.
The seed starting kit.

I’m only using 24 of the discs. My garden just isn’t big enough to fit that many new plants. As it is, I’m theoretically starting more than I’ll need. I figure if I have too many, I can thin them out and give away some seedlings. And if I have too few of anything, I’ll have learned something and can use that space to grow something else.

I’ve arranged my seeds according to the diagram below. Each row is 4 cells/discs.

A hand-drawn 'map' of where the seeds are located.
My “map” of the seeds I’m starting.

Row 1: Evertender okra, 1 seed per cell
Row 2: Buena mulata peppers, 3 seeds per cell
Row 3: Petit marseillais peppers, 3 seeds per cell
Row 4: Cherry tomatoes, 2 cells sungold, 2 cells black cherry, ≥3 seeds per cell
Row 5: Cosmos, 2 seeds per cell
Row 6: Bee balm ≥3 seeds per cell

The tomato and bee balm seeds were tiny, so i probably got a lot of seeds in each cell. I’ll just thin the seedlings as needed.

And now, I water and wait. With luck, I’ll have about 2 dozen baby plants in a few weeks. I suspect that’s when the hard part will begin.

Pitmoss Follow-Up

Back in September, I posted about my experiences with Pittmoss. I thought I should post an update now that a few months have gone by.

First off, the plants that I used the Pittmoss with seem to be doing quite well. Of course, I don’t really have a control, and most of these plants (except the Yarrow) came from the same source (The Growers Exchange). In particular, the greek oregano, sage, and thyme (lemon and french) are doing quite well. I would at the very least recommend the Growers Exchange. (One friend did get some tarragon from them that didn’t do well, but their other plants seem to have been fine.)

Clockwise from top left, the square bed contains rosemary Hardy Hill, Lemon and French thyme, Yarrow Richard Nelson, and culinary sage. The rectangular container at the bottom contains Greek oregano.

Now, for the not-so-good news: In some of my containers, the Pittmoss has compressed a lot. I’d say it’s reduced by a third to a half. I was expecting some compression, given how fluffy the Pittmoss is, but this is more than expected.

I am still planning to use Pittmoss in most of my spring planting. However, I may try to set up some beds and pots with it ahead of time and then let it sit a bit before planting/transplanting. I also want to try to add some growing medium to the Russian sage and amsonia, where the Pittmoss has compressed the most. 

As an aside, the pictures in this post were all taken in January. We just had a big snowstorm, so the sage and the other herbs are looking less green, but… Well, my garden was very confused about the seasons for a while. I’m blaming it on global weirding.

November in the Garden

It’s November, but no one seems to have told my plants that. This does not seem normal. At this rate, I”m wondering if some of these plants will skip dormancy altogether.

I’ve been letting things go a bit, but I will try to harvest and dry some of the oregano soon.

Leo enjoying the cat grass and ignoring the catnip. The only plant with yellow leaves now is the phlox.
Mint and painted lady runner bans.
I only have one bean pod on the scarlet runner beans.
The herbs are doing well, and annual salvia still has flowers.
At least asters are supposed to be autumn flowers.
Nira, the other garden inspector.

Pittmoss Review

3 x 3 raised garden bed with Pittmoss mixed into the soil that was previously in the bed. Clockwise from the top left, the plants in this are culinary sage, rosemary Hardy Hill, lemon thyme, and French thyme.

This post is to document my experiences (to date) with a new-to-me planting/potting medium called Pittmoss. Before I get into details, I should state up front that I purchased the Pittmoss and all of the plants I’ll be talking about, and there are no affiliate links in this post.

To be honest, my decision to try it really came down to the fact that, while the cost per cubic foot of the Pittmoss was relatively high, shipping costs for my other choices would have been prohibitively expensive, and I was really looking for something that would just show up on my doorstep. (I’m lazy, remember?)

I’m not sure where I first heard about Pittmoss, but it’s basically made from recycled paper with other stuff (eg, bark, compost, microorganisms from bovine compost, etc) added to it. I was interested initially because it’s peat-free, but then also because it uses recycled paper. (Their website says upcycled.) I believe it’s called Pittmoss as a play on peat and because the company is based in the Pittsburgh area.

I ordered several 2-cubic-foot bags of the stuff, and they arrived at my doorstep, as expected. They were packed in cardboard boxes, which I stacked up. Leo decided that the stack was his new perch and he greatly enjoyed lounging there for a few days until my fall plants arrived.

Amsonia Blue Ice.

The Pittmoss smells… essentially like what it is: old paper. It’s a bit musty but the smell doesn’t bother me. If you’re into that old paper smell, you may even enjoy it.

Once my fall plants arrived, I took them and the Pittmoss to the patio to begin planting. I have to say, Pittmoss is very lightweight. Usually, carrying 2 cubic feet of potting medium would have meant I need a break. (I’m not very strong. It’s probably related to my laziness.) But carrying 2 or even 4 cubic feet of Pittmoss is no big deal.

Once you open up the bag, it looks a bit like gray insulation. The texture is super fluffy. There were a few chunks of paper still stuck together. When you break them apart, you can see all the colorful bits of shredded paper. It’s a little like breaking up an owl pellet, I suppose. (I’ve never done that personally, just seen it done.)

Russian sage.

I used a bit over 2 cubic feet to top up my raised bed and mixed it in with the existing soil in the bed. I used about another cubic foot mixed with existing soil to fill 2 large round containers, a 1’x2’ rectangular container, and a window box.

The raised bed got sage, rosemary, and 2 types of thyme and will also be getting some yarrow later. The rectangular planter got oregano, the window box got chives, and the two round containers got russian sage and amsonia blue ice.

Oregano in a rectangular planter. The Pitmoss looks like gray fluff/mush here.

Pittmoss claims to have “improved water retention” and to require ⅔ less watering. I’m assuming this is compared to peat-based planting media. I’ve planted a whole variety of plants in this stuff, and their water needs range from ‘really liking dry’ to ‘really liking wet.’ I’m really curious how they do with the Pittmoss. My suspicion is the rosemary will be the least happy, but we’ll see.

I’m also curious about how much this stuff will compact, given how fluffy it started out. I don’t want my plant roots trapped in paper mache. Similarly, I’m curious how this will hold up over time, as everything I’ve planted in it so far is a perennial. I may just try some basil indoors to see how it does with an annual. (The basil on the patio has become a tasty snack for something that owes me a few bucks for seed and watering.)

So here’s a bullet point summary, if you didn’t read the above.

  • Good:
    • lightweight and easy to carry
    • fluffy texture is kind of neat
  • Neutral (for me):
    • smells like old paper
  • To be determined:
    • how much it compresses over time
    • how it does for perennials
    • how different plants like the water retention

It should also be noted that this is a purely observational, uncontrolled, non-blinded experiment. It has no scientific validity, but it’s fun. I’ll post updates.

The Patio Gets New “Walls”

I’ve lived here for a little over 10 years. In that time, the patio walls have been a particular challenge. They’re made from cinder blocks and have been painted maroon. They probably contribute to the concrete oven effect, and over the years, I’ve gotten really tired of looking at them.

One of the neighbors has some reed fencing that they used to cover their patio walls. This year, I decided to try it for my own patio. The patio is still really warm, and it will probably still be an oven next summer, but at least it looks better now..

I ordered something called ‘reed roll fencing’ and used zip ties and string to attach it to the rebar coming up from the cinder block wall. At the bottom, it’s pushed against the wall by the planters. The trickiest parts of the installation were getting the fencing unrolled and keeping it upright while I attached it. (It might have been easier with a 2nd person, but there’s a pandemic, so I just did it myself.)

The results are a little wonky, but overall, I’m pleased.

Heat, Water, and Weeds

I know I’ve been absent from the blog for a while, I am probably one of the laziest gardeners in the world. My last baby chard harvest was on in mid-July, and after that, I basically let my garden go a little wild—at least as wild as it’s possible to go in the middle of South Philadelphia. There are weeds everywhere, and things are looking a little… spent. About the only garden task I’ve kept up with is refilling the bird feeder, and that’s not really gardening.

The stoop hosta, which seems to thrive on neglect.

Fortunately, I’ve learned from previous years that I am a lazy gardener. Back in May, I had set up a soaker hose with a smart timer. It took a little tweaking, but the plants now get watered every day for 5 minutes at 6am and 5 minutes at 7am—without me having to lift a finger. It’s a smart system, so it automatically delays watering in the event of rain. And if I think the garden needs extra watering, I can turn it on using my phone.

The hose setup, with a regular hose (bright yellow-green) on the right, and the smart timer and soaker hose (black) on the left.

You have no idea how much I love how lazy this allows me to be. No. Idea. Now if only the garden would weed itself.

Colors in the Garden

Last week, I was looking at my “blue” plants and thinking that really, they’re more like purple. Then a few days later, a gardening podcast I enjoy listening to, called Let’s Argue About Plants, released an episode called “True Blue Beauties.” Of course, even on the podcast, there was some argument about whether some of these plants weren’t in fact purple. Overall, I think they did a good job, and I might have to add some of these plants to my “Someday” list.

My not-actually-blue (but I still love them plants) include Salvia Blue Hill and Phlox Swizzzle Blue. Salvia Blue Hill looks more purple to me, though apparently it’s more blue than some of the other mounding salvias. Phlox Swizzle Blue is more of a lavender color with some pink in the center. Meanwhile, my purple coneflowers are more on the pink side, if you ask me.

My purple coneflowers, which look pink.

Meanwhile, in another part of the color wheel, there’s the red/orange issue. This year, I planted painted lady runner beans, which are now flowering. The blossoms are lovely, but I was expecting something red and white. Instead, in my garden, they look more like orange and a lighter color ranging from white to creamsicle.

My painted lady runner beans are orange and creamsicle colored.

This is just the spring and summer flowers. I have two asters that won’t bloom until autumn: Crimson Brocade and Bluebird. They got a bit burned last summer, though, so I’m not really sure what color the flowers will actually end up being. Maybe red and blue? Maybe pink and purple? I’m looking forward to finding out, but I suspect it won’t be quite what I expected.

Gardening Failures, Part 1

When it comes to gardening, I have failed a lot. Over time, I’ve come to accept that this is all part of learning how to garden in general, and in my garden in particular.

First, I should define failure. It’s different for everyone, but in my cases, it’s been one of the following:

  • Seeds never germinating
  • Seedlings never becoming full grown plants
  • Plants making it to ‘adulthood’ but not surviving as long as might be expected
  • Plants surviving and living out their expected lifespan, but not thriving.

I’ve had failures in each of the above categories.

My most recent failure was a bunch of lavender seedlings, which germinated on my windowsill and then flopped over within a few days of emerging from the soil. I have no idea what went wrong.

These lavender seedlings probably never stood a chance.

The saddest failures, for me, have been my clematis and pink coreopsis. The clematis did well for a few years, but it seems that last summer simply was too hot and dry for it. It also probably got a bit root bound in the container it was in. It was a gorgeous plant, though, and I suspect I will try again with the same or a different clematis variety eventually.

Coreopsis is a plant that loves hot summers, which my concrete oven definitely provides. Unfortunately, it seems to be winter that did my coreopsis in. We had an especially mild winter this year, so I suspect that it was the damp, rather than the cold, that was the problem.

Nasturtiums are a plant that is supposedly easy to grow from seed, but I found them difficult to get started. I managed on my third try, but I’m not really sure why it worked—just that it did. That said, I am sure I will eventually try again, especially now that I’ve stumbled across a few pink cultivars. (Plant and seed catalogs are dangerous.)

Nasturtium. This was my 3rd attempt, and the plants still don’t look so great.

Cosmos and cornflowers are also supposed to be nice, easy annuals. The ones I planted last year did all right, but the the plants just weren’t that nice looking. I’m trying the cosmos again this year, though. The seedlings are looking pretty good so far, but they’re only about two inches tall, so we’ll see.

A droopy cornflower plant with one flower.

I have also, believe it or not, had trouble with hyacinth bean vines in the past—at least until last year, when suddenly, I seemed to have gotten the hang of them. Suddenly, hyacinth bean vines became one of my best garden successes, and I happily gave seeds to almost every gardener I knew.

This was take 2 with the hyacinth beans. The patio chair was eventually rescued.

You may have noticed that I titled this post “Gardening Failures, Part 1.” I’m not sure when I’ll post Part 2, but I know I will eventually. I’m always tempted to try (and retry) things, and I’m sure I will have other failures. I just don’t know what they are yet.

Selfish Gardening

Recently, I decided to start gardening selfishly—although perhaps I should say I decided to continue gardening selfishly.

There are a number of ways in which a garden can be a force for good in the world.

  • A garden can do social good by providing food for an individual, family, or community.
  • A garden can support bees, butterflies, and other pollinators—which in turn supports our ability make food.
  • A garden can support wildlife beyond pollinators by providing food and habitats for birds, small amphibians and reptiles, and invertebrates like bugs, worms, snails, etc.
  • A garden can support water management, either by being efficient in its use of water or by mitigating flooding by absorbing rainfall.
  • A garden can help support and preserve populations of native plant species.
Salvia Blue Hill – This is the first plant to bloom in the garden this year, and it’s making me so happy. I did see a bee buzzing around the flower spikes earlier today.

My garden… doesn’t really do any of those. I mean, I grow some food, and I have some pollinator plants and plants that provide seed for birds. I have one or two native plants. My planting containers are probably better than bare concrete as far as managing water goes. But my garden isn’t really designed around any of those purposes.

Instead, my garden is an entirely selfish endeavor. Its purpose is to lift my mood and give me something to do. And maybe that’s enough?