Loving this unusual spring (pollen, cold nights and all!) through pictures...

The cars, deck, porch - everything outdoors - is covered with a fine chartreuse colored dusting of pine pollen. A neighborhood walk means gunk in the eyes and a scratchy throat (it feels like inhaling chalk dust). The tomato seedling growth rate is super slow motion, due to a complete lack of consistent warmth, particularly at night.

But - it is spring. Warm weather is inevitable. And it is beautiful out there.  Take a look! (just click each pic to advance them)....some of these are from our yard, some from Raulston Arboretum, some from Duke Gardens.  Enjoy! 

We need to grow more gardeners.

When I was 3 or 4 years old, I loved to spend time with my grandfather Walter (not Water, as I first had it - thanks to a sharp eyed friend for letting me know. Walter was "dry", so Water would not have worked! That's what happens when I blog late at night...). He and my grandmother lived in a tenement in Pawtucket, RI. The landlord let him use the back lot for a big garden (it seemed huge at the time, but sadly, no pictures exist - it is only in my mind). His dahlias, strawberries, sweet peas, tomatoes and more left an indelible mark on me. It planted a seed...that seed lay dormant until 1981, when, newly married, Sue and I created our own first garden in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. 

 My gardening buddy, my grandfather Walter Gibbs, left, with my mom and grandmother

My gardening buddy, my grandfather Walter Gibbs, left, with my mom and grandmother

I've been so fortunate to be speaking in some very cool places in front of highly engaged audiences. Last week I was at a stunning event in White Stone Virginia, in the Northern Neck area - a master gardener event with an audience approaching 400.  That simply staggered me. I had the privilege of speaking on the same program with Thomas Rainer and Bob Lyons, both of whom gave wonderful lectures featuring topics around creative landscaping and biodiversity. All three of us touched upon the need to elevate knowledge of gardening, particularly in reversing troubling trends in the standing, availability of and interest in botanical topics in college, as careers, and inspiring young people to become involved in far greater numbers.

 Talking tomatoes to a wonderful audience in White Stone VA

Talking tomatoes to a wonderful audience in White Stone VA

I've been a member of the Seed Savers Exchange since 1986, when the organization was just 11 years old. Excitement in the SSE was starting to really take off and the number of listed members (those who offered saved seeds in the annual yearbook) was climbing steadily. That number peaked a bit over 1000 in the 1990s.  Think about that - the number of gardeners in the world - and only 1000 - an infinitesimal fraction - were actively involved in saving and sharing seeds through the exchange. When I received my 2018 yearbook a few months ago, I was alarmed to see the listed member number well below 400. 

When I am lucky enough to be invited to provide a workshop, I sincerely hope that the information that I share helps audience members grow better gardens; the information shared back to me from all who attend certainly help my own gardens improve.  But - most important - it is really important for all of us with this passion for growing things to excite young people that we know in our lives - nieces, nephews, grandchildren, neighbors - about the joy of planting seeds and watching what happens.  We all need to grow more gardeners. It is beyond important - it is critical.

 The joy of a tomato - taken at Tomatopalooza by Stephen Garrett

The joy of a tomato - taken at Tomatopalooza by Stephen Garrett

Waiting for spring

 early March cherry blossoms

early March cherry blossoms

This really is the hard part, isn't it? Teased by a week of mid-70 temperatures that initiated all sorts of blossoms (daffodils, azaleas, redbud, cherry, plum, magnolia, Bradford pear, forsythia and more), we now sit in a pool of stubborn gray, damp, cool weather. Some frosty night time temps already bit some of those early bloomers, lending an unwanted brown tone to the kaleidoscope of colors. 

The forecast shows a reason for optimism; real spring temps are of course inevitable. My flat of tomato seedlings are in that strange purgatory of "ready to transplant, but the time isn't right" - the night time temps are simply not yet accommodating. Today I will plant some more seeds because there simply seems to be no way to control myself! Area gardeners better get ready to host some really interesting works in progress.

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Most recent view of the babies

It certainly has been an interesting past few weeks, though, aside from seedlings, flowers and weather. I've had the good fortune of talking tomatoes, container and straw bale gardening to audiences at the Connecticut Flower and Garden show, Robeson County Master Gardeners in Lumberton NC, and a local county library. Next up - another library, then Chicago! Plans are being finalized for Virginia, Detroit and Wyoming. 

 My gathering audience at Lumberton NC

My gathering audience at Lumberton NC

I've also been a guest on The Grow Guide podcast  (episode 22) and, along with my daughter Sara, on the Burnt Toast podcast. Tomorrow at 3 PM EST I will be a guest on The Thomas Jefferson Hour, an NPR radio show. I feel so fortunate to have opportunities to share my adventures with tomatoes and gardening.

 One of our spirea in full bloom

One of our spirea in full bloom

On gardening techniques and the need to observe, think and continually refine

 Planting seeds densely - pic by Stephen Garrett

Planting seeds densely - pic by Stephen Garrett

It is impossible to recall the origins of all of the various techniques I use when gardening. A few things were certainly absorbed watching my grandfather and dad grow their gardens, but I was very young. I devoured the various Crockett Victory Garden books in preparation for our first gardens (the ones on flowers and vegetables - just so inspiring). 

Our first garden, in 1981, was a mix of great soil (well manured each year by a local farmer, planted in a community college plot for graduate students), a few six packs of things from the local garden center, and direct seeding following directions on the packets or in seed catalogs.

When it became primarily about tomatoes, and starting everything from seed, I probably thought things through and used what seemed to be a logical approach to get from seed to seedling to transplant. The dense planting technique I've used since the early 1990s arose from need; how to produce thousands of healthy seedlings without a greenhouse? Plant them thick! I didn't research it (there was no YouTube then, and no Google).

This was all well and good and safe, because all of the risk was mine; failure meant no plants, but it didn't mean trouble for those following closely any particular technique that I was using. The big change occurred once Epic Tomatoes came out in late 2014 and many of my gardening techniques were described in as much detail as was deemed appropriate for a book on tomatoes. Adding to the "exposure" (that word describes perfectly what it feels like) was social media - YouTube, the ease of recording an update on a Flip Video camera, or posting pictures on a blog.

As I type this, I am keenly aware that some of the techniques I use resonate with many other gardeners. I've described it during podcasts, it has been shown on the Growing a Greener World TV episode, and I discuss it in my talks. We finally, then, come to the nub of this blog entry, one which I've wanted to get down in words for awhile. 

Many gardening techniques have more variables, and have more complexity, than it first seems. The act of starting seeds, for example, has infinite variations, and each variation has many steps, some easy to see and some subtle and tiny, and eventual success can ride on any one, or several, steps. It is extremely challenging to use text, or words, or even video, to show every single aspect. Not only that, but the aspects can be adjusted on the fly (if changes seem to be warranted), which brings additional changes and variations. None of this is bad of course - it enriches the experience of gardening, it broadens things beyond a straight line of simple steps into a process that requires thought and reason and adjustments all along the pathway.

Let's discuss and break down the dense planting technique just a bit, starting by listing all of the variables: when to start, type of seed, age of seed, presence of seed borne disease, planting depth, seed density, type of soil less mix used, sterility of the mix, amount of water used to wet the mix, moisture at the top near the seed, type of tray used, usage of heat mat - yes or no, and if so, the particular temperature of the mat and its impact on the soil, temperature of the room and its impact on temperature of the soil, use of covering - plastic wrap or dome or none, frequency of removing and flipping the plastic or opening the dome, temperature near the seeds at the surface, presence or absence of light, and if present, what type of light, presence of damping off or other fungus in the environment that can impact the health of the seedlings, presence or absence of insects that can impact the health of the seedlings. 

 Up they come! Tomato seedlings after 6 days

Up they come! Tomato seedlings after 6 days

Before the seeds even sprout, I've listed at least 20 variables, depending upon how you count them. Once the seeds start to germinate, additional decisions arise - when to remove the plastic or dome, when to water, how to water, when to move to a more direct light source, what sort of light, temperature of the new environment, time to leave the lights on, when to start transplanting.....approaching another 10 variables.

Wait - there's more! If in front of a window, what is the the weather like for the time the flat is germinating - sunny days vs cloudy days, turning the flats to negate phototropism and frequency of doing so, rate of plant growth (do they get leggy?), ability to watch the process closely, just to name a few - another half dozen at least.

The simple act of starting seeds has so many tiny decision points. A variation such as the dense planting technique creates additional complexities, additional needs - and therefore, additional places where things can go south. 

Based on some comments I receive on various social media, it is clear that this method could be "destined for disaster"," impossible", "unnecessary", or even frightening (just to pick a few quotes from various comments I've received). Certain aspects of it - the use of the plastic wrap, the density of the seeds in each cell - are, if not controversial, certainly outside of standard methods. And yet - it works (for me!) and has for more than 20 years.

 Germinating flat - morning, prior to flipping the plastic

Germinating flat - morning, prior to flipping the plastic

This blog is not meant to scare anyone off from home seed starting, or infer that this is really difficult; it is not. It is also in no way a statement that this is the ONLY way to do it. It is just the way that I do it! After all, at its most basic, seeds germinate once they get wet, and the plants that result then need light. What could be simpler?

The key is in controlling the process, in making it work for each one of us to fulfill what we need from it in terms of plant numbers, types, availability, and health. 

I've found that techniques work best when they become so familiar that they become internalized, and logical. That doesn't mean that it goes exactly the same each year; indeed, it does not. Repeatable success comes in the familiarity, which brings confidence in doing the tiny adjustments, reactions to seeing things not going quite the right way, to put things back on track.

Often you can use words to describe something - adding a picture or two helps considerably. A video is even better. Yet, it would take spending time with me for each step, watching for those things that I do that may not end up in words, or show in a picture, or become clear even in a video.

Hopefully, this describes a bit my feelings of exposure when a personally customized method - that of starting seeds - becomes scrutinized, communicated, and more widely known. The upside is that feedback from all who give it a try that share their experiences contributes to a continually improved  process. I love the questions that I get, the pictures posted of others giving it a try. Each stage of gardening can be broken down similarly of course, but I think this particular one illustrates the point particularly well. It hopefully demonstrates how we can all become better gardeners - together.

 Seedlings on day 16

Seedlings on day 16

 

 

Watching the Olympics, and thinking of gardening.....

Thirty seven years. Wow. Back in 1981, newly married and a graduate student trying to get through the ordeal of my degree, Sue and I planned our very first garden. What fun it was; we rented a plot of fertile ground near our off-campus house (more like a bunker!), one rectangle among many set aside for Dartmouth grad students. We started some seeds, went to the local nursery to get some plants, and got lucky (the ground was very rich, amended each year with manure from a farm and plowed in with a tractor). We had corn, tomatoes (Better Boy and Roma), peppers, squash, flowers...it was just memorably wonderful. The seed planted by my grandfather and father when I was a young boy took hold - I discovered the joy of gardening. Sue and I were on our way to annual digging and planting and harvesting and great meals.

Keeping it weekly...making it brief

Wait - it's February already?  Where did January go? As soon as we returned from visiting our daughter Sara and her family in Washington, things got busy (no complaints from me...it's been fun!). My 2018 goal was daily Instagram posts, weekly blogs (I am just getting this one in under the wire), and monthly newsletters (check!).  With one month gone, things are actually on track.

"Busy doing what?" you may be thinking. It's too soon to plant seeds...but it is not too soon to answer gardening question emails, assign the Dwarf Tomato Project work, and send seeds. Aside from all over the US and Canada, my babies will be growing in Spain, Russia, Germany, England and Finland. I've had great garden discussions that will end up on Podcasts (more on that below). It is also time to organize my speaking events, especially those that involve travel. 

Doing the time warp - a few favorite pics from past gardens

I spent the last few days filling coin envelopes with various types of tomato seeds destined for gardens spread throughout the world. Since this is going to be an atypical gardening season for me (more vicarious than first hand), it seems a good time to go down memory lane.

First...to set the contrast... this was the view from just a few days ago.

 Sue out walking during our January 17 snowstorm (7 inches at our house, falling between 11 AM and 7 PM)

Sue out walking during our January 17 snowstorm (7 inches at our house, falling between 11 AM and 7 PM)

The snow vanished quickly - within a few days we were in the mid 60s. Winter in Raleigh - who can figure it out?

My first digital photos were taken in 2002, when we still did most of our gardening in a hand-dug 30 X 50 foot plot, protected from deer (reasonably well) with a double wire battery operated electric fence. This is one of my favorite pictures of Cherokee Purple - it shows the tendency to radially crack, the oblate smooth shape, the unique dusky rose purple color, typical size and good fruit set.

 Cherokee Purple from 2002. 

Cherokee Purple from 2002. 

The picture below shows the beginning of my interest in colorful hot peppers - this is early work toward my variety Gemstone, in 2003.

 "Arboretum dark leaf" was the working name of this early selection, grown in a small pot in the driveway.

"Arboretum dark leaf" was the working name of this early selection, grown in a small pot in the driveway.

My garden space was really migrating from the side dirt garden to the driveway by 2004. The basketball hoop no longer found use....this is a late June shot of the driveway; looking back on my garden log for that year, it shows a record of 86 tomato plants in the side garden, 7 on the rear deck, and over 80 plants in containers - tomatoes, peppers and eggplants - in the driveway.

 2004 late June view of the ever-increasing driveway garden

2004 late June view of the ever-increasing driveway garden

 One of my favorite Tomatopalooza pictures, from 2004 - Tennessee Britches (the monster on the left), with Red Brandywine on the right - and poor tiny Mexico Midget in front (tiny in size, not in flavor!)

One of my favorite Tomatopalooza pictures, from 2004 - Tennessee Britches (the monster on the left), with Red Brandywine on the right - and poor tiny Mexico Midget in front (tiny in size, not in flavor!)

Some January thoughts....

My goal is to write a weekly blog. Sometimes there is so much going on that they practically write themselves. Occasionally, I find myself in a restless frame of mind, making the selection of blogging topics a bit challenging, and even random. Welcome to my January random blog entry!

It's too early to start seeds, but gardening is on my mind every day 

A typical January finds me filling notebook pages with lists of seeds to be started. This January is quite different, as upcoming speaking events and vacation means few seedlings, and minimal seed starting.

 Seeds, books and Seed Saver catalogs - source of inspiration for me all year long

Seeds, books and Seed Saver catalogs - source of inspiration for me all year long

Cold weather really elevates bird activity at the feeders

So many birds - bluebirds and cardinals, towhees and juncos, ruby crowned kinglets and pine and myrtle warblers. White throated sparrows, Carolina wrens, chickadees and titmice. Purple and Goldfinches, Hermit thrushes and thrashers. It is non stop entertainment, daily feeding frenzy time, and such colorful fun to watch.

 Two young bluebirds keeping an eye on me as I skulk on the deck with my camera

Two young bluebirds keeping an eye on me as I skulk on the deck with my camera

I've already had some great gardening conversations about dealing with the annual assault of seed catalogs

I've had superbly enjoyable conversations with Joe Lamp'l (the joe gardener show podcast) and Margaret Roach (A Way to Garden podcast), and, late last year but just posted, Jackie Beyer (The Organic Gardener podcast), all of which can be heard by clicking the links. 

The speaking calendar is becoming a juggling act, and it is time to get busy on planning for upcoming trips

The action begins in mid February and carries through to the end of April (at which time Sue and I will jump into our car and drive cross country to visit both of our daughters and their families). I look forward to so many opportunities to bring my tomato and gardening stories around the country. 

The email inbox is always filled with interesting gardening questions and challenges

I am not a phone person, and find it hard to have really good tomato talk on Facebook Messenger, Instagram, or Twitter. It is email for me, and I've been delightfully challenged by many great gardening questions; this isn't so much seasonal and pretty consistent throughout the year, and I love my late nights answering the questions. It always astounds me to find something newly asked each week; receiving, researching and answering challenging questions is how we all learn together.

A lot of seeds are on their way to tomato enthusiasts, but the seed sending surface hasn't even been scratched.

Tied with my joy in receiving emails and dealing with questions are sharing seeds with fellow gardening enthusiasts. Lots of seed is finding its way across the country (indeed, the world), and I've not even begun distributing the Dwarf Tomato Project assignment seeds for 2018 yet.

So now you know what sorts of things fill my January days - devoid of digging in the dirt, but packed with interesting things to ponder and do!

 

 Sampling of seeds ready for handing out at my 2018 events, thanks to the generosity and support of some of my favorite companies.

Sampling of seeds ready for handing out at my 2018 events, thanks to the generosity and support of some of my favorite companies.