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The Beginning Gardener
The Beginning Garden - by Peg Diem    Through the years, mostly by trial and a lot of error, we have found plants that work well in our boderline USDA 6/7 (Sunset 32) zone. This is the most important thing for a beginning gardener to consider. Do your homework first! Investigate gardens that you admire in your area and jot down the names of plants you like. When names aren't available, a good description will do until you CAN find out what they are. There has been a lot of interest these days in populating our gardens with species native to our particular areas. This is a great way to go. You will gain some peace of mind in knowing that the species you've chosen will probably survive the winter (and a certain amount of neglect) There are reasons why that plant does well in your area and oftentimes these plants will reward you with spectacular results when shown a little extra care. There will always be those spots in your garden where you can show off that particular exotic specimen plant you've been craving. Make a plan. Try to stick to it until you get rolling. You will be amazed at how fast your overall concept takes shape and when you stand back and look, you will know exactly what to do next. Let the gardening fun begin!
Picky, picky. Plant picking can be fun - When we tired of looking for the unusual "old garden" annuals at our local nurseries, we decided we had to take matters into our own hands and start germinating the seed ourselves. This proved to be new territory with its own pitfalls. Learning about seed germination, soil temperatures, light sensitivity, the special seed preparation some seeds need like chipping or chilling (stratification) opened our eyes a bit. Now we rarely complain when we see the prices pasted on those flats in the spring. The first year there were trays of seedlings all over my kitchen in "make shift" greenhouses. By the end of February that same year we had spilled out onto the back porch. The 8 x 27 south-facing porch ended up enclosed in 80mil plastic, doubled walled--our very own greenhouse.. The next step was to maintain an acceptable tempterature. We caulked every drafty hole we could find and used two electric oil filled radiators set on low to keep the temp up during the coldest nights. We also used some " passive solar devices" by lining the perimeter of the room with clear 2-liter soda bottles filled with water. .
  The next problem was shelving. We hung brackets where ever we could top and bottom. A row of cinder blocks on the floor topped off with some 2 x 4's gave us another shelf. Those metal storage shelving units, usually 4 shelves high, work well too.
Bottom line, do what it takes to make room for the flats.
   For us, lighting continues to be a critical issue. Since the back porch turned greenhouse has a roof, we are only getting decent light on three sides. In lieu of ripping some roof off or installing some skylights (which we hope to do one day), we've had to supplement the light with 4' double tube flourescent types. Cool white tubes are just fine and will germinate seeds and bring the seedlings along with no problem. Hang them 4 to 6 inches from the flats to start and move them up as needed. You don't need the more expensive gro-lights unless you are trying to get a plant to flower indoors. For this you'll need the full-spectrum bulbs. Another idea that works well (if you simply must give your new babies some sun) is to use one full spectrum bulb and one cool white tube in each light. Electric timers are a big help, plants want a constant
12 to 14 hours of lights on growing time.
   Watering will make or break the project. Most seedlings like to be
watered from the bottom, keeping them moist, but not wet. Many plants are susceptible to a fungal disease called damping off (plants turn dark brown at base then rot) which is sometimes aggravated by top watering. Keep them moist but not soggy and after the seedlings have four or so "real" leaves, a 1/2 strength
liquid fertilizer applied after they have been watered is REAL beneficial.
   Whether you use peat pots, grow packs or aluminum throw away pans, make sure that everything is clean and sterile. You can make a solution of 1part household bleach with 9 parts water and immerse your pre-used containers. This will kill off any lingering infections from the last season. Any good quality sterile potting or seed starting mix will work just fine. If you are planning to grow any plants on in the geenhouse (as opposed to planting them out in the spring), a good "live-soil" or compost based mix is a good idea.
   Hope this has been of some help. E-mail me with comments or questions.
   

Peg