Post #G02: Getting started on a garden: Materials

Posted on April 21, 2020

Thieving vermin.  Source:  Beliefnet.

This post is about gathering the materials for a garden, under the current circumstances.  Seeds, seed starter, and so on.

If you bought a bunch of seeds a month ago, and don’t quite know what to do with them, this might be a place to start.  But I expect that experienced gardeners will find little of value here.

To get going on a garden, all you really need is a $5 bag of seed starter, some plastic trays, a bag of garden lime, some black plastic or equivalent, and water and sunlight.  And some of those are optional.

Status of my garden:  I have potatoes, garlic, and spinach planted, all in raised beds.  Peas are way overdue, so they are next.  Most of the rest can wait, as they do poorly in cold soil anyway.

Good year for a garden.

A month ago, I set myself up to do a real garden this year (Post #580).  I’ve decided to talk about doing that.   This won’t be of interest to people who already know how to garden.  It’s really more of a guide for stumbling through a year in the garden.

This year, I’m shooting for a higher standard.  I recall that my grandmother’s back yard was one big kitchen garden.  A garden to produce a serious amount of food.  That’s this year’s goal.


Ms. Right Tomato, courtesy of

One of the motivators for me is that I am not going buy seeds and then not get around to planting them.  As part of the virus-related panic buying, near as I can tell, all the seed racks in the area were stripped bare.  As were many on-line outlets.  I had to resort to Ebay to get my seeds this year.  So I am getting them planted.

I suspect that most of those panic-buy seeds are going to end up sitting in drawer.  It only takes a moment to buy $20 worth of seeds.  But it takes lot of time to get a productive garden.  So, those were cheap insurance against some worst-case outcomes, but might not actually generate food.

That panic buying destroyed one of the great joys of early spring:  Browsing the seed racks.  Every year, I was like Charlie Brown and the football.  Despite all logic, this year, my garden was going to look like the pictures on those packets.

The choice of tomatoes, alone, could hold my interest for hours.  Those seductive little packets are like gardening porn.  Yes, you too, Mr. Mediocre Gardener, you could grow luscious produce like this.  But this year, the couple of places I hit were bare, so I gave up looking.  This year, there was no cruising the racks, trying to pick up Ms. Right Tomato.

This year I bought seeds on Ebay.  Apparently quite a few people have little home businesses, packing up and mailing out modest quantities of seeds for home gardeners.  And that was a mixed lot.  Some came through with exactly what I ordered.  Some, like seed potatoes and peas, were a total bust.  None arrived.

I’ll plant what I’ve got.

In a pinch, you can plant some items from the grocery store or farmers’ market.  You can find lists all over the internet.  Obviously, you can’t plant anything that’s been cooked, roasted, or salted.  And you can’t plant seeds from hybrids.  (Well, sure, you can.  You can plant rocks if you care to.  But don’t expect them to grow boulders.)  And much produce is picked before the seeds are mature, so (e.g.) you can’t take the seeds out of a store cucumber and expect them to grow.  (Reference, reference).

But some good bets for seed from the grocery store includes the following:

  • Anything that you can sprout, in the dried bean/pea/lentil family.  If the beans are old, they aren’t going to sprout.  But if they’ll sprout, you’re good to go. 
  • Most tubers other than potatoes, such as sweet potato, ginger, Jerusalem artichoke, and so on.  See my prior post on potatoes.  No personal experience with this one.
  • Garlic.  Worked like a charm for me. There is some risk that grocery-store garlic was treated with anti-growth agents.  When it doubt, get it at a farmers’ market.
  • Tomatoes used to be a big “no”, because they were all hybrids.  You could try this with anything sold as heirloom.  You need to let the tomato rot before you harvest the seeds.
  • Sunflowers from birdseed were a total bust for me.  No clue why, as they seem to sprout just fine underneath the bird feeder.  Maybe the seed was just too old.  I see other people say that raw edible sunflower seeds from the grocery store can be sprouted.
  • I have read that the bottoms of (e.g.) celery, cabbage, lettuce, onion, etc can be planted, and the plant regrown.  Never tried it.  Seems a little Frankenstein-ish.

Start from seed, or buy plants? 

Source:  Home Depot.

Seriously?  From seed.  Buying plants is cheating.

For me, sprouting the seeds is the best part of gardening. It’s no work to speak of, no money to speak of, and you get almost immediate results.  It’s clean, it’s fun.  Sprouting the seeds is to gardening what model railroading is to running a railroad.  What bonsai is to timber harvesting.  It’s gardening distilled down to just the fun part.

But be clear, you don’t really get a huge advantage by buying plants or by starting seeds indoors.  Some, but not much.  The reason is that most plants won’t really start growing well until the soil has warmed up.  So you can buy your store-bought plant, put it in the ground now — and it’ll hang out, not doing much, until mid-May anyway.  You’d have been better off putting down some black plastic to warm the soil, and just sowing seeds directly.

But there are a couple of practical advantages.  One is that, if you start them inside or buy plants, the birds won’t peck your seeds and seedlings out of the ground.  (Which is a particular problem with peas — birds just seem to love pea seedlings.)  The other is that you know what you’ve got — you don’t risk wasting garden space from seeds that fail to germinate.  You can toss those out before you plant up the garden.

I’ve done this a variety of ways over the years, and I’m pretty much a Jiffy Peat Pellet fan (picture above).  They cost a dime each.  They are easy to handle.  Rarely result in a root-bound plant.  Minimal transplant shock.  Zero mess.  Gives you a count of the number of plants you are growing.  And inherently hilarious when they expand.  What’s not to like?

These always disappear off the shelves at some point in the growing season.  Looks like they might be gone for this year.  See the cheaper alternative, below.  Apparently I was traumatized by a peat pellet shortage some years back, because I currently have something like a 10-year supply in my garage.  Never again shall I lack for peat pellets.

I do not, however, use Jiffy peat pots.  I’ve tried them and they are too thick, and tend to produce root-bound plants, particularly in our heavy clay soil.  Even for fairly vigorous plants.

The cheaper alternative is just to pack divided trays with potting soil.  That absolutely minimizes the likelihood of a root-bound plant, and for some plants that don’t have vigorous root growth, but suffer little transplant shock, that would be preferred.  But it’s just harder all around to manage, and a bit fragile at transplant time.  But cheap, for sure.  Five bucks’ worth of seed starter, and some trays/small pots of some sort, and you’re good to go. (Let it soak overnight before you use it, no kidding.)  You can roll newspaper to make pots.  I’ve never bothered, but the cheapness is appealing.

You do not want to start seeds using soil from garden unless you are starting plants outside.  The reason is that the constant moisture, indoors, will result in (or, risks) them being overgrown with mold.  (Yep, done that.)  That’s the reason for “sterile”, in sterile potting soil.  If you use garden soil, you have to do this outdoors, so that the UV rays from the sun keep the mold down.

You don’t need  a “greenhouse”, or anything like that.  Just a waterproof tray, and a sunny spot.  Shallow box with an aluminum-foil liner is fine.  The cover of the greenhouse really only serves to keep in moisture so that you don’t have to add water as often.  And really, if you put them in direct sunlight, they get too hot anyway.  Just water them daily (and see chloramines, below)

No fertilizers are needed or wanted.  That’s what the seed is.  The seed has the nutrients that the plant needs for the few few weeks of life.

Label what’s what, because you will forget.  Not only does every peat pellet look like every other pellet, every monocotyledon seedling looks just like every other one.  Nothing beats planting a bed of cucumbers, only to find a month later that you’ve planted squash.  (Yep, done that.)  And you have to turn the trays every couple of days as the plants lean into the sunlight.  I use Popsicle sticks and a Sharpie.

You do need to “harden off” your plants, for three reasons.  This is where gardening meets art.  Hardening off is like a halfway house for plants.  It’s process of gradually subjecting your indoor sprouts to the outdoor world by slowly introducing them to the outside.

When I was younger and stupider, I really didn’t see the point of that.  I mean, they’re plants.  Plants grow outside.  What’s the big deal?  Let me now atone for my ignorance.

First, unless seedlings are subject to breezes, they don’t develop strong stems.   So you need to take them out of the house — with no breezes — and into some environment with gentle breezes, so that they can learn to stand up.  (Or run a fan, indoors, I guess.)  Otherwise, the first thunderstorm knocks them flat.

Second, plants use entirely different sets of enzymes for photosynthesis, depending on the temperature.  If you’ve grown seedlings indoors, then just plant them outdoors, they starve.  They literally can’t photosynthesize, because they need to shift their production from high-temperature enzymes (indoors) to low-temperature (outdoors).  You need to make that transition gradually to give them the opportunity to update their enzyme library.

Third, believe it or not, they’ll sunburn. Just like you would.  Your indoor seedling thinks the sun is something that shines through a glass window.  Accordingly, it hasn’t developed any defense against real sunlight.  Put it out into the direct noonday sun, and it’s like spending a day at the beach without sunblock.

So, be gentle.  Give your little baby plants some outdoor shade time, well sheltered, the first day.  Work them up to dappled shade, and a more open spot.  By the end of hardening-off, they don’t need your care any more and can just hang out on their own.  Like teenagers.  That’s the goal.

Fertilizer and compost.

This year, I’m going to use chemical fertilizers.  Just a touch of 10-10-10, if and as required.  Normally, I don’t, because I don’t want to add to the nutrients running into the Chesapeake.

That’s less of a concern this year, given the circumstances.  Most of the nitrogen and phosphorus that runs into the Chesapeake from our area is due to air pollution  (see post on bioretention).  It literally consists of air pollution, dissolved in the rainwater.

And, while nobody’s saying it yet, along with bluer skies (Post #614, and later posts), it’s a fair bet that the nutrient load into the Chesapeake will be way down.  Due to the cleaner air.  Not just from cars, but also from reduced demand for electrical generation.  (As in  New York City,  the US, and pretty much everywhere hard-hit by coronavirus, such as China and Italy.).

So I figure, what the heck.  If there ever were a year to take advantage of better living through chemistry, this is it.

Also, it’s not as environmentally unfriendly as you might think, given the realistic alternatives for the suburban back yard.  That’s because it’s extremely concentrated, relative to locally available nature sources of (e.g.) fixed nitrogen.  A small bag of chemical fertilizer provides as much nitrogen as (say) a trailer-load of used horse bedding.  Or untold bags of dried manure.  So when you factor in the energy expended to import significant amounts of fixed nitrogen via natural sources, it’s not clear that chemical fertilizer is all bad.  (I have, in the past, tried used horse bedding and shrink-wrapped store-bought dried manure, but once I did the energy calculation, I quit.)

Kitchen compost:  I compost my kitchen waste, but this year, that’s not going to cut it.  That’s enough for a little raised bed.  It’s nothing close to enough of that for the size of garden that I’m putting in.  I’ll keep doing that, though.

I have never found a good solution to the indoor portion of composting, mostly because I’m too lazy to take the scraps out every day.  These days, I’m throwing them in a grocery-store plastic bag that sits on the counter-top, and taking that out to the composter when the mood strikes and/or stinks.

Outdoors, I use a tumbling composter like this, mixing kitchen scraps half-and-half with peat moss.  (Else it gets slimy.)  Making compost is not exactly rocket science.  Stuff will rot no matter what.  But if you compost on the ground, be careful that you don’t attract rats.

Around here, the acidity (pH) of the soil is far more important than the fertilizer you use.  So fix that first, before you fertilize, if you fertilize. A lot of plants literally can’t draw the key nutrients from the soil if it’s the wrong pH.  So you can dump on all the fertilizer you want, it won’t help if the soil is (typically) too acid for the plant you’re trying to grow.  Around here, when in doubt, add lime.  Particularly if your lawn grows a lot of violets — that’s a sure sign of acid soil.

I just checked the area that was my garden-to-be, and it registered an almost-unbelievable pH of 4.2 (off-the-charts acid, as these things go).  That’s going to require 200+ pounds lime, per 1000 square feet, to bring that up to something that most food crops will be comfortable with.

Aside on pH.  Seven is neutral.  Under seven is acid, over is alkaline.  But it’s a “log scale”.  (The unit of measurement is the negative of the log of the concentration of acid ions.)  Every unit is a multiple of 10.  So a pH of 4 is (10x10x10 =) 1000 times higher acid concentration that a pH of seven.  Fun facts:  Battery acid has a pH of 1.  Warheads (the sour candy) has a pH of 1.6.  Standard white vinegar from the store is about 2.5.  Straight-up lye is 14. 

Don’t overdo, it does you no good.  Somewhere I have some soil test kits.  Well worth doing, to see what you have and what you lack.  The point is to provide just enough nutrients.  Just because some is good, that does not mean that more is better.  Barring that, use chemical fertilizers sparingly, if at all.

Plastic, insecticides, herbicides and other such-like.

Plastic:  Seriously, how did people garden before plastic?  Black plastic, plus a few days of sun, kills everything on a patch of ground, readying it for planting.  Clear plastic, set on PVC hoops, gives you an instant greenhouse.  And spun-bonded polyester fabric aka “row covers” gives you a way to keep bugs off crops that don’t need insects for pollination, such as root vegetable, cabbages, and the like.

Think of it as a tool, not as a disposable.  Re-use it until it crumbles in your hand.  I’ve got some black plastic sheeting that has to be at least fifteen years old now.

Insecticides:  I’ve always avoided insecticides in the past, figuring, either I’ll grow crops that aren’t bothered by insects, or I’ll just put up with the damages.  In the past, in general, the stuff sold to homeowners was a) kind of persistent, and b) broad-spectrum, so they’d kill more-or-less everything, from your target species to (e.g.) bees and butterflies.

I’ll revisit that this year.  Lately, there are a number of short-lived narrow-spectrum insecticides that seem like they have some promise.  So I’m not ruling them out this year.

One thing I can heartily recommend from experience is Dr. Bronner’s soap.  If your plants are bothered by aphids or other soft-bodied pests, Dr. Bronner’s is da bomb.  Cheap, effective, non-toxic, and mildly entertaining.  It works by removing the exterior coating of soft-bodied insects, killing them.

Floating row covers or other non-woven cloth is a nice pesticide-free option for crops that don’t need pollination.  I used those to good effect in the past, to keep cabbage moths away from my cabbages.  Just keep that in mind if you growth those sorts of crops.

Herbicide? No, seriously?  That’s spelled h-o-e.



There is no such thing as having too many water barrels.  When people say I’m lucky to have water barrels set up around my home, my response is that luck had nothing to do with it.  Put them there with forethought.

Water barrels are, in my experience, high-maintenance items, but worth it.  I have to keep mosquito dunks in them.  I have to disassemble and clean them out every so often.  And so on.

Water barrels are also inherently dangerous, particularly if you have small kids.  A full 60-gallon barrel weighs about 500 pounds.  You want that to sit firmly and steadily on the ground, or if you raise it up, you want to be absolutely sure it can’t be tipped over.  If in doubt, strap them to a nearby wall to ensure that they can’t tip.  Be particularly wary of putting water barrels on cinder blocks that sit on ground that gets soft when it rains.

But they are worth it, not for the cost of water, but due to the presence of chloramine in our tap water.  Many plants do just fine with chloramine.  But some plants don’t tolerate chloramine well, and you’ll see that expressed in a variety of ways, from outright immediate death (e.g, Sweet William) to bleaching over time (e.g., snow peas).

So, a little digression.  Once upon a time we had chlorinated water in the DC area.  They literally used chlorine gas.  And that’s volatile.  Spray that on your garden, or put it in a bucket, give it a little time, and most of the chlorine would simply evaporate right out of the water.

But that same volatility is a liability if you want to maintain a safe water supply with old pipes.  So our water is now treated with chloramine, except for a once-a-year or so flush with chlorine.  Chloramine is more persistent, and does not produce as many by-products as chlorine.  The upshot is, it stays in the water unless you take extreme measures to remove it.

I have yet to find a definitive list of what plants do and do not tolerate chloramine well.  So everything I know about it is based on direct observation.  What I have seen stated is that chloramine disturbs seed germination for a wide range of plants.  No clue if that’s right or not.  When in doubt, use water that’s been put through a filter pitcher (with activated charcoal), or buy a jug of spring water from the store, for your seed sprouting.