Fall Gardening – Converted Cold Frame Pulls Double Duty for Seedlings


Fall gardening, for me this year, means keeping it easy.

Mostly because the squirrels and sun aren’t on our side come late September.  I’ve started cabbages and kale and lovingly transplanted them to well-prepared containers up and down our stairs in autumns past, only to have squirrels dig them up daily until the sun lost itself behind the neighbor’s house.

Never again.

This year I have my magical cold frame I converted to a squirrel-free grow box – I simply swapped out the glass lid for a hardware-cloth (wire mesh) lid.  Anything I plant outside of this box will be on a whim and left to its own devices on the squirrel front.

Inside the box, we took our freshly emptied summer pots, seeds leftover from spring, and planted mesclun mix, turnips, radishes and a few onion seeds.

With heavy rains forecast for the following few days, the kiddo and I dragged out an old shower curtain, tucked it under the lid’s edges, and weighed it down with scrap wood for good measure.  These rains would be remnants of Hurricane Isaac, and all summer has been either no rain or crazy-windy-big-storm rain, so might as well add the wood.

The kiddo, B, who had methodically pinched the tiny seeds from my palm and less methodically sewed them, was very into storm proofing the cold frame. She’s three now and loves a good project, especially a short one she can get her helping little hands on.

The next day we got nearly 4 inches of rain in two hours.

I didn’t touch anything for two more days.

Today, SEEDLINGS!!!  Tiny sprouts!!!  No washout from the rain!  Not wanting to further starve them for light, we set the scrap wood cover aside but kept the shower curtain.  The weatherman says we’re still at risk for all-or-nothing rain the next few days.

Let’s see if we can squeeze a few beet, spinach and kale seeds into the squirrel-free, rain-shuttered box in a few days.

Flowers – Old Fashioned Balsam About to be a Favorite

“Balsam, Old Fashioned” caught my eye in the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, I think mainly for the phrase old fashioned.

I’m not trying to get too cute with my endeavors, but it seems the same two dozen flowers are all over town.  If I’m going to the effort of starting things from seed, it seems worth it to grow something other than what the big box garden center rolls out to taunt the parking lot every day.

Growing 12″ – 36″ tall and blooming with flowers close to their sturdy stems, balsam seems the perfect addition of color in our narrow garden bed that edges our yard along the neighbor’s wall.  Loving both part-shade and sun, I can place extra seedlings in the shade of our fence along the sidewalk.

Thomas Jefferson enjoyed double-flowering balsam and, it seems from the comments at Dave’s Garden, gardeners of all ages fondly remember the exploding seed pods of their mother’s Touch-Me-Nots or neighbor’s Lady Slippers.

You can cook and eat the young stems and leaves but they are harmful if raw.  I’ve read the crushed stems and leaves treat poison ivy but I can’t back it up with a reliable source.

I am about to convert my small cold frame to a summer greens box for growing whatever will fit in it and survive the heat – I’m swapping out the glass lid for a hardware-cloth-top.  Think of it as a cage to keep out this year’s relentless alley rats.  This is good news for all my balsam starts that have lingered in there a few weeks past my intent to transplant them.  Today most of them found new homes along the back of our garden bed.

I’m looking forward to their summer color but I cannot wait for the old fashioned fun of exploding seed pods.

Potting – Pepper and Tomato Frenzie

Pots!  Get the pots!  Need more potting soil!

That about sums up the last week.

Some of the tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings finally started taking off.  Plus, I am about to take off for a long weekend, so I sorted what to keep and give away, and got to potting.

The Jimmy Nardello’s Italian pepper, Celebrity tomato, Garden Peach and Eva Purple Ball tomatoes were the first chosen and potted.  The rest of the week blurred by with Flower Mart, The DC State Fair seedling swap, more potting and more planting.

Companion planting scratches that itch to magically make containers produce more with less fuss.  I am obsessing over borage this year but have never grown it.  It deters tomato hornworms and is a best friend to nearly everything, so I stuck a borage seedling in with each big pot I planted this week.  This may have been wishful thinking since they grow 2 – 3 feet tall.

I mixed and matched other tomato companions: marigolds, basil, carrots and chard.

I heard from Midwest gardeners on through to the East Coast and South saying they were slammed busy between rains this week.  I think we were all on twitter during the rain and outside when it wasn’t.

What did you plant this week?

Seedlings – Get in the Ground!


Miss B’s and Mr. O’s beans look great and look huge in their Ben and Jerry’s pints because they’re beans.

Mr. O is out of town but they left a shiny new toddler wheelbarrow in the backyard to share.  What better inaugural run than filling it with dirt to transplant a pair of beans!

Don’t take bean growing advice from me, I tried growing them in the fall of 2010 to pathetic results.  No matter, it’s spring 2012 now.

B was seriously into getting the first bean into the ground, telling it to do so as I separated the pair and eagerly digging a hole for it.  As for transplanting the other into our repaired pot, once she helped fill it with dirt, she was out of there.

She had bigger plans for the wagon.


What’s Growing – A Few Chilly Days til May


DC spring decided to switch gears to cold rain with May a week away.

One last hurrah from the Winter that Never Was.

Checking on the plants in the cold drizzle showed just how far the garden has come since setting the first seed pots in the cold frame two months ago.  April weather dipped cooler more often than March and the seedlings have gone through growth spurts between holding steady.  The cold frame is protective but only gets a few hours of good sun thanks to the rowhouse canyon of our backyard.  Each day their sun time increases thanks to the earth tilting in our favor as spring heads towards summer.  Things are growing, albeit a little slowly.

I’m wildly satisfied.

The Update

1.  Turnips!  The top: March 21st, four days after sowing.  Bottom: April 23rd.  I need to thin them out.

2.  Parsnips!  The right: Radishes alongside the parsnips last week.  Left: Radishes thinned to let the parsnips grow.  Originally sown March 17th.

3.  Beets!  The top: Sown March 17th.  Bottom left: The few that sprouted looking noble last week.  Bottom right: Either heavy rains or a bird flatted two, April 23rd.  Sadly, I need to thin the few that are growing.

4.  The Camilla!  Top: The last bloom hanging on five weeks after the first opened.  Bottom: Those that let go below it, April 23rd.

5.  Zinnias and Marigolds!  Top row: Transplanting them from their egg carton seed pots, around April 4th.  Bottom: They were the first to get kicked out of the cold frame a few weeks ago.  Short, but growing, April 23rd.

6.  Chives blooming!  This herb box welcomes its fifth season with the same chives, thyme (also blooming) and golden sage (not pictured).  I should replant the box but don’t want to touch it (other than my usual fertilizing and mulching), the inhabitants seem happy as is.  It survived Snowmageddon and Snoverkill in 2010.

7.  Mesclun!  Sown March 31st, pictured April 23rd.  Tiny salads at our first 2012 BBQ this Sunday!

8.  Bush Beans!  Top row: Planted by and for toddlers, April 5th.  Mid row: They sprouted(!) April 17th.  Bottom: Thriving, April 23rd.

9.  Wine-Box-O-Root-Veggies!  Top row: Prep, sow, grow (radishes a few days past April 5th sowing).  Mid row:  A few tiny beets on the left, carrots on the right and radishes all over, April 23rd.  Bottom: Carrots in front of radishes, April 23rd.

10.  Onions!  Top: Reclaiming pantry onions for their greens, April 11th.  Bottom: The stalks look great and spinach seeds sprouted alongside, April 23rd.  I’ll harvest the tops as scallions this weekend, they should regrow.

11.  Potatoes!  Left side: Planting a sprouted potato so the foliage will hang off our stair rail (just for looks), April 11th.  Right side: It’s growing, April 23rd.  I do this every year.  The pot is too small and it’s never as lush as the ornamental sweet potatoes, but it grows.  To really grow potatoes, you do it differently.

12.  Fresh seedlings!  Left: Balsam, 10 days after sowing.  Right: Borrage, 10 days after sowing.

13.  Freshly sown!  Trying to slip under the wire with this cold snap: onions, spinach and mesclun, sown April 22nd.

14.  Tomatoes!  I have yet to count how many tomato seedlings we have, same principle as counting chickens before they hatch.  I kicked a few out of the cold frame April 20th and two days later the 48-hr cold rain came.  I huddled them behind the covered bike to protect them from the 40 mph predicted wind gusts, picture April 23rd.

What’s not growing?  Basil.  After fighting off cutworms, they died after transplanting.  They were tiny and I think succumbed to damping off.  I’ll try again in a week or so.  I’ll also direct sow a few in the big tomato pots when the tomatoes are ready for final transplanting.

Not bad.

Not bad, at all.

Seeds – The Toddlers Say “Grow, Beans, Grow!”


Miss B (mine) and our buddy, Mr. O, got a good look at their beans pushing through the soil today.

They were thrilled. They both kept coming back to get another look.

In the two weeks since we planted them, we gather round the little basket they’re in and chant “Grow, beans, grow!” whenever we’re in the back yard.

They both stood over the beans this morning pointing, beaming, giggling, and gave a believing “GROW, BEANS, GROW!”

DIY – Seedling Transplant Pots from Cartons


When your seedlings have two or three sets of true leaves, it’s time to transplant into bigger pots. If you started seed in egg cartons, you may need to transplant as soon as the first set of true leaves get a little size to them.

Plastic nursery pots are great but you can also pull milk cartons and soup/soy milk/coco water Tetra Paks from your recycling bin. The seedlings will only be in these for a few weeks but they need good drainage. I punched holes in the bottom with my awl but would have also gone up the sides if I had seen this great how-to before I completed the transplanting.

Intermediate seed pots should be at least 3 inches wide. I made mine 4 – 6 inches deep to be about the size of my old nursery pots.  You want them deeper than what your seeds started in.  I also used a few paper coffee cups and ice cream pints (not pictured).

A follow-up on potting seedlings will come tomorrow.

Growing – Radishes! Superfast!


Just look at these perfectly tender radish sprouts!

I planted these little guys back on March 17th along with long-to-germinate parsnips (which should be sprouting soon).

The radishes should be ready to pull on April 7th – that’s in a week!  I love these instantly-harvestable shoots of joy.

Even their fat little first leaves reach up and shrug with a super-cheery “YAYY!!!”

It’s as though the parsnips have their own radish cheerleaders.

Cutworms – I am Winning


SATURDAY:  I pleaded for help on twitter.

Something had cut down multiple basil seedlings.  Kathy Jentz with Washington Gardener suggested cutworms might be to blame.

In the evening hours between my original post and Kathy’s reply, another two basil seedlings were sliced down.

SUNDAY:  I found a cornmeal/molasses/Bt powder cocktail online that would work with the cold frame and went to town.

TUESDAY:  Today, two days after scattering the elixir, the basil STANDS!!!

My original tiny basil sprouts have three new tiny buddies and none have been cut down since sprinkling the cutworm kryptonite.


Cutworms – DIY Fix for those Evil Seedling Slayers


I’ve read about it, the grave discovery one day when you go to water your seedlings. Cut, at the base, as though tiny lumberjacks came with a tiny razor blade saw and went on a drunken spree, seedling to seedling through the night.


Our basil fell prey to their weekend bender.

I called to twitter with pictures for help. I naively thought cutworms only targeted tomato plants.

Washington Gardener suggested cutworms and, indeed, their pallet for destruction goes far beyond tomatoes.

Sewn in egg crates and too small to place protective yogurt cup rings around, I found a cutworm solution that would work for the cold frame and I got to work.


How I made my own cutworm no-man’s-land:


1. Cornmeal

2. Molasses

3. Bt powder (Bt powder is so handy against a slew of pests, it’s good to have on hand.)


1. Start with an amount of cornmeal sufficient to sprinkle your seed pots with enough extra to treat the open ground within your cold frame.

2. Add Bt powder loosely based on the product’s instructions. I added about a tablespoon to about two cups cornmeal. Mix.

3. Add molasses. I completely guessed on the quantity. I didn’t want so much that it would be one sticky mass, I wanted to still be able to sprinkle the finished mixture. I added about a tablespoon. Mix with fork until evenly distributed.


4. Sprinkle over seed pots and use the remaining mix to sprinkle over the exposed floor/ground of your cold frame. Cut worms travel the ground at night so head them off at the pass.


Since my Bt powder comes in a squeezable applicator bottle, I carefully puffed a little into the cold frame with hopes it will settle out to finely coat everything and ward off any additional evil spirits cutworms. A little overkill satisfied my vengeful urge.

Be warned: Give a few practice squeezes before using a squeeze applicator bottle on your plants. It’s capable of powder-bombing your target. I usually invert it once then turn it upright and give a light tap to clear the orifice of excess powder.

And now I wait.

Hopefully those tiny lumberjacks won’t care for our cold frame any more.