Ready, Set, Plant! Tips for getting your garden off to a great start

Stacks of lush spring plants are hard for just about any gardener to resist!  Before buying, don’t forget to read plant labels and make sure conditions in your garden and the plant’s cultural requirements are a match. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Plant sales abound this time of year and whether you’ve been shopping at neighborhood  plant swaps or browsing through local nurseries — you know how energizing the experience can be. But once you arrive home,  do you ever find yourself saying, “Now what?”  If so, we’ve got you covered!  We love plants sales too, so we’ve put together a few Master Gardener “Tips of the Trade” that will have you digging in to this– the most optimistic of garden seasons–with excitement and confidence.


It’s planting time!  The frost free date in central New Jersey is on or after May 10 –so now’s the time for gardeners to get growing.


Ready or not: What to do if planting’s on pause…

If you’re NOT planning to transplant your new plants immediately,  remember to water them as needed and protect them from animals and harsh elements such as frost and wind until you are ready to plant them.

For the best results for all of your garden plants–as well as your lawn–you should know the pH and nutrient level of your soil.  To do this, have a soil test run.  You can stop by the Extension Office to purchase a soil mailer, or call the Extension Office at 609‑989-6830 for more information.

Planting  101: Steps to help your new plants thrive

The following tips apply to most newly-purchased plants.  But, be sure to check plant labels first for any variety-specific instructions.

SITE CONSIDERATIONS: Read plant labels carefully before selecting planting sites. Plants have different requirements for sun/shade, soil condition and drainage.

Individual annuals and perennials have different requirements for sun, shade, partial sun, soil quality, and drainage. When deciding what plant to put where, also consider a plant’s mature height and whether you will you be able to see and enjoy it among its garden companions. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Also, since plants have different growth patterns and rates of growth, consider the spread and the height of the plant at maturity.

In addition, two other factors should be considered:  visibility (planting in order for the plant to be seen and enjoyed) and accessibility (planting in order to for the plant be accessible for fertilizing, dead heading and/or pruning).

Make sure to remove weeds and debris before planting. It’s also a good idea to add some organic matter–like compost –into the soil to help new transplants thrive.  (Photo by Theodora Wang)

SOIL PREPARATION: Remove all weeds and other debris from the planting site.  Loosen soil for good root growth and mix in organic matter (compost, well rotted manure or peat moss) to amend the soil. If a recent soil test was performed, refer to the report for information regarding recommended lime and fertilizer. If no soil test has been done, fertilize with 10-10-10 at 2 lb. per 100 square feet, or follow the label directions on a fertilizer for flower or herb gardens. Spade or rototill amendments to a depth of 6-8 inches for most annuals or perennials.

The best time to install your plants is on a cloudy day, which reduces the chance of sun and/or heat stress on new transplants. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

PLANTING: Hardy perennials, trees and shrubs can be planted immediately. (The frost-free day in central New Jersey is on or about May 10.) If tender plants– aka annuals– are threatened by frost, be prepared to cover them.

Plant at any time on a cloudy day, or early morning or late afternoon on a sunny day.  Prepare a space at least twice the size of the plant container and almost as deep. Remove the plant from the container and loosen or cut the roots slightly to encourage growth. Plant at the same depth as the plant was in the container. Gently settle soil around the roots, being careful not to leave air pockets around the roots.  Water thoroughly.

MAINTENANCE: Water early in the morning (preferable) as plant species require. Use a rain gauge to determine how much rain had fallen and adjust watering schedule accordingly.  Mulch will help maintain soil moisture, temperature and deter weeds. Mulch depth should never exceed two inches.

GARDEN HELP: For more planting information, or if you are having plant, tree or lawn problems, please call the MASTER GARDENER HELPLINE (609-989-6853), Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. You can also visit our website at www.mgofmc.org for more information from the Rutgers Cooperative Extension and Barbara J. Bromley.

Looking for inspiration? Stop by Mercer County Educational Gardens which feature a variety of beautiful plants– all of which are proven to thrive in our area. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

GARDEN INSPIRATION: Don’t forget to visit our Educational Gardens  this summer when the gardens are in their full glory, the flowers are in bloom and the butterflies are visiting.  For information about coming activities, check out our Events page.

Happy planting!


More info:

Basics of Flower Gardening

Planting High Visibility Flower Beds

10+ Most Common Gardening Mistakes

 

2017 Plant Expo


Rutgers Master Gardeners of Mercer County wish to thank everyone who supported our annual plant sale!  We hope the plants you purchased are beautiful additions to your garden and that you enjoy them as much as we have enjoyed bringing them to you!


Master Gardener Plant Expo 2017


This year’s sale day is sure to be fun for seasoned gardeners and novice gardeners alike!

The plant sale will feature the ever-popular Rutgers Master Gardener home-grown perennials, trees and shrubs and a garden market of plant material sold by selected top-notch nurseries from New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

This is a unique opportunity to talk with vendors and purchase a wide assortment of native plants, woody ornamentals, perennials, herbs, annuals and tropical plants. This year we will welcome a new local vendor featuring certified organic plants. Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes (Rutgers varieties and heirlooms) as well as many hot pepper varieties will be in abundance.

Mercer County Horticulturist Barbara J. Bromley will be answering gardening questions and Rutgers Master Gardeners will be on hand to help choose the right plant for the right place.

Click here for a scalable map and location guide:

2017 Plant Expo Map

Plan to come early for best selection and stay to enjoy every aspect of Expo. This event will be held rain or shine and there is plenty of free parking. Credit cards, personal checks and cash are accepted at the sale.

Check out some of this year’s selections below: 


Home-Grown Plants

Master Gardener-grown plants are the most popular part of Plant Expo!

People line up very early to get the best selection of home-grown perennials, trees and shrubs and return year after year to check out the selection. Whether you have a shade garden or a sunny butterfly garden, you can find something of interest in the Home-Grown area. Of course, there is no guarantee that every variety will be available on sale day but there will be a wide assortment of plants.

Click below for list of home-grown plants for this year’s sale:

2017 Plant Expo Home-Grown Plant Selections


Jersey Tomatoes!

Home-grown tomatoes and peppers will be in abundance, including the popular Rutgers tomato varieties, Rutgers, Ramapo, Moreton, Rutgers 250, KC-146 and Rutgers 39. Rutgers Master Gardener Bruce Young has started the tomatoes and peppers from seed for the sale and has potted up over 1,000 tomatoes. Along with the Rutgers varieties of tomatoes there will be lots heirloom varieties. Patio, cherry, and plum, to name a few types, will be available for purchase. Popular and some different Hot pepper varieties will be offered.

Click below for list of tomatoes and peppers being grown for this year’s sale:

2017 Plant Expo Tomatoes 

2017 Plant Expo Peppers

We will try hard to have each variety listed available on sale day but there are no guarantees!


Select Local Plant Vendors

Our hand-picked plant purveyors offer a variety of plants uniquely suited for local gardens.    

This is a unique opportunity to talk with vendors and purchase a wide assortment of native plants, woody ornamentals, perennials, herbs, annuals and tropical plants. This year we will welcome a new local vendor featuring certified organic plants.

To view a list of our select group of local plant purveyors, click here: 

2017 Plant Expo Vendors


Second-Hand Sale 


The ever popular Second-Hand Sale of garden-related items will be back this year. Pots galore, baskets and books to name a few, will definitely be available this year.  There are always a few surprises and you really never know what treasure you might find.


Jumpstarting Spring: Starting Seeds Indoors

After enduring months of bleak outdoor landscapes, the long ramp up to spring can be tough on gardeners — leaving us itching to get our hands in the dirt and just plant something. Inhospitable as the outdoors may still be for tender plants, there is a tried and true antidote for gardeners’ particular brand of spring fever: sowing seeds indoors.

Annuals get a great head start on flowering when they begin life indoors. Pictured above are ‘Profusion’ zinnia, which are very easy to grow from seed–even for beginners.  (Photo by Elena Kyuchukova)

Cold Comfort: The advantages of seeds

Starting seeds indoors offers some significant benefits.  For one thing, buying seeds is a lot cheaper than buying plants, allowing you to indulge in those dramatic mass plantings and deep drifts you’ve been dreaming of –without breaking the bank.  For a minimal investment in a packet of seeds, you can populate your garden with plenty of new plants –and have enough left over to share with friends and fellow gardeners!

Seeds also afford you the opportunity to try out new or exotic varieties that you won’t find in mass market outlets or local garden centers.  Retail space is always at a premium, but especially in springtime. So plant purveyors tend to focus on a limited number to “regulars” that they know will sell.  By raising your own plants from seed, you give yourself a wider palette of plants to work with.

Given our somewhat short growing season here in the Mid Atlantic, jump starting plants inside can also nudge slow starters into earlier bloom and allow vegetables that wouldn’t ordinarily grow in our region enough time to mature.

The sleeping potential contained in each seed has the power to transform your garden –and your outlook– without blowing your budget.

In addition to all these good and practical reasons for starting seeds, if you ask veteran seed-starters why they do it, they will often tell you that there is just something magical about planting a small, hard fleck of possibility and watching it grow into a supple, living shoot.  No matter how many times you’ve experienced it, they’ll say, it never ceases to amaze.  So, if you haven’t tried it before, now is great time to start.  And if you have, well… it’s time to get growing!

Sow What? Plan before you plant

When it comes to choosing which plants to grow from seeds, the sheer volume can be overwhelming.  And every year, new and exciting hybrids and varieties are added to the mix.  Combine this with page after page of luscious photos and glowing descriptions, and you have a recipe for overbuying.  So, if you’re new to seeds, starting small is key.

But it behooves both rookies and veterans alike to take a close look at their garden before buying, and come up with some kind of plan – one that takes into consideration how much space you have and the conditions in your garden. (For help with planning, see: Basics of Flower Gardening and Planning a Vegetable Garden  from Rutgers.)

And don’t forget to take into account how much time (and space) you have inside for growing all those seeds…

Once you’ve established your limits, there are as many ways to research seeds  as there are gardeners. Whether you enjoy pouring over seed catalogs, watching gardening shows, or developing your Pinterest board–the time you invest in planning your seed-starting endeavor will end up saving you time, effort and cash later on.

Don’t pitch those packets! Seed envelopes contain everything you need to know about how to sow and grow the seeds inside.

Pushing the Envelope: Reading seed packets

As you peruse the wide selection of seeds available online and in garden stores at this time of year, take a minute to read the packets and/or accompanying plant descriptions. You’ll find they contain a lot of important information, some of which might be unfamiliar to gardeners new to seed starting.

When selecting vegetable varieties for example, check packets for the number of days until harvest to be sure your choices will ripen before frost. Many long-season vegetables must be started indoors in early spring. Similarly, many annual flowers need an indoor start if they are to bloom during the summer.

For detailed info on deciphering seed-starting lingo, check out: How to Read Seed Packets and Information on Seed Packets.

To get the most out of the information provided on seed packets, there are several pieces of information you need to know. One is your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, which often appears as a map with designated planting dates. Mercer County gardens are in either Zone 6b or 7a, depending on their location. To find out for sure which zone your garden falls into,  just enter your zip code on the USDA website here: Find Your Plant Hardiness Zone.

Timing is Everything: Picking the perfect time to start seeds

When it comes to determining the proper time to start your seeds, there are two important dates to know:

  1. The average LAST frost date for your area ( the date in the spring when you can finally be sure that you won’t get another frost)
  2. The average FIRST frost date in your area (the date in the fall when frost is likely to start killing sensitive plants).

Here in Central New Jersey, our average last frost date is May 10.  To be on the safe side, a good rule of thumb has always been to wait until after Mother’s Day to plant seedlings outdoors.

Our first frost is usually on or about October 15which is important to know when growing certain vegetables from seed, to make sure they’ll have enough time to fully ripen before frost. (Rutgers Fact sheet Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors lists how many weeks pass between seeding indoors and when transplants are ready for planting in your garden.)

Starting seeds at the right time helps seedlings develop into sturdy, well-branched plants, like these coleus, (Plectranthus scutellarioides.) Since coleus likes warm weather, plants started indoors should be planted outside 1-2 weeks after the last frost date. (Photo by Elena Kyuchukova)

A common mistake new seed starters often make is starting seeds too early.  If started too soon,  plants tend to have spindly growth and may outgrow their containers before it is warm enough to transfer them outdoors.  The goal is to produce stocky, moderately sized plants that will recover quickly when planted outdoors.  To achieve this, it’s critical to start seeds at the proper time.

It All Adds Up: Seed starting math

To determine when to start your seeds, look on the back of your seed packet for the average number of weeks required to grow indoors or transplant outside, as well as the number of days to germination.  (These two numbers are often listed as a range.)  Add  the time required for germination and time indoors to transplant.  Then, on a calendar, count backward the appropriate number of weeks from your last frost date.  The result will be the appropriate date for starting that type of seed.  For an example, see below:


‘African Sunset’ petunias

The Annual Garden at Mercer Educational Gardens in Pennington  will include ‘African Sunset’ Petunias grown from seed this season.  

To determine the best time to start them indoors, Mercer County Master Gardeners took the “8 weeks indoors” listed on the back of the seed packet, and added the listed “7 days needed to germinate,”  for a total indoor growing time of 9 weeks (1 week to germinate + 8 weeks indoors.)

They then counted 9 weeks back  from our last frost date of May 10, and arrived at a seed start date of March 8.

 


Down to Earth: Soil for starting seeds

Seeds should be planted in clean, fine potting soil– generally no deeper than the width of the seed itself. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

Choosing the right potting soil is another important part of successful indoor seed starting. The most convenient choice is to purchase a commercially available soilless mix, one specially formulated for starting seeds. Most contain a mix of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, and usually some fertilizer. Soilless mixes are also sterile and reduce the risk of losing seedlings to soil-borne diseases.

You can create your own seed starting mix too (a recipe is contained in Rutgers fact sheet Starting Vegetable Seeds Indoors ) but know that using soil directly from the garden is not recommended, because it may contain insects, weed seeds, or disease organisms that could damage or kill young plants.

Pot luck: Choosing containers for seedlings

Peat pots can be planted directly into the garden, which keeps developing roots intact. But make sure the edges of the pot do not stick up above the soil, since the exposed area will act as a wick and cause moisture to evaporate rapidly from the pot.

Almost any clean container can be used for starting seeds provided it’s at least 2 inches deep and allows for good drainage.

Some gardeners like to save money by reusing yogurt containers, milk cartons, aluminum pans, and clear clamshells from the produce department. A 6-ounce plastic, non-waxed, paper drinking cup also makes an easy and inexpensive starter container.  Before using for up-cycled containers for seeds, be sure to poke some holes in the bottom to allow for proper drainage. Otherwise, soil can become saturated, which encourages diseases in the seedlings. One way to minimize the chance of overwatering seedlings, is to be sure to start them in small containers.
In addition to using recycled containers, there are a lot of choices available for purchase, including:

  • Plastic trays (flats) that are 10.5 in. X 21 in. X 2 in. deep
  • Small pots and pellets that expand when you add water made of compressed peat
  • Plastic cell packs (inserts or market packs) with square or rectangular plastic cells joined together and sized to fit into a plastic flat. The individual cells range in size from ½  to 4 inches in diameter
  • Plug trays in sturdy one-piece plastic flats that are divided into individual cells

Hit the Dirt: Planting how-to’s

Regardless of the type of container you choose, fill it three quarters full with seed-starting mix and sow the seeds. Be sure to place seeds at the planting depth recommended on the seed packet. Plant one or two seeds per individual container or, if using flats, you can plant in rows that can be thinned or transplanted into individual containers following germination.  Be sure to label the flats to avoid confusion, using a pencil or water-resistant marker.  (It’s easy to forget which sprouts are which.)

When seeding a tray or flat, plant in shallow rows 1 to 2 inches apart. Sow the seeds uniformly and thinly in the rows. Be sure to label each row right away with plant type, variety and date of planting.

Water Ways:  Keeping seedlings moist

Once the seeds have been planted, the container should be watered from the bottom by placing it in a shallow pan of water and waiting until the surface of the mix is moist. This method avoids overhead sprinkling, which can carry away smaller seeds.  The pot should then be removed from the pan and allowed to drain.

It is important to keep the soil moist at all times, watering again from the bottom as necessary since seeds and seedlings are extremely sensitive to drying out.

Placing the container in a clear, plastic storage bag until seedlings emerge will help keep the soil moist. This will also increase the humidity and help keep temperature stable. The plastic should not be in contact with the soil, though. Be sure to remove the plastic cover as soon as sprouts appear.


A Fungus Among Us: The danger of damping-off

While seedlings should be kept moist, they should never be kept continuously soaking wet, since this condition can lead to “damping-off,” a fungus disease that is deadly to young plants. The fungi that causes the disease – –PythiumPhytophthora and Rhizoctonia– – can quickly kill an entire batch of seedlings.  If an infection occurs, dispose of the plants and growing medium, wash containers and tools to remove any debris, and soak them for 1-2 minutes in a solution of 1 part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water.  Then rinse with clean water.


The  Heat is On:  Keeping seeds warm

The consistent warmth provided by electric heating mats –like the black and green one visible above– can be very beneficial to certain types of seedlings, leading to better germination rates and stronger root systems. (Photo by Ellen Kellich)

In addition to moisture, seeds need warmth to germinate. For the best results, keep seedling pots in a location that is between 70 to 75 degrees F.  Spots like the top of a hot water heater or the top of the refrigerator offer enough warmth to aid germination.

Or you can purchase heating mats that are specially designed keep germinating seeds warm. You can find them in larger garden centers, and online. Be sure to only use mats that are designed for seed germination and follow manufacturer’s directions carefully. Using a thermometer or thermostat in conjunction with seed mats will prevent overheating seeds and soil.

Let there be Light: Simulating spring sun

Better results stem from growing seedlings under fluorescent lights( rather than to relying on natural light alone.) Lights should be positioned very close to seedlings –2 to 4 inches above them is best. (Photo by Ellen Kellich)

Once the seedlings emerge, remove plastic bags or covers and give the seedlings as much light as possible so they can grow into stocky well-branched plants.

While it’s possible to grow seedlings without supplemental lighting, the fact is: you will have much better success growing under lights compared to relying solely on natural light from windows.

There are many types of lights that can be used to grow seedlings indoors. They range from fluorescent “shop lights” to the newer LED light systems.  What’s best for you depends on your space and budget.  For the most part, standard fixtures with a combination of cool white and natural daylight tubes provide adequate light are relatively inexpensive.

It’s important to keep lights no more than 4 inches above the tops of your seedlings. As close as 2 inches is ideal. Lack of light is the major cause of elongated, skinny stems which results in frail and floppy plants. Hanging lights from chains or pulleys makes it easier to keep them at the optimal distance as plants grow.

Plants need 12 to 16 hours of light daily, but don’t leave lights on all the time.  Plants need some dark periods too for proper development. Adding an inexpensive timer to your light set up can help ensure plants get the right amount of light and darkness.

Numerous plans for easy-to-build light stands are available online, including this from University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension: Bulletin #2751, Starting Seeds at Home  and this Do-It-Yourself PVC table-top light stand from the University of Maryland.

Room to Grow: Moving seedlings to larger containers

As seedlings grow, they must be potted up into larger containers to give them enough space to develop. Avoid the common mistakes of keeping seedlings in flats too long, which can hinder their growth.

The ideal time to transplant young seedlings is when they are small and there is less danger of setbacks from root shock. This is usually about the time the first “true leaves” appear above or between the “cotyledon” or “seed” leaves, which are the first leaves to appear. (The seed leaves  are visible in the photo below.)

Dig the seedlings out of the mix with a small trowel or spoon. When transplanting, always handle the seedlings by the leaves, being careful not to damage the fragile seedling stem or root system. Then transplant them gently into their new containers.

When planting in flats, like these parsley plants, seeds can be planted in rows. Once each plant has four leaves, thin seedlings by pulling out all but the healthiest plant. (Photo by Ellen Kellich)

Ready for the Great Outdoors: Hardening off

Seedlings are ready to transplant outdoors when their roots have filled the pot in which they are growing. Check instructions on the seed package for any specific details on when and how to transplant.

Before planting the seedlings in your garden, allow at least a week for them to become adjusted to the outdoors. Each day, place them outside in a sunny spot for a few hours, and then bring them back inside. Gradually increase their length of time outside.

It’s best not to set out tender seedlings on windy days or when temperatures dip below 45 degrees F.  Even cold-hardy plants will be hurt if exposed to dramatically colder outdoor temperatures.

After a week, seedlings should have adjusted sufficiently to the outside world to be ready for planting in the garden. When planting seedlings outside, pay attention to the spacing indicated on the seed packet.

Seedlings should be planted at the same depth at which they were growing indoors, except for tomatoes, which may be planted deeper.   For more info on planting vegetable seedlings, see the Rutgers fact sheet Planning a Vegetable Garden FS129.

If possible, try to transplant on a cloudy day to minimize wilting or transplant shock. Once the seedlings are in the ground, firm the soil around the root ball, and water immediately with a solution of water and starter fertilizer.

After about 6 weeks indoors, these beautiful kale plants are ready for the real world.  (Photo by Elena Kyuchukova)


Seeing is Believing: Stellar seed starting videos

For great step by step seed starting videos, check out these featuring University of Maryland Master Gardener, Kent Phillip:

Seed Starting: Part 1 – Timeline

Seed Starting: Part 2 – Materials

Seed Starting: Part 3 – Planting

Seed Starting: Part 4 – Care of Seedlings

Seed Starting: Part 5 – Transplanting