Month: June 2012

There Once Was a Mare

She was tall and black, with legs that went on forever. In the summer her coat shimmered and her flanks faded to the richest chocolate brown I’d ever seen on a horse and have ever seen since. She was grade, had travelled halfway across the […]

Pin It

The One That Changed My Mind

On a dust-covered bottom shelf, at a local farm market, almost a decade ago, I found a box of expired seed packets. “10 cents” was scrawled across the front of the box in permanent marker and inside was a haphazard mess of flower and vegetable […]

Pin It

On Germination


I find there are two ways in which things will normally go for new gardeners. Either you have tremendous beginners luck, or you don’t.

In the latter, you suffer for all your mistakes right from the get-go and are forced, very early on, to become the best damned gardener you can be.

In the former, your transgressions are inadvertently rewarded by your stupid luck and when that luck finally runs out you’ve got a host of horrible habits and deep seated entitlement mindsets to overcome. You have to, essentially, go back to the beginning and relearn everything.

That’s the one where I fit. The one where it all goes really, really well… until it doesn’t.

The first garden I ever kept was, all things considered, quite a success. I stuck some tomato and pepper plants into the hard clay at the bottom of the hill, watered once in a while and weeded never. We ate tomatoes and peppers all summer long. They were delicious, even if we did have to wade through waist deep weeds to find them. In hindsight, I probably should have saved some seeds; obviously those plants were not just survivors, but thrivers.

The next went just as well, and then the one after that. In fact, to be perfectly fair, I have yet to have a year of tremendous failure. A few years worth of the creeping sort of failure have been enough. And now? I take this shit rather seriously.

So seriously, in fact, that this weekend, as I was getting ready to replant after the mole/vole/dog disaster (you’re tired of hearing about that, aren’t you), I got to thinking about how much differently I do things now. In the beginning I just plopped seeds and plants in the ground with little concern for their growing conditions, chances for germination. Soil temperature? I don’t need no stinkin’ soil temperature! Except, I really do — plus so many other things — and it only took me almost a decade to admit it.

And it is, with that in mind, that I give you my tops tips for seed starting success. Some are for inside, some are for outside, some are for both and all? All are, hopefully, for better results. Who doesn’t want that?

Seeds Are Cheap. Sow Generously, Thin Ruthlessly.
Let’s get this out of the way right up front. Seeds are cheap! Save some extremely rare varieties (that if you’re just starting out you’re probably not growing anyway) it’s not like there’s a shortage of the things. And while I admit that the prices have gone up, and up, and up along with the popularity of backyard gardening, they’re still (relatively speaking) very, very cheap. I mean, when’s the last time you went to the store and bought a couple hundred pounds of tomatoes for two dollars and fifty cents? And yet, with a packet of tomato seeds and a little patience that’s precisely what you can have.

Seeds are cheap, so don’t be stingy. Plant those little suckers. Sow a couple of seeds per plug and thin ruthlessly once your seedlings are up. This ensures 1) you have enough in the event of poor germination and 2) those you keep around are the strongest and best plants for the job.

This Isn’t Vegas. Go Ahead; Stack the Deck, Count the Cards, Be a Cheater.
There’s no shame in stacking the deck. The garden is a finicky lass, Ma Nature a real wench. Soak your seeds before planting — it increases germination, shortens sprouting time and puts the odds in your favor — use row covers to hold in heat, use heat mats to warm your indoor seed starting trays, buy treated seed for those crops which are prone to rot in the ground if you so desire, decorate your garden up like a gypsy cart to scare away the birds, set a mouse trap every six inches for the voles. Give yourself every edge you can, nature will win every time anyway, but most especially if you don’t.

Know Their Needs
Lettuce will sprout in a week in fifty-degree soil, but not at all once it hits about ninety. Eggplant, on the other hand, won’t even think about sprouting much below seventy and hits its prime at about eighty five. Every plant has its preferences, get to know them. You can plant everything at once, but it’s probably not going to work out all too great for you once the beginner’s luck runs out. If you’re setting out your potatoes and your tomatillos at the same time, you’re doing it wrong.

This Is A Far Cry From a One-Night Stand. Go Ahead, Get Attached.
I’d actually love to give you advice quite to the contrary, but I know it’s impossible, so I’ll just go ahead and give you permission to get your heart all busted up instead. The one kind of tomato you just had to have? Will probably be the only one to die before you finish hardening them off. The year you were really, really, really looking forward to peas? Spring will forget to come at all and you’ll go straight from winter to summer without ever looking back. It sucks, but it’s yours. So go ahead, get attached, get your heart broken. If you don’t, you won’t have the heart to get out there and re-plant when something goes wrong, you won’t wade through the waist deep weeds to get the tomatoes, and you certainly wouldn’t do it all again next year hoping for a different outcome.

Happy Gardening!

Pin It

In Defense of Castration

Whenever a new undercover video of hog farming surfaces, usually at the hands of an animal rights organization, there is a good bit of the video included that centers on the castration of young pigs. It’s a convenient part of hog farming to show, since […]

Pin It

Miscellany: Pig Dog, Cheap Towels & Fresh Flowers

The Pig Dog is starting to show some instinct. It’s terribly exciting. I mean terribly, terribly exciting. The kind of exciting in which a split second can make your whole day. Last night he held a wayward laying hen to the fence like a boss. […]

Pin It

Little Things: Restocking


1. The Re-Stocking Season. For much of the year the pantry shrinks, rather than grows. When we finally hit the time of year where things begin to turn around, I can’t help admire the jars as they line up, batch by batch.

2. Space to spread out. We’ve been rapidly outgrowing our spaces for a few years now. Sometimes it’s maddening, but I also realize we have a lot more room than many families — both inside and out.

3. The Man. Last weekend marked eight years of marriage. We celebrated with dinner, drinks and a comedy show. It was a good night, but a blip in a good life; something that’s so much bigger than any one day, even that one.

4. Chocolate. Seriously.

5. Big Kids. Sometimes they’re like little adults, other times they’re as innocent as it gets. It’s a pretty incredible stage through which to watch them grow.

Pin It

On Jammin’

It’s that time of year again; the beginning of the time of bounty. There are earlier crops — rhubarb, asparagus, lettuces, radishes, green onions — but none are as sweet, seem to kick off the season like Strawberries. I’m partial of course, having grown up […]

Pin It

Miscellany on What Feels Like a Monday

This whole moving to a new blog thing seems to have my writing mojo all in knots. There’s so much possibility when things are fresh and new. I don’t want to screw it up. That and this week has just been one Monday after another. […]

Pin It

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: On McDonald’s And Gestation Crates

Last week McDonald’s officially announced their timeline for phasing out pork from hog operations that employ gestation crates in production.

First, give me two big hurrahs for the free market doing what the free market is supposed to do. Give me a third for keeping regulation out of this. That’s our one step forward. Now, lets get down to the dirt — and about two (hundred) steps back.

I’ve written before about what animals rights groups aren’t telling you about gestation crates so I won’t go down that road again. (Scroll down to the fifth paragraph in that linked post for quick and easy catch-up.) What I will repeat, is that you’re only getting half the story and until the whole truth comes out, until the whole truth is not just accepted, but embraced by consumers there will be no lasting change.

The Chicago Tribune acknowledges the problem in passing:

Everett Forkner, president of the National Pork Board, said the plan would place significant economic pressure on smaller hog operators who don’t have access to capital, and may not be able to afford the cost of overhauling barns.

“The additional expenses on farmers forced to make this conversion could increase the risk of them having to leave the business,” said Forkner, who also farms in Richards, Missouri.

But no one seems interested in giving it more than a cursory glance. Blah, blah, poor — no, literally POOR — farmers, blah.

McDonald’s isn’t going to tell you that in the absence of gestation crates sows are under even more undue psychological stress than with them. They’re not going to tell you that in order to relieve that stress the cost to produce pork jumps. And they’re certainly not going to tell you that in order to produce pork in the absence of both crates and stalls is to make the price of pork not just jump, not just hop, not just skip, but skyrocket like Apollo 13 on uppers — zombie-like-state inducing bath salts, anyone?

In fact, McDonald’s makes no mention of raising their prices. Why? Because they (probably) have no intention to do any such thing — at least not in relation to this initiative. McDonald’s has corporate purchasing power and there is no doubt they’ll flex their big-business biceps when it comes time to purchase the crate-free sausage they’re demanding.

This will be a blip on the radar of big producers, not ideal, but not debilitating; economy of scale reigns supreme. But in the grand scheme for a small producer it’s an iceberg dead ahead and it’ll do precisely what Forkner predicts: force small producers out of the pork business. McDonald’s is a huge purchaser, and their corporate comrades will not be far behind. No matter how utopian it sounds, not all pork farmers can sell their meat at the nearest farmer’s market. We need big purchasers — but we need them to work with not against our producers.

If McDonald’s wants to demand crate-free pork, fine. That’s precisely how the market is supposed to work, but they need to step up to the plate and tell their consumers now what that means for the price of pork products. They need to be willing to pass the cost of production onto the consumers, they’re the ones that (supposedly) want this, after all.

Pin It