Garden Gate: Garden questions

Crocus flowers blooming near Mission Road are a sure sign that spring is here. (Marion Owen photo)

Editor’s Note: Spring in Kodiak can be a case of one step forward and two steps back — Sunday’s snowstorm is a good example. Here’s a Q&A from Marion Owen to make sure you get back into step as soon as the snow melts.

Q: A friend of mine recently gifted me with a box of leftover vegetable seeds, some were more than a year old. Now that it’s time to start seeds, I’m wondering if they are still good. How long do vegetable seeds last?

A: How long seeds remain viable (will germinate) depends on the type of seed and how they were stored. Warmth and humidity are the biggest enemies, causing seeds to deteriorate more quickly. While most homes are warm, humidity is usually below 25 percent. (I’m talking homes with additional heat, not homes in warm climes like Florida). Compare that with a refrigerator that stays at 40 degrees; ideal, but the humidity might be too high. What’s the best solution? Store seed packages in the fridge or other cool place in closed glass jars, with a teaspoon of dry powdered milk or a commercial desiccant (silica gel) to absorb excess moisture.

When vegetable seeds are stored under ideal conditions, they can remain viable for the following periods of time. But since the ideal state is rarely met or maintained long enough, use these time as rough guides, not gospel:

• One year: onions, parsley, parsnips

• Two years: leeks, peppers

• Three years: beans, broccoli, carrots, celeriac, celery, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, peas, spinach

• Four years: beets, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Swiss chard, chicory, fennel, kale, mustard greens, rutabagas, squash, tomatoes, turnips

• Five years: collard greens, corn salad (mache), garden cress, cucumber, radishes

• Six years: lettuce

Q: I’ve noticed many soil mixes contain vermiculite. What is it?

A: Vermiculite is shiny, brown mineral that is processed at high temperature to make them explode or expand into small, lightweight, puffy pieces. Think of Puffed Wheat or Puffed Rice cereal. Vermiculite is valuable in a growing medium because its shape and size creates channels for the flow of air and water, which help aerate the soil and provide drainage. It also prevents the growing medium from drying out too quickly because it holds water, as much as 16 times its weight. Compare that to perlite, another mineral often added to growing mediums which doesn’t hold water per se, but collects it only on its surface.

Q: With this mild winter, my crocus bulbs are already blooming next to our house. Will the snow damage them?

A: Crocus flowers are often the first flowers to bloom in spring, making them a popular bulb for northern gardens. So long as your corms (for they are not true bulbs) are planted in well-draining soil, they will survive a cover of snow. When cold hits, better to have snow on the ground than no snow at all. Grab your camera and enjoy the juxtaposition of snow-plus-flowers.

Q: Five years ago I bought several rhubarb clumps at the Garden Club’s plant sale. I transplanted them in a raised bed and for several years they produced thick red stalks. Lately, all we get are skinny stalks. What to do?

A: Three things: Your rhubarb plot might be too crowded, which means it’s time to divide your plants. In a perfect world, rhubarb plants should be spaced 3 feet apart. The second issue, and the most likely cause since your plants are not terribly old, is food. Rhubarb is a heavy feeder and I suspect your plants are hungry. Give them a side dressing this spring of old manure, compost and kelp. During the growing season, mulch periodically. Rhubarb roots (crowns) produce best when kept cool, not usually an issue in Kodiak, but it can become one if a dry spell sets in.

Finally, shade might be the culprit. Although rhubarb might survive in low-light conditions, it requires full sun to produce thick, flavorful stalks worth of a cobbler to feed a houseful of teens.

Q: We have a raspberry patch and enjoy eating the berries and making jam. Can the leaves be used for tea? I read the ingredients to an herbal tea blend I picked up in Anchorage and was wondering if I can make my own blend? Thoughts?

A: I’m sure that many tea drinkers in Kodiak don’t realize that they can make their own blends from local ingredients. And raspberry leaves can be dried and made into an herbal tea or used fresh in tisanes, a catch-all term for any non-caffeinated beverage made from the infusion or decoction of herbs, spices, or other plant material in water. In the process of making your own tea blends, you’ll discover many hardy herbs that thrive in Kodiak: fennel, sage, thyme, mint, tansy, dill, chamomile, bergamot (bee balm), lemon balm, lemon verbena and scented-leaf geraniums. Raspberry leaf tea has a very pleasant flavor and is said to relieve menstrual cramps and labor pains. I can’t vouch for its curative properties, so I remind you to please consult more official references than your local garden columnist.

Q: I’ve heard there is a Garden Fair in the works for this spring. Can you give more information?

A: Yes, indeed. The Kodiak Garden Club is hosting a Garden Fair on Saturday, April 6, starting at 10 a.m. at Kodiak College. This is your chance to “Dig Into Spring” with a variety of workshops about seed starting, food preservation, hoophouses, garden pests, soil testing, beekeeping, composting and more.

Q: Last year I planted beet seeds, but when they sprouted thinning them took forever. What gives?

A: What gives is the beet seed itself. Beet seeds are technically fruits, built more like pineapples as bonded clusters of single-seeded units. They don’t come apart even after they dry, which means the things you sprinkle out of a seed packet are clusters, not separate seeds. Keep in mind that not every seed in every cluster will sprout, but usually enough come through to make thinning unavoidable. Some growers prefer pre-sprouting beets inside and then transplanting the individual sprouts outdoors. This technique works fine, but handling the spindly red shoots takes a bit of patience and TLC.

Dream of having a green thumb? There are a few seats left in my 5-week Organic Gardening class which runs from March 30 to April 27. Sign up at Kodiak College. Marion can be reached at mygarden@alaska.net. Archived copies of garden columns and an RSS feed can be found at www.kodiakdailymirror.com. You can also join “Kodiak Growers” on Facebook.

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