On eagle chicks and seedlings

When purchasing seedlings, check the roots by slipping the root ball from the container. Roots should be white, not brown, which indicates overwatering and rot. 

You know the expression, “busy as a bee?” After watching eagles fly back and forth past our living room window from dawn to dusk, I’m more likely to say, “energetic as an eagle.”

It all starts with winter feasting. Lured by the all-you-can-eat buffet along cannery row, bald eagles perch in trees, rooftops and light poles watching for the next gourmet meal. The food fest goes on for weeks. Then, as winter fishing slows, eagles disperse to lofty nests to raise their chicks.

Chicks mature quickly. So do their feathers, all 7,000 of them. By mid-summer they’ll take that first, courageous leap into the air. But not before undergoing some training. It’s a sport, flying, that requires training. American decathlon champion Ken Doherty once said, “The five S’s of sports training are: stamina, speed, strength, skill and spirit; but the greatest of these is spirit.”

Eagles have spirit. How else would they survive as our national emblem? Preparing youngsters for the demands of an adult life is a universal theme of survival that applies to humans, eagles, bears and plants.

As for plants, transplanting them into the garden is one of the most taxing points in their lives.

This also goes for seedlings — flowers, vegetables and herbs — whether you grow your own or buy them from a nursery. Young plants need to be “hardened off,” a bizarre term that’s hard to wrap my head around. But it applies to the process of preparing seedlings by gradually acclimating them to nature’s wind, heat, cool nights, frost, snow and rain. And funny (not so funny), they can appear all in one day.

By the way, here are a few tips for buying seedlings:

• Leaves should be green, shiny and lush.

• Avoid plants thin, tall and leggy from straining for light. 

• Closely inspect the plant and container for signs of insects and disease.

• Inspect the roots: Are roots poking through the bottom of the container? This is not necessarily a bad thing so long as the roots are moist and white. Gently slip the root ball out of the container. (Nurseries don’t mind you inspecting plants like this so long as you don’t damage them). Are the roots white or brown? White indicates healthy roots; brown is a sure sign of rot.

Consider how the young eagle trains for the great outdoors to gain the upper hand (wing) of survival. If you plop a seedling into the ground with little or no preparation, well, it’s like taking a final exam having not studied. You might as well toss them into the compost pile.

Unfortunately, this happens all too often. Many a gardener, thrilled by a sunny day, purchased flats of seedlings, buzzes home and immediately pokes them in the ground. Now shocked by chilly air, cold tap water or hot, direct sun, the seedlings gasp and wilt, and perform a face-plant into the dirt.

Thing is, seedlings raised in a greenhouse or indoor environment have enjoyed a life of leisure: free room and board with not a care in the world.

So let’s review how to prepare your plants for the great outdoors. (For planting in hoophouses and low tunnels, you needn’t follow this to the letter, but some hardening off is beneficial.)

Plan ahead. That is, begin hardening off a week or so before you plan to set your seedlings out. Set them outdoors — trays and all — in a protected area, out of the direct wind and sun. Leave them out for an hour or so, then bring them back indoors.

Repeat the process, increasing it to three hours, then a morning, then a whole day and night. And keep the seedlings well-watered, but not soggy. If the weather goes sour, protect them in a hoophouse, greenhouse or at least out of the worst weather.

Once your plants are toughened up and ready to experience the great outdoors, wait for yet another cloudy, foggy or drizzly day. 

To transplant your green youngsters, ensure the roots are moist and, using a trowel, your hand or dibble, dig a hole slightly wider than and the same depth as the root ball. If your transplants were grown in plastic pots, turn the pots upside down and slide them out by gently squeezing the bottom of the pot to dislodge stubborn roots. 

For cabbage, kale, broccoli, mustard greens and cauliflower, bury their stems up to their first set of true leaves. For tomatoes, even deeper, leaving a few leaves exposed.

I get a lot of questions about peat pots. According to manufacturers, seedlings grown in peat pots can be planted directly in the garden, pot and all. Sounds convenient, but for cool soils like ours, the outer mesh doesn’t break down quickly enough and the roots suffer like toes stuffed in tight shoes. Help the roots out by slitting the mesh and removing it altogether.

Next step: Fill soil around the plant, firmly press around it with your hands and water it in. 

You’re not done yet. Pay attention to the weather. Have frost or heavy rain covers ready.

As for our local eagles, I bet eagle moms also watch the weather carefully as her chick’s inaugural flight day approaches ... 

Kodiak garden tasks:

A big thank you to everyone who donated plants, volunteered and stopped by the plant sale on Saturday to support KMXT.

Get plants, potatoes, stakes, hoses, nozzles, compost materials and anything else you need to get growing.

Plant nasturtiums, onion sets and peas.

Tidy up the yard and garden. Walk gently on squishy lawns.

My next Compost Academy starts June 1. For more info: mygarden@alaska.net or 907-539-5009.


To join my Garden Shed newsletter, which is all about organic gardening with a few recipes and photo tips tossed in, visit my blog at MarionOwenAlaska.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Instagram. To get in touch by email: mygarden@alaska.net.

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