Head Start

I had mentioned in a previous post that I had a “secret weapon” for my garden this year – I built a seed starting station in my basement. It’s a pair of fluorescent tubes in a simple fixture, suspended over a wire shelf by a set of chains that I can draw up or lower down so I keep the light just above the sun-thirsty baby leaves.

I worked out the math: because I’m running the lights on a timer, only at night, I only use something like $2.80 a month in electricity – a bargain considering the cost of plants at a garden centre. I might make one improvement next year – a warming pad or something to keep the seeds toasty. It gets cold overnight in the early spring and germination happens way faster with some direct heat.


I grew up surrounded by farmer’s greenhouses, so I’ve got green tech deep in my subconscious. I’d like to explore building some greenhouse boxes outside for early spring planting. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for spare windows on kijiji.



I wanted to share a neat observation from my planting this weekend. When I soaked my basil seeds they developed a sticky, gelatinous goop ball around them. The goop is mucilage – you might remember it from your primary school craft project glue. The seed surface is covered in polysaccharides, long sugary molecular hairs that tangle up water molecules and become a sticky mucus (similar to the way long chains of lactose make yogourt firm and polyglycerides make body wash slimy).

Why would a seed want to surround itself in gross plant snot? A lot of desert and Mediterranean plants, like Basil, or Chia, don’t want to be spread far and wide on the landscape – because they grow in really inhospitable areas. Better to stay close to home, where your parent plant originated, because at least you’re guaranteed a shot at growing up in its place. This sticky reluctance to travelling is called Myxodiaspory, or “mucus spreading”.

It also greatly increases the water available to the seed during germination – in areas where water may be scarce, capturing rain water and holding it close gives the seed a chance to survive short-term droughts while it’s getting a foothold into the soil.

There’s a neat paper about basil seeds here!




The gardening season starts today at our place. With three feet of snow still covering the garden, you might think it’s a bit early for starting seeds, but I have a secret weapon that I’m looking forward to revealing shortly. 🙂 (No, not the flamethrower, although that’s tempting.)

This year we’re going to focus on tomatoes and herbs, but we have a few thick greens (chard, kale) to plant inbetween. Should be good eating in a couple of months!


Troubleshooting our yard

In late spring I couldn’t take care of my yard for a few weeks – and it seemed like nature seized on the opportunity to really go off the rails. I’m not sure if I’m cursed or what, but it feels like everything that could go wrong with our yard DOES. I feel silly offering advice when my yard currently looks like a bit of a warzone, but I’ve spent a lot of time struggling to get it back in line, and had to do a ton of research – here’s a couple of tidbits that might save you some headaches.


If grubs are eating all your grass, let it grow extra long before the first cutting – that gives your roots a chance to strengthen.

Greg’s daughter came over to our place in the spring and pointed out all of our pretty yellow Dandelion flowers, the ones her dad hates. So it was on – the only way to save face in front of a kindergartener is to systematically eradicate every weed. A bunch of our neighbours use chemicals (and have stepford-perfect lawns), and we’d rather not, so we end up with one recourse – pulling them all. Do yourself a favour and invest in a standing weed extractor tool, the less you have to bend over the faster you can work. I got a rhythm going over the summer, and managed to yank most of them out of the front in under an hour per weekend while bopping to tunes on my iPod. Pull before you mow – it makes spotting and yanking weeds easier when they’re taller than your grass.

Creeping weeds are annoying to try to get out of your lawn, they spread below the threshold of your lawn mower and drown out your grass. Drag a hard garden rake over your lawn and you’ll pull it all loose – once it’s untethered from your grass it’s easy to find the core root system and pull it. You might need to re-seed afterwards, your lawn will look patchy.

Sometimes, like when you’ve got a patch of crabgrass growing, it’s just better to grab a spade and dig out the area, throw down some dirt and peat, and re-seed. New grass only takes a couple of weeks to grow, and crabgrass is relentless. I tried pulling it from a few spots over the summer and the roots left behind kept maturing back into plants. It goes to seed really quickly, too. Evil plant!


I spent ages scraping at the weeds growing between our interlock before our neighbour revealed his genius solution: You can buy a commercial flamethrower at the hardware store that does an amazing job. More commonly used in roofing applications, you can find a “weedburner” that hooks up to your propane tank and makes quick work of weeds. Keep a hose handy though – you don’t want sparks leaping up into your trees or landing on your lawn.


Black spots on my rose leaves was a condition called (suitably) “Black spot”, a fungal disease they can catch from things like tree leaves getting caught in their thorny branches. You need to pull out all the spotty leaves and spray the whole plant down (a few times) with baking soda dissolved in water. The alkalinity kills the spot spores. It may take your plant a while to come back.

Golden beetles hanging around on your leaves and in the flower bulbs are Japanese Beetles, and they’re eating your plant. They emit a scent that causes them to cluster, exfoliating whole sections of your rose bushes – but they’re very dumb and will sit still while you squish them to death. For more of a hands-off approach, spray them down with soapy water, and they’ll drop off your bushes, dead.

Halves of your rose leaves gone? You probably have green worms – little caterpillars that attack your roses in the spring while they fuel up to turn into moths. Spray them (and under your leaves) with hot, soapy water.


We had slugs everywhere this year, and they loved nibbling on our cabbages and ruining our tomatoes with holes. I wish I’d learned about Slug Pubs earlier. Fill a low dish (a pie plate, a margarine container, a plastic cup) with cheap beer and leave it buried with the lip at ground level. Slugs looooove the smell of beer, and will crawl in from all over your garden, where they promptly drink themselves to death. Pour it out on your driveway and give the birds a tasty treat. (One I dumped out had more than 20 slugs in it after just a few hours)

Earwigs are gross and seem to always be around trouble spots but I’m not convinced they d0 much damage in the garden. You can wipe them out with diatomaceous earth, but only use it when it’s dry outside. It’s like crawling over broken glass to them.

I haven’t figured out a humane way to stop bigger pests, like squirrels and rabbits. I built a cage last year, and the animals still somehow got into it. Frustrating.

Your seeds will rise a bit earlier in the season if you put them under a plastic dome, like a mini-greenhouse. You can buy domes to do this, or use the bottoms of soda bottles. This has the side benefit of protecting them from frost and pests for a little while.


Grass clippings will seem to stall out if they make up the majority of your compost bin. Be sure you’re mixing in tree leaves and other larger chunks of stuff. If you haven’t got many leaves around the yard (like us), toss in some ripped up newsprint. The acidity of the rotting paper will kickstart the rotting process again. Don’t forget to turn it!

Be sure if you’re tossing veggies into the compost, especially firm ones, that you chop them up a little beforehand. Things like corn cobs and eggplant skins seem to take forever to break down unless you give them a roughing up first.

Monsters are Real

I was in the garden picking tomatoes when I came face to face with this gal, an enormous (maybe 3 inches across) Black and Yellow Garden Spider. I’ve posted before about finding big spiders in our yard, but this one’s in a class all of it’s own. They’re quite common, apparently? I nearly ran face-first into her web – that was a surprise. 🙂 Shall we name her? Maybe something cute that takes the edge off her looks?

Notice the zig-zag pattern in the web – that’s called a stabilimentum, and it’s not actually for stabilization – it may be decoration. E. B. White was inspired by garden spider stabilimentum when he wrote Charlotte’s Web. It’d go a long way to establishing her intentions if she wrote “Terrific” over my tomatoes.