Square Foot Seed Tape: My Lightbulb Moment

Have you ever had an idea that was so awesome that you’ve thought, “OMG I’m a genius, why has nobody ever thought of this before”?

Well, this week I had one of these inspired brain explosions and I came up with Square Foot Garden Tape…or Sheets.
Anybody who plants their garden using the square foot technique has discovered that typical carrot and radish tapes don’t work. What we need is a sheet of thin paper with the seeds imbedded in the appropriate pattern.
Unfortunately a little research led me to discover that I wasn’t the first person to have this LED light bulb moment. Turns out it’s been done before.
No worries, I went ahead and did my version of square foot seed tape using Sweet Nantes carrot seeds and tissue paper cut to size. I decided to plant 25 seeds per sq ft, which is more than the 16 recommended by Mel Bartholomew in his best selling book “All New Square Foot Gardening”. After laying out the pattern on a sheet of tissue paper,  I placed a dab of flour/water paste on each dot, the embedded a carrot seed in the paste.
When it came time to plant my garden, all I had to do was lay the sheets on the soil, water them gently and cover them with a thin layer of dirt. It was so much easier on my back.

I planted some carrots the “traditional” way as well so that I could determine if there was any difference in germination time. I’ll let you know in a future post.

For more information on square foot gardening you should have a look at this previous post.


Mixing Soil. Like a Boss.

I wrote about my soil mixture that I use for my raised beds here a few years ago. It’s a mix of 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 manure or compost.

It’s essentially “Mel’s Mix” from the Square Foot Gardener Mel Bartholomew. Here in Edmonton you can find the large 3.8 cubic foot block of peat moss just about anywhere (Walmart, Canadian Tire, any Garden Centre). I buy my 118 litre bag of vermiculite at Apache Seeds and the manure wherever I can find good selection. Altogether it costs about $52 to make up a large batch of soil which I use to supplement my existing beds or make new ones.

Some of my raised beds don’t really need more volume, they just need the addition of compost or manure. Every fall I dig in leaves and grass cuttings which help to lighten the soil, then in the spring I like to add some composted material as well. This keeps the garden healthy and helps with moisture retention over the warm summer months.


I use a tarp to mix my soil


Peat moss, vermiculite and manure


Topping up my raised bed


Upcycling Pots for Seedlings

Toilet Paper Pots

I’m forever looking for ways to reuse things I have around the house when it comes time to sow my spring seeds. I use anything I can get my hands on from yogurt cups to take-out containers.

This year I decided to try making small paper planters from toilet paper rolls.

Each roll can be cut in half to make two planters – tiny little planters suitable for some of the seedlings I’ll sow last, like lettuce and morning glory.

Fold the tp rolls flat then again so that they become square-ish.  Cut them in half then make a 1cm slice along each fold. Fold these slits as you would to close a box. Flip and fill.

Homemade Grass Paint

I was thinking…why don’t they make spray paint for the lawn so that I can paint the bare spots in the spring until they fill in?

Well, it turns out they do make grass paint; the problem is that I can’t find any in Canada. If it exists here, I don’t know where.

Update: Check out this info here and here about Lawnlift grass paint available now in Canada

So my next thought was, why not make it myself? It can’t be too difficult…right. Well, yes and no. I found a recipe for grass paint, but I’m afraid it didn’t turn out quite as nicely as I had hoped. I really wanted something that worked like that spray-on hair product that you could buy a few years ago – except waterproof…and green. Well, it looks slightly better than nothing, and perhaps with some rain those bare spots will fill in a little more rapidly than they would on their own. I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s the recipe:

2 lbs lawn fertilizer

4 lbs epsom salts

1/4 cup green food coloring

Soil Mix for Raised Beds

I like to use a mix of 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite and 1/3 manure or compost. When I mix up a big batch of soil for the raised beds, I use a large block of peat (107 litres or 3.8 cubic feet), a large bag of #2 expanded vermiculite (118 litres or 4 cubic feet) and four bags of manure (4×10 kg or 22 lbs). The manure or compost should be a mix of different types: steer, sheep, mushroom, worm castings, or whatever you can get your hands on. The more variety the better.

I use a large tarp spread across my lawn and a rake to mix with. Start with the peat moss, spreading it out and getting rid of all the clumps. If you value your ability to breathe then be sure to keep the peat moss moist while working with it. Next, add the vermiculite again making sure to keep the dust to a minimum. Mix them together and add the manure. The pile is getting fairly large at this point and to get a thorough blend you will need to lift the tarp from side to side to mix the ingredients.

Once the soil has been well mixed it’s ready to use.

Six Weeks From Seed to Six Inches

Tumbler Tomatoes

I started my tomatoes indoors on March 20, 2011 and transferred them to their own pots on April 8th. This week it was warm enough (ok, just barely) to start putting them outside a few hours every day.

The Tumblers are doing great; I’ve already transplanted some of them to larger pots as you can see in the photo. I made sure to plant then even deeper in the new pot, burying another 2-3 inches of the central stalk.

When I put the tomatoes out to harden them off, generally about two weeks before last frost, I begin by only exposing them for a couple of hours per day. Ideally they shouldn’t get any significant wind or direct sunlight for the first while. Hardening off is critical to the success of seedlings which have been raised in a safe indoor environment devoid of significant air circulation and UV radiation.

My grocery store began using these new non-refillable water bottles a few months ago. The deposit is a paltry twenty-five cents, so I decided they would make great cloches for the bigger tomatoes. I use the top of a juice bottle for the smaller ones.

It’s exciting to think that I’ll be able to transplant many of my seedlings to the garden in only a couple of weeks!

I planted the tomatoes in a large flat on March 20th

Pricking out on April 8th

Tomatoes Ready to Harden Off Outdoors April 28th

Propagating With Cuttings – Dogwood Shrub

So this spring I thought I’d try my luck at propagating some dogwood cuttings.

I’ve read mixed reviews on the subject. Some say that you can only do it in the fall after they have bloomed. Some say that they don’t root very successfully at all. Others say that they will root but won’t survive their first winter because they aren’t hardy enough to survive when rooted this way.

Well, I’ve got nothing to lose but a branch or two of my dogwood bushes, so what the heck.

I’ve got a Red Osier and an Arctic Fire, so I took a six inch cutting from each just above the spot where it branches off. According to my reading I should have taken a cutting just below a node – so if this doesn’t work then I have myself to blame.

I made the cut at about 30 degrees and immediately wet the end and dipped it in rooting powder. Rooting powder stimulates the formation of roots on cuttings and saves a great deal of time and frustration.

I stuck the cuttings an inch and a half deep in a small container of sterile starter mix and made sure they were stable and very moist.

The cuttings now sit in my south-facing kitchen window and I’ll begin putting them outside for the day once things warm up a bit. Pulling them out to check them for roots is NOT wise. The best strategy is to watch for buds.

Sowing Salad Greens in Planters


Mesclun mix

This morning the sun was shining brilliantly on my south-facing patio and it felt like spring had finally arrived in my zone 3 Edmonton backyard. Because we’ve had so much snow this winter, it’s taking forever for the grass to appear and the garden to make it’s way to the surface.

But today was warm, bright and sunny, chasing away the cold weather blues that have engulfed our prairie city for so many months. It seemed like the perfect day to sow the first of my outdoor seeds – the greens.

I don’t like to refer to my greens as “lettuce” because I plant so much more than that. My mesclun mix is a combination of lettuce, arugala, endive, mustard greens, radicchio and who-knows-what else. The oriental greens mix has gai lan, pac choi, mizuna, red leaf mustard, tokyo bekana, spinach mustard and toy choi. I don’t even know what half of those are!

I began by removing a significant amount of last year’s soil from two large planters I use for my salad greens, leaving about six inches in the bottom and topping up with fresh sterile starter mix. I do this so that I don’t have any random seeds in my mixed greens – I don’t want any poisonous plants growing among my yummy salad leafs. I wouldn’t know which were safe and which weren’t.

After I moistened the soil, I spread a small handful (about a teaspoon) of seed evenly over the surface and lightly pressed them in. I placed a brick under the back of each planter so they would tilt slightly to the sun, encouraging as much heat and light as possible on these early spring days.

Finally, I covered one of the planters with a specially designed wire mesh which I built last year to protect my seeds and shoots from the birds. The local sparrows were watching me closely as I covered their favorite open-concept dining room, and they were not amused.

In a week to ten days I’ll have my first few sprouts and within a month I’ll be eating fresh greens plucked from just outside my back door. By reseeding every two weeks I can have baby greens all summer long.

Eight Weeks and Counting (to last frost)

Starting to get a bit crowded already

Right now is the easiest period of seed starting – those quiet first few weeks before anything has begun to germinate. Once things start to grow, it takes a whole lot more work and energy to keep all of the tiny plants happy and healthy. 

Yesterday (on the spring solstice) I planted my tomato seeds and my Spanish onions. 

I started by soaking my pots from the bottom a few hours in advance of placing the seeds. This gives the planting medium a chance to be thoroughly moistened, which is critically important to germination. 

I like to use the bottom of a similar pot as a guide to mark the seeding holes, and a pencil with an elastic wrapped around it to control the depth. Maybe I’m just a bit retentive, but I like the look of evenly spaced plants. 

Onions aren’t keen on being transplanted as they develop so I planted four in each four inch pot, and they’ll stay there until it’s time to be transferred outside. 

I dropped two tiny onion seeds in each 1/4 inch (5 mm) deep hole and covered them with sand. Labelling each and every pot is so important that I can’t stress it enough. You may think you’ll be able to tell one from another a few months from now, but don’t count on it. 

These eight pots (32 plants once I remove any duplicates that come up in the same hole) were placed under my grow light and covered with plastic to help keep the soil moist until they germinate. 

Tomatoes need to be started well in advance, as they take a good eight weeks to grow sturdy enough to be transplanted outside. I love tomatoes, so plant four different varieties to enjoy; three are bush varieties and one is a staking tomato. More about that in a later post. 

Using a pencil to make a trough the length of my flat, I placed 9-10 seeds in each. I’m hoping for 50% germination, but I’ll pinch out and transplant any successful seedlings as soon as they have a set of true leaves. That’ll be in a few weeks, and I’ll blog about that when the time comes. 

Truth be told, I don’t need that many tomato plants, but I can’t help but plant more than I should. I’ve never had a friend or neighbour turn down a free tomato plant, and it never hurts to give away what you have excess of. 

Once the tomato seeds were sown, I placed them under the lights and next to the peppers from last week. They should germinate within the next 7-10 days. 

It’s starting to get crowded already under my lights and I’ve only just begun!

January is for Dreaming

Waiting to Start Seeds for 2011

January is a great month for gardening. Ok, I don’t mean that I’m out in the yard digging down through three feet of snow and amending my soil, but January is the month that I go through my catalogs and choose my seeds for spring.

This year is especially exciting because I plan to start many seeds indoors for the first time in ages. I used to start many of my own bedding plants, herbs and less hardy vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers back in the day, but for some reason I had convinced myself there was really no savings in doing so.

Well, that may be true. I suspect that by the time I buy soil, containers, fertilizer and seeds I’ll be wishing I’d chosen a money-saving trip to the greenhouse. And then there’s the used lighting system which I bought to consider. It’s not flashy and modern, but it has to be factored into the budget.

I’ve decided to be ambitious and try to start thirteen different vegetable varieties, ten different flowers and three herbs indoors over the next few months. If I consider the seeds that I’ll be direct sowing as usual, I’ll have a total of 35 different annuals, plus the potatoes. The chives, thyme, oregano, mint and garlic should have survived the winter and my coriander should self seed but I’ll help it out if it needs some additional seeds sown.

Edmonton has a last frost date of May 7th, but I’ve calculated my dates for sowing with an extra week of safety in mind – that’s to say I’m using May 15th as the last frost date and calculating backwards from there to determine when to start my seeds.

The first seeds to sow will be the peppers – they require two months or more to get ready for moving outdoors. After that I’ll sow my tomatoes (four different types), then eggplant, and so on until they are all cheerfully growing under artificial light.

As far as flowers are concerned, I’ll start petunias early along with aster and viper’s bugloss. Impatiens and dahlia come next followed by coleus and cosmos and some other quick growing annuals.

Sure, plants such as lettuce and cucumber, or morning glory and portulaca can be sown directly outdoors in the spring but I’ve decided to experiment with starting them indoors to see if there is any real advantage. In fact, I’ll direct sow some as soon as the soil is workable and see how they compare.

Others just don’t do well when started indoors. Carrots are a good example – who wants to start a hundred carrot seeds in a tray and prick them out? Carrots, spinach, peas – they should all be directly sown in the garden. Today’s varieties are quick to develop and don’t need the boost of an extra few weeks indoors to get started.

Eggplant and cucumber are two examples of seedling that don’t take well to having their roots disturbed, so I’ll start them in their own 3″ pot. I’ve never found the season to be long enough to grow really good sized onions, so I’ll start candy hybrid onions four to a pot in March and see how they fair after I put them out in May.

Well, there’s lots to look forward to in the next couple of months and I’ll keep posting to my blog as I plant new seeds each week. Here’s my schedule for 2011 – Edmonton zone 3.

Vegetables   indoors outdoors
pepper serrano del sol Mar-13 May-15
pepper jalapeno mucho nacho Mar-13 May-15
onion candy hybrid   Mar-20 May-08
tomato tumbler (bush) Mar-20 May-15
tomato prairie pride (bush) Mar-20 May-15
tomato centennial rocket (bush) Mar-20 May-15
tomato charlie’s red (staking) Mar-20 May-15
eggplant hybrid hansel Mar-27 May-15
eggplant asian ping tung long Mar-27 May-15
lettuce romaine baby star Apr-10 May-08
lettuce esmeralda   Apr-17 May-08
cucumber hybrid diva   Apr-24 May-15
onion evergreen bunching x Apr-03
swiss chard bright lights x Apr-03
spinach razzle dazzle x Apr-03
spinach catalina   x Apr-03
carrots nantes coreless x Apr-10
beets deep cylinder   x Apr-24
peas mr. big   x May-01
potatoes     x May-15
beans straight n narrow x May-15
shock wave petunia   Mar-13 May-15
aster early charm   Mar-13 May-15
viper’s bugloss   Mar-13 May-15
impatiens super elfins blend Mar-20 May-15
dahlia unwins dwarf hybrid Mar-20 May-15
purple coneflower   Apr-03 May-08
coleus wizard mix   Apr-03 May-15
cosmos double click   Apr-17 May-08
portulaca sundial mix   Apr-17 May-15
morning glory carnevale Apr-24 May-08
sweet peas (from last year’s seed) x May-08
parsley champion moss curled Mar-20 May-08
thyme creeping   Mar-20 May-08
basil sweet   Mar-20 May-15