Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Some Like It Hot

Spring here in southwest France is continuing at a brisk pace.   The fresh green of young leaves along with the calming blues and mauves of lilacs, bluebells, irises, and sweet violets  contrast with the snappier yellows of pansies and the whites of tulips.

Lovely, oh so fragrant lilacs

White Tulipa Fosteriana, a species tulip, drenched in rain

However, I have to guard against any surprise, overnight cold snap.  For a few nights, the flowering strawberry beds needed a cosy fleece cover to guard against frost.

Dayo can't tell the difference between a strawberry bed and his bed

Though gardening can be very relaxing, it is also demanding, offering windows of opportunities that are often short.  The onions planted in mid February are now about five inches tall and need to be fertilised so a good harvest in July is ensured.  

Though onions are bulbs, rather than using a fertiliser high in phosphorus which promotes root development, it is thought better to use either a high nitrogen or a balanced one.  In order for each layer of an onion to be formed there needs to be a corresponding leaf--those tasty, blade-like things are leaves!  Nitrogen boosts green growth and therefore in this case green growth boosts bulb development.  Nice, fat onions please!  Yum.  I gently hold back the rather brittle leaves with the back of my hand as I go down rows, scratching the fertiliser into the soil with the side of the cultivator so as not to break off any of the leaves.

A side dressing of 10-10-10 fertiliser is gently worked into the soil

Meanwhile, heat-loving veggies/herbs like tomatoes, bell peppers, basil, melons, courgettes, and cucumbers need to be started indoors about six weeks before the last frost day which is about mid-May here.

A special soil-less mix for sowing is best.  As it is very fluffy, light, and airy which is perfect for delicate roots, it is necessary to add water and get it very moist before putting it into flats in order to fill the containers adequately.

Moistened commercial sowing mix, transplants, recycled food containers

Fill up clean flats almost to the top with the well moistened mix and press down lightly.  Seeds sparingly spaced will cut down on later thinning. Larger ones like melon/squash seeds can be individually spaced and smaller ones can be placed using a moistened toothpick.  Label rows of different varieties as you sow.  Cover lightly with a bit of dry mix and then press down again, this time more firmly, to let the moisture seep up into the dry mix.  This method prevents seeds from moving about which would disturb spacing and confuse identification. 

The flats now have to be kept warm.  I use an enclosed electric incubator but the flats can be kept on a heating pad also as long as a makeshift tent of plastic is kept over the containers and the flat is fitted with a drainage tray.  

Incubator has a vent as to prevent mould formation if it gets too moist inside

As soon as green growth is spotted, get them out of the incubator and onto a sunny windowsill or under artificial lights.  Days here are usually warm enough for me to take them outside as long as I remember to bring them back indoors in the evenings.  A gentle wind also strengthens their stems.  Some people blow on their tomato seedlings or use a fan indoors to toughen them up!  Any delay in getting light to them will stress them, and when stressed, plants tend to race forward in an desperate attempt to go to seed so as to pass the next generation on.  Instead of developing into sturdy, bushy plants, they will become leggy and fragile.

When you spot the first set of leaves, it is time to snip off some seedlings at the level of the mix with scissors to establish good spacing.  This way, none of the remaining seedlings' roots will be disturbed as they would be if you pulled out the rejects.  Choose the most vigorous ones.  A good spacing is when there is enough room between plants to be able to separate them when transplanting into separate little pots without injuring their roots.  Each seedling should  have a nicely defined though small root ball, a root ball of their own so to speak.

Four varieties of duly marked tomato seedlings in their recycled food tray.

Once the plants have a second pair of leaves, that is, true leaves--second pair of leaves resemble the leaves of the mature plant, unlike the first pair--and are about two to three inches tall, transplant them. A re-potting mix which has been lightly moistened will encourage good growth.  I use an old teaspoon as a mini-trowel and a small knife to get them out of the flats into separate small pots.

Rows of sturdy seedlings are cut like slices of brownies with a small knife

Make a small hole in prepared pot and place root ball into hole

 When handling delicate seedlings, pick them up via a leaf and not by their stems.  If the stem breaks, that's it, it dies.  If just one leaf comes off, you still have a living plant.  Put tomato seedlings deeper into the pot then they were in the flat. Tomato stems can sprout roots, hence your transplants will be supported by a robust root ball when setting out into the garden.  Carefully firm the mix around the plant.  Label and water them until the water runs out the bottom, and then re-water when the surface goes almost dry.  Keep them under good light, whether artificial or natural. 


Roma tomato seedling safely set in its new home

Think you are done?   I am afraid not!  Go ahead and get ready the outside area for your seedlings as it is best to let prepared soil to settle for a few weeks before the actual transplanting is done.  If you find your motivation flagging a bit, think of all those red, ripe, juicy tomatoes you will eventually gobble up. 

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