Sowing and Protecting Plants and Chicken Cleanliness

Readers' tips on sowing seeds, protecting plants, cleanliness around chickens, and garden tools.

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by Pam Dawling
Using plug flats can reduce the risk of root damage during transplanting.

Transplanting Seedlings vs. Direct-Sowing in Garden

When is it best to sow seeds indoors for transplanting outdoors later, and when is it best to sow them directly into the ground? Some crops grow better when started one way or the other. Sometimes, the weather, or even your equipment, will make all the difference. Here’s my list of pros and cons for both planting methods, based on my nearly three decades of experience growing vegetables in central Virginia.

Transplanting

Pros: When you germinate seeds indoors, you get an earlier start on the season, and that means an earlier harvest. New seedlings are easier to care for indoors during cold, wet springs. You can delay transplanting until outdoor conditions are more favorable; simply move the plants into bigger pots if needed.

By growing transplants indoors, with good planning, you can fit more successions of crops into a bed during the outdoor growing season. You’ll save on seed costs, because you won’t be thinning seedlings. At transplant time, you can select only the sturdiest plants and compost the rest, giving you the best chance of good yields. Transplanting works well with plastic mulch for weed control and with no-till cover crops: Transplant into the mown cover crop, and the dead mulch it creates will keep weeds at bay for 6 to 8 weeks — and even longer in cool, dry climates. Finally, if you own a greenhouse, you’ll be growing transplants in ideal conditions.

Cons: Starting seeds indoors earlier in the season means more work for you, because the starts won’t get water unless you provide it. Be sure to check on them every day. Outdoors, the shock of transplanting can delay your harvest. Plus, root damage during transplanting is almost inevitable, and that means you’ll have to pay more attention to watering new plants after transplanting. (Note that using plug flats and soil blocks will minimize root damage during transplanting.) And finally, if you plan to grow lots of transplants, you’ll need a good
greenhouse setup.

Direct Sowing

Pros: First, study the cons of transplanting (at left and above), because they’ll be pros if you choose direct sowing. Direct-sown plants have better drought tolerance, because the roots grow without risk of transplant damage. Plus, some crops don’t transplant easily. For example, melons have fragile stems and roots, and carrot roots become distorted if transplanted. You won’t need a greenhouse or seed-starting equipment for direct sowing.

Cons: The pros of transplanting (at left) will also be cons for the direct-sowing technique. Additionally, direct sowing uses more seed than growing transplants. You’ll spend more time thinning direct-sown crops in your garden, and they’ll occupy the land longer than the same crop if it had been started indoors and transplanted later. Direct-sown crops can have trouble germinating when the weather is too cold or too hot. Finally, it’s difficult to make this technique work with plastic or paper mulch or with no-till cover crops.

Pam Dawling
Twin Oaks Community, Virginia


Pop-Up Protection

a clear plastic sheet tied up covering shelves with potted plants

When my mother warned me of impending rain just after I’d moved my tomato seedlings outside, I realized I needed something to protect them from a downpour and subsequent chilly night.

I created this pop-up greenhouse on a roof at my apartment house using mostly recycled materials and items I already had on hand. The plant shelves are made of scrap lumber and milk crates, often abandoned in empty lots and parking areas in my neighborhood. Old plastic sheeting is the protective cover, and it’s fastened at the top to 550 paracord held up by hardware that was already present on the wall. I tied the hanging planters in place and used a window box of kale seedlings already accustomed to the outdoors to hold the lower end in place. The tar-paper roofing absorbs and then radiates the sun’s heat, so I keep my plants above the roof surface. Just a foot off the tar paper can mean the difference between life and death; I sometimes think I could fry an egg on this rooftop in late summer.

If you want to build a similar pop-up greenhouse, begin by sussing out your microclimate: Gauge the flow of air, water, and heat in your chosen location. A low profile to the building’s surface is good for acclimating seedlings to the great outdoors. Consider the block towers you made as a child: For sturdiness and stability, keep the basic shape wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. You may wish to weigh down the base of the shelf with bricks to make the structure sturdier.

Remember: The wind is your enemy, so stay low to the ground, and place larger plants within 3 feet of the wall. Shorten the length of hanging nets and hanging planters. Tie your covering tightly. Weigh down pots when you can. Terra-cotta planters won’t fly as far as plastic ones will.

Finally, keep the arrangement a manageable size. If it takes more than an hour to move your containers into position, you’ve got too many.

Eva Lacatena
Pittsfield, Massachusetts


Flat in the Bag

Planting flats are useful for cold-stratifying seeds and starting seedlings indoors, but some are flimsy and deteriorate rapidly. I prefer to use the robust, open-mesh-style flats, but they must be fixed so they’ll retain the planting mix. I do this with two disposable plastic grocery bags. I slip Bag 1 around the flat from End A, and hitch the bag’s handles around the flat’s End B, just a little in from each side. Next, I slip Bag 2 around the flat from End B, and hitch its handles around End A. I then add some planting medium inside the flat to weigh down the bags. Before filling the flat completely, I slip off Bag 2’s handles, and then reach through Bag 2 to slide Bag 1’s handles off. This keeps the lining intact, but provides an interior drainage route.

Stanton de Riel
Hamilton, New Jersey


Tanks for the Tip!

metal stock tank with pots filled with dirt in it

Last year, I sought items for spring planting, but nothing seemed durable enough to leave outside in the wind and rain. Then, I remembered the giant livestock trough given to us by a friend, and I decided to convert it into a small greenhouse.

First, I cleaned out the trough and situated it facing south. Then, I retrieved a scrap piece of plastic sheeting and got some free lumber shims from the local big-box store. I crisscrossed the boards over the top and fastened the sheeting with a cam strap from my canoe gear. By putting larger pots in first and then adding a board, I can create shelves to hold an abundance of pots or trays.

This same trough doubled as a habitat in our garage for baby chicks last fall, and again when the temperature dropped to minus 19 degrees Fahrenheit. With just a little added straw, my girls stayed cozy!

plastic sheet covering a livestock trough

Michael Gregory
Fayetteville, Arkansas


Clean Eggs, No Ham

In a perfect world, all eggs collected from my hens would be absolutely clean and ready for their cartons. But as this isn’t a perfect world, some eggs are bound to be soiled. In search of something that’d be both gentle and yet aggressive enough to quickly clean fecal matter off eggs, I settled on a luffa sponge.

I realized I could get the greatest amount of surface contact on the eggs by cutting a section of luffa that was slightly larger than the diameter of my largest eggs. Unfortunately, the sponge’s core was too firm for it to surround the end of an egg. I used a razor blade to slice through the central fibers of the piece of luffa so the eggs could be nestled inside the sponge during cleaning.

I’m amazed at how effectively and quickly the eggs get clean with this sponge trick! It takes only 2 to 3 seconds to clean each end of an egg. At the end of every egg-cleaning session, I wash the luffa with dish soap and set it aside to dry for the next day.

Don Williamson
Winterville, Georgia


Sweet Lettuce

Have you ever harvested lettuce, only to be disappointed because it tasted bitter? Here’s how I make sure my homegrown leaf lettuce is yummy and crisp.

I take a bowl of ice-cold water into the garden and pick lettuce before the sun comes up. I let the lettuce sit in the bowl of ice water for a half-hour. Then, I wash and rinse my harvest in cold water, remove the excess water with a salad spinner, and lay out the leaves on a clean towel. I let them air-dry for 15 to 20 minutes before bagging in gallon-sized zip-close bags and storing in the refrigerator.

Fiona Fischer
Cedar City, Utah


Cool Beans!

plastic berry basket covering a bean plant with two leaves

This is my foolproof method for preventing pole bean seedlings from being eaten by cutworms, sowbugs, or birds before they get big enough to reach the trellis.

First, I usually germinate the seeds indoors on a wet paper towel covered with a plastic bag that’s been perforated for air circulation. As soon as the seeds sprout, I take them to the garden and plant them in a shallow trench that’s been watered well: I carefully place the sprouted seeds with the tiny roots facing downward, and then slip over each one a 2-to-3-inch-long piece of cardboard toilet paper or paper towel roll. Then, I cover them with dry soil. I also sprinkle some dry grass or small leaves over the top before finally covering each planting location with a small plastic berry basket. To prevent wind from blowing away these little cages, they’re held in place with a small twig stuck through the sides at a 45-degree angle.

I don’t water the seedlings again until they’ve grown up through the soil. By the time the bean plants grow enough to reach the top of the basket, they’re less likely to be nipped by birds. After removing the baskets, I often take further precautions, such as leaning an old window screen against the trellis for another week or two.

Elizabeth Goosman
Livermore, California


Coop Poop Trays

My chicken coop stays clean because of shallow trays I built to hang or sit on shelf brackets mounted directly beneath and behind the roosting bars. (Most coop pooping occurs when the birds are on the roost at night.) I cover the bottom interior of the trays with 1 inch of sawdust, which dries out the manure and helps keep the trays clean. Once a week, wearing rubber gloves and using a small trowel, I scoop the trays clean, putting the manure in a small bucket and replenishing sawdust as needed. Thus, I’m rewarded weekly with a bucket of manure to add to the compost pile, and a coop that’s virtually clean of manure!

I wholeheartedly agree with reader Anna Twitto, who recommended using dry leaves as bedding in chicken coops (Country Lore, April/May 2021). I store a few plastic bags of dry leaves to add to the litter throughout the year. The chickens gradually break down the leaves into fine bits. Once a year, I clean the bedding from the coop and use the leaves as a super mulch or put them on the compost pile.

Philip S. Getty
New Hope, Pennsylvania


All Tied Up

Jute and twine are always collecting around the garden shed. I’ve found a way to keep them easily at hand — and pretty. I store them inside recycled tin cans (pictured below). The cans are covered with scraps of fabric that’ve been secured in place with a rubber band, and the end of the cord within is pulled through a hole in the fabric so it’s easy to access and will stay tangle-free. I also make labels for the tin cans using vintage canning labels.

I’ve been doing this for years, and have actually sold them at local farmers markets!

Alexa Barbiche-Emerson
Galloway, New Jersey


In Spades

a squared shovel next to a spade head shovel with marks on it

A fishtail spade has become my go-to tool for all-day earth work and grounds maintenance. While valued by woodworkers, the triangular fishtail shape is mostly unknown among gardeners.

With three simple cuts, you can transform a standard pointed shovel into an elegant, strong, multipurpose tool. This tool is suited to hoeing, edging, transplanting, digging, harvesting, chopping, and scraping. I also use mine to skim, lift turf, toss stones, clear brambles, and much more. You can use it with one or both hands. My homemade tool has three working edges, two working surfaces, excellent balance, and weighs only 2½ pounds.

To make your own fishtail spade, just cut along the chalk lines shown in the photo below. Dimensional guidelines are a front edge that’s 5 to 6 inches wide, side edges 9 to 10 inches long, and a 3-inch-wide throat. An angle grinder with a thin kerf cutting blade will easily cut the shape. Then, use a grinding disc to back-bevel the front and side edges. Finally, attach a straight handle to create an overall length of about 52 inches, or mid-chest height on your body. Note that some shovel head profiles are more suitable for fishtail transformation than others.

Featured in the photo is my favorite, nicknamed “Blossom,” made from a stamped shovel head whose profile has two sweep curves: one parallel and one perpendicular to the long axis. Together, the sweeps form a gentle scoop pocket not unlike a slightly cupped hand.

Mark Hiltz
Gibsons, British Columbia


Flip-Flop Recycle

When the thong breaks on flip-flops, I save the sole. They can be cut with scissors (if needed) and used in boots as insoles. They’re washable and surprisingly warm.

Mary Jane Kirk
Lyn, Ontario


New Life for Old Potatoes

wrinkly old potatoes

In late spring, the previous year’s potato crop will begin to soften, shrivel, and sprout, and become difficult to work with in the kitchen.

I’ve discovered an easy step to improve the quality and usability of old potatoes. Prior to preparing my meal, I place the potatoes in the kitchen sink and soak them in cold water for 5 to 10 minutes before scrubbing them.

Another great tip is to pressure can the best remaining stored spuds before they all spoil. They’ll be crisp, clean, and preserved in your pantry for the future.

James T. Kash
Rogers, Kentucky


No-Roll Dough

The following is a simple, stress-free, press-in recipe for pre-baked pie crust, suited to those who love pie but don’t love handling a rolling pin.

  • 1⁄2 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1⁄4 cup sugar
  • 3⁄4 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup flour
  • Dash of salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. In a medium mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Stir in the dry ingredients and vanilla. Press the resulting mixture evenly into a greased pie plate, ensuring that the crust is about 1⁄8 inch thick. Pre-bake for 10 minutes.

Mallory Rockhill
Port Charlotte, Florida


Thrifty Tinkering

If you have an old car and like to work on it, you may want to try the following tips. I reuse in-line fuel filters instead of always buying new ones. I remove the filter, let the gas drain and the filter dry, and then gently knock the filter on a hard surface to remove the dirt that’s accumulated inside. Next, I blow into the side of the filter to make sure it isn’t obstructed. I keep the filter as a spare and use it next time the car’s filter needs to be replaced. The salvaged part will last about half as long as a new one would.

I also try cleaning spark plugs before buying new ones. I dip the tops only into a little gasoline, light a match on them, and blow out the flame at once. Then, I replace the spark plugs. I’ve found that they can continue to be used for quite a while.

Sarah Rijziger
Yemen


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