Lauterbach: It's not too early to get your fingers in the soil

Special to The Idaho StatesmanJanuary 31, 2014 

MCT

We're all getting antsy for spring, and we really don't have to wait. There's a cabin fever cure called winter sowing.

If you sow seeds outdoors now, they may get eaten by birds, squirrels or other rodents before they germinate. But if you save your plastic milk jugs and clear plastic soda bottles, you'll have mini greenhouses in which to plant, safe from predators. Better yet, some seeds do best if they're "stratified"(subjected to cold and warm temperatures), and winter sowing lets Mother Nature do that for you. There's no need to use refrigerator space for that.

The way to use these little greenhouses is first to make drainage holes in the base. Heat a long screwdriver in gas flame on a kitchen stove or barbecue, and when it's hot, thrust it into the base of the plastic jug or bottle a few times. Then use a box cutter to cut three-fourths of the way around the jug or bottle, about 3 inches above the bottom.

Put potting soil in that lower part of the container, dampen it, then sow one type of seeds on the potting soil.

Use duct tape to fasten the top of the container to the bottom, and use something like a crayon to identify the seeds on the container (one type per container) and the date sown. Sunlight fades out some marker pens, but not crayon.

Leave the top off the container and check it for moistness every few days. You can undo the tape or carefully water seeds through the open top, although you risk burying the seeds with a rush of water.

At this time of year, I wouldn't advise sowing seeds for frost-tender plants, such as tomatoes, peppers or eggplants. Many hardy herbs, such as thyme, sage, oregano, chives and others, can be winter-sown now, and many ornamentals may be sown now, too. Lettuce, onions, arugula, cress, cabbage, broccoli, Piracicaba, collards, kale, Brussels sprouts and Asian greens, such as pak choi and tatsoi, can be sown in these little winter greenhouses now. I wouldn't advise planting carrots in these containers; transplanting them makes for stunted roots.

Ornamentals, such as shrubs or trees for which you have seeds, as well as Hosta, larkspur, Calendula and many other hardy perennials, may be sown.

Please don't set your containers on or in a pan without something like twigs under them. A container set flat on a flat surface essentially seals shut the drainage holes. This time of year, pruned twigs are available for that slight elevation.

As long as our nights are below freezing, the seeds probably won't germinate, but they'll be poised to germinate the moment the temperatures rise.

SWEET PEAS

I think you should start sweet peas indoors now. It will be a few weeks until the soil thaws and lets you plant outdoors, so starting them indoors now will give sweet peas time to develop leaves and strength. You'll want to plant them outdoors as early as possible, because when the weather turns hot, the sweet peas stop blooming.

WORKING WITH TOMATOES

The Tomato Independence Project starts at 2 p.m. Saturday at Edwards Greenhouse. This will be "Saucy Saturday," focusing on tomato preservation so we can enjoy the delicious flavor of homegrown tomatoes all year.

Chefs from Bittercreek, Boise Co-op, Cafe Vicino and The Modern will supply their sauces prepared using preserved local tomatoes from the 2013 harvest.

In August and September, when local tomatoes begin ripening, these chefs will feature locally grown tomatoes on their menus.

Other Tomato Independence Project events will feature taste comparisons, different tomato-based salsas, seed saving, tomato preservation and similar sessions so that growers will have an opportunity to compare and choose varieties that best suit their needs and tastes.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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