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Don't let winter beat up your poor plants

Thursday - 1/27/2011, 2:04pm  ET

To quote the Lion in "The Wizard of Oz" -- "Unusual weather we're having, ain't it?"

WASHINGTON - As we cope with all this frozen misery, remember that our plants love a heavy cover of snow -- so feel free to move as much snow as possible onto garden beds and such.

Snow insulates and protects the plants underneath, but try and avoid moving any snow that contains rock salt or other de-icers near your plants. Use alternative de-icers like calcium chloride to melt ice on walkways near plant life. And just don't look at trees and shrubs weighted down with ice and snow. Let them recover naturally instead of being traumatized by your well-meaning help.

Seed Starting is a Different Skill Than Gardening

It may not look like gardening weather out there, but pitchers and catchers will soon report to Spring training and good little gardeners like yours truly will soon begin our yearly Springtime ritual-of seed starting.

There are many advantages to starting your own seeds: You can save money, grow exactly what you want -- not just what the local garden center decides to stock -- and you can grow rare heirloom varieties that no garden center carries. But (you heard that big 'but' coming down the street, didn't you?) seed starting has nothing in common with outdoor gardening. They are 100 percent different skills, and even the best gardeners can be wretchedly awful seed starters.

What's the secret? Accept the differences. Surrender to the differences. Accept that you might have to make a few small purchases to get started and be willing to follow some basic rules instead of 'figuring it out' on your own.

Do these things, weedhopper, and prizes your plants will win.

When to Start Your Seeds

Seed starting time is fast approaching, but when exactly?

Two months is the magic number. You should start your seeds indoors exactly two months from the day you intend to place those plants in the garden. That's a week for the seeds to germinate, six weeks for the plants to grow big and strong and a week for you to gradually get them acclimated to the outdoors before planting them.

Cool-weather lovers like spinach, lettuce and pansies that typically go outside while there's still a strong risk of frost can be started now. Summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and cukes that despise frost should be started during the first two weeks of March. (March 1 if you're brave and hopeful. March 15 if you're like me.)

Use only a soil-free mix to start your seeds. No dirt from the outdoors. (We're talking Pro-Mix, one of the Fafard products, another brand of Professional Mix or something similar. Don't buy any bags that seem heavy or that contain chemical fertilizers or 'water holding crystals').

Use old-six packs from garden centers or other nice deep plastic containers that drain well to start your seeds, not egg cartons or other kindergarten nonsense.

If you're serious about doing this, get a heating mat to warm your seeds to the exact right temperature range for speedy germination. (Turn the mat off as soon as the first sprouts appear). Cover the seed starting set-up with plastic wrap to begin with. Remove the wrap as soon as the first sprouts appear.

Keep the seed starting setup moist until the sprouts appear, then back off the watering and do so only when the pack start to feel dry. Don't overwater -- it's the biggest cause of plant death. (But you can mist them every morning if you like).

And be ready to provide lots of light. Unless you have a greenhouse or sunroom situation, you'll need artificial light -- a pair of four foot long, 40 watt fluorescent tubes housed in a shoplight is ideal. Keep the tops of the plants almost touching the cool florescent lights to give your plants the lumens they need. Raise the light as the plants grow, but always keep the tops of the plants within an inch of the bulbs or your starts will get weak and leggy. You can leave the lights on 24/7 or set a timer to give them eight hours of darkness.

Feed when your baby plants have their first true leaves (not those first, rounded ones).

Is Sawdust Good for the Garden?

Renate in Woodbridge writes:

"My husband is accumulating large amounts of sawdust, primarily red oak and other hardwoods. Can the sawdust be tilled into the garden, incorporated into our leaf mulch, or should it be put to the curb?"

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