No-fail seed starting method

After a few years of trial and error, I’ve come up with what I’d like to think of as the no-fail seed starting method. I know, a promise not to fail at a gardening endeavor is kind of risky.  But I think if you try this method you should have a great deal more success germinating seeds and growing healthy plants than you would with other methods, such as putting the seeds in a “sunny window.” Of course, this is assuming you have good seed. Seed starting with grow light.

This is a low-cost method of setting up a seed starting operation that you can use for years. How low-cost? Less than $100–and it will last for years.

In this article I use a four foot shop light suspended over top of the plants. There are other lighting options depending on how much you want to spend. This is the cheapest way I’ve found to set up a no-fail seed starting operation.

Materials needed:

For frame to suspend grow light:

Nails or screws

2-2X4 by 8’ pine lumber

15” by 52” plywood

1-2” X 2” X 52” pine lumber

Light weight chain (to suspend the shop light)

48” long fluorescent shop light

Seed starting equipment:

Heat mat specifically for seed starting (from $25-$50)

11” X 16” cookie sheet

Seed starting tray with dome

Shallow (1/1/2 inch deep) container for germinating seed with holes in the bottom for drainage

Brand name germination mix such as Sun-Gro, Pro-mix, Bacto (not potting soil). Jiffy also sells a mix specifically for germinating seeds at a cost of about $5.00.

For more information on seed starting, check out Nancy Bubel’s classic seed starting book.

Step 1: Build a frame using the materials mentioned above to suspend a shop light (like the one below) or other type of lighting fixture over the plants using light weight chains. The bottom frame is 52″ long, by 15″ wide. The plywood bottom is 15” by 52,” the vertical supports are 15” tall and the 2 by 2 is 52” long.

Step 2: Moisten the seed starting mix by adding one part water to three parts germination mix. The mix should be moist but not dripping wet.


Step 3: Fill the shallow container(s) with the mix, tamping it lightly to firm it in.

Step 4: Plant the seeds of your favorite crop or flowers, following the recommendations for planting depth. Seeds can be spaced fairly close since they’re going to be transplanted after they get their true leaves. Firm the seeds in nicely to ensure good contact with the growing medium.

Step 5: Place your heat mat in the frame and put a cookie sheet over the heat mat to ensure that the mix is not getting too hot, causing the mix to dry out (note: this framed is actually large enough to fit two heat mats in if you have a lot of seeds to germinate. 

Step 6: Place a clear dome over the tray and place on the heat pad.

seed starting

Step 7: It is critical that the germination mix stays moist, but not soggy during the germination phase. Spritz with water once or twice daily and bottom water with room temperature water about every three days.
Step 8: When the seed leaves (cotyledons) begin to appear and it looks like most of the seeds have germinated, lower the fluorescent light within about 4” of the seedlings. When true leaves appear, start a regimen of water, let dry out slightly, and water again. Fertilize with a weak solution of soluble fertilizer.

Step 9: When the seedlings develop true leaves, transplant to pots or cell packs. I usually transplant my tomatoes and peppers to cell packs (6 cell packs to a flat for a total of 36 flats. Remove the seedlings by loosening up the roots and gently grabbing hold of the leaves (not the stems) and pulling out the plant.

Step 10: Bottom water the seedlings in the cell packs using the water-let dry out method. Harden off by allowing them to be outside for a few hours at a time each day before setting them out permanently.

Seed starting with grow light.

MSU Master Gardener class comes to Sault Ste. Marie

MSU’s Master Gardener class will once again be offered for area gardeners. This is a great way to learn all aspects of gardening and horticulture from experts in the field. The 7 week course is going to be held on Saturdays and will include a 1000 page reference book you can keep. Meet new people, learn new gardening and landscaping skills, have more success with your garden and volunteer to help others.

Details below: 

Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener Program Saturdays from 9-5 pm—January 21, February 18, March 11 & 25, April 8 & 22, and May 20 in Sault St. Marie, MI.

Join other gardeners for this 7 week day long volunteer training program. Horticultural topics include: best practices for growing flowers, vegetables and fruit; caring for lawns and woody ornamentals; house plant care; diagnosing plant diseases; pest identification and control, and much more. Complete the classroom requirement, then volunteer for 40 hours in the community in order to become a certified Master Gardener. *Participants are expected to regularly attend the classes; occasional makeup can be scheduled for extenuating circumstances. Classes held at: Eastern UP Intermediate School District 315 Armory Place Conference Room A Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783 Cost is $300.00. You must register online by January 13, 2017.

Click here to for more information and to register


Beware of bargain seeds and garbage bags


Everyone wants a bargain. And if you’re like me you sometimes go with the lowest price only to find it wasn’t such a bargain after all. For example, I once put a cheap battery in my furnace thermostat and couldn’t figure out why the furnace wasn’t kicking in on a cold January day, or the  bargain garbage bags that open up as you’re carrying the bag out to the garbage can. In those rare moments when I’m in my right mind I look for quality and the lowest price. Like the snowshoes I bought this year. I paid $100 for a pair, actually it wasn’t the lowest price, but it was the best price for that quality of snowshoe.

A lot of thought went into the selection and breeding of Mad Hatter F1, an AAS winner.

The same can be said when shopping for seeds for a vegetable or flower garden. However,with seeds,the stakes are even higher. If you go low and buy the cheapest seeds you will have wasted a lot of time and effort planting and caring for something that just doesn’t perform well, or worse yet, never germinate.

I used to cringe a little when I saw the prices for seeds in one of my favorite seed catalogs, Johnny’s Selected Seeds. However, after years of gardening I see now that paying a little more for good quality seed gives me a little insurance that the seeds will germinate well, grow well from the seedling stage, and produce a plentiful and disease-free crop.

A good example of this is New Ace Peppers. I used to plant bell peppers only to be disappointed by a less than prolific harvest, or even none at all. Not the case with New Ace.  You can ask the people I’ve shared transplants with, this one is really prolific! Last summer I had enough bell peppers to sell, give away, freeze, and of course eat fresh in soups and to make stuffed peppers.

The thing to remember about selecting seed is that there is a lot that goes into that little seed. First there is the selection of a certain variety by, no doubt, a group of expert farmers and breeders. These seeds undergo trials and tests before they are selected. Some win awards from the All American Selections, an added bonus. Then there comes the way that seed stock is grown and harvested. A robust crop harvested at the right time will produce the best seed stock.  Lastly, comes the packaging and storing. Seed companies like Johnny’s Selected Seed and Jung’s print the dates on the package. Seeds packaged for 2017 were no doubt harvested in 2016. This is important, especially with hybrid seeds, which seem to germinate best if they’re not too old.

Indeed, there is a lot that goes into those little seeds. I’d rather pay a little more for my seed and know that I’ll have more success with the plants and better production than try to save a few pennies and be frustrated with poor germination, disease, and sparse production.

Fortunately, there are many good seed companies out there just waiting to send you a catalog, and of course, most have catalogs online. Here is a list of my favorite seed companies:


Johnnys Selected Seeds

Jung Seeds

HPS (for larger quantities at a reasonable price)

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Finally! Tall, hardy ornamental grasses for northern gardens


Tall, hardy ornamental grasses are a little hard to come by in the zone 4 region. Some do well for a few seasons, but eventually succumb to the elements. I’m assuming they were zone 5 grasses.

Recently I discovered a couple of tall ornamental grasses that should be able to handle our tough winters.  

One of the new zone 4 grasses I ran across actually has a familiar name: miscanthus. What’s new about this one is the fact that it is hardy. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Little Miss’ grows 2-3 feet tall. I haven’t tried growing it yet, but sellers describe it as a plant with “narrow arching foliage” that emerges green in spring and then develops “carmine and purple tones” from early May with strongest coloring in October and November. Clumping centers remain fresh green for a two-tone effect. The flower heads are striking as well, reddish in color from July to October for a long season of interest.


Miscanthus 'Litttle Miss'
Photo courtesy of PlantHaven International, Inc.

“Little Miss’ is also considered easy to care for and drought tolerant. It’s suitable for a large container or can be grown in a landscape up near a home or iin an island bed. Sounds like a lot of bang for the buck, plus it’s hardy to the area! Pinch me, I must be dreaming.  

As of this writing there are 4 nurseries licensed to propagate ‘Little Miss:’

Briggs Nursery

Emerald Coast Growers

EuroAmerican Propagators

JRT Nurseries
Another ornamental grass that should make its way to northern gardens is a variation of a native little bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation,’ offered by North Creek Nurseries. Besides being hardy down to -30, it will do well in  poor, dry soils, perhaps in those areas close to the lake shore where native beach grasses tend to thrive. ‘Standing Ovation’ has spiky bluish-green stems that look attractive all summer.

photo of little blue stem
Photo courtesy of North Creek Nurseries

‘Standing Ovation will also add autumn interest when it transitions to a eye popping display of oranges, reds, yellows, and purplish-browns. The seed heads swaying in the wind will provide winter interest before being cut back in spring. Don’t let the name fool you, this little stem variety grows 3-4 foot tall on sturdy stems. The seasonal color changes is nothing short of spectacular, which will add a richness to your landscape and flower bed.

Neil Moran writes articles, blog posts, and other promotional materials for green industry and other businesses. You can check out his work and services at Haylake Business Communications.

Birds, bugs, and wildflowers (connecting the dots)

coreopsis lanceolata - lance-leaved coreopsis (2)
Insects are attracted to native wildflowers, like this lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) which in turn attracts the songbirds we so love to see.


I’ve found a reason to become enthused about wildflowers (again). I’ve always enjoyed them and I even have a couple of areas on my property where I planted wildflowers. Heck, I even wrote a book about them. It didn’t exactly hit the bestsellers list. Actually, it left me scratching my head wondering why people just didn’t seemed to be that interested.

monarda fistulosa - wild bergamot (1)
Wildflowers, like this wild bergamot (monarda fistulosa), attract pollinators needed to pollinate the crops.

For several years I was involved in a native plant and seed cooperative. In all those years we never seemed to garner a lot of enthusiasm for wildflowers in the area where I live (Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan). Sure, we sold a few plants at annual plant sales and got some requests for them from public agencies and so forth; however, native plants never seemed to be top mind for most people in this area. Our little group finally dissolved as a couple of the members moved away and interest in the group fizzled.

monarda bradburiana - bradburys monarda (4)
Everyone loves seeing the butterflies, especially children. Bradburys monarda (monarda bradburiana) really attracts butterflies and other beneficial insects.

So for the past few years I’ve pushed wildflowers to the back of my mind. Then, just last week, I had the opportunity to interview Bill Carter, President of Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, Minnesota.  The last I knew  about Prairie Moon they were kind of a niche business selling wildflower plants and seed to a pretty specialized group, such as the forest service, utility companies, and a few back to nature types.

That’s all changed. Carter says wildflowers are in demand, but not only because they attract bees and butterflies and grow well in their natural environments.

It’s because they attract insects.

Now, Carter says not too many folks get excited about bugs.  But everyone loves birds and birds love insects. Get the connection? Different plants, native to a region, are attractive to different insects. And you thought birds just like bird seed! Sure, they do, but they need insects to be part of their diet, and different birds need specific insects to sustain themselves and their brood.

People are getting the connection, at least in Minnesota, and are flooding Carter and his staff with business. They’re selling seed, plugs, and potted plants via mail order. They sell lots of live plants but the demand for seed is exploding.

“The demand for seed has gone through the roof,” says Carter. “It actually caught the industry off guard.”

He says the largest demand used to be for grasses first, and then wildflowers. Organizations wanted grasses to stabilize banks and restore wild areas. Now, it’s the other way around. He says people are going wild for wildflowers because they get the connection between the birds and the bugs.

A few days after I interviewed Carter I got a call to set up a wildflower display at an event on July 9 in Cedarville, Michigan that celebrates the natural world. It’s called Frogfest. The backdrop for this event is the beautiful Les Cheneaux Islands, a haven for diverse waterfowl and songbirds.  I’m looking forward to getting back into wildflowers and meeting people at Frogfest. If you’re out that way, stop by and chat and perhaps I can talk you into incorporating wildflowers into your landscape.

I’ll be giving away seeds and information on growing wildflowers so you too can attract a greater variety of birds (and bugs!).

Neil Moran is the author of North Country Gardening with Wildflowers, a guidebook on growing wildflowers in the Upper Midwest region.

Sex education for cucumber growers

After years of mediocre production from my cucumber plants I’ve decided to take some action. My first thought was to call the folks at Johnny’s Seeds to see what they have to say about it. They told me they grow all their cucumbers on trellis’ and they also prune them. Having grown up in a farming town in Michigan’s “Thumb,” I had never given it a thought to trellis them.Cucumbers, Vegetables, Eating, Kitchen

My memories from those days are of Hispanic workers out in the fields picking cucumbers from bushy plants that would then be trucked into Aunt Jane’s Pickle Company, which was just a block away from where I lived. I played baseball across the street from the plant, which smelled of a mix of dill pickles and rotten sewage from the dikes that held waste liquid from the plant.

Sex education for cucumber growers

The other thing I didn’t know until a few years ago is you can buy cucumbers that are gynoecious and parthenocarpic.

Gynoecious simply means the cucumber plants contain all or mostly female flowers, which isn’t typical of the older varieties. This means you’ll get higher yields from these types. Two gynoecious varieties that Johnny’s sells include two slicers, Corinto and Diva.

Parthenocarpic means they don’t require pollination, which is another relatively new trait. Taken together, you have a higher yielding cucumber plant that can be grown in a greenhouse without the aid of pollination.

Sounds good to me.

So this summer I’m going to start a few in my little greenhouse (in containers) and let the rest trellis up the fence that surrounds my garden. I’m hoping to have enough cucumbers to feed an army.

Quick tips for starting cucumbers:

  1. Cukes love the heat. Wait until the soil warms to at least 60 degrees (about 75 degrees air temperature) before planting.
  2. In cool climates, use heat caps to get them off to a good start or start them in a hoophouse.
  3. Start in peat pots that can be placed in the garden pot and all when it comes time to plant. Never disturb the roots of cucumber plants or other vine crops, like pumpkin and squash.

Watch for the striped cucumber beetle, they can be devastating. See Johnny’s and other sources for organic pest control.

DIY, Self Draining Irrigation System


With spring once again upon us you may be wondering if this is the year you’ll get around to installing an irrigation system. After all, the best way to have a lush,green lawn that is the envy of the neighborhood is by applying the proper amount of water at the right time. Unfortunately, we can’t rely on Mother Nature to deliver water to our lawns at the exact time it is needed.largeareathreezonekit

“It would be great if we could rely on the weather,” says John Coyne of UP Irrigation and Auto Rain Lawn Gear. “Normal precipitation is not always normal, and if your lawn goes dormant during a dry spell pre-emergent weeds will quickly sprout and be hard to eradicate.”

Watering with sprinklers has gone the way of the shoe horn. People just don’t, or shouldn’t be using sprinklers any more. Sprinklers not only waste water and drive up water bills, but people don’t have time these days to turn them off and on and hassle with kinked-up hoses and dysfunctional sprinklers.

An irrigation system will save you time and money, says Coyne. You can set up an irrigation system on a timer and water your lawn for a few minutes each night while you sleep.

Lawn irrigation systems have traditionally been a significant home improvement investment, similar in scope to paving the driveway. Now, there is a DIY irrigation system, called Auto Rain Lawn Gear, that can be installed by the do-it-yourselfer. It’s a system that ARLG owner and irrigation specialist Coyne says can be installed at a fraction of what it would cost a professional contractor.

“For many years people have been intimidated to take on a project like this,” says Coyne. “By installing an ARLG kit themselves, homeowners can save up to 70% over the cost of a contractor.”

The Auto Rain Lawn Gear irrigation system comes as a kit complete with sprinkler heads, clamps, and other attachments. It also contains instructional materials for set-up, including a DVD showing an actual installation. The kits contain name brand irrigation components that have been used by irrigation contractors for years, including Rain Bird sprinkler heads. The ¾” poly pipe needed to run the water lines is sold separately and can be purchased in any hardware store, according to Coyne.

Like any DIY project, the ARLG irrigation system may be beyond the skill level of the less than handy types. No worry. According to Coyne any reputable landscaper or a handy relative will be able to install an ARLG system. If in doubt whether to take on the task they can view a 5 minute instructional video on the ARLG website and decide for themselves.

“For anyone who decides to install one themselves there is a tremendous amount of satisfaction,” says Coyne. No permits or license is necessary to install the ARLG system, according to Coyne.

Before you buy a kit Coyne suggests you time the water delivery from your faucet. You need to have a water source that can deliver at least 5 gallons of water per minute. Place a five gallon bucket under an outdoor spigot and run the water for a minute. Make sure all other faucets, washing machine, etc. is turned off inside the house before you run your test. If your bucket fills to the top in a minute or under, you’re all set.

A round shovel is all that is needed to bury the lines and sprinkler heads. Dig a four-inch deep trench. When done laying the pipe, scrape the soil back into the trough and pull the sod over it. Within a few weeks spring you’ll be hard pressed to see where you removed the sod.

Self Draining System

Typically, irrigation systems need to have the water blown out of the lines before winter. This is an added cost to the homeowner. If this is not done, it can cause the lines to burst over the winter, resulting in further costs to find and repair the hole.The ARLG system is self draining, saving the homeowner the time and/or money of blowing out the lines in the fall.

ARLG kits come in different sizes to match the size of your lawn and can also be used to water a flower bed. They’re being sold at various Lowes stores around the state and various hardware stores. You can also purchase them online at

Instructional videos are available on the company website.

Looking for an endless tomato harvest?

There are so many tomato varieties to choose from in the catalogs it is tempting to try them all. One variety I’ll be sure to include with my order when it goes out next week is Jasper cherry tomato.JssJasperTomato

If you’re looking for a prolific harvest of sweet, tasty cherry tomatoes, grow the Jasper. This All American Selection sold by Jung’s and others is a real winner in my mind.

I planted about six of these right up against the fence that surrounds my garden to keep the deer out. I originally planted them from seed in my greenhouse and when I set them out they took right off, which I think is key to a successful harvest of anything in the cold climate. I never did need to tie them to the fence or offer any other type of support, even though they grew to about five feet tall! I just fed them fairly regularly with Espoma’s organic fertilizer for vegetable gardens.

What I got was a seemly endless supply of sweet cherry tomatoes. Each time I went to the garden (which is about every day for me, I would bring a bowl with me and fill it up. Jasper did much better than Sweet Million (these tomatoes didn’t ripen as early.

My garden hat is off to Jasper cherry tomato!

Butternut Squash for Northern Gardens

I was pleasantly surprised, no make that ecstatic with the Canesi Hybrid Butternut Squash I planted last year. I ordered it from Jung’s kind of on a whim, since I had given up on growing butternuts in my northern zone 3 garden. In the past, there just wasn’t enough season to get these to mature, at least not in my garden. But lo and behold, the Canesi matured–and how! The largest one grew to 13 inches. This was during a season where my pumpkins didn’t fare so well. I didn’t do much special, except I planted them in a shallow hole I amended with compost; I fertilized and side dressed with 12-12-12. Not only were they big, but prolific, yielding about five fruit from each plant, not bad for here in the north.

The flesh of the Canesi is almost banana yellow, with a mild flavor that is enhanced with a few seasonings. We’ve boiled it so far, but will try baking it. I’m interested in seeing how long it will keep. Canesi for Christmas dinner?

Plant a pencil? A lollipop?

Here are a couple of items I ran across that are intended to get kids interested in gardening and eating healthy vegetables. They should be of interest to parents and teachers.

Plant a Lollipop?

The first one is VeggiePOPS™. This looks like a lollipop and even has the colored wrappings on each different VeggiePOP™. But don’t eat it! Inside is 3-4 seeds of easy-to-grow vegetables and a little seed starting mix and nutrients to get it off to a good start. VeggiePOPS™ comes with online instructions and a full scale teacher’s curriculum, called Bloomers Island, to help youngsters (and adults) learn more about gardening and achieve gardening success. They also sell VeggiePOTS™, growing containers made from recycled plastic bottles, which  you can use to start the seeds in. The EarthBox® kit, which has been around a while now and sells for about $55, will also work well for growing the vegetables.VEGGIEPOPSSTAND-300dpi

The VeggiePOPS™ are really catching on, according to Cynthia Wylie, Founder and CEO of VeggiePOPS™ and Bloomers Island. VeggiePOPS™ and Bloomer Island is designed to get kids interested in gardening and not see it as a chore.

“Our whole goal was to make gardening as fun and as easy as possible,” says Wylie.        VeggiePOPS™ come in 6 different “flavors,” including Swiss chard, carrots, radishes, cherry tomatoes, summer squash, and bush beans.

Wylie says this is the first generation of kids with a life expectancy less than the previous generation. She thinks this is due, in part, to diet and kids having a more sedentary lifestyle as a result of playing video games and such. Gardening will not only get the kids on their feet, they’ll get eating better.

“Less than ⅓ of kids eat more than one serving of vegetables a day,” says Wylie.

She says they have found that kids will eat vegetables they grow themselves. Parents are very excited about this, which is also driving sales of the product.

“It’s a taste of gardening,” says Wylie. “And invariably what happens is there are a couple of kids in every class that become obsessed with it and those are the kids that you want to encourage, they’re the ones that are going to be the AG majors of tomorrow.”

VeggiePOPS™ sell for $3.99 each or $20 for a package of 6. You can find out more about VeggiePOPS™ and the learning curriculum, which includes a poster that you and your grandchild can use to track the growth of your vegetables, at

Plant a Pencil?

Here is a product that is intended to get kids interested in gardening and start thinking about conserving natural resources. It’s called the Sprout Pencil. It’s a lead-free eco-friendly pencil made of biodegradable ticonderoga cedar. Contained in the top capsule are seeds for different vegetables, herbs, and flowers. When the pencil is down to a nub the capsule is removed and planted. There are over 12 different Sprout Pencils, including colored pencils for drawing, that contain seed for growing herbs, vegetables, and flowers.

Sprout Europe new3619_highres

The idea for the Sprout Pencil originated at MIT, where students were looking to create a sustainable product for children. The MIT students formed a company around their invention and then sold it to an investor in Denmark. The rest, as they say, is history. They now sell over 450,000 of the pencils per month both here and abroad.

“For every tree that is used to make a Sprout Pencil, we plant another one,” says Ed Goldman, who is in charge of North American sales for Sprout World, the parent company. “The nice thing about the Sprout Pencil is they don’t end up in landfills like other writing utensils.”

Sprout World also sells what they call Tiny Gardens, which are shallow containers made from recycled cardboard. Instead of a potting type soil, the Tiny Gardens contain a fibrous hemp mat, which is used to start the seeds of basil, broccoli, cress, radish, and sunflower.

You can also grow microgreens in the Tiny Gardens. Microgreens became popular in the 1980’s among chefs in California. Micro-greens are small plants, which you harvest as soon as they have developed their first set of true leaves. The stem is longer than normal, because micro-greens are grown for a short, intensive period, during which the stems strive for sunlight.

All of these products, including the Sprout Pencil, can be ordered via Amazon. Check for them also in your local garden center. They’ve been featured on CNN and the Today Show, so they could end up in a store near you. You can also go to for more information about their products and to find a store.