Start Some of Your Spring Planting Right Now! Part 3

Start Some of Your Spring Planting Right Now! Part 3

by Carolyn Hasenfratz

*Indicates items available at Schnarr’s

Once you have enticed some seeds to sprout indoors, how should you care for them? In our Master Gardener lecture on Propagation we learned to start fertilizing 3-4 weeks after the seeds sprouted with a water soluble fertilizer at 1/2 strength.

Prevention of Damping Off

Keeping your containers* clean and using sterile potting mix*, recommended in our previous article Start Some of Your Spring Planting Right Now! Part 2 are practices intended to prevent damping off – a fungal disease that kills young seedlings by infecting them at the soil line.

If you want to add a further preventative or possibly kill fungus if it appears despite your precautions, you can spray your seedlings with chamomile tea. An article in Mother Earth News recommends putting a chamomile tea bag into 4 cups of boiling water and letting it sit for 24 hours. Then put the tea into a plant mister* and spray the seedlings at each watering. I’m also experimenting with spraying my edible sprouts* with the chamomile tea and am having success!

Other additional preventive practices against fungus on seedlings are maintaining good air circulation around the plants and watering them from the bottom.

Transplanting the Seedlings

You can transplant the seedlings after the first “true” leaves are present. “True” leaves look like the actual plant leaves and not like the Cotyledons, also known as “seed leaves” which are first to appear. If you have planted your seedling in a peat pot* or pellet*, you don’t have to transplant it, just move it to a larger container surrounded by more potting soil.

If you do need to transplant seedlings, the recommended procedure is to create a hole in the medium large enough for the root system. Gently loosen the medium around the root system, and if any medium clings to the roots leave it there. Pick up the seedling by the leaves, not the stem, and place into the hole. Gently fill in any gaps with medium but don’t pack down. Water well (you can water from the top this time so the water settles the soil around the roots) and put it in a growing environment appropriate for the plant. You will get the most healthy seedlings if you can place them in strong light and if you can get the nighttime temperature around 60-65 degrees and 10-15 degrees warmer during the day.

Hardening Off

Your seedlings should be hardened off for a couple of weeks before moving them outside permanently. On mild days you can start leaving them outdoors in a shady area that is sheltered from strong breezes. Wait awhile before moving them into the sun or leaving them out overnight. You can consult our Calendar for suggestions on when to move many popular plants outside!

Gardening Outdoor Fun Sustainability

Master Gardener Training Program Volunteer Activities

Master Gardener Training Program Volunteer Activities

by Carolyn Hasenfratz

One of the requirements of the St. Louis Master Gardener Training Program is to perform at least 40 hours of volunteer work per year. We have until December to complete the hours but I thought it would be a good idea to get an early start (ok I admit it, I was dying to get my kayak out on the water). My first volunteer effort of the year was to participate in Operation Clean Stream at Simpson Lake in Valley Park on February 27, 2016.

Simpson Lake in Valley Park

Simpson Lake was a bit trashed due to the flooding in December but we made a really good dent in it. I was rewarded with sightings of a Bald Eagle and a beaver!

On St. Patrick’s Day I went on a tour of the Litzinger Road Ecology Center in Ladue with other Master Gardener trainees and made arrangements to volunteer there on a regular basis. The center is a private teaching facility owned by a foundation and managed by Missouri Botanical Garden. It is not open to the public so I thought you might enjoy seeing some photos of our tour if you have never been there.

Litzinger Road Ecology Center

One of the major activities at the center is removing non-native plants so that native plants can flourish. This picture shows native Bluebells emerging among other plants that are slated for removal. When I start my volunteer work I have no doubt that I’ll be learning a lot more about invasive plants!

Litzinger Road Ecology Center

Here is a section of Deer Creek that runs through the center. At the top of the ridge there is an old railroad right-of-way that was formerly the Laclede and Creve Coeur Lake Railroad route. I knew nothing about this interesting historical tidbit until last year when I was riding my bike in the area and noticed the right-of-way and looked it up to see what it might be. As you can see from the photo, erosion is a big problem along the creek. If you own property within the watershed of Deer Creek and you would like to learn how to manage your property to reduce flooding and erosion and to improve the water quality, the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance can help you learn how to do that.

Litzinger Road Ecology Center

In the foreground is a prairie area and on the ridge is an exquisite Mid-Century Modern house that was formerly the home of the benefactors who donated the land for the center. It is now used as an office for the foundation.

Litzinger Road Ecology Center

Fire is one of the tools sometimes used here for prairie management. Here is a clump of Prairie Dropseed coming back after a burn.

Litzinger Road Ecology Center

Our tour guide is pictured here explaining that a Monarch Waystation is planned for the area around the fence. The kids who come here for programs (and adults like me) should really love that when it’s done! I developed an interest in insects at a very young age and still haven’t lost it. Here and there on the grounds are “bug boards” that can be lifted up to see what’s taking shelter underneath. I loved doing that kind of thing when I was young and I still can’t resist it!

Litzinger Road Ecology Center

I’m also crazy about birds so seeing these gorgeous turkeys was a treat!

Litzinger Road Ecology Center

Here is a view of the circa 1964 house that shows some of the cool details.

Litzinger Road Ecology Center

Here is a Spicebush in flower – a beautiful and desirable native plant for the St. Louis area. It’s worth considering if you are planting to help pollinators and birds because it is a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly.

I hope you enjoyed my virtual tour of the Litzinger Road Ecology Center! It is likely that I’ll mention some of my upcoming work here in future issues of this newsletter.


How to Grow Potatoes

How to Grow Potatoes

by Carolyn Hasenfratz

Now is the right time for planting seed potatoes in the St. Louis area. My boyfriend is starting some in his yard and I’ve decided to try growing potatoes in containers on my deck since I’m not allowed to grow vegetables in the ground where I live. I’ve helped a client to do this before with good results but it’s been awhile so I did a little research to refresh my memory and worked out the following procedures.

First acquire some seed potatoes. These are whole potatoes with buds on them that will grow into new plants. If you are not going to plant right away store your seed potatoes in the refrigerator. Cut them into pieces with 2-3 eye buds on each. Let the pieces dry 2-3 days before planting. Small seed potatoes that are 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter can be planted whole.

Planting in the ground

The planting method I’m going to describe here mostly comes from an article called “Growing Potatoes in Mulch” and it sounds easy and fun. There are other methods you can try if this doesn’t appeal to you.

1. Pick a sunny spot. Some growers say that a 1/2 day of sun is ok. Choose a spot that has not been recently occupied by another member of the Nightshade family (Eggplant, Pepper or Tomato) within the last three years.

2. Scratch rows slightly into the earth with a hoe, 12-15 inches apart.

3. Place seed potato pieces in rows, cut side down, separated by about one foot.

4. Cover entire bed with 6-8 inches of mulch.

5. Add companion plants if using at the appropriate planting times. See the “Pest Prevention” section below for companion plant suggestions.

6. If any potato tubers look like they are going to break the mulch surface and be exposed to sun, pile more mulch around the plants.

7. Next year put the potato patch in a different area to deter pests.

Planting in a container

All the instructions I read online or in books about growing potatoes refer to really big containers, much larger than I have space for. I don’t know if I’ll have success with my smaller containers but I’m going to try it and see what happens.

1. Choose a large container with excellent drainage. Drill extra drainage holes if you need to. A barrel or trash can is not too large.

2. Set container in a sunny spot.

3. Fill container 1/2 full of potting soil.

4. As potato plants grow above the soil, periodically add more soil (or mulch if you want to try the mulch method) so that some of the leaves are left exposed but lower ones are covered. Don’t let any potatoes get exposed to sun. Eventually the soil may reach the top of the container as the plants grow.

Building a Potato Tower

I heard about this technique on a gardening podcast (I’m sorry, I can’t remember which one!) and it also sounds easy and fun!

1. Build a large cylinder in a sunny spot out of chicken wire or some other mesh product. Fasten together with zip ties.

2. Place about 6″ of straw in the bottom of the cylinder. Start to build layers by putting soil and compost in the middle with a layer of straw around the sides with your potato buds near the edge facing outward. They will grow out of the sides like a strawberry planter.

3. Continue to build layers until tower is full, with an extra few bud pieces on top.

4. When potatoes are ready to harvest, cut the zip ties and let the potatoes and soil fall out. A lot easier than digging! Add the used soil and straw to your compost pile.


If the weather is dry, give your potatoes 1 – 1/2″ of water per week. Increase to 2″ per week if it’s really hot.


In the ground, when the sprouts are about 4″ high, apply a balanced fertilizer. If the soil under your potatoes is already fertile that is a big help.

In containers, if you use commercial potting mix there may be fertilizer in it already. If not, add compost and organic fertilizer each time you plant. Switch to a liquid fertilizer when roots have begun to fill the container.

I read a myriad of opinions on exactly what kind of fertilizers to use with potatoes or how often to apply. One thing everyone agrees on is that potatoes are heavy feeders.

Conventional Fertilizers

Apply 5-10-10 or 5-10-5 according to directions on the package.

Organic Fertilizers

Organic fertilizer is a little harder to figure out. I’ve been gardening organically for 12 years and feeding the soil is something I do all the time whenever I have organic matter available to add. I’ve mainly been growing herbs and wildflowers, many of which don’t even want fertilizer so until now it hasn’t been a major consideration for me. I rely a lot on “used” water from cleaning my aquariums and trench composting. Potatoes are something you will have to fertilize, however. Compost is valuable but probably will not be sufficient by itself. With organic fertilizers you won’t do harm by adding too much, but you could be wasting money if you add more than you really need. Cost is not a big consideration for the small containers I’m going to be using so I’m just going to make sure I add a quantity of organic fertilizer that is balanced and let the plants below my deck where the containers are take up the excess if they want it. You can always add Nitrogen because it doesn’t stay in the soil long. A soil test will tell you if you need Potassium and Phosphorus or other nutrients. There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing organic fertilizers, for example bulk, cost, transport and availability. It will be a more involved decision than just choosing a bag with the right numbers so I recommend that as a start you consult this article.

Pest Prevention

Colorado Potato Beetles and Flea Beetles are the most common pests on potatoes in Missouri. The former may be repelled by companion plantings of Catmint, Catnip, Cilantro, Horseradish, Marigold, Nasturtium, Onion, Sage and Tansy. The latter may be repelled by Catmint, Catnip, Mint, Southernwood and Tansy. Try planting some of these plants around your potatoes or make a tea out of the plant parts to spray on your plants.

Periodically inspect the underside of the leaves to see if there are any eggs – if you see some, stick some duct tape on the eggs and pull them off. Ground Beetles are predators on Colorado Potato Beetle larvae. They can be encouraged in your garden with shelter in the form of perennial plants, mulch, rocks and logs. Predatory wasps eat beetle larvae so if you can possibly co-exist with them in your garden they can be great helpers for you.


Feel in the dirt to see how big the potatoes are and take them whenever they are big enough for your needs, or wait until the tops have turned yellow. If you know what variety you have, you should be able to look up how long it takes to be ready for harvest. If you’re not sure, in the St. Louis area start checking for size around July 4.

If you want to do further reading here are the web sites and books I consulted for the information in this article:

Web sites:
Growing Potatoes in Mulch
When and How to Plant Potatoes
Beneficial Insects in the Garden – My own page

Container Gardening by Sunset.
Guide to Growing Your Own Food by Mother Earth News.