Garden Detective: Tips for starting seeds

It's always best to water seedlings from the It's always best to water seedlings from the bottom. Photo Credit: AP

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print ...

DEAR JESSICA: I am starting zinnia seeds indoors in seed-starter medium in clear plastic egg cartons. There is a hole in each compartment for drainage. My question: Should the container be covered with clear plastic or left uncovered? These egg cartons can be covered with a second egg carton, so the cover leaves room to grow for a while, but the material is thicker than Saran Wrap. Also, how much watering is necessary; should I keep the soil visibly moist, watering until it leaks out the bottom? --Ginny Neal, Levittown

DEAR GINNY: Egg cartons make great seed-starting containers. They're free, and make good use of something that would otherwise end up in the trash.

It's always best to water seedlings from the bottom. This helps avoid damping off disease, which results when the soil surface is kept too moist. Watering from above also risks displacing the tiny seeds. Every day or two, when the soil feels like it's drying (never allow it to dry out completely,) place the egg carton in a shallow roasting pan or similar container filled with an inch of water for about an hour or two. The growing medium will absorb the water through the drainage holes in the bottom of each seed compartment, and the roots will get the water they need without the soil surface becoming soaked.

You might have heard recommendations to cover planted seeds with plastic wrap because it holds in moisture and warmth, creating a miniature greenhouse environment. Covering with a second egg carton (or snapping the lid closed) until seeds germinate should suffice. Uncover as soon as the seeds sprout, and place the tray under fluorescent grow lights or near your brightest window.

DEAR JESSICA: Now that spring is here, I noticed a large area of my lawn is covered in moss. This area is generally in the shade. There was grass in the area in the fall, but it wasn't very dense. What would you suggest I do to restore grass there? --Fred Reisfeld, Commack

DEAR FRED: Moss typically takes advantage of and thrives in lawns that are weak. This includes lawns that are sparse, grow in acidic soil or are deprived of nutrients, sunlight or adequate drainage. If the problem is severe, dethatch the lawn this month (rent a flail-type dethatcher from an equipment company or hire a landscaper). This should remove most of the moss, but the conditions that caused the moss to grow must be addressed to keep it from returning.

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So first, test your soil. You can purchase a test kit at a nursery or bring a sample to a Cornell Cooperative Extension office (516-565-5265, ext. 7, in Nassau, 631-727-4126 in Suffolk). If the soil tests acidic -- below 6.5 -- apply dolomitic lime as directed on the package label. This won't end your moss problem, but it will boost the lawn's health.

No grass will grow exceptionally lush and full in shady conditions. If you can thin out some overhead trees by removing branches to allow more sunlight in, that would go a long way toward discouraging moss to grow, as moisture would dry up more quickly.

You also should ensure soil drainage is adequate and, if it isn't, aerate the lawn. It's not expensive to hire someone to do this, but if you prefer, you could rent an aerator from a lawn-supply company and do the job yourself. An aerator is pushed along similar to a lawn mower.

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Next, apply an inch or so of compost over the area (it's OK if compost gets into the aeration holes). Follow up by seeding over the compost with roughstalk bluegrass, which can handle moist, shady sites a bit better than other turfgrasses. Water the seeds really well, just once, and then follow up with light daily sprinklings just to prevent them from drying out. Apply more seeds once a week until bare spots are filled in and blades are 3 inches in height. Then apply a nitrogen fertilizer, which will boost the lawn's vigor and density. A healthy lawn will out-compete and choke out any moss that dares return.

DEAR JESSICA: Can you help me identify this weed that has, very quickly this spring, taken over the beds around my house and surrounded the early spring flowers? And even more important: Do you have any ideas for getting rid of it permanently? I spent a couple of days digging and pulling, but I suspect there's more to come. --George Fletcher, Bay Shore

DEAR GEORGE: Typically the first annual weed of spring, common chickweed reproduces quickly, spreading both by seed (within five weeks of emerging) and rooting at stem joints at soil level. The opportunistic little fellow takes advantage of bare spots in the lawn and garden beds and thrives in cool, moist weather, preferring shady spots. Chickens love to eat it, which is how it got its name, so if you had poultry grazing on your property, that would solve the problem. I'm guessing you don't.

Seed germination can be avoided by pulling up the plants before they bloom, but I see your chickweed already is sporting some flowers. Still, the best way to eradicate chickweed is to pull it out by the roots and cover the bed with a thick layer of mulch to block sunlight from reaching seeds, which invariably will be spewed around invisibly as you pull. Take care not to leave plant parts on the ground, either, as they can take root and grow.

Thinning overhead branches to allow more sunlight to reach the soil should help, as well. There are some pre-emergent controls available, but they are applied in late winter before seeds germinate. Herbicides containing glyphosphate (such as Roundup) can be sprayed directly onto the weeds to kill them, but great care should be taken not to allow it to come into contact with your other plants, as it will kill everything it touches. I would start by pulling the weeds by hand and mulching and take it from there.

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Garden club of the week

LONG ISLAND BONSAI SOCIETY

Meets: 7:30 p.m. on the second Monday of each month year-round except October, when the meeting is held on the third Monday.

Location: Main greenhouse at Planting Fields Arboretum (Planting Fields Road, Oyster Bay)

Dues: $40 individual; $45 couples; $10 students; $50 patrons

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Contact: 516-593-1855, longislandbonsai.org

The society, in existence for more than 30 years, has about 150 members with varying levels of expertise. Meetings are preceded with beginners' workshops taught by the most skilled members and feature guest speakers from around the world. Demonstrations are performed, and the resulting specimen is raffled off. Members also participate in workshops, club sales, picnics, parties and field trips, and receive a monthly newsletter. (For the record, the proper pronunciation of this Japanese art of growing and trimming miniature trees is BONE-sigh, not BONDS-eye.)

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