Gardening Tip: Senecent Seedlings

With seedlings, small is good.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Senescence is the “change of the biology in an organism as it ages after it reaches maturity” (see Wikipedia). I believe I’m experiencing it right now.

What we’re here to warn you about today is buying plants which are old before their time. Seedlings which are senescent.

What are senescent seedlings? Basically, these are seedlings whose roots have met the bottom of their container.  See, plants have their own intelligence and follow their own internal clocks.

If, for instance, a little tomato seedling spends enough time in a tiny pot or shallow flat, its roots will reach the bottom of the container. When it meets this resistance, it will start to feel confined, and it will say to itself, “Well, this is it. This is all the space I’ll ever get, so I better get going on the reproduction.” At that point its biology will change and it will flower and start to do it’s best to set fruit or seed as soon as possible. In short, it intends to reproduce before it runs out of resources.

The result of this biological shift is that this plant will never really thrive in your garden. It will stay smallish and bear just a little before closing up shop. It’s not that the plant is unhealthy, it’s just that it’s done. You won’t get much performance out of it. It’s the tomato that never gets tall. It’s the pepper plant that makes one single pepper.

Beware: Most nursery seedlings are senescent.

So keep these things in mind:

  • When you buy seedlings, look at the bottom of the container. If roots are poking out, it’s a no-go. This pertains particularly to annual vegetables. Perennials don’t like being root bound either, but the outcomes are not as extreme.
  • In addition to long roots, also look for tell-tale signs of maturity in a vegetable, like flowers or fruits. Tomato plants already bearing tiny tomatoes are not a good thing. Cukes that are flowering are not a good thing.
  • Look for the smallest, youngest seedlings you can find. Teeny tiny is good. The more leafed out they are, the longer their roots will be.
  • If you’re raising plants from seeds, don’t let the seedlings sit around too long. Get them into the ground when they open their first true leaves. If you can’t plant for some reason, transplant them to deeper containers.

Get a Soil Test!

Regular readers have probably already got this message, but right now we can’t repeat it enough. If there’s a lesson with our backyard lead scare , it’s to practice due diligence when beginning a garden –or better yet, when you buy property–and that means getting a soil test from a soil lab. They’re not that expensive, especially when you consider the high cost of remediation, and the well being of your self and your family.

Test soil for both nutrients and heavy metals when:

  • Buying a house or land
  • Starting to grow food in your yard  
  • Are growing food and have never tested
  • Starting a plot in a community garden or a school garden
  • Buying soil in bulk

Property does not have to be on the former site of gas station to be suspect. Lead contamination comes not only from lead paint on older houses, but was also deposited all over urban centers and near busy roads via a constant rain of fine particulates from auto emissions.

    It really is a shame that lead testing is not a standard part of the inspection phase of home-buying, especially as this is a pervasive problem in urban areas.

    Do companies that sell bulk soil test that soil for lead? A few phone calls Darren Butler made to local companies indicate that they don’t. So let the buyer beware here too. Wondering about bagged soils? Susan Carpenter, at the LA Times, tested a bunch and found no problems.  She did find a possible lead link to fish fertilizer, however.

    We’ve used all three of these services. UMass is the cheapest by far, but gives the least analysis. However, if you just want your lead level numbers, that’s not a problem.

    Wallace Laboratories
    UMass Soil Testing Service
    Timberleaf Soil Testing

    In our next lead post we’ll let you know what our plan is. And we know there’s interest in all this, so over the week we’ll talk about remediation, raised beds, what’s dangerous, what’s edible, and more. Fun for all, guaranteed!

    Cat Update

    Last week was fairly traumatic around here. We learned two scary things–the first was that we might be living on a Superfund clean-up site, and the second was that something was seriously wrong with our kitten, Phoebe.

    As Erik just posted, the lead issue remains up in the air, and will be for quite some time. But we did find answers regarding Phoebe, and while it is bad news, it is not as bad as our worst imaginings, and it’s good just to have answers and a course of action. We’re finding our feet again and will get back to a regular blogging schedule this week.

    Turns out little Phoebe, found on the street when she was only 4 weeks old and bottle raised by us, was born with a heart defect. The kitty cardiologist (the excellent Dr. Zimmerman at AVCC for you Angelenos) identifies it as a complete AV canal defect. This is a rare and serious heart deformity.  Dr. Zimmerman drew us a picture of a normal cat heart and then one of Phoebe’s heart, and all we could think was that it was a miracle this kitten lived a minute outside the womb.

    As I understand it (and please forgive the very loose terminology) there are four chambers to the heart, the left and right atria and the left and right ventricles, and each pair is divided by a septum, a wall. In Phoebe’s heart, the septa are breached in both pairs, so her blood is flowing around her heart all willy-nilly. (In precise terms she has atrial septal defect and a ventricular septal defect).

    We really don’t know how she’s functioning at all. It’s also a miracle that she survived her spaying. We will no longer be using the services of the vet who somehow overlooked her loud heart murmur when prepping her for anesthesia.

    There is little we can do for her. There is medication which will ease her heart action some. Dr. Zimmerman would not give us a prognosis because, as she says, “kitties always surprise us.” So Phoebe might have weeks, she might last years. She’s not in pain–she is just not as active as she used to be before the symptoms of this defect became more pronounced. Basically she’s acting like an elderly cat, happy to nap a lot and watch our other kitten, Trout, play. If she does start to roughhouse with Trout she’ll run out of air and have to stop. But it seems like she’s figured that out already, and even simple Trout seems to understand that he has to leave her alone.

    So yes, we’re sad, but we’re also relieved we don’t have to make any big decisions regarding surgery (there is none) or her quality of life. We’ll just enjoy her each day and be thankful we have that day together–which is, after all, how we should enjoy all the people and critters that we love.

    Lead Update

    This week I thought I’d do a series of posts about soil and heavy metals beginning with a few more details about the possible lead contamination situation in our backyard.

    Two weeks ago Darren Butler, who is teaching a vegetable gardening series at our house, led a class project where we took four samples from different locations in the backyard, mixed them together and sent them off to Wallace Laboratories, a local soil testing lab with an international reputation. The results came back showing plant available lead levels at 112 parts per million. Note that “plant available” is different than the total amount of lead in the soil. The total amount would be about ten times higher or 1,120 ppm. According to the University of Minnesota Extension Service,

    Generally, it has been considered safe to use garden produce grown in soils with total lead levels less than 300 ppm. The risk of lead poisoning through the food chain increases as the soil lead level rises above this concentration. Even at soil levels above 300 ppm, most of the risk is from lead contaminated soil or dust deposits on the plants rather than from uptake of lead by the plant.

    If the Wallace Labs report is correct, we’ve got a serious problem. It is possible that, in sampling and averaging multiple locations, we hit a “hot” spot where someone may have dumped paint or paint chips. Clearly, we’ll have to set up a grid of tests to see if the problem is isolated.

    I re-did the first test, trying as best I could to take samples from the same locations and sent this second test off to the less expensive UMass soil testing service. The results came back with substantially lower lead levels: 220 ppm, in the “low” range according to most experts, but still higher than I would like. Except for the soil pH, all the other numbers were completely different.

    The next step will be to test the testing services. I’m going to take one sample and split it into three parts, sending one to Wallace, another to UMass and the third to Timberleaf Soil Testing. I hope that two of the testing services agree on something!

    In subsequent posts I’m going to discuss what we’re going to do, phytoremediation (spoiler alert: I don’t think it’s practical in residential situations), and my issues with the real estate industry.

    This week the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is promoting their National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. Especially if you have kids, get your soil and the interior of your house tested.

    One Craptacular Week

    It’s been one hell of a week. First we find out, via a soil test, that our backyard may have high levels of lead and zinc. We’ll write a lot more about this once I confirm the results–I’ve sent in another sample to a different lab. And my doctor has agreed to give me a blood test. Whatever the results, I want to help get out the word about this serious issue–ironically, next week is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week.

    Then yesterday we found out that one of our kittens, Phoebe, has a some sort of serious heart defect. The blogging muses can sometimes leave us at times like this so don’t be surprised if it takes us a few days to get ourselves back together.

    So please hold our dear little kitten in your thoughts and prayers as well as the worldwide need for healing our soils. After all, we all need to eat, and all food whether it be plant or animal based, has its origins in living soil systems.