Winter in Western North Carolina has been no joke this year. Here in zone 7a/6b we usually get a couple days of snow, which quickly melts, and maybe a few nights with lows in the teens. This year we've already had several stretches of fairly severe winter weather, with daytime highs only in the low 20's, 2 snowstorms and 1 ice storm. While I only plant crops to overwinter that are cold hardy for our zone, the fortitude of these little plants are being put to the test! Besides tucking them in with row covers and whispering words of encouragement, there's not much else do except wait and hope for spring.
Of the field planted crops, the ammi, larkspur, poppies, campanula, yarrow, bupleurum, foxglove, bells of Ireland, chocolate lace flower, nigella and some scabiosa varieties look no worse for the wear. Super tough! Others such as snapdragons, some scabiosa varieties, delphinium, dianthus and stock are questionable at best. I'm fighting the urge to pinch back the dead growth on the damaged plants in the field, as pinching gives the plant the sign to explode into new growth and I'm just not sure that winter is over yet. While I'm hoping that these plants all have nicely established root systems that will support new growth eventually, I've ordered extra seeds and plugs just in case to add in another early season, cool weather planting.
So even though winter has been more severe than anyone predicted or hoped, I'm still full steam ahead with preparing for the coming season. The very first flowers that I seed in the winter are sweet peas. I have tried for the past 2 years to overwinter them in the field and in the hoop house, and both methods were unsuccessful - the vines were too damaged by wind and cold to recover, even under a layer of row cover. So this year will only do 1 sowing in mid-January (which is when I did a successful 2nd sowing anyhow). I can't encourage you enough to try out a few different methods to see what works for you. Just because another, perhaps more seasoned, farmer or gardener does something one way, this does not mean that you're a failure if it doesn't work for you! Each of us has a unique growing climate and situation and the fun is in discovering what works for YOU.
About Soil Blocking + Supplies
I use a soil blocking technique to start all of my sweet peas seeds. Even though I start about 90% of my seeds in trays, I soil block any varieties that tend to grow large very quickly or have more needy/expansive root systems, such as sweet peas, sunflowers, zinnia and cerinthe. For all of these I use a large soil blocker. Soil blocking has many benefits, including less root disturbance at the time of transplanting and taking up less space in the greenhouse, however soil blocking is extremely time-consuming as compared to just filling trays with soil. In the past, I have used the small 20 block version to start all of my seeds (except the types mentioned above) because I have very limited greenhouse space. However, now I'm partnering with another local grower to use his greenhouse and seed in plug trays for the sake of time. I use Pro-Mix with mycorrhizae for both soil blocking and plug trays.
Soak the Seeds
The first step to planting sweet peas is to soak your seeds overnight to soften the hard outer shell. Some folks score their sweet pea seeds with a knife or gently in a coffee grinder and some even soak them in paper towels for a few days to sprout before planting. I've had great results and germination simply by soaking them overnight, so that's what I keep doing.
Mix Soil + Make Soil Blocks
Next, I get the soil nice and wet - about 3 parts soil to 1 part water. It needs to be more sloppy than you would think! Fill the soil blocker full of the mixture - really dig in there an scoop and press it in there tightly because you want the soil to be very compact in the blocker. Scrape off any extra soil that's built up on the bottom, then press the blocker into your tray to release the blocks. Use trays without holes since soil blocks need to be bottom watered. I like to use these flats since the taller sides support the blocks nicely, and I can fit 100 large soil blocks in each one. It takes a little practice to get the right consistency and technique.
Sorry for the rough, one-handed video, but I find that a visual is often helpful, so here you go!
Sowing Seeds + Watering
I like to make all of the trays of soil blocks first and then start sowing seeds. This way my hands are clean for picking up the seeds since they get very muddy from the blocker. The soil blocker punches a small divet in the middle of the block, which makes for quick seeding. Then, I take a big handful of the wet soil and cover the sweet pea seed, pressing gently to give good seed to soil compaction. I bottom water the soil blocks so they don't fall apart. Only water as they start to get dry.
GIVEAWAY | now closed | the winner is Katie snyder!
Because we all need a little brightening up in winter, I am giving away 1 set of Flourish goodies! Here's what to do to enter:
1. Leave a comment below about what you're most looking forward to this spring (be sure that you're commenting on this particular post!)
2. Sign up for our newsletter
I'll choose the winner on Wednesday 1/31 and announce it here. At this time, our giveaway is only open to residents of the USA and Canada.
P.S. More of these dahlia notecards and Flourish tanks + tees are available in our Store!