PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Participants in this month's Urban Roots March gardening class plant seeds.

It’s a Truckee Meadows tradition for gardeners to keep a close eye on Peavine Peak, which stretches its wide shoulders above northwest Reno. 

“Don’t transplant your tomatoes before the snow melts off of Peavine” is the age-old mantra. But that   conventional wisdom doesn’t hold up under all planting conditions, according to Kelsey Hoffman, instructor at Urban Roots’ class, “Starting Seeds Indoors.

“First and last frost dates are better,” Hoffman said.  This year, the last frost date is May 9. Hoffman reinforced the advice by providing class members with a color-coded planting calendar for common vegetables.  

The Dead Plants Society

The March session, one of three Dead Plants Society classes this spring, reflects Urban Roots’ new emphasis on adults, rather than just elementary school children. The nonprofit group promotes healthy eating and environmental stewardship in Washoe County. Classes are held at the Urban Roots teaching farm on Second Street in Reno, featuring large greenhouses, sheds and a chicken coop.

The adult classes evolved from the kids’ sessions. “We got all kinds of questions from parents and volunteers in classes for children,” Hoffman said. “The comments were like, ‘I’m interested but I don’t know what I’m doing.’”

Northern Nevada, with its rocky soil and arid climate, can be a trial even for gardeners who developed  green thumbs elsewhere. Those who signed up for the recent Urban Roots class recounted their tribulations and uncertainly about what to plant and when. Diana Watega of Reno said she had not been very successful in fostering seedlings.  “Some of them didn’t sprout, some were leggy, maybe it was too hot.”

The Dead Plant Society was named to encourage gardeners like Watega.  “If you’ve struggled in the past and killed a few plants, this is a class in basics,” Hoffman said.

Classes, programs and kids’ camp:

The next Dead Plants Society class, Growing Flowers, will be held on Saturday, April 16, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Urban Roots Farm, 1700 E. Second St., in Reno.  Cost is $15 if pre-registered, $20 at the door.  To register, send an email to info@urgc.org or phone 775-636-5105.

Although Urban Roots’ emphasis has shifted to include adults, the children’s summer camps will still be offered June 13 through Aug. 5. Children ages 5 to 10 are invited to Summer Kid Camp, and children 11-14 years old may attend Summer young Farmers Camp.  For sign-ups, visit https://www.urgc.org/camp. In addition, a new summer camp is available for teenagers 15 to 17 years old to gain hands-on farming experience as camp counselors.  An application form is available online.

Gardening For All is a new program that helps families, businesses and organizations to design, build and sustain a garden for a year.  Participants include Plumas Bank at Meadowood which is building an edible landscape, and the non-profit Awaken’s residential garden.  Details are available on the Urban Roots website.

Hot sun, rocky soil

Transplanted Californians often are shocked by the conditions of the highj desert. “Gardening here is very different (here),” said Tyeesa Cordeiro, who now lives in Reno.

“It’s nice to know we’re not the only ones (who need advice),” Watega said at the end of the class.  She especially liked the information about hardening seedlings given by Ann Mackey, a northern Nevada gardener for 15 years who is pursuing a horticulture degree online from Oregon State University. 

PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: Kelsey Hoffman

For example, Mackey showed how to wave a hand close above the seedlings to simulate the effect of wind currents that the baby plants will have to adapt to when planted outdoors. And, as in many endeavors, it pays to read the directions.

The 18 attendees learned that seed packets give a wealth of information on how deep to plant seeds, how far apart to plant, how long it takes for seeds to sprout, when to sow seeds outside, thinning, and when vegetables will be ready to pick.  Then they got their hands dirty planting a few sample seeds in a prepared bed.

“The smaller the seed, the closer to the top of the soil it should be planted,” Macke explained. Bigger seeds can be planted deeper into the pot.

Place seedlings in a warm part of the house, she advised.  A window facing south is ideal, and east- or west-facing spots are also good.  “If your window faces north, or you get no direct sunlight at all, invest in a grow light.”

Buying from local sources

Another confidence-building tip: “Don’t be ashamed to buy seedlings, especially from local farmers who put their love into perfect seedlings.”

Expensive pots for seedlings are not necessary, Hoffman said. Egg cartons, yogurt containers and leftover pots from earlier seedling purchases, used with shallow pans or plates, are cost-effective containers. Mackey touted biodegradable pots as alternatives for starting seedlings, but cautioned that seedlings should be removed when transplanting so roots can spread into the soil.

“I liked the idea of using old containers,” said Jahkota Laking of Reno. He also will adopt the passive watering system from a pan or plate underneath the seedling pot, which pulls the water into the roots.

Seedlings ready for transplant

The hardest part of raising seedlings, called hardening, takes dedication and patience, Mackey said.  She called the process of gradually acclimating seedlings to withstand outdoor conditions “babysitting.” 

Beginning a week or two before transplanting, seedlings should be taken outdoors for an hour or more per day, increasing the time over the period. Gardeners who can’t stay home to “babysit” can shade their seedlings with a cardboard box as they should not be exposed to direct sunlight after 11 a.m.  Seedlings must be brought indoors at night.

Finally, the question of when to transplant into the outdoors was answered. “It depends on your setting,” Hoffman explained. An established garden with blankets available to protect plants overnight will be hospitable at an earlier date, perhaps the end of May.  But containers with no covers should not be rushed outdoors and can wait until middle to late spring.

“Watch the weather,” Mackey urged.  “Look at Peavine.  If you see snow there, don’t plant your tomatoes and peppers.”

Class provides supplies

The budding gardeners soaked up many more practical tips during the class, and all received some basic supplies: compostable pots, special soil and seeds. A comprehensive brochure gives information about Reno’s particular growing zones, troubleshooting tips, a month-by-month growing calendar, and local resources for more advanced learning opportunities: UNR Extension workshops, seed exchanges and the free Bartley Ranch Park series by master gardeners.

“We want people to walk away with the belief they can start seeds and transplant them successfully,” Hoffman said.

“I was re-motivated,” said Debbie Bishop of Gardnerville. She has gardened in earlier years but had not started seedlings for a while. The class made her feel confident enough to try the process again, she said.

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