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Posts Tagged ‘plant light’

Start Seeds in Pots for Your Small Kitchen Garden

Starting seeds for your small kitchen garden requires very little space. I can start more than 300 seedlings on a single shelf that happens to be in my larder. These cauliflower seedlings sprouted in about three days and are thriving two inches beneath full-spectrum fluorescent tubes. In about a week I’ll move the seedlings outdoors for a week, and then I’ll plant them in my garden.

In recent posts, I’ve explored reasons why a kitchen gardener might choose to start seedlings indoors, or buy seedlings from a garden store or nursery. Assuming you’ve decided to start your own seedlings for your small kitchen garden, let’s take one more look at how to go about it.

If you want to use those seed-starting peat pellets that seem so omnipresent in department and gardening stores, please have a look at how I use them. I wrote about them enthusiastically in a post titlted Start Seeds in Pellets for your Small Kitchen Garden. If you’d rather try starting seeds in soil, read on; this post explains how.

My family drinks a gallon of milk every day so I’m always looking for uses for empty milk jugs. To reduce spills on my seed-starting shelf, I create shallow pans by cutting the sides out of the jugs. (I use a utility knife, but sturdy scissors will do the job nicely.) One of these pans handles a six-nursery-pot flat as you can see in this post’s first illustration.

Seed Starting Containers

Starting seeds indoors in soil is very similar to sowing seeds outdoors directly in a planting bed. How you’ll use the seedlings may influence what types of containers you choose as planters. For example, if you’re growing seedlings for a container garden, you could start them in the planters they’ll occupy through the entire growing season. You can move them outdoors on warm days in late winter and early spring, and move them back indoors when frost is in the forecast.

However, to get the most out of limited seed-starting space, it makes sense to start seeds in small pots or nursery flats. I prefer flats made out of pressed peat moss or brown cardboard. These typically come in 10-cell units, and you can easily cut them or tear them apart into smaller sets.

I like to plant two seeds in each cell of a flat, but if you want to keep things simple, plant just one. If you’re tough-hearted, plant two seeds and cut off or gently pull one plant if two emerge from the soil. Sometimes seeds don’t sprout, so you increase your chances of getting one per pot if you plant two seeds.

I separated a flat of ten nursery pots into flats of four and six pots. I set the six-pot flat into a pan made from a gallon milk jug, filled the individual pots with commercial potting soil, and added water. I like to water before I set seeds because watering can disturb the seeds and even wash them out of the pots. To plant, I use the point of a chopstick to poke depressions in opposite corners of each pot; two depressions per pot. The depth of the depressions depends on planting instructions on the seed packets. I drop one seed into each depression and I smooth the soil over, tamping it down a bit to make sure it comes in contact with the seeds.

Cauliflower and broccoli seeds are small, but I can usually pick up one at a time with my fingers and drop it where I want it. If you have trouble working tiny seeds with your finger tips, use tweezers… but be gentle so you don’t crush your seeds.

Super Budget Starters

While flats and peat pellets provide tidy organization for your seedlings, plants don’t require individual pots to get a good start. As I explain in the photo captions of this article, I start two plants in each sprouting pot and then separate the seedlings when I transplant them into the garden or into larger pots. Many folks start a dozen or more seeds in a single tray—a baking dish or food-storage container, for example—and dig up the seedlings to transplant them later.

I like gallon milk jugs for this. You can make a seed-starting planter using the bottom section of a jug, or by using a section that includes the flat side of a jug (see photos).

I started planting two seedlings per pot figuring it improved my chances of getting a seedling in every planter. If two sprouted, I’d cut one away and let the other mature. When two sprouted in every pot I planted, I didn’t have the heart to kill the runts. So, when I took them to my garden, I gently tore the pots apart and planted the seedlings separately. My point: seedlings won’t care if you plant two dozen seeds per container. You can fit a lot more in less space when you do this… but make sure you use a big enough container that you’ll be able to separate the seedlings later. Here I cut the bottom off a milk jug, and the side off a milk jug to create two seed-starting planters. I might start twenty seeds in the smaller planter and thirty or more in the larger one.

Should you poke drainage holes in the bottoms of these milk carton seed-starting trays? I don’t. I check on my seed starts at least once a day. I can tell whether the soil is damp, and I add only enough water to keep it that way without flooding my planters. If you find it challenging to judge how damp the soil is, perhaps you should add drainage holes… but make sure that you also place platters or pans under the planters to capture leaks.

Soil for your Seeds

You can use soil from your planting beds to start seeds, but I suggest buying potting soil or seed-starting mix. Why? Three reasons:

Some potting soils are so poorly formulated that they actually repel water. You can make a depression in such soils, fill the depression with water, and the water will evaporate without ever soaking in. If the soil you buy is like this, pour what you’ll use into a bucket, add water, and stir until the soil is all damp. Use this moistened soil to fill your pots, and as long as you keep the soil moist it should absorb water adequately.

1. Potting mix is likely to be free of viable seeds, roots, and tubers. Soil from your garden may host any or all of these, and you could end up growing a lot more than what you intend.

2. Potting mix is likely to be free of molds, fungus, and bacteria. Garden soil may harbor all these nuisances, and infect your seedlings. Planting seeds in commercial potting soil gives your seedlings time to grow strong before they have to deal with microbial challenges.

3. Unless you brought several gallons of garden soil inside last autumn, you might not be able to dig any out of the garden until after an appropriate planting date for your seeds. When I should be starting cold weather crops (brassicas, peas, lettuce, and spinach) indoors, my garden is usually frozen and buried in snow.

Once you’ve Planted Seeds

Your newly-planted seeds need moisture and warmth. Immediately upon sprouting, the seedlings also need light… not just sunlight from a south-facing window, but some kind of supplemental lighting to assure the plants don’t grow spindly and weak. I explained these issues in a post called Small Kitchen Garden Seed-Starting Shelf. What I’ve learned since writing that post is that the fluorescent light fixtures produce enough warmth that my shelf is about 75F degrees even though the rest of the room runs about 60F degrees.

Don’t Buy Wet Potting Soil

I had a most frustrating experience last season with potting soil: I bought a large bag of commercial mix that a local nursery used for their seed starts. It was great stuff; my seeds and seedlings loved it.

Later, I purchased a second bag to handle some container gardening experiments. This second bag had been stored outdoors and had what seemed to be a minor tear in the bag. Everything I planted in soil from the second bag was stunted and unsatisfactory… as though there was a growth retardant in the soil.

The first bag of soil had been bone dry within; I could lift the bag effortlessly though it held many gallons of soil. The second bag had been soaked through; I could barely lift it. I suspect that the second bag of soil, once wet, had become a growth medium for some microorganism that was either infectious to plants, or that produced chemicals toxic to root health.

I now live by this creed: I will not buy bagged potting soil that is noticeably moist; if it’s not dry in the bag, the soil may be hazardous to your seeds and seedlings.

 

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Start Seeds in Pellets for Your Small Kitchen Garden

Four tomato seedlings grow in a single peat pellet, gazing out on the snow-covered garden while a box elder bug enjoys the garden spot of my basement. The pellet’s design begs for only one seed, but I like to plant two (this was a test-planting to confirm my seeds were good). When the seedlings are big enough to transplant into my garden, I gently tear the pellet apart, preserving roots on each plant. If this is the first time you’re starting seeds indoors, be cautious and plant just one per pellet. That’ll make for easy transplanting, and provide enough root space for your seedlings to remain indoors for six to eight weeks.

Many packets that hold seeds destined for small kitchen gardens include instructions for gardeners to “start indoors four-to-six weeks before last frost.” If you’ve never done this, I’ve good news: Starting seeds indoors is easy and rewarding.

To be successful, you need a space that is relatively warm and well-lighted. By warm I mean it’s best to have the temperature as high as 85F degrees… and no lower than 70F degrees. By well-lighted I mean you need artificial lights whose distance from your young plants you can adjust easily… but I’ll explain this more in a bit.

Seed-Starting Gear

Don’t make this complicated. To start seeds indoors for your small kitchen garden, use either containers filled with soil, or compressed peat pellets. In an upcoming post I’ll write about starting seeds in soil-filled containers. This post is about starting seeds in peat pellets.

A company called Jiffy makes disks of compressed, dried peat moss wrapped in nets. You can find these disks in department and garden stores. Around here, I can buy a package of 36 disks for two dollars… but there are many other packages having different numbers of these peat pellets.

If you’ve never started seeds indoors to transplant later outdoors, consider buying one of Jiffy’s “mini greenhouse” starting kits. I’ve seen both 72-pellet and 36-pellet kits here consisting of a plastic tray, pellets, and a clear plastic cover. These are brilliant! The 72 pellet kit costs only six dollars locally, while the 36 pellet kit costs four dollars.

A peat pellet is compressed, dried peat moss wrapped in a net (left). You must soak a peat pellet before you plant a seed in it. I rescued a plastic cup, cut it to about half its original height, and set the pellet inside. I added enough water to have covered the pellet to about three times its depth… but the pellet floated, so it’s hard to tell from the photo how much water I used (center). After about ten minutes, all the water is inside the pellet, and the pellet is about four times its original height. Once soaked, the peat loosens, and the pellet’s netting opens on top. It’s a simple matter to poke a seed into the dimple in the top of the pellet.

 

An expanded peat pellet is bigger than the compartments in plastic flats of seedlings you can buy at garden stores and nurseries in March, April, and May. To plant seeds, I peel the netting back from the top of the soaked, expanded pellet, and use a chopstick to poke a hole about a half inch deep along one edge of the pellet.

 

I poke a second hole into the pellet opposite the first hole, drop a seed into each hole, and use a chopstick to smoosh the holes closed. If you plant just one seed in a pellet (using the built-in dimple intended for that purpose), the resultant seedling will be happy there for four to eight weeks. When you plant two or more seeds in a pellet, you will need to “pot up” the seedlings in about four weeks if you’re not yet able to transplant them outside.

Start Seeds in Peat Pellets

You don’t need a kit to plant seeds in peat pellets, but you do need containers to manage the pellets: it’s best to moisten them by adding water to the container so the pellets soak it up from below. I’ve used plastic food storage containers, discarded plastic drinking cups, sawed off plastic milk jugs, and dinner plates to hold peat pellets.

If you spend any time in the garden department of a department store, you’re likely to spot a Jiffy Mini Greenhouse. These are truly awesome for starting seeds indoors. For six dollars, you get 72 peat pellets in a ready-to-plant container. I’ve messed around with a lot of seed-starting gear, and this is by far the simplest low-cost approach I’ve seen.

The advantage of a mini greenhouse kit is that the clear plastic cover holds moisture in and it lets light through; you can keep the cover on until seeds sprout, significantly reducing your need to water the pellets. If you do use a mini greenhouse, remember that plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and water. Once your seedlings unfurl leaves, remove the greenhouse cover several times a day… or simply set it aside; leaving it on will slow the growth of your seedlings by trapping in oxygen-rich air.

Jiffy seems to think you should start one seed in each pellet. There’s nothing wrong with this; a single pellet will support a seedling from seed to garden very well over the course of six weeks. I usually put two seeds in each pellet.

The mini greenhouse comes with 72 pellets, but you needn’t use all of them in one season. I popped more than half the pellets out, and started seeds in the ones that remained. Under fluorescent lights on my ping-pong table, some seeds sprouted in just two days. Every seed I planted grew into a viable plant that went into my garden in April, May, or June.

Originally, I planted two per pellet to improve the chance of having at least one surviving plant per pellet. I figured that if both seeds sprouted, I’d cut off the weaker-looking seedling, leaving the stronger one. When I tried this, every seed sprouted and I couldn’t get myself to kill off the runts. Still, the seedlings were healthy enough that they survived when I tore the root balls apart and planted them separately in the garden.

Timing Your Seed Starts

The rule of thumb: plant four to six weeks before the last frost of spring is a good rule. That day is different for everyone. Goodness, we have frost a mile from town repeatedly for weeks after in-town gardens become frost-free. And, the last frost date one year can differ by a month or more from the last frost date in another year.

Lights for Starting Seeds

You can find grow lights, dedicated light fixtures, and other gear in garden centers, department stores, and home improvement warehouses… but if you’re budget-conscious, please find an electrical supply store instead.

The best lighting bargain at a home improvement store is the four-foot fluorescent shop light. I’ve found these fixtures for around fifteen dollars… and they come with two fluorescent tubes installed. Why, then, do two replacement “grow light” tubes cost as much as the fixtures? Because those tubes are a ripoff.

At an electrical supply store (where electrical contractors buy stuff), a full-spectrum four-foot-long fluorescent tube might cost $1.50 to $3.00. So, for about $20 you can buy a fixture and daylight tubes to illuminate dozens of seedlings. I use two such shop lights side-by-side and could start more than 300 seeds under them – way more seedlings than I’ll plant in my small kitchen garden this season.

In hardiness zone 5b, I anticipate the end of frost by the end of April. In 2009 our last frost was near the end of May.

How to handle these uncertainties? Chance being early rather than late. So, for late April planting, I start seeds in mid-March. For cold weather crops such as broccoli and cauliflower, I’ve already started some seeds this year and figure to have the rest planted this week: late February for a mid-to-late March transplanting.

If winter drags on, you may need to “pot up” seedlings from peat pellets into larger nursery pots. This beats having winter end early or “on schedule” and having to wait four more weeks for your seedlings to be ready.

Because of the uncertainties, it’s important to be able to adjust the distance between your seedlings and their light source. The day a seedling sprouts, I want full-spectrum fluorescent light tubes (as in a four-foot long shop light) to be within three inches of the emerging leaves… and I want the light that close until I move the plants outdoors. This is wimpy light, so I leave it on twelve or more hours a day. Even in a dedicated sun room with perfect southern exposure, you should supplement with electric light. You’re asking plants to grow two months before they’d choose to in nature; give them every advantage you can.

Plant Seeds in Peat Pellets, the Video

In case you want more encouragement, I made a five-minute video to demonstrate how I plant seeds in a peat pellet. In the video, I plant a single pellet, but typically I’d soak a dozen or more pellets at once and set seeds in all of them. It’s impossible to start seeds any more easily and with less mess than you can with peat pellets. Please enjoy:

 

 

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