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Amazon.com is a terrific source for certified organic seeds intended for home sprouting. Dress up salads, stir-fry, sandwiches, spreads, and other dishes with homegrown sprouts of all kinds. Follow this link to order your sampler or to find home sprouting kits.

 

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Posts Tagged ‘planting’

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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Really? Start Seeds Indoors for Your Small Kitchen Garden?

Broccoli Seedlings for a Small Kitchen Garden

Broccoli seedlings emerge within a few days of planting. In fact, the first time I planted broccoli seeds, I was astonished to see sprouts two days later. It’s kind of exciting to have a small garden spot in my house while snow lies on the land outside, but starting seeds indoors isn’t for everybody.

The ground is frozen and there are three inches of snow on my small kitchen garden, but I’ve already started to plant! Yes, I’m starting seeds indoors well ahead of spring. I didn’t used to do this, preferring, instead, to let someone else start seeds so I could buy flats of seedlings when the ground was ready.

Why not just Plant Seeds in the Garden?

No, really: sowing seeds directly in the garden is great gardening strategy. To do this, you need seeds and a little labor… it doesn’t get easier than that. However, if your seeds’ planting instructions proclaim plant after all danger of frost passes and 120 days to maturity, you’ll need four gorgeous months before you harvest your first vegetable. Plants that mature in 120 days usually have a lot more productive days after they mature… if there’s any growing season left.

In zone 5B last year, we had frost in late May. So, the frost-free season was just long enough to go from seeds to maturity. This really isn’t good enough. When you have such a limited season, starting seeds indoors early can significantly increase your yield.

It gets better! When you have a reasonably long growing season, starting seeds early lets you do two or even three plantings. I like to start peas, lettuce, and spinach from seed in the garden as soon as the soil thaws in March and April. These tend to expire in June, so I can plant winter squash in the same space. Were I to start these indoors from seeds, I could start harvesting lettuce and spinach within weeks of transplanting outdoors in March… and I’d probably be harvesting peas three or more weeks earlier than I usually do.

Of course, by finishing spring crops early, I create a longer season for summer crops, and that gives my fall crops a bit more time to grow before a deep freeze shuts down my garden in the fall. By starting seeds in containers, you can increase the variety of vegetables you grow in a particularly small kitchen garden, keeping your planting beds more productive throughout the growing season.

Small Kitchen Garden Seed Starting Shelf

There’s not much growing on my seed starting shelf, but we’re still a few weeks early for most starts. I have four tomato seedlings that I’ve just transplanted from a single starting pellet into individual pots, four broccoli sprouts, and a bunch of planters in which I set seeds minutes before taking this photo. In about three weeks, the shelf will be crowded with tomato and pepper seedlings. Realizing I could manage seed starts on a shelf in my larder solved a lot of problems related to space and tidiness. Still, maintaining all of this will occupy fifteen or more minutes each day until I start transplanting seedlings into my small kitchen garden.

Starting Seeds is a Commitment

Starting seeds indoors can be seductive. It’s quite a rush to see the seedlings push out of the soil and stretch toward the lights. With many flats of seedlings on starting shelves, tables, counters, or windowsills, you create an inviting garden spot at a time when your yard and garden may be barren and uninviting.

But I encourage you not to get carried away. As I suggested earlier: you can buy flats of seedlings and get the same season-extending advantages you get from starting your own seeds. To provide a fair-and-balanced perspective, here are several reasons not to start your own seeds indoors:

1. You simply may not have the space. Last year, we couldn’t play ping-pong from March until May because someone (tee-hee) had taken over the ping-pong table to start seeds. After my mom died, my dad removed the cushions from the window seat in his living room and set up flats there to start seeds; it’s a bit awkward to have that mess in your living room when you’re hosting a formal dinner.

You don’t need a lot of space, but you need to be able to control the climate and lighting, to manage soil and water spills, and to keep your house pets off of your nascent seedlings.

2. Starting seeds is work. You’re not likely to wear yourself out with your seed starts, but you can’t rely on nature for success. Seed starting pots or peat pellets can easily dry out in 24 hours, so you’ll probably need to water once a day. You’ll also need to adjust your lighting as the seedlings grow, and you may end up having to transplant into larger pots if you can’t get your seedlings into the garden as quickly as you expect when you’re starting them.

3. You may have saved lousy seeds. Especially if you harvested seeds from hybrid varieties of produce (Burpee loves to sell hybrids), the plants that emerge from them may develop fruits or vegetables distinctively different from the parent fruits or vegetables. Heirlooms are more likely to breed true, but insects may cross-pollinate your heirlooms with other varieties, and the resulting seeds also can produce unexpected results.

Tomato Seedlings for a Small Kitchen Garden

Freshly-transplanted seedlings languish for a week or two before they start growing again. These look a little sad because I transplanted them just a few days ago. I expect they’ll perk up soon, and put out some new leaves. I planted these seeds very early to test the viability of seeds I’d harvested from last year’s tomatoes. I gave away bunches of seeds, and I wanted to be confident they’d sprout for their recipients. Once I start a plant growing, I find it very difficult to let it die… or worse, to kill it

4. You can bury yourself in seedlings. If you have enough room to start dozens of flats, consider the eventual disposition of your young plants: You will some day transplant them into your garden. This could become more work than it’s worth. Sowing seeds directly in your planting beds is far easier than setting seedlings. So, unless you really need the extra growing time, you might be happier simply sowing seeds. If you want some early lettuce and spinach, start a dozen or so seeds indoors, but save the rest to sow outdoors for a slightly later 2nd harvest. I can’t imagine starting the several hundred pea plants I grow each year and transplanting them later.

Which Plants should you Start Indoors?

Don’t let anyone tell you which plants you must start indoors. Just about any vegetable is fair game… though I’d encourage you to start all root crops in your garden; transplanting may damage the roots enough that they might produce no usable food.

I’m too lazy to start fast-growing cool weather crops indoors. These don’t live long anyway, and I can wait the additional two or three weeks before I start harvesting greens. Still, I remember having fresh garden salad at a friend’s house one March about when lettuce seeds were just sprouting in my garden. My friend had planted from store-bought flats the moment she could work the soil. Compelling.

Of the plants I grow routinely, I start tomatoes, peppers, and squash indoors because they need a long growing season. Most of us eat peppers before they ripen, but if you want red peppers, you need to give them 100 or more days to develop (Once you pick a green pepper, it just won’t turn red.)

This year, I’m also starting broccoli and cauliflower indoors. These won’t mind a heavy frost, so I can set seedlings in the garden when I’m planting lettuce and spinach in March or early April. Broccoli especially can produce all season, but I expect I’ll lose interest in the plants in June so I’ll replace them then with bush beans (sown directly in the garden) that mature very quickly.

 

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Start Your Small Kitchen Garden from Commercial Flats?

I’d like to have one of these in my yard. It’s a commercial greenhouse about three miles from my home, and they’ve laid out row upon row of flower seedlings. Seems like a waste of resources as I’m sure no one will be eating these plants. Still, in a few weeks there’ll be vegetable and fruit starts on many of the benches here.

So many kitchen gardeners in the northern hemisphere are seriously into this year’s growing season. Southerners may already be sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings outdoors—or even harvesting mature vegetables (I know this because so much fresh produce in our grocery stores has flown in from southern California). Northerners are starting to plant seeds indoors.

I encourage new kitchen gardeners to sow seeds directly in their planting beds except for crops that require long growing seasons. For those, I suggest buying seedlings from garden stores and nurseries. Why? Because it’s easy. There’s no sense in making gardening hard when you’re just getting started.

While I encourage you to buy seedlings, it’s important to know that buying flats from a garden store isn’t a panacea. Now, six to eight weeks before you’d buy those flats, is the time to decide whether you’re going to. If you’d rather start your own seeds, you’ll need to do so soon… perhaps within the next two to three weeks.

Some Good Reasons not to buy Seedlings

There are many downsides to buying seedlings in a garden store. Here are several:

1. Your options tend to be limited. A decent garden store may carry a dozen types of tomato seedlings—mostly, hardy hybrids. You may find three or four dozen varieties of tomato seeds at an online garden store. These could include the hardy hybrids, but they’ll also include heirloom tomatoes you’ll never get to taste if you don’t grow them yourself.

2. Nursery plants may be stressed. Nurseries face one overwhelming challenge: they can only guess when to plant seeds. If they guess wrong, their seedlings could be pot-bound and “leggy” by the time anyone wants to plant. For tomatoes, this isn’t really a problem. But many vegetables grow weak stems in the garden when you transplant them from overcrowded nursery pots or flats.

3. Seedlings are pricey. For a four-pack of six-week-old plants, you could pay $3, $4, $5, or more. For a decent seed-starting kit that could start 36, 72, or even 144 plants from seeds, you might pay $4 to $6. A few packages of seeds might cost another 4$ to $6. So, for $12 and minimal effort, you can start nearly 150 plants worth, conservatively, 75 cents apiece.

4. You harvested seeds last year. Harvesting seeds is amazingly satisfying: it provides a sense of continuity from one year to the next. What’s more, if you save seeds from last season’s crop, you don’t have to buy new seeds this season. I’m starting tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and several types of squash from seeds that grew in my small kitchen garden last year.

A garden center may not have facilities to “pot up” seedlings when the last frost is slow in coming. You may find tall, pot-bound plants are your only option when you choose commercial seedlings.

5. Nurseries may sell you trouble. In 2009, late blight destroyed gardens all over the northeastern United States. Disturbingly, the news media reported that late blight was present on tomato seedlings sold in garden departments of big-box stores. This was an unusual occurrence, but it illustrates true risk: when you buy seedlings, you can’t be sure whether they carry diseases or malicious insects.

6. It may be challenging to go organic. If it’s important to you to maintain a strictly organic regimen, you might not find appropriate seedlings at a garden center. Commercial growers may choose potting mixes that include slow-release fertilizers and other non-organic additives. Also, most commercial suppliers aren’t concerned about whether the seeds they start originate from suppliers who produce them organically. If you want to start from flats of organically-grown seedlings, call around now to be sure you’ll be able to buy them when you’re ready to plant.

Still, Commercial Seedlings Rock

For all but one of my gardening years, I bought flats of tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and cauliflower at garden stores. I had a lot of reasons for this and I’ll share them in my next post. In all the years I bought flats, I was never disappointed: broccoli is broccoli, cauliflower is cauliflower, tomatoes are… well, no. The main reason I thought to start seeds myself was a feeling of deja vu I got each spring when selecting from five varieties of beefsteaks.  Last year was the first season I started my own seeds indoors and I’ll never go back.

If you’re planning to buy seedlings this season, do a little research now: locate gardening centers or nurseries in your area and ask whether they start their flats from seeds. If they don’t, at least try to find a store that buys seedlings from a local grower. The farther your baby plants have travelled on their way to your small kitchen garden, the more opportunity they’ve had to develop problems.

A few articles that mention flats of vegetables:

  • friday fill in #124. – 7. and as for the weekend, tonight i’m looking forward to going to the garden center with ms 12 & mr 9 to get our vegetable flats & maybe planting some of them – weather permitting, supposed to be scattered showers all weekend! tomorrow …
  • Vegetable flats behind our garage store | This Week – Here we see about 1/5 of this season’s vegetable flats as they’re getting ready to go out into beds for this summer. We seed flats continuously, and plant on a rotating basis to keep plenty of vegetables growing …

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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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Small Projects in my Small Kitchen Garden

Small Kitchen Garden Heirloom Tomatoes

My peppers are coming on strong this season, but these are tomatoes. I’m so looking forward to harvesting these. They grow very large and contain very little gel; they are nearly all-meat. I expect they’ll produce an enormous amount of sauce compared to what I’d get from a comparable volume of beefsteak tomatoes. The weight of fourteen plants holding, perhaps, 15 tomatoes apiece was pulling the trellis down, but some cross-bracing seems to have relieved the pressure.

There’s a lot going on in my small kitchen garden, and I’d like to share all of it with whomever might be interested. Alas, I’ve traveled quite a bit in the past three weeks, and I’ve been unable to complete the last of my planned plantings. This is awkward because I’m confident that the seasons aren’t going to wait around for me to catch up: what might have grown to maturity had I planted it in early July will probably hit a wall being planted now all of three weeks later.

Still, today I played catch up. Here’s a list of projects I completed today, though I wish I had finished them in June:

1. Shored up the tomato trellises. Technically, I wouldn’t have known in June where to add shoring; the trellises only started to sag last week. Turns out the tomato stakes I converted into tomato trellises aren’t happy holding the weight of 14 heavily-fruited plants. I expected some trouble when I built the trellises; this morning I dealt with it.

2. Planted basil in another planter and in another patch of garden. I really wish I’d done this in June. I’ve had just enough early tomatoes ripen that I’ve prepared my very favorite of all salads Outrageously Good Tomato Salad from a Small Kitchen Garden. However, none of the basil I planted outdoors this year is mature enough to harvest. So, I’ve nearly depleted the basil plant that grew on my basement windowsill over the winter. I’ll need basil in the next few days, and I’d hate to have to buy it at a grocery store.

I first wrote about how I built supports for my over-crowded tomatoes in a post titled Tomato Supports in you Small Kitchen Garden. This morning I added a cross-piece that ties together three tellises. The tops of the trellises are nearly 7 feet high, and plants are already just six inches shy of them. These plants could grow eleven or twelve feet long before a killing frost knocks them out.

 

When cilantro plants get tall and start to flower, they put out a lot of very thin leaves. These tend to be woodier than earlier leaves and they aren’t as flavorful. Better at this point to let the plants make coriander and get some new ones started so they’re putting out large, flat, fragrant leaves when the tomatoes are ripe and ready to go into salsa.

Nearly all my peppers are in planters this season. The plants on the deck’s hand rail have produced a lot of small peppers (the planters are too small for the plants). Many of the peppers are turning red, providing striking bouquets all along the railing.

3. Planted more cilantro in the garden. I’ve already benefited from two crops of cilantro. However, the second crop is getting very flowery which means it won’t be so tender and fragrant in the next few weeks. As the beefsteak tomatoes start ripening, I want a lot of wide, young cilantro leaves on-hand because I’m planning to can salsa this year.

4. Planted another soda bottle with carrots. I’ll post an update of my soda bottle carrot planter within the week. Today I started nine carrot seeds in a 3-liter soda bottle. I’m guardedly enthusiastic about soda bottle carrot planters… but more on this in an upcoming post.

5. Set up a planting box to capture the stolons of my strawberry plants. Actually, my strawberries have put out so many stolons this year that I can’t accommodate all of them. I’ve tried to encourage stolons only from the plants that produced large, attractive berries… but I don’t have enough planters—nor room for the ones I have—to handle all the new growth.

6. Planted sweet potatoes using my home-grown alternative to garbage can potatoes. This is extremely experimental for two reasons. 1: I’m not sure whether sweet potatoes will like the garbage can method that potatoes like so well. 2: I “invented” an alternative to the garbage can that adds a bit of risk to the health of the plants. I’ll provide more details in an upcoming post.

I had to stop gardening when my in-laws and family returned from the county fair; they settled into our screened-in porch where I’ve stashed containers, soil, seeds, and other gardening stuff. I’ve two projects I didn’t complete. 1: Planting my last three tomato plants in a reusable shopping bag. 2: Planting a few beans in milk jug planters.

I hope to finish up tomorrow.

My strawberry plants’ stolons have stolons which, in turn, have stolons. The planters sit on the deck, so the strawberries are getting frustrated in their attempts to clone themselves. I’ve directed stolons into two new planters this year, and will continue to capture these babies until I develop a dedicated strawberry bed in my yard.

 

 

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Tomato-Planting Tips

These tomato seedlings are about two months old. In March, I planted seeds indoors from tomatoes a neighbor gave me last autumn. The plants should produce large, pepper-shaped tomatoes that are mostly meat; I found only about 40 seeds in each of them. I’ll cook these tomatoes into sauce.

If you think of planting a small kitchen garden as a horse race, then most of us are on the home stretch. Despite the unusually cold spring, our cool weather crops are maturing, and we’ve been setting out seedlings of vegetables that thrive in summer heat. For many in hardiness zone 5, planting tomatoes in April or May led to some aggravation this season: frost hit well into May, and we were out in our small kitchen gardens repeatedly, covering our plants with tarps, bed sheets, buckets, flower pots, cloches, or mulch to protect them from the cold. If you were cautious, you might not yet have planted summer crops. That’s OK. There is still plenty of good growing season to come, and now is a great time to finish up your planting.

Plant Tomatoes Now

If you haven’t planted tomatoes, do it as soon as you possibly can. Many varieties of tomatoes require as many as 100 days to mature—from the time you set seedlings in the garden. But I am talking about seedlings. By this I mean plants that are growing in small pots or flats, that are about four to six weeks old, and that haven’t started to flower or grow suckers.

In preparation for planting, I used a “low-till” approach: I removed weeds across a two-foot swath of the planting bed, stretched some yarn to mark the row, and set my potted plants along the row where I intended to plant them. I explained the steps I use to prepare soil in a post titled Small Kitchen Garden Soil-Preparation – 2… but in reviewing that post just now I realize I exaggerated: When planting seedlings, I don’t turn over all the soil in a row; I remove the weeds, then dig individual holes for the seedlings. I turn all the soil in a row only if I’m planting seeds. Crazily, I set seedlings one foot apart in this row – I’ve never planted tomatoes so close, but I’ve seen it done. I hope it doesn’t cause problems.

If you follow planting instructions that come with your plants and seeds, you need to measure two-foot, three-foot, and 18-inch gaps constantly. You can mess with a tape measure, mark up the handles of your gardening tools, use your body parts as guides, or follow my mom’s lead and carve a measuring stick. This is a three-foot-long apple branch. I carved rings in the bark a foot from each end and at the center, making it easy to measure standard plant and row spacings.

In late spring, nurseries might offer older, more developed plants that may be flowering or setting fruit. You can start these in the garden and expect production many weeks earlier than you’ll see with seedlings. I wrote about these concerns in my preceding post How to Plant Tomatoes in Raised Beds. Please look it over for more thoughts about what to look for when shopping for tomato seedlings.

My tomato seedlings are about eight inches tall and the root balls add another three inches. I don’t want to dig foot-deep holes, so I plant my seedlings on their sides. I dig each hole about eight inches deep, and, perhaps, a foot or two across.

Tomato-Planting Tips

If you’re buying seedlings, select ones with short, thick stems. In late spring, your only choices may have skinny, tall stems, but don’t be discouraged; you can compensate for the “legginess.”

This late in the spring (unless you have very long summers), select varieties that mature quickly. Many varieties list 65 or 75 days to maturity; they’ll have more days to provide fruit than varieties needing 100 or more days to mature.

You can plant a seedling still packed in its peat pot, but don’t. Roots wrap around inside the pot and only slowly grow through the peat. To remove a pot – peat or plastic – gently squeeze the pot repeatedly from all sides. Then grasp the tomato plant’s stem and pull the root ball out. If the plant doesn’t leave a peat pot easily, moisten the pot and then tear it off of the root ball. If the roots are cramped, use your thumbs to separate them a smidge; you might tear some, but loosening them will help them adapt quickly to their new home in the garden. Note that I’m adding a scoop of compost to half-fill the hole before I set the seedling in it.

Have you selected determinate or indeterminate varieties? The answer may influence whether you stake your plants, use cages, or let your plants free-range (grow along the ground as they choose). If the tag that comes with the tomato plant doesn’t identify it as determinate or indeterminate, the person selling it should be able to tell you. See the box, What’s Determinate? for an explanation of the differences.

Lay the root ball at one side of the hole and angle the plant’s stem across the bottom of the hole. Bend the stem up so the top three leaves of the plant will be above ground when you fill the hole with soil. Don’t fill the hole even with the level of the garden bed; leave it a smidge low so water will pool around the plant during rain or when you water the garden. Immediately after you plant a seedling this way, it may look unhappy, but it should pep up very quickly.

Consider how you’ll manage your plants. If they’ll grow “free-range,” they’ll need a lot of ground space; a tomato plant might stretch eight or nine feet along the ground, and spread four-to-eight feet from side-to-side. Indeterminate tomatoes lend themselves well to staking. Determinate varieties might do best in cages. Will you tie them to stakes? Will you support them with strings that dangle from overhead wires, pipes, or other trellises? Will you surround them with cages? Read more about managing tomato plants in my post, Are You a Sucker-Plucker?

Let your tomatoes free-range only as a last resort. A free-range tomato plant requires virtually no attention to do well. However, fruits on free-range plants are especially vulnerable. In dry summers, rodents may snack on tomatoes that are close to the ground. And, a tomato resting on the ground invites insects and disease; you’ll get much healthier fruit if you stake or cage your plants to keep the fruits off the ground. I let only my cherry tomatoes and my “volunteers” (plants that grow from seed left in random places by last year’s crop) free-range.

Though planted less than 24 hours earlier with its crown lying on the ground, this tomato seedling has already picked itself up and pointed toward the sky. If I’m staking my tomato plants, I like to get the stakes planted within a week of planting the seedlings. I pound eight-foot stakes about a foot deep, and indeterminate plants always outgrow them.

Tomato plants are a lot like weeds: it’s very hard to destroy them by accident. I once accidentally bent a young tomato stem so it broke about half way through. I tied the plant against a tomato stake, and it grew to maturity, matching its neighboring uninjured plants.

Tomato plants root easily at any point along their stems. So, if your plant hangs down onto the soil, it may put down roots. More importantly: if a seedling is “leggy” you can get it under control by planting most of its stem underground. When you plant younger seedlings, leave only the top three leaves above the surface. The photos in the post demonstrate how to plant a leggy tomato plant without having to dig a deep hole.

Tomato plants are heavy drinkers. They shouldn’t live in soaking wet soil, but they welcome daily deep watering.

Tomato plants do not require daily deep watering. In fact, they grow very well even in arid situations. However, when tomatoes are developing, they’ll come out best when your plants receive regular watering: daily, every other day, every third day… whatever you can handle as long as it’s consistent.

What’s Determinate?

Many varieties of tomatoes continue to grow until an outside influence kills them. For those of us in temperate zones, the outside influence is usually frost. Hypothetically, these indeterminate tomato plants will continue growing indefinitely as long as the conditions are favorable.

A determinate tomato plant has a built-in off switch. It simply stops growing at some point during the season.

Tomato enthusiasts promote all kinds of watering schemes; they’re all good. I know a grower who punched holes in #10-sized cans, and buried a can next to each tomato he planted… buried it with the can’s open top at soil level. Each day, he filled the can to the top with water; it was “The perfect amount of water for a tomato.” Poke around on the web, and I’m sure you’ll find other such watering schemes. Photo captions in this post explain my very simple watering scheme; a fine solution for a lazy garden.

Vine-ripened, shmine-ripened! Ancient farmers have told me, “A farmer can tell whether a tomato ripened on the vine.” Without scientific investigation, I can authoritatively report: HOGWASH. I wrote a post titled, Are Your Tomatoes a Mess? It explains how to harvest tomatoes with incredibly reliable results, and I stand by it. I’ve harvested tomatoes this way for ten years, and am still awed at how consistently better they are than vine-ripened tomatoes.

Before You Plant Tomatoes

Your Small Kitchen Garden has presented several posts that explain how to prepare garden beds for planting. The first of these articles explains the benefits of preparing soil. The second and third provide step-by-step instructions for preparing traditional planting beds using traditional methods, and using the “minimal till” approach that I use in my garden. The fourth article suggests one approach to preparing soil in a raised planting bed. Links appear at the bottom of this box.

The instructions in this post for planting tomatoes assume that you’ve prepared your soil and have marked a row awaiting seedlings.

1. Prepare to plant

2. Soil Preparation 1

3. Soil Preparation 2

4. Soil Preparation 3

 

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