Posts Tagged ‘seed starting’
I try to keep my main planting bed covered in leaves through the winter. In spring, it’s fairly easy to rake the leaves aside and scrape furrows in the moist soil to hold pea seeds. This year, my wife made the furrows. I set and buried the peas. If the leaf cover has done its job, there are almost no weeds to remove, and I dig only where I’m planting.
This blog has traditionally been about how to grow and prepare food and it means to stay that way. I’ve taken detours of late because of family issues (my dad moved out of his house and I spent a lot of time cleaning up after him) and because of health issues (I’m recovering from a Whipple—surgery that removed a pancreatic tumor and re-routed my digestive tract).
Here’s a brief “how-to” to keep the blog on course:
It’s spring, plant!
With help from my wife, I’ve started three rows of peas in the garden. I plant a lot so we have peas to eat until July with plenty left over for the freezer. I once posted a video that shows the method I still use – Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook. I also wrote a post explaining how-to – Enough Peas to Preserve.
Peas handle frost well, and will even survive a freeze into the 20s. They aren’t as hardy in hot weather. In my experience, a variety called Wando handles early spring heat better than most. So, given we’re in a streak of hottest months on record, hedge your bets and try to plant Wando peas this year. They grow at least five feet tall, so make sure you rig trellises for them.
I just started seeds for my summer vegetables. My setup this year is on our seldom-used ping-pong table: I used the kids’ cardboard bricks to support a four-foot shop light across the five-foot-wide table. The planters are the bottoms of plastic one-gallon milk jugs filled with a commercial seed-starting mix. I set 16 seeds in each planter, for a total of 112 seeds. Soon, I’ll add a second shop light and start a few other seeds; once the first planting emerges I’ll note what failed to germinate and try again with the same varieties.
Along with peas, this is a good time to plant lettuce, spinach, onions, carrots, and potatoes. All prefer to grow in cool weather and can handle frost—though young potato plants may die back in the cold, they’ll quickly make up for it on warmer days.
Start seeds indoors
We’re at the threshold for indoor seed-starting. That is, if you don’t start yours soon, you’ll lose the advantage you get from indoor starts. Ideally, start tomato, pepper, tomatillo, eggplant, and okra seeds indoors six-to-eight weeks before the average last frost in your area. Turns out, if you start eight weeks early—especially with tomatoes—your seedlings will probably need to be transplanted into larger pots before it’s time to set them in the garden. That’s fine if you have the space to manage it.
Around here, the average last frost is mid-April, so I just planted 72 tomato seeds, 8 tomatillo seeds (a new gardening experience for me), and 32 pepper seeds. It’s very easy to do; I’ve written several posts about it over the years:
Start Your Own Seedlings (this is how I start my seeds)
Small Kitchen Garden Seed-Starting Shelf
Start Seeds in Pellets for Your Small Kitchen Garden
Start Your Small Kitchen Garden from Commercial Flats
Really? Start Seeds Indoors for Your Small Kitchen Garden?
Start Seeds in Pots for Your Small Kitchen Garden
When I assembled photos for my landscapes photo challenge, my set of favorites from 2015 included way more than the requisite seven shots. Rather than choose seven from among 40, I added a Waterscapes photo challenge to my list—and was pleased to learn that “waterscapes” is a real word meaning what I wanted it to mean.
I’ve posted seven waterscapes here. Like the landscapes of my previous post, I captured these photos in central Pennsylvania and in central upstate New York—near Ithaca or on the way to Ithaca from Lewisburg.
This photo isn’t about art so much as it is about Mom. Mom kept a “life list” of birds she spotted through the kitchen window. Years after I left home, she and my dad bought a shack on a cliff above Cayuga lake and spent summers cleaning, painting, and making it into their vacation lake cottage. I enjoyed visiting the cottage, but I didn’t fall in love with it until 2015. I finished emptying and repairing my dad’s house, and tenants moved in. That left me with two options when I visited: sleep on my dad’s sofa in his tiny independent living unit, or stay at the lake cottage. Stoking a fire in the wood stove to hold off cold autumn nights called back years of semi-rustic living. Waking up at the cottage to sounds of rustling leaves and nautical activity was meditative.
It’s possible my mother never saw the birdhouse in this photo. However, seeing it hanging along the stairway down to the lake made it easy to imagine my mom pausing on those stairs to watch birds come and go. I hope to spend time at the cottage this year absorbing the same sensations that lured my parents there.
There are few places that make my dog Nutmeg happier than she is at the local dog park. Far from the park’s parking area, there’s a stream in which Nutmeg tests her Labrador breeding… and fails. She’ll chase sticks into the water and bring them back as long as she never gets in deep enough to swim. Last August, grass seed heads caught sun against the dark waters of Nutmeg’s favorite stream.
Mansfield, Pennsylvania is halfway to Ithaca from the Cityslipper ranch. Mansfield boasts a nature preserve with hiking trails, a picnic area, and a boat launch, and I love to stop there to capture photos. Water at the boat launch is a weird shade of blue that makes me wonder about agricultural runoff, but were that not the case the waterway would still be surreal. In this photo, the white flowers lining the river are knotweed—an invasive that looks awesome in bloom. Depending on cloud cover and the time of day, different features pop, so I always discover something new when I stop in Mansfield.
South and west of Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania there are many waterways that flow to the Susquehanna River. I’ve photographed these streams, creeks, and rivers at so many places, I’m not always sure which is which. It’s compelling to me that I could drop a canoe in one of the streams and float in it 140 miles to the Chesapeake Bay and then into the Atlantic ocean.
On trips to Ithaca, I sometimes drive north to Corning, NY, and then up route 414 to Watkins Glen. The road follows a valley with farmland guarded by wooded hills that put on quite a display in autumn. Last October, I stopped to capture photos where wetlands cover much of the valley floor.
Perhaps stretching the definition of “waterscape,” this is one of dozens of waterfalls at a Pennsylvania nature preserve called Ricketts Glen. We hosted two Japanese students for nearly three weeks in August, and shared a hike with them along the Glen’s most popular trail.
I lingered below a waterfall at Ricketts Glen where the roots of a tree felt their way over rocks to find soil in the creek bed. If you want a photo session in Ricketts Glen, clear the day, go alone, and stay all day… though it’s fun to share the trip with a group.
My first chili pepper sprout of the year is a sweet pepper, but I don’t know what type. Last year I collected orange bell and sweet Italian pepper seeds from my harvest and managed to store them unlabeled. I’ve two distinct packs of seeds, and planted as many from one pack as from the other. Nearly all have sprouted. I’ll find out in August which plants are which.
Just a week ago I reported on the success of my tomato starts (Tomatoes Under Lights). Two days later, my first chili pepper seedling of 2015 emerged.
You might surmise I get a special rush when my seeds start each year. I used to wait until my garden soil warmed and then I’d buy flats of seedlings at local garden stores. Year after year I’d choose from among a very limited variety of plants. Starting my own seeds changed so much.
- I now select from among hundreds of varieties of tomatoes and peppers rather then from the dozen or so available in local garden centers.
- I now try varieties of plants that simply aren’t available as seedlings at local stores. For example, I’ve started artichokes and cardoon this year as well as quince trees all from seeds.
- My gardening season becomes “real” some 2 months earlier than it used to. Perusing garden catalogs from January until April used to make up my entire “pre-season.” I still peruse catalogs, but in February and March I mail-order seeds, fill planters with soil, and start plants under lights. My growing season is way longer because I get to tend seedlings
- for a month or so before I set foot in the garden.
- I get to enjoy near problem-free gardening leading up to spring planting. Starting seeds indoors under lights controls for nearly every problem I face in my garden: light, water, insects, disease, marauding rodents, birds… I decide how these work on my seed-starting shelf.
- My sense of accomplishment is way bigger when I start my own seedlings indoors under lights. I marvel that a seed the size of a bread crumb under my care grows to a plant more than 10 feet tall and produces 20 to 100 lbs of food containing seeds that can start it all over again next year—perhaps several thousand times over, depending on the food.
I planted 16 sweet pepper seeds in this container and every one sprouted. That’s a very tolerable percentage!
Do you start your own seeds? Perhaps this is your year to try.
Saturday and Sunday, March 21st and 22nd, I planted 73 tomato seeds in five planters. The planters are under lights in my office.
The 73 seeds represent 18 varieties of tomatoes – six varieties I brought back from last year’s garden, and 12 I bought from seed companies this spring. The first seedling emerged on March 26, just five (or four) days after planting. I snapped photos but here it is about 36 hours later and I’m just creating a post.
A lot happens in 36 hours! At last count, 67 seeds had sprouted. My planters have gone from bare to heavily-forested in just a day-and-a-half. I’m very excited to set the seedlings into my garden, but that won’t happen until June (unless the weather forecast is excessively rosy in May).
I love starting my garden indoors under lights!
In about six days, all but six of the tomato seeds I planted in containers have sprouted. Unfortunately, only one out of four Great White seeds is up, so I may do a second planting of that variety. Those leafy things way in the back on the right are cardoon and artichoke plants. I started artichokes about February 10th, and cardoon about March 5th.
One week old tomato seedlings grow under lights in my office. While I planted 16 seeds per container, some didn’t sprout. There are, perhaps, 70 going strong. To the right are pepper seedlings barely visible under their shop light. That light is so much closer to the plants because I lifted the fixture above the tomatoes to fit the camera under it for the photograph.
Sprouts are up! One hundred and six sprouts grace my seed-starting shelf. Most are tomato plants though about 24 are pepper plants and another 8 are lettuce.
I live in USDA hardiness zone 6b or 7a, depending on how you squint at the most recent map. While it felt more like zone 3 this winter, the temperature might have just brushed minus 5 – the minimum low to qualify as zone 6b. What was unusual is the cold hung on day-after-day; we had a six-week period during which it was a relief if the temperature spiked into the low 20s.
Even as the snow melted, we had cold. There’s a popular rule of thumb in our neighborhood: plant peas on St Patrick’s Day. I doubt many people succeeded. In fact, cold and rain continued until just two days ago, so anyone trying to plant peas would have been working in mud. I don’t expect to put anything in the garden for another three or four days, assuming we don’t see even more rain.
How I Start Seeds
I recently attended my first seed swap where a presenter recommended that home growers buy celled seed-starting trays. I no longer go that route. I’ve used peat pots pressed out in connected cells, I’ve used compressed peat pellets, and I’ve used old plastic drinking cups. I wrote about much of this some years ago in evergreen blog posts.
Here’s a setup I created with my dad last spring. He found a seven foot section of wire shelving. We marked 17 inches in from each end of the shelving, cut the reinforcement wire along the front edge, and bent the two 17-inch ends down to create a stand from which to hang a shop light. My dad has a cabinet in his living room where he sets up trays and pots in which to start tree seeds. With chains to suspend the shop light, it’s easy to adjust the fixture’s height as seedlings grow tall.
These days I cut up gallon plastic milk and orange juice jugs and use the bottoms as seed planters. In a milk jug, I set 16 seeds, and in an orange juice jug, I set 12 seeds. Sure, roots grow together as the seedlings get large, but teasing (gently tearing) them apart doesn’t seem to bother them too much.
When I set seeds, I create a paper tag to identify which varieties of plants are in a particular container (and where the varieties are). These I tape to the side of the container for quick reference. I refer to the tags when I set seedlings in the garden and make a map that shows where I plant each variety.
The easiest thing to overlook when you start seeds indoors is lighting. Don’t assume a south-facing window can provide enough light to produce healthy seedlings. Instead, get a fluorescent fixture with 850K spectrum tubes (see the box titled Don’t Buy Grow Lights). When you first plant seeds, suspend the light about 3 inches over the surface of the soil. As seedlings grow, raise the light to maintain a 3-inch separation from the tops of the plants.
To start tomato and pepper seeds, keep the room temperature above 70 degrees. Ideally, shoot for 80 degrees which, if you don’t want to turn up the heat, you can achieve by putting a heating pad under the seed pots. I’ve found in a 70 degree room, fluorescent lights parked 3 inches above my planters warm the soil adequately.
Starting seeds indoors is only mildly challenging. If you have space to set up a light and some makeshift planters, don’t buy a flat of seedlings that someone else has started. You can grow that!
I start seeds in planters I create by cutting the bottom halves off of gallon plastic milk jugs. I start a cut by pinching the milk jug between the tips of a scissors and squeezing hard. If the carton proves too tough, I can poke a hole through with one scissors tip. Then I cut around the container on a line parallel to the bottom of the jug.
I buy a bale of potting soil every three or four years from a local garden center. A bale is an enormous amount of soil—compressed to about half its “fluffed” volume. To use it, I wield a butter knife as an ice pick, stabbing one end of the bale repeatedly until a chunk comes loose. I crumble the chunk into a planter and smoosh up smaller lumps between my thumb and fingers.
Note that I don’t put drainage holes in the bottoms of my homemade planters. This forces me to pay extra attention to the moisture of the soil. Before I plant, I add what must be about a third of a gallon of water and leave the planter for 30 minutes or longer so the water soaks in. The soil should be moist on the surface but there shouldn’t be water sloshing around in the container. Note your potting soil might float when you first add water. Worse: some potting soils don’t absorb water without encouragement. If you have such potting soil, stir the water in or it might just pool on top.
I use a chopstick to create 16 indents in the soil of a planter; orange circles in the photo represent the layout. For tomato and pepper seeds, these can be just one-eighth to one-quarter inch deep. I drop a single seed into each indentation and then gently nudge soil over the seeds. With all the seeds covered, I very gently tamp the soil down with the heel of my hand.
My labels aren’t pretty, but they work. This one reveals I have paste tomato seeds in the left two rows (for a total of 8), 3 Amana Orange tomato seeds at the back of the third row with one Tangerine Beefsteak seed in the front of that row, and a final full row of Tangerine Beefsteak seeds.
I may have to “pot up” the seedlings later which I do by gently tearing each one away from the root ball and then setting 8 into a milk-jug-derived planter. Of course, I create new labels for the new planters, and eventually I use those labels to inform a map I draw so I know where each variety ends up in the garden. I posted a video that shows the potting-up procedure when I made my seed-starting planters slightly differently… but the video is still relevant: