Posts Tagged ‘seedlings’
I figure to set tomato seedlings in the garden in late May so I started seeds at the beginning of April. I love how a tomato sprout pushes up a section of stem and then eventually pulls its leaf tips free.
As a kitchen gardener, I get excited when the first seeds sprout in my office each spring. If I manage things well, those sprouts are lettuces and brassicas (cauliflower and broccoli). They can go into the garden more than a month before cold-sensitive crops such as tomatoes and chili peppers, and it’s great to give them a head start so they have plenty of productive time outdoors before summer heat shuts them down.
My Small Kitchen Garden is a Lake
I planted several varieties of lettuce in early March along with a bunch of broccoli and cauliflower seeds. They came on well, and I figured to plant them outdoors in late March or early April—about when I started tomatoes and peppers in my office.
I started four types of lettuce near the beginning of March. The Summer Crisp and Purple Leaf lettuces in this planter should have gone in the garden two or three weeks ago. We’d be eating fresh garden salads if we’d had about six inches less rain in the past month.
Here’s the thing: my planting bed has been too wet to garden. The longest gap between rainstorms in the past six weeks has been, perhaps, three days. Each storm has lasted at least 12 hours and deposited enough water to saturate the soil and leave puddles on top.
When I first plunged a garden fork into the soil and pressed down on the handle to loosen things up for my lettuce seedlings, there was a loud sucking noise. My soil contains a lot of clay, so if I work it when it’s wet I might just as well be making pottery as tilling.
My tomato seedlings are getting big enough to set outdoors and I’ll probably transplant them to larger pots in ten days or so. In the meantime, my lettuce and brassica seedlings are getting really annoyed. They desperately want out of their planters and into the garden.
The cauliflower and broccoli plants look nearly large enough to put up their central florets. If the garden doesn’t dry out in the next few days, I’ll move the plants into large pots on my deck; I’ve never grown cauliflower and broccoli in planters, but I’m confident they’ll do well that way.
Because the garden continues to remain under water, I may need to set my lettuce seedlings in individual pots and manage them on my deck. Otherwise, it may be so hot by the time the garden is ready that the seedlings will bolt and there won’t be any lettuce to harvest.
Broccoli and cauliflower are a bit more heat-tolerant, and they can go in the garden later. However, they also need more space for roots, so if these rain storms continue I’ll be potting up the brassicas about when I pot up the tomatoes.
Usually I push the season a bit and get my plants in the ground too early. The way 2011 is developing, I can’t get them in the ground early enough. With luck, the rain will let up before June and I’ll be able to set out tomato and pepper seedlings without resorting to SCUBA gear. On the other hand, maybe it’s time to consider growing rice in my small kitchen garden.
How’s your kitchen garden doing?
No, I’m not making it up: my garden is very wet. Word is that local farmers are two weeks behind because of the weather. After a full day without rain, there is still standing water in my main planting bed. Apparently, some types of weeds don’t mind having wet feet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …