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Before I started my garden last year — my first year as a vegetable gardener — I didn’t realize there were an abundance of veggies that could be moved out to the garden early in the season, once the soil can be worked. Instead, I thought I had to wait until after the last frost date here in northern Indiana — May 15 — before my garden could start to take shape. As a result, my garden got a late start. This year, I moved in the opposite direction and have tried to push the envelope, so to speak, to see how early I could get away with planting my salad greens. I began putting out Swiss chard and spinach seedlings in early April, which have taken advantage of the frequent spring rains. (Of course, I had plenty of back-up seedlings in case my experiment failed.) I expect to begin eating from these earliest plantings within a couple of weeks.
I also planted lettuce seedlings two weeks ago. These were not quite as successful. It looks like I lost about half of my plants, although I’ve been left with plenty for a first planting, and of course I’ll be adding more soon. I’ve decided that my lettuces should be the first seedlings I start each winter, so that they will be plenty big with good root growth to survive the April temperatures. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to begin planting lettuce seedlings in late January.
While we’re on the subject of starting seedlings, I’ve decided that I really like using peat pellets for lettuce seedlings, as well as seedlings of other delicate salad greens. They are exactly the right size for these particular vegetable seedlings, and the pellets are much easier and faster to plant once the greens are put out into the garden. I have about twice as many seed failures using pellets instead of traditional potting soil and peat pots, but the unsuccessful pellets can be replanted a second time when the seeds don’t sprout, so they aren’t wasted.
I discovered last year that lettuce and other salad greens do very well in high shade. I have mine in the section of the garden that is shaded mid-day by several old maple trees. They don’t need as much root space as other vegetables — about four inches is plenty — so the roots of the tall trees nearby don’t interfere their productivity. And the soil beneath the trees is rich and loaded with decades of organic material that has fallen from the trees. Yet there is plenty of light in the morning to keep these plants happy and growing. Additionally, this particular section of my garden lies along the south side of my garage and benefits from the protection this structure offers during frosty nights.
The only difficulty of growing near the trees is that I suspect they are a source of aphids. As I did last year, I cover my lettuce seedlings and the young seedlings of other salad greens with cloches made from two-liter bottles that I have been saving since last summer. This protects them from the cold, rabbits (I haven’t yet made needed repairs to last year’s fence), and insects. I’m also going to try covering the paths between the rows with plastic (last year I used dried leaves and pine needles) to see if this inhibits insects from spreading to my greens once the temperatures have warmed and I’m forced to remove the cloches. Additionally, I plant my greens in double rows, and I surround them with plantings of known aphid repellants — right now, those are onions and garlic, as these members of the allium family also are tolerant of cool temperatures. Later I will add cilantro, basil and anise.
Now that my greens and my peas are in, and I still have one week remaining in April, my goal next week is to move my sturdy and thriving brassica seedlings outside. This year I should have half my garden planted before we ever get to mid-May.
This is the second year that I have started seeds early inside to plant in my garden later. Last year, I’m very proud to say, I grew about 50 Roma tomato plants from seed, transplanted them to my garden in May, and harvested enough tomatoes to freeze 38 quarts of tomato sauce, a supply we are still eating from to this day.
I learned a lot last year about starting seeds, which I did largely by following the directions on the seed packages and those that come with the seed starting medium and the little trays holding the peat pots. I won’t lie – I made a lot of mistakes. But with my experience came some knowledge that they don’t tell you when you buy these products. For one thing, I learned that you really don’t need the plastic trays. You just need something to hold the little pots of sprouting seeds until you can plant them in the soil. (Some people say you don’t need the peat pots too, but I’ve decided that I do, even if they don’t.) This year I am using plastic sweater boxes (without the lids) and shallow cardboard boxes, in addition to the trays I purchased last year.
I still consider myself a novice gardener, but right now most of my seedlings are growing heartily for the coming season. Yesterday I started a flat of bok choy, a vegetable I am planting for the first time this year. It occurred to me that many people might benefit from these inexpensive and fail-safe methods I have learned for starting seeds myself.
(1) Begin with a shallow cardboard box, the kind that canned goods and beverages are shipped in. I used a small plastic wastebasket liner to line the box, making it leak free. I stapled the plastic in place at the top edges of the cardboard.
(2) Place in the box medium-sized peat pots. For this project, I am using 12 pots 3 inches in diameter. These pots hold roughly 1 cup of soil or seed starting medium. I like this size when I am starting my plants 2 months before planting, because there is enough room for root growth until I need to transplant to my garden in May. If I use anything much smaller, I have found that most of my plants don’t have enough room to grow good root balls to keep them alive those full two months, and then I have to transplant to a larger size if I don’t want them to die. There are some plants that require less space — like lettuce — but yesterday I was starting a plant related to cabbage and in the brassica/crucifer family. These are not small plants. This is the size of peat pot that I used successfully last year for broccoli, a bok choy relative. Earlier this month, I also used these or similar pots to start cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. These pots were two dollars for 22 pots at Walmart. Of course, I only used twelve to plant this small flat, roughly $1.10 worth. I expect that I’ll also add another planting in late summer for a fall harvest.
(3) Fill the bottom of the pots (only half up) with potting soil. I have found that in these larger pots, I can use regular potting soil in the bottom, saving the top half of the pot for seed starting medium, which is a little more expensive (I’m told you can make your own seed starting medium, but my self confidence isn’t there yet for that project.) If you are using the smallest 50-cell to a flat pots, don’t use the potting soil, as these have barely enough room for the starting medium.
(4) After filling the peat pots half full with potting soil, add enough water to make the soil very wet. For my project, I used a quart of water for the twelve pots.
(5) Over the wet potting soil, fill the remainder of the peat pots with seed starting medium. This stuff is funny. Water doesn’t soak into it right away. It just runs through it. That’s why putting the wet potting soil on the bottoms of the pots helps, because it holds onto the water better. In time, the water at the bottom will wick up into the seed starting medium, which contains a high percentage of peat moss. But for a while, the medium kind of floats around on the water.
(6) Slowly add more water into the pots (another quart for my project). As I said, most of it runs through the starting medium, but some water will get absorbed. The rest will be soaked up later. At this point there will be about a half inch of water standing in the bottom of my cardboard tray. This will quickly be absorbed into the soil and seed starting medium in the next few days, and it was no cause for concern.
(7) Smooth out the surface of the seed starting medium with a spoon, and then mist the medium with water again. This allows moisture to be retained up at the top, where the seeds will be. Water signals the seeds to start growing, and they won’t grow until they make contact with the water.
(8) Place a single seed on the top of the seed starting medium in each pot. I use tweezers (which need to be dry or the seeds will stick), and I plant only one seed per pot, as I have nearly 100 percent sprouting success by using this method. If one seed should fail to sprout, I can use the pot again, either for a later planting of the same vegetable or another plant. (I waste nothing.)
(9) Mist heavily again. This way we can be certain the seeds are getting the moisture they need to activate germination. This also gives the soil starting medium one more chance to hold in a bit of water right there next to the seed.
(10) Cover the seed with the amount specified by the seed packet. (Bok choy and most other brassicas/crucifers need another 1/4 inch.) Then mist heavily again. Most of the directions I used last year warn against over-watering. I have found that slight overwatering (not flooding, but plenty of moisture) seems to give me my best results. By following these directions, I am making sure that the seed has initial moisture, as well as moisture for about one week, which is when I usually see sprouts for most (but not all) vegetables.
Initially, with this strategy it will look as if the pots have been filled to the very brim, but after about a week, once the water has soaked more fully into the starting medium, it all condenses some, so that I will have pots with soil about a half inch from the top of the pots in the end.
Then, finally, label every pot. You don’t have to be fancy. I use cut-up pieces of index cards taped to toothpicks. I also use a waterproof pen, as water will definitely come into contact with these labels, and they are going to look a little weary and waterlogged before the seedlings make it into the garden. In addition to the name of the vegetable, I also make note of the day they were planted. This information is helpful for future reference.
I have calculated that these twelve pots, fully filled and planted with seed, cost me less than two dollars. This is nowhere near what seedlings cost when purchased from a nursery, and I very much enjoy the satisfaction I get from doing it all myself. Initially, my potted seeds will spend about a week in my basement until they start to sprout. Then I will move them to a nice little sun porch on the west side of my house for my seedlings to stay while they are taking root and growing strongly in preparation for planting about mid-May. My crucifers, by the way, once planted also will have ground covers to protect them from insect infestation. But that’s another story, isn’t it?
My garden blog was inactive over the winter. I hadn’t intended it to be. I had wanted to post occasionally about the many, many dishes we enjoyed during the winter months from vegetables I had frozen last fall. Instead, I took a well-deserved break. Maybe next year, right?
But now it’s time to begin again. In fact, my 2010 garden actually started taking shape in 2009, when I decided to experiment with growing greens inside. That was largely a failure — the lettuce got aphids and ended up feeding our little rabbit instead of us. EXCEPT, the spinach was quite successful. In December, just after Christmas, when I disposed of the aphid-infested lettuce, I planted in its place baby spinach, which is ready to eat right now. I didn’t plant a lot, given that it was essentially an experiment and I only had a little seed left from my spring and summer gardens, but it’s nice to know now what works and what doesn’t.
In January I bought garden seeds the very instant they started showing up on store shelves. In mid-February, I began planting, starting first by planting left-over herb seeds from last year. I was completely hopeless successfully starting herbs from seed last summer and ended up buying plants later from the nursery. But I learned a lot in my effort, and I decided to give it another go this year. So far I have thyme, lavender and oregano growing great-guns. They’re still very, very small and tender. They grow in peat pots filled with seed starting medium, and I mist them daily to keep them hydrated. Still, I had a lot of failure, but the ones that have made it this far seem to be on the road to success. I’ll report in later with full results. Just this week, I also started basil and more cilantro. The cilantro has never given me any difficulty before. We’ll see how the basil does.
In late February, I started three varieties of tomato: Roma for making sauce, Beefsteak for sliced tomatoes, and cherry for the kids. I was very successful last year with about 50 plants that I started from seed during the winter producing 38 quarts of frozen tomato sauce. I lost about 20 percent of my harvest at the end of September to late blight — I had been aiming for 50 quarts as I thought we would average one quart a week. The 38 quarts turned out to be plenty, but I’m glad I aimed high because of the loss we incurred.
After I had the tomatoes off and running, I started the crucifers/brassicas. These plants can be put outside as soon as the ground is warm enough to work. I planted them in larger peat pots and will probably keep them inside as long as their pots are adequate for their growing roots. I had beautiful broccoli last year that I started from seed, which gave me the confidence to grow more varieties of crucifers this year. I have planted cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, which have all sprouted.
I have a kind of assembly-line rotating system in place this year to make the most of my available space and limited resources. Once the seeds are planted in their peat pots and seed starting medium, I bring their trays down to the basement to await sprouting. The very first day they pop their little heads out of the soil, they get moved into a room where they will sit under flourescent lights inches from the growing surface. As new sprouts from other varieties move into the light room, the larger or more cold-hardy vegetables go out to my sunporch on the west side of our house.
I knew last year, my first year ever as a vegetable gardener, that I was hooked on starting my vegetables from seed. I can’t tell you how proud I am of those 38 quarts of tomato sauce that I grew from a two dollar pack of seeds (plus another twenty dollars invested in starting trays, peat pots and seed starting medium). This year the trays are being reused, and the experience I gained last year with my failures will keep my expenses down even more.