Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Quick Update

Seeds are sprouting! Slowly but surely, one by one, the first round is starting to come to life. So far only a single cardoon and two or three Gerber daisies have poked their sleepy heads up out of the growing mix, but others are sure to follow.

I lied. There were 74 other sprouts I didn't mention. Those were the Silver Queen sweet corn seeds that germinated out of 100, and that's not a bad rate for eight year old seed! If I'm not mistaken... the industry standard minimum germination rate for salable seeds is 80%. So I'll be planting a few rows of this white sweet corn amidst the blocks of a colorful new breed in the making. (More about that later.) The idea is to detassle the white corn plants and allow them to be a blank slate to be pollinated by the many colors of the surrounding plants.

I am soaking some pepper seeds right now. I used hot tap water and just a splash of hydrogen peroxide - maybe 5%. They've been soaking a little over 24 hours, and tomorrow I'll transfer them to a moist paper towel in a sealed container for high humidity. When they begin to sprout they'll be moved to the soilless mix.

It was hard to choose which ones not to sprout, but I decided to go with the following four this year: Emerald Giant - this is a bell pepper that turns red when fully ripe, and is the most successful one I've tried here; Paprika; Tenderness (Nezhnost); and Trinidad Perfume. Paprika should be hot - this is the one used for pepper powder. Nezhnost is one I haven't tried yet, but I think it's a small yet not too hot pepper. Trinidad Perfume looks and tastes much like a Habanero, but hasn't the heat. I was adventurous to grow and eat Habanero peppers in the past, but to me the attraction is the unique fruity taste, not the atomic heat. I hope to find Trinidad Perfume to be the best of both worlds.

One practical dilemma is that the Gerber daisies demand the heat mat for another week, so there is limited space there. I'll be starting eggplant next, and with no more room on the heat mat (the pepper seeds have taken the remaining space) I'll have to find another consistently warm area - most likely the top of the freezer.

You might have noticed a grayish blotch at the top of the above picture of an emerging cardoon seedling. That's the beginning of a patch of mold. This is why you monitor the moisture of your seedlings' environment closely. That particular container was formerly a strawberry container and has a snap-on lid. There are vents at the base and in the lid, but I had left the lids closed to maintain high humidity until first emergence. It seems to have worked just a little too well! Good thing I check them daily, because I was able to spot this potential problem on time and open all the lids - now the mold will lose its perfect environment and fade away.

Some folks have asked me about the growing mix as there is a picture in the previous post showing the components. I actually made one more adjustment after taking that photo to get more fine-sized wood bark. I try a different formula every year, ever searching for a better mix. Currently, my recommendation goes something like this: 1 to 2 parts Canadian peat, 1 part perlite, 1 part vermiculite, 1 part worm castings, and 1 part fine wood bark chips. I really don't think there is a perfect mix for seed starting, but there's only one way to find out!

I put a handful of pelletized organic 5-5-5 fertilizer in the mix, but that could be part of the reason for the mold. In hindsight, the worm castings provide around a 1-1-1 fertilizer, which is plenty for young plants. I've tried many amendments in the past, and I have to say that kelp meal was certainly the most effective. It contains all the micronutrients needed and then some, as well as a good shot of potassium. It doesn't take much, though!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Seed Starting Time

February… It’s time to get serious about seed starting for the upcoming growing season. Onions should’ve/could’ve been started sooner, but I don’t mind buying sets (they’re cheap…) If you start seedlings too early, you run the risk of getting bored of babysitting plants for so long. They do keep growing and taking up more and more space, you know. That can be problematic if you are growing them in the house – which is why outdoor space is needed.

I wrote earlier about a greenhouse I’m trying to build. It turns out I’m in no condition to build it the way I’d like to… so I need make it even more rustic than I had planned (it will be little more than a small glass-covered pole barn.) In fact, I had planned to have it built by now. At least I’ve collected everything needed to build it. So, now the pressure is on - I’ve started some seeds, and soon I’ll start more, and soon they’ll need to be kicked out the door!

So, what are the other options for outdoor seedling storage? In the past, I’ve had good luck with cold frames. A glass door laid atop four bales of straw gives ample room for tall seedlings, and excellent protection from drastic temperature swings. But in February or even March, it just isn’t warm enough. My great-uncle tells me they used to build hotbeds for this situation. A hotbed is a cold frame set atop buried horse manure; as the manure decomposes, it releases heat. I haven’t tried this before, but it seems like a good idea. Gotta’ love those traditional solutions!

Another solution is the low-tunnel. This is basically a series of arcs covered with clear plastic. Water-filled bottles (thermal mass) lining the edges help moderate temperature swings. This works well for hardy plants, but still there is the problem of an actual heat source for frost tender plants. This is much less of a concern the closer you get to the LFD. Again, placing it over a hotbed would provide some heat. Low tunnels are excellent for protecting wide rows and getting a few weeks’ head start on the season.

So, if the greenhouse isn’t finished soon, there are simple alternatives. I’m only a few bales of straw and/or a couple wheelbarrows of manure away from a time-tested outdoor holding pen for the seedlings.

Let’s get back to those seedlings. I started artichokes, asparagus, cardoon, celery, and leeks a few days ago. Also, you need some fresh cut flowers in the summer, so I’m making my first attempt at growing Gerber daisies from seed. I found some old (8 years?) corn seed, and I’m germination-testing those to see if I can use them this spring. These will take anywhere from a few days to three weeks to germinate. I started them all by soaking in water overnight, assisted by bottom heat. Then I sow them in growing medium I mixed up from bulk materials (it’s much cheaper in the long run – I bought these materials last year – and you can tailor the formula for fussy seeds.) Then, I keep a lamp on below the flats and containers to keep the growing medium temperature around 64 Fahrenheit. With the exception of the corn I’m germ testing, these plants all need the longest time to grow before the Last Frost Date (LFD.)

Next on the list are eggplant, pepper, and tomato. I’ll be starting those soon. Peppers are the most difficult of the three to germinate, so they come first. Pepper seeds definitely need to be soaked for a day first and kept warm for several days in order to come to life. A splash of hydrogen peroxide in the water can help wake them up. Then come the eggplant seeds, because they need a few more weeks of early growth than tomatoes. Tomato seeds germinate easily and rapidly, and the seedlings only need six weeks, or as long as eight, before transplanting.

The bones of my indoor setup consist of an old houseplant storage ‘cabinet’ that I built from scrap materials twenty years ago. It wasn’t built specifically to the dimensions of seedling flats, but fortunately it works pretty well. It has three shelves that can hold four flats each, and I hang four-foot fluorescent lights over them. This has worked wonderfully since I started using it for its new purpose! And it doesn’t take up too much space. It is tucked neatly into a corner, with a south-facing window in the center.

This time of year is exciting and challenging. Getting seeds to germinate isn’t the only challenge; the real bear is the process of deciding which seeds to grow, and which ones have to stay in the personal seed bank for another year! Tough decisions…