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…


LuvMyGarden said...

Hi Johno - I found your blog by way of the IDigMyGarden forum. Great blog by the way. Sorry your greenhouse plans had to change, but still sounds like you will have a wonderful area when you complete the rustic version. My husband, to my surprise, is considering helping me build a greenhouse. Something small and basic, and we probably won't get to it until this fall, but I'm thrilled he is open to the idea. Mostly he just smiles and shakes his head at my gardening schemes. I enjoyed reading about your seed starting and thoughts on how to get the tender seedlings outdoors before last frost. I wintersowed for the first time this year and already have broccoli and cauliflower up - and will soon have to transplant. I've been considering trying to temporarily put them in a couple of black plastic tubs that I had tomatoes in last summer. With the black plastic holding some heat, if I covered the top with a couple layers of clear plastic, I'm thinking it might be enough to hold them until I can get their permanent beds ready. Which may be a few weeks if I can't get some decent weekend weather to work with soon!

Thanks for the great read!

bluelacedredhead said...

Johno, I was saving my clear plastic berry containers to sell produce in next summer, but now I see that you are using them for seed starting. Now why didn't I think of that??

Keep 'em coming....