Archives for posts with tag: compartmentalized seed trays

Two of this year’s late additions to the garden—Tricolor Pattypan squash and Early Fortune cucumbers—have been racing to catch up to their cousins. The latecomers were planted at the beginning of the month (see May 9, 2014) while the Cavili zucchini, Supersett Yellow Crookneck squash, Alibi Pickling cornichons, and Tanja slicing cucumber seeds were sowed two months earlier. That’s a lot of time to make up.

However, it looks like they are up to the task. Most of the seedlings are already four inches in height; one the of the pattypan squash plants is twice as high. I potted them up as I was sure that their roots had run out of space in the compartments of the seed tray.

When transplanting the pattypans, I carefully labeled each seedling’s plastic pot with the color of the seed that produced it. Eventually, I will determine which seed—red, green or buff—produced yellow, white or green squashes.

The only stragglers now are the Yellow Belle peppers. They have yet to unfurl their first pairs of true leaves and remain somewhat dainty, in contrast to the brash squash and the more decorous but still exuberant cucumbers. They are not ready to be potted up. In fact, they do not appear to be in any rush to do anything.

Meanwhile, all of the other seedlings have been enjoying their daily trips to the back porch where they absorb a moderate dose of solar energy and respire the fresh air (I would say breath, but a plant’s process is the opposite of ours). I’m glad, too, that they are going indoors at night. Even though it is Memorial Day—the traditional start of the summer season—lows remain in the 40s. We’ll not be setting the seedlings out anytime soon.

Advertisements

I’ve been neglecting my tomatoes, poor things.

While I potted up the squash and cucumbers almost as soon as they germinated, I’ve left the tomato seedlings in their seed trays for a month since they sprouted. True, the tomatoes are not as big—especially compared to the exuberant summer squashes—but they would benefit from a move into larger pots. There is not much room in the seed tray compartments for an expansive root system.

After taking care of the tomatoes, I moved on to the last of this year’s indoor sowing. We are determined to have a second color of bell pepper and picked up seeds for a yellow variety: Yellow Belle. With a name like that, I’m expecting demure flowers and beautiful fruit (with, perhaps, assertive flavor).

While at the garden center, we also purchased seeds for Early Fortune cucumbers, whose name implies bounty and punctuality (but whose number of days to maturity is larger than our previous varieties), and Tricolor Pattypan squash, whose name is, well, self-explanatory. I’m looking forward to growing these because it is my favorite type (and shape) of summer squash.

The producer of the squash seeds—Renee’s Seeds—thoughtfully color-coded them to differentiate the fruit that the plants will produce. Most of the seeds are buff; others have been tinted with red or green dye in shades reminiscent of the Italian flag. Based on the drawing on the seed packet, the squash will be either green, yellow, or white so the mapping is not immediately apparent.

Presumably, buff seeds will produce white squash, green seeds will lead to green squash, and (by process of elimination) red seeds will beget yellow squash. I planted two of each and will keep track of which ones ultimately bear fruit. That will be the only way to know for sure.

While preparing a seed tray for the peppers, cucumbers and squash, I was reminded that one must not lose faith. The seed tray was left over from last week’s potting up session (see May 3, 2014) and had been left sitting unwatered and unheated on a shelf of the seed-starting apparatus. Just as I was about to dump out the leftover soil, I noticed that another pickling cucumber seedling had emerged.

Because only one had sprouted previously, I quickly moved the second one into a larger plastic pot. I had given up on the cucumbers but at least one of them had not given up on me. Now was that a lack of faith on my part…or neglect?

The temperature did drop into the 30s overnight but there was no frost this morning nor signs that anything froze. It has gotten very easy to throw the plastic tarp over the planters so “better safe than sorry” is my philosophy.

Timing remains critical, however. I must wait until the sun has set (or is about to set) before placing the black plastic sheeting over the planter and in the morning, I need to get outside early and remove it before the sun’s rays fall directly onto the garden. Otherwise, the planter would become a solar oven and in no time, we would have roasted beets and carrots.

We’re leaving on a road trip tomorrow which motivated me to do more potting up this afternoon. The basil was ready to go—the seedlings are about three inches in height—but the other herbs are coming along much more slowly. The rosemary is growing at a particularly leisurely pace. Despite three months under the lights and over a heating pad, the seedlings are still mere wisps with only a few leaves each. I potted them up anyway, along with the sage, oregano, thyme and spearmint.

I also moved the eggplant and red bell peppers into pots. Like the planting before it, the second try at orange bell peppers yielded no seedlings. Clearly, this lot of seeds has lost its viability—and much sooner than expected. In general, the germination rates of last year’s seeds are very low, leading me to conclude that saving seeds is probably not worthwhile after all.

To wrap up the potting, I transplanted the second batch of lettuce heads into another pair of window boxes. This presented me with a storage problem because although I can fit two drainage trays onto each shelf of the seed-starting apparatus, there isn’t enough room in a tray for two of these larger planters.

So I ditched the trays and doubled up on the window boxes. The boxes that contain the soil and lettuce have their drainage plugs removed while the boxes into which they are nested do not. The lower boxes act as water catchment devices without taking up much more space than single planters. And even better, four of the compact units fit crosswise on a shelf. I may have figured out how to have fresh lettuce year ‘round.

I’m discovering some of the downsides to using last year’s seeds for this year’s crops. Sure, the practice is (theoretically) economical and minimizes waste but it is very unreliable.

For instance, after a month we have a grand total of one bell pepper seedling (a Quadrato d’Asti Rosso) out of 12 seeds planted. Not a great germination rate. I’m happy to have the one but this afternoon, I reseeded the other five red bell peppers and all six of the Orange Sun. These seeds have an expected life of two years and I am disappointed that they will be bringing down the average.

I also filled another half-tray with seed starting mix to get the tomatoes started. From last year’s varieties we have selected Country Taste Beefsteak, Yellow Brandywine, Black Cherry and Sungold. I concluded during my season recap (see January 15, 2014) that we did not really like Aunt Ruby’s German Green (except for the name) and, thinking about it further (see February 6, 2014), realized that the red Brandywine variety did not grow particularly well. We’re skipping the two of them.

That leaves us with four varieties and room for two more. It’s getting late in the seed-sowing season and we will have to choose them soon if we want to grow from seed.

I started with the Country Taste Beefsteaks and was surprised to find only three seeds remaining in the packet. Oops; another problem with using last season’s seed supply (although I guess that strictly speaking, this is more a problem of me not checking my supplies ahead of time). I planted the three and will hope for the best (and resolve to be more organized next year).

The Yellow Brandywine and Black Cherry seed packets were still mostly full—with many more than the six seeds I planted—but there were only two Sungold seeds left. I happily (and optimistically) planted them and wonder why some seed packets are sent out with only a handful of seeds in them while others contain scores. I do not believe there was any difference in price.

With the newly-sown seeds watered and safely tucked away on the seed starting apparatus, I next turned to the lettuces. The seedlings started in early February (see February 9, 2014) are now small heads and in need of potting up.

Following last year’s example, I composed a potting-up soil mix of equal parts compost and seed-starting mix. More specifically, the mix components are: 4 parts compost; 2 parts peat moss; one part vermiculite; one part perlite; and a tablespoon of lime. I stirred the soil together in a bucket, sprinkled in some water until it reached a satisfyingly moist consistency, and then went looking for pots.

I have several dozen plastic pots for seedlings but they are too small, even for a single head of lettuce. We also have an eclectic mix of terra cotta pots scattered about the basement and I sorted through them. Most are the basic eight-inch circular variety, big enough for a head of lettuce—but only one. Others are larger, with varying degrees of ornamentation, but none of them seemed practical for my purpose.

I then recalled a stack of rectangular plastic planters that we had purchased several years ago. We had intended to plant them with flowers and place them in our window boxes, which were painted wood at the time. We’ve since replaced those window boxes with open, wrought iron versions that are sufficiently decorative on their own.

The plastic boxes are terra-cotta colored and long enough to fit three heads of lettuce. I pulled two of them from the stack (which we had tucked away onto a shelf) and filled them with potting mix. I formed three depressions in the soil with my hands and then, using my specialized seedling transfer tool (which multi-tasks as a dinner fork), moved three Jericho Romaine and three Red Salad Bowl lettuce seedlings into their new homes.

Faith is one thing (see February 19, 2014) but important as it is, it is not always enough.

We sowed seeds for basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, spearmint and sage at the end of January (see January 28, 2014) and within a week, some of the basil and rosemary seeds germinated (that’s the faith part).  They are slowly making progress and soon will be ready for potting up.

However, as of today—more than a month after sowing—none of the other seeds have germinated (that’s the not enough part).  It is possible, of course, that this winter’s extreme cold has slowed the growth cycle or that the other herbs are simply taking their sweet time making it out into the cool air (or maybe it is both; I know how I feel about getting out of bed in the morning this time of year).

We’ll keep the faith but we will also plant another batch of seeds.  It is my hope that by the time warmer weather arrives, we will have seedlings of all six herb varieties.  To increase our chances of that, we will buy new seeds.

This gave us a good opportunity to return to Adams Fairacre Farms to browse the extensive collection of seeds on display in their garden center.  Each company represented there offers a wide selection of vegetable and flower seeds and all of them have a small collection of kitchen herbs.

Walking through the six-foot-high racks of seed packets was like strolling through an art museum.  Seed companies seem to put a lot of emphasis on the design of their packaging and many of them opt for finely-detailed drawings of the mature plants, reminiscent of vintage botanical prints (and for all I know, some of them are vintage botanical prints).

Uncharacteristically, I did not do any prior research into which seed company might be better or worse than another and so we had no rational criteria with which to judge the different brands.  Instead, we picked one herb each from four different producers.  By almost random assignment, we ended up with French thyme from Renee’s Gardens, Greek oregano from Seed Savers Exchange, spearmint from Livingston Seed Co. and broadleaf sage from Botanical Interests.

Back home with the original seed tray, we sowed seeds into the same compartments as in January.  Assuming a similar number of days to germination—usually 14 to 21; only one or two packets provide this information—we should have seedlings by the end of the month.  Of course, strictly speaking we will not know whether they germinated from the seeds planted today or those sowed a month ago (even though the latter would seem unlikely).

While we were at it (seed sowing, that is), we planted another row of romaine and red leaf lettuce seeds.  And that’s when our continued faith was rewarded.  Next to the seedlings that sprouted about two weeks ago were a few new seedlings, only just peeking through the soil surface.

Speaking of lettuce (see February 7, 2014), a quick consult of the seed sowing calendar reveals that now is the time to sow lettuce seeds for non-transplanted growing.  (The nice thing about the seed sowing calendar I developed last year is that it is relative to the assumed average date of last frost, which is essentially unchanging; see March 23, 2013.  Therefore, last year’s calendar will be just as accurate this year.)  By “non-transplanted”, I mean that we will start the seedlings indoors and then pot them up to larger containers that can be moved outdoors when the warmer weather catches up to us.

At a certain level, it seems unbelievable that we would be even thinking about planting something as delicate as lettuce at this time of year.  Especially this year:  Temperatures have been in the single digits and snowstorms are weekly events.  There is no feeling (I don’t feel it, anyway) that the wintery weather will be changing anytime soon.  And yet, we are approaching mid-February and in two weeks it will be March.  By my reckoning (see June 25, 2013), that’s the beginning of spring!  And what says spring more than fresh lettuce?

To get the lettuce plants started, I followed the same process as I did for the herbs (see January 28, 2014).  I mixed up a batch of seed starting mix (peat moss, vermiculite and perlite in a 2:1:1 ratio with a teaspoon of lime), moistened it with water and filled half of a compartmentalized seed tray.  I then planted six of the compartments with seeds for romaine lettuce and six with red leaf.  In a couple of weeks, I will plant another six of each variety followed by a final six of each two weeks after that (a half-tray has 36 compartments.

Assuming the lettuce seeds are still viable (and they should be; the seed packet indicates an average life of two years and they have been stored properly), they will sprout in seven to 12 days.  They’ll need a couple of weeks to get large enough to transplant and then four to six weeks to reach full size.  If the lettuce plants last that long (we may start eating them earlier), it will be some time in the middle of April.  Therefore, it is unlikely that the first batch will spend any time outdoors.  But the second and third sowings probably will.

I moved the half-tray of lettuce seeds onto the seed starting apparatus where it joined the herbs, already in progress.  They haven’t changed at all—their status is holding at four basil seedlings and two presumed rosemary seedlings—but I’m not worried yet (well, not too worried).  Herbs are notoriously slow to germinate (which is why we started them in January).

Up next, per the seed sowing calendar:  Bell peppers and eggplant in the first week of March.

I’m happy to report that the 2014 growing season is officially under way.

In our garden, anyway.  Having assembled all of the necessary parts, I found some time this afternoon to sow seeds for the herbs.

As a first step, I washed the mixing tub, seed tray and trowel with a mild bleach solution.  All of these items were used last year and have been stored in the basement since.  The exposure to outside elements is high and given the dark and damp conditions down here, the potential for mold and harmful bacteria is great.

Then, I mixed up a batch of seed starting medium.  I measured out quantities of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite (in a 2:1:1 ratio) to equal a half gallon of dry volume and dumped them into the tub.  The lime I purchased is pelletized so I used a mortar and pestle to pulverize it into smaller particles.  A quarter teaspoon per gallon—an eighth of a teaspoon for this batch—seemed much too small; I used a teaspoon.  To be more accurate, I would need to know the pH I was starting with.

Using a spray bottle, I moistened the mix and stirred it with the trowel.  Peat moss is extremely dry and perlite can absorb a lot of water so I had to repeat this process for several cycles.  When the moisture content seemed right—damp but not soggy—I spooned the mix into a half seed tray (that’s 36 compartments) and tamped it in lightly.  It turns out that half a gallon of seed starting mix is just the right amount.

Next came the seeds.  We will be planting basil again this year (last year’s did extremely well) along with the herbs we purchased seeds for last year but never managed to plant:  rosemary, thyme, oregano, spearmint and sage.  Because most herb seeds are very small, I used tweezers to drop one or two seeds into a shallow hole (formed using a pencil as a dibble) in each compartment.

After covering the seeds with a pinch of mix (the recommended sowing depth for herbs is only 1/4 to 1/2 of an inch), I gently sprayed the tray with water until it ran out of the bottom.  For most of the herbs, this will be the only water they get until they germinate and emerge from the soil 10 days (or, in the case of the rosemary, 28 days) from now.  I set the covered tray atop a heating pad on a shelf of the seed starting apparatus, turned on the pad and fluorescent light and made sure that the timer was properly set.

Like all seed sowing, starting the herbs is an act of faith.  This is especially true for the oregano and spearmint whose seeds are teeny-tiny (they are packaged in small zip-top plastic bags within their paper seed packet).  I can’t be sure whether any seeds actually made it into the soil or from which tray compartments they will sprout.

But I firmly believe that they will and I will be thrilled when they do.

The lettuce seedlings in the last three spots I planted (in the third go ‘round) have vanished, lost to overwatering (by Mother Nature, not to point a finger or anything) or, perhaps, too much sun (ironic, given how cool it has been lately).  This late in the lettuce’s season, I will say “uncle” and not try (again) to reseed.  On the other hand, the lettuces from the first sowing that I replanted last week (see June 14, 2013) are doing quite well.

And luckily, we still have excess heads of both types of lettuce from that first planting; enough, in fact, to transplant one to each of the bare spots.  After doing just that this morning, we now have 16 lettuce plants safely on their way to maturation.  Some of them are almost ready for partial harvest and, soon, we’ll start clipping leaves (the cut-and-come-back method of harvesting) for as long as the cool weather lasts.

It’s early for a season recap but even so, I will have to start thinking about what might work better next year.  My initial thought is that we might want to start the lettuce indoors next year.  We chose not to do so this season based on the belief that transplanting the seedlings would be problematic.  I have found, however, that once they reach a modest size (three or four leaves), the lettuce plants can be replanted easily and effectively.  The compartmentalized seed trays we use will further facilitate the process.

Alternatively, it is possible that the lettuces would do well in containers.  The pots would have to be large enough for several heads to fit but small enough to be easily moved out of the pounding rain or beating sun.  Translucent covers might also be a good idea and more manageable with a smaller container.  Further, with this approach we might be able to grow the lettuce in warmer conditions.  If so, we could start experimenting later this year.

Ideally, we would have mature lettuce at the same time the tomatoes are ripe.  That’s right:  I’m thinking BLTs.

Almost overnight, the eggplant and bell pepper seedlings went from looking too small to transplant to seeming too big to remain in the seed trays.  It has been over a month since we started them from seed (see March 24, 2013) so it is no longer too soon to pot them up.

With these deadly nightshades, we did not overplant, at least not by as much as the tomatoes.  We sowed 16 eggplants and eight each of the two types of bell peppers (okay, maybe we did plant too much).  But we also had the lowest success rate with only three of four seeds germinating.  Of the seedlings that have survived, perhaps a third have not grown to significant size.

So it was much easier to decide which seedlings to pot up and much less traumatic to throw the rejects onto the refuse pile.  We followed what has now become standard procedure by filling pots with soil/compost mix, forking the seedlings from tray to pot, lightly watering them and, finally, topping off the pots with more soil.

Halfway through the operation, we ran out of plastic pots and switched to some small terra cotta pots that we had on hand.  We purchased them several years ago to use as votive candle holders and they have never held plants.  After washing them, we had to drill drainage holes in their bottoms with a masonry bit.

We decided that while we were mobilized, we would also pot up the basil plants.  The seedlings are not really that big but their broad, almost circular, leaves are spreading and that makes it difficult to water them (the leaves cover the small soil surface of each tray compartment).

After transplanting five of the diminutive (but unmistakable) basil plants, we ran out of the small terra cotta pots.  Luckily, we had several larger terra cotta pots available (I don’t remember what we originally had planted in them or why they are now empty but I’m happy we kept them).  We filled six and were able to fit three seedlings in each.

At this point, we had transplanted more than 20 basil plants.  Only 40 to go!

We next looked to last year’s herb garden for containers.  With everything else going on in the garden, we have not planted any herbs other than the basil (more on this later, probably).  Consequently, all of the containers in the adjunct garden (on a concrete stoop outside a door we no longer use) are lying fallow.  We chose two of the more decorative pots—one octagonal, the other rectangular—and planted them with three and four (respectively) seedlings.

That still left us with half a tray of basil seedlings.  Rather than try to find more pots for them, we’ll just leave them in the tray and bring them upstairs to the dining room.  For the next few weeks, when we need some basil for a salad, sauce, or sauté, we can simply snip off an entire plant and throw it in.

And if we need an uplifting dose of aromatherapy, we can lean in close to the tray and inhale.  The scent is intoxicating.

The squash seedlings have practically jumped out of their seed tray.  They are quite tall (about four inches) and about as wide, elbowing their neighbors for space like commuters on a rush-hour subway train.

The cucumber seedlings are almost as big, in girth if not height, as are most of the tomato seedlings whose branches are spreading out even while their stems are still spindly.  The leaves are becoming intertwined and are forming a dense canopy over the seed tray.

It is time to pot up.

We had prepared for this by procuring some larger plastic pots.  We thought we would find them for sale at our local garden centers but neither the Home Depot nor the Plant Depot carries them.  The kind people at the Plant Depot did give us the few they had in their potting shed—seven 4-inch square pots—and it’s a start but not nearly enough.

I next tried the family-run nursery and market a couple of miles down the road from us.  They don’t sell them either but had many on hand (they use them in the nursery).  Theirs plastic pots are smaller (about 3 1/2 inches high) and round and I was able to cadge a stack of 65 of them from the friendly proprietress (actually, she offered them and I thankfully accepted).

Before starting, I washed the pots with diluted bleach.  After all, the containers were not new and who knows where they had been?  All joking aside, young plants are very susceptible to diseases and insects.  It would only take a small clod of soil to infect the seedlings.

We had also purchased a bag of compost which we added in equal parts to the seed starting mix that was left over from the sowing operation.  Seed mix does not provide much organic material which the seedlings need to continue their growth (they will have used up the energy in their endosperm by now).  Cutting the dense, claylike compost into the granular seed starting mix reminded me of making the topping for a fruit crisp.  I used a trowel (as opposed to two table knives or a pastry cutter) and when the soil achieved the appearance of coarse meal, I knew it was done (just like the dessert).

The squash seedlings are the largest and we reserved the larger pots for them.  We filled each with soil and I formed holes for the seedlings by pressing two fingers into the soil.  The pots were ready to receive squash plants but how to get them out of the seed tray?

My first temptation would be to grab a seedling by its stem and yank it out.  However, there is a danger of pulling the seedling’s roots out of the soil.  Also, we had read that the stems of young plants are delicate and that handling them, even gently, should be avoided.  Fortuitously, I had also read (I don’t remember where but it was online) that using a fork was a convenient way to get the seedlings out.  This made sense to me so I grabbed one from the kitchen drawer.

I carefully jabbed it into the soil of the first squash plant, a Supersett Yellow Crookneck, near the edge of its compartment.  With a firm lateral and upward motion, I lifted the fork and the entire plug of soil, bound by the seedling’s roots, came free.  It was like pulling an escargot from its shell.

With the seedling still impaled on the fork, I pressed it into one of the pots.  Rachel added another handful of soil and I packed it around the stem at the same time pulling out the fork.  By varying the pressure, I was able to align the stem roughly perpendicular to the soil surface without touching it.  Transplant accomplished.

We repeated the process for three more Crookneck seedlings and then potted up four Cavili Zucchini.  We gave them all a splash of water, recompacted the soil and topped off each pot with another trowelful of potting mix.  After the excess water had drained out, we put the pots back into the catchment tray (the same one the seed tray had been in), put them back under the fluorescent lights, and moved on to the cucumbers.

Potting up seven of the Alibi Pickling Cornichons and an equal number of Alibi Pickling cucumbers both refilled the drainage tray and depleted the potting soil.  I mixed up another batch and we repeated the entire process with the tomato seedlings.  We transplanted three of each of the six varieties, resulting in 18 pots with room to grow.

The eggplant, bell peppers and basil do not look ready to move up just yet so we will let them go for another week.  The basil seedlings are moving particularly slow and they may be able to go directly outdoors.