Archives for posts with tag: heating pads

At last, time to set out the vegetable seedlings (and, at last, time to blog about it). We’re two weeks later than usual (we’ve set out on Memorial Day each of the last three years), mainly due to lingering cool weather.

And it’s more than a little ironic, considering that we sowed seeds for some of the vegetables much earlier than usual. Germinated indoors and then coddled during their early weeks with 16 hours of light per day and continuous heat, the tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, summer squash and cucumbers should have been raring to get outdoors a long time ago.

Yet somehow, they knew. They knew that indoors was much nicer, especially at night. I can’t say that I blame them. I wasn’t ready to spend much time outdoors until just recently.

To prepare for the seedlings, I first weeded the beds (see June 8, 2014) and then installed cages for the tomatoes. As in prior years, we’ll have a row of six cages along the north side of the planter; this year, the west planter is up in the rotation. In a departure from past seasons, however, we will plant only one seedling per cage.

To increase our tomato yield, we will also plant another six seedlings in the mounds at ground level, where the squashes mostly thrived last year. In May, we prepped the old mounds by adding fresh soil and mulch (see May 11, 2014). Today, we installed three cages. This exhausted the supply on hand and we will have to make a trip to the garden center for another three (we have some time before the tomatoes will actually need them).

We have four varieties of tomato—Sungold, Black Cherry, Yellow Brandywine and Country Taste Beefsteak—but unequal numbers of each. Because the west planter should be the safest (we’ve spotted evidence of moles or gophers this year; see June 1, 2014), we planted two each there of our favorites, the Sungold and Country Taste. One Yellow Brandywine and one Black Cherry filled out the row.

That left one Sungold, two Yellow Brandywine and three Black Cherry plants in the ground. It will be interesting to see which vines do better, those at ground level or those elevated in the planter. My money is on the planter.

After getting the tomato seedlings transplanted—buried up to their first branches to promote root growth—we moved on to the summer squashes. We set out two Supersett Yellow Crookneck, one Cavili zucchini (the only seedling that germinated) and three pattypans, one of each color (at least, I presume). I noted the location of the plant from each seed color so that we can confirm the color mapping (see May 26, 2014).

When we finished (at about two in the afternoon), the day had turned quite warm and it was time for a swim.


The garden has gotten off to a slow start this year. The cold weather has been a big factor, of course. Late-melting snow and lingering cold pushed the date when outdoor activity could commence from mid-March to mid-April. Indoors, even though heating pads and the radiators in the basement help keep the seedlings warm, the continued low temperatures have had a stunting effect of their growth.

And don’t get me started on the chilling effect—literal and figurative—of the weather on us humans.

But we’re starting to catch up and finally, a combination of spring-like weather and re-awakened energy has motivated me to get back outside. We’re almost ready to sow seeds for peas and root vegetables but first, I have to add soil to the planters. After sitting under more than a foot of snow for two months, the soil has settled by two to three inches.

An infusion of organic material won’t hurt, either, so it was off to the Plant Depot for compost. We purchased 16 bags of the stuff—that’s at least 640 pounds—which I schlepped from the car down to the planters, two bags at a time, in a wheelbarrow. Before dumping it into the planters, I raked out last year’s straw mulch along with the leaves and other debris blown there over the previous six months.

Along with the compost, I added about half as much (by volume) of peat moss to balance the soil and lessen its density (bagged compost can be highly compacted). I mixed it around with a steel rake—an operation akin to stirring a cauldron of witch’s brew—and leveled it out. There are just a few more ingredients to add (seeds, mulch, stakes) before the concoction is complete.

Finally, a crack in the ice, a fissure in the hard shell of cold that has been this winter.  With temperatures in the upper 40s and a splash of warming sunshine this weekend, winter has moved on, having overstayed its welcome by a week.

It left some baggage behind—there is still more than a foot of snow on the ground.  The continued warm weather will get to work on that, slowly, but it will be another week or two before it is all gone.  The mountainous piles of snow in mall and supermarket parking lots—some of them six feet tall or higher—will take even longer to melt.

The thawing is a reassuring reminder that the seasons do change and that soon enough (or maybe not, for some people) the polar vortexes will recede back into the artic where they belong.  Until then, we must continue to prepare for warmer weather and the outdoor growing season that comes along with it.

Of course, there is nothing yet that can be done outside in the garden.  Indoors, however, plenty of tasks need attending to.  The basil, rosemary and first sowing of lettuce have all unfurled their first set of true leaves.  By now, they have probably used up most of the energy stored in their seeds.  I mixed a little fish emulsion with water in a spray bottle and gave all of them a quick boost.  Not long from now, I will pot them up.

According to the seed sowing calendar, I am a little late starting the eggplant and bell peppers, but only by a few days.  I filled another half-tray with soil mix and planted six eggplant (Black Opal) and twelve bell peppers (six Orange Sun and six Quadrato d’Asti Rosso).  We now have one and a half trays of seeds and seedlings warming on the heating pads.

Gardening is not all glamor and glitz.  In addition to sowing seeds, repotting seedlings, building compost bins, and other photogenic activities, there are less tidy chores that must get done.  For example, before starting on the sowing today, I washed up the small plastic and terra cotta pots that were still dirty from last year’s use.  It wasn’t a pretty sight when I began but it was immensely satisfying to see the results of my spring cleaning.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a gardening article that might be the first one I have ever seen that makes a case for not starting plants from seed (see “Roots and Shoots: How Homegrown Is Necessary?” which appeared in the February 14, 2014 issue of The Paper).  Pamela Doan’s column does include simple and useful instructions for starting a garden indoors in winter (with an emphasis on tomatoes) but starts off with her reasons why she doesn’t do it.

It’s nice to see someone bucking the conventional wisdom, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.  I’m a complete believer in starting from seed when possible but I recognize that doing so can seem like a lot of effort.  If the choice were between buying seedlings or doing nothing, I would buy the seedlings (as I did in 2011 and 2012).  Like most gardening projects, however, sowing seeds requires intermittent bouts of close attention—often accompanied by intensive activity—but little effort otherwise.  Once the seed trays have been set up and are safely tucked into a warm and well-lit location, they take care of themselves for the most part.  Only a modest investment of time is needed.  Potting up requires another infusion of time but the task is not much different from setting out, something that must be done whether the seedlings are home-grown or store-bought.

Similarly, the financial investment needn’t break the bank.  Unquestionably, one can spend a lot of money on seed starting apparatuses, depending on size, features and aesthetic appeal.  And the cost of specially formulated grow lights and heating coils specifically designed for seed trays is ridiculously high (a case, I think, of commercial opportunism).  Expensive whistles and bells will not necessarily be of benefit to so basic an operation.  Fortunately for one’s pocketbook, for example, plain fluorescent lights and utilitarian heating pads work just as well as their high-end counterparts.

In fact, as we found out last year (see February 18, 2013), a spacious and efficient seed starting apparatus can be put together for very little money.  Our modified shelving unit (including lights, pads, and seed trays) cost less than $200 and can accommodate 432 seedlings on three shelves (with two shelves left over).  A smaller apparatus would be proportionally less money.

The unit should last essentially forever; there will be no new expenses year to year so the effective cost, amortized over its expected life, is even less.  Further, it can be used for storage off season (a mixed blessing; see January 8, 2014).  Existing shelves similarly modified would be more economical and a sunny windowsill, for those lucky enough to have one, is even cheaper.

The most eye-opening of Ms. Doan’s arguments against starting from seed is her primary contention that most seed companies put too many seeds in each packet.  To her, this means planting more of any given vegetable than perhaps she would like.  The result, given overall constraints of time and space, is a lesser variety of vegetables.  Either that or wasted seeds.

I’ll admit that last year we started more seeds than we needed (72 basil plants; really?).  But that was due to inexperience and pessimism.  With no idea of what rate of germination to expect and a firm commitment to planting only our own seedlings, we erred on the conservative side.  We didn’t let that impact our decisions about what to grow, however.  Instead, we gave away as many seedlings as we could foist off on people and, with some regrets, cast what we couldn’t use onto the refuse pile (see, for example, May 4, 2013, part 2).

The startling part of the surfeit-of-seeds concept, though, is the implication that all of the seeds in a packet must be planted at once.  This notion never occurred to me.  I am frugal (some would say cheap) about many things (but by no means all) and always intended to save the seeds I did not plant last spring to use again this year.  The average seed life is printed on each packet and most are theoretically good for two years or more.

I say “theoretically” because, of course, seed life depends on how the seeds are stored between planting seasons.  We kept our seeds safely inside a small box in the basement.  There, they were protected from light and excessive heat and moisture.  It can get warm and humid here in July and August—and last year was particularly torrid—but the basement is partially underground which mitigates the extreme weather conditions.  The small volume of the box should have further minimized the effects of summer.  (Some would suggest storing seeds in the freezer, as we did with seeds from two years ago; unfortunately, they are too easily forgotten that way, by which I mean that I forgot about them.)  Even after a year, the seeds should still be viable.

So now we’re in the process of finding out whether they actually are.  Our plan this year is to sow fewer seeds of each type of vegetable and, possibly, to plant additional varieties (this would require buying more seeds or, later in the season, seedlings).  So far, we have only planted herbs (six seeds of six varieties) and lettuce (six seeds of two varieties).

The lettuces are sprouting at about a 50 percent success rate while only two herb varieties (basil and rosemary) have germinated.  Herbs are notoriously slow to get started but I should note that all of the herbs except the basil have an average seed life of only one year.  I may be pushing my luck—and the limits of my faith (see February 19, 2014).

Contrary to the Roots and Shoots article, there is more than bragging rights to be gained from growing plants from seed.  It is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get the garden started and to jump back into the gardening spirit, even in the midst of winter.  And for a control freak like me, it is the only way to grow exactly what I want and to know everything about my plants.  The bragging—and blogging—rights are a nice bonus.

Wrapping up my assessment of last year’s plantings in preparation for this year’s (see February 6, 2014 for the previous installment), the eggplant and bell peppers are two other vegetables (three, if you count the different colors of pepper separately) which were delicious and did well in our garden but which could use more space.

I had read that bell peppers like to be close to each other—to “hold hands,” so to speak—and set them out accordingly.  I treated the eggplant, the peppers’ near relatives in the deadly nightshade family, similarly.  However, I think that my efficiency in filling the available space actually worked against me.

I planted the eggplant and bell peppers in a staggered row which allowed me to fit eight plants into only about a sixth of the planter.  The plants were certainly cozy.  It was great until the plants grew up and out, at which point the back row was almost completely shaded by the front row.  In a Catch-22 situation, the plants in the back were never able to get the sun they needed to grow above the plants in front.

We’ll grow them again this year but keep them in a single row.  There will be fewer plants and they will take up more space but they should fill out more and produce a greater number of fruit (last year, each plant only yielded two or three).  Also, I have read that eggplant is a heavy feeder and I assume that the bell peppers are, too.  Therefore, I will fertilize them more often.

What’s left?  Lettuce, for one thing.  The seeds we planted outdoors in early spring thrived.  We were lucky with the weather—not too much heat or rain—and the first seedlings quickly grew into diminutive heads of red leaf and romaine.  Contrary to expectation, they were hardy enough to transplant and remained productive well into the summer.  They did not turn bitter until the very end of their season.

We were not as lucky, however, with the second and third sowings.  Most of the seeds germinated but by the time the seedlings pushed through the soil surface, the weather was either very hot or very wet or, on some days, both.  The extremes were more than the tender seedlings could manage and they simply disintegrated.

It seems that there is a critical period during which the seedlings are quite sensitive and after which they are much sturdier.  Therefore, this year we will start the lettuce indoors.  With the enclosed seed trays, heating pads and fluorescent lights, we can better control their environment during the sensitive stage.  After they develop into heads, we will transplant them into larger pots and move them around, inside or out, based on the weather.

That only leaves the sugar snap peas and the string beans.  All of these performed phenomenally well, especially the peas which came pretty close to my ideal vision of the vegetable.  (If I am a bit hyperbolic, it is because they are some of my favorites.)  We will plant them again this year and see whether we can make them even more successful.

The weather outside is frightful—lots of snow and very cold—but the heating pad (on the seed starting apparatus) is so delightful.  And since there’s no place to go, let it grow, let it grow, let it grow.

I’m referring, of course, to the herb seeds, the first of which sprouted today.  No matter how often I see a brilliantly green seedling pushing its tiny cotyledons up through the soil with a stem no thicker than a piano wire, I am still exhilarated by the sight.  It makes me want to sing.

The first herb seedlings to appear are a few of the basil—no surprise there—and a single rosemary.  The latter is a surprise considering that according to the seed packet, rosemary can take as long as 28 days to germinate (it has only been seven).

It is possible that the seedling growing in the rosemary row is, in fact, an escapee from another row.  Most of the herb seeds are miniscule (a poppy seed would be huge in comparison) and one or two oregano or spearmint seeds, for example, could have gone astray while I was sowing them.  I’ll know when the first set of true leaves unfurl.

When I finally kiss Rachel good night (how I’ll hate going out to shovel snow tomorrow), while she really holds me tight, all the night long the seedlings will be warm.  Let them grow, let them grow, let them grow.

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.

Often, the execution of a task is dependent on the completion of another.  This condition can occur for a variety of reasons.  At the general end of the spectrum, for instance, a set of skills or body of knowledge might need to be gained before a specialized task or further study is possible (the former might be called prerequisites in this case).  Before learning to design cars, one must learn basic engineering.

More specifically, especially in a multi-step process, an operation cannot take place until the item to be processed is physically created.  An automobile cannot be assembled until its component parts are first manufactured.  Of course, the manufacture of individual components is not usually dependent on the others; this process is parallel rather than serial.

There is nothing wrong with the serial approach until a step in the progression becomes delayed or stuck.  When this happens, everything that follows the stalled task must come to a complete stop, even if the stalled task is minor.  On an auto assembly line, for example, something as simple as a shortage of bolts or washers means that production must be halted.  The result can be a logjam of thwarted activities that is annoying at best and catastrophic at worst (see the famous chocolate factory episode of I Love Lucy for a humorous depiction of the consequences).  Not surprisingly, industrial engineers spend a lot of time studying ways to prevent this from happening.

I frequently experience this phenomenon, partly because I tend to set projects up as series of dependent tasks and partly because I am prone to procrastination.  The most recent occurrence of this was the clearing off of the seed-starting apparatus (see January 8, 2014).  One group of items temporarily stored there was a set of wood-working clamps generously handed down to me by Rachel’s father.  The clamps are the old-fashioned variety which use two wooden threaded rods to control the wooden jaws.

The problem was that I did not have another place to store them.  I had a place where I planned to store them but it required some minor construction on my part or, in other words, a prerequisite task.  Not a big task—it involved replacing an existing shelf with a thicker, sturdier one—but big enough to keep me putting it off for months.  Making space for trays of soon-to-be-sown seeds was just the stimulus I needed.  The global task of growing vegetables provided the imperative to move me beyond procrastination.

Gardening is largely composed of similar serial activities:  First, find a place to build a garden; then, clear it and turn the soil; construct planters if desired; next, choose what to plant (which might be a parallel task up to this point) and get seeds started; nurture the seedlings (or buy them); set them out; water and feed them; and, finally, harvest the produce.  The same motivation—not falling behind the growing season—keeps the process moving forward.

In the end, rebuilding the shelf for the clamps did not take very long (about an hour) nor did it require much effort.  I had previously acquired the necessary parts (shelf, brackets and lag screws) and already possess the right tools.  (This is a good example of Life teaching me that there is no good reason to procrastinate.)  Once it was completed, the logjam came free and, with Rachel’s involvement, the shelves of the seed-starting apparatus were soon empty.  This sudden clearing of stalled events is another common aspect of dependent serial tasks.

At CVS yesterday, we picked up four inexpensive heating pads (fortuitously, we had a discount coupon to apply) to add to the seed-starting apparatus.  The pads are medium-sized (12 by 15 inches) and should fit nicely beneath the seed trays.  Most important, they do not have an automatic shut-off feature which would defeat their purpose of helping seeds to germinate—without my constant interaction.

Last year, we located the seed-starting apparatus in front of a south-facing window.  The idea was to capture as much light and radiation from the sun as is possible in mid-winter.  What we found, however, is that there is not enough sun this time of year to be useful (the heating pads provide energy until the seedlings break the surface; after that, the fluorescent light fixtures take over).

Therefore, we will leave the apparatus tucked into the corner of the room (in front of a door we no longer use) where it will be out of the way (the window location interfered with access to a refrigerator).  It is now ready for seed trays, the planting of which is the next task in the serial process we call gardening.  I’ll try not to put it off for too long.

On Wednesday, both varieties of cucumber started to sprout in their warm and cozy seed tray.  Then, yesterday morning, the squash seedlings made their way into the world.  By this morning, almost all of the cucumber and squash seeds had not only germinated but had exploded to a height of an inch or more.  The seedlings are much larger and more robust in appearance than any of the other vegetables we have planted so far.

After only a short experience with starting seeds indoors, we have already learned that all of the vegetable seeds enjoy warm temperature and need it to expedite their germination.  Without the heating pad, relying on ambient heat alone, nothing sprouted.  With the heating pad—even just a few hours per day—all of the seeds practically leapt out of the soil.  If this experiment proves successful, we will definitely consider procuring heating pads dedicated to seed starting use.

The seed planting calendar shows that today is the day for sowing the cucumbers and squashes.  Rachel is laid up with a nasty head cold (get well soon!) so I am answering the garden’s call by myself.

After our first round of indoor seed sowing (see March 24, 2013), I know the drill:  moisten the soil mix; fill a tray with it; label the rows, drop in the seeds; cover with more soil mix; water; put the lid on the tray and place it on a shelf.

Cucumber and squash seeds are large and flat, similar in appearance but not as big as pumpkin seeds (their cousins in the cucurbit family) with which most people are familiar.  (I find it odd that I do not usually consider cucumber or zucchini seeds to be related and have thrown away thousands of them without any thought.)  The seeds are planted at a greater depth—one inch—and I used a pencil as a dibble to form holes for them.

After watering the tray, which holds eight seeds each or two types of squash and twelve seeds each of two kinds of cucumber, I placed it at the top of the seed growing apparatus (I moved the basil to the bottom).  As the youngest and only seeds not yet germinated, the cucurbits will get exclusive use of the heating pad until their seedlings emerge.