Archives for posts with tag: row markers

Saturday was a washout (it rained all day) and yesterday, we spent our time expanding the west end of the garden (see May 26, 2013).  Today it is time to plant!

To start, we installed the tomato cages across north side of the east planter.  In each of the last two years, we added stakes late in the season to stabilize the cages against the unbalanced forces of unruly tomato vines.  Recognizing the inevitability of this step, this year we did it right from the beginning.

For each variety of tomato, we chose the two best specimens (even after having given some away, we had several to choose from), dug a deep hole on either side of a cage, and buried the seedlings and their root balls up to the first set of true leaves.  The buried portion of the stems will produce roots and help firmly establish the plant in the soil.  In prior years, I have relied on my memory to keep the location of the different tomato varieties straight.  This year, I placed row markers against the stakes.

In the south center of the east planter, we formed two rows, staggered, for the eggplant and peppers.  We have room for eight plants and chose three Rosso bell peppers, three eggplant, and two orange bell peppers.  We have no need to identify these with row markers; their fruits will (eventually) identify them.

I read that that bell peppers like to be close to each other—to hold hands—so we placed them with only about a foot in between.  All will eventually need support for their main stems but being short on stakes, we will have to provide them later (they are not yet very tall so there is time).

In the remaining sextant (at the southeast corner), we laid out a relatively dense pattern of staggered rows for the basil.  We planted nine seedlings that had been hardened off (we gave away the others) and added five seedlings from indoors.  The latter had not been hardened off and they showed it with their droopy leaves (I would be disconsolate, too, if I had been kicked out of the house).  These seedlings are also smaller having never been potted up.

With that, the east planter is now full.  We gave all of the newly transplanted seedlings a drink of water (we’ll install soaker hoses later) along with a dose of fish emulsion.

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I’ve been thinking about how to keep track of the various seedlings, especially the different varieties of tomato which at this stage look a lot alike.  Currently, I have them lined up in groups with only one row marker per group.  I never did make it back to the store for more stakes.

If any of our family and friends takes some seedlings, we will need to mark each pot individually to identify its occupant.  I suppose I could simply write on the pots with a Sharpie but that is permanent and I would like to be able to reuse the pots next year.  Also, that’s just not my style.

Then an idea came to me:  adhesive labels.  We have sheets of Avery labels that we use for holiday cards (and other large mailings) and they are easy to print up (Word has templates for them, tied in to the Avery product numbers).  Looking through our stationery supplies, I found some return address labels that we had decided were too small for letters.  They will be perfect (or, at least, much more than good enough) as ID labels for the seedlings.

It is true that the labels are not waterproof but they do not need to last for long.  And when the seedlings have been transplanted to the garden, the labels can easily be removed.

Okay, enough talking (and reading and writing and web surfing); it’s time to get planting.  Past time, actually.

We started with the seed-starting soil mix.  We purchased a ready-made product but it is packaged dry and needs to be moistened.  We dumped half a bag into a large, wide bucket (it had been stored in the basement for quite a while so we first rinsed it with diluted bleach to kill any residual mold, etc.) and then added water from a spray bottle.  It was like making fresh pasta but in reverse:  We added water incrementally, mixing the soil after each addition, until the consistency was cohesive but not clumpy.

Next, we filled the compartments of a seed tray.  Rather than stuffing soil into each cell one at a time, we scooped handfuls of soil onto the top of the tray and then spread it back and forth until all cells were filled (molded chocolates are sometimes made this way).  Then, we compacted the cells by poking our fingers into them (this we had to do one at a time).  We repeated the process until all of the cells were full and moderately compacted (we did not overdo it).

The first seeds up were the tomatoes.  We have six varieties and each tray has 72 cells.  That means 12 cells—one long row—per variety.  Most of what we have read recommends two seeds per cell to protect against failed germination but that would be a lot of seeds and we have space for only two plants of each type.  Planting that many seeds seemed like overkill so we placed only one seed per cell.  If some do not come up or are sickly, we can discard them.  Alternatively (and let’s keep this positive), If we end up with more healthy plants than we can use, we will give them away.

We carefully labeled each row with a plastic row marker and then took the tray outside to water it.  Using a spray bottle (with a fine mist and gentle pressure), we applied water until it started to drain out the bottom.  When we were sure that all of the soil was moist, we placed the clear cover over the tray and moved it to the shelving unit.  The cover should retain most of the moisture for several days or even weeks.  We do not plan to water the seeds again until sprouts have emerged.

We repeated the process with the eggplant and peppers.  We planted 16 eggplant seeds (each in its own compartment) and eight each of the red and orange bell peppers (this tray will have a lot of empty cells but we did not want to put in anything with a greatly different germination period).

Finally, we filled a tray with basil seeds.  If we are lucky, we will have 72 basil plants, at least a dozen of which we can plant in the garden (this worked very well last year).  The rest we will give away.  Basil can easily be grown on a windowsill or sunny kitchen counter.  Besides providing a ready supply of fragrant leaves, it looks pretty.

It remains to be seen whether the spot we chose by the window provides enough warmth for germination.  We think that with a daily dose of direct (but diffused) sunlight, the temperature in the room will rise to at least 70 degrees (as it does in the dining room upstairs) but if the seedlings haven’t sprouted by a day or two after their expected date, we will consider other options.  We are hoping to get some help from Mother Nature here.

On our drive over to the Home Depot this afternoon, we noticed a change in the quality of the sunlight:  it is brighter, more direct, and feels much warmer when it falls on our faces and shines in our eyes.  The sun has worked its way, slowly but steadily, higher into the late-winter sky.  We have turned the corner on winter and spring is coming.

Another way to tell that spring is imminent is to visit a garden center (and if it is open, that is the first good omen).  At the Home Depot, seeds have been on display near the main entrance for a few weeks but now they are expanding their selection and moving them into the garden department.  Workers are clearing away the remnants of winter merchandise (snow blowers, ice-melting salt and the like; good luck to anyone who still needs a snow shovel) and making room for seed trays, potting soil and amendments, planters, seedlings and other garden paraphernalia.  The outdoor showroom, stocked only with snow during the winter months, is starting to fill up.

We are here on a quest to acquire the components of our seed starting apparatus (see February 10, 2013).  The first item on our shopping list is the heavy-duty, 4-shelf plastic storage unit that will provide the supporting structure, and it is proving to be elusive.  We started at the Home Depot branch nearest our home but although both the website and in-store computer showed one remaining in their inventory, they could not find it (it was probably a display model).

The Home Depot website indicated that nine shelving units were in stock at the next store up the road.  But they couldn’t find them either.  It turns out that this shelf is not in their usual inventory but had been carried only for a winter storage promotion (not a bad post-Christmas concept).  Coincidentally—or call it bad luck—the promotion ended last week and just this morning, the staff had removed the display from the floor.  The customer service representative assisting us was not sure whether the nine shelving units existed in reality or were only figments of the computer’s imagination.

Either way, we had to make an adjustment to our design.  Back in the storage department, we looked at every other shelving unit that the Home Depot had to offer.  There was very little in the middle ground—most were too flimsy or too fancy—but the choice was obvious:  a five-shelf unit of the same make and design as the four-shelf unit we originally wanted.  My only objection was price (almost twice as expensive for that one extra shelf!).  After considering it further, however, we decided that it is actually an improvement.  We will use the upper shelves for starting seeds—with less bending over—and use the lower one for storage.

We moved next to the lighting department and found the fixtures we wanted with much less difficultly (although for future visits, I will note SKU numbers rather than manufacturers’ model numbers which are harder to find).  Before leaving this section, we remembered to get a 10-pack of bulbs (which are not included with the fixtures).

We had planned to start the seeds in simple trays but could not find them anywhere (once again the online inventory did not seem to match the store’s).  What we did find were a variety of compartmentalized trays, with and without planting medium.  Those that included soil employed pellets or disks of compressed soil which expand upon moistening.  We had to make another change.

After probably too much consideration (okay, we looked at absolutely every product), we chose trays with 72 small cells, each with a drainage hole.  The trays come with separate pans to collect water and clear covers to retain moisture and heat.  We had planned to put the trays in clear plastic bags and had not even thought about how we would deal with drainage, so this is a definite improvement over our initial design.

The trays did not come with planting medium so we purchased it separately.  I had calculated we would need 2 cu. ft. of soil for the simple trays but with the compartments we can probably get by with half of that.  One cubic foot is about 8 gallons or 32 quarts.  The soil is packaged in 10 quart bags so we bought three (close enough).  We also picked up a package of row markers (these will be very important once we sow the seeds) and a spray bottle.

The last item on the list (my mental one; I never wrote it down) was a package of small S-hooks.  We will need these to hang the light fixtures from the shelves.  This led us to one of my favorite places in the world:  the hardware aisle.  The walls are covered with hundreds of tiny plastic packages of fasteners of every sort and I usually find myself happily distracted by the variety.  I could probably spend hours here and indeed it took a while to find the hooks we were looking for.  Finally, Rachel spotted them and we headed to the check-out.

As we loaded everything into the car, we both felt intense excitement for the upcoming growing season.

Okay, so we’ve decided to start seeds indoors.  It’s time to design a place to grow them.

We could buy a fancy, specially-designed rack with built-in lighting and heat but that can be very expensive.  Also, a pre-fabricated unit might not fit our needs exactly and would probably not be easy to modify.  Furthermore, it wouldn’t fit in with our do-it-yourself mindset regarding the garden and its appurtenances.  Instead, we’ll put one together from items we can buy at the Home Depot.

Most of the rigs we’ve seen in catalogs are based on free-standing shelf units so that’s where we started.  Because we do not have a lot of room in our basement, the unit will have to be of modest size and more vertical than horizontal.  Also, because there will be water (probably everywhere), the shelves should not be metal (which could rust) or wood (which might rot or get moldy); plastic would be the ideal material.  Browsing the Home Depot website, I found an 18” x 36”, 4-shelf unit for less than $20.  It is made of plastic and is listed as heavy-duty which sounds ideal.

The next component of the seed growing apparatus is the lighting.  My first impulse was to do a search for “grow lights” to see what came up.  What I found was a bit shocking, pricewise.  At the low end there were fluorescent fixtures starting at $25 dollars for a single two-foot bulb and at the other end were LED grow lights starting at almost $200, again for a single bulb.  I need three 4-foot-long fixtures with at least two bulbs each making these alternatives much too expensive.

And from what I’ve read, ordinary fluorescent fixtures are just fine for bathing seeds and seedlings in cool, white light.Also, the fixtures do not need to be beautiful (even if they needn’t be ugly, either) so ornamental or otherwise decorative models are out.  Basic, utilitarian shop fixtures seem like a good choice and, sure enough, I was able to find a 4-foot, two-bulb unit for around $20.  This fixture is supported from two chains—spaced, fortuitously, at about three feet apart—which will allow us to adjust its height above the seedlings as they grow.  We’ll get three and at least six 32-watt T8 cool white bulbs (like batteries, they are seldom included).

We next turned our attention to the trays in which we will plant the seeds.  Again, there are a lot of designs available, many of them customized for the purpose.  For instance, some of the trays are compartmentalized to make transplanting easier.  The compartments come in different sizes as well with the smaller ones being better for sowing seeds.  The larger cells may be needed for potting up those seedlings that are not ready to go into the ground.

The compartmentalized trays seem like a good idea but I think they might be harder to fill with soil.  Instead, we will plan on simple, non-compartmentalized trays.  My search came up with a lightweight plastic model that is 11 inches by 22 inches in area and 2.5 inches in depth.  We can fit two per shelf and even though they will extend beyond the ends of the shelves, they will still be completely covered by the light fixtures.  We will need six trays.  If we need to pot up, we will look at possible alternatives at that time.

At least two companies sell trays with each compartment filled with a pellet of compressed seed starting mix; when moistened, the pellet expands to fill the compartment.  This is another good idea but it is much more expensive.  And eventually, we will need loose soil (for potting up) so why not start with it?  Our gardening books tell us that all we need is a balanced mixture of milled peat moss and fine vermiculite so we will buy some of each and mix it ourselves.  Or perhaps we’ll get lazy and buy something pre-mixed.

Some seed starting rigs include heating pads to keep the soil and seeds at the optimum temperature.  We could get one sized to fit our trays (8.5 inches by 20.5 inches); however, at $20 each, the cost for six ($120) would exceed the total cost of all of the other items combined.  To avoid this, we’ll locate the seedling rack in the warmest part of the basement, near the oil burner.  The thermostat is usually set at 55 degrees down there but adjacent to the furnace, it is easily 10 degrees warmer.

To help the soil retain its heat, we will get clear plastic bags in which to ensconce the trays.  The plastic will allow the light (and its warming radiation) to reach the soil surface while keeping in the heat (and moisture, for that matter).  To ensure that we are maintaining an appropriate temperature, we will also get a simple soil thermometer.  Speaking of moisture, we will get a spray bottle to gently water the soil and the seedlings when they emerge.

With potentially hundreds of seedlings—most of which will look nearly identical to each other—we will need to identify what we planted and where.  As a final component of our seed starting apparatus, we will buy row markers to keep everything straight.  Ideally, these will be something simple and cheap (e.g., popsicle sticks) and, preferably, re-useable (therefore, probably made of plastic).

We now have our shopping list.  Onwards to the Home Depot!  (Our local garden center does not open until March.)