Archives for posts with tag: seed starting mix

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?

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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.

More snow yesterday—a lot more snow—means that it is still too early to be thinking about starting any work on the garden outside.  At this rate of snowstorms, we won’t be digging out until March.

That is just as well because there are still a few items from last year to recap.  Most notably, there are the results of the soil testing that arrived at the end of October (2013) but which I have not had a chance to discuss.

Based on the previous year’s testing, I was not expecting any startling new information for the east and west planters (see October 19, 2013, part 2).  Sure enough, the reports confirmed my expectations.  The all-important pH of the soil remains within the sweet spot (6.20 to 6.80) for vegetable gardens with the east planter at 6.57 and the west planter a tad more acidic at 6.23.

Interestingly, the soil pH of the east planter increased slightly (from 6.31 in 2012) while the soil pH of the west planter decreased (it was 6.78 in 2012).  The soil in the east planter is now squarely within the preferred range but the soil in the west planter is bouncing from endpoint to endpoint.  Both are perfectly fine, however, and we will not have to make pH adjustment to either.

Similarly, the macro- (Ca, K, Mg and P) and micronutrient (B, Cu, Fe, Mn and Zn) concentrations in the east and west planters are close to each other, a result, I think, of at least three factors.  First, we treat the planters identically; neither has received any amendments (other than a top dressing of compost at the beginning of the season) or more fertilizer than the other.

Second, we have been rotating crops back and forth between the planters.  Therefore, their soils have been depleted (or replenished) by more or less the same amount.  Third, the age of the soil in each planter is more than two years.  I assume that given their consistent treatment, both soils are converging on the same steady state.

For the most part, the micronutrient levels in the west planter decreased when compared to last year (i.e., 2012).  This is not too surprising, again considering that we don’t heavily fertilize or otherwise modify our soil during the growing season (I think of it as time smoothing the soil’s rough edges).  Micronutrient levels in the east planter are mostly the same as 2012 (its soil is older and smoother).

What I didn’t expect is that in both planters, the concentration of Calcium increased by almost 50 percent.  We did not add lime, bone meal or any other source of the micronutrient so I have no idea from where the additional Calcium comes.

So much for the well-established planters.  On to the ground level soil, where we planted squash and cucumbers last season.

For starters, the pH of this soil is too high at 7.10 (the soil is slightly alkaline).  We’ve learned from both of the growing seasons prior to last that this can have a very detrimental effect on plant performance.  And I learned from this year’s experiments with seed starting mix that the culprit is probably not the very acidic peat moss, of which the ground level soil is roughly half.  The other half is compost (mainly cow manure) which tends to be more alkaline.

When we dig new pits for the squash and cucumbers this year, we will have to increase the proportion of peat moss to manure and perhaps add some elemental Sulfur to bring the pH down.  Otherwise, the ground soil profile resembles that of the planters.  The macro- and micronutrient concentrations are very close, including—somewhat mysteriously—the high concentration of Calcium.

This is a bit ironic because the summer squash plants experienced a high rate of blossom end rot last season, a condition that is usually associated with Calcium deficiency.  I think this is what the testing lab was alluding to when they called me in the fall (see October 24, 2013).  The testing methods based on acid extraction indicate a high concentration of Calcium but it is not, apparently, in a form that plants can readily use.  I’ll have to look into this one further.

The reports list lots of numbers, not all of them obviously meaningful.  So, what does it all mean?  The bottom line is that our planters’ soil is doing fine and that with minor modification the soil in the ground will come into line as well.  That’s good—if not exciting—news.

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.

Yesterday, we made a run up to the Adams Fairacre Farms store near us.  They have a well-stocked garden center, open all year, and we went there to procure seed starting mix.  We also found an amazing selection of seeds, including those of the Hudson Valley Seed Library about which I wrote last year (see January 5, 2013).  Good to know in case we decide to buy more seeds this year.

They had at least three brands of seed starting mix on offer, all different from the brand we used last year.  The ingredient lists looked similar and included a combination (in proportions not disclosed) of peat moss, vermiculite and/or perlite.  Some also contained compost or other fertilizers (most notably, the Miracle-Gro product which boasts both Miracle-Gro Plant Food and MicroMax nutrients).  These are superfluous for seed starting; the seed itself contains everything the plant needs from germination until leaf growth.

After browsing the available mixes and looking over the extensive array of soil components and amendments also for sale, I decided to make my own seed starting mix this year.  I recalled from my previous research that all that is really needed is peat moss, for structure, and vermiculite, for water retention.  I have more than a bale of peat moss left over from last year and picked up a bag of vermiculite to add to it.

Today, I decided to do a bit more research to determine what the best ratio of materials might be.  I didn’t find any definitive answers—as with most topics, there are a lot of opinions out there—but I did perceive two common threads.  First, many gardeners recommend adding perlite to keep the mixture lightweight and to facilitate drainage.  Second, several others suggest including a small amount of lime to balance the low pH (high acidity) of peat moss.

I made another trip to Adams (luckily, it is not far away) to buy the perlite and lime.  A definite advantage of the do-it-yourself approach is that all of the mix components are cheap.  For less than $20, I will have enough mix for this year’s seedlings, including potting up.  The lime will last substantially longer (in fact, I will probably never have to buy it again).

When combining the components, I will initially mix two parts peat moss to one part each of vermiculite and perlite. One recipe called for a quarter teaspoon of lime per gallon of mix, which seems low but is as good a starting point as any.  After that, I will adjust as needed to produce a consistency that seems right.

This is a case where my intuition will have to guide me.

Apparently, retailers follow a slightly different schedule from gardeners.

For instance, according to my seed sowing calendar, I should have started seeds for thyme and other herbs a week or more ago.  I had planned to do this and even though I could not make it happen last weekend, I did head down to the basement yesterday to start the process.

Now, I had thought that half a package of seed starting mix remained from last year.  However, to my surprise (and mild annoyance), even though there are several half-used bags of this or that soil amendment, none of them was seed starting mix.  I guess we used it all when we potted up the seedlings in May.  As is often the case, a trip to the store would be necessary before we could begin.

But which store?  First, we called the Home Depot, which is the closest to us and where we purchased the seed starting mix last year.  The brand we used is called Jiffy and is as simple and inexpensive as the muffin mixes which share its name and concept (“just add water”).

Unfortunately, although there were pallets of the mix somewhere in the store, they had no plan to set them out on the selling floor until next month.  On the Home Depot’s calendar, starting seeds is a February event.  Their timing is not too far-fetched, I suppose, but is counter to the usual practice in retailing (which, for example, resulted in Valentine’s Day candy being displayed in grocery stores starting on December 26).

Where next?  Our local garden center, a family-run business where we like to buy supplies whenever possible, is closed for the winter.  They will re-open on the second of March.  That leaves plenty of time before most outdoor planting (in early May around here) but not for indoor seed sowing and hardy outdoor vegetables such as peas and radishes.  There is a small segment of the market (the early-season growers) that they are failing to capture.

Some people would turn to the internet at this point and find an e-tailer (Amazon.com, most likely) who would ship a case of seed starting mix to them by overnight delivery.  That would certainly be efficacious—and almost instantaneously gratifying—but it does not seem consistent with the “think globally; act locally” nature of gardening.  Frankly, it just feels wrong.  (In Amazon’s vision of the near future, a delivery drone, bearing a pre-paid sack of mix, would be hovering outside my front door promptly on January 2.)

Then I remembered a branch of Adams Fairacre Farms that opened near us a few years ago.  They have a garden center within the store (which is primarily a supermarket) that operates year ‘round.  And when I phoned, they were able to confirm that seed starting mix is in stock and on the shelves.

It was nice to find a retailer who is on the same (calendar) page as we are.

We’ve been very happy with our seedling growing apparatus.  There is plenty of room on its three lighted shelves, we can conveniently view the seedlings’ progress and, when it is needed (for example, to water), moving the seed trays around is easy.  It is a simple and eminently functional design.

But now that the tomato and squash plants are getting larger, we’ve encountered one drawback:  the fixed height of the shelves.  The shelves are not adjustable and although I can vary the length of the chains supporting the fluorescent light fixtures, I can only move them up so high.  When the seedlings were small this was not an issue but now the tallest tomato and squash plants are brushing their leaves against the bulbs.  This will not do.

Luckily, we have an extra shelf at the base of the unit which up till now we have been using for storage.  To give the squash and tomatoes more room to grow, I moved the seed mix, empty seed trays and spray bottle elsewhere and put the tomatoes and squash seedlings in their place.  There is no light fixture above this shelf to get in the way.

To keep the taller seedlings properly illuminated, I moved the plants that were on the next-to-bottom shelf to the spots on higher shelves vacated by the squash and tomatoes.  Now, thanks to the open shelf design (an unanticipated advantage), the light from the upper shelf’s fixture can shine through to the bottom.  To reduce the shading of the intervening shelf, I moved the light fixture down so that it hangs only just above the shelf.  Diffusion should result in almost uniform illumination of the seedlings below.

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.

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.