Archives for posts with tag: vermiculite

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.

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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.

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.)