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Seed starting

Up here in Zone 5 (ish), March is a slog.

It’s not that the weather is terrible, or not just that the weather is terrible, but Illinois March is cruel– you know there’s a springlike day just struggling to get out, but winter Just. Hangs. On.

What’s a gardener to do?

Seed Starting 101
Roughly my presentation
at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show
DIY stage, March 10

Choosing seeds

  • Space—how much space in your seed starting area, how much space in your garden
  • Cost—I never started seeds until about 7 years ago, because I wasn’t growing all that much; once I started expanding my garden nursery starts got too expensive
  • What you’ll eat
  • Something new

Type of seeds:

  • GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) produced by any means of genetic modification, whether by modern genetic engineering or age-old plant breeding methods
  • GE Genetically Engineered—these are your Frankenseeds, and are not commonly encountered in home gardening
  • Hybrid- An “F-1”, or first generation hybrid, is created when a breeder cross-pollinates two pure plant lines to produce a seed with desirable traits (such as disease resistance, uniformity, or color) from both parents; not stable from generation to generation
  • Heirloom, aka open pollinated is a stable hybrid—breeds true from single parent. Generally the plant needs to be stable for 50 years to be considered an “heirloom”

Starting seeds

  • Indoors
  • Winter sowing
  • Direct
  • Reseeding

Materials to start seeds indoors

  • A warm surface or a seed heating mat
  • 12 to 14 hours of light—a sunny window is not enough. Get specifically grow lights, or just get a shop light with one warm fluorescent tube and one cool flurorescent tube, OR get can clamp lights with a 150 or 200 W CFL bulb
  • Sterile containers*
  • Seed starting mix
  • Seeds
  • Water
  • An electric fan

Sterile containers can be purchased seed starting kits, biodegradable pots, standard ceramic pots, plastic 4” starter pots, TP tubes, DIY newpaper pots. But if they aren’t new, you must sterilize them with heat, 10% bleach solution, or rubbing alcohol.

Step by step for indoor starts

  • Make a calendar—you want 4” tall plants on planting day, with at least 4 sets of leaves. Your seed packet should tell you how long from planting to sprouting; assume 3 to 4 times that for plant out date. So a tomato will sprout in about 6 to 8 days; and get to four inches in 3 to 4 weeks. In other words, don’t start tomato seeds indoors before the beginning of April or later, because you can’t plant them until late May.
  • Sterile containers can be purchased seed starting kits, biodegradable pots, standard ceramic pots, plastic 4” starter pots, TP tubes, DIY newpaper pots. But if they aren’t new, you must sterilize them with heat, 10% bleach solution, or rubbing alcohol.
  • Moisten the starter mix (only moisten what you will use today)
  • Slightly underfill your containers
  • MAKE MARKERS BEFORE YOU PLANT. Again, creative reuse, popsicle sticks, plastic plant markers, etc. Use a black sharpie or laundry marker so the writing doesn’t fade or run
  • Lay your seeds on the surface of the cell or planter, then cover with the correct amount of starter mix/soil—the packet will tell you how deeply to plant, but generally you want the seed twice the depth of its largest dimension.
  • Overplant. Assume 80% germination on freshly purchases commercial seeds, 50% if you’ve gotten seeds at a seed swap or by saving them yourself.

Taking care of your seeds

  • Most vegetable seeds will sprout in a week. Some, like beans or radishes, will sprout in a couple of days. Some, like basil, parsley and parsnips, may take a month.
  • Keep them moist but not soaking. Until they sprout you can help keep the soil moist by laying a piece of  plastic wrap over the top of the pot.
  • Water seeds and sprouts from the top, seedlings from the bottom
  • Because no indoor light is the same as sunlight, keep those lights on 14 to 16 hours a day. Use a timer.
  • Once they’ve sprouted, place a fan on low in the room. Doesn’t need to be blowing on them direct, but this will help keep fungal diseases like damping off at bay, and will make the stems stronger.
  • Be ruthless—pinch off weaker seedlings until you have only a few more than you need. Once you plant, donate the ones you don’t need to your local garden club sale or school garden.
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Seed Starting 101

“Judge every day not by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you sow.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

Here at Chiot’s Run I start all of my vegetables and many of my herbs and plants from seed.  I do this not only to save money, but because enjoy doing it.  It’s a great way to help get through those long cold dark winter months here in NE Ohio.  I also enjoy the wonder that comes from seeing tiny seeds grow into big beautiful plants.

Another reason I grow everything from seed myself is because I want to know what goes into my food.  There isn’t an organic greenhouse around here from which I can purchase organic seedlings.  That means that the ones I buy are coated with chemical fertilizers and insecticides, which is not OK with me when it comes to my food, or any other plants in my garden.

Last spring I did a Seed Starting 101 Series on my blog with ten in depth posts dealing with the different aspects of seed starting. I won’t re-post them here because the comment section of each post is filled with fabulous information from other seasoned gardeners. If you have never done it and are looking to give it a whirl head on over and read through this series. If you start all you plants from seed and are an expert head on over and add some advice to the comment section.

The Seed Starting 101 Series
Why Start from Seed
Getting Started
Containers
Soil Mix
The Needs of Seeds
My Workflow
Diseases and Problems
Hardening Off
Transplanting
Learn More Each Season


I’m also giving away 3 packs of Renee’s Garden Seeds on my blog, head on over there and comment on this post to enter this drawing (contest ends midnight 1.27.11). It’s a great way to get into seed starting if you’ve never tried it.

Do you start your own plants from seed?

I can also be found at Chiot’s Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Simple, Green, Frugal, Co-op, and you can follow me on Twitter.

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Seed Starting 101

I’ve been starting seeds for a few months now here at Chiot’s Run. They’re all lined up on the front porch getting hardened off and soon they’ll be planted in the garden. After receiving numerous request on my blog for a seed starting series I finally took the plunge (even though I don’t consider myself an expert seed starter in any manner).

If you’re interesting in learning more about starting seeds, head on over there to my Seed Starting 101 series. If you’re a veteran seed starter, head on over and comment, the new gardeners will really appreciate your wisdom and advice on this topic. We’ll be discussing the art of starting plants from seeds all week long. We started Monday and Tuesday with:
Seed Starting 101: Why Start from Seed
Seed Starting 101: Getting Started
Today we’re discussing containers in Seed Starting 101: Containers and later this week we’ll be discussing, soil mixes, needs of seeds, diseases, and a few more.

Do you start a lot of plants from seed? Would you consider yourself a beginner or an expert, or do you sit somewhere in between?

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Many gardeners love to grow their plants from seed to fruit or flower and we’re no different here at Not Dabbling. Since this is prime seed starting season, today we’ll be sharing photos of our seed starting efforts.

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Here at Chiot’s Run we are located in a zone 5, so I must start seeds indoors if want to have a good season of tomatoes or early broccoli. I have an old light table my mom got at a garage sale years ago for $20 and she handed it down to me when she got a really nice one. It’s located in the basement which isn’t the best place since it’s really cold down there. If the weather is warm I leave the seeds on our covered front porch, they get afternoon sun and the cement floor absorbs heat and retains it to keep the seedlings warm throughout the cold spring nights. Plus I believe plants much prefer real sunlight (as I do).

I also start seeds outdoors in my cold frame and lots of cold hardy crops that can take the cold spring weather and occasional snow we get here in NE Ohio. Sowing seeds outdoors is so much easier than using flats. Not to mention it’s more natural for the plants.

The plant I love starting seeds for are tomatoes. I love heirloom tomatoes, so I start seeds for all different kinds for a colorful harvest in the late summer. This year I’m growing 15 varieties of tomatoes, these are a few of them.

When you start seeds each spring you quickly amass a huge collection (at least I have). This year, I finally sat down and organized my seeds this spring. I’m also starting to make seed vaults to keep my seeds viable for longer. This will save me money in the long run and make sure I have seeds in case of emergency!

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Over to Jennifer! Down in Tennessee our winters are a bit warmer, however having grown up in a northern Indiana I’ve learned the habits of starting seeds indoors as well.  I panic a bit if I don’t order my seeds by mid-February and get down right anxious if those seeds aren’t planted by the first of March.
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I purchased some simple shop lights as well as both cool and warm florescent bulbs to give my seeds a head start. Once we’re out of danger of a hard freeze I’ll keep my seedlings outdoors in a portable greenhouse with a small heater. About April 15th we consider it safe enough to plant out annuals.
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This year we’re planting over 100 different varieties of edibles alone. Our garden has almost doubled in size to accommodate some of the new plants we’re sampling. Quinoa, amaranth, yacon, and sweet potatoes are a few new arrivals this year.
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It wasn’t long ago that the droughts almost devastated my attempts to grow an edible garden. I’d honestly almost given up on it believing that our soil was just too poor to grow food organically. I still say I’m thrilled as long as I get a few tomatoes, but I’ll be ecstatic if I can grow enough to keep up through the winter!

seedling collage

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Kim here…I start seeds indoors much of the time.  Being I live in the very temperate Pacific Northwest I could direct sow much of my garden, but I choose to start in the house as to give my little babies a chance to get planted out at a larger size to beat the slugs that love the buffet that is my spring garden! 

The most important crops to start indoors at my house are tomatoes and peppers.  Those are the crops that I depend on for canning, freezing, and drying for our winter food supply.  So they always get the best of care under the lights in my sunroom.

But I would be remiss if I did not mention the seeds that my youngest kids have been starting lately…

Yes they have started 1000’s of these lately!

Do you start seeds for your summer garden? Inside, outside where do you little seedlings live?

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In conjunction with the real food Challenge I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. Before that I read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and prior to that I watched parts of “The 100 Mile Diet”. One concept that is echoed in each of these is to know where your food comes from. Well that got me thinking about the ingredients of my garden. Of course I grow some of my own food – but what exactly goes into making that food?

tomato

I purchase my seeds from trustworthy sources, make my own compost and get chicken waste from a friend. I can also get earthworm castings from a local company. But what about seed starting? I use a combination of vermiculite and peat moss and more often an organic seed starting mix, which contains mostly peat moss. I’ve heard concerns about using peat moss previously and so decided to look into it a little more.

What I didn’t realize is that overseas in the UK, peat-free is the way to go. Peat comes from bogs and other wetlands where it’s farmed after many years of growth. It’s made up of different types of vegetation at varying degrees of decomposition in an acidic and anaerobic environment. This environment traps carbon and acts as a “greenhouse cooler” and may hold more carbon than even the rainforests. Upon draining the wetland to farm the peat that carbon is released and forms CO2 – which enters the atmosphere. If that’s not enough, some scientists are convinced that by farming peat we’re harming some very specialized habitats, home to creatures that cannot live elsewhere. Plants like the Venus Fly-trap and Pitcher Plants call these wetlands home.  

While peat bogs take up something like 2-3% of the global land mass, a huge majority of the stuff we use is farmed in Canada. Supposedly there is so much peat available: “The resource is huge, the amount of extraction small by comparison and the industry and government are committed to sustainable development.” Even so, what are the alternatives to releasing CO2 or disturbing habitats?

orach seedling

 

Many people are leaning toward coir, the fibrous hairs of coconut – a waste product of that particular industry. Apparently mountains of this stuff were previously accumulating until someone found a use for it. There are several pros to using coir over peat moss: it absorbs water better, doesn’t need to be heat treated, and isn’t as likely to have seeds nor sticks in its mix. Because it holds water better than peat it can have the adverse effect of drawing fungus gnats and causing damping off. Unfortunately the top three producers of coconut are Indonesia, Philippines, and India – that’s an awfully long trip to grow some seeds.

Moving a little closer to home, we can find another by-product that is useful for our seed starting needs. “The primary component of RePeet™ is digested dairy manure which is processed through an anaerobic digester. Anaerobic digesters are the latest movement in the US energy market to discover ways of decreasing dependence on foreign oil and are most commonly located on a dairy farm. These digesters operate in a liquid saturated environment, void of oxygen like a peat bog.”  So basically it’s a treated manure product from dairy cows that mimics peat. I’d like to look into this product a little more to consider its value. After reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma” I’m not sure how much money I want to give back to some of those Big Businesses. If in the end I’m supporting the likes of Monsanto and Cargill, is it worth it? However, if it helps to create a better environment for forward thinking farmers then I’m all for supporting them.

Overall I think the key is like companion planting – use a diversity of items to mirror nature. When we rely on one or two items to support an industry, the balance will be made with our planet. Is coir the answer if rainforests are farmed to plant coconut trees? Is cow manure the answer if we’re supporting the same industry that wants to create a monoculture? I don’t know the answer, but I think questions like these are the only way to find a better solution.

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Where does your seed mix come from and will you be looking for a better alternative in the future?

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