The Backyard

The Backyard

Friday, March 25, 2016

Seed Starting 101 - Under Lights

A topic near and dear to my heart, yet I never wrote about.  This will get you started with seed starting under lights.  Why start your own?  Variety, variety, variety.  Once you taste a Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato you'll never eat another and that's not a tomato you find at the local grocer.   I also start my own to assure 1) organic seed (in most cases) and 2) non-GMO seeds and boycotting of Monsanto (did you know Monsanto controls many seed companies?  Here’s the list of who to avoid and who to buy from.  Fedco and Baker Heirloom are my two favorites)   3) disease-free.  One year I lost a dozen or so tomatoes and a dozen or so pepper plants to late blight and I’m fairly certain it was from diseased pepper seedlings from a local nursery.   The following year I started ALL my own plants and they grew beautifully with nary a blighted plant in sight.     Variety selection can be mind boggling.  When choosing your seeds, start with what others recommend or by the descriptions which are pretty true in the Fedco Catalog.  Eventually, you’ll find a variety you go back to every year such as Arcadia broccoli.  The Burpee choices at your local Walmart aren’t too shabby either.    I’ll save choice varieties for the next post.  

      Lights.  Low and behold, this too has already been written about and I found one site that is nearly identical to my set-up and process.  Simple, Green Frugal Co-op has a step-by-step process with all the details here.   Summarizing:  
  • Cheapest lights to use are 4 ft fluorescent shop lights.  (Short on time to build one?  Most larger nurseries have seed starting lights already to go.  Here’s an example in the Burpee Catalog  
  • You can either hang on chains, or set-up a nice stand with chains.  Below is a picture of my husband’s handy-work that served me well over the years.  Chains are a must.
  • The chain needs to be adjustable to keep the lights close to the plants as they grow.
  • Start the seeds in a warm room (70-degree range or above) or use a heating mat.  You can purchase a seed tray and dome and seed starting formula from your local nursery.  Don’t use potting soil… it must be seed starting formula which contains a little more organic matter.
  • Once sprouted, get the cover off and put under lights.  The seed pack will tell you the timeframe for sprouting.  No need to put under lights until they sprout.
  • Keep in a warm, dry room.  If the room is damp (like a cool basement), the soil may form mold on top of it.  This will damage the seedling at the base and eventually kill it.  No room for aesthetics here.... just set the lights up where the temperature is best.  Mine sets in the middle of my living room right now.
  • Keep the lights virtually on top of the plants and on for the same amount of time as daylight.
  • Bottom water is best, or use a spray bottle on the soil.  The tender seedlings are easy to flood with water.  Be gentle.
  • Keep under lights until about 3 days before planting outside.  At this time you’ll “harden off” the seedlings by setting them outside in a protected area (still in the tray for ease) to get accustomed to the out-of-doors.  You’ll know they are ready to go in the ground when you see roots growing out of the holes in the bottom of containers.
  • Electric costs:  About $10 a month for two 4-ft fluorescent lights going the entire month. 
My light stand built by my hubby. Usually sets in a warm bedroom.
Simple, Green Frugal Co-op has all the detail you need to get this started and as mentioned, their set-up mimics mine.    It's a little late to start your own early crops such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower; but, the timing is perfect to start your late spring (planting between May 1 and May 30 depending on your last frost) plants such as tomatoes and peppers.   A good time frame for starting is about 6 weeks before your last frost date.  Here in outskirts of Gratz, I seldom plant tender annuals before May 15 or May 30 because we've had frost on Memorial day.   If the forecast looks promising, I'll gamble and plant prior to Memorial day.   Watch the evening temps like a hawk to assure no frost.

It's super-rewarding to start your own seeds.  If you have kids, they love watching the sprouting process too.   It's even more rewarding to pick that first tomato you grew from a tiny seed and having the satisfaction you know exactly where that seed came from and the purity of it.  Have fun!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Backyard Gardening

It’s a world of satisfaction, rewards, and good health.   “What’s for dinner” takes on new meaning when you’re in the garden.    I’ve noticed a rise in interest in starting a garden the past few years.    Many try to buy organic but find the costs prohibitive.  Yet, they want to know they are getting healthy, non-GMO foods with no pesticide residue on them.    You ARE doing the right thing and today starts the first post on how to start that new garden. 

I’ll start by summarizing the most important things to think about and move into details of each in a post later in the season.   As I started writing this, I found an article already written similar to what I’m stating here, so you can also refer to the Better Homes and Garden site.     There are hundreds of articles on the web too.  Trusted sites I’ve used through the years are Mother Earth News and Rodale Organic Gardening.  Organic Gardening is where I learned everything I know, but they recently changed to Organic Life and the gardening sections are not as extensive as in the past.   I still refer to my first “bible” of gardening, “A Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosch.  Barbara and her husband, Eliot Coleman, run a Four-Season Farm in Maine.  

Picking the spot - You’ll need a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight for most vegetables.  The more full sun the better.  There are a handful of crops that can take less sun and shade such as spinach, lettuces and other greens, but full sun is preferable.  Fruiting crops need sun.  Some root crops can take some shade also.

Prepping the soil – I started with a barren field, so my experience has been with a rototiller, a shovel, and my two hands to remove the sod and weeds.  It takes time.  Obviously the smaller plot you have, the easier it will be.  Mother Earth News suggests cutting the grass super-short, then covering with newspaper and a thick layer of compost.  I’ve done this method also (minus the newspaper and used pure horse manure) and it works.    Raised beds are popular too and here’s a good article on those.   Do you need a soil test?  To be honest, in 24 years, I’ve never once tested my soil (contrary to my master gardening experience that tells you to do so).  My philosophy has always been if the plants are growing and producing, why test (but the experts will say differently).  My harvests have gotten better and better through the years.   And the secret is….

Amending the Soil – Plants need more than dirt.  They need organic matter mixed in to aerate the soil and also help with water retention.  There are numerous ways to amend the soil – with compost, manure, peat, and other methods.  This article will help you.  I’ll post on composting which is my preferred method.  

What to grow – Grow what you like and will eat.  It’s easy to get carried away and dump a whole pack of lettuce seeds in a row, only to have SO much lettuce in a couple months you’ll be knocking on neighbor’s doors trying to give it away.   Here’s a great guide on plants.  There are some plants that take a lot of space and this will guide you.   

My recommendations for a first-time garden:  spinach, lettuce, radishes, carrots, kale, onions (to plant now); tomatoes, peppers, green beans, zucchini or summer squash (to plant later this spring).  Early crops can be grown from seed; late spring crops can be purchased at a nursery.  Be sure to buy organic seedlings so you aren’t getting GMOs.  You can start your seeds too.  I’ll try to post on starting your own seeds.

Keep the weeds down – If you don’t they’ll zap the moisture from the soil and your vegetables.  Weeds will quickly crowd out your hard work, so keep them under control.  I use a thick compost which serves double duty:  keeping the weeds down AND amending the soil at the same time.  The plants love me for it.

Water when dry – super important if you want good harvests.  Stick your finger in the soil and if it’s not damp underneath, water.   Make sure it’s a decent soaking too as the sun will dry the top quickly.

It’s warm enough now to plant early spring crops like lettuces, greens, onions, carrots, red beets, peas, sugar peas and if you have the room broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.   So start thinking about what you want to do and do it!  You’ll be so glad you did.