Seed Starting

While folks just 10 miles south of us were getting buried under the Great Blizzard of 2016, we didn’t even get a dusting of snow yesterday and we spent the day starting some of the very early tasks of the upcoming garden season.

Over the last few years our home garden has started down the long road from the $64 tomato toward an ecologically self-sustaining and economically sensible food source, but we still have a long way to go and a lot of factors to figure out.  Despite the investment of time and money in improving soil quality and even watering, we still found ourselves with uneven results at the end of last season.  We had a lot of success, as usual, with beans and peas.  We also got two great arugula crops – spring and fall.  Our cherry tomatoes did pretty well by the end of the summer, but our big tomatoes were mostly a bust –  especially the ones we tried to grow in big pots to save real estate in our raised beds.  Our brassicas were mostly a flop with the exception of one glorious Ragged Jack kale plant that kept us in greens for months.  Our beets were a bust.

Since we did have some plants thrive (beyond just the nitrogen fixers), I feel pretty secure that our garden soil is at least viable enough to support food production.  I bet that we could still up our watering game in order to keep the plants from getting either over-watered or thirsty.  But in addition to that, I’m trying to tackle two other basic issues that I think undermined our yield in years past: our planting schedule and the health of our seedlings.

First, I’m fairly certain that we’ve started planting way too late in years past.  We generally grow most of our veggies from seed rather than buying starts at garden store so that we can be pickier about our varieties.  For a lot of early season veggies, this means planting seeds indoors way before the average last frost date (which happens late April/early May around here).  We’ve never really started doing any garden work before, say, late March which means we likely got our cold season seedlings planted outside both too late and too small to be viable.  I’m trying to correct for that this year by following the timeline in the Week by Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook.

week by week garden

This book gives you a gardening schedule based on weeks before and after your local last frost date to tell you, among other things, what to plant when.  As a result, we’re definitely getting a jump on things this year – we already planted some shallot seedlings.

The other thing I think has been holding us back is the health of the seedlings we’ve been putting in the garden.  Up until now I’ve been resisting the idea of using any thing other than a window sill to provide heat and light.  But I think it’s time I come to terms with the fact that we just don’t have a spot that stays warm and bright enough to support unassisted seedlings.  Our seedlings are often pretty leggy by the time we move them outside, or we move them outside in their trays long before they’re ready for transplant in order to get them more light and they end up being exposed to wind and temperature extremes that either kill them outright or weaken them so much that they remain stunted after transplant (at least I think this is what happens).

So we’ve invested in both a grow light setup and a heating pad so our seedlings grow up strong during their early days.  Also, we got a cold frame as a holiday gift so we’ll be able to harden off our seedlings before planting them.  Hopefully, with strong and healthy seedlings going into the ground, we’ll get plants that can handle what our great outdoors has to throw at them – heat waves, powder mildew, aphids, and all.

Of course, none of this will solve the problem of how we grow a decent beet or carrot – both of which we just direct sow.  For that maybe we’ll have to give our garden problem solver book a more thorough read.

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2 Responses to Seed Starting

  1. eric says:

    We run into a lot of those same problems, largely because we can’t get into our community garden until the end of May. That means leggy transplants, which we try to avoid by delaying planting.

    Last year, we found that we got much better results with some things in beds and containers at the house. We attribute that to the fact that there seems to be fungus/blight (??) in the soil in our community garden. So we built several new raised beds at the house for this year. Hopefully that will allow us to get things planted earlier.

    I also think you can’t underestimate the value of really good soil. It was never as much trouble at the last house, which had almost no yard, and the “garden” was a bunch of boxes (like raised beds with bottoms, sitting on asphalt). The major advantages there were a lot of sun, plenty of water (because it was easy to do), and great soil (because it was dirt, compost, and peat moss, with more compost added every year).

    Be careful with the heating pad – they can get really hot. We put them on a timer so they cycle on and off. (I use the same heating pads when I am making beer in the winter. I used to use a time so it cycled on and off every hour. Now I have a thermostat control that turns it on and off as needed.)

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