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Homemade wooden flats for seed starting.

Homemade wooden flats for seed starting.

If you have been following my work, you know that I start my seeds outdoors in coldframes, rather than indoors in flats. However, it was not always that way and, since I have fielded questions about seed starting lately, I thought I’d pass on the seed starting methods I employed when I did use flats.

For many years, when I started seeds for transplants I would use recycled containers or plastic flats and their inserts for the soil mix and seeds. In 1992 I became a market gardener, selling produce to two local restaurants. I knew I needed a better way to produce seedlings and followed Eliot Coleman’s advice in New Organic Grower to use soil blocks. I made wooden flats to the specifications in the book. We have a table saw and plenty of scrap wood, so the only out-of-pocket cost for the flats was for nails. The flats had only three sides to facilitate removing the soil blocks.

After a few years of working with soil blocks I decided I needed to produce more transplants in the same space, plus I didn’t want to buy sand and peat moss for the mix. In fact, I didn’t even want to bother making the mix. I did like the idea of wood flats, though. So, I turned to the advice of John Jeavons in How To Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV). The soil mix he recommends is half soil and half compost, which I already have in the garden. Fill a wooden flat, level it off, and plant the seeds—much easier than making soil blocks. I put a fourth side on all my soil block flats and made some new flats to the specifications in HTGMV. The flat on top in the first photo is a Coleman flat with the fourth side added.

You can make flats any size you want, but first think of how and where you will use them. The Coleman flats were sized specific for soil blocks with the inside dimensions 8 x 18¾” and 2” deep. That was just right for 36 two-inch soil blocks. The inside dimensions of a Jeavons flat is 14” x 23” and is 3” deep. There are Master Charts in HTGMV that indicate how many transplants of each crop that can be started in a flat that size. If you depended on those Charts for your planning, you would want to make that size flat. Filled with moist soil, the Jeavons flat would weigh about 45 pounds.

The depth of the Coleman flat is 2”. The depth of the Jeavons flat is 3”. That might not seem like such a big deal, but it is. Although I continued to use the Coleman flats, I preferred the Jeavons flats for the depth and saw that the plants did better with the extra space for their roots. If I used the Coleman flats, I had to pot-on the transplants to deeper containers sooner. I think my ideal flat would be closer to the Coleman dimensions, but 3-4” deep. However, the deeper the flat, the more soil mix is needed. Jeavons recommends making 6”deep flats half the size of his regular flat to transfer seedlings to that need to grow for a few more weeks before planting in the garden, such as tomatoes and peppers. A full size flat that was 6” deep would be too heavy to manage easily. You could also make 3” deep half-size flats.

wooden flats-BLOG

Summer transplants enjoying the shade under the tree.

I stopped experimenting with flat sizes when I realized that I could just plant the seeds in the coldframes and dig up the transplants to plant in the garden. Sometimes I use wood flats to put my coldframe grown seedlings in until time to set out into the garden. I might do that if I need the space in the coldframe or to protect the seedlings from insects. Caterpillars occasionally take out my peppers in the coldframe, so I watch for the seedlings to come up, then transfer the seedlings to a flat. I want the seeds to germinate in the coldframe and begin to grow there so they will be acclimated from the beginning. When I pull out the seedlings for the flats I can choose only the best and wouldn’t have wasted flat space on ungerminated seeds or poor seedlings. Sometimes, however, if the seedlings need more space and I have it in the coldframe, I’ll spread them out there until time to go into the garden. If I do put seedlings in the flats, they stay outside until transplanting.

Peanuts started in wood flats ready to be transplanted in the garden.

Peanuts started in wood flats ready to be transplanted in the garden.

I transplant corn and peanuts and have to be careful about where I start the seeds to make sure voles don’t eat them before they germinate. Sometimes I’ll use wood flats for that. The photo with the peanuts shows flats 6” deep, but with Coleman’s dimensions. Peanuts germinate quickly and were not going to be in there long so I didn’t fill the boxes with the soil/compost mix to the full 6”. However, their roots would have quickly outgrown the 2” deep flats. When I was selling at the farmers markets I discovered that a 6” deep half-flat made a good container for potatoes at the market. It held about 15 pounds of spuds.

Although I no longer sell at the market, I still do quite a bit of gardening to feed my husband and me, as well as experiment with new things. I like to take advantage of the rhythms of nature and do things that involve less work and less stuff. Starting seeds in the coldframes fits in well with that philosophy. However, if I need them, the wood flats are handy in my shed. I still have the flats I made in 1992, minus the ones I passed on to my daughter and daughter-in-law to use in their own gardens.Homeplace Earth

UPDATE: More about wood flats at Mother Earth News.

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  • sweet potatoes with peanuts, cowpeas, and collards

    sweet potatoes with peanuts, cowpeas, and collards

This is the fourth year, of the past five, that I’ve eaten only what I’ve grown on the Fridays in Lent. I call these days Homegrown Fridays. I find that it deepens my understanding of what it takes to feed ourselves when I limit myself to only what I’ve grown. By this time of year stored food supplies are diminished and the garden is not quite awake. Our garden and food preservation program has evolved to depend on staple crops that can be stored, rather than canned or frozen. Although I did do a little canning this year, most of the things that couldn’t be stored properly to keep were dried in our solar food dryers.

In the photo you will see one of our Homegrown Friday dinners. It consisted of cowpeas, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and collards fresh from the garden. I often try new things on these days and that day I boiled peanuts. We (my husband and I) decided that eating them raw or roasted was our preference. I depended a lot on peanuts at lunchtime this year. Maybe it was because I seemed to be extra busy on these days. I’d grab some peanuts while sweet potatoes were cooking for lunch. My peanut harvest had picked up in 2012 when I planted some after Austrian winter peas in the rotation. The previous year I had peanuts in a bed following onions and garlic. At harvest time there was a definite difference in the yield in the onion half of the bed compared to the garlic half. Winter peas were the winter cover crop preceding the onion sets that had been planted in the spring. I was pretty sure that the increased peanut yield was due to the winter pea cover crop and not the onions. In 2012 I planted one bed of peanuts after winter peas and one in a bed that had had garlic, onions, and kale. The onions were multipliers and had been there with the garlic and kale since the previous fall. The yield following the Austrian winter peas was three times the one following the alliums and kale.

roasted carrots and beets with black walnut oil

roasted carrots and beets with black walnut oil

I had a great carrot harvest this winter. You can read about it in my post on Winter Carrots. I also had beets in the garden through the winter. The black walnuts yielded in 2012 so I shelled some and made some oil to put on the carrots and beets when I roasted them. Shelling the walnuts and pressing oil took a long time. I wouldn’t want to depend on that for my cooking oil. Frying locally grown bacon and saving the fat for cooking is a lot easier, but that wasn’t an option for these Fridays, since I hadn’t raised the pig. The roasted carrots and beets were delicious.

Soup made from dried ingredients is always on the menu during this time. One soup I made had no dried ingredients. It was made from carrots, butternut squash, and garlic. I cut them up and roasted them—no oil that day. Then I added water and simmered the cut up, roasted vegetables for about 20 minutes. It all went in the blender and resulted in what you see in this third picture. It was good, but a little bit of dairy added—sour cream, yogurt, or milk—would have been nice. Onions would have been a good addition, but I was down to my dried onions and they were in short supply.

butternut squash, carrot, and garlic soup

butternut squash, carrot, and garlic soup

Dried onions went into bean burgers using the same recipe as I did in 2012. Our staples for these meals from stored crops were sweet potatoes, peanuts, cowpeas, garlic, sorghum (for flour) and corn (for cornmeal). Fresh from the garden came collards, kale, carrots, and beets. I ground Bloody Butcher corn to make cornmeal mush for breakfast. We have chickens, so we have eggs. I use an egg or two occasionally on Homegrown Fridays, but not much because I don’t grow all the feed for the chickens. Since some of their nutrition comes from our property, an occasional egg is included. Dried tomatoes were important for sauce and other dried vegetables and herbs provided variety in our meals. I’ve already written about our new tea ingredient—Red Thai Roselle Hibiscus. With such a great honey harvest last year we could sweeten our cornmeal mush. Unfortunately, our two beehives didn’t make it through the winter, so I’ll be looking for new bees this year. We had mead made from our honey and grapes, and popcorn cooked without oil.

Observing Homegrown Fridays at this time of year makes me more determined to work out my vole problem with the potatoes to make sure I have enough to last through the winter. I’m also acutely aware that I need to up my wheat harvest. I had an interesting conversation with Eli Rogosa of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy in January while I was preparing an article for Mother Earth News that will appear in the June/July 2013 issue. Eli filled me in on heritage wheat and how to grow it. A chart with her recommended varieties for each region of the U.S. will appear in the article. A chart with crops I’ve mentioned here and varieties recommended for each region will also be included in the article. You will be interested in that article if you want to grow staple crops for your meals.

If you have done any of this, even in a small way, I welcome your comments. It is in sharing, both information and food, that we will move forward on this journey.  Homeplace Earth

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Growing Protein--BLOGWhen we think of protein foods we normally think of meat, dairy and eggs. However, we can also get protein from plants. Beans and grains contain the most, but there is some protein in all vegetables. Of course, if you depended on a plant-based diet for your protein, you would be wise to look to the concentrated plant sources for your needs, unless you are eating a really large amount of food.

Protein is used by the body for building and maintaining. It stands to reason if you are pregnant or nursing, or have been injured and need to repair tissue, your protein requirements would be higher than the recommended daily allowance of 46 grams/day for women and 56 grams/day for men. In my last post I talked about growing potatoes for needed calories. Potatoes have 7.7 grams of protein per pound, so if you ate a considerable amount of potatoes, you would also be racking up the protein. Carol Deppe spent a winter eating a lot of potatoes and wrote about it at http://caroldeppe.com/ThePotatoBin.html. On the other hand, if you ate corn and beans for protein, you would get about 40 grams of protein for each pound of corn you ate and over 100 grams per pound of dry beans. In addition to potatoes, Deppe grows her own beans and corn. If you are interested in growing a significant part of your diet, her book The Resilient Gardener needs to be on your reading list. 

Protein is made up of amino acids, many of which can be synthesized by the body, if enough nitrogen (protein) is available. However, there are eight amino acids, referred to as essential amino acids, that need to come from the food we eat. Animal sources have all the essential amino acids and plant sources do not. Interestingly enough, the ones the legumes (peas and beans) are lacking are the ones that the grains have plenty of, and vice versa. There are reasons for the traditional meals such as cornbread and beans, tortillas with beans, and beans and rice. Even peanut butter on whole wheat bread serves to give you the right combination. Beans and grains don’t need to be eaten at the same meal to get the benefit, but they both need to be in your diet somewhere.

Besides protein and calories, including grains in your garden plan provides carbon in the form of stalks and straw for compost making, necessary for feeding the soil without bringing compost materials in. In my garden I have straw from wheat and rye in June and from cornstalks in the fall for compost. Besides the straw from wheat and rye, much organic matter is left in the soil from their decomposing roots. The legumes are soil enriching crops, leaving behind nitrogen for the next crop. The most nitrogen is left in the soil if the legume crop is harvested at flowering, as you would if you were growing it only as a compost crop. After that, nitrogen is put toward producing the beans or peas. Nevertheless, some nitrogen stays behind and it is good to have legumes in your rotation.     

Other protein sources from your garden are peanuts and sunflowers seeds.  I harvest peanuts before the frost kills the vines, hanging them in the barn for the peanuts to dry on the vines. I pick off the peanuts when they are ready. You can see that in my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. The vines become compost material, but that peanut hay could also feed small livestock. Peanuts and sunflower seeds contain 117.9 and 108.9 grams of protein per pound respectively. These crops also supply needed fat in your diet. In addition, they can be used for cooking oil. More information about that is at my post https://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/using-a-piteba-oil-press/. Sunflower stalks, like the cornstalks, are used in the compost. 

In a permaculture garden you might have hazelnut (filbert) trees. Hazelnuts have 57.2 grams of protein per pound. My hazelnuts form a border on the north side of my garden. I wrote about hazelnuts at https://homeplaceearth.wordpress.com/2012/03/20/hazelnuts-filberts-in-my-garden/. Hazelnuts trees can be pruned, with the trimmings feeding your rocket stove. These nuts also provide fat in your diet and can be pressed for oil. 

 Okay, I know you aren’t going to be eating a pound of beans or corn at a meal. In terms more easy to understand, a cup of boiled cowpeas (the beans I grow) has 13.3 grams of protein. I use ½ cup cornmeal, cooked with milk or water for a good-sized serving of cereal. That cornmeal has 5 grams of protein. A thick slice of homemade whole wheat bread has 3.9 grams of protein. A one ounce serving of peanuts has 7.4 grams. By comparison, a cup of milk contains 8 grams of protein and one large egg contains 6.3 grams. 

If you have enough calories in a varied homegrown diet, most likely you are getting enough protein. As you can see, growing grains for compost naturally gives you protein foods. If you were growing a significant part of your diet, you would also be concerned with having enough calcium. That’s the topic for next time.

 

More about Growing Protein at http://www.motherearthnews.com/permaculture/growing-protein.aspx.

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