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Archive for the ‘seed starting’ Category

20" long compost thermometer with a 1 3/4" face

20″ long compost thermometer with a 1 3/4″ face

Spring is here and I know you are anxious to be in the garden. As soon as the temperatures begin to climb it is really tempting to get seeds in the ground. Before you take that step, however, I encourage you to make sure the ground is ready for your seeds. Of course, you will loosen the soil and add compost and, if necessary, organic fertilizers, but did you take the temperature of the soil?

Seeds are naturally programmed to germinate and grow within a certain range of temperatures. Within that range they will grow faster or slower, depending on their comfort zone. It has been my experience that just because it is the right time to plant on the calendar, it may not be the right time to plant according to the soil. The temperature of the soil is more important than the date on the calendar. When I was a market gardener I would be anxious to get sugar snap peas in the ground in early March. I would put in another planting two weeks later. If the weather had been too cool, the first planting may not come into production until the second planting did. I learned to pull back the leaf mulch that covered the bed over the winter and put down a sheet of plastic two weeks before planting the sugar snaps to warm the soil. If the weather has been too cool and wet there is the danger that the seeds will rot and not germinate at all. Peas, beans, and corn are most susceptible to this, which is why you might find those seeds for sale coated with fungicide. Steer clear of fungicide coated seeds and plant at the right time. Beans and corn like the soil to be 60° F (15.6 °C) and cowpeas would like it if you wait to plant until it warms to 65° F (18.3°C).

If you have mulch covering some of your garden beds, go out and stick your hand in the soil under the mulch and then put your hand in the soil in a bed without mulch. You will feel a noticeable difference in the temperature. During the winter an organic mulch such as leaves or straw does a good job of protecting the soil and providing habitat for the earthworms. However, when things begin to warm up in the spring the mulch will insulate the soil from the sun’s rays. Removing the mulch two weeks ahead of planting will help to warm the soil. I am not so much in a hurry these days, so I don’t use plastic to further warm the soil, but it is an option. With my system of cover cropping, when the cover crop is finished, it is naturally time to plant the next crop.

thermometer with a 5" stem and 1 1/4" face

thermometer with a 5″ stem and 1 1/4″ face

You can monitor the temperature of the soil with a thermometer or by sticking your hand in the ground. Even better, go barefoot. There’s nothing like the whole body experience. You might want to use a thermometer until you can gauge the temperature by touch. I use either a 20” long compost thermometer with a 1¾” face (top photo) or a thermometer with a 5” stem and 1¼” face that I bought at the grocery store. I keep the long thermometer stuck in the soil somewhere so I don’t lose it. Usually it is in my coldframe, where it is right now. The nice thing about the compost thermometer is that it is easy to read without bending over too much. The small thermometer has so many uses. It comes with a plastic sleeve that has a pocket clip –handy if you are going to be carrying it around. The one you see in the photo is the one I use to monitor the temperature in my solar food dryer. It sticks through a hole drilled for that purpose with just the gauge showing on the outside of the dryer. A small thermometer such as this can be used in the kitchen, which is why you will find it in the grocery store.

You can find a chart showing a list of crops and the minimum, optimum, optimum range, and maximum soil temperature conditions for each in How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. A chart I find interesting is Days to Appearance of Seedlings at Various Soil Temperatures from Seed Planted at ½” Depth, compiled by J.F. Harrington. You can find it with an Internet search. It shows the number of days it takes for each crop to germinate at different temperatures. For example, peas will take 36 days to germinate at a soil temperature of 41°F (5°C), 13 days at 50°F (10°C) and 9 days at 59°F (15°C). You can see how warming up the soil will contribute to an earlier crop.

tomato,pepper, and zinnia seedlings in the coldframe???????????????????????????????

coldframe seedlings–tomatoes, peppers, and zinnias

Peppers, on the other hand, are shown to take 25 days to germinate at 59°F, 12 days at 68°F (20°C) and 9 days at 77° F (25° C). If you plant pepper and tomato seeds at the same time, the tomatoes will germinate first—in 14 days at 59°F, 8 days at 68°, and 6 days at 77°. I start my seeds in my coldframes, which provide cooler temperatures than starting them in the house. I put tomato, pepper, and other seeds of warm weather crops in my coldframe during the last week of March. Since I save much of my own seeds, I am developing strains of each crop that will germinate in cooler soil. The healthy plants that I take out of the coldframe are the ones that have germinated and thrived in the cooler conditions. The peppers that I have been most successful with in the coldframe are Corno di Toro and Ruffled Hungarian.

By saving your own seeds, you can develop strains of your crops that will germinate and grow under the conditions that you want to work with. Experiment with planting times and conditions in your garden. I would advise, however, to only take chances with what you can afford to lose. If you go into it with that attitude, you won’t be disappointed.

Homeplace Earth

 

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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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