Category Archives: Seed Starting

Agastache Update

In the beginning of the month I planted three different kinds of agastache to try out some new varieties of this plant in the garden.

Agastache Seedings

Agastache Seedings

This plant is in the mint family so I knew the seeds would germinate quickly. What surprised me is that each variety took a different length of time to germinate. The conditions were all the same but the pot of Arcado Pink germinated in three days, Apache Sunset germinated two days later and the last to germinate, Tango, needed two more days.

I’d been growing the plants in small yogurt cups under fluorescent lights. They all growing quickly so I knew  it was time to transplant them into trays in which they’ll remain until I plant them outside.

Agastache Seedlings

Agastache Seedlings

The biggest surprise was when I pulled the Apache Sunset plants apart. As soon as I did, I was hit with a wave of scent that smelled like root beer! The packet of seeds had said that these plants had a root beer scent but I didn’t know how powerful it would be. Also when I took one Tango plant and crushed it between my fingers, a strong smell of licorice was released. I’ll be able to tell these two varieties apart easily by just smelling the leaves.

ag5Here’s hoping that the local rabbits don’t like either root beer or licorice!

It Might Be So Last Century, But It Works!

I recently received a catalog from Gardener’s Supply Company and the cover caught my eye. It showed a tomato growing in a milk carton with the heading – “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The caption was, “Milk cartons are so last century. Find the most foolproof and fuss-free seed starting innovations inside!”

gsI’ll give the advertisers credit for a catchy cover page. Also, this company wants to sell you all sorts of things to meet your seed starting needs. If you flip through the pages of this catalog, you’ll find lights, soil, trays and containers all to make seed starting easier.

But from my perspective, I don’t think most of these “innovations” are all that important. To start seeds inside the house, you need three things (apart from the seeds): soil, a container and light. That’s it!

The soil that I use to start seeds is a soilless mix that I get from a local garden center. There are lots of mixes out there and some of them are specifically formulated for seed starting. It really doesn’t matter what kind you use as long as it’s sterile. This helps to prevent damping off, a disease that can affect seedlings when grown inside.

When it comes to containers, its only purpose is to contain the soil. I’ve tried a lot of the special containers – Jiffy 7’s, peat pots, trays with individual cells for each plant, etc., etc., etc.. But as I wrote last year (Rethinking the Need for Individual Pots in Seed Starting), I’m questioning the need for all of these special containers. This year I plan on using yogurt containers for starting seeds and then transplanting the seedlings into plastic trays that were once used as containers for storing shoes. I like the idea of re-purposing things I already have.

There are a lot of options for providing light for seedlings. I’ve found that you need some kind of artificial light since plants grown on a window sill tend to get leggy. To provide the light needed to grow stocky seedlings, you can buy light stands with t8 fluorescent lights, t5 fluorescent lights and even LED lights. These are some really nice light stands available but some of these setups can cost well over $500. I’ve found that plain t8 fluorescent light fixtures like the ones I’ve been using since the ’60s work fine. I don’t even bother with the special gro-lights; any fluorescent light works well as long as it’s suspended only a few inches above the plants.

Sure, Gardener’s Supply Company wants us to think that all of their products are vital to starting seeds in 2014. I’ll be the first to admit that many of their items are pretty cool. But all you really need to start your own seeds is sterile potting mix, clean containers and light.

If I drank milk I’d probably still be using old milk cartons to grow my plants. It might be so last century, but it still works!

Worm Power

This past Christmas I receives a box of Worm Power Shower from my sister. I’d seen Worm Power in the Harris Seed catalog but I’d never tried it.

Worm Power Shower

Worm Power Shower

Worm Power is an organic fertilizer that’s worm castings – the nice word for worm excrement. It’s made through a process called vermiculture or vermicomposting. Instead of allowing only bacteria and fungi to break down materials into compost, worms are used to speed the process and also enrich the resulting product. Their movement through the material mixes the compost and their eating breaks down the materials faster.

You can do your own vermiculture if you’re interested. A great book describing how to do it is Worms Ate My Garbage by Mary Appelhof and Mary F. Fenton. I haven’t tried it but the process seems pretty easy. It’d be a cool project for kids or for school groups. You could make some compost and learn about worm biology in the process.

But back to Worm Power. This company in Avon NY is affiliated with a dairy and uses manure and worms to make the Worm Power. The castings are odorless and the levels of fertilizer in them is low enough that you’re unlikely to cause any fertilizer burn. You can purchase boxes of Worm Power casings or get them in small pouches to make worm casting tea.

Worm Power Tea - storing it in an iced tea jug might not be the best idea!

Worm Power Tea – storing it in an iced tea jug might not be the best idea!

My Christmas gift was a box of the pouches to make casting tea. After soaking the pouch in water for 24 hours the product really does look like tea. I’ve used it on some of my houseplants and seedlings for the garden and they appear to have responded well to it. Also, after brewing the tea, the pouch can be cut open and the castings used as a top-dressing for potted plants.

Worm Power seems to be a good product but there are a couple of issues that I have with Worm Power and the Worm Power Shower packets in particular. Each pouch makes one gallon of casting tea that needs to be used within 4 days – I would imagine all kinds of things would start growing in the tea after 4 days! I have no problem using a gallon of tea but if you only have a few houseplants or one pot on the deck, this would be a lot of fertilizer to use.

The biggest issue for me is the cost. A box of Worm Power Shower that makes 5 gallons of tea costs over $12. I could get enough MiracleGro to last many years for that price. I’m not knocking the company – I’m sure the price is fair for what they’re offering. But for me it’s just too much for a weak fertilizer. If I used it just for my houseplants, I’d go through 5 gallons in a little over a month during the summer. And if I used Worm Power on outdoor potted plants – forgetaboutit – the 5 gallons wouldn’t even fertilize them all one time! I’ll be using up the pouches I have but from that point on, I’ll be going back to MiracleGro for my houseplants and outdoor potted plants.

But I haven’t given up on Worm Power. The Harris Seeds web site mentions that you can mix Worm Power with potting mix to act as a safe and slow release fertilizer. A 3 pound bag of Worm Power can be added to 15 quarts of potting mix. I like this idea. When I’m growing transplants for the garden, I struggle a little with fertilizing them. I always wonder if I’m fertilizing too much or too little and I know my tendency is to fertilize too little. Worm Power would solve the fertilizing issue in trays of transplants. It’s too late for this season but maybe I’ll give it a try next year.

Worm Power’s an interesting product. It makes a great gift and conversation starter for a gardener. For the right people in the right situation and for those who will only use organic products, it could be the fertilizer for them to use. For me, I have too many plants for it to be practical.

When it comes to growing transplants, it might be just the answer to fertilizing that I’ve been looking for. But then again, adding some Osmocote to the soilless mix might do the same thing for a fraction of the cost. Who knows? I’ll decide next January!

Post 100! Rethinking the Need for Individual Pots in Seed Starting

This is post 100 – in my previous blog, I only did 19 posts before I gave up. Obviously this blog is a better match for my interests!

In late March I started some tomato seeds in a small pot. After a few weeks the plants had developed their first true leaves and I was getting ready to transplant them into peat pots when I realized that I didn’t have enough pots. I could have run out to the garden center to get more but instead, it got me thinking about how we grow plants for transplanting.

Almost all of the small plants that you find in the garden center today are in individual plastic pots, coir or peat pots or they’re growing in small trays with separate compartments for each plant. This seems to be the accepted practice today but it wasn’t always this way.

When I was growing up on a dairy/cash crop farm, the tomatoes and peppers that we planted in the field didn’t grow in individual containers. Instead they grew in wood flats that had a couple of inches of soil in them and the plants were spaced two inches apart. The roots of the plants were all intermingled and when we planted them, we literally tore them out of the flats. This would make most gardeners today cringe, but you know what? The plants grew fine.

Even more extreme was how we grew transplants of cabbage and cauliflower. These seeds would be sown close together in rows 6″ inches apart. When it was time to transplant them, we’d put them out of the ground by their stems, shake off the soil, separate the plants and pack them into bushel baskets. When they were planted in the field, they grew, even with this rough handling.

With these experiences in mind, I looked at those tomato plants and thought “Why do they need individual pots?” And the answer I came to was that they don’t.

Personally, I think a lot of gardening today is what I call “fussy gardening.” Plants are handled so delicately and nurtured so carefully. It’s as if we’ve forgotten how resilient plants are. One of the prime areas where this “fussy gardening” appears is in how seedlings and transplants are grown and sold.

I’ll be the first to agree that there are some plants that don’t take well to transplanting – zinnias, squash and cucumbers are great examples. If you grew them in a flat and separated the plants by tearing their roots apart, the shock of this would hinder their growth. In the case of these plants, individual pots makes sense. (Actually, what makes even more sense is to direct sow these seeds and not transplant at all but that’s a whole other issue and worthy of a separate post!)

Many garden plants transplant easily. Tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, petunias, portulaca, vinca and more grow well in flats and recover quickly from transplanting. Yes, separating the plants does cause root damage but that damage stimulates the plant to grow more roots. Also, there are times that individual peat or coir pots can be a problem – if any of the top of the pot sticks out of the ground, it can act like a wick, drying out the soil and making it harder for the plant to get established.

Tomato Seedlings in a Flat

Tomato Seedlings in a Flat

After all of these reflections, I’ve had a change of heart. I had bought into the “individual pot theory of seed starting” in the past without really thinking about it. But now that I have thought about it, I’m done with it. I’m growing my transplants from this point on in flats. It’s easier, saves space under the florescent lights and is a lot less expensive.

I don’t have the old wooden trays from the ’60’s and ’70’s but I have some old plastic storage trays that are about 2″ deep. I put a few holes in them, filled them with potting mix and planted my tomato seedlings in them. When it’s time to plant the tomatoes in the garden, I’ll have to pull the plants apart. But that’s OK – experience has taught me that they’ll be just fine.

Outdoor Planting Has Begun – Finally!

Here in south central PA we’re still waiting for spring to arrive fully but it’s clear that we’ve turned the corner. While it’s still chilly, hyacinths and daffodils are blossoming and some of the tree buds are starting to open.

I was able to till the garden this week and plant some vegetables. Seeds of radish, beet, arugula, lettuce and spinach are in the ground. I also transplanted the onions that have been growing in the house since the beginning of February.

Onion Seedlings

Onion Seedlings Ready to be Planted

Before planting the onions, I’d putting the pot of seedlings outside during the day for about a week to harden off the plants. Hardening off allows the weak and tender indoor plants to toughen up a little. Exposing them to the outdoor breeze encourages the cell walls of the plant to become stronger. The sunlight causes the plant to build up a thicker layer of waxy cuticle on the leaves, protecting them from the full strength of the sun.

The onions were small when I planted them but I’ve learned over the years that onions are tough plants. They look frail but nothing could be further from the truth. In a couple of weeks they’ll have settled into their new environment and will be growing well. They’re also in a raised bed enclosed with chicken wire so the rabbits won’t be able to get to them.

Pre-Germinated Peas

Pre-Germinated Peas

The other seeds that I’m ready to sow are peas. While you can plant the seeds directly into the soil, I’ve found that germination can sometimes be a problem. To solve this, I pre-germinate the seeds. All I do is put some seeds on a wet piece of paper towel and allow them to start to germinate in the house. After 3-5 days you can see the first root (the radicle) emerging from the seed. Once this has happened, I dust the seeds with some Rhizobium inoculant (a post about this will be coming soon) and plant them in the garden. When I put the seeds into the furrow, I try not to damage the radicle and I make sure to water them right after planting.

If I was growing a lot of peas I certainly wouldn’t bother with pre-germination. But since I only plant a 5′ row of pole snap peas, it’s not too much extra work.

As I was planting the onion seedlings, I realized how good it feels to start another growing season. Who knows what this growing season will bring? But whatever’s in store, I’m ready. It’s time to start growing!

Seed Starting and Pelleted Portulaca Seeds

I had posted earlier about starting onion and begonia seeds in February. The begonias are doing well and the onions are outside hardening off in the hopes of planting them in the coming week.

But now the real seed starting has begun. With the last frost date about 6 weeks away, I’ve sown seeds of tomato, pepper, hibiscus, datura, parsley, cutting celery and portulaca.

Portulaca

Portulaca

The portulaca seeds have proved to be a bit of a surprise. This year I found seeds of this flower from Burpee that have a more vibrant color than the standard ones sold at all of the garden centers – at least that’s what the catalog said! I’ve grown portulacas before and knew that their seeds were small.

What I’m finding is that more and more seed companies are pelleting their smaller seeds. What they do is add a coating of inert clay around the seed, thereby making it larger and easier to handle. Petunias and begonias are almost always pelleted as are more and more carrots.

Pelleted Portulaca Seeds

Pelleted Portulaca Seeds

I have to give credit to Burpee for the way they package their pelleted seeds. The pelleted portulaca seeds were in a plastic vial that could be resealed if all the seeds weren’t used. This sturdy little vial is perfect for storing seeds. Since the package had 40 seeds and I’m only looking for a dozen plants, I’ll have seeds for next year.

What surprised me is that I really didn’t get 40 seeds in the packet – 150 is probably closer to the true number. I’m growing the portulacas in Jiffy 7s so I put two of the pelleted “seeds” on each Jiffy 7. As the seed germinated, I was amazed to see that most of the pellets contained 4 or 5 individual seeds. I now have single Jiffy 7s with 8 or 9 portulaca seedlings growing in each one. I’m definitely going to have to do some thinning.

Portulaca Seedlings

Portulaca Seedlings from 2 Pellets

This isn’t usually the case. Most of the times a pelleted seed is a pelleted single seed. In this case, the pellets are pellets of seeds. I’m certainly not complaining – I feel like I really got my money’s worth with this packet of portulacas. It’s a nice surprise and next year I’ll know to plant just one pellet per Jiffy 7.

I still have zinnia and marigold seeds to plant in April but the majority of seedlings are growing now. It really does feel like spring when the fluorescent lights are up and the seedlings are growing under their light.

Look Close – No, Closer!

When a bean seed germinates, you can’t miss it. The large seedling is obvious to anyone with eyes to see.

That isn’t the case when you’re growing begonias. When I was checking on my pot of “Big Rose” begonias (named for their flowers and not their seeds!), it struck me how small these seedlings are. I’ve been growing plants for a long time and am pretty good at seeing when there’s growth. But these begonias are straining my eyes to their limit. (The pictures on this post have a dime next to the seedlings to provide some perspective on their size.)

Begonia Seedling

Begonia Seedling

Begonia seeds are tiny, little more than specks of dust. When I start small seeds like these that can’t be covered with soil, I keep the pot covered with plastic until they start to grow. This provides humidity that makes sure the seeds have the moisture they need to germinate. Once they’ve started to grow I remove the plastic in order to get some air flow around the seedlings to prevent any fungal growth. It took a lot of close inspection to see when the begonias had started to grow.

Begonia Seedlings

Begonia Seedlings

When I look at these tiny seedlings, I’m amazed. In those little seeds that I sowed were fully formed embryos that are able to grow into a plant. Also, that speck of a begonia seed had enough carbohydrate, lipid and protein in it to nourish the embryo until it could start photosynthesising on its own. And from that little seed will grow a begonia plant that will become a foot-high mound of leaves and flowers.

I find seed germination a true miracle. And the tinier the seeds are, the bigger the miracle is!