It is rare that I buy plants for the garden anymore, in fact I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought a live plant.
Let me take a step back, and correct myself. I can’t tell you the last time I bought a live vegetable plant.
Perennials are a different story however. Every year I add new perennials to the garden. Over the last few years I have focused on fruit trees. Currently, I have 8 apple trees (5 varieties), 4 cherry (2 varieties), and 2 varieties each of peach, plum, chestnut. I’m not sure right now, but I think I may have lost a chestnut and a cherry over the winter, we will see how it goes when I prune everything this spring.
I have also added several berry plants over the last few years including several blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, and a currant for fun. I’m looking forward to adding some strawberries this year as well.
I added 4 grape vines last year, but I am confident I will only have one left as the evil rabbits decimated them last fall and over the winter. My fault though, I di
d not keep up with them or protect them with cages. We will see how this goes, I will add a few more this spring, and pay more attention this time. I also plan to put in a few asparagus crowns, and am really looking forward to reaping the rewards of those, in three years….
Perennials are fantastic, however this post is about annuals, specifically starting them from seed. Seed starting is one of the easiest, and fun, tasks to do in the garden, but just like most things in life, we tend to over complicate the process.
Starting you own vegetable plants from seed can be one of the most fulfilling things you will do and it is as easy as filling a solo cup with starter mix, watering, and sitting it in the sun.
For me seed starting, actually starts in the fall with seed saving. I try to save as much seed as I can, as I grow mostly open pollinated, heirloom vegetables. But honestly, a packet of seeds from the big box store, and some medium to put it in is good enough.
When the weather warms up, nights in the high 40’s, seeds can generally be started outside, but they may take some time to germinate and the growth will be slow. The risk of doing this is a hard frost that will kill most seedlings outside. Besides, one of the major benefits of starting your own plants from seed, is to get a head start on the growing season.
I have and old metal shelving system that I use in my basement for my seed starting. I placed a heat mat down (easy to find them on Amazon), and put a few shop lights above it. These are the cheap big box store shop lights, nothing extravagant here. I did splurge and placed a timer on the lights, set for 18 hours on and 6 hours off, just because I’m lazy. For a few bucks on Amazon, it does make my life easier.
A specific UV growing light can be added (at a significant expense) to replace the shop lights, but I find them unnecessary for simple seed starting, at least the way I do it. I do have a UV light, but I only use this for growing greens and arugula indoors over the winter.
I like to use 72 count cell trays and trays (also found at the big box store) for my containers, and add one to three seeds per isolate. Folded newspaper blocks, or solo cups will do just as well, but they will take up more room. Any organic potting soil or seed starting mix will do just fine, again we don’t want to over complicate this. Seeds will germinate without light or food, but they absolutely need water. It is imperative that your seedlings do not dry out. Be careful not to “flood” them, consistent damp medium is all you need.
Once the “true leaves” start to show, you will need to start feeding your seedlings if you are not using a feeding soil mix. I like to make my own mix with worm castings, crushed egg shells, peat moss or coconut coir and perlite. By making my own mix I am adding organic material (peat-coir), as well as a gentle feeding (castings) for when it is needed. The perlite makes the mix very loose, and easy for the seedlings to grow strong root structures. The egg shells are for long term calcium supplement and this adds a little more organic material in the garden beds.
The egg shells were actually added to my worm castings as a source of material for the worms to help process foods in their gizzard, so it serves a dual purpose. Besides, with 6-12 chickens at any given time, I have lots of eggshells to spare, and is a free source of calcium.
When my plants are a few inches tall, I like to transplant them into larger containers and get them outside as soon as possible into the cold frame. This will harden them off for planting, as well as give them a lot more UV light than I can create with a shop light. If you don’t have a cold frame, or a small greenhouse, consider making them. They are a fantastic addition to really make your plants healthy and shoot up when the weather turns for the good.
An even simpler solution is a piece of clear plastic draped over your trays and supported as to not touch the plants. This is only temporary until you can obtain the cold frame/greenhouse as you will quickly tire of adjusting the plastic with every watering or gust of wind.
There is a good bit of research geared toward placing a over your seedlings to help them grow strong. The theory is the constant movement (mimicking wind) places a little stress on the stalks, causing them to grow thicker, and ultimately healthier. I agree with the research, but I think this is unnecessary for me as I try to get them outside as soon as I can. See what I mean about over complicating things?
When your plants are in your cold frame or greenhouse, it is crucial that you monitor the temperature and moisture. A 65 degree day is just perfect for you and I, but the temperature in a good cold frame or greenhouse can reach well over 80 degrees during this time, killing off young seedlings.
I find that I usually have to water at least daily, and sometimes twice a day for weather over 60 degrees. I placed an inexpensive outdoor remote weather thermometer in my cold frame and set the alarm to go off if it starts to get too hot. When this happens, I simply raise the lid on my cold frame a few inches and let it breathe naturally. This seems like a frivolous expense, as I told myself for many years, but I also fried more plants than I care to mention, simply because I got too busy or neglected to take note of the outside temperatures. The thermometer is a foolproof way to keep yourself in check.
Once the plants have been outside for a week or more, I try to give them a gentle liquid feeding of fish emulsion, seaweed emulsion, and Epsom salt (magnesium) every 7 – 10 days.
In zone 6B, the last frost is generally around the end of April or mid May, but the rule of thumb is not to transplant any sensitive plants into the garden until after Mother’s Day. It might be an old wives tale, but again, I don’t want to think about all the plants I lost because I jumped the gun.
So again, I will say that starting seeds indoors is as easy as buying some organic started mix, placing it in a solo cup (red of course) and starting your seeds in a warm and bright window. There are plenty of things you can do to enhance this without over complicating the process, as I have tried to do over the years. Just keep in mind, these seeds are going to grow no matter what you do to some extent, I just try to keep them reasonable happy until I can get them in the ground.
Don’t get caught up in the minutia of things and find yourself suffering from paralysis by analysis. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Super Simple) it and have fun.