Thursday, February 10, 2011

The seedling factory...

I think I have been more systematic about my seed starting this spring than ever before, and so far, it's paying off.  Using lessons learned from many past failed attempts and new tips and ideas from my winter reading, I've set up a pretty serious seed-starting operation.  Not to mention, due to an absent roommate, we have an extra room this spring with an ideal south-facing window that I've taken the liberty of transforming into my own quasi-greenhouse.

Here's an overview of the steps I've taken (as mentioned in the previous post, with every step for every variety documented in the gardening journal).
  • Presprouting:  Presprouting your seeds before planting them has a few advantages over just planting directly in the soil.  (1) You can quickly see which seeds are viable, and avoid the effort and space involved with planting any seeds that will not sprout.  (2) Presprouting moves the germination forward a few days faster, with seeds generally germinating within a couple of days of planting after presprouting.  So, how to?  This year, I've been trying a new method.  As pictured to the right, for this method you want to wet a paper napkin (about as wet as a damp sponge), put it on the bottom of a clear plastic container, sprinkle your seeds on it, and then seal.  When you see your seeds sprouting, it's time to plant!  Very convenient and a great way to reuse those pesky plastic containers before recycling them.*  
*With most bigger seeds, presprouting is a great option, but very small seeds (like thyme, for example) are much too delicate to presprout and get into the soil without damaging them.  
  •  The Germinator:  This is both the name of the organic seedstarting soil I've used this year as well as what I like to call the domed structure to the right.  It's important to use sterile soil, so either buy special seedstarting mix or make your own, just be sure to sterilize it in the microwave or oven.  Plant your sprouted seeds in the seedstarting mix and cover with about as much soil as the diameter of your seed. Keep your soil very moist until the seedling emerges.  I like to use the plastic dome method to the right for this part, but as soon as the seedlings are up (as pictured below), I take them out of this environment which is much too damp and lacking in air circulation to keep seedlings healthy.  
    • Under the Lights:  Once seedlings are up, I move them under the lights (pictured to the right)...  My low-cost and low-consumption alternative to purchasing new grow lights is to purchase a few used desk lamps at local thrift stores and outfit them with CFL light bulbs.  These lamps, surrounded with mirrors and aluminum pans to reflect the light and in front of a bright, south-facing window, provide enough light to keep my seedlings from getting spindly.  I also keep a fan blowing low on them from a couple of feet away in order to increase air circulation (decreasing risk of disease and dampening off), to strengthen stems, and to get them more hardy and ready for the chilly early spring outdoors.  I keep lights just a couple of inches above the seedlings, readjusting as they grow, and rotate seedlings regularly to keep them from leaning too far in one direction toward the light.  The seedlings are watered daily, keeping them as moist as a wrung-out sponge, with just water, as fertilizer might "burn" them at this early stage of life.  You can see a sampling of what's growing so far below.  
    • Indoor Transplanting:  Between when the seedlings have produced their first true leaves (beyond the cotyledons they produce when they first emerge) and their second set of true leaves, it's time to transplant them to a bigger container with more fertile soil (see to the right).  For this purpose, I like to reuse disposable cups, collecting them from friends that may have forgotten their travel mug for their morning java.  ;)  I punch a few holes in the bottom, and fill with a mix of worm compost and potting soil (about 1/3 worm compost).  Then, gently untangle seedlings, putting each in its own new, upsized home.  From there, I start fertilizing every other watering with diluted worm tea (about 1/4 cup to 5 gallons water).  They stay under the lights for a while yet before heading outside, but the youngest seedlings get to hog most of the light.  
    Next up: Making our way outdoors...  to the cold frame!


    1. This post was super helpful! :) I'm following along diligently as we get my bigger-than-last year garden ready for its first big harvest! :)

    2. Mae,reading this to Jack...explaining that u have worms and a cat as a pet....He is very interested in how the worms work and their worm tea/pee! He wants to know what the cat gives to help make plants grow? I of course say absolutely nothing!
      I am amazed by the detail and work you put into great!

    3. uh oh alyn... eric better watch out ;)

      I'm gonna have to get jackson some worms for his birthday!