Sunday, February 28, 2010

Seedling Update

Here is an update on the seedlings I am doing my best to start in our bay window. After 5 days in the cupboard, the leeks had sprouted and were ready for light. A bit of mold formed on the wheatpaste that I used to construct the newspaper pots but I think it was just from too much moisture in the seed starting mix and not enough ventilation under the plastic that was covering them. Once that was removed, the mold cleared up in a day.

Jason helped me hang a shop light with two 48" 32 watt fluorescent bulbs and a reflective fixture. (I am trying Phillips "Daylight Delux" T8 bulbs...T5, T8, and T12 bulbs are all specific to the fixture so check before you buy.) In addition, I added some reflective clip lights with compact fluorescents...those won't give as much light but they can hopefully be a supplement. I put up some 4 mil plastic sheeting because the window was really drafty. I am hoping enough light can get through and the diffused light will definitely not burn the seedlings. Power runs from a power strip with 8 timed outlets to plug the lights into so they will run from 7am-11 pm. Last but not least, I plan to build some space age reflectors with aluminum foil and cardboard for even more light. With luck the leeks will like their new home!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Seed Starting

The photos below show the steps of constructing newspaper seedling pots using a toilet paper tube template, strips of newspaper, and wheat paste glue.

Hooray! It is that time of year. Last year, I bought some seedlings and planted seeds directly into the garden but this year I am going to try my hand at giving some seedlings an indoor start in our bay window. I have been goofily testing the temperature in various closets to figure out where the cabbage would prefer to hang out while it germinates and where the leeks might be happiest. I have found nooks and crannies for everyone but right now, cabbage, leeks, bibb lettuce, and kale are the only plants stowed away, waiting to grow. The soil mix (or soil-less mix rather!) i decided to use is one i mixed from 1 part coir, 1/2 part perlite, 1/2 part vermiculite. Coir is coconut husk fiber, a byproduct of coconut processing and available here for a fairly affordable price... Coir expands about 5-7 times in volume and generally comes in a brick that is soaked in water. I read about it in Urban Farm Magazine as an alternative to peat. Peat is mined from bogs in a process that is not neccessarily sustainable. Peat is also slightly acidic, whereas coir is pH neutral, which probably matters more for container plants that will be in their containers for more than 6 weeks. The pots I plan on using are a mixture of old plastic pots, milk jugs, peat pots, and newspaper pots. Newspaper pots seem especially useful for plants that resent root disturbance at transplanting time, such as summer squash and fava beans. Similar to peat pots, they are planted with the plant directly into the ground and the roots grow through as the paper breaks down.

There is a lot of information out there about growing plants, some conflicting, some in agreement. I gathered seed starting recommendations from my books and online sources and came up with this general gameplan...but it seems the best plan is to have a plan but learn and record what works and what doesn't as I go...

1. Order your seeds
2. Decide on seed growing medium: I am trying coir, vermiculite, perlite combo (2:1:1)
3. Make sure you have somewhere warm (or cool) enough for your seeds to germinate
4. Make sure you have somewhere light enough for them to grow. They need 12 - 18 hours of light a day and the short winter sun here in Pittsburgh might not cut it. I am adding some flourescent lights in addition to the light from the window (more on that later!)
5. Make a calendar of what you want to start indoors, when your local average frost dates are,(this is a general estimate and the data is a bit old) how many weeks before your average frost date you want to start the little buggers and when you will plant them out. Some things would rather be planted directly in the garden for some reason or other (carrots, parsnips, beets, peas, and beans for example).
6. Decide if you want to plant flats, plastic pots (sterilize used pots with mild bleach and water solution or less toxic hot soapy water and then vinegar rinse), recycled milk cartons etc, peat pellets or the like, or homemade newspaper pots (oh yeah!) or some crazy combination.
7. Plant your pots or flats filled with damp medium, enclose in plastic to keep in moisture and put somewhere (dark for most seeds) and at the proper temperature until they have sprouted. Vent the plastic open if some have sprouted and some have not. Remove plastic once all have sprouted.
8. Once sprouted, move little guys to a well-lit, non-drafty location protected from glaring sun (mute sunny windows with tracing paper or some other cloudy material) and don't over-water to avoid damping off which will cause your beautiful seedlings to rot at the stem-soil connection and die. Sterilizing your pots and soil if you are using a soil mix (bake it in the oven) will help prevent this as well. I will be attempting to water from the bottom up from the trays I have the little guys in so we will see how that goes.
9. When it's time to plant, harden seedlings off for a few days (or a week) by moving them outside gradually. First place them in a sheltered space outside for a few hours and by the end of the week, leave them out all day and night and then plant in the garden the next day.