Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Garden 3.0 Has Begun! Get those seedlings going!

The snow is still flying and it's -11C outside, but inside where it's warm, Garden 3.0 is starting to sprout!

This is only the third year I'll be growing veggies in raised beds, and I'm still very much in learning and trial-and-error mode. Right now I'm focused on how to start seedlings.

You can save a lot of money by starting your own plants from seed ($2 - $3 for a packet of 20-40 seeds, instead of $3 - $5 for a single plant), plus it's a great feeling of accomplishment when you're able to harvest veggies that you started from seeds.

Here are a few things I've learned as a newbie about starting veggies from seed:

  1. When you start seeds is important.

    Goes without saying, but you do have to check the seed packet (or a general list, like this one, which is specific for my region) for when to start seeds in advance of the last frost date for your area. I started tomatoes, peppers and leeks on February 21, and I'll be starting some more (green onions) this coming weekend.

    I learned this lesson a little late the first year I started our garden: I attended a local seed exchange hosted by Niki Jabbour in late March, and was shocked to hear all the seasoned gardeners discussing which plants they already had growing! I felt a bit of panic that I was a month behind for tomatoes and peppers... it wasn't a huge deal-breaker, but now I tend to get them started earlier, especially since I'll be using mini-hoop tunnels on the garden this year.
  2. What you put seeds in matters.

    The first year I planted seeds, I think I planted them in dirt (JUST dirt), and the second year they were in regular potting soil. Turns out neither of those are great for starting seeds - you really need a well-draining soilless mix. Who knew? This year I went with Miracle-Gro soilless seed-starter mix, for no other reason than I figured a little extra fertilizer couldn't hurt (also - it's all they had in stock in mid-February at the store I went to). Next year I might try Gardens Alive if I can get it, based on these comparisons.

    Also, this year, the seeds I started in plastic containers are doing well, but the peat pots (like these) aren't doing well at all! I think they leech out too many nutrients, or they're drying out too quickly.
  3. Seeds need warmth and water to spout, and warmth, water and light to grow.

    Seems basic but... well it's important. Cover up the seed trays with plastic to keep the moisture in, and keep them somewhere warm... but take the plastic off and put the trays under lights (about 3" above the plants) once they've sprouted.

    Also, the seeds I started with a watering mat underneath seem to be doing much better, since the water is coming from below and it's automatic, rather than relying on me to remember to water them.
  4. You don't need fancy schmancy 'grow' lights to grow seedlings.

    Regular old flourescent bulbs work just as well. I paid $40 for a tiny, fancy, one-bulb light from Lee Valley the first year, but $25 for a 4' double-bulb flourescent fixture this year. They're both doing the same thing! Get light fixtures that can be plugged in, or you'll be in for some electrical work, and ain't nobody got time for that.
  5. Seedlings love warmth and light... but not ALL the time.

    The past couple of years I've tried leaving the lights on 24/7, or turning them off at night when I remembered (which was rarely). This year we've got a timer set up so they turn off for 8 hours at night and they are flourishing! We just repurposed the timer from our outdoor Christmas lights and programmed it to turn off at 10 pm and back on at 6 am. I kindof wish I could plug myself into a timer -- ON at 6 am, OFF at 10 pm. But I digress.
  6. Seedlings need to be replanted when they get big enough.

    See here for my comparison of repotted versus non-repotted tomato seedlings. I'm still trying to figure out when these little guys really should be repotted... some, I've heard, should be done more than once before they end up out in the Real World (ie, garden). I'm just not 100% sure when they need to move to bigger pots yet. I do know tomatoes do well when you plant them down to the lowest set of leaves (even pinching off the lowest set to get them in deeper), as they will grow roots from the stem that's under the soil.
  7. You need a plan

    Here's my (very rough) plan for this year. I just mapped out our beds on paper - we've got two 4x8 beds - and tried to group things together that do well (aka 'companion plants'). I put taller / faster growing plants behind lower ones so they won't shade each other, except for lettuce which is a cold-weather / okay-in-the-shade plant. I'll shade it with the peas which grow up quickly.

    I also wrote down which veggies need more fertilizer ('heavy feeders'), what their watering needs will be, and when things should be started from seed or transplanted out to the garden.

veggie garden plan
Garden 3.0... The Grand Plan! (click for larger view)

Another thing I'm doing differently this year will be to plant flowers among the vegetable plants. I haven't had much (er... ANY) success with cucumbers or squash in years past... I think it has to do with the lack of pollinators in the area. SO... I'll be trying to entice the bees with pretty flowers! Anyone who knows me knows I must be pretty desperate if I'm trying to get bees to come my way... Let's just say, veggie plants you started from seed are like a couple hundred miniature children... you'll do just about anything to see them succeed. If nothing else, at least the flowers will pretty up the garden beds (assuming I can get some to grow!).

Seedling Watch 2014 begins...
Pictures coming soon!

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