Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Starting Seeds Indoors: Some Tips for Beginners

This is my third consecutive year starting at least some of my vegetable garden seeds indoors, and I anticipate (knock on wood) that this year will be my most successful yet. It may seem like a fairly simple thing to start your own garden plants from seed — I certainly thought, the first year I tried it, that starting plants indoors would be far simpler than it turned out to be. But I've since discovered that growing nursery-quality plants from a packet of seeds requires a fair bit more than water, some soil and a windowsill.

Having learned from my previous mistakes, I have some basic tips to share with fellow gardeners who would like to experiment with starting seeds indoors.

Tip #1: Plants Need Light.

And now, all those of you who have ever successfully kept any green thing alive (but have not tried before to start seeds) are saying out loud to your computer screen, "Thank you, Captain Obvious."

Of course you already know that plants need light. I knew, the first year I tried to start seedlings, that plants needed light.

Well, you know that humans need food, too, don't you? But think, for a moment, about the difference between feeding a fully-grown human and feeding a baby human, and may start to understand a bit better why I made this very obvious fact Tip #1.

All plants need light, but in order to get the best start in life, baby plants need a specific kind of light, and a lot of it.

This means, friends, that I am sorry to disappoint you, but if you want to raise a whole garden's worth of healthy spinach sprouts and towering tomato plants from seed, your kitchen windowsill? That gets 4-6 hours of indirect winter light on a good day? Is not going to cut it.

It's not going to cut it even if you faithfully turn those little seedlings every day to try to keep them from leaning toward the light. It's not going to cut it even if you leave the light on in the kitchen for ten hours a day on purpose just for the plants. It's not going to cut it even if you move your little desk lamp over to your kitchen counter and sorta point in in the plants' direction. It's not.

How do I know this will not work? I've tried it.

Starting vegetable plants — especially sun-loving plants like peppers or tomatoes — on an ordinary windowsill will produce spindly, skinny, sickly seedlings. You may well get a few hearty souls that overcome their poor upbringing to become great garden producers after a fortuitous transplant to a happier, sunnier outdoor home. You may find one really sweet spot on that windowsill that gets just enough light to produce a few robust starts.

But mostly, you will spend a lot of time, effort and worry only to wind up with plants that look like they have rickets.

If you really, really want to get serious about starting your plants indoors, you need to provide your seedlings with a steady source of direct bright light for 10-14 hours a day. Lacking my own personal greenhouse, the best way that I have found to do this is to hang fluorescent shop lights directly above the shelf or table where I am starting my plants.

This is less of a hassle than it may sound. Fluorescent shop lights are not that expensive (you can find fixtures for $15-$30) easy to find (on the internet or at almost any hardware store), and easier than you might think to install (many come with plugs so you don't have to wire them into your ceiling, and they generally can be hung from just about anywhere by a chain). You do not have to purchase fancy expensive full-spectrum fluorescent bulbs to get good results — regular tubes will do.

I rigged my own plant shelf with three sets of shop lights and a timer last year for less than $100, and I am fairly certain it has already paid for itself in savings, because starting plants from seed is much, much less expensive than buying them at a nursery.

Tip #2: Plants Need Wind.

Note: I did not say air, although (again with the obvious!) of course plants need air. What I said is that plants need wind.

Think about this. When you plant a seed outside, from the day that seedling first pokes its furled green head above soil, it must deal with the almost constant presence of wind. Outdoor plants are constantly getting buffeted with moving air — and in the first month of its life, a seeding planted outdoors will almost certainly experience everything from the tickle of a slight breeze to the flattening force of a storm-force gale.

Indoors, what are your plants experiencing in the way of air movement? Maybe the slightest shift in air current from your floor vent or ceiling fan.

When seedlings grow in the absence of natural air movement, they fail to grow strong stems. So, if you start a plant in a sheltered environment indoors, and then move it out to the garden, and there is a thunderstorm in your neighborhood the very next day, what is likely to happen to that plant you just spent one or two months coddling in Windless Land? A fatally snapped stem.

Therefore, when raising seedlings indoors, you must take a little time each day (or at least every couple of days) to be the wind for them. You can blow on them, or fan them with a piece of paper. It only takes a few minutes, and I generally do it when I'm already doing something else with the plants, like watering.

Do it hard. Don't be a wind wuss. Make your little tiny plants shake and shiver. You're not being mean. You're building character.

Tip #3 Plants Need Water, But Not Too Much Water.

Many seed packets will oh-so-helpfully recommend that, should you attempt to start the seeds within in an indoor environment, after you have planted said seeds in an appropriate soil medium at an appropriate depth, you should take care to keep the container in which said seeds have been started evenly moist.

Okay, but what the heck does evenly moist mean?

This is actually tricky to explain, and it actually depends a lot on the type of seed. If you're just getting started at this indoor seed starting thing, it may actually take you years of trial and error (or some seriously good advice from an expert gardener) to figure out the optimum amount of moisture for sprouting various sorts of seeds. I am still working on it myself. (It's a good thing seed packets are so cheap.)

But basically, what you really don't want to do is flood a container with tons of water right after you've planted a seed. For one thing, you might actually cause a small, dry seed that hasn't put down roots yet to shift its place in your container, and your plant that you so carefully placed right in the center of your pot might wind up sprouting right at the edge. Overwatering can also lead to fungus problems, or prevent your seed from getting enough air to successfully sprout.

I have found that the easiest way, for me, to keep seedling pots "evenly moist" for the first few weeks after planting is to water them with a spray bottle instead of a watering can. Just spray your little pots with a light mist until the soil looks dark and damp (but not flooded).

Tip #4: A Pot Can Be Almost Anything Pot-Shaped, as Long as It Has Holes.

So, the first year I tried to start a bunch of plants from seed — the year I foolishly, foolishly ignored all the sage advice I had read on the internets and tried to start an entire garden on a few totally inadequate windowsills, I bought about 50 or 60 fancy eco-friendly biodegradable peat starter pots.

Do you know what happens with peat pots? If you haven't used them before, let me explain. They let your soil dry out. Like, ridiculously quickly. If you get them too wet — especially unevenly wet, like you might, if, say, you were watering tiny pots withjust-planted seeds in them from the bottom instead of the top by letting them soak in a little shallow bath of water, like all the gardening websites say you are supposed to — they sometimes fall apart.

And then when you tear the bottoms out of your peat pots and plant them directly in soil without even bothering to pull your plants out, like you are supposed to? The peat pots are supposed to biodegrade and let your plants spread their roots out through their sides. But, sometimes? They don't. In fact there was once a poor little catnip plant I started in a peat pot that I transplanted into a nice big outdoor plastic pot. Said little plant struggled and struggled and failed to grow like its fellow mint family brethren for an entire growing season. And when I pulled that plant out of its big plastic pot in the fall? The peat pot was still there. As intact as the day I had planted it. And the plant was entirely rootbound. Even though I had pulled out the bottom of the peat pot to give the roots space.

The next year I discovered that #5 plastic food containers — like little single-serving yogurt cups, sour cream tubs, novelty soda cups, etc. — actually make pretty awesome little growing containers if you wash them well and poke plenty of holes in the bottom. And unlike those uber-cheap mystery plastic pots you often get plants in at a nursery, they can be reused from year to year for at least three or four years before they wear out.

So now I just save food containers all year for starting my plants in. It's eco-friendly (because I'm reusing things that might otherwise have been thrown away) and it costs me nothing.

If you'd like more tips on starting plants indoors, leave your questions in the comments, and I'll try to answer them in a future post!

Monday, February 15, 2010

How to Get Your Gardening Fix in Winter

December: For Christmas, ask your husband for a book about deadly poisonous plants. (Be sure to insist that you have no plans to actually poison him using knowledge gained from said book. This is crucial.)

Decide to be kind to husband by not growing poisonous plants.

At least, not many.

Obsessively tend to the few indoor plants you have managed to cram into the very few spots of your home that feature decent winter sunlight exposure.

Research optimal local planting times for frost-hardy salad greens.

Read seed catalogs.

January: Pester owners of local garden shops and nurseries by repeatedly asking when their organic heirloom locally-grown seed shipments will arrive.

Create planting time spreadsheets and detailed hand-drawn garden plans which you know you will probably totally ignore at planting time.

Plot seed exchange parties with well-connected foodie gardener friends.

Buy sort-of-organic, NOT heirloom, NOT locally-grown seeds when they show up at the hardware store.

Feel slightly guilty.

Assuage guilt by planning an expansion of your herb garden for more plants, grown from locally-grown organic heirloom seeds, promise to husband to stop applying Moore's Law to garden plots notwithstanding.

Collect food-safe plastic containers to reuse as pots on your indoor light shelf (because yes, you have an indoor light shelf on which to start vegetable plants from seed, because yes, when it comes to tasty homegrown vegetables you are just that hardcore).

Cheapskate Chic Green Lifestyle Tip: Yogurt cups in #5 plastic convert
quickly to seedling-sized pots with the proper application of an ice pick.

During the last weekend of the month, plant your heartiest early greens indoors for later transplant.

February: Grow things! Green things! Edible things! In your basement! Because you are now officially The Type of Person Who Grows Things in Her Basement.

Mmmmm. Lettucey.

Did You Miss Me? Um, Is This Thing Still On?

I have discovered the the problem with blogging about vegetable gardening past the month of, oh, say, July, is that near harvest time, one becomes so busy with the actual gardening that it becomes more and more difficult to find any time for writing about gardening.


That said, this year, at the urging of tens of loyal readers, I have made a resolution to resurrect this little experiment of a gardening blog, and be much more faithful about posting to it.

And if you're wondering what an amateur Midwestern gardener possibly have to write about her vegetable garden in this sort of weather?

Then you, my friend, have not yet been initiated into the club of The Serious Gardening Addict.

Consider this your invitation.

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