Belle of Dirt

Missouri Ozarks mom, mover of earth, photographer, maker and plant enthusiast


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Ghetto Greenhouse Part II

IPlastic Bottle promised an update when I transplanted seeds… I’m a bit late since I actually did this almost 3 weeks ago. I did save the pictures though, so I can still run through that bit. My daughter is at school and I didn’t want to be covered in joint compound and drywall dust to go pick her up, so I have almost an hour to write! 🙂

So seed starting next steps…

We drink a lot of bottled water and Gatorade which comes in plastic bottles and yes, I know, it’s terrible for the environment- but, I reuse mine for all sorts of things instead of just tossing them in the trash. Seed starting time for instance, I save bottles for several months and use those for my transplants instead of buying seed starting kits at the store. It saves money and it helps recycle many of those bottles that would otherwise wind up in trash. Clear plastic bottles make excellent seedling starters for several reasons; they are thin enough to cut through with household scissors and don’t require special tools, they hold water well without disintegrating like paper pots or peat pots, they are the ideal size for individual seedlings, are easily transportable if you’d like to give some plants away (which I do every year) and best of all, you can actually SEE the root development on your plants. There’s no questioning whether the root systems are well established and ready to plant, all you have to do is take a look. It’s also fun to be able to show my daughter all parts of the plant so that she she can see how they grow, not just the leaves and stems above ground, but all those essential roots too.

1) I prefer the 20 oz. Gatorade bottles for my transplants, but I use 17 oz. water bottles as well. The Gatorade bottles have a wide mouth, so I take the tops off, cut the bottle just above the label and turn the top upside down inside the the bottom. (Like in the photo) I filled both the top and bottom with soil. I’ve seen some gardeners cut the bottle closer to the middle, put soil only in the top portion with the roots sticking out the mouth and use the bottom to fill with water- makes a sort of self watering planter.
The water bottles I just cut the tops off above the label and only use the bottom 3/4 of the bottle as a container.

teaspoon and straws2) Roots are the single most important thing to the success of seedlings. Mine were a little leggy from starting off with not quite enough light, so I buried them deep,  leaving all that extra stem below the dirt. Tomato plants will just grow roots along the extra stem and give you a better root system. I used the seed starting soil again from Miracle Grow, since it claims to support and help create  healthy roots. I used a tablespoon from the kitchen to lift the seedling’s root ball out of each egg carton cell. You have to be VERY gentle when transplanting seedlings. The stems and leaves are  soft and delicate, not like those already hardened-off, ready to plant greenhouse plants you buy at the nursery. They’ll get there, but right now they need a little extra TLC when moving them about. The spoon helped me lift out the entire root system of each seedling with minimal handling of the stems and leaves. Those seedlings that didn’t have great roots established or were smaller, weaker plants I didn’t transplant. There are SO many plants when you start from seed, you can afford to be selective and choose your strongest and best growers.  I put only one or two seedlings per bottle, depending on how large they’d grown in the egg cartons.

3) As you transplant each seedling, you want to make sure and label them. I’ve used cut up pieces of the egg carton tops in the past, I forgot to save them this year. >.<
I’ve seen quite a few gardeners use Popsicle  or craft sticks, writing on them with a permanent marker. I didn’t have any of those handy; what I did have was a huge bag of bendy straws that had only cost me about $1.48 for the entire bag. I bent the straws, wrote my tags on the bent part and stuck the rest of the straw in the dirt.
Added bonus, the straws acted as little stakes to support the floppy plants until they grew into their new homes.
Tomato SeedlingObviously, you can tell pepper plants from tomato plants by their leaves fairly early on. If you’re planting more than one variety of tomato or pepper though, as was my case, you might have a difficult time discerning which is which until they start to flower or fruit. If you’re giving plants away or want them in a very specific place in the garden, you don’t want to have to play a guessing game, so label everything. Unless you like surprises…

4) Once the seedling is planted in the bottle and labeled, you’ll want to give it a good drink. I use an old Tide liquid laundry soap bottle with a few holes poked in the cap. It works better than the huge water pitcher I use for my house plants, giving enough control to water the seedlings thoroughly without drowning them. If you’re concerned you’ll overwater, poke a couple drainage holes in the bottom of your bottles. Make sure to sit them on trays or in troughs if you do that though! I used the black garden trough that was the bottom of my greenhouse and commandeered a plastic crate from the closet; pepper plants went in one, tomatoes in the other. Segregating them keeps them out of trouble. For some reason, my tomato plants try to wrap themselves around other plants if they’re too close. They’re territorial little buggers.
The reason for the big containers is to make it easy on you when it’s time to start the hardening off process. You’ll be moving your seedlings in and out of doors (unless you have a greenhouse or cold frame) and it’s much easier to carry large tubs than move 30 or more individual plants. Even using trays last year, I had some near deaths when plants decided to base-jump off the trays while I was walking.
The tubs are also real life-savers if you need to move your plants FAST. Mid-Missouri is notorious for strong spring storms from March – May. New seedlings break in strong winds, are crushed in torrential rainfall and torn to bits in hail storms. If you live anywhere near the middle of  the country, you know storms can come on fast and be unpredictable. Being able to move your plants quickly can save you from starting over.

5) I removed the plastic cover over my ghetto greenhouse when I transplanted to bottles. They have plenty of soil around the roots now to hold water, they didn’t need the extra protection of plastic over them. Keeping the cover on will filter your light too, which can make them leggy. Even with the additional light source, my seedlings always seem to be slightly leggy plants. One thing I have found to help remedy this is to have the window open as much as possible so they get a breeze. I also put a fan on them sometimes, it makes them feel pretty when their hair blows in the breeze. Ok, in truth, I do this to make them stand up and grow a backbone- a slight breeze during the hardening off period, strengthens the plant’s stems. You don’t want wimpy plants that lie there and look pitiful when you move them out to the garden.TomsPeppers
Until the hardening off period, I keep the light on them as much as possible and just check the soil with a finger to see if they need water. The clear bottles are handy in that respect as well, you can see if the soil is dry past the surface and how far down. I’ve been adding water about every 4-5 days.

6) Pepper plants like HEAT, so I won’t be moving these little guys into the garden for a few more weeks. I’ve read that pepper plants shouldn’t be transplanted outdoors until the ground temperature has reached around 65 F. This means that it should be staying in at least the 50’s during the night. If transplanted too early in cold soil, it can stunt the pepper plant’s growth, the leaves may turn yellow and the plants look sickly. Tomato plants aren’t as particular, but you shouldn’t put them out until all danger of frost has passed.
This year has been an especially cool spring and most of my landscape plants are off to a slow start. Last year, I had my entire garden in the last couple weeks of April; I’m thinking this year it will be more like the 2nd or 3rd week of May. Even if you do make the mistake of moving your plants out too early and you aren’t great at knitting tiny sweaters, you can heavily mulch and /or cover them during especially cold nights. (Plastic shower curtain liners make great frost covers, need to change yours?)
As long as it doesn’t kill the root, the plant may recover and do well once it gets the heat and sun that it needs.

I’ll write the final bit of this series when I move my transplants outdoors. In the meantime, I’m saving up all my eggshells and coffee grounds. Tomato plants need calcium to avoid blossom drop, a common tomato plant issue (eggshells) and leftover coffee grinds are a great green material for the compost pile.

-B

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Ghetto Greenhouse

004I learned a few things last year when I started peppers and tomato plants from seed, so I decided this year to improve on my experience. I started my plantings this year with an actual seed starting formula instead of just generic potting soil. Even though, I almost always buy Miracle Gro, this particular blend is supposed to help with good root development- which if you read my previous article, this is one of THE most important aspects of successful tomato plants: excellent root growth. It was a few more $ than the regular potting mix, but one small bag was more than enough for starting all my seedlings.

001Last year, I started  seeds in gallon milk jugs that I’d cut the tops from. I dumped all the seeds in together into the jug and set the top back on the bottom half to make mini-greenhouses. This seemed a great idea at the time, I found out that when the seedlings outgrew their milk jug homes and needed to be moved to individual containers, it was very difficult if not impossible to separate their roots without destroying some of them. This year, I opted for saving egg cartons. I tried to keep it to no more than 1 or 2 seeds per cell. I did run out of cartons and had to put a few in a lid and a few more in a halved milk jug. I tried to keep them further apart than I had the previous year though. If the individual cells work well, I’ll be sure to use all egg cartons with cells next year.
The egg cartons are sitting in a big, black plastic garden tub I picked up at Lowes for only $8. I figured it would be much nicer to move about than several different trays- I used cookie sheets to hold all my bottles and containers last year, which worked ok, but it was kind of a pain in the butt moving multiple sheets in and out when it came time to harden off the seedlings. This tub contains everything nicely, it’s waterproof, easy clean up and it’s black, so it will help absorb heat.

002We were having trouble getting those tiny little tomato and pepper seeds to stay put where we wanted them, so my daughter helped me make seed tapes. Some very tiny seeds will come from the seed companies already in paper tapes. Seed starting kits from the store often come with miniature pots made of peat and a thin, biodegradable net to keep them from falling apart until the roots create a network to hold the pete in place when removed. I cut small squares of paper towel, and sprayed them with a couple squirts from a spray bottle while she held it in her hand. We then set the seed on the wet towel, which stuck very nicely. I was able to move a bit of soil from and egg cell, put the paper down with the seed and have it stay in place while covering it back up with soil. The paper towel degrades naturally and doesn’t stop the roots from growing, just like the net-wrapped pete cells. The pete cells are convenient, but can be costly for a large set up. This method only costs you about 1 paper towel per 20 or so seeds. 🙂

003Once all our seeds were planted I used a tea spoon to lightly firm the soil over the seeds. You don’t need to really pack them down, you want the soil to stay a bit light for those tiny, tender little roots to take hold. Watering will help to further settle the soil around the seeds and help them to start germination. A fancy tool isn’t necessary for planting seeds, this old teaspoon and fingers worked well.

007After all the seeds are covered in soil, you’ll need to give them a good drink. I’ve found that pouring water displaces too much soil when you’re dealing with small seeds and shallow cells. I use a spray bottle filled with water, the same one I keep for training cats, cleaning houseplant leaves, etc. It cost me $2 at the grocery store. I’ll continue using this to water while the seedling are in these tiny cells. Over watering could cause mildew to develop or rot the roots.

006Tomato seedlings are pretty distinctive and it isn’t difficult to differentiate between tomato and pepper plants once they get a few leaves on them. However, I planted two different types of tomatoes and two different types of peppers. If it’s important to you that you can tell what you’ve planted where later, make sure to label everything. Otherwise, you’ll be playing roulette with your seedlings when you put them out in the garden, since they won’t have identifiable fruit when they’re transplanted. I used toothpicks wrapped in cloth tape and wrote on them with a permanent laundry marker. I’ve seen people use old silverware, which looks elegant in the garden itself, Popsicle sticks, plastic cutlery- last year I cut triangles from my left over egg carton lids and wrote on those. It’s not important WHAT you use. Just make sure it’s A) Waterproof and B) Won’t degrade before your plants are ready to be moved outdoors.

009In case you forget when your plants are supposed to germinate, would like to remember the specific water, spacing or sun requirements or just want to know the  plant name so you can choose the same for next year (or brag about the particular type of heirloom you planted and grew with great success)- you’ll want to keep your seed packets or write it down somewhere. If you order your seeds online and created an account with the seller, they’ll probably have your order on file and you can refer back to it that way. Personally, I find it easiest to just hang on to the seed packets themselves. I put them in a Zip-loc baggie to keep them from getting dirty or wet and tucked them into my plastic tray right next to the seedlings. Easy reference, close at hand. Stick them in a file to reorder next year after moving your plants to the garden.

008

I put my finished seed tray in front of our big bay window, which gets all but the late afternoon sun. It’s sitting on top of my daughter’s wagon, so it moves around nicely. That’s a leftover bit of drywall board underneath it for stability. I use what I have and re-purpose what I can. I see lots of fancy shelving systems with installed grow lights and such. Get them if you feel they make your life easier, your growing space look more attractive, or whatever the reason- but know that they are absolutely NOT necessary to successfully grow plants, regardless of what the salespeople or online ads tell you. The black plastic tub with help absorb and retain warmth on the seedlings, since I don’t use seed warming mats either. I put a bit of clear plastic over the tray that was leftover drop cloth from a painting project; it helps to retain warmth and moisture while the seeds germinate. They don’t really need a grow light until they actually break through the soil.

ghettogreenhouseThis photo I took today, it’s about 3 1/2 weeks from our initial plant date. You can see that I have some pretty decent sized seedlings already. The tomato plants all came up first, the peppers took about a week longer. I did notice after a week of good growth that the tomato plants were getting a bit leggy (long, thin stems from not enough light); I had this lamp in our bedroom that is adjustable, Tom picked me up a plant light bulb during a trip to Lowes to get a snow blower. The bulb was $7 plus change, but made a HUGE difference in the amount of light my seedlings were getting. I also cut up a box into three parts and covered the insides with tinfoil to act as light reflector screens. After a week, the tomato plants are already thickening up and less leggy and the peppers have all come up as well. I kept the plastic and draped it over the top- my ghetto greenhouse. Drop cloth plastic, foil, diaper box, plastic tub and some egg cartons. It’s working beautifully and I spent next to nothing on it.

LeavesTomatoes are ready for transplant when they have two sets of true leaves. These guys are already very close; I’ll probably be moving them into bottles in a week or so. My husband drinks a lot of bottled water and I drink a lot of Gatorade when I work out, so I’ve stockpiled the leftover bottles in our utility room. These were great planters last year. They let in light, they’re easy to remove when it’s time to plant and since they’re clear- I can see the root development on the plants and whether they actually need water or not.  I’ll post updates when the seedlings are ready for transplant.

-B