Belle of Dirt

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


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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


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Gardeners, Start Your Seedlings!

My seed packets came in the mail today that I ordered a little less than two weeks ago; soon it will be time to get some of these plants started indoors.
Most seed companies like Burpee, Gurneys or Burgess are fairly first-time-gardener friendly in that they print planting and care instructions on every seed packet that they send out. You can often find additional information on their website for specific planting information in your growing zone  ( Link is to basic explanation, map to follow below). I live in North Central Missouri, most of which is in Zone 5b; however, the Lake Area is in a micro-climate area of Zone 6. This is according to the older maps; sometimes the newer maps show all but the northernmost part of Missouri in Zone 6. What this means in layman’s terms is that in Zone 6, my garden should be safe from a hard freeze by mid-May. tomatoseedlings
I was surprised at the amount of misinformation I found about seed starting on sites like Yahoo Answers. I followed the question, “When should I start my tomato seeds indoors if I live in Zone 6?” Several people, professing to be garden centers and/or professional gardeners advised this person NOT to start tomato plants indoors, but to wait until they could be planted directly in the garden instead. One of the responses actually read, “Don’t plant them indoors because they are incredibly likely to die. What you want to do is plant them outside in mid-May to early June when lots of sunlight is available.” Another answer advised them to wait until July! Seriously folks, that’s a bit ridiculous.
Yes. Tomato plants need a lot of light. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a big bay window with sunlight for 8-10 hours a day like I am, then you may need grow lights to supplement your seedlings. Without enough light, the plants will become leggy, which means the stalks will be spindly and they’ll fall over a lot. Tomato and pepper plants need about 8 weeks to germinate. Most seed companies will recommend you start them in sterile planting medium, like those pete flats you see in garden centers this time of year. Last year, I started mine in milk jugs, then transplanted to 16 oz. plastic water bottles with the tops cut off. I used ordinary potting soil. I put them on trays in the window and watered them whenever the top was dry to touch or when I could see that the soil looked dry partway down. The nice thing about clear plastic containers is you can actually SEE whether the soil needs water or not; another advantage is that you can see the root growth on your plants. They were the perfect size for giving a couple plants away to family also.
I also saw a suggestion on Pinterest to use toilet paper tubes stuffed with soil. The pin claimed that you could plant these directly in the garden since they are biodegradable. I haven’t personally tried this out yet, my concern with it is that that the tubes would start to fall apart before you were ready to transplant them and you’d have a mess. Maybe if you stuffed them close together in a shallow plastic crate (as they were shown in the pin photo) and were careful not to overwater…

This timetable for starting indoor seedlings will allow about 8 weeks for seeds to germinate and for your plants to reach a good transplant size before being moved to the garden.

Zones 9 & 10: Start seeds indoors in early to mid January
Zone 8: Start seeds indoors in early February
Zone 7: Start seeds indoors in mid February
Zone 6: Start seeds indoors in late February
Zone 5: Start seeds indoors in early March
Zones 1-4: Start seeds indoors in mid to late March

Tomato seedlings will emerge in about 7-10 days. Most peppers take longer, about 10-21 days. Some of my peppers took so long last year, I was beginning to worry that the seeds were duds and weren’t going to do anything. Then they took off and caught up to my tomatoes in a week. Onion sets should be started indoors now through mid-late February. You let these grow to about 5-6 inches tall, repeatedly cut the tops to about 3 inches until they are ready transplant; the cutting will help strengthen the root and health of the onions.

This map shows the hardiness zones and projected last frost dates for most of the United States.

FrostZones

Not all seeds should be started indoors and transplanted like tomatoes and peppers. Some should be direct-sowed in the garden; again check the labels on your seed packets for best planting times. Crops such as broccoli, most lettuces and greens, carrots and onions can be started in early spring in your garden, so long as the soil is workable. These plants benefit from the cool nights and are harvested before the warmest part of the summer season, they are early summer and late fall crops. I’m going to start half of my seeds in mid to late February and save the other half for August/September for a fall crop. Both lettuce and broccoli plants will bolt when the sun gets hot. Bolting means the plant is getting ready to flower; this often changes the flavor of the plant when it forms the flower stalk and makes it no longer edible. Some lettuce varieties are described as “Slow to bolt,” which means they will last longer in warm weather.  Most carrot varieties can also be planted early, when danger of heavy frost has passed.

For crops like cucumber and corn that are direct-sown, Zone 6 gardeners are probably safe to plant in early to mid-May. I started my cucumbers last year before we went on vacation, which was the week of May 8th. When we got back from our trip, I had plants!  🙂
Melons and squash can also be planted in Zone 6 in mid-late May through June. Beans and peas should be started in June/July when the soil temperature is warm. This is also when you should plant your heat tolerant herbs like sage, thyme, oregano and basil. If you stagger your bean plantings every couple of weeks through August, you can have beans well up until frost. This will also help spread out the yields, so you aren’t overwhelmed with tons of beans at once.

September plantings of garlic will be ready to harvest in the coming spring. Spinach is also a great plant for September that loves the cooler weather up until hard frost. This is of course, a very generalized overview. I’ll be posting some articles on specific plants and their care soon, along with some things I’ve tried that have worked out well. Even though it’s snowing today and the wind chill is around 10F, I’m still getting the gardening bug. I’ll post photos of my flats when they are started and in their sunny window.
-B