Monday, March 5, 2018

Seed Starting

It’s that time of year again! The seed catalogs have all been gone through and dog-eared, most seed orders have been placed, and the packages full of hope for a colorful and delicious growing season are starting to arrive. Now what to do with all those seeds?

In this post I will outline my seed-starting routine. I’ve developed it over the last few years and have honed it into a system that yields a high rate of germination success. I’ve made many, many mistakes over the years, so I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. This is a bit of long post so I've split in into three parts so you can digest it all at your own rate. 

Part One: Pay Dirt

Let’s start with the tools of the trade. 

First of all, you need what I like to call my “seed starting infrastructure” (this infrastructure also includes heat mats and lights, but we’ll get to that later on). You’ll need a tray with cells (I don’t soil block, but you’re welcome to. Skip ahead to the next step if you are a soil blocker.) My favorite is the 128 tray, which means, simply, that it has 128 cells. That’s a lot. Unless you have a big space to fill or plan on giving away a lot of plants, one of the smaller trays from your garden center or online resource is just fine. 

Now you need some potting soil. Not dirt, but potting soil. Most garden soil is too dense for starting seeds. Also, potting soil has been sterilized, so you know there are no bad actors in your purchased mix. Make certain you get the “seed starting” or “germination” mix. It does make a difference. You can use it straight or you can mix in extra perlite, vermiculite, or even sterile compost. I use a ratio of 3:1 and add organic compost to mine, mostly because I like the texture better and feel like it holds moisture a little better.

I have this nice green potting soil holder that I make my mix in. I just use this old pimento cheese container to move the potting medium around. (I love to re-use items that would otherwise go into recycling). Once the potting medium and and compost are mixed, I push it to the back of the green potting box and place the cell tray in the front. Then I take that same plastic container and dump the mixture across the top of the cells. After I’ve covered the whole surface, I’ll give the tray a few gentle pats around the surface to make certain there are no air pockets in any of the cells. Then I carefully push away the excess. 

Voila! Your first tray filled with potting medium!

Then I pop this 128 tray into a holding tray, which is a 1020 tray. (I really have no idea why this is called a 1020 tray, but it is. If you’re using another size cell tray, you will use another holding tray other than the 1020. Be sure to use one that correctly fits your cell tray.) Then I move over to my seed starting table to begin placing seeds into the cells. 

Part Two: Tucking in the Babies

You’ll need your seed packets, a pair of scissors to open them with, and a small bowl to put them into. I know you’re excited, but take a breath! Don’t just tear open those seed packets. Seriously. I’ve done this — been so excited to get planting, I ripped the package open just to have the baby seeds fly across the room. Don’t do that! Cut open the package and dump them into the little bowl. Don’t use your hand as your seed receptacle unless they are really big seeds. They’ll literally slip between your fingers. And they are much harder to pick up out of your palm than they are out of a small bowl. 

Now, before we go any further, I want to talk about two things: documentation and seeding tools. 

Would you like to know how I’ve learned what works for me and what doesn’t? I document. Both failures and successes. There are some unusual varieties I’ve grown that I’ve found conflicting seed starting information for. So you know what I do? I had a wonderful helper who called it my “science fair experiments”. I try the various advice that I have gathered and document which techniques work the best. Some sources might say to bury a seed. Others might say it needs light to germinate (many seeds do), so to “surface sow” the seed. My advice: try both! Keep track of which way worked better and increased germination.

Here are some photos from my big seed-starting manual, importantly titled, “How to Grow Stuff.” You can see what facts I document. 

I’ll go back to these pages and document the date of germination and other important facts, even continuing once seedlings are planted out and start to mature. All this information is referred to as a plant’s “culture”. So if you hear the phrase “cultural information” about a specific variety, know that it means the best practices and circumstances with which to grow that plant and achieve the highest success. Does it like shade? Full sun? What kind of shade? Bright or dappled? Morning sun? Can it take afternoon sun? All of this information is important to the success of your plants. But you can also do experiments here. Try your seedlings in several locations and document the results. Don’t be afraid to be a citizen scientist! 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Okay. You’re sitting at your table with your seeds in a little bowl. Now let’s talk about how you get the seeds from the bowl into the cells. 

Here are some seeding tools. 

The two I find of any value at all are the dibber and the tweezers. The tweezers are actually for bead work, tiny intricate bead work — kinda like seeds (they're even called seed beads!) So they work really well. I know some people use the end of chopsticks and toothpicks, but the wood is porous and likes to hang onto the seed. Actually, fingertips are my favorite tools. With many seeds, you’ll want to seed out more than one seed per cell to increase your yield of viable seedlings. But there are some kinds of seeds that are so expensive, you’re not going to want to waste a single seed. That’s when the tweezers come in really handy. 

The other seeding tools are, IMHO, completely useless. The green bubble purports to work using suction, but I lose more seeds than I’m able to plant with it. The suction loosens on the way from the bowl to the cell, and you’ve lost that seed. The other two either don’t release any seeds or WAY too many. You can try them (and you probably will) but don’t let me say “I told you so!”

So now let’s put the dibber to work. In this photo, I’m seeding out some larger seeds. 

In this case, you’ll see I’ve marked the wooden dibber in quarters of an inch so I can tell the depth. These seeds are planted at one quarter of an inch. So I went through and made holes in every cell. Then I went back, one row at a time and dropped the seed in. My method is to place the seeds in one row only, then cover those seeds. That way if I get called away to do something else for a minute, I know exactly where to start again. And sometimes those seeds are hard to see.

Which brings me to another topic. I use a sunlight lamp when I’m working. It’s on a stand and it sits over my left shoulder. I could never see what I was doing without it.  And one more little side topic: labels. I’ve tried lots of different ways to label my trays. Popsicle sticks, masking tape…..nothing worked well and often labels got lost or names of things got washed off. And popsicle sticks can get really gunky and nasty! So I use these plastic labels that can be re-used each year. Don’t use a sharpie. They fade. Terribly. Use a grease pencil. Sometimes old school is the best school. (And I trim the bottom off a bit so they fit under the humidity dome you're going to use in a minute.)

Part Three: What do I do with this tray full of dirt and seeds?

So now your tray is seeded out. I have a germination station for the dozens upon dozens of flats that I seed out every year. We’ll get into making one of those stations in another post. But the procedure is still the same. What your seeds need to germinate now is water, warmth, and light. Let’s deal with each sub-topic, one at a time.

Water: Boy howdy, has this been the steepest learning curve for me. I heard once that the quality of a gardener is all in her watering technique. It’s really that important. I’ve watered from above and below, but have settled on above. Again, if you’re soil blocking, my watering technique will probably not work for you, so feel free to skip this section. Some people water from by the bottom by pouring an inch or so of water in the 1020 tray and then letting the cells soak it up by osmosis. I used to do this. But I found that it hindered germination by often keeping the soil too moist and rotting the seeds, and sometimes the roots. Algae growth was much more of a problem with bottom watering. In addition, whenever we're propagating plants, we want to mimic nature to get the highest germination possible. In nature, in the vast majority of instances, water comes from above in the form of rain. So I water from above. 

I've used lots of different misters and nozzles and spray cans, but now I use this Haws watering can. I love the size. I use anywhere from half a can to a full can for each flat. (Have a larger can on hand to refill this small one.) What is so wonderful about the Haws cans is the watering "rose", or the nozzle on the end of the spout. It is incredibly gentle and won't wash away the tiny seeds. 

Some people water before they seed out the tray. I water after because it’s like when you water-in seeds or seedlings in the field or in the garden. You are gently firming the soil around the seed and improving it’s contact with the soil. So I water after. 

The first few days, you’re going to need to check your trays at least twice a day to make certain they are well-watered. You don’t want all your hard work seeding out the tray to be for naught. I also place a humidity dome over my tray to hold in moisture. But it MUST be removed as soon as the seedlings begin to emerge. 

Warmth: So now you have your seeded-out tray. It’s been watered and you’ve placed a clear humidity dome over it. Now place it on a seedling heat mat. I know this may seem extreme, but you MUST have a thermostat on your heat mats, even if you just have one. I’ve learned from hard experience that they tend to run a little too hot. And if the day is sunny or the room is warm, the heat mat doesn’t know it UNLESS you have a thermostat. They’re not expensive and you will be SO glad you purchased one. As you can see in this photo, I can run all my heat mats off of one thermostat. 

And lastly, light: If your mats are in a sunny window, you’re golden. I live in a log house which means heavy, steep eaves to keep the rain off the logs as much as possible. It also means less sun. So I have a germination station. 

If you want to grow under lights, the cheapest way to do it is to use shop lights that carry two bulbs. For each light fixture you want one warm and one cool bulb. This way you are mimicking the full spectrum of sunlight. It’s not perfect, but it’s close. It’ll get those babies started in a safe and protected environment. 

At this point, you continue to check, water, and wait. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see those first green shoots and those first little bending necks of seedlings! Be sure to document when germination begins for each variety you grow. When a significant number of seedlings are up, remove the humidity dome. You’ll also want to turn down the heat or have another area to move your growing seedlings to. I move mine to the greenhouse where they stay and grow until they are ready to either be potted up to a larger cell or pot, or are ready to be hardened off, which is another topic all in itself!

Happy growing!


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Saving the World, One Flower at a Time

My first year flower farming, I sold my bouquets at a lovely little farmers’ market in a church parking lot. The market was part of the church’s ministry. While not all the vendors were organic, many of them were, and the customers all seemed very interested in where and how their food was grown. But they couldn’t have cared less about their flowers. Although my bouquets sold extremely well, nobody was curious about the growing practices I followed.

One day, one of the church volunteers asked me, “Okay, I get organic vegetables, but why flowers?” This was a man who gardened regularly and was very proud of his day lilies. I was taken aback for just a second, but answered succinctly, “Pollinators.”  The man’s eyes opened very wide as I imagine he considered all the benign insects who had visited his flower garden only to perish before they could pollinate his vegetable patch.

Since I use no pesticides, my garden is filled the most interesting bugs and animals. I lose the first few dahlias to flea beetles, but then the soldier beetles arrive to quickly dispatch them. I don't have to spend money and time spraying, and in return, I get to witness just one of nature’s millions of balancing acts.

Because I refuse to use pesticides and herbicides, the microbiom of my soil is intact. Both herbicides and pesticides kill untold quantities of microbial life in the soil. We only now are learning about how these microscopic creatures benefit those of us who live above ground. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are humans on earth. So we have a lot to learn. 

Another creature being decimated by pesticides is the earthworm. It has been theorized that throughout history, great civilizations have flourished where there were fertile populations of earthworms. What does it say about our future if we destroy one of the creatures most responsible for soil fertility, and, by extension, perhaps even human intellectual fertility? 

Another reason not to use herbicides like Roundup is that they are deadly to all amphibians. I adore my garden toads. There is not a better predator for seedling-destroying slugs than a big fat toad, who can eat (wait for it) one thousand bugs a day! Why in the world would I want to harm one of my best garden protectors? 

So I soldier on, saving the earth one flower at a time. I like to bear witness to the infinite wisdom of nature taking its course. I’m really not certain why we think we are smarter than the forces that gave rise to our being. And if we don’t learn some humility, we may regret the outcome. So rejoice in all creatures that live in your garden and revel in the miracle that is nature. One flower at a time.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bird by bird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

We wind up saying “bird by bird” a lot at our house. When the task at hand seems too big to possibly tackle, we say it. Sometimes we don’t even believe it when we say it, but just the saying of it makes us feel better, as if, in the noisy, messy chaos of our everyday lives, there really is a way forward.
Three new rows added to the front garden last summer.

Nearly every July since I started the farm, I’ve wondered seriously if I just shouldn’t go ahead and plow the whole thing under. This is usually once the humidity has risen to its soggy southern heights and so have the weeds. Just walking outside is like entering a blast furnace and you can see the steam rising off the paved roads. This is when I wonder just what the heck I was thinking in starting this farm, and that’s when I start my mantra, “bird by bird and row by row….”

Starting is always the hardest. It’s that first shovel full of dirt. That first unopened seed packet. But if I can just stick that shovel in the dirt and tear that seed packet open, after an hour, I look back and can’t believe how much I’ve accomplished. So hour by hour, row by row, bird by bird, my crazy idea of what to do with the rest of my life slowly takes shape.

So I just keep plodding along, doing the best I can do, and sometimes things work out.  The snow melts, the birds come back, the humidity rises, and the flowers bloom again. Row by row.


Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year's Day, 2016

Inch by inch, and row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow.
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground.
Inch by inch, and row by row,
Someone bless these seeds I sow.
Someone warm them from below
'Til the rains come tumbling down.

New Year’s Day is my favorite day of the year.

This is me and my siblings at Christmas, sometime in the 70s.

When I was a kid, Christmas was my favorite holiday. I think it is for a lot of kids. Santa and presents and candy and no school — it’s a perfect storm of a holiday when you’re a kid! As I got older, though, I began to think that maybe Thanksgiving was my favorite. I have always loved the way it’s nearly impossible to cash in on a holiday that simply asks its participants to slow down and consider all the wonder and beauty in their lives. You gotta admit: That’s pretty great. And as all the major holidays go, Thanksgiving is a bit of an underdog, coming as it does between Halloween and Christmas, two very over-hyped and commercial holidays whose original meanings tend to get lost in the retail frenzy that precedes them.

I still love Thanksgiving, but over the last few years, I’ve come to really look forward to New Year’s Day. I’ve learned from my Jewish friends and relations that in the Hebrew calendar, the New Year comes in September with Rosh Hashanah. It follows the agricultural cycle, so the Jewish year ends with the harvest. The new year begins with a clean slate after Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Here’s the best, most beautiful aspect of the Jewish New Year: The Day of Atonement is when you look back at your year and both seek and grant forgiveness. You promise to do better in the coming year. Now THAT’S the essence of New Year’s Day for me.

In my family, we have a tradition of taking a New Year’s Day hike. And because we’re Southerners, we nearly always have a big pot of black-eyed peas with the leftover Christmas ham bone. It’s interesting to take a hike at this time of year, especially on a familiar and well-loved trail. It looks bleak and quiet, but if you scratch the surface, you are reminded of the riotous life lurking literally right below the surface.

I love looking out at the expanse of the year ahead of me. Maybe it’s because I’m from Oklahoma, but I imagine the year spreading out before me like an unbroken horizon of prairie, seemingly endless in all directions. There are so many possibilities hidden within that beautiful vista! The mistakes and shortcomings of the previous year begin to drain away as I am filled with the wonder of so many chances to make amends, to atone, to forgive. And to plant seeds, both literally and metaphorically, that have the glorious potential to bear fruit in the coming year.

The road away from the family farm in Oklahoma. (photo by Jim Lightfoot)
Happy New Year,