GARDEN TIP – Indoor Seed Starting

Melon Man Gene is here to explain his method of starting vegetable seeds indoors. His gardening techniques have appeared in two earlier posts — The Melon Man and Save Them Peels, Ma’am.  Gene has traditional commercial farmers in his lineage. Gene did not follow that path and, like me, he often figures things out by trial and error. He admits to a lot of failures but learns a lot that way and often photographs his failures as reminders. Without further chit-chat, I’m turning it over to Gene:

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SEED STARTING MIX. Avoid compost for seed starting. Compost can hamper germination. Potting soils are more likely to be free of the fungus that causes dampening off. I use a good potting soil, such as Miracle-Gro, rather than a seed starting mix.

Miracle-Gro has a built-in fertilizer giving the seedlings a good start and eliminates the worry of adding fertilizer until later. I’ve found that despite how long the bag claims the fertilizer will last, it doesn’t — possibly due to how I water. As a result, I watch the plants and when the growth seems to lag or the green color fades (this can also happen if the seedlings aren’t getting enough light), I’ll add a liquid, balanced fertilizer to the water the seedlings get.

SEED POT.  Many gardeners start seeds in small peat pellets or seed starter trays planning to “pot up” later. I believe this is a waste of time and resources. I start my seeds in 18 ounce plastic Big Red Cups which allow the plant to grow from seed to the finished seedling.

I use a push pin to poke holes all the way around the side of the cup at the bottom edge. Click one of the three images to see slideshow.

I fill the cup with soil, and then place the cups in a plastic tray that is capable of holding water.

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When adding soil to the cups, I try to make sure there are no soil “lumps” that will cause large air spaces in the growing medium to interfere with wicking.

To start the wicking action, I gently pour water in the cups trying not to compact the soil any more than necessary. The soil at the very top of the cup is often dry. Go down about 1/8th inch to check that the water is wicking properly. You may not have made the side holes in the cup large enough.

After watering all the cups, I pour water in the plastic cup holder tray until I have about an inch of water. I do this at least 24 hours in advance of when I want to plant seeds. After 24 hours, I check to make sure the soil at the top of the cups is just slightly moist. The soil will draw the perfect amount of water up through the cup. If the soil at the top is dry, then it needs to sit longer, or I didn’t pour enough water down through the cup to get the wicking started.

Make sure the water level in the plastic cup holder tray never drops lower than the holes in the cups. If it does, and the cup has gone dry (and the plant isn’t dead), water must be poured IN the cup AND the plastic cup holder tray to insure the wicking action begins again.

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SEED MARKERS. I use large Popsicle sticks for labels. They are easy to write on, cheap enough to be disposable and safe for my soil. As a wood product which easily breaks down in the soil, I don’t have to worry about collecting all of them at the end of the season. Sometimes they break down too fast and introduce organisms into the soil that increase the probability of dampening off. I don’t consider the Popsicle sticks an optimal solution, but I’ve not yet found a better one.

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SEED STARTING BENCH. The seed starting bench in my basement was there when I moved in. Using scraps of lumber already on hand and some PVC piping, I built a sturdy frame to support the shop lamps.

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I use florescent shop lamps with T-12 light bulbs for two reasons: (1) light and (2) cheap. The T-8 light bulbs aren’t as bright and I’m concerned with making sure my plants get enough light. I use the 40 watt bulbs with a color temperature of 4100K. It’s possible that different color temperatures may work better, but my research led me to get something “in the neighborhood” that was inexpensive and readily available at Home Depot. The lamps are around $10 each and the bulbs are about $20 for a box of ten. DO NOT spend money on special “grow lights” or “grow bulbs.” From experience, I can tell you they aren’t worth the extra money. They don’t last as long, don’t produce as much light, and the standard cool light bulb has produced better results.

If the bulbs are used only for starting seeds, consider reusing bulbs from year to year, but keep in mind that florescent lights dim with use.

CHAINS FOR THE LIGHTS. I got custom lengths of chain to go on the lights. The exact length of chain needed depends on the set-up and the height of the seedlings grown. Four feet of chain has been more than enough for my purposes. Raising and lowering the lights is critical to successfully starting seeds.

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Regardless of how the seed starting bench is set-up, smooth rounded surfaces like PVC make it easier to raise and lower the lights where the chains from the lights wrap around the bench. The chain can catch on the edges of wood and become difficult to manage. My set-up is not optimal because I made use of a pre-built frame under the bench. Still, this provides two levels of lights allowing me to maintain two different growing temperatures.

One advantage to being able to adjust the lights with chains is the ability to cluster tall and short seedlings in separate groups. With both ends of the lights adjustable by chain, the lamp can be hung at an angle (see last photo).

GERMINATION – LIGHT. In general, seeds need no light to germinate – they can be started in the dark. The second they pop out of the ground, however, the lighting must be sufficient or the seedlings become long, leggy, ill-formed and prone to breakage/death.

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The goal is to keep the lights as close to the seedlings as possible because the strength of the light will drop off rapidly with distance. However, the closer the seedlings are to the light, the more often they need to be checked. The light bulbs I use are cool enough that they won’t burn the plants but plants left unchecked can grow up around the bulbs requiring removal of the light bulb to extract the seedling.

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Often, a seed can be spotted before it pops out of the soil — a little curve that just barely reaches the surface. A few hours to a day later, that curve will make it far enough that one end has popped out of the soil and the seedling is on its way.

GERMINATION – HEAT.  Heat is needed for starting the sprouting process. Without heat, germination takes longer. Burying the seed too deep also slows germination. I recommend pre-soaking or at least dipping seeds in water before planting (depends on the seed).

Some seeds are VERY picky about their heat – enough so that germination will be very low, or not at all. Tomatoes and peppers, in particular, like temperatures around 85°F. They’ll germinate with less, but it takes longer with lower germination rates. A digital thermometer is useful. I prefer one with indoor and outdoor settings (with a probe for outdoors). I can insert the probe in the Rubbermaid water tray and usually the water temperature is the same as the temperature at the root zone. Plants care more about the temperature of their roots than their leaves. The warmer the root zone, the faster they grow, provided the temps match the preferences of the plant.

Another option is a small heater or seed starter heat mat to temporarily increase the temps under the lights, if needed. It should have a temperature sensor to control how hot it gets.

In my set-up, I use layers of thick black plastic sheeting (from Home Depot’s paint department) to completely cover the upper section of my bench (see bench photo above). Light hitting the black plastic is converted to heat which becomes trapped inside the black plastic cover. Because it’s layered, it’s more effective as air is trapped between the layers for additional insulation. This also captures heat given off by the lights because they are not 100% efficient in converting electricity to light. Heat generated by the lower level lights rises up through the table to provide more heat. With no heating other than the lights themselves, I can often maintain a 20° F temperature difference between the temperature inside and outside the plastic. For instance, if it’s 55°F in my basement, it’s 75°F where the seedlings are. This higher heat makes me prone to sticking my head under the plastic to check on my plants instead of raising the plastic and letting the heat out. There is one drawback to this set-up — the temperature difference causes condensation to form on the plastic and drip to the floor.

AUTOMATION. As much as possible, I automate everything. Seedlings are self-watering via the Rubbermaid plastic tray and lights are on a digital timer (the cheap, mechanical ones work fine, too). It’s important to use long days with the timer – around 16-18 hours of light. Longer days with weaker light help compensate for not having brighter lights. Mine is plugged into an electrical strip and programmed to come on about 6 a.m. and go off about 11 p.m.

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If your seeds are being started in a location where the seedlings get too cold at night (assuming you are not using any natural light), you could turn the lights off during the day and on at night. That way the lights are providing heat during the coldest period of the surrounding environment, and no heat during the warmest period of the surrounding environment.

FERTILIZING. When fertilizer is needed, pour liquid fertilizer directly in the plastic cup holder tray and stir the water in the plastic tray to help disperse the fertilizer. Use less than the recommended amount. Half is probably a good place to start. More fertilizer can be added later, but if too much is used, seedlings may be dead before the mistake can be corrected. One way to leach away nitrogen when too much fertilizer is added, is a complete water change in the plastic cup holder tray, and a good water flushing of the cups themselves.

SEEDLING GROWTH.  As my plants get older and taller, I move them to the lights under my grow bench. This provides room above for starting new seedlings and exposes the mature seedlings to colder air to begin the hardening-off process. The colder air also slows growth to avoid them becoming root bound.

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SEEDLING STRENGTH. If you live in an area prone to high winds, expose your seedlings to wind, preferably from different directions, before planting out. It’s not something that has to be done but it will help towards the end of the seedlings’ indoor growth period. Gentle wind will make the seedlings form stronger stems so that outdoor winds don’t snap the plant tops off. An oscillating fan works best for this.

I hope this encourages you to start your own plants from seeds. You still have time in most of the U.S. If you have further questions, ask Gene and he’ll do his best to answer.

All photos are attributed to Melon Man Gene.

GARDEN TIP: Homemade Tools

Shannon Hayes in her book Radical Homemakers quotes author Erik Knutzen (The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City) as saying “For me, it’s the difference between being a citizen and being a consumer. A citizen is someone who is self-actualized. A citizen is someone who can do things themselves, maybe not be self-sufficient, but can actually make something or manipulate something, and I take a lot of joy out of being able to do things myself… being a tinkerer.”

In the U.S., most people are consumers. I became very aware of this as I entered long-term unemployment and consumption was no longer a part of my lifestyle because I couldn’t afford to be a consumer. I started to notice the ways in which people around me were “citizens” as I moved in the direction of being more self-reliant.

I didn’t have to go far. One of the first self-reliant homemade tools I noticed was Poppie’s claw.

According to Poppie, this handmade tool started out with a much longer PVC pipe and a different purpose. He used it to clean out the dryer vent hose. When pine straw became a problem on the mower leaf-bagging unit, the “claw” was repurposed. He sawed off the PVC end affixed to the claw and used it all last winter as he vacuumed the yard of leaves and pine straw. It was used to clean out the hose shaft between the mower blades and the catch bins behind the mower. After the claw fell out of the PVC pipe and we had to walk the entire property looking for it, he reworked his homemade tool. He drilled a hole in the metal handle of the claw (that is normally hidden inside a plastic handle), drilled a hole all the way through a small PVC pipe, lined up all the holes and then inserted the smaller PVC pipe into his original PVC handle. Lining up all the holes was a bit of a challenge but once aligned, a screw was inserted, a dab of glue applied to the screw right at the PVC pipe and a nut fastened onto the screw.

While duct tape was not a long-term solution for his claw, it is generally recognized as a miracle product. I have also used duct tape to cover the holes in the garbage cans I use for collecting landscape debris thus extending the life of our light-weight solid plastic garbage cans (flat bottoms, no wheels). Using garbage cans is a very convenient way to collect landscape debris because you don’t have to transfer the debris from a buggy to the trash can. You drag the garbage can behind you to pick up limbs and pinecones then drag it out to the street for the garbage collectors. I don’t compost limbs and pinecones because they take too long to break down and we would soon be over-run with them.

All of this reminded me of other things Poppie has made. Back in 2008 when I first started vegetable gardening in containers, I wanted to keep bugs off my lettuce. I asked him for ideas and this is what he fashioned using rabbit cage wire, screening and a wire thread:

Then the wheels fell off my trash can and Poppie resurrected it as a regular trash can for his garage by sawing the bottom off and making a plywood bottom that he placed inside the trash can and attached with screws into the side of the trash can:

Poppie’s most innovative recycling involved my old pressure washer (don’t ever run bleach through them). He took the engine off and built a box on the pressure washer’s platform. He keeps his trash can in the box using a series of bungee cords and uses the pressure washer’s handle to roll it out to the street on trash day:

Trash can carrier
Base of the trash can carrier
Base of the trash can carrier
trash can carrier underneath-1893
trash can carrier connected to pressure washer platform

Mr. Golf Cart is also self-reliant. His pitchfork was wider than mine and I asked about it. It seems he wanted a wider pitch fork for collecting pine straw on his five acres so he gave his pitchfork a “room addition”. He found a pitchfork in the trash on a job site before he retired then took both pitchforks to the local welding school and had an apprentice fashion this custom-made pitchfork:

On the ladder I got from Mr. Golf Cart, he had made a ladder hanger around one of the top rungs of the ladder with a wire coat hanger:

When Poppie and my brother were repainting the yellow trim on Poppie’s house this year, my brother brought his homemade paint can holder for a ladder:

 

Save Them Peels, Ma’am

Gene the Melon Man saves his banana peels all year long, drying them in his garage. Now you know me, I don’t think like a normal person. Immediately, I pictured a clothes line rigged up on the diagonal in his garage with all these banana peels clipped up there with clothes pins. He has five children and I was visualizing a LOT of banana peels strung across the garage.

My imagination had it all wrong. He was drying them on a rack. Gene had several reasons for curing and petrifying his banana peels. He didn’t want the peels to mold, it was the only way to have enough ready for the Spring unless he donned a bandana over his face and held up a grocery store, and it seems banana peels are the very best aphid gitters.

Aphids on Milkweed

Who among us hasn’t been troubled by aphids in our veggie garden? For Gene, aphids became the bane of his existence. The aphids zeroed in on his peppers then moved on to the tomatoes. “I tried insecticidal soaps, spraying them with water, and anything else that came to mind. Finally, I resorted to some very toxic pesticides which was not my preference.”

Gene said the pesticides worked, sort of, but by the time it killed the aphids, his plants had been through a lot of torture. After a few years of this, he hated aphids with a passion. He began to hear rumors of people using banana peels and although the majority of gardeners scoffed at the idea, Gene was willing to try anything.

He set up a drying rack for his banana peels on top of the freezer in the garage.

His reasoning was quite practical: (1) it saved space, and (2) the freezer generates heat which helps the drying process. Periodically, to make room on the drying rack for more peels, the dried peels are tossed in the basket in front of the rack.

 

Now, every spring, he takes his banana collection out to the garden and plants two or three in the hole around each plant and fruit tree, just barely under the surface of the dirt. No aphids. None, nada, zip. On one occasion after he began his banana peel regimen, he found aphids up and down the stem of a tomato plant. He added a few more banana peels to the soil then reinspected a week later. A few dead aphids but most had packed up and left voluntarily.

Gene knows that aphids are still in his neighborhood because he hears the neighbors complaining bitterly about them. He always offers up his banana peel solution and, of course, some listen and some scoff.

I thought this was a brilliant idea and mentioned it to Poppie. “Not in my garage, you don’t,” he huffed. I assumed, from his outrage, that this meant all three of his garages were off-limits. He was concerned about enticing an unmentionable creepy crawly that plagues the Southern U.S.  The only freezer on the property is in Momma’s laundry room so it wouldn’t have worked anyway. I feel certain that the heat rising off the back of Melon Man’s freezer is doing all the work. Maybe I’ll toss a couple of peels on cake racks over my fridgie and see what happens.

According to Reader’s Digest, you should “bury dried or cut-up banana peels an inch or two deep around the base of the aphid-prone plants. Do not use whole peels or the banana flesh as this will encourage raccoons, squirrels, gophers, and rabbits to dig them up for a tasty treat.” Gene has not had a problem with animals digging up his banana peels because “there’s not much left of a dried up banana peel.” A Mother Earth News reader saves her banana peels in the freezer during the winter and buries them under her rose bushes come spring. Roses love ‘naners.

The four banana peel photos in this article were provided by Gene the Melon Man. He provided additional information in the Comments section.

GARDEN TIP: Garden Markers – Part 2

I found another garden marker idea on Page 86 and 89 of the April 2012 issue of Better Homes & Gardens. In the article, Donna Drago placed 5 or 6 foot tall unpainted wooden stakes in her square foot garden. Each stake had a whimsical lime green dowel cap on top. Just below the dowel cap, she wrote the name of the plant.

I knew the wooden stake was a bad idea for my neck of the woods. In just one season, wood placed in the ground either rots or something chews the bottoms off. I decided to use Drago’s marker idea by substituting half inch PVC pipe for the wood and copy the idea of topping the markers with dowel caps. I am not willing to put PVC pipe in my veggie garden because I’m suspicious of toxic seepage. However, I thought the PVC markers would be great as perennial markers to mark the location of perennials that die back in the winter. It would be helpful to know where to expect a perennial to resprout and give me a head’s-up if it failed to resprout.

Poppie gave me a 5 foot section of half-inch PVC pipe. I cut the pipe into 12 inch pieces and used silver spray paint on the PVC. He also gave me two round, two-inch dowel caps that I painted with my lifetime supply of flat celery green. I later spray painted them with a darker shade of green because I wanted them shiny. My paint choices were based on trying to make a marker that did not detract from the beauty of nature or stand out unnecessarily. I wanted something that you wouldn’t really notice in comparison to those cemetery markers.

I loved the dowel cap on the pipe but could  locate only one inch dowel caps in the craft stores and couldn’t find them at all in the home improvement stores. Unwilling to special order the two inch dowel caps, I donned my creative thinking cap and decided that I could make some square dowel caps with some of Poppie’s woodworking equipment. I rooted around in his scrap wood bin, cut some small cubes (less than 2 inches) and proceeded to drill one hole into each cube. Drill is not the right word because I didn’t use a drill as you think of them. Poppie has this hole-poker thingie with drill bits that look like augers. I have no idea what you call that kind of drill. I drilled each hole slightly larger than the half-inch PVC pipe, and voila, a square dowel cap.

To paint them, I poked some bamboo garden stakes in the dirt, put a cube on each stake and went on the attack with shiny spray paint.

Perennial garden markers being painted

I used E6000 glue inside the hole I drilled and pressed the square dowel cap on the PVC pipe. Here are the results of both the round and the cube perennial markers. This project didn’t cost me a dime because Poppie was willing to share what he had in his shop and I was willing to put in a little time.

Perennial Garden Markers

If you are looking for more garden marker ideas, our intrepid web explorer, Ms. GrubbyFungus, has found a new selection of marker ideas. Check it out over at Three Pea Permaculture.

GARDEN TIP: Garden Markers – Part 1

Give me a moment to rant: Thanks to Wall Street’s hijinks, I have worked all of 6 weeks since August 2009. I place the blame for our financial meltdown on all of corporate America because of the bribes they pay our political leaders to acquire legislation favorable to their goals. Any legislation favoring corporations generally is not in the best interest of the rest of us. As someone who worked for almost 40 years, I watched pensions, major medical and unions disappear from the working landscape. When that wasn’t enough to support mega-million-dollar CEO salaries, they sent our jobs overseas. My personal, gut reaction was to limit my support of corporations. Rather than solving my needs at the retail level, I solve many of them at the home level. This required me to take a renewed look at the subject of creativity. It has been a favorite subject for the last 22 years. I have no idea how many creativity books I’ve gobbled up over the years. I like to think  that I can now think outside the box, inside the box, around the box, over the box, under the box, and through the box.

One of my favorite books on creativity was written by Chic Thompson but I can’t remember the title.  With my pitiful memory, it’s a wonder I can even remember his name. I photocopied his “What If” Compass from the book because it demonstrated how to think in opposites. Here are a few examples:

What if I …

  • Stretch it  … Shrink it
  • Combine it … Separate it
  • Balance it … Unbalance it
  • Do it backwards … Do it sideways

You get the idea. It dumbed down creativity to a level where I “got it.” Many times over the years, I have consulted those two pages rather than setting my pea brain on fire by asking too much of it. I think I’ve mentioned not being the brightest crayon in a small box of crayons. Without a lot of colors, I could easily use the same crayons so much that I wear them down to little nubs.

Now I use creativity to fill needs rather than jumping in my car and running out to the store. One of my ongoing needs has been for garden markers for my veggies. I know I’ve tried cut-up bleach jugs, slats from window blinds, and plastic knives but, with a sieve-like memory, there are probably other marker ideas I tried that have already hit the road.

Back at my Veggie Garden Tour, I briefly mentioned building some T-shaped plant markers that, once painted yellow and placed in the garden, looked too much like cemetery markers. I wondered if a change in color would help so I got Poppie to help me build another six which I painted celery green. Everything in my garden will likely be celery green as I purchased a quart of flat celery green paint. A quart of paint goes a long way on small projects so I have, no doubt, a lifetime supply. I wish I had purchased shiny paint rather than flat to give the garden a little bling.

What do you think? Do the celery green markers blend in better and look less like cemetery markers?

Suspecting that garden markers might be an ongoing request, Poppie built me a jig so that I could saw and hammer on my own.  That was his hope, anyway. On some of these saw and hammer projects, I need moral support because my level of comfort among saws and nail guns is pretty low.