I don’t know about you, but this is one of my favorite times of the year. The days are getting longer, we’re now into Daylight Saving Time, so that extra hour of daylight really gives a boost to the spirit! While I think this last season could be accurately called “so-called winter,” there is a definite move towards consistent warm weather. The first official day of spring has occurred, and it’s time to get warm weather gear and lawn furniture out, and the lawn mower ready to go as well.
Even though I forecast we are in for a few more brief bouts of cold, the trees (and the weeds!) say that it’s time to get going. We planted several trees last year and it’s gratifying to see them budding out. Maggie has already got them watered, and when it warms up a bit more, they’ll get some fertilizer to get them into active stem, leaf and root development. Ah, spring!
For us who pursue the very enjoyable hobby of gardening, it’s time to get seeds started inside as well. While you can direct sow most veggies a bit later, getting them started inside provides a jump on the season and lets you preview which seedlings are most robust. Seed starting shouldn’t be restricted only to food crops; herbs, bedding plants, and ornamental flowers are also calling your name about now. There are relatively few veggie crops that don’t transplant well (such as corn, carrots, beets, and other root crops), but there are dozens of other types that thrive when started and then transplanted.
Starting your own seeds allows you access to a wider selection of plant varieties than you can get solely from the garden center. The cost to start seeds is low and provide a good return on your time investment.
Starting seeds need not be a complicated affair. A visit to the gardening section at Cal Ranch, Tractor Supply, Home Depot or Walmart will be rewarded with plentiful supplies of seeds, starting mix, and mini-greenhouse setups. Add a couple of shop lights and a basic frame to hold the light, and you’re on your way. If you’d like to see an economical way to do this, visit one of my favorite video bloggers, Bobby, of MHP Gardeners. His video on making your own inexpensive (I daresay “cheap”) seed-starter setup is located at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAYpn2Md9eA. You’ll get a bonus as he also talks about using rock wool growing cubes.
Whether you use pellets, rock wool mat or growth mix to get your seedlings planted, the resources your seeds will need to get going are warmth, moisture and light. Fortunately, all of these are easy to provide with the set up outlined above.
Warmth can come from a heated mat, or a warm room. I don’t recommend starting your seeds beside a sunny window, as direct sunlight can quickly “bake” your emerging plants. However, if you can assure indirect sunlight, and warmth, you are fine.
As you plant your seeds, be sure to label rows, or create a planting map so you know what you’ve got, as well as knowing what is working and what is not! If you keep even moderate records, it’s amazing how smart you become quickly with a bit of nature’s feedback. I plant at least two seeds in each cell, at the recommended depth, and clip off the weaker (don’t pull it out — you can disturb the strong plant’s roots) of the two that emerges.
Keep your growing medium moist, but not soaked, initially. Get the seedling “up”, and then work to keep only the moisture at the minimum the plants need to flourish. I learned the hard way that keeping your plants in a high humidity environment will lead to “damping off”, which is where seedlings die due to fungal infections. Avoid this by using sterile growing mix, moderate water, and giving your plants adequate warmth and light to transform them into small plants as quickly as possible. Damping off affects only seedlings, so getting them sized up quickly greatly reduces the problem. Also, bottom watering will help as well.
Before moving your plants outside to their long term home, assure they have matured enough by having at least two full leaves. To assure that they have a good root system and that the plants are getting nutrients, bottom water them with water that has a small amount of liquid fertilizer in it. Do this after the plant starts to form true leaves. Then, get them used to be outdoors (and associated temperature fluctuations) by moving them outside on calm days into the sunshine for a couple of hours at a time. This is called “hardening off” and will greatly increase your success rate of planting into your yardscape.
I plan to explore the world of “soil blocks” in future growing seasons and I’ll let you know how that goes. This approach eliminates the needs for pots of any kind. Growing trays are still used to group and hold the growing plants, as well as irrigate them. Soil blocks are created using a soil block maker, which is a type of handheld press that is pressed into a growing mixture. A spring loaded plunger handle ejects the formed blocks, which have been pressed hard enough together that they will retain their shape.
There is a bit of an investment at the outset for the block makers. The blocks consist of peat, compost, soil and some nutritional amendments. The most common blocks are 3/4”, 2” and 4”. The most popular is the 2”. The 3/4” size allows a large amount of seedlings to be started in a very compact space.
The 3/4” cubes can then be transplanted “into” the next size up (2”). The 2” block maker can be outfitted with an optional cube press that forms the block with an indent on the top that the 3/4” cubes fit precisely into. This allows seamless growing from one size to the next, with virtually no transplant shock. The story doesn’t end there, as the 4” block maker can also be set up with a 2” block insert that will allow 2” blocks to be transplanted into 4” blocks. This would work quite well with tomatoes, peppers and other sizable plants that can benefit by getting a jump start on the growing season.
There are some other strong advantages to the soil block approach. First, there are no pots that have to be used or stored each year. Expense for pots or liners for planting trays are eliminated, as is having to sterilize them each year as well as discarding damaged units.
Second, the blocks themselves serve both as the home to the growing plant, as well as the unit that allows the plant to be easily handled by you, the farmer! This is material that would have to be furnished anyway, so the longer soil blocking is used, the less the planting costs. The initial cost of the equipment is spread over more and more plantings as seasons come and go. Besides, a significant amount of biomass gets added to your growing beds over time using soil blocks.
Third, plants grown in standard pots will tend to grow their roots to the outside of the soil mass, against the pot. The roots then grow in a circular fashion. This means that when the plant is removed from the pot for transplanting, a whole lot of root is now exposed to the air, and then to the soil as it’s placed in the planting hole. This tends to create a lot of transplant shock, where the plant stops growing for a time until it gets stabilized.
Not so with soil block planted seedlings. When the seed first develops, it will send roots outwardly. Once the root tips emerge and encounter open air, they will “air prune” and stop growing that direction. What happens next is what makes this type of planting resistant to transplant shock. Once the roots “know” their boundaries (the outside surface of the soil block), additional root tissue will develop inwardly, utilizing the mass of the soil block. This not only makes the plant robust, but it binds the soil block together and makes it stable to handle.
On another note, my friend Walt Barlow called me yesterday and told me that our onion order would be in later this week. It’s time for me to fire up the tractor and till the planting bed for this year’s crop of some really delightful onion varieties. They should be up and going strong, along with the corn, in time for this year’s Spring Garden Tour on June 13. We’re on the Tour this year, and it would be our pleasure to have you stop by and see us while you are touring some really great gardens around our valley. What a great community we all get to live in!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.