I don’t trust anybody with clean fingernails in spring. The people I trust can’t help but thrust their winter-weary hands into the rich, living soil as soon as the sun begins to warm it. The people I trust are out as early as February, pulling mats of leaves off their favorite garden beds, eagerly shoving pea seeds into the earth. They’re just better people than those with meticulously groomed fingers. They have their priorities straight. That’s simply an honest observation. Deal with it.
This is a new column for CATALYST, and my first column for the publication as well. My goal is to help inspire and inform the next generation of grower, as well as help the veterans realize even greater beauty and yields. “Like a boss” refers to doing things so right it’s almost wrong. When we grow like a boss, our gardens become vibrant, lush and healthy, and so do our neighbors, children and friends. So let’s grow this thing. Let’s grow this thing until the city is full of backyards bursting at the seams with food forests; till every neighborhood is full of front yards growing grapevines to produce the grapes to produce the wine that the gardener is drinking while she prunes. Let’s grow this thing until the parkstrips that are planted in edible landscapes and sculpted with stone benches are embraced by the city. Or, if that’s a little too lofty, I’m content enough to simply provide you with enough tips to inspire you to mix a cocktail, go outside and play.
So, let’s get down to the dirt. This month we’re focusing on getting our starts going inside, and we’ll tackle some of our early outdoor planting as well.
Timing is everything when you want to garden like a boss, and it all starts with a seed. The seed is the ultimate technology the gardener possesses. The power to produce life, food, beauty, and even to replicate itself lies within each of these little biological powerhouses. Growing plants from seed allows for more choices than purchasing starts, and when we do it right, we’ll have more vigorous plants as well. Vigorous, healthy plants defend themselves from pests and diseases, and produce far more abundance.
Starting your seedlings indoors is simple, and now is the perfect time to get most of your starts going. It’s also prime time to get several things planted outside, and trust me, you do not want to snooze on spring-planted crops! More on that later…..
Step 1: The set-up
If you want to start seeds like a boss, you’ll need a solid foundation to your process. This starts with a sturdy table and work area, and please, don’t forget to use protection. Protect tables, floors and walls from soil and water, and protect your set-up and tender seedlings from pets and children. The location of the station will be a compromise among convenience, light availability and space.
Remember, your tomatoes and peppers are going to be hogging the station for around eight weeks, and that’s a long time to deal with an oddly placed table in the living room. However, tucking it too far out of the way invites neglect. Make it attractive, keep it clean, put it in the right spot, and you won’t be able to stay away.
Step 2: Light
Most plants don’t require light to germinate, but once they break the surface, you want provide your starts lots of high intensity light to make the seedlings grow squat and robust. Not enough light makes plants grow tall and weak, a problem referred to as being leggy. The brighter the light you can provide, the less stressful the move outdoors with be.
Easiest: The window. If you are planning on using a window as a light source, it absolutely has be south facing and not drafty. Windows provide the lowest light and seed starts grown in the window tend to be leggy. Rotate trays to keep seedlings from leaning in one direction.
Modern “energy-efficient” low-e windows block certain spectrums of light, as well as solar gain. They’re good for your power bill, but horrible for growing great plants. I’ve watched magnificent houseplants literally starve to death after being robbed of certain light wavelengths cut off by the low-e coating. They basically turn a high light situation into a very low one.
Don’t get me wrong, I love efficient windows, and have replaced all the older ones in my home. But the second home in which I had it done, I put high-e windows on the south face. They’re great for plants, and they allow a ton of solar gain to help heat my home for free in the winter.
Step it up: Fluorescent grow lights. Indoor lighting, even right in the window, is nowhere near as bright as outside in the direct sun. The more light we can give our plants now, the more vigorous they will be, and the less transplant shock they’ll suffer later.
The least expensive and most accessible option is fluorescent lighting with a basic two- or four-bulb shop-type set-up.
The general rule for fluorescent lighting is 10-15 watts per square foot; however, the lumens, or light output, is more important. Go for as high of a lumen rating as you can afford. The fixtures and bulbs are inexpensive, but make sure you buy bulbs rated for plant growth. It will be marked clearly the box. They are widely available at most hardware and gardening stores. They cost more, but don’t skimp on this. You went through all the extra trouble to bump it up a notch, so don’t back out now.
This lighting works best in conjunction with the bright window placement. Starts grown under fluorescent lighting alone are often leggy and weak, unless the light is placed within inches of the plant canopy. Since plants grow constantly, the light needs to be frequently moved. Since plants grow at different rates, this gets even harder. My wife and I once spent an entire spring session shimming up all of our various plants’ pots with whatever we could find to keep our canopy height the same. Never. Again. The moral of the story is to use these lights as supplemental light in conjunction to what you are already getting through the window, and to lengthen the amount of time the plant receives light per day.
Advanced: Professional grow lights are designed specifically for growing plants indoors. Covering all of your options in this arena would require another article entirely, and it comes down to your budget and ecological sensibilities when making a selection. On the affordable side, the advent of T5 fluorescent lighting produces some pretty thick light for a reasonable price. High-tech LEDs are revolutionizing indoor lighting without guzzling power, but high-quality ones can be quite expensive. I use a 400w metal halide lamp with an external ballast I salvaged from a warehouse deconstruction and it’s so bright I need sunglasses when it’s on. This borders on ridiculous, but there’s nothing wrong with overkill when you’re growing like a boss.
Step 3: The planting medium
When it comes to starting seeds, don’t think of soil, think about planting medium. We want to provide ideal conditions for the roots of our plants. Using soil from the garden is a terrible idea, as it is often too heavy to allow a seedling to germinate and grow with little resistance. Don’t skimp on this step. All future success starts here. Whatever you use, make sure there is always good water drainage. The two preferred mediums are plugs and soil mixes.
Plugs are peat moss or coco coir held together with a thin netting and pressed into self-contained little potting units. Usually these come compacted and expand up to 10 times their pressed size when water is added. Though the netting claims to be “biodegradable,” it is not. I suggest removing the netting at transplanting time, as long as you have timed your process correctly and you won’t be terrorizing roots that may be growing through the netting.
Plugs are a great place to start for beginners. They are simple, cheap and easy. However, they contain little long-lasting nutrition for longer lived starts, and are better suited for fast-germinating plants destined for transplanting. Seedlings grown for extended periods (tomatoes, peppers) will need supplemental nutrition and/or transplanting into a soil mix.
Soil mixes are loose mixes that simulate the ideal soil for germinating seedlings. We want seed starting mix, not a regular potting soil. Potting soil contains far too many nutrients for ideal seedling growth. Seed starting mixes are generally made up of mostly peat moss and perlite, a naturally occurring volcanic glass that prevents soil compaction, with a little compost and other amendments. Custom blends are easily made to tailor to the needs of particular plants (See sidebar for Seed Starting Mix Recipe). When using a seed starting mix, we have to contain the soil. For that, we have a few options.
Easiest: Plastic pots. This is the classic way to start seeds, packed into those ubiquitous 6-pack plastic trays, but anything that can hold the soil mix will do. Lots of people love the red Solo cups for larger plants, and although I try to avoid plastic as much as possible, I find this use far more dignifying than for beer pong. If you are improvising your containers, poke plenty of holes for drainage and have something for that water to drain into.
The downside of mini pots is that the plants can often get rootbound, and the roots are subjected to overheating. Both of these scenarios result in the plants’ vigor being interrupted.
Intermediate: Flats. A more advanced technique is to fill large, deep flats with our seed-starting mix and plant multiple (often dozens or hundreds depending on variety and scale) of seeds. The seedlings now have far more rooting space available, and the moisture and temperature in the root zone is moderated. This technique is geared more towards plants like chard or head lettuce, as it allows us to sow a large amount of plants quickly, and separate them at planting time. The starts are then lifted with a planting knife at transplant time and planted in the soil.
Advanced: The soil block technique uses a special tool to press starting mix into cubes. The blocks “air prune” the growing roots, eliminating rootbound starts. Transplanting is a breeze. Each start is self-contained, and you don’t have to struggle to pop them out of the mini pots, or separate an ungodly amount of tangled starts from your flats. Once you go block, you never go back.
Step 4: Water
Water is the catalyst that gets the party started. The interaction of the biology in the soil and the growing plant is what keeps it going ’til the break of dawn.
To garden like a boss, we need to make sure our water doesn’t harm the microbes in the soil, and that is exactly what chlorinated tap water can do. Fortunately, chlorine is quite volatile. A vessel of water left open will vent out all of the chlorine in about 24 hours. Take it up a notch by adding an aquarium air stone and pump to the vessel, and you can blow off the chlorine in a matter of hours. This also provides highly oxygenated water to your seedlings, which is just plain nice to do.
If you are on point enough to have a rain barrel installed, then pat yourself on the back and use that water; it still pays to oxygenate that, as well. Good clean rainwater, stored properly, is the gold standard of water for plants.
Before we plant, we are going to want to moisten our planting medium thoroughly. This makes sure freshly planted seeds don’t get disrupted. I find that wetting all of my seed-starting mix in a separate bin and then adding it to my pots moist is far easier than trying to soak dry, loaded pots.
Step 5: Planting
So, by now you have this great planting area, the light situation is handled, and your planting medium is moist and ready for action.
The key to growing the best starts, for top shelf produce, is to…follow the directions. That’s it. Follow the directions on the seed packet. The good folks who provide that information are the very ones who grew the seeds for you, and nobody knows the ideal conditions for a cultivar better than these farmers. Every seed packet has the precise recipe for success: When to plant, how deep to plant, how spaced to plant. A great trick is to mark the specific depth, say 1/8 inch, on the end of a popsicle stick with a sharpie. Use this to “dibble” a depression for your seed. Cover the seed with your medium, and tamp gently to assure good soil contact. (Note that some seeds require a surface germination.) Since you were boss enough to pre-moisten your planting medium, you are done. If not, good luck with that watering.
When to plant: The timing of when to start a particular variety indoors is usually measured in terms of last frost date. This is the latest point in the spring in which, on average, the temperature dips to freezing. For example, most varieties of tomato are started indoors eight weeks before last frost date. Where I live, in Salt Lake’s Sugarhood, the average frost date is May 9. I start my tomatoes around March 7. If I start my tomatoes 12 weeks before last frost date they’ll be even bigger when the time comes to move them outside. And bigger is better, right?
Well, not exactly. Size matters less than vigor. There is an inherent state of rapid growth in a plant when all of its needs are met. If we can guide our starts through this state of high vigor without interruption, the result will be the highest quality plants imaginable. Well-timed tomato starts are way better than giant tomato starts from the big box store of the same variety, and I guarantee you mine will produce more fruit, for a longer time, every time.
Step it up: Add a heat mat to your set-up. Heat mats are used to raise the soil temperature to speed up germination. This is a common technique with heat-loving nightshades such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Germination is faster and more uniform with heat mats. (On the other hand, most cool weather crops do not appreciate these mats.)
Advanced: When starting plants like butterhead lettuce, chard and beets, it’s best to plant a round of starts every week rather than one large batch. This way you end up with a succession of various aged starts, resulting in a steady yield rather than one overwhelming harvest. We can take things up a notch and keep starting them weekly through the season. For example, with all of my head lettuces, I start a round every week. They stay in soil blocks for around four weeks before planting. Then, as soon as something is harvested and an available space opens up, pow! I can plug in a healthy, vigorous start. This really stacks up the level of production when one is dealing with a limited amount of garden space. Instead of having to plant another seed and wait, I instantly have another maturing plant in position. Consider most butterhead lettuce take around nine weeks to mature from seed; if I plant a four-week-old start I’ve, in essence, almost doubled my available space! Boom, that’s a garden time warp, folks. High fives all around.
Step 6: Maintenance
When everything is done right, and all of the plants’ needs are met, it is incredibly exciting to watch them grow and thrive. If you set everything up properly, there is little more to do than water occasionally and monitor the lighting. If you are running lights, having them on a timer saves a lot of hassle.
A note on watering: Immediately after planting we need to make sure to keep the soil constantly moist to allow the seeds to germinate. I usually cover mine to prevent drying out. Once their cute little cotyledons pop up, they still need steady moisture for the first week. After that, it’s a good idea to allow the surface of the soil to dry out just slightly before watering again. If the soil mix stays too wet for too long, this can rot the point at which the stem meets the root, the crown, and the plant tips over dead. This is known as damping off. Damping off is a total bummer.
Step it up: Add an oscillating fan on a timer. Have it turn on for 15 minutes every hour, and gently blow on your seedlings. This keeps good air circulation around your plants, as well as strengthens them for the upcoming move outdoors.
Advanced: Plants like tomatoes and peppers spend a full eight weeks inside, on average, before moving them outside after last frost date. Keep a careful eye on them, and as soon as roots begin to fill out the growing medium, transplant them into a slightly bigger pot. This gives more available rooting space and nutrients to the plants, as well as a little more elbow room from one another.
A lot of plants can go in the ground right now. Peas are a great early garden producer, and I put mine out as early as February unprotected (even the first week of January works, if you have a cold frame). Other champions of cool weather are spinach, all lettuces, arugula, mizuna, minutina, and of course we can’t forget about kale. If you haven’t gotten twitterpated by kale, it’s because you haven’t eaten kale grown in the cool weather, when it still freezes.
You can take things up a notch next year by starting some of these inside four to eight weeks before you start your tomatoes, and then move them outside when you start your tomatoes inside. You’ll be eating greens by April! Note that spinach does poorly when transplanted, so always start it from seed in the ground.
Now, go outside and play dirty.
illoominated seed-starting mix
(works for soil blocks as well)
This recipe is a slight tweak on the tried-and-true soil block mix from Elliot Coleman, published in his book The New Organic Grower (1988: Chelsea Green).
I never sterilize my seed starting mix, as this would kill the robust biological diversity in the soil we have achieved with the introduction of the worm castings, compost and healthy garden soil.
The unit I use is a cup (makes five gallons of seed-starting mix), but this can be modified depending on the size of your batch.
30 parts peat moss
1/8 part hydrated lime
20 parts perlite or coarse sand
3/4 part balanced organic fertilizer
10 parts healthy garden soil
10 parts worm castings
10 parts high quality sifted compost
CATALYST welcomes James Loomis to our tribe of columnists.