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Archive for the ‘Seed Starting’ Category

A flower-like romaine lettuce plant.

Wow, I see it’s been a full week since my last post. Didn’t mean for this to be a Sunday blogging thing; will try to do better next week.

At any rate, I received no less than three questions from friends today who were asking me about various gardening-related questions. Apparently, they have me confused with some kind of knowledgeable person, but I answered two of the questions anyway and have done research on the third. I thought others might be curious about similar things, because you know the teacher’s adage: if one kid asks a question, that means two others had the same question but were afraid to raise their hands. So, here’s what I was asked:

“The seeds I planted said they were spinach, but the things that sprouted up look nothing like what they’re supposed to.”

Take heart. Everything is proceeding as normal. The first leaves of a seedling are called cotyledons, and are present in the seed before germination. In fact, they contain the stored food reserves of the seed, and can sometimes stay with the maturing plant for some time, or wither soon after the true leaves appear. The true leaves of many plants do not appear until the post-germination phase (meaning after the seedling has sprouted). Shown on the left is a juvenile spinach seedling with both the cotyledons (the long thin leaves) and the first pair of true leaves. Later, the spinach plant will grow and its true leaves will expand to their more familiar shape, and begin to look like the right-hand picture as the plant matures.



“My compost bin smells awful. Is it supposed to do that?”
Sure, that’s what’s happening to a lot of things while they decompose…remember that “composting” is little more than a euphemism for “rotting.” Want your compost bin to not smell? Make sure you have a good mix of  “greens” and “browns.” “Greens,” or items high in nitrogen, are things like kitchen scraps (remember to keep any dairy or meat products out of your compost mix), grass clippings, coffee grounds, chicken manure, or weeds you’ve pulled. “Browns,” or high-carbon items, are things like straw, dry leaves, dryer lint, shredded paper (avoid colored paper or paper with colored inks), eggshells, coffee husks, etc. The most common culprit for foul-smelling compost is a mixture too high in nitrogen caused by adding too many kitchen scraps without covering them with some kind of carbon or “browns.” Also, remember to keep the pile a bit damp–like a wrung-out sponge but not sopping wet–and occasionally add a shovelful of garden dirt. The dirt will add millions of microbial bacteria that are the prime movers in the composting process. When your mix is right, you will find the pile will heat up, sometimes to as high as 140 degrees or more. Today, for example, my bin was steaming in 60-degree weather! This ‘hot composting’ means your nitrogen/carbon mix is right, and the only thing you will smell is the lovely scent of fresh earth.

“My potatoes are growing and I know I’m supposed to add dirt to them…but how much, and when do I stop adding it?”
The two main things that potatoes hate are inadequate water and excessive soil heat. Both problems can be solved easily, and there are many viable ways to do it. Perhaps the easiest is mulching. When your seedlings first appear from the ground and get a set of true leaves, mulch around them with an inch of compost and then cover the entire bed with a foot of clean straw. The plants will grow right up through it and the soil will stay cooler and retain moisture longer. This method can even be used at planting time; just set the seed potatoes right on the ground, cover with compost and straw, and water well. What could be simpler? Another way is to use a hoe to mound the soil up around the plants every few weeks. Don’t worry about covering up the stem and lower leaves; the plant doesn’t seem to mind. I’ve even heard of people who grow potatoes in raised beds using a “potato collar.” This is another wooden frame (without a bottom) that sits on top of the raised bed and, in effect, raises it still further. This second bed is then filled with compost and straw, or just plain dirt, and the potatoes keep right on growing. In short, cover them with something to keep the ground moist and cool, and don’t stress too much about the particulars.

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Well, it’s officially Spring, and the weather here in the Windy City has been hitting the 50s or 60s, which makes urban gardeners (myself included) eye our budding seedlings and start champing at the bit to let the planting begin.

Danger, danger, Will Robinson! (Did I just date myself there?)


Remember, our last frost date is between April 25th and May 1st here in Chicago. We got a frost last night. This past weekend, it snowed. Last year, we got a significant snowfall on April 5th. It ain’t over yet, folks. If you moved your tender seedlings outdoors, the worst case scenario is that there will be one or more hard frosts that will kill everything you just planted. The best case scenario is that through a lot of worried studying of weather reports, diligent covering and uncovering the young plants, and a streak of luck, your seedlings might survive the transition from inside your house to the nascent Spring…but their “headstart” in growth will quickly vanish compared to later-planted seedlings. Why? Because even plants that can survive cold weather don’t do much–or any–growth when the mercury is low. Your lawn is a good example. It’s probably not totally brown and dead, but how many times did you mow it this Winter? Yeah, I thought so.

But I know you. You’ve read up on your plants and noticed that some plants like spinach and lettuce do okay in cooler temps, so you want to move them outside–possibly to reclaim that window ledge that had been overwhelmed by plants. Go ahead and move them outside if you must, but do it in stages…

It’s called “hardening” the seedlings.


Find a shadier place that’s sheltered from the wind. If you have a cold frame, then–duh–use that. Leave the plants out only for a few hours a day before bringing them back inside. Gradually, over the course of a week or even two, increase how long the seedlings are outside and how much sunlight they’re getting. I like to end this process by placing them for a day or two (still in their containers) on top of the place in the garden that will become their permanent This process will greatly reduce transplant shock, give you healthier plants, and at least make you feel like you’re getting something done.

Take the time. You (and your vegetables) will be glad you did.

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People have asked about how I set up my indoor growing space. The area I use is above a utility sink and counter top that sits beside our washing machine in our laundry room. We never really used the sink much at all, but the counter top was too small, so I built a legged platform out of scrap lumber that makes a single flat area just above the height of the faucet. Above that, I rigged a $20 florescent shop light, with two plant grow light tubes. It looks like this:

Because the light needs to be 3′-6″ away from the plants, it is necessary to have a light fixture whose height is adjustable. I solved this by rigging the light on a rope-and-pulley system, tied off with cleats. The nice thing is that I can raise or lower each end to make an angle, if I need to accommodate taller plants on one sides and seeds on the other. Here’s a more detailed shot;

The gizmo plugged into the power strip is a light timer, which turns the light on for a 14-hour cycle each day. It seems to work pretty well.

Reminder: Plant in succession, not in bulk!
I transplanted 16 lettuce seedlings, then separated out another 12, and I still have a ton left over. I’ll probably just harvest them as baby greens, but this is a good reminder to not overplant. It’s hard to just pull up seedlings and throw them away, after all–far easier to not plant too many in the first place!

Seriously, if you want some, this whole panful is up for grabs…

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Seedlings, anyone?

Hey everyone–

I have a bunch of 2-week old lettuce seedlings (mixed varieties) that I seeded too abundantly. I’ve already pulled out 16 to grow to maturity (which is way more than we can use in any one planting cycle), and I probably have thirty or more which I’d love to give away to good homes. You can grow them in just about any container, under fluorescent lights or near southern-facing windows.

Any takers?

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If you want to get a jump on Spring, it will soon be time to start some of your garden plants growing indoors. Lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, and melons are particularly good for doing this, though onions,carrots, and other root crops are not. Starting seeds 4-6 weeks before the last frost (usually between April 25th and March 1st in the Chicago area) means next week is a good time to start. So what do you need to get started?
  1. Some containers. You can buy “seed greenhouses” at a nursery/Home Depot/Lowe’s that have clear lids and wicking systems to water from below…or you can go more low-tech like I do. I use seed-starting pots made of peat ($2 buys you about 30 cells) and foil roasting pans. Another good choice is to use restaurant take-out containers–the kind with the clear plastic top and the black plastic bottom. The clear plastic covering on top of your container helps to seal in moisture and make the environment more humid, which helps seeds to germinate faster.
  2. Some soil. The pre-made greenhouses come with compressed peat pellets that expand with water; you can also buy specialized seed starting potting mix. My best results, though, have come from my own mix. I use a ratio of 2/5 compost, 2/5 sphagnum peat moss, and 1/5 vermiculite or perlite. If you don’t like fractions, just take a scoop or container of whatever size, scoop up two containers full of compost, two of peat moss, and one of perlite, and mix. This soil has tons of nutrients (compost), trace elements and moisture retention (peat moss) and aeration (vermiculite).
  3. Some light. I grow my seeds in my basement. I got a $20 shop light from Home Depot, threw in a couple of fluorescent tubes, and put it on a timer that turns it on for 14 hours a day, off for 10. If you’re using artificial light, you need it to be about three inches over the top of your plants, so I rigged it up on ropes and pulleys to be able to raise and lower it to whatever height I want. Of course, south-facing windows also work too.
  4. Some seeds, some water, and some patience. Do I need more explanation here?
The picture above shows some lettuce seedlings that I planted on February 19th. Because lettuce seeds are so small, I just scattered them into a roaster pan filled with my soil. After they sprouted, I picked 16 of the strongest-looking seedlings and transplanted them into individual cells. This picture was taken on the 24th: 6-day-old plants.
Tell me about your seed starting adventures!

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