Customize Your Garden With Heirlooms

As a landscape designer, I am always looking for beauty in my surroundings- beautiful fabrics, furnishings, spaces, and colors are really important to me. Extend that to my vegetable garden and I also want beautiful vegetables and fruit decorating my garden bed to eat. Heirlooms deliver on that in spades! Instead of the usual mealy Florida grown tomatoes available in the grocery store, I grow a rainbow array of veggies to decorate my plate.

Array of heirloom tomatoes
I grew this heirloom “Mushroom” tomato this year
Heirloom harvest

Yes, it takes a lot of effort and sweaty hard work during some hot summer days. But when I pick those basketfuls of colorful vegetables and bring them in the kitchen, it is worth it. Heirlooms have been saved for decades and sometimes centuries because they are the best performers in home gardens. They haven’t been grown so that they ship more efficiently and last longer on the grocery shelf, but because they look good and taste good.

Variety of heirloom peppers
Beautiful heirloom tomato
I grew this “speckled trout lettuce”, an Heirloom from Austria, in containers because it was so pretty

Seed Choices

Shopping for vegetable seeds nowadays means either picking from modern hybrids created by crossing two selected varieties, or heirloom veggies which are open pollinated, saved and handed down through family generations. Usually costing less than hybrids, heirlooms have been shown through recent research to be more nutritious if not as prolific as hybrids. I will take the downside of less prolific with my heirloom varieties if they are tastier.

Heirloom tomatoes are $2.99 a pound at a farmers market

Heirloom Advantages

Selecting and saving seeds from the most successful heirlooms in your garden over the years, the more the seeds will adapt to your local conditions. Plus you save money. Many hybrid seed packets range in price from $4 to $10 and sometimes you get very few seeds, with packets containing just 10 seeds in some cases.  Connecting with history is another great reason to grow heirlooms.

Chiogga beets hail from northern Italy in the 19th century

Boston Marrow

Many heirlooms go back for hundreds of years and can be traced back to original growers. For example, the Boston Marrow winter squash has quite a history attached to it. Foodtank a food think tank publication  says this about Boston Marrow: “Precisely when and how the Boston Marrow became domesticated in America is unclear. However, Fearing Burr, the author of Field & Garden Vegetables of America, was the first person to document the Boston Marrow squash in 1831. In his book, Burr mentions that Mr. J.M Ives of North Salem, Massachusetts, received the seeds of the Boston Marrow from a friend who lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. As the story goes, Mr. Ives then distributed the seeds to members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society who, he claims, had never seen the specimen previously. Mr. Ives also mentions that his friend whom he received the seeds from, had in fact, been given the seeds from Buffalo gardeners who got them from a tribe of Native Americans that visited the area; and this is apparently how it all begun.”

Boston marrow in amongst an award winning veggie assortment at a farm fair

Read my post Move Over Butternut-Try Boston Marrow for the custardy pie recipe and more information on this heirloom.

I haven’t grown Boston Marrow yet as I only have room for several vining varieties of squash but it is on my list. For now I buy it at Farmer’s Markets.

Boston Marrow is sold by Burpee
Boston Marrow pie
Heirloom Boston Marrow makes a delicious pie

Farmer’s Markets

Farmers Markets are a great source of heirlooms
Seen at a farmer’s market, this peanut pumpkin fascinated me

Talking to growers at farmers markets is a great way to discover heirlooms and listen to their stories about their beautiful produce.

Trolling farmers markets is a great way to pick up heirlooms

Growers that I have talked to are only too eager to share information about the heirlooms that they grow and you can pick up some vegetables and save the seeds after consuming it! I did that with a Marina Di Chiogga winter squash that I admired at a farmers market and saved the seed to plant in the spring. Now I am overrun with this delicious winter squash!

Dozens of these Marina Di Chioggas are growing in my vegetable garden this summer
I am growing Porcelain Doll Pumpkin this year also which is a hybrid. Unfortunately I can’t save this seed as it won’t grow true to type like an heirloom would

Saving Seeds

An advantage of heirlooms is that you can save the seed from year to year instead of shelling out money each spring for new seeds. For a great book on saving seeds as well as starting, check out Julie Thompson-Adolph’s excellent book Starting & Saving Seeds

Saving seeds can be as easy as removing pumpkin seeds from the flesh, washing and drying them, to fermenting tomato seeds in water for several days to remove the gelatinous gel coating the seeds. Julie will walk you through the process of saving all kinds of seed from your garden and even how to hand pollinate corn for the best seed set. Flowers and herbs are also covered and I was interested to see she had a tutorial on making seed tape from toilet paper!

Seed Exchanges

Another great source of heirlooms are local seed exchanges. Everyone brings their cleaned seeds and lays them out for people to pick from and hopefully you will get some varieties that you want and things that you have never seen before.

Seed Exchange

In the early spring, seed exchanges pop up and I found this one at my local library and came home with lots of good stuff.

At my local library

Vegetables aren’t the only heirlooms that I grow. Heirloom annuals are also high on my list to plant in the spring. Go to my post on Heirloom Annuals.

Corn Cockle or Agrostemma is an heirloom that I will be starting this spring

For seeds of this, go to Renee’s Gardens.

12 Steps for a Spring Jump-Start

Splitting up a hosta plant

The grass is starting to green up and bulbs are peeking through the soil and spring is around the corner. Gardening chores come fast and furious once warm weather hits and sometimes you don’t have time to fit all the tasks in. To jump-start your gardening year, you can hit the ground running early to get a head start. Late winter is my favorite time to get many of the spring jobs done or at least started, to lessen the springtime stress of overload.

Winter aconites pushing up through the snow
Winter aconites pushing up through the snow
  • Weeding-My top priority in late winter/early spring is keeping weeds under control. Cold weather weeds such as chickweed and mustard are much easier to hand weed when small. Plus, the weeds haven’t gone to seed yet to spread around. Adopt a policy of a little weeding often to reduce your weeding burden.
Weed early before they go to seed
Weed early before they go to seed
  • Soil Test-Everything starts with good soil. Many nurseries or extension offices offer soil testing services. Take advantage of these by finding out what nutrients your soil needs by submitting a soil sample.
  • Fertilize-Fertilize trees and ornamentals with a balanced granular fertilizer when the soil is dry. I use an old coffee can with a plastic lid with perforated holes to sprinkle the recommended amount around the plant and water in. If you are an organic gardener, apply a layer of compost around the plant.
  • Rake-Rake out loose leaves and debris from your gardening beds so that mulch can be applied evenly. Be sure to remove pockets of old leaves that get caught up in twiggy shrubs.
Pockets of leaves stick in twiggy shrubs
Pockets of leaves stick in twiggy shrubs
  • Mulch-Apply an organic mulch about 2 inches thick avoiding the base of trees and shrubs. This will help retain moisture during dry spells, reduce weeds, and improve soil structure. Don’t create mulch volcanoes around your trees as this can invite insect damage and disease.
Don't over mulch!
Don’t over mulch!
  • Lawn-Rake out old thatch and remove weedy patches, seeding bare areas. Scratch the grass seed into the top layer so that seed has good contact with the soil. Spread a pre-emergent to stop weeds from germinating and a “Weed and Feed” to promote strong roots.
  • Prune-With leaves absent, you can easily see damaged and broken limbs that need to be removed. Renewal pruning to renovate older overgrown shrubs should be done now before they put on new growth. Cut back to the ground shrubs such as butterfly bush, spirea, hypericum, and hardy hibiscus. Knock Out Roses should be cut to about 10 inches high to keep these manageable.
Cut back Knock Out Rose
Cut back Knock Out Rose
Cut back your perennials and shrubs and mulch in early spring
Cut back your perennials and shrubs and mulch in early spring
By mid-summer, they will have grown back!
By mid-summer, they will have grown back!
Prune shrubs before leafing out
Prune shrubs before leafing out
  • Container Refresh-Remove the top 3-4 inches of old potting medium from your containers and replace with fresh compost and potting soil. Make sure the drainage holes aren’t clogged with old roots. I use a metal rod to punch through the fibrous roots.
Punch through the drainage hole to ensure good drainage
Punch through the drainage hole to ensure good drainage
Add some fresh soil to your containers
Add some fresh soil to your containers
  • Seed Starting-Start seeds of tomatoes/peppers/eggplants indoors for transplanting in the spring. Outdoors plant seeds of cold tolerant annuals such as snapdragons, larkspur, poppies, and nigella. See my post on Seed Starting for pointers.
I start my seeds in February
I start my seeds in February
Seedlings ready to be transplanted into the garden
Seedlings ready to be transplanted into the garden

 

  • Perennial Dividing-Now is the perfect time to split up and divide overgrown perennials such as iris and hosta and move them around. Waiting later in the season to divide a fully-grown plant can be cumbersome and hard work. Plus, the perennials have a longer time to root in to produce more prolific flowers. I like to divide when the first stems with leaves are emerging.
Splitting up a hosta plant
Splitting up a hosta plant
  • Tools-Clean rust and mud off your tools and oil and sharpen them. Organize your potting or tool shed so that you can find things in a hurry.
Easy to see and great for airing out your gloves
Easy to see and great for airing out your gloves
Organize your tool shed
Organize your tool shed
  • Compost-I always clean out my compost pile by spreading the rich loamy material around my ornamentals and in my vegetable garden. If you don’t have a compost pile, now is the time to start one. Using a length of snow fencing attached to metal stakes is the easiest way to start either a large or small one. A gate can even be created with a hinged portion of the snow fence.
My snow fence compost pile with gate
My snow fence compost pile with gate

Top Five Reasons to Start From Seed

Creating seed pots with newspaper

Seed starting in spring is a rite of passage for me. Fingering all the seed packets, shaking them, and admiring the beautiful covers is all part of the process. If I don’t have at least a hundred seed packets stacked up, I get restless and start browsing more seed catalogs.

Seed starting in egg cartons and milk cartons

It is a lot of work to start them, and it requires some equipment to do it right, but when late winter/early spring rolls around, it is kind of like Christmas with the new shoots poking though. My slow period for my landscape business is the winter, so I have the time to devote to seed starting. Here are the reasons you should be seed starting:

I love looking through all my seed packets
I love looking through all my beautiful seed packets

1. More Choices-At a nursery they might sell 20-25 varieties of tomatoes. From seed you can grow at least a thousand more. The varieties that you can grow are mind boggling, and only a fraction of these are grown and sold at a local nursery. Some flower varieties like Nigella, Love-in-a-mist, or annual Poppies must be started from seed outside to be successful. See my post on Cool Flowers-Early Spring Bloomers. 

You can only grow Nigella from seed outdoors
You can only grow Nigella from seed outdoors
Poppies, here it is "Lauren's Grape", do best direct seeded in the garden
Poppies, here it is “Lauren’s Grape”, do best direct seeded in the garden

2. Save Money

A packet of Zinnias will set you back by $2.50.  If you bought all those packs of annuals at the nursery that one packet can start, you pay that many times over. Plus, if you grow heirlooms, you can save the seeds and regrow every year.

My seed starting set up with a grow light and heat mats
My PVC seed starting set up with a grow light and heat mats

3. It’s Easy

Most vegetables should be started directly into the garden. Planting transplants of cucs, beans, peas, beets, carrots, lettuce……. the list goes on, is expensive and time consuming, and not practical. Starting seed directly into a vegetable garden avoids transplant shock and gives veggies a head start.

Starting from seed
Starting from seed

4. Save the Bees

Many transplants and soils have been treated with insecticides that negatively impact bee visits. Some nurseries are careful and transparent, but some are not, and many times aren’t labeled with the insecticide treatment. Go to my post on Pesticide Free Nurseries. You are controlling your quality of new transplants by starting them yourself.

 

5. It’s Fun !

Reconnect with nature during the dark days of winter and watch your seedlings grow! I love watching the snow pile up outside while my healthy seedlings are growing before my eyes inside.

A breath of fresh air on a winter night
A breath of fresh air on a winter night

Handy Equipment

Light Stand

My most important piece of equipment is a PVC light stand for my grow light. Go to PVC Light Stand for easy to follow, inexpensive directions for a light stand. I put this together myself, so anyone can construct one. Yes, you can use your window sills for light, but a light hung a few inches above seedlings is vastly superior and will make your seedlings fat and happy, not thin and spindly. There are too many cloudy winter days for seedlings to get their required  allotment of light.  I just use a simple LED shop light, available at any hardware store. LED is the key word here, as it gives off a much stronger light than fluorescent.

Heat Mats

Most seedling benefit from bottom heat and will shoot up much quicker. You could use a radiator or other warm surface, but I like the heat mat as it fits exactly under a flat and you can control the temperature. Inexpensive also, heat mats are available on Amazon.

Heating pads are just coils that heat up encased in plastic
Heating pads are just plastic encased coils

Flats are simply low narrow trays that you can fill with soilless medium. Once filled, you nest into another waterproof tray to catch any excess water and you can also use the clear lid to create a moist environment to enhance seed starting. Some trays are divided into cells, so you are growing a seedling in its own contained root run.

Small Fan

How many times have you started seedlings, and found to your horror that they fall over and die? This is the consequence of “damping off”, a far to common occurrence which is a fungal disease that occurs under damp, moist conditions. Right! Your seedlings are damp and moist because you are misting them to encourage them to sprout! So, I use a small fan attached to my light stand to circulate the air to discourage “damping off”. And it works. Simple solution, but effective.

I attach a small fan to move air to avoid "damping off"
I attach a small fan to move air to avoid “damping off”

Watering Can

I like to water with a mister, as it disturbs the seedlings the least. But it requires a lot of time to mist all my seedlings by hand, so I have graduated to a large (6 liter) watering can with a fine mesh “rose”. A “rose” just diffuses the water so it falls gently onto the seedlings and is much more efficient than a mister.

My watering can has a 6 liter capacity with a long watering wand
My watering can has a 6 liter capacity with a long watering wand
My watering can has a 6 liter capacity with a long watering wand
The “rose” is a water diffuser

Additional Lighting Units

The LED grow lights are wonderful, but sometimes every seedling won’t fit under the grow light. So, I supplement with LED spray lights.

Spray LED lights are valuable for lighting
Spray LED lights are valuable for lighting

Soil Medium

You need a source of sterile soilless medium to start your seeds. I use coconut coir, which is a coconut fiber extracted from the husk of coconut. The beauty of coir, which is sold in a compressed form, is that I am not lugging home heavy bags of potting soil. Instead, I buy small compressed blocks of coir, 3″ x 6″, hydrate it in water, and I end up with 8 quarts of potting medium. Much less expensive and more convenient, you can find this online or at Home Depot, or other hardware stores. There is no nutrition in this soil medium, so as soon as your seedlings are up and running, you need to fertilize.

Compressed coconut coir ready to be hydrated
Compressed coconut coir ready to be hydrated
Creating seed pots with newspaper
Creating seed pots with newspaper
Going through my seed packets
Going through my seed packets

Microgreens: Health Benefits and How to Grow

Have you ever been served a dish in a restaurant which was garnished with colorful and vibrant  greens? Most likely these were microgreens, know for their visual appeal, and crunch. Though minuscule in size, they are concentrated with nutrients. Studies have shown that micro greens are loaded with good stuff, such as vitamins C, E, and K, lutein, and beta-carotene- many times more than the mature leaves of the plant.

Flavorful and providing a textural contrast to a dish like a soup or slab of fish, a few microgreens can go a long way.

Pea shoots garnishing a tortilla
Pea shoots garnishing a tortilla

Not to be confused with sprouts- germinated seeds that are eaten whole-a microgreen is an immature green that is harvested with scissors when the plants are about two inches tall. The stem, cotyledons (or seed leaves) and first set of true leaves are all edible. You are essentially eating seedlings! And the variety of seedlings include herbs and flowers, and vegetables. Most popular are sunflowers, radishes, peas, arugula, basil, beets, kale, and cilantro.

Countertop Gardening

Sunflower, peas, and mixed salad greens
Sunflower, peas, and mixed salad greens ready to be harvested

Pricey to buy in a grocery store and hard to find, microgreens are a snap to grow quickly in a small amount of space. Gather your supplies and you could have a variety of greens growing within a half hour of starting. The harvest time is a mere one to two weeks.

Botanical Interests seed company has an array of different microgreens available
Botanical Interests seed company has an array of different microgreens available

I use Botanical Interests seeds because they are organic and  have a wide variety of heirloom varieties.

The easiest method to grow microgreens is using a soilless method with jute pads. Soilless means no splashing up of soil to spatter the newly emerged sprouts and I prefer this way of starting to others now.

No fertilizer is needed for these quick growers; it is all included in the seed package.

Green Ease jute pads are perfect for microgreens
Green Ease jute pads are perfect for microgreens
Use two flats that fit together, one perforated for drainage, the bottom one solid
Use two flats that fit together, the top one perforated for drainage, the bottom one solid
Saturated jute pad ready to be planted with microgreens
Saturated jute pad ready to be planted with microgreens

You need two seed flats, one perforated for the top and a solid one to hold water on the bottom. Nest these together and place the pre-cut jute pad inside and fill the trays with a half-inch of water. After an hour or two, the jute pad should be saturated and you can dump out the excess water and you are ready to sow your microgreen seeds. Sprinkle them thickly on the top of the jute pad-you don’t need to cover or press them in-just sprinkle. Then spray with a mister to moisten everything and place a clear plastic cover on top to hold in moisture. That’s it! And you will be harvesting in less than a week.

After sprinkling your seeds in, mist them
After sprinkling your seeds in, mist them; I planted three varieties in each tray

To speed up the process, I placed my flats on top of seed heating mats.

Heating pads are just coils that heat up encased in plastic
Heating pads are just heat coils that are encased in heavy plastic

Place the clear plastic lid on top and place on top of a heating mat

Heat mats are wonderful tools for seed starting and inexpensive. I have two of them and they are in constant use in January and February. Bottom heat will jump start your seedlings even in your warm house. Seeds actually germinate quicker and healthier when supplied with warm soil or substrate (jute)—obtained through a bottom heat source. For seed germination, ideal temperatures should range from 65 to 80˚F. You could actually duplicate these conditions by placing on top of a radiator or furnace, but watch out that the soil doesn’t dry out too quickly.

In less than 24 hours, the seeds had sprouted
In less than 24 hours, the seeds had sprouted on the jute
Plant the seeds pretty thickly so the sprouts support themselves
Plant the seeds pretty thickly so the sprouts support themselves

After the microgreens have germinated, I place the trays under a four foot all-season shop light suspended by a PVC frame that is easy to put together. For about $47, you can cut up PVC to make a quick hanging frame that will suspend your light over your seedlings-much superior to natural light on a windowsill.

My PVC set up with a grow light
My PVC set up with a grow light; the trays should be a few inches from the light

Root Pouches

Another option are root pouches which are perfect for use in growing microgreens.  The Designer Line of Root pouches are made out of porous material that allows the plants to breath, and the containers come in three colors: Navy Blue, Forest Green and Heather Grey. For my microgreens, I used the Joey size at 5″ in diameter and 3″ high.

Root pouches planted, labeled,  and ready to go

Studies have shown that using grow bags made out of recycled materials, produce healthy, strong fibrous root systems on plants. Breathable material, the Root Pouch company says on its website: “Root Pouch is a family run business that turns discarded plastic bottles into a versatile, geotextitle material. The Root Pouch fabric planting container keeps plants healthy by letting excess water drain and allowing roots to breathe and grow.” Allowing air to pass through the pot, it promotes a healthy root system.

Pea tendrils ready to harvest

How to Plant

  • Fill pouch or container about 2/3 full of potting medium
  • Press your seeds ( I get mine from Botanical Interests) into top of potting medium
  • Sprinkle top with a light covering of soil
  • Firm soil with fingers, and mist with a light spray until saturated
  • Place in a warm place (heating mat) in indirect light
  • Shoots will sprout within a few days
Pea seeds don’t even have to be covered with soil-these are started in milk cartons

Harvesting

Working carefully, taking care not to crush or bruise your tender seedlings, cut the shoots right above the soil or substrate line. Begin cleaning the sprouts by laying a damp paper towel on a tray and placing it near the sink. Give tiny clumps of seedlings a dip in cool (not icy) water, and lay out onto the paper towel.

You can start them in greens containers from the grocery store

Store greens between the paper towels and place in a ziploc plastic bag in the refrigerator. They will last about a week wrapped up this way. Garnish your meals with these high nutrient-packed greens to add more vitamins to your diet.

Pea tendrils freshly washed

 

 

To Seed Or Not To Seed? That Is The Question!

Should You Start Seeds?

Every year I ask myself that question.  Is it worth tying up valuable real estate on the windowsill or under grow lights?  How about the  disappointment of seeing a whole tray of healthy looking seedlings succumb to damping off fungus? Or the cost of buying seed starting mixture, fertilizer, and seeds?  How about the time involved? But every year like clockwork, I start my own seeds, even increase the amount of seeds that I plant, because no matter what, gardeners are driven to plant seeds. And every spring, I feel hopeful and enjoy seeing those little seedlings emerge.

I start my seeds in Tupperware containers
I start my seeds in Tupperware containers

Advantages

  • Money Saver

The huge advantage of starting seeds is you can save a lot of money! And that perk is what gets many gardeners hooked. Spending money on sterile seed starting medium is essential as well as your seeds, unless you are a seed saver. But for everything else, you can come up with alternatives. I use an array of different containers, from milk cartons to egg cartons. The plastic clam shells that contain spinach and greens are perfect as mini greenhouses or  planting containers. I bought a bunch of large Tupperware containers at the dollar store for my mini greenhouses.

Also, instead of buying a few transplant varieties of the plants that you want, you can easily grow dozens and hundreds. This can be significant to attract pollinators, as it is essential to plant in drifts and not singly.

  • Something Different

Ageratum Blue Horizon is a flower that I can't do without but cannot find transplants anywhere
Ageratum Blue Horizon is a flower that I can’t do without but cannot find transplants anywhere

The other main reason to start your own seeds, is you can find and plant many unusual unique varieties that you can’t find at any nursery or garden center. There are hundreds of thousands of plant varieties, and there is no way that a nursery can even come close to carrying them all. Nurseries tend to be very conservative in what they carry, and go for the varieties that appeal to the mass market. I am not included in that mass market!! I want different and unusual plants. Go to Plant Geek Alert to see my post on unusual varieties that you can start from seed.

Asclepias physocarpa, commonly known as Family Jewels- Where else could I get this plant if I didn't start it from seed?
Asclepias physocarpa, commonly known as Family Jewels- Where else could I get this plant if I didn’t start it from seed?
  • New Varieties

There are hundreds of new varieties that come out every year due to plant hybridization and these are the ones that I like to jump on and try. This year, I am trying a new tomato variety called Indigo Apple from Wild Boar Farms. The tomato has a dark indigo coloration that claims to have high levels of lycopene which has many health benefits. I will be profiling Wild Boar Farms and the exciting new varieties that are in the pipeline in a future post.

Indigo Apple Tomato available from Wild Boar Farms
Indigo Apple Tomato available from Wild Boar Farms

And I keep on going back to those plants that you can’t buy at a nursery, which is the biggest draw for me. Asclepias physocarpa, or Family Jewels which is a Butterfly Weed, is one, pictured above. I love using this for my dried arrangements and it is a great attractant for pollinators. Also, I grow it because it is a great conversation starter!

Cup and Saucer Vine-another little beauty that I start from seed
Cup and Saucer Vine-another little beauty that I start from seed

Here is another called ‘Cup and Saucer Vine’, Cobea scandens. I love how the beautiful violet flowers nod against my fence all summer long. This is definitely being planted in my seedling flats soon. And yes, this cannot be found at the local nursery! Browsing your catalogs, you can find so many new and unique seed varieties that don’t land on the nursery benches!

Seed Starting Guidelines

For help in ordering seeds, go to my post Art of the Seed to see what companies I order from.

Seed starting is not rocket science but here are some pointers that will help out a newbie if you decide to take the plunge.

  • Don’t start your seeds too early, especially tomatoes! Most annual flowers and vegetables should be sown indoors about 6 weeks before the last frost in your area.

  • If unsure of your last frost date, go to Best Planting Dates for Seeds chart, by The Farmer’s Almanac, which is based on your frost dates and by the Moon.

  • You may have to soak, scratch, or chill seeds before planting, as directed on packet. Read the instructions! Some seeds need light to germinate, and you just need to press the seeds into the medium and not cover them.

  • Think clean!! I sterilize my containers with a dilute solution of bleach  and water (10 to 1) to discourage a fungal disease called “damping off”.  Most seed catalogs offer seedling flats, peat pots, and other growing containers, but egg cartons and milk cartons make good containers, too. Be sure to poke holes in the bottom of the containers you use for drainage.

Egg and milk cartons can be used as seed trays
Egg and milk cartons can be used as seed trays
  • Label your containers when you plant. There’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting what you planted.

  • Fill clean containers with seedling mix. Use a good sterile seed starting mix. Don’t use potting soil as this compacts down and won’t let air flow through.

  • Pour soilless mix into a large bucket and moisten with warm water. Fill your containers to just below the rim.

Press your seeds in the medium with the eraser end of a pencil
Press your seeds in the medium with the eraser end of a pencil
  • Plant your seeds according to your seed packet. Most seeds can simply be gently pressed into the mixture; you can use the eraser end of a pencil to push in seeds. Cover lightly with chicken grit or parakeet gravel which retards “damping off”, by allowing air to circulate. To read more about the advantages of parakeet gravel or chicken grit, go to:  http://2footalligator.blogspot.com/2012/03/chick-grit-for-successful-seed-starting.html 

    Parakeet gravel has grit, oyster shells, and charcoal which all retards "damping off'
    Parakeet gravel has grit, oyster shells, and charcoal which all retards “damping off’
Milk carton with parakeet gravel covering seedlings
Milk carton with parakeet gravel covering seedlings

Seed Tip: When planting seeds, plant the largest seeds in the package to get the best germination rate.

  • Cover containers with plastic wrap or place in Tupperware containers until new seedlings poke through.

Seed starting in Tupperware containers
Seed starting in Tupperware containers
  • Water newly started seedlings carefully!! It is easy to spray water into your newly planted seeds and wash then all away.  A mist sprayer is gentle but can take a long time. Try using a meat-basting syringe, which will dispense the water effectively without causing too much soil disruption. Or you can bottom water for least amount of disturbance.

Try using a turkey baster to water newly planted seeds so you don't flood the seeds out
Try using a turkey baster to water newly planted seeds so you don’t flood the seeds out
  • Find a place in the kitchen where there is natural bottom heat—on top of the refrigerator or furnace, or near the oven. I use a simple bottom heating seed mat available from most seed catalog companies.

Bottom heating mat set on top of a large cookie sheet
Bottom heating mat set on top of a large cookie sheet
  • Seeds sprout best at temperatures of 65 to 75°F (18 to 24°C), which is the temperature of most homes.

  • When seedlings appear, remove the lids and move containers into bright light.

Once your seeds have germinated, move them under grow lights or in a bright window
Once your seeds have germinated, move them under grow lights or in a bright window
  • When the seedlings get their second pair of leaves, prepare each pot filled with a potting mix with plenty of compost. Move the seedlings carefully to the new pots and water well. Keep pots out of direct sun for a few days to acclimate.

Seed Tip- Don’t start your seeds too early. Read your seed packet and see how many weeks are recommended before setting them outside. The problem with starting them too early inside is that they can get leggy(reaching for light) and you will have to repot the plants into larger and larger containers because they could become root bound.

Making Newspaper Pots

Newspapers clog up my recycling bin and I found that I could use them in making simple seed starting containers. The advantage of starting in newspaper is you can plant the entire compostable newspaper-covered seedling outdoors intact, or pot up the container in a larger planter before setting out.

How to make newspaper pots for seed starting
How to make newspaper pots for seed starting

Newspaper pots for seed starting is the ultimate sustainable way of gardening. Here is the method, starting at the top left corner of the collage:

  1. Lay out a single folded sheet of newspaper.
  2. Fold over one layer and crease.
  3. Use a straight side juice glass to roll up your newspaper tightly.
  4. Fasten with twine and tie tight.
  5. Remove the glass and start tucking up the bottom flaps to form the bottom.
  6. Fill with seed medium and plant.
  7. Place in your mini greenhouse (Tupperware, plastic baggie, saran wrap) until the seeds sprout on top of your heating mat/furnace/refrigerator and then uncover.
  8. Be sure to label everything with names and dates. If something doesn’t sprout right away, some seeds take longer than others. But if a couple of weeks go by, you need to restart them.
  9. Keep your seedlings in the brightest light possible, preferably a west or south-facing window or grow light; turn them so they grow evenly; keep misting them or use the meat baster and don’t let them dry out.
  10. When the seedlings have at least 2 sets of leaves, you can transplant them carefully into each pot.

Labeling/Record Keeping

By keeping records year to year, you won’t make the same mistakes twice. You can note when you started something too early or too late and adjust for next year.

Add names and dates to your labels
Add names and dates to your labels

I am very forgetful about what I plant where because I plant different varieties of seed in one flat.  When the seedlings send up their small shoots, they all look alike. So, if something doesn’t come up, you will know to try it again. I use old venetian blind pieces cut to the right size and label with a permanent marker like a sharpie, including the date started.  Or try using popsicle sticks/coffee stirrers. Remember you will be watering these and any other markers will smear and disappear.

The Exciting Part

Then I check the flats everyday to see what is coming up.  I love seeing the newly hatched seedlings pop through with their cotyledons, the scientific word for the first two seedling leaves that come through. These leaves are just the embryonic first seedling leaves that every seed shoots out upon germination.  They will disappear in the next couple of weeks after the true leaves start to form.

Jacaranda seedling about 10 days after germina...
Seedling with first leaves-Image via Wikipedia

Grow Lights

If you own grow lights, you can control the amount of light that your seedlings receive and have healthier, stockier seedlings. After the first seeds germinate, put the flats under grow lights which can be as simple as fluorescent tubes hanging from the ceiling with chains.  The chains are critical because you need to adjust the height of the lights above the seedlings.  Place the lights about 3 to 4 inches above the height of the seedlings. At first this seems awfully close, but seedlings are hungry for light, and if they don’t get at least 12 to 14 hours of their allotted light, they will get spindly and unhealthy looking. For a tutorial on making a grow light stand out of PVC, go to Your Own Victory Garden . These are simple to follow instructions to build your own system, stand, and grow light for less than $60. Or go to http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/ten-seed-starting-tips.aspx to see videos on seed starting, and a great three-tiered grow light stand that you can make out of 2 x 2’s.

Fertilize

Since your soilless medium has no nutrients, you need to supplement this lack as soon as the seedlings have their true leaves formed.  The original seed will have some stored food for the seedling to draw on but that is soon exhausted.  Pick up some miracle grow or something similar to feed your seedlings regularly. Follow directions on your package for feeding seedlings.

Inside or Outside

Some seeds are best planted outside- Larkspur, Nigella, Poppies, Zinnias, Cockscomb, Sunflowers are just a few to come to mind. For veggies, I start all my vining crops, radish, peas, and beans outside. Tomatoes and peppers are better started six to eight weeks before your last frost date.

Plant Poppies outside
Plant Poppies outside

 

Poppy, Larkspur, and Nigella seeds are so tiny and need some chilly weather to germinate so I just scatter these outside in early spring or late winter. Sunflowers and Zinnias readily germinate in the spring outside and grow quickly so it is not worth the space to start them inside. Sunflowers, Cosmos, Zinnias, and other quickly growing annuals should be started when all danger of frost is over in your area.

Cockscomb is best planted outside
Cockscomb is best planted outside

Happy seeding!