It would seem that a great number of you are HUNGRY for home grown veggies. And I can’t blame you one bit. There is little more satisfying in my food world than picking my meal in my backyard and preparing it (at least the portion I don’t eat en route) in my kitchen. While I have many times in the last several years had some success in growing my own veggies, until the last few years my success with starting from seed was sporadic, at best. Last spring’s write-up of seed starting tips was my earnest and enthusiastic response to the best homegrown seedling year I’d had to date.
Now I’m back for more, and I’ve made a few more changes that should help with my seedling success rate (she says with fingers double crossed). I thought I’d share those changes with you so that you can start your own and skip the early years of leggy croaky seedlings that I experienced.
Innovation 1: The Scientific Approach
I finally started documenting my planting schedule a couple of years ago, using these wonderful ladies’ resources as a guide. This year I took it a step further. I used last year’s planting calendar, moved everything forward a couple of weeks to meet my remembrance that I wish’d I’d been gutsier and planted earlier last year, and set up a garden journal so I can document the year and (yes, really) learn even more for next year. It’s nothing special, just a graph paper spiral notebook. Each weekend, I note the date, the number of weeks prior to predicted last frost, and what I planted (including the variety and the number of seeds per little hole. I also note anything I think might make a difference (i.e. if I’m using leftover vs. fresh seeds, specific varieties if I’m interested in comparing germination, and what I plant them in – I’ve used both toilet paper rolls and fiber seed starting pots so far this year). I have been trying to make a note of how many of those originally planted make it to germination and how long it takes, that kind of thing, but honestly, that bit has fallen through the cracks a bit. That’s all well and good, you may say, but WHY graph paper? Why, indeed? Because I like to plan my garden on graph paper. Yes, I am geeky. No, I don’t always follow the plan, but it is generally my practice to at least make a plan so that I stand a chance of following it, or making a conscious decision to desert it for an actual reason.
This year I’ve also made a greater effort to read some fantastic work by people who actually know what they’re doing. It’s amazing what twenty minutes with an expert can do for your whole gardening scene. My two current gurus for all things garden are Eliot Coleman (The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener (A Gardener’s Supply Book)) and Barbara Damrosch (The Garden Primer: Second Edition) . Why? Because they seem to have an answer for everything. Plain, sensible, and sustainable vegetable growing – and they manage it in a much less friendly climate than I’ve got, so they must know what they’re talking about.
Innovation 2: Heating Mat
In response to my overwhelming impulsive urge at the garden center, and honestly more than one reader’s concern that I might start a fire with my former heating pad arrangement, I have upgraded to a proper seed heating mat, the Planters Pride RZHEATM 17 Watt Seedling Heat Mat. I only bought one, so I use it on the most recently planted seeds and move sprouted ones out when I need room for more newbies. It seems to be helping a great deal, and I must confess that the few errant concerns I had about the former ill-advised heating pad arrangement are pleasantly absent. I can now also use the medical heating pad on my sore shoulder, which my shoulder is happy about.
Innovation 3: Moisture Patrol
There is no question that water has been my nemesis in cultivating seedlings. I have a tendency to overwater and this has been the downfall of many little budders. The tricky thing is that over and underwatering often look the same. This year I am trying to be more miserly with the water and to ensure germinating seeds are not becoming sodden. I have plastic domes for my seed starting trays, but often leave them off for the better part of the day and only put them on at night to prevent seedling soil from drying out with the lovely forced air heat blast nearby. As the seedlings grow their first set of “true” leaves, I’ll cut back even more on the water. One write-up I read suggested that seedling trays should be light and easy to handle; if yours are not, you may be over-watering.
Innovation 4: Raise ‘Em Up
In all of my reading last year, I discovered that my DIY light stand is a perfectly reasonable solution from a technical standpoint, but that in order for these lights to really help the little baby greenies, they must be VERY close to them. Because the chains on the shoplites bear inherent limitations and because I’d much rather pretend to fox it with something I own than actually fix it, I’ve addressed the problem with my college Western Civ textbooks. To be fair, they are rather out of date at this point, and I was NOT selective with the highlighter at this stage of the game, so don’t be horrified by my abuse of the written word; the books are pretty much trashed already. If I still had my statistics textbooks, I would definitely have used those instead, but I had already found a miserable graduate student to relieve me of that mathematical burden. Western Civ it is. The seedlings are raised up in an attempt to bring them within the recommended 2 inches of the light source. Because I’ve used books, I can easily adjust this height as the seedlings mature.
So far, so good! The heating mat seems to have improved germination; nobody looks leggy yet, and I’ve managed not to drown them. Now I just have to keep it up for 9 more weeks…
If you’re just getting started this year, take advantage of the vast array of resources on the web and in the blogosphere. Get your hands in that dirt, but do yourself a favor and read a little first. While my heart wants to tell you to just dive in, my several years of experience say dive after you’ve read the signs around the pool. Nothing is more encouraging than a successful garden; nothing helps you succeed more than gathering the wisdom of those who’ve already failed many times. I’m sure someone very wise said that sometime. Spring is coming!
This post was shared on Wildcrafting Wednedsday.