Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Planning And Seed Starting

Welcome back all you garden aficionados out there, today we have one heck of an episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market and I think you will get a kick out of it. Today’s topics of discussion include the final part of the planning series and some good stuff about seed starting. Maybe it’s a bit of irony that the two got lumped together due to the cold weather forcing me to talk about rain barrels and frost hazards. As it turns out planning and seed starting go hand in hand and both are practicable for all skill levels, so let’s dive into the topics. Before we get into that I have some recent photos from the test gardens involving the latest weather and harvesting operations.

This was the scene on Saturday the 16th, a decent slow with frost, which came after I had installed the anti-frost socks on the rain barrels.

As you can see the Leeks and Egyptian Onions actually are cold hardy enough to ignore a light coating of snow and ice.

The collards and other leaf greens however got a nice coating due to their surface area and were a bit wilted the next day.

Add caption This batch of Cabbage-Mustard weathered the cold alright but much like the collards and cabbage-collards most of the leaves needed to be harvested the next day

Add caption This is a photo from the next day, as you can see the collards are starting to wilt near the leaf tips as the day warms. This wilting is due to cell damage which in most plants is a bad thing but on members of the cabbage family it makes them more mild in scent and flavor. For note, the plant on the left has not had any leaves removed, and the ones on the right have. I took this photo to show how you pick cabbage leaves to extend the harvest. Remember harvest from bottom to top but leave enough leaves for the plants to feed themselves. I also always fertilize crops like this after if the weather permits.

Weather-related activity aside supply gathering is an essential action in February, because for the less experienced gardeners, March is the best time to start seed where as for high production minded gardeners like yours truly, February is where it’s at.  The first step to supply gathering is to write a list of what you need. Needs are best divided into four groups when it comes to supply gathering.

1.      Absolutely Essential – the materials you can’t start without.
2.      Needed regularly - the stuff that you burn through regularly.
3.      Seasonal Needs – the stuff runs out slowly so you don’t need it in bulk.
4.      Wants – The stuff you can do without but want anyway.

That’s a fairly clear list, but let me clarify the information further. The absolute essentials for the average gardener would include things that they absolutely cannot function without and the lack thereof might actually compromise their growing schedule. For instance, the lack of seed starting soil, propagation trays, and seed might hobble gardeners growing efforts.

In comparison the things that fall under the ‘Needed Regularly’ category all are things you know are important to your operations, and that you know the average amount of time the item will last. A great example of this is found with soil enrichment products such as Alaska fish fertilizer. I know that under normal use a quart of this stuff will last about two months on average meaning I also know I must buy six bottles or a gallon and a half a year. This then allows me to find a better deal by buying in bulk when it is more economical to do so.

The ‘Seasonal Needs’ group is best thought of as the materials you might buy annually for use and or application that have a very slow rate of depletion. A good example of this might be the spring and fall applications of soil amendments to feed the soil and aid in improved crop productivity. One good example might be composted manure products which do wonders towards maintaining soil fertility.

The last group is simply the ‘Wants’ and are comprised of the odd stuff you don’t actually need but desire anyway. Technically the wants themselves are useful but the research behind their effects and utility has not been documented so at best they might be curiosities. A good example of such things would include such gimmicks such as the ‘Topsy Turvy Tomato Planter” or the “Earth Box” product line. In the case of the former, its value is highly doubtful as it operates of pseudoscience at best, in the case of the latter the sheer cost* to utilize this system makes it hard to justify. Let’s be honest here we as gardeners know we’ll fall for some garden gimmick eventually, so at least make it a less expensive one.

Enough about the topic of planning for your supply needs since we have a more pressing topic to cover this week. As you know it is February and this is the month in which most gardeners begin planning to or actually start planting seed.  In the north typically seed starting is often delayed until mid to late march with an intended set-out date some time around mother’s day in May. For those of us in the North Carolina region however February is the earliest month you can start seed without a heated greenhouse with a expected set-out date around or just after Easter in April. 

Keep in mind, what you grow from seed varies on your experience and the materials you have available to propagate your crops.  The timing of starting seed in particular varies based on the type of seed you are growing. Typically with warm season crops the plants are grown in a reverse order with the slower growing crops that require the summer’s warmth started first. The faster growing largely temperature insensitive plants however are often started later.  Somewhere in the middle cuttings, tuberous slips such as potatoes and other non-seed plant propagation items are typically started or other wise propagated by division. For the average gardener this means you would start your peppers and eggplant first, with some cold tolerant annuals, and then move gradually towards the warm seasonal plants with less temperature sensitivity such as tomatoes, beans, squash and warm season leaf vegetables.

It sounds simple, because despite all the daunting terminology and the wide plethora of seed starting materials seen in the seed catalogs and in the garden centers the starting of seed is rather easy. Most seed require several things to be started including a soil media humidity, and warmth but they also require you to be wary of planting depth and once the seedlings have emerged light intensity and temperature. Fortunately most of the seed we would grow are pretty tough thanks to long term selection. For instance the average marigold once the seedling has emerged can largely aside from watering and fertilizer needs can hold its own. In contrast, Passionflower seedlings are incredibly temperamental when young and wilt at the mere threat of the humidity dome being removed in the most dramatic fashion possible.  That said if you can maintain moisture humidity and warmth long enough seed emergence should be as a simple affair.

For note the term Production cycle is relative to when you want to have a ready crop of plants.  The average time frame is about two months but you should allow yourself additional time to compensate for unusual weather and other factors. Additionally some plants will not tolerate cold wet soil so you should plan your plantings accordingly.  For note we at the Skye Project started our slowest growing warm seasonal plants back on the 9th of February. We started our seeds that early because our facilities include a seedling mat to keep the soil warm, and a lighting system to compensate for the weather and to reduce the incidence of seedling stretch. In addition the seedling bench itself has room to accommodate upwards of ten full trays which makes for quite a bit of production area.

Now here’s a tip any of you out there just starting out on the urban farming voyage. If you lack a seedling mat to keep your soil warm while germinating seeds believe it or not the top of your fridge is constantly warm enough to simulate the effects of a seedling warming mat. The size of the fridge does not matter except in the case of the fridge being too small for the seedling tray to sit on top of it and in the case of top-loading freezers.

Another cost cutting tip is to remember that light plays a role in seed germination however before your seedlings have emerged they can’t necessarily tell the difference between the sources of light. Warm and bright can go a long way to reliable seed germination. A simple 100 watt incandescent light set about 8” to 1’ above the top of the soil media or the top of the humidity dome is sufficient to aid germination if you lack a specific lighting system. In fact for a number of years in the early Skye project back in New Jersey we used three of those work site lights with the metal reflector and a position able clamp set to a timer on a 8 hour run time. The effect was that without a seedling mat germination was fairly reliable. As your seedlings mature they will need real sunlight but for the purposes of getting them started you can bend the rules ever so slightly.

As a final cost-cutting tip for seed starting, it has been asked if you can use compost in seed starting mix and I say yes, yes you can but here is a formula for making your own seed starting mix using compost.

16oz / 2 cups Compost, sterilized*
8oz / 1 cup Perlite
8oz / 1 cup Vermiculite
48oz / 6 cups Coir Fiber soil material

  1. Sterilize compost.
-You can sterilize compost by baking it in the oven for an hour at 450 degrees. This kills off any weed seeds and bugs that may be dormant in the soil. Always make sure that any earthworms are removed from the soil before this process. If you can put the earth worms back in the compost.

  1. Allow Compost to cool and re-wet it.
  2. Prepare Coir fiber soil.
  3. Blend Coir and compost well.
  4. Add in Vermiculite and Perlite.
  5. Check soil mix for any large chunks and dry spots.
  6. If soil mix is adequately cooled it is ready to use.

The advantage to this sort of soil mix is its lack of pH in the coir fiber and the high drainage value added by the vermiculite and perlite. Base fertility is supplied by the compost which is as good as you can make it. If you want to super charge this formula, you can replace the home made compost with something like black kow composted manure but doing so  means you don’t have to sterilize anything but also defeats the purpose of keeping this soil mix low cost. This blend should create five pounds of finished seed starting mix. You can upgrade this to potting mix by reducing the amount of coir and proportionately increasing the amount of compost until the ratios are about equal. This mix can be turned into a cactus, citrus or succulent mix by replacing one cup of coir fiber with sand and another cup of coir with fine gravel.

With that said feel free to experiment with that last bit, and this brings us to the end of this article. In our next article I will be talking about seed selection itself and the terminology associated with it. Hopefully it will help all you gardeners out there understand all the terminology associated with the industry. There is one other thing to note before I bring this episode to a close, The greens harvest after the minor snow in Fayetteville brought in about five pounds of greens. Until next time though feel free to comment here or at sustainable neighbors about anything in this article and of course as always keep ‘em growing. 

*Just a note folks: Most earth box systems at the retail level are about 40-60 dollars just for a small ‘earth box’ itself and does not include soil or plants. In comparison, two 14” pots might cost 10 dollars and the soil to fill them 10 more dollars you get the same effect and efficiency minus paying for someone’s brand name and copyright costs.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, it's James from Sustainable Neighbors. Just sending a reminder of my blog.