Our gardens in many lights

lundi 12 mars 2012

Seedlings are off to a good start!

Cet article en français. 
Este artículo en español.

This year, the garden planning was (litterally) a game. You can see here the garden map, desired vegetables cards and mini-cards for desired flowers, flowers that will be used for companion planting.

Hélène :
Have you started you garden planification yet? Here plans, seed orders and seedlings have been started a while already! Of course, buying seeds instead of buying plants cost less, but the time and expertise required for success is not negligeable and it's definitely a sign of trouble for most (me included). I did talk about this, I once tried to sow seeds in a big container with usual potting mix from the store and it just didn't work. Last year, I finally equipped myself seriously with a heating mat and a small light setup (not this exact model, but the last year's equivalent). Results for last year : a couple of difficulties but for the first time, I tasted tomatoes and peppers that were very different, vegetables I couldn't have tasted any other way.

Light setup and a heating mat underneat. Notice
the aluminium hanging for maximum light reflection.
Also notice the setup is on top of a shelf,
a place cats can hardly reach.

This year, the game started with even more varieties of tomatoes and peppers. And I have to admit my experience of last year is already showing. It's easier, losses are reduced and the plants are vigorous! There is a couple of fine points I would have like to have known at the offset, points I would like to share (this list will most likely grow with the years to come, too).

1. It is hard to give too much light. And if you go for natural light, if you are like me in the north, this is not Californian sunshine, northern sun is not as hot. All in all, maximizing the light you give to the plants is a good investment, so be ingenious about it : use mirrors or aluminium to reflect the light as much as possible. Most light setups come with height-adjustable light. When the seedlings poke out of the soil, don't be afraid to bring the light really close, a couple of centimeters over the top is fine. It's even actually better then fine, because else, you will get spindly plants, you know those long plants that hardly hold up?

2. Heat makes a big difference! This way, the seeds will germinate instead of rotting, so place a heating mat underneat the greenhouse and even under the containers holding the small seedlings. This can make a world of difference between a living plant and a dead plant.

In the small plastic greenhouse, down left,
new seeds are ready to sprout.
 The plants around are 3 weeks old.

 3. As long as those seeds haven't sprout, keep them in a greenhouse like the one on the left picture or place a plastic bag on top of the container that will keep the humidity inside. Don't buy a greenhouse that's too big : Take the size you need. Last year I bought a 50-cells greenhouse, thinking I could use only a part of it. What a mistake! All plants that were adjacent to free cells never sprouted for lack of heat and humidity. If they had been surrounded by other growing plugs, it would have been fine.

Here's a small plant ready to move up in a
potting mix, vermicompost and perlite.

4. Normal potting mix works fine of course, but there is a couple of details that need mention. First of all, it contains very little nutrients and since it's sterile, it can't make more. Some people add a handful of garden soil so bacteria is introduced, making this new soil richer. Others add compost, which slowly release its nutrients, an ideal solution... when your compost bin is not under 4 feet of snow! There's also vermicompost (worm compost) - something I will try this year - but it needs to be well mixed with the potting soil and it shouldn't be on the top since it has a tendency of caking, making watering challenging. I also add perlite. It's  very fine volcanic rock, it's white (it's in the glass in the picture above) and it helps to retain water, making plants less likely to dry out. Watch out however, because perlite is so fine, it should be dampen before working with, since it produces a dust that can be irritating to the lungs if inhaled.

These roots clearly state it's time to place them in containers.

5. Don't wait too long before repotting, especially if you used plugs! A baby plant that's in a container really too big for it will possibly have a hard time, but a plant that's too big for its container is a dead sentence.
I hope these tips and tricks will inspire you, give you courage to try and succeed with seeds! Of course you will loose some plants, but don't despair. Plants have a will to live too and will be forgiving to beginners.

When you order seeds, the choice will be immense and varied,
 the selection definitely exceeds what a nursery can offer as plants.

If you don't have a heating mat, place your seedlings higher (closer to the ceiling, the air is usually warmer). Another old trick is to put your tray over the fridge (at least all night long).

Don't forget to acclimate your plants before bringing them fully outside. Choose a mild day, preferably overcast and without winds (or place the plants in a shady spot that also offers wind protection), take them out for short spells, 30 minutes a morning, 45 or 60 the afternoon and so on. The idea is to limit shock when the plants will be outside. Think about it : A transplanted plant already is having a shock. Change the light input, the temperature and the wind at the same time and you can kill it quite easily, or at least damage it enough to stunt its growth.

Have a delightful gardening season!

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