Seed-starting season is in full swing in these parts. I’ve been getting loads of questions about it via email and figured it was time to put together a seed-starting recap here on the site.
I started my own tomato, pepper, and tomatillo seeds this weekend and put in orders with two seed companies to complete my 2007 Scary Mega Plant List. This last order totalled about 25 packs of seeds coming in at roughly $75 US. When you take into account that this does not include the transplants I will get in early June… well now you know why it’s the “Scary Mega Plant List.” I don’t want to scare anyone off and give the impression that gardening has to be this expensive. I do not fall into the norm since I consider my garden to be an experiment and a BIG, BIG part of my job. I grow as many new varieties as possible every year in search of beautiful, drought tolerant, delicious, and container-suitable plants to share with you. Most people do not grow 5 different pea varieties on their urban rooftop!
First I’ll show you my plan for this year. In my last post I gave a review of the Windowsill Seed Starter. What I did not mention is that I managed to snag the larger version at a garage sale for $3! The larger version is much more reliable with larger pockets that will keep your seedlings healthy for a more reasonable length of time — the downside being that it will not fit on a windowsill.
Because I am short on space I have a crazy plan based on last year’s experiment in which I moved my final repotted transplants to a window in the hallway of our apartment building to live out their final days before heading outside. By the time they were large enough to repot, the hallway was warm enough to accomodate them. It also made a nice transition from cushy to slightly-less-cushy. I’m pretending that was one stage in the hardening-off process. When faced with obstacles it helps to wrap them in a thin veneer of positivity.
Here you can see the little tags I made using toothpicks, sticker paper, and indelible ink. The other major downside to this kit is that it is too tall to work with my beloved heating mat. It’s been unseasonably warm so I think I’ll be fine without it.
These are the ratios I prefer. If you don’t need a huge batch you can use this as a basis for choosing a store-bought seed-starting mix. Always read the label and look for an ingredients list. Most popular brands have chemical fertilizers added that are both unneccesary, but will defeat the purpose of growing organically. Instead, buy a basic mix and add in your own organic materials. I suggest adding a touch of vermicompost and watering your plants with a diluted sea-kelp mix. To be clear, seeds do not require any fertilizers until they produce their first set of “true leaves”. In basic terms this means the second set of leaves you will see. The first leaves that appear are called “seed leaves” and feed the seedling until the first “true leaves” appear.
- 1 part peat or coir (Coir is a sustainable peat substitute made from coconut husks. Peat is mined from marshland, destroying natural habitats. When you can, use coir.)
- 1 part perlite (popped volcanic ash that creates good drainage.)
- 1 part vermiculite (water absorbing material made from the mineral mica)
Question: I bought several cheap bags of daffodils and tulips on clearance this past December but didn’t get them into the ground on time. Spring is right around the corner, can I still plant them?
Don’t toss those bulbs! Despite all the fuss about proper planting times, most bulbs are hardy little packages that can be saved with some minor intervention. Heaps of bulbs are hard on the wallet — off-season specials are a smart way to create an endless parade of spring blooms on the cheap. Of course, some bulbs are on sale for a reason, so choose firm, plump bulbs and leave shriveled or moldy bulbs at the store.
Dutch bulbs such as daffodils and tulips require some chill time before spring planting. Daffodils require approximately 12-16 weeks, while tulips call for a lengthy 14-20 weeks. Stash your bulbs bare inside mesh or paper bags and pop them into your refrigerator’s crisper drawer. Keep them away from apples or other ripe fruit since the ethylene gas they emit can cause your bulbs to rot. Take a peek every once and a while to be sure they haven’t mummified in the bag — good ventilation is key. Don’t freak out if they start to grow gnarly sprouts — a living bulb is a good bulb! And if they do nothing: that’s okay too.
To give your bulbs an added edge, try pre-planting them into containers of potting soil. Chill in an unheated garage, cold cellar, or shed and water them now and then to help form roots right in the pot.
Try and wait until the minimum chill time has passed before planting your bulbs out in the garden. Needless to say, you stand nothing to lose if they have to go outside early. Most bulbs won’t survive a year in regular storage so better late than never. Bloom time is bound to be off schedule this year, or won’t happen at all. No worries, your plants will reschedule themselves and produce heaps of flowers next spring.
Question: I bought an all-in-one seed starting kit that is supposed to make the procedure a breeze. I’m new to this so I tried growing stuff like marigolds, pansies, and herbs but everything died! The seedlings grew tall and floppy with a couple of sad looking leaves. I propped them up but after a few days they gave up and “met their maker” so-to-speak. Can you give me some advice so I can see where I went wrong?
If your seedlings are growing tall and floppy it probably means they aren’t getting enough light. Light deficient seedlings grow tall, thin, and eventually weak as they reach towards the closest light source. This leads to sickly plants that are susceptible to the kind of disease that eventually carried your seedlings to plant heaven. In their early days, most seeds require heat rather than light to get the ball rolling. However, your seedlings will need plenty of strong light — at least 12 to 16 hours per day — once they have popped out of their shell and up through the soil.
Finding a good spot in your home can be tricky. A south-facing window will do during bright summer months, but even springtime sunshine lacks the consistently intense light that seedlings depend on.
An inexpensive fluorescent light is the best way to ensure the right start for your young flowers and herbs. Don’t break the bank on a swanky greenhouse system. Instead pick up a cheap and practical fluorescent shop light box with two fixtures (fits two tube bulbs) from your local hardware store. Get 40-watt bulbs; one cool white and one warm white and suspend the box about 4″ above your plants. Hang the light on a linked chain so you can raise it as your seedlings grow.
This setup isn’t exactly stylin’ (unless science-geek chic is your thing), but your next round of seedlings are bound to be robust, stocky and ready to make the journey outdoors.
Get It: A 4 ft shop light with built-in chain will cost around $25. at your local home improvement store. I recommend Phillips Alto T12 or T8 bulbs (about $2.50 each). Make sure your bulbs are a match for the fixture as the two aren’t interchangeable. A setup with T8 bulbs will be a slightly larger investment but are about 20% more energy efficient.
Guest post by Amy Urquhart
This morning on my blog I wrote about how we’re getting crowded out of our dining room by the sheer number of plants in there, so it seems only natural that the next thing I did this morning while drinking my coffee, and in my housecoat, no less, is root seven Rex Begonia cuttings. This means that if my project is a success, I will soon have seven more houseplants to add to the collection I complained about just this morning.
It all started when I decided to research just exactly what to do with those long, leafless necks sprawling across the surface of my Rex Begonia “Tiger Kitten”. I was very happy to find that all I needed to do was cut those back and with a little time and plant magic, my original “Tiger Kitten” would grow new leaves and eventually look as happy as it did the day I bought it at Canada Blooms two years ago.
First I took a deep breath and hacked it back. Here’s how it looked this morning in all its gangly glory before the hacking began:
And here it as after the shearing:
Here are the cuttings all ready to be potted up:
And here they are in their new homes, all dusted in rooting compound and snuggled into pots of equal parts vermiculite and pro-mix:
Guest post by Emira Mears
I saw a comment pop up on an old post of mine from last May about Lilacs that I thought I would pull out and do my best to address here. The comment, or rather question was about a healthy seeming lilac bush that doesn’t seem to be producing much in the way of blooms (or perhaps any). I did a bit of research into this as lilacs are one of my absolute favourites and I do worry a bit that the lack of hands on care that I give our lilac will result in a decline in the plants health. There have been (and continue to be) a lot of plants we inherited in this garden that I need to learn more about. Anyway.
From the reading and web searching I’ve done I can contribute the following info and a few more questions for any of you out there who have more knowledge or tricks up your sleeves:
- Lilacs apparently don’t need heavy pruning but can do with a bit of thinning out. I know that my own bush sends off suckers and and new shoots a few feet away from the main bush as well as in the centre clump, pruning back some of these will apparently help the plant thrive as it is a heavy feeder or nutrient sucker so cutting back on some of the greedy shoots is a good idea. From what I’ve read I was a bit unclear as to when one should do this, so I’m not sure if it’s a Spring prior to blooming thing or a Summer post-blooming activity. Do chime in if you know. (And I should mention everything I have read has specifically pointed out a need to not over prune, so don’t go too nuts).
- Cutting off finished blooms is apparently one way to encourage a healthy crop of flowers the next year. Now if you’re not getting any flowers that won’t help, but I do know that this is something I have not done at all really, but have now logged into my garden journal for this June/July to take care of.
- Soil conditions: limey. Or so says the reading I’ve done. You can spread dolomite lime or other limey additives in November in my climate (zone 8ish/BC west coast).
- Dividing or moving: Here’s where my big questions come in. I’m a bit worried about the location of my own lilac (between a healthy growing laurel hedge and a garage as seen in the photo there) and that lack of sunlight due to the physical constraints (it does face south so still gets lots of sun) will eventually cause it to suffer. If I wanted to take some of the offshoots and move them to a different spot in the yard, when would be the best time to do this? Or, say if I wanted to move the whole bush?
If any of you have any other tips for healthy lilac blooms do pass them on. I know I’m keen to do all I can to keep those gorgeous beauties bountiful each May.