Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Starting a Frugal Garden, Part 2: Starting Seeds

When I was in college, I tried to start some flower seeds in a greenhouse kit by my windowsill. The seedlings got too leggy or long and flopped over, and I thought I had a black thumb. I continued to have limited success when I tried to start other seeds indoors without the help of an artificial light.

When I moved here, I found that the previous owners had left a 4-foot long fluorescent work light in the basement. After rigging it up, I enthusiastically planted over 144 seedlings of different types. I had no idea if they would work, but to my surprise, they mostly slowly grew, until I had little seedlings of herbs like thyme and sage to transplant. My tomatoes got out of control after about a month, and I learned quickly that starting them in February was not a good idea.

Since then, I've grown much more comfortable with the idea of starting seeds indoors, and appreciate the savings too! Last year, I didn't get my eggplants started in time and went to buy some from a local greenhouse, and was shocked at the price of $2.99 each. That may not sound like much, but when you can start 25 for 25 cents (not that I need that many eggplant), $2.99 for just one plant felt like too much.*

I usually use a seed starting mix for my seeds because they say that it has less chance of having nasty organisms that might jeopardize my seedlings, but I have also started seeds outdoors in potting soil or even <gasp> real soil, and you know what? They seem to grow just fine. This year, I plan on starting them all in potting soil.

While you can use the conveniently packaged greenhouse kits, in reality, you can start seeds in leftover yogurt cups, sour cream containers, and more. Just make sure that they are washed out well and that holes are punched in the bottom for drainage. I have also tried using homemade newspaper pots, but have found that they dry out easily.

Leftover milk jugs are also great - if you cut around the bottom third of the container but leave a portion uncut, you can fold up the top of the jug and fill the bottom with soil and seeds and re-cover with the top of the jug. There is a great link here on winter sowing that uses this type of set-up. I have started many seeds, like Swiss chard, marigolds, lettuce, and kale in milk jugs in the middle of January and set them out on my porch. Within a couple of months, I had sprouts, and after transplanting, my marigolds went on to grow better than any I had ever grown before.

This is the biggest factor to success, in my opinion. I think that it's hard to get good light by placing seedlings next to a window. As I mentioned above, I had better results when I used a 4-foot fluorescent work light. They aren't too expensive at hardware stores and are worth the payoff in terms of hundreds of plants every year.

Seedlings do need water and can be prone to drying out easily, but they can also be over-watered. Over-watering in a cool, indoor environment can lead to fungus issues. Do a finger check on soil and if it feels like a damp sponge, it is good to go. I set up my growing station in the basement laundry room so that I am reminded that they are there at least once a day or so when I go down to switch loads.

There is an excellent resource at Skippy's Vegetable Garden that shows you when to start different types of vegetables, herbs, and flowers depending on what horticultural zone you live in. Starting seeds too early might result in an overgrown, stressed plant, while starting them too late may not give them enough time to be outdoors and produce fruit.

Finally, when you're first starting out growing seeds, it may be easier if you limit yourself to just a few types. I went a bit crazy my first year and while I enjoyed all of the things I grew, it got a bit overwhelming. Now I try to grow just what I need and maybe a few extra in case of failures.

Have you ever started seeds before? What are your favorite tips or methods?

* while I love to start many things from seeds, some which take a while to get established or can't grow easily from seed, like lemon thyme or French tarragon, are worth getting at a nursery for me.

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