The Call and Times, Column 18 – With Startup Seeds, You Literally Reap What You Sow

11 03 2015

(March 6, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

With Startup Seeds, You Literally Reap What You Sow

Alex Seed-Starting Setup

Alex’s seed-starting setup, complete with some early onions and brassicas

Despite the lingering snow and freezing nighttime temperatures, this week marks the beginning of one of the most exciting times of the year – it’s time to start seeds!

For the past five years, I have started most of my garden crops from seed, but my practice was based more on intuition than a well-researched effort. I’ve always had acceptable success with my garden, but knew that my plants would be more productive with the right treatment as seedlings. This year, I’ve revamped my whole operation, and I think it’s the perfect time for us to learn the tricks of the trade together.

Seeds: Starting your own seeds give you access to lots of choices that you won’t get by buying your seedlings. You want to make sure to get sustainably-raised seed, well-suited for your local microclimate and zone (we are in Zone 6).

Containers: It all starts with the 1020 flat. These are the black plastic trays (measuring 10” x 20”) that hold seedlings in nurseries. They can also be made from moisture-resistant wood (cedar) – this method is more sustainable and durable than plastic, but initially more expensive. You should make sure to choose or build them without drainage holes, unless you want the water to run out of the bottom. Many of these trays come with clear plastic domes, which can be used to trap heat (like a greenhouse) so the seeds will germinate faster.

Inside these flats are the actual containers that hold the seed starting mix. Common practice is to use what are called “cell packs” – plastic trays that fit inside the 1020 flats, which have a grid of individual cells to grow your seedlings in. The standard sizes are named by the number of cells they contain – #98, #72, #50, and #32. The largest ones are also sometimes referred to as 3- or 4-inch pots, which fit about 18 to a flat. It is wise for an urban farmer to have a good mix of these, but in general, smaller cells (the #98s and #72s) are for smaller plants and those that will spend less time growing indoors, while bigger cells (the #32s and 3-inch pots) are for bigger or quickly-growing plants, and those with a longer indoor period. It is possible to use any container that holds a few ounces of starting mix, as long as you can put drainage holes in the bottom, it doesn’t break down too quickly, and won’t get moldy.

Finally, you need a place to put it all. There are a lot of solutions for this – my personal favorite is a 4-tier, metal, assemble-it-yourself shelving unit (which allows you to affix a grow light above your seedlings) in front of a South-facing window. You can also build a simple but effective greenhouse outdoors, to be used once the temperature lows climb into the balmy mid-20s.

Starting Mix: Arguably the most important consideration is the type of seed-starting mix that you use. You don’t want to use garden soil, because it can expose your tender seedlings to all sorts of unwanted pests. A specially-formulated seed-starting mix, or a similar homemade mix, is best. You want to use something sterile, with compost and other organic fertility boosters, because those containing only coir/peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite will not supply your seedlings with enough nutrients. Fort Vee is a personal favorite (and two friends have sworn by it), and this year I’m also trying Dr. Earth. If you do use an inert mixture, it will be necessary to periodically fertilize your seedlings, with an organic, low-strength fertilizer intended for that purpose.

Light and Heat: The rule of thumb is that the seedlings should be around 75°F during the day (but leaf crops like cooler temperatures), and drop by around 10°F at nighttime, to mimic natural cycles. I have always been happy with those clear plastic domes, but there are affordable heat mats that can be placed underneath the 1020 flats to keep the seedlings warm – you may want these, depending on how cool the ambient temperature is.

The seed flats should be kept warm only until the first signs of germination. After that, they need light! Only last year did I start including a grow-light in my setup, and I saw such an improvement in performance. These need not be expensive or energy-hogging fixtures – the best practice advice is to use inexpensive, 2-bulb, T8- or T5-size fluorescent tube fixtures, with either one “warm” and one “cool” bulb, or “sunshine”/”daylight” spectrum bulbs. Seedlings need 12-14 hours of light per day (once the seedlings become established, this can be a combination of artificial light and natural light). Light fixtures should be hung a few inches above the seed trays, and moved up as the seedlings grow.

Some Additional Advice: Starting mix should be watered often enough that it is moist – not dry, but not drowning. Now is the time to start crops with a long growing season (onions and celery) and crops that are to be planted out early (lettuce, spinach). In a few weeks, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants, as well as broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts should be started. Follow the directions on the seed packet, advice from the experts at farm and garden stores, and the seed suppliers’ websites. I have also posted more detailed information on my blog. If you have any tips about seed-starting and good local varieties, email them to me. I hope to publish them in future columns.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my friend Steve, a skilled Rhode Island gardener, and to Drake Patten, the owner of Cluck! Urban Farm Supply in Providence, for their valuable guidance. All of the supplies that I’ve mentioned, and more detailed advice than I could give, are available at Cluck. I’m also thankful to the Mother Earth News, Organic Gardening, and Grit magazines, and many books, including those by John Seymour, for their concise, readable instructions.

Finally, a few notifications: on Wednesday, I had the honor of testifying before the House Committee on Health, Education, and Welfare about three bills that seek to label foods containing GMOs. I am thrilled that this issue has been resurrected, and I will adamantly pursue these bills in hopes that GMO labeling becomes law in Rhode Island. I will keep you updated on their progress.

Also, tomorrow (March 7th) at St. Ann’s Art and Cultural Center in Woonsocket, the BVIBA will be hosting their 3rd annual Buy Local Expo. Buying from local businesses stimulates the economy, helps the environment, and results in a better standard of living for our community. More information about the expo can be found on their website, – I hope to see you there!

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.




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12 03 2015
The Call and Times, Column 18 – With Startup Seeds, You Literally Reap What You Sow | The Opinionated Farmer | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

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