Garden Diary 2020 - February 1-29
I'm super excited about my home garden! We got an extra early start this year. We're experimenting with starting seeds indoors, and doing it organically. Check my intro article here, where I'll add links to my Garden Diary 2020 posts throughout the gardening season.
Surprisingly, the big box retail and hardware stores were not stocked with seeds and seed starting supplies this time of winter. But my favorite local garden store a few miles further down the road sure was! We purchased seeds and a 36-cell greenhouse kit with a plastic dome and organic seed starting potting mix. It's advised to use a special mix instead of soil from your garden to keep your planting environment well-balanced and disease-free. We filled the cell packs with the potting mix almost up to the top, dropped 3 to 4 seed in each cell, sprinkled a little more soil on top, lightly watered, placed the dome on top, and set it in the windowsill.
We planted 5 types of hot chili peppers. Since I had forgotten to purchase plant labels, I labeled the cell packs with blue painters tape so that it could be easily removed for next year. I should have used white tape because it's hard to read in low light.
36-Cell Greenhouse Kit - $5.99
8-Qt Seed Starter Soil - $9.99
5 packs of Chili Pepper Seeds - $14.18 ($2.50 - $3.49 each)
Total w/Tax - $31.98
Plants purchased at the garden store in the small pots generally cost about $4 each. Assuming 30 plants survive, it would cost about $120.
Plus, the greenhouse kit is reusable and we used only about 1/4 of the bag of starter soil. Though we used up all the seeds, I'm going to try harvesting the seeds directly from the peppers, and if it works, I'll be supplied with the same seed varieties for next year at no additional cost.
If it all works out, starting seeds indoors could be a big money saver.
What We Did Wrong:
We didn't tamp down on the soil before dropping in the seeds to fill in the air pockets. As a result, after planting and watering, some of the cells had sunk down 1/3 to 1/2 from the top, and some got planted unevenly and at depths too low. Some gardeners advise mixing the soil with water before planting to prevent this from happening, and to plant in a moist environment.
Also, we started a couple weeks earlier than we should have, as 6-8 weeks before the last frost is recommended (mid-April for me) so that your seedlings don't outgrow your pots before transplanting. On the bright side, knowing we were going to lose some plants due to lack of experience, that will give us some time to replant our first failed attempts.
Adding Grow Lights:
I had read that grow lights would be necessary, even under well lit windows. If the plants don't have enough light, their stems will stretch to meet the light and become "leggy." With few available at the retail and garden stores - and the few that were available were pretty expensive - I did some shopping online and found this unit at Amazon.
There's a big selection of the newer LED grow lights, which reduce energy use, but there's less information and experimentation on these since they are relatively new. I went with this one because most small lighting units are mounted on clips, but this one was mounted on a stand which is what I need for my setup. Since this is my first grow light, I can't offer any comparison or review, but it fit my need and budget. Perhaps I'll have some insight as the indoor growing season progresses.
After checking and lightly watering the cell pack daily, we started seeing sprouts in about 7 days.
I just couldn't help it! After seeing all the chili peppers sprout so easily, I had to expand my operation. I purchased three more 36-cell greenhouse kits and a variety of veggie and herb seed packs.
I planted 4 varieties of basil, rosemary, cilantro, chives, parsley, oregano, thyme, cucumbers, 3 varieties of tomatoes, Chinese parsley, and lettuce. Some of the seeds are teeny tiny, so I had to sprinkle a bunch of them in knowing I'd have to thin them out later. I planted a couple seed packs that I'd purchased several years ago, and I don't know if they are still viable. We'll see.
Then, for the sake of trying something different, I picked up a peat pellet greenhouse kit. Peat pellets are hard disks filled with peat moss encased in a thin netting. When you add water to them, as directed, they expand into a small, organic pot. They can be planted directly into the ground when ready for transplant. They come in several sizes. I planted 3 varieties of tomatoes in these pots, about 3-4 seeds per pot, and placed the plastic dome on top.
I also picked up a set of peat pots to compare with the peat pellets. In these I planted catnip and cat grass.
I kept the leftover seeds in their original packs, labeled them with the date of purchase, stacked them in the order I had planted them, and stored them in a plastic container in the refrigerator.
Using a Heat Mat:
Some experts recommend buying a heat mat to speed up germination time, but so far we have not found a need for it. With our indoor thermostat set to around 74 degrees in winter, most of the seeds germinated in that first week, and even more within 14 days. A few didn't germinate at all, but that may have been a result of planting too deep. While I many invest in some heat mats next year, it was definitely not a requirement to get started.
About the Seeds:
When I was shopping for seeds, I simply picked them off the rack based on the name of the plant variety, not price, brand or type. I discovered later that the organic seed packs cost $1-2 more than regular. Some seeds are coated to make them bigger and easier to plant. Some seeds come on seed tape, and others on seed disks. It will be interesting to compare results.
In just four days, the tomatoes in the peat pellet kit began to sprout. I placed these on a windowsill with no grow light. Kitties were very interested in inspecting my experiment!
The lettuce and cucumbers were also beginning to sprout. These are under the grow lights, along with the other 36-cell packs, for about 10 hours per day. The recommended time is 16 hours, but they seem to be doing well regardless.
A Little More Planting:
Using the leftover peat pots and unused terracotta pots, I planted some sage, lavender, leeks and chamomile. The sage seeds were coated for easier planting, like little green beads. I placed them in an unused plastic storage container, lightly watered, placed the lid on top and set them on the windowsill.
The tomatoes and lettuce were sprouting quickly, and some of the herbs were starting to pop up. The basil tray is coming along very slowly.
The chili peppers I had planted a week earlier than the rest were growing slow and steady. Most of the seeds had germinated, but there are a few empty cells.
A couple days later, kitties stepped on the lettuce sprouts and they've been floppy ever since. I will probably wait to plant the rest of the seeds outside.
With 2 days of pleasant weather in the forecast, I decided to start digging out my new kitchen garden. This is where I planted the tomatoes last year, but in just a couple small sections. This year, I decided to extend it all the way down the side of my house, about 27' x 5'. Where I had not previously planted, the soil is heavy, orange clay and will need to be amended.
First I measured off the area and cut a line with an edger. Then I dug out the sod one chunk at a time using a flat spade. I don't have a tiller or sod cutter and had to do it with regular hand tools. Once the sod was off, I dug up the clay, broke up the chunks with my shovel and mixed it with organic soil that I purchased in bags. I had amended the soil the same way many years ago in my front yard in order to plant flowers, and it has worked well.
I also experimented with "hardening off" some of the seedlings, the process by which you gradually acclimate your indoor plants to the outdoors. Though it was probably too early to start the process, for experiment's sake I gave it a try. I placed them where I could easily monitor them for distress. After several hours, I brought them back inside.
Then the cold, windy, rainy weather returned, and the outdoor work ended. There was still more to do to amend the soil, but it would have to wait for a clear warmer day.
They just couldn't help it! As soon as the catnip and cat grass plants started to sprout, kitties HAD to eat them. I had accidentally left the big pepper plant tray hanging off the edge just a bit. And with a crash, the big hot pepper pot transplanted indoors from last summer, all the catnip and cat grass, and a whole cell pack of herbs tumbled onto the floor. Soil spilled all over my brand new carpet!
I was able to salvage the cell packs that remarkably landed upright, but others are a mess and will have to be replanted. Some got mixed up in the wrong cells as I randomly threw the soil and seedlings back into the cells. Their labels may be scrambled.
The rain, wind and cold weather halted all outdoor operations, but growing continues indoors. The tomato plants are getting their true leaves and will need to be transplanted into larger pots. I placed them under the grow lights to help curb the "leggy" growth. I also rotated the tray each day in the window to alternate the direction of the bend toward the light.
The basil tray is coming along very slowly. The majority of the cells are showing sprouts. They are very short and low to the soil surface, and are not getting leggy and bending toward the light like the tomatoes are. So I placed these under the window without the grow light for the time being, and they are doing quite well so far.
The hot chili pepper tray is still growing slow and steady. They are also short and not bending toward the light. So far, the combination of the window light and the LED grow light seems to be working.
The catnip and cat grass plants are toast and couldn't be salvaged. I'll have to wait for warmer weather and try again outside.
The herb tray performance has been mixed as a result of the cat-astrophe. The rosemary never sprouted. Oregano and thyme are showing mediocre growth. Chives, cilantro and parsley may survive.
I had also planted a random tray of cucumbers, more tomato varieties, lettuce and Chinese parsley. The cucumbers sprouted quickly, but got leggy and unhealthy. I planted three cells - one shriveled up and died within a couple weeks, one teetered on survival and eventually fell, and only one cell with two seedlings survived. I've since learned that cucumbers are best started outdoors, which makes sense to me after watching their growth patterns. Most of the tomatoes are doing well, the parsley never sprouted (this was an older seed pack), and the lettuce looks floppy and weak.
The last tray I planted with sage, lavender, leeks and chamomile aren't growing too well. Perhaps I haven't given them enough attention. Or perhaps it's because the windowsill under which they are growing has a little bit of a draft. A heat mat may come in handy in this spot next year. The sage hasn't sprouted at all, and the others are sparse.
It's interesting to note that the kitties haven't tried to touch most of the sprouts. They look but don't touch. They've only tried to chew the catnip, cat grass and lettuce. Of course, I have no idea what they're doing in the middle of the night!
Well, February has been a learning experience. The successes have far outweighed the failures and mishaps. In addition to learning by trial and error, I've gathered a lot more information from online resources since my first post. More on that in the future.
But if you haven't already started, it's not too late! Stay tuned for my next post as I start transplanting my seedlings to larger pots!