Garden Diary 2021 - January
As I said in my Garden Diary 2021 intro post, I'm going BIG this year. This will be my second year of having a full-blown kitchen garden, filled with vegetables flowers and herbs.
Last year, as a result of ripping out beds of weeds, invasive ivy and pachysandra, and tearing up some rotted decking, I was left with nearly a blank slate. Almost the entire yard needs to be relandscaped. Instead of doing it piecemeal by spending thousands at the garden center over a period of years, I've decided to tackle it all in one year at a fraction of the cost by starting plants from seed. To pull it off, I need the right equipment for the job. It's been a month of trial and error, but at last I believe I have found the right solutions.
To follow along, bookmark the Garden Diary 2021 intro post where I'll add links to monthly updates throughout the year. Or, if you want a recap of what we accomplished last year, you can get all the links by going to the Garden Diary 2020 intro post.
Starting with Seed
Last year, for the first time, I started seeds indoors and direct seeded flowers in the spring. Even with limited equipment, we had solid results. Using the sunny windows in my basement and a few relatively inexpensive grow lights, we produced a couple hundred tomato, pepper and herb plants that flourished once planted in the garden in spring. Flowers were an afterthought and weren't as successful, but many that I direct seeded in the garden grew beautifully. With that experience, I knew what I needed to do this year to make it better and more productive.
Winter has been the perfect time to hunker down, organize and plan. Here's what I've been doing:
First I pulled together a comprehensive list of places that sell seeds, which you can find here. I ordered free seed catalogs from every company that offered them, but ended up making selections mostly online. The varieties of plants you can grow by seed vastly outnumbers the transplants available at the garden centers, making that reason alone worth the effort.
Though prices, seed count, delivery speed and seed packaging were all factors in deciding which seeds to purchase and from which company, plant variety was the key for me. For flowers, I looked for color, height, light requirements and bloom time to fit in my partial and full shade beds. For herbs, I looked for specific varieties for some, and a sampling of less common varieties of others. For veggies, I looked for varieties that best fulfilled my needs, such as paste tomatoes for sauce, and cherry tomatoes for pastas and salads. By shopping intensely online, I found that many of the plants I would normally buy each year could be grown by seed, including beloved gerbera daisies, annual geraniums, ranunculus, and anemones.
What I admire most about botanic gardens is that they fill every inch of the flower beds with a plant. Not only is it beautiful, but it also smothers out the weeds. And so, over a two month period, I purchased a lot of seeds to replicate what I see at the finest gardens. I mean, I purchased A LOT of seeds! There are many I've never grown before or never knew existed, such as stock and lisianthus, for which I will only plant a few this year to see if I like them.
Inventory and Tracking
Next, I created an Excel spreadsheet to take inventory of the seeds I already had in order to avoid buying duplicates, as well as to help identify where I had gaps in the collection. What started as a simple list gradually morphed into a semi-automated seed planting scheduler. And, well, we finance nerds need an excuse to create a spreadsheet! Not only does it list what I have, it also details the seed company, order dates, quantity, plant facts, planting dates by type of sowing method, and germination dates. Using the handy Conditional Formatting function, I programmed the cells to automatically change colors whenever a seed is due for planting, giving me a quick visual alert reference. It's a really great feature I learned about when I just happened to take an Excel refresher course this summer on LinkedIn Learning. I have plans to expand its automation, but this was a good start.
Inputting all of this data for hundreds of plants was quite tedious, but it has helped immensely in coordinating and staying on schedule with three different seed sowing methods - sowing indoors, direct sowing and Winter Sowing (see below). There are many helpful guides available online with suggested seed starting dates for different plants, such as Johnny's Selected Seeds really useful Seed-Starting Date Calculator, which I used for general reference, along with sowing information on the seed packets themselves. However, to account for my experience last year, and the addition to the less common Winter Sowing, I tweaked all the sowing dates to better suit my growing conditions. No doubt I'll be revising the dates again next year to account for having better grow lights this year.
As the seeds began to arrive, I made some makeshift seed boxes separated by date and sowing type. I use that in conjunction with the spreadsheet to keep the seed packets organized by planting date. So far, it is working out very well, much more effectively than last year when I had no system in place and had to keep them sorted by scattering the seed packets all over the floor!
Last Year Was a Mess
Last year, by the time spring had come around, we were tripping over plants that we had started indoors. After I had potted them up, what started as a few small seedling trays exploded into over a couple hundred 4" pots. Later plantings suffered because they didn't have enough time under my little grow lights since they had to share with all the other plants.
Vegetable and herb seeds did fine, but the flowers, which I had started later, really struggled. And when it was time to harden them off, I was carrying a couple dozen containers full of pots in and out each night, sometimes in the freezing rain. There was water and dirt dripping all over our new carpet from transporting them every day. I was so eager to get them out of the house that I planted some too early and killed them. By mid-summer when it was time to start fall seeds indoors, I had absolutely no desire to deal with the mess again. Even though I loved starting seeds indoors and enjoyed the results, it was just unpleasant enough to make me change strategies this year.
With limited grow space, I decided to go vertical. After a bit of research, I purchased a 2'x4' 5-shelf rolling cart with shelf liners, and 12 Barrina 4' LEDs, three for each growing shelf. The kitties are happy that they don't have to share the windowsills this year! Hat tip to On the Grow for the idea and great video on how to set it up!
However, unlike the video, because I'm growing a wide variety of vegetables, flowers and herbs that vary substantially in height, I needed to rig the lights so I could easily raise and lower them instead of keeping them in a fixed position. The general rule of thumb is to hang lights 2 to 6 inches above the tops of many seedlings to keep them from getting leggy when they stretch to reach the lights. As the plants grow, the height of the lights has to be adjusted. I thought that I could easily find some type of inexpensive hook or pulley system to accomplish the task, but there were none. Tapping into my DIY photography gear experience, I created my own pulley system using nylon cord, mini metal spring clamps like these, and electrical tape for smooth gliding, all of which I already had lying around the house. It's not pretty, but it works, and didn't cost me an extra dime!
It's been less about a month since I started my first batch of seeds and the difference from last year, when I used mostly window light, is pretty remarkable. The four heat mats I purchased last year from Vivosun have been sufficient to handle the volume of seed starts that I move off as soon as they germinate. Now, I have one shelf with four heat mats dedicated to germination, and the other three shelves are for growing. When they reach a decent size, I will move the frost hardy plants outside to free up room for more plants with shorter grow times. Or at least that's my plan, anyway! Keeping a tight, revolving door schedule is crucial when starting this many seeds in a limited grow space. Every square inch is valuable real estate.
Seed Trays and Cells
Disposable vs. Durable
I thought I could get by with using the seed starting trays and cells I used last year, but I've been upgrading those, too. I wasn't aware at the time that the kits you can readily find at the big box stores are really meant to be disposable. The flimsy plastic cracked after one season of use, leaking all over the shelves and floor when I attempted to bottom water. So I went on the hunt to find trays and cells built to last.
The Plug and Play Solution
Since I'm growing a wide variety of vegetables, flowers with different heights and germination speeds, I wanted to find a system with individual cells instead of connected cell packs for most of my plantings. That way, I could easily plug and play each cell where it could best grow. Having fully embraced tomato expert Craig LaHoullier's dense planting technique - yes, it works! - I can sow the majority of my seeds in one cell for each plant, saving a huge amount of initial seed staring space and growing medium.
Luckily I found just what I was looking for at Bootstrap Farmer! These 32-cell starter trays with 2"x2" inserts fit into a standard 1020 tray (I love their durable extra strength trays!), and can be covered with their high quality Humidity Domes. Since the square insert pots are individually removable, I've been able to plant all veggies, flowers and herbs under two domes with heat mats underneath on a rotating basis. With the dome and heat mats, I'm getting rapid germination averaging 2-5 days per plant. As soon as a pot germinates, I move it out from under the dome to prevent it from dampening off, onto an uncovered tray with a heat mat for a few more days in case there are more seeds in the pot that haven't germinated. I leave the remaining ungerminated pots under the dome. When a slot under the dome opens, I grab another pot, sow more seeds, filling the empty space, thereby keeping a steady flow of seed starts going throughout the winter.
With individual pots, I can also move the seedlings around more easily to a grow light set to the appropriate height. For instance, the tomato plants, which may reach about 12" by the time they are ready for planting, can be moved to a shelf with a higher grow light, and the oregano, which forms a low growing mat can be moved to a shorter shelf with a lower hanging grow light.
That means I can plant quick-germinating basil under the same dome as slow-germinating rosemary. If a pot won't germinate at all, I can pull it out and replace it with another instead of leaving a blank space.
Some pots can be removed off the growing cart sooner than others. The perennials, cool season veggies and herbs, and frost hardy annuals should be able to be moved outdoors before the last average frost date, freeing up indoor growing space. Shade tolerant plants, like coleus and impatiens, can theoretically be moved off the grow light carts to other places indoors once they are better established, freeing up even more space for tomatoes and peppers, which can be planted in late February/early March.
This mix and match approach with individual pots maximizes germination speed, rate, lighting space and flexibility. It's only been a few weeks, but I am already seeing the benefits compared to the flimsy, connected, disposable cell trays. And best of all, the pots and trays I bought are so sturdy that I'll be able to use them for years to come, and not add more plastic garbage to the landfill.
Since this is my first year of attempting to start seeds this way, I consider it experimental, but it makes sense that it should work. Fingers crossed!
Since these 2" square pots that I purchased are deeper than the standard seed starting cells, and therefore require more growing medium, I fill the bottom 2/3 of each pot with potting soil, and the top 1/3 with the soilless seed starting mix, which is more expensive. If one of the arguments for using seed starting mix instead of potting soil is that it provides a light, fluffy environment for the little seedlings to germinate and root, then I felt it was only needed at the top where the seed germinates. So far, it seems to be working and is less expensive. I'll be experimenting with different proportions as I go.
Square Tray Experiment
I also purchased Bootstrap Farmer's colorful square trays for mass plantings, like sweet alyssum, arugula and lettuce. I saw little point in planting these in small cells. The square flats are not as deep as the pots, because they were really designed for microgreens, but they might work for shallow rooted or quick harvest leafy greens, like arugula. We'll see how it turns out.
Small Seed Starting Trays
For plants where I prefer smaller cells, like impatiens and ageratum, I picked up these small seed starting trays with domes, also more durable than my original seed starting kits. I like small sized cells for flowers that I intend to plug into small crevices, such as in my rocky pond garden. If I time it correctly, I won't need to upsize the pot before planting them in the garden. These 12-cell kits each come with their own dome, providing a perfectly warm and moist environment for quick germination. Once germinated, I take the dome off, remove it from the heating pad and replace it with another tray.
My little system seems to be working quite efficiently!
Durable 6-Cell Trays
I've also ordered durable 6-cell seed starting trays from Epic Gardening because they also have some nice features. Air strips on the side walls of each cell for air pruning, hole on the bottom for poking the plant through for transplanting, and life-long durability rounded out the intermediate size cell pack I need. They, too, should fit in the 1020 trays. I can't wait to try them!
Was it NECESSARY?
Now, did I NEED all of this equipment? No! Nature did this all on its own before electrically powered grow lights and plastic containers. You can start seeds in any type of container with drainage holes at the bottom, including recycled nursery pots, newspaper and egg cartons. But I put a premium on space, efficiency, and durability, especially since I'll be running hundreds of plants through my grow cart all year.
One thing I've learned the hard way is that squares are best. Round pots are space hogs, especially where every square inch matters. I've ordered durable, 4" square pots this year for when I'm ready to "pot up" the seedlings so that they fit better in the 1020 trays. I can't wait to get those, too!
When the seed starting season for spring is over, I'll be writing a more thorough review of my findings, but this is where I landed by trial and error one month into 2021 seed starting.
To amp up my plant production even more, I have also been experimenting with Winter Sowing, a seed starting method done outdoors in winter using recycled containers. You can learn more about it here. I gathered up every container I could find and have been winter sowing ever since. Those who do it swear by it, but since I'm a newbie, I planted duplicates indoors for those plants I definitely wanted in the garden this year. But if it is successful, it will revolutionize the way I garden and minimize the indoor effort in years to come. I love seed starting and watching the seedlings grow, but it's hard to manage the sheer volume of plants that I will need to fill my garden space, especially after potting them up. So anything I can do to reduce the effort and have more time for other things is welcome! After learning about winter sowing, I had to add some columns to my spreadsheet in order to record data for that, too. Like everything else, it's a work in progress.
Before buying the indoor rack and learning about winter sowing, I purchased an inexpensive portable greenhouse for my back patio. It has four shelves and I intend to use it to protect the veggie seedlings after potting them up. In fact, I've already moved some cool season crops out there for testing though it is snowing and below freezing every night. It's a flimsy piece of equipment that blows over with the slightest gust of wind when empty, but I'm hoping it can help me offload plants from the growing shelf more quickly and make room for more seed starts. This will be especially important for tomatoes and peppers in the hardening off phase during harsh spring weather.
That's a Wrap!
One month into seed starting, I'm enjoying fantastic results already. It's quite possible that my vision for a fully landscaped, lushly planted, functional kitchen garden could finally become a reality. But I'll consider progress of any sort a definite success.
Of course, I planted something for Banjo, too!