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Urban Farmer: Seed-starting process has begun in earnest — what a great time of the year!


By Ginger Dawson
Special to KyForward

It’s a beautiful day!  Finally.  The ground is warming up, the peas, radishes and lettuces I planted are coming along nicely, and the seed-starting has begun!  I love this time of the year.

Early on, seed starting was something that I had always thought more experienced gardeners did.  There was so much to learn about gardening and it did take a lot of work. I thought that simply buying plants at the nursery would be fine.  After all, I did have a full-time business to run outside of my gardening endeavors.  But, the lure of this final frontier kept nagging at me.  This was something I knew I needed to do.

Early on, I had attempted a couple of half-baked efforts, and they were wretched.   I got a little two-light plant starting kit with a direction sheet, did a little extra reading and went at it.  This little project was set-up in my basement.  That was my first mistake.  There wasn’t enough light. Those lights just didn’t have the juice to compensate for zero sunlight.

Cabbage seedlings after natural selection. Note the corpses in the lower left gutter.

I didn’t have heat mats then, which meant there wasn’t enough heat, either.  And, to top it off, I wasn’t very attentive!  I cannot account for this.  I am a flawed person in this way sometimes — the motivation is there, but the follow-through can be feckless.  In fact, the results were so awful that I just left the whole idea behind…..for the moment.

I would be back.  And later, about eight years ago, I tried again.

This time, things were going to be different.  I had been burned.  I was not going to light that match the same way again.  Now even though I can be feckless, I do have the ability to learn from my mistakes.  Accordingly, I have learned many things.  I can always have confidence that I will continue to learn because I know I will continue to make mistakes.  It’s one method.  If you can learn another way, I recommend yours.

The plan I devised for this second attempt at seed-starting was built on avoiding these earlier mistakes.

I got a much better lighting setup and moved it upstairs to my office on the second floor. The whole thing is positioned in front of a west window. This is good for two reasons — much better light, obviously, and being located on the path to the bathroom, nature’s call was going to be certain to keep me attentive.  I call this “applied nature”.  Well, actually “applied CALL to nature.”  It works.  I have been engaged with this process in a regular way ever since.

Also, in this same area, I have a separate table set up with heat mats.  I start my seed in the ever popular Cow pots, which are like peat pots except they are made from sterilized cow poo (this column is turning in an odd direction).

I use a potting soil, which I dampen with water to a “friable” texture.  This means that the soil sticks together when you squeeze a handful of it, but it isn’t muddy.  I just put the dirt in a potting tray and sprinkle water in and blend it with my hands.  You will develop a feel for this after you do it a few times.

I pack the cowpots with the dirt, put them in the trays, place them on the heat mats and plant my seed.  Package directions for each type of plant will give you instruction on how deep to plant.  As a rule of thumb, most seeds are in 1/4 inch.  I usually put three seeds in each pot.
 
I put the plastic covers on and then the wait begins.  Seed germination takes heat, moisture and soil (or another preferred medium).  I’m a dirt girl.  Now, I didn’t say “dirty” there, I said dirt.  After having been raised in a culture dedicated to the singular appreciation of dirt,  I can’t imagine hydroponic gardening.  But, that’s my choice, and there is no one right way to garden.  Your garden is your kingdom and you rule anyway you want.

When the seed germinates, I remove the covers and move the trays to the grow lights.  The light fixtures are on moveable tracks and can be raised and lowered.  The idea is to keep the lights about two inches above the plants as they grow.  

When the little plants develop their second set of leaves, it is time to thin the pots to one little plant each.  I pick the winner and snip the other two off at the dirt level.

Now I know the first time you participate in this little exercise of brutal natural selection, you’re probably going to feel like a serial slasher, but, it’s got to be done.  I can tell you that like any difficult task, it does get easier.  Before you know it, you’ll be completely inured to the whole thing and be wielding those scissors like Jack the Ripper.

About once a week, feed your little survivors with a weak solution of fertilizer.  Easy does it, you don’t want to burn them.  You’ve participated in enough violence already (I’m kidding).

In about six weeks, your little charges (having survived you), will be ready to transition to larger pots and ready to face another round of torture.  We call this “hardening off”.  The plants will be moved to the outside and gradually adjust to cooler temperatures, bright sunlight and wind.  Be attentive.  Too much sun, too fast, is not a good thing.  

Now that I’ve managed to make seed starting sound like a scene from Oliver Twist, it’s really not all that bad and I did keep the whole process from going down the toilet.

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Urban Farmer Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.


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One Comment

  1. Billy Moreno says:

    Great advice! I have a few questions about seedlings and heat mats. I am using 4-cell inserts in a standard 1020 tray. I have 7 trays of 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes– about 340 cells. Quite a few of them have sprouted tonight, but there are a lot of inserts with one or two cells that are yet to sprout. If I take all inserts with newly sprouted seeds off the heat mats then that will leave a bunch of cells with cooler than optimal temperature for germination.

    1) Can I leave seedlings on heat mats for few days to a week to wait until all the cells germinate without any detriment to the cells with newly sprouted seeds?

    2) I double planted each cell. Many cells have both seeds coming up. Does thinning out really make a difference in crop quality? If not, I’d like to transplant those extra seedlings since we are expanding our garden this year anyway. They are about a half inch apart in each cell.

    3) If I do transplant them, how soon should I since they are so close together?

    Thanks!

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