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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Maximizing Your Spring Vegetable Growing By Starting Inside #SeedStarting #VegetableGardening #Gardening #SpringPrep

Maximizing Your Spring Vegetable Growing By Starting Inside #SeedStarting #VegetableGardening #Gardening #SpringPrep

This was my garden at the very beginning of 2015, last season. Those colorful things at the left are lettuce.

Greetings readers and fellow gardeners and people who are just curious about growing stuff. Spring time has officially arrived, which means that you are already late in getting your garden together. Yeah, you're late. Feel ashamed! "Hey! That's rude." Alright, fine, reader. You don't have to feel ashamed... I simply reserve the right to pass harsh judgment upon you from a digital distance. But fear not. For while we all have our crosses to bear (Hi, Jesus; Ha! Easter shout out! Since I do believe, I'm probably goin' to hell for that one), know that it is never too late to start your preparations for veggie gardening dominance. Sure, you might not grow everything you want *cough* cold-hardy crops like potatoes *cough*, but you will be able to grow some stuff. The best way to get a seasonal head start is by starting everything indoors.

As stated in a few other posts, I live in Northeast Ohio (NEO for short. Yes, we are the one), which often comes with harsh winters. While last winter was fairly mild due to both global warming and El Nino (you can doubt one but you can't doubt both), it still had its own fashions of brutality. For instance, while all last week was quite warm--50s, lower 60s--Sunday, the first official day of spring, it snowed. Like... what? Complete and total ridicurusness! Just ridicurus! That makes it hard to predict if we'll have a killing frost to wipe out even some of my most cold-hardy crops, or if I can start throwing stuff like lettuce and broccoli out in the garden now. On top of that, I still have a ton of garden prep to do before the garden is suitable for plants. While I do that, I grow everything inside to give my plants a jump start.

"Well, that sounds simple," one might say. Sure, if you're not a first-time grower and have your very own grow room with thousand dollar lights, a wind machine and the whole shi-bang! But if you don't have that, or are a novice, it can start simple and get daunting really quickly. Having already put out the seed-starting post a week ago, I will now let you know what you need/should have before you begin transplanting those little germinated seedlings. Again, this is a companion post to the seed-starting post from a week ago. If you haven't read that, you can click on the #SeedStarting button in the title above.

To start, determine where in your house you can and will grow. A great deal will be determined by things that may be out of your control like light fixtures or plugs, temperature and human traffic. Other factors, such as how long you'll keep your plants inside will also weigh heavily on this decision and weather. For beginners that may seem like a lot and it kinda is, but once you get into a rhythm of things, it really isn't.

"God, your post are always filled with such dross and drivel. Just tell me what I wanna know!" Well, excuse me, angry reader, for trying to have a little playful banter before I start things. But I guess since you don't like all the foreplay, I'll get right to it.

The most important thing you'll need in growing inside is a light source. No, your windowsill won't do... yet. For one, while we've already done daylight savings, the earth doesn't know that. Days remain shorter than they will be in April and May, meaning that the seedlings which require copious amounts of UVs to grow large and healthy won't get as much as they should, especially through the glass pane of the window. Instead, what you'll need is a fluorescent light. It doesn't have to be a high-powered halogen, just a normal store fluorescent that you can buy at any home improvement store. I would suggest getting the longer ones as they will be better able to "feed" a large swath of plants. If you'd rather not mess with any electricity in your house, you can also just buy a separate light fixture or a lamp under which to concentrate the plants, such as this:

Excuse the dustiness. 

The above is a blacklight solo light uh... thingy (this came from Spencer's Gifts). The proper name escapes me but you get the gist. This can be easily screwed into the wall or stood on something and mad to shine down upon plants (just replace the bulb with a normal fluorescent). Get two of them, plug them in somewhere that will receive minimal traffic and you have yourself your very own grow room of sorts. Personally, I have a half-finished basement with a small room we use for the gym. In there, I have a long fluorescent light that's about two feet long, double-wide with two u-shaped bulbs. This gives me about 3 feet by 2 feet of space. You'll want about the same. Search google for fluorescent light bar plug-ins. Eon does have them I believe. You can also find them at Wal-Mart or home improvement stores. An easy way to do this is to get a cardboard box, buy one of those light housings and attach the light to the inside of the box like this:

Same light housing with the light pointed down; Replace black light with normal fluorescent and you're good.

I didn't fully attach it, but you get the idea. Also, if you got a regular lamp, you'll want to get at least two and be able to have them get close to the plants. No standing lamps that tower three feet over the seedlings. I cannot stress closeness enough. For me, though my lights are in the basement ceiling, during the seed-starting season I place all of my starts on top of my free-standing kick-bag, raising them to within an inch of the light--yeah, you want it that close.

Next, figure out the traffic situation. As the seedlings get bigger, they'll have few factors inhibiting superfluous growth, meaning they'll actually need stuff like a little wind and harsher conditions to toughen them. But when under an inch tall, they don't need any contact and do well in minimum traffic. That means no running or rough-housing near them. It also means no wildly varying temperatures from day to day. While your laundry room may have a fluorescent light already in it and you can manage to get a ladder up so that the seeds will sit close to the naked bulbs (undo the covering over the bulbs if you can), that still may not be a good place if you do laundry at a high frequency. Just make sure that when you do go to wash and dry your clothes you remove your plants for those hours.

Then there's growing medium. Here's where it gets tricky. As a beginner, I just threw seeds out into the dirt--and I do mean dirt--outside. I added one layer of store-bought soil and then willed stuff to grow. While I got a few lettuces and peas (the two easiest things to grow), I didn't get much else. Foolishly, when I decided to start stuff inside the next year I figured I'd grab some of that semi-dirt/soil mixture (it's all soil now, outside of the clay barriers) and throw it in a pot. Bad mistake. For one, you bring in any and all pests living in your soil, which can wreak havoc on seedlings. Also, the stuff is too heavy for growing inside. You'll understand why later.

Ideal growing medium is light and fluffy, ie. potting soil. But not just potting soil, you preferably want a seed-starting mix created for the specific purpose of germinating and nurturing seedlings. I use this:

They say specially formulated I think so they can get more money. It's only $5.00, though.

Yes, I know, it's Miracle-gro, but from what I've read it doesn't contain many, if any chemicals. It's mostly a shredded wood pulp/peat moss mixture. You can also use finished vermicompost, sand (though, only certain seedlings will do good with a pure sand mix), or sawdust. What you want is something that will retain water, but not be too wet. It needs to let water drain but it shouldn't be too rich in nutrients. Note: While I tend to use seed-starting mix for most things, I do have a few caveats for certain plants like carrots and onions which I will discuss in another post.

The second most important thing you'll want to figure out is what to grow in (and you thought the traffic was 2nd most important, or that I'd detail the first thing being the light, then never mention a second thing). While you can get away with so-so traffic and the plants can even survive an imperfect growing medium, both of those things depend heavily on the growing container. That's when these come in.

I am a big "Green" baby--erm, well... technically, I'm black but you get the idea. Any chance I can use to not only reduce, reuse, recycle but also help the environment and grow something, I probably will take. With that said, I still have fallen into certain dining habits. Two of them that are most prevalent in my home are: drinking bottled water and eating pudding/jello/fruit cups. Don't jump on me eco-warriors, I usually drink from the gallon water bottles, but we occasionally buy the single Aquafinas as you will see throughout the blog. Anything that isn't used during the growing season in some way gets recycled, and even after the growing season, I'll still rinse or watch everything out and recycle it. I'd also like to note here that while peat pots are nice, they don't provide as much stability when growing inside as you might think (also, they can be expensive). Same goes for homemade newspaper pots. While those are good for later in the season when you are two weeks away from planting, anything you have in there for longer than three weeks will turn into a mess. Trust me! So, any plastic container coming into your house has potential as a growing container and pudding cups or cut Aquafina bottles work best. Let me show you how I prepare them.


Step one.
Wash them thoroughly. This goes for anything that you will be touching the seedlings to or with, including your own hands and any tools. You don't want to transfer any potential bacteria that could threaten them. I use a mixture of dish soap and two drops of bleach to clean any sweet gunk left over from the pudding/jello/fruit cups; water bottles shouldn't need washing unless you put something else in them after drinking the water.

Step two.
Let them dry out, or dry them out with a clean paper towel or rag. I usually let them air dry over the course of a few days, but feel free to pat or wipe them dry so long as they remain sterile.

See, the rungs? Count up four from the bottom. 

Step three.
Now, if you are doing this project with someone young like a child who hasn't handled sharp, non-safety scissors often or ever, you'll want to do this part for them as this can be dangerous. With a clean pair of sharp scissors (or a knife), you will want to pierce the bottoms of all the containers. Place the sharp points of the scissors down into the cup, open them as wide as they will go, then pierce the bottom.

To pierce, hold the sides, making sure your fingers are nowhere near the bottom, and you can either try pulling the scissors through the bottom, or put the container on the floor, place something soft but unimportant (a layer of Styrofoam is good; stack of paper works too) underneath then jam the scissors in. The plastic for most of these cups shouldn't be that hard and should pierce easily.

And there you have it, a growing cup ready for your seeds. I should point out here that if you are using Aquafina bottles, you'll have to cut them in half, too. For that, you jam a pair of scissor into the center first. I recommend puncturing the bottle either at the bottom of the label or count up four grooves from the bottom of the bottle. Then you can follow through with piercing the bottoms. As a rule, I want them somewhere between 2 and 3 inches tall. This will save on soil requirements later. You want two cups per every one plant you plan to have. For instance, if you plan on planting 5 broccoli plants, you want to have ten cups and germinate ten seeds. While that may seem like a lot, remember that you can always watch, disinfect and reuse them later in the season for when you begin your summer plants. This way, you can assure that you plant each vegetable one per container, which will eliminate the need for thinning out layer. Also, planting all ten plants will ensure that you have a selection of the strongest plants when you get ready to plant outside. Another note: The only vegetables I don't recommend doing this for are carrots.

But we're not done yet. The final important thing is to have a container for the containers. Those holes you cut in the cup bottoms are for drainage, but also for absorption. During the early growing stages, seedlings are prone to dampening off and/or being washed away, neither of which you desire. Dampening off is a symptom of a seedling that has been watered too heavily. Yes, new plants enjoy being wet and constantly thirst for water, but leaving them growing in a pool of soggy soil will kill them. They'll start to droop and eventually die, leaving mold spores behind. For this reason, we don't like to water from above as the water could not only stick to their leaves or make the soil too wet, but it could also wash them away, or make the soil bubble over top of the leaves, leaving you with a plant that wanted to live but died because of lack of light.

We want to water from beneath. Again, plastic containers come in handy here:

Above, I have the lid of a long unused water softener from a previous house. What is of note is its current utility. I washed and sterilized it just as I did the cups. I also let this air dry. Once I start planting things, I put the cups into the center of the circular reservoir and can pour water around the edges. The seed-starting mixture I'm using will wick the water up from the bottom, keeping the soil just wet enough for the seedlings to stay hydrated, while not washing them out. For your own purposes, what container you use will depend highly on how many plants you seek to grow. However, I would recommend the plastic containers that salads or chopped mushrooms from the store come inside--again, reusing and recycling. You can use a paint tray, too, so long as it hasn't been used for paint. Anything is acceptable here so long as it is sterilized, sanitized, can hold water and will not sit too high above the plants. If it sits six inches above the cups, then it could block the lights out or it could restrict air flow, both unacceptable. As far as watering goes, I'll talk to you about that in the post when we start transplanting from paper towels and plastic bags into these homemade pots. See you then!

Ignore the tomato plants, the secondary plastic container was a plastic salad container from the grocery store.

What do you think? Was that an unnecessarily long post? Did you find it informative? Are you a beginning gardener or an advanced gardener? If advanced, what tricks do you use? There are reasons why I do things the way I do them, but I couldn't smash everything into one post, just know that all questions will be answered sooner or later. As far as anything you might wanna say about this post, let me know in the comments below (hint: click the no comments button if you see no comments).

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Until next time, "If you can't reduce your waste, then reuse and recycle it. Do the world a favor"
The More You Know!

P.S. Ha! NBC. So preachy yet so informative. I can't believe they still do those "The More You Know" psuedo-PSAs. I just saw one about bullying. Good job for them.

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