Red Wicket Market Farm is a small farm 25 minutes from downtown Columbus, Ohio, near Slate Run Metropark. Breeding Black Copper and Blue Copper Marans to the Standard of Perfection.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Seedlings Need a Little Space

Most of the seeds that I planted two weeks ago have germinated. They are a couple of inches tall, and have two true leaves. It's time for them to get their own space.

This week I "pricked out" my seedlings--took them from the seed flats and put individual plants into individual pots. You do this when they have two true leaves (the first leaves that come up are called cotyledons or "seed leaves") and before they get so big and crowded that the roots are growing together. 

The first thing to do is make some potting soil. I still have some of the 1:1:1 peat:vermiculite:perlite seed starting medium that I used to start the seeds, and I made a lot of it because I knew I could turn it into potting soil later.  All that you really have to do is put something in there with some nutrients. Seedlings don't need any nutrients until after they have their first true leaves, but after that, they need some food to grow.

The easiest way to add some nutrients is through compost. To make potting soil from your 1:1:1 seed starting medium, just add about 1/3 amount of compost and a little water to the seed starting medium and mix it in. Then check the compost by squeezing some in your hand. If it's very heavy and waterlogged, add more perlite and/or vermiculite until it's the texture you like. 

You can buy compost, or use some that you've made yourself. I tend to buy mine--either mushroom compost or composted cow manure. I know that seems strange, since I have chickens and HUGE compost piles out behind the barn but it's because of pure laziness--no, I mean pragmatism! This time of year my compost piles are cold and wet and frozen, and it's almost impossible to turn them to get to the good stuff at the bottom of the pile. Also, I'm a lazy composter, too, and I just throw things into a pile and maybe turn the pile twice a year. This works great for established plants and putting on gardens and flower beds, but this "cold composting" method isn't so great for potting mix. Unless you do "hot composting" you will not kill pathogens during the composting process, so you'll have to pasteurize your compost in the oven. Or, like me, you could pay $3.99 for a lovely bag of already finished compost, which should already have been sterilized.

Once you have the soil ready, it's time to fill your seed flats. I buy 72-cell flats (the kind people usually start seeds in) and try to treat them kindly in order to use them year after year. Unfortunately, they aren't very sturdy and I often have to buy new ones. You'll also need something to scoop seedlings out of the trays (Mike made me an awesome dibble, but you can use a small fork). Some gardening gloves are nice, too.

Fill those cells almost full, and make sure you push the soil down into the cells so you don't have big voids or air spaces. Gather your seedlings, and get ready to do some plant surgery! 

Always make a hole in your seed cell first, before you get a seedling ready to go into it. Use a dibble or a stick or a pencil, whatever you'd like, to make a large hole in the center of the cell. Make it as big as you can, especially for tomatoes that like to be planted deep. 

Once you have a hole ready for a plant, use your fork or whatever tool you like to scoop some seedlings out of the seed tray. Work from a corner edge into the middle. If you can get just one, perfect. If, like me, you sowed them a bit thickly, you'll get a couple of seedlings. Put the chunk of soil with the seedlings down on your work surface. 

Now it's time to tease your seedlings apart. Pick your first victim--the nicest seedling, and one that has some room between it and the others, hopefully--and hold it by the cotyledon, not a true leaf and never by the stem! You'll know you have the right leaf because seed leaves look different from true leaves. 

Holding your seed leaf in one hand, use your dibble to carefully separate the roots of your chosen seedling from the ball of soil. Try to disturb the roots as little as possible and keep some soil around them if you can. Lift the seedling with your fork under the roots to keep the root ball together and steady it with the seed leaf to move it to the cell tray. Then put the seedling into the hole you've made in the cell, pushing it in and packing the soil around it. This is a two-handed process, so I don't have any photos, sorry! That's it, your seedling has a new home. 

For tomatoes, put the seedling into the hole as deeply as possible, so that just the leaves show above the surface. Planting tomatoes deep like this will encourage roots to develop along the buried stem. ONLY DO THIS FOR TOMATOES. If you try to bury peppers or flowers like this, they will die.  

Only plant the strongest and nicest seedlings, and seedlings that don't get too badly beaten up during the pricking out process. Sometimes the root ball just falls apart, or two seedlings are too intertwined to get apart, or a seedling just isn't growing well. Those seedlings should be discarded, rather than trying to put them into your cell packs where they probably won't do very well anyway.

Finish up your tray. When you're done, the whole thing will look a bit sad, since plants don't like to have their roosts disturbed. Put them back under the lights, and in a few days they'll look fine again. 

Of course, you'll want to know which seed is which. You can either use seed markers, or do what I do and make a key. This is a grid that shows me what seedlings are where. I number my flats with pencil or write a number on a piece of masking tape, and then use grid paper to write which seedling ended up where. 

 Time to get these seedling back under the warm light. They will grow in these cells until their roots start to be restricted, and then I'll transplant them again into one more pot before I move them outside. Happy gardening!