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 10, 2013

Time to Get Growing

This lettuce seedling is growing in a pot on my windowsill
It's the beginning of March, so no matter what the weather outside, it's time to start seeds inside. Last week I cleaned the sweet potatoes off my indoor greenhouse shelves, cleaned the lights, checked the heater, made lists of what should be planted when, and waited for the new seeds to come in the mail. This week, it was time to put the seeds in the dirt.

If you're only putting out a few plants, then it's much easier and probably less expensive to head down to your local garden center. If you choose a reputable greenhouse, you'll find disease-free plants that are well-grown but not leggy, and have been well taken care of. This is not always the case at your local big-box store, so my recommendation is to stay away from those plants placed seductively by the store entrance. A few years ago, for instance, Bonnie brand tomatoes carried a tomato blight that wiped out tomato crops in the Northeast. You're far better off buying plants that have been grown locally. Near Columbus, my favorite greenhouse is Dill's Greenhouse, which is on US Rt. 33 just north of the Canal Winchester exit, only 20 minutes from downtown. I love Dill's because they grow almost all of their own plants, and they have a huge selection. Last year they carried over 30 varieties of tomato plants, including many heirloom varieties. Even though I start the majority of my own seeds, I always head over to Dill's to pick one or two new tomato varieties to try every year.

When you set out as many plants as I do, however, it makes sense to start your own from seeds. You should also start your own from seed if there's a variety that you must have but isn't carried by the greenhouse. Most seeds can either be sown directly into the garden or should be planted inside only a few weeks or so before they're set out in the garden, but some plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants have a long growing season and should be started indoors well before the last frost of the year.

Mike made my greenhouse for me right after we were first married, and it's stood the test of time. It's a fairly simple design, with two slatted shelves (to allow heat to circulate) that can be moved up and down via a peg and hole system. There is a small space heater in the bottom, lights over each shelf, and the whole thing is shrouded in clear plastic shower curtains to keep the heat in. There are screws at intervals along the top that the grommets of the shower curtain hangs on, so it can be buttoned closed. The top is covered by a thick piece of Styrofoam that keeps the heat in well but can be lifted if the greenhouse needs ventilation. There are small hooks for three fluorescent shop lights to hang side-by-side above each shelf (there are only two above each shelf right now). The lights hang on chains, so they can be easily raised and lowered.

Homemade indoor greenhouse

Detail of how the shower curtain is attached

Once I had my shelves cleaned off and the lights and heater put in place, it was time to mix up the soil! Commercial seed-starting medium is fine, but it can get expensive and I use great quantities so I prefer to mix up my own. My recipe is simple:

  • 1 part vermiculite
  • 1 part pearlite
  • 1 part peat moss

Of course, this 1:1:1 mix makes it really easy to mix up as little or as much as you need. I mixed up about 1/4 of a muck bucketful, because the nice thing about this seed starting mixture is that if I make too much, I just need to add a few additional ingredients and it becomes standard potting mix for mature plants and can be used to transplant seedlings to pots later. When working with vermiculite and pearlite, please remember that neither of them is very good for you if inhaled, so be careful and stay upwind.

1:1:1 perlite, vermiculite and peat moss

Once you have your ingredients measured out, it's time to mix! You'll probably have to do your own mixing, but I had an outstanding (and very pink) helper.


After it's all mixed up, add warm water. Warm water will help to warm up the mix, since it's been stored out in the barn all winter. Seeds don't like cold soil! I can't tell you exactly how much water to add, because that will be dependent on what brand of peat moss you have, the temperature, and the humidity. I used about 1/3 of the volume of soil medium. Pour it in a bit at a time, and stir. Then check your moisture level. You want the seed starting medium to be wet enough to hold together after you squeeze it in your hand, but not so wet that you can squeeze water out of it. If it gets too wet, there are only two cures: time, or adding more dry ingredients (always in that 1:1:1 ratio) until it's absorbed the excess water.

Finished seed-starting medium

Now that you have your seed starting medium, it's time to plant some seeds. There are several ways to start seeds. You can buy cell-packs already in their own starting tray from any big-box store, you can purchase soil plugs, either in a tray or not, you can buy little pots made of peat or composted cow manure, and any of these will work. I am not a fan of them, however. The reason that I don't like to start seeds in all of those individual cells is that you should use three seeds per cell, and then thin them down to one seed per cell. I always feel so wasteful of seeds that way. Also, if you get poor germination, you may end up with empty cells despite adding more than one seed, and that's wasteful of space. Lastly, for many plants you'll have to replant them to bigger pots anyway, and since tomatoes have to be planted deep or they'll get leggy, it can be a real problem if you plant them in those tall skinny seed starting cells. Added to all these considerations, I don't like buying all that plastic over and over again every year. For all these reasons, I like to sow my seeds in flat trays and then "prick them out" into individual cells once they have two true leaves.

You can buy seed starting flats, but I was given a whole bunch of foam egg cartons that I have no other use for, and they work pretty well to start seeds. First I cut the lids off the egg cartons, so I can use both halves. Then I poked lots and lots of holes in them using a nail. I did buy some sturdy flat trays (the kind the cell packs usually sit in) to contain the water, and to put my seedlings in once they're moved to individual pots.

Reusing egg cartons as seedling trays

On the day I planted these seeds, I started tomatoes, bell peppers, and eggplants. It's essential to keep all these varieties straight, and the egg cartons make it easy. I just use a Sharpie to write the variety name on the side of the tray. Do that part first, before you fill them with dirt! Fill the tray almost full of potting medium, and firm it down well. Then sprinkle the seeds over the soil. If I only wanted to plant a few of a variety, I used the part of the carton with the indentations for the eggs. If I wanted to sow a bunch of one kind, I used the flat part. If I wanted to sow an intermediate number, I used half of the flat part. Egg carton lids have useful dividers. Just be sure to label each variety!

Once you have the seeds sprinkled over the soil, then sprinkle more soil on top. Be sure to refer to your seed packet to see how much. Peppers, tomatoes and eggplant all want to be covered with 1/4" of soil. After you sprinkle the appropriate amount of soil over the top, firm it down lightly with the flat of your hand.

If you're germinating these on your windowsill, then put a piece of plastic wrap over the top of each tray to keep the moisture in. If the seedlings dry out while they're beginning to grow, they will die, so be sure to check the moisture level every day and add water if necessary. Remember that the seedlings are delicate, so water as gently as possible. I use a mister bottle.

Once all my seeds are planted, I close the plastic around my little greenhouse, turn on the space heater, and add a thermometer to make sure the temperature isn't too high or too low. 75 to 80 degrees is a good temperature for most seeds to germinate. Lettuces and wildflowers like it in the 60's (I just start those on my windowsill in the kitchen) and hot peppers like it 80-85 degrees.

Also, some seeds (especially flower seeds) need light to germinate. One way to know that your seeds need light is to look at how deeply they should be planted. If the seed packet says 1/8" or 1/16", then there's a very good chance that your seeds need light. Peppers, tomatoes and eggplant seeds don't need light, so I'll leave the lights off until I see green (or until I plant some flower seeds) in order to save a little electricity.

Now the waiting begins

Doesn't look like very many plants yet, does it? Just wait, once they've germinated and are pricked out into individual pots, I'll have both shelves completely full of plants. Also, at the time I took this photo, I still had herbs, hot peppers, and flowers to start. I ended up filling the top shelf 3/4 full.

Now the waiting begins. I'll let you know next week if anything grew!