Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Seedlings: Day 18


First off, I should quit trying to predict what my next entry will be. So far this season, I've been pretty awful about predicting what's coming next.

Second, a camera malfunction (or possibly a child malfunction) caused me to lose all the pictures from the day I thinned the seedlings. So we'll have to do with this picture instead, which shows the pots after I thinned them. Anyway, here's one good thing: the blog is now caught up with the tomatoes. I took these pictures on Wednesday, Sept. 29, showing the seedlings on Day 18.

As you can see, I'm down to 2-3 seedlings in each pot, except for the peppers (those spiky little guys in the foreground). The cucumbers germinated in one day, the tomatoes in 2-4 days, and the peppers took about 10 days. That's pretty normal for peppers, so if you're going to grow peppers from seed, just expect them to take longer to germinate. No big deal.

This season has gotten off to an interesting start. For one thing, this is the first season I've grown Brandywines, and the variety I'm growing are known as potato-leaved tomatoes. this means they don't have the "regular" serrated tomato leaf. Instead, they have a oval leaf with smooth margins. There's no real difference in how you grow potato-leaved tomatoes, but they certainly look different.

Also, my seedlings this year are not as robust as in past years. I suspect one of three things: my lights are older and need to be replaced (fluorescent grow lights lose potency surprisingly fast); the 1/2 & 1/2 worm casting and peat-based soil is too "rich" for the tender seedlings; or I'm growing varieties that are just obnoxious. Whatever the cause, to help them along, I've already started hardening off the seedlings.

Hardening off is the process of transitioning your seedlings from the protected, perfect environment inside your house to the big, bad outdoor world. All indoor seedlings should be hardened off before they are permanently moved outdoors. I started this process a little earlier than I might have, but I think it'll be okay. To harden off seedlings, move them outside for a portion of each day. Pick a sunny, protected spot. At first, the seedlings will only be able to handle two or three hours of direct sun. But they will acclimate fast, and within a few days, you should be keeping them outside in full sun pretty much all day. During the hardening off period, move them inside if it's windy or raining, and don't leave them outside at night. Also remember, they will use up a lot more water outside, especially on sunny days. So check them frequently and keep the potting media moist.

So far, I haven't staked up any seedlings, but I can already tell I'm going to have to. This isn't a big deal—I usually have to stake up seedlings. I use the long bamboo skewers you buy in the grocery store. I'll post pictures when I get that far.

I don't know why exactly, but I feel like this season is a little touch-and-go so far, which is weird this early on. I've been growing seedlings for years, so I was surprised to experience yellowing leaves and stretching. It just goes to show ... there's a delicate balance involved in starting from seed, and even after you're pretty good at it, there is always the possibility of the unknown. Living things sometimes refuse to cooperate.

Up Next: Just kidding!

Seedlings: Day 8

These are tomato seedlings at Day 8 ... At this point, they're about 1.5 inches tall and the pots are almost ready to be thinned. Right now, it's basically impossible to tell one variety from another—this photo happens to show Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, and Heinz tomatoes. But even though they all look the same, I've already started to notice some differences with these heirloom tomatoes ...

The Brandywines and to a lesser extent the Cherokee Purples are stretching on me more than I'm accustomed to. Stretching is when young seedlings grow too fast. They become elongated and top heavy, with a weak stem. It's usually caused by insufficient light, either because the sunlight is too weak or the lights are too far away. To remedy this stretching, I moved the lights closer to the plants, but I've started to see a little burning on the emergent leaves. So it seems to be a toss-up.

At this point, I'm watering every day, but I'm bottom watering the little pots so they can soak up what they need. I haven't started fertilizing yet because the soil mixture is enhanced with worm castings (which are a very weak nitrogen fertilizer), so too much fertilizer at this point can easily burn the plants. Later on, I'll be feeding heavily, but when they're seedlings, a tiny bit of food goes a long way.

These pots are almost ready to thin—at around Day 11 or so, I cut out the weak and small seedlings to leave only two or three in each pot. I'll further cut those out to leave only one in each pot. You want to strongest, thickest, biggest seedlings for your transplants. I'm expecting to get my plants outside in the second or possibly third week of October, but a lot of it depends on their size and vigor.

While they're growing, the days are pretty routine, and there really isn't much involved. It's hard to believe this little tray of seedlings will soon grow into a monstrous backyard garden, but that's the great thing about starting from seed. You get an package of seeds and violá! A few months later, you're elbow deep in vegetables.

For everyone out there whose planning on using store-bought transplants (which is most people, I'm guessing), still hold off. As I'm writing, we're looking at 4" to 8" of rain TODAY (thanks, tropics), so obviously this is not the kind of weather that young tomato plants can withstand. It'll kill 'em in an afternoon. Also, while I'm doing the seedling thing, I'll pull together a blog post on buying tomato plants, with some pointers on how to pick the best plants and what varieties work best.

As a final note, I'm still deeply impressed with the cucumber seedlings. I don't have a picture of them, but wow, these things are really taking off ... I'm liking the cucumbers.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Day 1—Holy Cukes, Batman!

I've never grown cucumber from seed, but I was still shocked to see that the cucumbers germinated in one night. It seemed the little shoots popped up almost immediately upon planting them, which is good news for those of us with short attention spans. The picture here shows them at three days old.

The tomatoes all followed over the next 2-3 days. This might seem fast, but tomato seeds are actually pretty eager to germinate providing you give them two essential conditions: moisture and heat. Tomatoes germinate best when they're held at around 80ºF. Since I'm using Jiffy pots, I water from the bottom and just let the pots soak up water as needed (just don't let the pots sit in water—provide only as much as they can soak up).

Peppers take bit longer to germinate, up to 10 days or even two weeks. So while I've got beautiful cucumber seedlings after a week and clusters of tomato seedlings, not one pepper has poked its little head up yet. At this point, I'm still watering with plain water—there's no reason to feed these seedlings until the first true leaves have started to emerge.

I've often said this the hardest part—the seedlings—and I stick by it. Seedlings need tons of light, but not too much or they'll burn up. They need constant, plentiful moisture, but not too much or they'll suffer from a fatal condition called damping off. They appreciate a tiny bit of fertilizer—worm castings, diluted fish emulsion fertilizer when the true leaves begin to emerge—but most full-strength fertilizers will burn them up. They do best when protected and coddled a bit, which means keeping them away from wind and busy little hands.

But it's also completely worth it, in my opinion. I'm growing Brandywine and Cherokee Purples this year, which I can ONLY do from seed. And there's something very satisfying about taking care of a tiny sprout—it's the kind of thing that makes you pay attention because there really isn't much margin for error.

One final note: Don't worry if you haven't started seedlings yet, or you're just starting them now. You have PLENTY of time this season, and even starting now, your plants will still be in the ground relatively early. In fact, you still have time to do two full crops. And if you're planning on buying transplants from a garden center, wait a bit longer. With 90ºF days and still the threat of heavy rain, it's too early for tomatoes to really thrive outside. Kick back, give it a few weeks, and follow along as my seeds go from tiny to towering.

Up Next: Thinning out Seedlings

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Seedlings Start


I'm sorry I'm a few days behind on posting—work unfortunately intruded. But no fear! The plan has continued apace ...

I hear sometimes that people don't like to start from seedlings—and I get it. Seedlings are by far easier to kill than mature plants, and it requires a few materials and space to really do it well. But I'm still a big fan of starting from seeds. First off, you can grow anything you want (especially if you're growing in containers). You're not limited by the selection at the garden center. Second of all, once you get the hang of it, you'll get much better quality transplants. I'm not trying to knock the professionally grown transplants that you buy at garden centers. I'm sure when they leave the greenhouse, they're in great shape. But let's face it, after they've sat at your local garden center for a few days and started to outgrow their containers and set flowers, it's less than ideal (that's another blog post).

Anyway, back to the point: I planted my seedlings on September 11, or about a week ago. This year, I'm using 1.5" Jiffy pots and a mixture of 1/2 potting soil and 1/2 worm castings (worm poop) to start the seedlings. Worm castings are a very mild fertilizer and I find I get great results with it. I'm starting the seeds indoors under compact fluorescent lights. All the tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers will be from seed (hence the labels in the planted pots).

But Jon, you might ask, what if I don't have lights for seeds? Good question.

First, I'd say if you're serious about growing from seed, I'd recommend buying some. You can grow healthy seedlings under regular fluorescent lights, so you don't need a special grow light set-up. You just position the lights about 4" over the pots and it'll work like a charm. Give 'em 18 hours of light and 6 hours of dark and you'll have healthy transplants inside of a month.

If you don't have lights, you can try using a very sunny window. Truthfully, though, this is a less-than-ideal situation. It's rarely sunny enough, and the seedlings will stretch toward the light, resulting in spindly, weak seedlings.

You can also start seeds outside, but this adds a whole new challenge: birds. I don't know about you, but we have very aggressive doves and pigeons and I've lost too many pots of seeds to mess with them. I've even found lizards digging in my pots (although they were after bugs). So you can try outside, but be prepared to fight wildlife and lose a lot of seeds before they even sprout. Also, remember that seedlings are delicate. Rain and windy conditions can drown them, blow over pots, or otherwise kill them. Remember to move your plants inside if it looks like the weather is going to turn bad.

Up Next: Sprouts!