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Lorraine's Garden, Issue #007 -- Starting Seeds Under Lights
February 07, 2014

February 2014 Issue 7

In this issue:

1) Seed Starting Under Lights
2) Don't Spare the Weaklings
3) Homemade Potting Mix

Starting Seeds Under Lights

Well, the days are getting longer and many of us are getting antsy to start growing things again. (Sigh…) But it’s -4°F outside my window this morning, and all the trees are still in their winter sleep! Nevertheless, it’s time to start my slow-growing crops (like peppers and parsley) indoors, which is so much fun this time of year! The delight of starting seeds indoors in February is such a welcome relief from the dreariness of a long winter.

Here are some tips to help assure your indoor seed-starting success:

1) Don’t start things too early, or they will be spindly and root-bound by the time you transplant them out. This will translate into a lower yield than if you had just waited to direct-seed them outdoors! This sort of defeats the purpose of starting them indoors in the first place. Use the free Seed Starting Chart to figure out the ideal time to start different crops based on your last spring frost date.

2) Use the correct-sized pot for crop you’re starting. This takes a couple of seasons to get the hang of, but I generally use my smaller-sized seed-starting trays for lettuces, greens and other crops that get transplanted out early and when still small. I use larger-celled seed starting trays for the crops that will be growing indoors the longest, like peppers and tomatoes.

Peppers do not like having their roots disturbed, and will be set back for the entire season if their roots get damaged when you transplant them out. If they’re in too small a pot, the roots will reach the edge of the pot and begin to circle round. These rootbound seedlings never fully recover, because they aren’t able to enlarge out enough to a create a wide-reaching root zone. On the other hand, if they are in too large a pot, when you go to transplant them out the potting mix won’t hold together when removed from the pot, and the chunks that fall away will take fine root hairs with them. These little root hairs are too small for you to see, but they are critical to the health of the plant and peppers never quite recover from this, either. It’s best to transplant peppers out when their roots are just reaching the sides of the pot, and then to transplant them out very, very carefully to prevent root damage.

This is the ideal way to grow and transplant any crop, it’s just that peppers seem to be the most sensitive to this.

If your frost date looks like it’s going to be a bit late and your plants’ roots are getting to the edge of their pots before you can transplant them out, pot them up into bigger cells so they don’t get root bound.

3) Use ordinary cheap fluorescent shop lights. These work fine because plants utilize mostly blue and red wavelength light, which ordinary shop lights provide enough of.

For more tips and advice visit Starting Seeds Indoors.

Don’t Spare the Weaklings

I am a very tender-hearted and appreciative person, and when I very first started gardening the hardest thing for me was “culling the weak”. I was so appreciative of the miracle of life growing out of a tiny seed that I would try to find a place for every little seedling that germinated, nurturing every effort at life. Over the years I have learned that this does not make for a strong, healthy, pest-resistant garden, and it most certainly does not do an heirloom plant variety any favors. Just as wolves are necessary to keep the Yellowstone elk population healthy and strong, it is a necessary part of a gardener’s job to promote the strongest and healthiest crops for the benefit of the larger ecosystem and future generations.

In the summer of 2001 I lived with Native American elder Grandma Bertha on the Southern Ute Reservation. She was a medicine woman with a strong intuitive connection to the plant world, and she taught me many things -- manners and respect mostly. She once said “Plants know their place. They know their role as food and medicine. Just be respectful.”

Keep only your strongest, most vigorous, large, earliest-germinating seedlings. Don’t pull the weak ones out by the roots or you will damage the root hairs of the ones growing next to them, but rather, just clip them off at the base with little scissors. Put them in the compost if you like so that their efforts at life can continue to contribute to the good of the whole, but don’t let them grow and don’t feel bad about “offing” them.

Homemade Potting Mix

There are a few good organic potting mixes on the market, but they are expensive. The majority of what you find at the big box stores like Home Depot are not organically-approved, and most are made of some industry’s waste ingredients, such as feedlot manures, lumbermill wood chip waste and even dried sewage sludge. What’s wrong with that?

Animals in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are fed many things that you don’t want in your garden, including steroid hormones, antibiotics, and glyphosate-containing GMO grain. And sewage sludge, even if sterile, contains birth-control pill hormones, chemotherapy poisons, and all manner of other human pharmaceuticals. If you must buy potting mix, avoid the big box stores and try to find organically-approved (OMRI listed) brands such as Dr. Earth, Happy Frog or Espoma.

Even better, make your own. The simplest recipe is: one part good garden soil and one part good homemade compost. Another good ingredient -- if you can afford it and have no objection to its non-renewable nature -- is peat moss. Because of its texture, peat moss is excellent for providing some air and water space. You only need about 5% peat moss in the mix to provide this added structure.

Happy Gardening!


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