Four Lessons Learned from Starting Seeds – S3E10

February 19th, 2018 · 33 mins 6 secs

About this Episode

We have hit mid-February!  It is time to get planting seeds for our 2018 garden!  As many of you know, I have been starting seeds in my basement for a few years now.  I learn something new each year, and last year was no different.  Like everything in life, you learn the most from your failures, and I had a couple last year.  I am not afraid to admit it!  In this episode of the Small Scale Life Podcast, I am going to discuss Four Lessons Learned from Starting Seeds in my basement last year.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  I hope you had a great day yesterday and had some fun.

Julie and I went to a winery in Waconia, Minnesota, for some wine and jazz with our good friends.  It was a lot of fun to catch up and enjoy some really good wine and food!  We even made some new friends who just purchased 20 acres north of the winery and are making a really cool place out of the wetlands and woods on their land.

I am taking Tommy Cakes’ advice from last week’s Midweek Motivation: enjoy local events and make real, authentic memories with friends, family and your community.

Update: Developing Your 2018 Garden Plan

In the last show, I discussed Developing a 2018 Garden Plan.  Your garden plan will serve as your foundation for gardening success this year.  I did get some feedback from folks about that show, and I wanted to add two points for narrowing down your “Pie in the Sky Plan” to a feasible, realistic plan:

  • Climate - Consider your climate and what grows there. If you live in Minnesota like me, you do not want oranges, avocados and lemons in your plan if you don’t have special climate controlled facilities to grow them.

  • Actual Layout - To help with planning your garden, it might help to actually plan out where everything will go using a piece of graph paper, wipe board or computer. The key is to get realistic sizes for plants and your garden (to scale).  I will have another post on how to do that in the near future.

  • Those are great suggestions, and I have added them to the show notes from the last episode.

4 Lessons Learned from Seed Starting

I have been starting plants from seed in my basement for a few years now.  I learn something new each year, and last year was no different.  Like everything in life, you learn the most from your failures, and I had a couple last year.  I am not afraid to admit it!  Let's discuss four lessons learned from starting seeds in 2017.

Why start seeds yourself?

I started planting my own seeds in 2014 or so.  Back then, I was buying plants from big box home improvements stores, but I found that I was getting frustrated with the following:

Quality – Plants at the local big box home improvement stores were just not healthy.  Some were wilting or had blight, others were terribly stunted and looked “bad.”  I usually could nurse them back to health but it always took some work to get them growing in the right direction.

Selection – Big box home improvement stores just did not seem to offer a wide enough selection of plants.  Some had a couple of varieties of tomatoes, but I didn’t want to grow that particular type of cherry tomato, big beefsteak tomato or “summer salsa” tomato.  I wanted something a little different.  I found the same applied to peppers as well.  When I started growing my own, I had control and picked the type of plant I wanted to grow.

Cost – The final reason I started growing my own plants from seed was that the cost was simply too high.  Typically, you are paying at least a dollar for each inch of height of seedling, and some of the more mature plants can be six to ten dollars a piece.  If you have a big garden bed or several beds, gardening gets very expensive very quickly!  I had a 12-foot long bed with 16 tomato plants in it, the cost for these 3-inch tall plants could be $48 (plus tax)!

I decided to start growing my own seeds, and I found that the materials to start growing were fairly inexpensive.  I had articles and a podcast about that last year in the following articles:

  • How to Garden Indoors
  • 8 Steps to Starting Seeds Indoors
  • 9 Lessons Learned from Starting Seeds Indoors - Season 2, Episode 6   

4 Lessons Learned from Seed Starting

That said, I am going to need to set up a new growing area since moving to this new house.  Regardless, I need to keep the following four lessons learned from last year in mind as I begin growing plants this year.

1. Label, label, label

Make sure to label everything as you plant seeds and later transplant your seedlings. One of the problems I ran into last year was how I labeled seedlings when I started growing them.  I was trying to be clever with the Potting Soil Challenge by using masking tape on the seed trays.  It worked great initially when I had the grow lights a few inches above the soil, but as time went by and the seedlings grew, I needed to put some kind of marker/label in the seedling cell.  Over the course of growing, I move cells around to check the plants, take off the first leaves and eventually transplant them.  If I take out several of the cells, the cells get mixed up, and I lose track of what is what.  Labels are cheap, so take the time to buy some popsickle sticks or plastic sticks to label each plant.  If you don’t label plants, you garden will be like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: “You’ll never know what you’re gonna get!”

2. Keep a Journal

Life is busy, and as much as we like to THINK we are going to remember details about our growing season, things and life happens. We actually forget what happened!  Keeping a simple journal will help you remember:

  • What worked
  • What didn’t work
  • How you tried to fix problems and/or counteract plants and blight

One thing that I have tried to track is germination rates and growth for different types of seed in the different types of soil (part of the 2017 Potting Soil Challenge).  While my intentions were good, I fell behind last year and eventually abandoned the log.  This was unfortunate because I could not draw solid conclusions from the 2017 Potting Soil Challenge.  I will do a better job this year as part of the 2018 Potting Soil Challenge!

3. Transplant Seedlings Earlier

I traditionally have planted and transplanted seedlings according to the following timeline:

  • Late February – Plant seeds in cells and seed trays
  • Mid-Late April – Transplant seedlings into cups
  • Late May – Transplants seedlings into garden beds

I want to change this timeline this year.  While it has worked out “ok” in the past few years, I find that the seedlings’ roots become tangled messes by mid to late April.  While the seedlings usually survive the transplanting process, I want to see if the seedlings will be healthier and stronger if I transplant them earlier.

The last frost date in Zone 4B is typically around May 10th, and that date defines when I transplant plants into the garden without fear of a killer frost.  I cannot change that date (it is due to climate), but I can change when I start planting seeds in the garden beds.  Because I live in Minnesota, I need to push to get every day that I can for plant growth.  By delaying to late May or early June, I have lost valuable time and produce from my plants.  Getting these plants in the ground might result in a late harvest from some of these plants!

4. Using Coir…Effectively

I used Burpee’s Coir product for the first time last year in the classrooms and with my own seedlings. I had never used it before, and for those of you who have never used it, coir is made from recycled coconut fibers.  It comes in a small brick.  Once you add water to it, the material is ready for your seeds.  It is important to know that coir holds up to 150% of its weight in water and, most importantly, retains that water.

For me, I was used to my traditional methods of growing seedlings: add soil to the seed tray cells or cup, plant the seeds, and water from the bottom.  It never occurred to me that coir was already a saturated medium and would not wick up more water.  In fact, it would start to rot in the cup (anaerobically) if it got too much water!

I realized this because the coir soil began to smell horribly.  Some of the seedlings growth slowed, and some seedlings died because of root rot.

I used coir exclusively with my school outreach in 2017.  The two classes that I worked with last year did not have this problem.  In fact, their plants thrived and did quite well because they watered the plants from the top where I was watering from the bottom.

I am going to try growing more seeds with coir this year and track my results as part of the 2018 Potting Soil Challenge.

Putting It All Together

I have found that planting seeds improves the quality of your plants, provide better selection of plants and is cost effective (especially if you have larger gardens).  Over the years, I have learned a lot of lessons.  Last year, I learned the following:

  • Label everything
  • Keep a journal
  • Transplant seedlings and plants earlier
  • Use coir more effectively

Even if you don’t start your plant from seed this year, you can implement some of these lessons in your own homestead, garden and flower beds.