Henry Homeyer: Staying sane, starting your seedlings

By Henry Homeyer
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Winter is long, and for a gardening guy like me, winter can be oppressive. I keep sane, in part, by starting seeds indoors. I am just now getting ready to start a few plants that need a long head start before they go outside.

Starting plants now means I will have to baby them along for 3 months or so, providing light and water. It’s a chore I like, so it doesn’t feel so much like a chore. For tomatoes and most other veggies, I plant seeds indoors around April 10, and put them outside around June 10. Starting too early stresses most things.

You can’t keep plants happy on a windowsill for 6 to 16 weeks. You will need special indoor lighting and a plant stand of some sort if you do many plants. Fluorescent lights are the standard for home growers. I have purchased four-foot fixtures that hold 2 tubes each. I hang them in an A-frame plant stand I built myself that will accommodate 10 flats of plants and 5 light fixtures.

Soil blocks for stating seedlings are eco-friendly.

I do not use special “Gro-Lights” with the same wave length light as the sun, as they are much more expensive than ordinary. I use a mixture of cool white and warm light tubes, or just cool whites, and that has always worked fine.

Many companies sell plant stands. Some light up just one flat of plants, others two, some several. A flat is a plastic tray that holds 8 or more little six-packs of plants. You need to decide if you want something that fits on a table or countertop, or if you want to get into it big time. Get directions to build your own plant stand on my website ( www.gardening-guy.com) and search for plant stand.

In March, I start my onions, hot peppers, perhaps a few flowers such as lisianthus that need a long time to germinate and get to a good size for planting. I find that starting onions by seed offers me the opportunity to grow varieties that I will not find available as sets. I also have found that by growing my own plants, I get better onions. Hot peppers also take a long time to get to get big, so I like to start them mid-March.

This year I am making a big push NOT to buy anything plastic that is not reusable by me. That means no flimsy six-packs for seeds. I got some heavy duty, reuseable plastic flats from Gardeners Supply last year, and like those a lot. They are also self-watering, which takes off the pressure to track the moisture of every plant every day. They are called the “GroEase” system, with either 24 large cells or 15 extra-large cells per flat.

GroEase system uses hard reusable plastic.

The other way to avoid plastic is to plant in soil blocks. I have a little hand tool that will compact and squeeze out 2-inch cubes of a special planting mix I make. These cubes sit in a plastic flat, but I have plenty of those, and reuse them every year. The tool is sold my Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Fedco Seeds.

Here’s my recipe for the soil blocks: In a wheelbarrow or large plastic storage bin mix 10 quarts dry peat moss, 3 quarts sand and ¼ cup agricultural limestone (powdered, not pelletized is preferred, but either is OK). Mix in ¼ cup of each of these: dried blood, rock phosphate, green sand and granite dust or Azomite (optional). Instead of all those, you could substitute 1 cup organic fertilizer. Then add and mix in: 10 quarts peat humus, 10 quarts fine compost (your own or purchased) and 10 quarts top soil (your own is preferred, but purchased is OK).

Place 4 quarts dry mix in a plastic basin or flat-bottomed container, and add about 1 quart water. Mix until gooey but firm, not watery. Push your soil block tool into the mix, compressing the soil against the bottom of the bin. Then hold the tool over a plastic flat and squeeze the handle, which will push out 4 tidy blocks with a divot for a seed in the middle of each. The 4 cubes just fit across a plastic flat, and 8 rows will fit per flat.

One big advantage the soil blocks have is that they contain all the nutrition a plant needs from seed to planting. Sterile soil mix sold for seedlings runs out of minerals in just a couple of weeks, and one must add fertilizer to the watering mix to keep plants healthy. Many greenhouses water with a dilute fertilizer mix every day. I find soil-block raised plants take off and grow as soon as they get in the ground, as their roots do not get tangled up the way they might in a 6-pack.

A frame plant stand for starting seedlings.

Your seedlings will need a certain amount of light each day  Set your lights on a timer and give them light for 14 hours. But keep the lights near your seedlings – 6 inches above the tops of your plants is good. I hang my lights by lightweight jack chain and raise the lights as my plants get tall.

Don’t let your seedlings wilt due to water insufficiency. Check them daily, and water when they are nearly dry. But you don’t want them soggy all the time, either.

So if you are lamenting our long winter, start some seedlings, and talk to them daily. That might help, too.

Henry is the author of four gardening books and is available to talk to your gardening club or library group. Just e-mail him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeHenry Homeyer's Notes from the Garden

About the Author: Henry Homeyer is a lifetime organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of four gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. You may reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by snail mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish an answer to a question by mail.

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