Monday, May 8, 2017

So you think you can…garden.

It has been almost two years since I have started seeds with intent.  The idea of how to plant something is simple, take a seed, stick it in some moist soil and it grows.  I’m an Advanced Master Gardener, I’ve got this.  Or perhaps not.

I HATE having to thin, it is needless murder to me, but a second seed germinated after I transplanted the first one and two cannot live here and the plants are too entwined to separate.

This year I pulled out the seed trays, mixed up my medium and happily planted away and waited with great expectation.  I waited a long time.  The first things I start are my onions and brassicas as they are cool season crops.  Of the 300 or so onion seeds I started, zero came up.  Nada, not one single thing.  I was surprised.  So I tried again…. Same result.  A great deal of my seeds had zero germination this spring.  I want to cry.  The above picture pretty much shows how my heart felt this spring looking at my empty seed trays.

Ok, after getting over the wanting to cry bit, well, I still want to cry but it isn’t going to help anything so I’ll just have to cry inside while I try to figure out the problem.  I believe there are several issues that could all possibly affect my germination rate which at the moment if I were to roughly guestimate is around 25%.  That means for every 4 seeds I planted; only one came up.

1. My seed is 2 years older than the last time I planted in 2015 when I had good germination. Two years is a long time for some seeds.  Onions (and lettuce) in particular have a rather short shelf life with the suggestion to buy new seed annually.  Two of my onion varieties were over 4 years old, one was saved seed that was 3 years old and one was a year old.  Solution: buy new seed for varieties that are known to be short lived. Still, I feel I should have had something come up rather than absolutely nothing especially with the year old seed so this was not the only problem.

2. My starting medium was too compacted.  I mix up my medium with water and press it into my seed tray, then put the seeds in and often press more on top to make sure the seed has good contact with the soil.  Several of the seeds that did germinate had roots that went sideways rather than down which told me that the soil bed they were on was too hard for them to grow into.  Solution:  make sure that the medium is not too compacted when putting it into the seed tray.  In subsequent seedings, I did not press down on the soil to get it into the tray but rather smoothed it across the opening so it filled up but did not get squished.   When I put soil over the seeds, I sprinkled it and let the water mist settle it in.

Pulling out the medium and starting over again.  I fluffed it up and put it back in.
The cup holds the tags to all the varieties that failed to germinate that I am trying again.

3. My medium was too wet.  After a second particularly spectacular fail in germination, I cleared out a seed tray and found the soil to be almost dripping wet.  The seed had drowned.  Solution: be more careful with watering and water with the spray bottle rather than a watering can.

Fungi eating my popsicle stick plant tag.  Fungi need water to live and move and it was very happy here.

4. The soil was too cold or too warm.  My basement, where the garden center is located, is 65 degrees which is a bit too cold for most seeds which prefer an average of 70 degrees.  Combined with too wet soil, I think most of the seed rotted.  I did put one tray containing nightshade seed on a simple heat mat to germinate and still had terrible germination.  My thought is that the combination of too wet and compacted soil negated any benefit the heat may have brought.  I also do not know if the heat mat gets too warm and actually cooks the seeds.  Solution:  bring the seed trays upstairs to germinate where it is a bit warmer and the trays can be in front of a window.  Also, I may need to do an experiment to see how warm the heat mat makes the soil and determine if it is a benefit or detriment.

My chilly basement isn’t conducive to enthusiastic growth.  

5. Patience.  I often would start seeds and become worried or impatient if several days later there was no sign of life.  Some plant seeds take up to a month to germinate.  Peppers can take 14 days to germinate.  Going through my seed tray (this was the third time I had started seed) I checked a row planted with peppers which looked empty.  Upon closer inspection I saw the beginning of stems starting to curl up out of the soil.  On day 13, I saw almost nothing, day 14 showed the tips of green coming up.

I have started some seed three times now with no germination.  We are late enough in the season that is does not make sense to keep trying for plants that need 6 to 8 weeks of growth before being planted out after last frost which for us is in one week.  For my onions, we ended up buying sets from various box stores in our area.  While I wasn’t impressed with the bulbs or the green sets, it will hopefully get us a few onions this summer for making salsa.

Along with issues getting seed to simply germinate, I haven’t been happy with the growth of the plants that did germinate either.  They just seemed to sit there and not grow despite being under the LED lights in 2” paper pots.  While discussing this with my Dear Friend during our weekly phone call, the thought occurred to me that they were too cold.  In the past the fluorescent grow lights gave off some heat which offset the cold in the basement.  The LEDs are very cool as they use very little electricity.  The temperature is about 65 degrees or maybe a bit cooler depending on if we have the heat on.  My poor babies are shivering.

We have done two things in response.  First we are trying to put the flats of seedlings out in the greenhouse as soon as it warms up enough.  If the sun is out, it will be warm by late morning and we’ll trek all the flats out and open a window or two for ventilation.  This has been helping this last week as the sun has come back despite the below average daily temperature.   We are about 10 to 20 degrees shy of average and I can feel it. In early evening I will close up the greenhouse to preserve as much heat as possible before the sun goes down.  Once the greenhouse temps drop to around 65ish, we march all the trays back in.

Sir T and I usually make it a two person job.  He takes the trays off the light rack and hands them out the door to me and I take them to the greenhouse and water them.  I have found or have been given some large plastic cafeteria trays that work wonderfully.  The black trays work ok for the little 2” pots but can’t handle the heavier 4” pots and you have to support them with both hands or it will twist and either break or dump out the contents.  These large trays are sturdy enough to be held with one hand while fiddling with a door handle or the greenhouse flap.  In the evening we reverse the process.  It does take time but I believe it is worth it.  Perhaps if we are able to have a more elaborate greenhouse that holds heat over the night time, we won’t have to do this.  Until then, we trek them in and out.  It is a good way to make you look at all your plants and gauge growth or issues from day to day.

On days that the sun isn’t out and temps are in the 40s and 50s, we leave them inside under the LED lights but have also added a heater with a thermostat plugged into the same power strip that the lights are on which is on a timer.  It is now a nice toasty 72 degrees next to the plant rack.  I have already noticed a bit of improvement in the peppers which are starting to put out a second set of true leaves.

Starting to look like something good is happening

One positive thing that we planned to do from the beginning was to pot up plants that had an extended indoor stay a second time.  I usually start my seeds in a seed tray and from there pot them up to 2” paper pots which are larger than the typical 4 or 6 cell tray that you would purchase from a store.  However, since my plants are not being fed via “blue water”, they are relying on the nutrients in the soil to create a healthy root system.   That requires more space.  Now the plants are moving from a 2” paper pot to 4” plastic pots in a mixture of 1/3 compost to 2/3 organic potting mix.  I have been very happy with the root system that had developed on the plants that have been planted out to the garden.

My cauliflower has lovely roots in its 2” paper pot.  Time for a new home!  3/24

Lovely roots on this purple cabbage that we planted outside on  4/14.

Planting out the purple cauliflower (4/25) with a beautiful root system

In the end I have to remind myself that I need to remember what I tell people in my gardening class, “You will never know everything and you will fail many times, that’s ok.  You will get better as you learn.”   Learning is so important and here is my opportunity to fail, figure it out and learn what to do better next time.  All is not lost.  I have a full greenhouse!

I think I need a bigger greenhouse, imagine how full it would be if everything had germinated!

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