Despite the stormy conditions, a good-sized crowd gathered in Nancy’s comfortable basement to learn how to start their vegetables from seed. Nancy, an avid vegetable gardener for 20 years, provided scientific information as well as personal advice on how to successfully grow seedlings. Photographs clearly depicted healthy seedlings as well as those exhibiting warning signs of trouble. We learned the basics of what seeds to buy, where to buy them, when and how to plant them, how to care for them, and when to plant them outside in the garden. Nancy also gave us specific information on various popular vegetables. The following notes were submitted by Nancy to provide a summary of the workshop. Thank you very much to Nancy for a professional and informative session!
Seedling Workshop Notes
· Buy untreated seeds wherever possible. The pink antifungal treatment is poisonous.
· If you’re planning on saving seeds for next year, choose heritage, heirloom, or open-pollinated varieties. Hybrid varieties don’t produce true seeds, but they often have extra disease resistance. Make sure your plants are far enough away from similar plants to avoid cross-pollination. [Check the Botanical Classification of Vegetables chart – Isolation distance]
· Write the date on the packet as soon as you get it so that later you’ll know how old the seeds are. [Check the chart – Seed viability. Some seeds last for years!]
· Buy soilless peat mix. It’s sterile and light and holds a lot of water. It’s possible to grow seedlings in regular soil, but there’s more risk of fungal diseases like damping off.
· Label your pots. Use masking tape and marker, rather than wooden popsicle sticks.
· Keep a record of your planting dates so that you can improve your plans for the next year.
· Avoid turning your entire house into a greenhouse. The only plants that must be grown indoors are tomatoes and peppers (and in 2013: cucumbers and melons). A family plot needs only a few of each.
· Peat pots: Peat pots prevent exposure to plastics, and you can plant them whole into the garden. However, they’re flimsy when wet, they wick moisture away from the plants roots, and they take up a lot of space.
· Plastic pots: Plastic trays sturdier than peat pots and permit watering from beneath. The black colour holds the heat, which helps the seeds germinate. You can use plastic cups, yogurt cups, margarine tubs, etc. Poke holes in the bottom.
· Gnats: Soiless seeding mix often contains fungus gnat eggs. To kill them, microwave the soil mix in a covered container, well moistened, for 10 minutes. Let it cool completely (outside – unless you don’t mind the smell) before you remove the lid. Fungus gnats are harmless, but they’re annoying. Keep the top of the soil dry to starve them.
· Fertilizer: Seeding mix contains no nutrients at all. It simply holds water. You need to ensure that the growing seedlings get water-soluble fertilizer once per week after they’ve germinated. Otherwise, they’ll be spindly and sickly. Start fertilizing once the first true leaves appear.
· An alternative to using fertilizer is to place a generous tablespoon of potting soil at the bottom of each pot. When you transplant to a larger pot, use real soil. But even so, be prepared to give the plant fertilizer if it’s not doing well.
· Covers: Cover seedling trays with a plastic cover to prevent drying out. Remove the cover once the seeds have germinated to prevent fungal disease.
· Damp: Some seedlings are susceptible to a fungus called damp (damping off). The tiny stem rots at the soil line. Stores sell an antifungal agent called No Damp. You soak the soil in No Damp before planting. Most commercial growers use No Damp. A reasonably successful alternative to using No Damp is to add 5 mm of vermiculite at the top of the soil. Vermiculite is sterile, and it prevents the fungus from sitting at the soil line. Water your plants from the bottom to keep the soil line dry. Or just take your chances – some years you just don’t get damping off.
· Heat: Peppers, tomatoes, melons, ground cherries, and cucumbers benefit from warmth (especially bottom heat) when germinating. Without heat, they germinate so slowly they often die before they break the soil. Place the covered seedling tray on top of the fridge or radiator or electric blanket, or in an oven with the light on till the seeds germinate. Check twice daily.
· Light: Most seedlings need about 10 hours of sunlight per day. Fluorescent grow-lights (plant and aquarium tubes) can provide a lot of this light, but the seedlings have to be within an inch of the lights. Better: Use a south-facing window, or a combination of east- and west-facing windows. If the day is sunny and above freezing, you can place the seedling pot in a ziplock bag (the produce bag with tiny holes) outside in bright sunlight. The ziplock bag will act as a greenhouse. Bring them in at night.
· Hardening off: All seedlings grown indoors need to get used to the sun’s direct UV rays before going in the garden. Otherwise, they’ll get leaf burn. If possible, put the seedlings outside uncovered for at least an hour a day every day. Spend a week gradually exposing the plant to sunlight just before transplanting outdoors.
Tomatoes and Ground Cherries
· Plant in March Break for large seedlings (ready to fruit), or in early April for small seedlings. Soil needs to be warm. Remove all flower buds till you are ready to transplant outdoors.
· Transplant your seedlings into larger pots as they grow to promote root growth. Transplant at least once – twice is better. In the larger pots, use real soil so that the roots have access to nutrients.
· Signs of distress: The stem/leaves turns purplish or yellowish: give liquid fertilizer or compost tea. The branches lift upward: too-rapid changes in temperature. Seedlings flop over: The roots are waterlogged or the stem has rotted through. Sickly seedlings won’t do well in the garden.
· Harden off and transplant outdoors mid to late May.
· Transplant outside in mid to late May. Place a handful of organic fertilizer or good-quality compost at the bottom of the hole. After planting, give the seedlings a dose of liquid fertilizer to prevent transplant shock.
· Determinate varieties grow about 3 ft tall, then stop growing. Indeterminate varieties continue to grow all summer.
· Good cultivars for beginners: Celebrity Hybrid, Bonny Boy, Heinz, Rutgars, any cherry tomato
· Similar to tomatoes.
· Saving the seeds: Remove seeds from the ripe pepper and let them dry on a towel 2–3 days. Peppers must be red, yellow, orange, etc., not green. Supermarket peppers are hybrids, so their seeds aren’t viable.
· Peppers shouldn’t be fertilized until they’re flowering. If you fertilize them early, you’ll get all leaves and no fruit.
· Transplant into larger pots at least once. Use real soil.
· Good cultivars for beginners: Lipstick, Marconi Rosso (tall), Sweet Bullnose, Quadrato d’Asti Giallo
Brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, kohlrabi)
· Hybrid varieties are more reliable than open-pollinated and heritage varieties, especially for beginners.
· If brassicas remain in the pot more than six weeks, they won’t ever form a head. If you buy brassica seedlings, somehow ensure that they’re less than six weeks old.
· Brassicas don’t do well if they mature in the heat of the summer. They tend to rot. Plant brassicas to harvest in June or in September-November.
· For broccoli, cabbage, pointy cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy: Start seeds in early March to transplant outside mid April. Brassicas like cool weather. You can grow the seedlings outside under clear plastic covers (two layers). If the weather is still cold in mid April, use plastic bottles or plastic sheets to provide protection. Harvest the broccoli and pointy cabbage as soon as it’s ready (usually June or early July). Leave the broccoli to form side shoots over the summer.
· For kale, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Chinese cabbage; and fall bok choy, broccoli, pointy cabbage: Plant directly with seed in June and July to harvest in September-November and to overwinter.
· Good cultivars: Hybrids. Also consider early jersey wakefield cabbage (short season, small, pointy, sweet).
Cucurbits (cucumber, melon, squash) – not recommended for 2012 due to infestation
· Start the melon and cucumber seedlings at the beginning of April for a mid- May transplant. Most varieties need heat for good germination. Cucurbit seedlings grow large very fast.
· Plant four seeds per large pot. Cucurbits like to grow together.
· Winter squash and pumpkins tend to grow best from seed in the garden.
· Cucurbits are heavy feeders. Provide some real soil at the bottom of the pot and give liquid fertilizer once per week. When transplanting to the garden, give a generous shovelful of compost or organic fertilizer at the bottom of the hole.
· The larger your seedling at transplant, the more quickly it will produce fruit, leading to a longer harvest. Melons need a longer growing season than other cucurbits and are slower to take off.
· Good cultivars: Lebanese hybrid cucumbers, Halona Hybrid Melon, hybrid winter squashes
Onions (leeks, green onions, shallots, garlic)
· Onions: Not recommended, since good onions are hard to grow.
· Green onions, shallots, multiplier onions: Plant as starter bulbs anytime in the spring. Green onions can be planted in August to overwinter.
· Garlic: Plant in the fall from locally grown bulbs. Divide the bulbs, leaving the paper covering of each clove intact. Plant the cloves pointy-side up in late October. Mulch with leaves till the spring. Harvest the scapes in June and the bulbs in mid July.
· Leeks: Start seedlings in February. Plant several seeds in a four-inch pot. As the seedlings grow, give them a “haircut” with scissors every couple of weeks (limit height to 4 inches). This encourages the seedling to focus on growing the roots. Transplant outside mid-April. Mulch with leaves if it’s still cold. Leeks are very cold-hardy.
Peas and beans
· Peas and beans must be sown directly into the garden. Peas need cool soil and beans need very warm soil. Fava beans are more like peas: they prefer cool conditions.
· If you decide to pre-soak your seeds, keep peas cold (in the fridge) and beans warm (on the counter). Soak just till the seeds are plump and smooth (about 8 hours). Plant immediately.
· Plant peas from early April to mid May. They will be finished by early July. If you want fall peas, germinate the peas in the fridge using paper towels before planting them outside.
· Plant beans in June and July for harvest about six to eight weeks later. Beans with purple pods or black seeds can be planted in early August for a fall harvest, but they may need a covering of plastic if the temperatures drop.
· Many gardeners inoculate the seeds with legume inoculent to provide nitrogen-fixing bacteria for the roots. However, a generous shovelful of fresh compost at the time of planting will do the same thing.
· Saving the seeds: Let a few pods mature and dry out. Examine the seeds to make sure they look right. Discard the odd-looking ones.
· Good pea cultivars: Little Marvel, Lincoln Homesteader, Wando, Alaska, Green Arrow
· Good snow pea cultivars: Dwarf Grey Sugar, any snow pea in the Oregon family
· Good bean cultivars: Royal Burgundy, Jade, Slenderette, Tendergreen, Pencil Pod Black Wax
· You cannot transplant a carrot. Seed directly in the garden. Try to space the seeds 2 inches apart in every direction. Mulch with burlap to keep the soil moist during germination (7 – 10 days).
· Choose blunt carrots rather than pointy carrots for Kingston’s clay soils (e.g., Nantes, Berlicummer).
· To overwinter carrots, plant again in July. Cover them for the winter. Carrots harvested in December are very sweet.
Spinach, chard, beets, and lettuce
· Lettuce: Seed directly into the garden from early April to late May. Lettuce needs cool temperatures. Harvest before the lettuce grows a stem or it will be bitter. Plant again in August and September for fall lettuce.
· Spinach: Spinach does not transplant. Plant in March under plastic or in April. Harvest in May. Spinach bolts if the weather gets hot or if the roots dry out. Plant again in August and September for fall, winter, and spring harvest.
· Beets and chard: Similar to spinach. Plant outside in April for late summer harvest or in August for fall/winter/spring harvest.
· Saving lettuce and spinach seeds: Allow one or two spring plants to bolt. Spinach produces seed by early summer, lettuce in late summer. The plants will grow tall.
· Good lettuce cultivars: Ice Queen, Great Lakes, Summertime (can grow over the summer), Parris Island, Cos, May Queen, Buttercrunch, Bibb, Red Sails, Marvel of Four Seasons, Oakleaf, Red Salad Bowl Oakleaf
· Good spinach cultivars: Bloomsdale (grows best in fall-winter), Tyee Hybrid (spring), Space Hybrid (winter)
· Good beet cultivars: Any with Detroit in the name have the traditional beet flavour and hardiness.
· Grocery store potatoes carry a virus that will reduce your harvest.
· Buy certified virus-free seed potatoes. Split them so that there’s one eye per chunk.
Celery (celery leaf, celeriac, parsley)
· Celery is hard to grow to good-tasting stalks because you have to blanch the stems. Celery leaf, celery root (celeriac), and parsley are easy to grow.
· Start seedlings early to mid February. The seeds germinate very slowly. Transplant outside in mid-April for parsley and mid-May for the rest.
· Plant parsley and celery leaf again in July to overwinter.
· Saving the seeds: Parsley often goes to seed. You can easily collect the seeds in late summer.
Fall and winter vegetables
· OCT–DEC: kale (planted in June); cauliflower, broccoli, parsley, and short-season cabbage (planted in June or July); lettuce, spinach, swiss chard (planted in August); celery leaf, leeks, parsnips, parsley root, rutabaga, squash, celeriac (planted in spring), peas and snow peas (planted in early August using the fridge to germinate)
· DEC–SPRING: spinach, endive/escarole, chicory, (all planted in early September); winter carrots and parsley (planted in July); corn salad, mizuna, claytonia, tatsoi (planted in September). Cover with plastic for winter protection.