Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Seed starting: final results

Back in February, I presented the preliminary results on the the new system Brian developed for this year's garden seedlings: starting the seeds in a layer of commercial potting mix on top of a layer of sterilized garden soil. Now, six weeks later, all the seeds for the garden have been started and had at least three weeks to grow, and the first of them have just made the transition from starter box to garden. So at this point, I think I can safely say the results are in on our new system, and lo, it is good. Just take a look at these beauties:

That's all our leeks in the front, ready to be set out next week. Behind them, on the left, is the parsley we transplanted yesterday, looking bigger and healthier than it's ever been before at the time of transplanting. Way in the back is the broccolini, which we've never grown before, so we can't compare it to our seedlings from previous years; what I can say is that by the time we planted them yesterday, they were overflowing their starter tubes and getting tangled up with each other. Next year, if we grow broccolini again, I think we'll have to start it a bit later to keep the seedlings down to a manageable size.

The rest of the seedlings—marigolds, Brussels sprouts, and tomatoes—still have a while to go before transplanting. In theory, they're all supposed to be planted once the last frost date has passed, some time around mid-May. Considering how big and healthy they're looking already, however, they might be in danger of outgrowing their tubes by then. Take a closer look at the tomatoes: already they're bigger and fuller than any others we've ever produced, and they still have over a month to go. We can't really set them out early and risk losing them to frost, but if they get too much bigger, we may need to transplant them into bigger containers—which is just what we were trying to avoid doing by combining the seed-starting mix with garden soil in the first place. 

Perhaps next year, knowing how the seedlings thrive in this soil, we may need to start them in bigger containers at the outset. That would give us larger plants for transplanting, but it would also create a serious shortage of space in our DIY seed-starting tray. I'm not sure it would be possible to fit eight tomatoes in big pots in there along with all the other seedlings we have now in the tubes. It might be easier just to start the tomatoes a bit later, so they won't get too big before the last frost hits. We won't have great big, flourishing plants to set out in May, but we won't have to revamp our entire seed-starting system, either.

The success of this new starting mix opens up another possibility for next year as well: It may be time to take another crack at starting pepper plants from seed. This year, we decided to give up on the idea and just buy our pepper plants at the Rutgers plant sale, since we'd had such dismal results with home-started plants in the past. But now that we've seen what this potting medium can do, perhaps it's worth buying just one packet of seed and starting a few—assuming we can find the room for them—to see how they fare. If they don't thrive even in this miracle soil, we'll still have the option of buying plants, but I think it's worth at least an attempt. Of course, then we have to figure out some way of cramming those plants into the starter tray, as well. So we may end up needing to redesign the system in any case.

That's the way it always seems to go with gardening: every time you solve one problem, a new one pops up in its place. But at least getting the seeds off to a healthy start is one piece of the puzzle we've figured out.
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