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Container Gardening, Part 2

March 4, 2009

So, if you’ve looked at my recent posts, you’ll know that I couldn’t wait anymore and planted the first set (of many) seeds. Can’t help it. Not that this winter has been too terrible in my neck of the woods — we really only had a handful of seriously bad days, while other parts of the country really got whacked. Still, winter seems to have lasted forever. (It always does — I’ll be saying the very same thing next February and March.)

But this brings me to another topic of gardening (both container and “ground”): seeds vs. transplants. It’s March, and I have to finalize my decisions as to what I’ll be starting from seed, and what I’ll be buying as transplants.

Issues to Consider when Growing from Seed

I happen to love growing things from seed, but make no mistake, it takes work. Not the kind that makes you sweat or pull a muscle, but, delicate little seedlings need constant monitoring. One missed watering, and you could lose the whole batch. You’ll also need the proper conditions for raising seedlings. Someplace very warm; someplace very bright. I have to buy heating mats for my seedlings, since I’m too cheap to have any place in my house that’s very warm in February and March. I also have to use grow lights, because while I have a huge south-facing sunlight in my finished attic, perfect for established 4″-ish plants to really bust out, it’s still not bright enough for energy-hungry seedlings.

Another point to keep in mind: it’s considerably cheaper to grow from seed (especially if you already possess the proper equipment or environment). Plants from the nursery can cost $4.00 – $12.00. Each. You could easily fill an apartment balcony with $100 in plants, once you throw in some flowers. By June, my deck easily has $100+ in potted, unplanned purchases scattered about, not to mention the planned flower transplants that are intermingled with my veggies. I could not afford to stock all of my regular gardens if I bought only transplants.

And finally, one of my favorite reasons for growing from seed is the endless variety of plants to choose from. So far this year, I’ve ordered seeds from 4 different sources, my new favorite being the Seed Savers Exchange. (And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention TomatoFest.com. I buy all of my heirloom tomato seeds from them and I just couldn’t be happier.) This year, I’m growing a crazy huge variety of peppers, which I would not be able to do if I bought transplants.

Transplants

There is no denying the convenience of transplants, however, and I do buy them. And happily so. Last year, my rosemary seedlings went nowhere fast, so I had no choice but to buy plants. I also didn’t grow enough basil, so I had to supplement that as well. I bought two jalapeño pepper plants on impulse. And, in one of my favor finds last year, I bought celery seedlings at the farmers’ market. Most of the flowers that are interplanted in my vegetable gardens — marigolds, sweet alysum, geraniums — are also purchased from the local nursery. I’ve ordered several varieties of pepper transplants this year from burpee.com (including cayenne pepper plants for making ristras in the fall), and I always, always order onion bunches (also from Burpee), rather than trying to grow those from seed.

If you’re new to seed growing and you’re not sure you’ll like the effort, plan on doing a combination — grow a few plants from seed; buy the rest. Try bell peppers. They’re very forgiving at all stages, and if you’re a pepper lover like I am, the effort is immensely rewarding. (I’ll confess something here: back in grad school when I was living in an apartment, I sowed bell pepper seeds on top of my refrigerator (which gave off heat – looking back, not sure whether it should’ve been doing that, but, hey, I was a young twenty-something and didn’t think about things like properly-running appliances…), and when the fledgling seedlings started getting light-hungry, I put them in front of the sliding glass door. Did I have juicy red peppers that year? Oh, yes. Which only proves my theory that, most of the time, Nature will find a way, against all odds. (Hence, the yearly dandelion patch in your front yard.))

Equipment

If I’ve sold you on seed sowing, here’s some of the equipment I use in my own efforts. (Ideally, I’d love to have a greenhouse, but sunny space in my yard is currently at a premium — I can’t afford to lose what there is to a greenhouse.) This equipment can be found from a number of online sources (Google’s your friend, here) — I just happened to get my stuff from Burpee. All photos are from Burpee.com.

Grow lights — There are a lot of grow lights out there, some might be cheaper. I like this model because it’s wicked easy to assemble and adjust, and stores nice and flat in its original box. You could even rig a fluorescent lighting fixture (if you have one – my basement came with one … how “1970’s laundry room” …) to hang low over a table. Just make sure you buy full-spectrum bulbs, as the standard fluorescents are not optimal.

“Can’t you just put it all in a sunny south-facing window?” IMO, no. Some plants will do just fine. My peppers did, all those years ago. Most won’t. Even the sunniest of sunny indoor locations will not work. There’s not enough leaf area on young seedlings to gather the energy they need from distant sources. If a window is your only option, I’d advise rigging foil-wrapped walls around the seedlings on all non-window facing sides to help get as much light to those babies as possible.

Take note, though that seedlings need periods of darkness to develop properly. If you’re using grow lights, make sure you purchase a timer from a hardware store, and program the thing for 14-16 hours of light per day.

Seedling Heat Mats — I love these things. They provide exactly the proper amount of warmth for seedling trays (which, because it’s direct, bottom-applied warmth, and not ambient heat, is surprisingly little. The mat is only warm to the touch, but quite cozy for seedlings. You can also use a heating pad for humans, but you have to be careful to keep it on the lowest setting and wrap it in a towel so only a touch of heat comes through. (Don’t plug the mats into the grow light timer – the heat needs to be available 24/7.) The smallest size will fit exactly under the typical grow light unit. I have the larger sizes as well, as I grow a lot from seeds, and the seed trays don’t need to be under a grow light until they’ve developed their cotyledons (first set of leaves).

Jiffy-7 Peat Pellets — You can read my review of this product from last year (look for “SoupAddict”) on Burpee’s site. Other reviews on this product were not so favorable … the lesson to take away being that gardeners can never agree on anything except that everyone “else” is wrong. :^) I’ve had tremendous success with these pellets (they’re also readily available at Home Depot and Walmart). As you may have read in my earlier posts on this site, my basil seedlings were sprouting within days using these pellets. Last year, all of my heirloom tomatoes were up within a day or two. Are they better than other seed-starting materials? Um, probably not better. But they’re fabulously convenient, especially when used with Jiffy’s or Burpee’s domed pellet trays, which are molded specifically to support the pellets.

I also bought Tomato Seed Starting Soil and Jiffy Premium Seed Starting Soil this year. I’ve never used either before, but, if it works comparably to the peat pellets, I’ll use more of the starting soil next year, since it’s definitely more convenient for larger applications (example: just last night I planted carrot seeds in a 50 cell tray. It was definitely easier to just dump the soil over the Jiffy Strips than rehydrate 50 pellets). I’ll keep you posted.

Really, that’s all you need to get started. Oh, and the seeds. And some purchasing self-control. I can’t help you with that, though, because I have none. At last count, I have 28 varieties of heirloom tomato seeds. I might grow 10 varieties this year; 14 if I can rent some land just for tomatoes.

28? Yeah, that’s just my version of shoe-shopping going on there….

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One Comment
  1. March 5, 2009 3:13 am

    Thank you again for the information! I have some window boxes I wanted to bring in this weekend to empty and reuse. I am going to get some good soil and plant some herbs first. Then I will see how things go from there. I will definitely post all about it and my progress on my blog.

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