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Starting Seeds Without a Greenhouse

When we were still in the dreaming phase of starting our market garden, the visions we painted in our head always seemed to include a few greenhouses. Large, beautiful caterpillar shaped vessels filled with flower and vegetable starts. Can you picture them?

But as we moved into to our first year of production, we quickly realized the cost of starting business was more than we had bargained for. Dreams, you might say, crashed head first into reality. So sacrifices needed to be made, and our greenhouse plans were pushed down the road.

But that hasn’t kept us from starting our own seeds for transplants. As a matter of fact, we are actively planning on ramping up our seed start production significantly this year. We plan on not only growing all of our own transplants (instead of buying half of them at the big box stores) but also making some available to our customers for retail later this spring. And we are doing it all in our basement on a minimum budget.

Starting seeds indoors can be easy. It’s fun to be able to actually plant something when its 8 below outside! With just a few basic things you can turn almost any space in your house into a grow room.

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We’ll be starting with a couple varieties of peppers. Peppers take a while to germinate, and even longer to grow. So even thought we start most of our seeds in Feb, we’re going to get a jump on some of our peppers this month.

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Although we’re starting to gravitate toward using cell trays like these we still plant a lot of our starts using Jiffy Pellets. These are a simple way to germinate seeds for any gardener.

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What are Jiffy pellets? They are little pods made of condensed peat. When you apply water they swell in size, making a nice little habitat for a seed.

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Apply water slowly over the Jiffy pellets. Don’t completely submerge them, but rather let them absorb the water. Once your pellets rise, your tray should be clear of water, otherwise you’ll promote mold. Make sure you drain off any excess before you place your seeds.

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Place one to two seeds in the center of the pellet. We’ll just barely cover our pepper seeds to allow light to penetrate the peat. How deep you plant your seed will depend on what you’re trying to germinate.

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Make sure you mark your varieties so you know what you’ve got germinated. We’re planting two different pepper varieties in this tray. The Wenks hot peppers will likely germinate later than the sweet pepper. Just for reference, there’s about 90 potential pepper plants represented on this one tray. I say potential because its possible not all of your seeds will germinate.

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Cover with a plastic lid. This will trap in moisture and heat that will create a greenhouse effect. Again, its’ important not to completely saturate your pellets. Be careful when watering. Too much and your seed will rot, or you’ll grow moss or mold that will contribute to disease.

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We’ll place the trays underneath our lights. You can see our setup is pretty simple. We used inexpensive shelving that I already had lying around. We bought LED lights like these at Sam’s Club. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on expensive grow bulbs if you’re working with a temperature controlled space. These LED lights don’t put out a lot of heat, but it’s plenty warm in our basement. They are plenty bright though, and because they don’t put out much heat I don’t have to worry about them burning down the house.

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Here’s a look at our basic setup. Is it fancy? No, but it really does the job. We currently have three of these shelving units, with two lights each. Since we’re doubling our growing effort this winter we’ll be adding more shelves, and I’ll update with more pics once we get a little further down the road.

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Make sure you have plenty of help. As you can see, planting seeds is fun for the whole family, and absolutely Batman approved!

No matter your level or the size of your garden, starting seeds at home is very simple, and you don’t need to spend a lot of money doing it. Start small, learn and have fun experimenting. Growing you’re own vegetables is a journey that offers many rewards.

So what about that greenhouse we were dreaming about? We’re still dreaming. Maybe next year it’ll be in the budget. As our production increases so will our space requirements. But we may be able to squeeze yet another year out of the basement. It’s not completely full of plants yet!

 

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6 Vegetables That We Always Transplant in the Garden

vegetable garden

Here in Iowa its 10 below and everything has been frozen for a week now. Its times like this that April can seem so far away. But January is an important month for us, as its when we do much of the planning and initial prep-work for our market garden. Plots and crop rotation are mapped out on graph paper, seeds are ordered, and here very soon we’ll be starting our first round of transplants under grow lights.

Transplants are an important part of our planting scheme. Many of our crops are grown from putting seed right in the ground. Our corn, beans, squash and the majority of our leaf and root crops are all done this way. But there are certain crops that we always start indoors and then transplant when the ground is warmer. This is where taking the time for proper planning is important. Knowing our planting season, relative last frost, varieties we want to plant and their maturity time frame are crucial.

So why transplant? Good question. Many crops can be started indoors under grow lights rather than by direct seeding. The advantages to this are multifaceted but include stronger disease resistance, protection against late frost or other weather events, protection against birds or other animals that like to dig up seed, and getting a jump on long maturity dates. Not to mention that it’s fun to start seeds indoors when there is snow on the ground.

Certain plants should always be started indoors, or bought as transplants from your local nursery or greenhouse. Here are six vegetables that you’ll have a higher success growing if you transplant rather than direct seed.

Tomato

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are somewhat fickle when they are first starting out. They’re not hard to grow, but exposing them to the elements through direct seeding doesn’t usually have good and consistent results. Tomato seeds are very small. They need the right temperature and amount of moisture to germinate. Most varieties of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes also have long days to maturity, meaning that if you wait until outdoor conditions are right for sowing your seed, you probably wont’ be picking those juicy red slicers in time for burgers and bbq.

For our market, we need to have fresh tomatoes as soon as possible.

In order for tomato seeds to germinate, your soil temperature needs to be around 70 degrees. They’ll need a steady source of light until they sprout, which means you don’t want to plant them too deep. We plant ours at about 1/4 and lightly cover with soil. The soil should be kept moist, but not saturated or the seed can rot. Once your seeds sprout and start to grow you’ll want to keep them under direct light for at least 8 hours a day.

Start your seeds no later than 4-6 weeks before the last frost in your area. We start ours around 8 weeks before last frost because I like to have a little more stem height when I go to transplant. This allows me to bury the stem nice and deep to ensure strong root development.

Pepper

Peppers

Peppers are part of the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family, like their cousin the tomato. Also like tomatoes, they aren’t difficult to start from seed but getting consistent germination can be frustrating with certain varieties.

We plant our pepper seeds just like we do our tomatoes, but we’ll start them at least 8-10 weeks before the last frost as they take longer to grow, sometimes earlier depending on the variety. Hot peppers like habanero can sometimes be fickle, but they’re the most profitable for us at the market. So these we take our time getting right.

You’ll want consistent moisture and soil temps around 70-80 degrees. I’ve found that sometimes an overhead light isn’t enough to get good germination. We start our seeds in Jiffy Peat Pods underneath a hard plastic cover, which creates a kind of extra greenhouse effect under the lights, trapping in the moisture and heat. You can also try a heated pad underneath your seed tray, but we don’t use that method. Once the seeds sprout, we remove the plastic cover and let expose the seedlings to 8 hours of light each day, always checking the soil moisture content.

Broccoli

Broccoli

We start our broccoli indoors around 7 weeks before last frost. In some climates, broccoli can be direct seeded, but we’ve found that our broccoli is much more healthy and better developed when we transplant. One of the biggest factors for us is pest penetration. Flea beetles love to eat young broccoli seedlings as they emerge, often decimating a whole crop overnight. Deer like to munch on broccoli too. Transplanting doesn’t guarantee either of these pests won’t go after your crop, but a bigger, stronger plant has a much better chance at surviving insect (or deer) infestation than seedlings.

Broccoli will germinate in soil temps as low as 45 degrees, and will usually only take 4-7 days. Broccoli thrives in cooler weather, but make sure temps are consistently above 55 before you transplant or else you might have early bolting (your broccoli head flowering and going to seed).

We handle cabbage and cauliflower the same as we do broccoli. All three are part of the same family and having similar growing traits.

 

 

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Celery

Have you ever considered growing your own celery? There’s no comparison to the taste of fresh celery, and its really not as hard to grow as you might think.

Celery is a tiny seed that takes up to 3 weeks to germinate, which makes it a good candidate for starting indoors. We’ll start our celery around 12 weeks before the last frost, under grow lights at a consistent temperature around 70 degrees. Moisture should be even but not overdone.

When transplanting, makes sure temps are consistently above 55 degrees. Celery can withstand light frost, but too many cool nights and temps below 55 will cause early bolting.

Celery takes a long time to mature, so starting with strong plant development is essential. It does well in the high heat of summer here in Iowa, as long as we keep the soil moist, and we will usually start to harvest in August. That’s a long journey from seed to table!

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Ways to Prep Your Garden For Winter

Garden

The warm days of summer might very well be behind us for now, but there are still plenty of things that need to be done in the garden. And if you’re like me, this is good news!

I love the fall months for their rich change in color, crisp evenings and moderately warm afternoons. But I know that fall leads to winter, and winters in Iowa tend to be long and bitter. This year, winter has come early, and I’m already aching for warm soil, dirty hands and beds of brilliant green. But there is a rhythm to this life. Life sheds its beauty in fall, is stripped to its core in winter in order to be reborn in spring.

So as we come to the end of the gardening season, we look to the coming months of cold and barren fields not only with trepidation but also with hope. On the other end of winter, somewhere between April and May, there is life! A new planting season!

But it doesn’t come without a little preparation. Our gardens are a living organism, and in order to get the most out of our spring we need to prep our fields and our plots to withstand the cold months.

Here are 5 ways you can prep your garden for winter.

 

Pull the brown. Now is the time to walk your beds and pull the leftover tomato vines, pepper stalks, and whatever else is left of your summer crops. Throw these in your compost pile, unless you suspect disease. If you wrestled with blight, verticillim wilt, downy mildew or club root, take these plant remains to the burn pile instead so you don’t infect your compost.

Cleaning your beds of spent plants will allow you to mend the soil and will help prevent bugs like the squash beetle from overwintering in your garden.

Lightly till your beds. If you have a small garden, you can do this with a hoe or rake. We use a walk behind tiller to open up the beds in our 3 acre marketgarden. The trick here is to not go too deep, where you’ll disturb the living microorganisms that are hard at work building your soil. A couple of inches is enough to expose any pests that might be planning on napping in your garden.

Test your soil. A healthy garden crop starts with healthy soil. Fall is the best time to test your soil as it will allow time for amendments like lime to breakdown before spring. Gardens big or small will benefit from testing soil at least once every 2 years. We test every year, pulling soil from each garden plot and amending as necessary, based on our crop rotation.

Taking soil samples is easy. There are plenty of home test methods available. Or you can simply pull a spade of soil from your garden (again, we take one from each plot), put into a Ziploc bag and take to the lab. Check with your local extension office for the location of a lab near you. It will usually only take a couple of days before you get your results back.

Cover your soil. Here’s a rule of thumb everyone should remember: never leave your soil exposed over winter. Leaving your soil exposed to the elements will result in erosion of your precious top soil (especially if your winters are windy like they are here in Iowa) and nutrients. So what do you do?

If you want to experiment with green manure, you might consider planting a winter cover crop like annual Rye. This will stand up to most winter temperatures and will provide an excellent source of organic matter for your soil. Make sure that you have a way to cut and till the rye, otherwise it will continue to grow through spring. You’ll also want to make sure that you till rye in as early as possible in spring, as it has a allelopathic tendencies and could tie up nutrients in your soil that may prevent seeds from germinating if not broken down.

Clover is another option to use as a cover crop. Till this in as early as your soil can be worked in spring and this will provide an excellent source of nitrogen for your new crops. Or leave in your garden paths to prevent weeds from growing.

If you don’t want to use a cover crop, you can cover your garden beds with mulched leaves or straw. Leaf mold provides a great snack for microorganisms in your soil, and both will break down to add a rich source of humus. Or you can simply use plastic. If you struggle with weeds, covering your beds with black plastic after you lightly till is a good way to force any seeds that may have come to the surface to germinate and die from lack of sunlight.

Whichever method you choose to try, covering your soil for winter is a best practice every gardener should be using.

Protect your perennials. You’ll want to protect any plants you hope to come back in spring. Cover your strawberries with hay. Prune any brown raspberry canes to soil level, but don’t prune the green ones; cover any canes that haven’t experienced winter yet with straw or mulch.

Prune your roses and heavily mulch with compost around their root base. Do the same for any flowering shrubs you may have.

Split bulbs and compost heavily for a welcome sea of color in the spring or summer months.

Tackle those chores. Fall is a great time to take on those chores that might save you time next spring. Cut any new stakes you think you’ll need for next year’s tomatoes. Move the pea or bean trellis and string for next year’s crop. Build those raised beds you’ve been thinking about. Maybe you’ve been longing for a better way to suppress weeds along your garden paths. Now is a great time to lay landscaping fabric and to spread wood chips. Clean your tools and put them away for next year.

Take a few minutes to sit down and plan out what you want your garden to look like next year. Make a list of any chores that need to done to accomplish this plan, and then work in whatever you can this fall so you can spend most of your time next spring planting and building your soil.

 

Now it’s your turn. What do you do to prepare your garden for winter?

5 Ways