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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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Taking The Dream To Reality

 

 

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So we’re starting to figure some things out. When we first started this adventure last year, we only had a vague idea of what we wanted to do with our acreage. We had a vision, a dream, but the details of how that dream would evolve into reality were pretty soft and vague. Over the past couple of months we’ve done a lot of research, talked to a variety of people, and really tried to narrow down what it was we wanted to accomplish this year, while working through the bigger picture of what kind of farmstead we want to build over the next several years. In other words, who are we going to be when we grow up?

We dream big, and that’s good. Dreams are meant to be inflated and conceptual. But when it comes to bringing those concepts to market, I think we have to be intentional about focusing on what matters most to us, which is producing quality food that our family can share with our community.

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We have all kinds of crazy ideas and there are many things that we want to try. We’ve often dreamed of having a UPick location for fresh berries. These operations are very popular and successful back in Oregon, and we frequented them often every summer. Also popular in the northwest are orchards. We come from the Hood River Valley, where a lion’s share of the pears grown for North America are produced. So we’ve always known whatever kind of operation we grow, tree fruit would have a part of it.

We’ve talked about raising goats and chickens and feeding out pigs for meat. We’ve even talked about beekeeping. All of these things excite me. But as we look forward to spring, I have to be realistic about how much time we have to commit, and the scope of each of these projects. Each will bring its own learning curve, which will add to the complexity of its success. If we want to succeed, I believe we have to narrow our scope and hone in on doing one project right, instead of spreading ourselves too thin and perhaps never achieving success in anything at all. That sounds like a good way to burn out to me, and I think it’s where several before us have grown frustrated and quit.

So our primary effort this year will be establishing a sustainable and profitable market garden that will be the centerpiece of our farmstead. We’ll do this on the 3 acres south of us, while planting a cover crop or perhaps alfalfa on the northern 6 acres and reserving it for future rotation.

Proper rotation is a part of the solution to our biggest challenge, which is soil fertility. Building a plan that will increase the quality of our soil over the next several years will be imperative. We have great soil here in Iowa, but the ground we are working with has been used for conventional corn and soybeans for many years, and it will take a little while for us to build the kind of organic matter and tilth necessary to provide a healthy, long-term environment for the alternative vegetables and fruits we want to specialize in.

Most of what we plant this spring will go in permanent beds. The idea behind this is to adapt a no-till strategy that will allow us to introduce organic matter and nutrients to the soil on a smaller, hyper-focused scale and only where necessary, while minimizing weed growth. When you till or deep plow, you risk bringing invasive seeds to the top surface (in addition to losing vital plant resources such as nitrogen). Only disturbing the topsoil at a few inches to incorporate organic matter and compost, you’ll still get weeds, but they’ll be easier to manage . At least that’s the idea. We’re choosing to minimize the amount of mechanized machinery we use (partially to limit compaction as well as cost) and with a labor force of three, we need to keep weeds under control as much as possible. Mulching will also help. We’re still contemplating the best kind of mulch, and where to find it locally in the quantity that we’ll need.

We hope having a good rotation plan will also keep weeds, pests and disease to a minimum. There will be permanent crops, such as raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. We’re also going to grow lavender. But the tomatoes, corn, beans and squash will all need to be on a three-year rotation. This will mean we have to be intentional about where we plant this spring, while at the same time thinking forward to where things will go in 2018.

Head spinning yet?

The breadth of this can seem enormous at times. Once we started to really narrow down on what we wanted to accomplish, it was easy to see there were several parts of the “dream” we had to let go. That’s okay. There will be time to incorporate those things back in, slowly and methodically. The market garden has to flow from year to year, and establishing it right in the beginning is essential. This is the part of the “dream” that can potentially be the most profitable for us, which will lead to growing other parts of the farmstead. So we have to give it every bit of time and energy we have to make it work.

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It’s all good. This whole journey has been exciting to me. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. We strive to be good stewards of what we have been given, to make the most out of these opportunities, and to learn and grow everyday.

I can almost smell the dirt. Can almost feel the spring sun on my face. I can’t imagine another way of living.