On the seed starting thing

Because this is a (putative) gardening blog, most of my posts follow the seasons.  And it’s this time of year that I do my annual Seed-Starting Post, and if you’ve read me for a while, you’d know how much I dislike the process.

So.  This year I am giving you and myself a break by stopping the whining.  I will do a positive, hopeful post instead.

But the very idea of spring does make me happy, and germinating seeds hearken the season after all.  On Friday after work, I saw a flock of robins (about 200 or so) in the trees in our front yard.  We’re closer, the earth is tilting, even if the forecast is for (even) more snow.

Heck, *I* would sprout in soil this warm.  Remember the chart I showed you years back, and then mentally calculate how wonderful this is.

Yet it’s with mixed emotions that I consider the onions, artichokes, cardoon, and parsleys sitting on their steamy grow mat**.  My mother gave me a seed-starting heat mat last year when I put in her greenhouse for her.  This is something I normally wouldn’t buy for myself, as my default is to be as low-tech as possible.  And this is the first time I am using it;  it should shave a week off the process or more, so…no complaints thusfar.

No grow lights either this year for me.  Instead, the process is beginning on the front porch, with the heat mat. This porch has the advantage of being rodent-free (unlike the garage, or even the greenhouses) and it’s really handy.  It’s unheated, yet it’s insulated, draft-free and faces south and west, so it’s fairly bright and not frozen.  I have seed-started in here many times before, successfully, with neither heat mat nor greenhouses backing me up.

And it’s to the sunny greenhouse the seedlings will eventually go:  I use one bed as a nursery, a hotbed, as it were…I remove the top 4″ of soil, put a load of goat and chicken poo down, wet it, replace the soil and voila, a hot bed, the process of decomposition doing what my electric heat mat is currently doing on the front porch.  But I am getting ahead of myself:  the greenhouse bed won’t be used for weeks yet.  I will document it too.

Think spring…

(**But unless you’re starting onions, most of you have some time yet!  Look at the calendar and count backward from the last week of frost.  If you count back 8 weeks, you’re safe for your tomatoes and peppers.)

NOTE:  DISCUSSION OF USING UNCOMPOSTED, HOT MANURE IN THE COMMENTS!  I will go over it more in about a month when I set up the hotbeds in the greenhouse.

14 responses to “On the seed starting thing

  1. Wow. I can’t imagine not using supplemental lighting. I don’t have enough sunny space to grow all my seedlings (nor do I have a greenhouse), so I use five 4 foot shop-lights in my basement. I’ll be trying out a heating mat the the first time this year. I’m hoping it’s going to knock my socks off!

  2. I don’t use grow lights either, but I’m considering it for next year. We are lucky that we have an enclosed porch to start seedlings in.

  3. I’m not looking forward to starting seedlings this year, as usual, but have at least been getting our potting soil ready…onions first I guess, then celery and celeriac. How neat to see robins already. In Idaho, robins are a sure sign of spring…we did find a buttercup along the river the other day though, another sign.:) No grow lights is something I would like to achieve. I look forward to hearing about the greenhouse bed.

  4. Hey, El: I’m going to follow your lead and try to start some things without the lights this year. We’ve got a sunny south-facing room, and I bought a portable “greenhouse” a couple years ago at Menard’s–some flimsy metal shelves covered by a giant clear garment bag, basically. Pretty crappy quality, but it does get warm in there.

    I envy you your poo…. Would love to have a hot bed; gotta get a hoophouse first, I guess, definitely top of the list for this year.


    • Brett, you can have a “traditional” cold frame on top of a hot bed. Needs more monitoring than in a hoophouse, but it works. That’s what I did for my peppers & tomatoes before I had the greenhouse. And I need not tell you the cold frame can be made with a recycled window and scrap wood, right?

  5. Even with four inches of soil over it, how long do you let your manure sit before using it? You hear all kinds of things about the pros and cons of using uncomposted manure.

    • Hi David,

      Well, yeah: we all have been scared witless about the great evils of raw uncomposted manure. However, not all poo is the same, nor are all the worries the same.

      Two categories of concerns with uncomposted manure are thus: one, the transfer of pathogens from the manure directly to your food, and two, the fear of burning one’s new plants because the manure is too “hot.”

      First category: I am not worried at all about the pathogens: this is a seedling bed, and I will not be eating its roots, fruits or foliage for months…long after it’s transferred and grown out in its permanent bed. And two, not all poo is “hot.” Chicken manure certainly qualifies as something that can burn your plants if directly applied to its roots or its leaves. Goat poo might if directly applied fresh onto the leaves, but it’s not terribly microbially active. Rabbit poo can be applied directly to the soil without the real worry of scalding your plants at all. Remember though that I am putting the poo down way below the root line of these tiny seedlings: by the time they grow down to it, it should be fairly diluted.

      Hot beds are really old technology, though. I recommend it especially to people who live in an area where they have unreliable springs and have a hard time growing things like melons: a jumpstart with a hot bed will really help you succeed.

      • Yes, that clears things up fairly well. I have access to chicken and rabbit manure from my own yard and steer and horse from a neighbor. I’m too afraid of using the horse manure without composting it really well. I have heard horror stories of all the weed seeds that survive into the manure, but a good, hot compost pile can take care of that problem. All that heat from composting is bound to do some good to the soil and preparing the garden beds for some early growth… especially if you have row covers to protect the tops from frost.

  6. I’ve thought about doing a hot bed hugelculture for melons because we have really cool springs here. But I’ll probably still be thinking about it in June at this rate.

    What are you doing using a thermometer to check the soil temp – I thought you would be out there with your low-tech bare buns checking it out!

    • Hah, Annette: laughing at my milk thermometer! (I put it there for you all, not me! *I* can tell it’s plenty hot, but won’t tell you how. 😉 ) But yeah, if you can get ahold of some poo, you should try a hugel for at least one small mound of melons or squash. Why not.

  7. I finally got a heat mat after a few years with bad or slooowwww germination of peppers and eggplants. It does seem to help. I also rationalized I could use it for proofing loaves of bread! (Which I rarely remember to do, but did today as it’s so cold out and I was going through my seed starting stuff…)

    I like the “old school” shop lights. Works for me, and I can get by with only two, transitioning older plants into a cold frame or back patio.

  8. I’m turning my office into a seed starting greenhouse this year; it should be relatively safe, since the crazy, crazy shop cat lives at my house now. It would be a joke to try that at home.

  9. Daedre, yeah, I am space-limited too; I simply am fairly rigid about what gets special treatment when. For years when I had a particularly seedling-eating cat, I had to grow my seedlings under lights in the basement just as you describe. It works quite well. I think you’ll like the mat! Even on my very chilly front porch things are poppin’, it’s quite exciting.

    Meems, lucky you. Indeed porches have many uses! Good luck this spring.

    Mike, it is great to know I am not the only rabid gardener who hates–or rather resists–the seed-starting season. And yeah, I abhor the grow-lights. Mainly because no matter what they’re so tippy and I always behead a tomato plant or two just turning them around under the lights. sigh.

    Brett, I might hold you to the hoophouse…I can be quite the nag so watch out! Germination happens more quickly in a warm space as you know; it’s my experience that light isn’t quite so important until the first true leaves kick in…so maybe you’re right and your south window will do the trick.

    David, I hope that helped. I will be doing a more thorough post on this once I get the beds up and running.

    Annette, there is something to your bare-buns statement though. Old-timey farmers swear by the bare buns thing…or at least bare knees or elbows to check the soil temp. If it’s chilly it’ll be too chilly for the seedlings. And then there’s sympathetic magic…

    Sara, that’s fabulous rationalization! But I know what you mean: out of sight, out of mind…by the time I’d remember the heat mat for my bread it’d have puffed already. And yeah, transitioning is key with all of it. Not that I like the lights though. Just going with what feels good for me this year…

    Pamela, I know what you mean. Our mean old cat Echo was a fool for either eating all the seedlings or dumping over the pots, or, worse, peeing in the dirt. Eew. She’s 4′ underground now, whew. Good luck working them in the office!

  10. mamainthequietcorner

    I have a Stylish Award for you over at my blog:

    I love your blog, and just wanted to tell you that you are such an inspiration to my husband and I with our garden…we are even sold on building a greenhouse because of your awesome hoop houses. Cheers!

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