February 28, 2011

Starting Seedlings: Environmental Conditions and Ongoing Care

Now that you've sown your seeds, it's important to know a few other miscellaneous things in order to take care of the seedlings.


Young seedlings need to be watered frequently. The smaller the pot size and warmer the temperature, the more often you'll need to water. I grow my seedlings in my basement where it is fairly cool (about 60-62 ºF), but I still have to water daily. One of the biggest mistakes is overwatering your seedlings. If your seedlings sit in soggy soil for a length of time, the roots will become oxygen starved and start to rot. These damp conditions can also promote mold growth and damping off (collapse of young stems at soil level). To avoid these problems, let the soil dry down between waterings. Water soluble fertilizers can be applied every time you water


Small amounts of soluble fertilizer can be mixed into your water and applied every time you water your seedlings (follow the package instructions). Pelleted fertilizers can be mixed into the soil or spread on top of the soil. If you want to grow organic crops, you will need to use organic fertilizer rather than synthetic fertilizer.

Air Circulation:

Good air circulation helps seedlings in two ways: 1) the mechanical movement caused by wind will promote strong and thick growth. Stocky seedlings are healthier and easier to transplant than spindly ones. 2) Air circulation will help prevent damping off of seedlings.


If you are starting seedling in your house, most seedlings will grow just fine at room temperature (~72 ºF). However, if you keep your house cooler than this, or you are growing in a basement (like me) or some other cool location, additional heat may be beneficial (but not necessary). Supplemental heat will hasten the development of many crops up to a certain point (but if too hot, the seedlings will dry too quickly). Extra heat is especially useful during germination for some of the warm-weather crops like tomato, pepper, and eggplant and can be supplied by electric seedling heat mats. If you grow in a cooler location and don't have a heat mat (they're expensive), your seedlings will just take a little longer to develop.

Electric heat mats help warm the soil and speed up germination.

February 26, 2011

Lithops and Cactus Seeds

I was pleasantly surprised by how fast my cactus seed order arrived from CactusStore.  I have to wait several more weeks before I can start any vegetable seedlings, but these cactus seeds can be started whenever! I was not expecting the lithops seeds to be so tiny. I had to mix them with some very fine vermiculite powder before sprinkling them onto the soil.

Dust-like Lithops seeds.
Three packets of cactus seed.
Labels for my pots
Lithops tray with vermiculite dusting.

February 25, 2011

Starting Seedlings: Sowing the Seeds and Germination

So it's finally time to start your seeds. Now what? Moisten your seed starting mix and fill your pots or cell packs. Check the instructions on your seed packets for planting depths and other useful information. For example, some seeds require light to germinate and should not be covered with seed starting mix. Most seeds, however, should be buried in the mix.

When you are ready to plant the seeds, double-check the planting depth and slip a couple seeds into each pot (the weaker seedling can be snipped off later). Make sure to label your pots (it might be a couple weeks before the seedlings start to resemble something familiar and you don't want to forget what's what). Using permanent marker, tag each pot with the crop's name and sowing date. Cheap tags can be made from strips of milk jug and stuck into the soil. I do not recommend using popsicle sticks as they can get moldy and the writing will bleed and become illegible.

Cover the newly seeded pots with plastic (a humidity dome, saran wrap, or plastic bag) to keep the humidity high and put them under your lights. If you have an electric seedling heat mat, plug it in and put your pots on top. Check your pots frequently. Mist with water if you stop seeing condensation on the inside of your plastic and water lightly if the soil starts to dry. As soon as you see any green bits popping up from the soil, take the plastic off. At this point, the seedlings fresh air and the highest light levels possible. If you keep them in the humidity dome too long, disease (such as damping off) can become a problem. Continue watering regularly and in a matter of weeks, the seedlings will be ready to transplant into the garden!

February 24, 2011

Day Old Chicks

My day old chicks are doing great so far! They are busy eating, drinking, pooping, and being very wobbly and adorable. They seem to be capable of falling asleep at any moment (including while standing up). 

My trip to Townline Hatchery went well and the people were really friendly (as were the two pooches that introduced themselves). I ended up getting a buff orpington, gold laced wyandotte, aracauna, barred rock, and a black australorp. Other than the buff orpington (which is the yellow one), I'm not really sure who's who. Hopefully they're all females...

February 23, 2011

They're Here!

Prepare yourself for more adorable chick photos in the near future!

Pad Thai

A couple years ago I learned how to make pad thai. It's really really easy, so you should give it a go. Pad thai generally includes rice noodles, peanut sauce, scrambled egg, chicken, and bean sprouts. You can add pretty much anything you like on top of this such as cilantro, lime, broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms, chili, etc. Go ahead and experiment, because you're going to love it!

  • I'm not giving any measurements, because I never measure, and this dish really doesn't require any measuring. It's going to be good no matter what ratio of ingredients you end up with. Use your best judgment.
  • Rice noodles: get the kind that are about the same width as fettucini noodles. These can be purchased at any ethnic food store and possibly at your local grocery store. 
  • Eggs: pad thai is usually made with the eggs scrambled right into the rest of the ingredients, but I prefer them to be scrambled separately.
  • Oil
  • Chicken breast, diced
  • Carrot, diced
  • Bean Sprouts
  • Cilantro, chopped
  • Fresh lime, cut into wedges
  • Bottled peanut sauce: can be found at most grocery stores in the asian food section near the teriyaki and soy sauces.
  • Optional: broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, mushroom, etc.
    1. Soak your rice noodles in hot water for at least 15 minutes, until soft and flexible. Drain and set aside. 
    2. Get the remaining ingredients prepped (diced, portioned out, etc) before you go on to the next step. This dish cooks very quickly, so you don't want to be stuck dicing vegetables at the last minute.
    3. In a large skillet, cook the chicken in some oil. Set aside (this prevents the chicken from getting overcooked while you're cooking the rest of the dish).
    4. Scramble the eggs. Set aside.
    5. Stir fry the carrots and any other "harder" vegetables in your empty chicken skillet.
    6. Once the carrot is nearly done, add any "softer" vegetables such as the bean sprouts, zucchini, and mushrooms.
    7. Add the drained rice noodles
    8. Add peanut sauce
    9. Recombine the chicken and scrambled egg
    10. Toss the noodles and other ingredients until everything is coated with sauce
    11. Garnish with cilantro and a wedge of lime
    12. Eat piping hot!

    February 22, 2011

    Cactus and Succulent Seeds Ordered!

    I've been having trouble finding cactus seeds this year in any of the local stores (and I forgot to add a packet to my vegetable seed order with Pinetree Garden Seeds). As a result, I just placed an order with CactusStore last night for some mixed cactus and lithops seeds. I'm a veteran cactus grower, but I've never tried lithops before. I've been reading about Gayla Trail's experiences growing lithops over at You Grow Girl and it sounds really interesting. Hopefully this is a decent seed company. I've never ordered from them, but they seem to have pretty much anything you could possibly want in terms of cacti and succulents.

    Here's what I got:

    1. CACTI VARIETIES MIX: A very diverse assortment of cacti seeds including: Cereus, Golden Barrel, Hedgehogs, Mammillarias, Notocactus, Opuntias, Organ pipes, Ferocactus, Gymnocalycium, Trichocereus, Saguaro and more.
    2. MAMMILLARIA MIX: alamensis, armillata, baxteriana, bocasana, columbiana, gasterantha, asiacantha, magnimamma, and others. Profusely flowering cacti, easy to grow.
    3. ECHINOCEREUS STRAMINEUS MIX (Strawberry hedgehog): Clumping growth habit to 2' tall. Can become a colony with hundreds of heads. Large purple flowers to 5". Origin: Southwestern USA, Mexico. Seeds collected from West Texas plants.
    4. LITHOPS SPECIES MIX (Stone plants): A mix of many varieties, including: aucampiae, bromfieldii, dinteri, divergens, dorotheae, fulviceps, hallii, hookeri, optica and several others.

    February 21, 2011

    New Arrivals On Their Way!

    FYI: Assuming the weather holds out, I will be picking up my new chicks tomorrow! I can't wait!

    Starting Seedlings: How to Test Germination Rates

    Have you been hanging on to some seed packets for several years? Or, have you made any semi-questionable seed purchases at the dollar store (I'm guilty of that). If so, you should probably check the germination rates on your seeds. There's nothing worse than sowing a whole row of seeds in your garden, or a whole tray of seedlings in your greenhouse, and having low (or no) germination. Sometimes I get zero germination with seeds I have collected from my own garden. Usually this means the seeds are not viable (for example, gourd seeds will not germinate if they get frozen out in the garden before they are fully mature).

    Get yourself a roll or paper towel, and some sandwich bags. Cut a section of paper towel (fairly small, you don't need an entire sheet for each seed variety) and get it wet. Lay out 10 to 20 seeds of one variety in a line (don't go crazy getting them perfect). Fold over the paper towel, so the seeds are covered and in contact with the moist surface. Put the seed/paper package in a plastic bag and label with the variety, date, and number of seeds. Put the bag in a warm spot, but out of direct sunlight (you don't want to cook the seeds).

    Tomato seeds on moistened paper towel

    Bag it and tag it!

    Start checking the seeds after 3 or so days. Germination may take a couple days to a couple weeks, so be patient. Most of your seeds will germinate within a day or two of each other. Once this flush of germination is over, count the total number of seeds that germinated. Divide this by the total number of seeds to get your germination percentage. For example, if 17 out of 20 seeds germinated, you germination percentage is 85%.

    I would consider a germination percentage of 80% or higher to be sufficient (90% or higher is even better). However, acceptable germ % can be lower for plants that are known for low germination (like certain gourds, parsnips, and some flowers).

    February 17, 2011

    Starting Seedlings: Creating a Sowing Schedule

    Before you start sowing seeds indoors, you need to determine when you can plant those seedlings outside. You want your seedlings to be nice and strong when you plant them out, but not overly tall and spindly, or root-bound. For most warm-weather plants (tomatoes, squash, peppers, cucumbers, basil, etc.), you will want to wait until all chance of frost has passed. On the other hand, cool-weather plant (lettuce, broccoli, peas, cilantro, etc.) can be planted (or direct sown) before the last frost date and can survive light frost. Cool-weather crops are generally planted out (or direct sown) “as soon as the soil can be worked”. Usually this means that the soil is thawed and excess moisture has drained (rather than a muddy snow puddle).

    You can look up the frost-free dates for most major cities in your state at the National Climactic Data Center website or try going to Dave's Garden site and type in your zip code. I suggest you take an average of a few cities that are close to you. I've noticed that the frost-free dates can vary wildly (by a couple weeks) in the same geographical area, probably due to microclimates. Furthermore, a city that is north of you may actually have an earlier frost-free date (I hate when that happens). The same website can tell you the date of your first expected frost in the fall and the total number of frost-free days in your growing season. This number can help you determine which crops to grow based on the number of days to maturity.

    If you like to gamble, you can schedule your transplanting date to the 50% frost date (I wouldn't suggest this). You might gain a couple extra weeks of time, but you also have a higher risk of completely losing your plants to frost. It is also important to know that some warm-weather crops require a minimum temperature before they will grow. If you plant your tomatoes in the garden too early (thinking that you will get ripe tomatoes that much faster), the plants will likely just sit in the garden in a dormant state. The plants won't start to grow until the temperatures rise to an appropriate level. If you aren't a risk taker (I'm not), go by the 10% frost date. Be forewarned that even the 10% date is not a sure-thing! In my area, gardeners usually wait until after labor day to plant out warm-weather crops. However, frosts can (and do) happen occasionally in early June.

    Seed Starting Schedule:

    Different crops have different development rates. Depending on the crop, it might take your seedlings anywhere from 2 to 10 weeks to reach a transplantable stage (strong stems and leaves, developed root system, etc.). Rather than listing seed-starting time for each individual crop, I will be listing all the crops that can be sown at the same time (the same number of weeks before the frost-free date). Using the list, simply count backwards from your own frost-free date to determine when to start each crop. You can give yourself some wiggle room (you don't have to be spot on to the exact day). I find it helpful if I bundle together all my seed packets that need to be started in the same week (that way I'm not digging through piles of seed packets on each sowing day).

    *Take note, that some of these crops can also be direct sown (see my post on direct sowing versus starting indoors). Direct sowing usually occurs as soon as the soil can be worked or after the frost-free date.

    *Unless otherwise noted, the transplant date is the frost-free date.

    *Keep in mind that my suggested sow dates are just guidelines. Sowing a week earlier or a week later won't make a huge difference in the end. Just use common sense (if your weatherperson forecasts a freak freeze, windstorm, or torrential downpour, you'll obviously want to wait until the weather settles down a bit to plant your seedlings outside).

    Start indoors 10 weeks before the frost-free date:

    Start indoors 8 weeks before the frost-free date:
    Tomatoes (you can start tomatoes 6 to 8 weeks before the frost-free date. I usually shoot for 7 weeks)

    Start indoors 6 weeks before the frost-free date:
    Swiss Chard 
    *All of these can be planted out 2 weeks before the frost-free date (when they are 4 weeks old)

    Start indoors 4 weeks before the frost-free date:
    Summer Squash
    Winter Squash

    Direct sow as soon as the soil can be worked:
    Fava beans
    Asian greens
    Mustard greens
    Swiss Chard
    Potatoes (3 weeks before frost-free date)

    Direct sow after the frost-free date:
    Bush and pole beans
    Soy beans

    February 16, 2011

    Grow Your Own Cacti From Seed

    Did you know that you can grow cacti from seed? I've been doing it for several years now. It's a very slow process, but actually very easy and interesting. Seed packets can sometimes be found mixed in with vegetable and flowers seeds at your local seed display (I've found them at Walmart). Pinetree Garden Seeds also offers a cactus seed mix for $1.75.

    Tiny cactus seedlings in a 50/50 soil/sand mix.

    The cultivation of cacti from seed is very similar to how you would start any other flower or vegetable seed. However, a fast draining potting mix should be used. I use 50% regular potting mix and 50% sand. Choose a pot or container that you're happy with because the cactus seedilngs may be in this container for over a year before they need to be transplanted. I often use a plastic ground-beef tray as my container. Read the seed packet to see if the seeds should be covered with potting mix. After sowing, put the container in a humidity dome under lights until germination. Continue growing the seedlings under artificial light.

    Cactus seedlings look very different from the adult plant, which is one reason they are so fun to grow. Seedlings have a pair of cotyledons (tiny leaves) surrounding a button-like lump of tissue. Over time, the seedling will absorb the cotyledons (or they slough off) and the button will enlarge. Eventually the seedling will start to grow spines and resemble a mini-version of the adult plant.

    These teeny tiny cacti are actually two years old!

    Once the outside weather warms, your tray of cactus seedlings can be put outside to get bright sunlight for most of the summer. Water if necessary. If you live in an area with lots of rainfall, you may want to put your cacti in a protected location so they don't get overwatered and rot. The seedlings will gradually grow larger, but the process is very slow. 

    After one whole year, my seedlings are still smaller than a pencil eraser! Once they get to a size where they can be handled easily (i.e. without the use of tweezers and a magnifying glass), they can be potted up into individual pots. Bring the plants inside for the winter and put them in the brightest location in your house. They are unlikely to grow much over the winter, but should maintain themselves until they can be put outside the next summer.

    In my experience, survivability in the first year is fairly low. While most of the seeds may germinate, only a handful might make it to transplant size. However, over the years I've accumulated a nice little collection. Cacti are so interesting and easy to care for...it's worth the wait.

    3 year-old twins!
    3-year old cactus
    These 3-year old cacti are huge compared to the others!

    Have you ever grown cacti or succulents from seed?

    February 15, 2011

    Choosing Chickens

    I've read a lot of books on raising chickens in the last year. I hope I've gained enough knowledge that my upcoming foray into chicken keeping will go fairly smoothly. My chick brooder is already setup, and I have all the supplies and food on hand. Now I just need to add the chickens!

    I'm planning on getting my chickens from Townline Hatchery in the next couple weeks. They offer at least 13 breeds of chickens (both broilers and layers). The minimum order at Townline in 15 chicks. This is a slightly more reasonable number for me than the well-known Murray McMurray Hatchery's minimum order of 25 chicks. However, since my municipality only allows 5 chickens per household (and I'm not sure how they decided on that number), I can't even handle the minimum order at Townline. That said, I'm planning on picking the chicks up in person! I have to head over the that part of Michigan anyway to pick up some ornamental grass plugs for a fundraiser, so I figured I'd swing by the hatchery and get my chicks the same day. Not only can I get exactly how many chicks I want, but I'll avoid the shipping fees.

    From the offerings at Townline Hatchery, I'm interested in getting one each of the following breeds:

    Barred Rock
    Golden-laced Wyandotte
    Silver-laced Wyandotte
    New Hampshire Red
    Buff Orpington
    Black Australorp

    ...except that this adds up to 7 chickens. I guess I'll have to pick and choose.

    February 14, 2011

    Starting Seedlings: Equipment and Supplies (Part 3)

    (Continued from the previous post)

    5) Pots or Containers: Some big-box stores sell plastic cell-packs and trays these days. You can also find biodegradable peat pots and coconut husk pots. If none of these options are available, you can always save your cell packs from previously purchased plants, or ask friends if they have any laying around. If you reuse cell packs or pots, make sure to disinfect them before use by submerging in a tub of water and bleach (and scrub away any clumps of dirt where germs may be hiding).

    If you simply cannot find cell packs or pots, you can use plastic drinking cups or leftover food containers (sour cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, etc) as long as you cut a drainage hole in each container. My first year seed starting was done entirely in plastic drinking cups. It took forever to cut all the drainage holes and the cups tended to topple over domino-style with the slightest bump, but it worked out in the end. I do not recommend using paper cups, however, because they may get moldy, tear, and collapse quite quickly.

    Plastic drinking cups and peat pots are both options for sowing seeds.
    Cut-in-half juice boxes work just fine for growing seedlings.

    6) Trays: You will be watering your plants once or twice a day. Unless you are growing in a greenhouse, where the excess water naturally drains away, you will need to put trays under your pots. This will prevent water from spilling onto your furniture or floor. If you use trays, just make sure your plants aren't left sitting in water for extended periods of time!

    7) Growing Media (Soil): Seedlings are generally started in a soilless growing media (and then later transplanted to potting soil). While this mix looks deceivingly like soil, there isn't actually any soil in it. Soilless seed starting mixes usually contain a combination of peat, vermiculite, perlite, moss, or coconut coir.
    The advantages of soilless mixes are that the media is:
    1. Relatively sterile- so there are no soil borne bacteria, fungi, or pathogens to compete with your baby plants
    2. Very fine and lightweight- so baby roots can push through the media easily
    3. Freely draining- so plants don't become waterlogged and develop issues such as damping off (more on this later)
    Soilless mix can be found at some big-box stores and hardware stores. It is usually sold in small bags between 4 and 10 dry quarts (I think I used about 80 quarts last year). If you can't find seed starting mix, you can either make some yourself or use regular potting mix (get something good quality, and it should still work). Due to the sheer quantity of seed starting mix that I go through each year, in 2009 I attempted to make my own mix. It wasn't a total disaster, but it wasn't too great either. The recipe I used included peat, vermiculite, and perlite, but I think my peat was too acidic and not fine enough. Certain species of plants really struggled in my homemade mix, while others (like the always easy-to-grow tomato) did just fine.

    If you want less mess, you can also buy compressed peat pellets that expand in water. One seed is sown in each expanded pellet and the whole unit can be planted outdoors when the time comes.

    Just a note: If you can't find seed starting mix in your area, you probably aren't going to find the ingredients to make your own mix either.

    8) Heating Mat: Electric seed starting mats can be purchased at some big-box stores, or online through most seed companies. These plastic coated mats are waterproof and help raise the soil temperature 10 to 20 ºF above ambient temperature. Increasing the soil temperature will hasten germination and early development of the seedling. This can be especially helpful for germination of warm weather crops including tomato, tomatillo, pepper, squash, pumpkin, and cucumber. I just got my first heating mat this year, so I can't yet vouch for it's effectiveness. Considering that I've successfully grown the above mentioned crops without a heating mat, I would consider this piece of equipment to be optional.

    February 13, 2011

    Why I love the Library

    I go to my local library at least once a week. I love checking out novels, how-to books, and movies. My library system is fairly large and I can request books from any library in the system (which means I have tons of titles to choose from).  There have been very few times that I've wanted a particular title, and not been able to get it at the library. Their gardening selection is quite good and they are regularly adding newly published books to their circulation. I can even get myself on waiting lists for new books before they've even become available!

    Here's my current pile of books from the library:

    Top to Bottom:
    1. How to Grow Practically Everything
    2. Storey's Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds
    3. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens: 3rd Edition
    4. Second Nature: A Gardener's Education
    5. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
    6. Origins of Fruits and Vegetables
    7. This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader
    8. Home to Roost: Chasing Chickens Through the Ages
    9. Keeping Chickens: The Essential Guide
    10. The Field Guide to Chickens
    11. Homemade Living: Keeping Chickens with Ashley English
    12. The Self Sufficient-ish Bible: An Eco-living Guide for the 21st Century
    13. Farm Together Now
    14. The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table

    As you may notice, compared to my last stack of books, there's a lot more chicken-related reading material in this pile...probably because I'm getting much much closer to getting my very own little chicks!

    February 12, 2011

    Amaryllis in Bloom

    The first of my two holiday-clearance Amaryllis bulbs bloomed recently. It's gorgeous, however, it's not the cultivar it claimed to be on the box. Oh well...

    I'll be curious to see what the other bulb looks like in bloom. Maybe I accidentally swapped the bulbs while planting them?

    February 11, 2011

    Photo Friday: I love my job!

    Here are a few photos from the greenhouses where I work. The greenhouse is currently jam-packed with research plants, many of which are in bloom. It's absolutely lovely that I get to work in such an environment (especially during Michigan winters).

    These Juncus spiralis were recently transplanted



    Gorgeous orchids

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