Tomato sprouts

A chronicle of my adventures growing, preserving, cooking and eating from my garden and everywhere.

Known to many for my incredible ability to organize, I tackle gardening and life with equal verve.  Obsessive, is that a bad thing?

Seed starting setup

I tried both the raised cell/mat and in-tray cell watering system to see which worked best.  For the raised cell method you have a water tray, riser, water mat (absorbent towel-like thing) that hangs over the riser into the water tray, then the cells.  For the in-tray method I just put the seed cells directly into the watering tray.  My tomatoes did great in the raised cells, with roots burrowing down onto the water mat.  But my peppers and eggplants needed more direct heat on the heating mat, so I put their cells in the tray, with the tray on top of the heating mat. 

Next fill your cells with fresh seed starting mix.  This mix is sterile and won’t give your tender seedlings any viruses or diseases.  Dampen the mixture with water and let absorb for 15 minutes or so.  Add your seeds and cover with the recommended amount of soil on the package.  Cover the with the tray covers.  Cool season crops will not need a heating mat, but warm season ones, especially peppers and eggplant, will not germinate without some bottom heat.  Tomatoes can go either way.  Keep the seed beds moist by spraying with water.  Once the seeds emerge, remove the lids and try to only water from the bottom.  This encourages the roots to grow down and prevents “damping off” disease, which comes from to much moisture.

A note on planting to many seeds per cell.  I put in 2 to 3 seeds to each cell, thinking that some would not germinate.  Rookie move, I later discovered.  ALL of my seeds germinated and I both waisted seeds and had to thin them.  I hate killing plants.  You really only need one seed per cell, unless the package lists a low germination rate.  Sure, a couple might not make it, but then you just add a new seed an keep going. 

Tomato seed varieties
Seeds sprouting

Now it’s time to watch them grow and wait for the weather to turn from winter to spring.  My cool crops and tomatoes took off like a shot and grew quite well.  The peppers and eggplant went very slowly, but they kept coming.  Keep them watered but not soaking.  It’s OK if they dry a little, but you don’t want them bone dry or the fine roots will die back.  If your seedlings are looking a little leggy, try adding a very gentle fan to the room to give them some air circulation.  This will simulate an outside environment and cause the plant to grow a stouter stem.  Watch the water level, though, as this does cause some drying.

Once all the plants have two true leaves (not the first pair up, those are your sprouting leaves), it’s time to thin.  Crowding is very bad at this stage.  They need all the light and room they can get.  Fortunately, all the cole and lettuce crop thinnings are edible!  Mine went on top of an omelette. 

Thinning seedlings
Cabbage and broccoli seedlings

About 2 weeks before you want to plant your seedlings into the garden, it’s time to harden them off.  This has been the most daunting part of my journey.  I was super worried about killing my plants!  And, due to circumstances beyond my control (SNOW), I did loose a couple of seedlings.  Not sure why, but they just didn’t like the conditions.  (I suspect seasonal affective disorder.)   

I made a poor-mans cold frame out of a plastic storage container to harden off my plants.  The reason for a cold frame is that it exposes the plants to the outdoor temps, but keeps the wind, direct sun and harsher elements at bay, letting the plants acclimate.  Because of some terrible spring weather here in Minnesota (aka SNOW until May 2nd), I took the extra step of adding “thermal mass” to my cold frames with jugs of water.  The water heats up during the day, then releases heat at night, tempering the overnight temperatures for the plants.  During the day if it’s sunny you want to prop open the lid of the cold frame to allow air circulation and to prevent over heating.  At night or during foul weather you close the lid.  During the last week I started leaving the lid propped open at night, too, then totally off.  Just go slowly so you’re plants have time to adjust.

If you don’t have access to a cold frame, just take your plants out in to a sheltered, semi-shady spot for a few hours at a time.  Slowly lengthen their outings and increase their sun exposure.  Over two weeks time, they should be able to be out for 24 hours.  If frost is coming, bring them to a cool spot inside, like into a garage.  Cool season crops can bolt if they jump in and out of warm and cold environments to often.

Finally, after acclimating, it’s time to plant in the garden.  Pick a cloudy, cool day with little to no wind.  Water well and cross your fingers.  If you’re still worried, cover your plants with floating row cover, particularly if frosty weather or a hard freeze is on the way.  Even cold weather crops don’t love the cold that much.  And breath!  This is suppose to be fun, right?

DIY Coldframe in plastic storage container