04 Mar

Mini greenhouses are smaller than full-size greenhouses, but big in usefulness! The term mini greenhouse can refer to several styles of greenhouse:

  • A set of shelves for plants, with a plastic cover fitted over the top to protect them
  • A very small conventional-shaped greenhouse, with a plastic sheet cover or rigid plastic glazing
  • A lean to or closet-like greenhouse where access is “reach-in” but there’s much more space than the shelf-style units
  • A cold-frame like structure
  • Covered planter trays for starting plants from seed or cuttings

We’ll take a closer look at all these kinds of mini greenhouses in this article.

Shelf-Style Mini Greenhouses

This is a four-shelf 4 Tier Green House with a plastic cover which zips up on both sides to open the front completely. Plenty of ventilation like this is important with a small covered area as it can heat up very quickly when the sun gets on it.

Other mini greenhouses of this style come with 2 or 3 shelves instead of 4 – the 2 shelf versions are small enough to stand on a bench or table. The size you need depends on how many plants you plan to grow in them, whether seedlings, pot plants, tropicals, cuttings or overwintering herbs.

While these units are intended to be used outdoors on your deck or patio, they also work indoors to keep the atmosphere around your plants nice and moist.

I find a mini greenhouse like this most useful for hardening off the seedlings I start in my basement. Placed on the deck, right by the back door, mine is very convenient for opening and closing the cover, moving plants around to make sure they get even light, watering, and generally keeping a close eye on them. It allows me to expose the young plants gradually to the outside world, while taking up very little floor space, and in the summer I can take the cover off completely and use it for potted herbs and flowering plants.

Small Greenhouses

This tiny Walk-In Greenhouse is based on the same principle as the shelf units described above – a frame with a plastic cover which zips open – but it’s big enough to walk into and to have plants growing on both sides, either in the ground or in pots on benches or racks. Many other similar models are available.

Advantages include cheapness, and being portable – so you can use it on a deck or patio, or over a different garden bed at different times. This certainly beats moving all the soil out of a fixed greenhouse bed and replacing it, as some books advise you to do! It’s important to fix the greenhouse down well – as you can see, the model in the picture uses guy-lines and stakes, though on a patio or deck, weights would do the same job. You can also pack the whole thing away over the winter if needed, so no worries about it being damaged or blown away by winter storms.

One of my neighbors uses a small greenhouse like this for his tomatoes. Every year he plops the greenhouse over a different spot in the garden in the early spring and allows the soil to warm, plants his tomatoes a month earlier than he could if they were completely unprotected, gradually leaves the door open for longer as the weather warms, spends the summer picking great tomatoes while the cover keeps the rain and the blight off the plants, picks for a long time into the fall, then puts the greenhouse away for the winter until he chooses a new spot the next year. This is a great way to rotate your tomato crop to keep down diseases and pests.

Lean-To or Closet-Style Mini Greenhouse

Mini Greenhouse Model 2 With Base
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This example is the Mini Greenhouse Model 2 with base from Juliana. Mini-greenhouses like this are often placed against a wall or fence, with access from one long side. Like the shelf-style greenhouses they can have shelves in, but they are several feet deep and so have much more growing space inside.

They can be placed over plants growing in the ground to provide an excellent warm micro-climate for something like a dwarf peach tree trained against a wall, but they also work very well for tall pot plants like standard fuchsias or other tender but large plants. An important feature you can see in the picture is a vent at the very top, where the heated air collects. You can make this an automatic vent which will help to keep the temperature under control even if you can’t open the main door.

My mother has had a greenhouse like this for about 20 years on her backyard patio and it’s always full, summer and winter, even though she has a large sunroom as well!

Cold-Frame Type Mini-Greenhouse

Juwel Cold Frame 1000
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The Juwel Cold Frame 1000 is a cold frame style mini greenhouse. In many ways these are more useful over winter than the shelf style. Being closer to the ground, they often stay warmer, and are much less prone to being blown over by windstorms. It’s also easier to install an automatic opener to save having to run out and open the cover every time the sun comes out, though that does depend on the model you choose.

Bear in mind that once you have a cold frame, you’ll find a million more uses for it that you would never have thought of, so although a small one is cheaper it may be better in the long run to buy as large a model as you can fit into your space and your budget.

Covered Plant Trays as Mini-Greenhouses

These are a simple addition to the regular seedling trays – a clear cover which fits neatly on the tray and covers the plants. The covers come in two heights: about 2″, which is great for starting seeds where you will be removing the cover as soon as the plants pop up anyway; and about 7″, perfect for propagating cuttings where the rooting (we hope) plants have some height right from the start but you need to keep them in a moist atmosphere.

Either of these clear tops can be bought alone, or you can get them as part of a set with the seedling tray, cover, and peat pellets or cell packs to hold the plants. The best sets also include a heating mat which makes a huge difference when starting heat lovers like peppers, eggplant and basil.

Of course, you can also buy heat mats separately to work with the seed starting trays you already have. such as the Hydrofarm Seedling Heat Mat, which will work with standard trays in the 10″x20″ – 12″x24″ size range.

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04 Mar

So, you’re thinking you might build a greenhouse for your garden, or you already have a greenhouse, and you’re looking for some information. You’re in the right place!

Garden greenhouses can be very satisfying or very frustrating, depending on whether the greenhouse you build is a good fit for what you need – or not.

Greenhouse Designs

There is a wide range of different designs of greenhouse, and then there are different materials that you can build the designs out of. Basic designs include lean-to or freestanding structures, temporary or permanent, built from wood, metal or plastic, and glazed or covered with glass or plastic. The greenhouse design you choose depends on what you want to do: extend your season a little at each end? Grow food in winter (what kind of food?)? Propagate tropical plants? The more heat and light you need through the cold months, the more solid and permanent your design needs to be, and the more expensive it will be to build and run.

You also have choices about how you create your greenhouse. Will you design and build it yourself, get plans from some where and build it yourself or have someone build it, or will you use a greenhouse kit?

Greenhouse Kits

1 Day Only Sale! Greenhouse Kit - Do it yourself 8X10 by E-Z Frames!
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One excellent way to get into the world of garden greenhouses is to buy a kit. All the design work is done for you, you just have to pick one that fits your needs.

In most kits the required parts and hardware are all included and they are all ready sized and shaped for you to assemble them.

Some kits only include hardware and plans, and you are intended to buy the lumber or other common materials locally, which saves on shipping. This is actually a very good idea as it  gives you the opportunity to make use of scavenged or pre-used materials instead of all-new in some cases.

Greenhouse Plans


If you’re intending to build your own greenhouse, or have one built for you, you’ll need plans. Although you can draw up your own plans, if you don’t have experience doing this kind of work you may do better to obtain ready-drawn plans for a greenhouse that fits your needs.

You can find free greenhouse plans in many places on the Net and in books and magazines, and also buy them. If you buy a book with plans in it they will be drawn very small, obviously – some books give you the opportunity to order full size plans, but with others you’ll need to redraw the plans to the correct size yourself. You’ll often need to make changes to a book plan to fit your site, so re-drawing will often be necessary anyway.

If your greenhouse is to be a permanent structure you may need to have your local building department approve the plans and issue a permit.

Build Your Own Greenhouse

So – you’ve decided on the design, got a kit (or plans and materials), and you’re going to build a greenhouse yourself. Building a greenhouse may call on any or all of the following skills:

  • Digging foundations
  • Preparing formwork
  • Working with concrete
  • Laying bricks
  • Building wood frame walls
  • Assembling framing for glazing
  • Installing glazing
  • Roofing
  • Weatherproofing
  • Installing electrical wiring
  • Installing plumbing
  • Painting

Cheap Garden Greenhouses

If a full size, traditional glazed greenhouse is beyond your budget, you have several possible ways to proceed.

One rather traditional one is to collect used windows and build your greenhouse from them. I’ve seen some quite attractive greenhouses (in a wacky kind of way) built like this.

Hoarfrost on my hoophouse in November

Hoarfrost on my hoophouse in November

You can also build a PVC pipe and plastic sheeting greenhouse, called a hoop house, high tunnel or polytunnel. This uses heavy duty PVC plumbing pipe to create hoops, and UV-stabilized greenhouse plastic sheeting to form the glazing. The tunnel part is very easy to build, but the ends, doors and ventilation are a bit more challenging. Most awkward of all is to arrange roll-up sides which will stay down in a high wind. A big advantage of a polytunnel is that you can have a much larger greenhouse area for a very reasonable price compared to a traditional framed and glazed greenhouse. The big disadvantage is that it’s not as long lived – the plastic needs replacing every 2-5 years depending on your weather conditions.

Furnishing your Greenhouse

OK, you’ve got a greenhouse. Now what? If you plan to grow in ground level beds, you may be able to go ahead with soil prep and planting. Otherwise, you need somewhere to grow – perhaps raised beds, perhaps greenhouse benches to place pots on – and you may need a variety of greenhouse supplies like heaters, fans, vent mechanism, shading materials and on and on. Specialized greenhouse supply dealers carry an amazing variety of items, many of which you don’t know you need until you see them.

Growing in your Greenhouse

This is what we were aiming for in the first place, when we decided to build a greenhouse, and it turns out to be very much the same as growing outside in the garden, as well as very different. Some of the special issues with greenhouse growing include:

  • temperature management
  • ventilation
  • watering
  • pollination
  • fertilizing
  • vandalism
  • lighting
  • growing supports
  • pest control
  • disease control
  • structure maintenance

 

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20 Feb

Among the many different styles of greenhouses, the lean-to greenhouse can range from a quickly-built temporary lath-and-poly shelter for hardening off seedlings, to a solidly-built extension to the house with a foundation, heating, etc etc.

Between those extremes, many people find that a kit-built or ready made lean-to greenhouse is easy to build and extremely useful. The most important point to consider is the location – which way the greenhouse will face once it’s built. Since it only has one side and half a roof to collect sunlight instead of two sides, it’s very important that it get plenty of sun for as much of the day as possible. In some locations, afternoon sun may be too hot: you may also want to shade the roof in the summer so that the greenhouse doesn’t over heat. This can be done by painting the roof white with special shade paint that can easily be washed off at the end of summer, or with roll-down fabric shades that attach to the wall above the greenhouse.

Some lean-to greenhouses are large enough that you can walk inside through a door at the end, others are smaller and accessed through the side. With a larger lean to greenhouse attached to the house, you can have a door from the house straight into the greenhouse, which is wonderful when the winter weather outside is frightful. It also allows the house to benefit in winter from the warm damp air from the greenhouse. Some greenhouses like this have quite elaborate ventilation and heating systems tied into the house to make the most of warm air from the greenhouse when the house needs it, and to heat the greenhouse when that’s appropriate.

Here’s a temporary lean-to greenhouse that I built one year on the side of the house, before I built the hoophouse. It did a great job of sheltering the many transplants I grow every spring.

lean to greenhouse

Temporary lean to greenhouse

lean to greenhouse

Inside the lean to greenhouse

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15 Feb

If you use your garden greenhouse to overwinter plants which can’t stand frost, then you’ll need some method of heating it – usually a greenhouse heater. If the greenhouse is attached to the house you may be able to hook in to the home heating system or simply leave a door open between the house and the greenhouse, but freestanding greenhouses need some kind of heat source if they are to stay above freezing when the outside temperatures drop below. There are ways of using natural heat sources like compost or small livestock, and you can reduce the extra heat needed by using water or rock as a heat sink to store daytime heat, but many people install a greenhouse heater of some kind.

Along with the greenhouse heater should come insulation: there’s no point having all your heat disappear through uninsulated walls and glazing! You’ll also want a min-max thermometer to keep track of temperatures, and possibly a thermometer that has a remote readout in the house so you can really keep a close eye on things. See below for details on these.

Greenhouse Heater Fuel Types

The most common greenhouse heaters run on electricity or propane, but depending on your location you may also be able to get kerosene (paraffin) heaters, oil heaters or natural gas heaters. Electric, oil and natural gas heaters require that you have electricity, oil or gas supplied to the greenhouse, whereas propane or kerosene heaters can be freestanding and portable (though propane heaters can also be permanently installed and piped to a large propane supply tank outside the greenhouse). Occasionally people install wood or pellet-fired stoves in greenhouses: like oil or natural gas these need a flue or chimney for safety, and are most often installed against a solid wall. Check local building regulations to find out whether you have to have venting for combustion-based heaters.

Greenhouse Heating System Features

Whatever heat source you use, there are some things you want your greenhouse heater and associated heating system to have.

  • A way of distributing heat around the greenhouse (reflectors, ducts and/or fans)
  • Temperature control (thermostat)
  • Automatic turn-off feature during a malfunction or emergency
  • System for handling fumes or combustion gases, if any

Electric Greenhouse Heaters

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These heaters generally range from 1000 – 3000W depending on your power source (120V or 220-240V) and will put out around 5000 – 10,000 BTU’s, enough to heat up to a 275 square foot greenhouse.

There are different designs but most come with indicator lights, overheat and tip-over shutoffs. If you want to add a thermostat you’d need to wire that separately to control the heater – consult a qualified electrician.

Good points of electric heaters are that they do not give off any fumes and thus can’t damage plants that way, they are very easy to install if you already have power in the greenhouse, they are portable, clean and quiet. You need to watch where the fan is blowing hot air – it’s better if it doesn’t blow directly onto plants – and be very careful that the heater and the wiring can’t get wet. If you have a large area to heat you may be better off with several smaller heaters than one large one, so that the warm air is distributed more evenly around the greenhouse.

Propane Greenhouse Heaters

Propane heaters come in two types – those which can be used in an enclosed area, and those which must be vented. The ‘closed area” type have a low-oxygen shutoff system which means that they will not continue to burn under conditions which might cause production of poisonous carbon monoxide.

Smaller models can run off the small 1lb camping propane cylinders but this is very uneconomical if you need to run the heater for extended periods. An alternative is to use a heater which can attach to a large cylinder like those used to run BBQs, using a hose. Commercial-size models might be better attached to an exterior propane tank such as those used to supply home heating and kitchen appliances.

Small propane heaters are quiet, portable, lightweight and odor-free (unless, like me, you hate the smell of the propane itself!). Some can be wall-mounted as well as floor-standing.

Other Greenhouse Heaters

If you have a large home greenhouse or a commercial-sized one, then you might want a fixed, permanently installed heater which runs on oil, gas, propane, pellets or wood. These need a chimney or flue, and are often installed against a solid end wall of the greenhouse with overhead ducting to carry the warm air all the way along to the other end.

Greenhouse Thermometers

Your basic minimum and maximum thermometer will tell you the current temperature and the minimum and maximum temperature reached since you last reset it. They come in old-fashioned glass/mercury or glass/alcohol styles (which are prone to breaking) or as digital thermometers, which are easier to read and less breakable but need batteries.

An upgrade is to get one which has a remote sensor in the greenhouse and an indoor display. These have now come down to a very reasonable price, at least if you don’t need a long transmission range, and I think are worthwhile.

Some even have an alarm which will wake you from your sleep when frost threatens, so you can leap from your bed, run outside and spread blankets over your beloved plants. A delightful prospect, but possibly better than losing a lot of hard work!

 

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11 Aug

This is a guest post by J. C. Banks, who runs the seafood business directory.

Across North America, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about healthy diets, food safety, and green living. These issues have sparked major changes in consumer behavior, with many of these developments leading to improvements in local food supplies.

Many of these changes start at the local level as consumers are buying local foods and growing their own fruits and vegetables. These movements, while new to some generations, are actually a return to a simpler lifestyle that many of our ancestors embraced.

When consumers begin the shift from buying mostly processed foods to locally sourced, unprocessed products, they usually face a variety of challenges. This same situation happens when homeowners decide to try their hand at gardening. Both practices generate considerable amounts of byproducts, which to the novice might appear to be waste. In reality, there is very little that is not useful in some way.

Vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, shellfish shells, fish parts, and other byproducts all contain valuable nutrients which can enrich garden soils. The key to utilizing these valuable byproducts is a composting operation. Composting is a natural way to process organic waste such as plant material, food scraps and other items. A variety of composting layouts are available, although a basic compost pile requires practically nothing to create.

To begin composting, a gardener should set aside a small section in one corner of the garden. Alternatively, a compost pile can be started elsewhere if aesthetics is an issue. Uprooted weeds, dead vegetation, grass clippings and other materials make a good foundation to compost piles.


Once a layer of compostable materials are laid down, they can be covered with a thin layer of soil. Adding small amounts of fertilizer and lime is also beneficial, if desired. Once the pile has been started, nature starts the process on its own. Microbes, fungi, insects, worms, and other organisms immediately go to work, breaking down materials in the pile.

As the compost pile begins working, more byproducts can be added and the layers can be turned with a gardening fork. Once a working compost pile gets established, it can digest large amounts of organic materials, especially in warm weather. When up and running, gardeners can begin adding non-plant table scraps. Although most experts advise against placing meats or other foods in compost piles, small amounts of byproducts are not only acceptable but can be valuable additions to the mix.

Among the most mineral-rich are fish bones, scales, shellfish shells and similar waste. Experienced cooks often process large amounts of these materials and will find composting to be an excellent way to dispose of these items. For example, cooks often buy locally sourced shellfish such as crabs, shrimp, prawns or lobsters to serve fresh and freeze for later use. Typically, shellfish are cooked whole, and the meat separated from the shells. Similarly, cooks often simmer fish carcasses to create delicious stocks.

The remaining shells from shellfish or bones from fish stock contain calcium and other minerals that greatly enrich compost. Cooked shell material, fish bones or other items can be spread over the compost pile in a thin layer, or buried deep in the middle where they can be broken down.

At the end of the growing season, gardeners often start a new pile, and let the previous compost heap lie dormant. When spring arrives, the previous season’s compost will be a rich coffee color and full of nutrients. Adding this material into the soil can be done during spring plantings or anytime a boost is required.

The author is an avid gardener and seafood enthusiast. To find a local seafood market or to buy gourmet seafood from around the world, visit the seafood business directory.


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07 Feb

Many beginner gardeners think that growing their own transplants – starting plants from seed and growing them on until they are ready to plant outside – is too hard. The truth is, if you have the right equipment and information, and you start with easy vegetable varieties, it’s not hard at all.

The easiest and most worthwhile vegetable for most people to grow their own transplants of, is the tomato. Tomatoes sprout easily, grow fairly fast, are very forgiving of transplanting, recover from mistakes fairly easily, and don’t require heat mats in order to get them started. Growing your own seedlings also gives you the opportunity to choose varieties which are available as seed but hardly ever as transplants at stores.

Soil for starting seeds

Don’t use garden soil! It contains weed seeds (unless you sterilize it) and it compacts too easily. The requirements for a good seed starting potting soil are:

  • Fine texture but remains aerated
  • Holds water well
  • Drains easily

Home-made compost can be used as part of a seed-starting mix if you sterilize it first (pour boiling water over, or bake in the oven – very stinky!) and sift out all the lumps. Mix it with fine peat and perlite or vermiculite. It’s better used for making mix for potting on plants once they have germinated and grown into seedlings – see the post on Making Your Own Potting Soil for more details on that.

I use commercial peat-based seed starting mix with no added fertilizer or wetting agent. You can also get coir-based seed starting soil which I haven’t tried yet, but probably will this year.

Fertilizer

Seeds don’t need any fertilizer for germination, as the seed has its own built-in food supply. After the seedling has 2-3 true leaves, you should fertilize very sparingly using liquid fertilizer in the water. That can be compost tea, fish fertilizer, liquid seaweed, etc.

Containers

Lots of choices here. Don’t forget that even if you choose plastic containers from the garden store, you can wash and re-use them many times over before they give up the ghost. Don’t be throwing them away after a single use!

Plastic flats with inserts and lids. This is an example of a Jiffy brand kit which comes with a plastic tray (flat), inserts which allow you to start 72 small plants in the tray, and a clear plastic dome lid.

plastic mini greenhouse for seed starting

Plastic mini greenhouse for seed starting (Amazon)

Recycled containers

Plastic eg yogurt pots, styrofoam cups etc standing on styrofoam trays. Must poke drainage hole in the bottom of each pot!

Cardboard tubes for seeds with long taproots or root veggies (may go moldy – doesn’t hurt the plants)

Newspaper pots
Use a “Potmaker” or roll newspaper round a small can or glass of the desired size, fold flaps under at the bottom and tape. Instructions for newspaper pots are here.

Commercial systems

There is a huge variety of elaborate seed starting “systems” available from different manufacturers. While they do work, and some people swear by them, you really don’t need them to produce good transplants – and they are expensive, and often made from styrofoam which is self-destructing and hard to recycle. So, I recommend that you try simpler equipment first.

Plantable, biodegradable containers are recommended for plants which don’t like their roots disturbed. You can use newspaper pots or cardboard tubes instead. Peat pots must be very wet when planted out, and remember to tear off the rim so it doesn’t stick up above the soil and wick water away from the plant. Jiffy pellets made from peat are easy and convenient but they leave netting behind in the soil (it’s supposed to be biodegradable, but in my experience it takes years to disappear). Coir pots are now available too, very similar to peat, and you can even find pots made from cow manure!

Tools for sowing

Plain old fingers work for many seeds. Some small ones may be easier to deal with using a tool, especially if you have big fingers or trouble with arthritis. Here are a couple of examples: I have used both of these and personally I prefer fingers, but you may find they work better for you.

Red scoop type seed sower

Red scoop type seed sower (Amazon)

Green dial seed sower

Green dial seed sower (Amazon)

Where to do your seed-starting

For the actual planting, you need a hard, cleanable surface that won’t be damaged by water. A hard floor underneath that’s also water resistant is a really good idea too. A tarp will protect a wood tabletop if you don’t have anywhere else, or you can even use the kitchen counter. It’s very convenient to have water easily available. My favorite place for planting is the basement kitchen in my house, where I can make a mess without anyone worrying!

Once your seeds are planted, you may need space for a light stand. Because the lights will come on early and stay on late for best plant growth, you may want to locate this somewhere where it won’t disturb anyone. I’ve had best success with mine in the basement or spare room, but it’s still usable even in my office, living room, bedroom, or on the stair landing! It all depends where you have a bit of floor space, electrical outlet, and either a water resistant floor or a piece of plastic under the stand.

Indoor Light Equipment

If you don’t have reliable sun on a windowsill in winter, a fluorescent light setup is the best way to grow your tender transplants indoors. You can do anything from suspending a work-light over an existing shelf or worktop, through building a simple light stand yourself, to shelling out big bucks for a commercial unit.

Lights

Bright Stik

  • One will barely light one narrow “windowsill” flat
  • Can’t replace tube, not economical

Shop Lights

  • Cheap
  • One will light up 2 regular size flats
  • Hang them anywhere

Don’t use incandescent grow lights

  • Not enough light
  • Too much heat

High Intensity halide lights

  • Very expensive, only for serious growers

Timers

It’s important to turn the lights on and off morning and evening to give the plants 16-18 hours of light a day, e.g. 6am – 11pm. A timer is much more reliable than memory! Since most shop-lights now have three-prong (grounded) plugs, you’ll need a timer that takes them – usually labeled as “heavy-duty” or “exterior”.

Heating pads or cables (optional)

  • Not necessary for most seeds
  • Helps with getting heat-loving seeds eg basil, peppers to germinate
  • Sit your tray on top of the water heater or fridge instead!

Electric Fan (optional)

  • For Intermittent breeze
  • Helps seedlings to grow strong and stocky
  • Makes adjustment to outdoors easier
  • Can have fan on a timer too
  • A cheap small desk or table fan works fine – whatever you already have.

Shelves or plant supports

You can use existing resources such as  an old table with books or cement blocks to hold up the lights, and the plants on the table underneath it, or a shelf unit with the lights hung from the upper shelves and plants on the lower ones. Whatever you use, work out a way to control the distance between the lights and the plants so you can increase it as the plants grow. That may mean raising or lowering the lights on chains, or adjusting the height of the plants by adding or removing layers underneath the trays. Whatever works.

The next step up is to build a light stand. My design for a home-made stand is available here (free).

Home built light stand for plants

If you have plenty of cash to spare you might want to buy one of the spiffy light stands available from places like Lee Valley Tools and Amazon.

Preparation for Seeding

  • Clean recycled containers
  • Dampen soil
  • Remove lumps
  • Fill containers
  • Tamp soil
  • Make a dent for seed(s)
  • Make labels (no kidding: make them BEFORE you plant the seeds so they are ready to use instantly)

Sowing seeds

How many to sow? To get one plant in each cell or container:

  • Expensive hybrids – one per container
  • Brand new seed – one per container
  • Cheap seed or old seed – 2-5 per container

Covering

  • The smaller the seed, the shallower you sow
  • Cover the seed with about 3 times it’s width and press gently to firm the soil and make good contact between damp soil and the seed. Don’t squash the soil down hard!
  • Tiny seeds may just be left on the surface
  • A few seeds need light to germinate and must not be covered (check the seed packet)

Watering

Water from the bottom by setting the planted container in a dray or dish of water until the surface is thoroughly wet, then allow to drain. Then cover the planted containers  with a transparent cover that keeps in most water – a plastic bag will do, or the transparent plastic dome you get with a kit – and place them under the lights.

Check the containers every day to watch for signs of sprouting. Once seeds start to sprout, gradually open and remove the cover to give them better ventilation.

As your baby plants grow, they are easy to care for.

Water from the bottom when the surface of the soil dries out. You are better off slightly underwatering than overwatering, but don’t let them wilt.

Once the plants have 2-3 true leaves (not the first seed leaves), start feeding them with extra diluted liquid fertilizer.

Move the lights up or the plants down as they grow, so the leaves stay about 2″ from the lights. If plants on the outer edges lean towards the light, turn and swap the containers around from time to time to even things up.

Potting On

We often need to move plants into a larger container once they grow too big for the small cell or pot we started them in. 3” or 4” round or square pots will do. Some plants (tomato, broccoli, lettuce) don’t mind having their stems buried to reduce legginess.

Seedlings to be re-potted should be watered and allowed to drain several hours beforehand, so they are thoroughly damp but not sodden.

  • Prepare larger pot with damp soil and a hole the same size as the seedling’s root ball
  • Squeeze bottom of cell you want to get plant out of
  • Cage fingers over remaining cells
  • Turn cell pack upside down and push desired seedling out of cell into fingers
  • Plop into prepared hole
  • Firm soil around seedling
  • Water well from the bottom

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06 Feb

Why start plants from seed?

  • It’s far cheaper than buying seedlings if you want lots of plants
  • You can get many varieties which are not available at nurseries
  • You’ll have seedlings ready at a time which suits you
  • You can grow organic seedlings without paying a premium price for them

Seed-starting methods

There is a variety of ways to start seeds and grow seedlings, some requiring more equipment than others.

Indoors

On a Windowsill

We don’t get enough sunlight here in the PNW to grow the best transplants this way, even with reflectors, but if it’s your only option you can do it. They will just be leggier than is ideal. If you live in a sunnier climate, you may find it works great for you.

Grow Lights

  • Can produce excellent seedlings
  • Needs a certain amount of equipment, but not too expensive – you should be able to get started for $50 or less.
  • Needs about 2ft x 6ft floor space minimum

Greenhouse

An unheated greenhouse can be used for starting hardy plants, and even tender ones if you enclose (with a layer of clear plastic) and heat a small area using heat mats or tapes. Temperature control can be awkward as it can get too hot in the sun.

Outdoors

Direct sowing

This is best for root vegetables, peas and beans, flowers which resent transplanting, plants which re-seed themselves, or large seeded plants. See “Direct Seeding Outside” for more instructions. Downsides are that weeds can take over before the plants you want get big enough to compete with them, and in many areas tropicals (eg tomatoes and peppers) won’t get a long enough season to ripen many, if any, fruits. Your success is also dependent on conditions you have no control over: your seeds or baby plants can get frozen, sunburnt, blown away, drowned, even eaten by critters.

Winter sowing

  • Sow indoors in containers in the winter, then leave outside
  • Will germinate when conditions are suitable from early spring onwards
  • Containers protect plants from animals, wild weather, weeds etc
  • Fun to play in the dirt in the winter!
  • http://forums2.gardenweb.com/forums/wtrsow/

Cold frame, cloches, plastic tunnels

  • More control than direct seeding
  • Protection from wild weather, animals etc
  • Extends season in spring and fall
  • Allows fresh veggies all through the winter

Choosing seeds

Why seeds for your local climate are important

Most national US and Canadian seed companies target the seed varieties they carry to the majority of their market – largely East of the Rockies. Those varieties are adapted to hotter summers and shorter springs than we have here in the PNW. Many don’t ripen or even set fruit reliably here. Similar problems arise for people gardening in the Southern US.

If you can find local or regional seed companies, their varieties should be well adapted to your region and the information on sowing dates, dates to maturity, etc on the packets and in the catalog will bear some resemblance to what you’re likely to get in reality.

This is more important for vegetables than flowers, and especially warm season veg like tomatoes, peppers, corn, melons, etc. Onions are also region-dependent though not so much for temperatiure or length of season issues, but because they are sensitive to day length, and different varieties are needed for northern and southern latitudes.

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25 Jan

If you grow a lot of transplants, you’ll rapidly realize that it takes a lot of potting soil! While baby seedlings which have just sprouted do best in a special seedling mix, older transplants need something with a bit of food in it for them, and don’t need a sterile mix. So, you can mix your own.

My recipe is adapted from one in Steve Solomon’s excellent book Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades. My measures are a bucket which holds about 3 gallons, and an old measuring cup retired from the kitchen. Measurements don’t need to be exact, though. The compost and peat or coir should be damp, not soaking wet and not dry. See below for a video version!

3 buckets homemade compost, screened
2 buckets coir or peat, without too many big lumps
2 buckets horticultural vermiculite or perlite
3 cups complete dry organic fertilizer
1 cup lime if you have acid soil

Layer it all together in a big wheelbarrow or other container and mix with a shovel or fork. It’s not rocket science: just keep mixing until everything is well distributed and there are no clumps.

Store in a ventilated container: I use an old plastic garbage can with ventilation holes drilled in it. Be aware that without ventilation any non-sterile soil mix can go “sour” and grow micro-organisms which your seedlings will not be happy with. Been there, done that.

This works very well for hanging baskets and container gardens as well as growing small plants. If the plants are in the mix all season though, they will run out of nutrients: feed with liquid organic feed like compost or manure tea, fish fertilizer, or similar.

Here’s a video showing exactly how I do it.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrPzsG4lc2c

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08 Jun

Once you’ve grown your own seedlings, or bought them at the nursery and brought them home, what’s the best way to get them in the ground and growing well?

There are two main parts to this – the state of the transplant, and the state of the place you’re going to plant them into.

The ideal is to plant your young seedlings as soon as they are ready to grow out of their pot – before their growth is checked, but not so soon that they haven’t filled the pot with roots and the rootball falls apart. I have to admit that most of the time I don’t hit the ideal moment – my transplants almost always have to wait until they are begging to be out of their pots, poor things – but even so, most vegetables are fairly forgiving and you’ll still get decent results. Cauliflower and melons are two kinds that deeply resent being transplanted at the wrong time, though, so be warned!

You can check root growth by very gently and carefully turning the plant upside down and turning it out of its pot into your hand. You’re looking for healthy white roots visible on the outside of the rootball, and a rootball that holds together well.

Apart from the stage of growth, transplants grown indoors or in a greenhouse will need “hardening off” before being planted outside. That means, gradually letting them get used to the new conditions before you plant them. Carrying them in and out is a bit of a performance but better than seeing the whole lot keel over in shock if you don’t bother! To harden them off, give them a short time in good shelter to start with (shelter from sun and wind), then over a period of several days to a week, give them more and more time outside, and more exposure to weather. Watch for sunburn on tender indoor-grown leaves!

The place you’re planning to plant should have had the soil prepared previously so that any added amendments have had time to settle in and break down a bit, and the soil has done any settling it’s going to do. It should be nicely damp, but not soggy (especially if you have clay soil). It should also be warm enough for the species you’re planning to plant. Broccoli doesn’t mind being transplanted into cool soil, but peppers and tomatoes won’t like it at all, and basil will pout for days or even just die!

New transplants benefit from protection from the sun for the first few days. Planting suring a spell of rainy or cloudy weather is great if you can get it, but you can also plant in the evening, and/or use shade cloth or shading structures for protection. Gradually expose the young plants to more and more sun until they settle in and get used to the new conditions.

The physical act of planting is pretty straightforward. Make a big enough hole to take the whole rootball, pop plant out of pot, put in hole, “puddle in” with water if you like, firm soil round roots, next. Some fine points:

  • Most plants like to be transplanted with the soil level at the same point on their stem as when they were growing in their pots. Exceptions are tomatoes and peppers, which will grow roots along any stem you bury (don’t bury leaves! pinch them off first), and broccoli and lettuce, which don’t mind having any leggy stem up to the first set of leaves buried. Leggy tomato and pepper seedlings can be much improved by doing this.
  • Don’t leave the roots exposed to air for any longer than you have to. Make the holes first, then pop each seedling out of its pot and straight into the hole.
  • Don’t firm the soil too hard, especially if you puddled in with water. Some air needs to be left in the soil, you’re just making it firm enough to provide good support for the plant.
  • It can help to create a watering basin around each plant. Plant a little deeper than the surrounding general soil level, then scrape the extra soil into a ridge around the plant so it sits in a shallow bowl.
  • If you didn’t add fertiliser or compost to the whole bed, most plants appreciate some compost or enriched soil mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.
  • If you’ll need support stakes or structures, make sure you install them before the plants get big enough to need them, and before you’ll damage new roots by adding them.
  • Some plants benefit from being “pinched out” (the top one or two sets of leaves removed) at planting time. This removes some of the foliage and makes it easier for the disturbed roots to support the plant’s water needs, and also makes it grow bushier. Basil plants are a good example of this.
  • Pest protection may be necessary, from collars to Reemay cloth to chicken wire. Take account of the pests that you have to deal with in your garden, and take preventative steps – it’s much better than trying to kill the pests later, after they’ve damaged your plants!

Keep a close eye on your seedlings after planting, to make sure they have enough water, and protection from sun, wind or pests.

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18 May

I have my strawberries in the hoophouse this year (keeps the deer off them) and today we ate the first four ripe ones. Mmmmm yummy! And about a month earlier than they would be in the open garden.

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