Playing with pellets

on Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mary and I were persuaded awhile back into giving some sort of "talk" or "workshop" on seed starting at work sometime this coming spring. Well, spring's almost here, it's almost time to start seeds for your veggie gardens, and gee, the folks at work haven't forgotten they were able to twist our arms. So now Mary and I need to come up with a name for the session, and decide what exactly we're going to cover. She's on vacation for a week or so coming up real soon, so it looks like it'll be mid-to-late March before we get to tell folks how much fun growing your own veggies from seed is.

But what details will we cover!?

We decided it might be kind of fun to show the starting steps of how we each start our seedlings, and figured we should have some examples. Another topic might be to show the progress of these young plants as they sprout from their seeds. Ok, but it's pretty much the middle of February - and a bit too early to start plants for examples that we wouldn't normally be starting for a month or two yet.

Oh well - not like we don't have enough seeds to spare!

So here's what I started today. Each week I will start a new tomato seed, and then by the time of the class we'll be able to show what tomatoes look like at roughly 1 week, 2 weeks, 3 weeks, 4 weeks and perhaps even 5 weeks old. This should be fun, right? Hm, I wonder if I should show some sort of squash or pumpkin as well - might encourage people NOT to start some of their seeds too soon!

Ok, so let's get started... For most of the years I've been starting my own seeds, I've found I usually prefer Jiffy pellets for the taller, central-stem-based plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. I have something new I'll be adding to the mix this year, but we'll cover that later.

I refer to this little guy as a Jiffy pellet. Technically it's a Jiffy-7 or a Jiffy-9. Searching around on the web I'm finding it a bit unclear about whether size plays a factor, or if it's just the contents/container that makes the difference. Jiffy's site doesn't even list the Jiffy-9, but they do list other Jiffy-7 products. Confusion aside, I love these little guys:

Doesn't look like much, does it? According to Jiffy's site, the Jiffy-7 pellet's filling is made entirely of compressed sphagnum peat moss, while some of their other products (such as the Jiffy 7C) is made of coco product.

[typy typy typy .... more reading of Jiffy products.... typy typy typy...more reading...]

Hm....looks like I'll need to pay more attention to which Jiffys I'm getting. Why? Well, it turns out there's a big issue with over-harvesting peat bogs throughout the world. It takes thousands of years for small quantities of peat to form, but like so many other things around the world, it takes us little time to use them up. While peat bogs aren't really considered a readily renewable resource because they take so long to form, coco fiber is a byproduct of coconut plantations...

Annnnyhow, it seems I get my hands on two different sizes of the pellets - a larger size that's sold loose at garden centers such as Donzell's or online, and the smaller size that comes pre-loaded in plastic planting trays. For now I've started with a bag of leftover larger pellets I have that are 1-2 yrs old. When buying online you can choose whether to buy them loose and bagged, or or in the planting trays (which are little greenhouse kits).

These little pellets, as is, aren't really good for planting in. They need water. I decided to conduct a little experiment and measured how much water I was adding to the pellet, and would then measure how much was leftover after it had absorbed all it wanted. So here's 1 cup of water.

I was also curious to see how long it can actually take for the pellet to absorb the water, so I got all high tech and set up the stopwatch on my iPod. Here's the pellet soaking in 1 cup of water.

While we're's the seeds I've decided to "donate to the cause" - I decided to try getting both "regular" Brandywine tomato seeds AND "red" Brandywine tomato seeds this year. Brandywine is normally a pinkish tomato - not something I normally think of as a desireable tomato color, but that doesn't mean it tastes bad. In fact, Brandywine's one of the more popular tomatoes, and as you can see here, growers have managed to guide it into taking on all sorts of colors.

Since, between the two colors, I have plenty of Brandywine seeds, I figure I'll use the original variety for this experiment. Now we're about 12 1/2 weeks til the last average frost for this area, so as you can see from the seed packet, I'm getting started a bit early by many suggested standards - but again, this is an experiment.

And while we're waiting for the pellet to absorb water and expand - here's one of the Jiffy "greenhouse kits". I picked this up at Walmart, just as much for all the Jiffy pellets as the fact that I could use another clear plastic dome and tray set. These growing trays and clear plastic domes are ideal for starting seeds - and the kits are pretty cheap too! (Sorry, I don't remember what exactly this cost at Walmart - about $6?) The tray and lid from one of these kits will last you for years, and as you can see, you can start 72 plants in just one kit!

Ok, we're about ten minutes in and I have a problem. The original pellet just isn't absorbing water very fast. Why? Well, it could be because it's a couple years old and is REEEEALLY dried out, and isn't taking to the water very well at first. There's also a good chance that I used seriously cold water, and I know using warm water really gets these things going much faster. So, because I was wondering if the age of the pellet was making a difference, I swiped one of the pellets from the greenhouse kit. Even though the first pellet has started to swell SOME from the water it's absorbed, you can tell it probably started off a little bigger than the one that came in the kit. That's one thing I've noticed about the kits - they have smaller pellets. Not a huge deal, but it does mean your plant will have that much less time before it wants to get moved to some real dirt! Keep that in mind! (In other words, don't start your seeds TOO early!)

So at about 10 minutes I bumped back the first/larger/older pellet back and started a second/smaller/fresher one. Still using a cup of cold water...

Wow, yeah, that made a difference!

Here's the second/smaller/newer pellet...

Annnnd here's the first/older/larger one - which is looking a little roughed-up because I kept turning it around in the water, giving it the occasional squeeze, etc to try and "inspire" it to soak up water faster.

I promise you - I've loaded up entire trays of Jiffy pellets before, set them on the kitchen counter, poured a pitcher of super hot tap water over them (and poked them roughly back into place as they float around), and they swell MUCH faster!

So part of the experiment was to see how much water these guys were gonna absorb. The second/smaller/newer pellet only drank up about 1/8 of a cup of water.

And the first/older/bigger one? Wow - about a 1/4 cup! (Ok, you want to know a little secret? I think the tray I was soaking it in had a couple TINY we might've lost a little water...)

After all the high-maintenance measuring, timing, waiting, do-overs, etc I was eager to just put seeds in the dirt. It really isn't normally this much work to get things started... Anyhow, since I now had TWO pellets started, I gave each one seed, set them in a small tray, and put them on a heat mat used for seed starting. (Do you have to use a heat mat? No, but most seeds will start better in a warm environment, and I start a ton of seeds in our chilly basement.

In the background, sharing the heat mat, is the tray of leeks and parsley I started weeks ago. And to the front-left would be the hen-and-chicks I decided to try starting from seed. Boy, those seeds were SMALL! I have no idea how likely I'll be to get plants from these, so I didn't want to tie up one of my regular seed-starting trays.... Oh, and now you see I've covered the tomato seed Jiffys with a plastic cover. Not idea - I should use something transparent, but I figure for right now they're 1) getting enough light and 2) maintaining a humid environment to sprout. I'll check them in a couple of days and find something transparent to put over them. I should do the same with the hen-and-chicks!

Check back next week when I'll be reporting the progress on these seeds PLUS starting another!

The Calendar Says...

on Friday, February 19, 2010

...that it's time to start some more plants!

So if you're in our area, and are starting your own herbs and annual flowers from seed, it looks like it's about time to start putting some of those seeds in some dirt. Here's what needs started soon that you can't see in the condensed view of the calendar:

  • Chives
  • Mint
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Coleus
  • Impatiens
  • Lobelia
  • Pansy
  • Poppy
Now from those herbs I have to say I've never started mint or oregano from seed, and don't expect I ever will. For the annuals, I know I have coleus and lobelia seeds that will need started, and I don't remember if I got impatiens seeds this year. Hm...I got a packet of California those count?

I also need to start combing through my seed containers to see what else might need started. So far I fully admit my gardening calender isn't all inclusive for what I like to plant (or might get experimental with), so I'll need to see if something else needs planted soon. More than likely there will be some flowers that need started, but I don't think there's going to be much in the veggies that needs seeds for at least another week or two, minimum!

In case you couldn't tell, things are about to start gearing up here soon! We're at about 13 weeks until the last average frost for this area, and right around the 10-12 week mark things start kicking into gear! Yipes!

Getting the word out...

on Friday, February 5, 2010

When Mary and I were discussing what all would be involved with the "business side" of setting up a CSA, we knew we'd have to have contracts for people to sign. But how about a little advertising? Turns out this CSA idea was spreading by word-of-mouth faster than we knew....but people were asking questions, and we decided it'd be a good idea to have the answers to all those questions in one place. This way we knew we could cover all the topics, give consistent responses, etc. So - how about a brochure!?

The image above is just a teaser snippet of the final product. We went back and forth on the content and info to include. If you know me, you know I can yammer on and on - so it helped to have an editor (in the form of Mary and other friends) to whittle down all I wanted to include. And I decided one thing that always helps get one in the spirit of gardening and eating fresh veggies when it's the middle of a dreary Ohio winter is bright, colorful the brochure HAD to include lots of pictures from the garden. Over time I hope to get out to Mary's garden so we don't just have pictures from my yard, but we were in a pinch, and needed to get the brochure out ASAP. (And yes, all of those pictures are veggies and flowers I grew in the back yard)

Anyhow - here's the link to the PDF'd brochure again - it's just under 4MB, and is a two-sided, tri-fold color printout. Or you can just look at it online. It looks like we've already maxxed out the number of shares we'll have available this year - and in fact, we have a waiting list forming! But hey, even if you're not one of our customers this year, maybe you'll choose to follow along with this blog to see what's growing, what's being harvested, what's being thrown in the compost, etc...

Lettuce entertain you...

on Thursday, February 4, 2010

January 18th - that's when I planted the leek, lettuce and parsley seeds. I'm sure I'll be starting more lettuce and herb seeds later, and that first round was it for the leeks. I'll talk about herbs later. It miiiight have been a bit premature with the lettuce planting, but I'm experimenting - can I start them this early and have any success at growing them to harvest in the basement? If not, can I start them this early indoors and then transplant them outside under a cold frame when it's still going to be freezing cold out? We'll shall see!

One of the interesting things about starting with your own seeds is seeing how fast or slow they decide to germinate. So on the same day I started five varieties of lettuce. Just over two weeks later, these Black Seeded Simpson seedlings are going gangbusters! They're a bit floppy because they've lead a very sheltered life so far, and then I started pointing a small fan at them occasionally, and just before this picture they got watered with a mix of worm-pee (say what!?) and water...

This was their first watering since being seeded, and I took a risk and watered them from above (usually when they're this tender I'll add the water to a tray beneath them, and let their soil soak it up. I was feeling lazy, and have plenty of time to risk needing to start over...) Black Seeded Simpon is a typical loose-leaf lettuce, with a very "shaggy" structure. They're nice filler in a homegrown salad, but don't have a lot of distinctive character...

Next door to the Black Seeded Simpson are these Parris Island Cos seedlings - and as you can see, they're no where CLOSE to the Black Seeded Simpson in development. Give 'em time - they'll catch up. Parris Island Cos is a cos-type lettuce....which to you and me typically means "Romaine". Romaine, or cos, lettuces are the more upright, firm and crisp lettuces that you'd typically use in a Caesar salad.

Another cos type lettuce I've started, and equally slow to get sprouting, is Cimarron. Like Parris Island, Cimarron is a crisp, upright Romaine lettuce, but it's leaves will be more of a burgundy color once it matures. Kinda hard to believe when you look at these little green sprouts, hunh? (Btw - you'll probably notice my little markers on the seed-starting flat are often misspelled. I write them in a hurry, and usually with the lettuces I don't worry about labeling the varieties when I get them in the garden. Sure - I PLAN to...but why bother? You're just going to mix them all together in a salad anyhow!)

Unfortunately, not all the varieties of lettuce I seeded have sprouted, such as Sierra here... I jotted down that this is a Batavia type lettuce - which seems to mean it's a loose-leaf lettuce, but perhaps one with a bit more of a rounded shape than that very shaggy Black Seeded Simpson I mentioned earlier.

Also not willing to sprout was the Lollo Rosa here...or not here actually. Lollo Rossa is a dark burgundy loose leaf lettuce - I really like growing a mix of the green and red lettuces since they look so nice combined in a salad. Don't worry - these were probably just old seeds (I have PLENTY of lettuce seeds from previous years), and I'll just try starting some other varieties in the upcoming weeks.

Let's get this garden started!

on Wednesday, February 3, 2010

It may seem like the middle of winter to the rest of you, but Mary and I are already starting the gardening. A variety of lettuce seeds and bok choy/pak choi are sprouting, and the leeks, started only a week and a half ago, are already about 3 inches tall!

Don't worry - leeks actually need this long growing time, and will be able to tolerate cold weather when they get transplanted early this spring. To keep them under control their tops will be cut off periodically - just like mowing the grass! And when it comes time to plant them, they'll even have some of their roots cut back - this way their tops and bottoms will be roughly the same size and the plants won't go into shock when they're planted (a risk if they were too leafy without enough roots, or had too many roots without enough leaves).

When the leeks are planted, I'll dig narrow-yet-deep holes - depending on the size of the plants this could be from 6 to 9 inches deep, and just a little bigger around than your finger. Then I'll drop most of the plant down inside the hole and give it a good watering. Unlike planting most other plants, I won't push soil into the hole around the leeks when I plant them. Instead the occasional watering should wash some of the loose soil into the hole, slowly filling it as the leeks grow. This is considered "blanching" (not the same as blanching with boiling water), and will create that long tender white base that is preferred with leeks.

In case you're wondering, I'm trying two different varieties of leeks this year -Roxton and Large American Flag. Last year, my first year growing leeks, I grew Giant Musselburgh - since they were so successful I probably should've stuck with the same variety for one of my two types this year, but...oh well! We'll just have to see how these do. Just FYI - some of the ones last year, from the very tip of the tallest leaves to the bottom of the very shallow roots, were almost as tall as me!

Leeks are NOT cheap in the grocery store, and they have such a wonderful, mild sweet onion taste when cooked down in soups or other dishes.