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!


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