Thursday, January 24, 2013

Secrets of Seed Starting

I love January as it kicks off Garden Season with seed starting...the first green to be seen in some time.  I start my plants indoors and it is so comforting to see the fresh young plants growing every day.  I keep the starter shelf a few feet from my desk so they are a constant reminder of things to come.  But seed starting can be difficult for the beginner.  Through trial and error, I have developed a system, borrowed and stolen from others really, that is very reliable and fairly inexpensive to build and lasts for many seasons.

Nothing I'm about to say is actually a secret or original but it's what I have found to enable consistently successful seed starting for most vegetables and other annuals.  If you follow these basics, you will be successful.  If I can do it, anyone can!

Foundation Keys to Successful Seed Starting
You must do ALL of these things well to start seeds.  Any variation in the execution of any of these items will successfully diminish your success.  So here they are:

  1. Good, Well-Drained Seed Starter Soil.  I've been told by A&M and other "authorities" that your seed starting mix must be sterile.  However, I've been using horse manure in my mix with excellent results.  Actually, I believe that it is the SECRET INGREDIENT that prevents a lot of problems such as damping off disease that other people experience.  Other than that, the recipe is pretty typical to produce and nice, tilthy, well-drained mix:
    1. Peat Moss - 3 parts
    2. Vermiculite - 2 parts
    3. Fine Sand - 2 parts
    4. Horse Manure - 2 parts
  2. Water from Below.  Once you have your soil prepared, you are ready to start planting.  When choosing planting containers, the main thing to think about is that it should be set up to water from below.  Above watering is one of the key causes of damping off disease.  You can use almost any kind of container but I like the self-watering kits.  My favorite is the Propamatic which comes in 24 cell and 40 cell kits.  I like the 40 cell version because I like to maximize my shelf space.  I grow between 1 and 2 thousand plants each spring so space is a premium.  They also come with a plastic dome which helps with initial germination.  I STRONGLY RECOMMEND these kits.  They pay for themselves in a season and last for years.  Planting is easy:  Wet the felt wick pad and set up the seed starting kit.  Add soil and plant your seeds.  I suggest planting the same species of seeds so that germination is uniform.  Once planted, water from below and rewater as often as you need to keep the soil consistently moist.
  3. Light from Above.  Good lighting is also important.  Many people try to start seeds in south facing windows and other indirect lighting situations but this will produce long, scraggly plants.  Of course you can go with the expensive plant-specific lights, but I'm too cheap for that.  I use the cheapest fluorescent shop lights I can find.  My shelf is rigged with two sets of two 4-ft. lights on adjustable chains.  I adjust the lights so that they are always nearly touching the plants.  The plants can actually grow around the lights and gain some additional warmth.  One set of 4-ft lights will support 4 propamatic boxes or 160 plants!  I run the lights on a timer from 12 to 18 hours per day...the more light, the faster the growth.
  4. Keeping the Plants Comfy.  Seeds and comfy plants enjoy consisted, moderate temperatures.  I start all my seeds indoors where the temperature varies little from 68 to 78 degrees.  I've had good luck with both cool season seeds such as broccoli and spinach as well as all warm season vegetables and annual flowers.  Some folks will start their seeds in a garage or other unheated space that is protected from frost but I can say with certainty that the starts are much slower when the temperature is colder.
  5. Roof Over Their Heads.  My propamatics come with a 2 inch plastic dome that I leave on the units until the seeds have sprouted.  Once sprouted (for tomatoes, they will be touching the top within 5 days of seeding!), remove the top.  Once the top is remove and the plants begin the grow, watering will be necessary more frequently.  At this point, I start watering with a mild liquid fertilizer.
That's it!  You should have strong plants ready to transplant between 2 and 4 weeks depending on how big the plants are.  Be careful about leaving them too long in the propamatic as the roots will make themselves at home in the felt wick and will be ripped off when you transplant.

Timing is pretty easy to calculate.  Work backwards from when you want to plant your garden by subtracting 6 weeks from your plant date.  This is your seed starting date and should provide plenty of time to grow some great transplants.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

My New Mueller's Greenhouse

A greenhouse in Texas has many benefits including extending the growing seasons (on both sides of summer), overwintering tropical and frost sensitive plants, and (my biggest purpose) getting an early start on seed starting, especially tomatoes.  I completed my greenhouse in January and filled it with over 600 tomato starts, a half dozen geraniums, and a couple of hibiscus plants.  I get a wonderful feeling every time I drive by my home and see the green and big red blooms in an otherwise dreary winter landscape.

I have several of the plastic-covered portable greenhouses which have been very reliable for 5 years.  They are small and easy to heat with a small electric heater.  They are vented so I can open up the sides and gables to allow air flow and cooling.  However, the plastic begins to deteriorate in 5 years and must be replaced.  My biggest complaint is the both the heating and venting was MANUAL, which meant I had to open and close them twice a day everyday during days off or vacations!  They are also not very attractive...not something I would want to look at through my kitchen window every morning.

So, my initial experiences dictated my requirements for my new hobby greenhouse:
  • Attractive
  • Automatic heating and ventilation
  • Made from materials that will withstand our sun (UV) and weather (hail, wind).
  • Long lasting materials with decades of use
  • Last but not least, affordable
The selection process was trickier than I thought.  There are many greenhouse companies out there that provide good kits that include greenhouse and heating/ventilation in a range of materials, sizes, and prices.  The problem I found was that the cheaper versions would not hold up to Texas weather and were unattractive - basically plastic sheeting on PVC or lightweight galvanized material.  The more expensive models were attractive and made of nice material but cost too much - 5 to $10,000.

A Google ad (which I generally abhor) popped up on some screen for a Mueller's greenhouse.  I know Mueller's as they build quality metal buildings all over Texas.  There are two things obvious at first glance at the Mueller's greenhouse:  First, it is the most solidly built greenhouse I have ever seen; built with heavy C-perling, plastic sheets guaranteed to last and not yellow under the sun, with pretty green molding on all the corners.  The second thing that was obvious is that Mueller's had never built a greenhouse before and had no idea how to seal, ventilate and heat it.  In spite of that, I decided to go for the quality and correct any greenhouse-specific problems along the way.

It took some extra work and cost but I'm very happy with my new greenhouse.  It has been in operation for a couple of months with several nights in the 20s and many days in the 80s.  In the next blog, I'll cover the customizations I made to the structure to make it "greenhouse capable".

Mueller's greenhouses come in several sizes.  I chose the 9x12 ft. model because 100 sq. ft. is about the maximum that you can heat with an electric heater.  This model retails for $2095 and comes delivered (and taxed) at around $2400.  I added automatic ventilation, heater and thermostat, custom shelving, plus extra materials for running electric and water lines, caulk and other sealing materials, 4x4 treated lumber for the foundation, and concrete for the anchors for a total of $3400.

This picture below will give you a general idea of the ventilation and heating system.  The first picture shows the 12" exhaust fan.  The second photo shows the fan speed control, heater thermostat, and ventilation thermostat.  The bottom photo shows the exterior of the 12" intake fan which is electronically controlled.  Crazy Texas weather means that booth systems are frequently used through the winter!

It may seem like this type of system is overkill for a hobby greenhouse but anyone who has a greenhouse in Texas will tell you that if you ever want to leave town for a day, you will need a fully automatic system to protect your plants.  For example, before I had the ventilation system installed in late January, I forgot to come home at lunch and open the windows to allow air flow (I couldn't open them first thing in the morning because it was still freezing!), and when I remembered and ran home to open the greenhouse up, it was 107 degrees and my tomato starts were burning up.  This is a common Texas problem, believe me!

A word on the Mueller greenhouse:  It is a barn with clear sides.  This means two things for the prospective Mueller greenhouse owner.  

First, be prepared to take extra care in sealing every seam with caulk.  Be sure that all the rubber strips are properly aligned.  The biggest surprise for me as the "opening" between the walls and the gables.  It is a one inch gap that runs the length of both gabled ends.  It's probably an excellent idea for barns but a terrible idea for a "sealed" greenhouse.  However, it wasn't a difficult fix.  I just tucked strips of the 1 inch foam pipe insulation into the gap and it was fixed!

The second item to be prepared for is the customization to incorporate the ventilation system into the structure.  It is not difficult but it requires additional tools and some mechanical knowhow.  The plastic sheets must be cut (carefully!) to create the openings for the vent and fan.  I used a dremel tool (be sure to have a lot of cutting disks on hand!).   Additional framing is needed to hold the vent and fan in place.  I used steel L braces screwed into the greenhouse frame...very sturdy!  You can see the framing above.

Since I'm not an electrical genius, I bought a complete ventilation kit from ACF greenhouses.  They were the cheapest I found, had a calculator to determine what size equipment I needed, and had great instructions.  The kit had everything I needed including wire, conduit, etc.

The good news about my Mueller's greenhouse...  It is as strong as advertised.  Everyone who has commented on the structure has been impressed with the construction quality.  Several have opined that they felt the clear plastic sheets should hold up well (which is the number failure point for most greenhouse kits).  It includes aluminum windows on the long ends and a sturdy white steel door with opening window (you won't find this kind of door on any other greenhouse either!).  It's attractive (especially with plants inside) and should last a long time.  

A beginner's take on construction...  This was the biggest home construction project I've ever done and it was fairly easy to put up.  It comes with written instructions and a DVD but the instructions could have been a little more detailed for a beginner for me.  It is definitely a two-man job.  I put more effort in the foundation than they recommended.  I used 4x4 treated lumber anchored in concrete.  I bolted the frame to the timbers and caulked around the edges.  It's not going anywhere!  Mueller's casually suggests bracing the corner wall beams which means....brace them!  Have some material on hand to square and brace the corners.  The rest goes up pretty easy.   Be careful to not stretch the plastic as you mount it and CAULK EVERYTHING!  My biggest regret is that I didn't caulk more.

Finishing touches...  I built my own shelving using 1x6 cedar pickets.  I mounted the shelves on those big beams running down the center of the walls.  This meant that the shelves didn't have to be free-standing and where very sturdy.  I built shelves along both long walls.  You will notice in the picture below that I also built a portable second shelf on hinges above the primary shelf.  I use it for overflow during the spring garden season and it blocks some of the west sun during the summer.  I also bricked the main path with 1x1 ft. paving stones and mulched the rest with cedar mulch.  All of this is on top of a double layer of landscape fabric to prevent weeds from growing inside the greenhouse.

Last thoughts....  This greenhouse is a nice size with plenty of headroom for me and hanging baskets.  The roof C beams are excellent for holding hanging baskets.  I plan on keeping a shade cloth on the greenhouse once it gets closer to summer for temperature control.  You can see both in the photo below.

That's it!  Stay tuned as I'll update you on my new greenhouse in the coming gardening season.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Periodic Feeding with Compost Tea for Continued Success

I've written about how it is imperative to continue to feed your plants after the initial planting.  I know how hard it gets to continue to care for plants after the temperatures rise up into the 90s.  It seems it takes almost all of my time just watering.  But I have learned that just a little plant food every other week will keep most summer vegetables going much longer...and also reduce stress which results in increased pest and disease problems as well as reduced production.

15 Gallon Homemade Compost Tea Brewer
My favorite "plant food" of choice is compost tea.  It is economical (it costs about $35 to build but virtually nothing to operate) and seems to have the same magical properties that compost has.  I usually add some actual fertilizer to my compost tea and water all my potted plants and raised beds.

If you want to know more about how to build your own compost tea brewer, click on the link under Popular Posts to the right.  There are also some good videos under Natural Gardening Links.

Complimentary Planting for Beauty and Pest Control

I was complaining to my mother-in-law about how my raised beds did not have the curb appeal that the flowers I sell have from the road in front of the store.  She suggested that I do some complimentary planting that would serve both to create a more beautiful garden and provide some added pest protection.  So I planted marigolds, known for their ability to repel insects, basil (for eating), and citronella (the mosquito plant) in addition to four tomato plants in the middle.

Complimentary Planting with Tomatoes, Marigolds, Basil and Citronella
I was pleasantly surprised with how much more attractive the bed was and the plants seem to be doing very well so far.  The crowding hasn't appeared to affect production.