Friday, March 26, 2010

Starting Seeds

I like to do things from scratch. It gives me an incredible sense of satisfaction to bite into a piece of pizza that I made from scratch, especially if it is topped with veggies from our garden. It almost feels like a little bit of magic - that I can take flour, water and olive oil and turn it into something so yummy, gooey and delicious. So, when I got into gardening one of the first things I wanted to learn was how to start my own plants from seeds. I know that it is easier to just get transplants from a nursery, but I wanted to see if I could do it from seed. I did some reading and decided to try the APS system from Gardener's supply. All the reviews said it was a pretty idiot-proof way of starting seeds, and it was. In my first year, every set of seeds that I started in the APS germinated and grew to be a lovely vegetable plant that helped feed my family last summer. Overall it was pretty easy. I started my seeds last weekend, so for those that might be interested here is how I went about it.

Like I said, I use the APS system because it is very easy to set up and self-watering. I have the hardest time 1.) figuring out how much water plants need and 2.) remembering to water plants. My garden only works because we have a drip irrigation system set up on a timer. If I had to remember to water plants, we would have 4 raised beds full of weeds and sad looking plants. I also use the organic seed starting mix that Gardener's Supply sells. You can start seeds without grow lights if you have a sunny window, but our property has over 20 trees on .5 acre so we don't get much natural sun inside the house and we had to set up a few grow lights inside to start seeds.

I started 24 plants last weekend, so I used the APS 24. To start off, I mixed about 3 quarts of seed starting mix with lukewarm tap water - enough for the mix to feel moist, but if you can squeeze it together in your hand and it stays together like a ball then it has too much water (so just add a bit more mix). Then I got the APS ready by wetting the capillary mat thoroughly, filling the reservoir with room temp water, putting the peg board down, then the capillary mat, then the planting cells. I filled each cell with the moistened seed starting mix, leaving about .25 inch of space at the top. I pushed down on the mix in each cell to make sure that it was making contact with the capillary mat & drawing up water, then I added more mix to fill the cell back up to top (again leaving about .25 inch). Now I was ready for some seeds!

I usually put 3 seeds in each cell and then thin them out once the first true leaves have sprouted. Thinning is painful - I hated doing it last year because I hated to cut off one of my precious little plants, but I learned that it truly does make healthier plants in the long run, so I just have to suck it up and do it. As I put the seeds in, I put plant markers in each cell. Last year I thought that I would remember what I put where, but by the time I finished putting seeds down I had completely forgotten which variety of tomato I put where, so I ended up with some "surprise" plants at transplant time.

Once all the seeds are in and each cell is marked, I sprinkle a light layer of mix on top of the seeds and pop the APS cover on to create a mini-greenhouse environment. We set our grow lights up in our laundry room on a counter we have next to our water heater, so I put the covered APS next to the water heater. The extra warmth is said to help speed up germination a bit (some people put theirs on top of the fridge). You can also buy a fancy "seedling heating mat" to bring your seedlings up to optimal germination temperature ... but next to the water heater seems to work just fine for us. Then, I just leave them alone. It took 6 days for my tomato seeds to emerge. Once they did, I took the APS cover off and moved the whole tray under the grow lights - leaving the lights on for about 12-14 hours each day and I keep the lights about 3 inches above the leaves. Other than making sure that the reservoir has enough water in it periodically, that is about all the effort it takes to start my own seeds.

To me one of the most amazing things about starting your own seeds is seeing how something as tiny as a tomato seed can turn into a monstrous plant that helps feed us for almost 5 months out of the year - again, it feels like just a little bit of magic.

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