Editor's Note: Small Space Gardening by Diane Dryden is a series of garden articles that will run the entire summer with information for both new and experienced gardeners. Every two weeks the articles will update as the gardening year progresses; from picking out a site up to harvest in the fall.
Here in Northern Wisconsin, it's usually safe to plant seeds in the soil at the end of May. Or, as my farm-wife neighbor always says, "There is no use planting seeds if the soil is cold."
Naturally, she's right. Seventy degrees seems to be the ideal temperature for dirt.
For regular seeds, that is. Peas, pea pods, lettuce, radishes, spinach, potatoes, and greens of all kinds like it cool, so you might be able get them in the ground as early as the end of April or the beginning of May. Paying attention to the long-range weather forecasts are a must so you're not caught by a sudden frost.
But for now it's too cold to talk about planting outside. It's the perfect time to talk about starting seeds indoors though. If you've been blessed with a wide and sunny window, good on you. You've got a ready-made seed starting station. If you're like the rest of us, you'll have to improvise.
Several years ago, full of February cabin fever, I made my own temporary indoor greenhouse. I had two 3' x 3' cages made out of PVC that my husband constructed to cover my 2 current bushes to keep out the birds and deer.
With a large sheet of plastic from a new mattress, I cut and sewed a “box” that fit around both cages. It would have been nice if I had a place inside the house to put my invention, but an enclosed front porch had to do. I set it on a table we use for eating during the summer.
Because gardening is becoming more and more popular, with over 18 million new gardeners starting since 2019, items like grow lights and heat mats are easy to find. Thank goodness! I have 6 heat mats on the bottom of my growing station with several grow lights suspended from the cages, and they seem to do the trick.
I always start to save toilet paper tubes in February, and by planting seeds in them, I don't need to disturb any roots when I plant them in the garden. The cardboard lets the roots grow right through them in the garden.
Coffee 'cans' provide great starter containers. They hold 8 toilet tubes. You can even cut the center from the top of the container and fill the gap with a piece of cling wrap. Now you have a perfect starter mini greenhouse.
It took me some time before I realized the folly of planting one of those 42 cell mini-greenhouses. I would plant 8 seeds of one variety, 12 of another, and so on until the tray was full. I didn't plan on that each type of seed popped up of the soil at different times.
Since baby plants need a second set of leaves ("true leaves") before they can be transplanted, I ended up having to take the cover off the tray because some plants were already too tall, and they were bending over under the cover while other plants had not yet emerged.
Hence, smaller seed starting boxes, like the coffee cans, work well because all the seeds planted in them are the same. It also helps limit the number of seeds of each variety. Believe me, 8 tomato plants are more than plenty for my small space, and I can give the extra plants to friends.
The lesson here is unless you are planting lots of the same seeds, skip the urge to buy the large 42 cell greenhouse seed starting kits. Stick to having lots of smaller ones.
For several years the peat moss that gardeners in England have used has been over-harvested, so they are pleading with their fellow gardeners to forgo peat altogether.
So far, there have been no warnings listed for the U.S., so we can still get the peat pots; it's another option.
The greenhouse kits that use only peat have a pillow-like pad at the bottom of each planting cell. The idea is that you put the seed on top of the pillow, water it liberally, and as the peat absorbs the water, it swells to fill the cell. You can then push the seed down to twice its depth into the peat. When putting the finished product into the garden, just lift the entire peat pot out and plant it, like you would a toilet paper tube.
Grow lights come in multi-colored/full spectrum or clear. They come in long, skinny clear bulbs that fit in a shop light, or they come in red and blue lights embedded in a black 4” x 8” box with chains attached for hanging. Lights even come on a stand with one to three arms.
Be prepared to move the light up and down, whichever type you get. It needs to be only 6 inches from the soil when the seeds are first planted and then moved further away from the plants as they grow. You might be tempted to leave these lights on for day and night. Don't. Plants need their sleep too, so turn them off at night.
Heat pads come in all sizes on the internet or in garden catalogs. Mine were purchased in a local big box store and are large enough to fit under a 42 cell greenhouse kit. I have five of them, and they also heat my homemade greenhouse.
If this information on seed starting has dampened your enthusiasm, you are not alone.
Now you can see why that new Facebook post is so popular. "Life is too short. Buy the plant."
There's wisdom in that, you know. Big box stores and local greenhouses carry just about any kind of plant you might want. They will cost more, but they are worth the money if you compare all the fuss it is to start your own seeds. But there's something so satisfying when you do.
It's your garden, you decide.
Next time, seed starting indoors; how many plants are too many? How many are not enough?
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