A simple germination test for your old seeds

After taking inventory of our seeds last week, we had to decide which seeds we were going to keep and which we needed to throw out. Each year we write the date on the seed containers, that gives us a starting point.

Some seed packs slipped through our system though and had no date on them, just the variety name. Others were getting to be a few years old meaning they were approaching the out side limits of their shelf life.  As seeds get older, their ability to germinate begins to decline. In many cases they still can be used even though they are past their prime. This week we are running germination tests on several types of seeds to see if they are something we would be able to use in the garden.

A simple germination test is easy to do and gives you a pretty good idea if it’s worth keeping a pack of seeds. To do the test,  pick ten seeds at random of one type of plant that we want to test, for example ten tomato seeds or ten onion seeds. Next take a moistened piece of paper towel. Place the seeds on the paper towel  on half of the sheet and fold the sheet over to cover the seeds. The seeds and moist paper towel go in a zip-loc bag and are sealed up. Then put the bag in a warm place to help speed up germination, we use our plant warming mat.

Seedlings are very fragile at this stage.
Seedlings are very fragile at this stage.

Check the seeds every day to see if any are sprouting. If you have the original packet, it usually tells how long it takes for germination. But when you use a warming mat with moist conditions inside the plastic bag, seeds usually sprout much quicker.

The number of sprouted seeds gives you the germination percentage. For example, if eight of the ten seeds sprout, you have an 80% germination rate.

The big surprise for us was an unmarked envelop of ‘Chadwick Cherry’ tomato seeds we found with the rest of our seeds. I don’t know where that envelop came from , maybe someone gave us some seeds a few years ago. We were expecting an low germination percentage but nine out of ten germinated. That was an excellent outcome and we’ll be growing those in the garden this season.  On the other hand, a group of onions we were looking at only had one seed sprout, we’ll toss those into the compost. Too bad because it was a pretty big packet of seeds.

Even if your seeds have a low germination percentage you can still use them, just plant extra seeds to make up the difference. For example if only half of your seeds germinate,  plant double the amount.

It’s true that you can buy fresh seeds of common varieties very cheaply. However, in our case we save quite a few heirloom and open-pollinated seeds that are not available anywhere else.Plus we don’t like to waste anything if it is still usable.

Bob

Start early to grow your own gourmet onions from seed

Onions are a staple in our kitchen and I’m guessing are in yours too. While homegrown vegetables are always the best, it’s especially true with onions.

Those little onion bulbs, called sets, that you find in the garden center were grown last year from an onion variety selected for good storage characteristics, not flavor. I have to confess that I’ve used them plenty of times in the past during those years when I was not able to grow my own transplants.

Not only do homegrown onions in general taste better, you can pick and choose the variety you want without having to depend on what the local garden center has to offer. There are all kinds of gourmet onions available that you can only get if you grow them yourself. Just stay away from short-day varieties, they are not adapted to our latitude.

The secrete to growing onions from scratch is to get started early. I try to sow my onion seeds indoors sometime during January.

Onion seeds are fairly easy to grow. Compared to many vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and others, onions don’t require as much attention. With most other vegetable seedling, transplanting from a crowded container into individual pots or cells is absolutely necessary, that’s not so critical with onions. They do quite well growing close together like a clump of grass during the early stage of their life cycle.

To get started, sow onion seeds into clean containers, I use six inch plastic flower pots. They’re easy to wash and sterilize and can be used year after year.

Fill your growing container an inch or so from the top with a good starting mix, other types of potting mixes may be used if the manufacturer didn’t add too much fertilizer.  Gently firm the soil down and moisten it.  Sprinkle your onion seeds evenly over the surface of the soil –about 50 -60 seeds will fit nicely in a six inch pot. Cover the seeds with about a quarter inch of the starting mix and firm it down so it makes good contact with the seeds. Lightly water the pot.

Onion seeds are fairly small so don’t cover them too deeply.

You should start to see the tiny seedlings begin to emerge in about a week to ten days at 70 degrees F. Once they’ve emerged, place the pot in a sunny area and drop the growing temperature to the lower 60’s during the day and upper 50’s during the night. If you grow your seedlings under artificial light only, give them ten hours of light a day. Keep them moist but not soaking wet.

Occasionally fertilize your growing plants according to directions on the fertilizer package. The onions will sometimes grow so much that they will fall over. If that happens l cut back the tops a little bit with  a pair of scissors. Our goal is to get the plants about a quarter inch wide at garden planting time.

Since onion transplants can tolerate frost and cold soil temperatures, you can plant them into the ground as early as April. That will give them plenty of time to grow lots of leaves. The larger the onion plant is when it begins to form bulbs, the larger the onion will be. At planting time you just knock the plants out of the pot all together in one clump and pull them apart as you plant.

If you haven’t done so, order your onion seeds now so you can get them started soon.

Bob

Make plant tags from broken window blinds

A new winter gardening project presented itself yesterday. The frame on one of our window blinds snapped as I was pulling on the cord to open it and the whole works crashed to the floor.

As it turns out, mini-blind slats make fine pot markers, you know, those small white tags that gardeners use to identify trays and pots of seedlings. The slats are just about the same width as the markers that are sold in gardening departments every spring.

One big advantage homemade markers have over the garden-store variety is that you can easily cut them with a pair of scissors to whatever length you need, short ones for flats of seedlings, or longer ones for potted plants.

Just this one set of window blinds will provide enough material for dozens of plant tags
Just this one set of window blinds will provide enough material for dozens of plant tags

Homemade tags decreases the chance that seedlings will be mislabeled. Since each set of blinds will yield dozens of markers, you won’t be tempted to skimp on labels, that way every pot or six-pack divider can have it’s own tag.

Re-purposing old blinds reduces the amount of plastic debris that eventually finds it way into the landfill. And you save a few bucks along the way. Plus, it’s fun making your own gardening supplies and this happens to be a very easy project.

I’m looking at that high-quality braided pull-cord on those blinds too, but I haven’t figured out a use for that yet.

Bob

Chamomile tea protects seedlings

In my last post we discussed damping off, a fungal disease that attacks and kills developing seedlings. A clean growing medium will minimize the occurrence of damping off.  And a seed starting mix can be pasteurized by pouring boiling-hot water through it.

Once the seeds have germinated and the newly emerged plants are off to a good start, there’s more you can do to protect those tender seedlings.

There’s plausible evidence showing some homemade concoctions can inhibit the growth of pythium, the fungus responsible for damping off. One of these is chamomile tea. That’s right, the same tea we brew when we feel like mellowing out with something warm to drink.

We collect wild chamomile and dry it for tea.
We collect wild chamomile and dry it for tea.

Steep at least two teaspoons of chamomile flowers into each cup of boiled water. Let the tea come to room temperature before straining and using. This is quite a bit stronger than what most people use to brew a cup of drinking tea. The stronger you make the tea the effective it is.

Use a spray bottle to water your new seedlings by spritzing the tea over the plants and soil once a day. To help the tea be more effective, make sure you allow for plenty of air movement around your plants while they are growing.

Eventually Mother Nature will take over and you won’t need to use the tea anymore. As seedlings grow and get older they will outgrow their susceptibility to damping off.

Bob

Avoid damping off disease in seedlings by using boiling water

Growing your own transplants from seeds is a very satisfying experience and can save you money too. However it is not without it’s problems. Just about every gardener who has started plants from seed has a story to tell of watching a crop of seedlings just starting to make good growth then all of a sudden the plants shrivel at the soil line, fall over and finally die.

That is a symptom of a condition known as “damping off”. It also kills newly sprouting seeds under the soil giving the impression of a low germination percentage. The gardener gets the wrong impression that he’s planted a batch of bad seed when in reality it’s damping off.

Damping off is most commonly caused by a soil based fungus called Phythium, but Rhyzoctonia and other species of fungi can cause similar problems. Whatever the case, it is not curable.

It’s an insidious disorder. The seedlings can look sturdy and strong then suddenly,bam! overnight an entire tray of seedlings will be lost.

Most of the time you can avoid damping off by purchasing a fresh bag of sterilized soil-less seed starting mix. Sometimes however, even a new bag of starting mix can harbor the fungus, although that is pretty rare.

When Pythium shows up, it’s probably the gardener who contaminated the mix by using dirty tools, pots, or even the potting bench. All tools and containers need to be scrubbed clean with a detergent. To be doubly sure, the items can be dipped into a 10 percent solution of household bleach.

Although all plants can be infected, some species of plants are more susceptible to damping off than others. For example petunias are prone to the infection.

Pour the boiling water evenly over the whole surface.
Pour the boiling water evenly over the whole surface.

Whenever I start a batch of expensive or hard to find seeds and don’t want to take any chances of losing those precious seedlings, I take the extra step of re-sterilizing the starting mix. Some might say I’m being extra cautious but sometimes seeds are irreplaceable and need all the protection we can give them.

For small amounts of soil, I pour boiling water through a pot of starting mix — then go back and do two additional pours. If you decide to try it yourself, be sure to place the pot in a spot where the water can drain through easily. I like to do this outside on a wire rack rather than in the sink.

This boiling water method has been used by gardeners for a long time and has shown to be pretty effective. Since the entire volume of the soil mix will not reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature at which it would be considered sterile — this could be considered more of a pasteurization method rather than actual sterilization technique.

Bob

Clean up used plastic containers before seed starting

It’s that time of year again. The new seedling growing season is just about here. After a few years of gardening under their belt, many gardeners get the urge to start their own plants indoors, especially after paying retail prices for started plants.

To be fair to retailers out there, when you consider all of the labor, materials, heating costs, insurance, taxes, transportation, greenhouse construction costs and overhead, most of the time those prices from garden centers are quite reasonable.

Before the first seed is sown, I make sure I have all of my materials and supplies ready to go. Gathering up containers such as pots and seedling trays are the first thing that needs to happen.

I haven’t had to buy any pots or seedling trays for many years. I always recycle and reuse plastic planting containers. Many of them I’ve salvaged or were given to me by others. Modern plastics are very durable and last a long time. Some of my pots have seen more than ten years of use.

The problem with reusing plant starting containers is that they can easily become a source of disease that can decimate your seedlings. This is especially true if some one gives you their used containers, even if they assure you that the pots are perfectly clean.

Of course if you purchase new pots and trays, there is no need to worry about disease — the manufacturing process destroys any microorganisms.

It’s relatively easy to get those used planting containers in shape using simple washing techniques, just as long as you do it in the right order.

First, rinse off all large clumps of old soil still stuck on the pots. This is best done outside to avoid getting dirt in the sewer system.

Next, wash the containers with dish-washing detergent, I keep a bottle of cheap detergent from year to year for garden use. This is the a critical step because disinfecting agents won’t work if dirt is present.

Rinse off the detergent, then dip everything in a bleach solution. One part bleach to nine parts water works well.

Rinse again and the containers are ready for potting soil.

This procedure almost sounds like the steps a Mom would take to clean bottles for her young baby: rinse, wash, sterilize. When you think about it, we are preparing containers for babies — baby plants.

Also, always start with new sterilized potting mix. Now, I know that some master composters — yes there is such a thing as a master composter –have had success using compost as a starting medium. They use material from a hot compost that heated up enough to kill plant pathogens. Most of us however, shouldn’t take the risk of using our everyday compost that we have in the back corner of the garden.

Like most things in life, an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Bob

Up-cycle an old light fixture into a grow light

There was a small project that I had to get done this week. I needed to add another bank of lights in my seed starting area.

You would think that after so many years as a professional gardener my seed starting room would look like some kind of laboratory complete with stainless steel racks, electronic equipment and all other sorts of really cool stuff. A few years ago when I was starting many thousands of plants, that was pretty much the case. Now days, I’m gardening at a much smaller scale.

My seed starting area is probably much simpler than what the average serious garden has. My general rule for these types of things is to not buy anything fancy or brand new if I can make it myself without sacrificing functionality.

I have a a pair of three foot, single bulb fluorescent light fixtures that I bought for a couple of bucks at a garage sale last fall. My plan was to attach them together to make a single assembly that I can easily adjust up and down depending on the growth of the seedlings.

Used florescent light fixtures from a garage sale.
Used florescent light fixtures from a garage sale.

There were no florescent tubes when I got them. That actually was a good thing since, over time, the amount of light  florescent bulbs produce dramatically diminishes over time. I didn’t have to dispose of any used bulbs which saved me some hassle. The bad thing was that I only had the seller’s word for it that the fixtures worked.

The first thing I did was open up the case to inspect the innards to be sure there were no wires shorting that could be an electrical hazard — they both looked sound.

The inside of the fixture looked clean and no signs of electrical shorts.
The inside of the fixture looked clean and no signs of electrical shorts.

Next I tested them with my new bulbs and sure enough, they lit up nice and bright.

The bulbs lit up without hesitation or flickering.
The bulbs lit up without hesitation or flickering.

Fixtures like these usually have pre-drilled holes that are used for mounting onto various surfaces, these were no different. I had some metal drawer brackets in my inventory of useful stuff that I saved from an old dresser. They were the perfect size for joining the two fixtures together.

I used self-tapping sheet metal screws to attach the brackets to the light fixtures.  I bent pieces of heavy-duty fencing wire to make hangers for each end of the fixture assembly.

Self tapping screws work great for this application.
Self tapping screws work great for this application.

 

Heaves wire bent into shape makes a fine fixture hanger.
Heaves wire bent into shape makes a fine fixture hanger.

The assembly is hanging by leftover ceiling light chain from a section of shelving that someone gave to me.

I used part of a used plastic shelf unit to hand the lights from and hold trays of seedlings.
I used part of a used plastic shelf unit to hang the lights from and hold trays of seedlings.

Even if you don’t have parts like I had laying around, recycling center that sell building materials often have fixtures, shelves and other parts for sale at very reasonable prices. I noticed while visiting Recycle Ann Arbor today that they had five nearly new florescent fixtures in stock.

A couple of these fixtures were still brand new and in their original boxes.
A couple of these fixtures were still brand new and in their original boxes.

For a very modest investment in cash and time I ended up with an additional seedling grow light.

 

 

 

Seedling heat mats speed up germination

For many years I started seeds without using a seedling heat mat.There never seemed to be any problems doing it that way as long as I was able to find a warm spot for my seed trays. Those were the days when the tops of refrigerators radiated heat and were nice and warm. That was the best place to germinate small amounts of seeds because the constant heat warmed up the seed starting containers to the ideal temperature. Small heat mats for home use were not readily available back then.

It wasn’t until I worked in a large private greenhouse that I really found out the advantages to using bottom heat. I needed to grow thousands of flower and vegetable plants from seed. Time was, and still is, a valuable commodity, I couldn’t afford to wait for seeds to sprout.

Seeds I grew on heat mats seemed to jump up through the soil surface compared to their unheated brethren — germination percentage went up too. After the first transplant growing season, I invested in a few large commercial heat mats.

These days, nearly all garden centers sell small heat mats. They are usually preset at a specific temperature and are not adjustable, unlike the commercial mats.

Heat mats last a long time if used properly and are carefully stored.
Heat mats last a long time if used properly and are carefully stored.

The small mats work just fine for small amounts of seeds. By small amounts, I mean you can still germinate enough seeds to grow hundreds of plants. That’s more than enough for an average home garden.

If you are even a little bit serious about growing plants from seed, a seedling heat mat is an essential investment, especially now that refrigerators aren’t warm anymore.

Bob

Artificial light for growing seedlings

Plants need light for photosynthesis and without light they can’t grow. But not all light is equal.

If you remember from your middle school science class, sunlight contains many colors or wave lengths of light. Plants mainly use the blue and red part of the light spectrum and not much else.

Seedlings need good quality light to thrive. The ideal place to grow seedlings of course,  is in a greenhouse or sun-room where there is plenty of natural sunlight. However, not everyone has access to a space like a greenhouse. A south window can help, but even in that case, supplemental lighting may be needed.

An adequate substitute for natural sunlight is light from fluorescent bulbs. Special “grow lights” are available but are quite a bit more expensive than standard fluorescent tubes and they don’t last as long. Research has shown that plants do as well or even better under “cool white” bulbs. Cool white bulbs provide plenty of blue light.

Even with the most recent research, some gardeners still feel that seedlings grow better if the light is “blended”. So, they’ll add a “soft white” bulb to a florescent fixture to provide some red light for their seedlings. Shining light from an incandescent bulb onto the seedlings will also add some red light.

You don't have to spend a lot of money on light fixtures. I bought this on at a garage sale for less than a buck.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money on light fixtures. I bought this one at a garage sale for less than a buck.

Most vegetable and flower garden seedlings need bright light, at least 500 to 1,000 foot candles. Placing the light fixture within six inches or so will provide them with that amount of light. Still, that is not a bright as a sunny day where there can be 10,000 foot candles shining on a plant.

Plants require some darkness every day so lamps must be on a timer. Six to eight hours of darkness is sufficient for most plants — just about the same number of hours as a good night’s sleep.

If you are really serious about growing a large number of plants under artificial light, special high output light fixtures are available starting at around $300 each.

Bob

Starting Seeds at Home VIII

Once you have transplanted your seedlings  into their final growing container, continue your fertilizer and watering schedule.  If you are growing them under lights, raise the fluorescent tubes as needed.

Check to be sure the seedlings are not getting crowded; separate them if it looks like they are running out of room.  What looked like plenty of space at the beginning of the growing cycle can turn into not enough space as the plants get taller and wider.

Keep the small fan running on them if you have one. Otherwise stimulate the plants by lightly running your hand over the tops of the leaves a couple of times a day. The movement provided by the fan or your hand  helps to strengthen the plants.

As garden transplanting time approaches, you need to begin to “harden-off” (or “harden”) your plants. For weeks they have been inside in a safe and balmy environment.  If you suddenly remove them from their indoor spot and plant them directly into the garden, they could die (or at the very least be set back in their development) from the exposure to direct sunlight and cool night time temperatures.  Hardening-off minimizes this stress.

Keep in mind that different plants are set out into the garden at different times.  Some can tolerate a light frost so can be set out a week or two before the last frost of spring these include: lettuce, cabbage, broccoli,beets, onions, and spinach. A couple of cold tolerant flowers come to mind, Sweet William and Lupine.  Most of the rest of our annual garden plants are considered to be warm season crops and so can’t be set out until after the last frost of the season.

Most annuals need to be transplanted after the danger of frost.

The hardening-off  process starts by changing the indoor growing conditions.  About two weeks before you plan on setting out the plants into the garden, lower the growing temperature and cut back on your watering. Stop fertilizing too.

After about a week of indoor treatment, move your plants outside to a protected area out of the wind,  the east side of a house works well especially if you can’t be home to move them when needed.  On the east side of a house the plants can get the morning sun and are shaded by the time the harshest sunlight occurs in the afternoon.

On the first day, leave them out for only an hour; then two hours the next day; then three hours.  After a few days leave them out for the entire morning. Eventually (after a week or so) they will be accustom to spending all of their time outside. It is at that point they can be moved into the garden.

Just as a reminder,  you to keep an eye out on the weather during the time you are getting your plants used to being outside.  If your plants should be exposed to a cold snap or severe storm, weeks of work could be lost.

There are a few more things that should be considered when the plants are transplanted into the garden.  We’ll discuss those in a later post as we get nearer to planting time.

Bob