Last Tuesday was the kick-off for starting seedlings indoors at the Mississippi Mills Youth Centre. The task was made all the more enjoyable by having most of the dirty work done by a handful of youth and leaders. In one of my more inspired moments I had offered to set up some of my seed starting equipment at the Youth Centre and provide a weekly workshop on growing seedlings under lights. For some inexplicable reason management at the Youth Centre leapt at the offer.
On Monday last week the shelves and lights were set up. On Tuesday I brought in seeds, planting medium and a trug to mix and moisten the medium (I know, I know … I had to look it up – in this case it is just a big plastic bucket!).
The planting medium that I am using is a commercial soil-less mixture that is about two-thirds peat moss so it takes a bit of effort to get it moist. We filled the trug about half-full with the medium adding lots of water and mixing vigorously. The goal was a final product that is moist but not wet (water should not run out if you squeeze a handful). One thing we discovered is that young women who have just had a manicure are not keen to take on the mixing job!
The next step was to fill the pots (I am using new plastic inserts – 10 inch by 20 inch plastic trays with a 48 pot insert) with the moistened seeding mixture, plant one or two seeds in each pot (following directions on the packet as to seeding depth). This was a bit of a messy operation but a few of the youth really got into it.
The final step was to put the carefully labelled trays on the shelves. I make a chart and put labels in the tray – many of these little seedlings will look very similar when they start growing. I find it is important to maintain charts of what I have planted – both indoors and outdoors – labels are good but I find that these often get lost, move or fade. No job is finished until the paperwork is done!
We planted four trays. Half of one tray was planted with eggplant seeds; the other three and a half trays were planted with eight varieties of pepper. Once the seeds germinate the lights will be turned on and the seedlings kept within an inch or two of the lights.
One of the main concerns when starting seedlings is their vulnerability to certain kinds of viral diseases, commonly called ‘damping-off’. Seedlings that appear healthy topple over from the base and die. I have found that this is virtually eliminated by using a commercial soil-less mixture and new plastic inserts. I also insure good air circulation by keeping a fan running constantly. This air movement keeps disease at bay and also produces stronger, stockier plants. The fan will be turned on as soon as there is any sign of growth.
We are still about ten weeks away from the time (Victoria Day weekend) that we will be transplanting frost-sensitive vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers into the outdoor garden. Peppers and eggplant can grow for ten weeks indoors or so and be healthy vigorous plants ready to plant in the garden in late May. On the other hand tomatoes need a maximum of eight weeks; otherwise they will be huge ungainly plants long before it is time to plant them in the garden. Patience!
As you may have noticed the growing equipment does not need to be fancy. I use utility wooden shelving and suspend four-foot fluorescent fixtures by chains between the shelves so that I can adjust them to keep them within an inch or two of the seedlings – this spacing is critical – seedlings need to be very close to the lights. Used fluorescent fixtures are available for next to nothing at garage sales. I use only the cheapest four-foot fluorescent tubes as my results have been just as good as using special “grow” tubes.
One last thought that I want to emphasize is that I am speaking from my own very personal experience. What I am starting and growing is for a small garden that doesn’t take a lot of resources. Growers with large greenhouses have very different approaches. There are many different ways to do things with equally good results. My goal is to share my approach and let you know how it works – other approaches may work equally well – plants are very adaptable and forgiving.