by David Hinks
The snow may still be piled in dirty heaps at the side of the road and my garden is covered with a foot of snow but this weekend I was busy planting seeds – eggplant, pepper and a half dozen other vegetables.
But before I talk a little more about starting seedlings, let me introduce myself and why I want to write about growing vegetables.
I retired about five years ago following a long career with the federal government and since then have largely followed my passion for gardening and observation of the natural world.
One of the ways that I try to pass on that passion is through an introduction to organic vegetable gardening workshops that I do in the spring on behalf of the Community Gardening Network of Ottawa. These presentations are made in community centres and in large part to new gardeners. People have come up to me after the workshops and asked me if I would do a Blog explaining what I’m doing at each point in the growing season – after all there is a limit to what you can absorb in a two-hour workshop. In an earlier era you would have picked up the practical know-how by observing and chatting with your gardening neighbour or working with a family member. What I plan to do is let you know what I’m doing and how well it is working – based on my own personal, real-time experience. And, I hope to do it on a weekly basis throughout the growing season.
So let’s get back to starting seedlings indoors. As with many things in life, timing is all important. Peppers and eggplant can grow for ten weeks indoors and be healthy vigorous plants ready to plant in the garden in late May. Celery, parsley, onions, leeks and globe artichokes also benefit from a ten to 12 week head start indoors. On the other hand tomatoes need a maximum of eight weeks; otherwise they will be huge ungainly plants as I have learned from frustrating personal experience.
The key to growing seedlings successfully indoors is lots of light. If plants don’t have enough light they will be spindly and weak and will not be able to handle the transition to outdoor conditions. Even a very sunny window is unlikely to provide sufficient light given the number of cloudy days in winter; hence it is preferable to start seedlings under artificial light. It is also likely to get very cool at night close to the window.
The set-up does not need to be fancy. I use utility wooden shelving and suspend fluorescent fixtures by chains between the shelves so that I can adjust them to keep them within a couple of inches of the seedlings. 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.
I turn on the lights first thing in the morning and turn them off when I go to bed. I water only when the growing medium is dry to the touch but before the seedlings wilt and drain off any excess water that has not been absorbed in a couple of hours.
Seeds contain all the nutrients required for germination. I use a diluted organic fish-based fertilizer weekly after seedlings have been growing for a couple of weeks.
Seedlings are very vulnerable 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 use 25cm X 50 cm plastic trays with a 32 pot insert). I also insure good air circulation by keeping a fan running constantly. The air movement also produces stronger, stockier plants.
So I’ve filled the pots with my seeding mixture, I let them absorb moisture over night, drained off excess water in the morning, planted one or two seeds in each pot (following directions on the packet as to seeding depth), and then covered with a clear plastic ‘green-house’ lid (which I remove as soon as the seed has germinated).
Now we cross our fingers and wait – I will keep you posted!