Friday, February 17, 2017

First seeds started and the light setup

It's a beautiful day in the Midwest, sunny and 64 degrees (18 C).   And it's not just today, the forecast calls for the same balmy weather for another week, with no low below 40 F.  That would be normal in April, but this is mid-February.  If this warm spell keeps up, many deciduous trees will leaf out, as they did in 2012.  That year an early warm period followed by a later hard freeze killed the leaves on any trees that budded out too early.  Those trees had to leaf out again, which was especially hard on the tulip poplars.  I'm worried that my two apple trees will leaf out only to have the tender growth killed by frost, but there's nothing that can be done.  Usually I prune the apple trees in early March, but this year I'll prune them this weekend.  Strange and bizarre weather.

The spinach that was sowed last October is doing really well under the plastic greenhouse.  There are two rows of Burpee's Double Choice, which I have overwintered for years, and one row of Reflect, which was overwintered the first time this year.  The Reflect spinach is growing really well, even better than the Double-Choice.  If it doesn't bolt as the days get longer it will be my first choice for overwintering spinach in the future.  I expect a small harvest of spinach next week when I thin the rows.  A row of Pinetree winter lettuce mix also made it through the winter.  

Several years I ago I came up with this self-watering system for starting seedlings.  The system uses two trays, a solid tray and a tray with slits or small holes in the bottom.  Three pieces of PVC pipe are screwed to the perforated tray.  The pipe makes a space between the two trays that will hold about two quarts of water.

A wicking mat is set into the slitted tray.  The ends of this tray are cut so the mat can be pushed through.  In the past I bought this wicking material from a nearby store called Worm's Way, a hydroponics supplier, but they closed their retail outlet near Bloomington this year. with the conversion of the highway to Interstate 69 shutting off their road access.  At a Michael's craft store I found a bag of quilt filling, and it looks exactly like the wicking material I used to buy.  It is cut it into pieces to fit into the trays.

The ends of the wicking mat are folded under the bottom of the perforated tray, which is set into the solid tray.  Add some water and it's ready for pots and cell packs.  The beauty of this setup is that it provides just the right amount of water to the plants and the reservoir will last about a week before it needs replenishing.  With larger plants like tomatoes and okra the water will last several days, still a real timesaver.

I seeded 12 cells of lettuce, enough to fill one half of an Earthbox.  I'll seed 12 more in a few weeks.  The seedling mix is Miracle-Gro potting mix.  Maybe it's not the best mix but it does the job, and it has enough fertilizer in it to sustain tomato and pepper seedlings until they are set out.  I put some mix in a plastic tub, added 1/2 teaspoon of beneficial microbes and rubbed the mix with my hands to break up any clumps.  A little water was added to moisten the mix then it was added to the cell packs.

The cell packs are 3 inches deep.  I like to use the deeper pots for lettuce and brassicas because the seedlings seem to get a better start as long as the root ball can be kept intact when it is time to transplant. These are pots that originally had some annuals from the nursery (frugal gardeners motto:  don't throw anything out).   Once seeded the pots were set in the trays and the tray was covered with a plastic lid until the seeds germinate.  I don't use bottom heat except when starting the peppers, the rest germinate fine at room temperature.  The light will be turned on a 16/8 hour cycle once the seeds germinate.

The light unit is a modified shop light with four T8 flourescent lights.  Two of the lights are 6500K and two of them are 8000K,  so they are strongest in the blue region, which tends to give stockier growth.  I found the 8000K bulbs at Rural King.  They are probably used in chicken houses to mimic daylight.  The old rule of thumb is reds for flowering and blues for foliage.  I've done some research on this and found that even the 'warm white' 3200K bulbs are not very strong in the red region that plants need, which is why I go with the high K bulbs.

When the four light setup was put into operation a few years ago two of the bulbs were Gro-Lux bulbs, which provide a red/blue mix of light perfect for photosynthesis.  Under this light the seedlings grew wonderfully the first year, but toward the end of the second season the seedlings became spindly and grew poorly.  So the bulbs were good for about a year, and at their cost I wasn't about to replace them every year, which is why I go with standard daylight bulbs now.  Anyone interested in more detail about lighting and seed growth, this post from 2013 provides some useful information. 

This is just the start.  In a few days I'll seed 72 cells (a full tray) with onions.  Most of the potting-up work I enjoy, but the onions are pure tedium.  Then it will be time to start the first set of brassicas.  The season is underway!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Seeds are here

The seeds from Totally Tomatoes arrived yesterday, the last of the mail-order seeds.  Last year I was able to mostly 'coast' on seeds from the previous year, but this year the seed supply was very much depleted and a larger than usual order was called for.  Most years I try to order from as few suppliers as possible, trying to keep shipping costs down, but this year that was out of the question.  The seeds came from Peaceful Valley (cover crops), Pinetree, Johnny's, and Totally Tomatoes.  Later I'll place an order with Planet Natural for some anti-fungals and other supplies.

Here's what came in:
Cole crops (* denotes a new variety):
Green Magic broccoli.  An early broccoli that has done well for me.
Imperial broccoli*.   A mid-season variety that is supposed to have good heat tolerance.
Point One cabbage*.  This will be the first pointed cabbage for me.  If anything the novelty makes it worth a try.
Golden Acre cabbage.  An early cabbage with great flavor.
Minuteman cauliflower*.  An early F1 hybrid that I'll grow along with Snow Crown.

Provider.  My favorite bush bean.
Fortex.  My favorite pole bean.
Musica pole bean*.  I really lucked out here.  While ordering cover crops from Peaceful Valley, I saw that they offered Renee's seeds, which carries this variety.  I've been wanting to try Musica for some time but did not want to place a separate order for one pack of seeds.  Maybe this bean will be the one worthy of growing alongside Fortex.

Bastan ancho pepper*.   Dave at Our Happy Acres grew this pepper and it looked like a good one. I have been growing Mosquitero anchos, which is also a high quality ancho, but a bit late for this zone.  Bastan looks to set peppers a bit earlier.
Magyar paprika*.  This is also from Renee's, another find.
The remaining peppers are bought as seedlings from May's greenhouse in Bloomington, which carries nearly 60 varieties of pepper seedlings.  Since the garden is not large it doesn't pay for me to start peppers from seed, with the exception of the hybrid anchos, which are much better than the OP varieties.

I'm growing more tomatoes this year, using the space that in the past was planted in potatoes.  Hopefully some varieties will survive the blight and septoria leaf spot.  Some of the varieties are heirlooms or older F1 hybrids that Totally Tomatoes claim have some blight resistance.

Better boy*.  An older F1 large slicing tomato that is supposed to have great flavor.
Black plum*.  Not sure if I'll grow this.  Supposed to be one of the better tasting sauce tomatoes.
Ferline*.  This F1 is blight resistance.  I did not notice until the seed packet arrived that it takes 95 days to mature, which will be late August here.  If there's space I'll plant one, but that is a very late maturity date.
Mountain Magic*.  This campari type tomato is blight resistant and reviews say it has great flavor.  I'm not a fan of the small salad tomatoes but a good flavored one may win me over. Worth a try.
Old Brooks*.  An OP heirloom that TT claims has some blight resistance.
Plum Regal*.  A determinate sauce tomato that is blight resistant, although reviews on flavor were lukewarm.
Roma VF*.  Another determinate sauce tomato that TT claims has some blight resistance.

Cover crops:
Biomaster field peas.  I've grown these several years.  When inoculated their roots develop numerous white nodules that harbor nitrogen fixing bacteria.  I sow them in the squash bed in March, then plant squash into them in late May.   The cut foliage is great forage for the rabbits.
Red cowpeas*.  A heat loving legume.  This will follow crops like onions and cole crops that are pulled out in the summer.

The rest of the seeds:
Reflect spinach.  I first tried this last year and really like it, very early and tasty.
Pontiac onion*.  A yellow storage onion from Johnny's.  I've been growing Ruby Ring for several years but this year have had more than the usual number of sprouts.  Time for something new.
Nantes carrot.  An old standard.
Red Ace beet*. Claimed to be the best all-around beet. 
Vertina cucumber*.  A smooth-skinned pickling cucumber from Johnny's.  It's parthenocarpic, so it won't need a pollinator.  Will replace Calypso this year.
Metro Butternut squash.  A mid-sized butternut that has done well here for years.
Buttercup squash. Just hope it doesn't succumb to the borer.
Javelin parsnip.  It just doesn't pay to plant the old OP varieties.  This one is much better.

Along with the seeds carried over from years past, it looks like I'm ready to start seeding.  I'll seed lettuce in about a week, then start onions a week after that.  In the near future I'll post on my seed starting setup and lights.  Happy gardening 2017.