Seed Starting Workshop: A Recap
Emily Pek, founder of Frayed Knot Farm, and our own Claire Bruch from Tilth Soil and Liani Rivera from the residential compost department at Rust Belt Riders shared their dos and don'ts of starting an herb and vegetable garden indoors at our Starting from Seed: A Workshop. It elevated our appreciation for gardeners and people who build things from scratch.
Pek grows 30 varieties of annual and perennial flowers from seed and, 6 to 12 weeks later, sows the seedlings into the land handed down from her grandparents in Northwest Ohio. Her experience is invaluable.
The workshop validated a few assumptions, such as, a home growing system doesn’t have to be fancy. Rivera bought a set of LED grow lights and a commercial stainless steel shelving system off the Internet and set it up in a closet in her apartment. Rather than focusing on expensive lights, make sure you keep a consistent lighting schedule of up to 12 hours per day. (At home, my partner and I hung a simple, LED-tube shop light on a set of chains six inches above the seedlings after they germinated and, as the plants got bigger, we moved the lights up).
It’s perfectly acceptable to reuse containers for your seed starts. Egg cartons are popular, though, twice-daily watering requirements will break down the paper eventually. Pek saves and reuses plastic, plant cell packs from the store. The reason egg cartons and cell packs work best is their size -- small cells keep the seeds well contained when watering.
Your growing medium matters -- the same as light, water and a constant temperature -- because soil isn’t merely what holds plants up; soil feeds your seedlings the nutrients they need to grow into healthy plants. We’re happy that Sprout, our potting soil from Tilth, is working well for Pek and her gorgeous potted plants and cut flowers.
When it comes time to starting your seeds, use your finger, a pencil, or a chopstick to dig a small hole in the soil and then drop in a seed, sometimes two per 'plug'. Rivera prefers the seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Pek likes the seed company Johnny's Selected Seeds, because their instructions are clear and copious. They both said to look for companies whose labels have details like, which seeds need soil to cover the plug, or, how long before seedlings can be transplanted to a bigger pot.
The idea with watering is to be gentle -- you don't want to displace small seeds from your soil. It was a good, pro tip to find a watering can with perforated nozzles or the kind of condiment dispensers found at diners.
Rivera showed a 'root bound' seedling versus a healthy root system. The key to avoiding root bound seedlings is to 'pot up' or move to a larger container about 2 weeks after germination. Her method for telling if a plant is root bound is to give it a “squeeze test.” If the seedling comes out quickly, the roots have taken all the nutrients from soil. If not, they’re probably not ready to go outside. They confirmed that, even when your plants grow a couple of inches tall, they will need a boost of nutrients from a refresh of soil in the weeks to come.
Once temperatures are consistently above freezing, you can start the process of acclimating the seedlings to the outdoors. It can be tedious, Rivera admits. This whole process is time and energy consuming, but the trade off is the satisfaction of knowing you’re working toward a self-sufficient home and garden. Acclimating means taking outside your trays for a couple of hours and gradually working in more daylight hours. It’s a commitment, but the 'hardening off' process is necessary if you don’t want your plants to get shocked.
Take 1 to 2 weeks to acclimate them. Start with a couple of hours in nice, mild weather, and work up to 6 hours. Eventually, you’ll leave the plants outside overnight. But, for the next few months, you do have to keep bringing them back inside. Look at the label to see if the plant is cold hardy. Kale, greens, and radishes are (they can go into your garden immediately after acclimating them); peppers and tomatoes are not.
If you’re unsure of what to bring out when, they swear by the Farmers’ Almanac, available at most garden stores, for planting advice that is appropriate to Northeast Ohio's climate hardiness zone (5 to 6).
Pek’s parting words really resonated (since, at home, some of our kale and chard seedlings fell over when we transplanted them). Practice forgiveness if things don't work out.
"Don’t be discouraged if you can’t grow something perfectly. But, if something grows well, share what you did with a neighbor. You’ll find that sweet spot of what to grow where."
That sentiment is something to build on. Find your neighbors and share what works (and what didn’t) because conditions like soil, water, and sun vary yard by yard. It’s a good reminder that gardening is best practiced with a little patience and perseverance; like all things, it takes tending.