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Spring Garden Preparation and Seed Starting!

Angela Weaver Gardening Spring

Spring Garden Preparation and Seed Starting!  

I am always so excited to begin working in the garden again!  Something about the smell of the dirt and the sound of the birds and the bit of sunshine breaking through that is so refreshing!  And that feeling lasts for a while until the reality of how much needs to be done and the pain in my feet and hands and back all remind me that I am both out of shape and getting older!  Still, there is something innately satisfying about gardening... from a lot of compost grows some beautiful things!

Our bearded and Siberian iris' and peonies have just started blooming here in Northeast Ohio and more things are budding day by day and each week brings more to see.  The return of these and the other perennials blooming is like old friends returning to visit after being gone for a long time... I have sentimental attachments to a lot of the plants here that have come from different places and people over the years.  Working these beds is relaxing and therapeutic as the old is cleared away, the unwelcome plants are removed and preparations for another year of beautiful blooms is made.  Though I seem to have missed that elusive perfect window for mulching in early May when the plants are smaller and easier to work around, I am hopeful that the weather will dry up enough to get the last of the weeding and edging done and then the mulching soon after.  It's always during this spring cleanup that I think I probably have enough to maintain!  But then they begin blooming and Autumn rolls around and I think just one more would be nice!

This year with creating the new cut flower garden, there was more than usual to prepare.  The tractor with the new (to us) rototiller have really been a blessing and have made the preparations so much easier!  Many thanks to our neighbors with horses also for letting us take their manure pile home to the enrich the dirt!  Our chickens and rabbits are great for helping to create more compost, but we wanted more than what they created to mix in to this new section.  The bed is about ready for planting and hopefully the weather this weekend will allow for getting everything tucked in and ready to GROW!  With all the rain this week, I'm somewhat regretting not getting it all planted last weekend!  On one hand it would have been nice to have the rain to settle in all of the plants, but on the other we've had so much rain that I could easily have washed out most of the seeds!  There is so much about gardening that is out of one's control!

Most of the new cut flower and herb garden will be direct seeded this year.  While it will mean that many flowers won't be ready as quickly as I'd have preferred, it doesn't require as much space to store seeds as it does to start seedlings!  Thoughts of a new little greenhouse for seed starting for next year are already milling around in my head!  Meanwhile, I'm consoling myself with the idea that some things (like corn) don't enjoy being transplanted  and are better direct seeded anyways.  

Our simple seed starting system for amateurs!

While they aren't much to brag about, I did start several trays of seedlings and they have overtaken our garage and front porch!  Yes, another space to keep these guys in would be wonderful!  In spite of my inexperience, they've turned out nicely.  While it  is admittedly an amateur system at best, it has been simple, fairly inexpensive, and useful for starting a decent amount of seeds in a short amount of time. Thanks to my mom for saving the day with the idea and the help in transplanting the baby seedlings.  When I picked up the tray of baby seedlings from the greenhouse,I just kept looking at them blankly and praying for that light-bulb moment so I would know what to do with them!  If you are looking for a simple way to start plants from seeds, transplant seedlings, or a fun and educational DIY science project for your kids, classroom, or Sunday school class, this easy system might work for you too!  

The supply list is pretty short:

  • Bag of potting soil: I purchased a large bag from our local greenhouse as it was more cost effective to purchase a larger quantity and I really like the organic professional growers mix!  A little will go a long way, but it seems I always use up the whole bag for one project or another (think planting annual pots or planter boxes) so you may want to reconsider a large bag if your initial thought is that you would never use that much!   

  • Boxes of paper cups: The first boxes I purchased were the larger drinking cup size but while they worked well for the larger seedlings from the greenhouse, the waxy coating and the large size didn't work as well for seed starting since they were to big to fit nicely into the cake pans and still be able to use the lid; stick with the small bathroom size that are uncoated paper.   Each of the boxes had four designs of cups and I took the time to sort them so that I could color code the seedlings (ie. parsley seeds in the green ones, chamomile in the yellow ones, etc.)

  • Aluminium cake pans with lids (lids will help to retain moisture and warmth so the seeds can germinate as quickly as possible.) This was really just a simple way to have something to hold all the seedling cups and make taking them outside for sun and inside at night for protection from the cold easier.  I requisitioned our shoe rack to hold six trays (two on each of the three shelves).  For the seedlings, I reused shipping boxes that had the sides cut down to about 4" or so and then also taped the bottom of the box with an X of packaging tape so that it wouldn't fall apart when it was wet.  They did get soggy, but were still useful.

  • Plant tags: wooden craft sticks will work well, but we personally re-use mini-blinds for this!  When you trim those extra blinds or replace them, don't throw them away!  Cut each blind in thirds and they are useful temporary plant tags!  (We use metal tags for long-term use.)  Write on them with a china marker (also called a grease pencil) and they will last for a couple seasons.  Most office supply stores have these, usually in red or black.   I don't recommend using a permanent marker to write on the tags as that always seems to wear off quickly!

  • Seeds! Some are easier to start than others. We planted several varieties of zinnias and they germinated quickly and haven't gotten too "leggy".  For the seeds that we really didn't want to mess up, I went to our local greenhouse and asked if he would start them for us; a few weeks later I picked up a tray of beautiful baby seedlings that were ready to bump up to bigger containers (paper cups!) and they've done very well.  We've lost some to slugs (ugh!) now that they are big enough to go outside until the garden is ready but since we had so many it wasn't too tragic!  Anyways, asking a greenhouse to start them for you is worth it if you are not willing to risk the seedlings not turning out less than beautiful!

  • A bucket to mix soil in is helpful too!

Planting the seeds is about as simple as the supply list!  Find a comfortable place to work and:

  • Sort the paper cups (if desired) and poke some holes in the bottom of the cup.  If your kids are small, I wouldn't let them do this part!  I used some sort of sharp punch that I found in the guys' tool box in the garage and it worked great!  But a mechanical pencil tip would work too.  Just punch a few holes so the seedlings can drain.  You want them to stay moist without being too wet.  

  • Also take the cake pans and lids and punch a couple holes in the bottom of the aluminum pan, don't punch holes in the lid.  This part isn't necessary (especially if you don't want them to leak on the surface you are going to keep them on to sprout!)  I did punch holes in the bottom mine since with watering the seedling cups the extra water could drain and I wasn't worried about them draining on the space I put them.  Once they had sprouted and were tall enough to remove the lid, I put the lid under the tray and then any extra water was contained since the lid didn't have holes in it. 

  • Next, scoop some of the potting soil into a bucket and add water so that it is about the same consistency as the sand you would use to make a sandcastle.  Not too dry, not too wet! 

  • Fill the paper cups about 2/3 full with soil and pack the soil down gently but firmly.

  • Pack the soil filled cups into the cake pans.  I could tightly fit thirty-five (35) cups into the 9 x 13 cake pans with five rows of seven cups in each tray; you will have to squish the cups a bit to get them in there.  Write on a plant marker the type of seeds you are planting in the tray (I also wrote the date that I planted them) so that you won't forget or get the trays confused until they are big enough to tell apart!

  • Place the seeds in the cups!  Generally speaking I put one to three seeds per cup; some of those teeny tiny seeds like parsley ended up with several more seeds per cup!  Some seeds are better not to cover with soil as they will need light to germinate and others should be covered with soil... check the directions on the seed packet. You can add a little more potting soil to cover the seeds if needed.

  • Put the lid on the cake pans and place it somewhere where it will get some light and warmth.  Heated seed mats are nice, but I didn't use one... I was willing to risk it if they took longer to sprout and again, most of the seeds I planted were types that were pretty easy to grow!  The lids help to hold in the moisture and keep the seeds warm.  Sadly, the lids aren't the tightest fitting and they blow off easily if there is any wind (like there was when I set mine outside on a sunny day!  A rock on the top did a pretty good job of keeping the lid in place for the most part.

  • Wait for them to sprout!  Keep the soil moist by spraying with water or gently drizzling warm water over them if they appear dry.  Be careful not to wash away the seeds by pouring water over them quickly.  You will know if they are dry because the soil will turn from dark brown/black to light brown.  The temperature of where they are at to sprout as well as the temperature preference of the seeds will influence how soon you see some results.  Generally, the seeds I planted in warmer 70° weather sprouted sooner than the seeds I planted in the cool 50/60° weather.  

  • Once they have sprouted and grown to reach the top of the lid, remove the lid.  Keeping them from getting really leggy at this point is tricky for me!  This time I kept seedlings on both my front porch and in the garage; porch during the day, garage for safety and warmth at night... investing in a small greenhouse would be a wonderful luxury for next year!  But the front porch faces north so the seed cups were shaded but got fresh air and indirect light. 

  • Watch them grow!  They can grow pretty quickly!  Once they had another set of leaves and had grown up a bit, and after the danger of frost was over and the temperatures were warm enough they were able to spend the night on the porch!  

  • Transplant to the garden, removing the plant from the paper cup before planting.  I did plant some cabbage plants already in the flowerbeds and I was pleasantly surprised that they had some fairly good roots in those cups!  I'm excited to get the rest of the seedlings planted too!

While they are not nearly the quality of the seedlings I picked up at the greenhouse, I was okay with the results for this year.  They are a bit stringy but nothing they shouldn't outgrow.  Investing in a small greenhouse for next year would be a wonderful luxury just in having a place to put all the trays of seedlings!  And maybe some of those cool soil block makers I've seen instead of the paper cups!  But for this year, I am relieved that the paper cup system has worked so well! 

Have you tried any simple and successful ways to start seeds? You may notice from the picture that we also had some willing garden helpers happy to stick their noses in to see what we were doing! I can't say they were particularly helpful but they sure are cute and good company! 🐶💖🐶

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