Friday, December 28, 2007
Every year I start thousands of plants from seed. Except for sunflowers, zinnias and a few others I direct sow outside, everything is started inside under lights in plastic cell packs. I use the same techniques I learned as a home gardener only on a larger scale. In later posts I plan to describe in more detail when and how I start different plants.
If you’re interested in starting a few unusual or expensive annuals or perennials this winter, the following describes the equipment and steps I use to start almost everything I grow.
I use cheap 4 foot fluorescent shop lights you can get from any local hardware. You do not need special bulbs or grow lights, just standard cool white bulbs that will probably come with the fixture. The light fixture is suspended from the ceiling using light weight chains. This will allow you to raise the lights as the plants grow. Connect the fixture to a timer so it will be on 16 hours and then off for 8 hours.
I use plastic cell packs (liners), like the kind used to sell annuals in the spring. You can buy new ones or recycle used ones. If you reuse them, they should be washed in soap and water with a bit of bleach to kill any diseases. The 72 cell per flat liners are big enough for starting most things and you can fit two flats or 144 plants under one light fixture. You may also want to get plastic flats to hold the liners unless you want to have to handle each cell pack individually.
You can either buy or improvise humidity domes. These are clear plastic domes that will fit over a single flat. This will hold moisture in so you will not need to re-water the seeds until they emerge. You can also use plastic wrap or improvise with anything that is clear and will hold in moisture.
Flat, 72 cell liner and humidity dome
Growing Media (“Soil”)
I put “soil” in quotes because I use pre-packaged seed starting mix rather than real soil from outside. I do this because it is light, very well drained and sterile. Most of these mixes are composed of peat moss and vermiculite and/or perlite. If you use dirt from the garden then you must sterilize it by baking it in the oven because it is full of weed seeds and pathogens. If you go this route (I don’t recommend it) find directions on the web about how long to bake your soil and what temperature to use
To avoid compacting the growing media, you want to moisten it by watering from the bottom rather than the top. Fill the liners with grow mix and place them in a container of water. You can use a flat to hold the water if it has no holes. The water will be absorbed through the holes in the bottom of the liners – it will take about 10-30 minutes for the grow mix to become moistened. Once it is wet, remove the liners from the water and allow them to drain for a few minutes.
Sow the Seeds
Now sow the seeds in each cell of the cell packs. Different seeds need to be sown in different ways and you need to rely on the information on the seed package. Typically, very small seeds are just dropped on the surface and are not covered. If this is the case the seed package will say something like “surface sow” or “light needed for germination”. If the seeds are to be covered, the standard rule of thumb is cover with 3 times the depth (smallest dimension) of the seed.
Unless the seed is expensive and I want every possible plant, I usually sow 2 or 3 seeds per cell to ensure I end up with one plant per cell. If the seeds are very tiny, be careful not to sow too many. Under these indoor controlled conditions you will get very high germination and thinning tiny seedlings is very tedious.
After sowing the seed, whether covered or uncovered, use a spray bottle to mist the surface of the soil mix with water. This will ensure that the surface sown seeds are in good contact with the media and that the covered seeds are watered in.
Under the Lights
Cover the flat with the humidity dome and place the flat under the under the lights. The lights should be about an inch above the humidity dome. Most seeds germinate well at normal room temperature, around 65-70 degrees F. Check each day to see if any seedlings have emerged. Once the seedlings are up, prop the humidity dome open for one day and then remove it completely. The lights should be kept around 2-3 inches over the tops of the plants.
You can get plastic liners, flats, growing media, humidity domes and many great seeds at Downtown Home and Garden in Ann Arbor. Altogether it seems like a pretty big investment – light fixture, chains, timer, flats, flat liners, humidity domes, seed starting mix. However, the light fixture, chains and timer will last a very long time, and the flats, liners and humidity domes will last can last 3 or more years if treat them carefully.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s Mantle)
Swan Violet & White
Asclepias (Butterfly Weed or milkweed)
incarnata 'Ice Ballet'
tuberosa Wild Orange Type
Campanula persicifolia (Bellflower)
* Blue Bell
Centaurea (perennial bachelor button)
Chrysanthemum coccineum (Painted Daisy)
Leucanthemum (Shasta Daisy)
*belladonna Oriental Sky
cultorum Aurora F1 Mix
cultorum Clear Springs Mid-Blue
Echinops ritro (Globe Thistle)
Erigeron speciosus (Fleabane)
Eryngium alpinum (Sea Holly)
Trollius (Globe flower)
Ageratum Blue Horizon
*Madame Butterfly Mix
Asclepias curassavica (Butterfly weed)
Silky series Deep Red
Capsicum (ornamental pepper)
*Cappa Series Conic WhiteRed
Celosia Century Yellow
Delphinium consolida Regalis (panticle larkspur)
Dianthus x barbatus (1st year flowering sweet William)
Amazon Neon Rose Magic
Amazon Neon Duo
Silver Dollar Tree
Godetia (Satin flower)
Flamingo Series Red
Flamingo Series Salmon
Flamingo Series White
Gypsophilia elegans (annual baby’s breath) White Elephant
Helianthus Annus (Sunflower)
*Orange Mahogony Bicolor
Pro Cut Lemon
Pro Cut Orange
Double Quick Orange
Iberis amara (Candytuft)
*Echo Blue Picotee
Echo Pink Picotee
Twinkle Deep blue
Twinkle blue blush
*Magic Series mix
Persian Jewels mix
Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan)
Stock Matthiola (fragrant stocks)
Verbena bonariensis ‘Finesse’
Benary's Giant Dahlia BluePoint Series
Thursday, October 25, 2007
In another week or so I can dig up all the dahlias and store them for the winter. That's usually the last thing I do. Meanwhile I keep weeding and try to prep as many empty beds for next year as I can manage. I would prefer to prep things in the spring but the farm site is low and poorly drained. The soil is usually not workable until pretty late in the spring, later than I need to start putting things in, so I try to do as much as I can now.
The farm now has 105 4'x25' raised beds. I added 21 this year and that will hopefully be about all I will need. The beds are "raised" by virtue of adding 1 or 2 yards of compost when I create them, but they are not held in by anything. Fortunately, I do not need to prep all of these in the fall because more than a third of them contain perennials and spring bulbs. For the ones that do need to be prepped, the procedure is:
- Remove perennial weeds, especially thistles and grasses since they will come back from root fragments.
- Till the bed with my big, bad ass Merry Tiller International
- Cover the bed with about a yard of compost
- Till again
- Re-hill the bed with all the soil the tiller has tossed onto the path.
- Cover the bed with straw to prevent the winter emergence of cold weather weeds like mustards.
Merry Tiller International
The goal is to have a relatively weed-free, prepped bed all ready to go in the spring. Right now there are about 45 prepped (counting the 21 new ones) and another 10 in various stages of being prepped, and probably another 10 that have not been started.
Beds cleaned and prepped for next year
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Calendula, a hardy annual
In typical backwards fashion, my first post here is on the last day I'm cutting flowers for 2007. In past years, cold and wet weather has made this a miserable, finger numbing job but this year it is perfect. Sunny and pleasant for me but not so hot that the flowers wilt before I can get them in the bucket. There are still some nice things available for bouquets.
Because this is the last set of bouquets I'm making up this year I get to harvest EVERYTHING and not worry about leaving enough for next time. I'm harvesting all the eucalyptus as filler greens (silvers?). I love that I can grow my own eucalyptus here in Michigan, it seems so exotic. I grow the "Silver Dollar" strain and start the seed indoors under lights in March. By the end of the season they are a little shrub about 2-3 feet tall and wide. If this were a warm climate where it never went much below freezing the plants would become 20 or 30 foot trees.
Eucalyptus at the farm
I've also got pineapple sage. They are not hardy here but the leaves have a great fruity scent and it flowers with scarlet red spikes in October. The flowers aren't that showy but the color is nice.
There are a few dahlias left, too. Usually they are knocked out by frost by now but not this year. We have had frosts - last weekend I had to scrape my car windows on Saturday and Sunday - but for some reason the dahlias survived. After today's harvest I'm going to cut them all to the ground so the tubers can cure for a week or so before I dig them up for winter storage.
Most of the flowers in the bouquets will be chrysanthemums. There are some really great chrysanthemums for cutting that are hardy in Michigan but you have to mail order them. Locally all I can ever find are the cushion chrysanthemums which usually have small flowers and short stems. These are nice in the landscape but for cutting I need longer stems and also want to have a variety of flower sizes and types to keep the bouquets interesting.
Football Chrysanthemum 'Bronze Giant'
Chrysanthemum 'Sheffield Pink'
The flowers on the football mum 'Bronze Giant', pictured above, are about 4 to 5 inches across. There is another football mum one that is more of a golden color called 'Cheerleader' and a dull pink one I don't like much called 'Quarterback'. The quilled mum 'Jonette' is one of my favorites. Besides the beautiful form it is a buff/cream color which looks good with warm fall colors but can also be combined with pinks and blues. The daisy mum at the bottom, 'Sheffield Pink' is a new one for me this year. I put in a picture of it because it looks so fresh, the blooms are just now opening in late October.