My grandmother Edith and her young familyOr “Lessons Learned”

I have noted that home gardeners learn their “craft” either as an apprentice to a more seasoned gardener or by years of trial and error. I am of the latter camp.

I missed my chanced to be mentored by my grandmother because she fled the Big City (San Diego in the 1950s) before I was born. She lived on a piece of rural land in Arkansas for most of my childhood and my experience of her life then was during too-short summer visits. I never was initiated into her gardening secrets.

My father in the family garden, circa 1930.Her only son, my father, is a very poor reporter. He recalls she grew tomatoes and “kitchen things,” which I take to mean herbs. I grew up in a neatly landscaped suburb, tended by a hired man, and I don’t recall any families I knew well that had vegetable gardens. My first childhood gardening adventure was to plant catnip seeds in a bare spot of a flowerbed. The gardener mistook the seedlings for weeds and routed them out.

When Frank and I bought our home, the half-acre lot was one of the bonuses. I always wanted a garden. We quickly left our imprint on the front yard but the backyard was a different story. With a succession of large dogs, nothing ever seemed to get done that wasn’t undone. Add that to full-time careers and other commitments, our successes were slow in coming.

The most famous growing season – it has achieved Family Myth status – is the first year I grew zucchini. I bought a six-pack of seedlings at the garden center and planted them all just like the directions said. I was mightily disappointed when one seedling died of transplant shock. I was mightily surprised by how many pounds five zucchini vines can yield. That was the year of zucchini steamed, zucchini fried, zucchini bread, zucchini muffins, zucchini soup, zucchini everything else. My dear mother, of blessed memory, asked me not to bring any more zucchini, please.

Lesson learned: don’t plant more than you and yours can use.

Particularly in the last few years, the selection of vegetables available at my favorite garden center has expanded to include many unusual and heirloom plants. I’ve dabbled in different varieties depending on what caught my fancy on the days I walked through the inventory. I have almost exclusively begun with four inch potted plants. The logic here is that a packet of seeds has dozens and dozens of seeds that lose their viability after the current season. Remembering the Year of Zucchini, we have always opted for one or two plants of any variety and share what we can.

But this year is exceptional because the Beekman Boys came calling. I’m having to face starting vegetables from seed.

The seeds came at the end of February and the first week of March was a perfect time to start tomato and peppers indoors. I could start beans, cucumbers, and summer and winter squash in the ground come April.

Still I hate for anything to go to waste so I planted enough seeds to provide for us, sharing with our neighbors, and a few plants for my sister’s patio. I purchased a seed staring tray with a clear dome to create the right environment for the seeds to sprout. The tray held 18 three-inch peat pots and I filled them with a sterile seed staring medium. I planted the Black Cherry tomatoes and Bullnose peppers and supplemented my selection with Anaheim and Poblano peppers and Brandywine tomatoes. There were a few gourds, too, since my Master Gardeners Association makes birdhouses from them as a fundraiser.

A lot of people start their seedlings in flats and after germination they transplant seedlings to pots. Because I work, my time is limited. I decided not to take this intermediate step.

Just because it is fun, I also started some perennial and gourd seeds in those little peat pellets. You know the kind: they are shaped like coins and expand when wetted. My three-year-old neighbor and I poked little seeds in them in the hopes that she would get to see them sprout and then, eventually, put them in the ground.

Things were going along fine when I starting finding out what I don’t know.

It has been a little cool lately and most nights in March were in the 40s. Even daytime temps were in the mild mid-60s so I was cautious about putting my newly sprouted seeds outside even during the day while I was at work. I have a sunny, cheerful laundry room with plenty of natural light so I figured keeping the seedlings there near the window would be enough. And there was no way I was going to talk my husband into some contraption with grow lights on our new washer/dryer.

My light meter in full sun.I found out soon enough that indoor natural light doesn’t even come close to what the seeds need. Very quickly, my tomato seedlings became leggy. I have a plant “light+moisture+pH” meter and took reading in the “sunny” room and found that it barely registered 150 on the scale. I took a reading on our deck under a 50/50 shade cover and got a reading of 1000 and up. In full sun, the needle pegged out at the top of the 2000 unit scale. Nothing came with the meter to help me interpret this information but I did find an off-hand remark on a website about a light measurement called a “mole.” I can’t confirm what was said there so I hesitate giving the link but the writer said that the seedlings needed at least 500 units.

Lesson learned: indoor natural light may not be enough.

The same website said to chuck the leggy tomato seedlings and start over. I didn’t do that, exactly, but I did start a dozen back-up tomatoes. More on that in a minute. So I started moving my seedlings out every morning before I left for work and brought them in before dark.

The pepper seedlings didn’t pose the same problem. They germinated more slowly and never got leggy like the tomatoes and they are reaping the full benefit of the new light routine.

But I miscalculated one day. After a full month of temps in the 60s and low seventies, the mercury climbed unexpectedly to a brilliant 85° and I had placed my seedlings in a spot not sufficiently sheltered from direct sunlight. That took care of most of the leggy tomato seedlings. Their tender little stems just wilted.

Lesson learned: full sun may be too much.

Rotisserie TomatoesThank God I had started that second set of seeds. This time I did two things differently. Realizing that the seedlings in three-inch pots wouldn’t let me repot them to encourage additional root growth, I found some small natural fiber, biodegradable pots, about 1 1/2 inches across. Even though the seed tray I had purchased was lovely, I wasn’t going to buy a second one. I recycled the grocery store rotisserie chicken containers. Yes, that plastic tray with the clear dome that little roast chickens come in. It easily holds six pots and I set one up for the replacement Black Cherry tomatoes and one for the Brandywine. The only downside is that the little pots seem to dry out more quickly and require more frequent watering.

Lesson learned: purchased trays are nice but there are other options.

I’m going to add one more quick little observation about the tomato seeds. In both batches of Black Cherry tomatoes, there was one that was late to the party. A week after all the other seeds sprouted, one final pot presented a seedling.

Lesson learned: germination times are a range.

Gourd seedlings in peat pots vs. peat pellets. You might be wondering what about the pot vs. peat pellet test. I planted gourd seeds (which are enormous compared to tomatoes and peppers) in both the three-inch pots and the little peat pellets. Both sprouted fine but I noticed that the potted plant grew more and more quickly and I have to attribute that to the nutrients in the seed starting mix. (To be honest, the packaging made such hyperbolic claims, I dare not repeat them here.) However, the seedlings in the peat pellets had roots sticking out of the sides. The peat pellets were obviously too small. The potted plants bit the big one when we lost the leggy tomatoes so I can’t tell you more about how that would have turned out but I took the smaller plants, “potted ’em up” (which is what seasoned gardeners call it when they move a small seedling to a larger container), and they are doing just fine. I’m planting four gourd vines along the fence next week.

Would I use the peat pellets again? Oh, sure. The size of the seed, compared to the size of the expanded pellet, would factor into it. They make a larger version of the pellet, too, but I don’t need it. The small one is an advantage for me because I can start more in less space before I have to pot them up. The pellets we used for starting milkweed for a perennial bed were hugely successful and we have ten viable seedlings. The perennial bed will be a lure for butterflies in our yard and I (and my three-year-old neighbor) couldn’t be happier.

Lesson learned: every method has pros and cons.

I’m still struggling with the idea of fertilizing my seedlings. I’m getting conflicting information about what to do. I’m comfortable with the idea that the seedlings can do pretty well on their own until the first “true leaves” appear. I’ve been following that with “worm tea,” the liquid accumulated in my worm farm, diluted with water, or a very weak solution of soluble fertilizer. Still, they are taking forever to get big.

One evening, my husband found me standing over my forty or fifty seedlings. “Are you watching them grow?” Yes.

Lesson learned: I’m not patient.

Despite the setbacks, I will still have healthy plants in the vegetable patch next month and I’ll have peppers in May and tomatoes in June if the conditions are right for the flowers to set.

Next, I’ll tell you all the lessons I’ve learned outside…

Laurie Gore is the Zone 9 Deputy Heirloom Gardener. Laurie, a native of San Diego, and Frank, her West Virginian husband, have been transplanted to Bonita, California.

by Zone 9 Deputy Gardener Laurie Gore

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Laurie

Brenda,

There are a lot of reasons to start seeds in pots, indoors or outdoors, before they go into the vegetable bed. A lot of our resources will talk as if the only objective is to beat the clock and get around frost dates but that isn't as relevant to us here in Southern (and Central) California, particularly with tomatoes. Because our growing season is so long for warm-season vegetables, the calculations are a little different.

One reason to start in pots is to manage the use of your in-ground space. If your bed is crowded, starting seeds in pots helps extend your space. Another reason is to protect your plants from the kinds of problems only very young plants are susceptible. Damping off can be prevented in more controlled conditions. Letting plants get big enough in pots to overcome damage by insects in-ground is another reason. We have earwigs that can decimate seedlings overnight but have little effect on larger plants. With tomato plants, starting in seeds in pots allows you to pot the plants up to encourage root growth by setting them deeper so roots can develop along the stem.

I don't know where in Central California you are but consider this: tomato plants can be productive in-ground as long as you get enough light and warmth to sustain the plant. In my area, setting out plants through the end of June — still ten weeks away — is still acceptable. For many regions, starting indoors is necessary because their growing season may only last until September. My cherry tomatoes were still producing in late November last year when I took them out.

Good luck, Brenda, and keep in touch.

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Brenda

Thank you. As I am impatient and hover over my seedlings I have caught myself making these same mistakes. I think I will bring my seedlings in and out of direct sunlight. My problem is I think I have missed the window for growing plants from seedlings here in central california. But I have decided to give it a go anyway. Can't wait for your next installment.

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Laurie

Laura,

Store-bought cantaloupe always sprouts in my compost. I can't get it to grow in the vegetable patch, though. I'm going to give it another try this year but I've never had a success there before.

Humbling? Every day.

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Laurie

Y'know, Suzanne, I've been eyeing bakery containers as well. My sister glanced at my blog tonight and checked out the photos first. The "rotisserie tomato" shot made her laugh out loud.

Any other good re-purposing tips? Send them my way!

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Suzanne

I got such a chuckle, as I have done the same this year and thought I was the only one who recycled the chicken pans. It works great, whereas the 'purchased' seed trays look good, but don't always perform well. I've always found with seedlings, that repotting, and constant moving of location, tends to work well. It only the weather would do such.

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