Or “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.
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.
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.
Thank 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.
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.