Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Who-What-When of Starting Seedlings

Spring is in the air!

OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. I mean, I’m currently sitting cozy in my house watching Farscape while a snowstorm dumps almost a foot of snow on my back porch.  However, looks what’s growing in my windowsill!

It’s lettuce and eggplant, in case you’re wondering.

Two Saturdays ago, I was in dire need of some quality play-in-the-dirt time.  Luckily, I have an awesome boss who has not only an indoor greenhouse (a glorious tiny glass room accessible through a sliding glass door behind the kitchen), but is generous enough to invite desperately cabin-feverish moms and their boys over for some planting!

I didn’t purposely plant lettuce (which won’t be transplanted, merely eaten when it gets large enough) and eggplant (which will eventually be transplanted) together.  They came home from Jean’s in separate pots.  But a certain little puckish boy decided he wanted to play chef with plastic spoons and dirt.

Yep, that’s him.  I’m just grateful anything came up at all!

I’ve ordered buckets of seeds from catalogs and while I’m waiting for them to get here, I started cleaning and organizing the containers I’ve been saving all winter for seed starters.

Oh yes, it’s recycling at it’s finest!  The plastic carryout container is an ideal starter because, while closed, it retains heat and moisture.  The bottom of a milk jug is perfect for shallow-rooting seeds.  Don’t throw the top away, though!  You’ll be using it as a heat cover for tender tomatoes or other heat-loving plants.  I like the cardboard soup bowls and OJ boxes because you can easily remove the paper without damaging the roots or plants when it’s time to transplant.  Also pictured are yogurt, fruit, and pudding cups and the bottom of a plastic water bottle.

Why use these?  Because they’re free.  Because they’re small, so you don’t waste lots of expensive seed starter or dirt and vermiculite.  (For some great recipes for potting soil mixes, check out The Artistic Garden’s page on the subject.)  Because it’s irresponsible to buy new containers when you’ve got lots of usable stuff lying around already.

Next comes the question of what to plant when.

First, figure out your zone.  You can find zone maps on the web, but in my experience, most of Michigan is roughly Zone 4b/5a.  The Detroit area is Zone 6.  Southern Delta/Schoolcraft area is, oddly enough, Zone 3.  But from Copper Harbor down through southern Michigan, you can be sure to grow plants rated for zone 4.  And even though many zone 5 plants will make it, some of them don’t when the winter is particularly hard or when there isn’t enough snow to keep the plants insulated.

(Note: You can also plant tender perennials for zone 6 or 7 in sunken pots, and pull them and keep them a Michigan basement to over-winter.  Rosemary is a good example of a tender perennial you can grow this way.)

Now you can figure out your last date of frost.  Though you can find them here, in my experience, you’re usually safe to get the hardy stuff (peas, cabbage, lettuce, etc.) by Mother’s Day.  You can also put tomatoes and such out as long as you provide some cover, such as the tops of milk jugs, or if you want to get really fancy, heat tunnels made of polythene film draped over wire hoops (made of coat hangers or bent fencing).

Now time for some simple math.  Counting backwards from that date, create a calendar that looks something like this:

Last Date of Frost  in Grand Rapids, MI (90% certainty): May 19th

10 weeks from LDF: March 24th
8 weeks from LDF: April 1st
6 weeks from LDF: April 7th
4 weeks from LDF: April 21st
2 weeks from LDF: May 5th

Now, check the back of seed packets.  For example, my gourd seeds tell me they can be started indoors 4 weeks before the date of last frost.  April 21st it is!

There are, of course, some variations.  I have a couple home-made coldframes out back, so I can plant stuff really, really early.  I’ll have started radishes, carrots, lettuce, and other crops out in my coldframe in March.  Some I will transplant when the ground is ready.  Some will stay there until maturation.

I also use my coldframes to harden off crops.  Most of the plants you start indoors can’t be planted outside as soon as it’s safe.  You’ll have to spend a week or so taking them out and leaving them in the cold for progressively longer periods of time so they don’t die of shock.  Read more here.

Finally, with some plants, bigger is better.  I’m starting some perennial plants (columbine and hollyhocks) right now.  The bigger they are, the longer the growing season, the better chance they have of surviving.  Their flowering cycles will be messed up for a season, but after a winter they’ll be fine, perfectly in sync with the seasons.

My seed order should be here any day now.  I’m so excited!  Among the plants are some old friends of mine that I’ve haven’t grown in a decade, like woad and rue.  You can be sure that I’m gonna be playing in the dirt again as soon as the seeds get here!

3 lovely people said:

DC said...

I should definitely have read this BEFORE I went out and picked up my spring planting stuff today! In particular, those transplanting pots weren't really necessary.

I'm going to try to get rosemary actually going this year (my previous attempt is still alive, but hasn't grown an inch in a year). Any suggestions?

Summer said...

Hehe, well, now you know what to save for next year;) Also, egg cartons are awesome seed starters.

If you started that rosemary from seed, I'd probably just give up and get a new plant from a cutting. Keep them pinched down; it's a woody plant like lavender and will get kind of tall and scraggly without good pruning. (You can really get creative with pruning, too; I've seen rosemary pruned into very cool shapes.) Also like lavender it likes lots of water through sandy soil, so grab a couple handfuls next time you're out by Lk. Superior and mix it in with the pot. Hope that helps!

DC said...

Sounds good... I'll probably pick up some tarragon and rosemary next time I'm down in Madison. They have a great farmer's market there!

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