Thursday, April 21, 2011

First Success: Seed Sprouts to Seedlings

When we first started gardening in Telluride, back in 1998, we had a sad little garden that was about 3-4 feet long, and maybe 2 feet wide.  It was just some soil-like space between some rocks.  We planted seeds in that garden, but with a June 15 last frost combined with very low soil temperatures (even in mid-summer), it was hard to get anything to germinate.

I've been unable to locate a picture (pre-digital days) I remember showing the tiny little carrot and two pea pods that came from our first year, but sometimes such is the yield from experimental first-time gardeners.  Trust me, you'd laugh at how little we got from all of our work - a story I hear over and over from those making their first foray into gardening.

In the following year, we had some small planters on our condo patio, and we actually got useable herbs from them.  I think this is how it starts out for many people - little spaces and pots filled with starter hopes and dreams.  And, those little successes inspire you to try more the next year.

Deb in our first planter garden on the deck of our condo in Telluride, CO

In 2000, we moved to Ft. Collins, and we anticipated having an easier time in 2001 with the longer season and warmer temperatures.  For certain things, this was true. We planted 14 Zucchini, and they all sprouted and grew to mature plants for sure.  Took over the entire middle of the garden, and we quickly learned all Zucchini recipes known to mankind.

We tried to get tomatoes and peppers to grow from seed, and we started with Jiffy pellets, but once they sprouted, we let them get long and stringy, and it was just impossible to get them to grow stems that could support the weight of the plant.  So, we'd end up going out and buying tomatoes and peppers at various nurseries in Fort Collins.

Back in 2002, we stumbled into our friend Sue Oberle's business (Oberle Botanical) at the Fort Collins Farmer's Market, and began getting really cool heirloom varieties, all organically grown.  We became quite used to having quality hard-to-find varieties, that we started to actually go straight to her house to get early picks from her crop.  Plus, she has a super-cool backyard garden that is just plain fun to visit.

The Sunshine Systems UFO: Red/Blue LED 
Well, this year, we decided to go back to our old nemesis, and actually get plants from our spouts - and we finally had success.

I attribute the success to two things: Staying on top of transplanting, regular fertilization, and using an LED grow light vs. putting trays by a window.  The last step, of course, being the most important.  We used the Sunshine Systems UFO, and it has been nothing short of a revolution in our gardening.  Instead of watching weak seed sprouts turn yellow, limp, and deathlike before our eyes, we basically had 100% success getting seedlings growing, and actually maturing them - all under this 90-watt, extremely low-heat LED light.  When you see it running, you may still doubt it will do the job.  But make no mistake, this has plenty of power to grow beautiful plants.


Ferry Morse Ultimate Seed Starting Combo

To sprout seeds indoors, I recommend the Ferry Morse Ultimate Seed Starting Combo.  This is a product that has been used for decades by millions of home gardener's and it's arguably fool-proof.  That is, to get seeds to sprout.

The problem is pretty simple: You need to transplant the sprouts into another medium when they are ready, not when you are.  Most people see the sprouts, cheer, and then say for 3-12 days that "tomorrow" they really really need to transplant them.

What most people aren't aware of, is that the next step can be done in the SAME base tray.  We'll get to that step.

First, to get the tray started, you need to put about 10-11 cups of warm water in the tray, and let the peat pellets soak up the water.  Once they are fully puffed-out cylinders, you are ready to plant seeds in the center.  It's best to pull the fabric at the top of the pellet back a bit, and make sure that  you put your seeds down into the little hole that appears in the center.

We typically put 2-3 seeds in each pellet.  If more than one germinates, we call these doubles and triples. We covet this fortune, as we think that we get more yield from the same garden square footage.  Not really sure it works out that way, but it's definitely more vegetation more quickly when you have doubles and triples.  Once the pellets are all seeded, we put labels at the end of rows, using masking tape and toothpicks as markers.

Long stringy seedlings awaiting transplant
After about 1-2 weeks, we see sprouts, and within a few days, they are inches long.  We place our trays by a window, and once they break through the top of the peat, they just reach reach reach for the sun, with only their seed leaves open.

In a 4x4 container
It's within 1-2 days of when your sprouts look like this that it is critical to transplant into a larger container.  We experimented with both 4x4 and 2x2 containers, and found that there was a specific benefit to the 2x2 containers.  First, it uses less soil.  Second, there are trays that hold 24 of these, with a lifter for drainage into the same base tray you start with for sprouting.  They also fit the higher humidity controlled plastic domes that you need for the next stage.

Domed transplants 
Once transplanted into the larger container, I'd place them all under the red and blue Sunshine Systems UFO, with the light on a timer.  It would be set for 18 hours of light, with 6 hours of darkness.  I would water once per day, adding Age Old Kelp and Botanicare Pure Blend Pro Grow at a rate of 1 ounce per 1 gallon mixture.  There were days skipped if there was accumulated moisture.  But, my intent was to ensure the young seedlings had plenty of nutrients to grow roots quickly.

The area we set up to hang the light is actually on a metal shelf, purchased at Lowe's.  It's backed by cardboard with aluminum foil, and then the UFO light hung from above.  There is no heat from the light at all, even though it is putting out the same amount of light as a 400-watt metal halide lamp.  This combination of high UV with no heat is perfect for ensuring survival of your sprouts becoming seedlings.

The most exciting days are when the sprouts get their first real leaves.  Seed leaves are usually a pair that look nothing like anything the plant will ever grow again.  The next pairs that come out have the pattern you would know for that plant.

Below is a shot of the two stages next two one another - all seed leaves, and then some getting their first real leaves.

Within a few days, those seedlings were sprouting large leaves.  The stems were getting the fuzzy appearance of a mature tomato plant.  And the leaves had the full shape of a mature leaf.  The picture below is only 1 week after the first pair of real leaves.

This next picture is from just 5 days after the one above:

Considering our prior crash and burn attempts to get seedlings to live through the next step, the fact that all of the plants were surviving was quite unexpected.  It demonstrated to me that this UFO LED light was really worth the money.  We are now going to save a ton of money on tomatoes and peppers we would normally buy somewhere like the Fort Collins Farmer's Market, or any of the local nurseries.  We shop both Bath Garden Center and Fort Collins Nursery.

Nothing against these places at all, by the way!

We love the service they provide, and definitely have appreciation for what it takes to get plants started from seed.  But, the gratification in growing your own plants from seed isn't just about saving money, it's just the whole life process of going from seed to fruit, flower, or veggie.  We say, if you are just getting started, save yourself some early grief and purchase your seedlings early in the season from your local farmer's markets and nurseries.  When you've got confidence you know what to do planting more mature plants in your garden, then take up sprouting your own seedlings.

I hope that this article was helpful for those of you thinking about, or actually starting your own gardens from seed.  I am happy to answer any questions.


Use discount code SPROUTME on ANY products linked to in this article and get 10% off your order. Offer ends 5/15/11.  Includes all Ferry Morse and Sunshine Systems items in our catalog.

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