(Continued from Part 1. This installment concludes the article.)
There are numerous videos on the web about this process in building your seed-starting set up. It’s simple and again a one-time effort and expense. I’ve never even had to change a bulb after three years. I also have a surge protector that the three lights and three seed mats are plugged into. I then plug that surge protector into a timer so the lights and mats turn on/off automatically for around 10-12 hours each day.
The next thing you have to plan is: when to start what seeds or seedlings. I’m just going to offer up what I do and what I’ve seen and what I plan to do going forward, based on what my family eats. I mentioned tomatoes and peppers. Peppers take much longer to get going and I suggest starting those around six weeks earlier than your tomatoes. Tomatoes take around six to eight weeks for me, and they are quite bushy and healthy (6-8” and up) and ready to transplant to their final maturing place. Planning a calendar around when to do what will help immensely. I can fill up all my three shelves with starts of just different types of tomatoes and peppers (hot, sweet, etc…).
Containers: We use lots of containers for placing our starts in. Again, you can control the soil easier but they do dry out quicker than garden beds. If you plant tomatoes in containers, be sure to put the stakes in when you plant so you don’t disturb the root system later. I’ve also decided that I will only plant determinate type tomatoes in containers going forward. Look at your seed packets and find ones that are determinate as they grow bushier and less tall and leggy than indeterminate tomatoes.
I direct sow zucchini, squashes, beans, and cucumbers as well as spinach and lettuce. I’ve also sown corn, but haven’t had much luck in getting much of a return on the corn investment. Corn takes a lot of space and I just haven’t had much of a harvest that made it worth it. Plus, it’s two ears for a dollar at the farmer’s market, sometimes less.
Onions, potatoes and garlic: I’ve only been experimenting with this recently. The garlic was crazy. I planted a few rows in the raised beds and it went absolutely crazy. I then went to harvest and found little to nothing. Maybe I tried to harvest too early but it was massive and taking tons of space; not worth it to me. Potatoes went in the side garden and did just south of fair. We had a crazy wet summer last year and that caused numerous problems. I don’t know if that was it or if it was the soil work-in-progress that caused issues. The onions were slightly better (same garden) and we had a decent harvest. There are numerous videos out there on how and when to harvest onions and potatoes that I suggest you check out before this article becomes a novel. This year I did a little extra in the side garden with the tiller and made sure the soil was better when I planted the onions and potatoes.
I also bought a few potato grow bags this year and they are going crazy so far. Again, search for some videos in growing potatoes in growing bags and you will get the idea pretty quickly. I imagine in an apartment or urban setting it would be really helpful to grow in bags (and containers for that matter.)
I Tried Straw Bale Gardening
I also went down the Straw Bale Gardening path for two years before I decide to build the raised beds. There are tons of videos and web sites dedicated to this method. I had 30 bales of straw (not hay) delivered for about $150 and gave it the ‘ole college try. I flunked out. I had a few wins, but mostly losses. I guess the best output I got was the compost from the rotting bales that I spread around. It was a debacle for me. It would look promising at times and then go downhill quickly. Some of the video and websites show great success with this method so good for those of you that can do it.
Another suggestion: Get some fruit trees and berry bushes that you like to eat and can grow in your area. Plant two of each fruit tree and keep them within 20 yards or so of each other to help in pollination. Fruit trees take years to get mature enough to develop enough fruit to make an impact. If you go to your local big box store you will likely see a variety of options for around $40-$60 depending on the caliper (circumference of the bottom trunk). The bigger the caliper, the bigger and more mature the tree, and this will usually dictate the cost as well. Get what you can afford and get them in the ground now. It could take 4+ years to get them going. START NOW! Berry bushes are a little easier, but plant in pairs and get them in the ground. Keep in mind some berry types (blueberry for example) have more bush or tree type growth patterns. Read the label, know where you plan to put it, and get what’s best for you. Dig the hole about 50% minimum bigger than the root ball and place some good soil in the hole and then place the plant/tree. Do it right the first time and you’ll have a better success rate.
A Garden Journal
I recommend keeping a garden journal and keeping track of as much as you can. I make sure I keep dates on when I start seeds, how long they take, the size and make notes and suggestions on what to do differently next time. It’s a process folks,and I need a journal to look back and keep it fresh. I like to mark or number my seeds and start pots and track germination rates. That can tell me when my seed pack might be time for the circular file cabinet. I also mark my starts and track during the growing season so I can track what does well or not so I know what grows most effectively. I’m working on a calendar now so I know when to start the peppers, tomatoes, buy and plant the onion sets and potato starts, direct sow the beans, squash/zuch’s and cuc’s, etc… I’ve also learned in this journal that I’ve done the same things and had different results. A few examples:
• I threw some spinach seeds in the raised beds as a “let’s see what happens” moment and had great success. I’ve done it intentionally and got little to nothing.
• I accidentally grew some awesome pumpkins one year after throwing out old pumpkins after Halloween and had a great harvest the next year. I’ve never been able to intentionally grow them. I’m going to try this year again, why not.
• I’ve had great success with containers and tomatoes and the next year has been mediocre at best. Each season of each year brings micro-climates that can change things. We had a very wet year last year in the mid-Atlantic and it brought lots of disease and rot to the tomatoes. The cucs and zucs did great though, as well as the beans. This year may be different.
• I’ve got some tomato starts that are 6” plus and some are 2” but have the same soil, same container and were started at the same time. Make a note and know that when you start them again the next year so you can start earlier on the ones that need it.
In closing, control what you can and don’t fret over what you can’t (like the weather). This is difficult. It can be frustrating and leads to bug bites and sweat. Therapy, right? There is an absolute sense of accomplishment when you can provide your family a bounty and know it all started with a tiny little seed. It’s God’s miracle. Yes, it’s a challenge but have a sense of humility about it, have some fun and get started. Start small and get some experience. Just start. It’s not like your life depends on it…..or does it?