I have written some beginning gardening posts in the past (here, here, here, here, here, here for just a few), but I recently asked a friend if she would ask me some questions that she would like answered as a lazy way of doing something different on the blog than the typical beginner posts. She graciously sent me lots of questions, so I have a few posts’ worth. I tried to break them down into subcategories to make things a bit easier, so we’ll begin with starts and soil.
Gardening advice caveat: if you ask 20 gardeners for their opinions, you’ll get 35 different responses. We’re typically an opinionated bunch and have our ideas of what the “right” things to do are, but, the longer I garden, the more I realize how personal it is (to the garden’s soil and climate obviously, but also to the gardener’s temperament and season of life too). The moral of the story is that you just have to jump in and start with what works best for you. It might not work best for me, and it may not work best for you five years from now. Don’t let others’ opinions dissuade you from just getting your hands dirty and having fun. I can’t think of any other practice that has taught me more about life, parenting, marriage, faith, community, and creation than gardening. You’re missing out if you’re not in the game in some way or another.
What kind of soil should I use for starts?
You want a germination mix or potting soil mix to start your seeds. In the past, I’ve used straight compost (see caveat above), but the results were not nearly as consistent as with a potting or germination mix. I have had a bag of Johnny’s seed starting mix for at least three years and probably will finish it up this year. Or there are lots of recipes for making your own – one from Rodale’s and one from Ben Hewitt. Here is a helpful wrap-up of different options from a seed company I love.
What kind of container should I use for starts?
This is completely up to you. We started off with old yogurt containers and recycled solo cups (with holes drilled in the bottoms – we clean and reuse these from year-to-year until they inevitably break after several years). If you use something bigger and taller like plastic cups or recycled containers, you probably won’t have to transplant the seedlings again except to go straight into the garden. When I grow tomatoes in cups, I like to keep adding soil as the tomatoes grow. The tomato will keep sending out roots under the soil, so they wind up being much stronger by the time planting day comes.
Egg cartons with holes poked in the bottom seem super easy, but you’ll need to transplant them to something bigger fairly quickly. Jasper and I made these one year, and they worked great – for about three weeks until they started falling apart.
If you’re just starting off, I would reuse something you already have versus buying something special. The trouble we’ve had with seed starts is getting over-anxious with planting them and then having too long of a period where we have to baby them inside before taking them outside. This is where those personality limitations I was talking about above come in – consistency is not my strong suit, and, with starts, if you neglect them for even a day (or less), you can ruin them.
We are trying to use the Eliot Coleman seed blockers, but we didn’t start with those until a few years ago. I’m stubborn, so I’m sticking with them for now, but we haven’t had the best luck thus far. I’ll report if that changes because they’re zero waste and practically free after you’ve made that initial investment.
What things should I start and when?
First things first: go figure out your plant hardiness zone and last frost date (LFD). Ours has actually changed in the 15ish years I’ve been living in the Indianapolis suburbs, so it’s a good idea to check if you haven’t recently. I love this chart from High Mowing Seeds. First, look there for whether you should direct sow or transplant. Then, for those plants that you’re going to transplant, look at the start transplants column (in conjunction with your specific LFD).
Some experience will help you with the starts, but you can’t get experience without just jumping in and trying it. We typically travel for spring break, so I used to have a friend watch my starts. These days, I just wait until I get home to start. My plants only get a six-ish week head start, but it is less work for me having to baby them (or kill them in my forgetfulness, which is extremely likely) for 10-12 weeks.
Our LFD in central Indiana is April 25th, but there have been times since I’ve been gardening when we’ve had frost on or around my birthday (May 4th). So I typically wait until my birthday weekend to plant my starts outside. I like taking risks, but I would rather let my garden go longer in the fall when I’m more likely ready for it to be done for the season than have to be on frost watch in the spring to gain a few weeks. Granted, I’m only growing for our family right now, so that will likely change as we grow and learn.
Try to set out a fan or brush your hands over your starts once they get a few inches tall. This helps them start off hardier for once they’re outside in the elements. Be sure to harden them off when the time comes. Hardening off is the process of gradually introducing your starts to the elements – temperature, sun, wind. You want to do so gradually, starting off with just a few hours at a time (I’m actually terrible at this part, so don’t listen to me. I typically put Grant in charge when it comes to this part; he’s so much more responsible than I am. If you don’t have a Grant and you’re like me, you’ll need to actually schedule reminders in your phone). Here and here are some easy tips.
In regards to what to start from seed versus direct sow, that chart lays it out, but I typically recommend that beginners start tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant and direct sow everything else. Experiment starting more varieties once you have some experience under your belt.
Do I need to feed my baby plants? What about water? How much and when?
When you start seeds, heat is more important than light for the first several days. Refer back to High Mowing’s chart to see germination temps. I use a crock pot or heating pad set on low beneath my starts (set on an old large baking sheet) to keep them warm in our (very drafty) house. If possible, find a very sunny south-facing window in your house to start your seeds. Once they have germinated, they will need about 12-15 hours of sunlight or grow lights (see here for more information on grow lights).
I typically don’t feed my seedlings, but fish emulsion diluted in water is probably a good bet. Some more tips here.
When it comes to water, you want to keep the soil damp but not too wet because mold will start growing. I like to use a spray bottle for the first week or so. I prefer to keep the starts in an old large rimmed baking sheet, and then I put the water in the baking sheet and let the starts wick the moisture up as needed. But sometimes, that gets too dried out too quickly so the spray bottle helps in those situations.
What kind of soil should I add to my garden? When? How much?
First and foremost, you should do a soil test. If you’re using beds, test the stuff you put in the beds to see what you need more/less of. We try to soil test every 2-3 years and like this company, but your local Soil and Water Conservation District should have resources too.
When we close down the gardens in the fall, we add leaves and cardboard/shredded paper to our garden beds. That way, the soil is covered and protected all winter, and the brown material breaks down over the course of the winter. Then we add compost from last season as a top dressing in our gardens in the spring. We don’t till (benefits of no till), but we do usually work the beds with our broad fork. If you do prefer to till, I learned recently that the Europeans (who have been gardening and farming for much longer than non-native Americans have been) talk about working the top five centimeters (two inches) of the soil, so keep the tiller shallow if you use one.
If you buy compost, here are some great questions to ask of your compost source. Remember, your crops are only as healthy as your soil, so do your research and spend the extra money on good quality compost. (If you’re local, I recommend CLC Organics). If you’re like us this year and have some new beds, I like to fill the bottoms of the beds with cardboard, maybe even some sticks, and lots of leaves, and then pay for the compost/top soil mix from our favorite local company just to start things off well.
Stay tuned for more questions soon…I would LOVE to hear your questions in the comments!