Back to the Basics – foodgrower

Back to the Basics

So much time, so little to do
doesn’t sound like my life
how about you

Not that anyone has hashed me about it but I would like to ask you all to cut me some slack, if you will, when you pick up on poor grammar and such. I pretty much write this stuff as it comes off the top of my head. I don’t have the time to go back and proof read it a bunch of times before I shoot it off to our host. As such, there’s typo’s, misspelled words and a crap load of stuff like going brain dead and writing loose rather than lose. I’ve seen several places where I’ve left out a word or two. You should be able to get the drift of my meaning from the context. If I’ve screwed it up too bad, hit me up in the comments. If you’re a grammar nazi, please, I’m not writing a book, I’m tossing out bits and pieces of hints. If it’s really bad blame Ms. Beck, my third grade English teacher. I’m not saying it’s her fault, just to blame her as she’s long gone to that big school in the sky and not here to rap my knuckles with a ruler any more.


Caveat lector The following is based on my experience, practices, likes, environment, ideas and successes or failures. Folks in other parts of the country, in other garden zones, and with other goals may, and probably do, do things different than I do. I am not telling you, you have to do it my way. This is what works for me. I also don’t know everything and I don’t grow everything. I’ll let you know when you ask me about something I don’t know or don’t grow. I will never try to snow you.

A food growing primer –

To have a successful garden you need a few things. In no particular order they are seed, soil, sun, water and time. This is excluding soilless growing systems.

Seed – With few exceptions most the plants you grow in your garden will come from seed. Even if you purchase plants someone still started them from seed (there are other means but I feel they’re beyond the scope of what I’m attempting to share here). I believe there are three main problems starting your garden with purchased plants. After a collapse you most likely won’t be able to buy plants; using garden starts narrows the selection of what you have available to grow; using garden starts doesn’t give you any practice in starting your own plants from seed, which is a critical skill and can be harder than you might think at first blush. Another issue, implied by the above problems, is you can’t transport a selection of plants in a forced migration situation like you can a kit of garden seed.

There are several methods of starting plants from seed and we’ll be exploring my method in more detail. No matter which method you use, you need to be aware of the seed’s environmental needs for effective germination.

Soil – Just because you have dirt in your backyard doesn’t mean it will grow a garden. While some may be fortunate enough to have healthy, rich soil many of the rest of us have soils that have been abused and depleted. In some cases our soil suffers problems that are beyond what can be repaired in the short term. If this is your situation you may be better served by finding another location to situate your garden. It took me six years to go from dirt to soil in the spot where I’m gardening right now and there are still areas that need attention.

If your area is not beyond recovery then you build your dirt to soil by amending it. You can use commercially available amendments or you can roll your by composting. There are many facets to composting (and I’m sure this will disappoint a few) but I’m not going to cover composting in depth this time.

Sometimes your soil will grow what you want just as it is. Other times in order to grow what you want you’ll have to alter some aspect of the soil. Refer back to my last article about blueberries needing a low ph soil. In our area we have to alter the soil to lower its ph or the blueberry plants die. Other areas need to lime their soil to raise the ph. Just so you know, the vast majority of your plants will do fine in soil having a ph between 6.0 and 7.0. There are exceptions of course so don’t someone climb my ass about it. We’ll talk specifics when they come up.

There are many different ways to alter your soil and something to be cautious about is ‘conventional wisdom’. Rather than explaining all the ways you can be hurt by taking someone’s word about what you need to do to your dirt I’ll just put it this way. Never just do something to your soil. Always have a purpose to what you intend to do and understand what the result is going to be.

Earlier this year I had a fellow come up to me and ask what I thought about putting Epsom salt in the soil. I told him it could be used to alter the magnesium and sulfur content of the soil, why? “Well my buddy told me to throw a handful in the bottom of each hole before I planted my starts. Now they are all turning brown and keeling over. What do you think is going on, could it be the Epsom salt?” Not knowing anything about what Epsom salts did, nor whether he even needed to alter his soil in any way he followed some conventional wisdom and killed his plants.

Other areas of importance for your soil is its actual base type – clay, sand, silt, peat, and alkaline (some say saline), how fertile it is, beneficial or harmful soil organisms and drainage to name a few.

Sun – OK, I fibbed, this would be more properly be labeled Environment, of which the sun is just one facet but environment didn’t flow as well as sun up above when I was listing things. You environment is determined by a lot of factors and the sun is a critical part of it. Other aspects of importance are last frost date, first frost date, growing degree days, chill hours, soil, climate and weather, predators and micro climate factors. Just like Dennis Storhøi said to Antonio Banderas in the 13th Warrior, “Don’t worry little brother, there’s more”, well there’s more. We’ll look at some of these in more detail when required.

Water – It could be argued that water (and soil) are part of your environment and that would be correct. The reason water is listed separately is because we can alter its availability and character so easily to effect changes in our garden performance. While there are places where it rains just the right amount at just the right time to keep your garden healthy in most instances we either get too little or too much rainfall and need to irrigate or employ gardening techniques to compensate less than optimum rainfall.

Time – Time has two components to worry about. The amount of time you have to dedicate to your food growing and the amount of time your plants need to reach maturity so you can harvest them. If you can’t commit the time required to maintain your garden it will suffer, perhaps to the point of failure. If you attempt to grow plants that have a longer ‘days to maturity’ than you have growing season, your efforts will likewise suffer failure. If you really want to grow a plant requiring more time than you have growing season there are things we can do cheat mother nature.

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics let’s delve into some specifics. I tossed out the Caveat lector up above and I want to restate it. This is what works for me. You may have environment, experiences, practices, culture, tastes and wants and so on that differ from me and what I do and that’s ok.

Starting your garden plants from seed

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of folks experience failure at starting plants from seed. They try to do what they think they should and when nothing happens they don’t understand why, get frustrated and sometimes they give up.

The absolutely first thing you need to do when starting plants from seed is understand the biology of the plant and its life cycle. That means you are going to need to crack some books (or get on the web) and study. Another option is to find an accomplished mentor and learn from them. As far as I’m concerned you have two basic means of starting a plant from seed. One is to direct sow the seed. This is where you put your seeds right into the soil where they are going to grow and trust mother nature to do her job. The other is to do what we call ‘start your seed’ to give it a leg up in the growing process. Starting your seed can vary from something as simple as soaking it before you plant it all the way to a multi-step process which may include one or more up pottings of the plant before you are ready to stick it in the ground.

The basic thing you are trying to achieve with any process is ensuring the seed is able to germinate. All seeds have specific requirements for germination to occur. Some of these requirements can be quite exotic, plants that are serotinous require the high heat from a fire to release their seeds. You need to be aware of the germination requirements for the plants you intend to grow. Usually on seed packets you’ve purchased the germination and planting instructions will be printed on the package.

You’ll read something akin to (this is an old flint corn I have) – “Direct sow when soil reaches 65-70°F. Plant seeds 1- 2″ deep, 4-6″ apart, in rows at least 36″ apart, in full sun. Plant in blocks of at least 5 rows. Germination in 10-14 days. When plants reach 4-6″ tall, thin to 8-12″ apart. 110 days”

I have to tell you I disagree with some of this, actually almost all of it. I’ll detail my disagreements shortly. Unless youknow different, follow the instructions. Once you start propagating your own seed you need to record the germination and planting instructions so you know what the seed requires.

So what happens if you don’t follow the instructions listed on the package? For some crops like beans and corn the seed will swell with moisture, but because the temperature is too low for germination the cell walls burst and the seed rots in the ground. In other cases, some seeds will just sit there and seemingly do nothing. I have in the past overplanted an area that I felt had failed only to have, half way through the growing season, the original plants start popping up.

So what about my disagreement a couple of paragraphs up? For one, we hardly ever direct sow any of our seed any longer, even crops that are traditionally row crops. We also don’t seed heavy and then then thin out fifty percent or more of the plants.

I’m going to pick on corn for awhile because that’s what the above planting directions were for. If I wait for my soil temperature to reach 65~70 degrees most years I won’t be planting until well after the first of June. We usually have a damaging or killing frost by the first week of September (so far we’ve had three this month and a lot of the garden is over for the year). If I don’t plant until after the first of June and I have a killing frost by the first week of September I don’t have enough growing days for this corn to reach maturity.

Planting heavy and thinning is just a waste of money, time and seed. If you’re buying seed why waste your money by wasting 50% of your seed. That’s what the above instructions tell you to do. Why plant it and then waste time pulling it out? Once you start propagating your seed, especially if it’s grid down, seed will be much too precious to waste.

A couple more disagreements are, direct sowing your seed and then having to wait up to fourteen to eighteen days to see if you have a failure is a quick way to eat up huge block of growing time, waiting and waiting and waiting. The fourteen to eighteen days is greater than the ten to fourteen day germination period because it take a few day for the corn to sprout after it germinates. We also use different plant spacing, both in row and row separation.

“What’s a person to do?” you might ask. We have found that though corn needs 65~70 degrees F. to germinate it will grow in temperatures as low as 45 degrees F. One year I started some corn seed in the house in January. Once it germinated I put it in transplant tubes and stuck it in a back room that didn’t have any direct heat. The temperature averaged around 45~50 degrees during the day and never dropped below freezing during the night. The corn not only sprouted, it grew to about 3 inches tall over the next few weeks. I aborted the experiment once the tap roots were growing out of the transplant tubes. We only plant seeds that we know have germinated and are starting to grow a root. This has completely removed the need to overplant or interplant seed that has failed to germinate and grow. This time savings more than offsets the time to start our seeds.

Tips for jump starting your seed.

If you are going to direct sow there are some things you can do to give your seeds a jump start. For seed like corn (and beans) that are more or less dry and hard you can soak your seed. This speeds up the process that occurs naturally in the soil. There are a lot of opinions out there about the proper way to soak your seeds. Rather than list them I’ll just tell you how I do it and why I do it that way. One warning first, never soak your seeds in standing water deeper than one layer of seed. This is a quick way to drown your seed.

I use a tray with sides about two inches deep. Mine is actually a garage sale acquisition of a plastic serving tray set. I place a folded towel in the bottom and completely saturate it then I pour off the excess. Next I place a double layer of paper towels on top of that. Then I place my seed, one seed layer deep on the paper towel and cover it with two more layers of paper towel and another folded towel on top of that. I thoroughly wet the top towel and keep spraying the top towel on an as need basis to keep the towels damp but not over saturated. What this does is allow the seeds to draw moisture from all directions without running the risk of drowning the seed or having them dry out. This also allows you to control the temperature where the tray is and avoid germination failure by the seed being too cold. You’ll want to check your seed frequently because it will be ready to plant most of the time in less than a day or two (the previous statement applies to corn, beans take a little longer). You’ll know its ready by the swollen appearance of the seed.

I employ an additional step for my seed. I place my seed trays on a propagating heat mat. A heat mat is a device that provides a continuous and even amount of heat when it is plugged in. They are usually designed to provide around 80~100 degrees F. of heat. Some of them have a thermostat built in. As of today (9/19/15) a plain jane 20” X 20” propagating mat on Amazon is 28.75 + 8.00 shipping. At the end of this article are instructions for building a bigger one of your own for less.

“Why the extra layer of paper towels in your tray?” you ask. Seed that is started this way, especially on a heat mat, will quickly germinate and start growing a tap root. If you miss checking your seed before the root develops this helps keep it from growing through the cloth towel and instead of damaging the tap root trying to back it out of the cloth towel, you can simply tear the paper towel apart around the root with no damage to the root. Any excess paper towel will just go into the ground when you plant.

I go from dried corn seed in storage to germinated seed showing a root in about two or three days using this method. Depending on outside conditions I may direct plant this seed in the soil or I will put them in transplant tubes. Because corn doesn’t like to be transplanted, transplant tubes are a means of holding your germinated corn seed without having a disaster of tangled roots. I can hold corn for as much as two weeks before placing them in the soil. Instructions and discussion on transplant tubes are at the end of this article.

Here is the exact steps I use in starting corn, beans, cucumbers, squash (both summer and winter), peppers (both sweet and chili) and pumpkins. Note that not all of these are started at the same time. I may start my super hot chili peppers as early as the end of January/first of February while the corn doesn’t get started until around the first of May.

I start the seed as described above in a starting tray on a heating mat. I daily (many times twice a day) check for seed that is starting to sprout.

For corn and beans, if the soil and weather conditions warrant, I’ll direct sow the seed as soon as I see the root start to form. Corn is spaced every six inches in the row, in rows thirty inches apart. Beans are every eight inches in rows thirty six inches apart. I only grow pole beans and you should already have your trellis up by the time you plant. Notice I expressed should. I fail at this a lot and have grief every time trying to avoid damaging plants when setting up my trellis.

For all the others, and the corn and beans if conditions aren’t conducive to direct sowing, I’ll take the seed and place it in a transplant tube. All my tubes for these seeds are two inches in diameter. The height will vary based on what the plant is. Corn and pole beans are aggressive in producing a tap root. These tubes are generally around 3.5 inches deep. The tubes for the others are only about 1.5 inches deep. The reason for the shorter tubes on the others is to get more heat to the seed when they are placed on the germination mats (this is important for peppers, especially the super hots).

Once the seeds are in the transplant tubes they are placed in trays on the heat mats. I’ll check them every day. Regardless the weather conditions, once the beans have two true leaves they get stuck in the ground. Ditto the corn but its status is determined by seeing the tap root growing through the bottom of the tube. For all the others we start the up potting process. As soon as the tap root starts to grow through the tube they will get put into either a larger transplant tube or into square 4” pots. The up potting will continue until the plants can be set out.

An important side note here. If you have plants that are in pots, you need to gradually harden them off to outside conditions instead of taking them from the house or greenhouse and immediately sticking them in the ground. Hardening them off is to avoid extra shock, which they’ll suffer some of just from being transplanted. You accomplish hardening off by setting them out in a protected area for a few hours a day at first and slowly increasing the amount of time you leave them out each day.

This is probably enough for one article. It’s way too long but there is a lot of information to share.


Homegrown germination mat

Go to your favorite building supply or craft store and purchase an 18 foot rope light (important get one with incandescent bulbs NOT LED’s). This should run you around $13~$15. Now go out and scrounge up a piece of plywood or OSB from your scrap pile that is about ½ thick, 14 inches wide and 45 inches long, this is your base board.

Next cut 4 strips ½ inch thick X 2 inches wide X 40 inches long. Round both ends of the strip. Center and mount these spacing strips on your base board with a gap between them slightly wider than the thickness of your rope light.

Secure the spacer strips to the base board with screws and then wind the rope light around the spacers and fasten to the base board with the mounts included with the light. You now have a functioning heat mat that will hold a temperature of 85~95 degrees F. (at least mine do and I have several) for less than half the cost of a smaller commercial mat.

If you want you could mess with the dimensions of the wood and length of rope light to make your own custom size.

Home made transplant tube

Some plants like corn don’t transplant well (at least according to our experience) because they don’t like having their roots disturbed. To deal with this we use transplant tubes. These are tubes made from newspaper and filled with a growing medium. I strongly suggest if you make your own growing medium that you bake it for a few hours at 300 degrees F. We have an outside oven set up for these types of tasks.

Once you put your seed in the transplant tube it will start growing. When the time comes to plant it, you just dig a hole and stick the whole tube in the ground. The soil moisture will weaken the newspaper and the plant roots will easily grow through it. You have just transplanted your plant without it knowing its been transplanted (i.e. disturbing its roots).

As stated I make transplant tubes out of newspaper. I cut strips of newspaper, the dimensions dependent on how big a tube I want to make, and roll it around a can or jar and then crimp over the bottom.

A couple of important notes. Don’t use a piece of paper so long that you have more than two layers of newspaper wrapped around the outside. I try to keep the length of my paper just long enough to provide about an inch or so of overlap on one wrap.

I place a short fold at the top of the paper to reinforce the “top” of the tube. I make sure the width of the paper is only just enough to give me the depth (or height) of the tube I want + the short fold over at the top + just enough paper to crimp on the bottom giving a complete seal but not too thick. Larger diameter tubes require more “crimp over” material so take this into consideration.

I fill the tubes with growing medium and thoroughly wet it and slightly compact it. The fill height is usually about ¼ inch + planting depth of the seed below the top of the tube. I just eyeball this. I put the seed on top of the medium and then cover it with more medium. Keep a close eye on the bottom of the tubes as the plants will be growing in optimum conditions and they can grow really fast. When you see roots either plant them or up pot them.

Most of my tubes for first starting seeds are two inches in diameter. I have made and use newspaper tubes up to five or six inches in diameter and seven inches tall. The problem these larger tubes have is the weight of damp growing medium can easily burst the side of the tube. You need to handle them with caution to avoid that.

These larger tubes have two benefits that make them worth the hassle. One, they are really cheap, much cheaper than 4” pots. Two, when you transplant the plant, it doesn’t disturb the roots like happens when you pull the plant out of a 4” or 8” pot.

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9 Responses to Back to the Basics – foodgrower

  1. Doubletrouble says:

    Good stuff again, FG.
    Another benefit of starting seeds is that the germination/initial growth time can be done before planting day arrives; here, that’s ~May 30. Started in our storm window redneck greenhouse, we know we have viable plants on the big day. I hate losing all that time after the soil warms waiting to see if things are gonna work, & on long season plants, that can mean the difference between success & failure.

  2. Angel says:

    I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m printing these off for a hard copy reference.
    And I think there should be a chapter in wirecutter’s book specifically for these posts.

    • Wirecutter says:

      There’s now a page for you to make it easier to stay on top of it. And weren’t you banned or something?

      • Angel says:

        There wasn’t a time limit or anything, so I assumed it ended at midnight.
        And it’s still good to have a hard copy. The internet won’t be around forever.

        • Exile1981 says:

          Hence why i have over 3000 paper books in my library and nothing on the ereader unless its fluff or I have a hard copy in the library.

  3. Hey Ken,When trying to log on to the fourth link, Fallices, etc, I keep being asked to log into something with a heading of “W” with a user name and password. Whats up with that? Love this new page Idea though!

  4. NewVegasBadger says:

    @Foodgrower, Ok so you made some errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation. BF&D. I am grateful that you took the time to educate me and to pass on what you know to a reader like me. You have forgotten more about the subject of how to grow things than I will ever know. So when you post I, shut the f–k up, cause class is in session. You can bet that I am paying attention to what you have to say. Were we to ever meet, the first couple of rounds are on me. Thanks!

    • foodgrower says:

      Thank you for the compliments and confidence but remember I put my pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else.


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