Garden and Greenhouse, Uncategorized

Potting Up

This post is about potting up those seeds you started that are now needing larger homes.  I use somewhat unorthodox containers for my potting up.

Awhile back, I wrote a post about my seed-starting procedure for peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. The bell peppers and eggplant I started when that post was written are ready to go into the planter boxes in the greenhouse. I grow them in there because it’s the only way I can get their fruit to ripen. I just have to wait a little longer before I transplant them, until I know that I have the aphid-farming ants under control. I put out some sugar/borax mixture the other day, and haven’t seen an ant since. The ants themselves are not the problem; it’s the aphids they farm that suck the life out of the plants and prevent them from bearing as they should. I didn’t get a single eggplant last year and only a few stunted bell peppers because of the aphids.

The jalapenos and Serrano peppers will grow out in the garden, but it won’t be warm enough to set them out for at least a month, so they needed transplanting into larger containers. I also had a few tomato plants ready for transplanting.

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I planted 57 germinated tomato seeds, but a freak accident killed most of them. One morning, just a few days after I’d put the sprouted tomato seeds in their containers of soil, I left home for physical therapy in town, and to do some errands afterwards. It was a cool, cloudy morning, so I left the greenhouse closed up and the rope light on in the heated sand box with the lid on. The tomato six-packs were in that box. The clouds cleared off early, and the temperature climbed. I came home in the late afternoon to find the greenhouse at 120 degrees (it may have been hotter, but the thermometer was topped out at 120). There’s no telling how hot it was in the heated sand box, but it was hot enough to kill about 5 out of every 6 germinated seeds. I discovered that when after two weeks, only one or two in each container had emerged. The lesson there, always at least crack the lid on the hot box during the day. That venting might have saved my seedlings.

I do tend to go overboard with tomatoes. I always say I will scale back, and then I discover a new heirloom variety, and before I know it, I’ve planted 50 or so seeds. I really intended to not grow so many this year, but . . . the inevitable happened. So I guess the overheated greenhouse was God’s way of rescuing me from too many tomatoes. I have a few of each variety I planted except San Marzano. Even after replanting, the San Marzanos didn’t germinate. That seed must be old. Good thing I saved some fresh from last year’s crop.

At any rate, a couple of days ago, I potted up 6 jalapenos and 6 Serrano peppers, and about a dozen tomatoes. For growing on, I use a rather unusual container. I plant my peppers and tomatoes in Styrofoam cups.

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Now I can just hear some of the objections. “Styrofoam isn’t green!” “What about recycling?” To the first objection, I will say this. No, Styrofoam isn’t typically thought of as a green material because it doesn’t break down. And that’s precisely why I use Styrofoam cups for pots. They are durable, can be used over and over (my answer to the second objection), and are easy to use. I began using Styrofoam cups a few years ago, and I am still using the same cups I started with. I did have to open a new package the other day because I have given away or sold some of my plants over the years and haven’t gotten the cups back.

Here’s how it works. I take a sharp knife (or the blade of a scissors or a fork) and poke several holes in the bottom of a 16 oz. cup. I also poke a few holes around the base of the cup, about a half-inch from the bottom, to ensure good drainage. I use a Sharpie to mark the cup with the plant variety and transplant date, then I fill the cup with my moist soil mix, and use my thumb to create a nice well for the tomato or pepper seedling’s rootball to fill.

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I use an old table fork to pry the seedling out of the six-pack cell and place it in the cup’s well. I press down firmly, and if it’s a tomato seedling, I add more soil to bring the soil level up to just below the seed leaves. Some people plant their tomato seedlings all the way up to the seed leaves in the first transplanting, but I don’t. The stem is still tender, and I want to give the seedling the chance to set its already-developed roots before it has to grow too many roots on its little stem. (When I plant the tomato in the garden, I’ll bury it down to the seed leaves.)

I do not deep-plant pepper seedlings. There’s some controversy about whether or not pepper stems grow roots like tomatoes, and whether or not it’s a good idea to deep-plant them. I don’t do it for one very simple reason. Peppers grow slowly. If you deep-plant a pepper seedling to grow roots on the stem, you are just delaying the fruiting process. I’ve never done it, and my hot peppers do very well outside in my short growing season. I’m afraid that trying to root pepper stems would seriously set back my pepper harvest.  So I just transplant to the same soil level as the plant was in its original container.

After transplanting, I water the seedling to settle the soil and the plant’s roots into the soil, and then the tomato cups go into an aluminum foil roasting pan which sits on the warmed planting beds in the greenhouse until it’s time to start hardening off the plants prior to planting out. If we get a late freeze, I plug in the radiant oil heater and set the foil pans around it to keep them from freezing. The foil pans also reflect light and warmth on dark days, and they make it easy for me to move the plants in and out of the greenhouse for hardening-off.

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The cups of transplanted peppers went back into the heated sand box. The rope light is now on a timer and only comes on at night. The lid stays off, and this gives the peppers enough warmth to be happy without making them wimpy. The eggplants and bell peppers went back under the light (along with a few tomatoes too small to transplant). The light is only on at night now as well (and also on a timer), until I’ve decided I’m ant-free and can plant them.

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I use 16 oz. cups because they allow me to bury my tomato seedlings to just the right depth and allow for good root development. For peppers, which will stay in the greenhouse until June, the 16 oz. cup gives this slow grower plenty of root room as well. This size gives my plants enough room to grow for the next month or six weeks before I plant them out under cover. If your plants don’t need to stay in pots as long as mine do, you could use 8 oz. cups. And as I said before, the cups can be used over and over, so for me, they’re guilt-free. When it comes time to transplant the young tomato or pepper into the garden, the root ball slides easily and freely out of that Styrofoam cup. It’s slick inside, you see, and if you need to squeeze a bit or tap on the bottom to free up the plant (I usually don’t have to), the cup can stand up to the pressure. And then when it’s time to put the cups away after the plants are in the ground, you just nest them inside each other and put them back in the bag for easy storage.

I recycle or reuse just about everything. I save plastic six-, four-, and three-packs from flowers or other plants I might buy and use them over and over again in the greenhouse as my seedlings’ first homes. I bought both my Styrofoam cups and foil roasting pans at the Dollar Store, so my main cash outlay in the greenhouse is in good, organic bagged soil. I usually get mine at the local nursery, whatever brand they have on sale, because it is not cheap. And yes, I recycle it!

Any soil or starting medium left in the six packs is dumped into a labeled bag, and I use it the following year for starting my flower seeds. After the soil has been used for flowers, it’s dumped into the planting beds in the greenhouse or in the garden. I let the worms recharge it there.

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I also potted up some petunias and marigolds that I started from seed a month ago. I love petunias, but since seed companies have decided to start pelleting the seed, I do not have good luck growing them. The pelleted seed just refuses to germinate for me. Out of 50 pelleted seeds, I might get 6 or 7 plants. I do know how to grow petunia seed that hasn’t been tampered with; you just have to cover it very lightly, barely scratching it in because it is smaller than fine salt. (Back in the day, 40 years ago, I started hundreds of petunias from unpelleted seed and grew them on in flats for planting in the flower beds of the Trees of Mystery, where I was the head gardener.)

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Some years ago, I noticed that petunias would volunteer in my garden, so I started collecting seed from those volunteers and planting them in the greenhouse so I can have more and more and more petunias! After several generations, I now have petunias that are very hardy and smell incredible. (That’s my favorite thing about petunias—the scent.) I don’t have a lot of color variation. No reds or purples or ruffles or stripes, just plain trumpets in a pale pink, a deeper pink, a white, and a lavender, but I don’t care about the limited color selection. I care that I can grow petunias that smell heavenly, and I don’t have to mess around with that stupid pelleted seed.

I always plant lots of marigolds throughout my garden. They help to keep the tomato and cabbage worms away from those crops, and I just love their sunny colors. I get some volunteers every year, but not enough, so I gather seed each fall for the next year’s crop.

One last word about unorthodox containers. I will use just about anything as a seed-starting container in the greenhouse. The blue boxes in the picture below are Styrofoam mushroom boxes. I save them when I buy mushrooms, wash the boxes, poke holes in them for drainage just like the cups, and use them for starting flowers. I also save the plastic boxes that cherry tomatoes, or grapes, or blueberries are sometimes packaged in (there’s one in the picture above that’s about to receive some petunias), those plastic trays that hold grocery store sweet rolls (my husband buys those sometimes), and any other plastic thing that can be used like a flat, especially if it already has some kind of drainage holes in it. Then I fill the container with soil or starting medium and sow my seed like I would in a flat. When the plants are up and ready for pricking off, I may use a similar container and plant six to a mushroom or grape box.

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If I need larger containers, say, gallon-size, and I’ve used up all my actual pots, metal or plastic coffee cans make good temporary pots. They just need some nail holes poked into them for drainage. For the plastic coffee cans, hold the nail head with pliers and heat the tip with a lighter, then poke it through the plastic. These can be used over and over again as well.

I’m going to leave you with two transplanting tips. 1) My favorite transplanting tool is a common table fork. I have several in the greenhouse. As I mentioned before, they are useful for prying a seedling out of its cell in a six-pack without damaging the root ball. They’re also useful for disentangling roots in a wad of seedlings from a “flat.” I use a fork to tease the plants and roots apart for transplanting. (They also make good weeders if they’re sturdy enough.)

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And 2) when you’re transplanting, always remember to handle seedlings by their leaves or roots, never by their stems. If you bruise the stem, you’ll likely lose the plant. The stem is the conduit from the roots to the leaves, the spine, if you will. Damage it, and your plant is toast. Bulky gloves are no good for transplanting, so if you have an owie on your finger (like I often do), use vinyl or nitrile gloves to protect your hands. It’s a lot easier to handle delicate seedlings with thin, surgical-type gloves. Oh, I guess that was a bonus, tip #3!

 

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Garden and Greenhouse

Transplant

I came home after six days away on a camping trip with my grandchildren to find everything in the garden and greenhouse in good shape, thanks to Emily Jones and Tori French. It’s transplanting time!

I transplant my tomatoes as soon as they have four true leaves. Tomato seedlings can get a little leggy, even in a greenhouse, especially mine, shrouded as it is part of the day by pines and oaks, so I always plant them a little deeper in the larger container than they grew when they sprouted in the 6-packs. This takes advantage of the remarkable ability of tomatoes to root from their stems.

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These seedlings will likely be transplanted at least once more before they go out into the garden, and each time, I will plant them deeper into larger pots or the garden box beds. By the time they are set out in the garden, they will have stocky stems and well-developed, healthy root systems.  It’s hard to believe, looking at them now, that some of them will grow to be over six feet tall.

I set my tomatoes out in the garden, under protection, sometime in May. I have set out tomatoes under Walls of Water as early as April, but when I get over-eager, they tend to get leggy and outgrow the protection before the danger of frost is past.  I’ve learned it’s best to wait, hard as it is for me to be patient!

We can get killing frosts here into June, so I want sturdy plants, well-leafed out plants, but I don’t want them to be blooming when I set them out. Transplanting at the wrong time, when the plant is already blooming and trying to set fruit, can retard the timing of the harvest and lessen the number of tomatoes you’ll get. I want my plants to be about 7-8 inches tall when I set them out, and I don’t want any blossoms. Potting up deeper early on can help control the tomato’s urge to bloom in the warm conditions in the greenhouse; the plant puts its energy into growing roots from that newly-buried portion of the stem rather than into blossoms.

The bell peppers will stay inside the greenhouse, growing in the planter box, and that’s where I’m transplanting them instead of potting them up. That’s the only way I’ll ever harvest a pepper here. They take so long to grow and set and bear and ripen fruit, and my garden gets enough shade to make them a very iffy crop outside.

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My one lone habanero (only one seed of three sprouted) will stay in the greenhouse as well. It is so small that I will not transplant it for at least several more weeks, and these peppers grow so slowly, I may not get any fruit from it at all. I didn’t get any ripe fruit from my two habaneros last year, but I am nothing if not dogged in my pursuit of homegrown hot peppers for hot sauce.

The jalapeno and serrano peppers, my salsa peppers, will go outside. Their fruit is small enough and they bear quickly enough, I can grow them in the garden. But they really hate cool nights, so they will be potted up until it is safe to move them outside, probably around the first of June, and even then, I will give them some protection at night for a few weeks.

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Eggplants are a relatively new crop for me. I grew them last year for the first time, and I got my seed so late, and they grew so slowly, I decided to leave them in the greenhouse. It was a wise decision; otherwise, I’d have harvested far fewer eggplants when the first frost hit outside. As it was, I still had fruit maturing in the greenhouse where it stayed warmer for several weeks in November last year. This year, I have five seedling plants ready for transplanting much earlier than last year, so three of them will go in the greenhouse planter box, and I’ll put two outside eventually and see how they do in the garden.

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Just before we left for the camping trip, Dennis brought home ten tomato plants for me from town. Six are Early Girls, which is my reliable, “old faithful” tomato which always does well in my garden, has great sweet flavor, makes a good crop, and is good eaten fresh, canned, chopped for salsa, dried, or sauced.  I have not yet grown Early Girls or Sun Golds from purchased seed because I haven’t found a reputable source for the seed which is guaranteed to be non-GMO.  Of course, there’s no telling whether the plants Dennis bought are non-GMO, but I’m unwilling to directly support a seed company that won’t guarantee non-GMO seeds.  The other four plants are Sun Gold, those delectable little golden-orange cherry-type tomatoes that are plant candy. I love them. I let some seed volunteer a couple of times, and the first year I got what were recognizably Sun Gold, but the second year, the parent genes of a small sweet red cherry surfaced, and half the plants bore red cherries. That was okay, too. This year, I have no volunteers, so when Dennis called from town and said Ace had Early Girls and Sun Golds, and they weren’t root-bound in 4 inch pots, and were only 88 cents each, I said, “Get some!” I transplanted them about 10 days ago into half-gallon pots, burying them deeply, and they have already doubled in size. They might have to be transplanted into the garden early, partly because one of the Sun Golds is already blooming, despite being potted up. Maybe I didn’t bury that stem quite deep enough!  The other reason I might have to move them into the garden in a week or so is that they are sitting where an eggplant or bell pepper needs to grow!

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This week, I’ll start the other tender crops that have to be babied until they can be set out: melons and squashes. The only melon I’ve been successful with here is Minnesota Midget. I can’t get a standard-sized cantaloupe to ripen, and watermelons don’t do well either, but the Minnesota Midgets are perfect, sweet, cantaloupey balls of goodness. The flavor is outstanding, and if you haven’t tried these little gems, I highly recommend them.  I had to buy fresh seed this year and made sure I got them from a seed company that does not deal with GMO seeds.

I don’t get enough sun on the garden for long enough to ripen the big melons, but pumpkins and winter squash, and zucchini and yellow straightnecks do well for me. They can’t be set out until the soil warms up and the nights aren’t so cool, so usually, I put them out in May, under protection, and hope. And pray. They grow quickly and need to be set out before their roots grow through the peat pots, so the last week of April is the right time to get them started. They will take the place of the peppers and eggplants in the heated sandbox.

I have so much lettuce in the greenhouse, I don’t know if we can eat it all, even if we eat a big salad every day, but it is so good, I could easily eat a salad of it every day.

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When it first came up, I thought it was romaine, because I thought I’d let the romaine volunteer in the greenhouse like I do outside. (I haven’t planted regular romaine in years because it keeps volunteering.) But as the lettuce developed, I could see it wasn’t romaine, and I remembered that I’d planted some salad bowl mix in the fall of 2012, and only one plant survived into the spring of 2013. I think it was oak leaf, and I let it go to seed in the greenhouse last summer. Those seedlings have flourished, along with the spinach I let go to seed and volunteer, so every few days, I have to go in and thin out the greens, making room for the eggplants, peppers, and Cherokee Purple tomatoes (the only tomatoes I’ll have in the greenhouse this year) in the planter box. What a hardship.  If you compare these pictures with the ones I took last week, you can see how much the plants have grown in just a week.  I cut and thinned a bunch of it for a salad for Easter, too.

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I love transplanting. I love getting my fork (just an old table fork) under those little root balls and prying them up, then giving them a new, bigger home in a larger pot. I love watching them respond to my care, growing up into sturdy, strong-stemmed, healthy-leaved plants that will produce food for my family over the summer and long after, when properly preserved. I wonder if a heart surgeon derives more pleasure from replacing a human heart than I get from transplanting my seedlings? The surgeon is saving a life; I’m feeding several. She can’t grow the heart she’s transplanting (at least, not yet). These babies are here because I planted the seeds. That’s a feeling only gardeners (and parents) know.

There’s a lot of transplanting work to be done over this coming week.  I can hardly wait to show you next week’s pictures and progress report.

I’ll leave you with a photo of apple blossoms, which have nothing to do with transplanting, but have everything to do with spring.  And if you are not fortunate enough to have an apple tree in your vicinity, at least you can have a picture of them.

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