Saturday, November 29, 2014

Seeds of Change

Germination is a wonder.

I will never cease to be amazed by the miracle of life.

I cannot remember a time when I did not know about growing things.  It’s just a part of who I am. 
getting ready to seed lettuce

And, planting seeds is one of my favorite activities…right behind digging potatoes and assisting in animal births…   

No, wait…I nearly forgot, I love reading seed catalogs! There are countless varieties, pretty pictures…and the possibilities seem endless.

When we started growing produce for a living, it became evident that we really needed to grow our own “starts”.  Those little transplants that you can buy in six-packs at the Farmers’ Market, home-center or nursery are a great deal for the home gardener.  However, we needed a LOT of transplants. Starting your own (on a large scale) is far cheaper and you have a much wider selection of varieties.

Up until that time, my seed starting had taken place in the windowsills around the house.  The kitchen window was generally full of tiny plants in re-cycled yogurt cups.  At one point, the Boss even built a special shelf to provide more space.  But, the plants got spindly and leggy in their search for the sun and the warmth of the kitchen did nothing to prepare them for the harsh outdoor growing conditions on the hill.

No, we needed to do something different.

When we built the first hoophouse (the one for overwintering the hens) the Boss made it a little longer and walled-off a portion.  I would have my own “starting room”.  yipee!

This was about as low-tech and cheap as you could get, with egg cartons for starting flats and shelves made out of scraps from around the farm.  But, every little bit helps…and it was amazingly successful. (for what it was)

early days of "starting house" 1998
after the hens moved to pasture, we planted crops in the "hen side"

However, there were issues.
my improvised "starting" system
buckets, flats and egg cartons

The hens made a LOT of dust during the winter.  This made my work on my seed starting more than a little uncomfortable. It didn’t help the plants, either.

With no added heat, germination was slow and unreliable. This made any planting schedule more than a little unpredictable. Our recycled/repurposed stuff also didn’t allow for the optimum plant growth. And we needed a LOT more starts.

 I did find that I could buy seed starting trays (like the pros use) at the local farm store. But, they were still pretty expensive if you just bought a couple at a time.
next stage
nursery flats

There also wasn’t any water at the hoophouse.  That meant hauling buckets… While this makes me sound wimpy, YOU try hauling five-gallon buckets full of water through all kinds of weather and then you’ll understand. It wasn't long before the Boss (with borrowed equipment and a little child labor) got a water line to the hoophouse.
starting the waterline
check out the back of the house and shop
NO greenhouses!

Blondie down in the trench
she might have only been 9, but she was bound and determined to help

However, even that didn't solve the sporadic germination issues. We knew we needed some bottom heat, but just couldn't get that issue resolved in the hoophouse.

At one point, we tried putting an electric blanket on a sheet of plywood, covering it with plastic and putting our flats on top of that.  This was set up in the middle of the shop so we could have access to all the little plants.  This was cheap and gave us a lot more space.While the heat helped the seeds start, we were back to the light (or lack thereof) issue.

We still needed something different.

It had always been our intention to put a greenhouse on the back of the house.  When we had the builder leave the window off the room that is now the office, he looked askance. A greenhouse?  You’re going to build a greenhouse? But, of course! (yes, my wish list did include a greenhouse…and eventually a walk-in cooler…but, that’s another story) 

building the first greenhouse

Money being what it was, the greenhouse didn’t get built right away.  But, when the Boss found that a friend had a few hoophouse ribs he wasn’t going to use, you know what happened.  Some sort of deal was struck and before you knew it, we had our first little greenhouse.
completed greenhouse
fully equipped with daughters inside

This would revolutionize the way we started seeds.
we even got the kids involved starting seeds

The Boss used a couple of old drums from the local potato chip company as the base for the propagation table. (for a long time, we could get the drums quite cheaply and used them for everything…the potato chip company has outsourced the chip cooking, so the cheap drums are a thing of the past) Not only would these hold up the table, the black paint of the cans would reflect some warmth for the little plants. 

The table top is a wooden frame filled with sand.  A wire mesh with heat cables sits over this.  The heat cables provide a steady bottom-heat to encourage good root development. …and with a hydrant on the back of the house, watering was no longer an issue.

Wow!  This made all the difference in the world!

After the seeds germinate and the plants begin growing well, they are transferred to the “growing on” table.  This table has a wire bottom so that we can place small heaters under it on very cold nights and maintain good growing temperatures. (the heat is held close to the plants by draping a plastic dropcloth over some hoops built into the table) Read this one about HEAT.

keeping seedlings warm on a cold day

Since this house worked so well, it wasn’t long before I started angling for more starting space.

…and the Boss found himself building a greenhouse on the back of the shop.

Wow! This made all the difference in the world! (again) We can really get some transplants going now!

Gone are the egg cartons and yogurt cups.  We buy standardized starting trays in bulk. …and bales and bales of potting soil.

The transplants have never looked better.

That is, when I don’t overlook the watering schedule or ventilation issues and “cook” everything. “Cooked” seedlings can be a huge tragedy and  awful frustration…enough to ruin my entire day.
forgot to water

The greenhouses are my favorite place to spend some quality time on a cold winter’s day.  The  possibilities are endless. 

And, speaking of possibilities…

Look what came in yesterday’s mail…

It’s time to start thinking about the gardens for 2015!

Lessons Learned:
Germination is a wonder.
Growing your own plants is economical…and fun.
Bottom heat is the key to sturdy, healthy transplants.
You can never have too many seed catalogs!
I could really use another greenhouse.   ...just kidding.


  1. It is so lovely to read of your totally unbridled enthusiasm Barbara - and to plot your progress on growing from seed. You seem to have got it perfect now.

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    Thank you,

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