Monday, February 15, 2010

A Time To Sow

“Looking forward to the future is what we gardeners do every day, when we plant a seed or even a tree.”
~Ken Druse

I’ve not been much in the garden since late fall, so by the time January or February rolls around I’m starting to go through withdrawals. My houseplants get more attention than ever, seed catalogs are perused again and again and I begin to sow seeds for this years vegetable crops. Today I sowed Stupice tomato, Bambino eggplant and cleome flower seeds in Jiffy peat pellets and Fiber Grow coir pellets indoors.

The differing climates throughout the USA and the world, determine success or failure of a particular variety of seed. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Stupice is a very successful tomato. It is of medium size so it ripens within a shorter growing season, and doesn’t seem to mind a certain amount of our cloudy, cooler days. The big Beefsteak tomatoes are better in the sunny, hot southern states with their longer growing season. Talk to the old timers around you who have vegetable gardens. They’ve been trialing for decades and will be glad to tell you which varieties have given them consistent reward. Also read your seed catalog information very carefully when ordering seeds. Each seed has specific needs for success. The seed information will specify “number of days to maturity”. It is especially important to us in the northern climates. We have shorter growing seasons so we want seeds with the shortest number of days to maturity. This countdown begins with the transplant of the seedling into your garden soil, not from when you sow the seed in your trays.

To start many of my seeds I like to use expandable pellets. They are compressed but expand when you soak them in water first. They are easy and rarely do I have germination failure, provided I keep them moist. Be sure to pot them up into a four inch pot of soil when roots begin to show at the sides. I have better success in pellets than with seedling mix in pots or seed trays, but at 10-15 cents each for the pellets, when I have a large number of seeds I’ll use seed trays with little cells which I fill with a seed starter mix. Here I’ve pictured the compressed pellets and a cell tray.
 Peat pellets and seedling mix both are full of peat moss. Peat moss products have been used extensively in gardening and gardening products for eons. I for one have never been fond of peat because it dries out easily and you’ve got to keep an eye on it no matter what you are using it for. Once it dries out it forms a hard pancake that is difficult to get re-hydrated, so your seeds are wasted. It is always recommended for use in reseeding lawns, or to mix into a planting hole for acid loving plants, but I prefer just using compost.  And if you need to acidify your soil, used coffee grounds or fir and pine needles mixed in will do just that.

That said, I think it’s important to talk about the great peat debate. We hear very little about it here in the USA. I don’t know why that is, as we strive to be responsible gardeners as much as the next, but peat usage is quite controversial in other parts of the world. I learned about it a few years ago by reading gardening magazines from England. In a nut shell, environmental groups in recent years have called attention to the damage done to peat bogs and the wildlife they support because peat extraction is done by draining the bogs to remove the peat. An English gardener friend tells me its usage is banned in the UK.

"Today, lowland peat bogs and their wildlife are threatened through peat extraction for garden composts and other uses. Peatland wildlife such as dragonflies, butterflies and birds depend on peat for its survival and gardeners can choose alternatives.”

“Peat develops very slowly, no more than 1mm in depth per year. A 10 metre deep peat reserve will have taken 10,000 years to develop. So when peat is mined for garden compost it will take 1,000 years to replace every metre that is taken away."

I think more attention should be raised on this matter here in the USA and I think worldwide we all should strive to reduce peat usage by looking for peat free bagged soils, compost and potting products. And to Jiffy company… I applaud your efforts to replace peat with coco fiber (coir) for some of your products but I ask you to please step up your efforts to replace peat in all your products including the expandable pellets. There’s a new kid on the block who’s done just that, and I’m switching! I found some expandable pellets and seed sowing products from Canada’s Planter’s Pride.  Their Fiber Grow products are made out of highly renewable coir fibers. Coir is from the coconut’s brown fibrous shell. I’ll be looking for more of their products in future. I bought some of their coir pellets this year and am trialing them along side Jiffy’s peat pellets. Already I like the fact that the ‘fabric shell’ on Fiber Grow coir pellets is advertised to be biodegradable, whereas Jiffy’s is a fine netting that I find still buried long after the plant has been harvested.

I for one, plan to read more closely the ingredients listed on those potting soil, seedling mixes and compost bags…no matter how fine the print is. It is reported that European manufacturers try to hide the peat content, making it hard for consumers to know what they are buying. Be aware, be informed, be choosey. Follow this link for more facts on the peat debate.

Back to seed starting…once you sow your seeds, they need to be kept moist and the humidity needs to be kept up till they sprout. You can use seed starting trays which have small cells that you fill with a special seed starting mix, a very light, airy soil that is yes…mostly peat. The cell trays come with a clear raised plastic cover that will keep in the humidity. If I am using expanding pellets, I put them in a plastic, lidded grocery store container as a way to reuse/recycle. The container shown below was butter lettuce packaging at one time.

Heat mats are electric, super thin and provide gentle warmth from below that help germination of some seeds. I use the heat mat for tomatoes and many summer blooming, heat loving plants that I am sowing seed for. Not all seeds want heat. Lettuce, kale, cabbage and any cool weather crop will not germinate if it’s too warm so keep them off the heat.

Now that my seeds are planted, the most difficult task is at hand. To keep my cat from pushing them off the heat mat now that she’s discovered it. Heat is such a cat magnet! More than once I’ve come home to find her stretched out, toasty and snoozing on it after the seeds have landed on the floor below (sigh).

 In bloom in my garden today: Cyclamen coum, Galanthus elwesii (snow drops), crocus, primrose (double English), Sarcococca confusa, hellebore

Author’s photo


Cindy said...

Hi Joan. I have to go give the peat debate a good read. I just stopped on by to say hi and see how things are doing in your part of the US. Getting any warmth yet?

we are starting too, so I am anxious to get outside. We did a lot of cleaning and pruning and the like. MUCH BETTER. Getting ready to plan our lil garden (if we tackle that this year)

Love your kitty on the heat mat. Cat's are nuts!
Happy President's day to you!

Joan said...

Hi Cindy!
Yes things are getting into the low 50's this week and today the sun's out and warming things nicely. I'm about to do some cleanup and trimming (must do roses today-note to self) in the garden after a bite to eat. I'd love to hear about your garden plans.

There's more links to the peat issue, for space I only included one. Just google it and you'll get more if you want.

Cheers! and have a great day off too! Thanks for writing!

Shari B. (FitFeat) said...

Hi Joan! Whoa, isn't it amazing how things you'd never even think were a problem can be so tough on our planet? Excellent post!

LOVE your kitty photo! So cute that she actually KNOCKS stuff off so she can snooze in comfort! Gotta love our pets!!

Joan said...

Hi Shari, Yes even some of the most seemingly natural things can be damaging...and they've been around so long we don't stop to think about them.

Thanks writing and yes, pets are a laugh a minute aren't they? Don't know what I'd do without them, except not have to pick up seeds off the floor! Her nic-name is 'Punk' for a reason!

Sarah said...

Hi Joan, I'm wondering if you could share more information about how the planters pride fiber grow pellets worked for you. I am trying them for the first time today, and having a hard time getting them to expand more than 1.25 inches tall and 1.5 inches wide (packaging suggests they should get 2 inches tall, i think). I have had them soaking for more than an hour now, and am trying some in warmer/hot water, but no luck so far. Thanks!

Joan said...

Hi Sarah! Thanks so much for visiting. What a great question...

Of the 3 Planters Pride coir pellets I trialed, 2 expanded to about 1.75" tall and 1.5" wide, and the other only 1.5" tall and 1.5" wide. I think 2" tall is a bit of an exaggeration/hopeful thinking on their part. The seeds all germinated just fine though. I have found the same size inconsistancy in Jiffy's peat pellets now and then over the years. I think the warm water idea is the best. The most I've soaked them is for 20-30 minutes. I have also got them a bit bigger by wiggling/squishing the coir gently around from the outside of the sleeve, being careful not to tear it. Even if you only get 1.5" in height, that should be sufficient to get the seeds to germinate and take root. Just be sure to keep them moist and pot up the coir/seedlings in soil/pot when you see roots growing out the sides.

I'm so glad your trying to go peat free and trying alternatives. I'd love to hear your results and what's you're seeding.

Corner Gardener Sue said...

Hi Joan,
I found your blog doing a search of Planters' Pride Biodegradable pellets. I am trying to figure out how long it takes for the pellets to get to the 2 inches. After reading this, I'll not expect that. I just checked, though, and mine are only an inch. It's only been about 10 minutes, though, so I'll leave them awhile.

I'll have to check and see if you are still blogging later.

Joan said...

Hi Sue! Thanks so much for visiting and commenting.

I'm glad you found some answers to questions on my blog. That's what it's all about isn't it? I'm looking foward to visiting your blog.

Please come by again today. I'll be posting again about starting seed and my experience with coir vs. peat. Please do chime in with your experience...the door is definitely not closed on peat for me as you'll read. I'd love to hear comments from many readers as to their experience and preference to seed starting medium.