It feels good to be starting seeds for the coming growing season. This year snow is still piled up outside as we approach April. We have faith that we will see the bare earth again, and have to plan to be ready to plant into it. In our unheated hoop house spinach, arugula and claytonia are germinating. Inside under lights we have all the early alliums (onions, shallots, and leeks) and solanums (tomatoes, peppers and eggplants) starting to grow. With more seedings of early greens and brassicas to follow soon.
This year we are trying some new ideas in how we start seeds. In workshops we have taken with Dan Kittredge (Bionutrient Food Association) and John Kempf (Advancing EcoAgriculture) they both emphasized the impact that the early days of a plant’s life have on its development and ultimate yield potential. It seems within the first 12 days of a plants life its little roots have tried to determine how much space and resources it has to work with and it then decides how many leaves, flowers, and fruits to develop. Based on this information, we are thinking that starting seeds in larger cells and making sure they have a good starting medium may have a big impact on its health later on in life. We are also choosing to start many seeds later than we usually do, really trying to avoid root bound plants. Ideally plant growth above ground should mimic root growth below. It can also really stress plants and set them back to be forced into soil that is colder than their liking. We are trying to resist the urge to get everything out ultra early, waiting instead until the soil temps will encourage rapid growth of roots.
Because space under grow lights is always a premium, we have usually started many plants in row trays or small pots with many seeds. The next step was then to graduate to a larger cell size by bare rooting the plants and transplanting. This year we are foregoing the row trays in most cases and starting things right into trays with larger cells. We used to use trays with 72 cells for many things, but we have graduated into a larger size for most plant starts now with 38 cells. Giving plants more space to start usually results in much nicer transplants, and a side benefit is that they also seem to mature faster.
So, you might ask if you are starting all of these plants in larger cells aren’t you going to run out of room? Well the interesting thing is that we are also learning that if you give plants more space in the garden, they yield more and you need a lot fewer plants. Dan Kittredge was saying that he has planted tomatoes 5-10 feet apart and had tremendous yields. We are going to do some experimenting with this in 2014 by planting our tomatoes in the greenhouse at 4 foot spacings, not pruning them, and maintaning them with stakes and a basket weave. Usually we plant them about 2 feet apart, prune them religiously, and clip them to strings dropped from rebar attached the rafters. We are taking a bit of a leap of faith here, because we will be planting far fewer plants (around 36 as opposed to close to 100 last year) and if some of them die or have issues we don’t have many replacements. It really seems to make sense that a plant that can grow that rampantly really can use a lot of root space, so we are going to take the risk. What this means for this time of year though, is that we don’t need to start as many plants so we can afford to give them bigger cells to start in.
We also like to start our seeds in a high quality potting soil. We use Vermont Compost Company’s Fort V potting soil which we add “Fortify” to (a blend of lime, humates and micronutrients often lacking in potting soil). We also add a mycorrhizal inoculant directly in our seed packets or sometimes mixed into the potting soil. Almost all plants except brassicas have relationships with mycorrhizal fungi that enable plants to access much more water and nutrients, adding the inoculant helps ensure that these relationships establish at an early age. Hopefully with enough space, water, nutrition and some mushroom friends our babies are off to a good start.