Sunday, January 23, 2022

Starting Seeds Indoors: Our Simple Setup

This week I wanted to discuss some of the basic elements of seed starting indoors and how over the years I have refined my system to have consistently great results.  Things around here have come a long way from the cookie sheets and shop lights in the spare bedroom when I first started gardening, and I thought sharing that information might help you get started if you're thinking about it.

I am going to attempt to speak in generalities throughout this post and discuss the elements that you need to consider, and then I will share with you where I am currently in my ever evolving seed starting system.  We start seeds in all kinds of places, both indoors and out, but this post is going to focus on the indoor aspect since around here it's still far too early to be using our greenhouse spaces just yet.  Everything outside is still very frozen.

I would also add before we dive in that while there may be some start up costs to consider, the system that you will be developing has wide ranging implications.  I have used the systems I will be describing here to grow salad greens indoors throughout the winter.  I have yet to try it, but microgreens could also be grown in this type of a system so you can surely expand on your usage of the system should you desire too.  Let’s dive into the elements of the system.  


The first thing you need to consider is space.  Where will all this activity be happening?  Many folks gravitate towards a south facing spare room or some other space with good light, but just as many if not more choose their basement or even a heated shed.  Keep in mind that there will be water present for the maintenance of plants, maybe even some light fertilizer so carpet might not be the best choice if you have options without it.  And don’t think that it has to be a room, last year our indoor space was in the dining area of our kitchen behind the table.  We were obviously limited on how many starts we could maintain, but it worked out great.  

Don’t underestimate the value of vertical space when seed starting as well.  We’ve started using wire shelving units from big box stores.  The really large ones can easily hold four starting trays per shelf, which means in a four foot by two foot amount of space I am able to start 12-16 trays full of plants.  Which is my current go to for this section.  I highly recommend these large wire shelving units.  You can find them at places like Costco, Home Depot, or Lowes.  They offer a lot of benefits that we will discuss later.  


You are going to need something to hold your seedlings and it needs to be watertight.  There are lots of DIY options here, like the baking tray I mentioned starting with years ago, but save yourself the hassle and find some 1020 seed starting trays.  You can find these at the big box stores, or hit up a nursery supply store and buy them in bulk.  If you take care of them, they last for years and are so convenient to store when not in use.  They also make great trays for doing microgreens.  A word to the wise, there are shorter and taller versions of these trays.  Depending upon how you're doing things, the shorter ones might meet your needs better.  

What to put in those trays is a huge debate among growers, and they all have their pros and cons.  I will
dive deeper into this in a later post, but for now know that I have used standard cells, soil blocks, and the peat pucks from Jiffy and love them all for different reasons.  I did a video on seed starting mixes and how to make your own, so don’t waste money buying the ready made stuff, especially if you are going to be starting lots of seeds.  It’s so easy to make.  Just be sure to keep it neutral and feed the seedlings with liquid based fertilizers.  

To be clear, that means don’t make the mistake I did and mix in worm castings or compost with your seed starting mixes unless you know for sure that it is free of germinating seeds. Last year my tomato starts had some surprising results since the composted tomatoes from the previous season didn’t get killed out and random tomatoes began sprouting up.  This year I will be sticking with neutral starting media and will pot up seedlings into compost when necessary so I can be sure I am getting what I want when I drop those plants in the ground.  Peat moss, coco coir, and some vermiculite is all you need to get seeds off to a good start.  Thank me later.   


This one probably goes without saying, but it is really nice to have a long spouted watering can.  I have one that I am sure was intended for house plants and it works perfectly.  I don’t generally water seedlings from the top when starting them indoors once they have sprouted, rather I keep some water in the 1020 tray and allow it to wick up to the plants from below.  This is also a great way to get them a bit of a feed if you need to keep them growing inside by adding some compost tea or other dilute liquid fertilizer.  


I am by no means an expert here, but I do know that you are going to need lights.  Now I have started plenty of seedlings using standard fluorescent shop lights.  I have used the fancy plant grow bulbs and regular bright white bulbs all with success.  What is nice about these is they throw off some heat, which is a benefit for sure.  LED lights have sorta changed the game though, and now I use specific LED grow lights for my indoor seed starting.  They are widely available online and I order most of mine from Amazon.  They come in a wide range of sizes and options. 

One thing that I have started doing which was a real game changer is using some foil covered bubble wrap to help reflect light and keep it available to the seedlings.  You can buy rolls of this material at hardware stores or online.  It is used as a reflective insulation, but for our purposes it's absolutely perfect to both trap some heat and reflect light in our seed starting system.  


The last element to consider is heat.  For years I underestimated how important this was, and then my wife bought a seed starting heat mat and it changed everything.  Having some gentle heat under your plants is a massive benefit, especially for things like tomatoes and peppers who love the heat.  So I now fully endorse the use of this tool as I think it will greatly increase your success.  Again you will find lots of options online, I even ordered a double tray unit last year and I love them.  


Final thought to consider is power.  These systems are of course heavily reliant on electricity to run the lights and heat mats, so be sure to consider access to power, perhaps a good quality power strip, and some sort of a timer to control the on/off cycle of your lights. This way you won’t have to worry about turning on and off your lights if you happen to be away for the weekend or out late.  I shoot for about 12-16 hours of light when setting the timer.  


So, from start to finish, here is our current set up.  

Start with a wire shelving unit, assembled with even spacing of the shelves.  Somewhere around 16-20 inches of space between shelves.  You can have some shelves deeper for taller seedlings if you want. 

Under each shelf, hang your light system of choice. I am not going to get into the specifics of this as it will depend heavily on what lights you choose.  You can use a light duty chain and S hooks to control the height of your light and hang them from the wire shelf above, which is why I love this system so much.  So easy to mount lights.  

On top of each shelf place your heat mats if using them.  I have used this system without them and found great success, but that was indoors where the room was fully heated to around 70 degrees.  If you're doing it in a basement or heated shed like we are now, the heat mat might be more important.  

Place 2-4 1020 trays per shelf depending upon the size of your system and fill them with the seed starting media of your choice.  I will have a more detailed post on options soon, but no matter what you choose it should work just fine.  Plant your seeds and cover them with the clear humidity domes until the seedlings start growing.  

Wrap the entire shelving unit in foil coated bubble wrap to reflect the light throughout the growing space.  I use simple binder clips to clip the bubble wrap around the top shelf to hold it in place.  It’s fine if it isn’t closed all the way, we just want it to reflect light so your plants are getting hit from all directions.  

Plug everything into a power strip that is on a dedicated timer to control the amount of light and you're off to the races.  At this point, your only job is to keep the seedlings watered, and maybe give them a feed or two before you are ready to plant them out or pot them up.  

I have found this system to be highly effective and a good use of the limited space we have available for setting something like this up.  In a very small footprint, I can start hundreds of seedlings and get them off to a good start so we hit the ground running once the spring weather breaks.  Let me know in the comments how you start seeds indoors and any recommendations you have for specific lights, fertilizers for seedlings, or your favorite seed starting media.  Questions are always welcome and we’ll do our best to get you an answer.  That’s all for this post so get outside and get growing, because life is better when it’s lived Outdoorz! 

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Tomato Basics

Harvested Tomato
Who doesn’t love the taste of a fresh from the vine tomato?  I know as a kid it was something that I under appreciated, leaning instead towards grandma’s strawberries, carrots, and the occasional bowl of green beans.  But now that my pallet has matured, I have come to truly appreciate the complexity of flavor, the subtle to strong sweetness, and the range of textures that tomatoes fresh from the garden have to offer.  They are one of my go to snacks while in the garden each summer.  I just love them, grow way too many of them, and have decided over my next couple blog posts to share a few tips and tricks that I have learned over the years.  I will be giving you some specific examples with the hopes that you can learn from my years of experience.  

Let’s start off by talking about how I classify tomatoes.  To me, there are really just three main types.  Slicers, meant for burgers, sandwiches, topping pizza, sliced in salads etc.  Roma’s, which are those beautiful elongated small tomatoes famous for sauces and salsas.  They are by design more meaty, with less seeds than a typical slicer and have a slightly lower water content.  And the humble cherry tomato, everyone's favorite for salads, fresh eating and stroll through the garden snacking.  Within these three basic categories, there is a wide, wide range of tastes and varieties to explore.  

Bus Tubs Loaded After Harvest

Now let me address the wormhole that is hybrid vs heirloom plants. I like to keep this simple, and focus on the true end result in this debate and that is the seeds inside the fruit.  Hybrid plants will produce seeds, but those seeds will not produce the same tomato next year if you were to plant them.  This is due to the fact that hybrid plants are specific crosses between two different tomato plants to achieve a desired outcome.  In agriculture there is this thing called hybrid vigor, which accounts for the fact that these types of crosses, in both plants and animals, can sometimes lead to more robust, stronger offspring and show increased harvest volumes.  In plain terms that means faster growth, better disease resistance, and more ripe tomatoes.  Not necessarily a bad thing depending upon your goals.  

Tomatoes Ripening on the Vine
Heirloom plants on the other hand are “old world varieties” that have in some cases been around for centuries.  They breed true to type, which means if you plant an heirloom tomato, you can save the seeds from the fruit and replant it next year and get the same tomato.  Which of course is a cycle that would never end, year after year, save the seeds and grow more tomatoes.  They often have epic flavor profiles as well and are some of the most beautiful tomatoes I have ever grown.  But this comes with a catch….. Remember what I said about crossing two specific tomatoes to get hybrids?  Well, if you plant eight different heirloom tomatoes in the same bed, pollen from the different flowers will transfer to other plants and you will end up with some seeds resulting from crossed plants.  In a sense, you will create your own hybrid seeds.  These new hybrids might be amazing and delicious, or they might taste bitter and nasty….trust me when I tell you that nothing sucks quite like nurturing a tomato vine all the way to the fruit stage only to figure out that you’ve basically been growing chicken food.  You also have to account for the fact that their growth might be slower, and their overall output lower.  These however are somewhat easy to address by starting your seedlings early, and making room for more plants to increase your harvest volume.  

Indoor Seed Starting Station

Now, the final thing to consider with tomatoes is this whole notion of determinant vs indeterminate. It’s taken me years to wrap my head around this, and actually an accidental purchase to really drive it home for me.  Determinant varieties are designed to grow, flower abundantly, put on heavy amounts of fruit all at once, and then die.  Indeterminate varieties by contrast just keep growing.  All summer long their vines will keep sprawling, keep flowering clear till the end, and give you a steady supply of ripe to baby tomatoes right up until they are killed by your first frost at the end of your growing season.  I used to think that these were the only tomatoes to grow.  Why would you want your tomatoes to stop after all?  I wanted that taste of summer to last till the bitter end.  Then something happened that changed my perspective.  

Hoop House Tomatoes
Two seasons ago, my wife was buying plants off and on here and there for the garden and she came home with some beautiful roma plants.  After planting them in the hoop house and looking them over more closely, I rather mockingly told her she had purchased determinant vines and that that was a mistake.  Next time by the indeterminate.  Boy oh boy was I ever wrong.  

Roma Harvest
Those plants absolutely thrived in my hoop house that summer, and all at once, I had a bus tub full of beautiful roma tomatoes.  The vines were spent, having never crowded out all the light and growing space in my small hoop house, and I removed them after that mid summer harvest.  For the first time ever, I had clear bed space after a tomato harvest with plenty of growing season left in the hoop house.  Had I been more ready, I could have slipped in some lettuce and other salad greens and gotten a head start on a fall planting that would have produced well into the fall season.  My views on tomatoes were beginning to change.  

Spaghetti Sauce Started
That bus tub full of tomatoes seemed overwhelming at first.  There was no way we could eat that many all at once.  I had to do something so I started looking around online and through old cook books and decided I should make spaghetti sauce.  Oh. My. Goodness.  Seriously, the best experience of my gardening career was that sauce.  It was…. And it tasted like….. Oh….. so, so good.  

Sauce After a Long, Low Heat Reduction

It is for that reason, all of these reasons really, that I now grow a wide variety of tomatoes.  I honestly grow them all.  We have some heirlooms and some hybrids.  We grow some of all three types, and I will now always grow some determinate varieties, probably in my hoop house, and see if I can recreate that epic sauce.  But it is the understanding of these nuances in the tomato family that have allowed me to come to that decision.  I hope this information helps you on your tomato journey.  In our next few posts, we will look more closely at each of three types, talk about some variety that I really enjoy in each, and then share some growing tips and tricks we have discovered over the years. 

What is your favorite tomato variety to grow? Share in the comments down below. I am always looking for new ideas and new varieties to try! And remember to get outside and get growing!  Life is better when it's lived outdoorz! 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Let's Get Salad Smart in 2022

Happy New Year!  Here we go 2022….you're bound to be better than your predecessor, it certainly would be hard not too! 

So, the new year always brings about the same thing for many of us.  I am going to do more of this, and less of that… eat better, exercise more… we all know the drill.  But in the next few posts I wanted to focus on my New Year’s Resolutions for the Garden/Homestead.  There are a few things that I have planned for this growing season, and with any luck, there might be some ideas or lessons that can help you this season as well.  

First of all, let me make it clear that many of these ideas are coming fresh off the failures from last year.  I like to approach every growing season as an opportunity to learn and grow my knowledge and skill base.  Every year some things go right, while other things end up being epic failures.  But a failure is just a “First Attempt In Learning.”  So, let's dive right in and take a look at what we could have done better, and how we plan to do so this season!  

Get Salad Smart

Let’s start on the salad front.  I have come to really, really love a garden fresh salad.  When it comes to lettuce, fresh is best.  I know that here in our area, I just can’t buy lettuce even remotely close to the quality of what I can grow myself.  My wife and kids also agree that the lettuce from our garden is the best they’ve had.  All that excitement, coupled with the wide range of lettuce varieties, ease of starting from seed, and generally low cost and it's easy to start a lot of lettuce. Like a lot, a lot! 

But here in the high desert of Eastern Oregon, our summers quickly get hot, lettuce bolts, and then we’re done.  The season is over almost as soon as the decent harvests start rolling in.  It can get frustrating and we end up feeding piles of lettuce to our rabbits, chickens, and compost piles.  This year, we will do better.  Here are my thoughts. 

  1. Last season I tried to embrace the cut and come again method popularized by many market gardeners.  I would take the outside leaves and leave the central growing point to keep going.  This may have lead to one more harvest before the season got too hot.  In hindsight, it would have been better off to harvest the whole plant, clear some bed space, and start a different crop behind it.  Better yet, I could have potentially interplanted the bed with something that would have taken longer to grow but benefited from the protection the lettuce would provide.  Maybe some carrots will join them this season. 

  2. Harvesting entire heads will require that I get a bit more strategic with my seed starting efforts. This year I plan on attempting to come up with a plan for planting a “salad.”  It should be fun to experiment with finding that right mixture of greens, herbs, and garnishes to create ready to harvest blocks of salad.  In theory this will prevent us from having more mature lettuce than we know what to do with, and generate a steady supply of fresh salad through the early growing season.

  3. I also plan to start utilizing our protected growing space better.  We have a couple different greenhouse type growing spaces.  Last season I didn’t utilize those spaces nearly early enough, and we ended up getting no early harvest from them as a result.  This year I plan on making a concerted effort to get things growing in those spaces early on so we can attempt to take advantage of the early season benefits that infrastructure offers.  

  4. I completely missed the fall growing season last year, and this year I want to really make an effort to start a fall salad garden.  I have since learned that one potential secret, given our hot summer weather, is to start the fall lettuce seedlings inside where the air conditioned environment will be more suited to their early growth requirements.  Then as we begin removing summer plants, we can quickly and easily transplant out the salad seedlings once the weather begins to cool down. 

  5. Finally, I am actually in the middle of experimenting with a small hydroponic indoor growing system.  If I can figure out how to make that system work, it would mean that we have found a solution for both the summer and winter seasons when fresh salad isn’t available from our garden outside.  We might also take a look at experimenting with micro greens and maybe even growing some baby leaf type lettuces in our seed starting systems.  

As you can see, there are many things to try and do differently, but when it comes to salad, I think a lot of this effort really is worth it.  When the quality of what you can grow vastly exceeds what is available in your local area for purchase, you know you’ve found gardening gold.  Some folks would say this is the case no matter what you grow, and I might not put up much of a fight against that position, but I know when it comes to lettuce it is definitely true.  Fresh really is best, and with such a wide range of options, it's just fun to try the different varieties and see what sort of flavor profiles you can develop.  

What plans do you have for your garden this season?  Did you learn any great lessons from your failures last year?  Do you make the space to grow some fresh lettuce and if so, what varieties do you grow?  We’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas and look forward to sharing more plans for this growing season in our next post.  Until then, remember to get outside and get growing, because life is better when it’s lived outdoorz!