The "Rinky Dink" Seed Starting Effort

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I suppose you could also call this "starting seeds on the cheap," because it is that and more. Venus and I took the time to start more varieties of tomato and pepper seeds on Saturday, because demand for what is growing in nearby greenhouses is growing.

I started to get a tad worried when the brother-in-law called up from his Serrano neighborhood in El Dorado County and attempted to "reserve" six of our tomato plants. How nice of him. Not only did he want some of our heirloom starter plants for his gardening efforts, he also wanted to give some away to his neighbors.

Wait a minute. Does that sound right? He wants OUR tomato plant starter to give to HIS neighbors? The brother-in-law is known for his rather outlandish requests after consuming a quart or four of Canadian Mist Whiskey (which we refer too as "Canadian Moose Piss"), but his request for plants isn't the first and I don't think it will be the last either. In short, the backyard garden is back in a big way, and everyone wants those hard-to-find heirloom varieties.

I can't blame them. There's simply nothing quite like the taste of vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes. Once you bite into a Brandywine or an Azoychka, you're hooked.

Venus and I don't have a greenhouse yet (it's on the list of "things to do'), but we did convert and old wine rack into a seed starting rack -- complete with hooks to hold grow lights and space for heating pad to keep the babies warm. This is about as "frugal" as frugal can get, so experienced growers will be anything but "impressed." However -- as cheap as this setup is -- it does work.

Venus and I prefer to invest a few bucks in the Jiffy seed starting kits that are starting to appear by the millions in places like your big box stores (Walmart and Home Depot), and even in the smaller locations such as grocery stores or your independent hardware retailers. You can buy "big" like we did for large scale starting efforts. Or, if you don't have the room, you can buy the small package which looks very much like a carton of a dozen eggs.

These kits come complete with two trays and compressed peat moss pellets. All you need to do is add warm water, and those compressed peat moss pellets grow and expand like nobody's business. They have a somewhat erie resemblance to the pods featured in the now-famous movie "Alien," once they fully expand. However, I guarantee you that nothing is going to pop up and attach itself to your face.

After adding the appropriate amount of water (about a gallon) -- the pods are ready for planting. Venus and I planted three complete rows of green, red and yellow peppers. We then planted half rows of various heirloom tomato varieties, including Red Reif Heart, Pink Ping Pong, Green Zebra, Arkansas Traveler and a cherry variety we purchased at Lockhart Seed. It immediately drew Venus' attention, because the packet of seeds promised cherry tomatoes that are "very high in brix content."

That's important for an event that Venus and I will attend later this year with about three to four hundred other tomato nerds. An event that promises a payday of $2,500 or more! And for this event, you need tomato varieties that are high in brix content (the brix meter was developed to measure the sugar content in wine and table grapes, but does have other uses).

Venus and I used chopsticks to poke holes in each pod, drop in some seed, then use the chopstick to cover the seed. It's that simple. After labeling each row, we moved the pods inside the house to a bedroom converted for "seed starting purposes." If this looks "Mickey Mouse," I promise you that it is. But I promise you, this works. The seeds have everything they need to sprout and grow. The covered seed pods create a "rainforest effect," which is essential to starting seeds indoors. The heating pad ensures strong root growth and thick stems, and the light source is more than enough. In fact, the light might even be overkill.

As I've stated before -- you can put these seed starting kits on a windowsill and they'll be just fine.

From previous experience I know that the tomatoes will germinate first. The peppers usually need a bit more time. Peppers, unlike tomatoes, require HEAT to really get going, so these seedlings will be rather unhappy at first. But, by the time of plantout at the end of April, I'm expecting starter plants in the one to two foot range.

At some point, Venus and I will also transplant the pods into larger cups, but that's another project for another day.

Here's hoping we have enough to satisfy growing "demand." Stay tuned!


Garry said...

bill, looks like soemthing i will really consider doing in the future - until then i have a buddy whose growing them for me.

g_rob said...

Thanks for the tip. I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out the best way to start my tomatoes and peppers.

Keri said...

Do you leave the heating pad on 24/7 or just for shorter periods of time?

Bill Bird said...

Keri, the heating pad is left on 24/7, but the grow light is hooked up to a timer. Most heating pads have safety locks in place where they will shut off automatically after a few hours, then turn right back on again when the pad gets cool enough. I've found that it serves a wonderful seed-starting purpose. You're not supposed to use them in this way, but hey, you do what you do in a pinch. The two heating pads I used last year worked fine. I imagine they'll work fine again this year.