Six Weeks From Seed to Six Inches

Tumbler Tomatoes

I started my tomatoes indoors on March 20, 2011 and transferred them to their own pots on April 8th. This week it was warm enough (ok, just barely) to start putting them outside a few hours every day.

The Tumblers are doing great; I’ve already transplanted some of them to larger pots as you can see in the photo. I made sure to plant then even deeper in the new pot, burying another 2-3 inches of the central stalk.

When I put the tomatoes out to harden them off, generally about two weeks before last frost, I begin by only exposing them for a couple of hours per day. Ideally they shouldn’t get any significant wind or direct sunlight for the first while. Hardening off is critical to the success of seedlings which have been raised in a safe indoor environment devoid of significant air circulation and UV radiation.

My grocery store began using these new non-refillable water bottles a few months ago. The deposit is a paltry twenty-five cents, so I decided they would make great cloches for the bigger tomatoes. I use the top of a juice bottle for the smaller ones.

It’s exciting to think that I’ll be able to transplant many of my seedlings to the garden in only a couple of weeks!

I planted the tomatoes in a large flat on March 20th

Pricking out on April 8th

Tomatoes Ready to Harden Off Outdoors April 28th

Fertilizer for Seedlings

Seaweed Fertilizer

Seedlings are delicate little things and need a tender touch. This includes their fertilizer.

I start my plants off with a weak solution of 2-5-2 Water Soluble Seaweed Powder from T & T Seeds. T & T is kind enough to send a free package of their Dry Seaweed Concentrated Fertilizer when you buy seeds from them. I use it for my seedlings and they appear to love it – they only need a shot of fertilizer once a week. If you don’t have Seaweed Fertilizer you can use any weak solution of fertilizer to give your plants that boost they need, starting after they have formed their first “true” leaves.

Dabbling in Dibbles

Insert the pegs and glue them in place

When I saw my first dibble board I thought, “Why haven’t I already made one of these?” It’s that kind of tool – a “duh” tool that should be in every gardeners shed.

A dibble (or dibber)  is a tool that makes a hole – ostensibly to sow a seed, but alternately for any purpose. They’ve been around since Roman Times.

Well, that’s all good and fine, but who wants to plant each and every seed by making a little hole one at a time? I wanted to take it to the next level, so I decided to make a dibble board.

As a square-foot gardener (for the most part) I wanted to create a board, or series of boards, that I could use to lay out a pattern for each individual foot of my raised bed. This meant that I would need one that made 16 holes per square foot, one that made 9 and one that poked 4 holes.

Square-foot gardening treats every foot of the garden as a separate patch in which you can sow any number of different vegetables or flowers. If you are growing carrots in that square foot, then you would sow 16 seeds. If you are growing spinach, you’d only sow 4. It’s a very efficient means of gardening, and if done correctly it looks great as well.

For sowing in past years I had made three cardboard guides with holes that I could drop the seeds through or poke a pencil through to make an appropriate hole. This was a bit lame, as they cardboard looked like heck and poking the holes in the soil was time consuming.

This spring I decided to make my own dibble board, so I began with a trip to Home Depot to pick up some plywood. I actually found a free piece of scrap plywood in their waste material that was exactly the right width for the project. All I had to do was cut three 12 x 12 inch pieces and I was ready to start making dibbles.

Using what I hoped would be simple mathematical principles, I drew out a pattern on each piece of wood and marked the location of the holes. I then searched around for something to use as pegs in each of the holes and decided that my collection of sponge paint brushes (10 for $1 at Michael’s) could spare an inch off the end of each brush. The handles were 3/8″ diameter and worked perfectly, although it took me some time to cut each one with the chop saw.

I drilled matching 3/8″ holes at the marked locations in the board and glued each of the pegs in place. Since I was using 1/4″ plywood, each peg stuck out just under 3/4 of an inch. This will make a hole too deep for some seeds, so that has to be considered when pressing the board into the soil. I don’t personally think that the depth of the hole is as critical as how much soil is placed over the seed once it’s been planted.

I tried out my new set of dibbles already, and I think they did the job marvelously. I was able to plant all of my carrots in no time. Of course, it snowed the next day – but that’s just part and parcel of growing vegetables in zone 3. Sigh.


Scarifying a seed shell

To scarify means to scratch or etch the surface of a seed coat before sowing it. Some seed coats are very tough and benefit from a little help before they are planted. Sweet Peas, or in my case Morning Glory, need a little roughing up before they hit the dirt.

I use a small file and run a few scratches across the coat, just deep enough to knick the shell but not so deep as to damage the seed itself. A good soaking in water for a few hours helps penetrate the seed coat and the seeds are ready to be sown.

Pricking Out

Tumblers now have two sets of "true" leaves

Pricking out refers to transplanting young seedlings from their original flat into their new home – an individual pot of their own. You might wonder, why bother?

Well, there are a couple of advantages to starting your seeds enmass and pricking out a few weeks later. First, you can eliminate any of the seedlings that haven’t kept up with their breathern – the weaklings you might say. If you sow more seeds than you need, you can choose the strongest to be transplanted and discard the ones that haven’t kept pace.

Second, transplanting can make certain seedlings stronger. Tomatoes are a good example. When moving them from the flat to their individual pot I have the opportunity to plant them deeper, which strengthens their root system. This will become apparent as the plants grow, particularly after they have been moved outside.

This week my Tumbler Tomatoes were ready to be pricked out. They are only three weeks old, but already have their second set of “true leaves”. The first set of leaves which appear are called “cotyledon” or primary leaves . They are formed using energy stored in the seed, but are not considered true leaves. When pricking out the tiny seedlings, they should be lifted gently from below with a small fork or tool designed especially for this task. Try to disturb the root system as little as possible, and only touch the cotyledon leaves when moving the plant.

A deep hole should be made in fresh moist starting mix and the seedling dropped in, carefully packed (not too tight) and adjusted. At this stage the plants are ready to be fed weekly with a weak fertilizer mix (2-5-2) until they are transplanted outside. I’ll write more about fertilizing a future blog.

I think that pricking out is the most pleasurable process in the propogation of seeds – it’s when you start to feel as though all the work is rewarding. Only six more weeks to last frost!

Propagating With Cuttings – Dogwood Shrub

So this spring I thought I’d try my luck at propagating some dogwood cuttings.

I’ve read mixed reviews on the subject. Some say that you can only do it in the fall after they have bloomed. Some say that they don’t root very successfully at all. Others say that they will root but won’t survive their first winter because they aren’t hardy enough to survive when rooted this way.

Well, I’ve got nothing to lose but a branch or two of my dogwood bushes, so what the heck.

I’ve got a Red Osier and an Arctic Fire, so I took a six inch cutting from each just above the spot where it branches off. According to my reading I should have taken a cutting just below a node – so if this doesn’t work then I have myself to blame.

I made the cut at about 30 degrees and immediately wet the end and dipped it in rooting powder. Rooting powder stimulates the formation of roots on cuttings and saves a great deal of time and frustration.

I stuck the cuttings an inch and a half deep in a small container of sterile starter mix and made sure they were stable and very moist.

The cuttings now sit in my south-facing kitchen window and I’ll begin putting them outside for the day once things warm up a bit. Pulling them out to check them for roots is NOT wise. The best strategy is to watch for buds.

Sowing Salad Greens in Planters


Mesclun mix

This morning the sun was shining brilliantly on my south-facing patio and it felt like spring had finally arrived in my zone 3 Edmonton backyard. Because we’ve had so much snow this winter, it’s taking forever for the grass to appear and the garden to make it’s way to the surface.

But today was warm, bright and sunny, chasing away the cold weather blues that have engulfed our prairie city for so many months. It seemed like the perfect day to sow the first of my outdoor seeds – the greens.

I don’t like to refer to my greens as “lettuce” because I plant so much more than that. My mesclun mix is a combination of lettuce, arugala, endive, mustard greens, radicchio and who-knows-what else. The oriental greens mix has gai lan, pac choi, mizuna, red leaf mustard, tokyo bekana, spinach mustard and toy choi. I don’t even know what half of those are!

I began by removing a significant amount of last year’s soil from two large planters I use for my salad greens, leaving about six inches in the bottom and topping up with fresh sterile starter mix. I do this so that I don’t have any random seeds in my mixed greens – I don’t want any poisonous plants growing among my yummy salad leafs. I wouldn’t know which were safe and which weren’t.

After I moistened the soil, I spread a small handful (about a teaspoon) of seed evenly over the surface and lightly pressed them in. I placed a brick under the back of each planter so they would tilt slightly to the sun, encouraging as much heat and light as possible on these early spring days.

Finally, I covered one of the planters with a specially designed wire mesh which I built last year to protect my seeds and shoots from the birds. The local sparrows were watching me closely as I covered their favorite open-concept dining room, and they were not amused.

In a week to ten days I’ll have my first few sprouts and within a month I’ll be eating fresh greens plucked from just outside my back door. By reseeding every two weeks I can have baby greens all summer long.