Thursday, March 18, 2010

How-to Start Seeds, build a sifter

This weekend is going to be full of gardening. I'm hoping to start seeds with my sweetie today after work in this fine, fine weather. If we have time I also hope to bring out the cold frame and maybe tap a black birch just to see if they're still flowing - black birches give the most divine sap for drinking straight (too much of a pain to boil down to syrup because the sugar ratio is pretty low). Since the season for tapping birch is slightly later than the maple's I'm hoping the sap is still flowing, though this sugaring season has been incredibly short and strange - we haven't even been getting nighttime frosts anymore where I am! And something that's making me giddy is that my animal kick is being totally fixed by my sweetie, who surprised me a few weeks ago by dropping that he will be working at an animal farm this summer! Yay!

Since you too need to start some seeds, here's what you'll be doing over the next few days:

Starting Seeds
Seed starting is an integral part of growing food. if you're going to do gardening the cheap way, you will not be buying seedlings at the nursery for $3 a pop. instead, you'll buy a $3 seed packet and get planting!

high quality top soil/potting soil/finished compost
a sifter (optional but helps - see below on building your own)
pots, trays, whatever you'll be planting into
water (a lot)
a seed-growing station (florescent light, surface to place seedlings on)
a bin/wheel barrow for soil
clothes you're going to get wet and dirty
something to mark what's what (Sharpie and masking tape works well)
a rag or something to wipe your hands on
any soil additives (like bone meal or blood meal) that you're using

Dump as much soil as you will need (I always err on the side of caution and use extra soil) through your sifter and into a barrow/bin. working in small batches, pour soil over sifter, and shake the soil into the wheel barrow/bin, throwing large chunks that can't be sifted into a separate pile for use in the garden, compost, or with better-established seedlings. Sifting soil provides for the finest soil so your seedlings don't have to fight through rough and chunky soil to get established. Add any additives you're using at this point.

Wet the soil until it's very wet, but not muddy, and mix well. I do this all with my hands.

Next, fill your pots or trays to within a centimeter of the top. Fill all the pots at once, because you'll need to have somewhat cleaner hands for the next step. You want the soil to be packed in enough so it won't settle much more. When you're done, wipe your hands.

Get your seeds and plant them in the pots 2-3 seeds per pot (you can weed out the weakest ones later). Generally, seeds should be planted at a depth of twice their width. Some seeds, however, need light to germinate. Check what the catalogue or seed packet says, or consult a gardening book. Also make sure that your seeds don't require extra treatment like scarification prior to planting. If you're planting seeds that have a very poor germination rate, plant in flats with a lot of seeds and then replant the surviving seedlings into individual pots. In general, starting in trays and then transplanting to pots saves a lot of space if you're doing a large-scale garden.

Cover the seeds with soil and label the pots with plant, variety name, and date started, along with any other relevant details. I'll be keeping a journal (on this blog) about varieties, how they grow, what they taste like, etc.

Bring your seeds your seed-starting station, if you're working outside. Once seeds germinate, keep them in the light for at least 10-12 hours a day, adjusting the height of your lamp to prevent leggy plants. Keep the plants warm (soil needs to be warmer than 55 for a lot of seeds to germinate. Check your specific seed guides for what temperatures you'll need). Water daily with a light stream of water that doesn't displace soil or harm the young seedling. Once the plants have leafed out in their first true leaves, thin to the strongest seedling in each pot.

In a few weeks, you'll need to bring them into your cold frame to harden them up. I'll be posting a cold frame tutorial soon. In the mean time, a sifter:

Building a soil sifter
A soil sifter is pretty much the same thing as a flour sifter. It lets through small particles of soil, fluffs them up, and keeps out larger particles. It's a useful garden tool and extremely easy to make. Keep in mind that you will be pouring the soil into the frame and then shaking the frame to sift the soil while you make your sifter.

- A window frame or sturdy picture frame (preferably with a middle beam for added sturdiness) that is roughly the size of the bin or wheel barrow you will be sifting soil into.
- 1/4 inch hardware cloth (or 1/2 inch size, or a smaller screen, depending on how fine you want your soil)
- Staple gun
- Wire cutters
- gloves

Measure your hardware cloth to be larger that the size of your frame so that you can curl the edges around the frame and over the back of the wood, and cut, using the wire cutters. You'll want to be wearing gloves, because cut wire is sharp and no fun to play with.

laying the hardware cloth under the frame, fold the hardware cloth so that the edges wrap over the top side of the frame. Fold in the edges as if you were wrapping a textbook.

Staple ever few inches down, so that the hardware cloth is firmly attached to the frame. Cut off any excess wire that might hurt you while sifting.

Do a test run to make sure everything works properly, that the hardware cloth is firmly attached, and that there are no sharp wires cutting into you as you sift.

Make sure you keep your sifter out of the rain so it doesn't rust and lasts you for a long, long while. Every year, check to see if the staples or the frame needs reinforcement. It's much easier to fix things while they're only mildly broken.

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