Seedlings everywhere!

Striped German tomato seedling

Seedlings are everywhere. The first set of tomatoes is putting on its hairy true leaves: that’s a Striped German in the pic. With Lynn honing her new putting-seeds-in- plug-sheets skills today, the early seedling starts are just about done. From the top (the end of January), that includes lettuce, rosemary, leek, parsley, peppers, eggplant, onion, celery, celeriac, tomato, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, collards, tomatillo and Brussels sprouts. Between the Milkhouse and the greenhouse, there are about 40 trays of plug sheets going. Most have 72 cells, and there are a few 128’s and 200’s. The seedling grand total so far is somewhere around 3,000. Actually, that’s the cell total, and many have two or more seedlings per, some to be thinned or divided, or else transplanted together. So, maybe 3,500 seedlings. I’ll start a few more veggies tomorrow, another 500 seedlings on the way, and that’ll be it for now. The most ever, although the number is kinda meaningless, except as a measure of the space they take up, since one tomato will produce for the season, while a cauliflower is off with its head and it’s done… Timing wasn’t great on a bunch of the starts, I waited in some cases 2-3 weeks later than I could’ve, which means transplanting out smaller or…later. This wasn’t meticulously planned, I was just playing off the weather (cold April forecast…that doesn’t seem to be happening anymore) and not wanting to be stuck with lots of overgrown seedlings. And, I’m always trying to reduce overall seedling time by seeing how late I can go… Anyhow, it’s about five weeks to average last frost. In another week, I’ll start the last wave, the CUCURBITS: summer and winter squash, pumpkin, cucumber, melons. They go directly into 3″ pots, usually take 3-4 weeks to get to transplant stage, and absolutely want HEAT, especially, toasty soil, when they hit the field. OUTSIDE, it’s getting warm!!!!

Seedlings on plant racks

Rack built

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New lumber turns into new grow rack. This adds a fourth to the set, a measure of tiny farm growth. I started with two in Year 1, built another one last year (Year 5). It’s not like the focus here is on rapid expansion…this is the speed of staying tiny! ;)

Although I don’t build these often, it seems to get quicker every time. Well under a hundred dollars of wood, wheels, screws, bolts, brackets, hooks and chains, plus a chop saw, a drill and a couple of hours, and there it is! Light fixtures are extra. In the pic, the shelves still have to go on.

Lying across the middle supports is one of the four old fluorescent fixtures, given to me instead of being tossed in the trash. Not only free, they’re BETTER: these are the overhead lighting type you see in (horribly lit) offices, the tubes are spaced farther apart than in the standard shop lights I’ve been using, the light will spread more evenly over a larger area—for the seedlings, a lot less leaning and stretching…

Seedlings continue to grow…

Grow racks at night

Seedling production is on about the same schedule as last year, except there are a few new things on the go: celery, onions, leek, celeriac. The three grow racks aren’t yet full (and there’s a fourth to build), but all that will change in a couple of days, when peppers and eggplant start. This is also when gambling on the weather begins, which at this point affects when I choose to start certain crops. Already, based on the 15-day forecast, it looks like a much colder March ahead than in the last couple of years, and with all the snow cover, a quick thaw towards the end of the month will still mean a few extra days of drying out time. And then there’s April to “consider”—it’s all basically pure guessing, colored by a little wishful thinking. IF there’s gonna be cold and snow for a good part of April, early transplanting will be delayed. So, starting some things in a couple of days, or in a week, or in two weeks, could make a fair bit of difference. If I have to hold things for an extra 2-3 weeks, there won’t be room under the lights as I start more, and out in the greenhouse, given real sun, growth will be quicker and the seedlings will get crowded. And so on, tons of little calculations and gambles… Nothing is THAT critical, but a little more work here, a little crop slowdown there, it all adds up. I enjoy this, juggling increments in the face of the weather, but it could drive some people into quite a state! :)

Grow lights, on!

Grow racks are back in business

Grow rack lights went on today for the first time this season. They’re only for the rescued houseplants (orchids, wintergreen, heather)—I guess every plant deserves a place in the sun—but, I’ll be starting super-early lettuce soon, a month earlier than ever, for an experiment in planting them out to the greenhouse at the beginning of March. Getting the grow racks ready is another familiar routine. In early summer, I remove the fluorescent light fixtures and the chains and dowels they hang from and store ’em somewhere (last year, it was on the new Big Shelf). For spring, I dust them off, wipe them down, hang them, and a new seedling season begins!

The Big Shelf

Storage space in the Milkhouse

The choice storage spot for tiny farm gear, especially during winter, is this giant shelf, where it’s warm and dry. It’s at the back of the Extended Milkhouse, the last 3-1/2′ of the old ceiling, propped up on the leading edge by a beam across and 4″x4″ posts. It would maybe qualify as an upper level, if you could actually stand up: clearance is only 3-4′ under the new sloped ceiling. It’s 3-1/2’x20′ (1mx6m) of up out of the way space…a big shelf! About 7-1/2′ feet high, I get up there by ladder. Only one season old, it’s still startlingly clear, orderly, and almost entirely filled with immediately useful stuff as opposed to sure-to-be-useful-sometime gear (though the inevitable packing boxes saved just in case of return already have a presence). It’s dusty up there. At this end are the many fluorescent light fixtures (12, I think) for the grow racks. They hang from chains from those dowels in front, and the dowels in turn hang by the nails from more chains on the rack! When seedlings are all done, I remove the lights and use the racks for harvest storage. The oscillating table fan is used to give newly emerged seedlings a bit of a toughening up, conditioning breeze. Down at the other end, stacks of 3″ peat pots and plug sheets and trays. Time to start seedling room set-up!

Grow racks at night

Grow racks at night

Plant racks, light stands…I usually call ’em grow racks. They’re filling up now.

Pushed to capacity, the three racks can hold a total of 36 trays, 12 each, or four trays per shelf. So, depending on the size of the plug sheet—I use 38s, 72s, 128s, 200s—I can start between 1,368 and 7,200 seedlings.

Sounds super-efficient. HOWEVER, it comes down to the light. With four trays per double fluorescent fixture, the light is pretty stretched, and a lot of rotating is in order.

Also, most of the fixtures are the old standard T-12 type, where the light is stronger towards the middle of the tube. You can clearly see the difference in growth if you leave trays in the same position for a few days. The newer T-8 type lights more evenly from end to end and uses less power, but I don’t feel like replacing all the fixtures (a couple in there are already T-8).

It’s an ongoing experiment to see which size plug sheet to best start in for each crop, given the light situation. That in turn determines if or how often I need to pot up to larger quarters before it’s time to transplant into the field.

All in all, I’ll get around 2,500 seedlings off the racks this year.