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Starting more seed!

Dirty hands after seed starting

Finally, today seemed like the right time to start the main wave of seedlings! Lynn dropped by to look around, stir up some seed starting mix, and add to the dirty hands collection. This particular dirt isn’t all that dirt-y, it’s actually only peat moss, from the half-and-half perlite-plus-peat mix we’re using this year. Starting now, today and over the next few days: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, more onion, leek, pepper and eggplant. And off we go…



  1. That’s what mine looked like after planting beets & peas the other day. I love it!

  2. Forget Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day – I’d take that pic of dirty hands over pretty bloom pics any day (ok, especially since old man winter won’t release us from his seemingly never-ending grasp)!
    Thanks for the smile.

  3. matt

    mmmm….dirty hands.  i’m itching for the weather to warm up so i can plant myself in the garden and get dirty.

  4. Sharon

    It’s been crazy busy for the last several weeks for us, too. We’re in a little warmer climate, so start earlier than you. We’re increasing our growing area to about 1.5 acres this year – planting in an area that’s been in pasture for the last 11 years. It’s almost like starting over for us, too. We’ve had those “dirty hands” for several weeks and it’s great! Good luck with the new farm this year – we’ll all be watching.

  5. Anything in which seeds can germinate and little plants can grow without obstruction or deterrents but with lots of support and air and moisture… anything like that I wouldn’t call “dirt”.
    We got out homemade cold frame out there today! No digging in the soil yet: it’s too wet.

  6. I miss garden so much! it was snowing today again – damn long winter!

  7. Getting your hands dirty is what it’s all about, great blog.

  8. David Keltie

    You use peat?! Many peat bogs, ancient and specialized habitats are threatened by people removing the peat in large quantities for use in gardens.

  9. David: Yes, I use peat… But, I don’t drive! :)

    Seriously, I have a hard time replying to questions like this, about my own personal role in saving the planet. My outlook tends to be shaped by my actions on the tiny farm. Whenever I stray from the practical first, I get bogged down in conflicting opinions, misinformation, disinformation, just a whole lotta stuff that ends up being inconclusive, unsettling, and…distracting.

    On a low-budget, non-hobby tiny farm like this, the goal is to be as sustainable as you can, it’s a way to survive and be more happy, less stressed about the many things you can’t directly control but you could worry about. Instead, I’d rather spend time on things I can do that feel right. So I kinda let the logic of the tasks at hand lead the way…

    With peat, I’m aware that We are apparently pillaging the peat bogs, destroying natural habitats, further unbalancing the planet. But where and with what are we NOT doing that? Can I personally isolate peat from the equation and just…stop, and things will be that much better?

    Here, we use about $10 of peat a year, one medium sized compressed block for seedling mix. I don’t use it by the ton for soil improvement or mulch. I don’t cook with it or heat with it.

    As far as I can tell, peat is a safe, effective, natural, renewable gardening product. If I had my own peat bog out back, I’d harvest a wheelbarrow or two a year, for seedling mix. And maybe some more for peat pots.

    I used to use 3″ peat pots for transplants, but I stopped in favor of reusable plastic pots, while planning every year for soil blocks (haven’t gotten there yet). I stopped with the peat pots because I don’t like having to order new ones every year.

    Yes, unfortunately, I have to buy peat. At a garden center. That bugs me. I’d always rather buy less, rely on less that has come from far away (simply because, one day, it might not be there!).

    My ultimate seedling mix plan is to use on-farm compost and soil blocks. But with our freezing winters, I’ve yet to get around to ensuring a non-frozen supply of compost in January when I start needing it. It wouldn’t be difficult, it’s just one of the many things on the long and ongoing to-do list…

    Meanwhile, I took some time to look a little more closely at the peat issue.

    First, substitutes. Coir sounds great, but we really don’t have coconuts growing here in Canada. The nearest coconut tree is maybe 2,000 miles away? And if not coconuts, it seems we’re back to compost…

    Next, what in the world are we doing EXACTLY with all that peat? What I found after a quick web search seems to point to the UK as the center of the current peat backlash.

    The horticultural world, and “amateur gardeners” in particular, are apparently the bad guys. The figure of 94% of the UK’s sensitive peat bogs having been compromised popped up frequently. The WWF weighed in with pro-peat conservation press statements. The Royal Horticultural Society is anti-peat. Chain retailers are pro-post-peat products. Peat, it seems, is on its way out in the UK as a potting and garden amendment, by 2010.

    We should all follow suit, and…problem solved?

    Doesn’t seem so. Horticultural use is significant, but way more so is use of peat for energy, and the draining of vast bog areas for agriculture and forestry. Browsing the web turns up all kinds of information on this.

    One interesting fact is that peat is being classified as a renewable energy resource.

    Finally, I use Canadian sphagnum moss peat. Canada has more peat than anywhere else, and is the main peat supplier for North America. Here’s what the Canadian peat industry has to say:

    “There are more than 270,000,000 acres, 25% of the world’s supply, of which our industry harvests on less than 40,000 acres, or one acre in 6,000.

    “Peat is renewable and in terms of its accumulation, peat in Canada is growing more than 70 times as fast as it is being harvested. (According to an issue paper entitled “Canadian Peat Harvesting and the Environment,” published by the North American Wetlands Conservation Council (Canada).

    “As well, we know that under the right circumstances, sphagnum moss will re-establish itself on a harvested bog. Soon thereafter, from this collection of mosses peat will accumulate, re-establishing a layer of peat that will continue to grow.

    “Because a single bog can be harvested for between 15 and 50 years before they are left for restoration, harvesting has been completed on less than 3,000 acres. There are good examples of harvested bogs in Canada where more than one foot of sphagnum moss has re-grown, unaided, during the 10 to 15 years since harvesting has ceased. These bogs look like and provide the functions of virgin bogs.” – Peat Moss and the Environment (lots more interesting stuff in that paper).

    Misinformation and lies from the peat industry? Dunno, but it sounds straightforward to me.

    Unfortunately, while Canada seems to be doing well by its vast peat bogs, apparently it supplies less than 1% of world peat consumption!

    So, who is going crazy on the peat? Can it be all the fault of UK amateur gardeners? Surely not. Does anyone stand to profit from a mass consumer switch to garden peat alternatives? Who’s heating and cooking with peat? Who’s fueling power plants with peat, and how many of these peat power plants are there? The questions multiply…

    Nothing, it seems, is simple, once you head down this path of dissecting everything, outside the bounds of practicality and common sense and real-life situations.

    IN CONCLUSION, it doesn’t really seem to make sense for me to give up my $10 of Canadian peat and start shelling out extra bucks for long-distance coconut by-products (although coir sounds  like cool stuff), on the basis of a blanket statement: “Using peat is bad for the environment.”

    On the tiny farm, I will continue to use a little peat as I head towards MORE COMPOST: more, better compost everywhere. Less purchased inputs, peat or otherwise. Above all, I’ll try to stay cheerful, productive, common-sense, tiny, local and sane! :)

    (That’s kinda long, I guess I couldn’t resist…)

  10. David Keltie

    Woah – great response! Should have known you would’ve researched this issue. However, I can’t speak for Canada but in the UK there are readily available alternatives if you must buy in.

    Personally, I’ve found seed raised in sifted soil does better when transplanted into beds outside than using garden centre products (I admit germination is less successful – though I always have too many seeds anyway). Something about preparing the seed from the start for its life in the soil.

    I’m planning to try seedballs later this year – sowing (scattering) in Autumn on the ground

  11. Deb Voorhorst

    Man, great points on both parts..and civil! I’m new to this blog and enjoying it very much!

  12. NZneil

    Ive been reseaching the Soil blocks and it seems like peat is the way to go to get the right structure.
    Mike.. they look like a huge labour saving over pots and plugs, I know youve invested in a lot of trays.  Ive always been put off peat pots by the cost.  Your 10 bucks is a drop in the ocean, compared to the size of the resource actually available in Canada by the sounds of things.. good on yer!

  13. EtienneG

    @Sharon: can you tell me a bit about the workload?  Are you doing this commercially? I presume you are, otherwise I wonder what you do with the excess!  The reason I ask about the workload is that I am preparing my business plan for my own commercial garden, and I get conflicting information on what a single person can handle.  I guess it varies a lot depending on drive, experience, cultural practices, etc, but I am just looking for a reliable ballpark figure.  I know Mike is doing two acres, but he gets a lot of part-time help so that skew the numbers!

    Regarding peat, the environmental cost needs to weighted in with other factor.  If using peat allows you to use soil blocks for seedlings, and hence cut on plastic pots, it may actually be a net positive for the environment.  And as it is a very good soil amendment, the gain in productivity from the land have to be factored in too.  I harbor the same feeling toward plastic mulch: if it can save on irrigation (saving water and plastic hoses), weeding (possibly saving on gas, if you are doing it mechanically) and make the land more productive, then it might end up being a net positive environmentally-speaking after all.  These things are very complex.

  14. Sharon

    EtienneG: Yes, we are doing this on a small, commercial basis. We started growing for our local Farmer’s Market last year and had such success that we expanded this year, both in size and scope. There is great demand in our area for locally grown, chemical free or organic produce. Last year, since it was our first year of commercial growing, we had much to learn and felt like we were flying by the seat of our pants most of the time! We spent the winter months planning for the growing season this year and feel so much better prepared. We come from family farm backgrounds and have always gardened and had wanted to see what it was like growing on a much larger scale for several years, but just never took the plunge.

    If you do careful planning, it makes you much more efficient and spreads the workload out to manageable pieces. We keep a calendar with a daily work schedule… helps us plan succession plantings, makes sure we have enough product for the market and the CSA we started this year, etc. When we have excess produce that doesn’t sell, we donate it to a local food bank. Last year we fed a few families (for free) who were experiencing tough times because of job losses or death. We’ve had to be flexible with the schedule this year because of weather conditions – can’t work the soil in the rain so we may wind up filling seedling trays instead.

    Last year I did almost all of the work except for harvesting. I had two family members who helped harvest for a few hours on Friday (just prior to our Farmer’s Market). Since we’ve expanded to 1.5 acres, we will have two interns this year to help with the workload for a few hours each week. I could probably still manage most of the work myself, but it’ll be nice to have the help. I’m a fanatic about weeding (by hand!) as I believe the produce will be much healthier and produce a much better product if it isn’t competing with weeds for water and nutrients and that takes a lot of time. We don’t use herbicides or pesticides.

    We are always looking for better ways to grow and more efficient ways to use our time and resources. We, too use peat moss for seed starting because it makes sense. We can’t afford to loose an entire planting of tomatoes to a soilborn pathogen. You get a different attitude about things when it may mean a significant decrease in your income and therefore your standard of living. We are always mindful of not wasting either time, money or resources. Plastic trays can be washed and reused for many years and since we got an entire case of them free, it makes sense to use them.

    One of our primary focuses is to improve our soil. We’ve been experimenting with growing green manures in addition to the compost we use to improve the fertility of our soil. If your soil is healthy, then it’s likely that your plants will be healthy which will decrease any problems you might have with pests and diseases.

    Our advice to you is to just jump in and get going! Start small and see if it’s what you really enjoy doing. Be respectful of the environment and the land, but if something makes sense for what you’re doing, don’t apologize for doing it. There are many people in the world who want to control how others live their lives and yet they’ve never “walked in their shoes” and don’t understand the situation facing that person. If and when this isn’t fun anymore, we won’t do it! Good luck to you!

  15. That was really interesting, the continual improvement is such a big deal in small farming. And the JUMP IN part is particularly good! I like that!! :)

    My first two seasons (2003-2004), I had one acre plowed, and planted out to maybe 80%. I did all the work myself, except for the initial manure spreading, moldboarding, disking and rototilling in April of the first year, and manure spreading and rototilling that first first fall.  All that was done by big tractor.

    The first season, almost all of the work was done with hand tools. I borrowed a Horse walking rototiller part way into the season, but didn’t use it much. That year, I went to the farmers’ market for only a half-season, starting the first Saturday in August through October. At that point, I had a full complement of veggies, pretty much the same line-up I’m growing now.

    I didn’t keep track of hours, but I was out there all the time, seven days. I had no previous experience, just started reading about small farming around Sep-Oct the year before, so it’s hard to remember how much was straight WORK, and how much walking around, checking things out. I had books out in the field!

    I was incredibly (over-)meticulous with some things, like preparing seed beds. I wouldn’t dream of spending a quarter of the time I used to that first spring.

    I also spent a lot of time at the beginning of the season marking every last bed, with stakes and twine…I did at least half an acre: 18″ path, 42″ bed, 50′ long, one after the other. It was some gridlike layout. Pretty funny to think about all that now.

    The second year, I got my own Horse tiller, and used that to work up the beds in spring. I think it was still one acre, I may have added half an acre that year, but I only planted out about an acre. Again, I did all the work.

    It was a full season at the farmers’ market (May-Oct). We also started CSA, with about 20 members, delivery on Monday. Once the season got underway, the heaviest going was harvest Fridays (market) and Sundays (CSA). Harvest/post-harvest can be the biggest workload, where you need help, because of the time constraint. Or, build a cooler, and then harvest certain time-intensive stuff like beans and peas a day or two earlier.

    I did have occasional harvest help in year two, but especially Fridays, I’d easily be working without a real break (except maybe a 2-3 midday hours if it was a heat wave) till 1am, rinsing and packing.

    Overall, I was out there pretty well every day, all day, but with a more of a feel for priorities, instead of just wading into what seemed like an endless wall of work.

    I did maybe 40 units of everything for market, and 20 for the CSA. At peak, that’d be maybe 15+ items a week, including smaller stuff like herbs. That includes culling, rinsing when necessary, weighing, bundling, sometimes pre-bagging greens.

    After Year 2, I got the Kubota tractor and greenhouse, and those took a lot of the edge off, a lot less running around, rotating seedling trays, walking up and down forever with the walking rototiller. And I started to get a little regular help, like one day a week.

    So, those first two years, it was 1 person, hand tools, 0.8-1 ac, starting from no experience. Yield was good and quality, by all accounts, was great. No big losses to pests or weather or weed takeover. A little gruelling, but it can be done!

    From reading and chatting, it seems that it takes 2 full-time people per acre for a really intensive, non-tractor market garden. That means, doing everything right on time, making maximum use of the land, cleaning up, refertilizing and replanting without delay, harvesting and using everything available and so forth.

    By that rule, one person should be able to super-efficiently manage half an acre by hand.

    When you’re “understaffed,” there are inefficiencies that aren’t necessarily that noticeable but can make a big difference: a crop not fully harvested right on time, weeding done a little late, etc. These cost money if, say, you miss having something at market. Even more important, when you go late on a garden task, it almost invariably costs you a LOT of extra time to catch up. A really high interest rate! Like, weed a couple of weeks later than best timing, and you can be spending TWICE the effort and time. This is often not easy to notice at first, because everything may still look fine.

    Timing is everything, I’m still just learning. It’s easy to get locked into one way of doing this or that that seems to work, so you even have to work to not get stuck. And the more help you have, the easier it is to do things on time…once you know what that timing is!

    I hope I never get the point where it’s not fun (“starting over” for me is great!). But that does seem to happen to people. How strange! :)  Sometimes it’s just age, others it seems the MARKET at some point took over from the GARDENING, and people want to retire from what has essentially become an intense mini-manufacturing and distribution business. You gotta be having fun!!!

  16. NZneil

    “If using peat allows you to use soil blocks for seedlings, and hence cut on plastic pots, it may actually be a net positive for the environment”.
    Etienne, thats a great point,  You have to look at the big picture, just as we do with organic growing.   Its very important to take a step back and look at your whole process and think about what you are doing, then wade in for another round, trying to apply what you think you have learnt. There are so many factors involved you can always try new methods  and thats where the fun is for me.  Maybe if I just threw the seeds in the ground and up popped  pre bagged veg it would be easier…but no where near as much fun!  :)  

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