Gardening can be an expensive endeavour. According to Stats Canada in 2020 Canadians spent over 1.7 billion on gardening. Potted plants were almost 900 million. The trend is expected to continue to grow, no pun intended.
Perhaps you are considering catching the wave. There are ways that you can save yourself from emptying your pocket book while at the same time enjoying a variety of plants for your garden. I can attest that one can save money and enjoy a multitude of plants in their next season’s garden. For example wave petunias can be $6 per pot. A small package of seed with approximately 20 seeds will run about $8 dollar as of 2021. That’s a difference of $112 which will go a long way towards other seeds or growing mix and trays. The grow light and trays are generally a one time purchase. I also love how I can grow certain varieties I’ve not been able to locate at our local greenhouses.
I was once one of those Gardeners that filled my trunk while dropping a substantial amount of cash at a greenhouse. I thought that because I did not have my own greenhouse I would not be able to grow healthy plants.
You can grow your own plants and you do not need a greenhouse. Here I will walk you through the steps I use. You will be able to take pride in your efforts to go from seed to plate. You will find it opens up a whole world of growing what you want versus what is available at the greenhouse.
Items you will need:
A quality Grow light
seed starting mix
south facing windows
large sturdy piece of cardboard
fertilizer or compost tea if gardening organically
plant mister or small watering can
variety of pot sizes
Grow lights are easy to find and often sold at major box stores. We use the Roots Farm grow light. It is easy to set up and uses LED light, making it economical on power consumption. The legs make it easy to adjust the height of the lights above the seedlings. As your plants grow you can raise the lights. If used according to the recommendation you will be able to place two full sized 10 X 20 inch seed trays under the light. I use the option to hang the light to get a larger light apron. This gives me the ability to place 4 full sized seed trays under the light. I’ve had no issues with the quality of seedlings grown this way.
2022 update. We purchased two led lights 4 feet in length. Cost was roughly $22.00 Canadian. As they were just a regular light and did not have some red lights like our grow light, i was unsure how they would perform. The plants seemed perfectly happy so they were a great investment. I rigged up one on top of the table and one under the table where trays were set on plastic sheeting.
Seed Starting Mix
Seeds should not be started in soil. Soil can become compacted making it difficult for the seeds to break through the surface. Soil can also hold soil borne disease that seedlings are too weak to survive. What you want your seeds planted in is called a soilless mix. Bags of soilless mixes are also available through box stores. You can also mix your own as I do. For this I use a two gallon pail and fill 2/3rds full of peat moss, but better yet coconut coir. These are light, hold water and air for healthy roots. I then fill the the bucket to the top with equal amounts of perlite and vermiculite. The perlite keeps the soil mix light and aerated. Vermiculite aerates the soil, helps retain moisture and adds nutrients to the mix. Once these are well mixed I begin adding water. Mix in water until the mixture is evenly moist, but not wet. If you skip this stage you will likely have water that runs off the top of the seed tray versus soaking in. You also risk your seeds floating off the surface of the soilless mix.
The seed package will likely have planting instructions. Some seeds need light to germinate, some may need to be refrigerated, some will say the seeds need to be watered from the bottom as they are susceptible to damping off; a plant disease where the seedlings will collapse often at the soil level.
The package will also tell you how many weeks before your last frost date to start the seeds or days to maturity. This is important information to ensure your plants will bloom or fruit at the proper time for your growing zone.
Seed your trays according to the package instructions.
Watering and Fertilizing
Watering instructions may also be provided on a seed package. The soilless mix makes it easy to tell when it needs water as it will appear lighter in colour when dry. I find most watering cans pour out too much water at once and can easily flatten your plants at the tender seedling stage. For this reason I have found a Turkey baster works great. I also use a small fan that directs air towards but not directly on the plants. This circulates air keeping the probability of mold forming on the soil surface at bay. An all-purpose water soluble fertilizer is used once the true leaves appear. For this i generally mix at 1/2 the rate on the bottle. There are numerous options available even for those wishing to grow organically. At the seedling stage I will sometimes sprinkle the soil with cinnamon to help prevent fungus growth, and help keep damping off at bay.
When plants first emerge they will typically have two leaves called the cotyledons. The role of these leaves is to supply the nutrition a plant embryo needs to germinate and become established. Once the next leaves appear (called the true leaves) the cotyledons naturally dry up, having served their purpose. This is when fertilizer will be beneficial to your plants.
I will plan out my seed starting with the chart found at the bottom of this post. This is done for a few reasons. One reason is to have plants to fill my flower pots once we are past our last spring frost date. The other is to be able to harvest items such as tomatoes and peppers before the first frost in the fall. And the last reason is so I can plan things out for using our grow light. I use one grow light. Once plants have two to three sets of true leaves I move them to free up the grow light for the next trays of plants. It’s a bit of a ballet but after a couple years and keeping notes, it becomes an easy enough task. Using only one grow light I was able to start over 450 plants one year.
Once plants are taken from under the grow light I place them on a table by some south facing windows. To keep plants from leaning towards the windows and becoming spindly I place a cardboard covered with tinfoil on the back of the table. Tinfoil shiny side out will reflect some light to the opposite side of the plants, helping them grow nice and straight.
Most plants need to be pinched back. This encourages new stems to start giving you a full productive plant. Once you have at least three sets of true leaves pinch back the plant. I use my finger nails to remove the stem portion above a set of leaves. There are a few plants that should NOT be pinched back, staking tomatoes and sunflowers to name a couple.
I also pinch off blooms while the plant is still indoors. If I allowed my peppers for example to set fruit I believe the plant once transplanted outdoors would struggle. I want my transplants to concentrate on a strong root base before forming fruit. If a plant is set out with fruit on it, the plant could become stressed trying to grow the fruit and the roots simultaneously.
Once your plants have reached the stage where they have about three or 4 sets of leaves it is a good time to transplant them into a quality soil mix. I generally mix some compost into a quality potting mix.
Several types of plants do not like their stems touched, therefore transplant with care. I use an old small spoon to scoop out the plant while lightly holding the plant by the leaves. Move into a new pot and *plant at the same depth. Ensure soil is packed down nicely to avoid air pockets.
* tomatoes I transplant lower. The hairs on the tomato stems will form roots. Planting lower encourages a very strong root base.
Hardening Off Seedlings
Prior planting your seedlings into their final location they need to be hardened off. This is a process exposes plants to an environment of wind, sun and rain.
This begins a few weeks prior your last frost date. Take plants outdoors to a sheltered shady location. Allow them to stay here for a few hours then bring them back indoors.
Increase the amount of exposure each day by another hour. After 3-4 days slowly give the plants time in the sun. Be careful not to rush this phase as tender seedlings can easily scorch in the sun. Once overnight temperatures are at 10 degrees celsius your plants kshould be able to stay out overnight. be sure to keep an eye on your trays of plants as they can dry out very quickly.
After about 14 days of increasing exposure to outdoor elements your plants should be ready to be planted out. Water with transplant fertilizer. This is a fertilizer with a lower amount of nitrogen (the first number) but a higher amount of phosphorus (the second number). This helps stimulate root growth and plants seem less stressed. Planting out under cloud cover or early morning is recommended. Plants put out in the heat of the day just might not make it.
These few steps I hope will help you explore another area of gardening where you grow the garden of your dreams. Sit back and congratulate yourself on a job well done. Be sure to enjoy your garden!
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