Seed Starting and Soil Amendments

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Quinn
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Every year I feel compelled to start some seedlings for the garden, despite not having the ideal seed-starting setup. I’m on a tight budget, and I suppose it wouldn’t break me to buy some bedding plants — in fact, it might pay off in harvest rewards — but I still have all this cabbage and broccoli seed, and I hate to waste it. Plus there’s a certain satisfaction in having grown one’s own plants from start to finish!

In the past I’ve tried starting seedlings in the house on a small heating pad, then moving them to the garage, where I have large, east-facing windows, supplemented by long tube lights. But starting them indoors makes such a mess! And I’ve found that even with the sunlight and the tube lights the plants become very spindly, since the lights are so high up and they’re really supposed to be a few inches above the seedlings. The plants just keep stretching up, trying to get more light.

Then I got the idea that maybe the lights could be lowered, but after a little investigation that turned out not to be feasible. Finally it occurred to me — Duh! Couldn’t I just find a way to raise up the plants? So, first I took a small table from the house that I had been using to try and keep a thyme plant alive in front of a window, and put that on top of the work bench that’s under the tube lights. That brought the seedling tray a couple of feet closer, but I still wasn’t satisfied.

Finally I ended up with this setup:

As you can see, I later added a lamp to the bottom shelf for seedlings that were ready to be put in individual pots. Anyone who saw pictures of my leggy seedlings last year can appreciate the difference:

Then I read somewhere (I was sure it was on Anna Hess’s blog Waldeneffect, but now I can’t find it!) that “stump dirt” is okay for starting seedlings, but once in pots they do better if it’s mixed half-and-half with compost. That’s because the stump dirt is good for the texture but not so much for nutrients. I figured the same would probably apply to commercial seed-starting mix, which is what I was using, so I started worrying about the seedlings I had already potted up. I rarely succeed in producing compost that’s even finished enough for use as a soil addition, let alone for putting in little plant pots, so what was I to do?

Just then, I found the time to mend my rain barrel, which had frozen and fallen over during the winter, splitting at the bottom. I had procrastinated doing anything about that, since I didn’t see how it could be fixed. Then I got the idea to use some leftover caulking strip that I had in the house to plug up the crack and then cover it over with duct tape. Here’s the result:

(That’s some leftover caulk strip sitting on top.) I should explain that the rain barrel isn’t connected to anything — in fact, I lost my roof gutter on that side a couple of years ago, so the rain just drips off the roof into that and a collection of buckets and things. The barrel has a large opening, which I covered with row-cover fabric, so that the water could run through without breeding mosquitoes. Here it is, back in service:

What I hadn’t expected was to find a clump of compost (with some weed sprouts in it) caked on the bottom of the barrel. I had forgotten that I had thrown some half-finished compost in there with the thought of making compost tea. As I was scooping it out I realized this was just what I needed for my little potted plants! All it needed was a good screening to get the weeds out, which I accomplished with an old, broken window screen. So I scooped some of the seed-starting mix out of the pots and replaced it with that, which is what you see in the picture.

Meanwhile, speaking of screening, I invented a new use for the big plastic tub I had made into a chick brooder a couple of years ago, since I had come up with a better idea for that. I used to screen compost for my little urban garden, but found it to be such a time-consuming, labor-intensive chore I didn’t think I’d ever try it for the large volume I have to deal with here. But then I found a trove of stump dirt where there were some rotting boards and logs behind the garage. So I set to work digging that out and screening it into my re-purposed tub:

And here’s the finished product, which I added to a no-till bed that needed more organic matter:

Another material I’ve added to a couple of beds this year is something I think of as alluvial soil. A recent flood deposited some of this stuff at the entrance to the big creek, where the ford is:

Though I’m sure it’s completely devoid of organic matter, I admired its fine-grained, sandy texture — not to mention the likely absence of weed seeds — since my garden soil is so clayey and plagued with weeds and stones. So I used it to top off a container where I plan to grow carrots:

Now I see that it tends to get rather crusty when dried out, so I’d better use it in moderation and mix it in well.

All of this pales in comparison with the three buckets of well-composted horse manure that I just got from a friend. Guess that will be the subject of my next post!

Photos belong to Jennifer Quinn

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