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Starting Seeds

By Pat Banks

I love to start seeds. I think one of the reasons why I love them is that I can somewhat relate to them. You see, I’ve always considered myself a bit of a transplant. I’ve moved around, from state to state, job to job, adapting to different conditions and adjusting to whatever environments that life decides to throw at me. I’ve been staying alive (OW OW OW OW) during the hard times and blossoming during the good; always growing and reaching for more.

In terms of gardening, farmer and author, Eliot Coleman of The New Organic Grower defines growing transplants as, “the practice of starting seedlings in one place and setting them out in another.” By doing this, farmers and gardeners can start and grow more plants in a small area, get a jump on the growing season, and precisely control the plants’ conditions before they are put out into the garden or field.

Most transplants only need three things to begin: a cell to be held in, a soil medium, and a moist, controlled climate. Seedlings can be started in just about anything. You can start seeds in any object that could hold a medium -- cups, egg cartons, old shoes, the list could go on and on -- as long as the proper conditions of temperature and moisture are met, and adequate sunlight is available once seeds have germinated.

Scale plays a factor in terms of deciding what kind of seed-starting vessel makes sense. For small scale farming, there really are only two options: soil blocks and cell flats. A soil block is pretty much what it sounds like - a block made of soil that holds its shape. With soil blocks, the only thing you need is a flat tray – either wood or plastic - to hold the blocks. Everything else is just made from the soil mix.

One of the arguments for using soil blocks is that you can start seeds without using plastic, as opposed to its rival, the plastic cell seed trays. Plastic seed trays are the most commonly used seed starting container throughout the industry. They use less soil (which means less to purchase), are less labor intensive, and, if you’re careful, can be reused. However, they are also very finicky and tend to break easily. In plastic trays, little seedlings roots can quickly run out of room in their cells and bind up in the container, going “root bound.” With soil blocks, the roots fill the blocks until these sense that they are at the edge, then they halt and wait to burst into the soil until they are transplanted. Some farms use soil blocks and some use cell trays. Good arguments can be made for both.

Another key component (and hotly debated item) is the medium used to grow our little seeds. Here at AMI’s Farm at Augusta Health, we use McEnroe’s Organic Farm lite potting mix. This soilless medium contains compost, peat moss and horticulture perlite; we also add vermicompost for an added fertilizer. Most mixes are soilless and contain materials and minerals that help retain moisture and nutrients like perlite, vermiculite and peat moss. Some farmers spend the time to create their own potting mix, adding in “ingredients” and supplements such as fish emulsion and mycorrhizal inoculates, which can get a little complicated, but can save money in the long run when done right.

The last component for proper seed starting is a moist, controlled environment. For most seeds, ideal germination occurs between 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit. To control the temperature in our temporary greenhouse and “germination chamber,” we use a space heater and an electric thermostat that tells the heater when to turn on.

“Germinations chambers” are helpful for successful seed starting because they allow you to easily control heat and moisture conditions so that you can have speedy, uniformed germination and high germination rates. You can buy pre-built, thousand-dollar chambers online, or you could use something as simple and cheap (or even free) as an old refrigerator. Here on the farm, we built one out of foam insulation board, a pallet and a shelving unit. To control the moisture inside the “chamber,” we water our seed trays heavily, place our trays on the rack, cover our trays in plastic, set our thermostat and space heater to 72 degrees and then box in the unit. As soon as germination has occurred, typically within 3-4 days, we take the trays out of the chamber so that the seeds can immediately get into the light. While most seeds do not need light to germinate, they can become “leggy” and damaged if they are left in the dark for too long after germination.

Just as there many ways to "skin a cat," there are many ways to start seeds. If you keep in mind the three components of seed starting - container, medium and controlled environment - there are a thousand different variations one could try. That’s why I love farming - it’s the art of experimentation. With that, I say: go forth and experiment!

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