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Seed Starting Soil Mix

Starting Seedlings is a sacred art all its own! It starts with the ‘soil’ they are planted in.

Number 1 is in the Earth herself!

Whether as is, or amended, planting in the ground, in good loose loamy soil, is just about as nutritious as it gets! The soil organisms, mycorrhizal fungi, oxygen, moisture, bird, animal poop and worm castings, and decayed leaves/plants, minerals, create a rich humus. Humus holds water. Tiny roots find their way through and a thriving plant is born.

Worm castings are a special addition because they help with immunity and, they speed germination!

The advantage of starting seeds in the earth is they don’t have to be transplanted later. Some seedlings have super delicate root systems, others, like carrots, put down tap roots instantly and transplanting can damage those important roots. In the case of carrots, that quick root IS the carrot!

You need to wait until the last average frost date, and start them when both air and soil temps are right for that plant. You can always take a chance and plant earlier in the ground, that there won’t be a stretch of exceptionally cold weather and no freezes. Of course when we say ‘average,’ you are still taking a chance. If there is a late freeze, you either start all over again or head to your local nursery for transplants. Some gardeners, who especially want that particular variety (that they can’t get at nurseries) do backup indoor starts just in case this very thing happens.

DIY Seed Starting Mixes

If it isn’t a year round in-the-ground plant, you get a 6 to 8 week’s time advantage by starting seedlings earlier indoors or in greenhouses before the last average frost date. It is important to get indoor early-started seedlings in the ground when they are mature enough. One way to remedy that problem is to plant two or three rounds. One will be right when conditions outdoors are right.

Start with peat moss or coir. Blend it with treated compost that has been heated to 150 degrees to kill off pathogens/weed seeds. Add worm castings, no more than 10% by volume.

Damping off, kinda like crib death, is a sad foe of seedlings. No fix, no cure. The baby just topples overnight and it’s over. A 2005 North Carolina State University study found it’s not the mixture but what’s on top of the soil that counts most. Damping off differences almost disappeared between commercial organic seed-starting mixtures and various homemade mixtures after all of the seeds were covered with vermiculite instead of a planting medium.

Cinnamon for Seedling Damping Off Disease Prevention!

The super simplest home prevention is Cinnamon! Just sprinkle it on the soil! Sprinkle on plant injuries and they will heal. It is a rooting hormone. Mildew, mold, fungal diseases? Mix 4 tablespoons cinnamon in a half gallon warm water, shake it vigorously, steep overnight. Strain through a sieve or coffee filter and put it in a spray bottle. Add ¼ teaspoon liquid dish soap as a surfactant, lightly spritz your plants, undersides and tops of leaves! (In Santa Barbara area buy it in big containers at Smart & Final.) Also, it repels ants!

What is Vermiculite?! It is composed of two natural minerals, absorbs and retains several times its own weight in moisture while still holding some oxygen.

Rodale’s April Johnson says seedlings need a loose, well-drained fine medium. Don’t use potting soil – often, it’s too rich, doesn’t drain well enough. April, who has experimented many years, prefers this mix:

4 parts screened compost
1 part perlite
1 part vermiculite
2 parts coir

Barb Fick, consumer horticulturist with the Oregon State University Extension Service, explains that our typical backyard soil is too compacted, full of weed seeds and it is not pasteurized, causing seedling diseases and death, often doesn’t drain as well as seedling mixes. It can develop a crust that prevents seedlings from pushing through the soil. Barb’s recipe is

one-third pasteurized soil or finished compost
one-third sand, vermiculite or perlite
one-third peat moss

Or, just use half peat moss and half perlite, vermiculite or sand.

You can see from this last combination, that soil or compost is not needed to get a seed started! However, if you don’t use compost, when your seedling gets true leaves (the first two after the cotyledons), it gets hungry as the nutrition in the seed is used up! Give it a spritz of half strength fish emulsion. Some nurseries lace their planting mixes with those little tiny fertilizer pellets. Your baby plant gets nutrition when it needs it.

Before planting, clean your pots, trays and flats. Rinse them in one part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water solution to kill plant disease microorganisms that could weaken or kill your tender young seedlings.

Wet your soil before you plant. Keep adding your starter mix until you get the level you want. Leave enough room to add a thin layer of vermiculite on top after you plant your seeds.

Chopsticks can be used in a couple helpful ways. Mark one of them at 1/4, 1/2, and 1″ on the stick. That way you can get your seeds at the right planting depth. Using your marked stick keeps you mindful; planting goes faster with less wondering! Seeds planted too shallow can dry out, too deep they take longer or never come up – they can use up all their nutrients before they make it.

If you are installing delicate sprouts, make a planting hole, and if you are good with chopsticks, grasp the sprout gently, carefully place it. Smooth the soil, water gently. Check out Seed Soaking/Presprouting Tips & Ideas!

Rather than top watering, causing your seeds to be washed, bunched to the side, buried too deep, or uncovered, or tiny just-starting seedlings to be damaged, you can put your planting containers in a tray with water in it and let the water wick up into your seedling mix. Wicking is good; all the soil gets wetted. Keep a spray bottle handy for any top watering you think they need. Set it on mist to start.

Here are another couple recipes!

4 parts fine compost
2 parts coir or peat moss
1 part vermiculite
1/2 part perlite

If you don’t want to sift compost:

3 parts peat moss or coir
1 part vermiculite
1/2 part perlite
1/4 tsp lime/gallon peat moss (don’t add if using coir)

You see gardeners have their preferences, even the pros differ! Go by your own intuition. Maybe you will use one mix for some plants, another mix for others. You own mix might be different than any of these. Experiment, but maybe try an old standard at the same time just in case your mix doesn’t work. Might take you a few seasons to find what works best for the particular plants you grow.

Readymade Seed Starting Mix

Pre-made mixes have advantages! First, mainly that they are premade! Just go get ’em! But, just in case, do read the ingredients list. They come in small or large bags. The mix is pasteurized. Some of them have wetting agents. Yes! Others have lime for pH balance to stop damping off. Instead of buying all kinds of bags, then storing all the extra leftover stuff, you use what you use, store the one bag, and that’s it! Unless you have a large scale operation and have specific needs, premade mixes are perfect!

Have fun raising your baby plants!

Updated 12.23.18

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The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

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BLACK FRIDAY GARDEN GIFTS!  Gifts to Give, Gifts to Get!

Pour a little garden love into your loved one’s life this holiday season!

Lovely Fitz and Floyd Vegetable Garden 8" Pitcher seen on eBay at BlueHowMuch! $29.95

Make Organic, Sustainable Holiday Gifts!  This is the prime time to start winter gift plantings for holiday giving!  Start a salad bowl, make some pesto ice cubes – harvest before your basil freezes, collect basil seeds while you are at it!  Gather seeds to put in pretty little jars – label and tie with a bright festive bow.  Some of those seeds can be used for seasoning, some for planting!  Dry and powder some herbs for teas, pillows, sachets!  Make scented candles or creams, soaps or shampoos!  Sage darkens your hair, chamomile lightens.  Make an herb wreath, or classic orange pomander balls.  Herbed vinegars & oils are simple to make, and beautiful!  In white wine or rice vinegars:

  • Lavender is rose red
  • Nasturtium flowers release neon orange
  • Sage in flower & purple basil are magenta!

Likewise, be thinking of what you can give your loved one or good friend in the way of gardening items!  Buy local!  How about that special tool, a new shovel?  Some seeds?  A container or garden decoration they have been longing for, a beauteous trellis.  Oh, some of those fancy flowered rain boots?!  YES!  Gloves – those old ones are worn out, you know.  Supplies like special potting mixes, fertilizers.  Books on the topic dearest their heart – Recipes, garden specialities, California Master Gardener Handbook!  Sponsor them for the class they would like to take but didn’t have the dough. Garden plates and mugs.  That catalog and a gift certificate to go with it!  Local services, like an hour of time on something that takes a little more doing than one person would like to do alone, or a consult with your local sustainable landscaper!  Hey, it’s a win/win!  It’s sustainable and makes you both happy!  Trifecta!

Oh, and don’t forget to leave your own garden shopping list lying about the house…if someone tries to discourage you from buying something on the list, let them.  Who knows what will show up with a bow on it?!

Next week:  A Little About Onions, a LOT About GARLIC!

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Rainy Day Harvesting!

Anticipate! 

Fertilize before a rain so the fertilizer will soak in.
Take the cover off your compost to let it get wet.
Tie or stake plants that may topple from wind or weight.
Set up to harvest rainwater for later use! 
Make raised beds, mounds, to help with drainage issues.
Mulch to keep soil from splashing up on your plants, keeping your harvest clean, holding water in place to soak in, and keep soil from eroding.
Make ‘permanent’ pathways with boards, stepping stones, straw bedding, so you won’t be compacting your planting area soil when it is wet or dry!
Plant for air circulation so foliage dries quickly.  Plants too closely spaced, make a warmer micro environment, tend to get mildew easier.
Choose mildew resistant plants! 
Drench your young plants with a mix of a heaping tablespoon of baking soda, a 1/4 cup of nonfat (so it won’t rot and stink) powdered milk in a large watering can of water for mildew prevention and abatement.  It works for certain other diseases as well!
Water less frequently and at ground level, not overhead.

During a rainy period….

If you didn’t before, get out there in your rain gear and add some manure or fertilizer!  Great excuse to play in the rain!
Check frequently to see how your plants are doing.  Secure any tall plants, trellises that need it.
If a plant is too low and in standing water, raise it.  Put your shovel deep under it, put some filler soil underneath the shovel!  
Add more mulch if it has shifted or wasn’t quite deep enough to keep mud spatter from your plants.
Be sure your wormbox worms are not doing the backstroke!
Rebuild any drainage channel that has weakened, clear if clogged.
Make sure all your rain harvest system is working well.  Kudos to you for harvesting!
Practice arm-chair gardening!  Read garden books, magazines, browse web sites, buy some seeds from mail-order catalogs, design your new garden layout!
Get some seeds, soilless potting mix, gather containers with, or make, drainage holes.  Start some seeds!
If the rain is prolonged, uh, do an aphid, snail and slug check as frequently as you can.  Sluggo works on snails  and slugs even when it is wet.  Hard to believe, but, yes, it does.
If the rain is prolonged, do harvest your fresh and crunchy produce!  Lettuces will flourish!  Check on fast maturing broccoli and cauliflower heads to cut at peak maturity!  Gather your luscious strawberries.  Keep your peas picked to keep them coming!

After the rain!  YES! 

Do some thinning for air circulation as makes sense.  Often there is a growth spurt, and you can see where thinning is needed.
Repair areas where soil has washed away exposing roots.  Put some mulch on.
It’s often warmer after a rain, and it is the warmth that mildew loves!   Drench mildew susceptible plants with your mildew mix immediately, early in the day so your plants can dry.  If you prune mildewed areas off, remove those prunings, wash your hands and pruners before you go on to other plants.
Do what you do about snails and slugs.  Keep checking for aphids – blast them away with water or remove infested leaves.
There is often more gopher activity after rain has softened the soil, so be ready! 
In later days, after the rain, harvest first, water second!  That’s the rule to keep from spreading diseases spread by moisture.

Enjoy the superlative rapid growth of your very happy plants!

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