Tuesday, May 25, 2010
I have been gardening, on and off, since I was a kid. All gardeners face a foundational decision every spring. Do I buy plants ready to put in the ground, or do I buy seeds, and grow my own tomato plants? And cabbage, peppers, watermelons, canteloupe, and so on. I have tried it both ways, both ways have advantages. Buying started plants is somewhat safer, since someone else has managed to get the plants through the risky germination and 1st two weeks. But it's also a lot more expensive. "Starts" as they are called are often a buck each, while a packet with dozens and dozens of seeds may cost only a dollar or two.
The other problem, and the real deal breaker for me, is garden center plants really limit what kind of varieties you can grow. Starts are bred to look good in their little six packs, and give some dependability under the auspices of gardeners with, ummm, highly variable amounts of experience. This almost always means a hybrid. Because it's a hybrid, you generally can't save your own seed and get the same tomato plant variety next year. Taste may or may not be better than average. In fact, it might be the same flavorless variety of tomato you get in january at the grocery store, just because they are tough to kill.
So, for a number of years, I have tried different systems of growing starts from seeds. Peat pots, jiffy pellets (which is like a mini-peat pot), home made paper pots using newsprint, plastic pots (designed for house plants), multi-cell pots (recycled from when I bought starts at the nursery), earth cubes, multi compartment tray "systems" with a clear cover. The whole gamut really.
They all had significant faults and drawbacks. Peat pots are a terrific idea. Make a pot out of a biodegradable and natural product that's almost dirt already. Plant your seed in the pot and then plant the pot in your garden. The delicate little roots won't even notice anything happened. Unfortunately, they don't work. Here's the hitch, they are all but impervious to root penetration. So, while it is true that there will be no transplant shock, neither will you get a natural and robust root system. And trying to get the plant out of a peat pot is an exercise in futility.
Some methods made it very difficult to get the root ball out without ripping off half of the dirt and the roots. The commercial 4-packs and 6-packs contain so little soil, they often have to be watered twice a day because they have no reserve.
But my current system, which I have used for two years, has been the best of them all. PVC pipe. Every big-box building store in the country has racks and racks of cheap pvc pipe. I had some left over from a plumbing escapade, so my net cost was really zero. If you want to do this, go buy a chunk of 2" pipe to make as many "pots" as you want. Cut into 3" lengths (more or less will work). Fill with my favorite starter mix, 1/2 peat moss and 1/2 vermiculite. Peat moss is cheap and retains moisture well (once you get it soaked the first time) and vermiculite helps keep the mix light and fluffy for good root penetration. Most garden centers sell vermiculite, in a small bag, expensively. Don't buy it there. Most building centers sell the same stuff, but as insulation. A huge bag is 10-15 dollars and will last for years and years. A common brand name is block fill.
This is a "no-soil" mix. If you use actual dirt in there, your risk of having fungal problems like "damping off" are much higher. Some gardeners go to the trouble of putting pans of soil in the oven and sterilizing it for an hour at 250F or some such business. I've heard that it stinks too. I can't be bothered, and plain soil has some other disadvantages as well, like being too dense to get good, fast and deep root penetration.
Growing the starts is straightforward. Fill your pot. Put your pipe/pots on something covered with plastic, because if you over water, the water runs right out the bottom. Some people like to water their starts from the bottom. They put their pots in a waterproof tray or a rubbermaid container and just dump the water in and let the plants soak up the water from the bottom. These work fine for that. Plant your seed. Keep it warm and damp until the seeds come up. 75F-80F is perfect. I have an insulated plywood box that I heat with a 40 watt incandescent light bulb to get things to germinate FAST. Once they sprout, then they don't need extra heat, 60-70F is fine. Give them plenty of light, either natural or artificial.
But the magic happens when the plant is ready to go in the ground. Since the pot has no bottom, you can push the plant out using a round piston shaped thingee. Any old scrap piece of wood can be made to work. And because the PVC is so smooth on the inside, the plant pops right out with virtually no trauma to the root system. This translates to virtually no transplant shock and ~100% success rate. It's fast too, it takes longer to dig the hole than to pop the plant out and plant it in the hole.
Here's my pusher outer thing. It's just a 2x2 with the edges shaved off a bit so it will fit in the pipe. It's screwed to a piece of scrap plywood. Then I screwed a little disk of plywood to the top that's ~1/8" smaller in diameter than the pvc pipe. You just put the plant and pot on top, and slide the pipe/pot down while the plant stays in place. Slick!
I'm sure I didn't invent it. Or if I did, I'm sure 100 other people did too. The pvc will outlast you if you don't store it out in the sun all year. They're dishwasher proof, so when I'm done I just run a load of them through the dishwasher to sterilize them and throw them in the box ready for next year. They're dirt cheap, even if you have to go down and buy a piece of pipe at the lumberyard. There's lots of scrap pvc pipe around if you're a good scrounger, and if you know a plumber or spot a construction site where they are roughing in the plumbing, you can probably score a lifetime supply for nothing. Reduce/re-use/recycle.
Since the pvc it totally impervious to water, your root ball doesn't dry out too fast, but the bottom is open, so you would have to really work at it to over water them. In regular pots, they put some holes in the bottom for drainage, but when the roots eventually sneak out those drain holes, it makes it very difficult to get your start out of the pot without tearing up the root ball.
Watch it again to see how fast and efficient this is:
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