It's coming. The New Year is just around the corner - and you can save money and get a head start on your garden by growing your plants from seed this year.
I think one of the most rewarding experiences for a home gardener is starting their own seeds indoors. For one, it's an incredibly satisfying feeling to make a tiny seed grow into a beautiful plant for you and your family to enjoy. It also can be a tremendous cash saver - plants can be expensive when purchasing them all at your local greenhouse. Especially if you want to grow specialty or heirloom seeds that are hard to find.We use a low-cost, simple set up to grow our seedlings indoors. It has allowed us to expand our garden and landscape without breaking the bank.Let's start with a few, money saving tips of what you won't need: Heating Mats and Specialty Lights.It's not that heating mats don't work - they do. They help warm the soil and help to germinate seeds. But unless you live in a 40 degree barn...normal room temperatures will work. It make a take a day or two longer to germinate than if you use heating mats - but the seeds will grow just fine.There is also no need to waste big money on high-priced "grow lights" or bulbs with a special light spectrum for raising seedlings. They do have a place for certain types of special growing applications - but if your goal is to start and raise seeds indoors - a couple of good old-fashioned inexpensive flourescent "shop lights" work incredibly well. Most of us have a few already around the house. If not, they can be had at your local hardware store for about $10 to $15, and can be used year after year. I am a big believer in the lights. Yes, it's true that you can use a sunny window of your house - but it's hard to get seedlings to grow straight using natural winter sunlight from a window. You need to turn them constantly - and the seedlings tend to grow thin and skinny trying to reach up for the light.
What you will need to start up to 4 flats of seeds indoors:
One (1) 32 quart bag of potting soil or seed starter mix. We make our own from equal parts of our compost, sand and soil, but if your starting out, you can buy a good bag for around $10. It will be more than enough to fill four flats and have some left over for next year.
Two (2) inexpensive dual-bulb 4' flourescent shop lights. (4 bulbs total) You can pick them up at your local hardware store for about $10 - $15 - and most all of them even come with little hooks and a chain for hanging over your plants.
Four (4) empty flats with seed tray inserts. (we like the 36 cell plant trays - the individual cells are big enough that you won't need to transplant the seedling into anything else before they go into the ground)A few blocks of scrap wood and two 5' 2x4's to hang your lights from.
Your seeds of choice. Whatever seeds you use - make sure to label your flats with what you plant in them - it's easy to get them mixed up as they grow into mature plants. As for when to start your seeds - the back of each seed package will usually tell you the optimum time, however, a general rule of thumb is 6 to 8 weeks before planting outdoors.
1. Fill your seed trays with soil mixture - pack lightly – you want the soil to be light and fluffy to allow room for root growth and water filtering through. Moisten the soil –don't drench. You just want to have the soil wet to the touch - An empty spray bottle of water works great for the first few weeks of starting.
2. Plant your seeds at a rate of 2 per space – preferably not on top of each other, but in slightly different areas towards the center. Each seed packet will tell you the depth that the seeds should be planted - most are about 1/8" to 1/4" inch deep. Planting two seeds ensures that you can get at least one seed to germinate in every space. Yes, you will have to thin later - but better to have too many than none at all! After planting your seeds, lightly moisten the soil again and then cover with a clear plastic sheet or lid and keep out of direct sunlight.
3. I know it sounds strange to put them out of direct sunlight - but covering them allows moisture to build up and helps to achieve optimum conditions for the seeds to sprout. You will most likely not have to water during this time - just make sure the soil remains moist.By using clear plastic you can see when the plants actually come up without taking off the cover and disturbing the plants and releasing the moisture.4. Once you see 1-2 seedlings sprouting out of the soil, remove the lid and place onto a table or flat surface. You can now set up your shop lights. You want the lights to hover down about 1 to 2" from the top of the plants. We do this by putting blocks of wood at each end and running a 5' 2x4 over all of the flats of seedlings. We then simply screw a little hook into the 2x4's and hang them with a little hook. (usually included in the shop light kits) When we need to raise the lights as the plants grow - we just add another block of wood to each end. You will want to give your plants about 12 to 14 hours of light each day.
You will also need to water more frequently now - most likely once a day - and as the plants grow in the coming weeks - you will continue to adjust those two lights to keep them at 1 to 2" above the top of the plants. You want the soil to stay moist but not water logged. This is also the time to start thinning to allow for one seed per container. If you have an empty cell, you can replant extra sprouts into the empty cells. We just use a flat head screwdriver to lift out the extra seedling and plant into the empty cell.The shop lights at such close range keep the seeds growing straight up and at a slower, stronger rate. One of the problems with using just direct sunlight is that the plants will get leggy as they reach to the light source. With the shop lights at such a close range..they grow nice and slow and develop strong roots and leaf structure.After about 6 to 8 weeks - your plants will be ready to go. As the weather begins to warm - we will take our plants out onto the back porch to get some regular sun and start adjusting to the temperature and light. One thing to avoid is to take your plants directly from the shop lights and plant them in the yard - you want to give them time to adjust to sunlight and temperature - a process called hardening off. Usually by the end of March - we start to keep them on the porch longer and longer - and near the end - only bring them in or cover them if there is a threat of frost to get them ready for the great outdoors!
- Jim and Mary
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Compost is a necessity if you want to have great soil and healthy, productive plants. Along with cover crops, compost is one of the two major components that are critical to our garden's
success year after year. However, for many people, finding sources to create that compost can be difficult. Today's post is all about finding endless supplies of cheap (meaning free) materials to build any size compost pile you like!
Every single day, in communities all over the world - millions if not billions of pounds of compostable materials are wasted by heading to a landfill. Although many cities and townships are beginning to have their own composting facilities - most still don't. And among those that have them - only a small portion of those materials actually make it to the facility. So, what does that mean for you? It means that with just a little planning and leg work - you can have all the materials you want for free.
Whether you compost in 5 gallon buckets, fancy bins, barrels or in a huge pile "out back" - finding the resources to fill your pile should never be a problem. A quick word of caution when finding materials - make sure the materials you collect are from a safe source. Wood shavings made from treated lumber, or grass clippings from a chemically treated lawn are not good additions to your compost pile. Just using a little common sense goes a long way when collecting.
The following list is by no means the end-all to finding free material - but it's a great start:
1. Breakfast Diners and Cafes
Diners and cafes can be the mother-load of free composting materials! Most restaurants plow through dozens of eggs and potatoes each day, and left-over egg shells and vegetable peels make fantastic additions to your pile. Once again - it's all about asking - most places are more than glad to give their scraps away. A local cafe here goes through over 12 dozen eggs during a single breakfast rush - not to mention pounds of potato peels and coffee grounds. One single pick up of a few five gallon pails of materials can be the beginning of a great compost pile.
2. The Black Friday Composting Bonanza - Straw, Pumpkins, Gourds & More...
Black Friday - that crazy day after Thanksgiving. Well, we think it should be called "Black Gold Friday". Why? Because all of those people that decorated for Harvest Fests and Thanksgiving suddenly have no use for those straw bales, pumpkins, gourds and corn stalks. They can be yours simply for the asking - and a quick way to get great material for your pile. We scored over 7 bales of free straw and a slew of pumpkins and gourds from friends and family just this past year.
3. Coffee Houses
Coffee grounds are a perfect choice for adding to your pile - and small coffee shops are a great place to find them! In fact, many coffee houses routinely save their grounds for customers. Some bigger chains even create a list of customers to save grounds for - insuring that the by-product of all of their brewing doesn't end up in the local landfill. Many of those same coffee shops serve breakfast and lunch as well, so they might be a good source for additional materials. Either way, you can get a great cup of coffee and get free compost materials!
4. Landscapers & Tree Companies
When you see those tree trimming and landscaping trucks in your neighborhood with the big shredders attached - ask them to drop off a load to your house. You'll be surprised how many are more than happy to accommodate you with tons of shredded goodness for free - many times saving them a costly fee and a trip to go dump them. This is where that dose of common sense comes in handy - it's a good idea to see what will be in the load. Shredded leaves and wood chips are a good source - but you might shy away from a tree company shredding up poison ivy vines :).
5. Grocery Stores & Produce Stands
Small grocery stores and produce stands can be a goldmine for composting materials. You might have luck with large chain stores as well, but smaller mom and pop locations are usually easier to deal with on the local level, and more than happy to help. Simply ask the store manager what is currently done with expired produce - and you might be surprised that they are willing to save it for you. Those rotten tomatoes, potatoes and fruit may be past their prime as a food source - but they make great additions to any compost pile.
6. Local Horse Stables, Hobby Farms and Farmers
Get to know your local farm community. Many local hobby farmers and owners of small horse stables are more than glad to give away their manure to gardeners. And so what if you don't have a truck - keep a couple of five gallon buckets handy (with a lid of course :) ), and take some home to your compost pile. The high nitrogen sources in chicken, cow, horse and rabbit manure really helps to heat your pile to make quick compost. For those that worry about the smell or odor - if you blend manure into your compost pile - little or no odor can be detected.
7. Fall Leaves & Clean Up Time
We talk about this one a lot, but fall is the easiest time to gather free materials for the compost bin! Just take a short trip around a few wooded neighborhoods, and you can have an endless supply of leaves for your pile. Most of the time, they are already bagged at the curbside for easy pick-up. We collect as many as we can each fall and store the extra for use throughout the season. Its a great way for us to have a year-round supply for use in future compost piles or mulching garden plants.
8. Neighbors & Friends
Yes, neighbors. You know the people that live beside and down the street from you? The ones you have never met but wave to every day. They are a great source of composting materials - and this is a great way to get to know them! They eat eggs, they have morning coffee, and they have potato peels and grass clippings. Now if they compost already - you may be out of luck. But you would be surprised how many of them just might save and supply you with more scraps than you can handle. What can it hurt to ask? You might make some new great neighborhood friends!
So there you have it - 8 great tips to finding free compost materials. The list of ways to find free materials could go on and on, and with just a little work on your part, you can have an endless supply of materials to build your pile. Your garden will thank you and reward you with great plants and produce! If you want to know more about composting, you can follow the link here to our post on : Composting 101.
- Jim and Mary
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With only four ingredients (borax, washing soda, baking soda, and soap flakes), this homemade laundry detergent is simple to mix up and cheap to make. It only takes two tablespoons per load. We've been using it for years and love it!