Starting seeds

Welcome to March! Our spring is shaping up to be a bit too premature and a bit too warm and a bit too dry for our liking; we’d like to see quite a lot more moisture. This time last year, we still had at least four inches of snowpack on the ground; this year, zilch. Also last year, we were adorable, eager, optimistic, first-year farmers, and we started our seeds way too early. This year, we’re hardened, grizzled veterans, so we know better. And next year? Watch out.

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If you’re going to grow anything outside, the single most important piece of information you need is your average first and last frost date. This statistic is pretty much exactly what it sounds like; weather stations all over the country send data to the USDA, which in turn calculates average first and last frost dates. These dates are essential because most (but not all) annual food crops will not tolerate freezing temperatures.

Here at Quiet Farm, our average last frost is May 13, and our average first frost is October 4 for a 143-day growing season; this means we’re almost assured not to have frost between these dates. Keep in mind, however, that this is an average, not a guarantee – you’re safer assuming that frost is possible one to two weeks on either side of these dates. (The location of weather stations varies widely and can sometimes be inaccurate, so check where your closest weather station is located to ensure you’re getting the best information. Plus, the climate emergency is totally destroying the consistency and reliability of these dates. It’s all pretty much guesswork from here on out.)

Plant Hardiness Zone Map

The length of the growing season is important because it tells you what you can and can’t plant in your area. Another important thing to know is your Plant Hardiness Zone, represented on the map above. We’re in Zone 6b, which is unusual at above six thousand feet – but the towering Grand Mesa to our north creates a protected buffer area; we often see storms zip overhead on their way down the valley. Depending on your first and last frost dates and your plant hardiness zone, there may be certain plants you simply can’t grow, and you’ll save yourself a lot of time and trouble if you find this out before you start seeds and plan your garden.

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Take notes, seriously. They’re so handy each spring.

And so! On to starting seeds and planning your garden. A garden journal is super-helpful; you can note what crops and varieties you grew, where you planted, what worked, what didn’t and whether you ever burst into furious tears when you saw a squirrel dash through the “anti-squirrel fencing” with a head of perfect lettuce in his grubby little paws. (Just me, then?) Also, when planning where and what you’re planting, know that it’s really important to rotate crop families, if you can manage it. As an example, this means you don’t plant crops from the Solanaceae family (peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes) in the same place each year; same goes for legumes, alliums and other common garden crop families. Crop rotation can be a challenge for small backyard gardens, but if you have the space, do consider it; it cuts down on pest and disease pressure and helps soil stay healthy.

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Ingredients for our soilless seed-starting mix.

I either start our crops from seed or direct-sow everything we grow; I do not buy in starter plants from nurseries or other growers. This is mostly so that I know exactly what goes into my plants, and because standard nursery selection is pretty limited and typically doesn’t encompass some of the unique heirloom varieties I like to experiment with. Starting plants from seed is also so much cheaper than buying starts that it’s not even financially feasible for us to do anything else, based on the quantities we grow.

When you grow from seed, it’s even more essential that you know frost dates, because you have to count backwards to find out when you should start seeds. Most tomato packets, for example, suggest starting seed six to eight weeks before average last frost; for us that would be pretty much right now. Last year, however, we had a late, wet spring, and our tomatoes didn’t go out until mid-June, and by then they were leggy and stressed. So this year I’m a bit more relaxed about starting my warm-weather crops; I’ll get to them over the next week or so. (Buying from reputable seed companies means you’ll get lovely packets that have tons of valuable information! If you’re in Colorado and want to buy local, I like this one and this one.)

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Please admire the new compost screen we built! So simple! So elegant!

True confession: in the past I’ve been embarrassingly lazy about my seed-starting mix, just picking up a bag of whatever junk was cheapest at the big-box store. Like babies, though, seeds need the very best start in life to grow big and strong, so I’ve changed my tune and now blend my own soilless seed-starting mix. There are lots of different recipes available online, but most I found use peat moss as a base. Peat bogs cover millions of acres in Scotland, Finland, Sweden, Canada and other northern countries, but like so many of our other natural resources, we’re harvesting the peat much faster than it can regenerate – it only grows about a millimeter a year! – and I don’t consider it an ecologically sound option. Plus, peat bogs are actually carbon sinks, meaning they’re helping fight the climate crisis by absorbing carbon, so I’d really like to leave all that lovely peat exactly where it is and it can keep on doing a great job.

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Rehydrating a block of coco coir in the wheelbarrow.

Instead of peat, then, I choose coconut coir as the base of my mix. Coco coir is simply shredded coconut husks (actually the fibrous material between the shaggy outer coat and the hard internal shell) and a byproduct of the coconut processing industry – essentially finding a use for something that would otherwise be discarded. It arrives in a tight, dense block and must be rehydrated before use, and that simply involves pouring water over it until it can be easily worked. (The instructions on our packet said “use nine gallons of warm water.” What, are we in a spa? It’s thirty degrees outside; where exactly would you like me to obtain nine gallons of warm water? Cold water from our frost-free ag taps worked just fine, thank you very much.)

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Ready for blending: rehydrated coco coir, vermiculite, screened compost and perlite.

My mix recipe is as follows: three parts coco coir, three parts screened compost, one part perlite, one part vermiculite. As I mentioned above, there are a million different variations on this, so use whatever recipe suits your needs. Both perlite and vermiculite are naturally-occurring minerals and very lightweight; both help with water retention and soil aeration. They each have their place in growing and they’re not interchangeable, though many garden center employees might tell you otherwise; it’s also important to note that as with everything we consume, there are some environmental consequences to using these materials too, though not nearly as much as peat moss.

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Ready for seeds!

I blend all of these ingredients in the wheelbarrow and then store the mix in repurposed chicken feed bags (N’s brilliant suggestion!). I only make up enough for what I’m seeding at that time, and I keep the bags tightly closed when not in use, because the mix loses moisture quickly in our high-plains desert. Blending our own seed-starting mix costs less than a tenth of what we’d pay for a premade bag – and as with everything we make ourselves, we know exactly what’s in it. It’s absolutely worth the effort for us. Here’s to the start of a productive growing season!

8 thoughts on “Starting seeds

  1. It’s satisfying to start your garden from seed, more so if you start with your own saved seeds. All my tomatoes this year will be from seeds I’ve saved, gets better each year. Hydrating a brick of coco core is like a science experiment, really fun to watch. I cut mine in quarters, not so much to store.Going to plant peas this week, early but worth a try.

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    • Starting from saved seeds is the absolute best, Jim! Our local library here also has an incredible seed bank where you can “check out” seeds to grow, then return the fresh seeds back to the library at the end of the growing season. And yes, coco coir is a really fun material to work with! I loved watching ours rehydrate. Gardeners are so easy to entertain. 🙂

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  2. Thanks for all the information, I will forward this to our family gardener. We are very excited to start a brand new garden in the new house but it will sure be a learning experiment since we have never planted there before. Any tips for starting a brand new garden where we are not quite familiar with exact sun exposure or the soil? The garden journal is a great recommendation as well.

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    • Hi Sara! Your question is a great one. There will be a certain amount of experimentation involved, but as a starting point, know that most annual vegetables will require at least six hours of direct sunlight to grow – and eight hours would be even better. Some vegetables, like leafy greens, will tolerate partial shade, but most vegetables want sunshine and plenty of it. Southern exposure is your best choice, if you can manage it. And if you’re not sure about the soil in your new yard you can get it tested, but most often in developments it’s just generic fill dirt, which isn’t great for growing. You can always build simple raised beds and bring in quality growing medium, too – which means you know exactly what your crops are planted in. I’m excited to see what you’ll grow!

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  3. I just wrote about frost dates, which around the Santa Clara Valley, is not very interesting. The last frost date is prior to when anyone is ready for warm season vegetables anyway. The last of the cool season vegetables barely have time to finish. What I found interesting though, is that that Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County actually has a later frost date than San Jose does! I had no idea. It gives me a different respect for what they can grow there. Even though their winter weather does not get as cool, it stays cool later. Beverly Hills in Los Angeles County does not even have frost dates. (boring) Yet, some brag about growing peonies in the upper elevations of the Santa Monica Mountains, which are actually not very high

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  4. Pingback: Gardening for beginners | Finding Quiet Farm

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