The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

February 20, 2018

Checking seeds for viability

After taking inventory of our seeds last week, we had to decide which seeds we were going to keep and which we needed to throw out. Each year we write the date on the seed containers, that gives us a starting point.

Some seed packs slipped through our system though and had no date on them, just the variety name. Others were getting to be a few years old meaning they were approaching the out side limits of their shelf life.  As seeds get older, their ability to germinate begins to decline. In many cases they still can be used even though they are past their prime. This week we are running germination tests on several types of seeds to see if they are something we would be able to use in the garden.

A simple germination test is easy to do and gives you a pretty good idea if it’s worth keeping a pack of seeds. To do the test,  pick ten seeds at random of one type of plant that we want to test, for example ten tomato seeds or ten onion seeds. Next take a moistened piece of paper towel. Place the seeds on the paper towel  on half of the sheet and fold the sheet over to cover the seeds. The seeds and moist paper towel go in a zip-loc bag and are sealed up. Then put the bag in a warm place to help speed up germination, we use our plant warming mat.

Seedlings are very fragile at this stage.

Seedlings are very fragile at this stage.

Check the seeds every day to see if any are sprouting. If you have the original packet, it usually tells how long it takes for germination. But when you use a warming mat with moist conditions inside the plastic bag, seeds usually sprout much quicker.

The number of sprouted seeds gives you the germination percentage. For example, if eight of the ten seeds sprout, you have an 80% germination rate.

The big surprise for us was an unmarked envelop of ‘Chadwick Cherry’ tomato seeds we found with the rest of our seeds. I don’t know where that envelop came from , maybe someone gave us some seeds a few years ago. We were expecting an low germination percentage but nine out of ten germinated. That was an excellent outcome and we’ll be growing those in the garden this season.  On the other hand, a group of onions we were looking at only had one seed sprout, we’ll toss those into the compost. Too bad because it was a pretty big packet of seeds.

Even if your seeds have a low germination percentage you can still use them, just plant extra seeds to make up the difference. For example if only half of your seeds germinate,  plant double the amount.

It’s true that you can buy fresh seeds of common varieties very cheaply. However, in our case we save quite a few heirloom and open-pollinated seeds that are not available anywhere else.Plus we don’t like to waste anything if it is still usable.


January 11, 2018

Start your onion seeds in January

Onions are a staple in our kitchen and I’m guessing are in yours too. While homegrown vegetables are always the best, it’s especially true with onions.

Those little onion bulbs, called sets, that you find in the garden center were grown last year from an onion variety selected for good storage characteristics, not flavor. I have to confess that I’ve used them plenty of times in the past during those years when I was not able to grow my own transplants.

Not only do homegrown onions in general taste better, you can pick and choose the variety you want without having to depend on what the local garden center has to offer. There are all kinds of gourmet onions available that you can only get if you grow them yourself. Just stay away from short-day varieties, they are not adapted to our latitude.

The secrete to growing onions from scratch is to get started early. I try to sow my onion seeds indoors sometime during January.

Onion seeds are fairly small so don't cover them too deeply.

Onion seeds are fairly small so don’t cover them too deeply.

Onion seeds are fairly easy to grow. Compared to many vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and others, onions don’t require as much attention. With most other vegetable seedling, transplanting from a crowded container into individual pots or cells is absolutely necessary, that’s not so critical with onions. They do quite well growing close together like a clump of grass during the early stage of their life cycle.

To get started, sow onion seeds into clean containers, I use six inch plastic flower pots. They’re easy to wash and sterilize and can be used year after year.

Fill your growing container an inch or so from the top with a good starting mix, other types of potting mixes may be used if the manufacturer didn’t add too much fertilizer.  Gently firm the soil down and moisten it.  Sprinkle your onion seeds evenly over the surface of the soil –about 50 -60 seeds will fit nicely in a six inch pot. Cover the seeds with about a quarter inch of the starting mix and firm it down so it makes good contact with the seeds. Lightly water the pot.

You should start to see the tiny seedlings begin to emerge in about a week to ten days at 70 degrees F. Once they’ve emerged, place the pot in a sunny area and drop the growing temperature to the lower 60′s during the day and upper 50′s during the night. If you grow your seedlings under artificial light only, give them ten hours of light a day. Keep them moist but not soaking wet.

Occasionally fertilize your growing plants according to directions on the fertilizer package. The onions will sometimes grow so much that they will fall over. If that happens l cut back the tops a little bit with  a pair of scissors. Our goal is to get the plants about a quarter inch wide at garden planting time.

Since onion transplants can tolerate frost and cold soil temperatures, you can plant them into the ground as early as April. That will give them plenty of time to grow lots of leaves. The larger the onion plant is when it begins to form bulbs, the larger the onion will be. At planting time you just knock the plants out of the pot all together in one clump and pull them apart as you plant.

If you haven’t done so, order your onion seeds now so you can get them started soon.





April 28, 2016

Chamomile tea helps protect young seedlings

Filed under: Disease,Seed Starting — bob @ 7:11 am

In my last post we discussed damping off, a fungal disease that attacks and kills developing seedlings. A clean growing medium will minimize the occurrence of damping off.  And a seed starting mix can be pasteurized by pouring boiling-hot water through it.

Once the seeds have germinated and the newly emerged plants are off to a good start, there’s more you can do to protect those tender seedlings.

There’s plausible evidence showing some homemade concoctions can inhibit the growth of pythium, the fungus responsible for damping off. One of these is chamomile tea. That’s right, the same tea we brew when we feel like mellowing out with something warm to drink.

Steep at least two teaspoons of chamomile flowers into each cup of boiled water. Let the tea come to room temperature before straining and using. This is quite a bit stronger than what most people use to brew a cup of drinking tea. The stronger you make the tea the effective it is.


Chamomile grows wild in some gardens.

Chamomile grows wild in some gardens. Every year we collect chamomile for tea. 

Use a spray bottle to water your new seedlings by spritzing the tea over the plants and soil once a day. To help the tea be more effective, make sure you allow for plenty of air movement around your plants while they are growing.

Eventually Mother Nature will take over and you won’t need to use the tea anymore. As seedlings grow and get older they will outgrow their susceptibility to damping off.




March 31, 2016

Use boiling water to protect newly sprouted seedlings against damping off disease

Filed under: Disease,Seed Starting,Soil — bob @ 10:50 am

Growing your own transplants from seeds is a very satisfying experience and can save you money too. However it is not without it’s problems. Just about every gardener who has started plants from seed has a story to tell of watching a crop of seedlings just starting to make good growth then all of a sudden the plants shrivel at the soil line, fall over and finally die.

That is a symptom of a condition known as “damping off”. It also kills newly sprouting seeds under the soil giving the impression of a low germination percentage. The gardener gets the wrong impression that he’s planted a batch of bad seed when in reality it’s damping off.

Damping off is most commonly caused by a soil based fungus called Phythium, but Rhyzoctonia and other species of fungi can cause similar problems. Whatever the case, it is not curable.

It’s an insidious disorder. The seedlings can look sturdy and strong then suddenly,bam! overnight an entire tray of seedlings will be lost.

Most of the time you can avoid damping off by purchasing a fresh bag of sterilized soil-less seed starting mix. Sometimes however, even a new bag of starting mix can harbor the fungus, although that is pretty rare.

When Pythium shows up, it’s probably the gardener who contaminated the mix by using dirty tools, pots, or even the potting bench. All tools and containers need to be scrubbed clean with a detergent. To be doubly sure, the items can be dipped into a 10 percent solution of household bleach.

Although all plants can be infected, some species of plants are more susceptible to damping off than others. For example petunias are prone to the infection.

A six inch pot is a good size for less that thirty or so seeds.

A six inch pot is a good size for less that thirty or so seeds.

Whenever I start a batch of expensive or hard to find seeds and don’t want to take any chances of losing those precious seedlings, I take the extra step of re-sterilizing the starting mix. Some might say I’m being extra cautious but sometimes seeds are irreplaceable and need all the protection we can give them.

For small amounts of soil, I pour boiling water through a pot of starting mix — then go back and do two additional pours. If you decide to try it yourself, be sure to place the pot in a spot where the water can drain through easily. I like to do this outside on a wire rack rather than in the sink.

This boiling water method has been used by gardeners for a long time and has shown to be pretty effective. Since the entire volume of the soil mix will not reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature at which it would be considered sterile — this could be considered more of a pasteurization method rather than actual sterilization technique.



March 25, 2015

Building a grow light fixture for seedlings using recycled parts

Filed under: Equipment,Seed Starting — bob @ 4:16 pm

There was a small project that I had to get done this week. I needed to add another bank of lights in my seed starting area.

You would think that after so many years as a professional gardener my seed starting room would look like some kind of laboratory complete with stainless steel racks, electronic equipment and all other sorts of really cool stuff. A few years ago when I was starting many thousands of plants, that was pretty much the case. Now days, I’m gardening at a much smaller scale.

My seed starting area is probably much simpler than what the average serious garden has. My general rule for these types of things is to not buy anything fancy or brand new if I can make it myself without sacrificing functionality.

I have a a pair of three foot, single bulb fluorescent light fixtures that I bought for a couple of bucks at a garage sale last fall. My plan was to attach them together to make a single assembly that I can easily adjust up and down depending on the growth of the seedlings.

Florescent light fixtures from a garage sale.

Florescent light fixtures from a garage sale.

There were no florescent tubes when I got them. That actually was a good thing since, over time, the amount of light  florescent bulbs produce dramatically diminishes over time. I didn’t have to dispose of any used bulbs which saved me some hassle. The bad thing was that I only had the seller’s word for it that the fixtures worked.

The first thing I did was open up the case to inspect the innards to be sure there were no wires shorting that could be an electrical hazard — they both looked sound.

The cover protecting the fixture wiring just snaps off and on.

The cover protecting the fixture wiring just snaps off and on.

Next I tested them with my new bulbs and sure enough, they lit up nice and bright.

The bulbs lit fast without flickering.

The bulbs lit fast without flickering.

Fixtures like these usually have pre-drilled holes that are used for mounting onto various surfaces, these were no different. I had some metal drawer brackets in my inventory of useful stuff that I saved from an old dresser. They were the perfect size for joining the two fixtures together.

I used self-tapping sheet metal screws to attach the brackets to the light fixtures.

Self tapping screws means no drilling necessary.

Self tapping screws means no drilling necessary.

I bent pieces of heavy-duty fencing wire to make hangers for each end of the fixture assembly.

Heavy wire bent into shape makes a fine hanger.

Heavy wire bent into shape makes a fine hanger.

The assembly is hanging by leftover ceiling light chain from a section of shelving that someone gave to me.

A section of used plastic shelving hold the light fixture assembly and seedling trays.

A section of used plastic shelving hold the light fixture assembly and seedling trays.

Even if you don’t have parts like I had laying around, recycling center that sell building materials often have fixtures, shelves and other parts for sale at very reasonable prices. I noticed while visiting Recycle Ann Arbor today that they had five nearly new florescent fixtures in stock.

Florescent light fixtures still in their boxes at Recycle Ann Arbor

Florescent light fixtures still in their boxes at Recycle Ann Arbor

For a very modest investment in cash and time I ended up with an additional seedling grow light.





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