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Starting from Scratch

   In this pursuit of organic, cheap, and DIY style of gardening (for which I have not devised a succinct name for) I am compelled to start from seed whenever possible.  Starting seed from scratch is actually not that hard.  I've done it before and been fairly successful, but there is always room for improvement.

   This year, I am doing everything with the exception of some fruit from seed.  I have tried and failed with tomato plants.  Whether it was my soil, my care, or the plant, they always seem to die on me.  This is simply not acceptable this year as the expense for one plant is usually more expensive that a package of multiple seeds.  I can't spend $2.50 on a plant that's not going to survive.  Another concern is disease.  Many times plants that are grown in artificial environments are weakened and can suffer from disease, whereas plants that have proven hardy in your particular area, because they have grown up there, are less stressed and have less exposure to random diseased plants.  

     The first thing I did was search the last frost date in Kansas City, somewhere between zone 5b and zone 6.  By some account it is April 15th and by others April 30th.  To be safe I bet on April 30th so that I wouldn't have transplants ready to go to ground before the ground warmed. You usually want to start your seed 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date.  This way you can ensure you have a healthy, hardened-off transplant to put in the ground.  

Although this is not necessary, I started my early spring veggies first as they tend to be sensitive to temperature fluctuations and will bolt or simply not germinate if conditions aren't cool enough.
For me, this is three varieties of lettuce, loose leaf, spicy, and sweet mixes.  Also swiss chard,  carrots, radishes, parsnips, fava beans, sugar snap peas, spinach, and collard greens.  I calculated my start date to be on the eighth of March, and actually started in on the seventh.  

Now, a lot of seeds like carrots, and lettuces are tiny and nearly impossible to control when putting down.  To solve this problem I made my own seed tape.  Seed tape is great for having control of your plantings, but expensive to buy, and I was not about to pay someone for that extra little bit of work.  Basically, borrowing from an instructional video I saw on you tube, I took a roll of bath tissue, tore a 12 inch piece off and lay it down on a flat surface.  Then, taking a flour paste I made (1 part flour to 1 part water) and a small paintbrush, I dabbed a dot every inch or so down the length of the bath tissue.  After that I dropped two or three seeds down on the drops of paste, folded the bath tissue in half, and set it aside to dry.  Once the tissue is mostly dried, you can roll it up and either lightly rubber band it, or tie it with some twine.  

The next step is planting medium.  I know a lot of people will go out and buy special seed germinating medium, but I'm just too cheap to do that.  Instead I bought 5 bags (40lbs each) of topsoil, 3 bags (2 cubic feet each) of cotton burr compost, 5 bags (40 lbs each) of  peat, and 3 bags (30 lbs each) of sand.  In this way I get enough potting mix to start seeds and fill my containers of which I will have upwards of nine this year with extra to spare for the garden bed.  I don't even want to think about how much ready-made organic potting soil would cost me.   The great thing about seeds is that they don't need much fertilizer, just a well-drained, light soil.  In my mix I do 5 parts compost and soil, 3 parts peat, and 3 parts sand.  This combination always just seems to work for me, but can vary depending on humidity and quality of material.  I don't sift the compost.  Part of me wants to inflict a sort of trial-by-gauntlet on my seedlings.  Somewhere in the recesses of my mind this imitates a kind of natural order.  I mean sure seeds will grow well in sifted medium, but what happens when they get stuck in my clay- infested garden plot.  They gotta display some moxie before they move on to the next level.

This brings me to my seed trays.  I'm not the one to got out and buy neat little Jiffy seedling greenhouses, complete with peat and starting medium.  I'm the one to go to COSTCO and snag the flat, open boxes that pastries or plastic wrap come in.  Even the fruit boxes are wide and shallow enough to support seedlings, and you can get those at any grocery store.  Understand that if you use these types of boxes to start your seeds, you will not be able to move them very easily on their own.  You'll either need to set them on a sturdy plastic tray to move them into better light, if you have them in the home, or find a good spot that gets sun most of the day to put them in and stick to it. Perhaps a potter's bench with castors and wheels so that you can wheel it around?  This is why, my favorite DIY seed tray can only be found at COSTCO as far as I know.  The plastic apple tray.  It's a giant plastic clamshell with little apple-sized cups in it.  You simply eat the apple, then stab a little hole in each cup, fill with dirt, and plant your seed.  I also utilize egg cartons.

Being frugal, and a hoarder, and living with a procrastinator is a benefit for me as a gardener.  It means that any useful, and compact, bottle with a lid,  gets saved to put stuff in later,  Emergency preparedness water, loose change, juice, milk, daily use water.  It also means that the recycling doesn't go out as often as it probably should.  While all this creates a terrible mess in my kitchen, it also allows me to have a wide variety of transplant containers on hand.   Containers to transplant your seedlings to are something you want to have on hand right away if you are starting from seed.   For most seeds, you want to give them a week or two after germination to "prick out"  (gently tease out of the planting tray, and move to it's own transplant container) but time does fly and before you know it, your plants can get weak and leggy while you search for and end up buying a bunch of pots later.   We don't like paying money for stuff we had in our house anyway, right?

Which brings me to my last and probably most foolhardy instance of frugality.  Old seeds.  I cannot recommend using old seeds.  Whew, where to start?  I have seeds that were given to me that should have been sold in 2007.  It is now four years later, and lord knows, I was not keeping those seeds hermetically sealed or anything.  So, planting them this year is done at my own risk.  Except, many seed will last A LOT longer than seed companies will have you believe, some, even up to five years or more if stored properly.  I mean, scientists have pulled seed thousands of years old out of the permafrost and germinated them. The germination rate per package may probably decrease, but it you plant an entire package you'll probably get something out of it and if you don't, just go out an buy a new package, or not if you don't want that plant after all.  I guess what I'm saying is, don't throw out old seed unless it's moldy, because that can spread disease.  Instead plant it, if it grows it's a gift, if not, lesson learned.