Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sowing the Seed. Ventilation, Watering Transplanting, Hardening Off, Starting Plants Outside


Having constructed our frames and our soil composed properly and good strong tested seed on hand, we are prepared to go about the business of growing our plants with a practical certainty of success--a much more comfortable feeling than if, because something or other had been but half done, we must anxiously await results and the chances of having the work we had put into the thing go, after all, for nothing.

The seed may be sown either directly in the soil or in "flats." Flats are made as follows: You can get flats from your local flower or garden shop. The bottoms should have holes bored in them to allow any surplus water to drain off from the soil. Shallow flats may be used for tarting the seed and three-inch ones for transplanting. Where sowing but a small quantity of each variety of seed, the flats will be found much more convenient than sowing directly in the soil--and in the case of their use, of course, the soil on top of the manure need be but two or three
inches deep and not especially prepared.

Where the seed is to go directly into the frames, the soil described above is, of course, used. But when in flats, to be again transplanted, the soil for the first sowing will be better if it has no manure in it, the idea being to get the hardiest, stockiest growth possible. Soil for the flats in which the seeds are to be planted should be, if possible, one part sod, one part chip dirt or leaf mold, and one part sand.

The usual way of handling the seed flats is to fill each about onethird full of rough material--screenings, small cinders or something similar--and then fill the box with the prepared earth, which should first be finely sifted. This, after the seeds are sown, should be copiously watered--with a fine rose spray to prevent the washing of the soil.

Here is another way which I have used recently and, so far, with one hundred per cent, certainty of results. Last fall, when every bit of soil about my place was ash dry, and I had occasion to start immediately some seeds that were late in reaching me, my necessity mothered the following invention, an adaptation of the principle of sub-irrigation. To have filled the flats in the ordinary way would not have done, as it would have been impossible ever to wet the soil through without making a solid mud cake of it, in which seeds would have stood about as good a chance of doing anything as though not watered at all. I filled the flats one-third full of sphagnum moss, which was soaked, then to within half an inch of the top with soil, which was likewise soaked, and did not look particularly inviting. The flats were then filled level-full of the dust-dry soil, planted, and put in partial shade. Within half a day the surface soil had come to just the right degree of moisture, soaked up from below, and there was in a few days more a perfect stand of seedlings. I have used this method in starting all my seedlings this spring--some four thousand, so far--only using soil screenings, mostly small pieces of decayed sod, in place of the moss and giving a very light watering in the surface to
make it compact and to swell the seed at once.

Where several hundred or more plants of each variety are wanted, sow the seed broadcast as evenly as possible and fairly thick--one ounce of cabbage, for instance, to three to five 13 x 19 inch flats. If but a few dozen, or a hundred, are wanted, sow in rows two or three inches
apart, being careful to label each correctly. Before sowing, the soil should be pressed firmly into the corners of the flats and leveled off perfectly smooth with a piece of board or shingle.

Press the seed evenly into the soil with a flat piece of board, cover it lightly, oneeighth to one-quarter inch, with sifted soil, press down barely enough to make smooth, and water with a very fine spray, or through burlap.

For the next two days the flats can go on a pretty hot surface, if one is available, such as hot water or steam pipes, or top of a boiler, but if these are not convenient, directly into the frame, where the temperature should be kept as near as possible to that indicated in the following table.

In from two to twelve days, according to temperature and variety, the little seedlings will begin to appear. In case the soil has not been made quite friable enough, they will sometimes "raise the roof" instead of breaking through. If so, see that the surface is broken up at once, with the fingers and a careful watering, as otherwise many of the little plants may become bent and lanky in a very short time.

From now on until they are ready to transplant, a period of some three or four weeks, is the time when they will most readily be injured by neglect. There are things you will have to look out for, and your attention must be regular to the matters of temperature, ventilation
and moisture.

VEGETABLE                        DATE TO SOW                          BEST TEMPERATURE TO
                                                                                                    GERMINATE (ABOUT)

Beets                                      Feb. 15-Apr. 1                             55 degrees
Broccoli                                  Feb. 15-Apr. 1                             55 degrees
Brussels Sprouts                    Feb. 15-Apr. 1                             55 degrees
Cabbage                                 Feb. 1-Apr. 1                               55 degrees
Cauliflower                             Feb. 1-Apr. 1                               55 degrees
Celery                                    Feb. 15-Apr. 1                             50 degrees
Corn                                       Apr. 1-May 1                               65 degrees
Cucumber                              Mar. 15-May 1                             75 degrees
Egg-plant                               Mar. 1-Apr. 15                             75 degrees
Kohlrabi                                 Mar. 1-Apr. 1                              55 degrees
Lettuce                                   Feb. 15-Apr. 1                             55 degrees
Melon, musk                         Apr. 1-May 1                               75 degrees
Melon, water                         Apr. 1-May 1                               75 degrees
Okra Mar.                             15-Apr. 15                                    65 degrees
Onion                                     Jan. 15-Mar. 15                           50 degrees
Pepper                                   Mar. 1-Apr. 15                             75 degrees
Squash Mar.                          15-Apr. 15                                     75 degrees
Tomato Mar.                          1-Apr. 15                                      75 degrees

The temperatures required by the different varieties will be indicated by the table above. It should be kept as nearly as possible within ten degrees lower and fifteen higher (in the sun) than given. If the nights are still cold, so that the mercury goes near zero, it will be necessary to provide mats or shutters to cover the glass at night. Or, better still, for the few earliest frames, have double-glass sash, the dead-air space making further protection unnecessary.

On all days when the temperature within the frame runs up to sixty to eighty degrees, according to variety, give air, either by tilting the sash up at the end or side, and holding in position with a notched stick; or, if the outside temperature permits, strip the glass off altogether.

Keep a close watch upon the conditions of the soil, especially if you are using flats instead of planting directly in the soil. Wait until it is fairly dry--never until the plants begin to wilt, however--and then give a thorough soaking, all the soil will absorb. If at all possible do this only in the morning (up to eleven o'clock) on a bright sunny day. Plants in the seedling state are subject to "damping off"--a sudden disease of the stem tissue just at or below the soil, which either kills the seedlings outright, or renders them worthless. Some authorities claim that the degree of moisture or dampness has nothing to do with this trouble. I am not prepared to contradict them, but as far as my own experience goes I am satisfied that the drier the stems and leaves can be kept, so long as the soil is in good condition, the better. I consider this one of the advantages of the "sub-irrigation" method of preparing the seed flats,
described above.

Under this care the little seedlings will come along rapidly. When the second true leaf is forming they will be ready for transplanting or "pricking off," as it is termed in garden parlance. If the plants are at all crowded in the boxes, this should be done just as soon as they are ready, as otherwise they will be injured by crowding and more likely to damp off.
Boxes similar to the seed-flats, but an inch deeper, are provided for transplanting. Fill these with soil as described for frames—sifted through a coarse screen (chicken-wire size) and mixed with one-third rotted manure. Or place an inch of manure, which must be so thoroughly
rotted that most of the heat has left, in the bottom, and fill in with soil.

Find or construct a table or bench of convenient height, upon which to work. With a flat piece of stick or one of the types of transplanting forks lift from the seedling box a clump of seedlings, dirt and all, clear to the bottom. Hold this clump in one hand and with the other gently tear away the seedlings, one at a time, discarding all crooked or weak ones. Never attempt to pull the seedlings from the soil in the flats, as the little rootlets are very easily broken off. They should come away almost intact. Water your seed-flats the day previous to transplanting, so that the soil will be in just the right condition, neither wet enough to make the roots sticky nor dry enough to crumble away.

Take the little seedling by the stem between thumb and forefinger, and with a small round pointed stick or dibber, or with the forefinger of the other hand, make a hole to receive the roots and about half the length--more if the seedlings are lanky--of the stem. As the seedling
drops into place, the tips of both thumbs and forefingers, by one quick, firm movement, compress the earth firmly both down on the roots and against the stem, so that the plant sticks up firmly and may not be readily pulled out. Of course there is a knack about it which cannot be put into words--I could have pricked off a hundred seedlings in the time I am spending in trying to describe the operation, but a little practice will make one reasonably efficient at it.

In my own work this spring, I have applied the "sub-irrigation" idea to this operation also. The manure placed in the bottom of the boxes is thoroughly watered and an inch of soil put in and watered also, and the box then filled and the plants pricked in. By preparing a number of flats at one time, but little additional work is required, and the results have convinced me that the extra trouble is well worth while. Of the early cabbage and cauliflower, not two plants in a thousand have dropped out.

Ordinarily about one hundred plants are put in a 13 x 19 inch flat, but if one has room and is growing only a few plants for home use, somewhat better plants may be had if fifty or seventy-five are put in. In either case keep the outside rows close to the edges of the flats, as they will have plenty of room anyway. When the flat is completed, jar the box slightly to level the surface, and give a thorough watering at once, being careful, however, to bend down the plants as little as possible. Set the flats close together on a level surface, and, if the weather is bright, shade from the sun during the middle of the day for two or three days.

From now on keep at the required temperature and water thoroughly on bright mornings as often as the soil in the flats gets on the dry side, as gardeners say--indicated by the whitening and crusting of the surface. Above all, give all the air possible while maintaining the necessary temperature. The quality of the plants will depend more upon this than anything else in the way of care. Whenever the temperature allows, strip off the sash and let the plants have the benefit of the rains. A good rain seems to do them more good than any watering.

Should your plants of cabbage, lettuce, beets or cauliflower by any chance get frozen, do not give them up for lost, for the chances are that the following simple treatment will pull them through: In the first place, shade them thoroughly from the sun; in the second, drench them with cold water, the coldest you can get--if you have to break the ice for it, so much the better. Try, however, to prevent its happening again, as they will be less able to resist subsequent injury. In hot weather, where watering and ventilation are neglected, the plants will sometimes become infested with the green aphis, which under such conditions multiplies with almost incredible rapidity.

For five days or a week before setting plants in the field they should be thoroughly hardened off. If they have been given plenty of air this treatment will mean little change for them--simply
exposing them more each day, until for a few nights they are left entirely without protection. They will then be ready for setting out in the open, an operation which is described in the next chapter.

Much of the above is applicable also to the starting of plants out-ofdoors, for second and for succession crops, such as celery and late cabbage. Select for the outside seed-bed the most thoroughly pulverized spot to be found, enriched and lightened with fine manure. Mark off
rows a foot apart, and to the necessary depth; sow the seed evenly; firm in if the soil is dry, cover lightly with the back of the rake and roll or smooth with the back of the spade, or of a hoe, along the drills. The seed, according to variety, will begin to push through in from four to twenty days. At all times keep the seed-bed clear of weeds; and keep the soil between the rows constantly cultivated. Not unless it is very dry will watering be necessary, but if it is required, give a thorough soaking toward evening.

As the cabbage, celery and similar plants come along it will add to their sturdiness and stockiness to shear off the tops--about half of the large leaves--once or twice after the plants have attained a height of about six inches.

If the precautions concerning seed and soil which I have given are heeded and the details of the work of planting, transplanting and care are carried out, planting time (April) will find the prospective gardener with a supply of good, stocky, healthy plants on hand, and impatient to get them into that carefully prepared garden spot. All of this work has been--or should have been--interesting, but that which follows in the next chapter is more so.