Getting Down and Dirty

Posted by Corrie on 7:01 PM in ,
Revising this to let you know that I did a more concise recap on seed starting, along with tips, tricks and my favorite references in this post. Oh! And recipes too.

First of all...holy crap, it's been a month since I last posted! What is wrong with me? I honestly don't even have a good excuse for you. Just plain Shameful with a capital S. Second, I thought of calling this post 'Veggie Tales' but didn't want you to get confused with the kids cartoon and think I was getting all religious and creepy-singsong-vegetable on you (even if I did sing the song in my head a few times) and then risk you never reading this post.

Now that I got that out of my system, I want to talk about getting down and dirty. The on-your-hands-and-knees, bare feet, hot and sweaty kind of dirty. Are you all hot and bothered? Get your mind out of the gutter. I'm just talking about gardening. Specifically, VEGGIES! You already know how thrilled I am about our garden space from the outdoor pictures post, and maybe you even noticed the funny looking box of dirt sitting in our driveway.

It's a square foot garden box that the former owner left behind. Since I wasn't sure what plants would pop up in the garden beds, I thought I would leave the square foot box right where it was and make some good use of it. Being the overly ambitious, learning obsessed person I am, I thought it would be fun to try my hand at seed starting, despite the fact that my mom (the most knowledgable gardener I know) has rarely attempted to start any vegetable plants from seed because it's so difficult...and despite the fact that I have nearly zero gardening experience besides throwing some flowers in pots. And eating all the green beans and snow peas out of my mom's garden when I was a kid...if you want to count that as experience. At least I was smart enough to eat something that wouldn't leave my breath smelling funky so that I could lie to my mom about it later...unlike my sister who would eat all the garlic chives, then come in the house, breath reeking of garlic, and try the "no mom, i haven't been eating things from the garden!" line. I suppose if my mom's biggest problem was her kids stealing veggies out of her garden, then either we were weird kids or my mom really lucked out. Maybe both. I digress.

So, seed starting. It's a beautiful thing. You plant this itty bitty little thing that you can barely pick up between your fingers in some dirt, water it, keep it warm, give it a little love. You wait. A little sprout shows up. And you get excited. You plant it outside and think it's never going to survive the elements or bugs or animals or million other things that could go wrong. But it does. It keeps growing and starts looking like a REAL plant and you love it like a child think 'holy crap I haven't killed it yet!'. Then the fruit part (vegetable) appears and it's amazing. It ripens and you eat it immediately because you're so excited think 'holy crap, I made that happen!'. Proceed to harvest yummy things which you in turn don't have to buy at the grocery store. Free food! Then the plant starts to die as it gets too cold, but the nutrients it leaves behind help enrich the soil for some cool-weather plants or something new next spring. It's the CIIIIIIIRCLE of LIIIIIIIIFE! (Himinama hima numa namah...)

Oh, the real lyrics! Apparently my Swahili was way off...

Anyway. Veggies. Now that I've summed it up, let's get to the real dirt. (What would my posts be without at least one terrible pun?) Knowing I was working with limited space, I chose to plant the veggies we buy most frequently - peppers, broccoli and tomatoes - and a few things I thought we would enjoy - jalepenos, poblano peppers, green beans, mint, and basil. Here's how we went from this:

To this:

Back that thang up. Before we could get to the square foot garden bed, we needed to start even earlier. This took a little pre-planning, since the seeds needed to start growing inside (while it was still cold out) in order to be big and strong enough to plant once any chance of frost had passed. Not all seeds need to start indoors first. Typically, plants that take longer to grow and produce fruit are the ones you want to start indoors. For example, tomatoes and peppers can take 50-60 days or more before they produce fruit.  In a short growing season like Cleveland's, it's really important to get the baby plants (seedlings) in the ground asap so you can get a few harvests from your plants before it gets cold again. 

So, where to start? I hit up Home Depot for seed packets, some biodegradable seed starting pots (I chose Jiffy Strips, which are made out of peat moss), plus potting mix specifically for seed starting. My total came to about $12 for 13 seed packets (some of which were flowers), 2 Jiffy Strips packages containing 32 'pots' each, and the potting mix. Dirt cheap. (There I go with the dirt references again...I just can't keep my fingers from typing them. If you were to play a drinking game based off my dirt references, you'd probably already be tipsy.) 
When I got home, I took everything to the basement - it was mid to late March at the time and I didn't want dirt all over our old apartment (this was pre-new-house) - and got set up. I figured I would allot up to 4 seedling pots for each type of plant, assuming a few of each variety might not survive the transition outside.  So, about 44 seedling pots total. (I basically assumed I would fail at this whole thing so I tried to set myself up for the least amount of failure as possible.) As you can see, I also used an old egg carton because - fun fact alert! - they are biodegradable, free, and I try to be frugal 'green' like that.  Then I opened my bag of potting mix and added some water so that the soil was nice and damp but not soaked. You don't want completely dry soil because it will compact when you water your seedling pots later, leaving a big gap at the top. Using a small measuring cup for the least mess possible, I filled all of the pots to the top, packing in the soil a bit. 

All that's left was to follow the instructions on the back of the seed packets to know how deep to plant each type of seed. Because seeds are different sizes, they have different planting depths, so it's important to only put them as deep or just slightly less deep than what the packet suggests. If you don't, they won't effectively absorb the sunlight and sprout. You can use a chopstick, pencil, or your little finger to poke a hole in the dirt and insert the seed. Some seeds only require you to lightly 'roughen up' the top bit of soil, sprinkle the seed, and lightly 'rake' the soil back over top. I made sure to put a couple seeds in each pot just in case one didn't sprout. Then I labeled each section of pots with the plant type and date and watered them so the soil would be nice and moist but not soaking. Labeling is especially important because most seedlings look alike until they get bigger and you'll want to be able to identify them. 
Put in the sunniest spot you can find and wait. Easy right?

DECEPTION. This is where the hardest part begins. 

You have to attempt to keep that perfect balance of enough sunlight, warmth and soil moisture to get your little seed babies to grow. In our old apartment, which didn't really get south facing sun (aka a full day of sun) and which we kept at a 'toasty' 63 degrees through March and April (58 degrees during work hours) thanks to a freakishly high gas bill, I wouldn't exactly say that I had stellar growing conditions. To help make up for the lack of sun - and therefore warmth - I put a sheet of foil underneath my seedling pots to help attract and absorb more sunlight, hoping it wouldn't overcompensate and end up frying them.  Fortunately, it seemed to help and they grew. Then they had to withstand the treacherous transfer that was moving day - sudden temperature changes going from apartment, to outside, to car, to outside, into the new house. And somehow they still held on. When any chance of frost had passed in May and it finally quit raining nonstop, I began to harden off my little seedlings. 'Hardening off' means you gradually introduce the seedlings to the outdoors, usually starting about a week before you intend to plant them. It sounds high maintenance, but it is necessary for them to adapt to the wind and temperature changes which they have been shielded from indoors thus far. For me, this was the last week of May. I started by putting them on the covered front porch for a few hours, then out in part sun/shade for half the day, into mostly sun for a whole day and leaving them overnight. Then it was time to plant in the square foot box.

The day I decided to plant, I ran out to Home Depot and bought a bag of compost (hopefully I will be making my own by next year) and picked up a couple extra veggie plants. That fear of failure was still lurking around in my mind and I at least wanted SOME veggies out of  the whole ordeal, so I figured would have a couple ‘backup plants’ just in case my seedlings all died. Grabbing the backup plants also allowed me to nab a couple veggie varieties I had been looking for but couldn’t find seeds for at the store. The backups I bought were 1 pear tomato plant, 1 Early Girl tomato plant, 1 green pepper plant, 1 poblano pepper plant, and peppermint. I had seed starts for everything but the pear tomato plant. What’s that you say? I still haven’t given you the veggie planting run down? Let’s call them the ‘dirty dozen’: heirloom tomatoes, Early Girl tomatoes, pear tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, green beans, green pepper, jalepeƱo pepper, poblano pepper, basil, spearmint, and peppermint. Because I’m firm believer that there's nothing like a fresh tomato from the garden, I carefully chose a few different varieties based off size growth time and how I thought I would use them. We eat tons of green and red peppers – fun fact alert again! Red peppers are actually just ripe green peppers – so I definitely wanted those. The hot peppers were more for fun. The mints I had planned to use for making my own tea (or mojitos...more on those here), and the basil for cooking. The green bean seeds were left behind by our house’s previous owner, so I figured why not? And so, I planted.

Even though not all my seeds were organic, I still wanted to garden as organically as possible. Instead of chemical fertilizers, I used compost and a strategy called ‘companion planting’ in which you plant your garden according to groupings of plants that are mutually beneficial to each other, which in turn encourages growth and flavor and wards off pests. To start, I turned all the soil in the square foot box, then incorporated a bag of compost and mixed it all together. Then I dampened the soil with water from the hose. My box is 3’x3’, so I had 9 squares to plant in.
Large plants, like tomatoes and peppers, need a whole square to themselves, while smaller plants, like green beans, can have about 4-6 plants per square foot. For the seedlings, I separated the little peat pots and gently tore the bottom of them to expose the roots without harming them. Then I made a hole in the dirt and planted them in the center of each square with soil just covering the tops of the pots. For the backup plants, I just removed them from their plastic store pots, gently broke up some of the root ball at the bottom, and planted them in the same way. For the tomato plants that were a bit weak and leggy – meaning they had tall stems but only leaves at the top – I buried them a bit deeper so that about half the stem was in the soil. Tomatoes are able to grow root shoots off the stem, so this approach gives them a stronger start in the ground. All that was left were the green beans and basil, which I seeded directly into the square foot bed, and the mint, which I seeded directly into some containers, per the instructions on their seed packets. I had a few veggie seedlings leftover so I planted some of the more viable looking ones directly in the garden beds in a few random spots where I thought there might be space amongst the still developing flowers. (It's always good to have a doggy supervisor.)

Commence waiting. At this point I basically just monitored the soil to make sure it stayed slightly damp at all times. This meant watering every day (or twice a day if it was really hot) in the square foot bed and containers, which dry out easily because air can get underneath. The garden bed veggies only needed water maybe every other day. If there were any leaves that started browning, I pinched them off to promote more growth. Fast forward to the beginning of July.

Halleluiah! I didn’t kill them all – or ANY in fact! It’s a Christmas in July miracle! The beans started producing first, even though I seeded them directly in the box. But that’s because they produce ‘fruit’ in a really short amount of time. I confess, I got really excited about the first few pear tomatoes that ripened and just ate them straight off the plant, so my first legit harvest was this:

Glorious. I thought I would end up with so many tomatoes that I could can some, but so far I’ve been eating them like a fiend...straight off the plant, on homemade margherita pizza, sliced with some of the garden basil as a side dish, you name it. We’ve had plenty of the Early Girls and pear tomatoes. I’ve already cooked up about 5 green/red peppers too. And you already know that I’ve used a bunch of mint for drinks. The plants I started from seedlings have been a little slower to produce, so the cherry tomatoes, jalepeƱos, and heirloom tomatoes are just now ripening. In fact, the heirloom tomato plants are Out. Of. Control. This one in the garden bed is almost as tall as me and so wide that it’s growing its way into two other plants and over the top of the air conditioner, a la Little Shop of Horrors. Feed me, Seymour, feed me!

You might not even be able to tell among the chaos of leaves, but I had to use two sticks from the yard to try to support some of the branches coming off the plant (albeit not quite successfully) because it's original stake can no longer support it. Hard to believe that guy started out as a tiny seed in my hand back in March. And has made it all this way without any chemical fertilizers – just some good ol’ compost and a sprinkling of dried coffee grounds for a little au natural boost. That can be said for all my veggie plants. So proud.  The peppers and some of the tomatoes might not be as big as what you would buy in the store, but the flavor is so much better and we have the satisfaction of knowing we grew them ourselves. And that they aren’t laden with chemicals. And that they’re (nearly) free! Three points for us.

So there’s a long little glimpse into seed starting and my first attempt at a vegetable garden. Mad props to you if you made it all the way to the end of this post. I award you the Most Dedicated Reader award.

Anyone try growing their own veggies or herbs at home? We would love to hear about your experience/methods. Maybe I’ll share our homemade margherita pizza recipe with you. I think we’ve made it a half dozen times already this summer because it’s So. Delicious. And I’ve been obsessed with the fact that all the ingredients are either in my pantry or my garden - with the exception of fresh mozz – so it’s CHEAP to make. Mmmm...gooey, melty, fresh mozz....I’m hungry....


awesome post! i can't believe how much food you got out of that little box! i tried to keep a little garden alive in NYC without a lot of luck. i bought full grown tomato plants and would haul water from the kitchen sink onto the fire escape daily. they produced a few tomatoes and then the leaves started to turn yellow/brown from the bottom up until the whole plant died -- any idea what caused this? i love what you were able to do with such little space -- maybe i will consult with you in march and get some pointers for space saving gardening!

thanks so much michelle! a couple of my tomato plants have done the same thing, mostly the one that is in its own stand alone container though. i know it sounds funny because you were watering it daily, but it could've needed some more water. containers dry out much faster than beds (or even square foot boxes), and especially with it being on a fire escape, it probably had a lot of wind/airflow above and beneath it that would dry the soil quickly. i might do a little follow up post to this one with some great resources i used, so stay tuned!

Michelle- we plant our tomatoes in containers since we too are apt-dwellers, and we've failed many times before, but this year finally we succeeded! This is what we did: We started seeds pretty much the same way you did, Corrie. Then, we used really big containers and watered them every morning. A lot. I also amended the soil with compost and vermiculite. Vermiculite helps with drainage AND water retention (paradoxically), so it's worth adding. But the soil still kept drying out, so I covered the whole thing with a thick layer of peat moss to help stop water loss through evaporation. What we want to try next year is a DIY sub-irrigation system, which has been working great on the later plants we added it to. There are tons of hacks/systems on the internet if you search it. You can also buy specially-designed "self-watering" pots which are sub-irrigation systems, but that's a bit more expensive.

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