Friday, April 9, 2010

The Science of Seed Starting

Before I get to today's topic, I have been remiss in not mentioning who won the giveaway I sponsored on my blogaversary last month. Some of you may have thought I conveniently forgot about it, but actually I was so eager to post many of my photos from my recent trip to Arizona that it simply slipped my mind. There was a winner, I assure you--Sweet Bay! In fact she has already received her seeds and cookbooks. Thanks go to Renee's Garden, who sent not just one, but both of her cookbooks to Sweet Bay!

Thank you, too, to all of you who commented on my last post about Earth Day. Your comments made me realize there is so much more I could do, and I am especially envious of you who have access to excellent local recycling programs. Living in a rural area, the only pick-up we have is for garbage. The village does have pick-up of garden and lawn debris, but we have no problem recycling that ourselves anyway. For other recycling, though, I must make a 20-mile round trip in order to drop materials off, which certainly makes it less convenient. Our village did have a recycling drop-off area, but it had to be closed after some people used it to dump their trash. Isn't it typical how one or two lazy people can spoil a good thing for everyone else? Anyway, I am going to make a more conscious effort to do more recycling, even if it does require some extra driving.

Now for the subject of today's post. Despite abysmal results from my first attempt at starting seeds indoors two years ago and only slightly better results last year, I have nevertheless plunged into the seed starting frenzy once again this year. However, to ensure a better chance at success this year, I have decided to take a more scientific approach. I am carefully monitoring progress and recording data, and by the middle of May I hope to have a definitive answer on how to achieve success with starting indoor seedlings.

Some of you may remember that last year I proposed another scientific study of springtime blogging trends, but unfortunately no grant money was offered, and so the study was dropped. I would once again seek grant money for this seed study, but the garden budget here at the Prairie does not allow for lobbyists in Washington. And I know better than to apply for a grant from our state, which is so far in debt that red ink is now in short supply in Illinois. (Perhaps our state legislature should consider garnishing the wages of former Governor Blago, who surely must have earned a hefty sum in his brief stint on "Celebrity Apprentice" before being fired by the Donald for being inept and irresponsible.)

However, in the spirit of altruism and concern for our fellow man/gardener, we will proceed with this experiment with the quest for knowledge our only necessary recompense. The following is a brief outline of the scope of the experiment with the data collected thus far.

Limits of Study: All plants need four elements to survive: water, light, air, and nutrients (provided by soil). Because water was a constant in all control groups, albeit administered in a very unscientific, uncalibrated manner, only the other three elements, or some facet of each, are being studied here.

1. Light: Since sunlight provided through windows is not considered sufficient for seedlings to grow, additional artificial lighting was provided for all test subjects. The first seeds were planted on March 25, approximately 7 weeks before our average last frost-free date, and placed under the large shop light purchased last year.

An additional light was purchased this year and hung from a shelving unit in the basement. The 24" light is more difficult to find than the larger 48" unit shown above, but its size is perfect for standard shelving units and much more manageable to hang. Should this study prove successful--and possibly generate some income--additional lights might be purchased next year, and more shelves cleared of their wrapping paper and ribbon contents for seedling use each spring.

Note: According to very knowledgeable Master Gardener instructors, using one cool white bulb and one warm white bulb is as effective as purchasing the more expensive grow lights.

Since both of these lighting arrangements are virtually identical, we will refer to this group as Control Group A.

The head of the study insisted on planting more seeds than lab facilities available; therefore, additional lighting sources were sought. Another flat of seeds was placed under an Ott light in the office rather than the basement lab. Not the ideal arrangement, but we will label this group Control Group B and see what happens.

Another flat of seeds (not pictured) were planted (oh dear, does this researcher even know the meaning of a controlled experiment?? Somebody get those seed packets out of her hands!).

While they germinate, another light source is being sought--perhaps the Husband will give up his desk lamp for awhile or perhaps the sunny south window in the spare bedroom will suffice. For now, we will label this subject Control Group C.

2. Nutrients: Nutrients for seedlings are provided by its growing medium, and since virtually all seeds were started in the same medium--a mix of 1/2 spaghum peat moss and 1/2 perlite, a combination recommended by a local garden expert--rather than test the efficacy of the soil, we will study instead the various containers holding that soil.

The standard seed-starting kits with plastic cell packs inside a plastic tray were employed for many of the seeds. We will call this Control Group D . . . no, wait a minute, these are part of group B . . . okay, pardon that interruption; we will call these Control Group BB.

The head of the study intended to avoid using peat containers this year, as previous trial studies observed that the peat containers often did not decompose as rapidly as advertised. Nevertheless, despite warnings to the contrary, she could not resist a tray of peat cells on sale at the local big box store. This group will be labeled CA (Perhaps another study should be conducted next year on impulse buying in the garden centers . . . Nah, I don't think I want to know those results.)

Of most interest this year is a new type of container being utilized. Inspired by studies conducted at Fairegarden, a pot maker was purchased at a very reasonable price from a seed catalog.

Strips of newspaper were carefully measured and cut and then wrapped around this sturdy wooden pestle. Ends were folded in and then pressure applied to the bottom with a quick turn of the instrument, producing a handy little paper pot.

While every attempt is being made to keep this study bias-free as it should be, there is a secret hope that this group will show superior results. The newspaper pots are larger than the cell packs, meaning these seedlings may not need re-potting later, and the newspaper should decompose more quickly than the peat pots. Besides, the materials are free . . . Should these provide the desired results, they may be the primary container used in next year's planting.

This group will be labeled BA . . . um, AC . . . or AC/DC ??

Excuse me a moment while I re-examine my notes . . . Talk amongst yourselves for a few minutes or perhaps turn your attention to some of the latest outside lab results . . .

Roadside daffodils

Pink Darwin tulips emerging earlier than last year

"Color Magic"--new varieties are opening up each day

The Redbuds are beginning to bloom as well.

I do apologize for the confusion . . . the appropriate name for the newspaper pot group is Control Group DA, although there is a subgroup to be discussed later.

At this point you may be wondering what actual seeds have been planted in all of these trials. Quite a variety of seeds were planted actually, some of them purchased from different seed companies, including this special award-winning zinnia new for this year, and some from fellow gardener bloggers participating in Monica's seed swap. Although each grouping was carefully labelled, some adjustments will obviously need to be made in next year's labeling.

Note to study participants: poster board labels, though economical, are not a good idea.

3. Air: The final element studied in this project is not so much the air itself (although one group does have a fan placed near it for air circulation) as the temperature of that air. Being short of funds, the study was able to purchase only one heat mat after the initial plantings were made.

Tomato seedlings were the first to receive the benefit of the heat mat and germinated very quickly. According to several sources, the heat mat is needed for only a short amount of time, so that it can be used for several different plantings. At the moment one flat is sitting on top of the refrigerator (again, a suggested idea from a source as a warm place; unfortunately my refrigerator is an energy-efficient model and doesn't seem to be putting out any warmth) waiting for its turn on top of the heat mat.

The tomato seedlings having the benefit of the heat mat--E + utility light--A + newspaper pots--D makes this . . . Control Group EAD. The refrigerator group will be called . . . Control Group FLOP . . . no, that can't be right . . .

I am truly sorry, but apparently the study coordinator has spent too much time attending Master Gardener classes and comtemplating her Chi to properly record and assemble all pertinent data. Please disregard all data groups here; we will re-examine the study as well as the coordinator's credentials. If and when this study can be salvaged with valid data, we will provide you with the results. Again, please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused by the mismanagement of this experiment.

Need I explain why I was an English major and not a science major?:)


  1. Rose girl .. I am totally in awe of your efforts ;-)
    I am going to try and start my Moon Flower vine seeds in my tiny little outdoor plastic covered green house (I'm not even sure I should call it that !) .. but wow ! You have it all covered no matter what study group it is in !
    I think I will go stare at the seed package again and see if mental telepathy can stir life within as well ? hehehehehe
    203 days until Halloween !!!

  2. Rose....oh my gosh, after reading your post I realise I am a slap dash seed grower. The trouble you go to is just amazing. You deserve to do well for all the trouble you take trying to grow your plants. AND making your very own little newspaper pots.....

    Having a greenhouse makes life so much easier......

    Love your post Rose, it really brought a smile......

  3. I really like that paper pot maker! I am also very impressed with your seed project. Well done.
    Not a half hearted gardener our Rose! Even your name fits the bill!

    Nuts in May

  4. LOL, LOL.. Oh, Rose, you made my day. Well, again, we share a few more common things: first of all, we have 2 heating pads (I'm not about to spend $30-40 on a heat mat); the smaller one I like to use on my back, but in this case it has been in the living room on a glass table to help germinate 2 containers with lids of soil blocks; and the larger one is on my desk and holds 3 of the plastic containers (got these at a dollar store and each holds 15 soil blocks I made with an empty prescription bottle. I don't use light to germinate, but use the pads and stack all the overflow on a stove we have in the kitchen/great room (it has a pilot light that generates a little heat); and a few have been scattered around the house on heating vents. Once they do sprout, the lid comes off and they go directly to a light source; I have 2 desk lamps in my studio and my husband has one... he was quite annoyed last week when I moved his tomatoes to the outbuilding after they developed their true leaves.

    P.S You may use this information to incorporate in your study without fear of being sued for copyright infringement.

  5. Good luck! I think you have a great start on your experiment! I can't wait to see how the newspaper pots do, and I kind of hope they do the best too. With the lights I'm sure you'll have more success than in the past. Keep us updated!

  6. Great post Rose! I use a warm light and a cool light for my indoor growing. I've never used a heating pad and my seedlings do OK without it.

  7. Heating mats? You are spoiling those seeds! No heating mats here. I don't believe in molly coddling seedlings like that!

    However, in spite of the heating mats, I do like your scientific methods. May I humbly suggest, however, that you could make it a better experiment and perhaps qualify for funding, if you include type of seed labels used?

    You will need groups for wooden labels written on with pencil, wood labels written on with marker, ditto plastic store bought labels, and labels made from cut up recycled mini blinds and then of course, a control group with no labels.

    Looking forward to seeing how your seedlings all turn out.

  8. Ha~! I'm looking forward to your very very scientific results. Those newspapers pots are most interesting. I started some sseds too but you know I've never repotted mine from the cell packs. They go straight in the garden when the time is right but the newspaper pots would be a bonus in that they are bigger and can rot in the garden. I do feed the seedlings though once they have their first set of leaves. Looking forward to mid May's results.

    Congrats to Sweetbay!

  9. Good job on the seed starting Rose. I gave it the old college try last year with little success. This year I waited too long...oh well maybe next spring. :) Lovely blooms in your area. Thanks for stopping by my blog & the warm welcome back.

  10. Rose, of course I was chuckling by mid post and for a couple of reasons. One is your excellant writing abilities. The second reason, which many may not realize-this is so you!

    I am wishing you well with your seeds and have high hopes for them. And if you have more than you can use, I will gladly take them off your hands. :)

  11. LOL! You will have lots of sweet plants! I always had trouble with damping off when I started seeds indoors. Now I do the outdoor "winter sowing" method and do just fine.
    Such a fun post.

  12. Rose, I always have such good intentions...I buy the seed starter mix, get all my trays and seeds ready--and that is the end of it! I end up direct sowing with fairly good results. I just wish my plants were as far along as they would be if I started them inside. Oh well! I look forward to reading your published journal on the results of your scientific study--fascinating!

    BTW, love your little paper pot maker. Best use of yesterday's news that I have seen. ;-)

  13. I wish I had read this post back in February :-) Well, I will use this information when I plant some vegetable seedlings next year. Thank you for compiling all of this. I will be anxious to hear your results.

  14. Oh my goodness, Rose, this was the funniest thing I have ever read! If scientific manuals were written in this style, there would be a lot more alert students in class! LOL Thanks for the mention, my friend, and I do believe the newspaper pots will be a great success, they certainly have been here, and we have been conducting similarly run tests for many years. Also, we prefer that group to be AC/DC. :-)

  15. Leave it to an English teacher to abc (ac or dc) her seed starting project. Funny post Rose. My winter sowing is a bust as far as I can tell but the toilet rolls and paper towel starting methods have been a success. I hope you have A to Z success with your seed starting.

  16. I admire you for your efforts, Rose. I am such a waste when it comes to seed starting, though I love to grow most plants from seeds, I lose a lot - due to my luck, due to my watering, and due to Nature's obstructions. Good luck with the seeds/seedlings!

  17. Joy, Let's hope all my efforts aren't for naught! I wish I had a greenhouse of some sort to start seeds in; it would be much easier.

    Cheryl, There are lots and lots of seeds here waiting for direct sowing outside--I'm much more successful at that. Ooh, I would love a greenhouse, but the winds here play havoc with them.

    Maggie, Yes, you would think I would grow roses, wouldn't you:) But they're much too fussy for me.

    Di, Oh, the lengths we gardeners will go to in order to start a few seeds. My son saw the one lighted set-up in the basement and was worried what I was growing:) He was relieved to know they were only tomatoes. Thank you for the copyright permission:)

    Rose, I really like these little newspaper pots, so I'm hoping the seeds will do well in them.

    Robin, I think I've been reading too many articles--I thought I HAD to have a heating mat:)

    Carol, Well, now that's probably why I haven't had much luck in the past--too much molly coddling here:) And, yes, the label criteria is definitely worthy of inclusion in this study. I'll add you to the list of contributing researchers.

    Tina, I've had problems in the past with transplanting the little seedlings from the small cells, which is why I like the bigger newspaper pots. I'm watching carefully for damping off, a problem in the past.

    Racquel, I almost waited too long to start these, but last year I was gone at a crucial time, and so many of them died. If this year is a bust, it may be the end of my indoor seed starting. Glad to have you back!

    Beckie, Are you saying I'm disorganized? Oh, you know me too well:) Let's hope we both do well with the indoor seeds; I can see a seedling swap in the future.

    Sherry, I've had trouble with damping off in the past, too; I'm watching closely to make sure that doesn't happen again this year. I have a few winter sown seeds as well, but not too many have germinated yet.

    Jenny, We'll see how this year's efforts turn out before I accept any compliments:) Isn't the newspaper pot maker neat? I may convert to using those exclusively next year if they work out.

    Noelle, You'd better wait until the final results before you take too much of my advice to heart:)

    Frances, You can't be a good teacher without a sense of humor, I always say:) I loved the newspaper pot maker and found it for $15 in one catalog. If the pots work out, it will pay for itself soon enough. AC/DC wasn't really my of my son's favorites, though.

    Lisa, I'll have to try the toilet rolls next, but you'll have to explain that one to me:) I have a couple seedlings from the winter sowing, but not many.

    Chandramouli, It's fun to get a head start by planting seeds indoors, but I have so much better luck sowing them directly outside.

  18. Hi Rose, I'm glad someone besides me has way more seedlings than they can handle, LOL. The majority of my winter-sown seedlings have blossomed, but now I'm covering them at night and transplanting some into larger containers so they get much bigger before I plant them out (wouldn't do this if I didn't have a groundhog).

  19. Excellent study and I cannot fathom why you haven't been awarded any funding...I am missing one ingredient in the success story, maybe two! A place to store all my stuff and the most important ingredient...'want to' I don't want to take on another project! In my heart of hearts I am a seed scatterer. gail

  20. Thank you Rose for the seeds, and it was a nice surprise to get not 1 but 2 cookbooks!

    I am a little distressed to say that I haven't even started any seeds yet, but I will. I usually start about 200 plants a year from seed. 200 is a very wild guess, but it's a lot. I have given up starting seed inside, but we have the luxury of a long growing season here. Starting them inside does take a lot of effort and conditions have to be just right.

  21. Funny post, Rose! You had me going there at first, thinking you were being scientific and all. I salute those brave scientists who can keep all those unruly groups under control. It's definitely not for me! I'm also hoping your paper pots do the best for you. Cheap is the "in" thing now! Thanks for keeping me up to date on Blago. Since we have moved back to Florida, I've not kept up with the latest Blago news. So not even Donald can tolerate him?

  22. LOL Rose! What a great read. And, a good giggle, too. Love those paper pots! :D

  23. Whatever, rose, I am rooting for DA! Come on, little guys! Do it for your auntie!

  24. Hi Rose, I would like to propose that all politicians be laid off (instead of teachers, road workers, and extension service personnel). The politicians seem to have failed miserably in solving the state's many crisis so what possible reason can we have to justify paying their exorbitant salaries. That will leave a little extra cash for research grants;)

  25. I am in awe of you keeping track of each trial group...LMNOP, augh, it would make me crazy.
    great post Rose.

  26. Rose, I'm glad to hear my community is not the only one having issues with recycling. We have a glass recycling plant right down the highway from our town and yet we can't recycle glass there!! Frustrating. Do what we do - bring your glass recycling to your friends and relatives when you go to visit them. :-) Good luck on all your seedlings - gee you have a lot more patience than I!

  27. I hope you get better results from this year’s seeds. I was so happy to find that some of my pansies reseeded themselves on their own outside. Your garden is lovely.

  28. Well what a science project!!Little did I know that there was a scientific approach to planting seeds!I did have success with beginners luck with my herbs!!Sprouts after 2 weeks! Next I'm planting sweet peas/given to me from a blogger friend in Germany!! and tomatoes..will let you know how they do.
    I love those newspaper pots!!
    RE: your recycling we are blessed here we have blue boxes for plastics and newspaper and green boxes for food ..veggie/fruit scraps..picked up at curbside weekly.

  29. Rose, you cracked me up with this post. You're my kind of scientist!


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