Seed Starting with Cindy Conner

by: Sara on 03/11/2015

Tis the season of the Seedy Sunday...seed swapping, trading and buying. If you don't have a Seedy Sunday...or Saturday in you area of course you can get your seeds  from your local grower or garden shop or use the ones you saved from last years crop...but now what? Well Cindy Conner, the author of Grow a Sustainable Diet and Seed Libraries, is here to help us out with some serious seed sowing skills.

Using transplants you grow yourself will help get your garden off to a good start with the varieties you want. In order to have transplants ready in time to go into the garden many people opt to start their seeds indoors. I did that for many years. In fact, I made a three-tiered stand with lights that I was pretty proud of. Then it came to me that I could just start seeds outside in my coldframe.

seedlings in coldframe-BLOG

Seedlings in coldframe

Starting seeds outside involves a whole different management practice. Instead of starting tomatoes on March 1 in the house under lights, I wait until the last week of March to put the seeds in the coldframe. I have to admit, the first couple years I did that I couldn’t resist starting some inside on March 1, in addition to putting seeds in the coldframe later. Now, I’m completely comfortable with not starting them inside. I no longer have to worry about providing space for the plant stand and tending seedlings under lights. Here in Zone 7 the average last spring frost is about April 25.

Another bonus is that the transplants coming out of my coldframes are already acclimated to outside conditions. They have experienced colder nights and daily temperature fluctuations from the get-go. The lids on my coldframes are not on hinges, allowing me to open as much or as little as need be, even taking them completely off at times. That is sure a lot easier than hauling flats in and out of the house until they are acclimated. I remember visiting a friend with a greenhouse one spring. Her greenhouse was heating up so much during the day that she was lugging flats in and out daily until time to transplant.

It is good to have two coldframes if you are starting seeds for both cool and warm weather transplants. Your earlier transplants (cabbage and kale) may not be out yet when it is time to start the warm weather crops (tomatoes and peppers). However, the cool weather transplants will need to have the lid off by that time. You could put the early seedlings into flats (I use homemade wooden flats) and hold them elsewhere outside until transplanting time if you only have one coldframe. Or, you could make cloches from plastic bottles to put over the warm weather seedlings. Nevertheless, you need to recognize the different growing requirements for cool and warm weather seedlings.

Seeds germinate at different rates with different soil temperatures. Some people use heat mats to germinate seeds in just a few days. With an Internet search, you will find a chart showing Days to Appearance of Seedlings at Various Soil Temperatures. Many gardening books have similar charts and seed catalogs may have the range of soil temperatures that each crop is suited for. I am not concerned about providing the right temperature for the fastest germination of my seeds. I want to have a garden that is resilient to whatever the climate throws at it year after year. That means I want seeds that are resilient to all the fluctuations that come along.

collards and onions in wood flats-BLOG

Collards and onions in wood flats

This year I put onion seeds in my coldframe on January 10. The chart says the onions will germinate in 135 days at 32° F. (0°C.), 31 days at 41°F. (5°C.), and 13 days at 50° F. (10° C.). They were up 25 days later on February 4 when I planted some more onion seeds. That second planting is also up, despite the record cold temperatures we’ve had recently. In the winter there is enough moisture in the soil that I only water when I plant the seeds, if then. I just keep the lid on and peek in once in a while.

The garden is full of cover crops right now, so I’m not in a hurry to be out there transplanting yet. It’s too wet right now, anyway. I’ve carefully planned my cover crops so that when it is time to transplant, the cover crops will be ready to be pulled out (Austrian winter peas and clover) or cut and left lie as mulch (rye with a legume).

coldframe 4 lids open-BLOG

I save much of my own seed, which is important if you want to develop a resilient garden. (Okay, I didn’t save the onions seeds I planted. Saving seeds from onions and cabbage are on my to-do list.) The kale seeds saved from last year and planted on February 4 with the onions is up and going strong. I knew from the beginning of switching seed starting from inside to outside that peppers would be the trickiest. I decided that I would plant varieties I liked until I found ones that would germinate and grow in the conditions that I provided. Even if some of my trials are marginal at best, if I like the variety and save the seeds, I should eventually have a strain of that variety that will germinate and grow in cooler soil. With my method, I would have naturally selected for that. So far, my tried-and-true pepper varieties for starting in my coldframes are Corno di Toro and Ruffled Hungarian.

Learning to live with the rhythms of nature is a freeing experience. I need less stuff to accomplish the same thing—transplants for my garden.  My transplants, however, are not really the same, they’re better than before.  I’m sure there are many more things in our lives that we can easily change to better follow the nature’s rhythms if we take the time to look for them.  In the meantime, try starting some seeds in your coldframe this year, instead of in the house, and let Mother Nature do what she does best.

Buy Cindy Conner's  Growing a Sustainable Diet of Seed Libraries and other gardening books for 35% off until March 22nd.






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