The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Tips for keeping vegetable seedlings happy indoors

Inside plants

I've learned a lot from this year's foray into starting plants inside at an ultra-early date.  First of all, the plants can spend most of their time outdoors in April, which gives them the light they crave to prevent legginess.  I do have to take the youngsters in when nights are forecast to get below 45 since that really means 35 here, but Mark has been a good sport who doesn't mind bigger and bigger plants taking up the entire front room during cold spells.  (We now eat on the porch.)

Tomato comparison

In addition to light, the other important thing I've learned is that it's imperative to keep seedlings growing fast since a stunted plant generally doesn't recover.  With precocious species like tomatoes, your best bet is to pot them up out of their seedling flat as soon as you see the cotyledons unfurl.  Don't wait for true leaves or the plant will already be starting to turn purple from the stress of searching for nutrients in such a limited space.

For the sake of comparison, the photo above shows tomatoes of the same age and variety, one of which was potted up and the others of which were left behind in the flat.  The difference is striking!  (You  might get away with leaving the tomatoes in the flat much longer if you basically turned it into a hydroponic setup, giving the seedlings daily doses of liquid nutrients in the form of compost tea.)

Malabar spinach seedling

Slower-growers like peppers, on the other hand, don't mind sitting in their baby flats for days and weeks.  And don't give up on late-sprouters --- I put some Malabar spinach seeds in one flat six weeks ago and they're just now starting to come up.  I'm not sure if they really  needed that extended time to germinate, or if something about being left outside during heavy rains finally broke through the seed coat.

On the negative side, as the days warm and the weather turns humid, damping off starts to rear its ugly head.  Luckily, the seedlings I was starting when damping off came to call were non-imperative --- zinnias and experimental apple seeds.  But it's worth noting that there didn't seem to be any damping off for seeds started in early March.  Maybe this is a good reason to go to extremes with jumpstarting spring?

Baby tomato

More pleasantly, the big tomato plant Daddy gave me has already set fruit, although the plant looks purple and pot-bound.  I'm itching to put it (and some of my own seedlings that have flower buds) out, so I'll start checking the ten-day forecast early next week.  So far, once the current cold spell passes, the lowest low is forecast to be in the mid 50s up through May 11.  Maybe I can start sinking these tomatoes deep into the earth for extra roots and early harvests?

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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