Project Grow

Project Grow

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Parsley Root

If you have never had parsley root you can find it at Hiller's and at Meijer.  It looks like a small white carrot and is sold with the greens still attached.  Eliot Coleman says you can eat the greens as you would parsley though I never have.  The roots kind of taste like parsley in the same way celeriac tastes like celery.

It's not cheap. A bunch of 3 or 4 roots costs $2 or more.  If you like it, the cost makes it well worth while to grow.

Fedco sells a packet of 'Arat' for $1.90.  You can also get an older variety called 'Hamburg' from J.L. Hudson Seeds (no connection to the old department store) for $1.50 per packet. Both are open pollinated. The Fedco catalog says, "Enhance your soups and specialty dishes with these nutty-flavored roots redolent of a parsley-celery combination".  Fedco claims Arat is sweeter and more uniform than Hamburg.

You grow parsley root about the same as you grow carrots.  The soil should be deeply worked and mostly free of stones.   Sow the seed about the same as you would carrots, about a half inch deep and a half inch apart.  Once they come up thin them to an inch apart.  Mulch to keep down weeds and maintain even moisture.

Seeds sown in spring will be ready to harvest in September.  You can also sow more up to maybe mid-summer and harvest them later in the fall.  With a bit of protection (this year's snow would have taken care of that) you can leave them in the ground until spring.  

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunflowers for Cutting

Double Quick Orange
If you are growing sunflowers for cut flowers you grow them differently than if you are growing one or two in your vegetable garden to attract birds. In the vegetable garden, it is fun to have the sunflower get as tall as possible. They usually have enormous flowers that are 8” or even a foot across. For cut flowers, you want flowers that are at most 6” across at most, and often quite a bit smaller. The easiest way to do this is by planting the seeds closer together. For cut flowers, I often plant my sunflowers 6” apart.
Moulin Rouge

Single Stem or Branching
Sunflower varieties for cut flowers are grouped as single stem or branching. Single stem flowers produce one flower per plant. Once the flower is harvested, the plant can be pulled out because it will not re-bloom. Branching sunflowers produce multiple flowers, and a single plant produces flowers for a longer season. I initially thought the branching kinds sounded better, and if you were only going to have one or two plants in your vegetable garden that might be true. However, I had trouble with short stems and unpredictable flower size with the branched varieties and eventually just grew the single stem kinds.

All the true reds and true oranges are branching varieties. Although some single stem varieties are advertised as orange or red, I thought the orange ones were more gold and the reds had a yellow overlay which the branching kinds do not.

Pollenless Varieties
In the garden, bees constantly collect the pollen from sunflowers so you never see it. However, if you cut a sunflower and bring it inside, the pollen quickly appears on the disk and will litter wherever you set the cut flower. To avoid this, you can grow pollenless hybrid sunflowers. These typically will say “pollenless” or “F1”. There are now dozens of these on the market. Here are some well known kinds.

Pro Cut Series
yellow, gold, pale yellow
Moulin Rouge
deep red
Double Quick Orange
more gold than orange, but a pretty double
Very pale yellow to white
lemon, gold and orange

You can buy these varieties and many more at Johnny's and GeoSeed.

Succession Sowing
If you are growing single stem varieties for cut flowers, you need to succession sow several times or all your sunflowers will bloom at once. You can also choose several varieties with different maturities. When I was growing cut flowers commercially, I sowed sunflowers eight different times from the beginning of May until the beginning of October. I used different maturities at each sowing to ensure I had a continuous supply of sunflowers.

ProCut Orange

Direct Sow vs Transplant

Most people direct sow sunflowers but I had better luck starting them in liners and then transplanting them when they were about 3 weeks old. The bad luck with direct sowing was mostly because I was sowing the seeds in a very large garden and could not keep the soil consistently watered. I also may have suffered from birds or rodents eating the newly emerged seedlings. The method I used was to fill 6 pack liners with grow mix, wet the soil, and then put one seed in each cell about ½ an inch deep. The seeds usually emerged in about a week. When they were about 3 weeks old I would transplant them to the garden. If you wait too long to transplant the sunflowers, the plants will bolt and bloom on undersized plants.  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gardener's Hand Cream

This recipe was given to Project Grow many years ago by a County Farm gardener. It's a great hand cream and one batch makes a whole lot so you can easily split it with one or more friends.

1 14 ounce jar Velvachol (see Notes below)
8 ounces glycerin
1½ cups distilled water

Put all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix on low speed with a power mixer until well blended. Then whip on high speed until aerated, about 5 minutes or longer. It will look like egg whites that have formed stiff peaks. Store in jars or pump dispenser containers.


  1. Velvachol is the basic ingredient in burn ointments that pharmacists make. It resembles shortening in a jar. You may have to ask the pharmacy to order it for you. Meijer on Carpenter Road will do this.  It costs about $26 for a 14 ounce jar.
  2. You can add essential oils or any other scent if you want scented hand cream.
  3. You only need a tiny dab of this – about the size of a chocolate chip.
  4. The easiest way to get the hand cream in to a dispenser is to spoon it into a clean plastic bag, cut the corner off the bag and then squeeze it into the dispenser.  

Friday, February 21, 2014

Cut Flowers for 2014

I'm growing two 100sf beds of cut flowers at Dawn Farm this year.  It seems like a lot, but when I had the business I was growing more than 60 times that amount of space in flowers, so it does not seem too extravagant. It has been a long time since I grew cut flowers just for me so I don't have good feel for how much space to devote to each flower.

I got all the seeds for these from GeoSeed.  GeoSeed has a terrific selection and great prices.  They cater to people growing plants commercially and there are no pictures or instructions in their catalog.  However you can find this information so easily now on the web that it is no problem.  Geo is for George Park of Park Seed.

I'm only growing my favorite things and below are the ones I chose followed by the space I'm allowing for each.

Delphinium 'Aurora'
This is a really nice hybrid perennial delphinium.  It is about 4-5 feet tall and does not need staking.  The seeds are not cheap - about $14 for 100.  Delphinium seed is only good for a couple years so I planted about half of them and of course nearly every one came up.  I'm going to put in 40 of the plants and will give the rest away.  40sf

Benary's Giant Zinnias

Zinnia Benary's Giant Mixed
This is the standard cut flower zinnia.  They are large and productive.  I direct seed almost nothing but I do direct seed these. 16sf

Annual Butterfly weed

Annual Butterfly Weed (Asclepias curassavica)
These are really nice.  More than once I have seen Monarch caterpillars on them.  12 sf

Yarrow - 'Cassis' (Achillea millefolium)
This is a nice crimson red yarrow.  Yarrow is really easy from seed. 8 sf

Calendula 'Indian Prince'
I like calendula but did not use them after awhile for the cut flower business because the stems were not always long enough.  For me I can be more flexible. 8 sf

Sweet William - 'Super Duplex'
This is the double, biennial Sweet William.  You can start them as late as July and they will look great the following year. 8 sf

Lisianthus and Apple Blossom snapdragon

Lisianthus 'Marachi' mix
'Marachi ' is a double lisianthus.  Seed was not available to non-wholesale growers until recently so I have never grown this other than from plugs.  12 sf

Snapdragon  - 'Opus' Apple Blossom
Opus is a greenhouse variety of snapdragon but they grown just fine outside.  Appleblossom is a combination white and soft pink which I really like. 12 sf

Cosmos - Double Click mix
I did not use cosmos much for the business because it is tedious to cut enough to make much of a show, but they are nice flowers and easy to grow.  8 sf

Amazon Duo

Amazon Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)
Amazon is an annual Sweet William that blooms the first year from seed.  They come in three colors - rose, cherry and purple.  I got 'Duo' which has Cherry and Purple. 12 sf

Dianthus  'Rainbow Loveliness'
I wrote about these in a post on Fragrant Plants.  I saved seed from a mix of colors as well as white ones so I will probably plant the mix for cutting.  8 sf

Sunflower (Helianthus annus)
I got the pollenless 'Magic Orange'.  I really like orange sunflowers but I suspect this is more gold because it is a single stemmed sunflower and not a branching variety.  It seems like all the true orange ones are branching but hope springs eternal.  12 sf
Dahlia 'Appleblossom'

I am growing a couple dahlias for cut flowers.  The one pictured below is a collarette called 'Appleblossom'.  Most collarettes do not cut well but this one does. 8 sf

Beebalm (Monarda didyma)
Last year there was still monarda in the field where I used to grow flowers and I hope to grab some starts from there early in the spring.  I used to have 'SummerWine' and 'Jacob Cline'.  'Jacob Cline' is pute red and they are blooming around the 4th of July.  I used to combine them with blue delphiniums and whatever white flowers I had to make red white and blue bouquets.  I always thought the monarda looked like fireworks.8sf

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
This is a native plant which grows fine outside a swamp but does appreciate some water.  8 sf

Annual dianthus (Dianthus caryophyllus)
These are the annual version

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Project Grow's Giving Garden

Cobblestone Farm contacted Project Grow in the 2012 about using the space from the old vegetable garden at Cobblestone. The space was too small for a community garden - it is about 50'x60', around the size of two full Project Grow plots   Instead of a community garden, Project Grow asked Cobblestone Farm if we could use the space for a Giving Garden, where all the produce was donated to area food pantries.  Cobblestone liked that idea and the Giving Garden was created in 2012.

The first year we spent several weeks removing grass and weeds.  We ended up with four 3'x25' beds and three 4'x25' beds.  All the paths are 3' wide.  The Giving Garden is entirely supported by volunteer time and donations.  Because the location is so visible, Project Grow wanted the garden to look neat all the time. To help make the space more manageable, we laid landscape fabric on all the paths but covered it with straw to look more natural.  The straw also prevents the fabric from breaking down from UV sunlight after a season.

Many of the beds are also covered with landscape fabric topped with straw.  This keeps the weeding to a minimum.   In the fall of 2012 we dug three yards of compost into the beds and the garden was considerably more productive in 2013.

In 2013 we planted asparagus, strawberries and raspberries in three of the 3' beds.  This coming year we will be putting in 5 blueberry plants in the last 3' bed.  Putting in the perennials serve several purposes.

  • Fresh fruit and asparagus are not commonly donated to food pantries and but they will be showing up at the Back Door Food Pantry, where we donate what we grow.
  • Perennial crops allow the harvest season to begin earlier.
  • While not necessarily less work than annual crops like tomatoes and beans, most of work for perennial plants is needed at different times of year than the work for annual crops.
  • Once the perennials become established, we hope that they will also serve as a demonstration garden for people interested in growing these crops at home.  
If you would like to get involved with the Giving Garden, please contact us at, and we will put you to work!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fragrant Flowers for 2014

In addition to the sweet peas, I will be growing a number of other flowers for fragrance.  Almost all of them are white.  White flowers are known for evening fragrance and that is when most of these at at their best.  You can get seds for all these from Select Seeds.  Here is what I will be growing:

Evening Stock (Matthiola incana)
These smell out of this world.  The flowers are nothing showy.  They close during the day and have no noticeable smell.  At night they emit a powerful scent a bit like lilies but lacking that heaviness that lilies have if you get too much of it.  These like to be direct sown but I had good luck last year starting them ahead and transplanting them when they were only a few weeks old.  Evening stock is cold hardy and will self sow after the first year.  I like to plant them outside the bedroom window where I can smell them at night.

Petunia (Petunia x hybrida) 'Rainmaster'
Petunias are usually grown as bedding plants but the older varieties smell exceptional at night, especially the white and purple varieties.  'Rainmaster' (it's named for not turning to mush after a rain)  is one of these older varieties.  Select Seeds says it dates from 1823.

Angel's Trumpet (Datura inoxia) 'Evening Fragrance'
These self seed and you see them all over the place.  The flowers smell sweet at night but the leaves smell unpleasant if you brush against them, "similar to rancid peanut butter" says Wikipedia.  The seed pods look like prickly grenades.  All parts of the plant are toxic.

Tobacco (Nicotiana alata) 'Jasmine'
Nicotiana are known for their sweet evening fragrance.  This is less true of the shorter bedding varieties that you now see at the Farmer's Market.  If you want them for fragrance, look for seed packets that say they smell good.  They are easy to start from seed, and self sow.  Most of the fragrant ones partially close during the day.

Fringed Pink (Dianthus hybrida)  'Rainbow Loveliness'
These are highly fringed pinks with a sweet, hard to describe scent.  Unlike other dianthus they do not smell like cloves.  Around my house we call the fragrance "fabric softener" though I wouldn't say they really smell like that.  They are perennial but bloom the first year from seed with an early start.

Last year I saved seeds from some white flowering plants.  I expect these seeds to yield at least 50% white plants this year.  If I have the discipline to rogue out the non-white flowers, the seeds I collect this year should yield almost 100% white flowers next year.

Heliotrope  (Heliotrope arborescens)
Heliotrope has a confectionary smell like almond and vanilla.  One common name is Cherry Pie Plant.  I have had mixed luck growing heliotrope from seed.  It smells nice but after smelling a white one at Hidden Lake Gardens, I decided to spring for 3 white heliotrope plants from Select Seeds.  The one at Hidden Lake Gardens smelled far stronger than anything I have ever grown from seed.  I later read that the white is sterile and you can't grow it from seed.  Will let you know what how they turn out.

Stuff Growing Around the Yard
Because I have been living in the same place for more than 10 years I have a number of other fragrant perennials and shrubs.  Most of these make nice cut flowers:

Korean Spice Viburnum  (Viburnum carlesii)
These smell intensely of clove.  There is a hybrid called 'Mohawk' which also smells great.

Mockorange (Philadelphus coronarius'Innocence' 
I picked this up as a tiny plant many years ago.  I really like the smell of mockorange but have read that some people do not like it.  'Innocence' had variegated leaves and very strong scent.  Mockorange is not known for making a pretty shrub.  Each year it looks more and more gawky and ungainly.  I read somewhere that it should be cut back severely after flowering since it flowers on year old wood.  I did this last year and the shrub re-grew a large number of new stems which should flower this year.  If it works, than severe pruning is the answer because even if it smells great for a couple weeks, it has to look presentable for the other 50 weeks or what's the point?

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris'Mme Lemoine' 
This is a white double lilac.  Like all lilacs, it smells terrific.  The double flowers make it showier for cutting though I can't say it smells any better than any other lilac.

Grenadin Carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus)
Last year I bought 6 Grenadin dianthus from Coleman's.  These are biennial or short lived perennials so they need to be replaced each year.  I use them mostly for cutting.

I planted a 25 foot double row of peonies at my house when I was growing cut flowers.  Some peonies, like 'Festiva Maxima' smell very nice.  A number of other ones smell vaguely unpleasant.  I have heard them described as smelling like pollen.  Some people call this kind of fragrance a "nose twister".  Other examples include marigolds, feverfew and Sweet Annie.

Monday, February 17, 2014

2014 Vegetables

I've been posting things about flowers because I am excited about growing flowers this year for the first time since closing my cut flower business 30 months ago.  For the growing seasons in 2012 and 2013 I could not grow flowers without feeling like it was "work", so I am really grateful to be excited about growing them again.  I just grew vegetables and perennial fruit crops in 2012 and 2013.  I still plan on growing vegetables this year but not as many as I did last year.

I have two gardens in Ypsilanti but neither is at a Project Grow site.  I grew my cut flowers on about a half acre of land I rented from Dawn Farm.  When I closed the business I fenced in about 1/10 of that space (twelve 100 square foot beds) and continue to rent that.  I also have a fenced 20 x 40 square foot garden at at my home.

The Dawn Farm garden is about half edible perennials - 100sf of blueberry plants, 200sf of raspberries, 100sf of strawberries, 50df of asparagus, and 100sf holding two grape vines.  This year I am going to plant 200 square feet of flowers for cutting and the other 400 square feet will be sweet corn, collards, pimentos, bush beans and ground cherries.  At home I will be growing carrots, parsley root, tomatoes, melons plus sweet peas and a few other flowers.  In addition I will be putting about 8 or 9 blueberry plants.  Blueberries are have grown very slowly for me at Dawn Farm but they seemed to take off last year.  It was their 5th year, which seems glacially slow to me, but they are great so I was encouraged to try some more at home.

Seeds I Ordered from Fedco
Sweet Corn

  • Spring Treat
  • Silver Queen 
  • Augusta

These have staggered maturities and I each one gets 1/3 of a 100 sf bed.  It is an extravagant use of space but you really need that for corn.


  • Scarlet Nantes
  • Mokum
  • Nelson
  • YaYa
  • Yellowstone

Bush Bean

  • Provider

Pole Bean

  • Fortex


  • Black Cherry (saved from tomatoes last year)
  • Aunt Ruby's German Green (saved from tomatoes last year)
  • Sun Gold
  • Halona
  • Sensation

I will get some others from the Project Grow plant sale but not sure which ones yet

I also have seeds left over from previous years for:

  • Sweet pimento
  • Vates collards
  • Parsley root

What Got Squeezed Out
To make room for the flowers I will not be growing some things I grew the last couple years. These include cabbage, onions and parsnips.  It is fun to grow all three, and I am sure the cabbage and parsnips taste better than the ones from the store, but I had to give up something and these were the bottom of the list.  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

2014 Sweet Peas

This year I decided to go to the trouble of finding some old named sweet pea varieties. In the past I usually grew “Royal Family” which is available at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, J.L. Hudson Seeds, and many other places. I have even seen “Royal Family” at at local retailers. “Royal Family” is a mix of old grandiflora types from the turn of the century (the 19th century) when sweet peas were very popular. Grandifloras have smaller flowers than the more recent introductions but a stronger scent.

I found quite a few varieties at Swallowtail Garden Seeds. From Swallowtail I ordered
  • Flora Norton – soft mauve and “fantastically fragrant”
  • Mrs. Collier – white and “intensely fragrant”
  • Queen Alexandria – pink-scarlet
  • Lord Nelson – dark blue and “extremely fragrant”
  • Henry Eckford – orange and “strongly scented”
I try not to order just a packet of seeds from one mail order place because the shipping usually costs more than the seeds. But, I was already ordering a bunch of stuff from Fedco so I felt justified in adding a packet of maroon “Black Knight”. To round out my sweet pea mania, I ordered a packet of salmon “Miss Wilmott” from Select Seeds, again because I was ordering a number of other things from them.

My plan is to grow 3 plants of each kind and plant them on each side of a 12 foot row. That is enough plants to have lots and lots of cut sweet peas in late June and into July. When the hot weather hits the stems get shorter and shorter so the entire season is only about 3-4 weeks but the house sure smells great while they last.

You can read another post with details about how I grow sweet peas here.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Starting Lisianthus From Seed

When I first started growing cut flowers, I ordered lisianthus plugs (small plants) because the plants need to be started in January and February to have them flowering in August and September. I had read they were difficult to grow from seed but after a couple years I thought I'd give it a try since seeds were much more affordable and I knew I needed to start them really early.

It turns out that lisianthus are not difficult to start from seed under lights. The seedlings are tiny and grow very slowly but nothing complicated is involved. Because they grow so slowly, lisianthus plants are really expensive. They are also a terrific cut flower, so seed is the way to go if you want to save money and enjoy getting the garden season started indoors in January or February.

Lisianthus take about 6 months to flower from the time the seed is planted. Seed planted in early January will bloom in July and ones started in February will bloom in August. You may be able to plant them in March and have them bloom in September, but their development slows with colder weather, so January and February are safer.

Lights for Seed Starting
I have another post here about how to start seeds under lights. I use plug trays (you can buy them at Johnny's) for lisianthus rather than liners because the seedlings are so tiny they don't need to be transplanted for at least a couple months.

Lisianthus have been bred to be short 6-8” bedding types or taller 1-2 foot varieties for cutting. The taller varieties will often say they reach 3 feet or more but they don't get that tall in a single season here in zone 5.

Choose the variety of seed depending on whether you want them for bedding or cutting. I have only grown the tall varieties for cutting. Some to look for are:
  • Cinderella – a double lisianthus that comes in blue, ivory, lime, pink and yellow. To me, the yellow is off-white rather than yellow like a sunflower. Blue is a medium purple blue. Lime is a slightly greenish white. The pink is a good medium pink that does not look red or coral.
  • Twinkle – a single lisianthus but available in a deep blue/purple color that is not available in any other lisianthus.
  • Echo – Echo is an older variety that comes in a wide selection of colors and many picotee types. Picotees are white with color on the last ¼ inch of the petal.
Pelleted Seed
Because lisianthus seed is fine as dust, you want to be sure the seed is pelleted. The packet or catalog description will say it is pelleted if it is. Pelleted seed comes in plastic vial inside the seed packet. Each tiny seed has been placed in a pellet about the size of the head of a pin. The pellet dissolves on contact with water, so be sure your hands are dry when you touch them.
Pelleted lisianthus seed
Obtaining Seed
Lisianthus seed is available from many mail order companies including Johnny's, Pinetree Garden Seeds and many others. You can probably also find it at any good seed supplier like Downtown Home and Garden.

Sowing the seed
I have always grown lisianthus the same way. I am sure other ways work but this is the one I know and trust.

  • A good soil-less seed starting mix.
  • A plug flat or a 72 cell per flat liner.
  • A flat or other container to hold water
  • A flat to hold the liner trays or plug flat
  • A clear plastic humidity dome. These domes fit over a full flat.
  • Spray bottle
  1. Fill the number of plug or liner cells you need.
  2. Put about an inch of water in the water tray and set the soil containers in the water. After a few hours they will absorb the water so the grow mix on the surface is moist. Remove the containers from the water and let them drain in the sink for a few minutes.
  3. Sow the seed on the surface of the grow mix. Do not cover the seeds - they need light to germinate. Because the seed is pelleted, you can sow one seed per cell.
  4. After sowing the seed, spray the pellets and soil surface with water. Part or all of the pellet may dissolve but don't worry if part of the pellet is still there.
  5. Put the seed containers in their flat, cover the flat with the humidity dome and place under the lights. The lights should be just over the humidity done but not touching it.
Get in the habit of checking on the flat every day. The seeds will sprout in about 10 days. The seedlings are very, very small, about the size of the head of a pin at the most. You may need to re-moisten the surface of the soil mix from time to time with the spray bottle. It is fine to spray the seedlings. Sometimes part of the undissolved pellet will be on one of the first leaves and spraying will dissolve it.

About a 4 weeks after you start the seedlings they might be as large as 1/4 inch across. Prop up the corner of the humidity dome for a day to give the seedlings a chance to adapt to drier air and then remove it. After removing the humidity dome, check the moisture in the soil mix every day. If only one or two cells are drying out, you can moisten them with the spray bottle. If most of the cells are drying out, you can bottom water all of them by placing the plug flats or liners in an inch of water.

Algae or moss may grow on the soil mix surface. It won't harm anything but you can rub it away after the seedlings are up if you want.
Lisiathus six weeks after sowing in 200 cell plug tray. 
Transplanting to Larger Containers
Although they grow slowly, if started in plugs your lisianthus will need to be bumped up into small pots or larger liners eventually. When the roots are showing through the bottom of the plug, check to see if it is time to transplant . You can use the end of a pencil to push on the plug from the bottom. If the roots are reaching the outside of the plug, it is time to transplant. If started in liners you will be able to wait quite a while before transplanting.

Hardening Off
Lisianthus can tolerate cold weather. They are perennial in zones 7 or 8 and can survive winters hereif grown in a hoophouse and protected.
Before going from under the lights to their final locations in the garden, your lisianthus should be hardened off, This can be done as soon as there is mild daytime weather. If you have a cold frame you can put them in it when the nights will not be freezing and they will be fine. Once they have acclimated to cooler weather, they can tolerate frosts easily if protected by a cold frame. If you don't have a cold frame, move the plants in and out of the house during the day to get them used to bright sunlight and winds, but bring them inside at night if frost threatens.

Planting Outside
I am always paranoid about planting lisianthus outside too early because they take so long to grow that I don't want to risk losing them. If you are planting them in your yard, you can cover them up if it is going to get really cold. In that case it is probably fine to plant them outside in early May. If you can't cover them up in an emergency, mid-May is perhaps safer.

Starting Seeds Under Lights

After poring over catalogs all through January I usually find I want a greenhouse by February so I can
get an early start with all the seeds I've ordered. Growing plants from seed at home is not for everyone.
The plant selection at area nurseries and the farmer’s market has steadily improved in the past few
years and you can now find unusual tomatoes and peppers at Project Grow's plant sale. It is often easier to just purchase healthy greenhouse grown plants from area growers and forget it.

Still, some people prefer to start things at home because they can’t find certain varieties, or they just enjoy starting plants from seed. For me, there is something special about any plant, from a primrose to a tomato, that I started from a seed.

My first attempt at starting plants from seed was disappointing. The seeds started readily enough but then grew tall and spindly, leaning toward the window. Some seedlings grew fuzzy fungus around their
bases and keeled over before they were even two inches high. By the time I placed the seedlings outside the first breeze flattened the few top-heavy survivors.

If you have had failures like these, or been afraid to try because you’ve feared these kind of results,
take heart, because you can learn from my mistakes. I have since successfully started everything from strawberries to leeks and dozens of kind of flowers from seed under lights. I’m sure there are other, better ways to proceed but this is what has worked well for me.

It is important that whatever you use be light, well-drained, moisture retentive and sterile. Unsterile soil harbors nasty fungal diseases and also weed seeds which make it difficult to recognize your seedlings. Rather than bake soil in the oven (it stinks to high heaven) I find it easier to use commercial seed starting mixes like Jiffy-Mix or Hoffman’s. You can also mix your own using peat moss, perlite and vermiculite.

You can use clay pots or plastic food containers or anything you have but it must have drainage holes. If the containers previously contained plants you must wash them (the paranoid say with bleach) to avoid the risk of disease. I usually find it easier to go the ecologically unsound route and buy sheets of plastic six or 4 packs, or liners. You can buy a whole sheet of these (12 six packs, 72 cells per sheet, 12 four packs, 48 cells per sheet) for a couple dollars. This will also tend to help you pack the most seedlings per square inch of indoor growing space. Liners can be purchased locally at Downtown Home and Garden or online.

I’ve never lived anywhere that had nice sunny windows, and Michigan has no sun in February anyway,
so I use artificial lights. You don’t need to do anything fancy here. I use “shop light” fluorescent fixtures and the cheapest available bulbs - cool white 40 watt. You can get these at Home Depot or Lowe's. Newer fixtures come with thinner 34 watt bulbs to save energy. However, you want to maximize the light output, so you want 40 watt bulbs.

You want to mount the fixture on light- weight chains so you can raise it easily as the seedlings grow. The light should only be about two or three inches from the tops of the plants. I know this seems really close but remember that most plants want full sun and fluorescent tubea are very dim by comparison.

Fluorescent bulbs put out significantly less light as they age, so if you decide to borrow a fixture out of
the laundry room or garage, you may want to replace the bulbs. If used only for starting plants, the bulbs should be replaced every few years.

The lights should be operated about 16 hours a day. I use a grounded (3 prong) timer to turn them on and off. On the other hand, my father, who figures that if 16 hours of light is good, then 24 should be better, starts seeds under fluorescent lights that are never turned off
and has fine results.

Sowing the seeds
Fill the containers with grow mix and moisten it. You want the mix moist but not sodden. I find it
easiest to bottom water the container and let it absorb the water and then sow the seeds. Fine seed that
needs to be surface sown can be moistened after sowing with a spray bottle. Under the controlled
conditions that we are creating the germination rate will be much higher than when sowing outside so
don’t over sow.

Temperature and humidity
Seedlings usually sprout best with warmer temperatures and high humidity. I have had best luck using
clear plastic domes that fit over a single flat. (also available at Downtown Home and Garden). They
are easy to take on and off and last for years. Follow packet directions, but most seeds will sprout
nicely at around 70 degrees. I usually set the flat under the lights immediately so that the seedlings will
be exposed to light as soon as they emerge.

After the seeds sprout and have true leaves, prop the dome open for a day or two to accustom the plants
to less humidity before removing the dome.

Watering and fertilizing
Plants should not be fertilized until they have at least two sets of true leaves. Fish emulsion diluted to
half or a third strength works well. You may also be able to find other organic fertilizers which don't smell quite so bad.

Hardening Off
At least a week before the plants are to be planted outside they need to be accustomed to outdoor
conditions. This is called hardening off. If you don’t have a cold frame, choose a mild day when it is
not blazing hot or pouring rain, and leave the plants outside for an afternoon. An overcast day provides
less of a shock. Each day, increase the amount of time they are outside. This will give the plants time
to acclimate to outdoor conditions before being set out in the garden. I have two small cold frames and
try to get the plants outside as soon as there are warm days. At first, wind is as much a danger than
anything else and a cold frame really helps.