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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Raising seedlings


Seeds and seedlings  …Nursery Work for the time poor.
Making compost is hardly ever a chore for me , I get so turned on by the process of putting together annoying and maybe stinky waste products to create something so valuable they call it black gold.
However one tedious chore for me is pricking out numerous little seedlings into pots to grow on to a robust 3 or 4 inch high seedling. Perhaps it is because I know that only half of them will survive…..rats, chickens, a 40 degree day . In fact why do I bother at all? Well you have to , because lets Face Facts  , you cant eat supermarket “food”, and purchased mass produced  seedlings are weak as …very poor success rate with them and of course not at all kosher regards organic certification.
Why don’t you just plant seeds in the garden?  Well , at the magically precious  but sadly short times of Autumn and spring you can do just that, because its raining. In winter slugs are a menace and seedlings grow so slowly often get smaller not bigger. In summer however, You need to water the whole big garden every day , possibly 3 times a day, to get the seeds to germinate. I like to concentrate all that time and energy into a small area called the nursery, where a plastic house provides shade and humidity and many seedlings can be raised with a lot less water spent.
Garden irrigation is best done deeply and infrequently, otherwise you can end up with a depth of only  50 ml wet and dry underneath. This leads to shallow roots. Our gardens have finally developed marvellous soil to a depth of 300 m or more , because it is rich in carbon it is a sponge like material which absorbs and holds moisture well. I try to water it deeply only once a week even in summer.  This leads to big deep root systems which will enable a plant to survive for many days should something go wrong like a broken pump or a broken leg.
So , at Merri Bee Organic Farm we have developed some ideas on nursery chores that work for us in our extreme climate . We first build a hot house to keep soil and plants from drying out. In winter, when it is theoreticaly raining it may  simply be 4 walls with a door in one, open to the sky and the rain somewhat like a large tree guard but for the long hot summer a plastic and shade cloth house is required:
Level an area big enough to enable 2 benches and a gangway down the middle, maybe a third bench across the end opposite the door. One idea is to obtain 4 blue drums from a recycling depot, the 200 litre types . Place them so that they will hold up your working surface. We have been known to use old bedframes for the benches  and also old pallets, a discarded  old dunny door, a simple bunch of planks. What ever you use, it must be able to constant water applications and be fairly level and even for your seed trays to sit on. A comfortable working height bench is essential.
For thermal mass we fill the drums with water  which moderates the temperatures inside the green house. Would be good to also create a high thermal mass floor by first laying some insulation on the ground ( we used an old doona wrapt in black plastic) over which you may lay some concrete slabs or pebbles. A simple structure of big black polly pipe pushed onto star pickets  in hoop formation , covered in UV stabilized plastic ( whatever you do don’t waste vast sums on that reinforced with mesh style plastic that comes on a roll in green and white at the hardware….it doesn’t last long at all) will complete the structure. Weigh down the plastic at the sides well by either burying it in a trench or putting heavy eights on it…remember  you could have just made a big kite should  it get windy!
To have used old shade house frames we bought through the paper from peoples backyards for $100.00. We slit poly pipe lengthwise and pushed it onto the frame to secure the plastic around the door frame. Another idea  we have patented  ;) is to squash 12 ml trickle pipe flat and tech screw it on to the frame, sandwhiching the plastic which is pulled tight as you go. Of course my readers are ever so resourceful and will overcome any challenges I am sure.
 As you will be going in and out carrying seedtrays and old breadbaskets  full of dirt and plants, a  nice door is worth constructing, especially if you are keeping critters like chooks out. Once again Mitre 11 ( the tip) is handy for old flyscreen doors you can work with.
Last but by no means least you need an irrigation set up on a timer. This is an absolute must . You need fairly good water pressure. Don’t repeat our mistake of making this wonderful hot house at the top of a hill where our water pressure is poor so a timer cant be used.  We built another glass house down the hill just so the timer tap could be used. Best $40.00 I ever spent was on the  timer tap. We set it to turn on a mister for one minute, 3 times in every 24 hour period. Luxury for the forgetful, busy or just plain slack.
Have ready a piece of shade cloth to cover the whole thing in summer. Take it off in autumn, apply again in spring. Once again, weight it down appropriately.
Ok , you have the 5 star plant accommodation sorted.
 Now for the potting mix.
On a hard surface mix the following together:
2 parts Coco-peat (comes in a dried and pressed block)
1 part Course sand (washed)
1 part Compost
1 part Mushroom compost (if you can get it – ordinary compost if not – we use our home made which is not quite as soil like as the commercial stuff)
1 part Worm castings
I don’t always have the coco peat and the mushroom compost and instead I use dirt from chook pens.It usually has no weed seed in it .Very important  point when planting onion seeds, believe me.

 Briefly mix all previously moistened ingredients together.  I was told once and tend to believe that it isn’t good to mix or otherwise “work”  wet soil. I prefer to hose  big pot fulls  of the components and allow them to drain, then mix them together ever so briefly I . Then pack  it into a standard 40 ml deep small seed trays.  I try to have a stack of these ready so I can throw seeds into them should I be about to miss the proper moon planting time for the various seeds.


Once the seeds come up, while they are still tiny,  dig  them out with a bread and butter knife a few at a time, leaving as much dirt  around them with as least disturbance  as possible, and pot them into half toilet rolls filled with rich  compost y soil. Pack the toilet rolls into some container which will hold them upright, and make sure the container has a few drainage holes. Water them in well soon after planting. A few weeks later when these seedlings are  about  2 inches high, plant them into the garden still in their cardboard cylinder. This is normally a dicey procedure , especially in hot weather ( where upon evening is the best time to act) , but by planting the whole thing there is no transplant shock at all. If you leave them too long in these toilet rolls your healthy seedlings  will run out of  nutrient and start yellowing a bit.
Mulch the bed well, plant your plants in holes dug in the mulch, water well and you should be harvesting something soon.  Best of luck .

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