Build Your Own Seed Starting Rack

Hi folks, I friend messaged me this week asking if I could recommend a seed starting rack.  She is in Wisconsin, so getting started now with her seed starting.

I confess I have little experience with pre-made seed starting racks and systems. I have been gifted with one, but I don’t like it as well as the one my sweetheart made.

Here is the Materials List:

  • Found plywood, 2×2, 2×4
  • Shop lights
  • Chain
  • Hooks
  • Screws
  • Wire
  • Switch box/s
  • Timer
Know your soil – Free Soil Course 

General process to build your own seed starting rack:

  1. Decide where you want to put your rack. It is best if you can place it in front of a window that gets good light as this will enhance the productivity of your rack.  I can also say, it is really nice if you can place it in a permanent location.  Ours was built with screws so it can be taken down an reassembled, but frankly, since I am four season gardening, I just keep it up.
  2. Consider how much space you need for seed starting. Small scale home gardeners may not need much. My rack holds 14 seed trays and that is not enough for all I grow.  Most folks can get away with one bank of lights which will cover two to four standard sized seed trays.  A double bank will give you space for four or five seed trays.
  3. I prefer to use found wood instead of buying new since so much is thrown out these days. We used wood found in a dumpster in back of a store, and some left over from a job.
  4. Build the thing. It can be as simple or complicated as you make it. I have the advantage of having a partner who is a contractor, so he built and wired switches for me.

The best way to show you how we build it is in photos .. so here you go …

DYI Seed Starting Rack
My homemade three tired seed starting rack – front view.  The rack has three shelves and uses old shop lights. We found some of these in the trash, some were from a friend who was getting rid of them.  Each shelf has two banks of two lights.  I use old fashioned ones to have the heat for summer seedlings.  One cool and one warm in each bank which is less expensive than “grow lights”.
make your own seed starting rack
Outside corner of the rack.
build a place to start seeds
Inside corner.
seed rack height
We used hooks and chain, attached to a bar on the outside of each shop light to raise and lower the lights to accommodate different height plants.
put your seed rack next to a window for more light
Inside where the chain is attached to the rack.
The top bank we just had lights so made a really simple holder.
grow plants from seed
The top bank we hung from the ceiling.
Wiring for switches. We have a switch on each side so we can turn on one set of lights on each bank. This allows us to put the trays in either direction for growth or saving electricity if we don’t need both sets of lights at once in a bank.
how to start seedlings
Bottom who shelves filled. I will sometimes put trays on top of the lights until they germinate to make more room, as in this picture.

Know Your Soil – Free Soil Course 

5 Proven Steps to Starting Your Veggie Garden

As spring approaches, our thoughts go to gardening. Enjoy this snapshot of my solid step-by-step strategy to start a veggie garden.

Get a Free Workbook to do these 5 Steps: 

Step 1: Your Garden Dream, Vision & Goals

Basket of home grown tomatoes
Basket of home grown tomatoes

For Step 1: it is important to take time to document your garden vision, what goals you have, and your garden as you have dreamed it.  Many folks don’t take the time to document this, so their dream garden becomes a vaporous ‘some day’ vague memory, vs actualizing the manifestation of their dream.

Step 2: Observation & Assessment

To avoid making a mistake on the type, size and location of the garden you put in, take some time to observe your space, light, water and other resources as well as your time. This way you can be sure the garden you put in not only is in the best place, but also fits into your lifestyle, and that is where Step 2, Observation & Assessment comes in.  This is a critical step to be sure you get a garden that will work for you, and hence move you along that success pathway.

Step 3: Building Healthy Living Soil

a raised bed is one choice for your veggie garden
Building awesome living soil in a raised veggie bed

Healthy living soil is the foundation of any garden, so building soil that will support your garden and grow plants for you is Step 3. You probably know that chemical pesticides and fertilizers kill your soil, but did you know that tilling does too?  Tilling allows the carbon in your soil to be released into the atmosphere thereby depleting your soil of it.  This is why commercial conventional growers add fertilizers, because they have, by their actions, depleted it from their soil. The soil becomes nothing more than an anchor for the plants, but it is the life in the soil, that grows healthy lively plants.

Step 4: Choosing Quality Plants & Seeds

locally grown veggie plants
Get chemical-free plants

Step 4 is choosing quality plants and seeds for your garden.  Learn clues for buying plants, such as purchasing those with a USDA Organic tag or from small local growers you know are chemical free.  Checking in on seed companies to be sure they have signed the Safe Seed Pledge, thereby committing to only offering non-GMO seeds, and belonging to organizations committed to organic growing and sustainable biodiverse practices.

Step 5: Garden Layout & Planting

learn garden layout
Organic veggie & flower garden

Then, in the last step, it is time to layout where plants will go in our gardens and do our seeding and transplanting. Once you have done the other four steps, you can be confident that the garden you have built is the right one for you so those young plants and seedlings have the best chance of providing you the yummy home grown produce you desire.

Get a Free Workbook to do these 5 Steps 

 

Easy Gardening – Why Fall & Winter is the Best

grow lettuce Got a text last week from a wonderful lady, who inspired this post.  I suspect the heavy bug pressure she in her garden this summer, is what has had she and her husband decide not to garden this fall and winter.  I see this allot, people are going into the fall, having had some difficulty gardening, whether it be bug pressure, drought, or life circumstances, get garden burn-out and stop, right when it becomes the easiest time of year to garden.

Here are 3 reasons for you to reconsider and get that fall and winter garden going:

  1. Lack of bugs – As cooler weather approaches, there are not only less bugs eating your food, but less bugs wanting to eat you. Once there is a freeze, you don’t have to worry about bug pressure until it gets warm again next spring.  A major relief.
  2. Pleasant Weather – The cooler weather is also much more pleasant to be out in your garden than the brutal heat of summer. Your garden can be a welcome haven of outdoor time when it is enjoyable to be outside. Taking an afternoon day-trip to your garden is less expensive and time consuming and still allow you to get away from work and other concerns.
  3. You get food all year! Most everyone loves their homegrown summer tomatoes. Think about how much better your homegrown tomatoes are than the ones you buy in the supermarket. Ok, translate that into your salads, green smoothies, and winter root veggie soups.  Yes, homegrown produce of any variety is going to be fresher, more satisfying  and better tasting then store bought.

You still have time, the end of September is the time in US Zone 7 to get those fall and winter transplants in the ground.

I hope all of you out there who are bailing on your garden this fall, reconsider.

Kale, raised beds and hoop house uncovered on a sunny fall day

What Gardeners Do in Winter

“Oh, you’re a gardener, so what do you do in the winter?  You don’t grow food right?” 

I love this question because there are so many cool things gardeners do in the cold months.

Awesome October harvest
Awesome October harvest

November means cooking up yummy dishes from soups to pies from autumn’s harvest. The more you store in your root cellar, garage, basement and fridge from the year’s bounty, the more bang for the buck you get from your garden. If you get into fermenting and canning, your benefits go up even more.

If you planted a mid-summer crop of potatoes, December is a great time to harvest them. How cool is it to have friends over for dinner for the holidays and servethem fresh potatoes you harvest last week! So cool.

ferment your harvest
Home make kimchee from early winter harvest

December also brings opportunity to share your bounty. You can gift those you love with home grown and dried herbs or fruits.  One year we gave everyone popcorn we grew.  Another year, it was kimchee we made from fall grown cabbage.

December also brings the first of the seed catalogs and these are one of the best things to read while sipping a cup of hot tea/coffee/coco on a cold wintry day in January and February.  This is the time to dream about what you will grow next year .. oh, but wait .. we also do our seed inventory and reflect on what worked and what didn’t during the year with things like:

  • Did we use up seed of our favorite tomato variety?
  • Did anything new we tried do great or horrid, or just so-so?
  • Was there a whole crop fail? This is the time we chat with each other to see if everyone in our community had a bad year with that, or if we need advice on what might have happened in our garden.
Seed Catalogs
Catalogs from some of our recommended companies.

Reading seed catalogs lets us dream of warmer days in spring and plan what we want to do next year in the garden. They also provide useful information and are great resources.

A creative winter garden project is designing the next phase of our garden.  Whether it be the next phase of our long range garden plan (this is the year I put in blueberries and asparagus!) or so a new garden follow-on layout from spring and summer.  Maybe you expand it into fall and winter if you have not yet ventured into four season gardening.

collards are sweeter after frost
Winter collards harvest during snowmageddon

Likely the most rewarding is the continued harvest.  My favorite winter harvest story is from a few years ago during a winter storm dubbed ‘snowmageddon’. It was the biggest snowfall I’d ever been in.  We dug a path to the collards, buried deep in the snow to harvest some for dinner, and honestly they were the sweetest collards I’ve ever eaten.

Harvesting in winter can be less dramatic, simply have a few things in a simple hoop house or cold frame that could be harvestable in winter and certainly when they get a warm day or two to grow a bit and provide more food offerings.

grow food from seed
Young seedlings under lights in winter

Winter is also the time to start early spring and some summer crops.  Your brassicas can be started indoors to be hardened off and planted our as soon as the ground softens up.  Some summer crops like basil and peppers that take a long time to germinate and get growing also benefit from being started in late winter.

I’m also in mid-swing with teaching The Foundations of Organic Gardening Course, which empowers people to be successful gardeners.

Winter is a great time study, dream, muse, plan, order seeds, start seedlings and chat with other gardeners.

Mix it up! Companion Plant your Annual Vegetable Garden

Make the most of your garden space by mixing flowers and herbs with your annual vegetables.

Backyard Foodscape
Backyard Foodscape incorporates flowers and herbs along with vegetables.

Pairing the right plants together, those that gardeners have observed grow well together, allows plants to do some of your garden work for you. This accomplishes several functions as we can see…

One classic example showing some ways plants work together is the native American corn/beans/squash combination:

Poll beans climb up the corn stalk, so the corn is the support, or trellis, for the bean.  So the corn just saved you from building a pole bean trellis. The bean is a member of the legume family of plants. This plant family are what are called ‘nitrogen fixers’, which means they capture nitrogen and store it in nodules on their roots, making it available for other plants to take it in. Corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder, so in exchange for the support the corn gives the beans, the beans feed the corn. The beans just saved you from having to add something to feed your corn. The squash plants wind all around the base of the corn and beans, providing them shade cover to keep moisture in the soil longer for all of them. The squash just saved you from watering as much or putting down mulch to hold moisture in the soil.  A couple nice additions to this already cool combo are:

  • Sunflowers in the mix to also support beans and provide seeds for humans and birds.
  • Nasturtiums attract a ‘beneficial bug’ called hoverflies.  Beneficial bugs are so named because they prey on other bugs that like to eat your food, although, in a diverse ecosystem, all bugs are beneficial to maintain balance. Hoverflies like to eat bugs like aphids and thrips.  Nasturtiums repel loads of critters who want to eat your crops including: cabbage loppers, worms and weevils; squash, cucumber and bean beetles and more.  In addition, the leaves and flowers are edible!

Companion planting is a good way to design your garden beds. See what plants go together and plant in those combinations. Start with simple combinations and then get more complex over time. Good places to start are:

  • tomatoes/lettuce/onions/marigolds/parsley
  • peppers/basil/marigolds/chamomile
  • peas/carrots/lettuce
  • bush beans/potatoes/flax
  • cucumbers/radishes/nasturtiums/dill
Squash & Nasturtiums. Nasturtiums are good companions for not only cucumbers, but also squash and melons.

Another reason to use companion planting is it makes a beautiful garden, as these photos show, and remember, beauty is food too!

Container gardeners, you can do this too!  The same combinations apply, either in the same container, or containers that are next to each other.

I’ll write more companion planting, so check back.

5 Steps to Prep Old or Future Garden Beds Now

make living soil
You can also do this around perennial plantings like blueberries as we did in this pic

Post update: This process can be done any time of year ..

Get Great Organic Garden Tips & a Free Workbook

Happy autumn!

As the days grow shorter and cool down, fall is a great time to get outside.  Save yourself some work next spring by preparing your current or future garden now with these easy steps:

  1. Chop old dying plants off at ground level, or mow very low, and chop up the above ground parts
  2. Put either cardboard or 4 sheets of newspaper down over your existing beds, or over an area you would like to make a garden next year.
  3. If it is a windy day, hose down the cardboard/paper so it does not blow away while you are working.
  4. Put the chopped up old plants on top of the cardboard/newspaper (or you can compost it)
  5. Top off with leaves racked from your yard and then a bit of hardwood mulch to hold it all in place and look tidy

You’ve just accomplished:

  •  Beginning to build healthy living soil that will grow great plants for you
  • If the bed is current – provided weed suppression for next spring planting
  • If the bed will be new next year – you have started eradicating grass or whatever is currently in the space so making the bed will be much easier next spring

Get Great Organic Garden Tips & a Free Workbook

Happy Gardening !

Sourcing Materials for your Garden Projects – Foundations of Organic Gardening Info Series

Backyard Foodscape
Backyard Foodscape

Think free, or darn close to it. There are various ways and places to find low coast items for your gardening projects.

‘Use and value renewable resources” is one of the 12 permaculture design principles we explore in the Foundations of Organic Gardening course.

Sometimes this looks like building a community of people who share resources.

Sometimes this is discovering what resources we have on our property we can cultivate.

Sometimes buying something makes sense based on its utility.

Another permaculture design principle is “Produce no waste”. These two principles can go hand in hand.  For example, maybe you have a tree that drops branches each year. Perhaps it makes sense to invest in a chipper so you can chip those branches into mulch instead of bring in mulch. You may be saying, ‘that is not free’, but consider how much you spend now dealing with the branches and how much you currently spend on mulch.  The investment may be worth it.

Most of the things we use to build healthy living soil are free.

We explore these types of ideas all through the Foundations course, so join the fun and sign up now.

3 Reasons to Start Your Veggies from Seed – Foundations of Organic Gardening Info Series

Ok, I have been getting such a great response to this series of posts, I’ll keep going into August ….

Are you someone who has hesitated to start your own plants ? Here are three really good reasons to try it.

1. Save money. Really, you do save money by starting your own plants.  A seed packet that can last you for years can cost the same amount as one plant.

2. Variety diversity. Think about how many varieties of tomatoes you see in the store.  How many from your local farmer’s market.  Consider this, the Seed Saver’s Exchange Member catalog  has about 4000 tomato varieties– that is variety diversity. You won’t get bored,  you get to try loads of cool stuff and eat a much more diverse yummy diet – what is not to love about that ?

3. You control what happens to your garden plants. Most people I work with want to know their plants are not grown with GMO seed, are not given chemicals as infants and given proper organic nutrition as they grow up. Unless the plants you buy are certified organic, or you know your local plant grower well, you are taking your chances.

Spring Green Seedlings
Spring Green Seedlings

Growing from seed is not hard, especially the crops most people love like tomatoes and cucumbers. Some plants grow really easy from seed right into the garden, like lettuce.

Want more Foundation ? Consider the Foundations Course.  We start in August, so sign up soon so you don’t have to wait anther year for garden success !

Don’t like to take time weeding ? Mulch !

Tomatoes mulched with cardboard and straw to keep weeds back.
Tomatoes mulched with cardboard and straw to keep weeds back.

Although some of us actually like to weed, many people don’t have that view.

To cut down on weeding, place cardboard or 6 sheets of newspaper around your plants and cover with 4″ of straw.  In a small home garden, one bale is likely enough for your entire vegetable garden or blueberry patch, maybe for both.  Local straw from Home Depot is about $5.00 a bale.  The $5.00, plus the tax in addition to the gas money and time to take the trip, are pretty cheep compared to the time you could spend weeding.

In addition to cutting down on your weeding, this also helps build healthy living soil.  It breaks down to create richer, blacker soil, so don’t remove it at season’s end.

Want more straw cheaper ? Check Craigs List for farmers selling it within 100 miles of you.  Then plan a family day trip to a site close to where the farm is where you’ll pick up your straw bales. The fun will offset the gas cost and you’ll support a small local farm.

Growing Your Own Tomatoes Saves you Money

Thessaloniki Tomato, great for drought and a good all around open pollinated red tomato
Thessaloniki Tomato, great for drought and a good all around open pollinated red tomato

Lets look at how much money you can save by growing your own organic tomatoes.

Tomato prices at the Farmers Markets are between $3.00 and $5.00 a pound.  Although you are at least supporting a small local farmer, they may not even be organic.  Organic tomato prices at local stores run in the same range.

If we are super conservative, you can easily get 15 tomatoes off one plant even if we have challenging  weather.   Each of those tomatoes (from a  red fruited open pollinated variety like the Old Brooks or Thessaloniki) is 1/2 to 1 1/2 pounds each depending on variety and conditions.  Staying with our conservative model, if those 15 fruits are 1/2 a pound each,  your one tomato plant has given you 7.5 pounds of tomatoes, and would have cost from $22.50 to $37.50 if you bought them. If you got your tomato plant from us at $4.00, subtracting that from your savings total, you still saved from $18.50 to $33.50 and had plenty of tomatoes for several BLTs, salads and a pasta sauce or two – all from one tomato plant in a very conservative model. Plus, they are homegrown, so you didn’t have to go anywhere to get them, thus you saved more money on gas and saved time too by walking to your tomato plant instead of driving somewhere !