Seed Starting Made Simple

Seed Starting

We should always keep seed starting simple. If you miss a tomato during clean up in the garden in the fall you’re likely to have tomato seedlings sprouting up in the spring. Nobody fussed over the seeds or planting them just so. They hit the ground and when the soil was the correct temperature, they germinated. Seed starting indoors can be just as easy.

You don’t need a lot to get started.

  • a container for each kind of seed you’ll start (or maybe less…)
  • starting medium
  • seeds
  • water
  • marker

I use a professional grade mix for everything. Look for “seed starting medium” or similar wording in the garden department of your local hardware store or nursery. This medium is sufficient for seedlings because seeds have all they need for nutrition to get the seedlings to their first set of true leaves.  The first “leaves” are cotyledons, a search party of sorts sent to get the work started. You don’t need to add anything but water to the medium. It’s light enough to allow good drainage and dense enough to properly cover the seeds.

seed starting

Seed starting medium

Place the seed starting medium in the container and soak it with room temperature or warmer (but not hot) water. I fill a cookie sheet with containers, spray the medium gently with the hose and let them sit for a short time. The water that drains through is eventually soaked up.

seed starting

Seeds vary in size.

A good rule of thumb is to plant the seed three times the depth of the seed. Look at the instructions on the seed packet. A pumpkin seed might need to be 1.5″ beneath the surface but a broccoli seed is going to be barely covered.

When reading the instructions on the seed packet make a mental note of light requirements. Some seeds need light to germinate.

seed starting

All the info you need for seed starting might be on the package.

Keep the medium damp but not dripping.

Be patient. Some seeds will germinate in a few days. If the plant grows well in cool weather (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, spinach and beets, for example) the seeds will germinate quickly. If the plant needs warm soil and weather (such as tomatoes and peppers) you’ll wait longer to see the seedling pushing through the surface. I put “warm” seeds on a heat mat. A sunny window will add enough warmth to help speed germination.

Bottom heat speeds evaporation so keep an eye on the containers and water as necessary. Remove the heat mat when the first seeds germinate.

When the seeds germinates place the container under a grow light or put it in a bright window. Hang the light 1-2″ from the top of the seedling. Raise the light as needed.

What to Grow in the Garden – Pumpkins and Winter Squash

What to Grow in the Garden – Pumpkins and Winter Squash

Pumpkins and winter squash can be space hogs in a garden but oh aren’t they fun to grow! I have some creative ways to grow them without losing garden space you need for more productive vegetables.

what to grow in the garden, pumpkin, winter squash, connecticut field

Connecticut Field heirloom pumpkin

Many varieties of pumpkins and winter squash need long growing seasons. Choose your varieties according to the average number of frost free days you have. You can push the number of days on each end by using HotKaps, IRT and low tunnels and gain a week or two. You can buy yourself a little more time by starting the seeds indoors in large pots three weeks before transplanting. This gives your seedlings time to form their first true leaves before you put them out but it’s a short enough time to keep the seedlings from becoming root bound. Root crops are fussy about having crowded roots and transplanting so be gentle.

Pumpkins and winter squash can be grown in mounds or rows. Mounded soil warms faster and provides better drainage. Disturbing the soil to make mounds also helps slow cutworm damage.  It’s more time consuming than planting a straight row but the trade off might be worth the work.

Pumpkins and winter squash are very heavy feeders. You’re going to need rich soil or a lot of fertilizer. I dig a hole two feet deep and fill it with compost. If you’re planting outside of the garden you’ll want to save the soil in case you want to fill in the hole later. If not, you can use the soil in a raised bed or simply spread it out in the garden. Build a mound on top of the hole. By the end of the growing season the mound will have sunk and become not much more than bump. Compost is temporary.

You can use similar methods on porches. I have heavy nails hidden under the roof on my back porch.

If you have limited space for a garden you can choose varieties with shorter vines or bushing habits, or find a place to grown them vertically. Fences work well. Add a planter bracket to the top edge of each fence post. Cut sturdy twine one foot longer than the distance from the ground to the bracket. Tie the twine securely to the bracket. Transplant one seedling or two seeds under each bracket. If both seeds germinate you should pluck the smaller/weaker seedling when they are about a month old. Train the vines to attach themselves to the twine. All you should need to do is let the vine touch the twine. Prune excess vines as they spread to concentrate growth in two or three pumpkins per vine.

Cattle or hog panels can be braced and bent into an “n” shape. Plant the seeds or transplants on each side and allow them to grow across the panels. It makes a fun space for for kids to get in out of the sun when the vines cover the panels.

I must have dropped a winter squash seed or two under a young black cherry tree one spring. For reasons I forget now we didn’t cut the hay that year. In the fall, after the leaves started to fall, I noticed a bright orange blob in the eight foot tall tree. And then another blob, and a third blob. Bright orange winter squash decorated the tree. I’ve made the tree a yearly base for the winter squash now even though it’s now 15 feet tall. Doesn’t everyone use a ladder to harvest squash now and then? 😉

What to grow in the garden, pumpkins and winter squash, pumpkins, winter squash

Your pumpkins and winter squash are ripe and ready to pick when the stem is drying and woody.  Cut the stem close to the vine, brush dirt off and if possible, allow them to dry outdoors in the breeze. I set mine on pallets under a canopy so they sun doesn’t hit them. Throw a tarp over them if there’s going to be a frost.

If your pumpkins and winter squash aren’t ready to be picked when there’s going to be a frost you can protect the plants that are on the ground with tarps. You can try clothes pinning tarps or at least a sheet or two over vertically growing plants. Warmth from the fence post will help protect the plants with the help of a covering.

Pest Control Barriers for the Garden

Pest Control Barriers for the Garden

Wes asked about pest control in a comment in last week’s blog so let’s talk about pest control barriers this week. Pests can turn a beautiful garden into a disaster in short time. Miss a day in the garden after transplanting seedlings and you might go back to stubs.

Pest Control Barriers

Barriers physically block the pest from reaching the plants. Mulch, hotkaps and floating row cover are used most often. IRT stands for Infra-Red Transmissible. IRT mulch is a plastic sheet that covers the soil. You cut or burn a hole for the seeds or seedlings you’re planting. It suppresses weeds and cuts down on pest habitat. The heat IRT gathers during the day discourages cool-loving slugs from hiding underneath and helps keep them away from the plants. It doesn’t break down and has to be removed by hand. It can be used two to three years with care. Straw, spent hay,

Hotkaps are a waxy paper cap used to cover plants or seeds. When the plant grows the top can be opened to allow the plant to continue to grow while protecting its lower leaves. They’re a dual purpose tool. They also warm the soil and protect the young plants from frost. Birds won’t clip the seedlings with their beaks and pests such as cucumber beetles won’t find the seedlings until they’re large enough to survive an attack.

Floating row cover, pest control barrier

Floating row cover on a low tunnel. Photo courtesy of Colorado State University.

Barriers do have a couple of downfall to watch out for. As much as they block pests out, they can trap them in, too. Check daily for pests like flea beetles that rise from the soil. If you mulch your plants to block weeds and keep the soil cool (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) you might be providing a place for slugs to hide.

garden pest barrier, cabbage worm damage

Cabbage worm and the damage it has done.

Slugs can be an easy pest to solve. Boards placed in the garden paths give slugs and pinchers a place to get out of the sun. Look under each board in the morning and discard the slugs. I feed them to my chickens. Unlike Wes, my slugs are one inch long, not four inches. <shudder>

Floating row cover keeps cabbage butterflies from landing and depositing eggs on the plants. Those eggs hatch into cabbage worms, the best that leaves holes and green droppings on your brassicas. Floating row cover also helps to prevent birds from eating your strawberries and other fruits and blocks grasshoppers, leaf hoppers and similar pests. Remove the cover long enough to allow pollination for plants that need help from bees (eggplant, peppers).

Create habitat that attracts frogs, toads and snakes (as long as they aren’t poisonous snakes, of course). The snakes sun themselves on a pile of rocks at the end of the garden in the morning then move into the garden to eat. Broken pots and small stacks of sticks provide shade for frogs and toads.

We’ll cover other methods soon. If you need to use a pesticide choose the least toxic necessary (even if it’s organic) and follow the instructions exactly. I use a pesticide called spinosad. It’s available in organic products. It must be used according to label to avoid harming bees and other beneficial insects.

Do you have tips you can share? What do you do to control pests in your garden?

What to Grow in the Garden – Broccoli, Cauliflower and Cabbage

Cool weather crops are those that do well in…well…cool weather. They often bolt (go to seed) or their growth stalls when the weather gets hot. If the seed packet says “sow as soon as the ground can be worked,” it’s a cool weather crop. This week we’re going to talk about broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.

What to Grow in the Garden – Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage

cabbage, what to grow in the garden

Calabrese broccoli, what to grow in the garden, how to grow broccoliBroccoli, cauliflower and cabbage don’t need any special treatment when you plant their seeds. You can start the seeds indoors by sprinkling them on seed starting medium and covering them with 1/4″ of the medium. Keep the medium moist but not wet. In seven to 10 days the seeds will sprout. Outdoors, sprinkle the seeds on rich soil, water in and keep the soil moist. When the seedlings have their first set of real leaves you can either move them to their own containers or space them out depending on where they’re growing. If you’ve grown seedlings in doors you can harden them off and move them outside with a little protection from frost about a month before the last average frost date for your area.

alternating rowsCool weather crops like to have cool feet, and by feet I mean roots. You can crowd the plants enough to keep the sun off the soil when the plants mature without crowding them so much you stunt their growth. The leaves will fill in and create shade that keeps the soil cooler and slows the germination of weed seeds. It’s a great way to save space in the garden.

When I harvest cabbage and cauliflower I peal back the large leaves and place them on the ground so that they continue to block the sun from the soil. Those weed seeds are opportunists just waiting for an opportunity to sprout. The leaves will dry and eventually break down to feed the soil.


Cauliflower is a little less tolerant of cold and heat than broccoli and cabbage. Use the staggering method of planting your transplants to keep the soil cooler but wait an extra week or ten days before planting. If you have a sudden hot spell and can give cauliflower some shade it will appreciate the break. When stressed, cauliflower might take on a pink or purple tinge.

Keep all three of these vegetables well watered. Watch for pin holes in the leaves, an indication of flea beetles, and larger holes and green droppings on the leaves made by cabbage worms. Treat accordingly.

Harvest these vegetables before they start to go by. Broccoli heads are firm when ready to harvest. If the tiny flowers start to open you can should cut it immediately.

early jersey cabbage, what to grow in the garden, growing cabbage

Early Jersey Wakefield

Cabbage firms up when ready to harvest. You can test the heads with a gentle squeeze as they grow to get a feel for  firmness as it develops. If you’re not ready to cut a head that’s ready to be picked you can delay more growth that leads to cracking. Plant your feet firmly, give the plant a tug up and twist it 90* either way. You’ll hear roots tear.

Watch cauliflower for signs of separating curbs or color change and harvest when full grown according to the size stated in its description.

These vegetables benefit from being cut either very early in the door or being submerged in very cold water to remove what’s called “field heat.”

More Money Saving Tips for Homesteaders

 More Money Saving Tips for Homesteaders

We have so many tips to share we had to split them up. Here are more money saving tips for homesteaders. Last week’s tips are here.

  1. Write down every penny you spend for three months. You’ll probably spot money trickling away that you weren’t aware of.
  2. Stop using paper towels. For what you’d spend on an 8 pack of paper towels you can buy four or five cotton dish towels. We have packages of 100 and 250 dairy towels for less than a dollar each. You can split an order with friends. Use, wash and reuse these towels for cleaning time after time.
  3. Speaking of cleaning, use half the detergent called for. Let your laundry soak for an hour if necessary. You can do without fabric softener. A splash of vinegar in the rinse water will help remove the detergent build up that makes clothes stiff and scratchy.
  4. Make your lunch to take to work. I called McDonald’s this afternoon. A Quarter Pounder with cheese is $3.99. Leftovers make nice lunches.
  5. Drop your gym membership. Walk, snowshoe, small equipment purchased second hand, the opportunities are numerous.
  6. Do you need your vehicle? If you already have one vehicle that’s dependable and you’re shopping once a week, can you do without a second vehicle? You might be able to coordinate trips with friends by offering to pay for the gas. If you live in the city or suburb it might be worth a taxi fare to not have to make a vehicle payment, insurance payment, and pay for upkeep. This doesn’t mean you’ll never have a second vehicle again but for now, do you need it?
  7. Don’t renew your magazine subscriptions. Or, choose your favorite and call the 800 number on the renewal slip. Offer then $10. They’ll probably take your offer. Or send the slip back with a check for $10 and a note making the offer. I’ve done it three times when money was tight and my offer was always accepted.
  8. Cancel your internet. Use public access at the library. The exception – if you can make more money by having your own account than you spend to have it, keep it.
  9. Do you have an extra bedroom you can rent out?
  10. Turn off cable. Read books and play games instead. You can find board and card games at Goodwill and yard sales. You can probably buy at least one brand new board game for the price of your cable bill as a way to get started.
  11. Do you have a cell phone and a land line? Pick one and disconnect the other. I saved $430.56 a year by disconnecting the land line.
  12. Can you share wifi with a neighbor?
  13. Barter for repair work you need. Will your plumber work in exchange for something you have and can spare? I had a couple of minor repairs done for a loaf of homemade bread a week for four weeks and a batch of strawberry jam.
  14. Pay half of your mortgage every other week. We cut seven years off our mortgage by doing this. Having auto pay take the mortgage payment out of the checking account each payday saved us a quarter of a percent.
  15. Avoid the deli. Deli meat can be very expensive. $8 a pound for roast turkey breast at the deli vs $1 a pound for turkey roasted at home is a big savings. That extra $10 a week you put aside to stock up is well spent when meat goes on sale. Turkey salad from fresh roasted turkey is much nicer than sliced deli meat.
  16. Attend free events. You don’t want to be stuck on the homestead all the time. Get out now and then. It will help you dig in and save money by giving you something fun to look forward to.

Do you have tips to add? Leave them in the comments and we’ll move them up to the list.

Money Saving Tips for Homesteaders

Money Saving Tips for Homesteaders

We’re taking a break from gardening in the blog for a couple of weeks to help out a fellow homesteader. We received a request from a family who is struggling to make ends meet. They need money saving tips while they work on ways to add income to the family budget. We did some brainstorming and came up with a long list of tips.

    1. Nicky Smith suggests not having a clothes dryer. The amount of money you’ll save in electricity will pay for clothes racks and lines in a few months. Hang your clothes outside when the weather cooperates and near a heat source in the winter. Thanks to Nicky for sharing her tip on Facebook!
    2. Julie Dodd shared her tip on Facebook. “Unplug and turn off every light…not in use…saves a bundle.” Did you know that? That little light on the DVD player, Wii, coffee maker and every other appliance you’re not using adds up over time.
    3. Sue Wickson, another of our Facebook faithfuls, suggests not spending. “Don’t. Spend it.” Period. Just don’t spend money. It’s surprising what we can do without if we flat out refuse to spend the money.
      3.5 Stay out of stores. Do your grocery shopping no more than once a week. Do all of your errands on that day and do go shopping again that week. It takes a bit to get organized but you can do it.
    4. Shop sales. That seems obvious and we all know this but it’s easy to fall out of the habit. Stock up on items that have great sales. If possible, set aside $10 additional money for stocking up on those items. It might be hard in the beginning but after a couple of months it’s worth it.
    5. No soda, fancy coffee, sports drinks, flavored creamers, etc. Drink water. Add a slice of fresh citrus or sprig of mint for variety. Having given up soda 15 months ago, I know it’s hard but it’s worth it. I feel a lot better!
    6. Are you sure you need an extended warranty on purchases? Your state might require manufacturers to stand behind their products for a reasonable amount of time, usually longer than the basic warranty. Look for “implied warranty.” In some states it’s enforced by the attorney general’s office.
    7. Make your baby food. Puree what you’re eating as long as it’s not too spicy, hot, etc. Puree before you add salt, pepper and other seasonings if your child is too young for them. You can freeze the puree in ice cube trays.
    8. Glean. Check with local farms to find out if they allow gleaners into the field to clean up after the harvest. Broccoli side shoots, cabbage that was missed, potatoes that weren’t dug, whatever the vegetable is, it’s worth asking for.
    9. Make your own bread. I pay $6 for two pounds of bulk yeast. That’s the cost of two loaves of not very good bread. For about $1 a loaf I can make larger loaves of excellent bread that’s more filling because it’s higher in fiber and better for us. I mix up my bread at night and let it rise in the cool/cold kitchen. The added heat in the kitchen each morning is nice.
    10. Use your leftovers. Make TV dinners, turn them into casserole, soup or stew, play Restaurant with the kids and let them order off the Leftover Menu, or feed it to the chickens. No food in the trashcan. (Bones and fat go into the woodstove.)
    11. Skip do-dads. Decorate with items you can gather. Skip goodie bags for birthday parties. A homemade useful item in the Easter basket will be used and remembered much longer than a do-dad that’s lost in a day or two.
    12. Love to learn? Try free classes online. Coursera offers a lot of free classes. A quick internet search will turn up more options. Or learn from friends and neighbors. Learning a useful skill can lower or eliminate a repair bill some day.
    13. Are you a blogger with a good following? Test products and blog about them. You get to keep the product in exchange for an honest review.
    14. Don’t keep egg laying chickens or ducks unless you’ve crunched all of the numbers and know you’re not losing money, and if someone nearby sells eggs. By the time I pay for fencing, nest boxes, shelter, food and all the other expenses I don’t save any money raising them myself. I’d stop raising layers if I could buy them locally.
    15. Buy quality. You don’t have to buy items brand new. Shop at thrift stores and pawn shops for lightly used items in good condition. If you buy quality once it’s less expensive in the long run than buying inexpensive items that don’t last.
      15.5  Try pawn shops later Friday or first thing Saturday after items have been pawned for weekend money. Leave a list of what you need and your name and contact info with the shop.
    16. Limit dry cleaning. Spot clean when necessary. We take our wool pants and vests to the dry cleaner in the spring. That’s it. Once a year.
    17. Sell what you don’t need. If you haven’t used something for a year you probably don’t need it. Earn some extra cash to put toward the extra $10 on stocking up on grocery sales.
    18. Have an energy audit of your home. Cover windows with shrinking plastic. You dry it with the hair dryer and it shrinks to fit and is clear. Use towels or blankets on the windows on the coldest nights. Caulk leaks.
    19. Close off the heat to rooms you don’t use. We don’t heat our bedrooms. Instead, we have heated mattress pads and an extra blanket. The mattress pad warms up the bed for about an hour before we go to sleep. It’s warm and cozy and we stay that way overnight.
    20. Avoid expensive household cleaners. Vinegar does a great job of cleaning.

We’ll continue this next week. There are still a lot more tips to share.