Saturday, January 31, 2009

Gardening on a Budget: Seed Starting

There are hundreds of fun and fabulous seed starting products out there, but you don't have to spend all that money. If you can at least invest in a bag of Seed Starting Medium or very lightweight potting soil, that alone will get you off to a great start.

Cheaper Than Peat Pellets/Pods:
Those seed starting pods or pellets, the kind that come looking like little disks then expand in water to look like a huge brown marshmallow, are admittedly handy. However, you can imitate these will little effort and money:

1. Save the tubes from inside your toilet paper rolls.
2. Cut a tube in half, resulting in two shorter tubes. (Note that this is optional. You could use the entire tube if you feel like the plants you're growing need more room for their roots to stretch out before they are transplanted or moved to a larger container.)

3. Take one of those half-tubes and decide which end will be the "bottom" of your peat pod. Make a few cuts in the bottom of the tube so that you will be able to fold it in on itself.

3. Fold in the bottom of the half-tube, making sure the bottom of it is mostly closed. Repeat until you have as many folded half-tubes as needed.

4. Place these tubes in a water-proof tray of some sort.

5. Fill each with seed starting medium or a lightweight potting soil.

6. Plant seeds as directed.
7. Water these by pouring water into the tray, not by pouring it directly onto the soil.
8. My general rule of thumb is to transplant these, tube and all, into a newspaper/Jiffy pot with potting soil soon after they develop their first set of "true leaves."

Cheaper Than Those Biodegradable Jiffy Pots: Jiffy pots are also very convenient, but there's a nearly free alternative to these as well. You'll need to make sure you have a tray or tub with sides as high as the pots will be tall, but you can make newspaper pots, the creation of which I illustrated last year.

Cheaper Than Fancy Trays: You can use damn near anything as a water-proof tray to hold your seedlings. I love using plastic food containers that used to hold things like bakery cookies. Plastic dish tubs from the dollar store are useful, especially when seedlings have been moved to larger newspaper or Jiffy pots. On the smaller scale, butter tubs (or a spreadable cheese tub, like I used in the pictures above) do well. Amazingly, Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich containers fit the toilet paper tube "pods" (and actual peat pods) perfectly, and they also fit right onto our windowsills. Just make sure that anything you use that once contained food has been cleaned out properly.

Cheaper than Grow Lights: Grow lights can help prevent leggy seedlings, but they're also pretty expensive. A cheaper option would be to hang an inexpensive shop light over your seedlings instead. Or, like me, you can simply grow your seedlings on south-facing windowsills and deal with the fact that they'll be a tad bit leggy. (Sunlight is FREE!)

Cheaper than Buying Plastic Seedling Cells: Some people buy the little six-pack plastic cells when, just last year, they might have purchased flowers from the garden center in a nearly identical six-pack. Whenever I buy flowers (or other plants) in cells or small pots sturdy enough to still be in one piece after removal of the flowers, I rinse that sucker out and stash it away in my garage to use for flowers from seed the next year. (They also work for most veggies from seed, unless they have delicate roots.)

Cheaper than Any of That Other Stuff: This won't work with some seeds (read your packets!), but sometimes you can wait until the appropriate time to direct-seed them into the garden. My favorite thing about this method, to be honest, has little to do with money... it's the fact that there's no hardening off to be done at all. How convenient.

That's about all I can think of at the moment. Please post and share your ideas!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Budget Gardening: Seeds

I have to confess that I occasionally let myself spend a little more on gardening than I need to, but that doesn't change the fact that gardening can be a wonderful way to save money on food. There are so many aspects to this that I'm going to tackle them one at a time. First up, seeds.

Seeds save you money in the first place, because they cost so much less than buying seedlings from the garden center. On top of that, there are so many ways to cut corners on seeds. Let's start by considering two general schools of thought on how you can save money, then we'll get to some specific tips.

The first school of thought is pretty short-term: buy cheap seeds. You don't have to spend a fortune on heirloom varieties from organic companies to have a nice garden. Just the other day, I saw a small rack of 20 cent packets of seeds for veggies and herbs at Wal-Mart. It was a small selection, but one could have certainly designed a decent vegetable garden from that rack alone... and probably for no more than a couple dollars. I have also seen similar deals at The Dollar Tree and am sure they will have them again this year. It's really nice when you can support small businesses with good philosophies, but sometimes nothing beats a huge discount chain when you're honestly not even sure you'll be able to pay the electricity bill.

The second school of thought is more long-term: invest in quality heirloom varieties and save seed from your plants every year. Unlike many of the cheap seeds, the seeds you save from an heirloom variety will usually grow true to type the next year. (Edit: As a commenter pointed out, some of those dirt-cheap seeds will grow true to type when you save seed because most hybrids are in the middle price range rather than the lowest. I recommend you do your research on Dave's Garden before you save seed, to make sure.) They cost more up front (anywhere from $2 to $5 a packet) but, in theory, you won't ever have to buy seeds for the same vegetable again.

A lot of gardeners will tell you that the second school of thought is the right school of thought, but I'm here to tell you to do what works best for you. Expensive heirloom or cheap hybrid, it's going to feel wonderful to harvest those veggies no matter what. And even the most "boring" hybrid variety is going to taste 10 times better than the trucked-in vegetables from the grocery store. I think everyone should try heirloom varieties at some point, but if it's not in your budget this year, then it's simply not in your budget.

Here are some other important tips on saving with seeds:
  • No matter what kind of seed you purchase, don't throw out your extras. Almost every seed is viable for more than one season, and some are viable for many, many seasons to come. Tape up the packets, put them all into one ziplock bag/tupperware/mason jar, throw in a handful of uncooked rice to absorb moisture, and store them in the back of your refrigerator until the next gardening season.
  • Share seeds or seedlings with other gardeners, for free! The cheapest way to do this is to go as local as possible. For example, a friend who lives a couple blocks from me recently started a Facebook Group for Oklahoma City gardeners. Many of us have already offered up extra seeds and seedlings. (We also plan on exchanging excess produce. There's a lot of potential with something like this!) If you can't find local friends or a similar local group/community for free, then check out non-local options like Dave's Garden.
  • Don't over-seed. For seeds that are normally sowed directly into the ground, many gardeners pour out the whole packet down a row then thin them out as they grow. How wasteful! Instead, figure out what the spacing should ultimately be and plant two or three seeds where the plants will need to be. For example, if you're planting a row of carrots and they are supposed to be 3 inches apart when mature, then plant two or three carrot seeds each in tiny holes every three inches. Now you waste far fewer seeds because you only need to thin out one or two per hole. (Share or store what you saved!)
  • Shop around. I prefer heirlooms, but they're normally more expensive than I prefer. After doing a little research, I decided that Victory Heirloom Seeds was the best priced company that matched my needs.
  • Pay attention to shipping prices! Ordering seeds, as apposed to going directly to the store, is a great way to find interesting varieties at reasonable prices... but sometimes there's a huge Shipping and Handling fee attached to those otherwise reasonable prices. (Again, I feel that Victory Heirloom Seeds has fair S&H fees.)
  • Save seeds from the garden vegetables people give you, or experiment with the seeds saved from organic produce at your local health food store.
  • If you can't buy all heirloom seeds but want to experiment with saving seeds, then either choose one vegetable (tomatoes are easy!) to buy as an heirloom for seed saving or do some research to see if any of your cheap varieties grow true to seed. (Dave's Garden is a good source for this.)
That's all that comes to mind at the moment. Eveyone feel free to comment with your own ideas!

Next budget topic, seed starting.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

All seeds are either acquired or ordered. Current plans for 2009 include:
  • Pink Brandywine tomatoes
  • Azoychka (yellow!) tomatoes
  • Super Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes
  • Red Robin tomatoes (in hanging baskets)
  • Ground Cherries
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Red onions (possibly from seed, if I can get that to work!)
  • Green onions
  • Cosmic Purple carrots
  • Burgundy okra
  • Lemon Apple cucumbers
  • Black Seeded Simpson lettuce
  • Little Gem Romaine (if the seeds are still viable)
  • Spinach
  • Rainbow Swiss chard
  • Leeks
  • Red radishes
  • Broccoli
  • Chesnok Red garlic (currently in the ground, to be dug up in spring)
  • Bantum corn (one of the three sisters)
  • Calypso beans (one of the three sisters)
  • Cinderella pumpkins (one of the three sisters)
  • Sugar Baby watermelons (in a watermelon patch!)
I am so excited!

A friend of mine also started a little Facebook group for our local gardening buddies and I'm giving away some of last year's seeds on there. I hope other friends get active in it, because I'd love to have a little group for seed and plant exchange.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Bare Beginnings

Long time, no post!

I've just had too many other things going on in my life, like starting a new job, Christmas, etc. Things are mostly going pretty well in life.

As for my winter gardening activities, they wound up being reduced to growing garlic to be dug up in the Spring.

But the arrival of a seed catalog two or three weeks ago has gotten me thinking about my garden again. In fact, I started my first seeds today! 2 Red Robin tomato plants, which stay small enough to keep inside until after the last frost, and 8 Pink Brandy Wine tomato plants, which I was determined to start extra early this year because last year's P.B.W.s didn't produce until the Fall. They may be leggy by the time I put them in the ground, but I'm willing to dig deep if it'll earn us earlier slicing tomatoes.

I've started planning the dates to start other seeds and have decided on asking Chad to build me at least one more Square Foot Garden. I look forward to getting m y hands in the dirt again!