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madonnaswimmer
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How to avoid what happened in 2014?

In 2013, I grew tomato and pepper plants from seed, starting indoors, 8 weeks before last frost. Can't remember specifics of what I did. The plants did great, planted them into my garden, gave others away to friends.
In 2014, I thought I did the exact same thing, but for some reason, they were about half the size as they were the year before. Planted some, they did OK at best, felt embarrassed to give any away! Looking to find out what I might have done wrong.

So, here was my method-- can anyone find what I did wrong, such that my plants were so tiny by the time last frost hit?
Thanks.

1.) I chose Burpee seeds, of the same varieties I had grown in 2013, but using new packets. Bought from 2 different local stores. Stored them in the slightly-chilly-but-not-freezing basement for the weeks before planting.
2.) I grew the seeds in four 72-cell plastic seed starter kits with the rehydrated coconut coir pellets as soil ("Planter's Pride"-- same brand/type kits I used in 2013). I planted 2-3 evenly-spaced seeds per cell (some germinated only one, but most germinated more than one), and planted the seeds according to the depth on the packets, as before. I started them with the dome on, but once I saw plants popping up, the dome came off.
3.) I watered them daily from the bottom, by filling the bottom of the tray with just enough water to touch all of the cells, maybe 0.5cm deep at most. This kept the soil evenly damp, but not too moist. I had no problems with damping off.
4.) I had heat mats under the trays that I had calibrated to heat between 75 and 80 degrees. I kept these mats on throughout the entire 8 weeks.
5.) They were under four 6500k fluorescent shop lights, with foil surrounding 3 sides (I used the inside of potato chip bags). The lights were placed 2-3" above the seedlings (raising them as they grew), and were on for 16 hours per day.
6.) Once the plants had poked up out of the soil (and domes were off), I had an oscillating fan directed at them for cycles of 4-hours-on, 4-hours-off, throughout the 8 weeks.
7.) Once they got their first "true leaves," and roots began to poke out the bottom of the cells, I waited maybe 4-5 days, then up-potted them into 3" plastic pots in the same size tray. When I did this, I thinned them out to keep only 1 plant per pot.
8.) Once in the larger pots, I watered from both the top and the bottom (the bottom watering wasn't enough to keep the soil at the top damp enough.
9.) Once the plants were about 5-7 days after up-potting, I fertilized. I fertilized the tomatoes with "Jobe's organic tomato fertilizer" and the rest with Milorganite.

In the end, I had good numbers of plants, but they were all ridiculously tiny-- like, some were only 2" tall, over those 8 weeks.

Any insight into my methods? Things I can change to have a more productive time starting seeds?

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madonnaswimmer
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

Oh, I should also add that I rotate the plants daily. In the 72-cell kits, I rotate each 9-cell-block daily (both turning 90 degrees and moving the "front" tray to the back and scooting the rest forward. In the 3" pots, I rotate/move each individual pot daily.

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applestar
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

Assuming absolutely everything was the same, two factors I can think of that may have changed -- one unavoidable -- are the ambient temperature (could it have been colder?) and, if you DIDN'T CHANGE THE LIGHT BULB, the light intensity may have been lower.

What do you think?

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rainbowgardener
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

Sounds like you did everything right. But you said you weren't exactly sure what you did the year before, when it worked better. I wonder if it could have been a different fertilizer?

The coco-coir pellets (congratulations on using that instead of peat, much more eco-friendly!) are a sterile medium without nutrients. Using only that as a potting medium, means that all the nutrients MUST be supplied from the fertilizer. Milorganite is 5-2-0. So like many organics not very concentrated, but what worries me is that ZERO. That is Potassium and it is an essential nutrient for plants, helps them uptake and regulate water, helps with root development.

Your plants may not have been getting enough nutrients. Personally I prefer not to use sterile planting mix, but to plant (ESPECIALLY true when up-potting) into a potting mix with compost and other organic ingredients that provide a range of nutrients, not only NPK, but micro and trace nutrients. Plants that stay small as you describe, often have some kind of problem with poorly developed root systems, which could have been a result of that zero K.

The tomato fertilizer should have been better, so the tomato plants should have done better. But I read some reviews of it that said while the bag says NPK 4-4-4, the actual makeup (as shown on their website) is 2-7-4. That would be good for established tomato plants. Too much N at that point encourages leafy growth at the expense of flowering and fruiting. But at seedling stage you want leafy growth. So again they may not have been getting everything they needed.
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hendi_alex
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

My guess is cooler temperature, as that would be the most likely uncontrolled variable that would have had a big impact on growth rate. I'm also suspicious of the fertilizer regimen, and prefer a slow release slow release type myself. Watering 'daily' could also have been a problem, as early on, my plants rarely have to be watered more than once or twice per week, and not daily even after going outside in the very warm cold frame. So be sure to monitor the soil moisture and don't water until the cells are getting slightly dry on top. Also, make sure no water remains standing in the bottom tray after a few hours. Water demands will be very low until the plants get at least 4-6 inches tall.
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PaulF
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

The two things I do differently are seed source and planting medium. I never buy from Burpee (purely personal choice because of bad history) and I use a soilless mix for the planting medium. Some use a starter mix but I use any soilless mix that is cheap, but never one that is moisture control or moisture saver. Your methodology is sound so far as most people would be concerned. Light bulb strength (if the bulbs are more than a few years old) is the other variable I can see.

I'll bet you do the same thing this year the result will different. Just the way things went last year. Good luck.
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jal_ut
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

8 oz. Dixie plastic cups make fine planters for starting tomatoes. Punch a hole or two in them. For soil I use garden soil with a bit of sand and peat added. Sorry, I don't like potting mixes.
I plant the seed in these cups. No transplanting. They can grow there till time to plant. 2 seeds to a cup. If both make it both get planted together. I don't thin them. This has worked really well for me, low fuss, just have to keep them watered. Ya, 8 weeks before planting out time is usually good. If the plants are a bit leggy, make a shallow trench and lay the plant down in the trench with the leaves out. The stem will send out roots all along the underground portion.
Gardening at 5000 feet elevation, zone 4/5 Northern Utah, Frost free from May 25 to September 8 +/-

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jal_ut
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

Sorry, I didn't address your question.
What went wrong? Hmmmm, soil, water, light, temperature are the main concerns. Of those the soil would be my best guess. Lets face it, no way to say for sure. But don't give up. Growing is like that, we have good years and better years.
Gardening at 5000 feet elevation, zone 4/5 Northern Utah, Frost free from May 25 to September 8 +/-

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madonnaswimmer
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

Thank you all so much for your help!!

As for the soil-- I am going to continue using the coir pellets this year (mostly because I have already purchased them).
Interestingly, I remember now that I had a bulk coconut coir brick (actually sold as reptile bedding-- got it cheap last year as I work in a vet clinic), and last year, I had planted 1/4 of the seeds in that mixture to test it out-- those seeds did so horribly that I tossed all of them and didn't up-pot a single one. Was planning to never use that brick again.

Should I mix in the fertilizer to the coir pellets before I even get started? What fertilizer do you recommend I add/what NPK ratio should I aim for? I am always nervous about fertilizing the seeds/seedlings as I guess I think they are so fragile at that point. Worried about burning them. Would a liquid fertilizer added to the water be a better option than the granules I usually use?

Also, how often do you fertilize your seedlings? Am I right to wait to add more fertilizer until a few days after up-potting, if I add some to the beginner coir pellets?

How often should you change the bulbs? I bought two of the bulbs new in Spring 2013, and the other two for the second fixture new in spring 2014. They are on for the 8 weeks per year that I grow seeds, and then get put into storage. Do I need to replace them already?

I will re-check my temperature. 2014 was the year of the "polar vortex" so I know our house was colder in general. Perhaps I needed to put a space heater on down there, too.

Thanks!

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hendi_alex
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

A heat mat may be much cheaper than using a space heater. And a few incandescent bulbs placed in inexpensive reflector lamps may be the least expensive solution of all. I use four 74 watt incandescent bulbs in reflector lamps from Lowes to heat my 3 foot by 6 foot cold frame. They keep the temperature adequate down to the mid 30's or lower.
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jal_ut
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

Some type of potting soil, which is designed for potted plants would be best.
I like to get some of my garden soil and mix a little peat and sand with it.
You know real soil has clay, silt, sand and organic matter in it, along with a good dose of microscopic life.
I suspect your "soil" was lacking in nutrients. Coir is not soil.

We need to be careful with fertilizers. It is too easy to over do it. Get a box of fertilizer for house plants and follow the directions on the box.

I use a fluorescent shop light, the four foot long one with two tubes, for my seed starting. I leave it on all the time, and close to the plants. I hang the fixture on chains with hooks so I can raise as needed. As long as those tubes light up I use them.

Image

I am using a little shed outback, with a South window, for my seed starting. Keeps the mess out of the house.
Gardening at 5000 feet elevation, zone 4/5 Northern Utah, Frost free from May 25 to September 8 +/-

Susan W
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

I was going to ask about the coir pellets. I'm one of the few here who use peat pellets. Last year tried the coir and it was one disappointment after another. If the seed germinated, didn't do much. If seeds or starts don't do, I toss the pellet into a basket. Then on a pretty day, the g-son and I can pop the material out, toss the netting. I have a tub of stuff awaiting spring when I will mix up for containers.

I try to fertilize after they get true leaves, more or less, 7-10 days, with Johns Recipe. (Lady Bug brand, look for qt bottle in your garden center, not the box store). More on that in different post.
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

Sounds like you need to ditch the coir, cut your losses and start over. Seedlings don't need much fertilization. Too much will burn the tender plants and at best stunt the growth. That is one of the reasons I use soilless mix (aka potting mix) with the time release fertilizer. There is so little actual fertilizer seedlings will grow without adverse effects. If you grow seedlings in non-fertilized starter mix, then adding liquid plant food (the blue stuff) at about 1/3 strength at first repotting after true leaf stage.

As to the light bulbs, I usually get four or five years out the florescent tubes. I agree that a heat mat is much more economical that heating the entire space.
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jal_ut
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

OK, if you are going to use the coir pellets, you will need to apply fertilizer. I suggest some liquid fertilizer with NPK for what you are doing. See what is available locally. Follow directions on the container.

The other option is toss the coir, and get some potting mix.
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madonnaswimmer
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

OK, I think I will cut my losses and dump the coir. Maybe see if I can return it to Menards.

For potting soil-- do you use the soil that is marketed for seed starting? Or do you use regular potting soil? Then do you only fertilize once they get their first true leaves?

A few years back I used Schultz brand seed starting soil and I did not like it. What about Miracle grow?

As far as the heat mats, I already use them-- one per tray. But last year, when I measured the temperature, I thought they were too hot. I placed towels over them to dampen the heat. Now I am wondering if I forgot to measure the temperature inside the plastic trays? Hmm. I will look into this more.

Thank you all so much. This is such a valuable resource.

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rainbowgardener
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

I only use regular potting soil, not seed starting soil. These days I make my own, but for years I just used regular Miracle Gro potting soil. You have to be careful, you don't want the moisture control kind, stays too wet. It has M-G fertilizer in it, which the seeds and baby seedlings don't need, but it doesn't hurt them. They do fine in it. Since it has M-G built in you don't need to add any other fertilizer for a good while.

You mentioned the coconut coir bricks. In making my own potting/ seed starting mix, I use those, but only as one ingredient, with mushroom compost and rice hulls (most people would use perlite). I don't like using a sterile seed starting mix. The little seedlings start needing some nutrients very soon after sprouting and then what do you do? Too soon to transplant, so you have to try fertilizing babies, which is easy to over-do with added ferts.
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madonnaswimmer
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

Ok, at the store they have:

Miracle Gro "All purpose plant food" (24-8-16, plus boron, copper, iron, magnesium, molybdenum, and zinc)

Or

Miracle Gro "Quick Start- planting and transplant starting solution" (4-12-4, with nothing else.

Which is better for seedlings, both to begin and when up-potting them after they get their first true leaves?

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madonnaswimmer
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

Ok found another area of fertilizers, all different npk ratios.

What npk ratio should I use?!?

PaulF
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

For seed starting I would suggest a liquid plant food used at about 1/3 the recommended strength and use it very sparingly, maybe once or twice after the seedlings are repotted and are at maybe three inches in height. A lower N content would be best. The 4-12-4 would be better and still at less than recommended strength. Tender seedlings don't need much.
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madonnaswimmer
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Re: How to avoid what happened in 2014?

thanks!

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