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Getting an Early Start

I don't know if I'm shooting myself in the foot by starting some of my plants this early.  I'm still kind of a newbie, and I know that starting some plants (especially tomatoes) too early can cause problems with stress when the time comes to transplant them.  But I'm trying it anyway.  I live in Minnesota, where the summers are short and none too hot, and peppers and tomatoes particularly thrive on heat, both at the roots and in the air.  Last summer my tomato and pepper plants struggled.  I probably got five tomatoes from my poor, blighted plants and my pepper plants didn't get very big, only produced a few peppers, and many of the sweet peppers rotted on the plant before they ripened (I still need to look up why...).

This year I'm trying some different things to help them out.

Sprouting peppers and tomatoes in my "green house."

My Greenhouse "controls."
First of all, I'm starting them from seed because started plants get pricey fast.  My garden plans include 40 pepper plants and over 50 tomato plants.  Even at a modest $2 a plant (and that's cheap) that's about $200, which is more than half of what I've spent so far on seeds, pots, starting mix, organic pest and disease control, organic fertilizer (just a little for my seedlings, I hope to make the rest of it myself) plastic mulch, asparagus crowns, six cherry bushes AND the greenhouse.

But I am also starting them myself so I know that they get a good start.  You never know what kind of a start you get when you buy greenhouse seedlings.  Yes, most of them are probably fine, but especially with the peppers, there are very particular germination and and subsequent seedling temps that ensure a hardier pepper plant (source- The Vegetable Gardener's BIBLE).  I can ensure these conditions with my own seedlings.  I am also starting them about two weeks earlier than most greenhouses would (I think...) and ensuring that they get proper fertilization, and that they don't become root bound, which is a big reason for transplant stress.

A bit about my "greenhouse" in case you're curious.  The greenhouse itself is a cheap one I bought at Menards.  It's just a shelf with a (yuck) PVC cover to hold in heat.  I started the seedlings with the plastic cover on and set the tray on top of my satellite reciever box, which generated enough heat to keep the soil temp around 80 degrees as long as the lid was on the tray (it dropped as low as 75 degrees when I would leave the lid off for a while- I don't know if it would drop lower if I left the lid off, I always put it back on when it got that low).  Ideal conditions for peppers and tomatoes to germinate is moist sterile potting mix kept between 80 and 85 degrees.  Peppers and tomatoes don't need light to germinate, so this arrangement worked well.  Then, once four or five had germinated, I moved them to the greenhouse and took the lid off the tray.

At this point the seedlings still need the temperature to be around 80 (especially since many have not yet sprouted and I am still hoping that they will), but the sprouted seedlings also need sunlight.  Ideally they need about 16 hours of it, but that isn't going to happen here until my grow lights come in the mail, so for now a sunny window will have to do.  In order to maintain ideal conditions I have several instruments to monitor different variables, as you can see above.  The white one on the left is a simple air temp thermometer, and the one on the right is actually my kitchen probe thermometer, which I am using to monitor soil temp.  I also have inserted a moisture probe since taking this picture.  In the tray with the lid on moisture wasn't much of an issue, since it couldn't evaporate out.  But in the greenhouse, with a fan blowing on it (more on that in a sec) I am a tiny bit afraid they'll dry out before I notice.

To maintain the temperature I have the tray sitting on a heating pad set on low, and a small heating fan (also set on low) blowing into an opening in the bottom of the greenhouse.  The heating pad should sufficiently heat the soil, and the fan does two things- heats the surrounding air (which I don't think the heat pad alone would do) and circulates the air so that the seedlings are less likely to suffer from dampening off or other fungal problems.

This is the first time I've tried such a "scientific" approach to my gardening, and I have to say I like it.  I don't like guessing, and I love all these gadgets that essentially take the guess work out of my endeavors. 

Secondly, I am using plastic tomato mulch this year.  I have enough to use for the tomatoes, and I still need to make sure this is the best thing to use for the peppers.  And I am laying the plastic the second the snow has melted so the soil gets warm before the seedlings go in.

Third, I am NOT transplanting the seedlings until the soil temp is consistently high enough (I believe it's 65 degrees for both peppers and tomatoes... again from The Vegetable Gardener's BIBLE).  In order to detect this I will be using a max/min soil probe thermometer.  Which I still need to buy.

Forth,  I am using hot caps or row covers to create mini greenhouses around the transplanted plants once in the ground and until the plants flower.  Actually, I'm not using "hot caps," as I believe that is a brand name- I'm using old milk and juice jugs with the bottoms cut out.  If I can get enough.  I need about 100.  If I can't get enough in time I'll make a few floating row covers from scrap wood (which I should have plenty of after my chicken related projects) and builder's plastic.

Fifth, I am planting the peppers closer together.  After much reading I figured out that mine were too far apart last year.  they're only supposed to be about 12 inches apart.  I will probably use a ruler.  I think I also need to plant them deeper, and possibly even stake them.

Sixth, I will preventatively treat my tomatoes with compost tea and an antifungal spray to prevent the blight (likely septoria leaf spot based on pictures) that kicked my butt last year.  I may even sterilize the soil with a propane torch before planting.  And if the blight crops up regardless, I will kick it's butt with some copper soap spray.  Take that blight!

And lastly, I will repeat the one thing I did right last year- companion planting.  Because while I did have some problems, I had absolutely (knock on wood!) no pests anywhere other than on my cabbage (which had no companion- I will be planting chives with it this year).  So I will be planting basil and marigolds with my tomatoes again, and will be planting oregano with my peppers, as well as marigolds, borage, nasturtium, yarrow, geraniums, and tansy in various spots around the garden to deter or distract pests and attract beneficial insects.

I'm also looking into different "green manure/mulch" that I can plant this fall to prepare each bed for it's particular plant (with rotation).  I'll be planting hairy vetch this fall to prepare next year's tomato bed- any other suggestions for green mulch?

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