Once seedlings have been hardened off adequately and deemed ready to go into the ground it’s time to head to the field. In spring there was lots of transplanting for the farm team; when a single week saw us undertake a massive effort with cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries, squash, melons and eggplant go in and there was head lettuce, napa cabbage, pak choi, kale or cabbage to plant almost every other week.
Bed preparation typically includes a light hoe or even a flame weed (although this tends to be used before direct seeding) to help reduce weed pressure although this might be skipped it has been rototilled recently. Once it’s time to plant we hope for a cool, slightly overcast day with rain in the afternoon but the main thing is to get them in the ground; they may only be small plants but they will eventually use up the nutrients in the planter trays and become root bound. It’s lovely when the soil is a bit ‘fluffy’ and it’s easy to dig your hands in to make a space for the new plants but of course it’s not always ideal conditions and when we did leeks on a wet day into clay soil it felt like an uphill battle.
Watering them in is an essential step, generally achieved the low tech way with watering cans, although we did skip it if it was raining hard enough.
The transplants can look pretty sad (like the lettuces in the pic on the left) when they first go in but somehow they miraculously manage to survive, perking up (see middle pic) and eventually turn into fully grown plants ready to harvest (more like those same lettuces in the pic on the right).
They’ve been babied in the greenhouse with plenty of lights to help them grow, a heater to keep them warm and a fan to keep the air circulating (in an effort to prevent damping off – a fungal disease that affected some of our onions and leeks; we watched in dismay as they were eaten away at the base before keeling over) but it’s time for the plants to head out into the real world. Starting on the deck at the farmhouse the trays of seedlings begin their journey in fits and starts. The plants are put out in the morning, to gradually get used to life on the outside before being brought into the nice warm house again at night. So begins the daily ritual: inside, outside and inside again as the dining room, study and some of the living room are transformed into an evening sea of green. Once the minimum night time temperatures are over 10’C and the deck is made rabbit-proof the plants will stay out overnight.
Ideally hardening off weather is calm and mild; fairly overcast on day one, mostly sunny with patchy cloud cover on day two and then clear and warm after that. Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t always oblige and often our seedlings were put out in less than ideal conditions and some of them inevitably succumbed to cold, windy or very hot, sunny weather. It’s a shock for the little plants but once they are in the ground at the farm there will be virtually no protection from the elements so it’s now or never as there’s a planting schedule to follow if we want a harvest.
It may not look like much but this tray of potting mix has been seeded with oil pumpkins that will be transplanted in a few weeks. Canada has a short growing season and farmers often start plants indoors where they can control temperature, water and light while waiting for the soil to warm up. It’s a way of extending the season and gives plants a head-start while waiting for the days to lengthen and the risk of frost to pass.
Some considerations when planting for an indoor greenhouse:
- Tray size – How many plants per tray? The more plants per tray the smaller the available space for each plant to grow before it becomes root bound and larger seeds, such as squash, need more space; the oil pumpkins above are in a tray with 24 pots.
- Seed depth – As with all planting it’s important to know at what seed depth is needed.
- Labelling – It’s a good idea to label trays with planting date and variety name in particular.
- Germination – What germination rate is expected (if it’s low planting more than one seed per pot may be planted) and how many days for germination to occur?
- Lighting – Fluorescent lighting is fine but it needs to be close to the plants; about 5-10cm (2-4 inches). If the light is too far plants will end up lanky as they stretch towards the light.
- Number of seeds to plant – How many plants are planned for harvest? To account for losses calculate 20% loss in the greenhouse and a 20% loss at transplanting. For example, if 100 plants are started in the greenhouse then 80 plants would be transplanted in the field of which 64 would make it to harvest.
Even better than an indoor greenhouse is an outdoor heated greenhouse where plants get sunlight rather than artificial light. Unfortunately, there is some infrastructure yet to be built at Chelsea Gardens so for now the greenhouse is a basement room at the farmhouse.