How to grow seedlings without plastic pots

How did we ever grow vegetables, or any other transplants, without plastic pots?  Clay pots have of course been around for a long time. But these are heavy, breakable, expensive, and are not made with all the refinements plastic pots offer for encouraging a good root system.

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Personally, I use (and re-use, and use again and again, even when any sane person would say I should throw them away) plastic pots for growing out plants -the nitrogen fixers such as Amorpha especially. The above are my first choice for the task. That said, I have seen many advanced gardeners use an in-ground method for growing transplants that works well for small plantings. 

If you really want to ditch plastic pots, you can just grow your seedlings out in the garden, smack in the soil; but there are several tactics to making sure your green efforts are a success.

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Location

In almost all cases, seedlings like to have light, warmth, and protection from wind.  Ideally your whole garden would be a sunny, protected spot, but selecting the most happy, cozy little niche in your yard for your seedling nursery is imperative. These are babies you know.

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Fertile, friable soil.

Just remember this point as the two F’s. In this case, the F’s are not for failure, they are for success.

The natural strata of soil keeps the fertile, nutrient rich organic matter on top of the soil, with poorer soil lower in organic matter lower down. Seeds usually sprout on the soil surface, so it makes sense that seedlings are wired to use lots of nutrients as they sprout.

Planting seedlings in poor soil without organic matter is the exact opposite, and usually gives poor results.

Friable soil is crumbly soil. Rich soil high in organic matter is very friable. Sand is another friable soil type.

You want your soil to crumble easily, because you intend to transplant these tender little seedlings. If your seedlings are stuck in rock hard clods, you’re likely going to break a lot of them in transplant, and stress them far more than if the soil just falls off their roots.

Best situation would be to mix sand with a soil high in organic matter, or to have sand a foot deep, with a few inches of organic matter rich soil on top.

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Pure decomposed comfrey in Mortal Tree. This is excellent for growing seedlings.

If you’re growing out tree seedlings especially, you will want that foot or so of sand. This will accommodate the deeper roots.

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Method

In general, sprinkling the seeds around randomly takes up a lot of space, and often gives a chance for weeds to show up in the un-used space between sprouts.  Not good.

It’s often better to space out seedlings in time rather than space. In this case, start out seedlings close, in rows or patches, so they take up the minimum amount of soil for their size, and transplant to larger spacing as they grow.

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Some seedlings you will only want to sprout before transplanting to their final positions. Other plants, such as young trees especially, you will want to grow out in the nursery until a descent root system has formed. This may take months, and probably two sequential transplantings -one from the sprouting bed, and one to more spaced patches or rows -before transplanting to their final position.

The secret to success here is getting to seedlings transplanted on time. Seedlings right next to each other will shade each other’s stems. This will induce the production of hormones called auxins. These elongate the cells, making the seedlings long, spindly, and weak. The way to avoid this is to keep an eye out for sprouts, and never let them grow too close for too long. For some plants, sprouting happens over several weeks. In these cases, just dig out the little seedlings as they come.

Damping off

A major problem with seedlings can be damping off. This is when a portion of the stem looks like it is pinched, and shrivels up, or that seedlings don’t sprout at all because they have rotted below the soil.

Conventional methods dictate attacking the problem directly with antibacterials and fungicides mixed into the soil, or sprayed on the seedlings. Some organic methods spray the seedlings with infusions of thyme or other organic antibacterial herbs. A better method is to just provide a situation that doesn’t support the disease through proper design.

Damping off usually occurs in low temperatures, or excessive moisture. A warm position with well-draining soil already gets you ahead in keeping away from damping off; but there are some tactics to improve the situation even more.

For instance, raising up soil the seedlings are in, such as in raised beds, will bring the soil closer to the temperature of the air. This may be a bad or good thing if the space is outdoors, as cold snaps may mean the soil is warmer than the air. In most cases, and especially if the position is protected, the opposite is usually the case.

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You can also increase the temperature of the soil by increasing its solar exposure. One way to do this is, again, to raise the soil. The solar exposure is further improved by forming the soil in curved, S-shaped ridges.

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This works because sunlight interacts much more with soil when its surface is near perpendicular to the slant of the sun. Raising ridges like this also increases the overall surface area sunlight can hit. The more surface area sunlight hits, and the more direct the hit of sun, the more warmth your given sunlight will warm the soil.

Poor air circulation also encourages damping off. Don’t take this to mean your area should be exposed to wind. We already discussed how young seedlings don’t like that. A better way to minimize poor air circulation is to not let seedlings stand together too close for too long. Again, pay attention to timing.

Following these directions, you have the best chances of growing healthy seedlings without plastic pots. I’ve learned a lot of these tactics from watching experienced gardeners put them to use. I am always interested in learning about new tactics that can be added to this practice. If you know any, I’d love to hear about them.

What does GKH need to self seed?

The popular perennial spinach good king henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) is pretty difficult to germinate. Under Making sense of wild seeds I found how hard some fellow perennial vegetable gardeners have worked to eek out nothing but empty pots of this plant. In my own experience, a hundred seeds will likely yield as high as twenty, and as low as one or two seedlings.

When I established this plant in Mortal Tree, I hoped the seed would suit itself, and sprout on its own. I’d transplant whatever appeared. Such serendipitous propagation eluded me for years, until last year, when I moved them.

Next to the patch this year, I was ecstatic to see a moderately thick patch of the sprouts!

This is a southwest facing slope, but has a small windbreak of plants in front of it. The bed is in its second year. The grass mulch I laid to start it still covers the ground. We also had an extremely mild winter. In general, I think this plant likes really temperate conditions, prefering cool over heat, moisture over dryness.

I hope this conjures some images in your mind of areas in your garden that might suit this plant. It really is quite a nice perennial vegetable. I call it, The better broccoli, for its delicious flower buds. With seeds growing themselves now, I plan on having a lot more of this food in the very near future.

Approaching Hablitzia

Scanning page after page on late night searches for interesting plants, there is one that has always topped my list of most lusted after leaf.

Hablitzia tamnoides, or Caucasion mountain spinach, is the sole member of the genus Hablitzia, closely related to Amaranth. It is a perennial vine, growing 6-10 ft (or so), hardy to zone 4 by most accounts, boasting the title of ‘the’ perennial spinach, with harvest beginning in very early spring. Tantalizing, isn’t it?

The plant is also said to be triploid, which is supposed to result in poor germination. Diploid strains seem to have surfaced in the gene pool after increasing interest in the plant. Years ago the seed was only available per the kindness of a handful of growers -sometimes at a dollar a seed as I recall -aside from any shipping.

I have traded, bought, begged hablitzia seed from several sources, for several years, gotten several strains. Every year I have carried out the most carefully composed care I can contrive to obtain a healthy plant. They have invariably died.

Every year I have inched closer, with barely a sprout the first year. In following years, I began getting what I think must be diploid seed strains, because the germination greatly improved to about 90 percent.  I also began stratifying them for shorter durations; because one gardener told me he gets sprouts by simply putting the planted flat in his root cellar for two weeks in fall. Which one allowed the improvement in germination is hard to tell.

Once germination was no longer a problem, I achieved whole trays of the plants. This was only for one by one, day by day, each plant to wilt. The next day I’d find it flat on the ground, dead.

I figured it must be a bacterial infection. What kind I am not sure. The only disease I have ever heard hablitzia succumbs to is botrytis, but I had never seen a sign of the ‘ash.’

It may have just been post hoc, but I found the greatest onslaught usually followed even slight long term excess of water -such as watering two days in a row. Now I keep a tight leash on any watering, waiting until the soil completely dries out, then drenching. The plants seem to like this. Other variables may be at work.

This year, I finally made a breakthrough: I have continued using more and more rock powder, with better and better results for the plants. Most describe hablitzia as a ‘woodland’ plant; but the situations that seem to give the best results simulate dry river beds, or rock crevices. They seem to like tons of available minerals, little nitrogen, and alternating dry and wet, with lots of sun. Providing enough rock seems to be especially important.

I started the seeds last year in a simple organic blend of potting soil. This includes small amounts of peat moss, and chopped wood chips, and has proven the best choice. Once sprouts appeared, I dusted the plants heavily with a very silica-rich rock powder called wollastonite.*

Also, I only filled the pot about half way with soil. This way the walls block most movement of air, and reflect heat and light on the seedlings. Because the soil is thinner, it dries out faster too.

Once the seedlings achieved true leaves, I transplanted into simple, unamended clay I dug up from under a healthy clover plant, mixed with wollastonite until it was white. I put the transplanted seedlings in the shade, and didn’t water for the first day. When I did finally water, I put them in full sun for a couple hours, to dry off the leaves, then put back in the shade.

The plants that followed were some of the most sturdy specimen I have ever grown. I dusted again with wollastonite, and moistened with water I  added a little honey to (antibacterial properties). Bacterial wilt stayed away for a long time.

I gave away a couple of these plants, hoping they would live somewhere. Haven’t heard back any successful reports. I gave two to one of my clients. These I dusted and sprayed during a later visit in hopes of holding off any possible infection. One died. One took.

Yes, one continued to grow beyond the size of any hablitzia I have grown. Then it vined. It even bloomed! This spring, it’s sprouting!

Obviously I’m just short of delirious. What’s more, I am reverse engineering the heck out of this situation in the hopes I can actually get one to grow in Mortal Tree. I transplanted several of the other plants to the food forest last year. They all died -some due to animals though. Perhaps they would have overcome the wilt otherwise.

The situation at my client’s is a southeast corner of their white brick house, next to a concrete patio. This protects from all the most undesirable winds, but is wide open to early morning, and some mid-day sun. It is also under the rain gutter, which overflows in downpours, but dries out quickly after because of all the reflected sun. The soil isn’t notably good -actually quite gravelly there. Spent flower bouquets, and a few kitchen scraps under thin grass in a sort of thin Lasagna Garden fashion provides a small flow of nutrients. If you would like to learn more about the site, see this For example:

Eventually I will get one of these plants to flourish in Mortal Tree. Until then, I am ecstatic my clients have achieved one of these precious plants, and look forward to hearing what they think of the flavor when they begin harvesting. That will probably be next year of course. We want to be sure this plant is here to stay!

 

*I got it from the mine owner when I met him at a conference, but he sells as small as 50 lb bags on request through his website. My parents are considering getting a couple tons of the stuff for our gardens and fields. I am actually planning on taking the distribution a step smaller with one, or even half pound units available for sale for small scale gardeners. I’m still working out packaging and sales channels; but contact me if you would like to be informed of Stardust Chelation Substrate’s launch in a couple months.

Making sense of wild seeds

I’m not quite sure what it takes to sprout Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis). Last year I posted a fairly certain observation that a couple weeks in cold temperatures does the trick, only to find in the comments from the ever apt Wooddogs3 that she had sprouted quite a few straight out of the packet in warm weather.

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Scratch that idea. I figured something else must have deterred my Turkish rocket sprouts; but then, in later conversation, Heather mentioned that more Turkish rocket sprouted after the pot sat out over winter. (?)

I think the fact of the matter is we are working with fairly wild, unselected seeds. With them, variance is the standard. At the same time, it offers several little known benefits.

Varying the time of germination increases the likelihood at least some of the seeds will sprout in a ‘sweet spot’ of a season, or at least avoid catastrophes, and make it to adulthood. What if an unusually late frost hits or some animal nips off the tender sprouts?

This is a very helpful character for love-in-a-puff vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum) which I’ve grown on a large scale for the last couple years. It’s a warm climate plant, and can’t take frost. I nevertheless plant it in mid April, when we still have a chance of frost. While a few will come up as early as three days after planting and get nipped, the majority of the plants take about two weeks to sprout, and will continuing sprouting up to three months after.

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Cardiospermum sprout back when I tried growing them in flats. Because their sprouting time was so varied,  I watered the flats a lot longer than expected for all the seeds to sprout. They don’t transplant very well anyway, so I now direct seed.

The mechanics that govern this variance can vary, but are usually based on the activity of certain enzymes releasing nutrients necessary to wake up and nourish the embryo that will become the new plant.

Health conscious readers may be familiar with the discussion of improved nutrition in sprouted or soaked grains because the phytates present in these seeds have been removed (see here for more info). This is because in the seed, phytates bind up nutrients -phosporus in particular- keeping them off limits for the embryo (1). Water is one factor that initiates the enzyme phytase, which is responsible for breaking up the phytates (2). In the right temperature range, phytase completes the breakdown of the phytates, releasing the nutrients the embryo needs for growth. In most cases, the need for adequate water and longer durations of certain temperatures ensures the plant can grow to maturity once it sprouts.

Of course, many of our perennial vegetables also need cold, moist temperatures, or dry and warm temperatures, in addition to a later stage of warm moisture to successfully sprout. Phytates are one example of the mechanics generally at work in seeds -enzymes releasing nutrient.* Differences in the genetic makeup can dictate the time each seed takes to activate these enzymes, and release the nutrients for sprouting. Its variance in genetics that often gives such extreme variance in sprouting time, and what conditions are necessary to induce germination.

Most of our garden vegetables were the same way at one time, with lots of variance. They’ve just been selected. If over the next ten years I only saved seed from cardiospermum that sprouted two weeks after planting, this character would soon be the norm.

Although it’s nice to have an idea what’s going on in those drab looking little seeds as they deny us a happy sprout, what can we do to improve the likelihood that we, at some point, actually get a sprout?

Heather had the right idea leaving her Turkish rocket in the pot to see if any more sprouts would show up. Just give the seeds time, and changes in temperature.

I know from experience that keeping a little empty pot of dirt safe for seasons at a time is not easy. As a first step, designate a spot where seeds are protected -by mandate of heaven -or whatever works for you. Tell this to anyone that might come along thinking your untidy plant-keeping needs tossed in the trash.

Rodents seldom care about the mandate of heaven, so cover the seeds with some mesh, or build a hanging tray well above the ground, as Martin Crawford does, to keep them out. I hung some trays in our greenhouse last year which did the trick keeping mice out of squash seeds. The only problem with hanging trays I find is their fluctuating temperature: pots placed on them can easily dry out on a hot day.

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Seeds are more likely to stay moist and live if they’re in more temperate climates surrounded by bricks in a shady corner. My favorite spot for sprouting is on the east side of our garage, or on the north side of our greenhouse. I’ll bring the trays from these temperate spots once in a while to the hot greenhouse. For a short time here, I watch them, and keep them watered, while transplanting any sprouts that appear. Once the sprouts stop appearing, I move them back to the less intense climate.

This system is very effective at getting around the errant nature of our prized perennial vegetables and trees. With such complexity, it’s better to just offer a variety of situations to seeds, and wait, rather than trying to guess what’s going on in those drab little seed’s dreams.

*There are even several kinds of phytase. See here for more info.

Growing Amorpha

Deep purple petal over bright orange stamens of Amorpha fruticosa melt into green, spotted little crescents of seed. These ripen in the sun to a dark brown, then white-gray and hold. I kept thinking these seeds would fall off, but even in January when I lately picked some, they were tightly attached.

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They have a peculiar ability to sprout without cold -unlike most woody perennials that need months of subfreezing temps. They just need heat above 70 degrees F, and up pop little green leaves. Usually I soak the seed for a couple hours before sowing into flats. I start them in February in some years, March in others, but for my climate these both mean heat has to be provided.


I have to be careful with the dry air of indoor heating to keep the seeds wet, so usually cover with some plastic, and water often. We begin heating a small portion of our greenhouse about that time for garden vegetables, so these seedlings can soak up real sunlight from day one.

They are wise little seeds, and spacing their sprouting time -which outdoors would be a fail-safe against late frost and other catastrophes. For me, it’s a great convenience. Out of one ‘source flat’ as I call it, sprouts pop within three days after planting, but keep popping up for several weeks.

Usually I wait until the first true leaves show before I begin transplanting, then clear the flat of any sprouts with true leaves once a week.

Out of the hundreds I have grown, I find it’s best to start the seeds with potting soil, or compost with good levels of nitrogen. From here I separate into small pots or cell flats no larger than 2 inches across, filled with the same kind of nitrogen rich potting soil they sprouted in.

The heat and rate of drying in smaller pots, where the roots can quickly reach the bottom and be air pruned, has given superior results for me. They still develop very deep taproots once in the ground, but this root pruning while in the pot is helpful -in part because it stimulates more branching of the root system. Planting in extra large pots with nitrogen rich soil, many seedlings rot, and must be replaced two or three times over before each pot successfully grows a plant. On the other hand I have tried planting them this early in nitrogen poor soil, and they make little headway.

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I think this best mimics the situation they would find in nature. Forests and grasslands have a thin layer of nutrient rich, fluffy soil on the surface usually, which quickly becomes clay or whatever the base soil of the area. I want to get the seedlings into nitrogen poor soil to induce nodulation (aka hosting nitrogen fixing bacteria as evidenced by the formation of little nodules). This is spurred on by a lack of nitrogen in the soil. The catch is it takes time for the young plants to find the bacteria and get the symbiosis set up.

Nature’s way seems to be nutrient rich soil at first, then less rich soil as the plant gets bigger, the roots deeper. My contrived biomimicry that gives best results is moving the seedlings once they have filled their small pots and gotten a bit root pruned (not pot bound, as in roots turning back on themselves) into larger pots of whatever size you choose, filled with nitrogen poor soil about 1/3 rd coarse sand. I usually mix nutrient-rich rock powders, such as carbonitite or granite, into this before filling the pots.

Usually I transplant into 4inch pots at this point so they are filled with their roots in a couple of weeks -about the time nodules start to form. Usually this is early June -plenty of time for establishment before fall. Those I don’t get in the ground the first year go into gallon pots by August, which they usually have amply filled by next spring.

I try to avoid keeping Amorpha in pots more than a year. They grow best put in the ground as soon as possible after they have acclimated to the nitrogen poor soil. After years of refining this method, I’ve had transplants pushing 5ft by the end of year one -well on their way to exploding every spring with growth, providing some of the best organic matter for fueling your plant projects.

Where to get the seeds? You might have a plant nearby, which I recommend you snatch some seeds from. Otherwise they’re very affordable, and widely available from Sheffield seeds (my first choice), Oikos Tree Crops (They advertise A. californica, but I’ve gotten their seed -and plants, and compared it against pictures and attributes on the USDA plant database, and they have the name wrong. It’s species fruticosa), or even Amazon if you shop there.

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Suiting itself: Turnip rooted chervil

There’s a list more lengthy than I’d like to admit of plants I continue buying the seeds of, pampering to the greatest extent, but I have yet to grow into adulthood.

Turnip rooted chervil (Chearophyllum bulbosum) was very near the top of the list. It was while searching for this seed I became aquainted with Wojchiech who I still have linked on my Seed sources page. For three years I bought the seed, spreading it around in fall, spring, stratifying in the fridge and planting into a flat. I never got so much as a sprout.

Last spring I was showing a friend around the food forest when I came to the guild featured in Fruiting factors and saw some feathery leafed plants in quite a definite patch. Since Wojchiech is very generous with this seed, I have literally spread it any place the grass is cleared away. A single spot growing so thick with the stuff seemed unlikely.

Something must be right in that spot because the stuff grew to over six foot (descriptions site four feet usually) blooming very prettily in late summer with legions of wasps and tiny bees I had never seen. I did check closely and am sure it is C. bulbosum.

The edible roots are best at the end of the first year, which I obviously had missed, so left them all to seed. I made sure plenty of seed was left to reseed the patch, but got a decent amount to spread around in all the other spots I thought it would grow.

I have yet to find a sprout in any of those places, but last year’s patch is coming up thickly fairly with mature looking plants, and lots of sprouts.

The reason for this preference? I really can’t tell. It’s in the guild that excels in about every way though. My best guess is it needs protection from evening sun and wind, which it gets from the garage about 25 ft to the west. It’s out of the sun for maybe an hour or two before the rest of the food forest depending on the position of the sun.

C. bulbosum is a biennial; so I was curious about these larger plants. They might be late rising seeds I originally planted, or early sprouters from last year’s dropped seed; genetics in wild plants especially can vary a lot in their stratification requirements. I had to wonder though if they had made any appreciable root?


Not much. The root was about two inches below the soil and maybe as big around as a dime. I expected it to be a little bigger and will check again in fall of they don’t bloom.

Even if it doesn’t turn out to be an amazing edible, it’s a great insectary. Most important, I can scratch it off the list of plants I, in vain, keep trying to grow. That gets frustrating after a while.

Should Turkish rocket be cold stratified?

Turkish rocket seed.
Turkish rocket seed.

Despite turning up in near every book on perennial vegetable gardening, tips on starting Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis) from seed seem scarce.

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I sowed the seed in sifted compost, covered with a flat to keep animals from getting in, and left it in the cold.

I first tried planting it indoors, as the only information I had found said the sprouts appear 4-6 weeks after planting, and got nothing. I assumed the seeds must have been bad.

I tried seed the next year from the only other source I could find, but stratified the seeds outdoors from January to mid-March. This was about two months of subfreezing temperatures and resulted in near 100 percent germination

I’m growing more this year and bought the seed from the first source. I’m pretty confident lack of cold was the only problem.

I wonder how short a stratification is enough though?  Having the opportunity, I’m planting in January again.  If anyone sprouts them successfully with less (on purpose, or by accident), let me know.

Right now Wojchiech Smyzanski, who is a private seed collector that sells seed from his collection, and Restoration Seeds are the only two sources for the seed I know of. If you happen to know of another, or would be interested in selling or trading some of your own, let me know and I’ll add you to my seed sources page.