Writers are generally a solitary lot. When we take a break from writing, we tend to turn to other activities that let us follow our own asocial paths. So, when the kiddo says I need to get out and talk to people more, I remember those old studies that told us talking to plants makes them grow faster. It probably doesn’t, unless they’re talking to each other, but it may make it seem like they do. And it’s a great excuse to talk to yourself. I do that anyway, and a lot of other writers I’ve chatted with online say they do too, so why not have a ready excuse?
So I went out. Not to the club or mall or bowling alley – heavens no! Out. Out to the great outdoors. I’m lucky. I have nearly a whole acre all of my own. Being situated on a state highway with unused wild space behind me, the feel of the farm this land used to be isn’t far away. Here I can mow the grass, tend my roses and lilies, fire up the barbeque or fire pit, and grow my own veggies with room to spare and no neighbors to complain. Still, I don’t want to spend any more time sweating in 80 degree temps and near 100% humidity than I have to. And in the North Country, our seasons are almost winter, winter, the late part of winter, and summer. Last year the first forty or so plants in the ground got frost bitten—in June. So this year I’m being cautious. I checked the long term forecast and consulted the frost calendars and they tell me I’m safe putting my corn in the ground this week, the last week of May, though I might be safer if I wait until June. No, I want those buttery cobs by Labor Day, if I can’t have them for the 4th of July. So they’re going into the ground, and I accept that I may once again be doing the same work twice, and get my first niblets around Halloween. Sigh.
The answer, all the garden books and HGTV hosts tell me, is to start many of my plants indoors months in advance. I did that. Twice. Cats. Don’t have them if you want your plants to stay on the nice plant shelf with the grow light. Luckily I started early enough, and bought enough seeds, that I still have time to get them well along before putting them in the ground.
I am not only asocial, I’m cheap. I’ll cop to it. I don’t like to spend money on anything I can make myself or go without. So, fancy seed starting kits and watering getups are out. I plant in the throw away plastic plant trays I bought my tomatoes and marigolds in years ago. (Both victims of neglect just as long ago.) But that’s not enough. I need more. I have tomatoes and bell peppers and jalapenos planted, but what about the golden peppers? Ok, those go in an old cardboard egg tray. And the red peppers can make do with a mailing tube cut down to size. So what do I do about my peas?
My son is working as a fry cook and the handyman at a local fast food joint that shall remain nameless… unless you can read the cups in these pictures. Ok, it’s Dairy Queen. Every day he brings home the paper cup he’s used at work. You might suggest he throw these out, but not I! Ok, I do, but he doesn’t. So I decided to find a use for them. These things make great seed starters.
1. That little line on the side? They claim that’s a fill line, but you and I know that’s where you cut to make them just the right size. I used a razor. A craft knife might be safer. You do you. The little ice cream size is perfect without cutting. The large size can hold 3-4 seedlings or larger startings.
2. Don’t throw away the top part. I’ll show you how we use that in a jiffy.
3. Fill the cup with potting soil to about 1/2 to 1 inch from the top.
4. Put a pea, bean, or seed in and gently push it down until you can just see it.
5. Add a bit more soil until it’s covered with about as much soil as it takes to reach the depth at which the package says it’s supposed to be sown.
6. Pat it down gently.
7. Water that sucker. Keep it moist. The Burpee Seed Company has some nifty little videos available online to help you start your seeds successfully. They don’t mention cats. They do say over or under watering is the number one reason seedlings fail. They also don’t mention unexpected frosts in June.
8. Make sure your seed pots sit in a sunny location like a window ledge or porch rail, preferably not one the cats enjoy sunning themselves on. If you don’t have a sunny location, you can get a cheap plant grow light from most anywhere. Burpee sells them online, or you can pick one up at Walmart, a home improvement store, or local nursery supply. They run from just under $25 up into the hundreds. They don’t have to be expensive to work, so don’t get talked into more than you need. Don’t substitute an ordinary lamp or fluorescent lamp though, they don’t work as well at all.
9. If you’re starting indoors, you can use the cup lids to create a terrarium, and save yourself having to water them as often. You will need to check on them regularly though, to make sure, and remove the lid as soon as they’ve grown about an inch high.
10. Bonus! If you’re planting beans or peas, you can use the straws as a temporary bean pole/support until you transplant them.
So now you’ve saved those cups from ending up in a landfill, and started your seeds. But what about those tops you cut off? I call those sleeves. Sleeves are great for protecting your little seeds and seedlings when you’re planting directly into the garden. I’m planting okra and corn this year in wide rows. And following tradition, I’ll be planting gourds and melons in the spaces between. The low lying vines tend to choke out weeds that would kill the corn, the corn shades the weeds that would compete with the vines. And they compliment each other’s nutrient requirements, so the soil doesn’t get as depleted.
1. So which will I put in between my corn and okra? I picked pumpkins to protect my corn, and butternut squash for the okra. Most books tell you to make a little hill to plant your pumpkins and other gourds or melons on. But that’s still more digging, and I’m exhausted clearing these rows. Instead, I’m going to create a little “hill” inside my sleeves.
2. Place the sleeves at a distance recommended on the package. I’m going with pumpkins about 3-4 feet apart and squash 2-3 feet apart.
3. Fill the sleeves near to full with quality soil. You can use topsoil, garden soil, or even potting mix. Make sure that the soil you’re seating the sleeve in is good enough for your crop, because those roots aren’t going to stay in your neat little hill. The sleeve will also help protect them from weeds until they can get well established.
4. Add a seed to each. Melons and gourds are thirsty and competitive. Don’t plant more than one or two per sleeve.
5. Add more soil to mound up over the top of the cup and tamp it down. If after tamping, it is beneath the lip of the cup, add a bit more. Better more than not enough.
6. Water those suckers! Keep them watered. Gourds and melons are thirsty. You don’t want to drown them, but they do take a fair amount of water.
7. Profit. No, no. Sun, water, add fertilizer or such as needed, weed, turn, and hope. Then profit. Kidding. Don’t profit; just enjoy those delicious pumpkins, watermelons, squash, or whatever you dig. You don’t have to remove the sleeve, like, ever. No seriously, you can just leave it on. If it seems to be choking a really thick vine, you can tear it off, but you don’t have to normally. It’ll protect your plant all summer long.
Ok, so now that you’ve had a nice time away from your keyboard, get back to work! That novel won’t write itself. Would you like a cat to help you? I think I could stand to part with one or seven of them.
As an update, thought you'd like to see my pumpkins and peas all sprouted out.
Originally, this post stopped here. But it's been a couple weeks, so I've transplanted some of the seedlings and I thought I'd show you how I did it. You can just pop them out and transplant the usual way. I have to keep the amount of grass and groundcover I remove from my garden at a minimum due to water run off issues. So, this is what I did. You may find it works well for you too.
Don't forget to water your plants both within their sleeves, and the soil around it.
I'll remove the sleeves once the roots have dug down into the ground and the plants are large enough not to be choked out by nearby weeds. The cups protect them until they can.
I'll update with another picture once they're bigger. Just 'cause I like to brag.