Last spring the world aligned in such a way leading to what I can only describe as a collapse in judgement wherein I purchased an actual device to start my seeds in. Firstly, I am a gluttonous gardener and had compiled a frightening collection of seeds to grow, and then Lee Valley had the gall to open a store in downtown Toronto, luring me into their crack den of nearly useless gadgetry and fancy door locks.
I broke down and purchased Lee Valley’s Styrofoam Windowsill Seed Starter last season knowing it would be problematic but having been sold on a few key features: it’s just the right size to fit my narrow old-school window ledge, and it’s self-watering. While you can get your seeds started in just about any old yoghurt container or milk carton, gardeners who are short on space will empathize with my dilemma, How do I grow the maximum number of seedlings in the tiniest amount of space? The answer, like most quandaries in life comes down to finding a system that presents the least number of problems… or growing less seeds. Not going to happen. In fact my list for this year has increased!
Here’s what I wrote last year:
I pay $20 for Styrofoam so you don’t have to. [ed. Here's where I convince myself I am doing this all for you.] The first problem I noticed was no tagging system. I fixed that by fashioning tiny tags that don’t interfere with the dome using toothpicks, sticker paper, and an indelible marker. So far I don’t mind it as it fits perfectly on my narrow windowsill and I haven’t had to even think about watering for days. However, seedlings are only just starting to emerge and my suspicion is that the real challenge will come as they near transplant size.
The challenge I am referring to is the starter’s tiny cell size. Sure you can start a lot of seeds in a small space but what happens when those tiny seedlings start to grow? Lee Valley’s write-up on their website suggests using the starter for slow-growing plants such as broccoli and lettuce. Now, lettuce is a cold crop that does not require a start indoors, and I don’t know about you but I would hedge a bet that people with small indoor spaces often have small outdoor spaces. What percentage of those people intend to grow more broccoli in that small space than tomatoes? Just saying.
So here’s what my plants looked like about three-quarters of the way to planting time:
You can see that the plants are a bit leggy (tall and thin). This is the reality of windowsill growing. My window is south-facing and gets good light but it’s just not as ideal as an artificial lighting set-up.
A massive tangle of roots was created causing some stress on transplant. You know, what with all of the ripping and the tearing. Hint: Seedlings hate that.
Purple colour on the underside of tomato leaves is a sign of potassium deficiency. I transplanted these seedlings to recycled transplant containers shortly after taking this photo. The seedlings came around and lost that purple tinge once they had some room to spread their roots and take up nutrients. I watered regularly with sea kelp and added a bit of vermicompost to each pot at transplant time.
In the end is all of the fuss worth it? The advice I always give and stick by is to save your pennies and employ transplant-sized, reusable containers to get the job done. Starting with appropriately-sized containers that will take you from seed to transplant means less work in the long-run and prevents any desperate late-spring juggling acts to find enough light for all of your much-larger-than-anticipated seedlings. But of course if you’re like me and you’ve got bigger dreams than seed-starting space I would suggest saving your tomatoes for regular-sized containers and trying hot peppers, annual flowers, and just about anything else in the windowsill starter. Or if you’ve got to have those extra tomatoes you can do what I will probably do, give it a go now, panic later.
Question: I bought an all-in-one seed starting kit that is supposed to make the procedure a breeze. I’m new to this so I tried growing stuff like marigolds, pansies, and herbs but everything died! The seedlings grew tall and floppy with a couple of sad looking leaves. I propped them up but after a few days they gave up and “met their maker” so-to-speak. Can you give me some advice so I can see where I went wrong?
If your seedlings are growing tall and floppy it probably means they aren’t getting enough light. Light deficient seedlings grow tall, thin, and eventually weak as they reach towards the closest light source. This leads to sickly plants that are susceptible to the kind of disease that eventually carried your seedlings to plant heaven. In their early days, most seeds require heat rather than light to get the ball rolling. However, your seedlings will need plenty of strong light — at least 12 to 16 hours per day — once they have popped out of their shell and up through the soil.
Finding a good spot in your home can be tricky. A south-facing window will do during bright summer months, but even springtime sunshine lacks the consistently intense light that seedlings depend on.
An inexpensive fluorescent light is the best way to ensure the right start for your young flowers and herbs. Don’t break the bank on a swanky greenhouse system. Instead pick up a cheap and practical fluorescent shop light box with two fixtures (fits two tube bulbs) from your local hardware store. Get 40-watt bulbs; one cool white and one warm white and suspend the box about 4″ above your plants. Hang the light on a linked chain so you can raise it as your seedlings grow.
This setup isn’t exactly stylin’ (unless science-geek chic is your thing), but your next round of seedlings are bound to be robust, stocky and ready to make the journey outdoors.
Get It: A 4 ft shop light with built-in chain will cost around $25. at your local home improvement store. I recommend Phillips Alto T12 or T8 bulbs (about $2.50 each). Make sure your bulbs are a match for the fixture as the two aren’t interchangeable. A setup with T8 bulbs will be a slightly larger investment but are about 20% more energy efficient.
Germination has taken place in both the Eggling and the Real Egg. The Real Egg showed a few sprouts about 6 hours before the Eggling.
Sorry about the lack of photo to accompany this update however both seedlings are microscopic in size and I don’t have a macro lens.
I’m glad I saved a few seeds because I’m predicting that my reluctance (re: abject laziness) to go out and purchase sterile soil is going to bite me in the ass — damping off style. I applied a light sprinkle of cinnamon powder to the soil surface as a precaution but that soil was stolen from a container holding a large stevia plant that had been outside all summer long. In conclusion, damping off is inevitable. The thyme seedlings will meet a premature death. This experiment is utterly lacking in scientific method. I suck.
While setting up my “Eggling Experience” I thought it would fall more into the spirit of the much loved but long forgotten “The Lab” section of this site if I were to make this into an Eggling versus Real Egg experiment. I made the claim in my introductory post that an Eggling could be closely approximated for free using the shell of a real egg, and so I present to you a wholly unscientific experiment in which I will attempt to back that claim up with anecdotal evidence.
I haven’t done this since high school so bear with me.
A real egg is just as effective as an Eggling ceramic egg when used as a vessel for growing thyme from seed.
1. Set up an Eggling according to the supplied directions.*
2. Hard boil a large chicken egg. You can use a raw egg and just plop out the contents but I felt like eating a boiled egg.
3. Peel off a section from the top and scoop out the contents.
4. Remove a section from the bottom so that the egg sits flat.
5. Cut a small square of coffee filter and place in the bottom of the egg to cover the hole. This will keep the dirt from falling out.
6. Fill the egg with sterile seed-starting mix and a dash of vermicompost (aka worm poo). I was out of potting soil and too involved in the scientific process to go out for some, so I cheated and used soil from another pot. The soil wasn’t sterile but… I added worm castings in an attempt to approximate the Eggling growing medium which is said (in the instructions) to include, “…enough nutrients for plants to grow in it for up to 5 months.”
7. Sprinkle seeds on top of the soil. I used the extra seeds that came with the Eggling kit in an attempt to keep the projects as similar as possible (okay maybe no “as possible.” More like, as possible as I can be bothered without making a special trip to the store for additional supplies).
8. Water the egg slowly until water begins to drain into the tray from the bottom. I followed the directions outlined by the Eggling so that they followed the same routine.
9. Place both Eggling and Real Egg in a warm place to germinate. Mine are sat on top of the television awaiting germination.
*The supplied directions were seriously lacking in direction. When setting this up I tried to think like a beginner and I will say that as a fake beginner the lack of instructions left me feeling anxious as to whether I was doing the right thing. Did I make the hole big enough? How long will it take to germinate? How do I care for the plant once it has germinated? How do I prune? How do I transplant it? What happens next? p.s. In step #4 of the instruction pamphlet it is suggested that you shatter the Eggling and add the pieces to the soil of the transplanted plant “as fertilizer.” Dudes, last time I checked ceramic did not qualify as “fertilizer.”
p.s. NaBloPoMo is HARD.
I know that this cute little product has made the rounds in the design and gardening world so I know I’m probably not showing you anything new. I have been resisting the charm of the Eggling since I first heard of them because I generally do not support this kind of product no matter how cute. My reasons for blacklisting such products are simple: they aren’t appropriate vessels for growing healthy plants and as a thrifty gardener I am inherently against promoting excessive gardening product purchases. I mean, why buy a fancy porcelain egg meant to look like a real egg when you can just use a real egg — at no additional charge! Gardening for the first time can be a bit daunting. I am all about reducing some of that pressure in any way possible. And inevitably the eventual demise of what began as a fun try at growing something leads to the new gardener’s assertion that they just don’t have a green thumb. And so they give up.
So I generally stay away from promoting this kind of product or buying one for myself. Because even though I know how the story will end, I am a designer at heart and I can’t help but be drawn in by pretty things anymore than the next person. So cute! And simple! And pretty!
However, my spouse just came back from a short work trip to Southern California (no jealousy here) and surprised me with a thyme Eggling as a treat. He knew I would never buy one for myself and thought it might make an interesting experiment for the site. He’s heard me talk publicly about gardening enough (and read the book) to know that if anything was going to endure the hardships of such a small space it would be thyme. I’m very proud. Sigh.
I know it’s unfair of me to judge without personal experience so I plan to give this little one a go and will post updates here as they occur. In the meantime I am eager to hear about your experiences with this product. Please add your comments below.
p.s In an effort to light a fire under my ass I’ve elected to participate in NaBloPoMo here on YGG. There are plenty of day-to-day gardening experiences that I could be sharing here but many topics slide and become outdated before I get a chance to write.