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Growing your own plant starts without electricity?

 
Bethany Dutch
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Location: Colville, WA Zone 5b
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So... this year I'm going to grow my own starts again. Haven't had a decent garden in years, so no opportunity! Anyway, I just realized something. I used to have a really nice fancy grow rack setup with heat mats, lights, shelves, even some soil blockers. The key here is electricity, which I now do not have. At least not consistently. I'm off the grid and I run the generator about twice a day and no, I don't have a battery (long story).

So the real question is - I can get the seeds germinated ok, but if I just leave them to grow on the windowsills they will get all spindly and weak. Is there a way to do this without electricity? Should I try and set up some lights just to run when I'm running the generator?

Or are there outdoor options? I thought about a cold frame but I wasn't sure if that would help. I could go get a cheap used window and put it over some strawbales and make a sorta-greenhouse. Our local habitat has tons of used windows for really cheap. We're getting cold nights, but temps are supposed to get up into the 60s next week. We've had an early spring this year, though the risk of freezing will technically still be there for another month or two.
 
Dan Boone
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Bethany Dutch wrote:So the real question is - I can get the seeds germinated ok, but if I just leave them to grow on the windowsills they will get all spindly and weak. Is there a way to do this without electricity?


I wish my mother were alive to answer this question. She routinely started tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cabbages, and broccoli (plus maybe a few things I'm forgetting) on the windowsills of our cabin in sub-arctic Alaska. They were spindly but they weren't weak. Our date of last frost was perhaps May 15, but her greenhouse was reliably above freezing by April 15. And she started her plants in the cabin up to six or eight weeks before that, in February.

I don't know how she made it work -- she had the ultimate green thumb -- but I know it's possible because I saw it.
 
Bethany Dutch
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Dan Boone wrote:
Bethany Dutch wrote:So the real question is - I can get the seeds germinated ok, but if I just leave them to grow on the windowsills they will get all spindly and weak. Is there a way to do this without electricity?


I wish my mother were alive to answer this question. She routinely started tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cabbages, and broccoli (plus maybe a few things I'm forgetting) on the windowsills of our cabin in sub-arctic Alaska. They were spindly but they weren't weak. Our date of last frost was perhaps May 15, but her greenhouse was reliably above freezing by April 15. And she started her plants in the cabin up to six or eight weeks before that, in February.

I don't know how she made it work -- she had the ultimate green thumb -- but I know it's possible because I saw it.


Well that's at least inspiring! I wonder if I built some kind of reflector to reflect the sunlight back they would be ok on the windowsill? All my windows face south so that's not a problem, but we do have a short growing season so I'm going to need to start my plants in the next couple weeks.
 
Craig Overend
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Check out Sheryl's channel
 
D. Logan
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Two things I have found that seem to help some with window sill starts are first to have something slightly reflective on either side of the plant and second to tickle them regularly.

The reflective is tricky. I don't like using mirrors because sometimes they seem to concentrate the light a bit too much. Something like brass works great, but most people don't just have that laying around.

Tickling is pretty easy though. More or less you just run your fingers lightly across the plants every day for a minute or two. Also rotate them to make sure the light is hitting them evenly and they don't start bending towards one side or the other. The tickling simulates a light breeze and makes them a bit sturdier. It doesn't prevent legginess in my experience, but does keep the plant from getting too weak quickly.
 
Dan Boone
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Just to be clear, the video that Craig posted is some excellent information on winter sowing your plants outside. It is a technique for getting your plants to germinate outside at the earliest possible/safe time, which is a big improvement (when it works) over waiting until the soil is warm enough to direct-sow. However, it doesn't provide the full six or eight weeks of inside advantage that gardeners in northern climates are looking for when they plant seeds on their windowsills in February and March.
 
elle sagenev
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So I'm starting tomatos indoors. I put the seed WAY WAY DOWN at the bottom of this toilet paper tube kept inside a plastic milk jug. Then, as the seedling grew I continued filling the tube with dirt. What you end up with is incredible roots on your tomato seedlings. They look rather spindly and weak but I rather forgot about one from last year and it's STILL ALIVE in my window.
TOMATO SEEDLINGS.jpg
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Bethany Dutch
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Okay, so reflector it is. I wonder if I use crumpled and then flattened aluminum foil, if it would work to reflect the light but not too much like a mirror? I don't have brass sitting around but I can certainly cobble something together with cardboard and foil Tickling is a great idea! And, truth be told, I could possibly have a small fan going during the times I am using the generator.

ANd yes regarding Wintersowing - I did look at that, and plan to utilize it, but here for example you can't wintersow tomatoes until April. I want to start my tomatoes now, so in June when I set them out they will be decent size. We have about a 90 day season. I actually plan on doing a comparison to see if planting starts ahead of time gives me any benefit (besides the obvious benefit of soothing my soul by planting seeds in March!)
 
D. Logan
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Bethany Dutch wrote:Okay, so reflector it is. I wonder if I use crumpled and then flattened aluminum foil, if it would work to reflect the light but not too much like a mirror? I don't have brass sitting around but I can certainly cobble something together with cardboard and foil Tickling is a great idea! And, truth be told, I could possibly have a small fan going during the times I am using the generator.


The less reflective side of foil should work, since the light diffuses there a little more. I could see lining a wide strip of cardboard and then putting into a window that wasn't as wide. Creating a bowed surface of diffuse reflected light to more completely surround the plant instead of just adding to the sides. You'd still have to rotate some, but it would probably at least double the amount of light they get. Regarding the fan, my experience is that too much air movement tends to dry out the seedlings too much. I don't use misters and dislike having to baby them too much (even at this tender stage) by going in and redampening the soil surface multiple times each day. Personal opinion there though.
 
alex Keenan
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Dan Boone wrote:
Bethany Dutch wrote:So the real question is - I can get the seeds germinated ok, but if I just leave them to grow on the windowsills they will get all spindly and weak. Is there a way to do this without electricity?


I wish my mother were alive to answer this question. She routinely started tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cabbages, and broccoli (plus maybe a few things I'm forgetting) on the windowsills of our cabin in sub-arctic Alaska. They were spindly but they weren't weak. Our date of last frost was perhaps May 15, but her greenhouse was reliably above freezing by April 15. And she started her plants in the cabin up to six or eight weeks before that, in February.

I don't know how she made it work -- she had the ultimate green thumb -- but I know it's possible because I saw it.


My grandmother also started plants in the window in Alaska. This worked great for the cold weather crops. Because of all the light they got many grew fast as the days got longer. The key was having enough room by the window until the soil got warm enough to transplant. One trick that worked great that I am using in Ohio today is to take advantage of spindly plants. I have a window full of spindly potatoes. My ground is covered in snow and I had some potatoes from true seed that were very small. These small potatoes sprouted early. So in order to not loose them I started them in the window. I will be starting some on the back porch as soon as it warms up some. Now by the time I can move these out doors I will have plants ready to hill when I plant them The was the secret to the great potato crops my grandma got. The potatoes where hilled while others were putting cutup spuds in the ground!
 
Dan Boone
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elle sagenev wrote:So I'm starting tomatos indoors. I put the seed WAY WAY DOWN at the bottom of this toilet paper tube kept inside a plastic milk jug.


I have a question about that. Every time I've planted anything in paper pots (either the commercial pressed ones made from recycled paper and glue, or recycled toilet paper and paper towel rolls) I've had horrible mold problems that starts on the paper surfaces and then spreads to the seedlings, killing them. If I keep them dry enough that the paper doesn't mold, it's too dry for the seedlings and *that* kills them. So I've pretty much given up on paper containers. So my question is, how do you manage that balance?
 
alex Keenan
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There are good molds and fungus and bad molds and fungus.
If you check the web you will find a number of good bacteria/mold/fungus treatments to innoculate plants.
I have found that if I have innoculated seeds I have fewer disease problems because the good microbes have a head start.
The other alternative is to heat treat all your paper products before you use them and than hope they do not become contaminated before you put them in the soil.
However, at some point you want the paper products to break down and not produce toxins that kill your plants.
You may also wish to consider heat treatment and mushroom innoculate such as a nice oyster or a mushroom mix to innoculate with.

The key is to choose your microbes instead of letting them choose you.
 
elle sagenev
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Dan Boone wrote:
elle sagenev wrote:So I'm starting tomatos indoors. I put the seed WAY WAY DOWN at the bottom of this toilet paper tube kept inside a plastic milk jug.


I have a question about that. Every time I've planted anything in paper pots (either the commercial pressed ones made from recycled paper and glue, or recycled toilet paper and paper towel rolls) I've had horrible mold problems that starts on the paper surfaces and then spreads to the seedlings, killing them. If I keep them dry enough that the paper doesn't mold, it's too dry for the seedlings and *that* kills them. So I've pretty much given up on paper containers. So my question is, how do you manage that balance?


I did have that problem last year. This year I haven't watered as much and the top of my tubes has remained dry, so no mold. You can see some mold on these propagation papers though. And it hasn't been a real issue because I am letting the paper dry between waterings.
20150304_210234.jpg
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Bethany Dutch
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Okay so an update. I am really,really impressed by what I built from the suggestions in this thread My starts look better than my mom's greenhouse starts. Thank you everyone for your suggestions!

I like this so much that when I finish my windowsills I may make them deep enough to hold flats so I can continue doing this. I'm going to figure out SOME way to integrate doing this with the design once it's finished.

My biggest problem is that I only have two windows I can use with a total of 8 linear feet of space. I just potted up my tomatoes and peppers and now I have no space to start my broccoli, cabbages, and other second wave starts. So, I may end up building something else, maybe a shelf that goes across the window.

My first version had me just taking a cardboard box, flattening it and cutting it open so it was one long piece. I covered the inside with foil, dull side out, and taped it onto an extended "sill" that I screwed into the 2x4 that my window rests on. My house is unfinished so I have no drywall or anything, and so no windowsills. My extended "sill" is simply a 14" wide piece of plywood that I literally screwed right into the sill space.

Since I had to expand my space to both windows, my second reflector was made out of one of those tri-fold presentation boards made of cardboard, and likewise covered with foil. It works REALLY well, and looks a bit nicer than the box which is a bit floppy.

So the fun part - about my starts. I planted one flat of peat pellets and I kept it near the woodstove so it would get heat. My tomatoes popped up within a week and the peppers were a little slower, but eventually they mostly came up. I think they were a little slower mainly because we had a lot of unusually warm weather this spring and so I wasn't running the stove as much as I usually do.

But the best part is this - after each seed sprouted, I removed it from the flat and put it in the windowsill with the reflector. They all grew incredibly well. There was absolutely NO lean towards the window - these starts are growing sturdy and stout. The foil reflects the sunlight so that the starts are surrounded by light and grow straight up.

I did "tickle" them once or twice a day as recommended also. I can't even tell you how much I am just really really impressed. You could also put your hand down there by the starts and feel a noticeable temperature increase - the whole setup really has a nice greenhouse effect.

And, here's some pics


This shows the brand new setup from the top, with some of the newly popped tomatoes.


After a couple inches of growth, and you can see there's no leaning or spindly-ness.


This is a closeup of the flat when I pulled it out a few days to pot them up. All of my tomatoes sprouted, I lost two because of damping off, but I think I planted something like 40 total.


And here's what the main window looks like today. This is my 5 foot window, I also have a 3 foot window. Both windows face nearly direct south, and both windows are completely full of starts. I probably waited too long to pot them up, they were working on their third and fourth sets of leaves in some cases, and I had to rip them apart since they had rooted into each other's peat pellets, but based on how they grew in the pellets I can't wait to see what happens now that I potted them up. I buried as much of the stems as I could.

I will probably end up blogging this. This method is just too effective to not share, IMO, especially since most people who are permies/independents/etc still often have to rely on electricity to start their seeds. In a SHTF situation without power (assuming you have a south facing window) this could make a huge difference in your garden.
 
Dan Boone
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That's awesome! I'm really impressed with how well your starts are doing.
 
Bethany Dutch
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Okay so I made a blog post about this experiment.

In summary it works, phenomenally. My plants flourished until I potted them up and I'm pretty sure I used a bad batch of potting soil because they barely grew at all after that. I still have some in their pots and they are maybe 8 inches tall with 4-6 sets of leaves. Next year I will improve upon this system and will be making my own potting soil. The reflector worked great.

Only drawback was I didn't have enough space to start everything I wanted, unless I wanted to make a second shelf for another batch but being off grid, that'a also my light source and I opted to not do that.

For the full writeup and pics here's the link - Starting Seeds without Electricity

 
Tim Malacarne
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One way enhance your garden is to plant stuff that can winter-over. I have some Winter Lettuce, it will die back and look awful over the winter, then sprout out in Spring, from the old stump. Dangedest thing you ever saw! Pretty red edges when it gets cold and matures...

Bloomsdale Long-Standing spinach same deal.

Start both about mid-August, let them grow a bit, take a few leaves mebbe, but leave undisturbed for winter. It'll sprout and grow real early.

Good luck!
 
Amjad Khan
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@ Bethany Dutch

I saw this thread and learned about constructing a box with reflective foil to help plants during the winter get enough light and perhaps a micro climate of more heat.

I ran into this issue though:

I had a peace lily that was always indoors and a different small flower.. not sure the name.

But I had about four goji berries that I had started this year outdoors and so I brought them in for the winter and placed them in a reflective window box along with the other indoor plants.
Just a week in, white mold started growing on the soil surface of almost every plant. With a little investigation I read that the dried leaves I had mulched the goji with were the problem, so I removed the leaves, turned the soil over, and sprinkled cinnamon powder on the soil to help prevent an outbreak. (I had mulched with leaves to promote water retention and to bring all the other good benefits we talk about mulch giving on the permies forums.)

My questions are these:

i) Do you ever have a problem with soil mold?
ii) Did you bake your soil to sterilize it? (I don't like this idea).
iii) Should I just water a lot less?
iv) Do you have any air circulation, like a fan, moving air around your starts?

Thank you,

Amjad
 
dara finnegan
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I have lived off grid and grow literally hundreds of starts and have to turn them everyday. Thank you so much for tinfoil use. What a great idea!
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://richsoil.com/email
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