Posts Tagged: garden planning

Seed Starting 101


Seed Starting: Get your plants growing like a pro
By Kristine Jepsen • Photos courtesy River Root Farm

It begins mid-winter, when the seed catalogs start landing in your mailbox. Any gardener knows all that green abundance is as riveting as, well, porn on those cold nights of frost.

But for all their seeming perfection, the strength of those lovely fruits or flowers was determined months ago through the successful germination and early care of the young plants, says professional grower Katie Prochaska.

River Root Farm familyKatie – alongside her husband, Mike Bollinger – starts thousands of microgreens and vegetable and flower varieties every year at River Root Farm in Decorah.

“There are about six things you really have to address,” says Katie. “Soil, type of container, light and warmth, watering, and, well, human error – or, just paying attention.”

Katie, a Luther College grad who first dug into gardening as a sustainable farming volunteer in the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa, has had plenty of opportunity to dial in those basics. She and Mike put in time with the Seed Savers Exchange garden crew, managed the one-acre sustenance garden at the Good Life Center, founded by Helen and Scott Nearing in rural Maine, and later the four-acre market garden of Four Season Farm, the Maine showplace of organic innovators Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch. Before moving to Decorah to start their own farm, which features moveable greenhouses pioneered by Coleman and engineered by a sister business, Four Season Tools, Katie and Mike managed gardens and programming for the Chicago Botanic Garden.

“Don’t think I was born with green thumbs, though,” Katie jokes. “In our first garden – in the yard of the house we rented on Broadway Street in Decorah in 2004 – we planted our broccoli in deep shade and failed to realize you have to separate onion starts from the clump they come in to get actual onions. And, we dug up a telephone line just tilling up our little plot. Our only success that year was one – ONE – Mexican Midget tomato plant.”

Here’s how to master the six keys to seedling success:


By nature, seeds contain everything they need to sprout, so they don’t require nutrient-dense, bulky soil for germination. Choosing a potting medium that’s light and fluffy makes it easy for roots to find traction and sprouts to push up into the light of day. “Sterile” mixes are best to prevent mold or disease, Katie says. “A lot of times, people might use soil from outside, or compost from their garden, but these are too dense – literally overkill.”

Once emerged, plan to “pot up,” or transplant, seedlings into a combination of sterile potting soil and homemade or purchased compost, or a purchased soil with fertilizer mixed in. The goal is to give your starts easily accessible nutrients – baby food – for 4-6 weeks, prior to planting in the garden, Mike says.



“Use any old container – just make sure it has holes in the bottom for drainage,” Katie says. Plants won’t need more than 3-4 inches in height or width before they’re planted outdoors, so keep containers small. Individual yogurt cups work well, in addition to biodegradable peat or coconut containers that can be planted directly in the ground. When setting up your seed starting area, it’s a good idea to put all containers in a shallow tray because you’ll want to bottom-water them once the seedlings send out roots,” Katie suggests. (More on that later.)

In planting the actual seeds, use the size of seed as a rule of thumb, she says. “I often see people ‘burying’ seed, when most need to be only as deep as they are long – hardly covered with dirt, in most cases.”

Another key tip: moisten soil before planting. “It should be uniformly damp but not soggy or dripping,” Katie says, “more like a rag that’s been wrung out.”



“Warmth and light are the biggies, and they go hand-in-hand,” Katie says, nodding solemnly to make her point. For most seeds, germination doesn’t require any light at all, but gentle heat is necessary to keep things at a constant 70 to 80 degrees until the seedlings emerge. “You can put them on top of the refrigerator, above a radiator, on top of your dryer. Or, you can buy an electric heat mat designed for starts.”

The trick, she says, is to keep the soil uniformly moist and warm until seeds “pop,” which is why many seed-starting kits include a plastic dome that fits on top. You can create this ‘greenhouse effect’ yourself by covering containers in plastic cling wrap, Katie says. “We sow [seeds] in trays on freestanding shelving, then cover the whole thing in a clear mattress bag.” Just be sure to keep the soil surface moist using a hand pump mist sprayer, or even a hand-held bottle with squeeze sprayer, Mike adds.

TomatoesWhen the tiny seedlings poke through the soil surface – this is pivotal – you MUST move them into bright, full spectrum light before they’re 1/2” tall, often within just hours of emerging. If covered in plastic, seedlings will suffocate as they use up the oxygen sealed into their ‘greenhouse,’ and they will stretch and get spindly or ‘leggy,’ searching for daylight. The result is irreparably weak plants, Katie says.

“If you have a really sunny south-facing window, that can work, but honestly, the best thing is to put plants under standard shop lights,” with one cool white fluorescent bulb and the other giving warmer/orange light,” she explains. “You want the plant to be within 3-4 inches of the light source as it grows, which means setting up your growing area so the light can be moved up as the plants get taller.”

This phase of growth requires less heat – most plants don’t need more than 60-70 degrees. It’s important to honor nature’s cycle of light and dark, too, Katie says. “Give them 16-18 hours of light to mimic the length of day in warmer climates, where these seed varieties are native. Then, turn it off. The plants need ‘nighttime’ even though they’re not outdoors yet.”



Bottom-watering, or letting soil take up water through holes in the bottom of containers, is recommended once the seedlings pop up, Katie explains. This cuts down on soil splash, or the splattering of potentially fungus-bearing soil onto the stem and leaves when watered from above. In addition, bottom-watering does not shift the fragile plants around at the soil surface.

Seed Starting


“A lot of your success comes in just paying attention – starting with reading the seed packet,” Katie says with a laugh. “The information might vary from company to company, but it’s there for a reason, and each vegetable or flower is unique in its own way.” To plan your garden’s productivity, look at the number of days to maturity. Is it given from seeding or from transplant? And keep in mind that some species really do best with direct seeding outdoors, as suggested, including beets, beans, cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins.

Another important directive? Thinning. “Don’t be afraid to thin,” Katie says. “I understand the temptation: people see that they’ve grown this little green thing, and they don’t want to kill it, but plants need space to grow. Always plant more than you need so you’ll have your target number of the strongest plants after thinning.”

And then there’s the importance of good lighting, again. “Check on your germinating seeds a couple times a day,” she repeats. “Stuff will pop up and be an inch tall in the blink of an eye.” Then, when seedlings are under bright lights, make sure plants don’t burn by growing tall enough to touch the bulbs.

Within just a few short weeks, your greenlings will be ready to join the profusion of plant life known as the growing season in the Midwest. “Moral of the story? Keep at it,” Katie says. “We learn something new from the garden every year.”


Kristine_Winter15_16After whole decades of tangled tomatoes and limp lettuces, Kristine Jepsen has finally thinned her gardening proclivity to the handful of things her family will readily eat fresh from the garden. She is otherwise happy pay local professionals for their expertise. Read more of her misadventures at


Your Yard + A Garden = Yarden


By Sonya Luse Geenen • Illustrations by Natalie Moore

Originally printed in the Spring 2011 Inspire(d) Magazine

So you want to start a garden? There’s no time like the present to get those hands dirty… or at least start planning to get your hands dirty… once there is some dirt to get at. And there’s nothing like fresh _____ (fill in the blank with your favorite veggie) picked straight from your garden to make your day!

As the snow is piled in your yard begin to notice the sunny areas and then once the snow has gone rip up some sod, get the soil ready, and get going. Make friends with your neighbors who garden and ask questions. Find the gardening books at the library and check out embarrassing numbers of them. Some of your veggies will produce so heavily they’ll knock your socks off. Others may flop. There are many factors that play into a happy, productive garden, so don’t beat yourself up if something doesn’t do well this year. Take notes – consider a garden notebook – and do it differently the next time around.

It’s helpful to know that the average last frost date for the Driftless Area ranges between May 1 and May 31. And first frost date ranges between September 1 and September 30.

This is an outline for a basic kitchen garden. The size isn’t mapped out because everyone has different spaces – the layout can change, but some plants have been placed next to each other because they are allies and companions. The marigolds and nasturtiums, for example, act as replants to trouble-causing insects and enhance the growth of other vegetables. Basil is another example of an ally. It enhances the flavor and growth of tomatoes.

There are two gardens here, but they are really the same garden at two different times of the season. The early plantings will taper off and need to be pulled – lettuce, spinach, peas, radishes – and the later plantings – tomatoes, beans, peppers, basil – will easily fill their spaces.

(Click above to print)


Nasturtiums: Sow directly one week after last frost, space 6 – 12” apart, ¼” deep. The flowers are edible and will add good color, spunk, and spice to your salads.

Marigolds: Plant directly into the garden two weeks before the last frost. 6 – 12” apart just below the surface of the soil.

Beets: Plant these versatile (you can eat them raw in salads, roasted, steamed), mega nutritious (with vitamins A and C and more iron and minerals than spinach) veggie a month before the last expected frost, or as soon as you can work the soil. Sow ½” deep and space 2 – 4” apart. Fun fact: Beet seeds contain 8 true seeds. You’ll need to thin these plant clusters so toss the tiny tender leaves into salads or cook ‘em up. Beets are yummiest when they’re 1 ½ – 3” in diameter.

Lettuce: Fresh garden salads are magic. There are many lettuce varieties. Some favorites are butterhead, leaf lettuce, and romaine. Mix your choices – the textures and colors are fun to play with and make beautiful salads. Soil temps only need to be 35 degrees to plant outside. Mark your lettuce patch and sow seeds closely ¼” apart, rake lightly to cover. Plant every two weeks for a continuous harvest.

Spinach: Here is another early bird green veggie. Plant as soon as you can work the soil, up to six weeks before the last frost. To keep a continuous harvest coming make small plantings every 10 days until mid May. Plant ½” deep and 2” apart. Thin to 4 – 6” apart once they have two bigger, or true, leaves. Enjoy in salads, or add it cooked to pasta or grain dishes.

Sugar Peas: Snow and snap peas have edible pods. If you choose other varieties look forward to a new hobby of shelling peas. You also get to use your creative juices to fashion a trellis for your peas to climb. Plant 4 – 6 weeks before the last frost when the soil is at least 40 degrees. Plant 1” deep and 1” apart. Yumm!

Radishes: These are quick growing, instant gratification-type veggies. Some will be ready in as little as three weeks. Plant 4 – 6 weeks before the last frost, as soon as the soil can be worked. Space ½ “ deep 2” apart. Keep watch and dig around the tops a bit to check if they’re ready for eating.

Carrots: Plant three weeks before last frost is expected. Carrot seeds are tiny. Mark your rows and sprinkle the seeds 2 – 4” apart. They can take one to three weeks to sprout so toss a few radish seeds in to help mark the row and pull them after the carrots sprout. You can harvest some as soon as they are big enough to eat or leave them to pull in one harvest.

Cucumbers: Cucumbers enjoy warm soil and will germinate faster with warmer temperatures. Wait until the soil is at least 70 degrees. There are bush and climbing varieties. If you decide on the climbing varieties you’ll get to build some beautiful trellises. Plant ½” deep and 1’ apart.

(Click above to print)


Beans: Beans, beans, the magical fruit… These guys need warm air, 70 – 80 degrees, and soil temps of at least 60. Sow at least one to two weeks after the last frost. Spacing depends on if you’ve got bush (3- 6” apart) or pole beans (1 – 3” apart). Sow 1” deep with soil pressed over them to make sure of soil contact. Harvest almost daily when beans are pencil sized. Steam them up or eat as you pick them.

Tomatoes: There are gobs of variety when it comes to tomatoes. Many sizes, colors, and shapes. You’ll need to find a good source for tomato transplants unless you want to give starting tomatoes from seed a go. Plant the transplants out when the soil temps are nice and warm, 70 degrees. Space tomatoes 1 – 2’ apart with trellises already in place. Plant at a depth so the lowest set of leaves is at soil level. As they grow, tie them up loosely every 6” with soft twine. Keep watch, water as they need it, and enjoy keeping tabs as YOUR tomatoes bloom, set fruit and then as they ripen and you get to eat them.

Peppers: Like tomatoes, find transplants to purchase. Find happy plants, ones with strong stems and dark green leaves. Soil temps should be at least 60 degrees. Space peppers 1’ apart, and plant the transplants as deep as the lowest leaves. Most peppers become sweeter as they mature from green to their truly ripened colors of reds, yellows, oranges, browns or purples.

Basil: Sow seeds directly two to three weeks after frost when the soil is warm. Seeds can be planted just below the surface of the soil. In a patch, plant basil thickly or space them more generously – 1’ apart – in a row. You can encourage bushy growth by pinching the plants back. Basil can be chopped fresh and put on tomatoes, in salads, sauces and other dishes. Pesto is another very delicious option for basil to use throughout the year.

Chives: A permanent herb garden is a great thing to start. Chives are easy to find in yard sales, garden stores, or neighbors who need to split the chives they have. Oregano, thyme, rosemary, and lavender are herbs to work up to.


Sonya (Luse) Geenen enjoys yardening immensely. She lived in Decorah for almost five years and loved living vicariously through friends’ yards, and is thrilled to now be sharing a yard with her hubbn’, Dave, in the Island of Rock (Rock Island). She has plans afoot for lots of flowers and lots of veggies this year and hopes that you have fun with any yardening that comes your way!

Wanna take some local classes to learn more? Check out Luther College’s series of FREE classes here!