Posts Tagged: Spring 2016 Inspire(d) Magazine

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


May 2016 Calendar!

May! Get a head start on your fun-planning with this handy-dandy May 2016 calendar (and you can download the pdf here). Enjoy! XO, Inspire(d)

Check out these great spring activities!  In chronological order, each event’s number coincides with its number on the calendar!

32. May 1: Illika & Ward duo play the Hotel Winneshiek Lobby, 6:00pm, Full bar & menu available in a great atmosphere! 104 E. Water St, Downtown Decorah –

33. May 1-31: Decorah Bicycles presents a Decorah Human Powered Trails fundraiser! Stop in to be entered into a prize drawing for 3 great prizes! All proceeds go to local trail maintenance and DHPT!

34. May 7: Heritage Plant Sale, Seed Savers Exchange: Discover rare family heirlooms & historic commercial varieties of flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees + garden tools & more.

35. May 8: Daniel Kase plays the Hotel Winneshiek Lobby, 6:00pm, Full bar & menu available in a great atmosphere! 104 E. Water St, Downtown Decorah –

36. May 14: Trempealeau Hotel REGGAE FEST! Caribbean food, music, vibe, and crafts. 2pm -11pm. Let TUGG, DJ Trichrome (and others) transport you to an irie place.

37. May 28: Trempealeau Hotel Presents – FATTENIN’ FROGS! Gritty, soulful, and always danceable, think Davina and the Vagabonds meets Howlin’ Wolf. Come on out, sing, dance, and clap along!


38. June 4: Hit the trails with the Driftless Discovery Trail Run, Van Peenan Park, Decorah. Little Drifters 1 mile 9am start, 5k, 10k on single track trails. Advance registration or

39. June 4: Trempealeau Hotel JAMBALAYA JAMBOREE! Swamp Kings, Copper Box, and Dwayne Dopsie bring the southern end of the Mississippi to the North. Cajun food, BAM!

40. June 24: Register Now for ‘The Way of Tea’ with Master Zhongxian Wu 7:00-8:30 p.m. $20.00 Acupuncture Center Decorah 309 W. Broadway, Decorah – 563 382-9309

41. June 25-26: Qigong Workshop with Master Zhongxian Wu – Register now! 10am-5pm both days, Yoga Room Decorah 110 Washington St. $250.00 Early/$295.00 Regular 563 382-9309

Myrick Park Center


Myrick Park Center
789 Myrick Park Drive
La Crosse, Wisconsin 54601
608- 782-2494

Regular Hours (for center): MondayFriday, 8am to 4pm
Additional Hours open for scheduled Nature Programs
Admission: Free
For more information on WisCorps programming: Contact Steph Hanna at

So quiet is Myrick Park on a recent January afternoon that it would be easy to assume there’s little to do in this gem of a park, the oldest in La Crosse.

That assumption would be wrong.

The park’s sprawling expanse boasts trails for hiking, biking, and running; wetlands for exploring; and a natural play scape for, well, playing. And thanks to the efforts of WisCorps – a nonprofit headquartered in the park that engages youth and young adults in conservation projects on public lands – there are also many exciting educational programs in store for this spring and summer.


Kids ages three to eight will have the opportunity to make bug catchers, play butterfly tag, and (yikes!) catch frogs at the summer day camps offered at Myrick Park from mid-June through mid-August. And they won’t be the only ones having fun in the great outdoors. WisCorps also offers special programs just for adults at Myrick Park on the first Wednesday of each month. “Our evening programs are free and give grown-ups the opportunity to broaden their knowledge of nature, especially that of the Driftless Region,” says Steph Hanna, WisCorps education manager. “They also help remind people of the many benefits of unplugging and spending time in the outdoors.”

Of course parks and celebrations go hand in hand, and Myrick Park will host two big celebratory events this spring. An Earth Fair scheduled for Sunday, April 24, 2016 offers a fun run, a farmers’ market, live music, and a range of kids activities, while the International Migratory Bird Day Celebration on Saturday, May 7, kicks off bright and early with a sunrise bird hike and bird-banding activities.

What not to miss:
Check out all the Myrick Park Center public programs here! Plus add these to your calendar:

Reptile Roundup – Wednesdays, 10 am – 1 pm,
Speak with nature specialists, Matt, as he cleans tanks and feeds critters

Beekeeper Buzz – Thursdays, 10-11:30 am (in the summer only),
Don’t miss checking up on the honeybees in the observation hive during the summer and listen to Ken from the La Crosse Area Beekeeper’s Association talk about the incredible complexity of a beehive.

EnviroWeds – First Wednesday night of every month at 7 pm,
Environmentally themed programs for adults

International Migratory Bird Day, Saturday May 6, 2017

Earth Day marsh cleanupSaturday, April 29, 2017 9 am – 2 pm (lunch provided)

Earth FairSunday, April 30, 2017 from 11 am -5 pm at Myrick Park

See more Driftless Nature Center profiles here!

– By Sara Friedl-Putnam