It is the time of year when gardeners get the itch to start seeds. Depending on your zone, you may have already begun the process of seed starting for your future garden. Whether you are already watching tiny sprouts emerge or you have many weeks left to wait, you will love this conversation with Paul Hutcheson, owner of Windmill Heights Garden Center. He breaks down how to achieve the perfect timing in starting seeds and transplanting, how to pursue ideal conditions, plus some incredible advice for new gardeners. Join us for this rich conversation as we look forward to spring and summer gardening.
In this episode, we cover:
- Paul’s story of growing up in a gardening family and taking over the family business
- The two most important dates for a gardener to know each year
- Doing the math on when to start different seeds
- Choosing the right soil for seed starting
- Creating the ideal conditions through light, temperature, and nutrition
- The process of hardening off and transplanting outdoors
- Continuing to care for your seedlings after you have planted them in the ground
- Deciding whether to start your own seeds or purchase started plants
- Advice for the beginning gardener
- The value of keeping a record of your garden over the years
E13: Why Homesteading? A Candid Chat About the Homestead Tsunami | Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms – Homesteaders of America
Paul grew up on a small hobby farm and has a degree in Horticulture from Virginia Tech. He is the owner of Windmill Heights Garden Center in Culpeper, VA. Together with his team, he raises over 50,000 vegetable and herb transplants for local gardeners. In his spare time, he gardens on his urban homestead, focusing on staple crops, vegetables, figs, and fruit trees.
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Join us at the Homesteaders of America Conference in October 2023!
Seed Starting and Transplanting Transcript
Amy Fewell Welcome to the Homesteaders of America Podcast, where we encourage simple living, hard work, natural healthcare, real food, and building an agrarian society. If you’re pioneering your way through modern noise and conveniences, and you’re an advocate for living a more sustainable and quiet life, this podcast is for you. Welcome to this week’s podcast. I’m your host, Amy Fewell, and I’m the founder of the Homesteaders of America organization and annual events. If you’re not familiar with us, we are a resource for homesteading education and online support. And we even host a couple of in-person events each year with our biggest annual event happening right outside the nation’s capital here in Virginia every October. Check us out online at HomesteadersofAmerica.com. Follow us on all of our social media platforms and subscribe to our newsletter so that you can be the first to know about all things HOA (that’s short for Homesteaders of America). Don’t forget that we have an online membership that gives you access to thousands—yes, literally thousands—of hours worth of information and videos. It also gets you discount codes, an HOA decal sticker when you sign up, and access to event tickets before anyone else. All right. Let’s dive into this week’s episode.
Amy Fewell Hey, Paul, thanks for joining me on the Homesteaders of America podcast. How are you doing?
Paul Hutcheson Hey, Amy. I’m doing great. Thank you so much for the invitation.
Amy Fewell Yeah, absolutely. So for those of you who don’t know, Paul is local to me. Like, we literally live in the same county/area/town, and he has an awesome greenhouse and business. So, Paul, let’s start there. Tell us a little bit about who you are and then we’ll dive into what we’re talking about today.
Paul Hutcheson Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, I feel really blessed because I have been able to actually grow up in a community of my whole family garden. So my grandfather, he was a subsistence farmer. His parents lived in southern Virginia and they farmed to survive. And he went to school to be a dairy extension agent. And then he was also a horticulture extension agent here locally. And he grew a large garden every year. And he started a greenhouse and garden center business as kind of a side hobby. And then both of my parents also gardened. From about the time I was four, they started gardening. Some of the earliest pictures of me are planting beans with my dad. And then about the time I was 13 or 14, they started expanding their garden and selling vegetables at the local farmers market. And this past year was their last year doing that. So all through high school, I got the ability to go out there and just garden with them. And then when I graduated high school, I went to Virginia Tech and majored in horticulture and that is really cool. It’s really a blessing because it kind of gave me some of the back story. I don’t think it’s essential. I’m not recommending that everyone go to horticulture school just to learn how to plant some seeds, but it’s what I wanted to do for a living. It’s helpful in some ways to have kind of the background of why. I had to suffer through soil chemistry and plant physiology and some other not very fun classes, but it kind of is helpful sometimes. So then when I graduated, I actually started running my grandfather’s greenhouse business. And so I’ve been doing that for 12 years. We’re a local garden center. We kind of specialize in doing a little bit of everything, but we do a fair number of our vegetable transplants for people in the community including Amy. You buy quite a lot from us.
Amy Fewell Yep. That’s right.
Paul Hutcheson I guess we plant probably about 50,000 vegetable and herb seedlings every year. We do all our vegetables here from seed, and it’s cool interacting with the community because our area has a lot of gardeners so we get a lot of questions and people will come back to us, you know, “How come my tomatoes are not doing XYZ?” So I feel like that’s kind of a really cool thing because I still have a connection to the plants, even kind of throughout the season. But I’m big on always trying to keep learning. I just love learning. I read a book just the other day and I was like, wow, I learned something new. You know, you never stop.
Amy Fewell Yeah, that’s my favorite kind of person is the person who never stops learning because we can always teach each other something. For those of you who don’t know, Paul is actually one of our speakers at HOA conference in October as well. So you’ve been with us for the last couple of years, I guess, and everybody just loves Paul. I hear all kinds of fun things about Paul’s talks.
Paul Hutcheson Well, thank you.
Amy Fewell If you’re coming to the conference this year, definitely check him out. Okay. So we’ve talked about who you are, what your credentials are. For those of you who are interested in learning more about Paul’s grandfather, we actually have a video on our YouTube channel of Mason and his story and the story of the greenhouse that Paul runs and everything, so you can check that out. So today’s topic, we’re talking specifically about starting seeds and transplanting because this is a question I think every homesteader has. And Paul, you being a business owner, but also a homesteader, I thought you’d be the perfect person to kind of talk about this, especially— what we were talking about off recording, you want to kind of add some things to this. So we’re going to go down the list of questions, and I think this will be helpful for you guys. So to get started, Paul, what should people know about gardening in different climate zones? So obviously the East Coast is way different than the West Coast and even the Midwest. So what should people know about that?
Paul Hutcheson Right. Yeah, I mean, we’re blessed. Our country is a wonderful country, but it’s really big. So, I’m going to— you know, I’ve lived all my life in Virginia, so take that into consideration. If you’re in a different state, you might have to alter some of the dates. And I’m going to try to speak in very general terms to try to kind of make it applicable to everyone, but first of all, seed starting is so much fun and this is just going to be a lot of fun to talk about it. But I think the main thing— the two dates to keep in mind are your last frost date for your area which is an average. You might look it up, and for us, I think it’s May 10th here in Central Virginia. We’re zone 7A or 6B depending on who you ask. It’s around May 10th. And that’s an average over the last 50 years. There’s room for— you know, it can flex on either side. I track it and I just keep a little garden log and I write down because it’s helpful to kind of know from year to year what you’re working with. But you can Google it for your area. Type in your— you know, Google “last frost date” or “frost-freef date” and then the name of the closest town to you, and try to get an idea. Or you could ask another gardening friend near you. And keep in mind that for some things, you’re not necessarily going to be planting things in the garden then, but that is kind of a target. And then the second date would be— and this is a term I’ve kind of created myself, I call it a weather window, and it’s kind of a little bit nebulous, but it’s the idea that sometime in early spring, there’s going to be a period of relative warmth. And by relative warmth, I mean, it’s not necessarily warm, but it’s warmer. And that’s the window for all your cool season crops like carrots and cabbage and kale, because you don’t have to wait until frost-free date for those items. The farther north you go—I think; I’ve not gardened in the north—but the farther north you go, I believe the closer those two dates are going to be to each other. The frost-free date and the weather window might be within just a week or two of each other. To give you an example here, usually in late March or early April, there’s a period of warmer weather, and that’s when I’ll put out transplants of cabbage and I’ll start potatoes and I’ll start carrots and I’ll sow radishes and things like that. And usually it’s several days. It’s not just one day. You look at the ten-day forecast, you’re like, huh, it’s not going to frost for the next eight days. And the highs are in the 60s and the lows at night are only in the low 40s or maybe upper 30s. And I’m like, all right, time to get in the garden. Till it up. Plant some cabbage. So that’s kind of a— it’s a little— you kind of have to pay attention to the weather in that. It’s a little bit— it can vary so much. And then of course in the fall, there’s also the last— or the first frost in the fall. And that’s not as critical in terms of— it just is kind of the end game for when a lot of things are productive. But then what I like to do is kind of break things down into groups. So you’ve got vegetables that are frost tolerant like cabbage, and then you’ve got vegetables that are frost intolerant, which would be tomatoes where a frost will kill them. And so those are your two broad groups. And then you’ve also got vegetables that are direct sow, like beans and peas, carrots. And then you’ve got things that are transplanted. So today we’re going to be predominantly talking about transplanting things, but about probably half of the vegetables that we grow in our garden are direct sow. And so those dates are— you have to kind of figure out when you’re going to sow so that they sprout. Like, for example, beans, you would want to sow them so that by the time they’ve sprouted, danger of frost is passed. So you could wait till May 10th. Some people push it a little bit earlier. Like in my area—May 10th—some people might decide to plant beans May 1st. But you run a risk because once you’ve sowed that seed, you can’t stop that clock. So if you get a late frost—
Amy Fewell Yeah, and we had that happen one year. Yeah, we did. I remember it was just a couple years and everybody was covering their gardens. I mean, it was horrible. I think it was like May 15th or something when we had that frost.
Paul Hutcheson And that’s exactly. It’s an average. And maybe I’ll touch on this again, but what I do, come about May 5th— we have the benefit of wonderful meteorolog—I can’t even say that word—meteorological reports where you can look at the ten-day forecast and you can say, okay, there’s a period of cold weather five days from now. And then what I do is I hold back. So I use that ten-day forecast coming up to the last frost-free date as a tool because I’ll either hold back or I’ll go ahead. Like if it’s May 5th and the ten-day forecast shows there’s no frost, you’re probably safe to plant. I mean, it could go wrong, but you’re probably fine. At least that’s for our area. I mean, adjust those dates for the viewer’s area. But if you come up to May 5th and there’s like— you know, five days from now, it’s like a 36-degree night, that’s way too close for comfort. So I’ll wait. And then as the forecast gets closer, oh, yeah, it’s definitely going to frost. And then once that frost has passed, look at the ten-day forecast again. And then it’s like, oh, yeah, yep, now we’re clear. So, you know, that’s a great tool. But yeah, so for climates— the North, obviously you’re going to be starting seeds a lot later than the South. You know, Miami, Florida, you’re probably starting seeds now would be my guess, if you don’t already have things in the ground. But I’m shooting for eight weeks from the time that I sow a seed to the time that I put it in the garden. That’s kind of a good time frame. So I look at when I want to put something in the garden. Like if I want to put cabbage in the garden in early April, I count back eight weeks and that puts me back all of March, all of February, early February. So I could probably safely start seeds of cabbage about February 1st. Tomatoes, if I’m shooting for— I don’t tend to plant tomatoes as soon as all frost is gone. I actually tend to wait a couple of days for the ground to warm up. So I’m shooting for May 15th, which means I need to start two months prior to that, which is March 15th.
Amy Fewell Okay.
Paul Hutcheson So that’s kind of how I do my math in my head. It’s hard to hold back transplants. They tend to get leggy really quick. And the longer they’re in those small pots, the more transplant shock they have. So it’s almost better to wait. I highly recommend waiting. Like, if you’re on the fence, you should wait a week to start seeds. And that’s really hard to do. It’s a psychological warfare to a gardener.
Amy Fewell Yeah, you mentioned that once before. I think we actually have you talking about this in one of the videos we posted a couple of years ago where you mentioned you always— basically you said it’s better to start your tomatoes in March than to start your tomatoes in February because you’re still— at the end of the day, it’s all going to still come when it’s going to come. So since we’re talking about tomatoes, let’s go to that question. When is the best time for tomatoes? Because a lot of people want to plant them right now. Like I know people who are starting tomatoes in January.
Paul Hutcheson Yeah. I do, too. God bless them. So, yeah, I mean, it’s a psychological game. It’s hard to hold back. And I’ve already— you know, I’m sitting in the the sofa at night reading seed catalogs, spending too much money on seeds, all that kind of good stuff. But yeah, so great experiment. Start a tomato, start a seed January 1st. Start another one February 1st. Start another one March 1st and April 1st. I would bet you $100 you will get fruit from all four of them within a week or two of each other. And the reason why is because here in the northern hemisphere— this does not apply for closer to the equator, but the farther north you go, the shorter your days are in the winter. So like right now the sun is coming up, I don’t know, 6:30 and it’s setting at 6:00. So we have a limited period of sunlight and the angle on the sun is low, so the quality of light is less and the quantity is less. So things grow slower. And so I determined from a professional level with the garden center that January is basically a wasted month for almost everything, including tomatoes. I took very careful notes of when I sowed seeds and when things were ready for sale for transplants going into our customers’ gardens. And I pretty well deduced that there was not a reason to start anything in January. There just simply is not enough sunlight. Now, if you’re in Florida or Southern California or maybe southern Texas, yeah, you probably could. But for the northern states especially, yeah, there’s just not enough sunlight. So I intend to start my seeds of tomatoes about March 15th. Now, the variety I grow is not a quick to produce variety. It’s a little bit longer of a time frame, but I should still get tomatoes by the middle of July, which is— it’s just a matter of personal preference. Do you want to absolutely be the first person on the block with a tomato? Or do you want to— see, also, in my garden, I mostly do raised beds, and I have things in the garden right now. So I’m not really pushing to get things planted too early because I try to get two crops out of every bed. So the bed that the tomatoes are going into this year is empty right now. But last year, that had carrots in it, overwintered carrots. And so I didn’t finish harvesting the carrots until like the middle of April. So there’s not really a push to get stuff back in there. So I’m not really— I don’t have to have the first tomato on the block. Having the first tomato is a lot of work because you have to cover it. You have to wrap. If it’s going to frost, you have to protect it. And I just— I don’t know. It’s a lot of work. I’d rather plant it and walk away.
Amy Fewell Yeah, it’s a lot of work. Like the hundred tomato plants I decided it would be a good idea to plant that year, and I realized that even— so, this year I think we planted maybe 27 tomato plants this year. And I got more off of those 27 tomato plants this year than I did off the hundred that I did a few years ago because they were easier to maintain and they weren’t as much work. And so I just got way more out of them. So it’s kinda this and that.
Paul Hutcheson Absolutely, absolutely.
Amy Fewell Okay. So getting back on the seed starting train for people who are starting seeds indoors, what type of soil do you recommend people to start with? And kind of just walk us through that process of how you do it.
Paul Hutcheson Right. Yeah, it’s a great question. So the first thing I would say is not all soil is made the same. They have a lot of similar ingredients. If you look on the bag, a lot of times they will list the ingredients. Usually peat, sphagnum peat is a major component. You’ll sometimes see bark, coconut coir, which is the outer husk of a coconut that’s been ground up. That’s another ingredient. You’ll see limestone, you’ll see fertilizer, you’ll see wetting agents, you’ll see moisture holding pellets. You’ll see vermiculite, perlite. Well, let me try to break this down and make it very simple. So I sphagnum peat and coconut coir and bark are sterile and weed free just by design. There’s not usually seeds on the side of trees or in the peat bogs. And so those ingredients have been chosen because they are weed seed free usually. And then, to that, they will add things that will help with drainage. So perlite, vermiculite, and bark all help promote drainage. You’ll also see fertilizer in most potting soils because seedlings do need fertilizer almost as soon as they come up. And we’ll talk about that later more. But what you can do, if you’re wondering about the quality of your mix, is you can open it up and you can just fill a pot full of soil and set it in a warm place and see if any weeds do sprout. Because if you— you shouldn’t see weeds sprout if it’s a good quality mix. You should also not see any fungus gnats. Fungus gnats are everywhere. They’re even in the best mixes in small numbers. But you shouldn’t see hundreds. Like when you open a bag, you shouldn’t see hundreds of fungus gnats coming out. Now, a trick that some people don’t know is the mosquito dunks. Those have a bacteria in them that kills mosquitoes. And you can put them in your pond. Well, that bacteria also kills fungus gnats. So what you can do is you can put one of those mosquito dunks in your watering can. And every time you water, you’ll be putting that bacteria into the soil, which will hopefully kill the fungus gnats. But yeah, it shouldn’t smell foul when you open the bag. It should smell earthy, you know, like a good smell. Now, my ideal seed starting mix—which I don’t use because I can’t afford it—well, you know, everyone has to have dreams.
Amy Fewell Oh my goodness. That’s right. That’s right.
Paul Hutcheson This is what I would do if I really had the ability: I would do a 50/50 mix of worm castings and a sphagnum peat-based potting soil. The worm castings— or you can use compost, like a really finely screened compost. I wouldn’t buy a compost. I would say that would probably be something you need to make yourself and then run through a fine screen. But that would give you a lot of nutrition and a lot of the good bacteria and fungi that would get your seedlings off to a great start. But compost and worm castings is really heavy. It doesn’t have good drainage. So then mixing in peat moss would give you the drainage that you need. Commercially, we start all of our seedlings in a commercial potting soil mix. And I’ll tell you, there is definitely a difference in quality from the professional mixes to the retail mixes. The ones you can buy at the big box stores are pretty well junk compared to what we’re getting as professionals. We’re paying for it. We’re paying for quality. But if you had the ability to go to a garden center or a greenhouse and ask them for a professional quality, don’t buy a little bag. You’ll probably have to buy a larger quantity. But there definitely is— you will notice a difference in quality. We use the brand Promix, but there are other brands that are equivalent.
Amy Fewell Yeah. Awesome.
Paul Hutcheson But yeah, and it’s hard because you can have the best soil, but if you don’t have the conditions for starting seeds, you’re still going to run into problems. I would almost rather have a mediocre soil and have the ideal conditions than have the best soil and mediocre conditions, if that makes sense.
Amy Fewell So what are those best conditions like? So what do you recommend? You and I were talking about— this would be a good place to kind of talk about that, you know, greenhouses or a seed setup. Kind of talk about that. What does a good setup look like and then what can people do at home?
Paul Hutcheson Right. So the best setup is a greenhouse, as you can probably guess. The worst setup is probably your closet with grow lights. That’s probably the worst possible scenario. Second best would be a sunroom and a south facing— a very, very bright south facing room. So, yes, the thing to remember about seedlings is they need a couple of things. They need light, and natural sunlight is very, very bright. Many times stronger than even the best quality grow lights. Then they need moisture in order to sprout, not too much, not too little. And then temperature. So the temperature requirements— I really recommend heat pads. They give you the level of control you need for starting things like tomatoes and peppers. It’s really hard to start those things under your house temperatures because you don’t want to be heating your house to 80 degrees, at least your pocketbook doesn’t want to be. And then they do need fertilizer. And that’s kind of an overlooked step sometimes. Pretty much from about the time— about seven days after a seed sprouts, they need nutrition of some sort. And they can either get it from the soil or they can get it from you applying it in various different forms. Organic, chemical, you know, there’s a huge range of options there. But if you are starting in a potting soil that you’ve purchased, even if it says on the bag “feeds for nine months” or whatever, they are going to need more nutrition than that. At least that’s been my experience. So going back to light. So light is probably the most important thing in order to start seeds. So this is the classic, you know, “Why are my seedlings leggy?” And leggy refers to the fact that they are taller than they ought to be. And usually accompanying that, there will be a bending of the stem towards the light. The plant is hungry for light. Remember, think about cows eat grass, plants eat sunlight. If you are starving your plant, it is going to be looking for food. And the way it looks for food is to bend towards the light. So that’s a sign that it’s not— you’re starving your plant. You’re a terrible person. I’m just kidding. I’m joking.
Amy Fewell You’re horrible. You’re a plant abuser.
Paul Hutcheson Yeah. No, I’m joking. And so part of that goes back to the timing. In January, there’s not as much light. So if you’re starting seeds too early, it’s really hard to give them enough light. The longer you wait, the more light they have. And yes, you can use grow light. If you do decide to use grow lights, they need to be hung so that the top of the grow light is about— I think it’s like 4 to 5 inches above the top of the leaf.
Amy Fewell Yeah, it’s pretty close.
Paul Hutcheson So you want to get them very, very close. Like it looks weird. You’re like, this isn’t right. But the reason why is because the closer the seedling gets to the light, the more light is available to it. So that’s important. And you want to run them for long days, like 14, 16 hours because quantity is important as well. But natural sunlight is the best. We just can’t replicate the intensity and the quality of the sunlight. So at the end, I’ll talk some more about some alternatives to kind of try to use some more of the natural sunlight if you don’t really have a greenhouse. Yeah, but moisture is important. Moisture is what activates the seed to start sprouting. A dry seed won’t sprout. But then once the seed has sprouted, it needs consistent even moisture. It doesn’t want to dry out and it doesn’t want to get so soggy wet. Soggy wet is what causes dampening off, which is just a name that we’ve given a fungal disease that causes the base of the stem to rot. So you’ll see that the seedlings laying over on the surface of the soil, they’ve literally just been chewed off at the ground level by this fungus. And that’s usually a result of either too much moisture in the soil or too high humidity in the growing area or a combination of both. And then thinking about temperature— so I like to think of temperature about like an engine. Gasoline as the fuel. And then your accelerator pedal is what gives the fuel to the engine. The sunlight is the fuel, and then temperature is the accelerator pedal that feeds that fuel. So everything moves faster the warmer it gets. So for example, you can start tomatoes at 70 degrees. It’s possible. It will take probably 14 days. At 80 degrees, it takes eight days. So you shave six days off of your growing period. So every plant has an ideal range and you can look those up. And some seed catalogs do have them. And that’s very helpful because they have an ideal temperature as well as a minimum temperature and a maximum temperature. Some plants do have a maximum temperature. Like spinach will not germinate over 80 degrees.
Amy Fewell Wow.
Paul Hutcheson It just won’t germinate. And there’s probably some leeway there. Maybe it’s 85, I don’t know. But the point being, you can’t germinate above a certain temperature. And then also, if you have things that like it cold too warm, they will get leggy because they’re using the sunlight and they’re growing so fast that they will actually stretch, they will become leggy, even if there’s adequate light. So cabbage and kale is a great example of that. You need to start them actually at like 45 to 65 is perfect. 60 would be like the absolute best. But then tomatoes, you can’t. I mean, you could I guess maybe start a tomato at 60 degrees, but it’d probably take three weeks. I mean, it’s just things take so long.
Amy Fewell Yeah, that’d take a while.
Paul Hutcheson So I always— you know, if it’s taking longer than about ten days for a seed to sprout, there’s probably something wrong. Like either the temperature is not right or the seed is old or something. Something’s up. Because I’d like to see germination in 8 to 10 days.
Amy Fewell Yeah, I feel like I normally— I would say most homesteaders kind of feel like they see germination within the first week and a half. So normally if I don’t see anything, I’m like, oh, that one’s a dud, and I throw it out and try again.
Paul Hutcheson Right. And that’s very possible. And seed does have a shelf life and there’s some seed that does not keep well, even if you store it in refrigeration. And carrots, I think, are one of them. I buy new carrot seed every year. I don’t think it has a long shelf life.
Amy Fewell Okay.
Paul Hutcheson Some things last forever. I think tomatoes— I mean, I’ve—
Amy Fewell I feel like tomatoes last forever. For real. Like I’m still planting tomato seeds that I’ve had for like ten years, and they’re still popping right up.
Paul Hutcheson Yeah. No problem.
Amy Fewell I mean, probably less and less. Like each year, it’s a little less.
Paul Hutcheson Right.
Amy Fewell Hey, guys. We’re going to take a quick break to bring you a word from one of our 2023 Homesteaders of America sponsors. This sponsor is McMurray Hatchery. And for those of you who have attended some of our events, you know they are the homesteader’s hatchery. I think one of our favorite things about HOA sponsors is that they often become friends and like family. Something many people may not realize is that we truly take pride in our sponsors and we know when someone has a quality product to offer. And McMurray Hatchery is one of those people. So let me tell you a bit about them as you start preparing for your chicks on your homestead. Murray McMurray officially started his chicken business in 1917. He had always been interested in poultry as a young man and particularly enjoyed showing birds at the local state fairs. He was in the banking business at this time and sold baby chicks through the bank to area farmers and hobbyists. When incubators became available, he was able to purchase several small Buckeye incubators to hatch and sell his own stock. In 1919, he sent out his first catalog and price list. Today, 99% of McMurray Hatchery’s business is done through their catalog, which serves the small farm flock and the hobbyist. Baby chicks have always been the main staple of the business. Today, ducklings, goslings, guinea keets, turkey poults, peafowl, and game birds are hatched and shipped through the mail. Orders for poultry books, medicine, incubators, hatching eggs, equipment, and other poultry related products are shipped daily from the hatchery. Many of the items are shipped to rural areas where these products are sometimes hard to find. McMurray is making an effort to be a one-stop poultry shop, so make sure you check them out at McMurrayHatchery.com. And thanks, McMurray, for being a sponsor of HOA.
Amy Fewell Okay, so we’re starting our seeds. We’ve got our soil mix. We’ve got the lighting situation under control. Now our plants are growing. And so let’s say it’s time to transplant them outside. If you’re like me—don’t be like Amy—you’re like, “Let’s throw these plants outside and we’re just going to make y’all tough and we’re going to harden you off in, like, a day and a half.”
Paul Hutcheson Right.
Amy Fewell But what’s the proper thing that we’re supposed to do for transplanting?
Paul Hutcheson Yeah. So going back to this concept of utilizing the highly skilled people that are at the weather station down the road, what I look for is a period of weather where it’s going to be pleasant and actually wind is probably the more damaging thing to transplants. Because you’re not going to plant a tomato out right before it’s calling for frost. You’re going to look for it to be past the frost date. But then if you have a period of really, really windy weather, I’ve seen transplants that just literally get beat to death. The cold didn’t kill them, they just got pounded against the soil and just got ripped to shreds. So it’d be nice to have a period of calm weather. Then the other thing is planting right after a frost, sometimes the ground is still really cold. So you just put your finger in the soil and if it feels cold, it is cold, and wait a couple of days. And if we get a couple of days of 80 degrees, that will warm up the soil, and then— especially with peppers and cucumbers, they’re just so fragile.
Amy Fewell Right.
Paul Hutcheson But to harden things off— hardening off is a gardening term where we expose the plant to gradually more and more adverse conditions so that the plants will thicken their stems and their leaves. And that process really ought to take about 5 to 7 days. A day and a half, you don’t see a large change in stem thickness. Now some years, you don’t have to harden off. Like if you had a year where you had— you know, it was May 10th and it was like going to be 80 degrees for the next five days and warm sunshine, warm breezes, yeah, just plant them out. They’re fine. Where it’s a little bit trickier is where you have one day that it’s 75, the next day is 55. Then it’s 75, then 85, and then 65. And for us in Virginia, that’s classic spring weather. So what would be the best thing to do would be in the two weeks before you intend to plant them out— so for us, that would be starting maybe late April or early May. You know, you’re home, it’s Saturday, it’s 75 degrees, but it’s going to frost tonight. You put your flats of transplants out on the patio. They get sunlight, and you leave them out there for maybe an hour or two. The next day, you put them out for maybe three or four hours. The day after that, you put them out for all day. But if it’s going to be very windy, maybe you set them in a place where they’re protected from the wind, like against a shed or against a wall or something. So you’re exposing them to sunlight. You would always want to be putting them in direct sun. But then you’re gradually increasing the amount of time that they’re outside, but you’re still protecting them from— if it’s going to be a very, very cold day, you’re not going to put them out. If it’s going to be a very windy day, maybe you just put them out for an hour. You’re very gradually easing them into it. And eventually, by the time you’re ready to plant, maybe you’ve left them out for several days all day long, and you’ve just brought them in at night. And maybe if there’s a night— you know, this has happened to me before where you’ll have a couple of nights where the temperature will be in the 50s at night.
Amy Fewell Mm hmm.
Paul Hutcheson But then the next night, it frosts. Well, you could leave them out for those 50 degree nights. That would be fantastic. That would really help them just form a really good, thick stem. And then you just move them inside for that one night. And then after that, then you’re safe to plant them out. And you just have a lot higher quality of a plant. Now, this is good for most plants. Cucumbers and squash and melons are really sensitive to cold, so you have to be even more careful. I’ve seen cucumbers actually die from cold at temperatures that it was warm— it wasn’t frosting. It was like 38 degrees. And they were as dead as a doornail. So frost, yes, will kill plants, but for cucumbers and sometimes, you know, peppers can be pretty fragile, too. So you definitely want to be a little bit more careful with them, but you do want to harden them off. You know, for your cold-loving things like cabbage and kale and spinach, you can be a lot more aggressive. You could set them outside on a day that’s like 40 and leave them out there all day and that’ll be great for them. So you have a little more flexibility in terms of temperature, but that’s kind of the idea behind hardening off. Ideally, yeah, it would be at least five, seven days, something like that.
Amy Fewell Okay. So once you’ve hardened these off and you put them into the ground, is there anything special that you do once you transplant them into the ground? Like, I hear people say, “Well, you should put an egg in with your tomatoes to help your tomatoes grow.” You know, random things like that. Is there anything special we need to do? Or are there any old tricks that you do that you want to share?
Paul Hutcheson Yeah. I’ve actually never heard the raw egg before, but eggshells have calcium, and tomatoes are prone to get a disease— it’s actually not a disease. It looks like a disease, but it’s actually a calcium deficiency. And it’s called blossom and rot. Well, the rot is actually the cell walls of the tomato breaking down because they don’t have the calcium they need to maintain structure. And that manifests itself as this blackened, sunken area on the bottom of the fruits. You go out to pick a tomato, it looks ripe, and then you pick it and you realize that the whole bottom end is all blackened and shriveled. And that’s actually a calcium deficiency. And it manifests itself by mid-summer, but the time to add calcium is actually when you plant or even the fall before. So if you have the ability to add some calcium now, go for it. Calcium is notoriously slow acting. And other things that have calcium besides egg shells would be oyster shell that you use for chickens. So if you have chickens and you give them that to help them with their eggs, then you could add that. You mix that into the soil. And so I usually do about a cup of that per plant, and I do it either before I plant or at the time of planting. So that’s a good trick. Another thing you see people do that there’s some confusion about would be— you’ll hear people talk about planting tomatoes deep. So that is optional. It is not necessary. If your tomato plant is very leggy and you want it to be more compact, you can plant it deep. It will root as it goes up the stem. Now, I have—the last couple of years—been experimenting because I have had very, very low levels of foliar leaf diseases on my tomato plants. And I’ve been trying to figure out why. And I know it’s not because of any great brilliance of mine. I think I’m inadvertently doing something or I’ve stumbled on a really great variety. So I’m wondering if there might be some benefit to not planting tomatoes deep. And the reason why is because these leaf diseases, they are spread when a raindrop splashes on the soil and then the bacteria or the fungus then splashes from the soil up onto the leaf. Well, if the leaf is— on the plant, if the lowest leaf is down near the soil, then it has a very short distance to go. If the leaves don’t start for 8 to 10 inches up the plant, then the disease maybe can’t make that jump. So what I have been doing— I don’t usually have leggy tomatoes because I am starting mine in a greenhouse. But what I will do is I will remove the bottom leaves so that I’ve got about eight inches of stem bare. And then I plant them at the regular level, and then I will put a layer of mulch on the whole bed to try to break the connection so that when a raindrop hits the ground, it hits mulch and not bare clay soil. So I don’t know, and maybe someone can chime in and tell me the science behind why it is. But the last three years I’ve been eating tomatoes far up into the fall and the plants have still looked very healthy. And it could be there’s other factors that I haven’t even thought of yet, so I don’t know. Let’s do some experimenting.
Amy Fewell I feel like there’s some truth to that, too, because we do the same thing now. For years, my tomato plants have been leggy, so I have planted them deep. But what I do is I’ll cut all the bottom leaves off first before I plant them, and then I’ll even prune them up even more. And the plants that don’t have leaves close to the ground always do way better than the ones that don’t have the leaves close to the ground.
Paul Hutcheson Yeah. Now, correlation is not causation, but we’ve got to figure this out.
Amy Fewell That’s right. We know how that goes, right?
Paul Hutcheson So another thing that— and this is not about transplanting, but another thing to keep in mind would be— my dad and I were talking the other day about beans. We both have found that fertilizing beans when they’re real young is real helpful. And that’s kind of not always the normal advice because beans do fix nitrogen, and so they’re able to make their own nitrogen. But my dad has found that when they’re young, they can’t make their own nitrogen. It takes time for that. It’s a symbiotic relationship with bacteria, and it takes a month or so for that bacteria to multiply. So in that first month they are hungry. And so we always try to give them a little bit of fertilizer, whether it be compost or whether it be Miracle-Gro or whatever, whatever your choice is there. But I’m a big fan about mulching the whole garden to keep down weeds. I mostly garden in raised beds, but I do have some in-ground areas as well, but I mulch with wood chips. The whole garden gets it. There’s a few things it’s really hard to get around. Like carrots, like direct sowed carrots or direct sowed beets or something like that. It’s kind of hard. It’s just difficult. But pretty much everything else gets a layer of mulch and you reduce the weed load and you also hold in moisture. That’s super helpful.
Amy Fewell Yeah. When we had a smaller garden at our other house, we did that. We would mulch every year, and it breaks down really well. And just it was probably the most fertile soil that we had were the gardens that we mulched all the time. Now here, as you know, it’s a new property. I think I’ve mentioned this a couple of times in the podcast— we actually got our weed barrier from Paul and the greenhouse there. And so that was a lifesaver this past year to just not have to worry about a new space being overgrown with weeds. And so we do still have that. It’s held up well this winter so far. But yeah, mulching is good. We really enjoy doing that, too, on the times that we’ve done it. So let’s switch gears real quick to— you were talking about alternatives if you don’t have a greenhouse. Or what are some of these alternatives that others can kind of do if they don’t have a greenhouse available?
Paul Hutcheson Right. So some of these alternatives are not going to be popular.
Amy Fewell Well, we’re not about popular.
Paul Hutcheson So if you don’t have a greenhouse and you want high-quality transplants, especially if you are a beginning gardener— if this is your first or second year doing a garden— and this is not a plug for myself personally, you know, your listeners are all across the whole country. But if it’s your first year gardening or even your second and you still feel like you’re learning, you would be so blessed just to go and buy transplants from somebody. And even if you have to drive three hours to get there, the amount of time that it takes to invest into growing seedlings— you have to check them twice a day for months. So, you know, in terms of your time and the amount of money that you would spend. Even if it costs you $100 and half of a Saturday to go buy transplants, you are going to start off with a plant that you know is going to thrive. You eliminate a very challenging and very complicated piece of the puzzle, particularly with things like peppers and tomatoes. Those are tricky to start. Things like cucumbers, you don’t have to actually start them as transplants. You could wait and just direct sow the seed and then there’s a whole realm of plants that are direct sow. Let’s just go down the list— corn and beans and carrots and radishes and beets. There’s so many things. You could almost start a garden without doing transplants.
Amy Fewell Oh yeah.
Paul Hutcheson And if you just were willing to cut out just a few things. And the other interesting thing historically— you know, talking to my grandfather, who they obviously did not have a greenhouse, they didn’t have the technology for that in the 1930s. You know, their agriculture was much more dependent upon things that were direct sown, you know, beans and corn. It’s all really only, you know, think about it like in the last 400 years is only the amount of time that we’ve had greenhouses. And really, actually only in the last 75 to 80 years have greenhouses been economical enough that it made sense to grow vegetable transplants in a greenhouse. So in the whole thousands of years of agricultural history, we’ve really only had the ability to start seedlings early for the last like 80 years. So obviously people have fed themselves well previous to that. So don’t discount that. But I would say if you’re starting out and you are learning how to garden, I think it’s very common— and we’re all in this together. It’s like, but I want variety. I want choice. I want to grow 12 different kinds of tomatoes. My recommendation to you would be there’s all these great heirlooms, there’s all these great old fashioned varieties that are super tasty. And it’s kind of like, I want to grow them all and I want to do it myself. But if you’re just starting out, you might be better just going and getting whatever you can get and get them really good quality. Learn how to grow. And then once you’ve learned how to grow, the tomato that you grow, whether it’s a hybrid or whether it’s heirloom is going to taste worlds above whatever you buy in the store.
Amy Fewell Oh yeah.
Paul Hutcheson You may not be able to save seed from it, but that’s a whole ‘nother ball game. But you will learn the basics of how to grow. And then success breeds success. When you’re starting out, you want to be successful. Eliminate the things that are really challenging so that you can be successful, and that will energize you, supercharge you for the next season. And then you can say, “All right, now I’m going to expand my garden. Now I’m going to dabble with this.” But to have some of the things worked out ahead of time would be super helpful. Another alternative, if you are in an area where there’s a lot of other homesteaders or a lot of other gardeners, there might be someone in your community who has a garden or a greenhouse who would be willing to start seeds for you. So that might take a little more detective work to try to figure out who that is in terms of— you know, they’re not going to be advertising themselves perhaps. But I have driven around from time to time and I’ve seen these little roadside farm stands, and sometimes they’ve had plants for sale. So that would be a great thing to be like, “Hey, I see you’ve got some transplants of some flowers. Would you consider starting some heirloom tomatoes for me?” Because maybe they already have the expertise and it might just— you know, it might be an older couple or might be a teenager looking for some extra side money or something like that. So that would be a great option. Kind of moving down from best options down to a little bit more challenging options would be trying to start seeds yourself and doing what I call “the inside outside method”, which is where you have grow lights, but you try to make use of the natural sunlight as much as possible. So every warm day that you get, put that flat outside, even if it’s not sprouted yet. I sound crazy for saying that, but seeds can sense the light even before they’ve sprouted.
Amy Fewell I’ve done that before and it does work.
Paul Hutcheson The time to make sure that a seedling is not getting leggy is two weeks ago. It’s like you can’t undo that growth. So you have to be exposing them to lots of light before you think they need it. And so if you were to—even if it’s not super warm out, you know, it might be a 50 or 60 degree day—put them outside in the bright sun and then bring them back inside and put them on that heat pad. So they’re getting the heat that they need at night. And then during the day, they’re getting the light that they need. So you’re kind of trying to get the best of both worlds. And then on cloudy days, you could leave them inside under grow lights because it’s not going to be that much gain. So that’s what I call the inside outside method. And then the worst case scenario is leaving them inside under grow lights all the time. And you can do it. It’s just more challenging and you have to watch your moisture a lot more with dampening off. And they’re going to want to become leggy. So you are going to have to spend a lot more time hardening them off because the taller that a plant is, the flimsier it is. And so then when you go to harden it off, to put it in the garden, you have to spend a lot more time hardening it off. I mean, there’s been many times people have come to me and said, “Hey, I put this plant outside. It was really leggy. And it just died.” You can’t— at some point, you actually can’t harden off. So that’s always a concern. But if you had a sunroom or a south facing window, that would be much better than a dark basement. You’re going to get some natural sunlight. You might still have to supplement with a grow light depending on how your house faces. The ideal would be a direct south facing window with no trees blocking any light at all. But if you had an east window, you might can make it work with the addition of grow lights. It’s not ideal, but you could make it work. But then again, going back to what we said before, if you can delay your sowing seeds later, you’ll have more light to work with. And when you go to harden off, you can spend more time hardening off in better weather. I would much rather be trying to harden off a tomato in May than harden off a tomato in early April.
Amy Fewell Yeah, I agree.
Paul Hutcheson Because at some point, if you start too early, you’re almost forced into hardening off before you want to.
Amy Fewell Yeah. Yeah. Well, this makes me want to go plant some seeds now. Thanks, Paul. But I won’t because Paul said don’t do it yet, here in Virginia at least.
Paul Hutcheson Yeah. We’re getting close, though. Now, I’ve got some ideas, and I’m hoping to work them out this growing season about some— trying to work on some kind of protocols of how to start seeds in cold frames outdoors. There’s not a lot of information about that. So I’m trying to work that out, and I’d like to have that available come fall at the conference. But I’ve got a lot of homework to do on that. But another thing I’ll mention, too, is I’m real big on taking notes and keeping really good records. Just a simple notebook. Jot down what you sowed, the date. And then you’d be amazed how many times I’ll refer back to. Like, ah man, I sowed two different varieties of carrots, and one of them was junk. And then I’m like, I’m pretty sure it was this one. And then I’ll flip back to it. And I’m like, oh I didn’t even sow that one? Like, I didn’t even plant it. And I’m like, oh, no. Which one was it? So having really good notes is really important and keeping track of frost and when you sowed things, when things came up, when you harvested things. And you’ll be amazed the local knowledge you’ll learn from keeping notes. Like for me, when you look through seed catalogs— and I love reading seed catalogs. I read them like some people read romance stories or something. I don’t know, I’m weird. But I’ll flip through catalogs just for fun to look at them. But, you know, it’ll tell you days to harvest. And so that number is an average based on whatever farm that they grew that crop on. And so it might tell you, oh, this carrot is 75 days. And theoretically, that should be from the time that you put the seed in the ground until the time you harvest. That’s for things that are direct sown. And then for things that are transplanted, the tomato might say 70 days. What’s 70 days from the time you transplant it into the garden? So the days refer to two different things for direct sown versus transplanted. But what you’ll notice is— for me, consistently carrots are never— I’ve never gotten them to mature in the time they say for all the varieties.
Amy Fewell No, me neither.
Paul Hutcheson Like it’ll say 75 days and my notes are consistently like 100 to 110 days. So, you know, you start learning things like that. And when that gets helpful is when you have gardened enough, you can say, “I’m going to sow these around this date and then I’m going to harvest them around this date. And then after I’ve pulled all those carrots out, that bed will be free and then I can then plant something else into that bed.” So it helps you plan a little bit better, because I really try to get two crops per year out of all of my raised beds. I might overwinter something and then plant something early in the spring or I might plant something— you know, there’s lots of different variations you can go through with that. And that’s really helpful because it helps you know a little bit better how to plan for it.
Amy Fewell It helps you plan a lot. Yeah, we’re going to talk about that in another episode, like planning your year, how to grow year’s worth of food. But for you guys listening and watching, we actually do have a Homesteaders of America planner where it actually has in there— it’s a daily planner and a monthly planner. And you can actually write down— there’s a little section that says “start seeds this date or this date”, and you can keep track of all of that, like when you’re supposed to start seeds, when you’re harvesting, what did you harvest, how much did it weigh? All of that stuff. So we’ll try to remember to put a link for that in the show notes as well. So, Paul, you’ve given us a lot of information today. A lot. And people are going to be like, “Darn it, Paul. Now I want to go start my garden.” But that’s good. That’s encouragement. So any last words you have for us before we hop off here?
Paul Hutcheson Oh, man. No, I’m so thankful to be part of this little show. And thanks for the invitation. And yeah, I’m excited to get gardening and try something new every year. This year is the year I’m really kind of leaning into more of the staple crops. That’s been a lot of fun. I got wheat that’s growing. So, you know, I’m like, trying to grow my own bread. So just different things. Gardening is fun. And if it ever becomes where it’s not fun, look at what you’re doing and try to figure out if you can do it differently. Try to— maybe there’s a more efficient way to do it. Or maybe I’ve bit off more than I can chew. I’m always a big fan of— my garden is not very big. It’s not huge, but it’s what I can manage and it’s what I can do well and it’s enjoyable, so I don’t ever want to expand it to the point to where it’s not fun.
Amy Fewell Mhm. Yeah. A well-managed garden. Like we said in the beginning, a well-managed garden can produce as much as a not managed garden. So you take it bit by bit as you guys learn and you can expand as you feel more comfortable in it, and have fun with it. All right, Paul, thank you for joining me today. We really enjoyed it.
Paul Hutcheson Awesome. Thanks, Amy.
Amy Fewell Hey, thanks for taking the time to listen to this week’s Homesteaders of America episode. We really enjoyed having you here. We welcome questions and you can find the transcript and all the show notes below or on our Homesteaders of America blog post that we have up for this podcast episode. Don’t forget to join us online with a membership or just to read blog posts and find out more information about our events at HomesteadersofAmerica.com. We also have a YouTube channel and follow us on all of our social media accounts to find out more about homesteading during this time in American history. All right, have a great day and happy homesteading.