This is my first year attempting to succeed with a community garden plot, and so far, it has been quite the ride!
But let me start at the beginning. Before even knowing whether I would, in fact, be able to rent at plot at the local community garden, I started seeds as if I were sure of the outcome - in other words, I went a little overboard. In fact, I started so many seeds that I was able to supply a good number of my friends with little plants, and fill up a good chunk of my community garden plot. Just imagine what I would have done if I'd only had my (north-facing) balcony to work with!
I ordered all my seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds - well, all except the ones I had left over from last year.
I started eleven different varieties of plants: Three varieties of tomatoes (Pink Tiger, Betalux, and Tiny Tim), two varieties of basil (Genovese Basil and sweet basil from seeds I saved in 2012), Purple of Sicily cauliflower, German Chamomile, two types of sweet peppers (Friariello Di Napoli as well as Mini Bell Peppers), Oregano/Wild Zaatar and Ground Cherries. I started the seeds in peat pellets, and ended up with 200 (!) pellets, divided between the 11 varieties. This is what my set-up looked like:
I watered the pellets, distributed the seeds, labeled everything, and covered it with plastic wrap to create a little green-house of sorts.
This was on March 11, which, in retrospect, turned out to be a little early for Wisconsin. My plants germinated very quickly - the cauliflower after only two or three days, the ground cherry within about two weeks, and everything else somewhere in between - and I had pretty decent germination rates, ranging from 100% for some plants (such as the Pink Tiger tomatoes or the cauliflower) to 80% (Tiny Tim tomatoes, though these seeds were from last year). This meant that by March 30, things looked like this:
As you can see, some plants are already in slightly bigger pots. Those were my cauliflower plants, which germinated really quickly and grew surprisingly fast. Despite the fact that I had them under grow lights, and kept the lights really close to the plants, some of the cauliflower plants became slightly leggy. The same was true for the Pink Tiger, which exhibited their most pronounced characteristic (seemingly uncontainable growth!) from the very beginning. The following picture from April 8 shows how big the cauliflower and Pink Tiger seedlings had gotten in just under four weeks.
The following picture is a close-up of one of the Pink Tiger seedlings on April 12 - four weeks after I had planted the seeds! Given this rate of growth, I had to start transplanting most of the seedlings by mid-April, which caused several problems. For one, I had to do this outside, in order to prevent a huge mess in my apartment. I almost lost some of the tomato and basil seedlings to some cold wind. Even though the day I chose for transplanting the temperature was in the mid-40s (and I assumed the plants would be able to handle this for a short period of time), the wind was much colder and the basil and tomato plants quickly became limp and looked almost wilted. They recovered completely after I brought them back inside, but I was pretty worried about them.
The second problem, after the shock of exposing the baby plants to the cold too quickly, was one of space. The bigger pots took up much more space than the peat pellets. I gave away the first few batches of plants around April 25, much sooner than I would have wanted, and before they were fully hardened off.
The photo below gives you a pretty good impression of why I had to make room for the remaining seedlings to be transplanted. It was taken on April 26, a good three weeks before the average last day of frost in Wisconsin. Some of the tomato plants are already getting very tall, and the seedlings that are still in the peat pellets are quickly running out of room to grow. Because the plants grew so vigorously and I had limited space, I also had a few issues with mold/mildew developing on the peat pellets. I was worried about this causing harm to the plants, from damping off to other fungal infections, so I sprayed the pellets with garlic water about once a week (crush several garlic cloves, soak them in water for at least two hours, strain the liquid and fill it into a spray bottle). Using garlic water too often can do harm, as the fungicidal qualities of the garlic can also harm beneficial soil organisms, but it worked well when applied about once a week. I also set up a box fan to blow air over the seedlings and thus create an airflow for a few hours a day.
I started hardening off the plants in ernest around May 3. Honestly, that was a little too early, but because of my limited space, I did not have a choice. That's another reason I will start my seeds about two weeks later next year. Below is a photo of the plants on May 3, on my balcony.
They had to stay in that location until May 10. I was out of town for most of that week, and in that time, some of the tomato plants developed some sort of problem. Their leaves became yellow and spotted, which looked a lot like early blight - not a good sign at all. I removed the affected foliage and sprayed the plants with a water-oil-baking soda mixture, which is supposed to kill the fungus causing early blight. Unfortunately, I think I went overboard and made the tincture too strong - which seemed like it was effective against the disease (blight), but also led to the demise of several other tomato leaves - they seemed to dry out from contact with the baking soda-mixture.
I Part 2 I will tell you about planning my garden plot, transplanting my plants, and starting additional varieties from seed.