Saturday, April 25, 2015

Seed Starting with Park's Biodome

I have not been very successful at starting tomatoes from seed since I've moved to my current home in Chesapeake, VA. My old place had no trees around it. One bedroom was very hot and sunny, so it was relatively easy to start seeds there. Our current home is blessed with beautiful, mature trees which shade in summer, but I miss the ease with which I started my own plants.

Park Seed Company may have answers for my seed-starting problems. I recently purchased a Biodome with "Whopper" sized cells. I went for the large size because I prefer to transplant my started vegetables straight into my garden, and I know from experience that tomatoes grow so fast that they often are crowded if I start them six weeks or so before the average last frost date, as is often recommended for getting the quickest start on the growing season. The Biodome is designed to keep the plants' roots separated from each other to make transplanting easier. The whole unit is designed to be reusable, although I'll need to reorder Biosponges (see below) from the company and disinfect the styrofoam unit that holds the sponges.

The Biodome comes with a premoistened growing medium called a "biosponge" that already has holes or dimples in it for planting. The germination rate is usually good enough, according to the company, that the gardener can plant just one seed in each hole. After planting and labeling, I put about 1/2" of lukewarm water in the bottom of the tray in accordance with the directions.

Park's Biodome all planted and labeled

Then I put the whole tray on a Kwik Grow Heat Mat, which I had patiently waited for, since it had been backordered. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants germinate much better in warm conditions, so I know we'll get many years of use out of this piece of equipment.

Par's' Biodome, all labeled, watered, and ready to sprout!

I also ordered a table top Grow Light to provide sufficient light for our plants after they germinate. We want them to grow healthy and strong, and they need sufficient light to do that. This light is full-spectrum so will be the next best thing to sunlight.

Park's Biodome with Kwik Grow Heat Mat and Grow Light, all ready to grow!

So what did I plant in the Biodome? Here is the list of seeds, all from Parks:

  • Salsa Hybrid Pepper (2)
  • Amadeo Hybrid Eggplant (2)
  • Sweet Rainbow Pepper Blend (3)
  • Parks Whopper Tomato (2)
  • Beefy Boy Hybrid Tomato (2)
  • Maskotka Hybrid Tomato (2)
  • Parks Nectar Hybrid (2)
  • Astris Hybrid Pepper (2)
  • Karma Hybrid Pepper (1)
I planted a little more than I need, but I have a friend who's looking for some of the plants. My only suggestions (so far) for improvement for the company are as follows:
  1. Label tomatoes as determinate or indeterminate with some idea of how tall they grow. This information is available on the website, but I didn't take notes. It would just be convenient to have it on the package.
  2. The Biodome comes with fertilizer for the seedlings. Somehow I doubt this is organic. Again, there's no labeling. I would prefer (and would even pay extra for) an organic alternative. Maybe I can do a little online research to see what might work. 
  3. I'm not too crazy about styrofoam from an environmental point of view. I suppose since it's reusable, it might be OK. Again, it doesn't seem right, somehow, for an organic gardener to be starting her seedlings in a styrofoam tray. Isn't it full of chemicals?
  4. Parks seems to offer more hybrids than other companies. When I shopped, I was disappointed not to find more heirlooms, but I'll see how these plants perform before making a final judgment on this. I don't save seeds, so this may not matter that much to me, personally, in the long run. I'm happy with the company's no GMO pledge and realize there's a big difference between a GMO (genetically modified organism) and a hybrid.
If readers have suggestions, please post them in the comments below. Please note that I am getting a late start this year. It's well after our average last frost date. But I am so excited about the particular varieties of seeds I purchased this year and still want to try growing these before getting plants from a local nursery or big box store. Many of these varieties offer superior disease resistance, incredible flavor, and other interesting traits. Plus I got a discount on some of my purchases by waiting until this late in the season to purchase.

**Update on 5/3/15:

It's been a busy week for the tomato, pepper, and eggplants I planted just last weekend. The Biodome kept the seeds very moist, but it was so humid, I had a hard time seeing through the plastic dome. Between the heat mat and the Biodome, the seeds sprouted much more quickly than the seed packet said they would. As a result, a few of my tomato seedlings got very "leggy" or thin-stemmed, because they were reaching for what little light there was in the room. I failed to see them and provide artificial light in a timely manner. My fault.

Thin stems are a problem, because they make the tomatoes more susceptible to certain diseases and pests.

As soon as I realized they were sprouting, I got the grow light going. I keep it as close to the plants as I can, just above the plastic tags that indicate the variety of plant. Everything I've read said to keep the light just an inch or two from the plants as they grow, so they get enough light and develop strong stems. I removed the Biodome lid when about half my seedlings sprouted and removed the heat mat as well. The remaining seeds germinated more slowly, but they still germinated. And the newer seedlings are growing straight, sturdy stems and turning beautifully green, thanks to the grow light.

I'm still waiting on the Parks Whopper and Maskotka Hybrid tomatoplants to germinate, as well as one of the Rainbow Blend peppers, but I suspect they will, soon, because I can see their swollen little seed heads starting to pop up toward the light.

Parks' Tomato, Pepper, and Eggplant Seedlings after one week in the Biodome

The seedlings will need a weak dose of fertilizer once they form their first true leaves. I talked to Don about this, and we are going to try using a very dilute solution of worm tea from our vermicomposting system instead of the fertilizer that came with the Biodome, because the latter is probably not organic. I told Don that I've killed seedlings in the past with worm tea, but he thinks I probably gave them too strong a dose.

So when the time comes, I'll put him in charge, and we'll give it a try. The worst that can happen is that we kill the seedlings and have to start over. In the meantime, I am saving toilet paper rolls. Another problem I've had in the past is cutworms killing my tender tomatoes plants soon after I transplant them out. I have read that if you plant the tomatoes inside a toilet paper roll, the collar around the stem discourages the cutworms. Worth a try.

I also read that tomato stems grow stronger if you simulate the wind blowing on them, either by gently blowing a fan on them for an hour every day or by gently touching them every time you walk by. I have a pen on the table and gently tap them every time I think of it.

Update on May 10, 2015:

Happy Mothers' Day! I feel like a mother to the baby pepper and tomato plants that have been thriving so far in my Park's Biodome. The Nectar and Beefy Boy Hybrids already are developing their first set of true leaves. This means I should be fertilizing them soon, but I don't feel I should until all or most of the other plants are ready for it. If I'd started a whole flat of the same plant, it wouldn't be an issue. The Maskotka Hybrid tomatoes are the only plants that have not germinated so far. I see little seed heads swelling, so I hope they'll germinate this week. They are really slow growers.

Tomatoes and pepper seedlings. Note a few plants have their first set of true leaves.
Update on 2/14/16: The Maskotka hybrid tomatoes did not germinate very well. We only got one slow-growing plant way after the others were well on their way. As you can see from the pictures, everything else thrived. Don and I are going to try soil blocking this February instead of the styrofoam setup, but use the Biodome to start the seeds. We will let readers know how that goes.

Update on 4/2/16: Don and I have been pleased with the results of using soil blocks, which grows more plants in the same space and avoids the use of styrofoam. We also get to use organic materials like compost from our vermicomposting system in the blocks instead of the sterile potting mixture, with great results. Read here for details.