Adding soil and compost to seed-starting mixes

Adding soil and compost to seed-starting mixes

Did a little experiment with mixes for starting seeds. The “Stone” medium on the left is an E.B. Stone “Seed Starter Mix” that I purchased. The bag says it contains primarily peat moss and perlite.

The “Alder” medium on the right is a mixture that I made up using two parts E.B. Stone “Seed Starter Mix” (so, peat moss and perlite), two parts compost (from the Miramar Greenery in San Diego), and one part dirt from my yard (sandy loam).

My aim was to see what effect including soil and compost would have. I sowed Corvair spinach in both mixes. My observation is that adding soil and compost had a beneficial effect. Wouldn’t you agree?

Why? I don’t know. The spinach seeds in the Stone mix actually emerged a day earlier than the seeds in the Alder mix, but since then the seedlings in the Alder mix have rocketed past the Stone seedlings. Maybe the soil and compost have added nutrients and microbes that the germinating seeds didn’t use but that the baby plants have appreciated. (Why do I think this? Here’s a video of Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost explaining why he adds so much compost to his potting mixes, used by many successful certified organic vegetable farmers. Also, here is a publication by George Keupper that explains the contributions of both soil and compost, as well as other ingredients you might add to seed-starting and general potting mixes.)

Anyway, I’ll definitely add some soil and compost to my seed-starting mixes from now on.

Sow carrots now!

Sow carrots now!

Holy smokes, my carrot seeds just emerged faster than they ever have: nine days! Most sources say that carrots take between one and three weeks to germinate, and I’ve often found my carrot seeds emerging from the dirt more on the three-weeks end. Why so fast this time?

I believe it was the soil temperature. As this page from Cornell says, the ideal soil temperature for carrot germination is 75 degrees. While I haven’t measured the temperature of my soil, I can see that the temperature of the soil at a nearby CIMIS station averaged 76 degrees in September and 69 degrees in October, likely putting the soil temperature when I sowed my carrots on October 19th close to that ideal of 75 degrees.

What does this mean? Optimal carrot-sowing season is mid-September through mid-October — for my yard, and probably throughout Southern California. That’s when the soil temperature is likely near 75 degrees. (See the CIMIS site location map for a station near you.)

Carrots will certainly germinate in soil with temperatures above and below 75 degrees but more slowly. The most discouraging thing about growing carrots for me has always been that I have a hard time remembering to keep the seed bed moist for a whole 21 days. Staying on top of watering for only a week? I can manage that.

Cornell also says that carrot roots develop their best quality when they grow in soil with a temperature of 60 to 70 degrees. That’s what mine will be growing in through November here.

The point is, sow carrots today! It’s not too late, as the soil temperature is still pretty warm. Or, put it on the calendar to sow carrots between mid-September and mid-October, 2017. I just did.

Cass’s first garden

He’s two and a half years old now, so I decided it was time to let him sow some of his own. He really enjoyed sprinkling the lettuce seeds; I let him sprinkle way too many since he found it so fun. But probably his favorite part was getting his hands mucky while mixing up the soil and water. Does getting your hands dirty ever get old? That was probably my favorite part too.

Chickens eat bugs in the garden

Joel Salatin advises that you wake up every morning aiming to attack the weak link on your farm. That could be soil fertility, irrigation, labor efficiency, anything. The weak link in our yard has been — for a couple years now — a proliferation of earwigs and pill bugs.

They grew in numbers as I spread more and more mulch under trees and around vegetable beds. They eat holes in strawberries, eat holey the leaves of peppers, eggplants, basil, and onions, and they eat the cotyledons of every single germinating seed. There is not even one species that they allow to germinate and grow up. This has necessitated that I grow all vegetables from seedlings purchased at a nursery, and this is the worst consequence of all: not being able to grow from seed. It’s so limiting and so frustrating.


Enter chickens. I bought four and I can’t describe the pleasure I have found lately in watching them devour bugs. It is inordinate, sadistic, unalloyed, and I don’t apologize for it. It comes from a desire for revenge, true, but it also comes from seeing how happy I am making the chickens, and just as much it comes from closing a resource loop.

Another piece of advice from Joel Salatin is to make a liability into an asset. The bugs have been a liability to me and my garden, but to chickens they are delectable food, an asset. The bugs, which were once only a detraction, a cost, are now a resource, being put to use as feed for hens that will convert them, ultimately, into food for us in the form of eggs.

I’ve built a mobile pen so I can locate them over a patch of garden, focusing them on finding and eating all of the bugs in a particular 32 square feet, and preventing them from munching on any of the surrounding plants.

mobile chicken pen

Yesterday, I left them over a bed where there had been strawberries. They didn’t eat every bug, but they ate most of them such that the basil seedlings that I put in today — after I moved the pen down the bed — should survive any damage the few remaining pill bugs might cause.

Keeping the pen rotating through the garden consistently ought to reduce the bug population overall enough for me to successfully grow from seed again soon. My future looks like this: I’ll have seeds germinating unmolested, chickens well fed, eggs, and even a further asset of manure. It’s only a shame that I waited so long to add the chickens in order to make use of the earwigs and pill bugs and fortify the yard’s weak link.


UPDATE July 4, 2016:

The basil seedlings have grown perfectly without any bug damage despite the presence of a few remaining pill bugs and earwigs.


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Chickens: my garden’s little helpers