This year was my first time using a second-hand home-made propagator. The theory seems excellent – get seedlings started early under artificial temperatures and light before moving them to the polytunnel. The tomatoes liked it, but the aubergine and peppers have sulked to a slow death not helped by an erratic hardening off period.
What lighting regime works best for seedlings?
My well insulated box, tucked in a dark shed has kept a steady 18-20 degrees C and the fluorescent tube has been glowing 14 hours a day. I didn’t let the light regime run 24 hours a day as I thought the plants would need some time to breath. The pepper and aubergine seedlings popped up and then seemed to stop. Consulting my polytunnel bible I decided that this was ‘normal’ perhaps because the root systems established.
Woodlice love bell peppers
Well, after years of considering woodlice harmless humus makers, I now discover that they are sneaky little pepper predators. Part of the reason for my ailing crop is that I used old compost apparently filled with yet-to-be-born woodlice. Of my seedlings they preferentially demolished the tiny hearts of my pepper seedlings. The aubergines, melons and tomatoes remained woodlice free. I’m not sure if this was the luck of escaping being planted in old compost, but even over the course of three weeks the woodlice never moved on from the peppers.
Tender plants in the wrong sort of weather
Having firmly taken on board the fact that of my seedlings tomatoes were the hardiest, I spent over a month trying to shield the aubergines, melons, cucumbers and peppers from the miserable May. They barely went out (surely I shouldn’t let them suffer temperatures below 18 degrees after the protection of the propagator?). The result seems to have been that I nurtured vulnerable dwarf seedlings unable to cope with any stresses.
Finally, when the sun did come out and I felt it was safe and appropriate conditions for my mediterranean plants, I enthusiastically put them out on the south-facing terrace to let them soak up real daylight. This was two months after planting and perhaps three weeks after potting on. Instead of thriving, I lovingly left them out to sun burn.
Real daylight and weather
After this set back the plants barely tried and I then coddled them yet further in the propagator so that by mid June I still had miniature plants with barely four leaves each. I lost all enthusiasm and understood that even if they now survived they would not crop. At this point, a trip to the garden centre was in order. There I saw 20cm tall peppers and aubergines standing out in the weather barely covered by a roof! What I learnt was that real steady daylight is the stuff that plants need more than a constant temperature.
How do they produce plants for veggie boxes?
I have a new plan for next year. I’m going to give myself a break. So that I can focus on learning to rear plants and take them to fruiting I am going to stop propagating seeds. I should have taken the advice of a friend that grows organic veg for a box scheme. She always buys in plant plugs. She does this because it is less ‘frustrating’ and doesn’t cost much more than seeds and seedling compost. More importantly you are guaranteed to get strong healthy plants early. Why did I ignore the advice of an expert?