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Fall Crops – Starting in Flats – Can be a Strategy for Pest Control, Increased Yield, Saving Space and Time

Almost 40 years of gardening and I’m enjoying starting fall crops more than ever this year; mainly because of the benefits I’m enjoying from an adjustment to my usual seed starting and transplanting methods.

How the Adjustment Came About

A couple of weeks ago the first lettuce seeds I’d started for fall had germinated. They were small, but a size good for transplanting if critters had left them alone.

As mulch shrinks through the summer, my soil under that by-then-thin-layer, is usually dry. In spite of that I happily found two small spots that were moist and perfect for my first transplanting of lettuce.  Planted them and sprinkled with straw to preserve the moisture.

Next day, they still looked great. Second day — every one was gone. Could have been any insect critter, but I’m thinking crickets since I’ve not seen too many grasshoppers.

I’ve fought this battle in prior years. Usually, I just keep planting every week or so and in different places. Finally I get lots of lettuce. Although this method works, it may not be the smartest or most efficient way to get the job done.

Lettuce, Beets, Chard, Kale, Spinach, Radishes

Fortunately, I had more lettuce germinating. Rather than transplanting to the garden, I transplanted into jug bottoms (like I do for wintersown) but with more spacing for each plant. I’m also taking this approach with beets, chard, kale and spinach. I’ll do radishes both ways; direct seed and start in jug bottoms or flats.

Onions

The onions from seed started for “spring-onion-eating” this fall and winter were up 3 inches.  Transplanted some to the garden and the bugs haven’t bothered thus far. Assuming that condition remains, I’ll continue to plant those seedlings into the garden as I have room.

Beans and Peas

I’ve always sown beans and peas directly into garden beds. In the last few years I’ve had a heck of a time with beans and especially peas not wanting to come up. It seemed that something was eating the seed, but I’m not sure if that’s the case.

Not going through that anymore! Thus, I decided to start all beans and peas in jug bottoms or flat. I space them a little more than 1 inch apart and about 8 to 12 seeds to a jug bottom. When top growth is 6 to 8 inches tall, I transplant to the garden. If that sounds like a lot of work to you, I assure you it’s really time saving. (I’ll tell you why in a minute.) And wait till you hear the benefits! I’m so impressed that I never want to direct seed beans or peas into the garden again.

3 plantings of beans - all started in jug bottom. Henderson limas in front. Provider snap beans in the middle. Blue Lake snap beans in the back.

3 plantings of beans – all started in jug bottoms. Henderson limas in front. Provider snap beans in the middle. Blue Lake snap beans in the back.

The Benefits

  • Good Strategy for Pest Control

Any time I’ve ever planted lettuce seedlings that were 2 inches or larger, they usually make it through just fine. The larger size lessens the chance of crickets and grasshoppers and other smaller pests being responsible for the demise of the seedlings.

Most of us know that from experience if we’ve gardened a while. For example, a fairly large tomato or eggplant seedling can weather the attack of flea beetles.  And a lettuce seedling that is up 2 to 4 inches has a lot better chance of growing to maturity in the garden than a seedling that is only 1/2 inch high and looks like a perfect meal for a grasshopper or cricket.

  •  Increases Your Yield

You’ll cull out the weak seedlings before transplanting to the garden. Only the most vigorous will go into the garden bed.  Generally, they’ll be your big producers. (There can always be exceptions.)

  • Saves Time and Space

When you direct seed a certain percentage of seed doesn’t germinate.

Starting in flats does away with space left vacant in the garden bed when seed doesn’t germinate.

When you transplant small seedlings into the garden, you’re almost always gonna lose a certain percentage.

When that happens you have unoccupied space in the bed.  If you choose to fill the space with another plant, it’ll take time to produce another plant.

Beds marked for these new plants might be currently filled with another crop, but you won’t lose much time because the new plants will be ahead when they’re finally placed in the garden.

Peas germinating in jug bottom.

Peas germinating in jug bottom filled with 3 inches of grow mix.

Suggestions and tips:

  • Plant large seed like beans and peas in at least 3 inches of grow mix to give the roots more room. When top growth is 5 to 8 inches, transplant to the garden.  At this point, roots will be entwined, but can be pulled apart gently to separate them.   (If you want plants to get even larger, allow 6 inches for root growth.)
These beans are ready to be transplanted to the garden.

These beans are ready to be transplanted to the garden.

  • Lettuce seed can be started in about 2 inches of grow mix, but when you transplant each to a larger pot, give the roots at least 3 inches of grow mix.
  • Do not compact the grow mix when you transplant the seedlings.  Make the hole and cover the roots gently with soil using whatever tool you have.  Watering after transplanting will give the root to soil contact you need without compacting the soil.
  • Use a watering can or hose that will mimic a gentle rain. You want to water, but now drown the seedlings.
  • If you don’t get the growth you want when you transplant tiny seedlings into deeper/larger containers try adding a couple of tablespoons of compost to the grow mix prior to planting.  If you’ve already planted, put the compost on top and water.

Final Thoughts

There’s always a better way to do almost everything. We won’t ever know what works for us until we try it out.

I hope you’ll experiment with some of these ideas and let me know how you fare with them. I’ll be interested in hearing what you discover and I feel sure your fellow readers will too.

Happy Fall Gardening!

These lima beans were started in jug bottom and transplanted to the garden when they were about 7 inches tall.

These lima beans were started in jug bottoms and transplanted to the garden when they were about 7 inches tall.

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12 comments to Fall Crops – Starting in Flats – Can be a Strategy for Pest Control, Increased Yield, Saving Space and Time

  • Pat

    Theresa,

    How timely this post is! I will try this with my fall plantings. MAYbe by the time the plantlets are ready for transferring to the garden we will have had some good rains! It is SO dry right now!

    You are like a lighthouse, guiding our way! Thank you, thank you!

  • Sue

    Thank you for this information.

  • Sandra

    I 100% agree Theresa, I pretty much start everything in flats now. I also like being able to move them to another location if the temps. do something crazy. It’s easier to cover them if they are in one spot – that helps me with white cabbage butterfly on my brassicas. It’s another tool to keep all bases covered. I direct sow because it’s no work, but only if I have plenty of seed and can afford to resow. Those jugs are pretty much invaluable!

  • Susan Klein

    Thank you Theresa! Another great idea that I’ll use!
    Susan

  • Toni Brock

    Wonderful information! Thank you Theresa. My question is: are you planting peas and beans in the fall? I am going to try. My instinct tells me it is too late for me, but, like you say “you won’t know if it works until you try” 🙂
    I just could hug you

  • David Fisher

    Ran into your website a few weeks ago. Like what you’re doing. Keep up the good work. I’m a gardner of some 35 years and have found that no matter how long you’ve been gardening there’s always more to learn. I love to experiment. I need to learn more about sucession planting. The biggest error I’ve made in gardening is not keeping a journal about seed germination, harvest times, and soil temperatures etc.

  • Theresa

    Pat, lack of rain and dry ground (even with mulch) is a great reason to start in containers. Otherwise, we may not have time to get the plants going soon enough before cold weather. Let me know how you do! Good luck!

    You are so welcome Sue!

    I like how you put it Sandra: It’s another tool to keep all bases covered.
    It’s what batman and I call “backup”! 🙂

    You are welcome Susan. Glad you can use the idea.

    Toni, yes I’ve been planting beans and still have a few more to put in.
    And yes, I’m planting peas. Most likely the weather will determine our success (yours and mine). But we know for sure we won’t get any if we don’t plant. 🙂

    Welcome to TMG David! Glad you like what I’ve done.
    I agree with you 100% about no matter how long we’ve been gardening there’s always more to learn. I think too that the more we learn — the more we know that to be true.
    Your biggest error (not keeping a journal of the details) is also mine. Always seemed like too much to do to write it all down, but it would have been invaluable if I had.

    Theresa

  • Steve

    Theresa,
    I am trying a fall crop of veggies this year. I am direct sowing the seed. I may have problems with squirrels frolicking with the wood chips, damaging the seedlings. If my memory serves me correctly they do this in the spring as well. I may try your idea it seems like a good plan. Maybe the squirrels eat the veggies?????
    Does anyone know?
    Steve

  • Theresa

    Steve, squirrels will eat veggies. But like anything else, it doesn’t always happen. It will depend on how hungry they are and what they take a liking to. They can devastate tomatoes by taking a tiny bite out of each and every one. They’ll eat on every piece of fruit on peach, pear, and apple trees and probably others.

    The numbers of squirrel in our area is up and I’m getting concerned. Thus, we’re trapping. I don’t want to have problems and am taking step now to avoid them.
    Theresa

  • Bonny

    I agree. I also like starting most things in flats. My new favorite container is a clear plastic “clamshell ” that I get from lettuce or spinach I buy in the winter or those roast chicken plastic containers. They keep the soil damp until germination. I have also started cutting off the seedlings that are small or too close so I do not disturb the roots since I plant extra seeds. Despite what the experts say, I have had great success starting my squash and cukes in small pots . I think it is very important to transplant either to a larger container or into the garden as soon as you see roots thru the bottom holes. Don’t let them get root bound.

  • Theresa

    Think you’re spot on Bonnie about the fact that plants/seedlings do much better when they are transplanted before they get root bound.
    Thanks for your input!
    Theresa

  • Steve

    Theresa,
    Thanks for the tip on squirrels. We have about a thousand squirrels (not) well lots and lots. So many mature oak trees…. I may have to resort to trapping or a critter noise box. My dog does a good job when he is outside, but he also tears up the garden. I have trained him to avoid the garden but he forgets sometimes, like when chasing a squirrel.

    What to do what to do………
    Steve

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