We’ve lived here in Northeast Kansas for more than five years now. I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the gardening success that I’ve had stems from starting seeds inside under grow lights. I do not currently have a high tunnel/polytunnel/greenhouse. I’ve tried starting seeds and succession plantings in trays outdoors, but the growing conditions here are unpredictable and extreme. I’ve had some success starting seeds by direct sowing, but the majority of the plants that I grow have been started indoors.
Don’t get me wrong, I have had and will continue to have really successful garlic, bok choy, corn, gourd, pumpkin, green beans, and squash harvests, which are direct sown. However, the other vegetables that I grow, start their life in the sheltered indoors, no matter the season. I enjoy using season extension methods as well as adapting to the challenges that Northeastern Kansas likes to throw at me. In order to grow a spring garden here, the seedlings need to be ready to go into the ground between March 1 to March 15 with a low tunnel to get them through nights below 32 and as low as in the 20s. If the temperatures start dropping into the teens at night, then fabric row covers underneath the poly low tunnel cover are the last resort and hope for the plants survival.
I garden in USDA Grow Zone 6A. I use Miracle Gro Potting Soil to start my seeds in seed trays. My seeds are sourced from a many different places such as Johnny’s Seeds, Burpee, Ferry Morse, etc. Indoor pest control is handled by Harold (he survived on the occasional phorid fly). My grow lights are two Roleadro 600W 3rd generation (full spectrum) and one Roleadro 1000W (grow light) daisy-chained LED lights hanging from the rafters in the unfinished ceiling down to about 6″ off the deck (12-18″ off the deck for the 1000W unit) of the seed trays. I water from the roots and almost every day. The indoor humidity is around 30-40%, the ambient indoor temperature is around 65 degree Fahrenheit (F), and I only use a grow mat (set at 75 degrees F) long enough to obtain germination, if necessary. I do not use an oscillating fan, but my seed starting area is almost directly below a HVAC vent in the basement with 9′ ceilings. Seedlings are ready to be potted on or transplanted between 6 to 8 weeks from germination.
My low tunnel area is a no-dig bed that I top up with 4-6 inches of soiled horse bedding (wood shavings) and manure once per year. I use a 25 foot 6-mil poly painter’s drop cloth for the cover and electrical conduit pipe bent in my pipe bender for the ribs.
A note on garlic: I direct sowed all the cloves from 10 heads of garlic in-ground in my low tunnel area in early December of 2022. They came up in late February. I harvested the garlic after the summer solstice and braided them for hanging to cure/dry in the basement near my seed starting area.
I sowed red and yellow onions, purple scallions, regular scallions, leeks, and shallots in mid-January into seed trays and placed them under my grow lights. I know that seems early, but starting from seeds takes more time than starting from onion sets. Here is a list of the varieties I chose:
- Patterson Yellow Onions F1
- Barolo Red Onions F1
- Deep Purple Bunching Onions OG
- Nabechan Bunching Onions F1
- Creme Brule Shallots
- Tadorna Leeks
I had decent germination rates, except for the shallots. Most of the shallots came up, languished, and then died back for some unknown reason. I did pot on one group of shallots and actually grew them to harvest under the grow lights! It was a decent sized shallot and we ate it in sauteed black-eyed peas and collards.
The bunching onions were transplanted into a pot and grew to harvest on our east porch deck. (I need to get into a better habit/on a schedule for succession sowing!)
Leeks were transplanted into the low tunnel area the first week of March. The yellow and red onions were transplanted in to my low tunnel area in late March, but were shortly overgrown by pink clover. While digging garlic after the summer solstice, I weeded the clover out and left the onions to continue growing for the rest of the summer under shade cloth.
Brassicas & Greens
I also sowed the seeds of various brassicas and greens in seed trays between the last week of January and the first week of February and placed them under my grow lights. Here is a list of the varieties I chose:
- Hybrid Brussel Sprouts, Gladius, F1
- Hybrid Leafy Asian Greens, Carlton, F1
- Hybrid Broccoli, Green Magic, F1
- Hybrid Chinese Cabbage, Minuet, F1
- Hybrid Chinese Cabbage, Merlot, F1
- Hybrid Collard Greens, Top Bunch 2.0, F1
- Bibb Lettuce, Rosaine, MT0
- Romaine Lettuce, Tendita, MT0
- Iceberg Lettuce, Great Lakes
- Baby Bok Choy
- Hybrid Round Red Beets, Boro, F1
The collard greens, brussel sprouts, broccoli, beets, cabbage, and iceberg lettuce were transplanted into the low tunnel area between March 1 and 15.
The Green Magic broccoli, Boro beets, and Top Bunch collards performed really well and I will be growing them regularly, moving forward. I can’t opine on the performance of the Gladius brussel sprouts as they ended up getting frost damage shortly after I transplanted them into the low tunnel area. They did set sprouts, but ultimately succumbed to pest pressure before the sprouts could get very big. I’ve had better luck in previous years growing Dagan (F1) brussel sprouts.
Mistakes I Learned From
First, installing insect mesh after transplanting would have been a game changer. I will be investing in insect mesh in 2024 to combat cabbage worms and tiny slugs as the Chinese cabbage, brussel sprouts, and iceberg lettuce suffered increasing pest damage as the temperature rose during the spring season, decimating the majority of those crops prior to harvest. Second, the transplanted onions didn’t receive enough sunlight due to being crowded out by so much clover. I learned that I will be using more wool as mulch and/or weeding out clover and sunflowers this next spring! Third, when I do this again next spring, I will endeavor to be more on top of things and try to pot on some of these seedlings prior to transplanting them outside.
Finally, the one thing I really kicked myself over was how I handled the harvest of the collard greens. At one point the collards were at their height and we harvested some for a meal and several bags full to give away to friends. I thought I would just harvest leaves as I needed them for meals, but time got away from me. By the time I realized I should have just harvested them all, the insect damage was out of control and had taken over the crop. In hind sight, it would have been better to harvest the collards at the healthy height of the crop, chop, parboil, bag, and then freeze them for use at a later date.
Things I Will Keep Doing
I will definitely be using more wool as mulch this next spring. I noticed that the plants that I mulched grew bigger and were more resistant to pest damage (I don’t think slugs and worms like to move across wool).
Most of the lettuces that I potted on and continued to grow indoors did so well that I never transplanted them outdoors. I will continue to grow loose lettuces indoors.
As spring moves into summer (almost like a switch being flipped), it can get very hot here in May. Hence, I will continue using 55% shade cloth in the spring as a way to keep the cold weather vegetable plants cool as the weather quickly heats up. The shade cloth acts a season extension for spring.
Ultimately, if I had kept the clover under better control (more wool as mulch) and utilized mesh row covers to minimize pests, I would have had a better harvest, but, overall, I was very pleased with the quality of the seedlings that I produced in my basement under grow lights. The seedlings adapted quickly after I hardened them off (a few hours per day for 4 to 5 days on our deck before leaving them out 24/7 on the deck for a couple of days) and were robust enough to handle some light frost damage.