Small-Scale Seed Starting Experiments

It’s gray and a bit cold (low 30s) outside, but inside we’re working on seed starting / overwintering techniques with a focus on snapdragons. The tiny seeds need light to germinate and, although they thrive in cool weather, allegedly want 75 degree soil to sprout. Given the terrible germination rates last September (under lights, very wet medium) the depth of winter seemed like a good time to test other approaches.

In all, we have:

  • 3/4” soil blocks, uncovered, distant light, no heat

  • 3/4” soil blocks, covered, proximate light, no heat

  • 3/4” soil blocks, covered, distant light, heat mat

  • 2” soil blocks, covered, distant light, heat mat

  • potting soil mix, covered, distant light, heat mat

  • soil block mix, covered, distant light, heat mat

  • 3/4” soil block, outside under Agribon

Finger crossed!

Fence Cleanup

Our flower farm is in a former pasture / hay field which was fenced for livestock at various times, beginning with living fences of Osage Orange trees planted in the late 1800s through metal t-post & wire fences from the 1980s. Over the years those fencelines have grown into thickets of multiflora rose, Russian olive, poison ivy, and eastern red cedar and, while providing useful windbreaks, are a problematic source of these invasive species.

With the warm weather this week, and unable to find the right size socket wrench to work on the BCS, we spent two days removing the fence separating our beds from our pond. Although much work remains to clear the thicket of brush I already love the open feel on the hill.

Soil-Blocking Experiments

Enjoying what the almanac and my childhood memory confirms as typical late December Missouri weather (here we all laugh at the use of the word ‘typical’ applied to weather) with the last few days generally sunny in the low 40s, we are starting to try out new soil-blocking recipes with the small 20-square blocker with the goal of germinating snapdragons and larkspur in 3/4" blocks and sweetpea in 2” blocks. With a small cold frame to simulate a potential passive solar greenhouse and an agribon-covered bed to take the place of our full-length field rows, we’re curious about when we really should be starting seeds for early-season harvest.

The mix is a modified Eliot Coleman recipe substituting an organic 5-5-5 fertilizer in place of chicken manure (which is higher in nitrogen and also more pungent in our basement) and the addition of mycorrhizae from Paul Stamets for nutrient uptake and disease resistance. The soil blockers are from Johnny’s seeds.

Germination should be in 12-14 days, so with 200 blocks on a tray we will hopefully have some small flowers sprouting in January.

Late-Fall Items

A few things we are working to tie up as the temperatures drop (and stay dropped):

  • bee winter-readiness

  • equipment maintenance and storage

  • seed & supply purchase (part 2)

  • compost plan

  • rotation planning & bed expansion

First, the bees. Of the two hives, one uses a traditional solid bottom board while we experimented with a screened bottom board on the second. In our area the move seems to be toward screened boards, which offer more ventilation (useful for hot & humid MO) and hopefully allow varroa mites to fall through the screen and out of the hive for good rather than land on the solid board and climb back up to again bother bees. With winter essentially here, I put a rectangle of insulation between the screen and the hive to slow air movement, with a gap of several inches to prevent condensation. I also gave them some sugar.

Second, equipment. We use a BCS manual-start gas-engine two-wheel tractor for everything (attachments: rotary plow, flail mower, power harrow, sickle-bar mower, chipper/shredder) and it’s time for annual maintenance. I’ll move the equipment from the shed to the barn and then clean, grease, sharpen, etc.

Third, seeds & supplies. Our spring perennials, corms & bulbs (peony, dahlia, crocosmia) were purchased mid-summer and we are working through the last of our hardy annual seeds, but it’s certainly time to put our order in for tender annuals and equipment. After the disastrous late blight hit our solanaceae last summer (probably phytophera) taking out 100% of our tomatoes as well as half our eggplants) we will be grafting our tomatoes onto resistant rootstock. So, choosing rootstock as well as field tomatoes this year and reading about grafting techniques. Our orders will go to Johnny’s, Baker Creed, and Seed Savers Exchange for the most part.

Last, mapping out our rotations. With a small footprint (11 100’ beds + 14’ x 40’ hoop house) and a goal of constantly improving soil health, we want to ensure that at least each non-perennial bed is has one growing season in a diverse cover-crop. We are also experimenting outside the deer fence. Fingers crossed.

The photos date back to Thanksgiving, when we had temps in the mid-60s. Our youngest beekeeper is 4 and very helpful with the hives.

Snow --Is the Season Over? (Hopefully Not!)

After losing some time by breaking my wrist (then gaining it back by enlisting the in-laws) it looks a bit like an early winter has arrived. The test snapdragons aren’t in the ground yet and I’m hard-pressed to harden them off when the daytime temps are only in the low 30s, so fingers crossed next week we can get them out from under the lights and into the bed under agribon.

Otherwise we are starting to think about the early spring, when we will try crocosmia for a second time and get more peony in to replace hydrangea, as well as a new set of snaps.

Oats & Allium

Another crate of giant allium went in today before it rained, and the oats look fantastic after the first several early frosts. We separated two buckets of gladiolus corms into viable mature corms, cormlets, and discards and have them packed away for the winter.

Bees Gearing Up for Winter

Our hives are moving towards winter as well. Although they are still active during the day (although not finding much pollen judging from their saddlebags) the colonies are both relocating from the lower to upper box. Our formerly-stronger hive had a sudden appearance of small hive beetles which is (hopefully) being held in check through diatomaceous earth and an active colony while the formerly-weaker queen is laying well and they remain free of SHB.

Soon we need to swap bottom boards so I can reduce the airflow, and think about providing supplemental food once the temperature drops.

Fall Planting Prep

With the days cooling and wetter weather (hopefully) on its way we are busy preparing for fall plantings of hardy annuals while weeding the perennials one last time. At BLH Farm, this weekend we mowed down the cover crop mix (Diversity Pollinator Mix from Green Cover Seed) that had performed incredibly well in the five 100’ beds in the lower garden. Before and after shots of the beds show the work of the BCS and flail mower attachment.


The specialty cut flower growers’ association (ASCFG) meeting was this week in Raleigh, NC, and a highlight was the growers’ school session held at Sassafras Fork Farm. Leading St Louis farmer Mimo (Urban Buds - Dutchtown) and Lisa Ziegler from Virginia (author of Cool Flowers) outlined their approaches, and we enjoyed unseasonably cool weather on a beautiful farm.