A short but impressive lesson on how to grow hydroponic plants from seeds and seedlings


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Your seed supplier must be able to take care of your needs all year round! If not, you must find a way to preserve the seed. If you have to you can preserve seed by using silica gel in airtight containers and store in cool dry conditions. It is best, though not always practical, for the seed company to have ample supplies throughout the year. This would save you having to buy a year's supply and store before usage.

In most cases lettuce seeds are cool weather crops. The seed only germinates when air and ground temperatures are below 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you're using a greenhouse you can control these temperatures and grow throughout the entire year. Best germination temperature is 60-75 degrees F or 16-24 degrees C. The type of lighting is important: red light (not far red) is best. If you are germinating inside, use full-spectrum fluorescent lamps with the accent on the red as explained above. HID (high intensity discharge) lamps are too bright for this purpose. Cool weather crops can tolerate cooler temperatures.

Outside beds can be sown with heat-resistant varieties. If you sow in hot weather, light shading should be provided for several days. The shading can then be removed. In such hot or warm weather you should not wait for the plants to mature. Harvest them early while tender. Then replant again and again to keep a steady succession of crops on line. Make certain the beds are evenly moist at all times.

For those of you who are transplanting to outside beds, be sure to harden off your seedlings first. You do this by gradually getting the seedlings accustomed to the light and temperature differences. Another way to plant your seed is to use the cut-and-come-again idea. This is where you broadcast seeds or seedlings and cut (harvest) four or five times throughout that crop's season.

Water quality is very important. Rainwater or what is known as soft water is ideal but not always available. Even though the pH is right (around 6.5) you may still need a reverse osmosis filter to get the kind of water you want for your plants. Select crops for weather conditions prevailing at each time of the year. Fall and spring crops for cool areas or climes and summer crops for the warm areas or climes. The ideal temperature for the nutrient solution should be around 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

More specific instructions will be given for each particular seed category, not only in this text but also on the seed package itself. The main necessities for lettuce crops and gourmet salad greens are good drainage and consistent but frequent and light nutrient (fertilizer) applications.

Lettuce seed is very sensitive to all allopathic chemicals released by common weeds such as nutsedge, foxtail, quackgrass. Also residues of broccoli, beets, barley, and rye can inhibit growth. So you must make certain your growing area is not contaminated in any way. Crucifers and mustard family members are also detrimental to lettuce growth.

The crucifers are cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Brussels Sprouts. Mustard family members are mustard, sweet alyssum, cress, wallflower, candytuft.

GERMINATION: Outside beds - you can hand broadcast or transplant seedlings from inside. Inside beds (or hydroponic) - you can again hand broadcast for soil but it is highly inefficient to do so. It is better to transplant or seed directly into separate blocks.

The author suggests you have a potting shed to which is attached a small greenhouse over which you can place a shade cloth for light extremes. If you prefer, you can use fluorescent lights for germination as was mentioned above.

The shed can be used for storage of fertilizer and potting materials. You can build a shed and a small greenhouse for next to nothing. Often you can get materials free by just asking and hauling them away. For most operations, your shed should be the size of a small garage.

The greenhouse can be attached to the shed. It should be 8 feet high at the center ridge pole, five feet at the sides and up to fifteen feet long. If you will study the plans for the main greenhouse given later in this book you will be able to make a simple design for what you want. The shed and the greenhouse should be built from scrap materials. But as time goes on and your operation grows, the shed/greenhouse will be a much larger affair.

One more thing, be careful about what kind of heating you use. Gas fumes kill plants (and humans). So plan accordingly

eed directly into peat pellets, blocks of rockwool, blocks of oasis, or even a good potting mix. If you're growing inside it's best to plant in separate blocks ( 2 seeds per block). This method is also good for planting outside because you can transplant much more easily. The broadcast method, though effective and saves time, has its drawbacks - the plants have to be thinned to allow them to grow properly. That takes labor - and time (money).

In order to keep your beds fully occupied, you should be producing seedlings continuously, either in the beds directly or in blocks inside the potting/greenhouse area. You can't have too many seedlings. So keep a close watch on them - make sure they are all progressing at the same rate.

Some growers who raise crops inside will tell you to never use soil to start seeds. Always use vermiculite. Soil has pathogens and diseases. Vermiculite is sterile and absorbs just so much water. You should pre-soak it before using. In any case, the author believes if your medium is sterile you shouldn't have any problems. Using sterile blocks of peat, oasis or rockwool as mentioned above will do the trick. Make sure your dealer gets you "agricultural rockwool". There's a big difference - regular rockwool like that used in house construction is not fit for plants.

ALWAYS TEST YOUR SEED! This cannot be overemphasized. Make germination tests of all seeds before planting. Put a piece of blotting paper on a saucer, place some seeds on it, cover with another piece of blotting paper which is damp. If the seed hasn't germinated within ten days, get rid of all the seed!

Many growers will tell you not to feed seedlings until they've been transplanted. Like all rules this one too is meant to be broken. One of the most successful growers I have met uses a weak Peter's Stem solution for his seedlings. To be on the safe side, you could follow his method after the seedlings are two inches high - and then use just a weak solution of fertilizer.

Before we discuss the various varieties of lettuce and specialty crops, we should talk about ventilation. Outside beds will probably not have this problem unless the plants are too close together. Inside is a different matter. Inadequate ventilation will cause rot to form on the lower leaves of plants. Some operators think a steady draft of air going through the top sleeve inside the greenhouse is enough. Not so. You must also have cross currents at floor level. Extra fans along the walls will help.

Staggering of crops is also very important. Sowing and staggering of crops must be continuous throughout the year. Customers, especially chefs, want consistency and continuity all year round. So make them happy. Give them what they want. All the time.

bsaffell@mayhillpress.com....copyright 1996-2006 by H L Saffell/Mayhill Press

Last Update = 11/16/06