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Germinating shallow-planted seeds in an arid environment

 
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Location: Egnar, CO (seasonally)
forest garden greening the desert homestead
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I'm finally starting my first garden, after years of reading about permaculture stuff while having no access to land. So I have a pretty good idea of my high-level strategy, but when it comes down to the smaller details of actually physically doing things, I'm sometimes feeling a bit clueless.

The biggest issue I have right now is with trying to germinate shallow-planted seeds. The packets for amaranth and lettuce say to plant just 1/4" deep, and to keep moist until germinated. I'm in a very dry, sunny, and sometimes windy place, so the top 1/4" of soil almost always dries out very quickly. I could solve that problem with some mulch, but then the seeds would be significantly more than 1/4" deep. Would that prevent them from germinating? Or do I really have to keep watering them every few hours? The amount of water I've gone through doing that over the past couple days, knowing that 99% of it is just evaporating, is offending my desert dweller sensibilities.

Any suggestions on alternate strategies here? Or am I just misunderstanding the instructions, and adding an inch or two of mulch is the answer?
 
pollinator
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Plant, water, press tightly. Then cover with hay, leaves, plastic, glass...
 
pollinator
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Make transplants. Preferably with a small greenhosue (can also be one of those indoor greenhouses). Plant transplants in mulched beds.
Some plants may work as transplants in a specific context, some don't, it is try&error.
 
Josh Warfield
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Location: Egnar, CO (seasonally)
forest garden greening the desert homestead
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Starting from transplants is something I will probably experiment with next year. As of now I don't have a greenhouse or much of any other indoor space, unless you count the dashboard of my van, haha.

For now, I went with Kaarina's advice and covered the planted area with some fine to medium bark bits right after watering. Still hesitant to go too deep with the mulch, at least until I see things growing and can start to mulch more around them rather than on top of them. But even the thin layer I have now should help quite a bit, I think.
 
pollinator
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I use what I call "sprouting boards" for things like carrots.

These are scap 1/2 x 5" boards from an old cedar fence. I water the rows and set these on top ensuring there is an air space underneath. It holds the moisture and protects against wind/sun drying things out.

In our sand/silt soil, it works like a charm.
 
Josh Warfield
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Good tip! Approximately how much air space do you leave? Like do you put spacers under the boards, or just make sure it's not totally pressed down?
 
Kaarina Kreus
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I am trying to post pics but nothing happens...
 
Kaarina Kreus
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Here are some very exact pics.
You don't need to have X to read the story.

https://twitter.com/stop_fossil_fue/status/1792613903991496749?t=xPwTFjMgqtF9NmEF3oMsXw&s=19
 
Kaarina Kreus
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https://twitter.com/stop_fossil_fue/status/1792616233403298276?t=KsZmOP3mprKoDnH7Yq6yIQ&s=19
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Josh Warfield wrote:Good tip! Approximately how much air space do you leave? Like do you put spacers under the boards, or just make sure it's not totally pressed down?


It's variable, but roughly 1-inch-ish. I would put in a parallel twig as a spacer if needed. They don't form a perfect seal or anything -- that would encourage mold or rot the seeds. They just sit on the row walls, open at the ends, creating a protected space with a bit more humidity to get things going. It doesn't take long.
 
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Josh,

I have hot and dry growing conditions and high diurnal temperature swings (50/90 F or 55/95F this week).

Try to plant in partially shaded area.
Amend the soil with organic matter. It will help to retain the moisture.
Dig a small trench 10x10 cm (4x4") - it will help to protect the seeds from the wind, will collect the water used for watering and may collect morning dew (if present).
Use very fine mulch - I use woodchips from my thickness planer.
Water in the evenings, to prevent loss due to evaporation. Or early morning.

With this method I was able to germinate peppers - a plant that just hates my climate and I don't expect it to grow much or produce at all, but nonetheless I tried and it worked with 20% germination rate.
 
pollinator
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Similiar windy and dry climate here. I've had great luck just scattering carrots under my other crops. Same with lettuce, bok choy, green onions, spinach.  I water in well and mulch lightly with grass clippings. Once the sprouts start to show add another bit of mulch. The shade and extra moisture helps.  

Make sure your soil has lots of organic matter, that helps hold moisture for longer periods. Add mycelium. My raspberries are on a trench we filled with chunks of old firewood, winecap mycelium and covered with soil. They're always damp beneath and one of the first things to show when the freeze ends.
 
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I also live in a hot dry climate.  
First try not to be to uptight about depths. I'm not saying ignore the recommendation, but don't worry if it's a little shallower, or deeper. The only exact ones are the ones that need light to germinate, they need to be on top of the soil.
If your worried about keeping the soil moist you can us vermiculite to cover the seeds.
An alternative to using the board previously suggested is to use cardboard. I cut strips of cardboard soak them in water and use a garden staple, or a brick, rock, or whatever on the ends to keep it from blowing away.  It's important to keep checking under, and remove board/cardboard as soon as the seedling emerge from the soil.  This method has been a game changer for me. I could never get carrots to grow. With this method (both a board, and cardboard seem to work equally as well) I get great germination.
Next make sure you are planting appropriate veggies/other at the right time of year.  For example I live in California. If I plant lettuce, peas, brassica's and other plants that don't like the heat now I would experience an epic fail.  So I recommend taking to local gardeners, or checking out sites in your area.  Good luck to you. As my father-in-law used to say don't sweat the small stuff.
 
gardener
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Lots of good advice here. I've gardened in high desert a bit. The board over the sown seeds I've often done and it helps a lot but you want to check daily and remove it as soon as the first seeds come up.

One thing I'm not sure I saw mentioned here is to press down the soil before and after sowing the seeds. I actually level the soil and then step on it gently, with both feet and full weight if the soil is sandy and has good tilth, or standing on the side and pressing with one foot. I haven't gardened in badly clay soil so I might not do this in very clayey soil, idk. The slightly compacted soil will hold moisture longer and dry out slower than fluffed up soil. I'm going to mulch deeply later when the seedlings are big enough, and the soil always goes fluffy under deep mulch.

I sometimes scatter light mulch, such as twigs or straw, over the newly sown seeds, and that seems to help too. It casts a little shade to reduce scorching sun heat and dryness on the surface, but it's not a complete layer so when the seeds emerge they can find sun quickly. As the seedlings get bigger I add more mulch.
 
Josh Warfield
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I've got seedlings! Thanks everyone for the help. I started another bed and am doing a little side-by-side test using a scrap 2x4 piece. I like the cardboard idea too, will probably try that next time. Also starting to think that a drip watering system might be moving up the priority list. Or I might try out the buried olla system.

Pressing down the soil might not be a good idea for me, I've got enough clay that wet dirt turns into adobe brick pretty easily if I'm not careful.

The seeds are from a local grower and come with recommendations of when to plant, so I don't think I'm doing anything too crazy out of season. Most of my planting areas get afternoon shade, and I'm experimenting with different ways of adding organic matter.

Melanie, when you say "add mycelium" do you mean a commercial inoculant of some sort? I've been trying to encourage fungi however I can but so far haven't brought in anything from outside like that. Some of the mulch I'm using has bits of mycelium already growing on it, and I've also found some dry puffballs around (astraeus hygrometricus, I believe) and I tried dusting those spores onto a couple of beds. If you have more strategies for encouraging / speeding up that process, I'd love to hear them!
 
Jen Fulkerson
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Josh you can buy mycorrhiza. It helps to add to the hole when planting seeds and transplants.  It's kind of expensive though, and not a "necessity".
If you plant in a hugel style bed, you get a lot of mycelium.  It takes time though.
 
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