How to Use K-Cups as Seed Starters

As with most of my “brilliant ideas,” this one was copied from someone else. I first thought of using K-cup pods to start seeds when I read a Craigslist ad requesting used K-cups. The ad said to keep the cup intact and just allow the coffee grounds to dry out; he would use the whole thing to start seeds. I noticed that the cup seemed to have about the same volume as a cell in a six-pack, and had a drainage hole already punched in the bottom, so why not try it?

LAST YEAR’S TRIAL

I sowed one tomato seed in each of two cups last year, preferring to replace the coffee grounds with potting mix. It worked well, and I potted up the little seedlings when they had their first set of true leaves. The only drawback was that the potting mix was a little too moist when the root ball was removed from the K-cup for transplanting. I plan to compensate this year by punching an extra drainage hole in the bottom.

PREPARING THE CUP

Recently when I removed a used cup from the machine, I turned it around 180 degrees, inserted it again and lowered the handle to punch a second hole. (You could probably add more holes this way if you wanted to.) Then I set it aside until I had a small collection of them.

Use your machine to make a second hole

Make a second hole in the bottom of the cup.

The typical K-cup pod has the coffee grounds contained in a tiny filter, which is suspended just above the cup bottom, creating an air space between the bottom of the filter and the bottom of the cup.

A clear K-cup showing the suspended filter

This brand of coffee uses a clear K-cup, so you can see the suspended filter.

Other gardeners make use of this filter to keep the growing medium suspended also, but I found it easier to just insert my thumb and rip out both the grounds and the filter, leaving only the cup with the holes in the bottom. (Save the grounds for a soil additive to use in your garden later.) Wash out the cup or clean it in the dishwasher.

SOWING THE SEEDS

Fill the cup with moist potting mix and plant the seeds according to package directions. Write the variety name on the cup with a Sharpie pen. Put the cups in a flat-bottomed container and cover with plastic wrap. It helps germination to place the cups in a warm spot, but don’t let the mix dry out.

K-cups fit in little spaces

It is easy to fit these cups between the other containers.

As always (you know the drill) as soon as you see the seedlings break through the soil, remove the cover and put the cups under a bright light…or outside if it is warm enough. Continue to keep the soil moist and wait for the true leaves to appear.

TRANSPLANTING

When the first true leaves have appeared on your little seedling, it’s time to transplant it to a larger container. Fill the larger pot with moist soil mix and make a hole just about the diameter of the root ball. (Remember that tomato seedlings can be buried deeper because the buried stem will form additional roots.)

True leaves means ready to transplant

When the true leaves appear, it’s time to move to a bigger container.

Place your index and middle fingers in a V-shape on the soil surface—one finger on each side of the stem. Turn the K-cup over.

To remove the plant, tap UP on the K-cup rim, not DOWN onto its bottom. (I learned this method from my garden-loving father, and it seems to work well no matter what type of seedling container you are using—from cell packs to larger pots.) Lift off the K-cup and your V-shaped fingers will hold the root ball.

Make a V with your fingers to hold the root ball

Hold the root ball with one finger on each side of the stem.

Carefully turn the seedling right side up and place it into the hole you created. Firm the potting mix around the seedling, which will be happy in its new home!

The root ball fits in the hole you created

Nestle the root ball in the hole you created.

Add soil to bury the tomato stem

Add soil to bury the tomato stem right up to the leaves.

NOW YOU TRY IT

How many cups of coffee will you be drinking between now and next spring? Even if you don’t have a Keurig machine, you probably know someone who does. A local restaurant or business may be happy to give you their used pods. My bank has a Keurig machine in the lobby for courtesy use by its account holders. Theoretically you could even wash and reuse the same K-cups repeatedly to start seeds. You may never have to buy cell packs again!

Click here for a post by a garden blogger who keeps the filter intact when using K-cups to start seeds.  And for other creative ways to recycle your K-cups, click here.

The produce from the K-cup seedling

Here are the results of the little seedling I started in a K-cup!

Posted in Growing Tomatoes, Seed Starting, Transplanting, Vegetable Gardening | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Weed Block–Paper or Plastic? And What NOT to Use!

I hate to weed. Some people “don’t do windows” and I don’t weed.  My family and friends ask me why it takes me so long to plant my tomato seedlings when “all you have to do is dig a hole and put it in!”  The time-consuming task is cutting, laying down and securing my best friend–the weed block plastic mulch.  The extra time invested in the beginning prevents much more time spent on repeated weeding sessions during the rest of the summer.

I like to use the black woven ground cloth that has tiny holes in it.  Without those holes that allow water to pass through, the only entryway for the water to reach the roots is located right at the base of the plant stem, where you have cut a single large hole.  Additionally, water puddles in any lower areas of the inpenetrable plastic.

But you have to be careful what you buy.  Last year I bought a big roll of the black woven cloth from an outdoor bin in a Big Box Store.  I guess it had been in the sun too long (?) and exposed to UV rays (?) because it tore as easily as  tissue paper. If I dared to step on it where it covered uneven ground, holes would develop and weeds would grow through the holes.  I laid some down this spring anyway because it was all I had.

In May I visited another Big Box Store and asked the employee where the weed block cover was.  He talked me into buying some nonwoven fabric.  I should have been suspicious when his knowledge seemed to be limited to what he was reading on the label…but that label DID say that the product blocked weeds.  When I opened the roll I noticed that it was so sheer that you could see through it.  How was this supposed to block weeds?  Sure enough, it didn’t.  (See the picture below.)

Weeds growing undernonwoven mulchDotted throughout the community garden were a few other plots covered with this nonwoven fabric, which was “poufed up” like a pillow from the weeds growing underneath.  A more thorough reading of the product label revealed that it was intended to be used under light-blocking material such as shredded mulch or stone.  My fault for not reading the entire instructions before proceeding, as my high school teachers always advised us to do.

So I pulled it off of the garden.  This is a picture of the ground just after I removed one section of the nonwoven fabric, and before I removed the second piece.  All those weeds happily grew right underneath it!

weeds that had grown under nonwoven fabricAnd I had to do what I never want to do—weed!  Once those weeds were pulled, I needed to replace the initial fabric with something that would work!  Since my gardening funds had been greatly diminished by the purchase of the rabbit/vole fencing, the choices were limited to what I had on hand. And they were:

  • Red Plastic – Shown in studies to slightly increase tomato production.  But it didn’t have those holes for watering.  I had ordered some from a gardening website a few years ago but never used it.
  • Brown Paper – It’s actually kraft color (like paper bags) and especially designed for vegetable gardens.  You cut holes in it for the plants, secure it to the ground, and at the end of the season till it in.  I like to use a Martha Stewart circle punch to cut holes every few inches in a grid pattern and plant a bush bean seed in each hole.  But the instructions say that it’s not designed for garden paths, and I will be walking on some areas.
  • Newspaper – Cheap and it works well if laid down several layers thick.  I was discussing the possibility with another community gardener a couple of years ago, however, and he implied that we all see each other’s gardens, and it might look unsightly.  I think his exact word was “cheesy.”  It could be hidden with a covering of shredded mulch, but I have reservations about the shredded mulch…
  • Shredded Mulch – Our community garden provides a pile of mulch that appears to be composed of tiny pieces of wood.  We are supposed to use it in the aisles between the plots, but are permitted to use it right in the gardens if we want to.  Other gardeners have said, however, that nitrogen is taken from the soil during the process of the mulch “breaking down.”  And I read that it can invite slugs under the plants.  Yuck!

I ended up using a patchwork of red plastic, brown paper and that old fragile woven cloth (in areas where I won’t walk).  And last week I returned to the Big Box Store (can you say “charge it?”) and purchased a small roll of name brand (Scott’s) woven cloth with tiny holes.  I unrolled that very sturdy cloth like a red carpet right down the middle of my garden plot and pegged it down.   Now I have more room to plant!

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Garden Fence; Rabbits and Voles Stay Out!

I put in the fence almost as planned (see the last post here).

First, I dug a trench around the perimeter of the garden.  Then I pounded  U poles into the bottom of the trench using a rubber mallet.  It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.

Ditch for garden fence 1

Closeup of garden fence ditch

I attached one end of the 1/4″ opening wire mesh fence to the first pole.  The bottom edge of the fencing was below ground level so that varmints won’t dig under it.  It had been recommended to flare the bottom out, but I didn’t have wire cutters to make the necessary cuts at the corners.   The only attachment wire I had on hand was some crafting wire I had used to make Christmas ornaments, and the gauge was rather flimsy–but it held.  I wrapped the fencing around the outside of the garden, attaching it to each pole.  Then I filled in the trench, burying the bottom edge of the fence.

New vegetable garden fence

Another view of the new garden fence

The last decision to make was concerning a gate.   Most of the other gardeners prop up a piece of plywood at the opening, and remove it when they want to enter the garden.  But I don’t have any plywood available,  so I used part of the Gardener’s Supply Company’s plastic mesh fence kit as my “gate.”  It is really easy to install; you just pound in the poles and use the included clips to attach the green plastic mesh to them.

Green mesh fence kit from Gardener's Supply Company

The clips used to attach the mesh to the fence poles

If I really need to roll in a wheelbarrow, I can take that part down.  But to enter the garden myself, I have been just stepping over the 2-foot fence.

Now to (finally!) start planting!

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Learning about Garden Fencing

Last spring the first two tomato plants I put in the community garden were eaten.  I planted the first one, and when I returned a few days later it was only a stub.  I planted another in its place and the same thing happened.  Frustrated, I surrounded the third plant with a ring of 2 foot high fencing with small openings.  That worked.  I wrapped subsequent tomato cages with 2 foot high layer of gardening fleece and left it until the plants grew too big to be tender and tasty.  That was effective also, but I can’t always wrap every individual planting.  So I decided to bite the bullet this spring and install a fence around the entire 10 x 20 foot plot.

This past February I took a stroll around the quiet, abandoned community garden and observed how other people had fenced their plots.

fence attached to wooden postSome gardeners held up their fence with wooden posts, which are readily available and inexpensive, but I am concerned that they would not last for many years.  This community garden area does not have good drainage and is like a swamp during the early spring rains.   I’m afraid wood fence posts might split, rot or attract insects.

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U post with plastic fencingMost of the gardeners attached their fencing to a “U post,” which is made of coated metal and has little teeth that hook onto the fencing.  Some gardeners used plastic netting, which is easy to attach to the posts and is lightweight, but I read that some particularly determined critters will gnaw right through plastic.

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Green coated metal fence with 2 inch grid openingsSome gardeners used coated metal fence, which is sturdy and  long lasting.  The green coating blends in nicely with the garden, but the grid openings are too large to keep out small animals.  As a matter of fact, I have been advised to bury the bottom of the fence a few inches to deter burrowing invaders like voles (field mice).

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U post with chicken wire fencingThis gardener used chicken wire fence and did bury the bottom of the fence into the soil.  It’s even better to bend the buried fence out at a ninety degree angle so that the animal cannot dig down under the fence either.  I still think voles could squeeze through the small openings in chicken wire, though, so I plan to use fencing with even smaller openings.

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Fencing with smaller holes at the bottomSome garden fencing is designed with smaller openings on the bottom, probably because the smallest creatures are lowest to the ground(???)  This is the type of fencing I used to surround the individual tomato plants last year, but I was concerned with mainly rabbits then.   The fencing I want to install now has to keep out those pesky voles.  (I hate voles, and I hate being surprised by them when they scurry by.)

After consulting my two best online friends, Google and YouTube, I have come up with a plan.  I purchased two foot high fencing with 1/4″ grid openings, along with thirteen U posts.  I hope to dig a four inch trench around the perimeter of the plot, pound in the posts, and attach the fence to the posts with copper wire I have left over from crafting.  I hope to be able to cut the bottom few inches of fencing at each corner, so that the bottom can  flare out slightly underground.  Then replace the excavated soil and cover the pathway side with mulch (as is my community garden duty).

Because the fence is only two feet high to begin with, burying the bottom four inches or so will leave a very short fence–perhaps easily jumped by a rabbit.  So I am considering backing it up with a fencing kit I purchased from Gardeners Supply.  The kit consists of rather tall (4.5 feet?) wooden poles with garden netting that is clipped to them.  My research also led to the claim that critters are unable to climb fencing that is loose on the top, and drapes down over them.  (There is no support for them to cling to.)  So I won’t attach the top of the netting.

At least that’s the plan.

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Winter Sowing in Milk Jugs

I am a few days late this year starting my winter sowing.  Usually I try to put out the tomato seed containers on the first day of March.  Here’s the intended schedule:

  • March 1–Sow seeds and set containers outside
  • April 1–Seeds usually show germination
  • April 30–Transplant into individual containers
  • May 14–Ready to put into the ground (or sell at market)

I don’t think it will matter, though, because the seeds will germinate when the weather warms up even if they were put out in the middle of March.  So here is how to prepare the gallon milk jugs shown in the earlier post:

They have already been washed out and cut around the middle, leaving an uncut space just under the handle to act as a hinge.  Now it’s time to drill holes in the bottom.  Using the kind of handheld drill that will grasp a nail, I made several holes in the bottom of the jug.  For stabilization, and to make sure I didn’t accidentally slip and damage the counter, I put the inverted jug over the open mouth of another container:

Drilling holes in jug bottom

Invert Jug Bottom Over Mouth of Another Container

You can use whatever method you choose to make drainage holes in the bottom.  Then flip the jug over so that it is right side up, and put in about 4″ of moist potting mix.   Sow the seeds according to the package instructions.  Label the container with a paint pen (permanent markers fade).

Jug Bottom with Seeds Sown

Jug Bottom with Seeds Sown

Punch two holes on the front corner (directly opposite the handle), one on the top section and one on the bottom section, near the cut edges.  Insert a twist tie and use it to tie the jug closed.

Twist Tie Threaded Through Holes in Top and Bottom

Twist Tie Threaded Through Holes in Top and Bottom

Now wrap packing tape around the entire cut edge to seal it.  Throw away the cap (you don’t need it) and put it outside–no matter how cold the temps are!  Snowing?  No problem!  The seeds will germinate eventually in their little “greenhouse”–when the weather warms in the spring.

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Winter Sowing–Getting Ready

Winter sowing doesn’t mean planting seeds in the snow–it’s an ingenious method of starting seeds in winter and early spring, without the need for an expensive indoor light setup. You use the sun (which is free) and repurposed containers (also virtually free).

Many types of containers can be used.  They should have a vented, clear lid, drainage holes in the bottom, and a large opening for easy access to the seedlings.  (The large opening can be cut into the container and then taped shut until transplanting time.)

The most commonly used container seems to be the plastic gallon milk jug.  To prepare the milk jug, wash the inside thoroughly (possibly by putting a drop of dish detergent inside, filling it halfway with water, capping it and shaking it vigorously) and rinsing it out.  When it’s dry, cut it according to the directions below using scissors or a sharp knife.  (I actually start the cut by puncturing it with a knife, then use scissors to cut it the rest of the way.)  Here’s where to make the cut:

Starting at a level just below the handle and to one side, make a horizontal cut all the way around the jug EXCEPT for the space directly below the handle itself. Leave that part uncut so that it creates a “hinge.” See the picture below.

Jug cut horizontally for Winter Sowing

Milk Jug Cut for Winter Sowing

I start saving up containers a few weeks before it’s time to use them, and have been known to raid the neigbors’ recycle cans (although at least one family member has delicately suggested that the practice is illegal).   Once the jugs are cut open, they can be partially “nested” to reduce the amount of space they requre in storage:

Nesting the Milk Jug Bottoms to Save Space

Nesting the Bottoms to Save Space

Milk jugs are not the only option.  Any of these can be turned into a WS container:

Containers for Winter Sowing

Save These Containers for WS

Use what you have!  There’s even a way to use zip lock baggies!  I plan to start this year’s Winter Sowing in a couple of days, and will document how to convert these containers into seed starting flats.

Meanwhile, for a thorough explanation of Winter Sowing, check out the website of the woman who invented it.  http://www.wintersown.org

And finally, here is a picture of my absolute favorite Winter Sowing container…

Denny's Take Out Container for Winter Sowing

Oh, Yeah!

…and not just because it contains a Grand Slam.  Denny’s take-out containers have clear vented dome lids and styrofoam-like bottoms that are easily punctured for drainage.  After its contents are consumed (yum!) and it takes a bath in the dishwasher, this container will be ready to do double duty as a seed starting flat.  Can’t wait for Tomato Seed Winter Sowing Day later this week.

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My Favorite Seed Starting Method

Channel tray with list

I discovered these channel seed starting flats several years ago, and liked them much better than the commonly used plug trays.  I even used to sell them in our eBay store, but shipping costs became too much (for the extra long box) and I am happily using the leftovers I didn’t sell.  Here is the “sales pitch” that was in the eBay listing–and every word is true.  LOVE these things:

These are 1020 size seed germination flats, each with twenty separate channels for planting, and pre-cut, self-stick labels numbered 1-40 to identify each row.

Closeup of channelsEach channel is 10″ long x 7/8″ wide x 1 1/4″ deep and has holes in the bottom for watering.

There are advantages to this system:

  • You have a permanent record of what seeds are planted where–no depending on sticks that can be lost
  • You don’t have to fill the whole flat at once; you can sow only as many rows as you need as the season progresses
  • You can vary the spacing of seeds in different rows, depending on the needs of each type of plant
  • You can adjust the method of sowing each row–seed depth, planting medium, fertilizer, type of covering (vermiculite, sand, soilless mix, etc.)–to suit the sowing directions of different seed packages
  • Seedlings that grow more quickly can be transplanted without disturbing the roots of seedlings in other channelsLifting seedling row with knife
  • Seedlings (with roots and soil intact) are gently lifted out from the row ends using a butter knife–no pushing the root up from the bottom (as in plug flats), crushing the root mass when pushing up the bottom of six-pack cells, or turning pots upside down and trying to catch the seedlings in your hand
  • There is no wasted planting mix left in the flat after transplanting the seedlings
  • The channels are easier to clean than the individual holes in plug flats

Each flat fits over a standard 1020 watering tray (not included) and under a standard humidity dome (not included). If you don’t have a dome or tray, it’s easy to improvise:

No dome? Enclose the flat in a clear plastic bag (like those from the dry cleaner or supermarket produce section) to keep in humidity until germination. Or just lay baggies on top.

No watering tray? A (clean!) kitchen garbage bag can be placed in the shipping box to hold water for bottom watering (see photo). Or pour a little water in a cookie sheet and water half the rows, then turn the flat around and water the other half.

Watering channel tray in cookie sheet

End of “sales pitch”——-

Putting number stickers on the rows allows me to plant many different types of tomatoes or flowers in the same tray, and put them all on a single heat mat.

It’s important to keep a list of what plant is in which row and (learn from my mistakes) put copies of that list in several places so you don’t lose it.  I now even type up the lists and keep them in a Word document–but don’t depend on that one copy either!  (Crashes happen.)

Here is a picture of last year’s tomato seedlings under lights.  Notice that row #7 had marigold seedlings.

Tray of seedlings under lights

I can’t wait to start tomato seedlings again this year–but not until April 1.  Meanwhile, look for the next post on winter sowing, which can be done right now!

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