(Sorry the photos are so naff, I never have learnt the art of indoor photography…)

Its very windy here today. Not the kind of windy that the poor people of Queensland have just lived through, or as wintry as has hit the USA and Canada in the past few days, but the silver birches were dancing and swaying in the wind like demented hula girls. I took a quick “blustery day” walk up to the allotment to check that the compost bins hadn’t blown away but decided it was an ideal day to stay inside and do some preparation for Spring.

Windowsill Propagator

Last year MIL treated me to a small heated propagator. Designed to sit comfortably on a windowsill, it takes up to 7 quarter size seed trays or the equivalent and came with a full complement of these plus ventilating propagator lids to keep the moisture in. I love it, and with the addition of capillary matting growing things from seed instantly became much easier.

This was Before Greenhouse, but I was allowed to use a cheap plastic shelving unit in the Dining Room in front of the south-facing patio doors to grow seedlings on. This gave me plenty of room, but the light levels were still surprisingly low, particularly early in the year, and many of my seedlings grew leggy while waiting for space in the coldframes outside.

Now that I am lucky enough to have a greenhouse to play in, the plan is to start at least some of the seeds off in the windowsill propagator and then move them to the greenhouse once they have germinated. This will provide them with much better light than they ever got in the greenhouse, but of course is useless for the tender seedlings, things like half-hardy annuals, chillies, tomatoes etc., at least until May. In any case, seedlings need a period of weaning off the pampered heat of the propagator before being turfed out into the (unheated) greenhouse. There is no longer room for a shelving unit in the Dining Room, and in any case they are now in use within the greenhouse. What to do?

Potential Seed Growing Area

I have a blanket chest in my study that I have been happily using as an extension for my (very cluttered) desk. It is underneath the south facing window that the propagator sits on. The blanket box itself is useless as it is too low, but happily none of us had yet got around to putting three large plastic boxes up in the loft.

Promising Start

It turns out that they are almost exactly the right height to bring three gravel trays up to windowsill height. Lined with pristine capillary matting, white side up to reflect the meagre light these grey days have to offer, this makes a promising start. At this point there was a gentle fizzing in my brain as I half-remembered Alys Fowler creating a cardboard-and-foil arrangement. The idea was to capture and bounce light back towards seedlings to help them stand up straight rather than turning into little corkscrews as they reached for the light and were then turned round to correct the lean.

Having happy memories of using sticky back plastic, washing up liquid bottles and loo roll centres to create things because Blue Peter showed me how, I decided to re-connect with my inner child and get the scissors and cardboard out. (For those of you who did not grow up watching Blue Peter, it was – and is – an iconic BBC children’s television programme that always seemed to have a “make this from bits and pieces you will have to ask your Mum to save for you” spot. I loved it, and so, years later, did my sister, and my Mum always managed to say “Thank you” when one or other of us presented her with the latest misshapen creation. This is where the phrase “Here’s one I did earlier” came from, because they always started doing a stage and then pulled out a completed version. Cheating, I always thought.)

Chopped Down Wine Box
Lined Box

I made the happy discovery that the type of box you get wine delivered in – not the standard 12 bottle size but the more greedy 15 bottle size – is perfect. The gravel tray sits neatly inside, the “walls” are tall enough to bounce back a fair amount of light but still make it easy to reach inside, and as we love our wine, we have plenty… I originally intended to line the boxes with foil, but this felt like a waste when I came to it, so I used white paper that had already been printed on one side, which we have stacks of for “rough” use in the printer.

I’ve no idea how much difference it will make, but at least I now have somewhere to nurse seedlings before casting them out in the cold for the next stage of hardening off. I will still be able to stroke them regularly, not a peculiar fetish, it encourages thigmomorphagenesis, a natural change in plant growth resulting in stockier, stronger plants. Watering will be easy too, thanks to the capillary matting. Its not exactly an attractive arrangement, but the addition of a pretty cloth disguises the ugly plastic boxes and I will probably find some wrapping paper to disguise the outside of the cardboard boxes.

Ready For Action

Not a bad way to spend some time on what has been a grey and very blustery day. Of course, I now have some room in my propagator, and I had a delivery of lots of exciting seeds yesterday…

Room For More Seeds

28 thoughts on “Experiments with light “Blue Peter” style

  1. Something tells me the spare space in the propagator will be filled up by the next time you show us this space. I have some seeds on the way myself, and quite frankly I’m not sure I know where I’m going to propagate them…one of a gardener’s many dilemmas… I like how you’ve made reflectors for you light trays. When I built my greenhouse I made the north wall solid and insulated and painted it white since I figured the reflected light would do the plant more good than dim ambient light from the north. I thinks your plants will be happier for it.

    1. Hi James, I fear you may have rumbled me, it seems such a waste to have the heat on and not have it full ;-) Good luck finding room to grow on your seedlings, it can be rather problematic. Your greenhouse set-up sounds excellent, I plan to add more insulation to the north side of mine this year and leave it in place year-round.

  2. how fascinating how you just keep making do with what you have and make it work…mine is quite make-shift and small but it fills my need…I love what you have done and learned some more along the way :)

    1. Hi Donna, glad to share the experiments, would love to hear about your set-up too. I’ve learnt that we gardeners tend to be rather creative when it comes to growing plants.

  3. Such marvellous ingenuity Janet. Blue Peter would be proud of you. [Jane has a SILVER BP badge. Can you beat that???] Who needs a greenhouse?

    1. Hi Mark. Kudos to Jane, and no I can’t beat it – I don’t even have the basic badge!

  4. Hi Janet,

    It sure looks like you’ve been having a blast with your blue Peter projects :)

    I hope your seedlings do well in their homes, I ought to get seedlings started here too, next week…. Next week…

    1. Hi Liz, it was rather fun. It is hard to wait to start seedlings isn’t it. I got bounced in to sowing Cleome and Cerinthe because I kept reading about how they needed a long run in to grow effectively, the others – so far – are seeds I sowed back in September and need the dormancy breaking. What is haunting me is the pile of new packets of seed that I have bunged away in a box trying to resist even looking at for fear of temptation! I will console myself with yet more sweet peas and broad beans in the greenhouse.

    1. Hi Eliza, from what I’ve seen I’m sure you can take this idea and turn it into something even better – just make sure you share your experiences!!

  5. I had a big smile when I saw your photos as I have the same propagator and have previously used large plastic tubs to hold extra trays of seeds! Although I’ve never tried to tinfoil trick I’m thinking that perhaps this is the year for it as I’ve had issues with leggy seedlings too.

    1. Hi Margeurite, will be fascinated to hear how you get on. I woke up this morning to yet another gloomy low-light day, our seedlings need all the help they can get…

  6. You have really set up a wonderful spot for your seedlings to get started. I am impressed. For all the windows I have in the house, my plants don’t do well (seedlings that is). Think it is because of the coating on the windows for energy efficiency. We don’t get the full light spectrum into the house….good for the heating and cooling bills and good for the furniture and carpets, bad for little seedlings trying to get started.

    1. Hi Janet, I hadn’t thought about how the environmentally “right” choices for our homes could affect how we grow our seedlings. If I ever got to build my own houseI would love it to have a large conservatory or sunroom to help with heat/solar gain management and also provide a good growing environment. I suppose in the mean time I have to be grateful that I don’t have the otherwise excellent eco window coating.

  7. I love to watch how folks start plants from seed as it is nothing I have room to do. If I had enough sun to grow veggies in the garden, I might make more of an effort to figure out a system. And thanks for the reminder of all those things we made as children out of bits of this and that!

    1. I did enjoy getting out the cardboard and scissors, though I missed the sticky back plastic. Shame you don’t have enough sun to grow a few veggies, I had a similar problem pre allotment, meaning I could only grow what I could cram in to pots on the patio. I guess we all have to live within the limits of what we have available to us. You have certainly created a beautiful garden.

  8. How ingenious! I am thinking hard about a way to start some plants from seed. My cats are very naughty, so I haven’t sowed seeds indoors for many years. Maybe I can rig up some sort of vegetable terrarium that they can’t knock down? Any ideas?

    1. Ooh, that got me thinking – what about a fish aquarium? The glass would presumably increase the heat, a lid would create a humid environment – you’d need ventilation too – and the cats could see but not touch! That could really work. You could even attach a reflective surface on the side furthest from the light to aid straight growth. Interesting…

    1. It is certainly one of the best gifts I’ve been give in recent years – assuming you meant the propagator!

  9. Hi Janet, I think your idea for reflecting the light will make a big difference. Even in a greenhouse, when light levels are low in the winter, plants, and especially seedlings can grow towards the strongest light source. I’m envious that you have so many things started already, until the greenhouse arrives I don’t have anywhere suitable at all. Christina

    1. Hi Christina, it seems to be making a difference already, although I won’t really know until I start sowing in earnest. Hope your greenhouse arrives soon…

  10. Blue Peter, ah yes, I remember it well watched it in 1958, did you see it then? Janet even with a greenhouse my plants grow leggy, Myra likes it hidden with Bamboo, conifers etc etc as apparently they look ugly, the greenhouse that is, well well what can you say.

    1. Hi Alistair. Oh dear. can you not convince Myra that by “concealing” the greenhouse you are just creating weaker and uglier plants than would otherwise be the case? I feel so sorry for your seedlings…

  11. I always use the silver foil surround on my seedlings as it stops them reaching for the light and getting leggy. It really works. I hope yours does too.
    M x

    1. Thanks Maureen, me too! I may have to replace the paper with foil.

  12. Janet you are my new hero – what a brilliant idea – I am all for tackling problems from a different angle – well done you!!

    Great use of space and light. Another way you’ve proven you garden your own way – I like it very much and may try and nab the idea :)

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