Back on the horse: growing onions & peppers from seed

Hot pepper seedlings

Having had limited success starting onions and peppers from seed, I regrouped and got a good start on both this year. We rigged up some grow lights on a rickety old utility shelf in our otherwise dark and inhospitable basement, and I planted seeds early, putting in four varieties of onions and five varieties of peppers before the end of February.

Though I did start both onions and peppers from seed last year (for the first time), a variety of factors worked against me to result in a lame harvest. For one thing, I wasn’t home for about four weeks in March/April, which made it impossible to start seeds early. As a result, I didn’t start any seeds at all until the middle of April, which seemed fine for some things (e.g., brassicas) and disastrous for others (e.g., peppers, onions, and eggplants).

When I did finally start last spring’s seeds, it was without supplemental light or heat: we were living off the grid and the tiny plants had to survive with only the sun coming through my south facing windows. Again, some vegetables seemed unfazed by the cool temperatures and lack of extra light. But the peppers, which like warm soil (21-29 ºC) in which to germinate, didn’t like it at all, and a couple varieties I tried had an almost zero germination rate! The ones that did sprout took a few weeks to do so, and by that point it was practically time to transplant the runty little things out into the garden.

Baby onions & leeks.

Last year’s onions faired even worse. Onions need a long growing season, and they start to create their bulbs when the days are long enough, regardless of how big the plants are. Essentially, my attempt to start onion seeds indoors in April in Saskatchewan resulted in very cute (but totally useless) miniature onions that didn’t do anything at all.

By contrast, this year we’re living back in the city and on the grid for the winter, which is an incredible luxury when it comes to getting a jump on the gardening season. I planted onions on February 20 and peppers on February 26, and set them under our new grow lights. Three of the four types of onion germinated within a week without trouble, though unfortunately the Amish Bottle onion has done virtually nothing. (My seeds were from last year and onion seed isn’t known for storing well, so I’m not too surprised.) My Early Yellow Globe, Perennial Bunching and American Flag leeks are growing happily, to the extent that it may almost be time to trim the tops for use in salads!

Ugly but functional seed-starting unit.

Having had such trouble getting my peppers to germinate last year, I wanted to baby them as much as possible this time around. Since we don’t have heating mats for under the seedlings, we set up a very makeshift system of wrapping the shelf in blankets and setting a space heater inside. Though ugly, the added warmth resulted in peppers with excellent germination in under two weeks! That’s already an incredible success compared to last year.

Not being a big fan of sweet peppers, my energies this year are focused on growing hot peppers exclusively: Black Hungarian, Matchbox, Grandpa’s Siberian Home and Hinkelhatz. Our personal goal for this year is to make a reasonable facsimile of Frank’s Red Hot from our own home pepper supply…there will be updates on that down the road!

Happy growing!

2 thoughts on “Back on the horse: growing onions & peppers from seed

  1. I tried Amish Bottle onions last year and even with fresh seed and grow lights they had almost zero germination, so maybe it’s a tough variety or a bad batch of seed (if we got it from the same place).

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