Save Water! Use Seedling Flats!

Or: How to feed an extra person and still save over 5,000 gallons per year.

It may be a little late in the season for this post (at least in this hemisphere), but we just had a series of storms that would feel right at home in February, and this information isn’t going to become less useful, so I’m going to go ahead and post it anyway.

You may not think that starting seedlings in flats vs. sowing them directly in the growing beds makes much difference in terms of how much water your garden uses over the course of the year. You may think that the extra step isn’t worth the work, even when water is expensive or scarce. Think again! Study the two attached information sheets carefully:

  •  The first shows a comparison of factors that impact seedling development and resource use in direct sowing vs. sowing in flats and then transplanting.

Direct Sowing and Transplanting Compared page 1

  • The second shows water saved by using flats. You may need to zoom in to read it.

Direct Sowing vs Transplanting p.2 shows water saved by raising seedlings in flats

Do you see the amazing possibilities for growing food and soil sustainably with biologically intensive practices on an increasingly water-scarce Earth? By starting your seedlings in flats and transplanting them into the beds when they are sufficiently matured, you can save enough water to grow calories and compost materials to support up to one additional person annually without increasing your overall water use AND you can save up to 14.8 gallons of water per day all year long to use for other purposes.

This savings is in addition to the 67% less water used per pound of food produced with biologically intensive practices compared with standard gardening and farming methods!

The solutions are available to us. Let’s change scarcity to abundance now, so there can be more than enough for all as we go forward into the future!

2 Comments on “Save Water! Use Seedling Flats!

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful comparison. I see there are lots of advantages to transplanting vs direct sowing. However, I would like to point out that heavy reliance on flats is resource intensive too. If one is using the traditional peat moss, perlite, vermiculite combination, then we are relying on the mining and long haul trucking of these resources. Even alternative inputs such as coco coir, fir bark, rice hulls, etc. have their issues. If direct sown, we are relying on none of this. Seeds are natures bounty, and not all are meant to germinate and survive. Using open-pollinated varieties keep seed costs down, and direct sowing uses the precious on-farm resource of soil. If water on the farm if so scarce it justifies reliance on off-farm resources mentioned above, then perhaps farming at that location should not take place. As a sustainable agriculture instructor, these are just my thoughts and are not meant to undermine your practices. We should always be looking at the whole picture to address any impacts. Peace and happy farming!

    • Good question! Resource-mining is not something we want to encourage! While the use of imported soils/amendments would make the use of seedling flats less attractive, GROW BIOINTENSIVE does not rely on or advocate the use of such imports – GB farmers use a mixture of native on-farm soil (a by-product of double-digging) and farm-grown compost to fill their seedling flats. GB also advocates the use of open-pollinated seed and indigenous varieties better suited to local climates and soils than commercially popular hybrids. Planting in flats and then pricking the seedlings out also allows for the selection of the healthiest sprouts, and strengthens the root systems, imparting vigor and increased production when the plant is finally planted out in the growing bed. When flats are not easily available, we encourage the use of a “nursery bed” for the raising of seedlings. In addition, we have found that raising seedlings (in flats or the nursery bed) rather than direct sowing where they will mature, leaves the primary growing bed available longer for growing other crops, and that the use of “pricked out seedlings” from one flat/or nursery bed to another before transplanting into the growing bed can up to double the yields. (See my post https://johnjeavons.org/2019/04/15/pricking-out-greatly-increase-plant-health-and-yields-by-transferring-seedlings-from-flat-to-flat-before-final-transplanting/ on how this has been shown to work)
      Currently, an estimated 1.6 people face water scarcity. By 2050, that number is expected to reach 5 billion or more. “By 2050 it is estimated that more than half of the world’s population may not have adequate access to water. …Nearly 2 billion people will live in countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, with absolute water scarcity, according to the International Water Management Institute. And by 2050, MIT researchers say that 5 billion of the world’s projected 9.7 billion people could live in water-stressed areas. Aside from a lack of drinking water, populations in these areas might not have the means to irrigate their fields (threatening food supply) or for other domestic, industrial, and environmental purposes. Currently, one-third of the world’s rivers — groundwater for about 3 billion people — are going or gone, according to the World Preservation Foundation. With population growth and global warming, the situation will only worsen.” (https://roadmaptothefuture.com/studies-predict-severe-water-shortages-by-2050/).
      Limiting farming in areas with water scarcity is not really an option for these billions. Currently, ~500 million small-scale (<2ha) farmers globally grow an estimated 70% of the world’s food. They often occupy marginal land, and have little or no access to money or resources to buy food (especially with rising food prices predicted along with resource shortages and population growth!) or use expensive fuel, equipment and chemical/imported amendments, and they must either grow food where they are with what they have, or die of starvation, along with their communities. These small-scale farmers need every technique at their disposal to survive. Something as simple as using seedling flats can make the difference between failure or success for people living with absolute water scarcity – and for the ecosystems they (and we all!) rely on.
      Our research in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture (Volume 19/Issue 2, 2001), as well as other researchers, shows that compared with conventional agricultural methods, GB can :
      • Use 67-88% less water.
      • Use 50-100% less purchased fertilizer.
      • Use up to 99% less fossil fuel energy.
      • Produce 2-6 times more food/unit of area.
      • Produce a 100%+ increase in soil fertility through carbon sequestration.
      • Require 50-80% less land.
      • Grow up to 20 pounds of fertile soil/pound of food eaten - in contrast with conventional agriculture (even standard organic), which loses 4.7-18 lbs. of soil/pound of food consumed.
      All of this helps people grow more food, using fewer resources, and helps protect the Earth and its waterways from further damage from our agriculture. Ecology Action works to teach people everywhere to use this method. I hope this answers your question, and happy farming to you, too! ☮️

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