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Cliff Muller, LaPlace, La.

Master Gardener Depends on Light Garden for Strong, Healthy Seedlings

Cliff Muller of LaPlace, La.
Cliff Muller has grown more than 300 different types of tomatoes. In recent years, he's made more use of his light garden by starting lettuce, spinach, cabbage and petunias to transplant into his fall garden.

Cliff Muller of LaPLace, La., has tried many different ways to start seedlings. Over the years, this Master Gardener has grown more than 300 different heirloom tomato varieties, as well as hundreds of pepper, eggplant and flower seedlings. It's no surprise that with all this experience he has perfected a great seedstarting system.

"At first I first started my plants under regular fluorescent tubes, but I found the seedlings got too leggy and fell over. Plus I was plagued with damping-off disease each spring," says Cliff. "Then I tried the 3-Tier Light Garden and the APS seedstarter. I haven't had any problems since. The lights keep my plants warmer and healthier," says Cliff.

Cliff usually starts planting his first seedlings in December, for his father who lives along the coast. He continues planting into February, starting seedlings for other family members as well as for himself. "I have a 2-acre farm in Baton Rouge where I grow blueberries, blackberries and vegetables," says Cliff. "I transplant my tomatoes there in March."

After years of experimentation, what are some of Cliff's favorite heirloom tomato varieties? "'Cherokee Purple' is a great-flavored variety that produces well," he says. "'Black from Tula' and the hybrid, 'Golden Girl', also grow well here and are disease-resistant. 'Red Pear', 'Yellow Pear' and 'Sungold' cherry tomatoes will set fruit under any weather conditions--including the heat of midsummer," says Cliff. A new hybrid that Cliff grew successfully last year was 'Brandy Boy'. "I have a hard time growing 'Brandywine' in our heat, but 'Brandy Boy' seemed to grow and set fruit just fine," he says.

Cliff calls his tomatoes "30-day wonders". With his light garden, he can go from seeding to transplanting in just 30 days. He uses a number of tricks to produce healthy, dark-green plants in just four weeks. "I like to tickle my tomatoes twice a day," says Cliff. Tickling is running your hands gently over the plants to simulate wind. "Start tickling when seedlings have two true leaves," says Cliff, "and it will keep the plants much stockier." Cliff also has had great success with the Gardener's Supply seedling fertilizer known as Plant Health Care. It helps keep plants lush and green without promoting leggy growth. Another trick to his success is transplanting the tomato seedlings into 3-inch pots just two weeks after they have emerged. He plants them deep (up to the first set of leaves) so they produce more roots along the stem. If he gets a little behind schedule, Cliff doesn't mind pushing his seedlings. "I've sometimes left the grow lights on 18—even 24—hours a day to get the plants to grow faster," he says.

Once his tomatoes are in the ground, Cliff likes to mulch them with red plastic, also known as Tomato Booster Mulch. It's not just the field-planted tomatoes that benefit. "I was so impressed with the results from the Tomato Success Kit, that I now lay red plastic mulch in all my tomato containers. I have noticed the plants grow faster and produce sooner," says Cliff.

Even though Cliff is partial to tomatoes, he also starts plenty of peppers, eggplant and flowers. "The peppers like being started in larger containers so they get transplanted less often than tomatoes," he says. "Before I had my 3-tier lighting system, I could never get flowers such as petunias, marigolds and stock to grow well. Now all those seedlings are beautiful."

Cliff's only complaint is that the light garden gets used just a few months of the year. However, that is changing. "In early fall, I successfully rooted cuttings from several shrubs under my grow lights," he says. Cliff is also starting to raise crops of lettuce, spinach, cabbage and petunias to transplant into his fall garden. The way he's going, Cliff's light garden will no doubt be shining brightly all year around.

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