Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Seed Starting Time: Enticement and Tips

If the gardeners in your life seem to have a special twinkle in their eyes or an extra spring in their step during the next few weeks, it may have something to do with the fact that the moment we've all been waiting for has arrived. Finally--after all those months of drafting garden layouts, sharpening tools, buying supplies, and waiting, waiting, waiting--the time has finally come to sow some seed. Is there anything more exciting than popping seeds into soil, or more magical than seeing tiny green stems emerge a few days later? Not to most gardeners.

The girls and I are attempting to grow all our own transplants this year. In the past, we have purchased at the garden center most of those delicate damsels that like to be spend their first few weeks indoors before being thrust into the none-too-gentle arms of mother nature: tomatoes, peppers, onions, cabbage, leeks, and a variety of flowers and herbs. But this year we decided to be bold and try raising them from seed. And why not, since we're getting quite used to diving head-first into new waters! In the following paragraphs, I share some of the discoveries we've made.

First, a few of the reasons that we (and many other gardeneres) have chosen to start our own seeds:
  1. Seeds are much less expensive than transplants.
  2. It is often hard--if not impossible--to find organically grown and heirloom transplants.  
  3. The variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers that you can find in seeds catalogues is much greater than what is available at most garden centers.
  4. It's fun!
The fun of starting your own seeds actually begins well before spring. In fact, almost as exciting to gardeners as popping those first few seeds into soil during the first few days of spring is cozying up in the depths of winter with a good seed catalogue. There are some out there these days that make for better reading than New York Times bestsellers. While a number are glossy and exquisitely laid out, others charm not with appearance but with poetic description--depicting their wares in terms that leave your mouth watering and your hands itching for a pair of garden gloves. Among my own favorites (all offering organic and heirloom selections) are:

Once you have your seeds ordered, it is time to figure out where they will begin their fragile little lives and how to provide adequate heat and lighting for them. It's convenient to buy a set of grow lights at your garden center, your hardware store, or online, but plain-old florescent bulbs work fine, too, as long as you rig them up so that you can raise and lower them above the seedlings. Since seeds won't germinate if they are too chilly, you'll either need to find a warm corner in your house where you can set up your grow lab or--if you're using a garage or another somewhat chilly space--you can purchase heating mats.
You'll also need to buy or make the following:
  • Seed-starting mix (do not try to use potting soil, no matter how tempting it might be)
  • Small pots (easy to find in stores but may also be made from yogurt cups, disposable drinking cups, or newspaper--there are many great ideas online!)
  • Leak-proof trays
  • A watering can and spray bottle
  • A bucket.

Now you're ready to go. First empty the seed-starting mix into a bucket and wet it thoroughly. After letting it sit for a while to absorb the water, scoop the mix into your pots. (Make sure there is a hole in the bottom of each one so that water can drain from the soil.) Plant the seeds according to the directions on each seed packet, and cover with plastic until the seeds have sprouted. Don't forget to label what you've planted! Believe me: you won't remember them all when they begin sprouting--seriously. (Old-fashioned popsicle sticks work great for this, by the way.)

You don't need to turn your grow lights on until the seeds have sprouted. As soon as they have, remove the plastic cover and leave the grow lights on around 16 hours a day or so. (Some experts say you can leave them on all the time, but that just doesn't seem natural to me.) If you have a hard time remembering to turn the lights off and on, you can get a timer for a few bucks at your local hardware store.

Keep the soil in the pots moist but not soaking wet. (It's best to water them from underneath by pouring water into the trays and letting the soil in the pots soak it up.) Raise the lights as the your seedlings grow, keeping it 2-3 inches from the tops of the plants. After a week or so, let a fan blow on them for several hours a day so that they can begin adapting to the wiles of the weather they'll soon face. When the seedlings have several leaves, thin them out and/or transplant them into bigger pots. As the time nears when you'll be putting them into the ground outside (again, your seed packets should tell you when that is), you'll want to "harden them off"--that is, move them outside for several hours a day so that they can acclimate before being put into the ground.

That's about it. Of course there are much more detailed directions in the thousands of gardening books and zillions of gardening websites out there. Consult as many as you can to learn about different approaches. Then, using all the advice that sound right to you, give it a try.

I think you'll find that no matter how many seeds you pop in the ground, the first time you see each one sprout is awe-inspiring--another one of the common yet inconceivable miracles involved in nurturing living things. Happy planting!

The Little Seed
--Kate Louise Brown

In the heart of a seed
Buried deep, so deep
A tiny plant
Lay fast asleep.

"Wake!" said the sunshine
And creep to the light
"Wake!" said the voice
Of the raindrops bright

The little plant heard
And it rose to see
What the wonderful
Outside world might be!

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