There’s something magical about starting seeds. You begin with a tiny wisp of a thing, enclosed in its little shell, push it into damp soil, and wait. Perhaps it grows, perhaps it doesn’t. Even if you understand the science far more than you did in third grade, there’s only limited amount of influence you have. You just have to trust it works.
But there are a few steps you can take to help the process along. While I’ve been a little lax in the past about taking those steps due to a combination of overconfidence and thriftiness, I’m trying to do it the (mostly) proper way this year.
Unfortunately, I’m starting hopelessly late – I should have started this process at least a month ago to maximize the season – but late is better than never. Plus, I realized last year that I should transition my seedlings outside later than most experts recommend, as the piles of leaves I plant into with lasagna gardening don’t hold the heat nearly as well as traditional soil. As a result, the nighttime temperatures in my garden are much lower than they would be with a conventional set-up and my plants are more at risk.
To make the best use of my time, I’m focusing on the plants that truly need to be started from seed, rather than those for which it’s just “nice” to. Most seeds you can plant straight into the ground, although you can extend your season and grow a lot more produce if you start inside. In contrast, there are a few plants that experts strongly recommend only starting inside or purchasing as seedlings. The chances of successfully planting seeds outside for these plants is so low that it’s not worth bothering. The main culprits are all types of tomatoes. While they grow like weeds once they’re established, they’re very fussy to start. To germinate, they require temperatures between 75 and 85 F during the day, and can’t fall below 50-60 degrees at night. Similarly, peppers are nearly impossible to grow outside in the narrow band of time we in D.C. have between “almost frost” and “so hot you melt into a puddle.” Another on the “unlikely to grow if you start it outside” list is broccoli, which requires having the soil at least 75 degrees to germinate, but reducing the air temperature to 60 F once the seeds have sprouted. How did people ever figure out how to cultivate this thing?
Considering the limits on my time and patience, I’ve decided to start seeds for three different types of peppers, four types of tomatoes (two cherry, one heirloom and one regular full-sized), broccoli, and just for the heck of it, eggplant. For each of the varieties, I planted a lot of seeds. Even if 2/3 of the seeds don’t germinate and 3/4 of the seedlings fail, I should still end up with a good number of plants. This is particularly important for the broccoli, as the seeds are several years old. I picked them up at the first seed exchange I attended, not realizing the specific conditions they needed. Although the rest of the seeds are much newer, I figured I’d err on the side of caution. If a lot more of them germinate than anticipated, I can always weed out the weakest ones.
For the planting, I’m using my recycled yogurt containers. While most people use flats, I don’t like that you have to transplant the seeds at least once into a larger container before transplanting them into the ground. I’m klutzy enough with larger plants – I prefer to handle the smallest ones as little as possible. To kill any bacteria or other crud that might have built up in the basement, I rinsed the containers, sprayed them off with a bleach mixture, and then rinsed them again after they tried.
For the starting mixture, I decided to use up the leftover mix from last year. While you can plant into compost that’s been baked in the oven (to kill bacteria), I didn’t save any last year. Compost from your yard is far more sustainable than the store-bought mixtures, which often use slow-developing peat moss from bogs. As I already bought the mixture sitting in the basement, I figure it’s best to use it up first. Before putting it in the pots, I moistened the starter mixture thoroughly. Just to be safe, I boiled the tap water for five minutes to remove any chlorine. While I don’t remember the chlorine affecting the seeds in the past, I figured it couldn’t hurt. Also, I am not ashamed to say that I really enjoyed mixing the soil starter and water with my hands. There’s something joyfully primal about working directly with the dirt you’re planting seeds into.
Now, the seeds are sitting on our brand new heat mat in the warmest room in the house. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s actually any warmer than when I had them on top of the heating vent, but it’s probably more consistent. Nothing has sprouted yet, so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed…
Have you started seeds? How did they come out?
This year, I promised myself I wouldn’t try to start seeds without the right equipment. It only led to heartbreak in the past.
The last two years, I tried to convince myself that with a little ingenuity and hard work I could somehow create enough sunlight to raise seeds in our guest room. Except that the room’s southern exposure is blocked by a giant pine tree. My seeds would sprout, but they’d grow lanky and weak. While they looked okay, albeit not thriving, when I transplanted them, only one or two actually survived outside. I discovered that unlike many endeavors in life, cleverness and dedication alone isn’t enough. There’s no fighting Mother Nature, at least if you don’t have the right tools.
However, I’m also really cheap. There was no way I could justify spending $150 or more to buy a seed starting system. On a strict cost-benefit analysis, buying seedlings at the farmers market that have done well in the past would no question be less expensive.
But then inspiration arrived in the form of a demonstration by Master Gardener Kent Phillips at the Washington Gardener Seed Swap. I always assumed the systems were expensive because of their components. But as he informed us, we could easily build one ourselves for less than $75, depending on the size. In fact, you didn’t need any specialty components – most hardware stores have the necessary equipment for sale.
Confident that Chris and I could build this without much difficulty, we made our way to the hardware store. As per the speaker’s instructions, we picked out two t8 four foot fluorescent bulbs. (These bulbs aren’t exactly the same, but very similar.) The bulbs produce cool white light and more than 2600 lumens. You can either have two cool bulbs or a combination of one warm and one cool. For those not familiar with the term, watts measure energy use, while lumens measure light output. Buying based on lumens makes more sense because you want to use less energy for the same amount of light.
We also bought a fixture to install the bulb. (Again, this one is similar but not identical.) We had a bunch of extra wood from my father-in-law’s construction experiments, so we figured it would be easy to build a stand from those leftovers. Altogether, the equipment totaled less than $50.
On his day off, Chris got to work building our new gardening tool/toy. But instead of building a stand, he came up with an even more ingenious idea. We have a wire rack in our basement that holds our lesser-used kitchen supplies. Part of it is a wooden butcher block that you can use as a countertop, with another rack above it. Rather than jerry-rigging a stand, he realized that we could place the plants on the butcher block and hang the lights from the overhead rack.
Unfortunately, he almost had everything together when he ran into a slight problem. He installed the bulbs in the fixture, attached the lights to the rack, and realized that he had no way to plug in the lights. As it turns out, we bought an industrial fluorescent fixture, the type that wires straight into an electrical system. As we had no desire to mess around with electrical wires, it was back to the store.
On his return trip, Chris discovered shop light fixtures the very next aisle over, which plug right into a socket. Despite being more convenient, the shop light fixtures were only half the price of our original fixture!
To complete the set, I just ordered a heat mat to keep the seedlings at a consistent temperature. Not all the seed starting kits come with them, but I figured I could afford it with all of the money we had saved building it ourselves. Between the lights and heat mat, we spent about $50 in total.
So now that I’ve at least made a small investment of money, we’ll see how my investment of time pans out. Hopefully, I’ll have more to show for my seed starting efforts this year than a lot of frustration and a few dying plants.
Title courtesy of Koka Kola, by The Clash
It’s gardening catalog season again. They arrive in the mail, shiny and bright, filled with colorful photographs of gleaming fruits and vegetables. They promise award-winning harvests, plants that grow themselves, and lip-smacking heirloom produce. They use words like “beautiful,” “bountiful,” and “easy,” as if plants will blossom just being in the vicinity of their products. While it’s simple to give in to their vision, often it’s much better not to.
Even if you start it for environmental reasons, gardening for food can be just as consumerist as any other hobby. Needless to say, companies haven’t ignored the homesteading trend. Garden supply stores have been around for decades, but the market has expanded drastically in recent years. When Williams and Sonoma has an entire “Agrarian” section that even includes chicken coops and beekeepers’ suits – two of the more hardcore contingents of home agriculture – you know that it’s not just for cheap hippies anymore. Their chicken coop alone, with its fashionably faded red paint, starts at a mere $600.
While these visions of idyllic homesteading are tempting – I know I look at them longingly and try to convince Chris that raising chickens would be awesome – it’s just another version of advertising’s same old story. “If you just buy our stuff, you and your house will be beautiful and your life will be awesome,” it whispers.
However, unlike clothes, beauty products or electronics, many of the items offered in gardening catalogs are easy to make, often from recycled materials. (And to do so without a special, overpriced DIY kit.) One of the better catalogs, Gardeners’ Supply Company, has a whole collection of tools that promise to make life easier, from ready-made raised beds to high tunnel hoops. However, most of these things can be easily constructed with a little knowledge and a few items from the hardware or a local recycled goods store. Instead of plastic garden markers that always get lost, we’ve refashioned old metal clothes hangers into them with tape. We’ve already built a worm box for $30 and an about a hour and a half of work that’s just as functional as their $110 Worm Factory. Similarly, we just bought $40 worth of lighting supplies this weekend and will be using some leftover lumber to construct a seed starting array. In contrast, their cheapest “SunLite” garden for sprouting seeds is $199 (also available as a “simple monthly payment” of $24.88). In addition to saving a ton of money, we get the satisfaction of using something we’ve constructed with our own hands. I recognize this approach isn’t practical for everyone, but it’s worth trying a few times.
The other temptation gardening catalogs offer is buying a bunch of stuff that you won’t even use. I have this particular problem with seed catalogs. Looking at all of the different varieties, I imagine a garden with a huge diversity of plants, far larger and neater than our relatively small plot. As a result, between seed exchanges, free seeds from Rooting DC, purchasing on a whim from the gardening store, and ordering from catalogs, I always end up with far more seeds than I could ever put in the ground in a single year. While none are particularly expensive and many are free, it’s still a waste.
To me, the best way to fight this urge is to allow my garden’s needs to drive my purchases, not the other way around. I try not to buy something until a specific need comes up, and I know exactly what I will use it for. While I didn’t “need” a worm box, I didn’t purchase it until I knew how to take care of worms and how to use their compost. Similarly, I’m building the seed starting setup because raising my seeds indoors without them has failed miserably the last two years. While I’m never this organized, I know I could cut down on my seed hoarding issue by actually planning out what I’m growing and then choose seeds based around that map, rather than on my over-active imagination.
If urban and home agriculture really is about turning our industrial food system on its head, we have to be willing to do things differently and not have them just delivered to us. Before purchasing, I need to ask myself these three questions: 1) Do I really need this and if so, what will I use it for? 2) Can I borrow it from someone else? 3) Can I make it myself in a more sustainable fashion? If I can truthfully answer those three questions, then I can go ahead and buy it. If not, then I need to consider why I really want it – for my actual, real-life garden or some fantasy perpetuated by shiny images. Growing food is a messy, real business; there’s no room in my garden for glossy advertisements.