The Brave New World of Seed Starting
Just as I mourned my runaway worms, I’m a little concerned about my garden seedlings. While Ibti’s seedlings over at A Bikable Feast may resemble a basketball bracket, mine are more like a science fair project. Nonetheless, I still feel some sense of responsibility towards the little seeds I’ve chosen to plant. God knows how I’ll feel when our neighborhood deer inevitably eat half of my garden.
I started my seeds last weekend, which is quite late. At Rooting DC, I purchased a book called The Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardeners’ Handbook. Flipping through it, I realized that according to their calendar, I would have been horribly tardy even if I started my garden prep on the day of the conference. Alas.
Nonetheless, I figured better late than never. Starting seeds is an essential part of the vegetable gardening process. It’s necessary because many plants sown straight from seed into the ground will either have a terrible success rate or just won’t sprout. Planting small plants greatly increases the likelihood of them both staying alive and actually producing vegetables. In addition, by starting seed early, you can extend your growing season and increase your total yield. Many people who don’t start their own seeds buy starts from the garden store instead. You see this the most often with tomatoes, because they’re particularly fussy. I totally understand why people buy starts from the store, but I want to learn how to do it from start to finish, and you can’t learn if you don’t try.
So on Saturday, I made a trek to Johnson’s Florist and Garden Center, a cute little garden store in the cute little town of Kensington. It took all of my strength to not stop in the used bookstore down the street, where I last time I was in, I picked up a feminist cookbook and an Anthony Bourdain collection of essays. The good folks at the garden center patiently helped me as I absentmindedly wandered the store, managing to find almost nothing I was looking for. They also didn’t roll their eyes when it took me a minute to remember that daffodils come from bulbs, not seeds, and explained that I would have had to planted the bulbs last fall. Defeated by Mother Nature’s own schedule, I did pick up some full plants. Critters supposedly dislike the taste of them.
I also bought a number of tools for seed starting, including a seeding tray and germination mix. Depending on who you talk to, seed starting ranges from totally care-free to kind of intimidating. When we did a mini-workshop on seed starting last year at Ecolocity, we were laid-back, like we are with most things. We recommended people keep the seed starts in a warm place out of direct sunlight and then move them to sunlight once they sprouted. On the other hand, the discussion at Rooting DC in the Four Season Harvesting session sounded a bit like a medical operation. First, use special potting mix to prevent mold, then place them under grow lights, then be sure they are damp but not too damp, then brush the seedlings once or twice a day (seriously – apparently it improves their strength!), then spray them with garlic water to prevent dampening off, and lastly, maybe put them in a cold frame to prevent shock! Yikes. And some of my books made it sound even more complicated. I understand why the speakers at Rooting DC and the books alike go into that level of detail – they want to share all of the information possible and address the concerns of even the most serious gardeners. Yet it all seemed like a lot.
So I chose to take the in-between route. The seeds themselves are a combination of seeds scrounged from Rooting DC for free, leftovers from Ecolocity’s America the Beautiful donation last year, and new from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange purchased at the Green Festival. In terms of fancy equipment, I’m trying three different methods. After visiting the garden store, I had to stop by Home Depot to return a problematic toilet paper holder. While I was there, I spotted a “no duh” seed starting kit that came with little compacted soil balls. I figured that even if I screwed everything else up, this kit should produce results. So on Saturday, I planted my most desired seeds in there – peppers, butternut squash, yellow squash, cherry tomatoes, and eggplant. I also had some extra plastic food containers around, so I punched some holes in the bottom, and planted duplicates of seeds I had in the starter kit. I chose two different types of squash, because squash seeds are supposed to be planted in circles and my containers are round. Then yesterday, I planted the rest of the seeds in the plastic container I bought from the garden store. To prevent mold and contamination issues, I cleaned both of the containers thoroughly and then wiped them down with a 10-1 bleach solution. As the calendar book recommended keeping the containers covered to keep moisture in, I had to get a little creative. Although the starter kit came with a plastic sheet, the other two needed a different solution. As suggested by the back of one seed packet, I used saran wrap held down with a little duct tape for the larger plastic container. For the small, round containers, I placed them in a plastic box with a top. Then, I put all of the plants next to our heating vent. I didn’t want to buy grow lights for the first time out, but that spot should be a bit warmer than the rest of the house. When they start sprouting, I’ll put them in our guest bedroom, which gets a good deal of direct sunshine. Because there are so many different influences, it will be difficult to tell what is the deciding factor in growth, but I’m growing these plants more for food than science. I’ve always been more keen on observation than experimental science anyway.
So far, in the few days that I’ve been watching them, I haven’t been able to tell too much. They’re all staying quite moist, with the saran-wrapped one being a bit too moist. I’m going to keep the cover off tonight and see how it goes. No seedlings so far, but I’ll be crossing my fingers. Honestly, I will be quite disappointed if nothing happens at all…