One of my fellow Ecolocity volunteers, Amy-Marie, is fond of saying that she’s a “lazy gardener,” even though that’s far from the truth. After my recent experience, I have become a convert to this philosophy, at least in the realm of seed starting.
Both this year and last year, I’ve tried to start seedlings in my house and failed miserably. A combination of not getting enough light inside, bad weather, and indelicate handling conspired that only two plants in two years managed to produce fruit (all of my plants this year ended up dead). Determined not to waste more time babying doomed plants, I thought I would try a different, less intensive tack to replant the ones that had perished.
Following the advice of a few different sources, I tried sprouting my seeds, an intermediary between planting them in flats inside and planting them straight into the ground. As per the instructions in my Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardeners’ Handbook, I soaked the seeds for several hours, wrapped them in damp paper towels, and sealed them in a zip lock bag. After leaving them on top of the fridge (a dark, relatively warm place) for a few days, I checked to see if they had sprouted.
I then prepared a gel made by combining cornstarch with boiling water and cooled it. I put the gel in a plastic zip-lock bag, then carefully removing the sprouts from the paper towels, dropped them in the bag with the gel. Ideally, I would then cut a hole in the corner of the bag, allowing me to squirt out the seeds in a perfect line like an icing for a garden-cake. The gel would keep the seeds damp while they grew.
This plan completely failed. The first hole I cut in the corner of the bag was too small and none of the gel would come out. The second hole was too large and the gel squirted out in a big clump. I forgot to move the gel around to ensure an even distribution of sprouts and ended up with them all in a big blob in the garden. Instead of the gel keeping the sprouts damp, the outside dried out and created a skin. I don’t think a single thing planted with the gel technique came up.
The next time, I decided to ditch the gel and just plant the sprouts by hand. By mistake, I left the sprouts in the bag much longer than I was supposed to. This wasn’t great for the small seeds like the parsnips, but it was perfect for the large squash seeds and beans. When I got them out, the leaves had already shot out of the seed pod and the white roots were tangled in the paper towel. Instead of a sprout, I already had mini-plants that actually looked healthier than the ones I had grown in pots.
Unfortunately, several of the sprouts I planted had the tops chomped off of them by the mystery critter. Even though I had blamed the slugs for the disappearance of my seedlings, further evidence has forced me to reconsider. Based on the fact that several plants ended up with sheared stems a few inches off of the ground and the leaves entirely gone, I think it may be some form of rodent. We live next to a large field that’s frequently under-mowed, so it’s certainly possible it’s a field mouse. In addition, we apparently have Straight Edge slugs, as they neither imbibed in the beer I left out or were deterred by the coffee grounds placed around the plants.
The beans ended up growing so fast that they survived, but I decided to try one more time to replace my lost zucchini sprouts. This time, I decided to create my own organic seedling Miracle Gro by soaking the paper towels in water combined with worm castings from my worm composting. To protect my final set, I crushed up eggshells, took the dried blood meal Chris bought to keep away deer, and sprinkled both around the seedlings. Not vegan, but natural. I figured between the smell and the feeling of walking on sharp shards, any animal would find the experience unpleasant. And it’s finally seeming to work! Even though the other seedlings were gone in a day or two, my zucchini seedlings are still there and growing steadily. I hope to start butternut squash seeds the same way shortly.
This technique doesn’t work for a lot of plants – you could never start tomatoes this way – but it’s a great way to get the advantages of seed starting with the ease of planting straight into the ground. Plus, you end up with a lot more sprouts than you normally would with starts, so if a few die or get eaten, it’s not so bad. Being lazy can actually pay off!