Starting Seeds

tashkent marigold

Tashkent Marigold, from one of my favorite seed companies, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Well, I’ve wasted another perfectly good hour, as the Car Guys would say, going through the umpty-millionth seed catalog, marking every tempting vegetable, herb and flower.

Have I checked which seeds I’ve already ordered? No. Have I checked which seeds I already have? Also no. Were any of these markings made with an eye to the limits of the garden, or for that matter the limits of me?

Of course not, because the truth is the hour wasn’t wasted, it was used as a tranquilizer. Locally, it’s too cold to work in the garden; globally, it’s too hot for the world as we know it to endure. Both of these facts have the potential to be depressing, but just thinking about planting seeds pushes all gloom away.

No matter what else is happening, a seed would rather grow. What could be more wonderful than that?


galeux d'elysines squash, with sprouted seeds inside

Galeux d’Elysines heirloom squash, rarin’ to go at the end of the winter.

Ace photographer, gardener and food impressaria Stacey Glassman sent me this image a couple of years ago. First time I’d seen it happen in a squash, but along with everyone else who eats fresh fruits and vegetables, I’ve seen overeager seeds in grapefruits, lemons, avocados, peppers and I’m sure a bunch of other things I’m not remembering at the moment.

I’ve also seen seeds that weren’t overeager so much as just plain crazy:

volunteer bean plants on greenhouse floor

Volunteer beans on the floor of the (now deceased) greenhouse in Maine, late spring. (Bundles of reemay hadn’t been put back in the shed yet. Story of my life.)

The greenhouse had a plastic roof that kept out all rain. The dirt floor was covered with  dry straw. The nearest ground that did get rained on – from which moisture could have come by capillary action – was almost 3 feet away. The beans are growing in the shaded back of the structure, far from the sun.

Which might actually be how/why they were able to avoid withering. They must have been waiting ever since the autumn before, when I hung some bean plants in the greenhouse so the seeds could finish drying.

Curious, I let them be. I didn’t give them any water and it wasn’t especially rainy out in the wider world. One plant made it as far as flowering before giving up. ‘Nuff said.

Seed Love Part One: Starting Indoors

(a part of the FGFP series; none of this will be news to old hands)

1.Narrow the list to things you absolutely have to start yourself.

2. Read the packets (or other instructions) for light and temperature needs, time to germination etc.. This would seem to be self evident, but I’ve neglected it from time to time in ways that proved to be unsmart.

3. Consider getting a light table setup – or of course a greenhouse – even if you have lots of bright windowsills. Some reasons:

  •  Windows only bring light to one side; pots on the sills must be rotated daily or the seedlings won’t grow straight.
  •  The more or less south facing windowsills that provide (almost) enough light get crowded fast.
  • “Almost” is the word for it in the light department. Windows can’t be used for more than about a month before the plants start suffering badly, and during that month there are a whole bunch of ugly little pots of dirt right in your face.
  •  Temperatures on windowsills tend to be too hot on sunny days and too cold on chilly nights.

Back in the 70’s, I had a poorly-heated back bedroom that seemed perfect for a homemade light amplification experiment; the south wall was almost all window from about 30 inches up. So I built brick and plank open shelves right in front of the windows, tall enough to hold many trays of seedlings. Lined the backs of the shelf-stacks with sheets of foil, so the light would be – I hoped – nearly  doubled.

It still wasn’t really good enough, after about 6 weeks everything started getting leggy and pale, just as it would have on a plain old windowsill. Plus the neighbors were convinced I was growing dope.

On the other hand

“Start” means “insert in – or place on surface of –  damp, sterile seed-starting mix.” Until the seedling pokes its head up, no light is required, and even seeds that need light to germinate can be left in any moderately bright spot. The need for something that resembles sunlight doesn’t begin until the ground parts, so time to germination doesn’t count when you’re figuring out how long the seedlings can grow inside.

4. The soil in very small starting pots and all starting cells dries out fast, and warm indoor air can easily desiccate new sprouts. If you’re not using a kit with a lid, making a lid out of plastic wrap is a good idea. Just be sure there’s a way for some air to get in and that the lid is held well above the plants, so they don’t get smothered or cooked.

5. Even with air getting in, it pays to take off the lid off from time to time so surfaces can dry off. Too much humidity is as bad as drought or maybe worse. Excess moisture promotes damping off fungus, notorious overnight killer of  seedlings.

6. Starting each variety by planting many seeds in a single pot saves a lot of space, and since you get to choose the transplants it ensures that each growing cell will have a strong occupant. The downside is having to get in there and do the transplanting fast, so the babies don’t get weakened by crowding.

Being an inattentive type, I use large cells or 2 inch pots, planting 3 or 4 seeds near each other in the middle of each. All but the strongest should be snipped off, not pulled, soon after they have their first true leaves, but when there are only a few in the pot it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get around to it right away.

7. In the case of things like tomatoes that usually need to be moved from 2-inchers to larger pots before moving outside, it’s tempting to just start in the bigger pot. Bad idea, the large expanse of open soil is also an invite to damping off.

A Final (NOT, but you know what I mean) Word, Concerning Plantable Pots

There are a lot of options, from eggshells and orange halves (neither of which works out as well as it seems like it might) to compressed peat, coconut fiber and compacted manure. On the upside, plantability prevents damage to the roots of hard-to-transplant items like poppies and squash. On the down, these pots often fail to degrade quickly after being set in the ground, thus thwarting the roots of whatever is in them.

Soaking to saturation before planting helps. So does taking a razor blade and slicing a few slits in the pot. Unburied sections of pot are wicks that help the buried pot dry out too fast. I go back the day after planting and break off any I see.

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  • rhodesianridgeback Said,

    Yes, it is tranquilizing, and since I have moved into 3rd floor apt., I thought I wouldn’t get the chance. But, I used water color brush to cross-polinate the ornamental peppers that are growing in the window (haven’t had one in over 50 years) so I laugh at this success. I have to get back to old place and dig up my Gloriana Rothchildiana and give it away. Had no trouble with the Amarylis. And, this article made me hopeful of trying a chinese herbal on myself as a preventive, and you ay have friends or family interested, too:

    Congratulations, RRB,

    It’s great that you had success with the peppers. Not sure I get it about the herbs and thought at first you might be selling them…Happy that THAT isn’t true and hopeful you’ll find a way to keep gardening.

  • Jim Kinnealey Said,

    Looking at seed catalogs in high winter is comforting

    True dat. May you be mega-comforted.

  • What’s amazing about that Galeux is how much the flesh still looks viable for eating!

    Three cheers for long-storing winter squash, eh? I don’t remember what Stacey said, but I think she did cook it up.

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