Seeds, seeds, seeds.
I love seeds. I really do. I like looking at the catalogs, reading all the descriptions, trying all the varieties, saving seeds, collecting seeds, trading seeds. I love talking to seed growers and getting all nerdy about all the different cultivators and reminiscing. When we say Brandywine, or Moon and Stars, Even Freckles and Deer Tounge, we smile, because we know what that means an we all have our favorites.
If you haven’t tried it, using seeds to start your garden can be very rewarding. There are so many varieties that just wouldn’t be available to you if you didn’t grow them yourself, even things that (gasp) would not be available at the Farmer’s market. I know, I know, they seem to have everything but there are some bizarro things out there, Purple, Conical Cauliflower?. Lettuce, radishes, and beans and sunflowers are very easy and if you are timid, I suggest you start with those.
We teach a few classes on how to start seeds. I am always proud when my students come back and show me pictures of what they grew. One of my very first students moved on to create his own Roof Top Seed company, I am so proud.
I personally have tried almost every method of seed starting and there are two that I will swear by, ok, three that I swear by. These are; winter sowing, jiffy pellets, and baby beds.
Seeds are a miracle and once water is added, the whole process of life begins. Have you watched your garden in the spring, and notice how bare the earth is, and suddenly, after a warm day, life pops up out of nowhere? Weeds, weeds, weeds and lots of them. No one mollycoddles these plants, no one sets up growlights or painstakingly cares for them and yet they grow. Whaddup with that? Sometimes you will notice that the seedlings look a little familiar and many times, healthier, but smaller versions of ones you started in your home weeks before. Those volunteer tomato plants, sunflowers, and herbs just pop up, all on their own. Get Out! These seeds rest in the ground all winter and when the time is right, for them, POP! I have noticed that the volunteer plants almost always catch up to the ones I started, and even out grow them, not fair.
There is a method called Winter Sowing. Basically, you take your seed starting kit, take out container, milk jug or what have you and you plant your seeds, water them, and place the whole thing outside, in the middle of winter, in the snow. When the time is right for those seeds to grow, they will, with no help from you, and they will thrive and be healthy. Just be sure to water them when the weather warms up. The cold kills any of the damp-off fungi, and also helps striate hard seed coats. This is the only way that I have been able to successfully grow Lupins and Columbine (both native plants) from seed. Funny enough, tomatoes, and peppers also do very well using this method. It may not be as much fun as starting them inside, but you will get good results.When the seedlings are large enough, you just move them to where you would like them to be in the garden.Yes, it is that easy. You don’t need to worry about planting charts, frost dates, grow lights….ect. They will grow when they are ready to, it almost takes all the fun out of it.
Jiffy pellets, I love, love, love them. Before I had a garden in the city, I had one in the country in upstate New York and I would grow my seedlings at home; first in a walkup in Alphabet City, and then in a real grown up’s apartment in Park Slope, even in the hatchback of my Saab, which was a terrific greenhouse, as well as a fun car.
Starting seeds can be messy and the fine seed starting mix can go everywhere. Filling the trays is a hassle and it always makes a mess. One year I discovered Jiffy 7′s and I was hooked. Jiffy’s are little disks of peat-moss that are flat, but when you add water, they pop up into little pots that are surrounded by netting. Storage is easy and they last forever.
Put three seeds in a little pot, cover with a clear lid and wait for your seeds to sprout. Take off the lid and watch your plants grow. When you transplant, move the pot into the soil, its that easy. Sometimes I rip off the little net, sometimes not. These pellets come in little mini greenhouses with 6, 12, 20 or 72 pellets. 72 will fit into a full tray, and they work great in combination with the plastic 6 packs that come with the 72 cell greenhouses. 72 plants! once you get started, you will want more, and more and more….
Other methods, peat pots, newspaper cups, the paper towel, ect…. never worked out that great for me and I always had watering issues, mold (especially with the newspaper cups) and general poor performance.
The last method that I like is similar to the winter gardening method but uses a cold frame instead of individual containers. You basically set up a small raised bed, about 2′ x 4′ and fill it with a light mixture of vermiculite and peat or coir with some sand. 3 parts peat or coir to one part sand and one part vermiculite. A 15g smartpot would also do well.
Plant your seeds, well spaced, in little rows, don’t forget to label them. When the plants are big enough, use a transplant trowel (skinny and thin) and move them to where you want them. If you like you can cover the box with plastic hoops or with an old window or piece of glass, creating a cold frame. Don’t forget to prop it open on sunny days or you will have an oven.
The backs of seed packets have lots of great information. Ignore most of the planting instructions, except for if it tells you to direct sow, some seedlings don’t like to be moved around much. Remember to always space your seeds, each seed has the potential of becoming a little plant. A pack of lettuce seed can have up to 400 seeds, so avoid at all costs, making a little furrow and sprinkling all the seeds in that furrow. Thinning is a waste of time, and a waste of seed, and it is damages the plants. Its always best to put 3 seeds in a spot, every few inches. One out of three is bound to grow.
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