Monday, March 18, 2013

Starting Seeds

I have overcome my fear of starting plants, at least partially. For some of you, this fear may seem laughable; others, I am sure, either buy plants from the garden center or grow nothing. If this second group is like me, they are a little daunted and puzzled by how EXACTLY you plant a seed.

Don't laugh! Many of us never saw it done. We have trouble believing it's really as easy as those gardeners say it is. I mean, look at a tomato seed. Hiding in that itty bitty, furry seed is anywhere from 3 to 150 pounds of tomatoes. It is an awesome thought.

Since I chose to live in Vermont, I have had to overcome my fear of seeds. Way up here, in the cold, cold north, many fruits we prize can only be grown if you start the plants in the house while the snow is on the ground. Yes, absolutely you can buy plants to put in your garden, but you do not how those plants have been handled. Unless you buy them from a local grower, you don't even know if those plants know what Vermont means. Varieties matter, as well, when your growing season happens in the blink of an eye.

It's late, wherever you are, to only just now be considering buying seeds, but it's not TOO late. First, I buy my seeds from a company owned and operated in the land of cold. The seed catalog I like has good descriptions of how the plants function in our climate. They source seed from smaller and larger growers, and they tell which type each variety came from. I pore over that catalog, trying to glean which magic bean will bring me a golden goose. Then, I just take my chances.

Next, I get good potting soil that is compost-based and peppered with some trace minerals. I sprinkle a bacterial and fungal inoculant into each seed packet and give the packet a shake. I get my black plastic trays and put moderately-sized cell trays in. I do not use the tiny or next-to-tiny ones, because I want my plants' roots to have faith that one day there will be more room. I thoroughly wet my potting mix and fill the cells. I poke one to three seeds into each cell or I sprinkle the seeds over the tray and rake them around. Then, I keep the trays moderately warm (except for peppers which I set on a heat mat). Then I wait. Because my potting mix is good and wet to start with (not mud, but still WET) I do not have to fret too much about things drying out. If in doubt, water them. Most seeds will not germinate without a nice evenly moist environment.

Pretty soon, I will see green lifting it's head. For most seeds, that's the time to start moving the trays around from window to window, maximizing the time they're in the sun. On warmer days, I put the trays outside in a cold frame or I set them in the hoop house.

The trick- the thing that kept me from performing this little miracle- was knowing when to start what. It turns out that timing is the main variable when dealing with starts. Tomatoes, peppers, and onions can hang around in a 4" pot for awhile. I prefer that my tomatoes go from a 4" pot into the ground, BUT I do have 6" pots if I haven't timed things well. Squashes, melons, and pumpkins do NOT delight in being transplanted, so I start them only a couple of weeks before the ground is ready; I also start them in 4" pots right from the start. I'm still learning just when each thing wants starting.

Cabbages can go in the ground when it's still not warm outside, so I stat them the same time as peppers, but they go in the ground a month earlier. Onions are the earliest and go in the ground a little later than cabbages, but well before squashes and tomatoes.

So, get a little dirt and a package of seeds. You can even go to a store where they don't know you, you can buy the smallest bag of soil they have and some really trustworthy seeds, like tomatoes or wheat berries. Try it! It's a miracle you can see.

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