It seemed a little early but on March 6th I started some seeds indoors. Now, three weeks later it seems like it might have been totally unnecessary. I have neighbors who tilled sections of their garden and have already planted a number of cold hardy plants: lettuces, spinach, snap peas, carrots and beets.
Who can gauge the risks in times like these? I might have been too cautious in starting my seeds, but my neighbors may have been too bold. Actually, I hope they have not been too bold because I am about ready to follow in their footsteps. I tilled what I am calling my Early Garden right in front of the house. I planted Tango lettuce, radishes and golden beets. They are watered and now I wait.
At the same time I continue to hedge my bets and I am starting some other seeds, broccoli and parsley.
Whether or not it is a necessary step in getting a jump on the season, or an economic move – getting dozens if not hundreds of plants from a pack of seeds instead of six seedlings for the same price – starting your own seeds is fun.
I do use seed starting supplies. The little plastic six packs are cheap and disposable. The plastic trays that hold them and provide a good watering system can be used from year to year. Of course, you can use plastic containers that you get in the supermarket for grape tomatoes, mushrooms or salad mix just as well. I like to reuse before recycling and double my sense of thrift.
After assembling my equipment, six packs, trays, and label sticks, I dampened a bowl of seed starting mix, a light soiless mix, and filled the six packs very full and tamped it down. Then using seeds leftover from last year I planted a few seeds in each cell: Johnny’s Winterbor kale, High Mowing’s Waldman’s Dark Green lettuce and Rouge d’Hiver lettuce; Botanical Interests Sundance Red Gallardia; and Renee’s Garden Raggedy Ann Zinnias that I just noticed dated back to 2006. I really have to weed out old seeds better.
I also planted two kinds of lettuce in a plastic spring mix container, but forgot to label them. One type is doing well, the other has poorer germination. I might be able to figure out what they are when they get larger, but I am not counting on it.
I planted several seeds in each cell, covering them with a little more seed starting mix, because these are last year’s seeds. I figure the germination might be a little lower, but you get a lot of lettuce seeds in one packet and I can afford to be generous.
I put the seed tray in a south window where it has to be turned every day to keep the plants from always leaning. Seeds will germinate on a windowsill, but a few years ago I splurged and bought a heat mat that provides just the little bit of heat that helps seeds germinate more quickly. Soil temperature is a key element in the germination of any plant. Some like cool temperatures, and others don’t thrive until the soil is relatively warm.
Watering is key. The best way I have found to keep these six packs watered is to put enough water to cover the bottom of the tray where it will be absorbed by osmosis. That way you don’t have to worry about knocking the tiny seedlings down with a stream of water from a watering can. I water almost every day in this manner.
Within a week I could see green pushing through. Two weeks later the first true leaves have appeared. Now it is time to think about “hardening off” the seedlings.
These new seedlings are very tender. They need to be acclimated to the harshness of direct sun and wind slowly and gently. On these warm days they can be put in the shade outside for a few hours and then brought back in the house. Depending on the weather they can be left outdoors for longer and longer stretches each day, until they are strong enough to be planted in the ground. This will take at least a week.
I put my seedlings outdoors for three hours on March 21 and will increase that time every day. I plan to plant them in my Early Garden under a row cover next week. The row cover is not to protect the seedlings from the weather as much as it is to protect them from rabbits! When they get a little bigger I’ll be able to spray them with Deer Off or some such.
I have also used a little cold frame to harden seedlings off. I keep it open during the warm part of the day, using an old sheet to throw shade when necessary, and closing it late in the afternoon so it will be protected from colder nighttime temperatures.
Whether you choose to start seed to begin gardening early in the season, for reasons of thrift, or to have fun, growing plants from seed gives its own satisfaction. It is a joy to watch every step of a plant’s growth.
Of course, since that first day in the sun and air, I have had to bring the seedlings in again. Below freezing temperatures and even hail have kept the tender plants inside, protected from this strange weather.
Between the Rows March 24, 2012