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So You Want A Garden: Starting Seeds

Don't be intimidated by seeds: they're pretty simple, and this is the perfect time of year to get your hands dirty.

This time of year, home gardeners fight to quell a rising tide of internal panic with every weekend that passes unsowed.  Willy Loman's obsessive lines start sounding more and more reasonable until we echo them ourselves: "I've got to get some seeds, right away . . . I don't have a thing in the ground!"  

If you've ever thought about starting a garden, there's no time like the present, and no age that offers more resources and options, either!  A few hours this week is a worthy investment in your summer crops; then you can take it easy for the next month until it's time to start preparing the ground.  Before you know it, you'll be enjoying fresh produce for a tiny fraction of the farmers' market price.

Step One: Make a Plan

We'll talk much more about this later, but for now, just think about how much room you have and what you want to do with it.  It doesn't make sense to grow cucumbers if you don't really like them, but if you do like them and live in an apartment, you can still grow them on your balcony or patio.  I rely on a handful of standbys I know we'll love and allow myself one or two experiments that will be fun even if they fail.  (This year: brussels sprouts!)

Step Two: Purchase Seeds

This can really be combined with the previous step: catalogs (or websites, in many cases) are a great source of inspiration when planning. Then comes the hard part: waiting for the package to arrive!

I absolutely and unreservedly recommend heirloom varieties above standard-issue hybrids.  There are many reasons, biodiversity (compare these tomato varieties with the perfectly round, pale globs from the supermarket) and sustainability among them. Victory Seeds, my purveyor of choice, has a nice statement on its website that explains the purpose and benefits of seed saving. If you're still not convinced, though, the bottom line is that heirloom varieties taste better, too: after all, that's why they've made it through so many generations without mass marketing.

Besides Victory, there are many other sites with hundreds of options out there. Spend some time poking around and get inspired!

Step Three: Start Warm-Weather Crops

It's no secret that summer crops won't grow in the winter: cold makes carrots extra crunchy and sweet, but it snuffs out the lives of eggplants.  So get a head start on peppers, squash and tomatoes, and annual herbs like parsley and basil, by planting indoors now.

There are many different methods for starting seeds indoors.  The most successful involve grow lights placed very close (4-6 inches) from the plant's top leaves, which ensures the leaves will fill in instead of becoming leggy and unmanageable.  However, I've had decent success with a shelf placed close to a basement window; as long as the plant gets light, it will grow.

Commercial seed-starter mix is best because it's sterile, allowing your seeds to germinate safely.  You can get a large bag at a garden store for under five dollars; just pour a bunch into a mixing bowl, add water and stir until the mixture feels like a wrung-out sponge -- damp, but not dripping.  Lighly pack the mix into shallow plastic, styrofoam or paper pots (see my photo for examples of each!) and plant the seed at whatever depth its package suggests.  Always plant two in each hole; seeds are cheap, and this way you're less likely to end up with a dud cell.  Oh, by the way: ALWAYS label your seeds, even if you're sure you'll remember what's what.  It will help you better gauge the amount of space you'll need in the beds later.

Keep the seeds moist by spritzing with water (don't use a watering can until the plant is bigger and tougher) and covering loosely with plastic.  The styrofoam contraption in my photo above came with a plastic lid, which I promptly lost; but happily, an unfolded clamshell box (like the ones in which you'd buy a  Greek salad) works just as perfectly.  Once the seedlings boast a pair of tiny leaves, leave the cover off (concentrated sunlight could scorch them) and just keep the dirt moist.

Some seeds NOT to start indoors: beans (which are so fragile they'll die when transplanted) and hardy crops, like winter greens and root vegetables, which can be planted directly in the ground as soon as the dirt is workable.

Step Four: Check Often

Like a doting parent, you'll want to check in on your babies a few times a day at first, but this will taper off once they become actual plants.  Just make sure the soil stays damp and rotate the trays to avoid stems that lean so much they tip over.

Next month we'll tackle the ground itself: types of beds and containers to receive your carefully-tended infants.  For now, rest well and dream of large zucchini.

Jane Byers March 06, 2012 at 01:11 PM
I am delighted to see and read your most informative/encouraging article. I wrote a few garden articles last year, then felt I needed to follow my own advise and plant some seeds(yes, novice!) So into an egg cartoon went green pepper seeds that took forever to grow. But by August the shiny little veggies were superior to anything in the store! It is worth a try.
Julie Soss March 06, 2012 at 05:57 PM
If you want to eliminate those pesky little flying gnats that love the moist soil, try starting the seeds in just Perlite, no soil. I haven't seen any bugs in the house since I switched!

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