By Kimberly Griffin
It starts in mid-December, when it’s just late enough that the last bits of dirt beneath fingernails have come loose and the smell of moist earth has faded from the air. Seed catalogs arrive in the mailboxes of farmers and gardeners. I take mine, settle into a hot cup of tea, and start to plan for the next season.
If you’ve done this for a while, you know the plant varieties you love and trust by heart. You might consult a tattered notebook, smeared with mud, to remind you of how well new varieties yielded or what plants grew well during a cooler, wet summer. Orders are calculated and submitted, and then we wait.
By late January and early February, boxes stuffed with small envelopes full of life and promise are delivered. Packets are sorted by plant type and seed date, and then we wait.
First, I plant onions and leeks, scallions, and shallots. Next, I put in the kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Lettuces and spinach hit the soil in short order. Then peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant, oh my! Then we wait.
This year, I watched as the weather defied the calendar. March and April simply wouldn’t budge. Single digit nights and days in the teens kept us waiting. Despite the longer days, there was little sun to be seen. It was a very cold start to spring, especially in comparison to last year. Yet, the promise was there.
Admittedly, I embraced the late start. Winter work spilled into spring and everything else shifted forward, too. I seeded February’s leeks in March and March’s peppers belong to April. That is one of the beautiful secrets of the garden: sometimes, it forgives you. These past few days of sunshine have fed my fledgling seed trays, and, at times, I swear I can see growth happening.
I don’t have a truly heated greenhouse, so starting my own plants from seed is a challenge. However, I encourage all gardeners to give it a try, even if it’s just for a few of your crops. While it’s satisfying to eat vegetables from plants that you grew, it is even more satisfying to eat vegetables from plants that you grew from seed. To do so, you’ll need seeds, proper soil, growing vessels, water, sunlight, fertilizer, and patience.
Although we’ve covered some of the romance of seed procurement during the winter, it is not too late to get your hands on seeds from local garden supply shops, hardware stores, and grocery stores. Even the dollar store has vegetable seeds right now.
Tips for growing seedlings
Soil. Any gardener will agree that soil is not just dirt. The medium for starting seeds is very important, and you should make sure that the bag of soil you get is specific for just that. Top soil, compost, and even some potting soils are too dense. They do not have the proper mixture of nutrients and organic matter that young plants need for root establishment and overall growth.
Vessel. Whether you want to grow 78 heads of lettuce or just a handful of pepper plants, the vessel you choose to grow your seeds is somewhat flexible. You should be sure that the soil can drain, allowing for excess water to be shed and not suffocate the roots. The vessel also needs to have enough room to let the seed grow into a strong, small plant before transplanting it. You can use multi-celled trays and mini pre-formed soil patties, often available for purchase wherever you buy your seeds and soil. You can also create your own formed soil cubes with a tool called a soil blocker.
Don’t forget to check your recycle bin for potential vessels. After months of collecting spent k-cups from a downtown office break room, I was excited to not only fill a 5 gallon bucket with coffee ground for the compost, but the cups are perfect for seedlings. They even already have a hole punched in the bottom for drainage.
Sun and water. For growing the seedlings, sunny windows are great, provided that they get at least six to seven hours of direct sunlight. Indirect light causes plants to stretch out in search of sun and get leggy. Grow lights are also an option, though they do require a little investment and minor infrastructure. Consistent watering is also very important. Under-watering or allowing plants to dry out too much between watering will greatly affect growth and can ultimately kill fragile seedlings. Of course, over watering can do the same.
Fertilizer. As for fertilizer, think minimal, but think minerals. I like to use fish emulsion & sea kelp on growing seedlings, once they are starting to mature. I supplement again upon transplanting and regularly throughout the season. As with everything, be sure to read the directions on the bottle, and ask questions of your local garden supply shop.
Patience. Finally, like the garden, seedlings need patience and flexibility. Some seeds just won’t germinate. Some plants, despite best efforts, will get leggy or not thrive. Seeding and re-seeding throughout this early growing process is the key to success. If this is your first year trying to grow plants from seeds, start small.
We’ll soon start to see growers bringing seedlings to farmers markets and garden shops. The ground outside is soft and wet and getting ready for summer growth. The garden season is finally upon us.
Kimberly Griffin is the wellness coordinator at College of St. Joseph.