I shared this story years ago because it helped introduce a topic that confuses many people: Seed starting. And since we are approaching that time of year, I’d like to share it here. If anything, to lift us out of a winter slump by thinking about green, growing things.
Yes, it was 25 years ago when I was invited to be a guest on Ed Hume’s radio show. Ed Hume and his seede company by the same name, are synonymous with cool-climate gardening. For 45 years, his TV and radio show was the longest running gardening show in the world. Gardening in America reached 50 million households in the U.S. and Japan.
I’d known Ed for a long time, so as we sat in the control room, waiting for the sound engineer’s cue, I felt comfortable chatting with the garden guru. “Ed, why are so many people afraid to start their own seeds?”
Ed smiled and replied with an exuberant and calm, voice. “Most seed companies make it sound so complicated, as if your life depended on it.”
He was right. Panic sets in with the mere thought of planting a seed. How can a tiny green sprout cause so much angst in the world? Well, relax. Seeds are easy to start indoors. All you have to do is follow a few basic tennants. Your key to success is learn about your seeds before you add water.
Starting seeds is a rewarding, fun, and economical activity. To start your own vegetable seeds, for example, is like being on a power trip: It’s a “one up” advantage over grocery stores in the quality of food and money you save.
THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE
Seed companies want you to succeed. That’s while you’ll find all kinds of helpful info online, in catalogs, and on the back of seed packets. Now, a couple weeks ago, I shared an easy way to determine when to start your seeds. (Have you subscribed to the Kodiak Daily Mirror?).
I’ll give you a short review. When you pick up an envelope of seeds, turn it over. Voila! How-to-grow instructions. Now most annual flower, herb and vegetable seeds don’t require special treatment to achieve good germination. Start by checking the recommended sowing dates on the packages. Some seeds, like parsley, celery, lobelia, and sweet alyssum, take longer to germinate than others.
To get a more exact sowing date, find the frost-free date. This is the approximate date of the last spring frost. For Kodiak, every year is different, but it’s somewhere between May 1 and May 30. Additionally, be aware of your micro-climate. Are you in a wind tunnel? Are you protected from cold, northwest wind? Weather conditions in town can be vastly different from Bells Flats.
One more variable: for gardeners growing under the protection of plastic in the form of low tunnels and hoophouses, the planting date can be as early as February or March.
Okay, to determine the sowing date, count back with the number of weeks required to grow the transplants. Let’s take an example. The sowing instructions found on the back of a seed packet for kale states: “Sow 3-4 weeks before transplanting to the garden.”
Let’s say you want May 15 to be the day for transplanting seedlings outside. With May 15 as you target date, count backwards four weeks, which gives you a sowing date of April 15. Mark your calendar!
Now let’s talk growing tips, beginning with:
Next week, I’ll fill you in on Part 2.
To start seeds, most any container will do — From yogurt cups to used 6-packs from the nursery — so long as it’s at least 3 inches deep to allow for root growth. All containers should be clean and have holes in the bottom for drainage.
I’m not a fan of peat pellets, growing container and planting medium in one. When soaked in water, the pellets swell to seven times their size. Convenient, yes. But they are expensive and they don’t work well in our cool soils: When planted directly in the garden the outer mesh doesn’t readily decompose and the roots can become compacted.
WHAT SOIL IS BEST?
Be aware that if you use soil from the garden to start seedlings indoors, you run the risk of bringing in weeds and disease organisms that can kill your seedlings. Yes, you can sterilize your own garden soil in the oven, but it’s a tedious and smelly chore.
Avoid the stink by using a commercially prepared ‘soil-less’ potting soil which can be found in local stores. I usually start out with a germinating mix and transplant them into a general purpose potting soil.
Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? The general rule for seed starting is much the same: Not too warm and not too cold. In other words, start seeds warm but grow seedlings cool. Check the seed packet for the optimum soil temperature, but you’ll find that most seeds germinate best in warm, cozy soil but grow stouter and stronger in cooler temps.
For example, germinate seeds in the warmth of your kitchen and then move them to a cooler space. If your area is quite cool, you might need to employ a seedling heat mat.
Next week I’ll touch on moisture, light, air and fertilizer. Meanwhile, as you calculate your sowing date, harvest encouragement from Ed Home. “Keep things simple!”
And if starting your own seeds still makes you nervous, perhaps a little Zen will help:
“Stop thinking and talking about it and there is nothing you will not be able to know.”