Like many gardeners, I spend most of my gardening time content to stay within the boundaries of my garden
pails and spades and feet stay outside the house. Anything brought back inside usually comes in on a colander
, already rinsed. There is a rhythm
to gardening, a rhythm one follows but cannot force. Gardeners seem, well, content.
March is different. The smell of mud triggers our alpha gardener--we crave light and space. Countertops and tables become nurseries, flats of tiny tomatœs and peppers compete with the childen for chairs. Stacks of plants block windowsills.
Starting from seeds is not difficult. If you grow your own plants, you have an incredible variety of plants to choose from. While a reputable nursery will sell you sturdy seedlings in May, the variety is limited to what is popular and known. Most tomatœs tends to be red and large, peppers large and show-offy. If you want to grow a twisted purple gnarl of a serrano or butt ugly green-striped tomato that explodes with flavor, you will likely need start from seed.
Growing from seeds is not difficult, so long as you live alone (or with a tolerant clan). Remember that plants can reproduce just fine without your help, and have been doing just that long before you were born.
Nothing fancy--it needs to hold the dirt while letting the water drain. I use the bottom end of orange juice cartons punched with holes.
Many gardeners buy peat pots--made from compressed peat, the pot can be directly planted into the garden outside. If you do use these, you must bury the entire pot below the earth, otherwise the edges of the pot will wick water up away from your plant..
A relatively new trend, started by the uber-gardener Eliot Coleman, is using soil blocks. Dirt is compressed into cubes that use no containers. The seed is put into a little depression on top. The roots do not ball up as they do in containers, and the block can be easily planted into the ground when May comes.
I designed a small tool to punch the holes. I started out by using a very large nail. Sometimes when I punched a hole, I went too far, poking my hand. I took the nail, made a comfy handle with several dozen wraps of duct tape. Right above the point, I wrapped some more duct tape so that the nail only gœs a short distance once the nail punches through.
XXXXX <--handle: ball of duct tape
|| <--large nail
XXXX <--safety stop: wrap of duct tape
You would think that this is the easy part--dirt is dirt, no?
Seedlings need good drainage, and they do not like to compete with the bacteria and fungi and weeds that awaken when winter soil warms up.
You could bake some compost--not sure I would want to do that unless I had a separate oven, and even if I did, not sure I could. Soil is filled with critters, and baking them to death when alternatives are available roils my imagination a bit. Should you elect to bake some dirt, however, be aware that the smell can be a bit overpowering.
I use a combination of peat and vermiculite--it's cheap, easy to use, and it's forgiving when I forget about my plants for a day or two. Before using, it helps to mix some soil starter with water and let it sit a day or two--I keep some in a cooler already wetted, so I can pop in seeds at a moment's notice.
Once the plants start showing their first true leaves, more nutrients are needed than peat can provide. I add some fertilizer about once every week or so. *
If you have southern windows with good sun exposure, no problem. For those of us who don't, banks of fluorescent workshop lights work. Keep the light as close as possible--I keep my lights on chains, so I can adjust the height as the seedlings grow.
You can buy fancy (er, expensive) grow lights with specific wavelengths, but plain old work lights do the trick.
Tap water is fine--I keep my bottles on the heater to keep them warm-–not sure this makes any difference (rain in the spring is cold), but it gives me warm fuzzies knowing my babies are coddled.
Plant your peppers when the crocuses break through the ground. Plant your tomatœs when the robins appear. Plant your basil when the daffodils bloom. Over time you will get a sense of what works when.
Plant too soon, and you will have leggy, pale plants pleading to go outside weeks before the earth has warmed up; too late and your plants have a shorter growing season.
Before putting your plants in the ground, they need to be "hardened off." Too much sunlight and wind may prove disastrous to your coddled seedlings--many gardeners expose their seedlings to the outside world a little bit at a time to make them stronger.
Do not fret too much over the particulars. One year I spent weeks coddling my nicotianas--they were slow to germinate, and just overly fussy in general--some plants just are.
I got beautiful flowers, so in the fall I saved some seeds, and started all over again in the spring, again putting up with their persnickitiness. I beamed with pride as I planted the seedlings in the large pot that held them outside the year before.
Beware pride in the garden. Weeks later, gorgeous nicotianas bloomed around (but not in) the pot. The seeds that had been scattered by the plants themselves had nestled themselves into the ground beside the pot. My carefully nurtured seedlings eventually bloomed, but not with the same vigor as the volunteers. We know much less than we think.
Turns out that much of the fertilizer made here in the States is derived from toxic waste, and I have become leery of happy sounding containers of bright blue crystals promising exuberant growth. Duff Wilson wrote an excellent expose called Fateful Harvest (HarperCollins, 2001). I may end up baking compost after all.