I love seeds.
I like looking at the catalogs, reading the descriptions, trying the varieties, saving them, collecting them, and trading them. I enjoy talking to seed growers and sellers and getting all nerdy about the different cultivators and reminiscing. When we say Brandywine, or Moon and Stars, even Freckles and Deer Tongue, we smile, because we know what that means, and we all have our favorites.
If you haven’t tried it, using seeds to start your garden can be very rewarding. There are so many varieties that just wouldn’t be available if you didn’t grow them yourself, even things that (gasp) would not be available at the farmer’s market. I know, I know, they seem to have everything. But there are some bizarro things out there: purple, conical cauliflower and a plant that grows potatoes and tomatoes.
Or how about red, yellow, and pink carrots? Lettuce, radishes, beans, and sunflowers are very easy, and if you are timid, I suggest you start with them.
We teach a few classes on starting seeds, and I’m always proud when students come back with pictures of what they grew. One student moved on to start his own rooftop seed company and farm.
I personally have tried almost every method of seed starting, and there are two that I swear by. Okay, three that I swear by. They are winter sowing, jiffy pellets, and baby beds.
Seeds are a miracle, and once water is added, the whole process begins. Have you watched your garden in spring and noticed how bare the earth is, and how, suddenly, after a warm day, life pops up out of nowhere? Weeds, weeds, weeds, and lots of them. No one mollycoddles these plants, no one sets up grow lights or painstakingly cares for them, and yet they grow. What’s up with that? Sometimes you’ll notice that seedlings look a little familiar, and, many times, healthier, but they’re smaller versions of ones you started weeks before. Those volunteer tomato plants, sunflowers, and herbs just pop up, all on their own. Get out! They rest all winter, and when the time is right, POP! The volunteer plants almost always catch up to the ones I started, and even outgrow them; not fair.
This is the premise behind a method called winter sowing. Basically, you take your seed starting kit, take out container, milk jug, or what have you, and you plant your seeds, water them, and place the whole thing outside, in the middle of winter, in the snow if you like. When the time is right for those seeds to grow, they will, with no help from you, and they will thrive and be healthy. Just be sure to water them when the weather warms up. The cold kills any of the damp-off fungi, and also helps striate hard seed coats. This is the only way I’ve been able to successfully grow lupine and columbine (both native plants) from seed. Funny enough, tomatoes and peppers also do very well with winter sowing. When the seedlings are large enough, just movethem where you would like them to be in the garden. Yes, it’s that easy. No need to worry about planting charts, frost dates, grow lights, etc. It almost takes the fun out of it, but it works.
Jiffy pellets, I love, love, love them.
Starting seeds can be messy, and the fine seed starting mix can go everywhere. Filling trays is a hassle and it always makes a mess. One year I discovered Jiffy 7s and I was hooked. Jiffy’s are little flat disks of peat moss, but when you add water they pop up into little pots surrounded by netting. Storage is easy and they last forever.
Put three seeds in the little pot, cover with a clear lid, and wait for your seeds to sprout. Take the lid off and watch your plants grow. When transplanting, put the pot directly into the soil. It’s that easy. Sometimes I rip off the net, sometimes not. The jiffy pellets come in mini greenhouses with 6, 12, 20, or 72 pellets. Seventy-two will fit into a full tray, and they work great in combination with the plastic six packs that come with the 72-cell greenhouses. Seventy-two plants! Once you get started, you’ll want more, and more, and more. Other methods, like peat pots, newspaper cups, paper towel, etc., never worked that great for me. There were always watering issues, mold (especially with the newspaper cups), and general poor performance. I would steer clear of these.
The last method, baby beds, is similar to the winter gardening method but uses a cold frame instead of individual containers. You basically set up a small raised bed about 2? x 4? and fill it with a light mixture of vermiculite and peat or coir, with some sand. Three parts peat or coir to one part sand and one part vermiculite. A 15g smart pot would also do well.
Plant your seeds, well spaced, in little rows (don’t forget to label them). When they’re big enough, use a transplant trowel (skinny and thin) to move the plants to where you want them. If you like, cover the box with plastic hoops or an old window or piece of glass, creating a cold frame. Don’t forget to prop it open on sunny days, or you’ll have an oven.
The backs of seed packets have lots of great information. Ignore most of the planting instructions, except if it tells you to direct sow, as some seedlings don’t like to be moved around much. Remember to space your seeds; each has the potential of becoming a little plant. A pack of lettuce seed can hold up to 400 seeds, so avoid at all costs making a little furrow and sprinkling all the seeds in that furrow. Thinning is a waste of time, and a waste of seed, and it damages the plants. It’s always best to put three seeds in a spot, every few inches. One out of three is bound to grow.
For more information, I recommend reading All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, which has lots of useful advice for small, urban gardens. Also check out Hudson Valley’s Seed Blog at seedlibrary.org, which has a six-week session about seeds.
Kimberly Sevilla, Owner
Rose Red & Lavender
Floral Design Studio and Organic Garden Center
653 Metropolitan Avenue Wiliamsburg
Flowers, Plants and Beautiful Things