By Victoria Rolfe
Well, it’s here! Spring! A season of gladness and hope for gardeners everywhere. Seed planting time! There is nothing so wondrous as taking a little piece of seemingly inert nothing and watching it grow into a glorious, bountiful living thing that will provide delicious nourishment and beauty for the body and soul.
Throughout this gardening season, I will be devoting this space to tips for growing your own food or creating a lovely flower garden to enjoy, in a timely manner as the growing season progresses. Anyone with access to the smallest plot (or even a patio for plant pots) should be able to grow an assortment of summer vegetables, herbs, and beautiful flowers to enjoy, for no more than the amount of money some people spend on coffee.
I know it can be tempting, when bitten by the garden bug, to go out and dig up a big ol’ plot of land or buy cartfuls of plants and seeds and bulbs. But I would caution you to start small with what you can comfortably handle and enjoy. That way, you are more likely to be successful. You can always expand your activities as the years go by and you become more knowledgeable and experienced.
Early spring is a time for seed planting. Most seeds can be started directly in the garden in the spring, but there are a few vegetables that require a much longer growing season. Others will not tolerate our cool spring climate. They must be started indoors during the winter and early spring and then be transplanted into the garden, when the weather and soil warm up in late spring to early summer.
Some vegetable seeds you’ll need to start indoors are tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and certain herbs, such as basil. And some gardeners like to give some of their other crops an early start too (cabbages and melons to name a few). There are flowers that can benefit from this head start as well, such as zinnias, marigolds, nasturtiums, and sunflowers. But it is generally easier to either plant the seeds directly outdoors when the time comes, or buy them as plant starts in the garden centers. In fact, it is not strictly necessary to plant any seeds indoors if you don’t want to. The plants that need this head start can all be purchased when the time comes at the garden centers. But if you do want to start your own seeds (to save some money, or just for fun), here is a quick primer:
So, how do you know which ones to plant when? There is a very easy way to determine this and it is right at your fingertips. You simply have to read the backs of the seed packages! Those tiny rectangles are chock-full of all the handy information you will need to plant that seed. The first thing to look at is “maturity” or “days to harvest.” This number will let you know if a seed can be grown directly outdoors. Our growing season here in (planting) Zone 5, New York, is approximately 165 days. If this number is larger (as it is on the above mentioned vegetables), then it must be started indoors to grow in a climate like the Northeast. (If you live in a different area, you can easily google your planting zone by zip code to know how long your growing season is.)
That little packet will also tell you how deep to plant the seeds, days until they germinate, how far to space them, what their mature size will be, and provide information about when to move them outdoors and what kind of growing conditions they prefer. So don’t throw away those informative packets!
To get started, all you need are some containers, plastic bags, and twist ties. Use empty yogurt cartons, the bottoms of cardboard beverage cartons, Dixie cups . . . the possibilities are endless (I save cell packs and pots from plants I buy to reuse.) Wash them out thoroughly before you start (a 10% bleach solution is recommended to sterilize them) and poke a few holes in the bottom. You can, of course, go out and buy whole seed-starting kits in nurseries if you prefer, but it is totally unnecessary to spend that kind of money.
It is, however, imperative that you purchase a sterile soilless seed starting medium, rather than using potting or gardening soil. This helps to eliminate diseases and fungi that can kill your tender seedlings. Moisten it in a bowl to the consistency of a damp sponge, then fill your plant containers. Plant 2-4 seeds in each container at the recommended depth, tamp down lightly, and place in a plastic bag with a twist tie. Make sure you label each container with the type of seed and date. Do not overplant! You don’t want your tender babies overcrowded.
Another reason to save those packets is that you probably won’t need all the seeds in a packet for one year. Save them for future use in a cool dry place. (I keep mine in a Tupperware container in the back of the fridge.
After they are planted, put them in a warm place. I usually place mine on the heat vents. Watch carefully day to day, as they need light as soon as they sprout. Once they do, place them in a sunny window (south or east is best). No need for grow lights just yet. You can “spring” for those later. I grew seeds indoors this way for at least 20 years, until my husband bought me grow lights for Christmas a few years ago. If your plants are on a windowsill, turn them every day so they do not bend in one direction toward the sun. That is the advantage of grow lights: plants grow straight up to the light. But it is certainly not necessary to have them.
You can keep your seedlings in the plastic bags for now. No need to water them while they are in their little bag “greenhouses.” When they outgrow the bags, you will need to take them out, place the containers in a waterproof tray (I mostly use recycled aluminum lasagna trays; when they become dry, water them from the bottom, directly into the lasagna pan. Only fill it ½ inch or so, and do not flood the tray. Do not water from the top onto the plants. Do not overwater. Let the soil get fairly dry between watering.
Then enjoy watching your little babies spring to life Their first leaves (called cotyledons) will not look like the mama plant, but the next set of (true) leaves will. And it is such joy to delight in watching your little seedlings grow sturdier, healthier and more beautiful with each passing day. And, miraculously, all from that little piece of inert nothing!
That’s all you need to know for now. Next time, we will get outside and play in the dirt! And I will continue to guide you as we go forth on our journey into the wonderfully rich world of gardening.
I would love to hear from you, dear readers, about your own garden experiences. Have you ever grown seeds in the past, or is this your first experiment? (And, yes, gardening is always an experiment.) Let me know how it goes for you and feel free to ask me any questions that you may have.
Victoria Rolfe has had a love of gardening all her life, from the time she was a tiny child coveting the daffodils growing in her neighbor’s yard (and wondering why she couldn’t have them in her own), to her teenage years when she took her pot experimentation in a different direction by growing the seeds she extracted from the bag into a beautiful marijuana plant on her bedroom windowsill. She went on in her adult years to feed her family by growing a huge and bountiful vegetable garden, as well as beautifying her three-acre property with an array of ornamental trees, bushes and flowers in the magnificent Hudson Valley region of New York.
Victoria learned a great deal in the process of all this plant experimentation. She then added to that knowledge by taking courses with the Cornell Cooperative Extension to become a Master Gardener Volunteer. In her volunteer capacity, she helps to educate the public on gardening through classes and information booths, most notably at the Dutchess County N.Y. Fair each August. Throughout the summer months, Victoria is most likely to be found among the weeds, either in her own garden or those of others who actually pay her to play in their dirt and do the thing she loves best, delight in the magical world of gardening.
Victoria is not only a gardening aficionado; she is also passionate about helping people live a better life on less money. Visit her website and blog at brightfuture2budget4.weebly.com, or email her at email@example.com.