My name is John, and I am a gardener. My passion has advanced beyond experimentation to full-blown addiction. So many triggers kick off the desire–a web page or pamphlet for a public garden, a retail shop crammed with plants in a display of horticultural bounty, even that booth at the flea market where the guy left all his junk at home but brought a truckload of succulent plants to hawk to gardeners who can’t resist his rock-bottom prices.
Shortly after the turn of the New Year, the annual deluge of garden catalogs floods my mailbox. Websites are available year round, but those catalogs with their tempting full-color images are irresistible. While ice pelts the window and the news anchor announces a snow day for all but essential personnel I sit and dream of new additions for the garden.
Browsing the catalogs held special meaning this year as my granddaughter, Fern (what a great name for a gardener’s granddaughter), gave me a gift certificate to Select Seeds, a mail order source for outrageously gorgeous flowers. After much mental wrangling I selected the finalists and placed my order.
The seeds arrived and I flipped through the stack multiple times while thinking where in the garden to put them. Perhaps that decision should happen before I purchase? Some of the seeds needed an indoor start to the gardening season while others could be sown directly once the danger of frost dissipated.
Starting seeds indoors can be rewarding and/or downright maddening. But every gardener needs to try at least once. The experiment brings new perspective on the prices of the flats of marigolds at the garden shop. Once we’ve experienced unexpected freezes, invading insects, the heartbreak of damping-off, and marauding critters we will better understand the efforts made by the many hands that contributed to the beautiful plants. And the wallet will open much easier in support of our gardening habit.
I opted to use Jiffy products (peat pots and starting mix), but any containers will work. The plants do not have to be organized into individual cells. I’ve used plastic butter tubs, paper or plastic cups, and egg cartons. Think reuse and let the creative juices percolate.
My shop is insulated and while late winter days and nights run the spectrum from mild to frigid the temperature inside rarely drops below freezing. Lighting is not ideal, but my plan was to move the flats outside on warmer days and return them to the shop at night until temperatures reach the blissful state of consistently warm. The important part is to keep the sprouts from freezing.
The trays from last year’s flats of pansies or marigolds are worth keeping. I placed my peat pots in these handy carriers to ease the daily migration into the sun.
How do gardeners start seeds? Surf the web and read a few books to uncover secrets. Most every gardener has their secret family recipe, I sure. Or follow these easy steps.
Fill the peat pots with starting mix. Shake to settle the contents and add more mix to fill the cells to the top. Note professionals sprinkle the seeds into tubs of soil then transplant the seedlings into individual cells. That is how they get one perfectly centered plant in each cell.
I started with tweezers and gently dropped one seed in the center of each cell. That technique did not work with small seeds, though. In the end I opted for the Sprinkle and Pray Method. Gently squeeze a pinch of seeds between thumb and index finger. While moving the hand above the rows of cells rub thumb and finger to release a sprinkle of seeds. Pray they fall on target.
Read the seed package to see which seeds need to be covered with a thin layer of soil and which prefer exposure to light. Don’t forget to label as you go.
Water the peat pots thoroughly, but don’t drown them. Damping-off, the syndrome where sprouts are green one day and dead the next, is related to over-watering among other factors. I enlisted a pump spray bottle and watered with a gentle rain only when the top edges of the peat pots appeared dry.
The shop became my greenhouse and gave an excuse to avoid other projects for a few weeks. “Oh, I have seeds in there. I’ll have to postpone that work until they germinate.” Ambitious gardeners can rig up grow lights and tend plants indoors for weeks.
Outside I used a frame covered with hardware cloth to offer some degree of protection from rabbits and squirrels. I had too many flats for the frame, though, and propped wire in front of the overflow. Insects including slugs and cutworms managed to dine on a few seedlings.
My warm day schedule was to carry the flats out in the morning and return them to the shop around supper time. I watered first thing then again in early afternoon to prevent the peat pots from drying out.
Oh, the joy when tiny sprouts pop up. I noticed one or two then a couple days later marveled at the green shoots visible in most of the cells. New plants raising their hands to catch the spring breeze and praise the Creator–now that’s gardening.
My Sprinkle and Pray Method resulted in some overcrowded cells so thinning was necessary. I understand. It hurts to toss a plant, but unless you have unlimited garden space you must. Selected the biggest and strongest. Compost the rest.
Not much changed for several weeks as I tended the plants and waited for the weather to warm. We had a teasingly warm 77 degree day, and I nearly moved the plants into the garden. Good thing I waited as we had several days of heavy rain and a few nights of frost afterward. Patience is a virtue, especially in the garden.
Now that our frost date has passed I prepared the bed where our annuals will stand. I’ve heard the snarky comment that gardening friends don’t let friends buy annuals, but serious gardeners plan for both annuals and perennials. The visiting bees and butterflies are thanks enough even without the stunning blossoms.
Garden design takes vision. From the porch swing I can picture where each group of plants will best fit. In addition to the seedlings I have several types of seed to sow.
Meet Elmo. My daughters, Amanda and Michelle, gave him that name when he became an indispensable part of our family many years ago. Mantis makes a fine tiller and buying one proved to be a great investment. Before the seedlings go into the soil I add a couple of wheelbarrow loads of leaf mulch to the bed with Elmo’s help.
The plants are ready to move to the garden. Perhaps if I waited a few weeks, gave them more light and some fertilizer they might grow bigger, but I need the shop cleared so in the ground they go. Good luck, little sprouts. Make me proud!
I love these Calendula seedlings and can’t wait to see how they perform.
Shawn likes randomness rather than straight evenly spaced rows so I will shut down my engineering brain and allow the artsy side to step up. Here a plant, there a plant, everywhere a plant plant…
And now we wait. Well, actually the water barrels need emptied and cleaning, several plants need repotted, the compost needs turning …
Before I end let me share some problems I encountered. All gardeners face setbacks. I have a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book with his meticulous records of his gardening escapades. Monticello delivered a host of horticultural challenges. Don’t quit. Always look ahead, and remember next year’s just around the corner. I commented to Shawn as we enjoyed the porch swing, “This is going to be the best year ever for our garden!”
I say that every year.
My seed starting problems in 2016:
- Cold weather returned after the first sprouts appeared. The sprouts remained small due to limitations of my growing habitat.
- I somehow over-watered some peat pots and numerous plants acquired damp-off disease.
- Squirrels could not reach my flats but insects munched on several. Next time I need a raised platform when the flats are moved outdoors.
- Three varieties of seeds yielded zero germination.
- Not all the sprouts survived to make it to the garden. I must be realistic with my expectations. “How many would have sprouted if I planted none?” Based on that answer, I am enjoying stellar results.