“The time has come,” the gardener said, “to talk of many things. Of soil and lights and seedling flats, of cabbages and spring.”
I can hardly believe that February has rolled around and it is time once again to find room for several hundred seedlings, four foot grow lights and filing boxes full of seeds and reminder cards. Since I started growing a good deal of my plants from seed several years ago, it is hard to do otherwise – especially when the budget is tight and I am aware of the relative bang I can get for my gardening buck.
I look forward to this time of year with mixed feelings. Part of me is anxious to go through seed packets, plunge my hands into potting mix, watch anxiously for germination, breathe deeply of the scent of growing things, and have the satisfaction of home reared plants in the garden in April.
Another part of me desperately wishes for a greenhouse, rather than a kitchen, in which to grow them.
It certainly is possible to raise healthy, beautiful seedlings within the confines of four plastered walls – it’s just not terribly pretty, nor is it without its inconvenience. With space at a premium in my home, and given the normal irritations that winter seems to enlarge and exacerbate; it takes a fair amount of motivation to start a seed-sowing project that promises dust, chaos and space juggling for at least the next eight weeks.
Yet it is worth it. Being able to pick the exact variety of vegetable or flower one intends to grow and to get the plant in the garden at just the right time, renders a few weeks’ inconvenience small in comparison. Furthermore, the reward is not solely at the end. While the early March winds are trying to blow down my elderly house and all is bare arctic tundra out in the garden, I can run my hands over infant basil and tomato plants and be hit squarely with the intoxicating scent of summer days and Salad al Caprese. Yes it’s definitely worth it.
However, if you are completely new to seed starting, start small for heaven’s sake. Remember each of the plugs in a seventy-two plug seedling flat will need to be transplanted to larger pots within a few weeks of starting them – and sometimes, they will need another temporary home before they brave cold soil and cabbage loopers. This exponentially increases the amount of space you will eventually need on top of that washing machine or workbench. It is far better to start with a smaller amount of plants and grow a few varieties to supplement those which you either buy or direct seed, than to find yourself drowning in a massive horticultural ‘to do’ list by mid-March. There have been years when, due to a poorly-timed vacation, or a distinct lack of motivation I have been forced to rely upon the kindness of my local farm shop or big box retailer. It’s not a crime. I feel fortunate that I do have these resources to pick up the green slack when I’m not functioning on all cylinders.
Whether you start seventy two seedlings or seven, I cannot stress enough how important light is in the propagation equation. I do not care what the cutsie gardening books or herb kit marketing geniuses say; a sunny window is absolutely not enough when trying to grow sturdy, healthy plants. Yes, you may get germination. Yes, it may be green. Yes, you may be able to bury that three inch, sun-searching lanky stem up to its wishy-washy cotyledons and pretend all’s well that ends well. However, once you’ve seen the result of using a small florescent shop light fitted with a grow-bulb positioned a few inches above your seedlings, you will never go back to south facing windows and gangly seedlings again. I promise.
So grab a few peat pellets, some seed and a shop light and come join me for a few weeks of chaotic kitchen madness. Before you or I know it, spring will have arrived, plants will find their permanent homes in outside beds and propagation purgatory will be just a happy memory in the great scheme of the garden year.