Adrian Higgins - Seed Starting: Take Your Garden Into Your Own Hands

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, January 1, 2009

Is it possible to have a garden and not be a gardener?

It depends how you define a garden, I suppose. I am in the camp that believes that "garden" is more a verb than a noun, a process rather than a product, but the growth of the green industry suggests this is a somewhat quaint idea.

Consumers have spent about $35 billion a year in this decade so that others could do the work of mowing the grass, building a patio, cleaning up the fall garden and spreading mountains of mulch. And all the rest, from high-tech irrigation systems to tree trimming.

A nursery executive told me at a trade show two years ago that the market the industry was targeting was professional women in their 30s who didn't have the time or inclination to garden but were willing to spend the money to get the result. As customers ponied up for ever-bigger annuals, trees, perennials, even tomato seedlings, growers saw themselves catering not to home gardeners so much as garden decorators. This notion has led to the development of some fabulous plants: robust, long-flowering and easy to grow, but the force behind it, I thought, was ineffably saddening.

Then came the recession. I suspect as people look at ways to cut back, they will take on more of the yardwork themselves.

For the more adventurous (or desperate, perhaps), there is the opportunity to start a lot of a garden's plants by seed. As food prices soared in 2008, catalogues reported increases in vegetable seed sales of some 40 percent. As the recession deepens, this winter promises to be another good season for seed merchants.

Ironically, you can spend quite a bit of hard-earned cash on seed growing. The ultimate indulgence might be a greenhouse and all its trappings, but the structure requires heating in winter and venting and shading in summer. It's a place for a serious gardener to luxuriate, but it is not necessary for successful seed starting.

The alternative is to start seeds under lights. You can spend several hundred dollars buying custom stands equipped with sophisticated fluorescent lights, but I've had success using a simple shop light arrangement, a double lamp set up with 48-inch fluorescent tubes, hung above a table or workbench.

I replace the tubes each winter because old ones lose their intensity with time. The assembly is hung by chains on hooks so that I can raise the lamps as the seedlings grow. Other gardeners simply elevate the seed trays and lower them as the plants develop. To prevent the seedlings from getting lanky and weak, you should put the lights just four inches above the seedlings and illuminate them 16 hours a day.

Nancy Bubel, in her book "The New Seed-Starters Handbook," suggests using a warm and a cool light tube, to cover a broader spectrum of light, each 40 watts.

I've started seeds in foam cups, peat pots and flats of plastic cells, but one year I splurged on a soil-block maker, a metal press that turns moistened seed-starting soil into free-standing cubes. I have two: One makes three-quarter-inch cubes, the other two-inch cubes. As a seedling grows, I place the smaller cube into a depression in the larger one, minimizing root disturbance. I set the blocks in plastic trays and water them from below to avoid washing away the fragile seedlings with a watering can.

Some people swear by plug-in heat mats that sit below the trays and warm the soil. This speeds germination. My basement workbench is in the same room as the furnace, so heat isn't a problem.

There are obvious candidates for seed starting, annuals such as sweet basil, zinnias and globe amaranth, as well as vegetables. You might start pansies and cabbages now for planting out in March, but most cool-season veggies, such as lettuce or chard, shouldn't be started until February. Wait until March to start warm-season varieties such as tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers.

Once you get the seed-starting bug, it's fun to venture into growing perennials from seed. Many are slow to germinate, too fussy for all but the die-hard seed starters and are more easily propagated from divisions, but a few lend themselves to seed trays. Agastaches, penstemons, salvias, rudbeckias and echinaceas germinate willingly and soon grow to flowering size.

Come March and April, your seedlings will need to be sequestered for a week or two, not quarantined so much as introduced slowly to the rigors of life outside. It's a step called hardening off. The idea is to expose plants to outdoor temperatures and sunlight by day but shelter them at night, especially if the temperature dips below the mid-40s. The most effective device for this is a cold frame, essentially a sloped box with a glass or plastic lid that you prop open by day and close at night. As with seed-starting equipment, you can go to town on prefabricated versions, get a carpenter to construct a fancy cedar one or make your own with cheaper pressure-treated lumber. My brother, in his community garden, has fashioned one from loose bricks and an old glass door. Not pretty, but effective. I made one from a surplus sash window, but it's too small. I plan to make a larger one this winter. The University of Missouri's extension service has posted plans for a hot bed, essentially a cold frame heated by manure or electricity. In our region, an unheated frame works just as well. Find the plans online at (search for guide G6965).

Making the frame will be a good way to hone my woodworking skills, assure my seedlings of a happy transition and, along with seed starting, take my mind off that incredibly shrinking 401(k) plan.

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