This is the time of year when gardeners get an itch to do something to mark the lengthening days and the promise of a new growing season. One response is to fuss with seeds: selecting, buying, sowing.
You can wait until early spring and buy commercially grown transplants and have a perfectly fine garden of vegetables, herbs and annuals. But there are valid and noble reasons to get into seed starting, which I do with a homemade four-shelf apparatus that so far hasn’t collapsed. The seed trays go under standard four-foot double shop lights, suspended on chains so I can raise them as the seedlings grow.
One reason to do this is for the sheer pleasure of it; another, though, is the luxury of choice. Even as the transplant offerings have become much richer in recent years, the seed market will take you to a more varied and interesting universe.
You can, and should, start onions and leeks in February, along with kale, kohlrabi and perhaps a lovely cabbage such as Mammoth Red Rock . I’ve seen that other cabbage relative, cauliflower, fail too often in the erratic Washington spring to want to bother with it. I am still digging from the garden a variety of leek I started a year ago. Named Tadorna , it stays firm and blue, beautifully blue, through the cold months. This year, I am trying a hybrid named Megaton , said to be tall but thick and resistant to bulbing at the base. We’ll see.
As for onions, you will never see in Washington the colossal five-pound cannonballs grown in northern places, but I like to cultivate lesser onions in my garden, not least for the ornament of the upright, tubular leaves. Among others, I grew Red Robin last season, pretty but on the small side. This year I’m going for an onion ensemble that includes Red Marble and a bunching spring onion named Guardsman.
The next wave of seed-starting should be given over to the pepper, which is slow to germinate and grow and should be sown before its cousin, the tomato. Peppers are the most handsome of the nightshade veggies, but I don’t like absurdly hot chili peppers and wouldn’t waste time and space growing them. I love bell peppers, but the yield is too low per plant and the wait too long for fully ripe and colorful specimens. This year, I am in search of something in the middle, an eye-catching, bushy plant with attractive fruit that a Celt such as myself can stomach.
This quest has drawn me to a number of varieties. Burpee is offering Golden Baby Belle , little orange peppers that look midway between a bell and something more tapered. The red Costa Rican Sweet resembles the classic heirloom Marconi, but stouter. Marconi , by the way, is a fine heirloom. Joe Brunetti, who grows the Smithsonian’s Victory Garden on the Mall, loves the similar Corno di Toro (bull’s horn), productive for weeks and particularly sweet when allowed to ripen fully to red.
He also commends Sweet Banana , another sweet pepper that looks like a chili pepper. It is pretty, too, turning from yellow to orange to red. It sweetens as it darkens. Brunetti and his colleague Cindy Brown favor an antique variety named Jimmy Nardello. Slender, curved and red, it looks an especially hot devil but is mild and abundant.
Compact, small leaf peppers function as decorative plants, looking good in the wilting sun of August when everything else is flagging. I have a spot for something ornamental in a pot. Tangerine Dream is pretty and sweet, but I must say I also like varieties of limited use to the cook.
Prairie Fire grows to just 12 inches and is studded with conspicuous little peppers that age from cream to orange to red. Sangria is loaded with larger fruit, purple to red, and is tempting indeed, even if a packet of 30 little seeds sells for 18 cents a seed.
At that price, you’d like near total germination. What would you do with 30 pepper plants? They’d make a great decorative edge or a low hedge in the garden plot.
Brown and Brunetti recommend a seed-starting heat mat for peppers. This is essentially a plug-in warming pad that goes beneath seed trays to raise soil temperatures. Most seeds will sprout happily in a room in the upper 60s, but the pepper likes the extra 10 or 15 degrees to allow quick germination and robust root and top growth before going out into the garden in early May.
“It’s going to grow much better,” said Brunetti. “The bottom heat is very, very helpful.” Okay, Joe, I’ll get a heat mat.
Peppers and other seedlings also need the light source to be kept close to the seedlings, no more than six inches. I start seeds in soil blocks about an inch cubed, though most folks use cells called plug flats. When the seedlings outgrow these, after about three or four weeks, they must be repotted to larger containers so they can grow bigger before they see the garden. Leeks, onion, and cabbages can be planted in April. Wait until early May before planting the peppers. Meanwhile, you can find me ferreting around the garden shed for an odd assortment of little plastic pots, three inches across. This is a sure sign of a restless gardener anticipating, just, the stirrings of a new season.
→Remove last year’s growth on ornamental grasses. Cut the old leaf blades close to the ground, using a trimmer or sharp hedging shears. Grasses that are still upright can be tied before cutting. Wear protective clothing.