Last week, I drug a bag of potting soil out, containers, my entire collection of seeds, a large garbage pail and a pitcher of water into my friend’s kitchen and set my young gardeners to work. Snow was spitting at the window, the driveway was a glacier and spring seemed the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. But you wouldn’t have known that inside from the laughter and activity. Spring was definitely in the air.
That’s the beauty of planting starts — it gives you hope. There is nothing like seeing those little, green shoots coming out of the earth to remind you that someday, the world will reawaken. But, if you are looking for something more than an aesthetic promise of good things to come, however, you are going to have to provide well for those babies, though. They need a lot of love, mostly in the form of light and warmth. And of course, timing is everything.
I’m hoping to plant things out May first inside hoop houses and the high tunnel. Last year, I planted my tomato starts Feb. 15 and they still needed more time, so this year, I bumped it up a week. Many of my gardener friends squawked at this, saying it was too early. They may be right. It may be that a week more in a pot indoors will not mean more bright red fruit at the end of the year. Maybe transplanting when the tomatoes are younger results in stronger plants later that produce earlier because they aren’t so shocked by the move in May. I don’t know yet. That’s the thing I love most about gardening — it’s all a big experiment and it will be years before even half of my major questions are answered. But at any rate, this year, I planted earlier, and know that come April, every flat surface in my house will be covered with tomato plants. I also planted peppers, herbs, onions and some flowers. They all like lots of time, and don’t take up much space as they grow.
I plant all my seeds in straight Pro-Mix. It’s expensive, but this mix of sphagnum peat moss and perlite/ vermiculite keeps your seeds moist but airy, which gives you great seed germination. My kids moisten the Pro- Mix in a bucket until it gives up a drop or two of water when you take a handful and squeeze it — moist but not soggy. We plant according to the seed packet instructions, typically two seeds to a pot or cell just in case the germination of the seeds is shoddy. I plant tomatoes 4-inch-by-4- inch pots, but it might be better to go even bigger if you are planting fewer of them and have the space. Every time you transplant a plant, even the most careful transplant, it gets shocked, so the fewer times you can do it, the better.
I use standard black plastic pots. My friend in Kodiak uses one of those soil block makers, and loves it, but I haven’t made the investment yet. It essentially creates little squares of compacted soil that you plant right into and then can insert straight into the soil. They cost about $30 a piece, but if you are planting various different plants that each need a different cell size, it’s an investment that adds up. I read recently that the kind of seed pot that is designed to deteriorate into the soil doesn’t work very well in Alaska soil because it doesn’t get warm enough for that kind of process to work here, so I’ve stayed away from those even though they are surely kinder on the environment. I am careful with my plastic pots, however, and typically get multiple years out of them.
A word on labeling — if you are looking to gather more data for your scientific process of understanding what works and doesn’t in your little garden, labeling is key. Make sure you do it in a way that will last all year, won’t fade, bleed, or otherwise deteriorate. My favorite tactic lately has been to cut up a plastic yogurt container and write on it with a Sharpie. Including the date planted and any other info you want is a very good idea. Last summer, there were times when I had to do some serious backtracking to figure out what variety was growing so prolifically, which were determinant and indeterminant tomatoes, and other details that should have been on their labeling stakes. This year, I’m paying more attention early on.
So now you have beautiful little trays of labeled seeds and soil. For the next week or so, all they need is to be kept warm. I saw an incredible chart once about how germination speeds increase based on soil temperature. A 10-degree shift in soil temperature resulted in weeks-earlier germination. So sticking these flats in a cold area of your home isn’t the greatest idea. If your air temperature is cool or variable, you might consider some way of keeping your seed soil warm. One neat idea I saw was to run some tubed lighting strips — the kind they use to light under kitchen cabinets or illuminate the aisles in movie theaters —into a piece of Styrofoam and set your trays on top of that. The heat from the lights warms the soil just enough but doesn’t dry it out. You can buy commercial soil heater pads, but again, there’s an expense there. Just setting the trays on a piece of solid foam insulation will probably work, and covering them with plastic is good, too.
Once the seeds germinate, things get more complicated. In Alaska, starts need to have lights over them 24-7 to be happy. Without those, you wind up with pale, lanky plants that will never amount to much. I have six florescent light tube fixtures under which I grow my starts under. I got the cheapest ones I could buy last year – they were about $10 a piece — and accommodate fullspectrum fluorescent bulbs.
The most important thing to remember with seed starts is you cannot have your lights close enough to your plants. I built a three-shelf cart last year with 2-by-4s and plywood that allows me to raise and lower my lights on chains to keep them at the right height, which is essentially hovering over the plant. I closed the whole cart in with plastic shower curtains, which kept all variety of pests at bay — from cats to well-meaning children with watering cans.
Speaking of watering, you cannot possibly water too carefully when your starts are starting. I had a gardener friend who would dribble water into his starts drip by drip with the same sort of care you would take to feed a baby bird.
You can always forgo all of this and just buy starts — big, healthy starts — from a greenhouse. But for my money, it’s worth it to have the greenery in the house for a few months, reminding me of what’s coming, sending a little oxygen into the air, and inspiring thoughts of the coming gardening season. Plus, you just can’t beat dirt under your fingernails in February.
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