Saturday, March 10, 2012

Starting from Scratch

I was planning to write about all the exotic blooms I saw in the Dominican Republic today, but we (three daughters and I) were so busy playing tennis, sun tanning, swimming and eating that I only took a few photos, and most, like the one above, I couldn’t even identify.   

So, instead, I want to write about raising your own seedlings since March is when you should start.  The first year I decided to try this project, I filled a bushel basket with dirt from the vegetable garden in the fall and stored it in the cellar.  By March I’d read enough to know I’d better sterilize that soil to prevent “damping off.”  This disease is often compared to whooping cough as it only attacks children, but I think a more suitable label would be crib death, as it always kills the seedlings it attack.

I filled a large pan with my soil and put it in the oven to cook. Ten minutes later I took it out.  Wow! The smell was overpowering,  and I soon realized why.  My cat had preferred my basket of dirt in the cellar to her kitty litter.  After airing the house, I went and bought some sterile potting soil.

As a gardener I find playing in dirt as delightful as a violinist must feel playing a Stradivarius.  Unfortunately store-bought potting soil isn’t quite the same.  Some brands feel like sawdust, other like shredded Styrofoam.  But it’s all sterile.

Seeds need warm soil (65 or 70 degrees) to germinate, so if you’re starting your seeds in an unheated guest room, give them an electric blanket.  I always laid an old enameled table top upside down on my blanket so the flats of seeds can be watered without shorting out the blanket.

Once your seeds have sprouted you can turn the blanket from high to low. If there’s insufficient light, rig a fluorescent about 8 inches above the seedlings.  You can leave it on day and night as the plants don’t seem to resent being expected to work without a break.  With their feet warm but the air cool, they grow into nice, thick-stemmed, well-rooted plants.

It takes at least eight or nine weeks for seedlings to be ready to face the real world, so backtrack from the date when you expect Jack Frost to leave on his summer vacation to start your seeds,.  In New England it’s usually Memorial Day weekend.

Tomato vines need a real head start if they’re to produce ripe tomatoes before Jack returns in the fall, so when they’ve produced their first true leaves, they should all be transplanted to their own individual pots, and each given a nice drink of manure tea.  Other vegetables that need a head start include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and onions. Most other vegetables do fine just being planted directly in the garden.

I will never forget the Memorial Day when I drove to New Hampshire to help Trum plant her first vegetable garden.  She and Clem had already done all the hard work– rototilling, raking, fencing.  The soil was a good loose loam, remarkably free of stones, and Trum, who has become a far more knowledgeable gardener than her Mom, had raised all her own seedlings, and I mean ALL. 

Every vegetable she’d planned to have in the garden she had started inside in flats.  Not just tomatoes and broccoli, and onions, but peas, beans, spinach, corn, pumpkins and even carrots!! She’d asked me all about what kind of potting soil to use, how much light and water the seedlings would need, how to “harden them” off,  but she’d never asked, and I’d never thought to tell her, which seeds to plant.

The last thing I wanted was to dampen Trum’s new enthusiasm for gardening, so we planted everything and by the end of the day we had 10 full rows of growing greenery, which we quickly dubbed “The Instant Garden.”

Of course it didn’t do too well.  The baby carrots were so crooked they could have been worn as bracelets. The bean plants had grown so fast indoors that they soon became as sick and spindly as a calf with the scours.  The peas and spinach also went into shock, and the pumpkins curled up and died.  Pumpkins should always be planted in their permanent home as they can’t take transplanting.

Trum still raises her own seedlings.  Me, I prefer a little Caribbean vacation this time of year.  Hope you’ve enjoyed one or the other. 

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