My Experience in Starting Seeds


A couple of years ago I had an exhausting spring planting season. I started everything from pansies to parsley from seed, and for weeks all I did was run from one windowsill to another with a watering can.I worried constantly about damping off disease. After I put the seedlings outside to harden off, I brought them back in again on stormy nights. Finally, when the last little peat pot was safely stowed in the ground, I resolved never to buy another seed packet again.

It’s always dangerous to say “never.”

At this moment my porch is adorned with four large size seed trays holding innumerable tiny pansies, cosmos, swamp milkweeds, sweet peas, California poppies and nasturtiums. Two nights ago it got so cold that I brought them all in. The next morning I took them all out again. I water them when it doesn’t rain, dump the excess water out when it rains too much, and wonder if the seedlings and I will hold out until April 15, when I will begin planting.

What makes this year different from the endurance contest that was my life two years ago? For one thing, small amounts of moderation and common sense have taken hold. Since I have limited time, space and patience, this year I started my seeds in batches. I have room for one large plastic tray in the cellar under a plant light, and space for two large plastic trays in my pantry on top of the microwave. About a month ago I planted seeds that needed an early start—6-8 weeks before the last local frost date. By the time that first batch was mature enough for hardening off, the weather was turning warmer by fits and starts. The trays could go out in the daytime and even remain there some nights.

When my first crop of infants was mostly up and out, I planted things such as cosmos and poppies that don’t need much of a head start. These are now in the process of maturing, and should be able to go outside, weather permitting, within the week. When they go out, I will start more trays.

The advantage to seed starting is that the seeds can germinate under highly favorable conditions, with enough warmth and light to give them a fighting chance. You can also select from a far wider range of cultivars and colors than you can if you wait and buy transplants at the local garden center. The price differential is substantial. A flat of annuals costs between $9 and $12 at peak planting time. A pack of seeds, which can produce enough plants to fill at least a couple of flats, rarely costs more than $2.00.

I also feel the need to confess that I start seeds in cell packs because I am notoriously bad when it comes to sowing annuals directly in the ground. When I was a novice gardener I frequently forgot to water the spots where I had planted my seeds. I felt that it was inhumane to thin them to the recommended density, so I didn’t do it. When my plants did not succeed as I wished, I moaned and groaned so much that nobody could stand to be around me. My family now agrees that starting seeds in trays in the house is better for all concerned.

Even if you don’t have a conveniently placed microwave oven under a sunny window, you can start a few seedlings of your own. First, find a container that will fit on your windowsill. Then figure out what you want to grow, and buy the seeds. Don’t forget to pick up some potting mix. Make sure that your container has drainage holes and fits into some kind of waterproof tray, so that you can water your seedlings from the bottom. An egg carton, with holes punched through the bottom of the individual pockets makes a great seed starting vessel, especially if you detach the top, line it with plastic wrap, then set the bottom in it. The great advantage, besides the fact that the egg carton costs you almost nothing, is that it fits on a standard windowsill very nicely.

Even with only one windowsill, you can use my system of starting early seeds, putting them outside, then using the same windowsill space for seedlings that need less time to get to transplanting size. Without benefit of grow lights and greenhouses you can raise a respectable crop of annuals to brighten up your summer beds. This system also works for starting begonias, one of the most useful plants for brightening up gloomy garden spaces.

Now that I have learned how to pace myself, and conserve time, effort and resources, I can have the joy of white cosmos and antique snapdragons and just about anything else that my heart desires. And I will never swear off seed starting again.

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