Time to start poring over catalogues to plan for spring
You can spot a gardener in February: They’re the ones with hope in their eyes.
While most people are weighed down by ice and grey skies, able to see only the cruelty of the year’s second month, the blessed growers are eyeing their garden journals, their seed catalogues, their flats and pots and plant markers.
If you’ve been buying hardy seedlings and plants every spring and growing your own food, maybe it’s time to take it to the next level: starting from seed.
There is a passion in this escalation that can get a little fervent — in a good way. So many choices, so much knowledge, such a steep learning curve. And all inherently doable.
Starting from seed also allows you to create community by sharing your stash. Each seed packet usually contains between 50 and 200 seeds, and it’s pretty safe to say you’re not going to use those up in the one or two seasons seeds are thought to remain viable. So have a seed-sharing party, or just check in with fellow gardeners to do a “need ‘em, got ‘em” swap. This adds to the economical factor of the process, too.
Another advantage of the packet-to-table food is knowing what’s gone into it at every step of the way. In an era of pollinator scarcity, there’s peace in knowing your plants contain no neonicotinoids, common in store-bought plants and fatal to flying things.
Rose Bartel — aka the Midas of the green world — of local farm Bartel Organics has some guidance. Roddy Heading, local botanist extraordinaire, also weighs in.
As a general rule of (green) thumb, ask six growers a question and you’ll get six different answers, so it’s not surprising that Bartel and Heading have differing ideas on how to start seeds. It’s also relevant that Bartel is growing for the masses, while Heading is guiding you toward something more like a kitchen garden.
Either way, starting from seed gives you a dizzying amount of choice, particularly if you crack a catalogue or two, or visit some inspiring websites. While you might find four or five varieties of lettuce at the market or grocery store, you can easily access literally dozens of varieties with heirloom seeds.
Both growers recommend avoiding GMO seeds; some gardeners — amateur and professional — are keen to keep things as natural as possible. Organic seeds are available through any number of sources, and you can also check with the Council for Responsible Genetics if you’re concerned and unsure about a seed provider. Bartel recommends William Dam Seeds; other favourites are Seed Savers Exchange Heirloom Seeds and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, with some very unusual heirloom varieties available from all three. (A quick glance taunts with pink celery, Atomic grape tomato, pawpaw fruit, and ancient watermelon.)
Bartel recommends you start with your favourites, and only a few of them. “It’s simple: just do what you want, and add new crops slowly,” she says. Heading recommends selecting vegetable varieties that are known to do well in Niagara.
“Hot weather plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants have to be started six weeks before planting outside at the end of May,” says Heading. Some varieties will take longer, some shorter, and some will be directly sown into the garden. Reading seed packets helps to determine the time to maturity.
Seed packets and helpful websites will also provide information about the spacing and depth of seed planting. A general rule is the seed should be as deep in the soil as it is large: i.e. don’t put a little pinhead lettuce seed an inch underground, and don’t float a big zucchini seed a quarter of an inch under the surface.
When planting seeds, it is very (very) difficult not to get carried away. Remember the size and yield of the adult plants you’re starting: Do you really need 12 tomato plants and five summer squash vines for your family of four? Try to be discriminating — which can be challenging, with all of the aforementioned varieties. “Don’t go off the deep end,” advises Bartel, “because you’ll sacrifice quality.”
In Bartel’s books, seeds are started in potting soil or specific seed-starting soil, in flats small or large, with clear plastic lids. An alternative is to experiment with the clamshell bins from your grocery greens like baby spinach. If you use the latter, it’s recommended to create drainage and air holes in the bottom and top of the container. Clear plastic wrap can also be used to create a greenhouse environment over a flat of seeds.
Heading has a different perspective, equally viable: “For vegetable plants, start with large eight-inch pots filled with light sterile soil. Forget compost indoors, it’s full of insects, weed seeds and fungi,” says Heading.
Put a few seeds in each pot and let them all grow, then edit down to the best single specimen. We start in a large pot rather than keep transplanting from small to medium to large pots, because each transplant shocks the root system and you lose more than a week of growth,” he says. “Place the pot in a foil pie plate and water from the bottom.”
In either case, remember germination doesn’t require light, only heat and moisture. “But not overly, that’s the dumb part,” says Bartel. Perfecting the balance is part of the learning curve. “Don’t let the temperature get too high or the seeds will percolate,” she says. But peppers — both hot and sweet — need extra warmth to be inspired to send out their shoots and roots. (Just like some of us on cold winter days.) “Peppers are the pickiest— they need the most heat from the bottom,” says Bartel, who grows a vast variety of sweet and spicy specimens.
Seed flats can be placed on heating mats, suggests Bartel, and grow-lights are an option for those with less-than-ideal window exposures. Heading recommends the pots be kept off the ground, to keep them warmer.
The emerging seedlings, however, do require light, and plenty of it, which is why it’s recommended to start your seeds in mid-March, when there is more natural light available. “If you start too early,” says Bartel, “you get leggy plants which means they’re weaker, and more prone to breakage and disease.”
“Go slow, and take notes,” are Bartel’s main recommendations. “Just starting a veggie garden from seed is a steep learning curve,” she says. “Keep writing everything down in a garden journal: the dates, details, how you started the seeds, when they germinated, everything.” That way, she says, you can learn from your successes and failures and lean more toward the former in years to come.
Some seeds are direct-sown into the soil, and some tolerant and hardy ones can be planted in the late spring. Radishes; many greens including the Chinese (bok choy, tatsoi) and Italian varieties (rapini); and some onions, for example.
The work/fun doesn’t end when your seeds have germinated, whether you’re potting them up or letting them duke it out in a larger pot. It’s likely later in March by now, and the sunlight is stronger and lasts longer. Tender seedlings can overheat and even burn quite easily — “It happens in a flash, the overheating,” says Bartel — so monitor your little pals closely.
The lids you were using for germination need to come off some if not all of the time so as not to create a slow-cooking scenario. You might find you need to move some seedlings closer to or further from windows with direct light.
Of course all of this is much more easily monitored with grow-lights, and if that’s your style, it can make the process easier.
Bartel pots-up seedlings, sometimes (as with tomatoes) more than once throughout their growth. This means moving the plants to larger and larger pots before they go into the ground, so their roots can grow and the plants can become more robust.
Tomato seedlings can be transplanted a few times, each time burying the stem until the first or second node of leaves, which makes both roots and stems stronger.
When seedlings are at least eight inches tall or at their fourth or fifth leaf, and there is minimal risk of frost outside, it’s time to harden them off. This means exposing the little “hothouse flowers” to the great big, bad world of direct sunlight, wind, rain, and the occasional chill. (It’s a bit like putting your tween on public transit alone.) This takes gobs of patience, and ideally something with wheels.
NOTL resident Amika Versteegen grows from seed, and sells the seedlings she doesn’t plant in her family’s large veggie plot. To harden the plants she grows all over her house, she keeps them in the garage on rolling skids. She brings them out for a little bit longer every day, and then rolls them back to shelter and safety.
Heading’s reminder of the ground being cooler is good for this stage too: Keep your hardening seedlings up on balconies or benches.
While already over-extended patience might be difficult to find, the May long weekend is generally a good starting point for transplanting most of your vegetables.
“An overcast day is better than a sunny day. This will prevent wilting,” says Heading. “You can bury a vegetable plant deeper into the soil than the level of the flower pot since the stem will send out roots if buried.”
Space your plants according to the seed packet instructions, as difficult as that may seem. While your little plantlets may look lost and lonely spread so far apart, you must imagine them full-grown and fighting each other for light and nourishment.
Water each plant more thoroughly than you think you should. The roots need to be entirely soaked, and any air pockets created in the planting need to be filled with soil and water so roots don’t poke around and find only air.
Heading recommends mulching and supplementing with aged wood chips to keep weeds down, maintain moisture, and to continually amend and improve the soil. He suggests sourcing some of last year’s chips from downed ash trees, stating that while wood from ash trees cannot be taken outside the region, it is safe to use within it. Heading says, “A contract tree remover with a chipper will either dump them for free on your driveway or for a few bucks.”
Growing from seed is as rewarding as it can be challenging. Bartel advises finding a mentor or two, and even suggests the local farmers market feature a pair or master gardeners on-site every week for advice and information. The library is a great resource as well, as is the friendly wave to your neighbour with a thriving veggie patch.