Every spring for the last three years I've started my own vegetable and herb seeds indoors. This year, I spent about half of the last day of March mixing growing media, prepping flats, and planting seeds. Two flats of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and lettuce are now growing in my cold basement under lights. Eight flats of tomatoes, eggplant, basil, peppers, and other heat-loving plants are in a mini-greenhouse that sits in front of my eastern-facing sliding glass doors in the kitchen.
In about one week I’m going to plant two more flats of seeds: pumpkins and sunflowers. I start these large, fast-growing plants indoors, even though the package directions say to sow them outside after the last frost. Why? I’ve heard slightly older sunflower seedlings, for example, don't taste as good to rabbits when they are a little less tender. By starting them indoors, away from hungry herbivores, and then transplanting them after the last frost, the critters tend to leave them alone.
The seed starter mix I use is based on the following recipe, inspired by Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl:
Combine equal parts of:
- peat moss OR shredded coconut fiber (I alternated between the two – both retain moisture; peat moss provides nutrition)
- vermiculite (ground up mica; expands and holds moisture)
I filled a five-gallon bucket with this recipe; at the end I threw in about a quart of worm compost. According to You Grow Girl, seeds don't need fertilizer until they've sprouted their second set of leaves (the first set of "true leaves"). A peat-vermiculite-perlite mix doesn't contain much nutrition for plants; it is ideal for seed starting because it is light and friable, but once the energy contained in the seeds is used up by the sprouting process, plant nutrients will need to be added by way of fertilizer and/or soil amendment. Hence the addition of worm compost: adding compost gives seedlings a little food in case they need it before I get around to adding extra nutrition.
My 10-year-old daughter and I filled paper-based egg cartons I've saved over the last year with our homemade seed starter mix. We planted seeds in each carton and then placed the cartons in plastic flats.
I water by filling the bottom of the flats and letting the cardboard egg cartons soak up the liquid. This is preferable to watering from the top, which can be disruptive to the plants.
Seedlings are a joy, but they require work. Each morning I check on them – I make sure they are constantly moist and turn them toward the light if they are leaning too much. I keep a look out for mold in the greenhouse, which can grow if it becomes too humid inside. I thin out weaker plants. This allows selected seedlings to grow stronger, as they won’t have to compete as much for soil nutrition. (One tip I picked up somewhere along the way is to thin seedlings with scissors. Cutting off unwanted seedlings at the base of their stems, instead of pulling them up by the roots, can be less disruptive to the roots of the seedlings you want to keep).
Soon the seedlings will be far too large for the little egg-shaped pots in which they are currently stretching out their roots. So around the time I plant my pumpkin and sunflower seeds I will also transplant my other seedlings into larger pots – anything from reused 4” pots from old plant purchases to repurposed plastic food containers with drainage holes poked in the bottom. My biggest problem at transplant time will be figuring out how to make room for the bigger pots. Space in the mini-greenhouse is limited, so I will have to choose the strongest seedlings and discard the rest. It is so hard for me, though, to destroy viable seedlings, so I typically end up saving way more of them than I should. I squeeze extras into a second greenhouse I put up in my dining room window.
In early May it will be time to harden off my tender babies: when the danger of frost has passed, I will give my seedlings time to adjust to the wind and sun outdoors by placing them in a shady spot for a few hours each day. Then I’ll bring them in at night. This will continue for a few days, until they are strong enough to be planted outdoors.
Why do gardeners go to all this trouble to keep these tender baby plants alive indoors? Part of it is frugality: a packet of seeds costs only a couple bucks; from one seed packet you can conceivably end up with dozens of plants that would be far more expensive if purchased as seedlings. But there’s much more to this process than saving money. After all, time is money, isn’t it? Nurturing seedlings does require an investment of time.
So it’s really not just about saving money – not for me, anyway. What started as an exercise in frugality has become a worthy spiritual endeavor. As seeds grow, I am able to observe and participate in the mystery of life. I nurture and serve these tiny, vulnerable creatures; they will eventually come to serve and sustain me when I harvest and consume their fruits. In their death they will bring forth new life when the remnants of their fruits are composted and used as food for a new generation of plants.
This process is precious and sacred, and I enjoy every second of it.