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Eclecticisms: Gardening Part 1: Starting Seedlings

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gardening Part 1: Starting Seedlings

Me, helping start the tomato plants.
My parents have always been big on gardening, even before I was born. I grew up eating homegrown vegetables and a couple of my favorite childhood activities in the summer were to find the plumpest sugar snap peas on the vine and gobble them down, and eat bright red cherry tomatoes, fresh off the plant. One year, I ate so many cucumbers over a couple of months that I started to get some weird reaction where my mouth would get really itchy. It took me years to get over it, but it's gone now (thankfully!).

Over the past couple of years, my black thumb has slowly begun to turn green. (An army green, really. I'm not quite there yet.) To try and learn more about the subject, I asked my Mom if I could help her start her seedlings this year. I knew gardening wasn't easy, but man. Every spring I feel SO overwhelmed by all I don't know (and talk incessantly about what I DO know, when showing off my garden to a friend or neighbor), and planting the seedlings was an early reminder of that.

What did I learn? I'm glad you asked!


Let me preface this by saying that I barely did anything you will see here. My Mom has a ton of seeds started from the weekend before (I missed out because I was sick!) and when I went over there she had me plant some aster, bachelor buttons and amaranthus in pots she'd already prepared. Part of what I often find so confusing in gardening is that most plants have more than one name, with several pronounciations. (Who's to say what the right ones are sometimes...)

Barney is her best helper.

Some tips I learned about starting seeds:

1) Use moist soil in the pots, not dry. If you use dry soil, it won't absorb the water well when it comes time to water your newly planted seeds.

2) Mix perlite in with your soil. Perlite is a soil additive that you often see in potted plants. It looks like small white balls, almost similar to styrofoam, and I used to think it was a type of fertilizer. Not the case. Perlite, an amorphous volcanic glass, helps to aerate the soil by keeping it loose, while leaving a great area for the plants to root. Compact soil isn't easy for many plants to root in.

3) Don't be disappointed when seeds don't grow. Different seeds have different likelihoods of growing, and there are tons of factors that will lessen the chances you'll end up with a plant. These variables include lighting, temperature, soil quality and seed quality. Patience is an absolute must, and after growing up/living around gardeners, I know there is never a point where you've learned the best way to do it all.

4) Use a fan on your seedlings. A soft breeze from a fan will help to toughen up your plants, namely their stems. After being indoors without a breeze, they'll otherwise be quite delicate and often won't adapt well to outdoor conditions. I looked it up and apparently there's a term for this, Thigmomorphogenesis. (Just don't ask me how to pronounce it!)

5) Light is key! I've read that having the lights on a timer is important, as your plants will experience day and night once outdoors. You don't want the lights to turn off too early though, since artifical light is weaker than sunlight. There are tons of different grow bulbs, and lots of great sites with info on them you can check out. I am most definitely not the person to educate you on this. Unless you want your plants to die, of course. In that case, I have lots of tips!

These seeds were pretty big, but some were absolutely tiny!

6) Read the packets carefully. I assumed all seeds were pretty much the same. Put them in some soil, water them, get them light, and voila! Plants. If only it were that easy. Everything we planted called for very, very little soil covering the seed. Still, you don't want the seed exposed either. Too many seeds will crowd a pot but not enough seeds in a pot and you're wasting some time, since they won't all germinate.

7) When you water, sprinkle, and be very gentle. You don't want to wash your seeds up out of the the soil you just planted them in. My Mom mixes "Living Soil" into her water, which is earthworm castings in tea bags that will fertilize the seeds and help them to grow.

8) Label the plants you grow, so  you know what everything is when it's ready to be transferred outside. Be mindful of how much sunlight (and what kind of sunlight) each plant needs, so you put them in places where they will flourish.

Barney is the boss.

There's SO much more to learn! I'm really looking forward to the summer and tracking the progress of my garden. We'll have lots of vegetables, herbs and flowers, along with my favorite, sunflowers!

A sunflower from next to my house, 2009.

Do you have any good gardening tips? Please, share!
Happy gardening!

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