by Charlene Burgi
I am amazed how the weather influences my activities. The cold weather oddly made my stacks of unread seed catalogs appear as the most desirable reading material I have on hand. What better way to spend the afternoon than with a hot cup of tea and garden catalogs.
As I leafed through the pages, I noted the germination time for starting tomatoes. It dawned on me that we are approaching the time when some of the slower germinating seeds should be planted. The danger of frost will be over in Marin in ten weeks! Rest assured, I am not suggesting that you don the long johns and wooly caps right now to sow seeds, but take inventory of your seeds saved from last year or previous years to prepare for planting indoors. Do you have all that is needed for the task?
During the year I set aside empty egg cartons and cut toilet paper rolls in half to use as seed planters. Egg shells can also be used by poking a hole in the bottom with an ice pick or nail and then cracking the egg about a third of the way down from the top. Fill the empty shell with planting medium and plant your seed inside. Crush this little planter when the seedling is ready to go into the ground.
A sweater box with two inches of pea gravel makes a great miniature greenhouse. Set seedling planters on top of the gravel and close the lid until germination occurs. Or save the container from your supermarket rotisserie chicken. These little planters can be stored until you are ready to use them for planting seeds. If you don’t have these items on hand, ask friends and family members to save them for you, or you can purchase peat pellets or other planting containers at your favorite nursery.
Use soilless planting medium to start seeds for the greatest germination success. You can buy soilless mix in bags or make up a batch of your own using dry ingredients consisting of one part perlite and one part vermiculite. Add two parts peat moss or coir and two parts well-rotted compost or vermicompost and mix all ingredients together in a bin. Moisten only as much mixture as you need to fill the seed planters. This mix will provide good drainage and air space while holding moisture—all vital components for successful seed germination. Once the seeds germinate, you will need to use a mild solution of compost tea for added nutrients.
If you saved your seeds from last year’s crop or have old seed from the past, you can check to see if they are viable by placing a dozen seeds between two damp paper towels. Place the paper towels in a clear plastic bag and leave the contents near a sunny window. Check the seeds on a daily basis to see if they have sprouted. Do not allow the towels to dry out. Within a few weeks, you should see the seed casing open revealing tiny sprouts. Only use the seeds from packets that get good germination results! Oh, don’t forget to label the towels with a popsicle stick or other labeling method that can withstand the moisture.
Before planting, be certain to read the instructions on the back of each packet, as each type of seed may ask for specific treatment prior to planting. For example, some seeds need stratification—exposure to the cold—before they will germinate. Other seeds with hard casings require scarification—nicking the casing to allow moisture to enter. Other types of seeds may require heat. All but the tiniest seeds will germinate faster if you soak them overnight in warm water. If you soak, be ready to plant in the morning or the seeds could rot!
Heat and light are imperative after the seeds are firmly tucked into their little planters. Some people use bottom heat for germination and grow lights. In the past, I have placed a clear plastic bag over my seeds and set them in a sunny window to create a mini greenhouse. If you choose this method, please check regularly to see if the seeds have germinated or your tiny seedlings will bake. Once the seeds sprout, open the bag to allow air to circulate. If the window area is too warm, you might need to move the seedlings to an area with good indirect light.
Two weeks before the danger of frost is over, you will want to “harden the seedlings off.” This prepares them for cooler temperatures, wind and sun. Place them into cold frames or an unheated greenhouse before transplanting them outdoors. You can make simple cold frames by creating a tent of clear plastic secured at the ground. For more elaborate plans check this website.
Have fun with this project. Get the children or grandchildren involved. The “dirt” they get under their nails now will last a lifetime of gardening joy in the future.
February Rainwater Harvesting Workshops: Early Bird Special Discounts
MMWD is partnering with the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (ARCSA) and The Urban Farmer Store to offer a full series of rainwater harvesting workshops next month. If you are a home gardener who has been wanting to learn more about rainwater harvesting, or a landscape professional interested in applying for ARCSA’s Accredited Professional (AP) or Certified Professional (CP) designation, this opportunity is for you. See the links below for more information, and be sure to register soon to take advantage of special early bird discounts!
February 18: Introduction to Rainwater Harvesting (100 level) – FREE for MMWD customers
February 20-21: ARCSA Accreditation Course (200 level) – Register by February 1 for early bird rate
February 22-23: ARCSA Design & Construction Workshop (300 level) – Register by February 1 for early bird rate