HANDS ON GARDENER: Challenges…

by Miriam Hansen

confess. I ordered lisianthus seed — the flowering biennial that takes five to six months from germination to flower, requires temperatures of  70 to 75 degrees day and night and 16 hours half an inch from a bank of grow lights to germinate.

Why? Because that’s what gardeners do. We love a challenge! I lay the lisianthus seeds — they resemble microscopic dust — on the surface of some moist Fort Light starter mix and watered them in very gently. I slipped the flat into a plastic bag and placed it half-inch below grow lights for two weeks. And guess what? They germinated! So far I have a dozen microscopic seedlings that you really have to scrutinize to see. And it is ridiculously thrilling!

This is the great thing about starting seeds indoors. Let’s face it, the cold weather has been challenging. It is absolute therapy to peer at these teeny tiny seedlings and imagine them as robust foot-high plants covered with lush rose-like blooms.

If you start your own onions, celery and celeriac, mid-February is the time to do so. Like parsley, celery will germinate more quickly and evenly if you pre-soak the seed. I usually just pour some seed in a small container, cover them with water and let the water evaporate. This takes a couple of days. Then instead of waiting three weeks for them to germinate, it will take about five to seven days!

Since seed germination for the onion family is best with new seed, and I hate throwing seeds away, it is great to have Pinetree Garden Seeds as a place to buy inexpensive packages. Each packet has about 150 seeds which is perfect for a home gardener. I probably wouldn’t buy carrot seed from them because I grow a lot of carrots and carrot seed has a decent germination rate for three to four years anyway.

A quick tip about carrots. I always plant the variety Sugar Snax for my fall overwintering crop.

Photo by David Hansen

Photo by David Hansen

Look to the right for a photo of what you can expect with these sweet tender carrots. I will readily admit that it is my husband who digs the carrots in winter but I have done so as well and on a warmish day it is actually quite fun to shovel off the snow, peel back the tarp and dig these 15-inch babies. He keeps exclaiming at their sweetness, though for the first time in about 35 years we have noticed a bit of freezing at the tips. I guess we’ll have to make our leaf tarp thicker next year.

A fellow gardener mentioned that she starts her peppers in February. I was quite astonished but realized that there is no set timetable. I have found that starting peppers at the end of March works best for me. That gives me eight weeks from germination to transplanting outside.  This year I’m going to grow some of the peppers in the greenhouse. For those, I’ll start at the end of February since they can go out about a month earlier than the outdoor peppers.

The deadly nightshade family — peppers, tomatoes, okra and eggplant — all germinate best at about 80 to 90 degrees. A couple of years ago I finally decided to invest in a propagation heating mat. I just place the flat directly on the mat until most of the seeds have germinated. Prior to buying the mat I used to put heat loving seeds in the warmest part of the house, usually on a high kitchen shelf.  That works but the mat works even better. You can buy a small one for about $25. Well worth the investment.

For the most part I am frugal when it comes to starting seeds. I use recycled containers as starting flats, and have gone back to the 50 pound bale of Pro-Mix from Agway or Guy’s as a starting medium. Fort Light is an excellent starter mix but too expensive with the number of seedlings I grow. If you are starting a very small number of seedlings, a small bag of Fort Light might be the way to go.

I use whatever is to hand when I make my furrows for planting; a pencil, the back of a fork or if nothing else is available, my finger works fine. The important thing when you’re planting is to plant neither too deep nor too shallow and to know whether that seed requires light for germination. Lettuce seed, though large enough to cover, does require light so always cover them very sparingly, the way you’d cover a sleeping child on a warm night.  Sometimes seed packets will advise you to bottom water which means placing the flat in a larger tray of water and allowing the water to wick up from below rather than watering from above. I confess. I never follow this directive but I do make sure to water VERY gently, starting along the sides and avoiding getting any water directly on the seedlings.

Seeds and seedlings can be a bit like colicky babies. Challenging but well worth the effort!

Happy Gardening!

Miriam and her husband, David, live in East Montpelier, where they have been growing most of their own vegetables, berries and meat on less than a quarter of an acre. Miriam also works as a landscaper in the gardening season and has ever expanding perennial beds. Your questions and comments are welcome. You can reach Miriam at freshair460@gmail.com.