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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Seeds of change

Now is the time for what Steve calls the “hot stove league.” In baseball, that’s sharing happy visions of your team’s coming season. In gardening, it’s paging through seed catalogs full of beautiful pictures of vegetables and flowers. The photographers and graphic designers for these alluring publications can make even a humble cabbage or carrot look like a must-buy.

    This year I’m planning a new direction for seed buying. I’m going organic. I’d never thought it was important to start with organically produced seeds. I was not going to apply pesticides to my seedlings, so why did it matter? 

     Now I’m aware that commercial seeds may be treated with neonicotinoid pesticides that could be stored in plant tissues and kill pollinators all summer long. That’s motivated me to put aside my favorite catalog purveyors in favor of seed houses that use organic methods.

For the pollinators' sake I'll plant organic seeds

    For my insectary garden, I’m going to start cosmos, celosia, monkey flower, sunflowers, and black-eyed susans from seed. For cutting, I’ll add zinnias. For growing in containers, I usually buy coleus, torenia, browallia, impatiens, and other long-blooming annuals that catch my fancy. I’m less familiar with starting these at home, but if I begin early and give the seedlings reliable attention, I’m hopeful that I can do it.

Monkey plant (Mimulus guttatus) offers bees early browsing

     This year I’ll also have time for succession planting. That’s planting new rounds of favorite vegetables every couple of weeks, avoiding the usual boom and bust pattern of my vegetable garden. By frequently planting very short rows of lettuce, sugar snap peas, and green beans, I hope to enjoy these vegetables over longer periods and avoid wasting produce that’s too plentiful for our household of two to eat. 

Can I spread out my basil crop by planting a little at a time?

     After all, what’s sustainable about ordering seeds that are shipped from afar, starting them under lights, and watering them with purified drinking water, only to leave them un-harvested and then throw them on the compost pile? I’m sorry to say that’s been my pattern in past years.

    To get a jump on the growing season, I’ll plant seeds indoors using Organic Mechanics peat-free seed-starting mix or my own non-peat potting blend, both containing coir (coconut fiber). I mix four parts potting mix with one part warm water and fill the cells of seedling six-packs I’ve saved from last year’s purchases. 

Waste not, want not--reusing six-packs from last year

I poke a hole in the mix with a pencil and plant three seeds in each cell. The labeled packs fit into trays filled with capillary matting—that’s spongy synthetic material that holds water to keep the potting mix moist from below.

     I wrap the trays in clear plastic (old dry-cleaning bags) and set them under grow lights.

African violets under the grow lights

     Until they germinate, the most desirable seeds may get bottom heat from a thermostatically controlled mat that fits in the bottom of the tray. 

Capillary matting lies on top of the heating mat

This gives them their start. Most of the seeds do germinate, especially if they’re new, not saved from previous years. Then it’s up to me to help the little plants grow bigger until planting time.

Home-grown cucumbers are worth the effort

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