Last Sunday it snowed all day; yesterday was our first sixty-degree day of the year. Spring must be on its way! Which is why I spent the evening kneeling on the floor in the living room, planting seeds in tiny pots.
Starting a kitchen garden from seed is easier than most people realize. Sure, you can buy your veggies, herbs, and fruits at the local garden center (by which I mean a nursery or nearby farm–preferably organic–so you’ll know where they came from and won’t experience the problems with viruses, disease, and transplant shock you can get buying from mass-produced seedlings grown far away and shipped long distances). But why miss out on the fun of growing the tasty and beautiful varieties not usually available commercially and of seeing your baby plants sprout and grow–and the pleasure of sharing seedlings with your friends and neighbors? (Not to mention saving money.)
I love sprouting my own. I start with two (or three) seedling flats, the plastic trays with small pots in the photo above. (I get mine from Gardener’s Supply, because I like the design and they last–as long as the little pots don’t wander off, as in the tray with four missing pots above.) In this case, I’m planting tomatoes, basil, and oriental eggplants, all of which need a head-start in my cold-desert climate at 7,000 feet in south-central Colorado.
The first thing to do is decide how many varieties you want to grow, and how many plants you need of each. You’ll need a pot for each starter plant, so the number of pots per variety depends on how many flats you’re planting. This year I used two trays, each of which holds 40 seedling pots (except that one is missing four, so that makes 36.) One whole tray is dedicated to tomatoes. I’m growing eight varieties, all from my favorite kitchen-garden seed supplier, Rene’s Garden Seeds: yellow pear & red pear (tiny, pear-shaped tomatoes that come early and are best eaten fresh–yellow pear are sweeter, but the combo of colors looks great in salads and pastas), persimmon (huge, orange tomatoes that explode with sweet, citrusy flavor), costoluto (beautifully ribbed red tomatoes with an intense flavor), black krim (a beefsteak heirloom type for northern climates with a gorgeous green-black blush), Chianti rose (rosy flesh and soooo sweet), Pompeii roma (a great paste and cooking tomato, and super bush (a productive bush-type for containers). I’ll use one row of pots for each.
In the photo above, I’ve got the seed packets laid out by the rows of pots where I’ll plant them, and I’m filling the pots with an organic germinating soil mix from Gardener’s Supply. I’ve had great success with this mix–high germination rates, great root development, healthy, big seedlings and it’s got all the nutrients they need from organic compost, so I don’t have to fertilize.
The other flat, the one with only 36 pots, will hold three varieties of basil (Italian pesto, Italian cameo, and Mrs. Burns’ lemon) and three varieties of oriental eggplant (magenta, skinny “farmer’s long,” white “Asian bride,” and small, globe-shaped “little fingers”). All are also from Rene’s Garden Seeds. Rene Shepherd is one of my gardening heroes: she selects and grows heirloom and new varieties specifically for home gardeners–her choices are easy to grow, delicious and beautiful. How could you go wrong?
Once the rows of pots are filled and the seeds planted (following the packet directions because seeds are picky and I want them to germinate and grow), it’s time to water, first by lifting up the pots and pouring lukewarm water on the wicking mats held in the tray underneath. Those mats help keep the soil in the small pots from drying out, and promote healthy root growth downward, toward the source of water, which makes the plants more likely to transplant successfully into the garden.
Next the newly planted soil gets a gentle wetting too–note that I’ve put the “rose” back on my watering can to change the flow from “pour” to “sprinkle” so as not to wash out the tiny seeds.
Then my newly planted seedling farm goes to its home for the next month and some, on the floor next to the south-facing sliding glass door in our bedroom. Tomato seeds sprout most quickly if they have gentle heat underneath, so the tomato flat will sit on a heat mat. (When the tomatoes are big enough to transplant into larger pots, the basil-eggplant flat will get its turn on the heat mat too.)
There’s the farm, all snuggled in next to the insulating blind that covers the sliding glass door at night. I’ll open the blind in the morning, and give my embryonic tomato, basil, and eggplants their first blast of Colorado sun. In a week or so, that dose of southerly sun will have them sprouting, and before long, I’ll have a green and fragrant jungle ready to transplant into larger pots.
Bring on spring!
Two personal notes: here’s a great photo of the “Terraphilia” case Richard and I installed in Colorado Art Ranch’s “33 Ideas” Show at Denver International Airport last week. The show is in the walkway between the main terminal and Concourse A, and it’s up until mid-June. It’s an exciting collection of work and words, and very much worth a visit. (That’s his sculptural fire pit in the photo below–it’s a stunning piece!)
As for the world of brain cancer, Richard has been feeling really good. Tomorrow I’m taking a break from writing a feature article on an organic fruit orchard on Colorado’s West Slope for Zone 4 Magazine, and he and I are headed over the mountains to the San Luis Valley for a soak in some hot springs, and then a field trip to look for the valley’s wintering population of 20,000 or so sandhill cranes. That’s our treat before Friday, when he starts his next cycle of chemotherapy.
Tonight, the new moon hangs high in the western sky, silver and thin as a porcelain tea bowl (that’s the new moon in the photo below, seen through the utility wires across the street). I’m on the couch, Richard is next to me reading, the seeds are sleeping in the moist and fragrant soil of their bedroom farm, and spring is on its way. All seems possible.