When we are starting seeds indoors, as discussed in the previous post, we remove the plastic bag coverings at this point. To insure that the seedlings get the amount of light they need to grow sturdy plants, we set up shop lights with four-foot fluorescent bulbs and a timer. We hang the lights 4 to 6 inches above the top of the plants and set the timer for 16 hours (6 a.m. to 10 p.m.).
If we had a heating element beneath the flats to help the warmth-loving plants to germinate, now is the time we turn these off.
After that, the main requirements are to keep an eye on the seedlings, watering when they get dry (as they grow we usually start adding a little fish emulsion fertilizer to the water). When they start to look crowded, we thin the plants (1 inch apart is a good place to start or one per cell in the divided flats). I use nail scissors with tiny curved blades that can get in there between the densely packed seedlings. Sometimes we transplant the seedlings into recycled “six packs” so they’ll have room to grow. Old yogurt cups with a few holes poked in the bottom are great for tomato transplants.
The last step is to prepare the seedlings for transplanting out into the garden by hardening them off – getting them gradually used to the rigors of direct sunlight, wind and temperature variation. We often start by bringing the plants in their trays outside for an hour or so, gradually adding an hour or two a day to the time they are outdoors. Sometimes we place trays of seedlings in a cold frame or a low hoop house left over from the winter garden to shelter the seedlings – especially if we are running out of room under the indoor lights. We find we have to be particularly attentive so these plants don’t get dry and parched or expire from overheating because we forgot to vent the cold frame on a sunny day. (Note to self: must water more often!)
Timing is crucial. It is important to know when different plants can get planted outdoors. Some are hardy and don’t mind cooler nights or even light frosts (peas and spinach are among these, as well as any others that say to plant “as soon as ground can be worked in spring.”)
Other plants are tender and can’t stand cool soil or air temperature. These warm-weather crops don’t get planted outside around here until Memorial Day or even June. In a future Germinator post, we will show you ways that we stretch the season by soil warming and plant protection.
Nick sometimes wonders if it is worth the trouble of starting our own seeds indoors. It does require more work than simply buying the transplants at one of our many great local garden stores. I respond that we are saving money, so it is frugal to grow our own transplants.
But more importantly, as with so many of our “good life” practices, starting seeds is hands-on and productive, which I find very satisfying. Starting our own seeds develops skills that increase our resilience and self-reliance, and heightens our sense of security because we know how to raise some of our own food from seed to table.
In this world where we never know what the future will bring, being a Germinator is one of the best ways to preserve and defend the miraculous variety of living beings that we love.