Be A Better Gardener: Starting from seed

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By Thomas Christopher

For Capital Region Independent Media

Starting vegetable plants from seed is much cheaper than purchasing them as seedlings, but the biggest distinction lies in the variety of plant types available to the gardener.  Contributed photo

If the pandemic has brought us any good besides opportunities to work from home, it is a boom in the sale of seeds, especially vegetable seeds.

So rapidly were the seeds flying off the shelf in 2020 that I found many of my usual sources sold out when I tried to place my late winter orders. This reversal of a long-term decline in seed sales is a very good thing. I believe that having experienced the advantages of starting a garden from seed, gardeners will no longer be content with filling their plots with whatever they find as already-started seedlings at the local garden center or big box store.

This is not just a matter of economics, though starting your plants from seed is much cheaper than purchasing them as seedlings. The bigger distinction lies in the variety of plant types available to the gardener. The retailers of seedlings must focus on a limited number of best sellers. Seed catalogs, in contrast, offer an almost endless array of choices.

My favorite tomato seed source, appropriately named Tomato Growers Supply (https://tomatogrowers.com/), sells more than 380 different varieties of tomatoes alone (it also sells an intriguing selection of other seeds from peppers to eggplants and watermelons). This assortment of tomatoes may seem excessive, but it really isn’t. Aside from catering to all the different tastes, from tart or sweet, this broad selection ensures that there are tomato types suited to every possible situation from those with long, warm, and sunny growing seasons, to my own chilly, cloudy, short-seasoned New England hilltop.

In the years that I was lazy and contented myself with tomato seedlings from the nursery, I got only a meager harvest because those seedlings were chosen from varieties that thrive in more average conditions.

Likewise, my go-to source of lettuce seed, Johnny’s Selected Seeds (https://www.johnnyseeds.com/), offers not just a couple of generic industry standards, but rather a smorgasbord of differently adapted types. I can opt for cultivars that perform best in the chilly weather of spring, types that are slower to go to seed in the warmer days of summer, even lettuces that are ideal for a fall crop. And there are bibb, oakleaf, buttercrunch, romaines, and looseleafs, greens to make every kind of salad.

I also enjoy the process of starting seeds as a kick-off to my gardening year. In most cases, I start the seeds indoors, in trays of seed-starting mix lined up under fluorescent or LED lights in my basement.

Windowsills, I have found, rarely furnish enough light for healthy seedling growth, and the ambient temperature tends to range from too cold to too hot, depending on the time of day. I’ve found a mixture of “cool” and “warm” lights suspended 2 inches to 4 inches above the seedling’s tops work well. In the past, I’ve relied on 4-foot fluorescent tubes, but I am transitioning to LED fixtures because of their energy savings and because fluorescents contain toxic mercury.

I must confess to one environmentally questionable practice. I long ago gave up the use of peat in my gardening. The bogs from which it is harvested are ravaged by the process. The Canadian producers claim that sphagnum peat is a renewable resource if stripped from the bogs at a moderate rate, but I am dubious about the truth of that.

Nevertheless, I do start my seeds in peat-based, soil-less mixes designed for this purpose. Sphagnum peat is naturally antiseptic – it was used for bandaging wounds in World War I ­– and I have found that seedlings planted in a peat-based mix are much less susceptible to diseases. In particular, it seems to ward off a fungal disease of young seedlings, “damping off,” that was my nemesis when I used to use soil and compost-based mixes.

As a result, I still indulge in a bale of some “peat-lite” mix every spring, although I have switched to alternative sources of organic materials such as compost and manure to enrich my garden beds.

There are all sorts of pragmatic reasons for starting your garden from seed. For me, however, the greatest reward is not in the practicalities, but in the sense of magic that is evoked by watching the tiny shoots emerging from the trays of seed-starting mixes.

That is a miracle which, for me, never grows old. It reconnects me to the sense of wonder that originally attracted me to gardening more than 50 years ago. Planting seeds never fails to make me feel young, and hopeful, once again.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, MA. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and TheGardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature, a distinction reserved to recognize those who have left a profound and lasting impact on issues that are most important to the GCA. Tom’s companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at his website, https://www.thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.

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