Act: Inspiration

Low-Waste, Inexpensive Seed Starting

March 17, 2020

Ed. note: For those you lucky enough to have access to home gardens or outside spaces, one of the most resilient things you can do from home is grow your own food. Even growing a few herbs in a window box or balcony is a start.

This is the most exciting time of year. The air is warming, the frogs are calling and the goats’ bellies are swelling with soon-to-be newborn kids. My goose is accumulating a huge pile of eggs. Every time I go in their stall, the gander catches me by the jeans and wallops me in the legs with his painfully hard wings, for the sin of trying to feed him or let him out to pasture. He’s doing his guarding job very well.

The most exciting thing among those many exciting things is the garden that might soon be. The garden in my mind is perfect, overflowing with beautiful fruits, and not at all covered in brown marmorated stink bug or Mexican bean beetle. It has to be perfect, or I’m not sure I would have the gumption to dive in once again, beginning the sweaty work that will bring us the juicy tomatoes, spicy peppers and crisp pickles that will feed us into next winter. Learning to grow ourselves a more planet-friendly diet and love eating what we can grow is deeply satisfying, worthwhile work to be sure. But very sweaty.

Because we live in North Carolina where the growing season is long, I start our transplants in two batches: the first around the end of January, and the second around the beginning of March. If you live in the US, you have a local Cooperative Extension Service that can provide a planting calendar specific to your area with a range of dates for each vegetable. Many of these are available online.

My January seeds include the cool-weather crops that will suffer badly as soon as it gets hot: lettuce, spinach and chard, parsley and cilantro, dill and all the cabbage relatives from broccoli to arugula. They’ll go into the ground (along with direct-planted seeds like carrot, beet, pea, turnip and radish) in the middle of March and give us a harvest as early as April. Then they’ll be ripped out in favor of hot weather varieties by June.

Onion seeds are also started at this time or preferably even earlier, because they take so long to get to transplant-ready size, and because they need time to grow as big as they can before the daylight tells them to start forming bulbs. The bigger the plant grows before that time, the bigger the bulb. Honestly, I’m about ready to give up on seed onions, because they take so long and end up so small.

I’ve had somewhat better success with onion sets (which are just tiny onions that you plant to grow bigger) but I want a completely on-farm onion solution, not one I have to buy from the feed store every year. A self-perpetuating onion would be ideal. I trialed Egyptian walking onion last year, and found them delicious but small and uncompetitive. This can be said about all onions. I think I’ll try potato onions next.

The seeds I plant inside in March are destined to reach the garden May 15th, when I’ll also start direct-planting the first rows of pumpkin, squash, corn, melon, cucumber and our favorite green beans that are actually cowpeas. The May 15th transplants include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, Roselle hibiscus for tea and its relative, okra. Some of these hot-weather crops did really well last year even though we had a pretty serious drought, and I’ll be happy to see them again.

I’m also always trialing new perennial vegetables. Last year’s success was sorrel, which is even now peeking out from under straw and a decaying wooden pallet, where it seems to have survived the winter chicken onslaught. Sorrel is great because along with asparagus it’s harvested very early in spring, but it also provides well in the fall garden. This year I’m really hoping lovage will take, since I haven’t had success growing celery. Lovage is a semi-wild perennial celery relative that may not do as well slathered in goat cheese for a crisp snack, but should add a fine celery note to falafel, Cajun dirty rice, winter soups and gumbos.

Starting our seeds myself takes more planning than just picking up transplants at a greenhouse, but it has a lot of advantages. First of all, it’s much, much cheaper. I seldom spend more than about $30 a year on seeds, and that number is falling over time as I learn to save more varieties myself.

Secondly, the choice of varieties is a thousand-fold higher. The tomatoes at the greenhouse are mostly Big Boys or similar. They’re red and large, which is fine if that’s what you’re into, but if I hadn’t started them from seed myself, I would never have had the pleasure of a pink, sweet, heat-tolerant Arkansas Traveler or a tiny yellow Blonde Girl. Most of the greenhouse transplants are hybrids, too, so you can’t save seed from them because the offspring won’t be similar to the parent. If you choose open-pollinated varieties, one packet of seed can potentially contain infinite years’ worth of harvests.

seed starting materialsSeed starting materials.

From the picture you can see the approximate ratio of store-bought to scrap-paper seed envelopes, and judge for yourself what percentage of my varieties I’m currently managing to save myself. Not all of them, but some. The best resource I’ve found for all the picky little details of each species is a book called Seed to Seed.

Some vegetables are easy because you have to scoop out the mature seeds just to eat the thing, such as pumpkins and red peppers. Tomatoes are a little harder. I put the jelly blob of seeds in a little dish with some homemade kombucha for a day. The lactobacillus in the kombucha consumes the jelly, and the seeds can then be dried. The biennials such as beet, onion, carrot and turnip form their storage root in order to survive the winter, and set seeds in the spring. They’re more complicated to save seed from, and I’m not there yet.

One thing to note is that it’s easy to, shall we say, over-acquire seeds. I’ve seen collections that must have cost hundreds of dollars, and cannot be contained by any regular-sized container. This makes no sense because a seed is a living thing. If it’s not planted within its own private time frame it will exhaust its reserves and die, and then no plant can arise from it no matter how lovingly it’s treated. Onions and mint are especially short-lived. Plant as much as you can this year and toss the rest of the packet, because it’ll be almost entirely dead by next year.

That said, many other varieties do last more than one year, and some can last up to eight with a significant germination percentage. If you bought tomato seeds last year they’re still probably good enough this year, so you don’t need a new packet. Just put two or four seeds in each pot. If you want to know for sure they’re going to grow, do a germination test a couple weeks before you want to plant. Count out ten seeds, put them in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag or pyrex with a lid, and count how many sprout. If only half of them do, then plant twice as many seeds as you were planning to.

Before I make my seed order in October, I go through my box and see what I need, throw out packets that are several years old, and remind myself that I’m really not happy in the end when I plant 15 varieties of peppers. Four or so old favorites plus maybe one experiment is the recipe for success. Then I check in with my gardening friends so we can make one big seed order together, splitting any packets that more than one person wants to plant. This really keeps the seed bill down, and it’s much more fun than going it alone.

seedlings on a window sill

I can tell from the growth rate and the length of my seedlings’ stems that they find it a little cool and a little dark on my window sill. No matter. When I transplant them, I’ll set them a little deeper to bury some of that long stem.

How about equipment? If you’re still pining for your future personal greenhouse like I am, then your transplants are sitting on a windowsill where you need a good tray to contain the water. You can get black plastic ones that will break in one season and contribute to the ocean plastic problem, but I suggest paying a little more for ones which will last longer. Personally I don’t mind buying a little plastic, if it does the job better than other materials and it has a very long, useful life.

But what to put the seeds themselves in? Some varieties can be seeded right into a tray of soil, but I like to let my plants get good and robust before transplanting, by which time the roots are too tangled to be separated without major damage. I have worked at several farms that utilized a soil blocker. It compresses soil into chunks that stick together pretty well on their own. I don’t have one because the soil has to be a pretty precise texture, and “precise” isn’t a word I can truthfully use to describe things that happen around here. Slap-dash is more accurate, and that just doesn’t cut it for the soil blocker, in my experience. I’m unwilling to buy a big piece of metal that may not work for me.

Another option is newspaper pots. You tear your paper into strips, roll it around a little specially-carved wooden piece, and crush the bottom so it holds a cylindrical shape when you fill it with soil. This works surprisingly well. I made my own paper pot maker, but misplaced it during one of our many moves. It has the advantages of creating no trash, using a waste product (newspaper) and also causing less root damage during transplant, because you can just stick the whole thing in the ground and the roots will find their way through. The drawbacks include that not as many pots fit in a tray as if you were using plastic six-packs, and it takes time to make the pots. Plus, if you procrastinate on planting, they can decay in the tray and fall apart.

Right now, I’m using a combination of flimsy deteriorating six-packs, a bunch of 2-inch pots I saved when we planted hedge trees and a big 50-cell tray that was cast-off from my husband’s university. Six-packs can be reused for a surprisingly long time before they finally split, if you follow a few simple guidelines. Be gentle with them when filling, seeding and transplanting. Don’t leave them out in the sun a moment longer than necessary. I don’t wash mine, but I’ve worked at several farms that do, and the best method is to make up a tub of diluted bleach and gently swish the empty packs around in it. Don’t scrub! You’re not trying to make it clean enough to eat out of, just to kill any fungal diseases.

For tags, I admit that for years I went without. I can discern between seedlings to plant family at the cotyledon stage, and I can tell what species they are as soon as they make true leaves. This doesn’t help distinguish between very similar varieties, though, and it always left me scratching my head when something completely failed to come up. Now, I take a little cottage cheese container or similar and cut in into strips for tags. We don’t really buy them but I always end up with a few anyway, and they’re #5 plastic which isn’t actually recycled in the real world. Downcycling is better than nothing.

I’m officially done buying potting soil. Peat is often mined unsustainably, and even potting compost is made using big gas-guzzling equipment, bagged in plastic and shipped to stores. Like the onions, I want to bring the seed-starting material on-property (or at least closer), but whatever I use must be relatively weed-free and supportive of growing roots.

I’m having pretty good success with this mixture: about one part ancient manure out of the barn (which also forms an important component of our entirely local, entirely free garden fertilization scheme), one part fresher goat bedding that has been sitting out in the weather for a bit, and one part castings out of the long-neglected worm bin. There are a few weeds but not too many, and I’m having fewer fungal issues than usual. In the future, I’m looking forward to trialing fresh urine applied over months to a big bin of planer shavings from our local sawmill. The resulting compost will definitely be weed-free, and I suspect the texture will be perfect for seedlings.

All together, these techniques add up to an effective, inexpensive, low-impact garden-starting regime. There’s room for improvement, of course, which just keeps my life from getting boring. If you garden, do you start your seeds? What equipment and techniques work best for you? Most importantly, what’s your favorite variety of pepper?? Tell us in the comments below.

Kara Stiff

Kara Stiff

I have a BS in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of Maine, and I worked on sustainability issues in Native Alaskan communities through Cooperative Extension before moving to North Carolina. My goal with my writing and in my life is to inspire others to think critically about their choices in order to build communities that are happier, healthier and gentler on the planet.

Tags: building personal resilience, carbon gardening