radio podcast: conquering seed-starting fear

parsley and brussels seedlingsFEAR OF STARTING FROM SEED dramatically limits the choice of plants you can grow, but many of us nevertheless afraid to try. Ken Greene, my guest this week on the public-radio show “A Way to Garden With Margaret Roach” and co-founder of Hudson Valley Seed Library seed company, encourages us to just do it, offering tips to foster success. Wonder how deep to plant, or how many hours of light to offer, or about succession sowing? Read on (or listen in).

prefer the podcast?

LISTEN ANYWHERE, ANY TIME: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday mornings about 8:30 Eastern, with a rerun Saturday mornings. It is available anytime free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or for streaming from the RobinHoodRadio.com site or on its RSS feed. The February 11, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation, and our garden show marks the start of its fourth year in March, and is now available for syndication by other public-radio stations via PRX.

my q&a with seed library’s ken greene

ken greene saving tomato seedQ. Give us the mini-version of that grow-from-seed empowerment speech I recall from the first day we met, Ken, when we were both speaking at a cooperative-extension garden event.

A. Sometimes when I’ve brought our seeds to a farmer’s market or event I hear people muttering as they pass our table, “I can’t start from seed.” At first it broke my heart a little. But then I started getting brave and asking people what they meant.

In my mind I couldn’t fathom how someone might think they can’t grow a plant from seed. To me it’s natural, that’s how plants grow! Once I began talking to people I realized it was a fear based on previous attempts to grow from seed that did not work out–particularly seeds that need to be started early indoors in short-season areas, like tomatoes and peppers.

But there are so many more seeds that can be direct sown–put in the ground at the right time and left to their own magical will to grow.

Good examples of direct-sown seeds are peas, beans, corn, lettuce, arugula, calendula, nasturtium, and Asian greens. The only plants we Northerners and those in similar zones really have to start early and transplant are solanaceous ones like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants and, for those brave souls, artichokes. There are other plants we start early and transplant just to get a head start, but could do fine direct sown–like kale, cabbage, zinnias, and chard.

I think also there’s a leap of faith involved that’s hard to make until you jump in and do it. How can something so small turn into a full-grown plant in just a few months? It’s become my passion to create the opportunity for gardeners to experience the magic of starting from seed. We need to believe in ourselves in order to believe in seeds.

Q. OK, so “yes we can” is the message. Got it! But I could use some tips, too. What are the ones that perhaps seem obvious to you, but you bet we aren’t all following?

A. Everything you need to start from seed, whether starting early indoors, under cover outside, or after your last frost date, is natural. I don’t mean it comes naturally. I’m talking about nature: light, water, warmth, and time.

As gardeners, we are often mimicking nature to get seeds to grow when and where we want them to. It’s important to pay attention to the planting info provided with the seeds, such as what we offer on our website. The tips are there to help gardeners be successful. The biggest “user error” situations we hear about that lead to “seedmergencies” are:

  1. Not enough water during germination. Seeds want to be continuously saturated. It softens up their coats, gives them good soil contact, and helps them sprout.
  2. Too cold during germination. Seeds have coats to protect them and they won’t take them off unless they feel warm.
  3. Too much water after germination. Once the seeds begin to grow (and they will!) back off on the watering. Let the soil surface dry out a bit between waterings.
  4. Not enough light when starting indoors. A simple shop light with a florescent bulb that is 2-3 inches above the tops of the plants is all you need to make sure your seedlings are getting enough light indoors. Even if you have a very sunny window, there are still not enough hours of daylight for young seedlings. Make sure they are getting more than 8 hours’ daily of light; we prefer more, like 12.
  5. Direct sowing too early (before last frost). A few seeds, like peas, can tolerate (and thrive in) the early temperature fluctuations of early spring. But most want the soil to be warmed up. Sometimes our eagerness to get planting on the first warmish day can get the best of us. Be patient and wait with most things to plant until danger of frost has passed.

Q. The number of seeds in a pack varies so widely—from crop to crop, from company to company. How do you decide how many to pack and ship to us?

pelleted carrot seedA. The number of seeds in a pack, in some cases more than 500, can sound overwhelming, especially for beginning gardeners or people with small gardens. But we think about the number of seeds in a pack in terms of the entirety of the growing season.

We’re not just thinking about one spring planting, we’re thinking about succession sowing. That is the practice of sowing a portion of the pack, harvesting, and then sowing some more (sometimes even before the first harvest, actually). With salad mixes, basil, cilantro, and other quick crops, this can mean sowing every few weeks.

Succession sowing can be weekly, monthly, or skip a whole season. When it’s cool in early spring you can get in repeat sowings and harvests of baby greens, arugula, cilantro and the like every few weeks. Container gardeners can plant in a pot, harvest, rake the soil clean, and sow again. Just remember to add a little finished compost or compost tea now and then.

We sow cucumbers and summer squash monthly so that as the older plants are dying back the new ones are starting to produce.

When summer’s heat comes in it’s actually time to start thinking about sowing for fall harvests. You can get a second round of snap peas, broccoli, kale and more in the fall and winter by sowing throughout summer.

With cool-weather-loving plants (again, like lettuce and arugula), you will sow a few times in early spring and then save a portion of the pack to sow for fall and winter harvests. For people with very small gardens, keep your leftover seeds cool, dark, and dry when storing them and use them the next year. We secretly hope that with leftover seeds you’ll organize a local seed swap and trade seeds with other gardeners in your town!

  1. Kenzie says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, listened to the podcast and read the above. So, if wanting to keep cost down, shoplights answer the light question, but are heat mats essential for the warmth? I plan to start seeds in our windowed cellar, which for the most part is unheated. I assume I have to purchase ‘grow mats’. Any suggestions here on what kind, how much to spend?

  2. Charlie says:

    I enjoyed reading the posting and listened to the poscast. My goal is to grow more of my vegetables so this is the kind of infomation that ansered most of my questions. I am about to buy seeds so you timing is great. Thank you.

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