An Idiot-Proof Guide To Seed-Starting


Depending on the final outcome, I might want to title this post “An Idiot Starts Seeds”, but so far so good.

We decided last fall we were interested in starting our own seeds indoors. We had been very happy with the wide variety of seedlings we could get at local farmers’ markets, almost always unusual heirloom varieties as well. But we did feel like we were losing a few weeks in the spring for those crops we might otherwise have direct sown, not to mention the midsummer plantings we never seemed to make room for but missed by the fall. If we learned to start seeds indoors, our precious community plot space would be maximized.

One of our fellow gardeners made starting out incredibly easy, selling us her old grow light box, a 72 cell greenhouse kit and replacement bulbs for less than the price of two seedlings. The greenhouse kit came with little peat plugs – an enormous space saver when first sprouting seedlings. So much so, in fact, that we planted a dozen or so cabbage and broccoli seeds and found we had no room for the growing plants. Here’s the tray full of reconstituted peat pellets:


… and tiny pepper plants sprouting:


I went through our seed packets and pulled anything I could plant by mid May and popped them in. Germination was incredibly fast for all but the peppers, but I put the tray under the lights anyway and they came along several days later. And just two weeks later we had plants big enough to begin repotting in nifty little newspaper pots I learned to make on YouTube:


The transplanting was easy, and did away with the slight legginess the tomatoes had acquired since they germinated and started growing so quickly I hadn’t yet put them under the grow lights. I keep them on overnight for 12-14 hours, and cover the entire table during the day to allow the plants to rest.

And for those of you for whom space is an issue – the entire light box sits perfectly in our bathtub, which has the added benefit of containing anything messy or wet and keeping out the curious cats. Next up: fertilizing.


Our Very Own Dried Beans

IMG_9338We took a photo just like this a year ago. Those beans were from Savoie Organic Farm. These came from our garden, dried right on the vine. Pole beans are delicious fresh, but my favorite thing about the varieties we planted was that if we missed the window when the beans were slim and tender we could simply wait and harvest them as dried beans. Hence the sexist but hilarious name of one variety: Lazy Housewife.

Garden & Farm Visits · Gardening

Some Lessons from a Beach Garden

Last week we visited Beach Plum Farm, which in addition to operating a farm stand also supplies several restaurants in Cape May with fresh produce, eggs and pork. We’ve toured the fields before, but new this year was a large section of raised beds behind the farmstand with all manner of vegetables growing. The beds were beautiful, but by no means ornamental and already producing a serious amount of vegetables given their size.

We were excited to see tomatoes tied between two stakes with taut twine, as we learned to do years ago at Greensgrow Farm. The system works beautifully in small plots if you have the time to devote to keeping up with the growth.

These zucchini plants amazed us – when crowded as they are, the leaves just grow upward instead of spreading out.

We took note of the variety of corn growing here. These are much smaller plants than those we grew last year but with lots of ears already well formed.


In Defense of Flowers

You might wonder why flowers would ever need defending. When we first started eating locally and growing some of our own food in our community garden plot, we considered flowers a silly diversion. Lovely to look at in the neighbor’s plot or at the farmstand, but not at all what we were after. I’m glad to say we’ve come around. It started with the bouquets from Longview Flowers at the Headhouse Farmers’ Market – so much more beautiful than anything I’d seen at a traditional florist, and entirely local. Inspired to grow some ourselves, we planted a small peony bush in the corner of our plot that reliably rewards us with dozens of puffy pink blooms every year. Since then we’ve tucked in tulip and daffodil bulbs, grown chamomile to dry for tea, used marigolds to deter bugs and watched calendula thrive almost anywhere we scattered seeds and last long into fall. There’s no better evidence that growing flowers helps pollinators than watching bees buzz happily among your flowers. And in this time of year when we’ve planted favas and spinach a month ago that are still only an inch high, I can visit the garden….
… and pick a daffodil.

Beer, Wine, and Booze · Gardening · Travel

Drink Up In The Garden

We’ve talked before about how seeking out local food on vacation has enriched our travel experiences, and a recent trip to London was no exception. We attended the Midnight Apothecary, hosted every Saturday night in the beautiful rooftop herb garden of the Brunel Museum in southeast London. Just across the street from the Thames, the Brunel Museum sits atop the very first tunnel under the river. We preferred to stay above ground, and had delicious cocktails made from herbs grown right in the garden.
The beer served was Hiver,, brewed with honey from urban London apiaries.


A Garlic Harvest


Last October, we popped a couple of bulbs’ worth of garlic cloves in the ground pointy side up and about 6 inches apart. Two weeks ago, we pulled about 15 beautiful heads of garlic out of the ground. There really was nothing else to it, save cutting the garlic scapes (long, sometimes curly stems with tiny buds on the end which appear in late spring) to help the plants concentrate on bulb growth. We waited for the leaves to start to brown – and a little push from our neighboring gardener – to pull them. As you can see above, most had developed the papery skin necessary for curing. Don’t let the sound of the word curing scare you off, as with garlic this simply means hanging them in a well ventilated pantry or shaded spot for a few months, at which point they should be usable for several more. We did have to cut most of our leaves away due to our cats’ obsession with anything they can chew on, but ideally leaving the leaves and much of the roots on aids drying. The garlic is good for immediate use as well, which means you can easily set yourself up with your entire year’s garlic with one harvest so long as you don’t mind braids of bulbs hanging atmospherically around your porch or pantry.


A Little Gardening Today

Last summer, I made a mess of a first attempt at winter sowing seeds – a seed starting method involving creating mini greenhouses out of recyclables, planting with seeds and setting outside to sprout in the early spring. I loved this idea when I first read about it – no need to set up tables and grow lights in the room we didn’t have and no need to buy anything new to try it out. I went a little crazy – saving every disposable container that came through the house, madly slashing drainage holes in the bottoms, filling them with soil and seeds, soaking them and setting them outside to wait out the remaining winter days. By spring I had sodden containers, and although many sprouted anyway, others did not. Here’s what I did right – and wrong:

1. My containers – plastic milk jugs are the ideal container for winter sowing. Their height allows for room for the seedlings to grow, and their lids can be removed for extra ventilation and moisture come spring when it is still too cool at night to remove the seedlings completely. I’d imagine 2 liter bottles would be good for similar reasons.

2. My method of creating drainage holes – I used a knife, which made a slit in the plastic that didn’t really allow for drainage as it should have. This year I used a screwdriver.

3. My preparation of the seeds and soil – I took the directions to “moisten” the soil a bit too far, and my little greenhouses remained soaked throughout the early spring, obviously compounded by my poor drainage holes.

So yesterday I tried again. Right now is the perfect time to sow tender crops such as tomatoes and peppers, so I got my collected milk jugs out, sawed them in half, poked drainage and ventilation holes, filled with potting soil and seeds, moistened with a spray bottle and set them outside.
And then it snowed again.