by Mike Webster
Early Spring is my favorite time of the year. I begin to develop my garden’s diversity, save money and share seed varieties with friends. All by starting seeds indoors, and transplanting them into my garden when the conditions are rights. Thousands of superior crop varieties are rarely available as seedlings in garden centers, and the same goes for wonderful culinary crops, such as Zebra stripe Tomatoes and Red Russian Kale. If your goal is to fill your table with an array of homegrown organic food, then starting plants from seed can help you achieve that goal. Starting seeds indoors under controlled conditions, with no aggravation from weeds or weather, allows you to get a prompt start on the season. Where growing seasons are short, some crops require an indoor head start to later reach maturity. Furthermore, I am able to maximize my gardens diversity and overall yield, by having two plantings of crops for the season.
All seeds contain specialized cells that mobilize and grow when the germination process is triggered by moisture, temperature and light. Moisture and stored nutrients energize the embryo, which contains the latent structures for a plant’s root, stem and leaves. Most vegetable seeds that germinate quickly (such as cabbage and tomatoes) enter their dormant state with mature, fully formed embryos. The carrot family is at a disadvantage, however, because most Umbelliferae seeds (think parsley, fennel and dill) need time for their underdeveloped ovaries to grow before they can sprout. Other slow sprout ers — spinach, for example — have compounds that inhibit germination in their seed coats. These compounds have to break down in the soil before the root and sprout can burst forth into the world.
Oxygen is vital to the germination process. Until seedlings have leaves to enable them to use solar energy, they rely on the food reserves in the seed combined with oxygen found in the soil to grow new cells. Warm room temperatures that rise above 75 degrees for several hours a day will trigger germination in just about any vegetable or herb seed, and seeds will benefit from temperatures that vary by about 10 degrees during the day. This happens naturally if you’re using warmth from a fluorescent light that you turn off at night.)Any nutrients present in the seed-starting mix will be gone after about three weeks, so your seedlings will need supplemental feeding.
Soil selection is important, I always turn over my garden with all the leaves, and sediment from the winter. Two reason; one, I do not like to waste my time clearing and raking. Two, I find that as they breakdown it helps to aerate my soil and replenish the nutrients that I have taken from the year past. I exclusively use organic soil. I have found a local farm near by our property which will sell me their soil at a very reasonable rate. Beware bagged soils from the hardware store, they are often misrepresented and will frequently have bugs. Soil contains the building blocks for the nutrients which the plants will need for growth. Of all the places to skimp and save, soil is not one of them. Having quality Soil, Seeds and Water are imperative to having good produce.
I find that egg cartons are a great place to start seeds. They are free, they are eco-friendly and are perfect for proper portioning and transportation of seeds. I am careful to use recycled paper egg cartons, rather then styrofoam. Using spoons, I fill my egg carton containers with soil, about 75% full and water them. Once the soil is moist, I add my seeds, I usually add 1-2 seeds per cup. I sprinkle some additional dirt on top and water again. Be careful to place them in a warm, well lit area. Windows will work for germination; however, windows frequently have light filters in them, which will limit the light spectrum which is available for the plants use. Once the seeds have sprouted, move them to a light intense area, open windows or a “car greenhouse” will work great. The front dash board of your car is a great place to sprout and grow seeds, provided that you are not driving it.
Mike Webster is currently a resident of Granby, Connecticut with his wife and twin daughters, Olive & Emilie. Mike teaches Life foods, the whole food preparation class at the Sustainable Farm School, in Connecticut. He is a Culinary Institute of America graduate and experienced chef with over ten years in the restaurant industry.