Not long ago, in a one-window studio apartment under a carport, I made my first attempt at sowing seeds. The building faced east and if our neighbor’s car was gone in the morning, the area beside our door and under the window received a burst of morning sun that lasted an hour before disappearing behind the second floor. Inspired by an onion that started sprouting in our closet, I decided that if an onion was choosing life in the dim artificial light of what was essentially a cave, then maybe there was a chance some purposely planted herbs could be happy with what little natural light was available outside our door.
I filled some pots with soil and propped them up on a plastic tote I was attempting to make compost in. Then I plunged some Dollar Store cilantro seeds into the medium, watered, and waited. Weeks went by and nothing happened. Fearing the area was beginning to look like a graveyard for the ghosts of neglected houseplants, I scrapped the experiment and determined that our little cave under the carport was not an ideal location for a garden.
As we near the official unofficial start of garden season, which for the professionally impatient green thumbs is between 8 to 12 weeks before the average last frost date (April 21 here in the Puget Sound region), I find myself reflecting on my relationship with seeds and the practice of seed starting. Watching seeds sprout is, after all, what made me fall in love with gardening. But knowing what I know now about who I am as a gardener, I’m a little relieved I didn’t have any success under that carport. I would have surely been a nuisance.
The lessons to be derived from gardening are endless, but self-control has by far been the most difficult to internalize. Especially when it comes to my seed habit. By this time last year, I had already placed a multitude of orders with my favorite seed companies, sometimes twice on the same day from the same website. After submitting my initial order, I would remember I forgot something else I saw and wanted, like a white marigold, but then I would decide I also needed every other type of marigold I had never grown before. You know just in case they disappear off the face of the planet and I’m never able to find them again. Surely someone should have been supervising me.
Seeds are my grown-up version of Pokémon; I’ve gotta collect them all! Which wouldn’t be such a problem if they didn’t have expiration dates. It’s all fun and games until you realize the “survival kit” you’ve been curating will have gone stale by the apocalypse. I am, until further notice, on seed-striction.
But to continue the Pokémon analogy (for millennial readers), seeds are kind of like Pokémon in that they evolve and become more powerful with proper training.
There are many training methods, but the program I’ve developed so far has been successful in sprouting and nursing the usual staples, like tomatoes, onions, kale, lettuce, basil, and marigolds. I won’t say it’s worked for everything I’ve tried to start. I assume that’s because we all have karmic relationships with everything we grow and like all relationships, a few of them can be complicated.
For example, I’ve had a lot of people tell me they can’t get celery to sprout no matter what they do. I personally have never had a problem with sprouting celery and consider us pretty good friends. But for some reason, spinach, no matter when or where I try to plant it, hates my guts. I also regard the seeds of most flowers as my mortal enemies.
There are three key pillars to my training program. They are temperature, moisture and light. I keep the ambient temperatures of my seed starting area above 65 (70 is ideal) and only use a heat mat for peppers. Moisture levels are maintained by using humidity domes, though these must be removed after the seeds sprout or else the seedlings get moldy and cannot be saved. After the dome is off, pots and trays get watered from the bottom to prevent algae and gnats.
Finally, the lights. This is the most important part of the program. My seedlings get an ample amount of light while they are indoors. The lights stay on for 16 hours a day. I use some full spectrum lights for heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers, but the rest of my seedlings grow under shop lights that have a lumen value of 4,000 (which means the light is strong enough to trigger photosynthesis) and a kelvin rating of 6,000 (this means the color temperature of the bulb is emitting blue light, which is needed for vegetative growth).
The grow lights need to be at least 18 inches above seedlings to prevent burning the leaves, but the shop lights aren’t as strong and should only be a few inches above the seed trays. Keeping them close helps to prevent the seedlings from getting “leggy,” which is what happens if the light source is too weak or too far away. Bad lighting causes seedlings to stretch out to find the light, resulting in long, flimsy stems. And those rarely evolve to win any battles against the elements. Good lights grow strong garden contenders.
Unfortunately, once the seeds have sprouted, they cannot dematerialize and fit inside a small, handheld ball. Try as I might to collect them all, I cannot keep them all. Seedlings competing for space can turn out as weak as seedlings searching for light. Thinning them is necessary. Choosing which sprouts to sacrifice is often arbitrary, so I usually just go with whichever ones are giving me weird vibes. There’s no room for bad karma in my garden.
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWS