Updated: Feb 28
One of the most common tasks of the winter garden is starting seed indoors. This task always fills me with such hope as it signals that spring gardening is only about a month away! Seed to transplantable seedling is generally a 30-day process of careful tending, but the method I prefer makes that easier.
I have tried traditional seed starting under grow lights on open shelving but with limited space in my home I had to resort to growing in my garage. The lack of proper heat in that location made the process cost and time prohibitive. After years of attempting many methods I have settled on this simple one that almost seems too good to be true. I take an empty water container, cut it in half, and add seedling soil starter mix and worm castings to the base about 2 inches thick. There is no need to punch holes in the bottom for any drainage: condensation will collect inside the mini greenhouse and drip on to the soil at a near- perfect rate of absorption, keeping it evenly moist for best germination.
First, I wet the mixture thoroughly. I then sprinkle a pinch of seeds all over the surface as if I am salting a dish. I gently pat them into place so that they have good contact with the soil. Then, replacing the lid I secure it to the base with a wide piece of black duct tape. The black color also helps to absorb the heat from the sun and transfer it to the mini greenhouse. By removing the lid I allow this heat to vent as cool weather crop seeds can be sensitive to high temperatures which could prevent germination.
I set the mini greenhouse in an outdoor location in the sun and will only need to attend to it to check to see if the seeds are sprouting. The condensation will take care of all watering and in about 30 days I will be able to carefully divide the seedlings from each other and plant them directly into the garden. No hardening off or gradual sun exposure will be necessary, which I am thankful to get to avoid. Carrying trays of seedlings in and out over the course of a few weeks can be such a headache!
As an experiment I also sow some seed in soil blocks. This method is more labor intensive but quickly grows healthy seedlings that take well to transplanting into the garden. The only downside to this process is that they will not get sufficient sunlight even though I expose them to high, artificial light for 24 hours a day. They tend to germinate quickly sitting indoors next to our woodstove but dry out easily there as well. This inconsistent moisture stresses young seedlings so they cannot get off on their best foot when young. Also, these blocks will need to be transplanted into even larger blocks in about 2 weeks, requiring another soil blocker, more soil mix, and more of my time!
My third experiment is to sow cool weather crop seed directly into the garden bed. I break up the existing soil gently and sprinkle in a handful of worm castings. This method usually results in delayed germination due to the cold exposure. This is fine with me as it will allow me to have staggered harvesting over a longer period of time.
Pruning and sowing seeds are the chief tasks of the winter gardener. I take my cues from earth's creatures that it is time to join them in their eager preparations for spring’s arrival. From the flocks of robins preparing for nesting season to the rising up of the earthworms to meet them in their need, the garden’s cycles invite me to embody this hope as well.