I have been gardening for many years, and, looking back, I am surprised at the evolution that has occurred in my techniques and methods. I clearly remember sowing seeds in handmade wooden flats in my basement at Turkey Hill. I jerry-rigged a dozen or so fluorescent "gro" lights over all the tables. Then I arranged them on timers so the emerging seedlings would have sufficient "daylight" to grow into plants large enough and healthy enough to set out into the garden beds after the danger of frost had passed. This method worked, but I knew it could be better.
I also recall the small grow pots made of compressed peat that I used to propagate tomatoes, cabbages, eggplants, and peppers for several years in the small lean-to greenhouse by Lord & Burnham that we assembled and attached to my outdoor kitchen. Daylight certainly made a difference to the sturdiness of the plants. They fared just a bit better than my basement-grown seedlings after they were set out into the fertile garden soil.
When I moved to my farm in Bedford four years ago, one of the first things I did was build a very large glass house in which I could easily grow pretty much anything I wanted in the vegetable and flower beds on the property. Now I could work on an almost-professional level.
I planned to start as many seedlings inside as I needed for an even larger vegetable garden and many more flower beds than ever before. So I made it a real priority to visit as many growers as I could. I wanted to learn as much as possible to maximize productivity while becoming more economical, more green, and more sensible in my methodology. One visit that turned out to be extremely fortuitous was to Eliot Coleman, a gardener and vegetable grower in Maine. For years he had been experimenting with radical techniques, attempting to grow a wide assortment of vegetables year-round, in the ground and with very little artificial heat.
His attempts resulted in a plethora of extraordinary vegetables, ranging from root crops to aboveground vine crops. Each vegetable had amazing flavor, few if any maladies, and almost no unsightly marks. All plants were propagated using homemade soil blocks, no peat or plastic or clay pots. Their root development was unusually vigorous, which ensured that each plant had a better chance than most to survive and thrive.
Eliot was so enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge and his sources that my helpers and I have had almost 100 percent success with every variety of seed we have tried. We purchased the recommended soil-block shapers, seed-starting mix, and other tools, starter soils, and sterile compost mixes. We have had a great deal of fun assembling soil blocks in three sizes for different plants: big blocks for seedlings that are quite large when set outside (such as peppers, artichokes, and tomatoes), medium blocks for all the brassicas (such as broccoli and cabbage), and small blocks for many of the flowers I grow in the flower beds and as companion plants in the vegetable garden (including campanula and nasturtiums).
Plastic trays hold the blocks -- they are not susceptible to mold and are reusable for several years. (The trays are available at griffins.com.) And we are thrilled with the superb root development and the ease with which each plant can be lifted and plunked into the garden, with little or none of the root disturbance that occurs when you remove a seedling from a flat.
I am so pleased with the economy of this newest method. Just remember my new motto: When you're through changing, you're through. This obviously can apply very nicely even to a lovely gardening challenge such as starting plants from seed.
My favorite Internet sources for vegetable and flower seeds:
Once your seeds start to arrive, be sure to store them properly. This will ensure that you achieve the greatest percentage of germination.
Sort your seeds by sowing date. Store them in a cool, dry place; the refrigerator is ideal. For small amounts of seed, simply place the packets in a covered glass jar, then store the jar on the refrigerator door.
Don't assume that seeds are no longer viable after 1 year. This is the case for some (such as sweet peas), but many other seeds (including lettuce) can last up to 3 years. To test the viability of seeds, place 10 seeds on a moist paper towel, and set the towel inside a plastic bag. Put the bag in a warm spot, and check it every 3 or 4 days. If fewer than half the seeds germinate, toss the packet and order more.
Seeds to Direct Sow
The following seeds can be planted directly into the ground, even before the danger of frost has passed: Asian greens, beets, carrots, lettuce, peas, radishes, spinach, turnips.
The following should be planted outside after all danger of frost has passed: beans, corn, cucumbers, pumpkins, squashes, Swiss chard.
Seeds to Sow Indoors
In warm climates, even tomatoes can be sown directly into the garden. But in cooler zones, it is good to get a jump on the season by starting these vegetables a little early.
Eggplants and Tomatoes: 6 to 8 weeks before last frost
Artichokes: 8 weeks before last frost
Peppers: 8 to 10 weeks before last frost
Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, and Cauliflower: 4 to 6 weeks before transplanting out
Leeks and Onions: 6 to 8 weeks before transplanting out
We use seed-starting mix to create soil blocks for the seeds, and I now own sturdy soil-block makers in three sizes (above). The white plastic markers are used only in the greenhouse, before the vegetables are transferred to their proper beds.
Assembly Line: Starting Seeds Basics
We mix compost with water in a plastic tub until its almost dripping.
Then the soil-block maker is plunged in; this medium one makes four at a time.
Plastic trays hold the soil blocks and are effective with or without heated pads underneath.
Seeds are stored in accordion files from the Japanese store Muji, which just opened a New York City branch.
A flat of petunia seedlings, above. I love gardening in my new greenhouse -- whether I'm sowing seeds, misting seedlings, or watering or feeding plants, every moment there is a joy.