Gardening: It’s time to start seeds

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | You know how in Houston, whenever the shuttle goes up, they all shout “Lift off! We have lift off”? Whenever I see the first signs of germination I shout in a similar tone, “Germination! We have germination!”

If you want to have seedlings to put outside when the danger of frost has passed, the time to begin is now. The “last frost” date for us on the Island, in Garden Zone 6, is May 15, but since that’s an average, best wait a little longer, at least another week or two.

Some considerations: Think carefully about how much space you can give to this undertaking. If you have a small kitchen and trays and trays of seedlings are going to be totally in your way for six to eight weeks, you’re going to be hissing and spitting at the end of the required time. When I lived in the city in one of those pre-war apartments, I had a huge kitchen with room for a three-tiered light rack and many smaller ones.

The first year I went all out, all was well at first. Until it was time to transport my babies to their new home. What I had neglected to anticipate was that although I had ample room in my West Side kitchen, any time we left the city for the Island, the station wagon was full of children, their friends, dogs, cats, groceries and overnight bags. How were all those trays of seeds going to get where they belonged? You know the answer — not without my making more than one round trip, alone, with the car full of seedlings! I didn’t make that mistake again.

These days I allow myself only two trays full. On sunny days I put them outside on a table on the deck where I can water them conveniently with a hose and watering pitcher. I bring them in at night and I think the comparative warmth of the house speeds their germination. On cloudy or rainy days I put them on the floor near two big sliding glass doors, where I think they’re getting maximum light.

I limit my choices to those plants that germinate relatively easily, that is within a week or 10 days. These include morning glories, cosmos, poppies, nasturtium (both the plant and the vine) and some others. If you’re shopping and standing in front of a seed display, forget the picture on the front — it’s the back of the packet you want to pay attention to. The germination time should be listed there.

I also avoid “fine” seed. “Fine” in this context means don’t sneeze while you’re planting or you’ll blow the whole packet across the room. I’m much more comfortable with large seeds, like nasturtium. The packet will probably tell you to soak them overnight.In case it fails to mention that, if a seed is large with what feels like a tough outer coat, you can speed germination by simply soaking the seeds overnight in water, in a shallow saucer. Now you’ve given them a head start. If, as I did one year, you then forget them and they languish there for a week or so? Forget it, you’ve murdered them. They’ve drowned. Start over!

Begin with those little discs that you soak in water, that turn into soft cubes or rolls of soil; or the little planting blocks. Put three seeds in each disc or box and then water thoroughly. You don’t need to be gentle yet — there’s no seedling to knock over. Next week we’ll go over thinning, feeding and watering techniques.