Saturday, March 19, 2011

I Said You Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'?

First, a little mood music....

That's more like it.

So what are we starting exactly? Well, seeds, of course. And seed starting, for gardeners, is sort of like the rock star equivalent of going on a live tour. It’s how you prove you’re the real deal.

In a way, it’s the culmination of a three-stage evolution that starts when you buy your first house plant. Stage 1: Can I bring a thriving, mature specimen into my home and not kill it?  Stage 2: Can I buy a small plant, and nurture it into adulthood? And finally, Stage 3: Can I coax life from a dry, brown nub?

After many gardening successes, I still find myself intimidated by starting seeds. And, well, it’s with some trepidation I admit I’ve really only succeeded, um, once. And it was probably beginner’s luck. My first time out I was so outrageously successful, I ended up with a bathtub full of green thriving things that needed regular trimming while I waited for planting time.

My second year I got nothing. And I mean Nothing. Nada. Niente dahling. I suspect overwatering. All I know is that after two weeks of coddling, I had nothing to show for it but lots and lots of little pots of dirt. When I finally, frantically, dug into the pots I found no trace of seeds. My guess is they rotted and became one with the earth I planted them in.

My third year….well…..what can I say about my third year? I cheated. Unable to tolerate a repeat of the previous year’s disappointment, I germinated my seeds preschool-style (in a ziplock bag, with a wet paper towel) and only tucked those suckers into pots once I knew they were a sure thing.

Truth is, sometimes the leap of faith involved in burying seeds, spritzing them, loving them, and perching them day after day on a sunny windowsill is just too much to bear.   Or perhaps, I just need an elaborate excuse for what I’m about to do this year. This year, I’m bringing in the big guns. I’m getting techy, baby.  We’re talking state-of-the-art; we’re talking science.  Have a look:

Not impressed?

Just a giant Tupperware filled with Christmas lights, you say? Say hello to my new, heated seed germinating mat. This is an idea floated by a fellow reader of Fine Gardening Magazine. The mat supposedly offers the consistent, gentle warmth that seeds adore, as opposed to the wild temperature fluctuations inherent in the sunny-windowsill-by-day-but-frigid-house-by-night setup. I know heating mats usually look more like this:

But they also usually run in the neighborhood of $25, and don’t you adore any gadget you can make with stuff you have lying around the house? The reader sending in the Christmas light suggestion swore this contraption got her tomatoes from seed to seedling in two days, instead of the typical five to ten days. So we’ll test it out ourselves, right here, with pictures to prove it. But that’s not all. When I said I was getting techy, I sort of meant it. Here is the latest, non-homemade, addition to my seed starting arsenal:

A lovely, lovely grow light set up. Yes, it’s still in the box and needs to be assembled, but I’m already in love. And really, what’s not to love? It’s somewhat industrial, yes. And not nearly as romantic as the windowsill. Agreed.  But I’m going to be able to lower that fluorescent rod to within inches of my little green prospects.

Why would I want to do that? Because, overwatering notwithstanding, lack of light is the factor that foils most seed starting endeavors. I know plenty of gardeners who swear by their windowsill, but unless yours faces due south, you simply won't get enough intense light for your plants. And you’ll likely end up with something like the tomato seedlings in this photo, posted by another gardener on flickr:

Let’s coin a phrase and call this the Supermodel Seedling Syndrome. Though it’s tempting to get excited about seedlings that look this way (“But they’re so tall !”) this much leg on a plant is never a good sign. Like Supermodels, these starts are starving. Light is food to your seedlings, and these ones are stretching so hard to get more of it, they are centimeters away from flopping, literally and figuratively.  In other words, what’s good for Christy Turlington is not good for tomatoes. We want stocky. Think short and stout. Something along the lines of Danny DeVito is a great look on a seedling.  Like the tomatoes in this photo by fellow gardener Joel Ignacio.

How do you get seedlings like this? Lots and lots of light. More light, really, than can be provided by the windowsill. Plants love flourescents, and they love having them up close and personal. As close as four inches from their leaves isn't unheard of. That's where my new grow light system, which has a light that can be lowered, comes in.

With plenty light, seedlings like the ones above will have true leaves by the time they develop more stem, and will look like these tomatoes grown by Austin gardener Renee Studebaker:

It’s no wonder these little tomatoes have a Twist And Shout look about them. They are absolutely doing the happy dance. Notice the thick, brownish/green stems, compared the anemic white ones on our Supermodels. The seedlings above, by the way, were documented on a garden blog called Renee's Roots, and grown on a set-up that looked like this:

Totally industrial, right? Completely lacking in Romance. But did it work? You bet. Here’s hoping my new gardening contraptions bring me some rock-star seedling success this year. I’ll keep you posted.

Ma Ma Se Ma Ma Sa Ma Ma Coo Sa , Ma Ma Se Ma Ma Sa Ma Ma Coo Sa……

P.S. To clear up some reader confusion, heated seed starting mats, whether the store bought or Christmas light variety, will speed up germination, but will not prevent leggy seedlings. For stout seedlings, provide ample light, preferably flourescent, and ideally as close to four inches away from the leaves. Also, though heated mats certainly speed up germination, they are not necessary, and seeds will germinate without them. Sunny windowsills (after I spent so much time bashing them) work great for germination, as long as you remove your pots at night so they don't get too cold.


  1. awesome. thursday is supposed top be a good day for planting according to my almanac...i'll race you!

  2. Ew, my husband is NOT going to be happy about the super model news. He has some seedlings going that look very Kate Moss.

    Congrats on the new blog! It rocks (Or flowers. Or something.).

  3. great blog, Bel! Maybe I'll give my garden another go this year (though, you know how tough it is with toddler twins!)

  4. Uh Oh...I think I already cheated.

    We went and got our starter tomatoes at Home Depot last weekend. They're only about 3"-4" tall and because it's done nothing but rain here since then they're already looking a little droopy. I keep setting them by a window hoping for sun but I may end up having to go with the flourescent lighting, as well.

    I'll do just about anything to have home grown tomatoes this summer. There's just nothing like them on a BLT! :)

    Thanks for the great tips, Bel


Thanks for reading!