I love everything about planting seeds. Seeds are miraculous and wonderfully efficient packages of potential. Jesus said if we had faith so much as a mustard seed, we could command a mountain to move. A mustard seed is tiny and full of flavor and oil, and lends a wonderful flavor to Indian cooking, but if you plant it, it turns into a big succulent plant which eventually crowns itself with yellow flowers, and makes more seeds in huge numbers. When you plant it, temperature and moisture tell the embryo to awaken and begin. Mustard is a simple, quick germinator, but every seed has its own separate magical instructions; how long it takes, under what complex set of conditions; does it have to be chilled, heated, passed through a digestive tract, scarified? Yes, a seed is a brilliant image of faith.
This article is part of a series on starting seeds. The previous one is about selecting what tomatoes might work well for you.
I just finished planting most of the tomato seeds I will use this year. It took me about half an hour. In a week I will start checking to see what has happened.Here is what I did.
I saved plastic pots during the year- some gardening pots I am reusing, and some food pots that I made drainage holes in. Just take a sharp little vegetable knife and nick little holes along the bottom edge of the pot. Those plastic boxes they sell fancy salads in are great for mini-flats. Just nip little holes in the bumps on the bottom, and save the lids as well. I love keeping these out of the landfill, so people save them for me. Plastic planting pots that are reused need a serious cleaning. You don’t want some awful virus ruining your crop. I hate using bleach, but a soak in a 5-gallon bucket of water with a half cup of bleach would certainly kill most pathogens. However a scrubbing and then putting it in the dishwasher seems to do the trick for me. Most pots seem to be able to take it, especially top rack. I also make my own plastic markers. I make them out of cut up yogurt pots that people save for me, and write on the name and planting date with a permanent Sharpie marker, fine or medium. Fine is better than medium for writing out names like Merveille des Quatres Saisons, if you know what I mean. If they last a year, I scrub off the permanent ink with baking soda and a scrubbing pad and reuse it. Popsicle sticks are fine, but it is hard to write small words on them. I use whatever is free and works.
I bought a bag of organic potting soil, because although I only need a little, it really helps if my soil is sterilized so my seedlings don’t damp off, which means the stem suddenly wilts and it keels over dead. I should be able to bypass that but I haven’t yet. The potting soil is also pretty reliably weed seed free, which my compost is not. Later, when I am transplanting my seedlings into their own pots, I will set their roots in rotted manure, which will give the young plants nutrition in living soil, and cover them with a half-inch of the bagged soil. which will effectively mulch- keep weed seeds from germinating. This way I produce a sturdy seedling while using a minimal amount of purchased and transported soil. When weeds grow in the pots next to my seedlings, pulling them damages the roots and disrupts the plant’s growth. It also looks nice, and I do sell my extra seedlings. While the soil is organic and I support that, not promoting the plastic bag it comes in and the diesel truck it fills is also good. Plus I am a cheapskate.
Then I got out my seed file, pulled out the tomato file, and selected the varieties I plan to grow this year. Before planting a seed, I make up the markers with the name and planting date, and put it on top of the seed packet. Identification is important to me for several reasons. 1) When I am planting I want to know how to space them, and some plants need more space than others. 2) If I am growing something I haven’t grown before and it doesn’t look very distinctive I need to know which one it is so I can decide if I want to grow it again, and save seed. 3) I sell my extra seedlings at the farmer’s market, so I want to be able to tell my customers what they are getting.
Then I start seeding. I sprinkle the seeds sparingly on the surface, rubbing them apart with my fingers as they are fuzzy and do clump a bit when you save them yourself. I don’t want them closer than 1/4 inch, and you might want them further yet, but I am growing a lot of plants and I run out of space in the sprouting area. The more crowded they are, the more tangled their roots will be when I am potting them out, and they may take longer to recover from transplant shock due to root damage. So if you are only growing five seeds or a particular type, space them better than I do. Save or share your seeds- while germination rate will decrease, they will last five years easily.
I take a pencil and poke the seeds quickly down about an eighth of an inch or so, then spread the soil over them with a fingertip. It is not crucial as long as you maintain moisture, but they will root better if the seed is under some dirt. Water them with a tiny stream or water until it runs out the bottom, but not fully saturated. Poke any seeds that floated out back under if you have time. You won’t have to worry about them drying out for a week or two because of the next step.
Then I put recycled plastic bags around the trays, or even just put the pots in plastic bags if that works better, and put them somewhere they will get gentle, steady bottom heat. This does not mean put them on the radiator or in the stove. I used to just put them on top of the water heater, but now we have wire shelves in the recessed nook the water heater sits in, and I am able to put trays on them. The seeds tend to sprout in about a week, depending on their age. I have had them take almost 2 weeks, or four days. Keep an eye on them. If you see mold, sprinkle with cinnamon- a surprisingly effective fungicide. The minute they stick their little yellowish-white leaves out of the soil, take them out and put them on a windowsill, making sure not to lose their labels. Plastic pots sit very nicely in other recycled pots, or even in their own upside down lids, but water them gently or you will have a mess, especially in the beginning when the seedlings are not well-rooted. Now you can worry about watering. A sunny windowsill can dry out a little black plastic pot in a single day. I always have my eye out for slightly deeper under saucers that will fit on my windowsills. Turn the pots as they lean towards the sun. I find it natural to coo over the little dears and delight in their happy little leaves as they grow. The greenery and the smell of tomato leaves is a joyful harbinger of days to come, working in the warming spring soil. The motley lines of pots along the windowsills may look like a kid’s project, but I grow hundreds of plants this way.