Recently a fellow gardener mentioned to me the trials of sprouting seeds in a house where temperatures dip into the 50′s. Dip? Ha! In our house, we heat with wood, and the stove is at one end of the house, where the chimney was built. My fingers are barely able to feel the keyboard as I write. Modern houses tend to be built with the assumption that you can warm yourself by turning up the thermostat. I could, but I refuse, both out of parsimony and stubbornness. If I had the house to build over, and I had a say, I would build a big old European style tiled wood stove, with an oven. Anyway, we are blessed to have the wood stove we have, and deadwood on the farm, and chainsaws, and fuel to run them, and arms to split wood.
My favorite insulated micro-environment is our bed. Not practical for the seeds. So. Where, in a cold and/or energy efficient house do you find a place which will give your seeds any kind of bottom heat that is consistent? Pepper seeds like it 80-90 Fahrenheit, tomatoes and eggplants slightly less. I used to set mine on top of the water heater, but since we turned it down and insulated it, that’s a no go. Setting it near the wood stove is dangerous- the pots have been known to pucker with the heat. My latest insulated micro-environment is an old yoghurt maker. It is one of those long ones with holes for the glass cups and a top. If mine were the proper heat, putting seed pots in the holes would be too hot. As it is very old and debilitated, the heat is very gentle and it would be fine if I had my seeds in old yoghurt containers. I think it is about 85, which is especially fine for peppers. Since my seeds are in bigger square pots that don’t fit in there, I fit 4 of them in a plastic salad container (people save them for me), wrap it in an inside out (cleaner) used plastic grocery bag, and balance it on top of the yoghurt maker. I can fit two boxes on it, on a shelf where nobody bothers it, wedged between pipes, because it would be a disaster for them to tumble off, and then cover that with towels to keep in the heat. This way I can give good heat to 8 varieties at a time. This might be fine for some, but I grow a freakishly large number of varieties.
Rot and Death
For the rest of my pots, it has been touch and go. I would hastily move them to the dryer, which gets warm on top, when weather was too nasty to use the clothesline or I was drying black clothes. I would put them in a black plastic bag in a sunny window. I would stack shelves all around the yoghurt maker in hopes of gleaning some heat. What happens to me is of course that I get mold, slow germination, and with older seeds, rot and death! I have a few tricks that help. I sprinkle cinnamon on any white fuzz that comes up- it is a fungicide, I open up any that seem soggy to let them dry out a tiny bit, I check overdue seeds by squishing one between my fingers- then at least if it’s rotten I know to reseed, and I rotate boxes of sprouting seeds between the warmest spots. Once they have sprouted at all, I put them in a window so they can get the chlorophyll working. They need about 10 degrees bottom heat warmer for sprouting than they need to grow, and a 10-20 F temperature drop at night is fine. (By the way, all these hyperlinks are to other articles I have written on the highlighted subjects.)
Thank God for Goodwill
The absolute best germination mat I ever used was the kind of heating mat taxi drivers use to sit on. I had it on the lowest setting and it worked like a charm, except that it used to give me a shock now and then. My husband found it in the Goodwill for ten bucks. It died after a bit and we haven’t found another one.
So, why don’t we spring for one of those nifty new germination mats they sell in fancy gardening catalogs? They cost seventy bucks, which would not kill us, but I think it is something about the naffyness of them. It’s sort of like the reason I gather my own basket weaving supplies instead of buying them at a craft shop. People didn’t use to have them. People used to grow out their tobacco seedlings in flats hundreds of years ago. How did they do it? I think we need to invent something better and tidier than what I do, but I haven’t figured out what yet.