by Charlene Burgi
| A seed packet packs a lot of info into a small space.
Let the seed sowing begin—that is, for those of us setting our seeds indoors. It’s about six weeks until the last vestiges of frost could threaten tender seedlings growing in Marin gardens.
Six weeks: Just what does that mean? The back of every seed packet provides an amazing amount of information in a small space. Two items of information you’ll find are the time for the seeds to germinate, and the time from seed planting to production. It seems like those qualifiers don’t always add up for this gardener, so I did a bit of research.
First, the time for seeds to germinate requires a gardener to count backwards from the date of last frost in their area. You can start seeds indoors in advance of that date, and then safely move the seedlings into the garden after the danger of frost is past. Keep in mind that the seed companies speak in generalities, as there are many variables when it comes to garden conditions. Generally, if the conditions are perfect, you can expect the seed you sow in the ground to germinate in the timeframe on the back of the seed packet. “Perfect” conditions will vary depending on the specific type of seed. For example, cool weather vegetables such as peas or mâche find their perfect soil temperature to be 50° F. If the ground temperature is 50°, the soil is well-drained and fertile, and the correct moisture is provided, the peas and mâche will sprout in the given period of time. However, don’t let general labels fool you. Kale is also considered a cool season veggie, and it is—but only after the seeds have germinated with soil temperatures in the high 70s. In sum, germination periods may be longer or shorter as seeds wait for the right soil temperature.
Seeds that require warmer soil to germinate are perfect candidates for starting indoors where you have more control over growing conditions. In addition to the right temperature, most seeds will want a soilless growing medium, they want to be moist but not wet, and they want light—about 15 hours of it! My greenhouse is set up with special heating pads with trays of soil on top. Above the soil trays are grow lights on timers. This type of setup provides perfect growing conditions, but can be cumbersome if space is limited. Fortunately, you can achieve similar results with a much simpler setup. When I lived in Marin, my indoor seed starting consisted of a bright sunny window, a tray of soilless medium, and a stretch of plastic wrap from the kitchen. The plastic was stretched over the seeded trays after the trays were watered. Condensation would form and water the seeds. Like clockwork the seeds germinated, and then I would remove the plastic wrap to prevent the seedlings from frying. A final caveat when starting seeds indoors is that “time to production” clock starts ticking for those transplanted seedlings after they are planted outdoors, not from the time you set the seeds inside.
Starting your own seeds provides opportunities to try new varieties beyond the starts typically found for purchase at nurseries. Additionally, starting your own seeds can extend beyond your own garden and offers a great learning opportunity for a child, grandchild or young neighbor. Teach a child to experience the miracle of seed germination and that child could be the gardener of tomorrow. Start them with radish, nasturtium, pumpkin, bean, pea or corn seeds as they are large and easy for children to handle. It is time to get your hands dirty and have some fun before getting into the garden this spring!