Dig the magic of planting
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:50 PM
Starting plants from seed had delighted man from the first one who beheld and understood that the small bit he put into the earth returned to him as the food he no longer had to chase to eat. The magic that he stood in awe of still stirs our souls as the first tomato or sweet pea emerges from the earth in this time of scientific knowledge and understanding. That the magic still lingers can be seen in the eyes of a child who plants corn or squash in a paper cup and delights in the first green shoot welcoming the light of day.
Many plants grow best from seed planted into the ground while others do best from ``starts,'' sown into pots to be transplanted. Peas, either sweet or garden, beets, turnips, beans, rutabagas, lettuce nasturtiums, and carrots all benefit from direct sowing. Tomatoes, all of the cabbage family including kale, broccoli, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and bok choy, marigolds, onions and petunias are best from transplants. Melons and squashes can be directly sown or transplanted.
If grown inside from seed, sterilized seed starting soil will minimize the danger of damping off disease, a fungal blight that attacks the newly-sprouted plant. There is no cure for the disease, so if the plants suddenly collapse, throw both the soil and plant out, sterilize the container they were in by soaking it in water that has had a little chlorine bleach added (about one tablespoon to two quarts of water) and start over. Seed starting soil is generally lighter than potting soil, making it easier for new roots to penetrate. Feed with half strength fertilizer when the seedlings have been up for two weeks.
Generally speaking, more seeds will germinate than you can possibly use. This can be the hard part of seed starting. It's not easy to destroy those little darlings, but they have to be thinned. You can carefully prick out each seedling and plant each one into its own larger container, but few people need 300 radishes or 500 petunias. The easiest planning method is to determine how many of each plant you need and, using small scissors, simply snip away all but the strongest plants. Those that remain can be planted and grow a while longer before you set them out into the garden.
Once seeds grown inside are ready to be planted outside, they need to be ``hardened off.'' This involves putting the plants outside for a few hours a day in light shade for a number of days and bringing them in each night. How long you do this will depend on the weather, but generally a week will be fine, with the time they stay outside being longer each day. Then into the garden they go. If the weather unseasonable, you may wish to cover the plants with row covers made of manmade materials. The materials can trap the heat and warm the soil to give new transplants a boost, but are they not necessary for most plants. Your seeds will grow; ready to reward you with the bounty of fresh flowers or vegetables as the summer progresses.
Because conditions cannot be as carefully monitored with seeds planted outside, germination is usually not as good as seeds planted indoors. They will take longer to sprout, but the process is mostly the same with the exception that they are usually just thinned and not planted on. By using the scissors method, you will avoid harming the roots of the plants you wish to keep.
Is there magic left in the world? Plant a few seeds and as the miracle of life emerges from the soil see if it isn't there.