Friday, February 01, 2008

If You Got Any Seeds Need Startin'

This week, a long-awaited package arrived: my first setup for early-season seed-starting at home. I purchased a stand, a two-bulb light fixture, and seedling heat-mats to help me get my own seedlings off the ground. I feel like Dill Harris (aka Truman Capote) in To Kill A Mockingbird, but instead of crowing to his new acquaintances, "I can read," I feel like telling everyone that I can start seeds.

"I just thought you'd like to know I can start seeds. You got any seeds need startin' I can do it." It's a very good feeling.

So why put forth the expense of time and money (not really that much money, mind you, especially if I do this every year) purchasing these materials to start seeds? Why take the time? Here's my list of reasons.

1) Keeping the good stuff around.
It's impossible to find started plants of some heirloom varieties of vegetables, partly because some of them have less disease resistance and are therefore less desirable to some growers, and partly because hybrid seeds are cheaper and glut the market, leading some growers to limited options. But, through specialized seed companies and seed exchanges, thousands of fascinating, old varieties of seeds are available. As we know, the reduced genetic variety of food plants now grown limits the availability to older genetic material found in our heirloom plants. Who knows when or if this genetic material may be needed to deal with new viruses or other threats? If people grow some of the old varieties, at least they're out there somewhere if they're someday needed.

2) Eating well.
The famous Brandywine tomato that steals the show at farmers' markets each year was once a nearly extinct variety, passed around in the Amish community. Nowadays, more and more people are able to find Brandywines and experience good, full tomato flavor. Many more modern, hybrid (not open-pollinated) varieties are more productive than our old varieties, but frequently, they just don't taste the same. I want my tomatoes to taste like the complex, amazing fruits that they are. I want peppers to be more than just watery crunch, and everything else I grow to have flavor as well.

3) Self-sufficiency.
Being able to grow my own food, from the very seeds (some of which I've saved myself, and more and more of which I hope to save and carry on for generations) I've planted, makes me feel remarkably capable, and that feeling is like crack to me. I wonder from which of my ancestors I've inherited this. Who farmed and saved seeds, saving only from the best plants, over time developing landraces that were particularly suited for his or her garden?

4) Experimentation.

Science is fun.

5) Good stories.
If you start following the links I've provided for the seeds I list later in this post, you'll find that just about every variety has some kind of fascinating narrative behind it. I'm an English teacher, a storyteller, and an insatiable reader: I live for good stories. They make me happy.

This weekend, I've started my tomatoes to plant in the garden (and a couple on a balcony) come mid-March. I also planted my pepper and eggplant seeds to transplant in the garden at the very end of March or the first couple days of April (I've got to get them in before I head out of town to go get married!).

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The Solanaceae Lineup of 2008

Tomatoes:
Amish Paste: This is listed in Slow Food's Ark of Taste as an endangered tomato, another Amish treasure. It's a teardrop shaped red variety, supposedly balancing sweet and tart perfectly. I purchased this seed packet from TomatoFest.
Black Krim: Although it was my favorite tomato I grew last year, I failed to save the seed. This year, I won't fail again. If you want to know why this tomato lives permanently in my heart, read what I wrote last year about it here. I purchased this seed packet from TomatoFest.
Blondkopfchen: A sweet little blonde number with nipples? How could I go wrong? This is a German variety, famous for its large clusters of golden sweet fruit. It sounds like a yellow version of Riesentraube. I received this seed packet from Trudi at Wintersown.org through her amazing seed-distribution program.
Red or Gold Currant: I loved Matt's Wild Cherry last year, but I wanted to experiment with a different tiny-fruited variety this year. I hope to grow a currant variety in a pot on my west-facing balcony and let it tumble over the railing. I received this mixed-color packet of currant tomatoes from Wintersown.org.
Homer Fike's Yellow Oxheart: C'mon, how could I pass up a tomato with that name? On top of the name, and whatever the whole story is behind it, this promises to be a huge, sweet, beautiful fruit, good for fresh eating and cooking. I purchased this seed from TomatoFest.
Isis Candy Cherry: These promise two-toned, red with gold starburst fruit. I'm not a hundred-percent sure about this variety, but since I'm so curious about it, I'm going to try it anyway. I plan to grow it in the other sunny pot on my west-facing balcony. Source: TomatoFest.
Marglobe: This is an old open-pollinated commercial variety that is the parent of many modern hybrids. It's supposedly a heavy-producing, rich-tasting determinate variety—I will plant it in a pot to put in a spot behind the vegetable plot. (That's a lot of ps.) Source: Wintersown.org.
Persimmon: Some sources say that Thomas Jefferson grew this variety, while other sources say it was introduced as an open-pollinated variety in 1982. Either way, every review I've read claims that this is one of the best gold tomatoes out there, rich with complex tomato flavor and not very seedy. Source: Wintersown.org.
Thessaloniki Oxheart: Another variety from Wintersown.org, this variety is hard to research as it seems to have a mysterious background. The few reviews I've found about this variety (not identical to the similarly-named Thessaloniki) extol its remarkable versatility; it sounds like it will be a winner in the garden, in the kitchen, and on the table.

Peppers:
Red Ruffled: I wanted an intensely sweet, thick-fleshed pepper, and this sounds like it fits the bill. Source: Seeds of Change
Balloon: This Capsicum baccatum may be one of the most unusual peppers ever. The plant grows tall and fruits prolifically, the fruits hang like upside-down tulips all over the plant. What is most unique about this pepper though is the flavor: the flesh of the fruit is sweet while the white interior membranes (placenta) is hot. I can imagine stuffing these peppers for hors d'oeuvres, using them in jams, and just popping them in my mouth. I received these seeds from Heirloom Club.
McMahon's Texas Bird Pepper: This is another of Slow Food's Ark of Taste selections. The tiny round fruits are supposedly very hot and very beautiful. It is a small plant that I should be able to fit easily in a garden corner. My brother gave me these seeds.
B's really hot pepper: I'm planting seeds from the peppers that my former student gave me.

Eggplants:
Italian Pink (unknown variety, chosen by description): Curiosity got me here. Is this an eggplant similar to Rosa Bianca or Rosita? I don't know, but I'll find out. Source: Heirloom Club.
Ping Tung: Loads of long, lavender fruit—look at this picture and you'll see why I knew I had to try growing this plant.

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First-Ever Grow Station: A Photolog

Step 1: I purchased my materials. I needed a source of light, a stand for that light, heat mats, and organic, sterile seed starter mix. Everything else I already had.

Step 2: I prepared my pots. I used old yogurt containers (which I'll be able to reuse as seedling pots if I send them through the dishwasher for a sterilization) and cups.



Step 3: I decided exactly what I wanted to plant and created waterproof labels. I used very sticky stickers with indelible pen, but others have used popsicle sticks, plastic markers, or even chopsticks.



Step 4: I filled each pot with dampened seed starter and pressed it into the pot to remove air pockets, eventually filling each pot to a half-inch below its rim. To ensure that at least one seedling survives in each pot, I set three seeds on the surface of the soil in each then sprinkled dry starter mix gently over the seeds. Finally, I spritzed each pot again with a squirt bottle to ensure even moisture.



Step 5: To make sure that the pots don't sit in their own drainage water, I poured a layer of pebbles in the bottom of two trays. The pebbles should elevate the pot bottoms above run-off level. I set the pots together closely in the trays, and to make sure the atmosphere is humid enough for the seeds to sprout, wrapped each tray in clear plastic. As soon as the seeds sprout, I'll remove the plastic.


Step 6: Since I'm starting the seeds out on my north balcony and not inside, I needed to make sure I had a mild heat source. I set down a thick layer of used paper (drafts of ECG's dissertation, to be exact) to act as insulation from the cold concrete, and laid the mats on top. I set the wrapped trays on the heat mats, and lowered the light to just a couple inches above the pots. Once the seeds sprout, I'll need to rotate the trays so that each seedling gets exposure to both natural and florescent light.

Step 7: I plugged the florescent light into a timer set to give 16 hours of light a day. Seedlings need a lot of light like babies need a lot of attention.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fascinating!

Kristan

Lucy said...

Inspiring, from beginning to end. Can't wait to hear about your successes. The Balloon peppers sound fascinating

And excuse me, but did I read about an approximate date for the wedding hidden in and amongst all that gardening joy?

Wendy said...

Feeling inspired! I'm going to try growing from seed this year. AND I'm going to try and grow tomatoes again though it'll have to be in a greenhouse (we simple don't have the heat required up here). Last year I failed miserable in the tomato game.
I forgot you were getting married this year. New Mexico? Right? How exciting! What's the date?
And was Dill really based on Truman Capote? I didn't know that.

Patrick said...

It all looks really great! I think you're going to have a great garden this year. I can't wait to hear how everything goes.

Christina said...

Hi Kristan! Thank you. I have a silly card that I need to send you that I think will make you laugh.

Lucy: I'll let you know what grows, if anything. And yes, ECG and I are marrying each other on April 6th in New Mexico. We're honeymooning in Italy. It's coming up on us--we're both so happy about it all.

Wendy: See above for the wedding info. YES! Dill Harris is Truman Capote! Truman Capote was a neighbor of Harper Lee's growing up, and they maintained a friendship through most of their lives. Harper worked as an assistant of sorts while Truman interviewed the Clutter family and the town for In Cold Blood. Just as Dill is based on the young Capote in Lee's novel, Idabel is based on the young Lee in Capote's novella/coming-out-tale, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Good luck with your tomatoes!

Patrick: Thank you! That is such a great compliment coming from you--I consider you an online mentor when it comes to heirloom gardening.

rowena said...

Coming from a wannabe garder, I cannot say how fantastic and helpful of a post this is. It gives me enough to feel sure about start ing my own seedlings right now. Thanks so much Christina!

winedeb said...

Hey Christina, first congrats on the upcoming marriage! That is exciting news!
2nd - I am anxious to see how your seedlings do. I posted today about my first growths also! I have read in the gardening magazines about the lamps and heating pads and I am sure you will be successful with them. It is pretty warm here so I did not need the added heat. In fact, a couple of days ago I was afraid I may have cooked my new seeds as I had them sitting in the sun for an hour or so. When I went out to move them back in the shade the pots felt pretty toasty, but...it seems it did not matter as they have sprouted. It is so exciting! You look like you have a perfect set up! I look forward to seeing your new babies!

Terry B said...

Christina, I love gardening vicariously through you! I wouldn't even begin to attempt all this [or even a little of it, really], but I'm glad you do--and that you blog about it so wonderfully.

Teresa said...

Congratulations on your upcoming wedding! Thanks for showing me how you start seeds. It's like an art of science, the way you do it. Greatful for the information!

Susan in Italy said...

Amen, sister. I'm on that bandwagon right with you. I just started some seeds in clean yogurt cups in soil I sterilized myself in the oven. I love this time of year. It's full of possibilities.

Christina said...

Terry B: Thank you!

Teresa: You're welcome. I hope these helps you as your garden continues to grow.

Susan in Italy: Isn't is just so exciting? Everyday I come home and check my little babies. What are you growing this year?