Now is the time to consider starting your own seeds for planting. Growing your own plants from seed has several advantages, not the least of which is that you can control the environment in which your food is raised, quite literally from the ground up. This kind of growing also offers a nice lesson in self-reliance and resiliency, qualities that we can all embrace during times of climate change and other environmental uncertainty.
Start with clean, good soil that is chemical-free — and be certain to start with the best quality seeds. We support and stock three California seed companies in particular.
• Oakland’s Kitazawa Seed Co. is the oldest such company in the U.S. to specialize in Asian vegetable seeds, running the gamut from amaranth to water pepper, from those with which you might be familiar (bok choy) to those you might not (poha berry).
• Part of the Ecology Action biointensive farming movement founded at UC Santa Cruz in the 1960s, Bountiful Gardens is a nonprofit devoted to helping to heal the Earth through mini-farming that any one with a small plot can practice. Using their own developed methods like double-digging beds and so-called “calorie” planting, Ecology Action’s protocols regularly result in higher food yields in smaller spaces. You don’t need specialized equipment or fancy things, they counsel, to grow more than enough food for yourself and your family. You simply need to start with the best quality seeds and be willing to power the effort through your own dedication.
• The Living Seed Company, based in Pt. Reyes Station, is owned by Astrid and Matthew Hoffman, who will be in our Grange on May 16 for a seed-saving workshop. Dedicated to open-pollinated heirloom seeds, Living Seed makes a point of donating its wares to schools and to educating about the life affirming art of seed saving.
When possible, we like to use open pollinated seeds that are specific to our region. Openly pollinated seeds are those whose parent plants begat them through the usual round of pollination practiced by bees, hummingbirds, bats, and beneficial insects. They grow true to the parent plant and adapt over generations to their particular micro-climate.
Heirloom seeds are those in which the plant variety has been cultivated for generations, typically 50 years or more. They are generally open pollinated, and therefore well-adapted to the environment.
Hybrid seeds are developed through cross-breeding and don’t produce true to the parent. Often sterile, hybrids are good for one generation only. We avoid them when possible. Hybrid seeds tie the gardener and farmer to the corporation that developed them, which is antithetical to self-reliance.
Studies show that vegetable diversity is down about 95 percent from the vast types of food once grown the world over. Industrialized food systems keep producing the same few types of vegetables relentlessly demanded by market pressure. Seed saving and supporting open pollinated heirloom seed growers means supporting a larger diversity of food stuffs, which is better for our own health, as well as that of the overall planet.
For germinating seeds, we recommend using clean leftover starter flats or pots, recycled newspaper pots, or CowPots (biodegradable pots made from cow manure), but whatever you use, make sure your containers drain well. Here’s how we do it:
• Fill containers to just below the rim with a light, porous, seed-starting mix. (You can make your own mix by combining 1 part each of peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite.) Moisten the mix, and let it drain. Place two seeds in middle of container. Check the seed packet for the recommended planting depth, and cover the seeds with the proper amount of mix. (As a rule of thumb, cover seeds to a depth equal to twice their diameter.) Label each container with the plant’s name and the date. Moisten the soil lightly.
• If you are starting heat-loving plants (tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, peppers, squashes, or melons), set the containers on a water heater or use a heating mat to keep the soil between 75°F/24°C and 90°F/32°C. (Most cool-season vegetables will germinate at room temperature.) When the seeds germinate, move the pots into an area with bright light and temperatures between 60°F/16°C and 75°F/24°C.
• When the seedlings develop their second set of true leaves, it’s time to transplant them to the outdoors or into a larger container if starting from flats. Fill the new containers with potting mix, moisten the mix, and let drain. Carefully remove the new seedlings from the germinating container. Try to get all the roots and disturb them as little as possible. (Newspaper pots can go straight into soil.) Make a planting hole in the new container and nestle the seedling into its new home a little deeper than it was originally. Gently press the mix around the transplanted seedlings and water them gently to settle the soil. Your seedlings will need a steady supply of water, but the soil shouldn’t be constantly wet. Feed the seedlings weekly with a fish emulsion solution or compost tea diluted to half-strength.
• A week before you plan to transplant your seedlings to the garden, begin taking them outdoors to a protected place, such as inside a cold frame or near a wall, for increasing lengths of time on mild days. This will help them adjust to the conditions outside—a process known as hardening off. Start with just a couple of hours each day, work up to a full day, and then leave them out overnight.
• When you finally transplant the seedlings to the garden, be careful not to disturb their roots. Gently pop them out of their containers, keeping as much soil attached to their roots as possible. If you’ve used a biodegradable pot, it can be planted directly into the ground. Plants suffer no transplant shock, and establish themselves immediately.