Green Garden Spot: Simple Seedlings
Air Date: Week of February 14, 1997
Evelyn Tully Costa's final installment on organic gardening how-to tips. Tips include remembering to label your seeds, and to keep them moist and warm.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Anticipation, it grows stronger as the days lengthen here in the Northeast. And we know winter cannot linger long. A warm day here and there quickens our step, and we scan the trees and shrubs for signs of buds. And the almost unimaginable green to follow. But who wants to wait for Nature to move things along? Gardeners across the country are already preparing for the ritualistic cheat on nature, starting their own plants from seeds, and extending the growing season in spite of Mr. Jack Frost. And with us once again is our Green Garden Spot correspondent Evelyn Tully Costa. Hi, Evelyn.
TULLY COSTA: Hey, Steve, how are you? Did you get around to reading any of those garden books?
CURWOOD: (Laughs) You mean those tons of seed catalogues that choked the mailbox?
TULLY COSTA: Yes. Those qualify as gardening books, in my book they do.
CURWOOD: They do. I think they're doorstops, too, there are so many of them. I was able to pick out a few veggies and flowers that we'd like to grow ourselves. And the catalogues are telling me that I should be ordering a 3-tiered grow light table shelving system with computerized irrigation controls and heated soil coils. What do you think?
TULLY COSTA: (Laughs) Steve, I think that's ridiculous. You're going to scare away all your listeners. Now, starting the seedling business? It's really simple, and it's inexpensive, and I think everybody could start out, if this is their first time, with things that they have right around the house.
CURWOOD: Like what?
TULLY COSTA: Well, you need containers, you've got to put the seeds in something. So you could try cardboard milk cartons or Dixie cups with holes on the bottom. You could use, if you have kids or even if you don't, popsicle sticks for labels and a spritzer for gentle watering and some plastic to keep the floor dry. And a heating pad, like the one you had to use last year after you kind of wore your back out digging all that compost in.
CURWOOD: Yes, yes, spades, yes.
TULLY COSTA: You do have to spend a little money on sterile potting soil and some of those long fluorescent tubes, okay. Now for the first time out this is going to be fine; if you want to get your full spectrum extravaganza, you can do that next year, okay? So what seeds are you going to order, Steve?
CURWOOD: Well, you know, I want a lot of seeds, Evelyn. I mean there are 20 different types of salad greens in there. They look delicious. And there are 15 types of heirloom tomatoes. You know, they have purple spots and heart shapes and green stripes. And oh yeah, they have these cool sunflowers in there, too.
TULLY COSTA: Okay. All right. So I guess we (laughs) -- the diversity issue has not been lost on you, all right?
CURWOOD: Oh, I'm a diverse kinda guy.
TULLY COSTA: Okay, well, there's diverse kind of small family-run seed companies out there, and that's where you get the most interesting and diverse and unusual seed varieties. You cannot buy these at the nursery, all right? So if you're thinking well, you know, I'll just wait and go down to the local nursery, you're going to get your impatience and your snapdragons and 1 or 2 varieties of each -- you can get hundreds, maybe thousands of different selections from these seed catalogues. So I say go for it. Because you're not only buying different varieties, you are bringing diversity back into your back yard and into the planet's gene pool stream.
CURWOOD: Okay, now what do I do exactly? What are the basics for getting these seeds started?
TULLY COSTA: Okay. First thing is you really should get your hand on a seed starting book. I would recommend a copy of Jane Bubel's The New Seed Starter's Handbook. It's put out by Rodale. Your local library should have it. And basically we are talking about 3 simple stages: germination, getting the seeds to sprout, and the second phase is nursing the young seedlings along, and step number 3 is acclimating or toughening your plants up, because they've been kind of like having it easy inside, you've got to toughen them up before they go outside.
CURWOOD: Okay, and what's the most important thing to do?
TULLY COSTA: Well, there's a couple of important things. But the first thing is you really should label these seeds, or you're going to end up like I did last year with mystery tomatoes, because we didn't label, and my clients kind of benefited from that because I just gave them all away and said let me know what happens in August.
CURWOOD: What else?
TULLY COSTA: Lighting is important, and also heat, too. I think people make the mistake of thinking they can just stick these things on windowsills. Your poor little plants stretch for the little light they're going to get, and at night it gets cold. These things have to be -- to germinate anyway -- it has to be warm and dark, and when the lighting process comes around you've got to keep the lights right on top and for 16 hours a day, not just the 8 or the 4 hours they're going to get on your window sill.
CURWOOD: So, the heating pad, then, huh? This comes into play to keep them warm.
TULLY COSTA: Right. The germination process, which is step number one, it's got to be warm and moist. And no light, you don't need light for this part, so you put your seeds in, you put the heating pad underneath, and you keep the soil as moist as a rinsed out sponge. Not soggy, not too dry.
CURWOOD: And then when they pop through, when you see the little guys, you start the lights?
TULLY COSTA: Yeah. You roll the lights in or you put the seed trays underneath the lights. Make sure you can adjust them. Keep the light about an inch above the seeds, and as the seeds grow up you slowly raise the lights. You want strong plants. You don't want them flopping over trying to reach, you know, stretching themselves out to reach those lights. So that's the important thing.
CURWOOD: And then when can I put them outside?
TULLY COSTA: Okay. Well, as soon as the frost passes in your area what you do is you stick them outside for just a few hours a day, and you extend that as the days go by. You wait for a cloudy day and then you put them out. Probably about a week or so after you've, the last frost has passed in your area.
CURWOOD: Okay. Tips on going lightly on your pocketbooks and the planet from our Green Garden correspondent Evelyn Tully Costa.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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