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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

LOE Garden Spot on Winter Seed Starting

Air Date: Week of

It's the heart of winter, and Living On Earth’s resident gardening expert Michael Weishan says this is a good time to think about fresh flowers and vegetables by getting seeds going right now. And, he adds, it's easier than you might think with his tips on starting your own plants from seed.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's practically the dead of winter, and yes, it is time to talk about gardening. So with me is Michael Weishan, editor of Traditional Gardening and Living on Earth's gardening expert. Hi, Michael.

WEISHAN: Hi, Steve, how are you?

CURWOOD: Now this week, we're going to do something different, Michael. Instead of spending the afternoon tromping outside your beautiful place here, we're inside your greenhouse. And I've got to say that when I came out here today, that someone remarked, "Hey, what are you thinking about gardening this time of year for?"

WEISHAN: Well it's actually a terrific time to start thinking about the next year. And if you're interested at all in planting seeds and growing your own, now's the time to start.

CURWOOD: Why start seeds indoors? I mean, isn't it easier just to go to the store and get them already grown? You know they're there, they're big and tall and strong and (makes popping sound) just pop them in the ground?

WEISHAN: Well, it's easier, but it's also much more expensive, and you get a much smaller selection of material to grow. Here's one, for instance, I started already. It's called milk thistle.

CURWOOD: It looks like a bit of abstract art, the way it has these big, broad, white veins on it.

WEISHAN: Yeah, it's amazing. And of course it also flowers later in the year, appropriately thistle-like flower, and it makes a terrific addition to the garden. Now, you'll never find this at your standard nursery.

CURWOOD: Now, what do you need to do this?

WEISHAN: Not a lot. Essentially, you need some type of container, and here we're using a tray, it's about 2 inches deep. But you could really use anything. It's somewhat important that the container be initially somewhat sterile. Not antiseptically clean, but not home to fungus or other potential diseases.

CURWOOD: What do you put in this?

WEISHAN: Inside here we have what looks like soil, but it's actually called soilless mix. Essentially, it's a mixture of vermiculite and peat moss or sometimes, even sphagnum. Anything that does not have a lot of soil bacteria in it. If you start seeds in regular sort of garden soil, chances are they might rot or get some diseases like dampening off, for instance, which kills the seeds. (Containers clank) Of course, here in the greenhouse we have rather large containers of it (huffs amidst moving objects), and we'll use it quite a bit, and we'll -- oop! -- trying not to pull down all the pots here. All right. So we're going to bring this over, and essentially you're just going to reach in and here, probably take a scooper here and just sort of fill that up.

(Scooping sounds)


WEISHAN: Now, what you want to do, now, is sort of press this down so that the mix is somewhat compacted.


WEISHAN: So that there's not a lot of air in it. And it's really important to soak these things down well. Most people, and I certainly started this way as well, would plant the seeds and then water. And what happens is you float half the seeds to the surface or down into the crevices or other places where you don't want them to be. So what we're going to do, we're going to take this right over to the water here, or --

(Splashing sounds)


WEISHAN: Now, the next step is generally to take either your hand or a piece of an old potsherd or piece of wood, and sort of just smush it down there. So that everything is compacted once again to make sure we have a fairly flat planting surface.

(Patting, compacting sounds)

WEISHAN: Of course, we wait until the water has fully drained out of this, so that it's not, you know, terribly squishy still. We're going to plant a flat of parsley and get it started for the next year, because now's the time to do that.

CURWOOD: All right.

WEISHAN: Now, the general rule for seed planting is, you want to bury the seed about half again as deep as its diameter. In other words, if you have a large seed, say, half a centimeter, you want to plant it just a quarter centimeter deep. A little seed like that, which is like the size of the top of a pin, essentially can be scattered on the soil and very lightly covered.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

WEISHAN: That's why we pre-water this. The base is now wet, and now we can scatter the seeds on the surface.

(Seeds being scattered)

CURWOOD: It's rather like putting a little seasoning on something.

WEISHAN: Yes, it looks exactly like that. As I said, the key here is going to be to very lightly cover this thing. I'm just shaking the soil (shaking sounds) on top of our already watered base. And as you can see, we've covered this just minimally. Now we're going to just pat that down, and that's it. What I like to do is cover this so that it doesn't dry out right away, that's the other great reason people fail. And we use simple plastic covers that come made for the flats. You don't have to water much or do anything.

CURWOOD: Now, this is all very handy, Michael, if you have a greenhouse like the kind that we're standing in. But what if you, you know, live in an apartment or a regular house?

WEISHAN: Well, for instance, if you wanted just to grow a few of your own herbs, it would be very easy to do it just this way in a smaller container or pot, or just in a flower pot and cover it with a bit of Saran Wrap. Some plants do much better with what's called bottom heat.


WEISHAN: Parsley happens to be one of these. And we use actually a fairly elaborate system that keeps the seed bed at 70 degrees. But the average homeowner can use just a simple heating coil that they sell in most nurseries, and it's an inexpensive purchase. And you'll find that if you've tried growing seeds without bottom heat and it failed, that's probably the answer. It really is the key to success.

CURWOOD: And what about light? Do they need special light?

WEISHAN: No, not really, no special light. Sunlight will be fine. And if you don't have a sunny windowsill, fluorescent lights work just great.

CURWOOD: What's the timing for this? Here we are in New England. It's very cold, it's January. When should I be starting my seeds?

WEISHAN: It depends on your frost-free date, and everything works backward from that. So, if for instance you want to start tomatoes and the packets say start 8 to 10 weeks before your last frost date, in New England we would start around March, figuring our frost -free date's about May 15 or so. Obviously in the South, that occurs much sooner.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time to talk with us today.

WEISHAN: It's been my pleasure.

CURWOOD: In addition to being Living on Earth's gardening expert, Michael Weishan is editor of Traditional Gardening. And if you have a question for Michael, you can reach him via our web site. The address is www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. And when you get there, click on the picture of the watering can.



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