Wednesday, April 2, 2008

After Snow, Seeds...

I'm getting ready to begin the gardening season by starting some seeds inside. With the long cold winter we've had and Monday's heavy, wet snow, the ground outside won't be ready to be worked for a while yet. You've probably read how to test whether the soil is ready: scoop a handful of soil up in your hand and squeeze it. If it sticks together (or worse, drips), it's too wet to be worked and you'll just damage the soil structure by trying. When the soil crumbles in your hand like chocolate cake, then you can start turning over your garden beds and thinking about planting your early spring crops like lettuce and peas.

Back in February when we were freezing our buns off, I ordered some seeds as an act of hope. Some of these, like lettuce, chard and cucumbers, are plants I can eventually -- either in the spring or later when the soil is good and warm, depending on the plant -- sow directly in my patio pots or the bit of additional in-ground garden space I hope to be borrowing this year. But in our short northern growing season, heat-loving plants like tomatoes and peppers must be started indoors so that they can avoid the cold, stunting soil of spring but still bear plenty of ripe fruit before the first frosts of fall.

At my former house, there was a fluorescent shoplight apparatus in the basement that I used to start seeds under. You need good strong lights (fluorescents, not hot ones that will fry the seedlings) just inches above the young plants, so that they grow strong and bushy, not tall and leggy reaching for the light, and you need to be able to raise the lights to accommodate the growing seedlings -- or to be able to lower the plants, as I did, to accomplish the same thing. I had my seed trays on top of a stack of boxes and old books, and I'd just remove a supporting layer occasionally as the plants grew.

In the lovely old house I lived in before that, we had big south- and west-facing windows with wide cast-iron radiators under them, coming almost up to the sills. The warmth of those radiators and the good light made quite a decent seed-starting set-up, as long as I remembered to turn the trays often so the plants would grow more or less straight.

Where I live now, there's nothing like either of those arrangements available, so I've splurged (I mean, made an investment that will pay off in the currencies of both food and happiness) and ordered a neat little freestanding, height-adjustable seed starting light fixture with a zippy name: the Jump Start 4' Grow Light System. I shopped around a little and found one of the better prices at It features AgroBrite full-spectrum fluorescent tubes, said to offer "sun-like light with great value and efficiency"!

It's not here yet, but I'm hoping to set it up in a corner somewhere where it won't get bumped but where it's in sight so my kids and I can watch those first tiny shoots unfurl, develop their first true leaves, and grow into sturdy little plants that will thrive when I can finally move them outside in late May or June.

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