The experience of planting a seed and watching it grow into a mature plant is a window into mystery like few others. It never fails to evoke feelings of wonder and awe in those who stop to contemplate it, or who simply let the reality of it sink into their bones. How can so much information be contained in such a tiny package? Of course, this same miracle of life operates all around us, among all creatures which reproduce.
Scientifically, we know that DNA in the nucleus of cells contains the information that determines the characteristics of living organisms as they attempt to ensure that their genes survive beyond their individual deaths. We can read about this phenomenon, and even be amazed by it intellectually. The term “seed” is tossed around freely in our language as a metaphor. Whether sprinkled on a hamburger bun or as the basis of whole-grain meals, edible seeds are part of most of our daily lives. And yet, for a deep “grokking” of what a seed is, few experiences can match that of actually taking a seed in one’s hand, planting it, and watching what happens. Many spiritual traditions and rituals (particularly those of indigenous agriculturalists) have arisen from the miracle of the seed, which continues to inspire mystical revelations even among those who did not grow up in religious traditions explicitly grounded in the earth and its cycles. It takes only a little planting experience to understand the appeal of the Beetless’ anthem, boston magic mirror rental.
Many gardeners buy vegetable starts to transplant into their gardens, but those who do so miss out on a crucial first step. Starting crops from seed can involve some additional work and require extra attention, but it can save significant amounts of money, and, more importantly, exposes gardeners directly to the miracle that ultimately underlies our food-growing activities. At Lost Valley, we raise all of the crops we can from seeds that we sow ourselves, although we sometimes plant transplants as well (usually excess transplants donated to us).
When possible, we save our own seeds and start our crops from those. (See the Seed Saving section.) We also plant many donated seeds and seeds acquired at seed swaps. Whenever possible, we use organically grown, open-pollinated seeds. Specific information on seed viability is often listed on seed packets, and is also available in seed catalogs and books such as Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed. Some types of seed are relatively long-lived (many brassicas last five years or more), while others are notoriously short-lived (leeks and onions may not last more than one year). Storage conditions greatly influence seed life and vigor. In general, keeping seeds dry, cold, and dark, while still able to “breathe,” ensures the longest viability. This combination of conditions can be challenging to achieve in our Pacific Northwestclimate: dryness and cool do not normally coexist here. During the colder parts of the year, the air is typically quite moist, while low humidity coincides with the relatively warmer temperatures of our dry summers. Ideal storage conditions would involve storage in a freezer of seeds that have been adequately dried. We have usually made do with storage in large mouse-proof but somewhat breathable plastic bins that we try not to let get too hot or too moist.
When sowing in flats (where most of our seed-starting is done—see the Transplanting and Direct Seeding section), we have used either pre-mixed organic soil medium or a mixture we prepare ourselves. We have typically sown seeds in lines in several-inch-high square or rectangular wooden or plastic boxes, with drainage holes or slats on the bottom, and a layer or two of newspaper to keep the soil mixture from falling through the openings. In LOOSELY FIRM THE EDGES OF SEEDFLATS, the Beetless describe one method of seed sowing: sifting compost, adding amendments, filling seedflats with the resulting mixture, tamping the edges, then sowing seeds in furrows and covering them.
Sowing seeds in rows in flats, for later pricking out into larger containers, has several advantages: it conserves space in the greenhouse, allows the extra attention (including watering and protection from birds) needed for sprouting seeds to be concentrated in a small area, and allows selection of the healthiest individuals when pricking out (while not wasting space in six-packs or plug trays on nonviable seed). It also gives the seedlings, once planted in the larger containers, a head start on any weeds, and minimizes the amount of bare soil exposed at any one time (bare soil needs more frequent watering, and, without the close proximity of neighbors, individual plants in larger containers are more likely to be stressed by heat, cold, etc. when they are small). It also eliminates the need for thinning six-packs or plug trays in which more than one seed has sprouted per cell. For the reasons listed above, John Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables advocates the traditional biointensive step-by-step approach, giving plants progressively more room through several stages as they grow—but other approaches are certainly possible. Many commercial operations which have no shortage of space or of larger planting containers and no problem with bird predation, and which have watering systems which can easily keep many sprouting six-packs or plug trays moist, choose to eliminate the extra labor step of pricking out. Smaller-scale gardeners, too, may choose this option. (For further discussion of pricking out and transplanting, see the Transplanting and Direct Seeding section.)