What better stay at home activity for springtime than sowing seeds?
While many may look to grow their own food simply for food security purposes I feel that the joy of growing is an equally valuable aspect of gardening right now. Starting seeds gives you something to look forward to. In a time of anxiety and stress, when we can control little in the outside world, we can find joy in watching seeds sprout. There is something about seeing a new shoot of life come out of the soil that rings a bell of happiness in our primal lizard brains.
I wish that I could wave a magic wand and stop this illness. Alas, I can only do my part and stay home.
I can also offer my years of experience as a gardener to help advise anyone looking to start an edible garden right now. If you want to grow some veggies or even just flowers to brighten your mood, here are the basics to get started.
Right now it's the beginning of April. We just passed the Spring Equinox and the days are continuing to lengthen. Here in California and other mild climates, cooler nighttime temperature may slow things down a bit but we can plant a wide variety of vegetables right now. To catch the tail end of the cool season we can still plant lettuce, cabbage, beets and leafy greens. We can also plan ahead and start planting warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers. I'd recommend holding off on squash and melons for another month.
Direct Seeding vs. Transplanting
Direct seeding implies that you are planting seeds directly into the ground or the soil of a container you will be growing in. Root vegetables in particular do best when direct sown. Beets, radishes and carrots should always be sown directly into the soil. I usually make a little trench with my finger, sprinkle the seeds in and cover them up again. Meanwhile, plants such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant will always do best when started in a container and later transplanted out into the garden when they are robust enough to fend for themselves. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant all have small seeds that are easily lost in the soil and they also all prefer warm, cozy spaces to get their start. I have seedlings started on a heat mat indoors right now.
The bottom heat provided by a heat mat helps spur seeds to germinate more quickly. They are relatively inexpensive and widely available online but really not necessary for just starting a few things. I actually bought my heat mat originally to make homemade tempeh, but that's another story. You can also improve the humidity by making a mini greenhouse by simply draping a plastic bag over your seedlings. However, it's important not to let the plastic touch the surface of the soil. It can hold too much moisture and allow fungi to grow that can kill the seeds. I usually use chopsticks or craft sticks to prop up the plastic around the plants.
When starting seeds in containers to later be transplanted out into the garden you need a soil or planting media that hold moisture but also provides adequate air space. You can buy seed starting mix at nurseries or online. I make my own by blending coconut coir, perlite and compost and sprinkling in a teeny tiny bit of all purpose granular fertilizer. It's less expensive for me to make my own but I also am a professional and compulsive gardener so I go through a significant quantity. It may make more sense for you to buy the bagged seed starting mix. Regular potting soil is usually okay for starting seeds but it tends to not have enough aeration and holds too much moisture for my taste. I may lighten up the potting soil by adding perlite or vermiculite. Sand can also be added to potting soil to improve aeration but it is significantly heavier.
The rule of thumb that I go by on how deep to plant seeds is two to three times as deep as the seed is long. That means little seeds like kale or tomatoes are only like a quarter centimeter deep. I just sprinkle my seed starting mix over the seeds gently. Planting too deep is a common beginner mistake. And it's disheartening to watch and wait for your babies to pop up and they never do because they were planted too deep. A seed is an energy nugget. From the time the baby plant emerges from the seed until it can reach above the soil and start to photosynthesize and feed itself, it is dependent on the stored energy from the seed. If you plant it too deep it will run out of food (energy) before reaching the soil surface. For kids I would recommend to start with larger seeds like peas, beans and squash. Their bigger size makes them more forgiving about planting depth.
More detailed instructions to follow soon! Stay home, stay safe and stay strong.