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It's the Plants, Darling,   Shut Up and Dig,   Uncategorized

Starting from Seed

Real gardeners, compulsive gardeners, are up to their elbows in seedlings this time of year.  We (I qualify at least as compulsive) have a number of rationales for starting from seed.

To begin with, it’s economical, the only way we can afford all the plants we want.  For the price of a packet of a few packet of seeds, I can (and do) start hundreds of plants.  I remember once at the wonderful public garden Wave Hill seeing an amazing planting that the staff there advertised as “a $16.00 dollar garden” or something like that because the gardeners had secured all the seeds they needed to fill the whole big bed for that price.

Lettuce seedlings — 72 salads for the price of one packet of seeds

An even better reason for starting from seed is that by doing so you can have plants you will get no other way.   I do most of my vegetable gardening on a chilly hilltop in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, where it is too cool to ripen fruit of the mass market tomato seedlings found at local garden centers.  By starting from seed, I can have plants of tomatoes such as ‘Stupice’, ‘Glacier’ and ‘Siberian’ that will produce a harvest, quite a tasty one, even in my garden.  And when, years ago, I took care of an old estate for Columbia University, I used to grow all sorts of unusual things thanks to the seed exchange program of the Royal Horticultural Society.

The best reason for starting your plants from seed, though, is that you will get to know them more thoroughly and intimately that way than in any other.  What you have to do, for example, to bring the seeds out of dormancy, tells you much about the conditions in which the plants evolved.  “Physical dormancy,” for instance, in which the seeds of plants such as morning glories and moonflowers are prevented from germinating by a hard, impermeable seed coat, indicates that in nature the seeds would be subjected to the stresses of high or fluctuating temperatures, perhaps exposure to fire or cycles of freezing and thawing, or would be passed through the digestive tract of some animal.  Incidentally, you can produce the same effect by simply rubbing the seed over a sheet of fine sandpaper.

Other seeds from areas with cyclical drought must undergo a period of drying before they can germinate.   Some, which come moister climates, need to soak in water for a period of time before they germinate.  Still others, which originate in more temperate northern climates need a period of moist chilling to duplicate the effects of winter before they can sprout. I treat these by putting them in a handful of moist sand in a Ziploc bag and storing them in the refrigerator for 4-6 weeks.  Finally, some seeds will only germinate in the dark and must be buried when planted, while others, such as lettuce, must be exposed to light, which means that they are planted by scattering them on the surface of the soil.

In this way, even before I put the plants in my garden I learn much about what conditions they prefer and what they can tolerate.  All because I start from seed.


Posted by on April 17, 2017 at 8:31 am.   This post has 5 responses.
Gardening on the Planet,   Science Says,   Shut Up and Dig,   Uncategorized

Sustainable Cow Pots for Better Garden Plants

The best kind of sustainability is to take a waste product and turn it into a valuable resource; to turn garbage, as it were, into gold. There’s a farm family in northwestern Connecticut doing just that these days, and in the process it’s also creating an opportunity for gardeners.

Amanda Freund is, along with her sister Rachel and brother Isaac, the third generation of her family to work the Freund Family Farm in East Canaan, Connecticut.   Historically it has been a dairy farm and the Freunds still milk some 300 cows.   Keeping that kind of herd creates a potential for serious pollution: the farm’s acreage sits in the watershed of two rivers and its cows deposit some 30,000 lbs. of manure and urine every day.


But, says Amanda. her father Matthew decided to treat the manure piling up in the barn not as a problem but as an opportunity. Twenty years ago he installed a digester that extracts methane from the manure, producing enough gas to heat the family home while also separating the manure’s liquid from its solids. The liquid, as a sort of manure tea, the farm pumps out to use as fertilizer on its 400-500 acres of corn and other crops. The solids Matthew used to process into compost which he sold through his wife’s garden center. But then he found a better use.

Starting with a pot on the kitchen stove, he began experimenting with turning the manure solids into biodegradable growing containers; by 2006 he had a product ready for sale and the machinery he needed to manufacture it in bulk. This container has, in a university test, proved superior to other biodegradable containers such as peat pots in at least one very important respect. Once in the soil, once transplanted into a garden bed, the “cow pots” (as the Freunds call them) break down faster and more completely so that the gardener is less likely to experience what I have always found to be a disadvantage with peat pots, that when I pull plants at the end of the growing season, their roots are still largely confined to the pots in which I originally planted them.

cow pot

Amanda Freund suspects that it is the nitrogen content of cow pots that enhances their decay. And of course, unlike peat pots, which draw on what many experts maintain is, in practical terms, a non-renewable resource, cow pots are tapping a renewable resource in over-abundant supply. To date, her family has produced some 35 million of these ingenious containers, controlling water pollution on the farm while conserving natural resources.   You’ll find them for sale during the winter-spring seed-starting season at local retailers and on-line as well. Why not do your bit for the environment and give your plants a treat? Give cowpots a try.

Posted by on February 15, 2016 at 9:28 am.   This post has 21 responses.