by guest blogger Tim Mountz of Happy Cat Farm
My wife and I practice what we call seed-to-seed agriculture on our farm. We like to encourage people to grow their food from seed—and not just in the spring but all year long. For some reason, people are really afraid of starting plants from seed. But it’s actually very easy. Seeds are some of the most resilient things on Earth. Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that a team of Russian scientists found seeds in the Siberian permafrost that were over 37,000 years old, and they got the seeds to germinate, grow, flower, and produce more seeds! That is just such a great reminder of the power of seeds and beacon of hope in the murky world that is our seed industry today.
Today, multi-national seed conglomerates have consolidated the number of seed varieties that are available to growers, creating genetic erosion. Corporate seed giants and their hacks claim that genetically modified organisms will save the world. (Side note: If you are not afraid of GMO’s, to quote Yoda, “You will be, you will be.”) It’s enough to drive a seed farmer crazy. And, dear readers, if you take one thing away from this blog, let it be this: Ask your seed company about seed origin.
I know you have lots to ask already, but origin is so important. So many seed companies today show great pictures of people standing in fields harvesting seeds. The problem is that most of them are getting seeds from Israel, Australia, and even China. And most domestic seeds come from Oregon. Now, I’m not trying to get all Biggie/Tupac, East Coast/West Coast on ya, but my soil is different (I’m in PA), my bugs are different, my needs and wants are different… You get where I am going with this, right? You need to ask seed companies the following questions: How organic is it? Is it an heirloom or open pollinated? And where was it grown? These questions will help our seed system to become more sustainable, resilient, and local. People should be looking for answers that fit the needs that they have and the ones that can help with our food security. (You can see why my wife calls me, the “fist-pounding seed evangelist.”)
So, what can you do? Get more involved in your own personal food system. And grow more food from seed. It really is easy. Here’s what to do:
1. Start with selection and not just a great seed company (like Happy Cat Farm), but select what you want to grow. I always tell people who ask me about starting things from seed to grow what you love. You will always put more energy and time into that and, in turn, have more success. We start more things from seed indoors than most, but most people around here start peppers and tomatoes indoors—those are the biggies. But once you are set up and know what you are doing you can start almost everything inside.
2. Once you have your seeds you will need some seed-starting soil, small pots or trays, a light source, and a warm spot to put them. I use four-foot shop lights, but any light will work as long as it is bright enough and focused on the young plants. The warmth is for the soil—heat helps the seeds to start the germination process. You can use the top of the fridge or radiator, or buy a heat mat made for seed starting. And the best tool you can have on hand is a book, The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman.
3. Check your local frost dates to see when your first day of planting out starts and work back using the days to maturity information on the seed packet. Peppers like to have eight to nine weeks of growth on them before April 14th, our average last frost date. (Mother’s Day is the traditional date used here.) Tomatoes love heat, but hate the transplant process, so we only put four to five weeks on them. So, look up your last frost date count back the right amount of days (This is not set in stone, you have weeks of flexibility. Last year I started tomato seeds the first week of June and got tomatoes off those plants.)
4. Fill your trays or pots with a seed-starting mix and plant your seeds. Make sure you label everything and put the date you planted it on there as well. Keeping great records will help you with your timing; this way you can be more successful next time.
5. Seeds need two things to start the process of becoming a plant: water and warmth. Keep the soil moist but not super-wet—that can be a problem. Seed trays are nice because you can put water in the tray and the tiny pots pull it up as they need it. Covering the trays with a lid or a sheet of plastic or glass helps keep humidity in, and will also help keep the soil temperature up since humid air holds more heat.
6. Once the seedlings break the soil, you need to get a light source on them—and I mean right on them. I lower my lights right down to the soil and raise them as the tiny plants grow. If your light is not strong enough or is too far away, you will have plants that are stretched and weak, and you’ll have a very hard time getting them to live and struggle with them the entire growing season.
7. Once the tiny plants come up, they will put out two leaves and grow for a few days and then, true leaves will start to grow. They will look like the leaves of the plant you are growing. If the plants are sturdy but look pale or yellow, you may need to fertilize, but for the most part you will not have to do this. If you do need to fertilize, use an organic fertilizer like fish emulsion, and make a very weak mix of it. Young plants can be burned by too strong a feeding.
8. I like to put a fan on my seedlings when they get their true leaves. The plants react to the wind by making their stems sturdy, and sturdy plants is what you want.
9. Hardening off and planting are the last two steps. Hardening is the act of exposing your plants to the outdoors a little bit at a time. They learn to see the real sun, and feel the wind and changes in air temperature. Start by leaving them out for an hour or two after work for three to four days, and then give them three to four days of staying out all day while you are at work. Progress to all day long and into the night, but be careful that the nighttime temps don’t get below 45 on the young plants.
Once the plants are hardened, you can begin planting them. I’ll talk more about planting in my next blog.
Happy food independence, everyone!
Tim and his wife Amy own Happy Cat Farm, an organic farm and lifestyle brand located just outside of Kennett Square, PA [www.happycatorganics.com].