By Richard Burke
March and November around here are usually transitional months – they prepare us for the seasons that follow. The difference for a gardener is that November signals the start of several months of plant dormancy, while March is fully of hope and anticipation of the growth part of the plant cycle.
I’ve been champing at the bit the last few weeks, seduced by a milder-than-usual January and February. A couple of weeks ago, I transplanted a weeping crabapple tree, moved only about four feet but enough to open up a space in a smallish yard. A new-exotic looking yellow peony we planted last year now sits where the tree came from, a location more visible from the deck, between the Winnipeg Rose and the ornamental crab.
But, that was only busy work. There’s lots of that to do in a spring yard. The real sign of the impending season happened Friday, well actually started two weeks ago: a basement crawl space I’ve used for years to start my seeds needed a transformation. I tried the greenhouse one year, but the temperature was too variable for about half the seeds I tried: they never germinated.
The first chore was to the clear the space – for those of you who have seen only newer homes, a crawl space is simply dirt left from the excavation (our house was built in 1929) held in place by 4 1/2 feet of concrete 6-inches thick. Two old carpets had been stored there since a living-room, dining-room reno 10 years ago. They were the main part of a truck full of junk that went to the landfill.
Thursday, I re-hung two four-foot fluorescent light fixtures over the plywood, at just the right height to sit over seed flats with about an inch to spare. They can be moved up as the plants grow.
That done, I rounded up the seed trays and cells for a cleaning and sorting – several went to the recycling bin, replaced by new ones from the dollar store for five bucks.
Then Thursday afternoon, I pulled three Costco almond jars full of vegetable, flower, grass and herb seed packets from past years out of the greenhouse to do an inventory. I catalogued 199 packages. Fourteen different squash varieties and a similar number of lettuces led the way. Ten varieties of tomatoes and six different zinnias and basils followed. The rest ran from ageratum to artichokes and from liatris and lobelia to the larkspur I got from the Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society seed swap in late February (they are good companion annuals for the delphiniums). I’m like a kid in a candy store around the seed displays at Green Haven, Canadian Tire and Peavey Mart.
That paved the way to Friday. In the greenhouse, I filled the 288 seed cells with Miracle-Gro seed-starting potting mix, wet the dirt and poked holes in each cell from 1/16 to 1/4-inch deep, depending on the seed’s needs. In went the seeds – a bit of everything from tomatoes to pink pampas grass and tarragon.
Figuring out when to do this isn’t difficult: counting back eight-12 weeks from the end of May – when you can usually get plants safely into the ground – brings you to about the beginning of April or March, give or take. Some keeners start in February. I prefer early to mid-March, particularly so plants like tomatoes are a decent size for transplanting (and can bear fruit earlier.) Seeds such as squash and cucumber can be started later. Lettuce and spinach can go directly into the ground, even the previous fall, although I had good luck with lettuce transplants last year.
The seeds planted Friday and moved into the crawl space under the lights will start sprouting by Monday or Tuesday. Sometime later in the month or early April, I’ll start transplanting them into larger pots and moving them into the greenhouse.
At any rate, it’s a wonderful time of year, when the magic starts. Raising plants from seed is almost as rewarding as raising children. I don’t think I’ll ever react with anything but awe at how it all happens.