Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: Winter Sowing Day

According to my Yahoo Weather widget, the temperature outside is currently 34 degrees, headed up to a daytime high of 44, with snow flurries expected tonight and tomorrow. Happy first day of spring, everyone!

This is why I've always found it silly to designate the solstices and equinoxes as the "first days" of their respective seasons. Clearly spring, defined as the time when you can start going outside without a coat, doesn't start in mid-March, and summer, the time when you're liable to be too warm even in your shirt sleeves, is already well under way by mid-June. Nonetheless, this is still the equinox, and something needs to be done to mark the occasion. Brian is celebrating by riding his bike to work for the first time this year, temperatures in the thirties notwithstanding. But I'm having a bit more trouble figuring out how to fit this date on the calendar into my new scheme of gardeners' holidays. It's not quite time to start planting seeds out in the garden yet; my earliest crop, the snow peas, isn't scheduled to go into the ground until March 31 (which, this year, coincides with Easter Sunday, so that's how I'll be celebrating). My seedlings, on the other hand, are already in progress; I've already got healthy parsley seedlings, smaller celery seedlings, and a few spindly little leeks coming up. I thought of calling this Tomato-Starting Day, but even that is a bit of a misnomer; my earliest tomatoes, the Sun Golds, actually got started last weekend, and all my other varieties aren't due to be started until next weekend.

There is one thing I can do today, however, to get the tomato-planting process started. Unlike the Sun Golds I started last weekend, which have to stay indoors where it's nice and warm, the rest of my tomatoes and all of my peppers are going to be a mixture of indoor seedlings and winter sown seedlings, started outdoors in mini-greenhouses. I really like this technique because, in true ecofrugal fashion, it makes use of what's freely available—sunlight and the natural cycles of freezing and thawing—rather than requiring me to invest money or effort or both to recreate their effects. And since I've often noticed that the volunteer plants (and other weeds) that sow themselves, whether in the garden or elsewhere, are invariably bigger, stronger, and healthier come planting time than the seedlings I've carefully nurtured indoors under fluorescent light for 12 hours a day, I can't help thinking that the closer I can come to letting the seeds grow in their natural environment, the better off they'll be. And indeed, based on my limited experimentation with winter sowing in the past, the winter sown seedlings—those that survive—do appear to be generally bigger and healthier than the indoor ones, and more likely to survive transplanting.

What I'd really like to do, to be honest, is to plant my seeds in the wintertime, right after the garden beds have been emptied out, and let them nestle all winter under a nice, thick layer of mulch. Come spring, they'll start freezing and thawing repeatedly as the days warm up, loosening their little seed coats so that the roots and shoots can break through. Sure, a lot of them probably wouldn't survive this process, but those that did would have the advantage of starting out right in the spot where they'll end up, so they can spread their roots early and get down to the business of growing, instead of being crowded into little pots until the experts say it's time to transplant them. However, I haven't actually had the nerve to try this—yet—so I figure winter sowing is the next best thing. I haven't worked my way up to sowing all my seeds outdoors; some of them, like parsley, need to start so early that I fear they wouldn't make it, and others, like eggplant, are described as needing warmth to germinate at all, so they really need to start indoors if I'm going to manage to produce any in our relatively short Northeastern growing season. But I've gotten as far as splitting my tomato and pepper plants into two batches, one for outdoors and one for indoors, and if the outdoor seedlings do better than the indoor seedlings this year, I may just go with all outdoors next year.

The outdoor sowing does, however, require some prep work. Our regular seed starting system, with lengths of PVC pipe fitted into OJ cartons, isn't ideal for outdoor sowing, because the cartons are too big. They could be cut in half and tucked into clear plastic bags, but then the PVC tubes would have to be cut in half as well. So our best bet is probably to use the plastic jug method. We already have several clean, empty plastic gallon jugs that have been demoted from their old jobs storing our emergency water supplies after we noticed that they tended to spring leaks. That's not a problem for winter sowing containers; in fact, you want them to leak, or more properly, drain, and if they don't already have holes in the bottom you need to add some with a pen knife. Then you saw off most of the top of the jug, just below the handle, leaving the label, if it has one, to serve as a hinge. I figure we can pop our PVC pipe starting tubes into these jugs and then fill them as usual with a well-moistened mixture of seed starter and soil. Once the tubes are tucked snugly in the jugs, they won't loose much water to evaporation, so they won't need constant watering or misting the way our indoor seedlings do.

So that's how I'm celebrating the astronomical (if not horticultural) start of spring: by prepping a bunch of jugs for winter sowing. We've got eight tomato plants and four pepper plants that will be started this way, so three jugs should be sufficient. And once those are all planted, we'll officially be out of seed-starting season, with all our other crops from there on out going directly into the ground.
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