Saturday, March 20, 2010

Seed Starting Workshop

Get your seeds, trays and starter soil ready - after being inspired, again, by Angie Koch's seed starting workshop today, I think all workshop participants left feeling ready to start planting! It was a full house - we would have held the workshop outdoors but the weather wasn't cooperating. Thanks for everyone's willingness to cram into our little kitchen for this workshop! And thanks Angie, from Fertile Ground CSA.

A few seeding tips gleaned from Angie:
- use a hypothermia blanket (from Canadian Tire store, or a camping outfitter) to help insulate the seed rack and also help reflect heat and light back onto the tiny sprouting seeds. In a pinch, using aluminum foil can work too.
- do not over-water seeds/seedlings - moulds and fungal diseases will take hold in wet soil.
- the way a seedling is started will largely set the tone for the rest of it's growing cycle. e.g. if tomato seedlings are let to go too "leggy" (tall and spindly) they will likely be leggy out in the garden later. It's wise to be patient and not start tomatoes too early, having smaller bushy sturdy plants is better than tall long leggy ones.
- take some time to brush your seedlings gently with your hand each day as they get larger, or even fan them a little to help harden them off
- hardening off outside in gradual stages - using cloches, cold frames, or setting them out in mild sun (not full sun) on a warm day on a protected side of your house - give them a little time to adjust before they get planted out into the garden
- remember, though frost free date is the May 24 long weekend here in southern Ontario, we have had frost in the first week of June before (last year), so be patient with cold sensitive seedlings like basil and wait another week before setting them into the garden

There is a lot of information on the back of a seed package. Days to maturity, row spacing, planting depth, as well as other words like "open-pollinated", "untreated", or "heirloom". What does these mean? A few definitions Angie touched on, which will help to decipher the seed packets for you (these definitions are very abbreviated and more information is available in seed catalogues or on the internet):

Open-pollinated seeds - are seeds pollinated by insects, birds or wind. They will prodcue new generations of plants with potentially widely varying traits from the parent plants. If growing open-pollinated plants in your backyard garden the seeds you save from these plants will have crossed with other plants nearby, so they won't be true to the parent plant. However, open-pollination may help increase biodiversity.

Heirloom/heritage seeds - are cultivars that were commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, and are not used in large-scale commercial agriculture. Many of these heirlooms are open-pollinated varieties. Heirlooms tend to come with fantastic histories, names and stories, and often unique flavours, colour, texture, size/shape, etc. Growing heirloom plants, and saving seeds, has been increasing in popularity in the past decade in the hopes of preserving these old varieties which are not available for purchase in grocery stores.

Certified organic seeds - this simply means the plants that these seeds derived from have been grown following certified organic specifications.

Treated seeds - some seed packages will tell you that the seeds are "treated", meaning coated with fungicides, etc (not certified organic). Some seed packages will not tell you the seeds are treated, but a tell-tale sign is that seeds have a bright pink, blue or green coating on them. If you are concerned about using any chemicals in your backyard garden, then do not use treated seeds.

GMO seeds - Genetically modified organisms have had their genetic material altered using genetic engineering techniques. The idea is to combine DNA molecules from different sources, to produce new genes with specific traits. GMO seeds are highly contentious and a MUCH bigger topic - on one hand, companies like Monsanto claim they will help to reduce world hunger by vastly increasing crop yields. On the other hand, we don't yet know the long-term consequences of growing (and eating) GMO foods; GMO seeds from crops can't be saved by farmers, making them dependant on purchasing expensive seeds as well as other expensive inputs like Round-Up. Monsanto has specialized in production of GMO seeds for crops such as corn, soybeans, cotton and increasingly rice, and has been the primary multinational company targeted by environmental activists around the world.

Determinate plants - a more bushy kind of plant (e.g. tomato) that produces and ripens fruit all at one time. A good choice for someone with a balcony garden, or someone wanting to make a salsa or sauce with a bit batch of tomatoes that are ready all at once.

Indeterminate plants - a more sprawling kind of plant (e.g. tomato) that produces and ripens its fruit over the whole course of the growing season until killed by frost. A good choice for the backyard gardener who wants to savour tomatoes all season long, one lovely fruit at a time.

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