The art of producing organic crops holds many challenges for the home gardener. This may never be as true as in the fragile weeks it takes for a seed to germinate and grow into a plant hearty enough to face the harsh outdoors.
“It can take patience,” says Melissa Jemison, a master gardener and support volunteer with the North Carolina State University Extension Master Gardener Program. “It is more work and it has to be carefully maintained. They won’t take care of themselves”.
It can be tempting to simply purchase young plants from a nursery or even from one of the garden centers that have sprung up in many retail “superstores.” But despite the ease and convenience of buying these plants, they may not truly meet the goals of a dedicated organic farmer. The effort of starting from seed may have an unexpected hidden value.
“If you don’t start from seed and you don’t know the grower, it’s hard to be sure the plants have been cared for organically,“ explains Melissa. “Unless you are buying plants from a trusted source, you can’t always be sure about what you’re getting. If you grow them yourself, then you know.
Just as produce must meet stringent guidelines to receive the USDA’s “certified organic” label, so must organic seeds. Some good sources of certified organic seed are found online. Prices vary, but the cost starting from seed it just a fraction of the cost of purchasing already maturing plants. The price of one plant may be more than what a hundred seeds may cost.
A respected seed merchant since 1881. Organic seeds represent a small percentage of their inventory, but it is sizable and well organized.
Independently owned and 100% organic, High Mowing Seeds started in founder Tom Stream’s back yard back in 1996 and has grown to a network of local farms offering over 600 varieties of seed. Dedicated to the support of sustainable agriculture and strives to provide varieties of seed not commonly available to the organic grower.
Based in Wolcott, VT, Botanical Interests offers over 150 varieties of herb, vegetable and flower seeds. Notable for their beautiful and informative packaging and personal attention to customers that reflect this company’s devotion to the art of gardening.
A non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds that might otherwise be lost to history. Detailed historical descriptions may led you to grow corn cultivated by ancient Aztecs or peppers grown by Thomas Jefferson on the grounds of Monticello.
Another advantage of starting from seed is the flexibility to begin germination at a time appropriate to the growing calendar. Because germination can begin indoors, hearty plants can be ready to put in the ground as early as possible for maximum productivity.
Starting from Seed
- Select containers in which to germinate. Plastic is ideal and “cell packs” can be purchased at little expense. Place containers in a shallow tray (a lipped baking sheet works fine) to allow drainage.
- Prepare planting medium. Commercial germinating mix is usually a blend of perlite, vermiculite and peat. Compost may be added. Do not plant in soil, which may contain saline or nitrogen levels too high for seedlings to survive. Fill each cell to about ½” from the top.
- Add seeds. Place a few seeds in each container roughly ½” apart.
- Cover seeds with just enough germinating mix to cover. These steps are general guidelines, so check for instructions specific to your plant. Some may recommend skipping this step.
- Gently add water to moisten seeds.
- Cover tray with clear plastic to trap in moisture.
- Watch for sprouts. Once they appear, remove the plastic covering and keep plants well lit with grow lights or place in a sunny indoor space in a room with good ventilation.
- Attend to water and nutrient needs. Regular watering is important, but don’t overdo it, as too much moisture will damage roots. To keep plants fed, mixing a little compost into the pot should provide all the necessary nutrition. Otherwise, organic fertilizers may be used.
- Thin the herd. Once a second set of leaves appear on the plants, cull the weakest, leaving one plant per container.
- Harden Off. A couple of weeks before the plants will be moved into the garden, set your tray of growers outside for a few hours a day to allow them to adapt to the environment.