Monday, March 15, 2010

Seed experiments

One of the pleasures of tending a very small garden space is the surplus of seeds I face each season. Even half of one packet of tomato or carrot seeds could likely cover most of my garden real estate. There are a few companies I've found who sell small "sampler" amounts of seeds, meaning ten to twenty, rather than hundreds. But my favorite companies -- Seed Savers, Baker Creek, Renee's, Pinetree, Territorial -- all send generous amounts for but a few dollars. I have given away at least half of my volume of seeds and swapped others, though with a swap comes more seeds. Right now I estimate I have more than 50 seed packets, but most have been depleted to a third of their original volume. This still leaves me with too many seeds for my what to do? Some of the cool weather crops will be doubly used -- this spring and on the tail end of the summer, so I likely have a good amount for that. The thrifty person in me tells me to save, save, save for 2011 and I likely will. But I love to buy new seeds, it is one of my few winter pleasures! I can't be super thrifty and save everything -- I refuse to sacrifice the small cold weather happiness of repleting my stores.

I have decided to run some seed experiments instead, which feels like profligate seed-spending, until I realize they would likely just get stashed in a ziploc for a year, losing viability. I am hoping the experiments will not only build my skills, but also give insight in to new ways that I can stretch the garden season. Here are some of the projects I am trying for the first time:

  • Earlier starts: As soon as the chives came up, I put radish, carrots and beets into the ground. I am not sure they will germinate or survive in this cold, dank weather. If they germinate, added bonus. If not, I will just sow them again in a few weeks as I normally would.

  • Cold frame sowing: I sowed lettuce, sorrel, chard and kale under the cold frame, after letting it warm up the soil beneath the glass for a few days. As an added experiment, I sowed the same seed outside of the cold frame. So far, just the lettuce has germinated, and the cold-frame seed beat the outdoor sown seed by one day. The difference may come not in germination, but in survival, especially as we are facing nightly low 30's this week.

  • Greenhouse protection: I started kale, lettuce and and scallion flats indoors 4 weeks ago. I put half of each flat outside in my new mini-greenhouse and kept half the flats in my sunniest window. I didn't harden off the seedlings at all -- I probably should have brought them in overnight for the first week, but I got lazy. Despite the cold, gray days and frosty nights, the outdoor seedlings are doing much better than the indoor ones -- they are sturdier and less leggy. I have no more space under my grow light, so it might be unfair to compare legginess given that the indoor seedlings get just a window.
  • Wintersowing: I've posted about this before...I wintersowed flowers, greens and tomatoes. So far the mizuna and the rose mallow have popped up. I think I may see signs of life with the red columbine as well. The tomatoes are just sitting there...I am most skeptical about them, but the wintersowing website is pretty enthusiastic about this practice, so I will prepare to be amazed when they pop up.

  • Wall-o-water vs. soda bottles: I started three tomato seedlings very early, February 28th to be exact. On April 1st, one will go into a wall-o-water, one will go into a fort made of 2L pop bottles (DIY wall-o-water), and one I will just stick in the ground. I based the start and transplant dates on recommendations from a Wicker Park seed guru who hosted a seed starting workshop in his home. He claimed those dates (actually, February 28th and March 28th, respectively) gave him the earliest tomatoes on the block. I fully expect the exposed plant to tank, but that's part of the experiment. I am starting a later round to replace the early plants if they don't survive.
  • Chitting: I'm chitting peas, spinach and carrots for the first time - pictured above. To chit, you basically you germinate the seeds indoors on paper towels and just as soon as they pop open you stick them in the ground. Not only does this help seeds with touchy germination needs (i.e. carrots), but also it lets you get peas and spinach in the ground early. John Seymour, in his book The New Self-Sufficient Gardener, points out that chitting helps cut the time that tasty little pea seeds lie in the ground, available as a bird snack. What's stopping a bird from eating a tasty sprouted pea? Anyway, he swears by it.
I will post updates of these projects as they progress, if even one works, all this fussing will be a rousing success! Here's to a seed surplus! Why not spend down some of your garden wealth in the name of science?


  1. I know what you are speaking! It is seed speaking and can be intimidating to those that do not speak seed.

    You are fine with the radishes and carrots, not sure about the beets. Just about any cold weather crops can survive a frost and even snow. I have not used the water cones for my tomatoes but I know the garden center I frequent uses them every year with success.

    I am planting outside tomorrow sun or shine, my admendments are piled up around the raised bed ready to go.

  2. Experimenting is at least half the fun of gardening. It's so rewarding when experiments are successful, and either way it's a fun way to learn.

  3. I agree with Garden Girl. The results of the outdoor experiment could fluctuate from year to year too. So, it is good to revisit all of the methods every year.