Sketching Out Blog: Sketches of art, watercolor, photos, recipes, books, interviews, Jewish topics, and Highland Park, New Jersey

Seed Starting Tales

Once upon a time, say, about 1000 b.c.e., my ancestors lived in an agricultural world. They sowed seeds around this time of year, brought first fruits in late spring, and celebrated the harvest in the fall. More recently, my grandfathers were businessmen; my maternal grandfather, whom I never knew, worked in the stock market in New York City; my paternal grandfather traveled to New Jersey from Brooklyn, bought eggs, and re-sold them in Brooklyn. My mother, the first generation to live in suburbia, grew tomatoes and cucumbers in our back yard; she bought them as little seedlings. The only seeds my father sowed was grass seed for the lawn.

When my boys were no longer toddlers, I decided to try the hobby of starting seeds in the basement. My first attempt was probably using dirt; I grew weeds instead of whatever it was I had planted. I then read every book I could on seed starting. I bought some seed starting formula, learned about the placement of the seed in the formula: the bigger seed needs to be buried deeper. I set up some special lights on top of my seed; they were not terribly expensive, I bought them at Home Depot. I put the lights on timers; it seems that seed need darkness at night.

And so I waited. And then…yes! Little seedlings sprouted up. I had the best luck with marigolds and tomatoes. I remember impatiens had tiny seeds that needed to be set on the top of the soil, because they required light to germinate. By the end of the summer, I had one little impatiens plant from seed. A lot of effort for one tiny plant.

What I also discovered was seed starting, in New Jersey anyway, coincides with “get your house ready for Passover” season. And then we went up to the Boston area for Passover that year; I was all worried about my little seedlings! I had left them by themselves in the basement. No babysitter. My father’s cousin lives in the Boston area, and he grows orchids. He knew all about seed starting. I should have left the seeds with a bit of water under them. And so I learned about watering seedlings from underneath. Also, seedlings, unlike babies, can last for a few days without “mama”.

The next year my seedlings had competition. Actually, I think they had so much competition they were never born that year. My daughter was born in July; so with a baby in the house and Passover to prepare, the seedlings didn’t happen. I don’t recall if I did much at all with my garden that year. If it’s a choice between gardening, house chores, holiday preps and baby demands, baby wins.

I no longer start seed in my basement. I have learned which seeds starts nicely outside. The lights that I bought at Home Depot have long been smashed by the bouncing of some boy or another in my basement. And the shattered glass long been carefully picked up. I now buy Rutgers tomato seedlings, a local brand of tomatoes that are not too big and not too small. I had lots of tomatoes last year, grown in my compost piles.

If you want to learn how to grow seeds in your basement, I’m probably not the best teacher. But you may have learned what NOT to do. Here’s a book I own, highly recommended:

The New Seed-Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel

mother in israel says

I started gardening a bit--until shmitah started. I just hope my kumquat tree survives until it's not orlah anymore.

Leora says

Mother in Israel,

First, some definitions for my non-Jewishly-educated readers:
Orlah: A Jew may not derive any benefit from the produce of a fruit tree for the first three years after it is planted.

Shmita: In Israel, every seven years land is left to lay fallow and all agricultural activity—including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting—is forbidden by Torah law.

My husband informed me that Orlah is applicable here outside Israel, too. I wonder if this applies to raspberry plants? We've had them for more than three years. Need to ask my rabbi brother-in-law to whom we gave some raspberry plants two years ago. Or our torah-knowledgeable friend one block away who gave us the plants originally.

Leora says

According to our friend who gave us the raspberry plants, he doesn't think they require orlah because the stalks are not permanent.

I know you were all waiting so anxiously to find out!

Gail says

Thanks so much for the explanations of orlah and shmita, Leora. : )

I tried to start seedlings for the first time last year. I began three plants - two cantaloupe and one watermelon - or maybe it was the other way around, I don't recall. Anyway, I grew them into what I thought were pretty sturdy seedlings - each had several leaves and they were about 4 inches long - and then proceeded to plant them outside. I watched and watered them frequently. One day I went out to check on them and found that they had disappeared completely! I don't have a clue what happened. Maybe our lawn mower guys thought they were weeds and pulled them out or maybe an animal ate them? It was a mystery. I felt very bad about it after all the weeks of taking care of them.

I'm not sure I have it in me to try again.

Leora says

Cantaloupe and watermelon are hard ones for starters! In this area, they don't last unless caged. We have ground hogs that love sweet plants. I once grew a cantaloupe in one of my compost piles; I made the mistake of waiting a few days, to see if it would get bigger. Eaten, most probably by a ground hog. Sometimes deer wander over here, several blocks away from woods, and nibble. Someone I know grows his cantaloupe in his compost in a huge cage.

Also, I've tried zucchini, and the plants flopped over and died in July. For more than one summer. So I gave up on those.

An edible flower that is really easy is nasturtium. But don't plant them where your lawn is precious; they spread all over the place, then when frost comes, bye, bye plant, and you've got dead grass underneath. I just wait until spring and plant something new in the spot.


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