Covid Days-Seed Shortages, and a Tomato Tutorial

Apparently, the next commodity in short supply, after toilet paper and hand sanitizer is …. Drum roll, please … vegetable seeds! That’s right, friends, the New York Times reports a seed buying frenzy across the country. If you haven’t already made your plans for the garden of your dreams, you might be behind the curve.

It’s unclear if people are buying seeds as fast as they can because they have nothing better to do than work outside in the garden, or if they actually fear for their food security and are wisely planning for the future. Regardless of the reason, seeds are in high demand and many seed companies are running a wait time of several weeks. While I’m delighted that the country is turning towards the dirt for solace during these crazy times, I’m equally delighted that I ordered my seeds during the garden doldrums of January.

I have a confession to make. I’m a seed addict! I love seeds. I actually have card catalogs (yes, plural) to store my seeds alphabetically. I have a box specifically for bean seeds, and another for pea and corn seeds (seeds that are too big to fit in the card catalogs, obviously) When I get those color glossy catalogs from the seed companies like Baker Creek and Kitchen Garden and Territorial, I spend hours reading descriptions and oogling the pictures of luscious shiny vegetables. “Vegetable porn” My girlfriend calls it. I don’t know about that, but I will confess that I save the catalogs.

Six of the 18 types of tomatoes I’ll start this year.

While I’m confessing, I should also tell you that I’m a seed snob. Not all seeds are created equal. The tenants of slow living mandate that when I evaluate my purchasing, I regard provenance, equity, sustainability, history and justice with at least as much weight as I give to economy and facility. I choose seeds that are unique, rare, and unusual, not only because they are interesting to grow, but because my dollars promote the safekeeping of those seeds, and enhance the lives of the small farmers who grow them. My seed dollars promote biodiversity and global health. GMO and hybrid seeds that are mass produced in colossal greenhouses not only contribute to global warming, but make vegetables that can’t even reproduce themselves. You couldn’t save and re-grow those seeds even if you wanted to. They may cost a few cents less, but the hidden cost to the planet isn’t worth it.

Seed are truly miraculous. They are the great multipliers. One seed can produce hundreds, if not thousands, of new seeds. They hold secrets. Different kinds of seeds need different conditions to germinate. Some need fire. Some need freezing. Some need sunlight and some need darkness. They contain life. While we can alter them, we still cannot create them. Without seeds there is no life.

I buy new seeds every year. In the past few years I have been learning about traditional seed saving techniques, but with the vast array of amazing varieties that come out in the catalogs each year, I feel like buying and planting rare and heritage seeds is a way of promoting and protecting biodiversity. Every year I buy something I have never grown before. This year it’s artichoke.

If you are looking for seeds and can’t buy them from a seed company, you still have might options. Try looking in a gift catalog. Often companies that sell Christmas gifts offer gifts for gardeners, and may have kits for herbs, lettuces or other groups of vegetables. Try to contact your local library. Many libraries have a seed exchange, and you may be able to convince your librarian to get some seeds and leave them out for you. Ask your friends who have gardens. Most gardeners don’t use all their seeds each year, and most are willing to share.

For those of you who do have seeds, you might be wondering what to do with them. I’m starting tomato seeds in the following pictures, but you can modify this tutorial for any seeds you want to start growing indoors.

Vegetable seeds fall into roughly two categories: those to plant outside, and those to start inside. Almost all seeds can be planted right in the dirt, once the weather cooperates, but many need a longer growing season than we have in the Northeast, so to give those plants an advantage, we plant them indoors first. They include the brassica family, (cabbage, kale, broccoli, etc.) the cucurbitas (squash, melon, cucumber etc.) the solanales, or nightshade family, with the exception of potatoes (tomato, pepper, eggplant etc.) If your seeds fall into one of these three families, keep reading.

You know those horrid plastic clam shells cut lettuce comes in? Use them to germinate your seeds. They provide a perfect environment for new life.

Sprinkle the seeds on top of a moist seed starter mix, or potting soil if that is all you have. In a pinch, dig some dirt up from your garden (but make sure it isn’t cold). It should be light, not packed down. A rule of thumb for seed starting is that you need to cover the seed as deep as the circumference of the seed itself. For my tomato seeds, this means 1/4 inch or less. Loosely cover the seeds with a layer of moist soil commensurate with it’s size, water lightly, (soil should be damp but not mushy), close the lid and leave in a warm, sunny place. If you have a heat mat, place the seed containers on it to start the germination faster. Unless you like surprises, DON’T FORGET TO LABEL!

Voila! Baby Tomatoes. Next they will need little pots to grow in. You can use pretty much any container with a hole in the bottom, like a plastic bottle, paper cup, Tupperware, ceramic pot. Anything. Choose a pot that will be able to hold your plant until it’s time to put it into the garden. I use leftover plastic seed pots from the greenhouse that I re-use each year. Potting soil is a good medium. Pack the soil in firmly, but not hard.

Next, move the babies to their new homes. Make a deep hole in the center of the pot. Use a tool like a bamboo marker (or chopstick, butter knife, pencil) to loosen the soil and lift the seedling from the bottom. Use your fingertips on the stem of the plant. IMPORTANT- Don’t pull. Don’t touch the roots. Don’t touch the leaves. Separate it from it’s siblings, and gently place it into the hole you have created for it. If needed, poke the roots down into the hole with the tool. Gently pat the soil around the stem. If you bend a plant, discard it and try again.

Tomato plants can grow roots from their stems, so you can put them into the hole deeply. Each time it gets transplanted, bury part of the stem to give it added stability. This is not true of other plants.

Once they are all tucked in, sprinkle them with water to settle the soil around the roots. They may look sad, but they will perk up in a day or two.

Different plants have different needs once they are started. Warm weather plants like tomato and pepper will benefit from having a light on them for at least 12 hours a day. Special bulbs can be purchased at a hardware store for use in a regular lamp. I use an ultra thin LED panel that sells for about 20 dollars on Amazon. The brassicas will not need extra light or warmth, and it’s still a bit early to start the squashes in New England, so I recommend starting out with tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

This is the kind I use.

For the next few weeks you should check them daily and water as needed. If you have started tomatoes, let them dry out a bit in between watering. A little stress will help them develop strong roots. This is true once they are planted in the garden as well. Over watering will result in weaker plants and less fruit, but never let them get so dry that they wilt.

Soon your tomato babies will look like this.

If you have questions about specific seeds, or just want to share your experiences with seed starting, I’m happy to answer. Comment below or find me on Instagram. Good luck with your new seeds and happy gardening!

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