Eggplants, basil & tomatoes ready to move into their new homes.
I am not a parent so I’m not even going to pretend that gardening is the same thing. However, when I plant seeds, there are those moments—somewhat maternal, perhaps—when I hold my breath and cross my fingers as my seeds graduate from one stage to another.
Nestled in moist soil pods, the seeds are incubated under a plastic terrarium until they begin sprouting anywhere from 4 to 21 days later. The seedlings remain until they start sending roots out of their pods, letting me know it’s time to graduate kindergarten.
Basil genovese on the left and a tomato showing its roots in the center
with tomato seedlings on the right.
Then comes transplanting. At this stage, I give the seedlings the best possible chance I can. I open a bag of organic starting soil and slowly mix in a bit of water to make the soil damp and inviting (but not wet). For herbs and flowers, I use plastic drinking cups as pots. I notch the bottom in several places for drainage. Plastic cups are great because they’re inexpensive, can be reused for several years (and then recycled), and you can write directly on them the kind of plant it contains. For vegetables like eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes that I really want established and large (especially since I grow in the cool north), I use actual plastic pots 6 inches in diameter. When I transplant the seedlings, I leave them in their soil pods so as not to damage the roots; however, if there is a section where no root is popping out, I’ll gently peel away a piece of the pod. I place the pods into a small divot in the soil and gently cover it with more soil. I don’t pack it down. I water the dirt—not a lot but just enough for a good drink—and I give the plants about half an hour to hang out in their new homes before moving them back into the grow room.
Tomato transplants in a washing machine tray.
In the grow room, I’ve placed large plastic washing machine trays (you can find them at big box home improvement stores) on tables under the lights. The trays are relatively inexpensive, shallow, can hold a lot of plants, and are great to catch the run-off if a plant doesn’t immediately take in the water I’ve given it.
And then I wait for a few days. This is the hardest part. It even makes me a little bit nervous at times. How are the seedlings going to handle the stress of their new environments? Are they going to set down roots, or are they going to freak out and give up? Sometimes, they give up…and I actually feel sad for the moment.
But all of the others? They need my attention now and for several weeks, I watch them waiting for that heartbreaking moment when I have to make a choice. You see, each seed pod that I transplant could have more than one seedling growing from it. Once the pods have been transplanted, the seedling that looks the strongest has to be my favorite; the rest, I must say goodbye to. Using the nails of my index finger and thumb, I gently pinch off the stems and compost them. Why? Because trying to care for more than one seedling means that all will suffer. By making this choice, I’m giving one plant a fighting chance.
I also have to take care when I water the plants. Using a turkey baster, I slowly add water around the edges of the plants—it’s not about quickly growing lush and gorgeous greenery but establishing roots. The further the water is, the more the roots will be encouraged to seek it out, growing strong in the process. I also water the plants by feel—the soil may look dry on the surface but if I lift the pot and it’s heavy, I know that there's still water in there that the roots have yet to explore.
Then there comes a growth spurt: the roots are doing well and the plants start to arch and stretch and fill out. I continue watering them, of course, but if I’m not paying attention—and sometimes not paying attention simply means only a day has passed—the leaves will be like teenagers rebelling. They may curl or yellow or even crisp up because they now require more than water; they need to be fed. And this is the point where I can really make mistakes that affect the well-being of my plants.
I made one rookie error this year already. I use natural liquid fertilizer made from fish, kelp, and molasses. I had some leftover from last year; it smelled fresh—as fresh as fish fertilizer can smell—but was a bit thin. I used it anyway. Big mistake. The next day, my plants looked like teenagers experiencing their first hangover. I had to flush them out—I put them in the bathtub and gave them enough water so it ran out from the drainage holes. I returned them to the grow room and it took them at least two weeks to detox. Some of the plants still bear their scars.
How could you feed me old food? How could you?
They’ve now been fed properly (with new food, of course!) and the plants are learning to trust me again. And with every moment I’ve shared with them, every mistake I’ve learned from, I’m trusting me again as well.
Such is life.
And we still have a few more transitions to make. Stay tuned!
Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. The tomatoes have grown so large that I had to put some of them on the floor to promote air circulation.
These plants are aching to be outside, but where I live in Michigan, I have to wait until May 31st--the last day of possible frost.