Seed Starting Secrets

Want pure, delicious syrup but don't have the time to make your own? We've made it for you.
Want pure, delicious syrup but don’t have the time to make your own? We’ve made it for you.

The snow lies deep in the back pasture. The wind whines sharply between the branches of the pine trees and the days remain painfully short. But still, something is happening. I can see it in the changed slant of sun’s rays at 4:00. The chicks I hatched last spring are laying pullet eggs and the year-old Buff Orpingtons are gifting us with huge, double yolkers. Wood piles are shrinking and there is tubing snaking through the maple bush waiting for the first run of sap that will be boiled into syrup. It’s just in time too, as last year’s batch is nearly finished and no one who has eaten the good stuff is willing to settle for the sugar-water-artificial syrup-like substance you can buy at the market in town.

This is a busy time of year for us, outdone only by harvest but a lot of this work is done in the dreaming. What should I plant and when and where? I will confess that I am always too early. My impatience for something crisp and green outweighs my good sense. And then there are the catalogs. They come in bunches now, sometimes four a day. It’s like feeding the pigs. Give one a treat and they all come running. I recycle the ones that don’t carry the kind of seeds I buy. I want open-pollinated, organic seed when I can get it and if I can locate seed from plants that have grown right here in my neck of the woods for generations then that’s all the better. But the good catalogs? They lure me in each evening as I sit by the fire. What shall it be? An unfamiliar variety of tomato or some of that fancy chard? Perhaps I will try that wonderful squash that I adore, even though I have never gotten one to grow here.

Lehman's wooden potmaker helps you turn old newspapers into perfectly sized, biodegradable seedling pots. At and our store in Kidron.
Lehman’s wooden Potmaker helps you turn old newspapers into perfectly sized, biodegradable seedling pots. At and our store in Kidron.

I have good luck with seedlings although I’m a bit reluctant to share my secret as people might well think me a bit odd. It’s the soil that matters, of course. It’s a living, breathing thing and only good soil will give you good seedlings. I start with 3 parts good garden soil, gathered last fall and kept in the greenhouse until February. Then I add 1 part compost. I get it from the rabbit hutch and from the chickens and from the grass-fed dairy farm up the road. It needs to be well composted. If it’s too fresh it will burn the seeds. I also add soil from my worm farm. I get about three trays a year. It’s not enough to make a huge difference in my garden beds but it’s wonderful for tiny, tender plants.

The last thing I add is — wait for it — the gel from disposable diapers. It holds water extremely well and releases it to the soil as the soil dries. My soil looks light and fluffy and I never suffer from root rot. Three cups of dry gel to a six gallon bucket of soil is about right. I would not purchase diapers just for this purpose, but I often find partial boxes and packages at tag sales. I snag them up and they go in my soil stash. My final trick is vegetable/egg shell water. This time of the year the freezer is getting low. I keep ice cube trays in there and add the nutrient rich water as it becomes available. When I get a full tray I pop out the cubes and begin again. I can thaw as many cubes as I need and water my seedlings with it. Plants love it.

Making seed pots has never been quicker, easier or more fun! Wooden Potmaker from; also available in our store.
Making seed pots has never been quicker, easier or more fun! Wooden Potmaker from; also available in our store.

I homeschool my daughter, Phoebe. One of our tasks is to make seed pots. She loves the little wooden mold that lets her turn out pot after pot from newspaper strips. They can go right in the soil without damaging fragile roots and enriching the soil as they decompose. I set my pots filled with good seed and good soil in the plastic trays that fruit and vegetable platters come in. I put the word out in December and in a few weeks I have a hug stash. The clear plastic top makes a dandy little greenhouse with some holes punched in the top and bottom for ventilation and drainage. The ones that don’t fit will find a cozy house in a rusted baking pan with a plastic bag hat.

This is a thrifty way to start seeds. Other ways are probably easier and more efficient, but my way utilizes what might otherwise get throw in the landfill. It’s a win-win in my book.

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