That’s a hanging lamp in the living room of my dad’s house. It hangs above my lettuce seedlings which sit on a stack of boxes. The tray extends beyond the edges of the lamp shade so I move them from side-to-side periodically. Heliotropism makes the seedlings bend to-and-fro to track the light bulb; they’re getting a lot of exercise.
We’re all gardeners here, so I’m comfortable confessing that a seasonal urge has overtaken me: I need to start seeds for my vegetable garden. Unfortunately, I’m spending about two days in three out of town. My dad has moved from our family home, and I’m helping him get settled in his new apartment while I’m preparing the house to rent. But the seasons march along, and if I’m going to have lettuce at the front of the parade, I need to have lettuce seedlings in lock step by late March.
To satisfy my seasonal urge, I’m exploiting some cosmic truths:
- Seeds want to sprout
- Sprouts want to grow up and make seeds
- Seeds don’t much care where they are when they do that sprouting thing
Seed-Starting on the Road
I was fortunate, before I came to Ithaca, to receive an assortment of Fertilpots from a friend who imports them for US distribution. A French company manufactures Fertilpots primarily from trees—a renewable material—using only a small peat moss component. While roots in a 100% peat pot turn back on themselves and ball up, roots grow unimpeded through the walls of Fertilpots. I used Fertilpots last season and found they live up to the promise: meaty, healthy roots emerged all down the sides of the pots as my vegetable seedlings grew strong.
I had a second good fortune on this trip: I attended a workshop on February 23rd at which attendees received free samples of products from various sponsoring gardening supply companies. Among the samples I received were two envelopes of lettuce seeds—a red oak leaf lettuce, and a red romaine lettuce from a company called Sustainable Seed Company. As February ended, I succumbed to my urge.
I bought a plastic seed-starting tray and a bag of seed-starting soil. I filled one flat of Fertilpots with soil and set half the pots with the oak leaf seeds and half with romaine seeds. The remaining challenge: light.
Seed-Starting Without a Shelf
At home, I run two four-foot fluorescent light fixtures side-by-side and set seed-starting planters three inches below the tubes. That keeps the plants from reaching for the light and developing weak, thin stems. What to do on the road?
Two lettuce sprouts in one Fertilpot looked pretty good on the day they emerged. A few seeds didn’t sprout, so I’m replanting those pots. In all, I hope to have 18 healthy plants for the garden in late March. That should satisfy our salad craving as I direct-sow seeds to start a second crop of lettuce plants.
I stacked boxes on furniture to get my seed tray really close to a hanging light. The light has a three-way bulb whose top output is 150 watts. I’d like to get the seeds closer to the light but the lampshade interferes. Besides, having an incandescent bulb, the fixture puts out way more heat than my fluorescents do back home and I don’t want to cook my plants.
My lettuce seedlings might grow more spindly than I’d like, but they’re growing. When I visit my family later this week, I’ll set up my fluorescent lights over the tray and leave the plants in my wife’s care. If she moistens the soil periodically, I’ll have viable seedlings for the garden at the end of the month.
No, this isn’t how I wanted to start the vegetable growing season. I’d like to be home to prune my fruit trees and do some grafting. I need to be home to do large-scale seed-starting for broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, and peppers. Goodness, I need to be home at the end of March to prepare and plant the garden. But right now, given the circumstance, starting a flat of lettuce seeds was all I could manage… because it was easy!
Want lettuce? You can grow that.
Learn about You Can Grow That and find other participating blogs at the movement’s website: You Can Grow That!