Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
February is one of my least favorite months, but it does have one thing going for it: the start of seed-sowing season. The fun actually starts right after Christmas, with glorious hours immersed in the current crop of seed catalogs and seed-exchange lists, followed by a frenzy of making my own lists, fine-tuning choices, and placing the orders.
Then, there’s the wait for the seeds to arrive. At the beginning of February, I can sit down with the big pile of colorful packets and sort them into two piles: those that must (or can) be sown immediately and set outdoors, and those that can wait a bit. At the top of this entry are a couple of flats of sown seeds awaiting watering, along with some echeverias and other succulents I’m in the process of rooting. The succulents, of course, need to stay indoors until there’s no danger of frost, but these seeds will stay outside.
I’ve experimented with several kinds of cold frames over the past few years, but this simple lean-to structure (a Rion MLT3 Mini Lean-To Greenhouse) continues to beat all the others I’ve had. I see it’s gotten two lousy reviews on Amazon, but I don’t think it looks all that bad, and it has held up well for me. I have it set up on my porch, atop a box-like stand that Mom built for it, and it’s placed over a window, so I can see into the structure from indoors.
Inside the cold frame/greenhouse are three levels: two shelves, and then the base it’s sitting on. The bottom of mine is filled with potted hellebores, and the two shelves mostly hold seed pots, at least for now. By late March, the hellebores and seed pots get moved out to the porch floor, and indoor-sown seedlings get moved in to start hardening off. I can open my living-room window a bit to let in some warmth at that point, if needed. But for now, it’s mighty cold in there.
Once the outdoor batch of seeds are settled in and chilling, it’s time to get the warmth-loving seeds going. The first step is sorting the remaining packets into six piles: one to sow right away; one for late February (about 10 weeks before the last frost date); one for mid- to late March (6 to 8 weeks before last frost); and one for mid-April (4 weeks before the last frost). The two remaining piles are for outdoor sowing: one for mid-April (mostly hardy annuals and early veggies), and one for after May 15 (mostly beans, squash, and other summer veggies).
I sowed the “immediate” batch a few days ago: onions, leeks, broccoli, and several kinds of agastaches, along with a few hardy perennials. I dusted off the seed-starting stand in my front room, plugged in one light and the heating mat, and put the seeds in place. It’s not a fancy setup, but it works. Now, the very best part: checking several times a day to see what has sprouted!
If you looked closely at the seed pots at the very top of this entry, you may have noticed that they’re covered with pale, gritty-looking stuff. That’s my favorite new seed-starting helper. I’d heard about something called Turface that the rock-garden people swore by for their seed-starting, and they said they got it from Agway. Seems to me that when I asked for it the first time, I ended up getting something called Profile instead. Now, when I ask for “you know, the stuff that used to be Turface,” this is what I get: ProField Field Conditioner.
I don’t know for sure what’s up with the variety of trade names, but I do know that it seems like good stuff. It’s been fantastic for loosening up some of my veggie beds, and I also mix it with the ordinary ProMix BX that I use for all my seed-starting and potting, when I need to lighten up the peat-based mix a bit (for the succulents, for instance).
I used to top the pots of my outdoor-sown seeds with aquarium gravel, but that got really expensive and seemed very wasteful. I did like the way it acted as a mini-mulch, though, to keep the surface from crusting over. ProField is much less expensive (about $10 for a 50-pound bag, if I remember correctly), and it works just as well. I also like to scatter it lightly over pots of surface-sown indoor seeds, to serve as a moisture indicator. The cat-litter-like grit is pale when dry (as shown above) and dark when moist, so I know that when it starts to get light, I need to water immediately. Not being the most careful waterer in the world, I need all the hints I can get.
I don’t bother with the top-dressing for easy seeds, such as veggies and most annuals; they’re fine without it. See, after just three days on the heating mat, the broccoli is already up and growing.