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Over Easy: Early Spring Garden Adventures


Spring in Texas

So here in TX planting season has begun. It’s interesting to me, as a Northern transplant, to talk with my neighbors about their Southern planting habits at this time of the year. Up north, the only people who are planting right now are people with heated greenhouses or other technologies that allow them to start seeds in grey skies and cold temperatures. I always wanted a greenhouse for this reason, although some more enterprising gardener friends of mine in the north are known to do early planting on the cheap.

Milk jugs are one way to do this. Fill a jug about 3/4 ways with soil. Drop a couple of seeds in, and sprinkle some dirt enough to cover them. Add some water, and germinate indoors where it’s warm. When the seed has sprouted, wrap the jug in straw and put it in the sunniest location outdoors. I’m guessing it’s best if the jug is on an elevated surface like a porch, but I’ve seen this done right on the frozen ground. I can’t personally vouch for this system, but several people I know have had success with it. The jug is cut open at spring thaw and when the ground is warm enough, you put in the plant, now at least a month or two developed. Cheap!

But here in the South, people are putting seeds in the ground, or as in my case, seeds in paper cups in cardboard trays on the porch. Again, I love the notion of a nice greenhouse with elevated trays and peat pots and fitted holders… but I haven’t won the lottery yet so I’m not quite there. In the meantime, I’m doing the Poor Woman’s pot for seedlings: cheap “bathroom” size paper cups, dirt from the property, cardboard boxes and one bag of enriched potting soil.

I went to the grocery and found the Dixie paper cups; 200 for ~$3. I smiled at the store employee cutting short cardboard boxes and putting away stock and asked if I could liberate the used ones on his cart; he said yes. I grabbed some painter’s tape and secured the boxes closed on all sides but one. I dug up a wheelbarrow’s worth of the best soil on the property I will not be growing on; this space will eventually become the hole in which a compost pile will form and it’s in a shaded copse that I cannot cultivate and also that the neighbors won’t complain about as an eyesore. I got a bag of enriched soil from the garden center.

I took a fat nail and punched a big hole in the bottom of the cups, pushing it through stacks of 15 of them at a time. I filled each Dixie cup 2/3 full of filtered ground soil. I used a rototiller to break up the soil and groundcover plants, and as I filled the cups, I separated out all the plant material for later use as mulch and compost. It’s sort of like in cooking, where you separate foodstuffs from stock ingredients out of the unprocessed [whatever].

Now, this is a funky year for me, and so I’ve got a lot of seeds from 2012 as well as “packaged for 2013” seeds to use. It may be foolish, it may be daring; we’ll see what, if anything, comes up from last year’s batch. But I had a mess of unopened packets, and I took good care of them over the course of last season, keeping them in the dark and cool and dry until this week. I’m hoping for a 30% yield of sprouting seeds from the 2012 collection.

Each Dixie cup received at least 2, and sometimes as many as five seeds on top of the soil. Anything from 2012 got at least 3 seeds. If by some miracle it all germinates, I’ll gently split apart the seedlings when it’s time for them to go into the ground. I covered all the seeds more or less according to their individual instructions with the enriched soil. I stuffed them into the cardboard boxes tightly enough so that they support each other upright. I took a soft shower of water and made sure each cup with fully moistened. The holes in the cups provide light drainage, but not so much that the water runs all out at once. I put the boxes in a place on the porch where they will get warm sun during the day, but have a little roof over them at night, to fend off the worst of the chill. If you don’t have a porch, and old blanket or sheet on top of the boxes at night should do the trick.

Now, being a pessimist, I held back 1/2 of my seed totals for direct planting; for all I know this could utterly fail. But I’ve had pretty good luck with this method in the past, using grow lights indoors up north and bringing them out to harden once the snow clears and spring arrives for real. Even though it’s been nice and warm this past week, the weatherpeople are promising 30s at night this weekend, so I’ll be bringing in the whole mess into a covered garage shelter during the weekend nights. In other words, there’s some work involved here, daily. But you don’t have to be a brazen fool like me and put down 400 cups. You can get quite a head start with just two or three cardboard boxes worth, and if you have some of those ubiquitous plastic storage units it seems every American is obliged to buy, those work too. 2 or 3 dozen starts are well on your way to a significant planting, food or flowers or both, as you prefer.

Plant starters

Gardening is for everyone.

I really want everyone to feel that they can garden, and enjoy doing so. I used to think I was only able to grow a hot mess of dead things, when I first started all this. Now, I am confident that sooner or later, I’ll figure out how to grow what I like in any climate or conditions. Apartment people: now is a good time to research your local CSA and other community groups involved in growing in urban or underutilized spaces. And don’t be afraid to ask your landlord! If you seem serious and devoted enough, lots of landlords will appreciate someone else tending their grounds and making their buildings look more desirable. And there’s always container gardening. All you need is one south facing or sunny window and a little creative shelf design, and at the very least you can have a kitchen herb garden.

This is sort of a toss off post in the sense that there are lots more to be said about spring starts and seedlings and this time of year. And I’ve got a mess to do today in that department, so any assist you’ve got to offer is welcome!

What are your habits in the spring? Are you a big plot gardener, or just a shelf by a window? What do you like to start early? Do you rotate crops, or do winter growing? If you don’t garden, what would it take to convince you to give it a try? If you own land but can’t garden, would you be willing to share your land with someone who could work it for you in exchange for a cut of the produce? What’s the first flower you see out your window in the spring?

Gardening is going to become the new blogging, if you catch my drift. Trust me on this. Get good at it now, you won’t be sorry.

List of Seeds Started So Far (seeds from a variety of companies including Territorial, Burpee, Thompson & Moore, Weeks, and Botanical Interests)

Sugar Snap Peas
Mescaline Lettuce Mix
Red Chard
Flat Parsley
Bok Choi
Pak Choi
Morning Glories (multiple colors)
Sweet Pea Vine
Mustard (3 types)
Pole Bean
Lemon Cucumber
Tomato (4 types)
Beets (4 types)
Tah Tsai
Butternut Squash
Brussels Sprouts

All photos by the author.

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