Seed Savor

March blew through with the mood swings of a diva: freeze! thaw! snow! thunderstorms!… “tempera-mental,” indeed. But the weather always turns the corner in April. The garden shows only the earliest signs of green, but spring finally seems plausible, and I’m even emboldened to regard the coming of tulips with the same certainty as taxes.

Indoors, I’m sowing seeds and raising the starter plants that will be transplanted into the raised vegetable beds in a few months. First up: peppers and eggplants. They need warmth to germinate and grow, and they take their sweet time maturing to harvest, so they’re given a ten-week head start, with tomatoes to follow a couple of weeks later.

I grow my seeds in the basement, on the shelves of a chrome-plated rack. Each shelf is lit by a set of grow lights hung by S-hooks and lightweight chain from the shelf above. The lights are plugged into power cord strips, and are kept lit for 16 hours each day by an automatic timer. (No thumbs were banged by hammers, nor budgets busted, in the construction of this seed-starting setup.)

The seeds themselves are grown in trays that each contain a sheet of cells made from pressed peat. I fill the cells with sterile, lightweight seed starting mix, then add water to the tray to be absorbed, slowly, from the bottom of the cells. When the filled cells are moist, not soggy, they’re ready.

Then, it’s showtime. I open the small envelope and gently shake out the seeds, if they’re not too tiny, or tap out the seeds, if they are (and curse the forces of electromagnetism if they are both tiny and insist on clinging to the insides of their foil-lined packet). In the cavity of my palm, the contents of the envelope amount to no more than a cook’s “pinch” in volume. My fingers look hulking and clumsy as I pick each seed up to deposit in the prepared cell. Count one, two, three seeds into each square. Keep track and make sure I don’t run out before filling them all. My movements are in an attention-heightened slo-mo, the better to ward off any sudden clumsiness or, heaven forbid, a sneeze that would scatter them to the winds.

The eggplant and pepper seeds are small, flattish disks. I’ve encountered them before, as the annoying stragglers that need to be cleaned out of a bell pepper even after the seeded inner stalk has been carved out. I’ve known them as the reason to don gloves against the finger-to-eye-to-ow risk when chopping jalapenos (the capsaicin heat being concentrated in the seeds). And I’ve been dismayed at the handfuls of seedy guts that must be scraped out in order to get to a meager yield of edible flesh from your typical out-of-season overripe baked eggplant. But now I see these seeds in a different light. They’re transfigured into treasure, each one bearing the potential of a thriving, fruit-bearing plant.

After the seeds are pressed lightly into the cells, I cover the tray with its clear plastic cover. And wait. Compared with flower seeds, some of which can be finicky indeed, veggie seeds give closer to instant gratification in speed and reliability of germination. It’s not unusual to see the first signs of life within a week, although viscerally I have yet to evolve beyond cycling through the three stages of the diffident seed-sower with each seed that I sow: first, skepticism (Yeah, right.), then, incredulity (Really?), and, finally, delight (Yes. Really!).

When these first seeds of the season germinate in the seed trays, they send up a whitish sprout, then smooth pointed green leaves, narrower on the peppers than the eggplant. It’s then time to remove the plastic cover and move the trays directly under the lights, adjusting the light strips so that they’re only inches from the seedlings. I cull each cell to leave only the strongest of the seedlings that have germinated. (I haven’t yet made the leap of faith that will encourage me to start sowing fewer than three seeds per cell.) As the seedlings grow, I add water to the bottom of the trays, with water-soluble fertilizer thinly diluted to a glassy aquamarine, and I’ll continue to adjust the grow lights up the links of the chains as the plants leaf out full, and tall, and fuller, and taller.

Outdoors, I’m sowing early leaf lettuce (‘Bunte Forellenschuss,’ maturing in 40-55 days, and ‘Rossimo,’ maturing in 50-55 days), and Amish snap peas (along with a fragrant cousin of the edible pea, the ornamental sweet pea ‘Flora Norton’), which will take about 60 days to mature. Barring apocalyptic weather changes, and trusting in the falling showers of April (to be supplemented by falling showers from the water hose, if need be), I’m looking forward to a first harvest before Memorial Day.

Originally published in Saucy on April 06, 2005. Copyright 2005 Chan Stroman. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author.