The Urban Gardener

Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be planting anything in the garden any time soon. I probably won’t even be out with soil amendments like compost, mushroom compost and rock minerals. Even if we get an amazing thaw, the ground will be so wet that it will turn into a giant rock if I so much as look at it with planting in my eye.

That doesn’t mean that I’ll have to deprive myself of the joys of starting the gardening season. I can just go down the cellar and start my seeds. I’ve had two big tables with fluorescent lights over them and heating mats on them for years. All I have to do is clean them off — when the mood strikes.

Besides having a chance to get dirty and pretend it’s spring, starting one’s own seeds has a lot of advantages. You can time the planting so it’s just right for your garden and your schedule. You can start just as many plants as you need or want. Best of all, you can plant unusual stuff that you might never find in a catalog or garden center.

That’s not to say that I don’t order plants and bulbs from catalogs (usually way too much) or haunt my favorite garden centers to see what goodies they have that I just must have, or to buy stuff that didn’t germinate well for me for some reason. But I do like to start most of my veggies and some herbs from seeds. For instance, someone on the organic mail list suggested a new source of Italian vegetable and herb seeds: I might just have to see what they have and try some new (to me) stuff.

Normally, I use two sorts of containers for my cellar gardening: 2-inch-by-4-inch pots and 4-inch-by-9-inch market packs, the kind without internal divisions. Sometimes, I use actual flats. I use the pots for the likes of peppers, cabbages and tomatoes, and the packs for lettuce and basil and parsley. The year I grew 15 kinds of basil, I planted them in rows in a flat.

I fill the containers with moistened commercial potting soil mixed with fine or medium bird grit (for aeration): five parts of potting mix to two parts of grit.

After I’ve planted the seeds, I cover the containers with cleaners’ plastic or put them in plastic bags and leave them covered and moist until the seeds come up. Once the seeds emerge, I uncover them and put them about an inch under the fluorescents. As they grow, I just raise the lights on their chains.

About now, I’ll be starting lettuce and peppers and maybe eggplants. I don’t start my tomatoes and basil until April. Join me, why don’t you?