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  • Lezlie Sterling

    Gail Pothour, a master gardener, mists pepper seedlings that are peeking up on a A-frame light table that her husband constructed.

  • Lezlie Sterling /

    In Pothour's hands, eggplant seeds saved from the previous year's harvest are near the start of their journey of growth to becoming healthful, homegrown food.

  • Lezlie Sterling /

    Pothour holds a few "Bumble Bee" bean seeds. Many vegetables can be started indoors, but beans do better sown outdoors.

  • Lezlie Sterling /

    An array of seeds, clockwise from top left: Radish, lettuce, beet, squash, pinto bean and corn.

Time to get summer vegetable seeds going

Published: Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4CALIFORNIA LIFE
Last Modified: Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 - 12:32 am

They're tiny things, some no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. Yet they contain all the promise of a summer's day: a tasty tomato, a fragrant basil leaf, a crunchy sweet red bell pepper, a melon dripping with honey-scented nectar.

Seeds are nature's magic, and now is prime time to unlock it.

Seeds can be started any time of year, of course, but February is when gardeners dreaming of those lush summer harvests begin to plan and coax and nurture in earnest.

Gail Pothour of Orangevale, a master gardener since 2002, is responsible for starting seeds for the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center as well as her own garden.

"I love the weird and wacky ones," she said – vegetable varieties that aren't common in produce sections and next to impossible to find as plants. Purple carrots, indigo tomatoes and twisty squash grown in the Horticulture Center's raised beds draw exclamations from visitors there.

With the demise of some area nurseries, gardeners who want to try rare or just different vegetable varieties might find the supply of plants limited. That's where the magic of seed-starting comes in.

Bill Bird, who writes the Sacramento Vegetable Gardening blog, had been growing tomatoes from purchased six-packs in his Natomas yard for a few years before he discovered the world of heirloom tomatoes.

"I simply didn't know there was anything out there other than hybrids," he recalled. But after his wife brought home Brandywine and Green Zebra tomato plants from Capital Nursery, "I was hooked."

His subsequent research led him to dive into seed-starting – he wanted to grow tomatoes developed by "the father of the modern tomato," Alexander Livingston. That was in 2005. The rest, he might say, is history – and a very active blog.

Pothour notes that basic seed-starting can be done very cheaply. Recycled containers, repurposed lighting and improvised warming sources all work for beginners. And that packet of seeds is bargain: A couple dozen potential plants cost $2 or $3, the same price as a garden center's single plant in a 4-inch pot.

"I think everyone can afford to grow vegetables," said Jenn Hammer of Antelope, who over several years turned her family's yard into a micro-farm that is their primary source of food. Author of the blog Jenn's Gardening Spot, she now is a vegetable gardening coach.

"Reuse what you have," she advises.

Both Pothour and Hammer have greenhouses now, but they still try to keep costs down.

"I save everything," Pothour said. Lettuce containers, meat trays and clear plastic cups can be reused, respectively, as minigreenhouses, pot trays and "cloches" to keep seedlings warm. Milk cartons, yogurt cups and plastic juice bottles – anything "as long as they hold dirt" – can be seedling pots, she said. Labels can be made from plastic spoons or Popsicle sticks – even old miniblinds.

Pothour also recycles her plastic seed-starting cells. But, she noted, "anything you're reusing needs to be clean," washed with soap and warm water, then sterilized with a weak bleach solution (nine parts water, one part bleach).

Hammer recycles news- paper to make her seedling containers, molding them around Mason jars. She and her children typically make about 300 pots on Super Bowl Sunday – a.k.a. "Super Sow Sunday" in some gardening circles.

She and Pothour said the medium in the pots is a crucial part of seed-starting: It should be fine and sterile.

Commercial seed-starting mixes work well, Pothour said, and contain similar blends. Hammer mixes her own, from sphagnum moss, perlite and vermiculite. Potting soil is not recommended at this stage, since it contains too many chunks that let in air, Pothour said, and seedlings don't need fertilizers.

Jiffy brand pellets, which are compressed until moistened, also work – these were what Bird tried his first year, in a 12-pellet plastic greenhouse. But the expanded pellets are only about 2 inches tall, and seedlings often need more root space than that, requiring early transplanting to keep the seedling from getting rootbound. Pothour notes that germinating seeds often have 2-inch roots before you even see the sprout on top of the soil.

To germinate, seeds need a source of bottom heat, Pothour said. This can be the top of the refrigerator – "just a warm spot in the house." Commercial warming mats are a good investment, she said, but not mandatory.

To keep moisture in, containers should be covered with plastic wrap, or the pots can be sealed in tiny greenhouses made from recycled rotisserie chicken or lettuce containers.

Once the seeds have germinated, loosen the covering to let in air.

And "light is critical," Pothour said. A sunny south-facing windowsill, the fluorescent lighting under kitchen cabinets or a shop light rigged up over a shelf will do – 12 to 14 hours of potential light, Hammer said.

Bird now has a whole rack of shelves with shop lights hanging from S-hooks.

Gardeners develop many methods that work, but both Hammer and Pothour warn beginners not to take on too much, too soon.

"Start small," Pothour said. "Make it manageable."

For a first garden, Hammer recommends one tomato plant, one or two peppers and some basil – or just start with some herbs. Give away or compost extra seedlings.

"It's very easy to grow your own food," she said. "I think vegetables are easier to grow than flowers."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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