A couple of weeks ago, I read a gardening article that might be the first one I have ever seen that makes a case for not starting plants from seed (see “Roots and Shoots: How Homegrown Is Necessary?” which appeared in the February 14, 2014 issue of Philipstown.info The Paper).  Pamela Doan’s column does include simple and useful instructions for starting a garden indoors in winter (with an emphasis on tomatoes) but starts off with her reasons why she doesn’t do it.

It’s nice to see someone bucking the conventional wisdom, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.  I’m a complete believer in starting from seed when possible but I recognize that doing so can seem like a lot of effort.  If the choice were between buying seedlings or doing nothing, I would buy the seedlings (as I did in 2011 and 2012).  Like most gardening projects, however, sowing seeds requires intermittent bouts of close attention—often accompanied by intensive activity—but little effort otherwise.  Once the seed trays have been set up and are safely tucked into a warm and well-lit location, they take care of themselves for the most part.  Only a modest investment of time is needed.  Potting up requires another infusion of time but the task is not much different from setting out, something that must be done whether the seedlings are home-grown or store-bought.

Similarly, the financial investment needn’t break the bank.  Unquestionably, one can spend a lot of money on seed starting apparatuses, depending on size, features and aesthetic appeal.  And the cost of specially formulated grow lights and heating coils specifically designed for seed trays is ridiculously high (a case, I think, of commercial opportunism).  Expensive whistles and bells will not necessarily be of benefit to so basic an operation.  Fortunately for one’s pocketbook, for example, plain fluorescent lights and utilitarian heating pads work just as well as their high-end counterparts.

In fact, as we found out last year (see February 18, 2013), a spacious and efficient seed starting apparatus can be put together for very little money.  Our modified shelving unit (including lights, pads, and seed trays) cost less than $200 and can accommodate 432 seedlings on three shelves (with two shelves left over).  A smaller apparatus would be proportionally less money.

The unit should last essentially forever; there will be no new expenses year to year so the effective cost, amortized over its expected life, is even less.  Further, it can be used for storage off season (a mixed blessing; see January 8, 2014).  Existing shelves similarly modified would be more economical and a sunny windowsill, for those lucky enough to have one, is even cheaper.

The most eye-opening of Ms. Doan’s arguments against starting from seed is her primary contention that most seed companies put too many seeds in each packet.  To her, this means planting more of any given vegetable than perhaps she would like.  The result, given overall constraints of time and space, is a lesser variety of vegetables.  Either that or wasted seeds.

I’ll admit that last year we started more seeds than we needed (72 basil plants; really?).  But that was due to inexperience and pessimism.  With no idea of what rate of germination to expect and a firm commitment to planting only our own seedlings, we erred on the conservative side.  We didn’t let that impact our decisions about what to grow, however.  Instead, we gave away as many seedlings as we could foist off on people and, with some regrets, cast what we couldn’t use onto the refuse pile (see, for example, May 4, 2013, part 2).

The startling part of the surfeit-of-seeds concept, though, is the implication that all of the seeds in a packet must be planted at once.  This notion never occurred to me.  I am frugal (some would say cheap) about many things (but by no means all) and always intended to save the seeds I did not plant last spring to use again this year.  The average seed life is printed on each packet and most are theoretically good for two years or more.

I say “theoretically” because, of course, seed life depends on how the seeds are stored between planting seasons.  We kept our seeds safely inside a small box in the basement.  There, they were protected from light and excessive heat and moisture.  It can get warm and humid here in July and August—and last year was particularly torrid—but the basement is partially underground which mitigates the extreme weather conditions.  The small volume of the box should have further minimized the effects of summer.  (Some would suggest storing seeds in the freezer, as we did with seeds from two years ago; unfortunately, they are too easily forgotten that way, by which I mean that I forgot about them.)  Even after a year, the seeds should still be viable.

So now we’re in the process of finding out whether they actually are.  Our plan this year is to sow fewer seeds of each type of vegetable and, possibly, to plant additional varieties (this would require buying more seeds or, later in the season, seedlings).  So far, we have only planted herbs (six seeds of six varieties) and lettuce (six seeds of two varieties).

The lettuces are sprouting at about a 50 percent success rate while only two herb varieties (basil and rosemary) have germinated.  Herbs are notoriously slow to get started but I should note that all of the herbs except the basil have an average seed life of only one year.  I may be pushing my luck—and the limits of my faith (see February 19, 2014).

Contrary to the Roots and Shoots article, there is more than bragging rights to be gained from growing plants from seed.  It is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to get the garden started and to jump back into the gardening spirit, even in the midst of winter.  And for a control freak like me, it is the only way to grow exactly what I want and to know everything about my plants.  The bragging—and blogging—rights are a nice bonus.