Archives for posts with tag: expediency

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.

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Over the last few days, we’ve been throwing our rejected seedlings onto a refuse pile.  And all the while, I’ve been lamenting their loss.  If only I had a compost pile, then the loss would not be as great.  The seedlings might not be producing any vegetables but they would be contributing to future soil.

It has made me think, though, that perhaps my approach to the compost pile should be similar to the one we ultimately took with the paving project.  Instead of waiting to construct a carefully designed and detailed compost bin enclosure, why not just clear an area and start piling the stuff up?

It would be good enough (the soil and earthworms aren’t as obsessed with aesthetics as I am) and a quick start to the production of local compost.  Best of all, doing so would not preclude building the compost bin of my dreams sometime in the future.

I don’t usually favor an expedient solution over one which I consider to be better, even if it is not as easy or quick to effect.  Although I’ve come to embrace the idea of good enough, I still feel that sometimes it means only just good enough or, put another way, not as good as it could be.  My parents always told me that if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right.  I took the idea to heart and have lived that way most of my life.

But sometimes what I think might be best, my concept of it, can blind me to other possibilities that could be just as good or even, possibly, better.  As an example, I decided last year that the best way to pave around the planters would be to use some slate and bluestone that was leftover from another project.  My reasoning was that the stone would provide a flat, stable working surface that would be attractive (the coloring would match the pool) and easy to care for.  It would also be putting to good use materials that are currently just taking up space.

And those are still good reasons.  But there are other factors that I did not take into account.  I know from experience that the stone cannot simply be placed on the ground; it is best set onto a layer of sand.  Also, keeping the stones level, especially across joints, is difficult and preventing them from rocking almost impossible.  And unless we were willing to accept irregular edges and large gaps between the stones (we weren’t), we would have to cut them to fit.  This would require that we rent a stone saw and learn how to use it.

In short, there would be more to the project than I had originally thought and as a result, nothing got done.  It turns out that even though the final result might have been the best, the process involved would be far from ideal.  In other words, getting there would have been none of the fun.  Knowing this led to procrastination and delay.

So we reconsidered our options and concluded that ease of installation was more important than the finished product.  And what could be easier than cedar mulch?  It’s a material that we almost always have on hand (we use it to cover the ornamental gardens), it is inexpensive and it comes in convenient 40-pound bags.  Once the ground has been prepared, laying it down is a breeze (well, relatively speaking anyway).

This is not to say that considerable effort will not be involved.  Preparing the ground sounds easy but it means removing sod, probably the most physically demanding gardening activity I know.  On the positive side, we have done plenty of it before and know exactly what to expect.

And best of all, we can get started right away and be finished by the end of the weekend.