Here in the Driftless/karst landscape of Southeast Minnesota, we have four seasons. Fall can pass rather quickly, and our short summers are a literal beehive of long, sunny days and frenetic growing activity. But as any good gardener knows, winter and spring are for planning, reviewing seed catalogs and caches from the prior year (I call this “seed porn season”), laying in supplies, sharpening tools and, of course, starting plants.
There are many schools of thought on how best to do this. Local garden centers and home improvement stores start stocking seed trays, seeds and soil pretty much right after the new year. Experienced local gardener Nina Wendt, who grew up with a massive garden in Russia, says not to get too intimidated. You don’t need a lot of stuff to start seeds, just the basics and a warm, sunny window. She also cautions against growing only “trendy” plants. “When you look at tomatoes, the heirlooms have been nice, but for sheer yield and taste consistency, the tried-and-true types still work really well. ‘Big Boy’ and some of the others are classics for a reason.”
She continues, “If you want to grow something unusual that local growers don’t have, you will have to start your own plants. But if you are a beginner, plants with good yield, taste and hardiness will keep you going.”
Light and soil temperature cause seeds to germinate. Most vegetables need a week to a month to sprout. With a last frost date of around Mother’s Day here in southeast Minnesota, that means starting seeds in late March to early April.
To start, you’ll need a light, sterile starting mix, clean planting trays with small pots or plugs, windows, seeds and labels. Extras include daylight white spectrum, LED, fluorescent or incandescent lights or lamps and heating mats, which can help keep the pots uniformly warm during our variable winters.
Popsicle sticks work well as labels. A fun alternative to buying starter pots is to make your own using a form and newspaper. The Paper Pot Maker at gardeners.com is a good mold, or just use a 6-ounce can. Write the plant name on the paper pot and put it directly in the ground, where the newspaper will break down as the plant grows.
Time to sow
Plant your seeds according to the directions on your seed packet. Check them every day for moistness, light and water consistency. Ideal conditions provide 12-18 hours of light per day. Expert seed starter, Rochester City Council member and Rochester Public Library seed library co-founder Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick starts her own seeds every year. “It’s all about the light for seeds once they germinate. Seedlings need light when they emerge—a LOT,” she says. Placing plants near south-facing windows will give them nearly a full day of direct sunlight.
Seeds sprout best at 55 degrees or higher soil temperature, and they must be well-watered but not over-watered. “Once seedlings have their first true leaves, I prick them out and transfer to two-inch pots with potting soil and water thoroughly,” Kirkpatrick says. “Here’s where artificial light comes in. The light surface has to be within two inches of the top of the plant. Really. Like all the time. Plug the lights into a timer that turns the lights on at 6 a.m. and shuts them off at 10 p.m. This keeps the seedlings shorter because they don’t have to reach for the light.” I’ve had good luck with Yoyomax lights. These wand lights come with built-in timers and three spectrum choices.
Be sure not to overwater, Kirkpatrick cautions. Learn about damping off and how to prevent it on the University of Minnesota (UMN) Extension page.
Depending on the type of plant, keep an eye on weather conditions. Place the seedlings outside for a week or so after the last frost so they get used to conditions before going into the ground. Some of the first crops to start and plant outside include onions and garlic. Early “direct sow” plants like lettuces and peas can go in the ground or in raised beds in April, as they like the colder temperatures. The UMN Extension has multiple lists and charts to help you plant at the right time depending on what you are growing.
We are lucky to live in a great area for seed saving and sourcing. In addition to personal pass-alongs each year, one of my favorite places to buy high-quality seeds is only an hour away at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Founded by the Ott and Whealy families in 1975, Seed Savers now has over 13,000 members and over 20,000 varieties of endangered and heirloom seeds. Their farm is an international treasure and is part of national and global seed vault programs.
Because of the efforts of Kirkpatrick and others, the Rochester Public Library offers a seed library. Beginning in March, library card holders can request up to 10 seed packets per year, including onion starter sets and seed potatoes. The seed library stocks classic vegetable seeds from tomatoes to bush beans to butternut squash. Patrons can give back at the end of the growing season by saving and harvesting seeds from plants they have grown to donate to the collection. Similar standard varieties are offered year after year, while the seeds in the vintage card-catalog drawers vary each season depending on the donations. For more information visit the Seed Library website at rplmn.org/services/more-services/seed-library.
Sowing and supporting the Earth
As we look out on our snowy prairie fields and yards in winter, it’s amazing to contemplate the gardening transformation that happens in the spring. With a relatively small investment, you can plant your own food and flower paradise that, in turn, supports our region and planet. And that’s what it’s all about, says Kirkpatrick. “Trends? Seems to be all about growing food. The idea that the newest ornamental hybrid or cultivar will be all the rage this year is dwindling. Gardeners are truly a caring lot. We are concerned with climate change, plant biodiversity and the state of our pollinators.”
As Wendt says and shows in her online garden photos, “I miss my garden.” Don’t we all? Soon enough, the thrum of green season will be upon us. Until then, we think, plan and gather our resources to burst forth, much like the seeds themselves. Let’s face it—we humans are basically big plants with more complex organs and brains. We are our gardens, and they are us. Soon, soon … until then, our indoor seedlings will tide us over.
For more tips and tricks, plus advice from Ben Vaughn, marketing communications director, and other experts at Sargent’s gardens, visit rwmagazine.com