Jump starting summer.

February 1, 2015 § 3 Comments


Tomato seedlings.Remember the slap of the jump rope hitting the ground, your cue to run in and jump like heck?

For many things there is a jump-in-moment.

Like now. Here, the noisy flocks of robins are back.

Narcissus are falling over in the front bed, their flowers too heavy for their stems.

Sulphur butterflies are emerging.

And so I know it is time to jump in and start summer.

In case you want to start summer too, this is how to do it.

Burpee seeds.Begin with a mess of seed catalogs. You can pick seeds up locally, but the selection will be modest and you will usually get stuck with varieties someone at Corporate in some faraway city thought you would like.

So. Catalogs.

Perhaps because it was the catalog that always hung over the arm of my dad’s Morris chair (open to tomatoes) I would say that Burpee is the one you must have.

But quantity is important. A pile of paper catalogs is a form of wealth; ask any gardener. And they’re free.

When winter is on you, kick back and read them.

Maybe this will be the year to grow a pink eggplant or a pumpkin that weighs as much as a baby elephant.

Giant pumpkin.There is still time to consider photos of giant pumpkins, but at least here in North Florida, we are past the catalog-ogling stage for the slower vegetables.

In Tallahassee it is time to start tomatoes, peppers, eggplants—and I throw in basil because I will need it to compliment the other three.

To start seeds get some vermiculite.

My husband says vermiculite is kin to asbestos in the lung-unfriendly department. He says go with pearlite, but pearlite is first cousin to stryofoam and it is too light-weight to be taken seriously.

Collect some of those fast food containers, the ones with the clear plastic tops. Cut slits in the bottom, fill that bottom half with vermiculite (while holding your breath) and set it in a shallow pan of water.

The water will be absorbed through the slits (bottom watering is one of the tricks of growing seeds—top watering might as well be The Flood for something as small as a seed).

Take the container of saturated vermiculite out of the water (once saturated it just lies there, no threat at all to your lungs). Let it drain.

Dump some of the seeds in your packet onto a plate and spread them out. Lick your finger and touch a seed. The seed will stick to your finger and then transfer to the wet vermiculite when you touch it (spit surface tension is not as great as wet-vermiculite surface tension).

You can space the seeds pretty close together because you are going to transplant the seedlings very shortly after they germinate.

When the surface of the vermiculite is properly speckled with seeds, sprinkle more vermiculite on top (about ¼ of an inch) and re-soak.

Put the transparent lid on, or just slide the container into a plastic bag—humidity is important when starting seeds.

IMG_1131I always count the seeds and write the number, variety, and date started in a notebook. Why? Because it is part of the ritual.

And because, over time, I get a really good idea of what the optimum start date is for my tiny spot on this planet. I can also see which varieties work here.

I note how many come up to get a germination rate. Why? Ritual. And it lets me know the viability of the seeds I store year after year in the freezer in a sealed plastic bag.

Do not put your pan of seeds in the light until the seeds begin to germinate. Heat, at this point is the important thing, not light. I put all my starters under the wood stove.

As soon as any of the seeds germinate, move the pans to the light. Fluorescent lights—even if they are not gro-lux are a great addition to the sunlight coming through a window.

Plants with too little light get sad and leggy. They yearn toward the window unrequited. It’ll break your heart.

Once the pilot leaves (the first pair that looks pretty much the same no matter what you are growing) are standing up proud and tall they are ready to transplant.

If I teach you nothing else pay attention right now.  To transplant the seedlings to market packs (those flimsy plastic containers with multiple pots attached to each other that every gardener has knocking around) put the container with the plants and vermiculite in it back in water. This will re-flood the vermiculite and make it easy to take the tiny plants out without hurting them.

Seedlings in market pack.Fill the market pack with damp potting soil and drill a hole in the middle of each pocket of soil with a pencil, then, take that same pencil and dig it into the vermiculite next to a seedling.


Hold the seedling by one of the two pilot leaves (like the old trick teachers did of grabbing the bad kid by the ear).

DO NOT grab the seedling by the stem.

Using the pencil and the pilot leaf, lift the seedling out of the vermiculite. If the root is really long you can trim it before easing the root into the hole in the potting soil. Gently firm the soil around the seedling. When the market pack is full set it in a pan of water (don’t top water). Once wet, take it out and let it drain.

There are vegetables, like squash, that spring up so eagerly and so huge it is better to plant them right in the ground and step back. But for the ones that take their time, the moment, at least here in north Florida, is now.

If a seed germinates I’ll transplant it, so every year I end up with about 300 plants and the desperate and panicked feeling that I won’t find homes for all of them.

But they’ll sit on the lawn and someone will come by and I’ll say, “Need any tomatoes? You’ll like these. They’re called Bloody Butchers.”

And summer begins.

Perhaps this ritual does not make summer come—but if not, it gets me up to the speed of summer. Unlike jump rope where I was always a steady-ender (the one who only turns the rope) I wait for the moment–and I jump in.

Nothing says “summer” like a vine ripe tomato.

Note: It is easier to hold forth on the meaning of life than it is to write lucid instructions.  If you have any questions just add a comment. Chances are if I confused you I confused everyone else as well. 


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§ 3 Responses to Jump starting summer.

  • craig reeder says:

    I heard on the radio that the public library is giving away seeds for free!


    • Way ahead of you, bud. I have already planted some of their tomato seeds. For those of you who are interested, just ask at the desk. Although the envelopes are big they contain what is called a “sample.” I got eleven of the tomato seeds, total, but hey, they were free and supposedly a variety chosen because it will thrive here in North Florida.


  • KM Huber says:

    I have always wondered about this process. There are days I dream of having my own place, again, and should that happen, I have tucked away your instructions. Every year–about this time, actually–I think about window gardening–herbs mainly–but I am mindful of EmmaRose and her insistence on eating any and all plants no matter how sick she gets! Valuable instructions, Adrian, and thank you.

    P.S. Agree that writing about the meaning of life is a piece of cake in comparison to writing clear and accurate instructions.To this would-be gardener, you succeed in both.


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