Seedlings in the greenhouse: How do they grow?

Alexandra Marks/The Christian Science Monitor
Ahh, the satisfying results! Alexandra Marks started these little basil, tomato, and lettuce plants about a month ago. They look almost as good as store-bought seedlings, if she does say so herself!

Starting a plant from seed is an extraordinarily satisfying experience. Although, besides a few second-grade attempts to grow daisies in a Dixie cup, it wasn’t until last year that I came to understand the full majesty that can unfold from a tiny seed.

We had had our country house for several years and, as an almost-lifelong city dweller, I had taken up the habit of visiting the local nursery every spring to buy trays of very pretty flowering plants. I would then take them home, promptly put them into the garden, and wait anxiously for either a deer or the groundhog that lives down by the pond to come and eat them.

But then we went to Virginia to visit my Aunt Annie and Uncle Bill. He’s a retired doctor who has turned a small mountain on my grandparent’s farm into a natural garden that attracts wildlife.

They took us to Monticello to see Thomas Jefferson’s extraordinary gardens. Entranced, I left the gift shop  loaded with seed packages of hollyhocks, sweet william, double columbine, English daisies, and rusty foxgloves.

However, the next spring, we put an addition on the house, so the seed packets sat. Then last spring, I found them and decided to experiment.

Back I went to the local nursery as spring dawned, but this time I bought seed starter kits. I opted for the Jiffy All in One Seed Starter Mini Greenhouse Dome & 25 Jiffy Peat Soil Pellets. It turned out, in fact, to be my first experience with a greenhouse – albeit, a rather small one.

As I set to work, the first thing I learned about seeds was that in each package there are a lot of them – far more than could fit in one minigreenhouse. And with a dozen or so packets of seeds to plant, it was soon clear this one $10 minigreenhouse would not be sufficient – and I certainly was not going to rush out and buy 10 more. What kind of savings would that have resulted in?

So off I went to the shed, where over the years I had deposited dozens of empty plastic pots and trays from my forays to the nursery, with the full intention of someday recycling them all.

With a bag of topsoil and my $10 minigreenhouse as a guide, I undertook to plant my seeds.

The 25 that landed in the minigreenhouse were a cinch. (Click here for a blog that does a nice comparison of different types of starter kits.) I just put a seed in each miniature container, added water, and voilà! a week later I had seedlings.

My pot experiments were – amazingly to me – just as successful. I filled each pot with very loose topsoil, wet it down, then punched a quarter-inch hole with my index finger, dropped in a seed, and gently covered it. I then put the pots in trays, filled them with water, and then covered the whole thing with Saran Wrap. (The trays ranged from a cookie sheet and a baking pan to a metal basket I covered with a garbage bag. I wanted something flat that would hold water.)

My first homemade minigreenhouses turned out to be just as successful as the store-bought brand – and I might add, a whole lot cheaper.

There was only one drawback to this method: The living room floor was crowded with trays of pots. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, this was too much of an invitation to our dogs and a bit of an irritant to my partner, Martin, who felt that living rooms should be for living. (I suggested that growing was very much a part of the process of living. He was not amused.)

As a month and then some went by, my seedlings grew into little plants. And when the danger of the last frost had long past, I carefully took each pot out to the garden and planted it. My heart swelled with pride.

But in all of my enthusiasm and excitement, I forgot one crucial thing: The deer, moles, groundhogs and bunnies were just as hungry as in the years before. And really, what’s better, store-bought or homegrown? I soon realized that even the varmints could tell the difference, and they proceeded to nibble on my carefully nurtured plants with even more gusto than they had the store-bought ones.

That experience is what prompted me to invest in a real greenhouse this year..

Next: Pots or raised beds? The conundrums facing a novice greenhouse gardener.

See Alexandra Marks's previous posts about the experiences of a new greenhouse owner by clicking here, here, and here.

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