Well Intended / Planting a seed: Gardeners perform a rite of spring
This month, I decided to start seeds indoors. I was concerned it might be too cold to plant anything besides peas in the garden. The danger of last frost is April 15. But I could begin to nurture small plants in my kitchen.
In preparation, I purchased seed packets with abandon. It was encouraging imagining sunny August and a bountiful harvest after what seemed like an eternal winter. I chose several types of tomato, basil, parsley, oregano, zucchini, peppers, cilantro, beans, and, because the illustration was so colorful and full of cheer and it was a dreary, rainy Saturday, I added a pack of zinnias.
I've had mixed success with starting seeds indoors. Last year, I planted my seedlings out too early and a late frost left the baby plants withered. I have overwatered on occasion and have waited too long to plant, leaving the plants root-bound. I have also, in my enthusiasm, planted too many of the same thing. How many lemon cucumbers can one small family enjoy? In general, I've had success, not because I am especially skilled, patient or horticulturally gifted; plants are sturdier than we think. It's in their nature to survive.
When I first moved to Westport from a small student townhouse in Cambridge, Mass., I was so enthusiastic to have my own yard to fill with flowers, vegetables and herbs that I filled a hundred Dixie riddle cups with seeds and soil in a poorly lit basement. On sunny afternoons, I carried them outdoors to the scant sunlight of the alley and brought them in again at dusk. The seeds reluctantly germinated and were tenderly transported in the back of my car to my first backyard garden. Although only a small percentage survived, I took much pleasure in my hand-grown bouquets of cosmos and bachelor buttons and filled vases in every room.
Planting seeds in the spring generally is an activity I attempt alone. While my children will help (reluctantly) in the garden, they don't express the same enthusiasm for growing things as I do. But for some reason, this year, my son expressed interest in the seed-starting project. Together, we determined that nearly all of our windows are northern facing and that we would need additional lighting. We fitted a garage light with a warm and a cool bulb and hung it over the washer and dryer in the hopes that the motors would provide ample warmth for germination. Together, we rolled newspaper into pots and used an espresso cup to fill each with a scoop of soil. When it came time to plant the seeds, he grabbed the package of zinnias. "We'll plant these!" he announced.
My plan was to plant a few of each seed, but he would have nothing to do with this. I am not sure why he expressed such fondness for the zinnias; I like to think he was taken (like I was) with their bright petals and their contrast to that gray afternoon. I suspect he might have been trying to reduce the number of tomatoes, beans and zucchinis he might be asked to consume later this summer. We divided the pots between us and chose one at a time what would be planted in each. One zinnia, one tomato, one cucumber, one zinnia, one parsley, one bean. And so it went until we had tucked zinnia seeds into a third of the newspaper pots.
We watered the seeds, and kept them moist by misting them an old spray-cleaner bottle filled with water. Within three days, we had growth. And wouldn't you know, it was the zinnias that germinated first!
Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.