Sowing the seeds of summer

By: Brian Louwers, | Warren Weekly | Published March 22, 2017

METRO DETROIT — Get ready. It’s time to get to work if you’re looking to grow this summer’s veggies from seed this winter.

Whether you’re starting seeds with a grow kit at home or in a fully functional greenhouse, March and April are busy months for from-seed farmers. If you’re serious about growing seeds, you’ve probably whiled away the winter months by browsing handy seed catalogs and wandering websites to narrow the search for your favorite garden varieties. 

Maybe you’re satisfied to stick with tried and tested hybrid hot peppers. Perhaps you’ve picked some new heirloom tomatoes to plant. 

 The seeds stay in the germination room, which is actually like a greenhouse inside of the greenhouse, where they’re kept warm and moist until they sprout.

The seeds stay in the germination room, which is actually like a greenhouse inside of the greenhouse, where they’re kept warm and moist until they sprout.

File photo by Brian Louwers

“I always look for heirloom, non-genetically modified seeds, and it’s exciting to see the resurgence of interest in gardening with the same seeds our grandparents and our great-grandparents did,” said Warren City Councilwoman Kelly Colegio, an avid gardener and a supporter of the city’s network of community gardens. “Nothing can beat the taste of that old-fashioned tomato that we grew in our grandmother’s garden back in the day. Each community garden site in Warren grows some form of heirloom, non-GMO tomato.”

Colegio said she shops for seeds online through sites like the Victory Seed Co., at www.victoryseeds.com; Seed Savers Exchange, at www.seedsavers.org; and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, at www.rareseeds.com. All offer information about rare, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds grown and loved for generations in American gardens. 

“Looking at some of the seed catalogs from the 1930s and ’40s, it’s sad to see we’ve lost so many varieties because of our grocery stores’ tendency toward monoculture,” Colegio said. “Diversity in our foods, in what we eat, is so much healthier. We need to be careful we don’t lose so many great-tasting varieties that perhaps our grandparents had available to them back in the day.” 

Whatever your selections are, early to mid-March is the time to plant those pepper seeds indoors, while late March or the first week of April is prime time for sowing tomato seeds in the greenhouse or your home growing environment, respectively.

Here’s what else you need to know.

“Start with a good, clean container — nothing old,” said Cindy Roback, the owner of Young’s Garden Mart & Christmas Fantasy on Ryan, north of 11 Mile Road, in Warren. “It’s always better to start new. If they do reuse something, they need to wash it out with bleach and water.”

Roback suggested using a cleaning mixture of 1/3 bleach to 2/3 water that’s sufficient to kill last year’s leftover diseases, which are capable of impairing your plants this season. Cleanliness in the planting process is critical for tender young plants, and Roback is serious about keeping germs away from the seedlings and her planting table in the greenhouse.

When you’re set to go with clean seed trays, it’s time to start sowing your chosen seeds in the right soil.

“Usually a seed-starting soil. It’s not as heavy as other potting soils, so the seeds won’t rot out,” Roback said. “You’ll want to lightly cover them and keep them moist and warm with sunlight.”

In the germination room at the greenhouse, Roback uses a light seed-starting mix in trays with holes in the bottom to allow drainage. Seeds are sprinkled across each tray and then covered with a thin layer of vermiculite. The seeds stay in the room, which is actually like a greenhouse inside the greenhouse, where they’re kept warm and moist until they germinate. Once they reach about a half-inch in size, the young plants are thinned carefully to protect the roots, and are then moved in trays to racks in the main greenhouse, where they continue to grow as the sunlight gradually grows stronger outside. 

Once they’re about an inch to an inch and a half tall, the plants can be put outside to harden off during the day as weather permits, once the thermometer hits about 50 degrees. Remember to be mindful of the wind, which can damage tender plants. Young, cool-weather crops like cabbage and broccoli can survive even temperatures that dip into the upper 30s overnight, while tomatoes and peppers should be brought back inside before sunset to prevent irreparable damage.

Roback plants her pepper seeds in early to mid-March, and tomatoes in mid- to late March in the greenhouse. Eggplant is planted in the middle of March. Near the end of March, it’s time to plant cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and collards. 

Because many home growing environments are slightly warmer than the greenhouse, she suggested planting seeds a week later there to avoid long, spindly starts. If you’re looking to begin fast-growing cucumbers or zucchini indoors, she said to wait until early May to keep the plants manageable.

Roback and other growers know patience is key when it comes to putting the plants in the garden. She cautions her customers to mind the old rule of Michigan farmers and wait until Memorial Day weekend to plant. 

“People forget very easily,” Roback said of the unpredictable spring weather. “Probably 99.8 percent of the time, you’re safe. There’s always that little chance.”