Last year, Nick and I started a new garden together for the first time. We had grown food in many established spaces before but this was the first time that we were in a place with no viable established growing area. Starting from scratch can seem like an idyllic freedom: the joy of placing everything exactly where you want it, designing it to the landscape, mapping out every square inch of useable space. That being said, as I reveled in the glory of a brand new garden last year, I was missing one simple bit of information that my dear friend, Louisa, mentioned the other night, “I’m worried about starting my plants too early since I don’t have a garden to put them into.” Touche.
No one knows this, but our home turned into a tomato warzone far before a single snowflake had melted last winter. This isn’t public information because we weren’t able to have people over to our house for nearly 4 months. Plants outnumbered humans easily 100:1. Our couches were placed facing each other 2ft apart with tables of plant starts taking up nearly every other open space in our tiny home. We had a chilly spring and no greenhouse to move our plants into so it was a daily ritual to take them outside to the sunshine and bring them back in for protection from the frosty night. This was no small task and there were many casualties along the way. Nick has implored me to prevent a rerun of what is now referred to as ‘The Great Tomato Massacre of 2012’.
Being one who tends to learn her lessons the hard way, here are some simple methods to keeping a happy home as you begin your plants this year–especially if you are like us and don’t have a heated greenhouse to start your seeds in.
Seed Starting for the Greenhouseless
Create an Efficient Germination Space
In a chilly place like Alaska, most people use germination lights. This creates a controlled environment with ample light, warmth, and the ability to germinate many plants at once in a small space. Even if you live in a milder climate and don’t need the extra light, this set-up will keep your windowsills open and prevent water and soil from being tracked around the house. A metal bakers rack is a great option to hang basic florescent shop lights for an easy and inexpensive solution.
Placement is Key
Create your germination space in a convenient area of your home that won’t be accidentally knocked, isn’t too far from where you’ll be getting your water, and won’t be a huge problem if something spills or leaks. If you have a sunny space, that will always help with extra light and transitioning the plants to an uncontrolled environment. Better yet, a sunny spot near a door to the outside will be your best placement for when it’s time to move your plants. It may take some adjusting but if you place your germination space in good location, it will reduce stress and prevent them from being neglected during this fragile stage.
Map Out the Dance
Do your best to chart out when you start your plants, how long they will take to mature for transplant, and whether or not this timing works with when it will be warm enough for them to go outside. If plants are ready too early, they will become leggy, lack necessary nutrients, and become more succeptible to pests and disease once they are placed in the ground. It’s a shuffle and a dance getting this to work smoothly. This is the hardest part but it is also the best way to avoid what we did last year and to keep your germination space at its highest productivity.
Take Great Notes
Even if you mess up your timing this year or have an atypical spring, take great notes to dial in the logistics for next year. You can’t predict the spring weather but for heartier vegetables, it likely won’t matter. Onions, cabbage, kale, and many other plants can spend their nights outside far earlier than you may expect. As long as plants are carefully adapted to the outside climate, they can make room for those more tender tomatoes, peppers, and basil.