Seed Starting as MOTHER's Gardeners Do It

Here's a comprehensive guide to seed starting, including the constructon of seed flats, soil preparation, proper watering, transplanting, and prevention of damping-off.

| March/April 1985

  • seed starting - watering
    Walker waters in the seeds with a Haws watering can, beginning and ending the sprinkling off the tray to avoid splashing the soil and seeds. A small stick now marks the boundary between the two varieties of spinach seeds in the tray.
  • seed starting - transplanting young shoot
    According to good seed starting practice, you should cull out weak shoots so the strong ones can flourish.
    Photo by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
  • seed starting - leaf mold
    Olivia crumbles some leaf mold in a tray bottom to keep any soil mix from washing out the base's drainage cracks.
  • seed starting - planting spinach seeds
    Olivia lightly sows some spinach seeds in a filled and leveled tray. Note that the labeling tag is already in place and that she's using her tamping block to help keep the seeds in one area.

  • seed starting - watering
  • seed starting - transplanting young shoot
  • seed starting - leaf mold
  • seed starting - planting spinach seeds

The seed is awakened in the dark of Earth, the leaves are quickened in the power of the Air, and all fruit is ripened in the might of the Sun. So awakens the Soul in the shrine of the Heart. So quickens the Spirit in the Light of the World. So ripens man’s power in the glory of God.

— Rudolph Steiner, Verses and Meditations

Between the gleaming fantasies in seed catalogs and the mishmashed cornucopia that is a full-blown summer garden stand the tiny kernels known as seeds. Seed starting is the first — and therefore most important — task of the gardener's year. Unless you go to the expense of buying all your garden plants (which will severely restrict your varietal choices) or simply wait for the weather to warm up enough to sow everything directly in the ground (which will severely curtail the length of your growing season), you'll want to start many of your future foods and flowers indoors, in containers, under close personal supervision.

The little home births you'll be attending demand a lot of knowledgeable care. To help you in this seminal adventure, we'll share here the way that Walker and Olivia Abel, MOTHER EARTH NEWS' Eco-Village gardeners, tend their own spring starts. Every year, the couple successfully raises approximately 50 flats — with up to 200 seeds per tray — of plants from seed. In other words, they know what they're doing. So, while there are plenty of other good seed-starting systems (you may have another approach that works fine for you), we think you'll find the following account of the Abels' techniques helpful and potentially quite money-saving, too.

Seed Starting Materials

Walker and Olivia are both devotees of biodynamic/French intensive gardening: They trained in the Santa Cruz garden program begun by BFI's founder, Alan Chadwick. While they've adapted "the method" to suit their own needs and experiences, they still rely heavily on this sensitive, natural system of gardening. And one highly worthwhile part of that heritage is making their own planting materials.

So if you're going to follow in the Abels' seed-starting steps, the first thing you'll need to do is to make wooden seed trays. Sturdy and inexpensive, the Abels' boxes are made from cedar or redwood (both species resist rotting and are less likely than other woods to harbor diseases).

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