Huge Garden, Small Start

The Campbells research, check old records before choosing seeds to plant. Photo: Theresa Curry.

It’s been a month or two since Fern and Cleve Campbell harvested the last of their greens from the covered bed near their back door, less time since they retrieved the final fresh pepper from their refrigerator. That’s enough of a break for these serious homesteaders, who manage to freeze, dry and can as many vegetables and herbs as they can eat in a year from the extensive raised beds and no-till rows on their property near Crozet. Both are members of the Piedmont Master Gardeners, which means they not only know their stuff, but are committed to sharing that knowledge with the community.

As always during the winter months, they’re itching to get going on the next year’s garden. While temperatures plummet and the ground remains dreary and barren, they’re inside where it’s warm, poking and scattering tiny seeds into planting soil. Early February is the time to start onions, fennel bulbs and hot peppers and they’ve carefully planted the almost-microscopic seeds into containers best suited for their individual needs. It’s happy work, and comes after a great deal of research and meticulous attention to detail and serious documentation in a worn garden journal. “What can I say?” asked Fern. “We’re garden nerds.” Although the Campbells gardened extensively before retirement, they now focus their formidable scientific and technical brainpower (Fern was a pediatric nurse-practitioner; Cleve was in telecommunications) on their gardens. 

Seed planting mix allows seeds to breathe, avoids clumping. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Nothing is more helpful than the journal for deciding which seeds to plant, because it reminds them what they ordered last year, the dates of planting and transplanting, and how the variety performed over all. If Fern goes back and sees a disappointing yield, or susceptibility to pests, she’ll think twice before repeating the order. Cleve noted that their private seed bank––packages left over from previous years––also gets a good inventory at this time of year. They’ve made it a habit to write the packet’s date on it: often the manufacturer’s date is hard to read, or has torn off when the package is opened or folded.

They’ve had good luck with leftover seeds stored safely for several years in a freezer, Fern said, but if she has any doubt at all, she’ll scatter the seeds on a wet paper towel, which she folds and encloses in a plastic bag. To avoid doing math, she’ll press ten seeds into the damp paper. “That way, if seven seeds sprout, I can say it has a 70 percent germination rate,” she said. If the seeds break through the outer shell, that germ of life means they’ll be viable in the flats. Cleve wrote a recent article for The Garden Shed (the Piedmont Master Gardeners’ newsletter) giving the estimated length of viability for different kinds of seeds, but he said the sprouting test has shown viability as long as nine or 10 years for some seeds. If you have extra seeds from last year, this test will keep you from wasting effort and time waiting for seeds to sprout, whether inside or directly in the garden bed.

Why seeds, when seedlings are readily available at garden centers at the appropriate time? 

“More variety, less cost,” said Cleve. It’s true: nurseries are limited to a few local favorites, and gardeners can get hundreds of seeds for the cost of a six-pack of cabbage or tomato plants. After the Campbells plant their “Candy Onion” and fennel seeds (both slow growing) in foil bread pans, they’ll poke a few hot pepper seeds in each compartment of a flat of black plastic six-packs. These will be the earliest seeds they plant; next up are collards, cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower, planted inside in early March to be set out in mid-April. The Campbells will sow their lettuce and spinach directly into the covered beds, but it’s also possible to start these inside. Eggplant, tomatoes and peppers will find their place on the Campbell’s windowsill in early April. Learning from recent weather trends, they’ll probably set the summer vegetables out a little earlier than in the past.

When in doubt, test old seeds with a damp paper towel. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Cleve has written extensively about successful propagation from seeds, but it comes down to soil, light, temperature and oxygen, he said: the same elements that figure into successful planting in the garden, with some differences:

Soil: Your planting medium should be specific for seed starting. Usually that means a mix of vermiculite and peat. It needs to retain water and remain porous, so that the tiny roots can be separated without damage. It’s fine to be creative with old containers, but be sure to sterilize them if they’ve been used for plants before. The Campbells use foil pans for seeds requiring shallow planting; recycled six packs for deeper planting. 

Light: Make sure you know the light requirements for germination. “Most seeds germinate best in the dark, but lettuces and parsley need light,” Cleve said. Also note the future light requirements for the varieties you choose. “We spent years trying to grow big, beautiful onions with no luck,” Fern said. “We finally realized that the varieties we were planting needed more daylight than we get here.” Once they switched to “Candy,” the variety they plant from seed, they’ve dug up the plump, sweet onions of their dreams. The Campbells use both grow lights and natural light from a south window.

Dried peppers provide cheerful decoration, spicy salsa. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Temperature: There’s a range of soil temperatures and they’re listed on seed packets. Staying near the optimal temperature (of the soil, not the air) within this range will make sure the seeds sprout faster. The Campbells make use of heating mats when needed to maintain the best temperature.

Oxygen: We take it for granted that our young seedlings get oxygen, but over-watering and dense, sticky soil can cut off the oxygen supply, just as it does for plants in flooded bottom land. If you use old cups or yogurt containers, make sure you punch holes for drainage to keep air circulating and the plants thriving.

Gardeners wanting to get started with seeds this winter and spring can find an impressive amount of information about this and other topics. See upcoming lectures, find current and back issues of the newsletter and have questions answered by a master gardener at 

Master gardener Fern Campbell plants fennel and onion seeds. Photo: Theresa Curry.


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