Barrosse: On Tending Seedlings

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(HOST) A few years ago, commentator Mary Barrosse Schwartz and her family started small-scale farming to produce their own food. Since then, they’ve learned how to do dozens of chores – and how not to do others.

(BARROSSE) When the temperatures seem to be riding a roller-coaster, the sky remains overcast, and the bleak gray of winter seeps into the windows and into the soul, I pull out the colorful seed catalogs and start planning a splendid summer vegetable garden. I mull over the new varieties, and ponder the impossible choices. There’s a new type of beet with outrageous stripes. There are yellow tomatoes with green stripes and an oxheart-shaped brown tomato said to be the most delicious ever. Others are supposed to be the best-ever for canning. There are squash and green beans with scarlet-stems; and others with polka-dots.

That’s why I take the time to grow seedlings this time of year. I start them lovingly and with great care in tiny cups on long trays on a table in my office. I rig the broad spectrum lights above the table, and bask in the fake sunshine of my early March garden. I start it with the best of intentions, imagining that I’ll have the time to water, feed, monitor, and whisper sweet nothings to the tiny dots of green all through these gray days.

That’s what I plan. It’s the ideal. But my indoor winter garden is a bit harder to tend than my outdoor summer one. The sun and rain of our Vermont summers make my vegetable garden of many raised beds almost carefree. For the winter garden, the duties are daily. A person who is easily distracted like me – or just somebody with any kind of a life – might ignore them.

When I raised seedlings in our cool basement, out of sight meant nearly instantly out of mind. Sadly, only the spiders in the rafters down there witnessed the struggles of the brave little seedlings, poking their heads up in carefully prepared trays, expecting perhaps just a little love from me before they withered and returned to the dirt – as another seed starting effort bit the dust.

One year I diligently tended the seedlings all the way to the cold frame stage, where the sun erased the permanent marker writing on labels that separated winter from summer squash, and kale from cabbage. In the randomly planted garden, plants like zucchini took over and crowded out plants like cucumbers, since in the seedling stage, I couldn’t tell one from another.

I should probably just read the catalogs purely for enjoyment and then go ahead and buy fat, happy, and established standard tomato plants from the nursery. But I can’t resist the pictures of orange tomatoes with purple dots – or perhaps the pink ones with green stripes.

I guess I’ll use just one long lamp, a few small trays, and start one or two packets of seeds. Every day, I’m learning that less is more, as I realize that my agricultural ambitions are often difficult to reconcile with job, family and volunteer work. Scaling back, but not giving up, I’ll still be in the backyard this summer – down on my version of the farm.

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