- Soaking beet seeds
Last night I picked our supper salad out of the garden by the last dim light after the sun went down. Earlier in the day I had quickly planted seeds by the first morning light before heading off to the other job. Farming around another job can be a challenge. My work -midwifery- is unpredictable. Sometimes the long day in the office is the only day that week the sun shines, and all the other days I’m available to work in the gardens it rains or freezes. Sometimes I’m at a birth for two days during a critical time for sprouting young plants. Sometimes a really busy week of births, office visits, and home postpartum visits leaves no time outside during the exact week plants or seeds need to go into the ground.
- Soaked carrot seed - plumped up and ready to sprout
So just as midwives do with all the other parts of their lives, I’ve learned how to adapt, adjust, make do, and use contingency plans to get established the gardens that will feed us and others. In the process I’ve broken a lot of “rules”. I was thinking about this yesterday as I was hurrying to plant the peas in the early morning, before either shower or breakfast.
- Heading out to plant the basket of presoaked stuff
- Mixing wet carrot seed with soil - this is too wet - add more dry soil
One of the processes I’ve come to depend upon is soaking seeds. Soaking seeds before planting is just wetting them down in a bowl of water for awhile to either hydrate them more quickly, speed up germination, or wash away a sprout-inhibiting surface coating of the seed. Soaking has pitfalls. It can lead to seed rotting if the soak is too long (or forgotten…). But the payoff for me has been that tender germinating seeds that need to have their soil kept to a particular dampness grow much faster after soaking - eliminating a good deal of the time that I need to be on-call to the garden to go water a drying-out seedbed on a hot spring day. Last year, we had nearly no carrots. Fortunately, we had a huge squash and pumpkin harvest, and made do with these for the majority of our orange food intake. But I planted carrots over and over again, and a bad combination of a hot and unpredictable spring and a busy midwifery practice calling me away for extended amounts of time meant that the little carrot seeds, notorious for the length of time they take to germinate, did not grow well. This year, I’m trying something different, and soaking the carrot seeds to cut down on their germination time, and cut down on the amount of time I have to coddle them to get them to sprout.
I soaked the carrot seed overnight, then drained them through a fine mesh strainer and took them out to the garden. A skeptical old-school farmer would look at me like I was crazy and say, well now you’ve just got a mess of wet seeds you’re not going to be able to spread - what about that? No problem. I sprinkle some dry soil over them, and stir. Just like mixing sand with small dry seeds to help sow them more thinly. Then I sprinkle the seed-dirt mix in the rows. Sometimes soil clings to the seeds just right so that they look like those pelleted seeds you can buy, with a protective coating that makes each seed easier to pick up. Except, with soil, you can’t really see the seed anymore. It’s a little leap of faith to sprinkle the cupful of dirt with seeds you can’t see down the row, and assume you’ve done okay. But it has worked really well for me in the past.
- Presprouted peas - don’t let them grow beyond this before planting!
This is the method I’ve used this year so far for beets, chard, carrots, spinach, mache, and peas planted outside. Somewhere I think I read that beets and chard have a sprout-inhibiting chemical on their surface, that soaking washes away more quickly than watering in the ground does. I don’t have a lot of time to spend researching and following up on the science, I just experiment, and then add to my repertoire what has worked for me. I also read somewhere that you should “never” soak your peas or beans because it hydrates them too fast, causing cracking and breaking up of the seeds. I think it’s possible that I experienced this once, but soaking has also worked really well for me for peas. To be on the safe side, I don’t just soak them overnight, I hydrate and sprout them the same way you would grow homegrown sprouts in a jar - a brief soak, then pour the water off but keep jar mouth covered by a damp cloth, and rinse a few times a day, for 2 or 3 days.
- Sprouted peas in their row, with a headstart on the moles…
Why bother with the pre-sprouting for peas? Well, peas have been a special challenge for me. We have a lot of moles in this part of the world, and I have battled moles over peas for years. They love them. Peas are mole-candy. They will dig right down under the surface of the row and eat them all. Anything they don’t find, I’ve seen birds digging out of the soil from above. I have tried all sorts of things - burying chicken wire in the soil around the peas (what a mess), planting in zigzaggy rows and unpredictable clumps (they found them anyway), and two things that worked: Burying big pots in the soil, and planting the peas in that (perfect barrier, but very limited space), and starting the peas in an old section of eavestrough/gutter, that they slide right out of in a short pre-made row after they’ve grown a couple inches (still labor intensive, and limited row length). The rest of the peas that I plant in the ground directly simply do best pre-sprouted to get a chance of growing beyond seed stage before the moles find them. Pre-sprouted seeds have to be handled really gently, so as not to break their sprouts. This is no problem for me, but I can see how some might be uncomfortable with it. I consciously cultivate fine motor skills, gentle touch, and touch sensitivity that is so useful in both my jobs. I can plant out a bunch of fifty tangled two inch-high seedlings I’ve started in one container in the house without damaging their tender stems or roots, but it might not make sense for big-handed callous-fingered farmer guys or caffeine-shaky hands!
The other great thing about all this seed prep work is that it can be done indoors when it’s not light outside. If I’ve come home too late to make it out to plant, I can still start seeds soaking indoors to be ready for an early morning planting, or I can plant seeds in flats that will grow indoors just until they are big enough to transplant.
- The after-hours garden - young plants growing to transplant size on the unheated sunporch. Peas in an eavestrough in the front.