If you’ve ever tried your hand at gardening, you’ve probably learned the same hard lesson I have: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. If you try to plant seeds, they will either dry up and die, or freeze and not germinate. If they do manage to sprout, it’ll be either too hot for them or too cold, and they’ll die.
If they manage to grow into viable plants, they will probably be eaten by bugs. If by some miracle they make it to maturity, they will probably flower but not bear fruit, and then catch some disease and die.
If against all odds, they manage to bear fruit, it will either spoil on the vine, or be eaten by birds or other critters before it’s ripe enough for you to harvest.
So here’s the thing – once you’ve learned all that, you can start to plan accordingly. That’s exactly what I’ve done (over the past 10+ years of trial-and-error), with some modest measure of success. Therefore, I present to you the step-by-step Pessimist’s Guide To Gardening.
In my opinion, if you buy plants, you may as well just buy the produce. Real gardeners plant seeds. So, Part 1 of the Guide is about starting seeds.
The first step is deciding what kind of seeds to grow. I’m going to make this very easy for you. Tomatoes, basil, spinach and lettuce. If you like peppers, you can grow peppers too. Once you’ve got some experience, you can try peas. If you’re one of the five people who actually like to eat kale, you can grow that.
Anything else is an absolute waste of time. Primarily because, even if you manage to grow it, nobody will want to eat it.
When it comes to seeds, buy twice as much as you think you need. The first batch will probably die, and the store will be sold out when you go back to buy more.
Whenever possible, it’s preferable to start seeds indoors. This is because there are fewer things inside your house that will kill your plants, especially if you do it the way I recommend. Unfortunately, about the only seeds you can start indoors are tomatoes, peppers and herbs. With spinach and peas and lettuce, you have to put them in the ground take your chances, but I’ll show you how to improve your odds of that later.
First, forget all those cutesy things you saw on Pinterest about starting seeds in eggshells, seashells, or any other tiny container. Contrary to popular belief, these don’t fail because the roots need more room (they probably don’t), they fail because such tiny amounts of soil dry out immediately and your seeds die.
What you need to do is get yourself some Chinese takeout. Eat it, and wash out the containers. Be sure to keep the lids and wash those too. These are going to be your mini greenhouses for your seeds.
If you don’t like Chinese food, you can just buy the containers.
Once you have your containers, fill them up with putting soil. You don’t need anything fancy. Regular potting soil is fine. Now, water them thoroughly. Most people wait have to water it out till after they’ve put the seeds and that’s a mistake.
Poke a few rows of shallow holes with your finger, and drop in a couple of seeds. If you don’t like getting dirt under your fingernails, you can use a pencil.
Brush some dirt over the seeds, and put the lid on.
Put your little greenhouses somewhere warm, like the top of the refrigerator or next to the stove. At this point, the biggest danger to your seeds is you, and your pets or kids. The more you can keep this somewhere where you’re not going to accidentally dump it, the better your odds of success.
Seeds don’t need sunlight to germinate, since they’re underground anyway. All they need is moisture, and the container lid keeps all the water locked in, so it’s nice and damp. Just keep an eye on these things, and when you see little green buds start to pop out in a few days, it’s time to move them to a sunny window.
The thing with starting seeds indoors is that you usually do it when it still cold out. Not coincidentally, that happens to be the time of year where there’s usually not a lot of sun during the day. People sell all kinds of gadgets and grow-lights to compensate for that, but you actually don’t have to worry about that. Humans grew food for quite a few years before the invention of grow-lights, and there are a couple of tricks to helping plants make up for lost time.
Once your seeds start to bump up against the top of the lid, take the lid off. Now you’re going to have to be careful to start watering them more regularly. At this point, the biggest danger is that they’ll dry out.
This means you can’t take any vacations or be gone for more than a day.
You’ll notice that these plants are tall and skinny. We call this being “leggy.” It’s not good. It happens because they’re stretching towards the sun to get a tiny bit more light than the meager dose they’re getting through the window. That’s OK though, we can fix that.
First, get some newspaper. Second, carefully dump all your tiny tomato plants out on do it. I know, that’s crazy talk, but there’s a method to the madness.
You’re going to carefully separate out all your little seedlings, and replant them into a deeper container. I like the little wooden crates that the grocery store sells clementines in, but you can use anything, including a shoebox. The important thing to remember is that when you replant these seedlings, you need to to bury them all the way up to the leaves. That’s the trick that lets them catch up for lost time. The part of the stem that’s in the dirt will start to grow new roots, and a plant with lots of roots is much stronger and more able to suck nutrients out of the ground.
Keep watering them, and watch them grow. Now it’s just time to wait until it’s warm enough to move them outside.
After a couple of weeks, some of the seedlings will have died, but the strong will have survived. Nature is cruel but efficient. However, it’s a numbers game: if you planted lots of seeds, you’ll wind up with enough viable plants.
So, if this worked for you, congratulations! You’ve successfully nursed your little seedlings to life. In Part 2, we’ll discuss how to move them outside without killing them.