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Mary Lowther column: Starting seeds indoors key in this climate

Plants like peas, lettuce get eaten if I start them outside while the garden is still wet
My seed table before it’s wrapped in plastic and mesh. Lights can be lowered and raised with chains on hooks. (Mary Lowther photo)

By Mary Lowther

Every gardener knows that some crops are easier to grow than others; tomato, squash and cucumber, for example, need a longer hot growing season than our climate provides. It follows that our chances for a successful harvest involve either sowing seed indoors now or buying seedlings once they are available.

I prefer to start most of mine because it’s cheaper and allows me access to more varieties. Starting the plants under indoor lights where conditions are warm tricks them into thinking they’re in balmier climes, so they respond accordingly. Plants like peas, lettuce and the brassicas get eaten if I start them outside while the garden is still wet, but when grown indoors until they’re a few inches tall they’ll be big enough to withstand some predation, and the garden will have dried up enough to deter crawling insects.

Flying varmints like cabbage moth are another story, so I enclose my seedling shelves with mesh, and once the seedlings go into the ground I cover them with Reemay. Cabbage moths lay eggs on my brassicas that hatch into green caterpillars that eat leaves and kill my plants. By midsummer the wasps hatch and kill these caterpillars, but I want to eat cauliflower before then.

The garden is still too wet to go mucking about in, so if I dig now I’ll make soil clumps that dry and harden and become impossible to break up later. Since the paths in my garden are beds of unasked for grass, I can walk on them and try planting a few peas to take advantage of the wet ground and see if they sprout without being completely eaten.

I didn’t plan on having grass in the paths but they got away on me and now it’s too late, so I’m going to consider it a bonus because it’s soft to kneel on and my boots don’t get mucked up when it rains. I do have to mow it and keep it from growing into the beds and I haven’t ruled out laying down strips of carpeting to kill the grass because their roots probably hog underground water and steal nutrients meant for my food crops. David objects that the grass will eventually grow through the carpet anyway, which is true, but since removal and disposal would be his problem I can dismiss this argument as mere shirking.

I built a seed table, though this isn’t necessary if one isn’t growing many plants. Lights that can be kept two inches above the seedlings and left on 16 hours a day are a good idea because we don’t get enough sun to grow decent seedlings that are put next to a window. My seed table has four shelves with hooks screwed into the bottoms to hold up fluorescent lights on adjustable chains, and each shelf holds two flats of seedlings. I wrapped plastic around the seed table and put mesh on the front to keep out cabbage moths.

Last year mice got inside and ate most of my seedlings so David bought some mouse traps. It must have been a bad year for rodents because the “better” modern traps were all sold out and he had to settle for the old style Victor model. It took less than half an hour before the first gratifying clap announced the demise of our first visitor, a success David attributes to the use of smoked cheddar. They evidently find it as irresistible as he does and, since critter disposal is his work, he spent a delightful three days removing unwanted guests and replenishing the cheese board. It appears that the old cartoons were right about how irresistible mice find dairy products, but after a week or so of sampling they seem to have recognized their lactose intolerance and moved on to households with a vegan diet.

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.