Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Seed Starting at Lillie House


To sow seed is in our flesh and blood, deep in our cultural memory. Here we hold in our hands the potential for life, the stored energy and blueprint for beings who can transform sun energy into beauty, fragrance and food. As we sow, we set intention for the abundance of the growing year: "5 broccoli, 5 Redboor kale, 5 fringed kale." We shall reap what we sow.

Tamp the soil with care. Touch the earth. Wish the plant Devas sweet dreams, that they may wake and grow vigorously, grow strong. 

Recognize for a second, that all our human religions are grounded here, all have wisdom and teaching drawn from the sowing of seed. Even our path of scientific inquiry started here, with the understanding of seed and soil. (This is a stark defining difference from the modern, groundless religions of consumption, technology, and singularity, which aspire to set humans free of the earth, of the body, to wander, to search like hungry ghosts in the cold, perfectly empty void of space, for new, pristine planets to break into the gaping, bottomless maw of our consumption.) 

Uh.... "good luck with that!" I say.

But gardeners touch the earth and begin making practical plans for another growing season, another season of earthly delights! 


Of course, we just can't do anything the "normal" way. The best gardening is experimental. It is evolved over time to the needs of people and place, the particulars of climates and taste. 
So, in the spirit of being "open source," allowing others to be inspired by or improve our methods, here are some of our seedy Spring practices. 


There's no particular soil mix or method that we can swear by. We use a variety of tools, depending on the type of seed we're trying to germinate. 

Commercial pellets. Generally, we try to avoid buying pellets, especially peat, which is very unsustainable and has a high impact contributing to climate change. However, we still recommend these for beginners. But with that recommendation, comes the advice that we should all move as quickly as possible to producing our own seed-starting materials. We also will still sometimes use peat pellets for starting very small, high-value plants, or plants that are very sensitive to damping off or irregular moisture, because these pellets have the best moisture-retaining properties, and the fine grain keeps seeds and small roots in good contact with moist growing medium at all times. 


Compost mixes: These are mixes we create at home from our compost pile, vermicompost and mushroom compost systems. Again, we try to get the best ratio for the type of seeds. Slightly underfinished mushroom compost tends to have the best draining texture and coarseness, good for sowing larger seeds. Meanwhile, vermicompost tends to have the finest texture, better for sowing fine seed. We'll sometimes mix in sand or vermiculite to get a better mix, though these materials are not sustainably harvested so we keep it to a minimum. 

Toilet paper and newspaper rolls. These are great, easy to make, easy to use, and a good way to recycle. 

Late Winter/Early Spring (Feb- March) Plants and vegetables for seed starting, by sowing time and technique:

Start indoors in seed trays: (Mid-Feb- March)
Perennials. Most perennial plants over-winter, requiring cold stratification, then germinate in early Spring, so this is a good time to start most perennial Permaculture plants and vegetables. 
Cabbage-family plants, Many of these are best sown in later summer as fall crops in Michigan, but we've had good yields on spring-sown broccoli, dwarf boc-choi, cauliflower. We plant a few ornamental kales and a few cabbages, though these perform best as fall crops. 
Shungiku (chop suey greens.) 
Alliums. These are tricky in seed trays, as growing onions greens must be kept "trimmed" to keep from falling over. If done well, it can get you earlier, larger bulbs, but it is probably easier to sown outdoors in the garden. 

Sow outdoors in seed trays and flats. March.
Easily-sown perennials like Turkish rocket, good king Henry, etc. 

Sow outdoors in measured, spaced plantings. Mid-March, using Grow Bio-intensive spacings.
Potatoes (buried deeply they shouldn't need protection.
peas (We sow our first succession on St. Patrick's day, but provide protection to heat the soil and fend off freezing. Seeds will rot if they don't germinate.)

These we plant depending on weather, as soon as we get warm weather and the soil can be worked. (can sow multiple successions every few weeks.)
Onions and other alliums

Scatter-sow outdoors, often in polycultures. (March - as soon as soil has warmed or can be worked.)
Salad cress
Lettuces - we find these grow as quickly through scatter-sowing in place as they do when started indoors, so we find no advantage to starting these in plugs. 
Peas (for pea tips) 


Sown Indoors in Trays for Summer: (Mid April - May) Will get "leggy" if started too soon!
Solenacea family: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, ground cherries. 
Tender summer annual herbs: basils, cilantro, etc. 

Sown Outdoors after frost (can sow multiple successions every few weeks:)
Wild tomato varieties like Galapagos. 
Ground cherries

Sown Indoors in Trays for Fall: (June, transplanted out when weather is cool and wet and danger of really hot dry weather has past.)
Brussels sprouts
Winter cabbages
Boc choi

Sown outdoors for fall (In July, under the protective shade of taller plants that will be removed after hot dry weather has past.)
baby greens


NOTE FOR BEGINNERS: When we were starting out, we'd focus on learning just a few plants a year, starting with our favorites and "easy" crops like lettuce, carrots, beets, tomatoes and radishes. Also, we used the garden planner from GrowVeg, which was free at the time (It's still free for 7 days.)
For beginning gardeners, we also recommend "How to Grow More Food" by John Jeavons.

And if you want to get started with Permaculture, try planting a few easy, perennial edible ornamentals into your flower gardens, such as asparagus, Turkish rocket, sorrel, Egyptian onions, or chives. 


  1. This is extremely helpful, thank you!

  2. You're welcome! And for anybody looking for more in-depth info specific to the Great Lakes region, here's a great article from the Chicago Botanic garden: It points out that in our climate of erratic Springs, many gardeners hedge their bets by planting these early crops in successions.