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Seed starting in Interior Alaska part I: Some tips on where to begin

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Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2011 4:34 am | Updated: 1:45 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS — Here we are, back at that yearly point where anything is possible, gardening-wise at least. If you can dream it, you can grow it. And at this point in the calendar, it is all about the seeds.

When I am looking at what to start from seed myself, as opposed to what I should wait and buy as transplants from one of our local nurseries, I consider three factors: cost effectiveness, when I want the plants to mature, and oddness. My husband says, “With you, it is always about oddness,” but I beg to differ. First it is about money.

Some folks insist that by the time you take into consideration the seeds, the starting medium, the six packs and the electricity to run the grow lights and fan, that it is cheaper to buy transplants. There are times that is true, especially when I buy only a six-pack of cabbages, for example. But if you are talking about a large quantity, growing your own transplants is definitely cheaper. For example, I always start my own leeks, because I grow dozens, sometimes hundreds of them, and buying that number transplants (even if I could find that many in town) would be cost prohibitive. Dahlias are another example where starting the tubers at home saves me huge amounts of money.

Part of this may be due to the fact that, compared to other gardeners I know, I am ruthless about keeping seed starting costs down. (That way I have more to spend on gardening gadgets!) One way I save is to share seed orders with friends. After all, how many pumpkins does one home gardener use? A packet will easily satisfy the needs of three people. One of the companies I am using has a flat rate for postage and handling, regardless of the size of the order. With three of us pooling together, even if each of us wants different seeds, we still save money on the postage; sure, it takes a bit of work to divvy up the order when it arrives, but the savings make it worth it.

When I shop for seed starting medium, I look at the sale bulletins and then I make a few phone calls to other merchants who didn’t have a flyer that Sunday. Ten minutes of calling has saved me as much as $40 because I found someone in town selling the same brand for less than a sale price at another store. This isn’t worth it if you only need one bag of seed starting medium, but if you need 25, it can make a real difference. One year I scored 12 bags of medium for 25 percent off the already sale price because the pallet had been rammed into something and every single bag had a hole in it. I bought all they had, and returned later with a roll of packing tape to patch the holes and a teenager to load them into the truck for me.

And who buys six-pack anymore? Save them from year to year, go to spring garage sales, and ask friends and co-workers if they have an excess they are willing to pass on to you. Most people are thrilled to get rid of the ones they have accumulated but felt too guilty to throw away. And recycle ruthlessly — cottage cheese and yogurt containers, salad bar clamshells, cut-down 2 liter pop bottles, convenience store drink cups (I plant in both the plastic and paper ones), plastic cups from coffee kiosk ice rage drinks, cut-down paper and plastic milk jugs. Look around and be amazed and horrified by the number of plastic and waxed-paper items we throw away that could be repurposed to house seedlings.

One of my former co-workers, at a loss for what to do with the dozens of ceramic mugs she’d collected over the years, bought a ceramic drill bit and made a drainage hole in the bottom of each one. She used the ugliest ones to raise transplants; the artsy ones she filled with plants like pansies or low mounding basil, and gave as gifts.

Timing is the second issue when I am considering what seeds to start. Nurseries follow timelines that fit in with the majority of home gardeners, but this doesn’t always meet my desires. For instance, I like to start eating greens as early as possible, so I do at least one planting of lettuce and spinach either under a cold frame or in a wheelbarrow (fitted with a plastic umbrella) that goes into the garage each night and back out to a sunny area each morning. Depending on the weather, some years I have been able to start seeds in March and be eating greens by the start of May. Transplants of chard, spinach and lettuce are not available that early commercially.

One of my friends has a heated greenhouse and several huge rolling containers that she calls her salad bars. Each one is filled with a tomato plant, chard, lettuce, spinach, kale and sometimes kohlrabi. She starts the seedlings in January and transplants into the containers in February, leaving them in the greenhouse until she can put them outside in May. It allows her to start eating out of her garden very early, some vegetables in March, but only because she starts her own transplants long before she could buy them at one of our nurseries or box stores.

And then there is oddness factor, the third reason I start my own seeds. Not everyone is interested in blue winter squash covered with warts, or Armenian cukes. I am, but if I am going to grow them I need to start them from seed. It is not reasonable to expect a local nursery to cater to my unusual tastes.

Start some seeds. If not for the reasons I’ve listed, then just for the fun of mucking around in the dirt this early in the year.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@orcasonline.com.

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