Seed starting in silicone A cheap, reusable, Earth-friendly alternative

It’s January in the South, which means time to start seeds. I’m already behind on starting many of my cold season spring seedlings, but I’m less overwhelmed than last year after a successful experiment using silicone molds to start my fall seeds.

After all the work was done last spring–the peat pots purchased, soaked, and seeded, the saved black plastic cell packs carefully sterilized after last season, the broken ones sadly discarded with a sigh and an apology to the planet–I had my yearly bout of frustration and fist waving. THERE MUST BE A BETTER WAY!

And no, it can’t be a better way that requires me making them by hand out of newspaper.

I have replaced a lot of the plastic in my kitchen with silicone over the years, so I wondered if anyone made silicone seed starting containers–that would be genius! No, no one does. I wondered whether I could buy some of the DIY kit and make my own using the traditional black plastic cell packs as molds? That seemed like a lot of work. After ruminating for a while it occurred to me that I could just buy silicone molds at the thrift store and punch holes in the bottom.

How could anyone have discarded this fabulous gem? Their loss!

I tested it this fall with my onion and shallot starts, with tremendous success. The silicone is warmer and and softer than the black plastic cell packs. Write the variety right on it with a Sharpie–it comes off with alcohol or repeated washing. They take up no space, are easy to handle when transplanting, and best of all can be sterilized in the dishwasher.

This fancier 2″ ice cube tray was harder to cut holes in and can’t be cut apart into individual cells. In this case, the cheaper options are perfect.

Ready for seeds and labeling

Happy planting <3

winter’s magic

For two days it’s been too cold to be outdoors by choice. The thermometer read 17 degrees when I bundled up to feed the chickens and put out fresh water. The children are antsy and the noise level in the house has racheted up with each passing day. But winter is a profoundly special time. I feel the pull of my roots like no other time of year.

IMG_6478In the piedmont of North Carolina, winter is never deep by New England or Canadian standards. But it is cold. Plants go dormant. Hardwoods shed their leaves. The ground is rock hard with frost tips poking up through wet, frozen leaves. As a child, this was the time of year when I explored the forest. The copperheads were sleeping, the ticks hybernating, the mosquitoes gone. From our trailer in the woods I could walk for miles in a mix of southern yellow pine and hardwood forest, feeling the sunshine where normally the shade was so deep nothing grew but christmas fern. One year I found a near complete deer skeleton with the exposed half bleached white by the sun. It was clean and perfect.

I imagine the thick hardwood trunks sucking up the sun light that normally never reaches them in the forest. Everything looks completely different in winter and I try to imagine what it will look like again in spring and fail, despite having watched the transformation dozens of times.

Just as I become perpetually grumpy, our south facing windows really begin to do their duty. Now they are at their peak, capturing the warmth of the low, bright winter sun. We built it this way on purpose, sticking to the design my father in law used for the rest of the house. Every year I am grateful when I begin to feel cold in my bones. Only in winter does the sunlight stretch all the way across the room. The winter sun is magic and everyone notices. The cat splays out across the warmed floor. The toddler lies down on the rug and closes his eyes as dust motes dance over his upturned face.

When we begin to feel cooped up we bundle up and foray out into the yard. The big kid with a jacket on backwards and no socks and no hat. The toddler stiff with layers. We stay until the little one is too frustrated with his decreased mobility to enjoy himself. His fingers too red and numb. I gaze at the garden while performing my swing-pushing duty and daydream.

Every January I make big plans and the possibilities seem endless. I start talking to my husband about sheep. Again. He rolls his eyes. Again. Instead I clear brush, dig new garden beds, transplant perennial flowers and herbs, start seeds.

Winter has its own quiet and its own noise. There’s no dense leaf buffer to muffle the sound of cars, coyotes, and owls. But the quiet is crisp and I feel more alone when I walk outside. Perhaps it’s the lack of insect and small creature chatter that undergirds outdoor life in southern spring, summer, and fall. No spring peepers. No crickets. Though the squirrels make a ruckus in winter like nothing I’ve ever heard, throwing nuts at the tin roof to explode the quiet inside.

Winter light is my favorite. The world outside is sparse and I notice more, perhaps because of this. It’s the best time for walking in the woods. For finding fairy habitats with children.

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It’s also a time of forced domesticity that each year I embrace more easily. This was when my great grandmothers made quilts, rendered lard, and set the home back in order before planting time. This was when my great grandfathers cured meat and repaired tools. This was when people had time for visiting. When stories were invented and told. I can do this too. Accompanied by these hardy souls from a harsher, but simpler time, winter no longer feels so lonely.

My elder child has asked to be read to for hours on end these long, cold days. I finally got around to hand threshing and winnowing the sorghum I grew and dried this fall. To mending the mountain of clothes my children shred in their long days outdoors. To going through the generations of family papers stored since my father passed and only now come to light. All to the soundtrack of children playing, children fighting, the days taking a slower rhythm through the coldest months.

As I grow older, I’m no longer in any hurry for spring. I know when it gets here I’ll miss winter.

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new year’s day on my mama’s land. off the grid. sipping mint tea from her garden with honey from her bees.

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Gardening on a Budget: 10 ways to save on seeds

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Durham County, NC free seed library

It took awhile, but it’s finally cold in the piedmont of North Carolina. It’s been gray and mushy for weeks. Now it’s gray and the mush is crispy frost in the morning. But the seed catalogues have come and there’s a reason people call it garden porn. It’s my winter solstice dance. Planning the garden for spring brings a little warmth and light back into my sun-deprived life. But the paying for seeds part always brings me down.

Now is the time to start gathering seeds if you want a spring and summer garden, even more so if you are trying to be frugal. It seems early, but it’s just the right time, especially if you are a parent or a procrastinator and taking action takes several weeks. Here are some tips for how to get seeds without spending a lot of money.

  1. Crowdsource. Just ask. Even if you don’t know what you want, asking will bring out all the garden crazies and then you’ll know who to ask for help and who to organize seed sharing with next year. If you don’t do a lot of social media or live somewhere that doesn’t seem to have a lot of active gardeners, get on an online forum and ask. Homesteading Today is my absolute favorite. It’s wild and woolly and full of incredibly thoughtful and helpful people. They’ve got a perpetual seed swap going in the gardening forum.
  2. Ask your neighbors. Maybe ask for gardening tips first, then hit them up for some spare seeds. Just look for who has plants around and spends time paying attention to them. Most people are thrilled to get more folks into gardening and can’t wait to help you grow a million more things than you have room for. It’s a great way to make friends.
  3. From the library. For free. That’s right, the library. There are now over 200 public libraries organizing seed catalogues where seed deposits are made and can be “checked out” and “returned” at the end of the season with some you grew or can contribute. There’s even a social network for it. The fabulous city of Durham has an incredible website full of resources to accompany their seed library. Here’s an article about another NC seed library.
  4. Go in with friends. I keep a little list of gardener friends to coordinate with before buying seed. My first year growing sweet potatoes I ordered slips with a neighbor who needed a bigger order for discounted prices.
  5. Organize or get in on a seed swap. If you’ve ever gardened at all you probably have spare seed. Keep a list going and hook into your network to find other gardeners who want to share. What one person tried and didn’t like much, another might love. And since seed don’t keep forever but most of us don’t need as many as come in a pack, costs can be kept way down this way. But this brings us to #6, which is a stealthy but important money saver.
  6. Take proper care of the seeds you have. To keep seed from going bad they need to be kept dry and at a constant, cool temperature. You can buy neat little containers for this, or just keep your seeds in a tightly closed glass jar in either your fridge or freezer. I have seed that I purchased 6 years ago still germinating perfectly because they’ve been happily tucked away in the fridge. I pull them out twice a year usually and organize for the coming season and then keep what I’m using immediately in the door of my refrigerator to pull out at planting time. The rest goes back in the freezer. Over time this is probably the way I’ve saved the most money on seed, and is most helpful for those crops you really like and plant over and over again.
  7. Save seed. Some plants are easy to save seed from, others not so much. Some things cross-pollinate with other varieties to produce useless seed. You can do more or less of this depending on how much time and interest you have. I  do a little more seed saving every year, but it felt overwhelming when I was first getting started. I also had a few bad experiences with sweet peppers crossing with a fiery guindilla I brought back from the Basque Country and making every bite of my paprikas a terrifying game of Russian Roulette. But this year I saved kale, radish, cilantro, and sorghum seed, which are all very easy to let go to seed and easy to harvest. The lettuce was a bit more labor intensive and I forgot what varieties I had by the time they were bolting. I save sweet potatoes, garlic, ginger and turmeric through the winter and use my own saved root to plant the next year.
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    Turmeric and ginger being separated and either processed for preservation in brandy or repotted for over-wintering

    Here is a short and sweet intro to seed saving. This is a great comprehensive take. The Seed Savers Exchange also has a lot of information on their website for beginners, including this nifty video.

  8. Buy off season. Often grocery stores or other places that sell retail seeds will put them on sale at the end of summer. Now that you know how to save seed, just buy things then and save for next year!
  9. Join an exchange. If you are a more serious gardener or homesteader and you buy enough seed and try enough new things, joining an exchange can make sense. I finally made a regular annual commitment to Seed Savers Exchange last year and used the exchange to get seed garlic in interesting varieties. Membership also gets you a 10% discount on seeds.
  10. Let wild edibles go to seed. I eat and make herbal remedies from a lot of wild greens. They tend to be the most nourishing. I notice the dandelion, chickweed, yellow dock, plaintain, purslane, creasy greens, and other greens that reseed themselves readily in my yard. Don’t cut them all down or pull them all up, you can nibble them year round, especially in winter when not much else is growing. I let too much dandelion go in my garden and thought I’d regret it, but after a long rain I pulled them from the loose soil and now have a lovely harvest to dry out for soups and smoothies this winter. Here’s a neat list.