Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Not Just Any Soil

I had one of those coveted A-ha! moments the other day, although to be honest I felt mildly embarrassed by its belatedness; by all rights that A-ha! moment should have come to me at least 30 years ago. Instead, as per usual, it took a rather circuitous route to get to me. Better late than never? I guess. And what, you ask, was my A-ha! moment all about? Well, let me tell you:

I was using the wrong sort of soil to start my seeds in.

I know, I know, that sort of statement probably makes you want to shriek "You had a revelation about POTTING SOIL?" all the while thinking I really need to rethink this friendship with this person, she sounds completely idiotic, right?

But — if you've ever planted seeds and had them pop up only to pass on to the next life almost as quickly, well, then, my NEW friend, read on and my A-ha! experience might come to you earlier than it did me.

It happened on Sunday: Dominic and I were due to spend the afternoon transplanting tomato seedlings, in preparation for their Big Move to another, more accommodating greenhouse. My greenhouse, let's face it, is not only cramped, it's already crammed with stuff (you listening to me, trays of potatoes? get out into that garden already!). Every year I swear I won't have a repeat performance of my Patented Overcrowded Seeding Habit but every year I do the same thing, mostly since I can't say no to a seed. Why plant just enough basil seeds when I can use up the entire packet and spend countless hours later on trying to find places to stick JUST ONE MORE basil seedling (don't laugh, that very method is why I still have pesto in the freezer). I see this as a charming personality quirk, even if I have heard Richard use the word pathology once or twice.

Which reminds me of why my greenhouse is crowded in the first place: I'm waiting on my Greenhouse Builder (aka Richard) to build me a bigger greenhouse, and a part of me thinks that if he sees how crowded conditions are out there he might take pity on me and put a greenhouse higher on HIS list than it is on MY list. Quirky AND hopeful!

So there we were, attempting to transplant the tomato seedlings. They were still too small to transplant, but heck, I am a Master Transplanter. I coaxed those little slips out of the soil they were in, held them in my palm, and stopped.

And that's where I had the first inkling that all was not right with my methodology. The soil they came from looked, well, woody. As did the soil they were going into. Really woody. Barky, even. And it was a weird brown. It also looked clumpy, like dry clay. The seedlings themselves looked alright, but the marigolds next to them, in the same soil, looked as though they were choking to death. I had a definite feeling that we should not proceed. "We can't transplant," I told Dominic, "we don't have the right potting soil. These things will wilt and die, I just know it."

"What are we going to do?" he asked, uneasy.  Dominic hates it when events don't proceed as expected, and he was expecting those tomato seedlings to be transplanted so he could get on with more pressing matters, like checking his room to see if his sister pinched any of his LEGO while he was outside. Or checking the freezer to see if there were any ice cream bars left.

"We're going to make some better soil, that's what we're going to do!" I announced. Dominic likes it when I make announcements like this, because they often presage Exciting Times, involving cars and stores and gumball machines and maybe — don't hold your breath —a free cookie somewhere.

So off we went to find some proper potting soil. We looked at a lot of different bags, so many that I was starting to despair by the time we hit up Home Despot. It all seemed very heavy and reeked of moisture retention, something I wanted to avoid at all costs (encourages damping off). Fortunately we found some, although I had to ignore Dominic's sniggers upon reading the front of the package (WHAT THE PROFESSIONALS USE it announced, rather grandly). We got it home and I was able to give him a quick mini lesson on How To Make The Proper Seed Starting Medium. I don't think it was quite the A-ha! moment for him as it was for me, but he did remark on the difference between our old woody potting soil and the new mixture we made up (we added some clean play sand to ours, so it would drain well, as well as some rock phosphate and a little bone meal). It was almost impossible not to notice the difference, so Richard of course took note when we brought the new trays up onto the deck. "What's that?" he said, peering suspiciously at my trays. "That soil - it looks different than the stuff you gave me for my ferns. It looks better - did you give me the crap potting soil?"

"Yes, I did" I said.

I didn't really, but given that he and I have a sort of Who Grows Better Houseplants war happening, he was unlikely to believe me if I denied giving him crap potting soil. Besides, it's rather amusing to pretend that I'm more devious than I really am.

"I knew it!" he said, incredulously, triumphantly. "You'll do anything to kill my ferns!" Now, at this point I should probably say here that Richard has two humungous ferns in his office, ferns he worries about when we're on holiday, ferns he coddles with special watering bottles and soaker pads, ferns he insists are superior to our ferns at home, so he ALWAYS thinks I'm out to poison his stupid ferns. Of course he would think I'd give him inferior soil while keeping the good stuff for myself. And of course I'd let him think that.

"Oh stop it," I said. "I realized that the soil I was using wasn't right for my seedlings, so Dominic and I made up some new stuff. It's way better than anything I've ever used before. It's so good I wish I had a new greenhouse so I could seed even MORE stuff." I stopped and looked hopefully at him.

I'll leave the conversation there, because it never really went anywhere, although he did take some of that soil to work, to his bloody ferns. Maybe if I promise him more ferns for his office he'd build that greenhouse.

At least now I have some decent seed starting medium. And you have this story. And my A-ha! moment, so you don't need to have one when you least expect it.



Andrea said...

Oh Sheila! You make me laugh! Of course I am glad to read of any and all gardening 'aha' moments. Karen and I (we have a similar seed problem to yours but is mostly limited to tomatoes... last year we planted 300+ too many. This year we are doing better - only 132 over what we each needed [her:50 me: 60) start our seeds together at my house because I have awesome windows. But the first two years she was using her own potting soil which sounds the same as yours - all woody. Hers would pop up and then stay wee little seeds. I'd even give her plants the premium sun spots but mine would soon be towering over hers from their inferior positions. Anyways, she caught on. We use the Sunshine certified organic potting soil #1. its awesome. But of course, we need water retention here.

sheila said...

I think we need to start a club, don't you think? Seed OverSowers Anonymous. I think we could stage an Intervention to convince Heather to join.

The stuff I rejected is okay for established plants and baskets - it's that organic stuff from Costco - but it's crap for little seedlings. This new stuff is gorgeous. No one can walk by it without fondling it a little. I think it's from Sunshine too.

Andrea said...

I definitely think Heather should join! She not only starts too many - then she plants them all! Karen and I have happy friends who get all their tomatoes for free....

Heather said...

Seed OverSowers...oversowers of seed...I don't think I know what you're talking about?!? I really can't imagine what you mean. I'm afraid I have no personal experience of that.

But, if I did know what you were talking about then I would also have a wonderful solution - just start a market garden. A person can plant as many seeds as they like if they have a market garden, even, just say if they really wanted, around a thousand tomatoes.