Transition Charlottesville helps gardeners get a jump on spring with seedling workshop

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Starting seeds for a spring garden was the subject of a free Transition Charlottesville workshop at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative last week—one of a series of “skill share” events to help locals learn about green living. File photo. Starting seeds for a spring garden was the subject of a free Transition Charlottesville workshop at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative last week—one of a series of “skill share” events to help locals learn about green living. File photo.

“I think the best part of gardening is knowing what it really means to eat broccoli,” said Melissa Wender, a Bronx native turned rural green thumb.

Wender picked up a gardening book 15 years ago on a whim, and has since learned by trial and error, keeping detailed journals on the weather and her plants’ patterns—“like my own personal Farmer’s Almanac,” she said.

Last Monday, Wender and Peter Richardson, both members of local grassroots activist group Transition Charlottesville, teamed up to lead a workshop on seed starting. The organization, founded in April 2011, raises awareness of natural resources and climate change through film screenings, discussion panels, community work projects, and free monthly “skill shares” like gardening, canning, and sewing.

About 25 people, from UVA students to retirees, gathered at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative last week to try their hands at growing fruits and vegetables from seeds. The presentation ended with a free-for-all, where everybody crowded around a table to get their hands dirty and plant some seeds. Everyone walked out with at least one cup of dirt and a hope for some spinach seedlings in the near future.

As urban gardens gear up for the spring, here are some tips for starting your own seeds:

  • Seeds should start in small, individual containers, to keep the seedlings’ fragile roots from growing into one another and tangling. Wender recommended picking up divided trays from local garden stores, some of which give used ones away for free. 
  • True to Transition’s spirit of reusing and recycling, Richardson showed the group how to make small seed containers out of toilet paper tubes. Cut them in half, and fold long-ways twice to make square. Make cuts halfway up each crease, and fold the flaps into one another like a cardboard box. Once the seedling sprouts, Richardson said not to worry about transferring the plant—simply place the entire thing in a larger pot, and the cardboard container will break down as the plant grows. Attendees also suggested using empty eggshells and cups made of newspaper.
  • For seed starting, try to use organic peat moss or soil with perlite—the white, Styrofoam-like material that locks in moisture. Using clean soil is essential, Wender said. She suggested sterilizing compost in the oven, if you can stand the smell. Another option is to gather some dirt from the garden before temperatures drop below freezing, and save it for seed starting in the winter and spring.
  • Most seeds need consistently warm, moist soil to germinate, so it’s important to keep containers away from extreme temperatures and traffic. Lighting options vary, Richardson said, but regular fluorescent bulbs in shop lights hung on a shelf above the seedlings are an easy, cheap option.
  • Once the seedlings outgrow their first containers—a time span that varies from plant to plant—it’s important to transplant them into larger pots with holes in the bottom. Lift a seedling by the rootball, gently holding the leaves to steady it from above, and Richardson emphasized never holding it by the stem.
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