Rising plant prices putting you off a home garden? Seed saving, starting is practically free

The ultimate result of seed growing is the abundant homegrown product.
The ultimate result of seed growing is the abundant homegrown product.

In late January, I started plants for the spring garden, and I also started a lot of plants for the Linden Community Garden Club’s annual plant sale.

Two years ago, I had a major problem when the tomatoes I started got an unidentified virus. Fortunately, for me, the plant sale got canceled due to the pandemic. However, it was a sad day when I had to throw away about 300 tomato seedlings that I had spent hours starting, labeling, transplanting, watering and growing.

This year, rather than take a chance that my homegrown compost was the source of the virus, I purchased some commercial potting materials to start my tomatoes. There are commercial seed starting materials but they are usually sold in small quantities and are very expensive. I looked through a lot of online product reviews and looked at materials that others had used successfully for seed starting. I took a chance on a bag of moist potting mix and it worked out well with all my seeds sprouting and growing well. It seems like every seed sprouted.

My partner in this effort had bad luck, with ‘Early Girl’ seeds and ‘Early Girl’ is a very popular tomato, so it is important that we have a good quantity available at the sale. I found some ‘Early Girl’ seeds that I think I purchased at Lockhart’s seed company around 1988, about 34 years ago. I planted all of them figuring some might not germinate. Amazingly, I got more to grow than I expected.

The secret to seed longevity is storing seeds in the refrigerator. I have some Galia melon seeds from about 1986 that still germinate every year. My neighbor robbed the Galia seeds from a bank in San Francisco where he worked. The seeds were stored in the basement, and since they were unlikely to grow in the sealed cans stored in the basement of a bank, he liberated them to our mutual benefit.

More: What is IPM and how does it work in a river-friendly garden, farm or landscape?

I have found that starting pepper seeds earlier than the tomato seeds work well because pepper seeds take longer to germinate. Recently, I read a Robert Pavlis Garden Myths column (https://www.gardenfundamentals.com/garden-myths/), where different approaches were made to try to get pepper seeds to germinate faster such as soaking seeds which does work for a lot of seeds. It didn’t work for peppers, nor did any of the several other tried approaches work. Planting pepper seeds earlier seems to be the best one can do.

With the freeze on Feb. 22, I lost over 80 of my favorite pepper varieties that I had growing for the plant sale. I did not have enough room in the greenhouse so I had them well covered on tables outside. Alas, even though protected from frost, they apparently were inadequately protected from a freeze.

Seed saving and seed starting can be a worthwhile thrifty enterprise. The prices of seeds and plants at your local supplier have become much higher in recent years. Since most heirloom tomatoes and lettuces are self-pollinating, it is easy to save seeds which makes plants grown with saved seeds practically free except for the time and labor and materials to grow them. A heat mat or heat cables embedded in sand or gravel, fluorescent lights, as well as pots and growing medium and watering cans are all that is needed. A greenhouse helps as well, especially if you are growing lots of plants.

The ‘Paul Robeson’ heirloom tomato represents a piece of history.
The ‘Paul Robeson’ heirloom tomato represents a piece of history.

Growing seeds can add to one’s knowledge of history too. The Paul Robeson heirloom tomato, for example, was named after a famous Black actor, champion athlete, film star, opera singer and civil rights activist who, frustrated with racism in the U.S., traveled to the Soviet Union where communists were thought more welcoming.

Soviet agronomists named this wonderful dark Russian tomato the ‘Paul Robeson’ in his honor. Fortunately, it does honor him as it is widely grown in the world for its excellent balance of sweetness and taste. You cannot go wrong growing this indeterminate heirloom.

A bell pepper that I really like is named ‘Napoleon.’ I cannot find out why it was so named, but Napoleon pepper is like its namesake is a standout. It is an heirloom bell pepper that I first bought from the Seed Savers Exchange many years ago. It can grow to 8 inches long has thick-fleshed walls and a sweet mild flavor ⁠— good on the grill or fried.

Unfortunately, it was one of the peppers that got frozen recently so alas, no Napoleons for the plant sale this year. However, there will still be lots of plants for you on April 9 at the Methodist Church parking lot in Linden from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

If you have a gardening-related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at (209) 953-6112. More information can be found on our website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/.

If you go

Linden Community Garden Club’s annual plant sale

When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. April 9

Where: Linden United Methodist Church, 19147 State Rte 26, Linden

This article originally appeared on The Record: Seed saving, starting is a low-cost way to plant a home garden