On March 2, just prior to the 8 inches of snow that piled up later that week, I planted my garden. Or to be exact, I started an array of seeds that would comprise my garden once sprouted and grown into strong seedlings. I sowed bell peppers, eggplant, basil, parsley, four varieties of tomato, and a selection of annual flowers, like Zinnias and Marigolds.
I have two large planters in the basement that I bought at an auction more than 20 years ago. They have built-in fluorescent lights with industrial quality timers and I've rigged each planter with electric heat tape. In them I sit Styrofoam trays, each with 24 cavities filled with a starter soil mix. A wicking system waters them from beneath, and I only need to keep the water in these trays at a sufficient level to make it all work. Whenever I set up my planters, I feel like a kid preparing for an upcoming science fair.
By March 9, the Zinnias had sprouted and the tiny green shoots made me feel like I had captured spring in my basement. Outside the cold winds of March howled but offered no threat to my cozy seedlings as they reached toward the light that bathes them 16 hours a day.
The second hardest part of the seed-starting process is setting up the planters and washing the Styrofoam containers in bleach water to kill any resident bacteria. Aside from my keeping them watered, the plants take care of themselves. They follow the detailed instructions of the DNA embedded in their seeds, some no bigger than a grain of pepper. Talk about the miracle of life!
The most difficult part comes in mid-April when the seedlings have to be transplanted into roomier paper cups and, as soon as temperatures permit, hardened off outside in the cool spring air and bright sunlight. The hassle is that each cup has to be brought back into the basement at sundown, lest an unexpected and killing frost pays a visit.
We have three children, and it is easy to see a parallel between raising them and the hardening off of seedlings. Sure, the nurturing continues indefinitely and as required, but after a certain time all children require "hardening off" in the real world. They are always welcome back into the warmth of the home when they, or we, think it necessary, but once launched we expect them to navigate their own paths and to deal with the slings and arrows that daily life has in store. We haven't been disappointed with our own brood.
My favorite part of growing seedlings occurs once Mothers' Day has come and gone. That date traditionally signals that we've probably had our last frost, and it is now safe to plant seedlings outside in a hardier soil that offers more space, nutrients and moisture when the spring rains fall. As I dig into the lush loam, I celebrate the squirming colonies of earthworms I uncover. They've been greedily feeding on the kitchen waste I buried in the late fall and winter before the ground froze.
The seedlings join the potatoes and beets I already planted on St. Patrick's Day, per the old gardeners' custom, as well as the mixed greens and radishes started under the glass of some old storm windows. This paid off on April 28 when we enjoyed our first salad of tender arugula and French radishes. I also plant seeds of green, yellow and butternut squash, pole beans, and cucumbers. I then step back and admire my work. How else to describe the hope of a new garden than by contemplating the promise of the bountiful harvest to follow?
Mid-May is a glorious time of year, when the trees and bushes have leafed out, the grass has greened up, the birds are busying themselves with nest-building, and myriad insects buzz and flutter in the warming breezes. It is truly the season of both rebirth and new life, and a season I managed to jump-start in my basement when the snows of February and March still blanketed the ground.
Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears each Friday. Email him at email@example.com.