Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Kilbourn Organic Greenhouse
Around a month ago, we started seedlings that we hope will become this season’s crop of tomatoes, peppers, kale, and herbs. A couple of weeks later, Dave and I left the garden a bit early and biked across town to the Kilbourn Organic Greenhouse, where our seedlings grow until they are hardy enough to be transplanted into beds in the garden.

 Our flats of seedlings, or starts, occupied a small space on a counter in the back of the greenhouse, dwarfed by the huge inventory of seedlings that Kilbourn was growing for its annual garden sale. Some of our tomato starts were “leggy”: having grown too quickly because of untimely exposure to heat, they were not yet strong enough to support the new length of their stems. Our peppers and kale, though, were upright and sturdy, even a little stubby—evidence of controlled and even growth.

We transplanted our starts from their tiny cells in the seedling flats to larger pots. Transplanting is delicate work: the soil around the seedlings is loose and can fall away to expose fragile roots, which risks shocking or even killing the seedling.

To protect a start during transplantation, we work with pointed sticks, or dibbles. We first push a dibble down into the cell near the stem of a seedling; using a combination of squeezing the cell’s walls from the outside and digging around the start with the dibble, we eventually ease it from its home.

We next prepare the start’s new home. After using the dibble to hollow out a cavity in the soil in a small pot, we align the dibble beside the start’s stem and guide the start into the soil ”like a lineman making way for the fullback”, according to Dave.

(Sporting similes are rare among the Ginkgo crowd. We occasionally hear the crowds roar at Wrigley, but we’re usually doing something else at the time, like staking tomatoes or spraying aphid soap on kale leaves.)

tubs of tempered water
After filling in the remainder of the pot’s cavity with soil, we add the pot to a flat. When a flat is full of small pots, we water it. As is every other activity involving seedlings, watering is a delicate activity. Pouring water directly over a start in a pot could either compact the soil around the start’s roots or—just as bad—wash soil away from the roots. There is also the chance that the water will not penetrate the soil down to the roots.

A better way to water seedlings is to submerge the entire flat of pots into a basin of water. The water wicks up from the bottom of the pot. When the soil at the top is moist, the pot is thoroughly irrigated. It is also good to use water that has been sitting around for some time. This “tempered water” won’t be so cold as to shock the seedlings; and if the water was drawn from a municipal tap, letting it sit allows some of the chlorine to vaporize. We avail ourselves of the tempered water that Kilbourn keeps in huge tubs next to its seed-watering stations.

Dave with Kilbourn's Kirsten Akre

Ours are truly coddled seedlings, thanks to the Kilbourn Organic Greenhouse: started in controlled conditions of heat and light; oxygenated by the breezes of air-circulating fans; and irrigated through capillary action using tempered water. All that they need to be like Kobe beef is to receive regular massages.

May 7, 2011

May 14, 2011

The idea of massaging seedlings seemed absurd until I read of the practice of brushing, in which one manipulates seedlings to encourage stronger stem growth. If we continue down this path, we’ll soon be wafting sage smoke in the greenhouse and playing Mozart to our tomato starts while performing tiny acts of horticultural Rolfing on them.