West End Pot & Balcony Gardeners'
Thoughts Turn To Seeds

by Peter Gribble

I’m grateful February is the shortest month. Three winter months of thirty-one days each would be too much.

Despite winter’s blast, some plants bloom. Two fragrant examples are witch hazel (Hamamelis var.) with flowers opening from tiny, saffron fists and Himalayan sweet box (Sarcococca var.) with its lovely scent. Camellia sasanqua varieties can start flowering as early as late fall and continue through the winter months depending on temperature and our monsoons.  For the cramped, shaded balcony there are the equally long lasting Hellebores.

Bare branched Viburnun x bodantense is a dependable winter bloomer but can get large and pot bound, while Abeliophyllum distichum (sometimes called white Forsythia) needs protection from unexpected frosts to encourage its white, scented flowers to bloom. For the restless gardener, the enticing bouquet is an inducement to flirt with climatic gambling. Seed catalogues facilitate the seduction.

The one seed catalogue for our area is West Coast Seeds – Untreated Seeds for Organic Growing, non-gmo – Gardening Guide 2018. Out since before Christmas, it is a rich, informative, yet succinct reference written by knowledgeable, enthusiastic horticulturalists. It’s free and available at most garden centres.

Catalogues force the question: can I start my seeds now? In the first week of January, when I was puttering about in the garden I discovered earthworms were less than an inch below the soil surface instead of deeper down and curled into hibernating balls. Also in January, killdeers, a bird of March arrival, were reported. Is winter over? Last year it dragged on to the end of March yet two years ago the worst was over by New Years. What to do? The wages of early plantings can be … compost. 

Yet enthusiasm can breed success. Seeds do not always come in packages. One September at a farmers market I bought a tomato so delicious I couldn’t help but pick twelve of the largest seeds from the pulp. I sandwiched them in a paper towel and tossed this into a drawer to await the spring.

Yet who can wait to plant their very own heritage seeds whose history stretches as far back as last fall? I couldn’t. In my eagerness to accelerate the seasons, I pulled out the seeds in January and planted each one in its own small pot and arranged them on a tray on my study desk. The seeds were willing collaborators to the ruse and sprouted up as if at a starting bell. During January and February the study was not sunlit and only in the afternoons did the gloom brighten between the hours of 3 and 4. Tomatoes love heat and light and these were supplied by two desk swing-lamps fitted with 60 watt incandescent bulbs positioned two to three inches above the seedlings.

Each morning brought an instant dawn and every evening an abrupt sunset. Fertilizer every few weeks and watering when the soil began to dry completed the regimen.

The seedlings grew so robustly in their first two weeks they needed transplanting. And shortly after, they needed it again. And again.

By mid-February the acreage of my desk was under complete cultivation and I was forced to work on the floor. Compensation was close though. The smug, summery scent of tomato leaves was a satisfying contrast to the outside miseries of gales and snowstorms. The occasional spoonful of mayonnaise completed the reverie.

Oblivious of the seasonal mayhem outside, the seedlings continued to outstrip expectations and my study resembled a scene from Little Shop of Horrors with not one but twelve “Audrey IIs.” I had planted woefully too early. Late February found each plant root bound in its 1-gallon pot while the 60-watt bulbs were on daylight saving time, being repositioned every six hours so everyone could receive the requisite amount of “sun.” Shoving the plants into two-gallon pots put additional strains on the growth, sustainability and space equation.

Without discussing it with me, The Twelve decided on puberty and began to bloom. Mid-March, one overgrown desk and two lamps made the prospect of being a paintbrush pollinator daunting. At least these Audreys weren’t demanding blood.

Magnificent and monstrous, my babies – now teenagers – would have to go outside. March, while not as unreliable and variable as February, is more deceptive. Additionally problematic, my then balcony was set back and faced west-ish. REAL sunlight, when it chose to shine, was a commodity ranking on par with rare metals.

The Twelve had their first daytrip to the outside huddled against the south facing wall reaching piteously for each stray photon drifting their way. The moment the sun set behind neighbouring buildings the plants were hurried back indoors. This exercise continued well into April when the behemoths’ transplanting into five-gallon pots made the daily indoor-outdoor commute impractical. At least I got my desk and floor space back. April weather remained rather cool for tomatoes. To offset the night time temperature plunge, I filled two pails with water as hot as I could make it and – just before bedtime – set the steaming pails among the tomatoes to create the warmer microclimate necessary.

My initial enthusiasm, threadbare by May, proved a sound investment. In the first week of June, harvest had begun. By summer’s end, the balcony bounty from twelve 6-7 foot tall tomato plants was exceptional and it was a pleasure to share the abundance with others. But I learned my lesson. While it can be done, it’s best not to plant tomato seeds or any others until a verifiable spring … unless you have room to grow … and more than two 60-watt light bulbs.

There is something to be said for observing Lent.