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Old garden tips found to be wrong

Much of the common wisdom handed down to gardeners is good and sound, but it pays to question it. In 1948, a British plantsman named William J. C. Lawrence, in his book “Science and the Glasshouse,” put a lot of those old saws to the test and found that some were quite dull.

One that still persists, despite his work, is the advice to wait until a newly germinated seedling has its first pair of true leaves (after the cotyledons, or “seed leaves”) before moving it into a bigger container. Bad idea, Lawrence found, after doing careful trials. The bigger the seedling, the more its roots suffer when lifted and transplanted. Those that he moved on right away, when the first hint of green appeared, grew to be stronger plants.

There are several ways to germinate seeds. You can start them between sheets of moist paper towels, checking them daily for green. You can sow them in a small tray, then use the tip of a palette knife to move the tiny sprouted seeds. For our garden, we like to sow in three-quarter-inch cubes of soilless seed-starting mix, which we make with a small plunger device. We drop a seed into the little hollow on top of each block. That block can later be moved into a bigger block, a cell pack or a pot with no transplanting shock. Especially useful is the two-inch block, made with a larger device fitted with cube-shaped inserts, which creates holes exactly the size of the mini-blocks they receive. The system saves time, space and potting mix. Kids love working with these clever gadgets. It’s like making mud pies.

Seeds of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, celery and most other crops are best set uncovered on the mini-block, as long as they are kept moist. With seeds that germinate best when covered lightly, such as onions and broccoli, we sometimes sow directly into a larger block, though I have also had good luck sprinkling a bit of soilless mix over a whole flat of minis. With scallions we sow 12 seeds into each two-inch block, transplant them into the garden as a group, grow them as a group, and then harvest them as a tidy bunch. This cuts down on weeding, since it’s easier to cultivate between well-spaced bunches.

Another issue is seed size. Big seeds such as beans, peas, squash, corn, cucumbers, sunflowers and calendulas don’t fit into a mini and are either sown in one-and-a-half or two-inch blocks or direct-sown in the ground. (All but the peas need the warmer weather of May onward for direct sowing in the garden.)

Zinnias, which have narrow, elongated seeds, can be laid flat on a block’s surface, but they’re too long for a mini. Refusing to give up, I once tried poking them vertically into minis, with the broader, feathered end down. Wrong choice. Poke them in with the pointed end down instead, and they will grow.

I’d like to try this with fennel seeds, too, which have a similar shape. Do I know which end is up? No. Maybe I’ll do a little scientific trial of my own, planting them both ways, writing down the result, and filing it where I can find it at seed-starting time next year. Lawrence would approve.

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