Spring is Here

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, April 2, 1999

This week's broadcast was recorded on the Old Solar Farm without a script. The following essay from April 5, 1996 catches something of the spirit of today's show.

It's so exciting to see new plants emerge from the rich dark soil - to see a new generation of life come forth from the seeds of the last generation.

First, there's just a tiny white speck that stands out against the deep brown soil. That's the hypocotyl - the stem-like axis of the new plant which connects the tiny new root, bristling with fine white hairs, to the cotyledons. As the hypocotyl grows, it breaks through the surface and lifts the cotyledons out of the soil and into the light. At least that's what happens with the tomatoes, peppers, celery, broccoli and other vegetables that we start inside.

Peas, however, as they emerge in the garden, leave their cotyledons under the soil. The epicotyl (meaning above the cotyledons) arches out of the soil, bringing true leaves into the sun.

In both cases, cotyledons are between the roots and the leaves. They hold stored energy and nutrients from the parent generation for use by the seedling. These stored nutrients can be food for us or for the new plant.

The beans we sow or eat are basically just two large cotyledons awaiting the right combination of warmth and moisture to swell, break out of the seed coat and begin a new life. When the cotyledons are open fully, each one is the shape and about the size of half a bean swollen with water. The first true bean leaves are already partly formed in the seed. By the time the cotyledons open, the true leaves are already drawing upon their resources for nourishment. Soon the cotyledons shrivel and disappear. They've played their role and aren't needed any more. The young plant used the stored nutrients in the cotyledons to elongate the root and produce true leaves. Now, it's up to the magic of photosynthesis, and the life in the soil to sustain and nourish these plants and bring forth the harvest.

We put newly-seeded flats on a shelf above the wood stove to encourage faster germination with gentle bottom heat. I usually enclose a whole tray of flats in a recycled plastic bag to keep the moisture level high until the seeds germinate. Check flats regularly and remove the plastic at the first signs of new life to prevent molds. When the plants are first uncovered, they look like a thin green stem connected to a white ball of fluff made of tiny roots beginning to reach out into the soil for water and minerals. Each tiny root hair creates a zone of intense biological activity around itself, working symbiotically with soil bacteria and fungi to obtain the nutrients a rapidly growing plant needs.

Once most of the seeds have germinated, we move the trays into the light. Delicate plants, like celery, and warmth -loving plants like tomatoes and peppers are kept up under a large skylight. We put the broccoli, cauliflower and kale seedlings in a simple coldframe on the south side of our house as soon as they look sturdy enough. Once they get true leaves, we'll transplant them into larger containers.

I used compost from the old chicken yard mixed with some vermiculite (which is expanded sand) for starting our seedlings. We get a few weeds from seeds in the compost, but we value the life in it enough not to mind. We just pull the weeds out. Some year, I'd like to try raising earthworms and using their castings to start seedlings.

I know that many people use a sterile medium for starting plants, but I truly believe in the virtues of good compost. The great variety of life it contains should be able to keep pathogenic organisms in control. We want to build health which in nature requires a diverse ecosystem, even in the soil.

We've also started to plant outside. Onions and a variety of greens - chard, spinach, mustard, turnips and lettuce are already in the ground. Many of these should be up by this weekend, when we'll put in peas and more onions and greens. Soon we'll plant early potatoes. We still have some more tomato and pepper varieties to start inside, too.

The wonder of sprouting seeds and the joys of working with nature have been integral to human appreciation of this time of year for millennia.

This weekend, let's give our children seeds and a commitment of our time to help plant them. Pass along the wonder and joy of new life.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.