Master gardener in training: How to plant seedlings


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It was the opening class of UC Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener program, and as most of my fellow students leafed through the 700-page textbook excitedly, I eyed mine with trepidation. I’ve never been a good student and rarely an adequate gardener. Though I’ve written extensively about gardening, in my hands a watering can is a weapon of torture and fertilizer a form of sub-soil napalm.

Hundreds of people apply to the local Master Gardener program every year, and enrollment is limited to about 50. Through a series of posts in the weeks to come, however, I’ll relay some of what I’m learning in class.


One of the first lessons: seedlings. Growing plants from seed is a mystery of life I had yet to unravel. I have sown yet never reaped in the past, getting more fruit from volunteer tomatoes than any pricey seed I’ve started in a tray. My seeds sprout fine, but once they go into their permanent bed they languish, victims of my rough midwifery skills.

This year will be different now that I’ve learned some of the niceties of transplanting seedlings: Handle the plants gingerly by the leaves rather than by the tender stalks. Free the tap root of extraneous dirt clumps by gently swishing them in water. With the exception of tomatoes, plants should go into the ground at the same depth as they were being raised in a tray or pot. And the hole? It should be filled with a blend of its former soil and new potting mix.

To practice I have a 2-inch clump of asparagus seedlings -- about 10 reedy spouts, each needing to be separated and placed in its own 4-inch pot. There they will spend the summer, awaiting final transplanting into the ground in the fall. For now, I just have to separate, wash and repot. The wire-thin seedlings are tougher than they appear, each capable of developing an 18-inch root ball that will produce spears for more than a decade as long as I don’t over-harvest and I continue to provide manure, water and mulch. My seedling will hit its stride in about five years, and I can’t even think of harvesting it until the next presidential election. This isn’t a food source so much as a relationship.

I belong to Seed Savers Exchange, the Iowa-based nonprofit repository for heirlooms and the largest non-governmental seed bank in the country. But before I could place my order, Craig Ruggless from seed seller Garden Edibles stopped by the Master Gardener class. Working from a 10,000-square-foot organic garden in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, Garden Edibles has a nice selection of Italian regional vegetable varieties -- 21 types of tomatoes, 36 types of lettuce and chicory, 26 types of beans and more. Although not as comprehensive as Seed Savers, which has 193 pages of tomatoes (and about 25 choices per page), the attraction to Garden Edibles is focus. Ruggless has the Franchi line of Italian veggies and flowers, and he is the sole U.S. importer for Larosa Emanuele Sementi, a company in southern Italy known for seeds that deliver a high germination rate, vigorous growth and great-tasting crops.

Next class: worms.

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photo credits: Ann Summa

Follow the series: Get more lessons from the Master Gardener program by becoming a fan of our Facebook page for California gardening.