Determined not to add to her pile of plastic pots, the author embarks on the meditative practice that is raising seedlings. By Margaret Simons.

The germinator

Cos lettuce seedlings.
Cos lettuce seedlings.
Credit: Stephen R. Johnson / Alamy

Misty mornings, clear blue days. This is one of the best times of year in my Melbourne patch. Spring is around the corner, and gardeners must prepare. I have scooped out the worm farm and spread the castings on the strip of soil at the front, ready for spring planting. I have gathered manure at every opportunity. I have turned the compost.

My nails are encrusted with dirt and desiccated dead things, despite scrubbing. But soon – life!

I have been engaged in that ordinary miracle, germinating seeds. Well, that is not quite true. I do not germinate seeds. They do that by themselves. I provide soil, water and a spot in the sun – in this case on my breakfast table by the window.

It is almost a tautology to say gardeners care about the environment. They may have different ideas about what that means and what it requires in the way of activism or personal duty. Nevertheless, as soon as you pull out a weed or dig a hole for a new plant, you are explicitly acknowledging a relationship with the natural world. A manipulation of it. A role, and therefore a responsibility.

Gardeners tend to know their patch, with the kind of intimacy that long-term lovers bring to each other’s bodies. You know how the sun falls, day to day and season to season. You know where the water soaks in, and where it lies in a puddle. You know the good soil and the barren corner. You know what grew well in a certain spot last season, and you will be assessing whether you can carry off the same trick again, or whether you need to circulate your crops.

This, I imagine, is the kind of intimate knowledge First Nations people have of Country. Recent migrants can acquire it only for small patches – the ones where we intervene and have agency.

Given the environmentalism that goes along with gardening, it is annoying – ironic even – that it is almost impossible to buy new plants without acquiring plastic. Plastic threatens to bury and poison the natural world and yet every garden centre, every online source of exotic herbs and succulents, packs plants in it. If there is a way of avoiding it, I haven’t found it.

Black plastic pots and seedling trays can be reused. But if you are an active gardener, then you probably have, behind the shed or in a disused corner, a giant pile of the things, gathering spiders and snails. You might reuse one or two, but you will never get ahead.

I would gladly pay more to buy seedlings packed in cardboard or something recyclable. I would give my loyalty to a nursery that took back pots for reuse – although I understand the cost of washing and sterilising them might be prohibitive.

Without those options this season, I have decided to make an effort to not buy any plastic plant pots or seedling trays. This means eschewing my usual early-season hack for salad greens. In previous years, I have sown lettuce seed as soon as the soil was warm enough for it to germinate but, to get a jump on the season, I’ve also bought one or more of those sixpack seedling trays of lettuce medleys – purple leaves, buttery leaves, oak leaves and mesclun.

On too many occasions, I have not been organised enough to sow tomato and cucumber seeds on the windowsill in August, as one should. I have instead ended up buying more plastic pots of advanced plants, ready for planting out on AFL grand final day, as is the immutable way.

Not this year. Or not if I can help it.

Three weeks ago, I salvaged an egg carton from the recycling and filled it with sifted potting soil, mixed with sand. In the lid, I made three rows with a pencil, and sprinkled the seed of a different kind of lettuce in each. I wrote the varieties on old tags from bread bags, and clipped them to the end of their respective rows.

One row of the great lakes variety – spread very thickly, because the seed was out of date.

One row of cos. One row of a variety I haven’t tried before, with the suspiciously twee name little gem.

In the part of the carton that used to hold the eggs, I put more seed and more labelled bread tags. Four egg-shaped cells of tatsoi. Four of kale, two of parsley and two of silverbeet. I put the egg carton on the breakfast table by the window where it would catch the sun, and where I would see it each morning and therefore remember to water it.

One of the most troubling parts of growing your own seedlings is knowing when to thin them out.

When I started gardening, I was always reluctant to thin out seedlings. It seemed like such a waste. Modern times have introduced the idea of microgreens, which makes it feel better. In theory, you eat the thinnings. But every time I carefully put them aside on the draining board, in theory to go into a lunchtime sandwich or salad, I forget them. They desiccate.

The out-of-date great lakes seed yielded only a few seedlings, so thinning wasn’t necessary. I pulled out lots of cos and little gem, and a fair bit of kale, to give the rest a chance to grow. Sure enough, they gained height, grew spindly and leant over the breakfast table towards the window. I moved them outside during the day to harden them up and give them more light.

Another difficulty with growing seedlings is knowing when to transplant them to larger containers. When a seed first germinates it puts out juvenile leaves, called cotyledons. They look nothing like the mature plant. They are the equivalent of snack packs – doing just enough photosynthesis to provide the infant plant with initial energy. It is when a pair of new leaves appears on top of the cotyledons that it is time to move the seedlings to a new pot.

This, too, involves waste. Last weekend – three weeks after I first sowed all that seed – I assembled some of my toppling tower of old plastic pots, washed them out, and filled them with a mix of worm castings, potting mix and perlite.

With the plants in the egg holes, I tried to keep the cardboard intact, poking holes in the bottom for the roots to grow through and placing the whole cell in the new pot.

This wasn’t possible for the rows of lettuce in the egg container lid. I took a pencil and teased out the seedlings, trying to keep their roots intact. The other end of the pencil was used to make little holes in the new pots. I dropped each seedling into a hole, and watered.

All this took nearly an hour. I was so focused – so wrapped up in tiny segments of soil, tiny leaves and hair-like roots. It was like playing with dolls or watching ants as a child. A meditation. A concentration. A whole world in teaspoons of soil.

But I didn’t have sufficient pots or patience for all the seedlings. So, once again, I put some aside on the draining board, intending to wash off the dirt and use them as microgreens. Once again I forgot them.

Every stage of growth is laced with failure and waste. Not every seed germinated. Not every germinated seed survived my transplanting. Not every successfully transplanted seed will reach maturity. There is such a superfluity in seed. Nature deals with the inevitability of failure by trying harder and more often.

So it is that four weeks after I began, I have sitting on the back verandah 12 pots of various shapes and sizes, containing a total of 15 lettuce seedlings, three kale plants and two silverbeet. (The parsley is yet to make an appearance. It is the most stubborn of seeds.)

These are the survivors so far.

When the soil is warm enough to sustain them, they will be planted in their final position in the fertilised, worm casting-rich front yard. Some will not survive that change. Others will be eaten by snails or birds.

But, with luck, I will have greens to eat in spring, and the only waste involved will have rotted away. Little lives lived and forgotten, not mourned – the remnants feeding another cycle of life and death, success and failure.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "The germinator".

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