Roots and Shoots: Buried in Snow, Dreaming of Spring

Feb. 13–16 is the 17th annual international bird count

By Pamela Doan

Seed catalogues get me through the winter. Colorful, colorful seed catalogues. Garden porn that feeds fantasies of a landscape filled with lush vegetables, herbs and flowers all buzzing with life. I do appreciate this snowy winter we’re having, but when those seed catalogues arrive, I can’t resist.

It’s not too early to start planning to germinate seeds indoors, either. Whether it’s a modest effort at a few plants in a windowsill or a more serious operation with high-intensity lights and self-watering systems, the end result is the same — seedlings. (Fun fact: If you enter “germinating seeds” into a Google search, most of the top results are about marijuana seeds. Those are some dedicated growers.)

While every packet of seeds will have specific instructions about how to plant them successfully, there are general requirements for germinating any seed. Water, light, heat and oxygen are necessary to stimulate the embryo inside the seed to grow.

The medium is important, too, mostly to make sure that it’s sterile and not contaminated with diseases, pests or weeds that will contaminate or outcompete the seedlings. Your garden soil is not a healthy starter for seeds. Have you ever tried microwaving garden soil to sterilize it? I don’t recommend it. Spend $5 on the bag of sterile starting medium soil, instead.

Any type of container will generally work as long as it has drainage holes, but if it’s had other plants in it, wash it out completely first. I like cardboard egg containers because you can plant them right in the ground. Plastic yogurt and cottage cheese containers can be repurposed as well as milk jugs that are cut down to a few inches.

Keeping seeds moist is what lets the seedling push through the coating. If it gets dried out at any time, the process stops and it dies. Here’s a trick: Mist the container once the seed is planted and put it in a plastic bag. The bag will hold in the moisture until the seed sprouts. Don’t let the plastic rest on the soil, though; it will prevent the seedling from poking through.

Once it’s sprouted, take it out and water with mist instead of a watering can, which can be too much force for the new plant. Be careful about heat if the container is wrapped in plastic: Don’t leave it in direct sunlight or it will get too hot in there.

Stonecrop Gardens, a local treasure of 12 acres of public display gardens in Philipstown, has an upcoming workshop on seed sowing. Limited to a dozen participants, the two sessions, which are five weeks apart, will include how to germinate and tend seeds, as well as techniques for transplanting the seedlings. This workshop will cover annual and perennial flowers.

A separate workshop in April and May will cover designing and planting a vegetable garden. Check their website, stonecrop.org, for registration details.

Great Backyard Bird Count

Feb. 13–16 is the 17th annual international bird count. This is an easy one to participate in. You can count birds in your yard for 15 minutes on one or all four days of the count. No travel or hiking involved unless you want to get out in the woods. Just enter your location.

Get ready to tally the birds in your yard for the Great Backyard Bird Count. (Photo by P. Doan)

Get ready to tally the birds in your yard for the Great Backyard Bird Count. (Photo by P. Doan)

The steps are simple. Log in the number and type of birds that you see during your chosen time period. The information is compiled and used by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to track the movement and numbers of birds. Citizen science makes all the difference when it comes to birds because it’s impossible to study all of their habitats. They’re diverse and they’re everywhere (we hope).

If identifying and counting birds is more fun when you use your smartphone, there are a few apps that can help. I’ve used the free Merlin Bird ID from Cornell and it’s both straightforward for the novice and accurate. It takes you through a series of multiple-choice questions and it’s always worked to identify a bird.

The National Audubon Society also has an app. It isn’t free but the proceeds support their not-for-profit work. You can use this app to log results for the Backyard Bird Count, too.

To register for the count, go to gbbc.birdcount.org and follow the prompts. Happy birding.


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