Plants' D-day

THE REAL DIRT

April 11, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

My garden chores start around bedtime. So what if it's dark outside? I'm off to the basement to play with my plants.

In early spring, the basement is greener than the back yard. All my young herb, flower and vegetable plants are still growing indoors. Here, one finds a battalion of sturdy seedlings, bathed in fluorescent light and awaiting their marching orders.

The strongest plants are garden-bound, and will be sent to the front lines. Other plants will be held in reserve, pending sneak attacks by weather or wildlife.

The weakest plants face the firing squad. They are doomed to the compost pile.

It is their fate that I'll determine tonight.

I dread this side of gardening. Thinning plants is an emotional task for someone who fathered the whole nursery. I've nurtured these seedlings since birth. I've washed and fed them. I've checked behind their leaves for bugs. Perhaps I've been too good to them: So many seedlings survived that they've begun competing for light beneath the single 4-foot Gro-Lite in the cellar.

The young plants are starting to s-t-r-e-t-c-h. That's bad. Tall, spindly seedlings are apt to snap when transplanted to the garden. Short, stocky plants fare better against gusty spring winds. But the shorter plants are being shaded from the Gro-Lite by a row of lanky lettuces and gangly green peppers.

Clearly, the skinny guys must go.

I try to make these decisions late at night, when the family is asleep. I've been known to cry over condemned cabbages, and blubber over broccoli.

I call it garden Angst.

It's my own fault, I guess. I plant far too many seeds indoors. What else is there to do in winter? When most of the seeds germinate, I'm overjoyed. Like a proud parent, I gather the family to see the sprouts.

I give them a tour of the nursery, and they ooh and aah as a courtesy. Then I point to a tiny plant and say:

"Doesn't this tomato look like me?"

My wife rolls her eyes. My daughter gags. Only the dog seems interested. She sniffs the plant and nearly sucks it up her nose.

"Out!" I holler. "Out! Out! Out!"

There's not a real gardener among them.

I pamper these seedlings, monitor their growth and attend their every need. Young plants should be watered sparingly, forcing them to "dig" for their dinner. This promotes strong root growth and inhibits damping-off, a disease caused by overwatering that can wipe out a whole tray of plants.

When seedlings have at least one true set of leaves, they can be transplanted to single pots. Many gardeners make hard choices at this stage, based on the plants' root development. Those with the strongest root growth are allowed to live; the weakest are cast aside.

This is probably the least painful time to dispose of unwanted seedlings, before they are placed in their own private pots. Once a plant signs the lease, the gardener is almost committed to finding it a spot in the garden, if only to justify the use of the pot.

I missed that exit long ago. Now I must pay the price.

I feel like the Grim Reaper. Where did I put that scythe?

It's nearly midnight, and I am sitting on an old stool in the basement, staring at my seedlings. I've been here for nearly an hour, hunched over the trays, plagued by indecision. My head votes to save the most robust plants; my heart goes out to the stragglers. It is difficult to discard even the weakest plant.

Every time I pick a plant for the compost pile, I yank it back off death row. My eyes are bleary; my brain is slow. I'm thinking, does God go eenie-meenie-minie-moe?

The TV is still on. Ted Koppel is signing off. I admire Ted Koppel. He is resolute, strong-willed, decisive. If Ted Koppel were here, he would know what to do.

It struck me, then, what Ted Koppel would do.

He'd buy another Gro-Lite.

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