There are few things more glorious than a seedling emerging from the soil.
We’ve been starting seeds for decades with great success. We used to set up a low bench in front of a south-facing window and start a few tomatoes and peppers. That operation expanded. Soon we were also starting squash, cukes, eggplants, broccoli, even some flowers indoors. We got a little fancier about it each year, using warming mats, clear plastic sheeting, and grow lights; following all recommendations.
Each year we start seeds we’ve saved as well as seeds we buy from reputable companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Turtle Tree Seed. (You’re probably aware Monsanto owns the vast majority of seed companies including favorites such as Jung, Park Seeds, Stokes, and Wayside Garden. Burpee buys seeds from Monsanto subsidiary, Seminis. Even eco-friendly Seeds of Change is owned by the candy company Mars, Inc.).
We’ve tried all sorts of pots, from egg cartons to black plastic pots saved from nursery plants. One year we made little pots out of newspaper. It’s easy to do, but a few weeks of daily misting and the papers sprouted mold. That didn’t seem to hurt the seedlings at all, but our sinuses weren’t happy.
Some seeds we start late in March, others not till mid-April. While wind, rain, and snow make our garden outdoor suited for only the earliest of plants, our little indoor plants flourish in cradles of dirt under benevolent artificial suns.
That is, until we bought online a huge supply of NK Seed Starter Pots sold by Plantation Products. An entire gross of multipacks.
Last spring we planted some seeds in these pots while using up other peat pots we’d bought locally. Quite a few seeds didn’t germinate, a first for us. We weren’t sure why. We thought that since NK pots are thicker and sturdier than other peat pots that we should water more or cover them longer, but none of those efforts worked. We ended up buying a few dozen tomato and pepper plants from a family not far from us. Disappointing.
This year we planted all our seeds in NK pots. Again, they were kept on warming mats under carefully calibrated grow lights. I imagined them awakening each day as I carefully tended (and yes, chatted with) those seeds. Instead we were shocked by a 95% non-germination rate. The few seedlings that emerged died within days. Okay, we thought. Let’s solve this. The pots are not too dry or wet, the light is not too low or high, the seeds are ones we saved or from reputable growers. What factors could be in play here? We sterilized our seed starter potting soil (not a fun process) in case our soil harbored some evil dampening off virus, then replanted. Another week or so and again only a few seedlings emerged only to die.
It didn’t occur to us that the only variable was the pots themselves until we read a NYT article about a class of chemicals known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, the same ones that help pizza boxes stand up to moisture without breaking down. PFASs are now implicated in health problems including cancer.
I don’t know if the NK Seed Starter Pots contained PFASs, but we realized something about those pots must be toxic. Coincidentally, I found several of last year’s discarded pots outside our barn. They’d been lying there exposed to 12 months of rain, snow, and mud. They were not even remotely decomposed, simply discolored. That’s odd, because right on the package growers are told to “plant pot and all.” No way could roots get through those stiff, unyielding pots.
The NK Seed Starter Pots are, according to the packaging, “Biodegradable. Made from organic recycled materials. All Natural Fiber Seed Starter.”
I say that’s not possible.
I emailed the NK Lawn & Garden people. I asked what “organic recycled materials” are used to make these pots. I offered to send them the dozens of unused pots of theirs we still have in their packages so they could test them for toxins and pathogens.
They replied the same day, offering to send different pots they produce.
Nothing can refund the time, money, and disappointment of having none of our own seedlings to transplant into the garden. No Dragon’s Egg cucumbers, Black Hungarian peppers, Rosita eggplant, Red Kuri squash, Jersey Devil tomatoes, or Cherokee Purple tomatoes.
Thank goodness the seeds I planted outdoors are up and growing heartily (so are the weeds). The peas are flowering and the broccoli is knee-high in places. Carrots, kale, chard, squash, rutabaga, cilantro, sunflowers, and corn are flourishing.
Next year we’ll go back to using old nursery pots we’ve saved. But if you’ve had problems germinating seeds indoors, consider peat pots as a possible villain.