Starting from Seed

Gryniewicz checks on some of the hundreds of seedlings he starts in his basement.

Wide-eyed innocence coupled with invention and fastidiousness define gardener Jerry Gryniewicz. This northern Vermonter is the gardening equivalent of a folk artist. He's not plugged into any networks of gardeners or garden groups, relying only on seed catalogs and a few well-chosen references for inspiration.

Flipping through the pages of a garden-design book bursting with photos of profusely blooming perennials and annuals, Gryniewicz shakes his head. Other gardens all look alike to me. Even though I appreciate more manicured flower gardens, they're not for me. My garden is just as I want it -- comfortable, a place where the flowers live among the people who visit."

When he phoned in his seed orders last year to three companies, all three of them started asking him questions. Among other things, they wanted to know just how big his gardens were. And could they come and visit? Altogether, he spent nearly $170 for 64 packs of seeds (plus a few bulbs).

This garden is unique because it grows to the beat of a different drummer. If he perceives any influences at all, Gryniewicz postulates that they are the gardens at Versailles, although he is adamantly not formal. Or maybe his garden reflects the influence of his grandfather whom he gardened alongside in France for two weeks each summer during early childhood. "But he grew only vegetables. I grow only flowers -- except snow peas, which my cat likes to eat." He reasons, "I only have so much space, and my goal is to create an environment drastically different from my work day. Flowers force me to relax." After his work day ends at 3:30 p.m., he spends four hours working in the garden.

However, Gryniewicz's planting paradise is on a rented plot. "I know I'm taking a big chance that I could lose this place, but I can't let that stop me from fulfilling my dream," he says. (He has talked to his landlord, he says, about the possibility of an option to buy.)

Last year's plantings included over a hundred different kinds of annua. He sowed 'Victoria' salvia, as well as 'Flamingo Feather' celosia, green zinnia, 'French Vanilla' marigold, 'Joseph's Coat' amaranth, 'Blue Horizon' ageratum, and two kinds of Lavatera trimestris: 'Pink Beauty' and 'Ruby Regis'.

Although the plants he grows are sometimes standard, his combinations are not. Where else would pink and lavender 5-foot-tall asters form hedgerows alongside a huge "wall" of purple, pink, and white buddleia, arching sunflowers, and mixed colors of cosmos? 

The waist-high potting bench makes seed sowing easy on the back.

A Systematic Approach

Gryniewicz's five-year-old garden integrates his elaborate plantings into surrounding meadows. However, his young but already large garden really begins to grow in the small basement seed-starting "lab" of his house. There, he keeps the highly detailed records, extensive apparatus, and substantial supplies needed to start his garden long before the short USDA Hardiness Zone 4 growing season (late May to mid-September) arrives.

Tip #1: Organize seed packets by the calendar. Because Memorial Day weekend is Vermont's traditional planting weekend, Gryniewicz starts by counting the weeks back from there. For instance, if a particular kind of seed requires 10 weeks before planting outdoors, he knows to sow it in mid-March. So between March and May, his calendar is marked "week 9," or "week 6," and so on.

His innovative seed-starting system includes organizing his seeds in a corresponding way. He keeps all his seed packets in narrow boxes that are precisely seed-packet-sized. The packets are organized by weeks to plant before frost, with those needing the most time in front and dividers between each group. For instance, at the very front are flowers that need sowing 8 to 10 weeks before last frost. Those are followed by seeds to be sown 8 weeks, 6 to 8 weeks, 6 weeks, 5 weeks, 4 to 6 weeks, 4 weeks, 2 weeks, and 1 to 2 weeks before frost. In the very back of the box are seeds to sow directly outdoors. Once the seeds are organized in this manner, Gryniewicz can quickly see which ones to start next.

This system is important, he explains, because efficiency is required to make the most of the short season. Thus everything can go into the garden at once, just as soon as the danger of frost has passed. It's a little like elements of a dinner party. You want everything to be ready on schedule.

While waiting for each planting-out date, Gryniewicz monitors seedlings carefully. Eventually, he moves all the transplants outdoors, along with about 75 gladiolus corms. In the garden already are nearly 1,100 spring-flowering bulbs and an assortment of perennials (including daylilies, columbine, dianthus, 'Johnson's Blue' and other hardy geraniums, and irises) in a 40- by 80-foot bed. He keeps careful track of them all.

Tip #2: Start with soil mix for seeds. Seedlings grown on this scale don't just balance on a windowsill. And fast growth doesn't just happen. Although gardeners can choose from many mixes to achieve optimum growing conditions, Gryniewicz starts with Gardener's Supply seed-starting mix in peat pots. Any high-quality soil mix for seeds begins with finely milled sphagnum peat moss and a small amount of limestone and enough fertilizer to last a week or two. To this he adds, in varying degrees, vermiculite and perlite. Most important, the mix is sifted to remove large particles so that tiny seeds aren't inadvertently buried too deeply.

Tip #3: Use full-spectrum fluorescent lights. Though the uninformed visitor might mistake the long, enclosed bunks as tanning beds for dwarfs, they are in fact benches for seedlings. Gryniewicz has designed a unique system to fit his particular basement, using standard shop-light, fluorescent fixtures mounted with full-spectrum tubes. He connected the fixtures to individual timers to ensure that seedlings get the hours of light they need to germinate and grow. Such an elaborate system of lights and timers can get complex, and he's meticulous about their installation, too. He positioned timers near the ceiling for convenient access and keeps electrical cords out of sight behind the benches.

By early May, he adjusts all the lights until they are 2 to 3 inches above the topmost seedling leaves. Most of the lights operate 16 hours a day.

Tip #4: Water from below. By April, Gryniewicz has a major seedling factory in his basement. Ever try to water 1,000 little peat pots or individual cells in a flat? Obviously, he needs an efficient way to water. Moreover, sprinklers or any system that splashed water around would not be acceptable because this is a basement, not a greenhouse.

The first step was installing a hose bibb into a convenient water line. Gryniewicz then attaches the bibb to a 20-foot, lightweight hose fitted with a dripless end valve. He fills the watertight seedling trays with this hose.

Gryniewicz uses the trays, water reservoir, liner, and capillary matting that Gardener's Supply Company offers as their APS system. Capillary matting is a fibrous material you first partially submerge in the reservoir of water, then drape over the tray liner so that peat pots sit directly on it. The matting siphons water out of the reservoir, delivering it to the base of the pots. Near-mature seedlings drain the reservoir tray about twice a week, so Gryniewicz can leave them unattended for up to four days, he reports.

Tip #5: Keep records. "Seeds that are supposed to germinate in 7 to 10 days sprout for me in 3 days," he says. Because his seed-starting methods are so successful, Gryniewicz has found that counting back to calculate planting dates is complex. He keeps last year's records in an oversized spreadsheet journal. A hand-painted color design of last year's garden, past planting records, ideas, inventions, and next year's plans fill its pages. Beside variety names, plant heights, flower colors, planting dates, and other details, he pastes in catalog photos of each flower. (He always gets two catalogs -- one to keep and one to cut.)

Tip #6: Install amenities for yourself. . .or your pets! Because he spends so much time with his seedlings, he includes piped-in music for his own enjoyment. He points to the basement stereo speakers. "I like having contemporary jazz down here because it helps me concentrate and doesn't distract me while I'm working," he says.

Gryniewicz has even built perches for his two cats. These lead from a cutout in the stairwell across a, well, catwalk, to the top of one of the cubbyholes. "My cats love to be where I am and watch what I'm doing. They're important to me, so I made the perches just for them."

He painted the bases of the seed-starting benches and his workbench black and the plywood walls white with gold trim. Yes, gold trim. Some of the bench panels have black, gold, and white jigsaw-cut decorations in a folk-art style that Gryniewicz says reminds him of heraldry he saw in the palace at Versailles.

An Impressionist Garden

Gryniewicz's summer garden is notable for its lack of structure -- no walls, fences, trees, or shrubs, though a bird bath and a canvas canopy come out in summer. After all, his is a renter's garden created from lawn and meadow. He is sensitively attuned to the play between his garden and the encroaching meadow. "My garden may look like a planned wildflower garden, because I've taken that land from the meadow. The best concept I've found to describe my approach is 'Impressionist'. The close-up view is very different from the view from a distance, where the general impression is of a vast panorama of colors blending together. The meadow is just waiting for the day I'm gone and it can take it back," he observes.

Will there ever be such a day? Gryniewicz is optimistic. "I'd hate to part with all this. But this is my first garden." His blue eyes narrow for just a moment as he imagines new ground. "But a new garden would mean I'd have my own place. I'd have the challenge of outdoing myself." He smiles.

Photography by John Goodman

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