Round Robin: Messy Fun

| February/March 1996

DENVER, Colorado—“I’m having a Martha Stewart weekend” has become a popular expression among my friends. It means that one of us is tackling a wonderful, ambitious project or two (or three or four). It means that we’re up to something rather than sitting around on a Saturday morning watching drag racing, cooking shows, or bull riding.

I admire people who get things done even though I’ve made a few wisecracks about Martha. My days aren’t nearly as glamorous as Martha’s, especially since I spend the entire winter in sweatpants, nor are my projects as photogenic as hers.

Some novice gardeners think that they need a lovely setting in which to grow things. I’d like one, too. Someday I’ll build a picturesque Victorian greenhouse, where I can scoop soil from antique wooden bins and sow seeds in handmade wooden flats while I hum along to Vivaldi.

In the meantime, though, I spread an old sheet on the living-room floor. I use a coffee can to fill my recycled plastic six-packs with store-bought seed-starter mix, stacking the trays as I go. If I’m distracted by an old movie, I fall asleep on the couch. Later, refreshed from my nap, I make labels for each packet of seeds before I sow them. I learned years ago that it’s all too easy to get the seedlings mixed up. I turn the heat way down so that my hands won’t sweat as I handle the seeds between my thumb and forefinger. It’s a thrilling afternoon all the way around, punctuated by my timeless renditions of “Strangers in the Night” and “Guantanamera”. (Because I don’t know the words, I just sing, “Guantanamera, da da da guantanamera,” over and over.)

I water the flats in the kitchen and haul them down to the basement. I lower the fluorescent shop lights that hang on chains from the ceiling beams. I adjust them to hang just above the clear plastic domes that cover the flats. I set the timer to turn on at 6 a.m. and off at 10 p.m. The setup isn’t pretty, but it works.

When the seeds sprout, I remove the covers. Down in the plant room, the temperature is about 60°F, which promotes slow, stocky growth. If I’m lucky, more than one seedling emerges in each cell. I thin them with tweezers or my fingernails. Sometimes I use a pickle fork to transplant a few if I have space for them or if there’s a blank cell in a six-pack. Other times, I eat the extra basil plants on the spot.

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