On occasion, my brain departs for parts unknown. I started Brussels sprouts from seed two summers in a row, last year and the year before. Both times, the plants grew in such a spindly, sad-sack fashion, I didn’t bother to plant them in the garden.
I decided a lack of light must be to blame. Seedlings get leggy without it. But, it seemed odd, because other seedlings I started grew along smashingly. And, once upon a time, in a land not so far away (Bryson City, my hometown to be exact), I’d grown strong Brussels-sprouts transplants.
The process begins early, in June. Most varieties require 100-110 days to reach maturity. This year, I hesitated, thinking the small effort of preparing potting soil, then dropping a seed or two into each cup, might prove, yet again, an outsized effort compared to the return.
In early July, still within the necessary window for growing Brussels sprouts, like a bolt of lightning streaking down from the heavens above, the reasons for my failures hit me … my evil twin, the Garden Dolt, had been at work.
The reason for my pitiful seedlings? I skipped a basic, but an oh-so-important step: I failed to firmly and decisively press the soil into each seed cup – there must be solid contact between planting medium and seed.
This year, armed with knowledge I’d somehow forgotten, I grew from seed 10 lovely Brussels-sprouts seedlings. After they grew their second set of leaves, I transplanted them, making sure to firmly tamp the soil around each seedling after placing them into deep planting holes. Brussels sprouts and other brassicas root along the stem. Planting them to the first set of leaves helps develop sturdiness.
Eight survive. Garden Dolt stepped on one; another, an unidentified pest devoured. This, despite my having lovingly protected the plants with an overlay of row cover, a light fabric used to prevent exactly these sorts of insect attacks.
Soil tamping benefits other transplants, too. In his wonderful book, “The Well-Tempered Garden,” the late Christopher Lloyd, in his inimitable way, emphasizes the importance:
“Firm planting is not just something you read about that really only applies to other people’s gardening. All plants need it. If it was a herbaceous or bedding plant you were putting in, take hold of it, after planting, by a leaf or small shoot, and give it a steady pull. If this brings the whole plant out of the ground, it means that you did not plant it firmly enough.”
His recommended technique is to use the back of your fists, with the full weight of your body behind the effort, to firm soil around plants. With trees or shrubs, he recommends “a gyrating act on one heel.”
Lloyd does caution against planting firmly at those times “when you should not really be planting at all: That is, when heavy ground is in a state of plasticine squelch. … You do not compact when the soil is very wet, because you do not want to squeeze all the air out of the soil.”
Learn from my mistakes, people. Unless too wet, tamp, tamp, tamp.
Quintin Ellison is the editor of The Sylva Herald. She got carried away and grew too many transplants this year.