START SEEDS AT HOME

 

Pot Maker

Some plants are easier for home germination than others. Surefire vegetables include basil, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, chives, leeks, lettuce, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Some reliable annual flowers are alyssum, cosmos, marigolds, and zinnias. Perennials include Shasta daisies, columbines, and hollyhocks.

Timing
To calculate when to sow your seeds calculate back from your last frost date approximately 6-8 weeks and use that as a guideline.

Containers
Reuse last year’s nursery flats if you have some around. Otherwise, any container 2 or 3 inches deep will do—the large yogurt containers work really well. Our Pot Maker pictured above makes it inexpensive and easy to make your own pots from newspaper. Punch/drill holes for drainage into the bottom of containers if need be, to assure good drainage. Protect against plant disease by thoroughly cleaning all used containers: Wash them in hot, soapy water, and rinse with a dilute solution of household bleach and water. Distilled white vinegar mixed with water works well too.

Using the right growing medium
There are literally hundreds of different brand seed-starter mixes to be had but you can make your own by blending equal parts of perlite, vermiculite, and peat. Add 1/4 teaspoon of lime to each gallon of mix to neutralize the acidity of the peat. As the plants grow you’ll want to repot most of your seedlings into larger containers before setting them into the garden. But lettuce, melons, and cucumbers are fussy about being transplanted and should go directly from the original containers into the garden—with these plants you want to use a slightly larger pot than you usually would. When starting these fussier plants you should add a healthy portion of well-aged compost to your mix to give their roots a really good start.

Sowing
Moisten your mix in the containers before sowing the seeds. Next, drop seeds onto the surface of the mix, spacing them as evenly as possible. Cover the seeds to a depth about three times the thickness of the seeds. Some seeds, such as ageratum, alyssum, impatiens, petunias, and snapdragons, should not be covered at all because they need light in order to germinate. Be aware that some seeds like Coleus prefer partial shade for germination and like to be started with only a light press into the mix .

The top cover
Lightly sprinkle shredded sphagnum moss, a natural fungicide, over everything to protect against damping-off, a fungal disease that rots seeds and seedlings. In the case of seeds that need light to germinate, sprinkle the moss first and then drop the seeds onto the moss.

Keep seeds warm according to needs for that plant
Cover the flats with plastic wrap or glass to keep the environment humid and place them near a heat vent or on a heat mat made especially for seed starting. Most seeds germinate well at about 70 degrees F.

Keep them damp
A spray bottle for misting the seeds works well or you can set the trays into water so the mix wicks up the moisture from below. By setting them into a water filled tray, for wicking, you’re going to encourage the developing roots to “reach” for the water—this will result in longer more stabilizing roots for the final plant.

More light
As your seeds show signs of sprouting, uncover and move the containers to a brighter spot—a sunny window, a greenhouse, or beneath a couple of 4 ft. fluorescent shop lights—us the higher intensity 6500K bulbs as opposed to the standard 4000K. The lights are worth it especially the further north you live. Short days with the window light being as much as only 10% of your normal outdoor light in summer makes this necessary– and your seedlings need 12 to 16 hours of light a day. Suspend the lights just a couple of inches above the plants and gradually raise them as the seedlings mature. You do not want the plants to have to stretch or lean toward the light, this will make them weak and spindly. To ensure consistent lighting use an ordinary light timer for turning the lights on and off. Keep in mind—some plants require shade or partial shade for development.

Tempering
Seedlings don’t require as much warmth as germinating seeds. Move them further away from the heat source as soon they have germinated. Be aware of their temperature requirements for good growth.

Fertilizing
Most seeding mixes do not contain any soil, so if you’re using a soilless mix without compost (added), begin to fertilize your seedlings as soon as they get their first true leaves. –These leaves emerge after the little, round leaves. Fertilize with a half-strength solution of liquid fish/seaweed fertilizer every week or two. Use either a spray bottle or add the fertilizer to the water you set the trays in if you’re using the wick-up method described above.

Seedlings

Seedlings need room to grow
When the seedlings outgrow their containers or crowd one another, move them into larger containers filled with a mix that includes compost/soil. If you can’t simply turn the container upside down and let the seedlings “fall out” you need to remove them with something narrow and flat handling them by their leaves and roots to avoid damaging the fragile stems. Partly fill the new pots with the new mix and then tuck the seedlings -gently- into the new pots, finish filling the pot and then water them to settle the soil around the roots.

 

 

Hint

Set up a small fan to gently blow on your seedlings—this will result in sturdier main stems and healthier plants all around.

 Hardening Off

About 1-2 weeks before the plants are to go outside, start getting them used to the harsher conditions of the outside world. On a warm spring day move the containers to a partly shaded, protected place, such as a porch, leaving them out for a few hours. Unless the weather is terrible—gradually increase the plants exposure to sun and breeze. At the end of the week leave them out overnight—provided there is NO danger of frost– then transplant them into the garden.

 

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