By RICHARD DEERHAKE
To get a jump on spring and to add a dimension to your gardening experience, why not try starting some of this year’s plants from seed?
In addition to the satisfaction of seeing your own plants growing from seed to bloom and harvest, it is generally less expensive than buying transplants. Additionally, when growing from seed, you can select the specific variety of plant you want and in the color and form you want.
There are several things, however, that can make your experience with starting seeds more successful, including attention to soil, sanitation, light, temperature, bottom heat, moisture, fertilizer, and other special requirements for the plant.
The soil for seed should be a mix without soil that consists of peat moss, perlite, vermiculite and bark. Do not try to start seed with the soil from your garden. It will bring plant diseases and insects into the house.
The containers used to start your seeds can be old pots or flats with drainage holes. Be sure to wash them with antibacterial soap and flush them with a 10 percent bleach solution before you use them. This will prevent infecting your new seedlings with last year’s diseases.
New seedlings need 14-18 hours of light each day. The natural light this time of year is only about 10 hours.
Some seeds like celosia even need light to germinate. Fluorescent lights three to four inches above your plants can be used to provide the additional hours of light needed to keep your plants from getting weak and “leggy.”
The temperature of the air and of the growing medium is important. Most plants start best and grow best when these temperatures are between 70 and 80 degrees.
Moisture for the new seeds is important also. It is best to water from the bottom by soaking the container in a sink or tray until all the soil is moist and then letting the excess water drain.
Allow the soil to dry between watering. Watering is usually needed every three days or so. The seedlings should be fertilized with a half-strength solution of a water-soluble fertilizer about once per week.
The seed packet will provide information as to the number of weeks to start the seeds before you to transplant them outside. Most plants should not be moved outside until after all danger of frost.
May 15 is generally used as the frost-free date in our area. Frost-sensitive plants should be started six to eight weeks before. Some plants, like onions, peas, and members of the cabbage family, will tolerate frost and may be started earlier.
Seeds with a thick coating, such as sweet peas, may require soaking overnight before starting. Follow the directions on the package.
Some flower seeds that are easy to start are marigolds, bachelor buttons, calendula, castor beans, cosmos, sweet peas, alyssum, zinnias, and dianthus.
Some vegetable seeds that are easy to start are cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, basil, parsley, eggplant, onions, and tomatoes.
The steps for starting seeds are: put potting soil in container, moisten by placing in water so it takes water up from the bottom of the pot, place seeds on surface of the soil and cover with soil to the depth of the seed, place a plastic bag over the container, and place in well lighted area.
When the plants sprout, remove the plastic bag. When the seedlings get their first true leaves, or second set of leaves, they are ready to transplant to individual containers.
When it is time to take the plants outside, first, harden them off for a few days by putting them outside in their container during the daylight hours, and then bringing them back inside at night. This will allow the plants to become accustomed to the outdoors.
Start with only a few varieties and learn from the experience. Your flowers will be brighter and your produce more tasty when you know that you started your plants yourself from seed. Enjoy the beauty and the harvest!
Additional sources for information are “The Gardening Guide to Growing Flowers from Seed and Bloom,” by Eileen Powell, “The New Seed Starters Handbook,” by Nancy Bubel, and “Park’s Success with Seeds,” by Ann Reilly.
Deerhake is a Hancock County master gardener and a retired physician.
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