By KARLA DENNIS
The local garden centers will soon be filling up with pretty flower, vegetable and herb plants for our gardens. Before they can put these plants out for purchase, however, someone had to start these plants from seeds.
Did you know you could save a lot of money by starting plants indoors from seeds yourself? My first experience starting seeds indoors was a big flop, but it inspired me to learn how to do it right. I discovered that factors like temperature, soil condition and lighting all matter and need to be controlled.
Here are tips on starting seeds indoors:
1. Check your seed. For the best results, make sure the seeds you purchase are marked for planting in the current year. Many seeds lose their ability to germinate as time passes.
Also, make sure the varieties you choose are suitable for our United States Department of Agriculture growing zone (6a for Findlay). Some plants like peas, pole beans, carrots, dill and corn, do best when directly sown in the garden, so don’t bother to start those seeds indoors.
2. Figure out timing. Most seed packets will have a suggested indoor starting time listed, usually 4 to 12 weeks before last frost date. Findlay’s frost-free date is around May 15, so count backward from there. You could also consult a gardening book or visit https://ag.purdue.edu/hla/pubs/HO/HO-14.pdf for more detailed information on time and temperature needed for germination.
3. Choose your containers. Growing containers need to be sterile and have adequate drainage. I have used plastic drinking cups or yogurt cups with a hole poked in the bottom to start seeds. Two-inch cells, peat pots or compressed soil discs are generally sufficient for the home gardener.
4. Use a good planting mix. Buying a premade starting mix will ensure the right mixture of sterile ingredients and give your plants a healthy, disease-free start that they need for success in your garden. Before filling your pots, dampen your mixture.
You can add a small amount of warm water and the starting mix to a bowl and allow it to soak for a few hours or overnight. Be careful not to use too much water, or you will have a soupy mix that will take days to become usable.
5. Plant seeds at the right depth. The seed packets should tell you the depth that your seeds need to be planted. These depths are very important as they allow for the various levels of light needed for germination. Usually a depth of 2 to 3 times the width of the seed is recommended. For greatest success, plant two seeds per pot or cell.
6. Keep the soil moist. Until the plants begin to emerge, your job is to keep the soil moist, but not wet. Water carefully because a strong flow of water could disrupt the depth of your seeds.
A few options include using a spray bottle or a watering can with a sprinkler head, or water from the bottom. Also, avoid placing your containers next to a heating vent that will dry out the soil quicker.
7. Control lighting and heat. If you have planted seeds that are one-quarter or less in depth, lighting should be controlled as soon as they are planted. You can buy grow light systems or use full spectrum fluorescent light bulbs.
The bulbs should be placed within a couple inches of the plants, but not close enough to burn the plants. Some plants require higher soil temperatures for germination or growth. Use of a heat mat with an adjustable temperature can help control the soil temperature. Information on growing temperature can also be found either on your seed packets or online at https://extension.psu.edu/vegetable-planting-and-transplanting-guide.
8. Fertilize. Once the first leaves, called cotyledons, appear, start a fertilizing regimen. The seed-starting mixes do not have many nutrients so, until transplanting, use a liquid fertilizer to give the plants the food they need. For these young plants, you will want to dilute the fertilizer to one-half or one-quarter the recommended strength.
9. Thin out. When your plants are about an inch tall, you will need to select the strongest plant in each container or cell and remove the others. This can be a hard choice to make, but it is better to have one productive, healthy plant than to spend your time on two that are struggling.
10. Harden them off. About a week before the date that you will be putting your transplants into the ground, you will want to begin acclimating them to the outdoors, a process known as hardening them off. Set them outside in a sheltered area, just a few hours at first, and then gradually increase the time until they are out the whole day.
Be sure to bring them back inside at night. This allows them to begin to pull their energy from the sun, which is much stronger than the grow lights, and to develop resistance to the wind and other elements of being outdoors. You will want to bring them inside if there are strong winds or thunderstorms where the force of the rain could damage the young plants.
11. Time to plant. Your plants should be ready to set out into the garden after May 15. When you dig your hole to set your plants in, water them in the container one more time. When you remove them from the container, be sure to keep all of the soil together surrounding the roots.
If the roots are tight, you may want to loosen them gently, but be careful not to disturb them too much as this can overstress them and cause delay in growth. After planting in the garden, it’s a good idea to “water them in,” meaning you give the ground around them a good watering, allowing the roots to begin to seek outward for water.
Applying plant food or fertilizer at this time will help acclimate the plants to being in the ground, as they have been used to that nice dose of food once a week. From this point on, follow the fertilization recommendations from the seed company.
I wish you good luck, no, good skills with your gardening this year and hope that the above tips will assist in a healthy start to a successful season!
Dennis is an Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener volunteer in Hancock County. Her interest in gardening started as a young child and she has been actively working toward a self-sufficient homestead for the past four years.