Seed Starting

13 January 2022

January can seem like a long month and many people are anxious to play in the dirt through gardening. This is the perfect time to plan your spring garden and to start vegetables and flowers from seed to transplant when the weather is amenable.

Buy your seed from a reliable source. If you are selecting from a rack at your local garden center or big box store, check the date to be sure it is allocated to this year. Most seed is viable for about three years but germination will decline. So, older seed will have fewer sprouts as the seed ages.

Since you are reading the packet, look on the back. There you will find the target date for outdoor transplanting and the amount of time (usually in days) that it will take the seed to grow. You will probably note that some vegetables can go outdoors earlier (cool season like broccoli, onions, etc.) and some much later (warm season like tomatoes, peppers, and most annuals). It is at this point that you should make a chart of when to plant and when to anticipate moving them outdoors. Then pull up your calendar and make notes for reminders. Of course, just because the calendar says so, double check with Mother Nature to be sure the weather cooperates.

Purchase a medium that is designed for germination. Garden soil or even some potting soils are too heavy and may contain organisms that can be harmful to the plants. Put markers, flags or some other type of identifier so that you know which plants are which.

Keep the seed moist. That may mean misting every day depending on how dry the top of the soil gets. The area where the seeds are (depth depends on the instructions for planting) should be moist but not wet. Using clear plastic wrap can help keep the moisture in, but don’t let the soil get moldy. Remove the wrap when seedlings begin to emerge.

At initial planting and until you see some movement above ground level, it is more important to keep the soil warm. Most basements and even living quarters may not be warm enough. A heating mat is one of the best choices. After germination, the plants can be moved to a cooler temperature of about 65 to 70 daytime and 55 to 60 at night. This will help prevent the plants becoming too spindly. More about that in a minute.

Once they emerge, the plants will need light. Using fluorescent or LED lights, place them 2 to 4 inches above the top of the plants. Purchase lights that are designed for plant growth and always follow manufacturers’ instructions. The plants need light for 16 hours per day.

Once the second set of leaves has emerged, the plant can be moved into a deeper vessel. That means separating one from another to give the roots room and to make it easier when you take them outdoors. Take a 10 or 12 ounce disposable plastic drinking cup and cut three or four small holes along the bottom edge. This will allow for water drainage. Fill the cup with potting soil and transplant your tiny seedling. Be sure that the bottom of the cup is not too narrow or the weight of the growing plant will tip it over. Mark each cup in some way to identify the plant you are growing.

Back to spindly. If the stem is not strong enough, it won’t be able to support the leaves and head of the plant. Insufficient light and over crowding can cause this to happen. Plants react to movement. When you have them in your drinking cups, brush over the plants with your hand to stimulate the growth. This helps prevent them from becoming too leggy.

Plants grown indoors can suffer shock when being planted outdoors. To prevent this, harden them off by moving them outdoors so they are exposed to sunlight and wind. You will probably need to move them back indoors at night. Gradually increase the exposure over a two week period and then they are ready to be planted in your landscape after the chance of frost is over.

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