Starting a Garden from Seed

7 February 2023

February is a good month to start your garden. Although the outdoor soil is frozen solid, turn to the indoors and start your plants from seed. If you read an article last month, you will know that you need to back time the interval necessary for your plants to be hearty enough to endure the exterior weather. In other words, strong enough to transplant outdoors. The longer it takes for them to reach a size that will survive after the latest frost (usually late April or May), the earlier you need to start.

Start with quality seeds appropriate for your area of the country. Check with your local university’s agriculture department or extension service. They will have a list of plants that have proven successful in this area. You can also speak with neighbors and friends about successes and failures. You can learn as much about a good garden from failures as you can from glowing reports.

Purchase from a reputable source. This can include seed catalogs and garden center/nurseries. If you are buying from a large store that sells everything from lug nuts to cell phones, check the back of the seed packet envelope to be sure it was packaged for the current year.

Most seed will be viable for around three years but germination does degrade over time. Many people save seed from their own plants. If kept in a cold, dark, dry location, it should be good for three years. Some will only survive for two years, however. Hint: mark the outside of the package with the date and plant name/color so you don’t get confused.

If you have extra seed and are not sure if it is viable, here’s how to check. Place ten seeds on a paper towel that you have pre-moistened with warm water. Cover it with a second similarly moistened towel. Roll them up and place inside a plastic bag with enough holes for a good exchange of air but not so many that the towels will dry out too quickly. Mark the bag with the date and name of the plant. Put this in a warm place, like the top of your refrigerator. If necessary, remoisten the towels. After one week, check the seeds to see if they have germinated. Make a note of how many did. Remove the sprouts, re-roll, and check again in another week. Since you used ten seeds, it will be simple to determine the percentage of ability to germinate, i.e. seven seeds sprouted, so you have a 70% chance of these plants being viable for the coming year.

As mentioned several times, determine the date you want to transplant outdoors and calculate how early you need to plant the seeds indoors.

There are a number of seed starter kits on the market. They are a tray with small pockets, a plastic cover, and a heating pad. Most are rather inexpensive. If you are crafty, you can probably make your own.
• Use a media specifically designed for seed starting. Garden soil is too heavy, plus it is likely to contain organisms that would be detrimental to your plants.
• Seed should be kept moist but not wet. Cover the tray with a lid. If you are using a DIY planter, use some clear plastic wrap. This will help retain moisture. Remove the cover/wrap after the seedlings emerge.
• At this stage it is more important that the soil be kept warm than to be sure the planter gets light. Keeping the container on the top of the refrigerator is an option but a heating mat is preferable for more even distribution of heat. If you use an electric mat or pad, follow all the manufacturer’s instructions. Different plants will require different temperatures to provide optimum germination. After germination temps can be a bit cooler or 65 to 70 daytime and 55 to 60 at night. This will help reduce the chance of spindly plants.
• Once the sprout is visible, light becomes a factor. After emergence you will need to be sure they get at least 16 hours of light per day. That is generally more than even a south-facing window will provide. Hang grow lights (either fluorescent or preferably LED) two to four inches above the top of the plant. Again, carefully follow manufacturer’s recommendations. Obviously, as the plants grow taller, you will need to raise the lights. Realize this as you plan your grow area.
• As your plants grow, you will need to transplant them from the germination medium into a clean pot with potting soil. If you are short on pots but don’t want to invest a lot of money, go for those plastic beer or soft drink cups (like Solo brand). It is critical that you first cut drainage holes around the edge of the bottom of the cup. Fill with a good potting soil and carefully separate the seedlings into their individual new homes until they are ready to be taken outdoors. If you go the plastic cup route, be sure you use the correct size for the size of the plant, and that the bottom of the cup is wide enough that the whole thing won’t topple over with a heavy-stemmed plant.
• Your goal is plants with solid stems. That means the right amount of light and being sure that the plants are not overcrowded. If you follow these instructions but they still start to get gangly, brush over the top of the plants with your had. About 20 strokes a day will help. I know this sounds goofy but plants do respond to movement; think of the gentle breeze in your garden.

Spring will surely be here before we know it.

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