Start seeds for variety and savings

Despite the unscientific opinion of certain ground-dwelling large rodents, gardeners are definitely itching for spring. When dreamily gazing at garden catalogs just doesn’t do it, when you need to get your hands dirty, and when you need to be assured that spring will arrive once more, then it is perhaps time to think about starting some seeds indoors.

It is a popular topic, especially since there is a big interest in growing food plants. But how do you make sure you are successful? How can you make sure that when spring comes calling, you’ll be ready with seedlings in hand? All it takes is a little thought, planning and determination to increase your chances of success.

Why start seeds?

Why do you want to go through the hassle of starting seeds, when you can buy perfectly good plants at the garden center? There are a few good reasons, actually. The first in my mind is selection. As even local garden centers rely more and more on seedlings produced by national companies, choice of varieties becomes more limited. Yes, there are some good producers at farmer’s markets that start seedlings, but even then they can’t start everything that you could possibly want to grow. I know I’m not the only person out there that likes varieties not commonly grown commercially.

The second reason is cost. For a few dollars, you can but a few seedling plants or a packet with dozens or even hundreds of seeds. While there are costs associated with the actual seed starting (starting mix/containers/electricity for lights), you are typically still ahead when you start your own. There are ways to reduce costs, such as blending your own starting mix and using recycled containers.

Seed starting basics

Seed starting is a pretty simple principle but one that can take a little practice to get just right. Mother Nature does it with ease, but she isn’t really concerned with starting a small number of the exact seeds you want started. To start, you need to make sure you are satisfying all of the seeds needs to get it germinated and keep it alive. Those basic needs are: a place to grow, water and heat. After they get started, you’ll also need light and some type of fertility.

One common mistake people make is starting seeds in potting soil or any nonsterile soil. You need a nice, light medium with little to no fertility in it (the seed has enough energy to get it to its first set of leaves). Some people have told me (and some seed starting mix recipes say) to add compost to the mix. There are a few reasons why this isn’t recommended.

First, compost tends to be too heavy, which can cause waterlogging and seed rotting. Second, while compost contains a great number of good bacteria and fungi, it can also contain some bad guys that will kill your seedling or adult plants. Unless you are a great composter with 100 percent perfect compost (or you sterilize it), there’s always a risk of causing more harm than good. A seed starting mix recipe can be as simple as equal parts peat moss (or coconut coir) and vermiculite.

Unless you are starting a small number of seeds, I would recommend starting them in one large container that will fit them all and then transplanting them to a larger container; you will need to transplant them out of the starting mix and into a more hearty potting soil to give them some nutrition anyway. You can use trays or pots specifically designed for the job, or you can recycle things like aluminum pans or even plastic Chinese takeout containers. Just remember to give them drainage. Those peat pellets and pots are handy, but, boy, are they expensive.

Speaking of watering, you’ll want to make sure that you keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. This can be a difficult dance to pull off, so there is some skill needed here. The trick is to let the top of the soil dry slightly before you water, but remember that the smaller the container, the faster it dries out. Using a dome cover can greatly increase your success at starting seeds.

Warmth is also a requirement to start seeds. There’s a temperature sweet spot that gets things growing their best. For most plants, it is around 75 degrees to get thing started and then moving them to somewhere around 65 to keep them evenly growing. You want to get them past the germination phase quickly to increase success, but temperatures that are too high can also delay germination and can lead to leggy growth. Since most seeds don’t need light to germinate, a good, warm place to start them is — wait for it — on top of the refrigerator. It’s high up, and heat rises, plus the fridge generates some of its own heat.

After they germinate, you’ll want to move your little ones into the light. Ideally, you want to provide bright, overhead light using a plant light. Using a warm fluorescent and cool fluorescent bulb in a shop light ballast will also do the trick. A bright window will work, but you’ll have to remember to turn your plants often to keep them from leaning too much.

Once you get your seedlings big enough to grow their first set of real leaves, it will be time for them to leave the comfort of the starting mix and head out into the real world and find their own spot. I would suggest giving the seedling its own container with enough space to get it to planting size. You can use the cell pack like you get at the garden center, either buying them or recycling them after you sanitize them by soaking in 10 percent bleach water. Or you can recycle containers like yogurt cups or make your own out of newspaper.

When do you start seeds?

Another thing to consider is timing — too late and you don’t have a good-sized plant to transplant, too early and your plant grows weak and spindly waiting for its time in the sun. The back of the seed packet can provide you with a ballpark figure. A seed packet will tell you to start seeds a certain number of weeks before the last frost date. All you have to do is count backward from our expected last frost date and that is the earliest you should start them.

When is our last frost date? Technically for Southern West Virginia, it is April 20, but many people still like to use the standard of Mother’s Day. In the vegetable world, the earliest things you start are the cole crops like broccoli and cabbage, which can be started right about now. Tomatoes and peppers come along in late February and early March.

But this date doesn’t mean that it is the only time you can start seeds. You can start seeds for several weeks, and I would suggest not starting everything at once. By spacing out seed starting, you can do succession planting to reduce the amount of work you do at one time and space out harvests over a longer period of time.

Read this article at the Charleston Gazette- Mail site.

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