|13 Steps to Super Seed Starting|
|13 Steps to Super Seed Starting|
When you start your own plants from seed, you'll discover a new world of gardening. You can grow varieties of flowers and vegetables that aren't available as seedlings in local stores—old-fashioned hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), heirloom tomatoes, burpless cucumbers, and rare hot peppers, to name a few. You can raise enough flowers to overflow a giant bed for the same cost as a dozen nursery seedlings. You can select the sturdiest seedlings from those that sprout. And you can save your own seed.
Seed starting needn't be time-consuming or complicated. Follow these steps, and you'll be well on your way to a season of plenty. 1. Let them breathe. Seeds contain their own food supply, so they don't need rich soil immediately. What they do need is air, so don't plant seeds in muddy dense soil straight from the garden. Instead, choose something loose and light, such as vermiculite or a bagged potting mix from your local garden center.
If you buy bagged mix, stick with the kind sold by your local garden supply center. Some potting soils sold in general retail outlets may be too heavy and dense to allow for good root growth.
2. Provide good drainage. Choose containers that have drainage holes on the bottom so seedling roots don't get waterlogged. Shallow (2to 3inch deep) flats work well for plants that you'll set out in bulk, like strawberries. Recycled plastic cell packs (the kind prestarted plants are sold in at the garden center) are fine too; just be sure you clean them thoroughly with soapy water before using. If you use household castoffs, such as milk cartons, poke some drainage holes in the bottom with an ice pick or a hammer and nail.
3. Moisten the medium before you sow. If possible, use warm water to wet seed starting mix; the mix will absorb it more quickly. Fill your planting containers with the moist mix, but don't pack it down. Water the container thoroughly to finish wetting the soil before you plant your seeds. (If you water after planting seeds, you may wash them all to one corner of the flat or bury them too deeply under the soil.)
4. Sow Sparingly. Crowded seedlings develop long, weak stems in
their search for light and space.
5. Cover wisely. Covering the seeds calls for some restraint, too; it's easy to bury them too deeply. Here's the general rule of thumb: Cover the seed with an amount of soil equal to three times its thickness. Some flowers—such as ageratum, impatiens, alyssum, and snapdragons—need light to germinate and shouldn't be covered with any soil. When in doubt, check the seed packet directions.
6. Keep it warm . . . Warmth and moisture kick the seeds' slumbering metabolism into high gear. Most garden seeds germinate best roughly between 70° and 90°F. For fastest germination, get to know your seeds' preferred temperature for sprouting;
7. . . . and wet—but not too wet. Seedlings need an even supply of water. The best approach is to bottom water, as shown in the illustration below. If your system doesn't allow for this technique, use a sprinkling can with a spray head to gently distribute the droplets over the soil surface.
8. Hug the light. Check your containers frequently. At the first sign of a sprout nudging above the soil, pop the containers under lights or put them in a sunny window. Fast germinating seeds should sprout in a few days, but slower ones can take 4 to 6 weeks to germinate.
If you're using fluorescent lights, place the young seedlings as close as you can to the light—2 to 4 inches from the tubes.
9. Pot them Up early. When your seedlings have their first true leaves (the second set, with leaf veins), transplant them to larger pots or space them out in flats. If they've been growing in vermiculite, now is also the time to switch to regular potting soil, which contains more nutrients.
First, fill the new container about two thirds full with potting soil. Then prick out the growing seedlings one plant at a time, using a slim fork handle, a Popsicle stick, or a similar tool. Set a seedling in a container, and add more potting soil around the seedling until you have at least matched the depth of the old soil. Always cover each seedling's roots before you dig up another one! Select the sturdiest, strongest rooted seedlings; grit your teeth and toss the rest.
When moving seedlings from a small flat to a larger one, space them about 2 inches apart in their new homes. Water them well, and keep them out of direct light for a day to let the roots recover.
10. Lower the heat (maybe). Most seedlings don't need as much warmth as germinating seeds. Tomatoes and peppers, for instance, become sturdier and less leggy if kept about 10° cooler than their preferred germinating temperature. (Melons, eggplants, and okra, on the other hand, do best if they're kept a bit warmer than that.)
11. Feed often, but go easy. After seedlings develop their second set of true leaves, give them dilute feedings of plant food every week or two. Fish emulsion is organic, widely available, and easy to use. For the first few weeks, dilute it to half the recommended strength.
12. Prepare them for the move. Toughen up your seedlings before you move them outdoors so they won't be helpless in the wind, cooler air, and brighter light. Stop fertilizing them about 2 to 3 weeks before you plan to plant them in the garden.
About a week later, begin the next stage: Set the seedlings outside during the day, preferably in a spot where they'll receive direct sun in the morning and bright, but indirect, light in the afternoon. Bring them inside each night. After about a week, leave them out at night as well. Frost hardy vegetables like lettuce and broccoli won't need to be protected from light frost, but be prepared to protect tomatoes, peppers, and other frost tender crops.
13. Plant the seedlings outdoors. After your seedlings become accustomed to the outside world, gently settle them into their garden rows or beds. Try not to disturb their roots as you transplant. Pour water in each planting hole before your plant, or sprinkle the entire bed after you've finished.