Between the Rows: Starting seeds
Seed catalogs are full of seed-starting supplies. There are all kinds of seed trays and flats, peat pots, cow pots, coir pots, tools for making soil blocks, soilless growing mixes, heating mats and grow lights. Where to start?
If you have never started seeds indoors, the real question is what do you need? You need to buy very little because you can use your kitchen recycling of clear plastic salad and vegetable containers, yogurt containers and cardboard milk cartons to hold soilless mix and seeds. It is important to remember that all these items work perfectly well, but you must make sure to put drainage holes in the bottom of all of them. This also means you need a tray of some sort underneath your planting boxes to catch drainage water.
Some people recommend using cardboard egg cartons and even half an egg shell to hold your mix and a seed. This is very cute but it is a bad idea. Soilless mixes dry out quickly and a small amount of mix dries out very quickly. Seeds need to be kept moist in order to germinate and will need that constant moisture as they begin growing. Giving children such an arrangement is really setting them up for failure. Much better to start with a paper cup, soilless mix and a bean seed.
Nowadays, I use the cheap, little black plastic six-cell flats and plastic leak-proof trays to hold them. I have a hand-me-down grow light. You will also need a sunny windowsill.
Choosing your seeds
You can only keep seedlings in their little temporary bed for so long. Eggplant and peppers can be seeded eight to 12 weeks before the last frost. Tomatoes can be seeded six to eight weeks before the last frost — in our area considered to be Memorial Day weekend. Cole crops (broccoli, cabbage etc.) and lettuces can be seeded indoors five to six weeks before a safe planting date. These are all tolerant of cold temperatures, but would welcome a little protection. The back of your seed packet will give you all this information.
Dampen your soilless seed mix before you put it into your flats or planting cells. The seeds I have mentioned will only need a light covering of mix. If you are using a small flat that will hold many plants in one space, they will have to be picked out and transplanted after they have grown their first true leaves. For this reason, I prefer planting two or three seeds in each cell of a cell pack. Then they do not need transplanting until they are ready to be put in the garden.
Caring for seedlings
The leak-proof tray underneath your seedling trays will not only collect drainage water, it will allow you to use the easier method of bottom watering, which takes advantage of the natural force of osmosis. I put enough water in the bottom tray so that it can be wicked up into the soil of the plant flat. Having some water in that tray is especially important if you use peat pots. Peat wicks moisture away from the mix; you must keep the peat pots moist as well.
Many seedless mixes include some fertilizer, but you can also water the seedlings with a dilute solution of fish emulsion or Neptune’s Harvest after they have their first true leaves. If your seedlings are on a sunny windowsill, you will need to keep turning the trays as they will lean toward the sun.
Your seedlings will grow happily on a sunny windowsill, or under a grow light, growing taller and producing more leaves. A week or so before you want to transplant them into the garden, you must prepare them for the harsher outdoor weather. Begin by bringing the trays outdoors in a sheltered shady spot for three or four hours for a couple of days. Then, lengthen the time they are outside for another couple of days. The plants are toughening up. Make sure you keep them watered. The flats will dry out more quickly in the breezy outdoor air. You can then move them to where they will get more sun for another couple of days. In seven to 10 days, the plants will be ready for a sunny spot in the garden.
If you have a cold frame of some sort, it can be used for the hardening off process.
Water your plants and the prepared garden bed before transplanting. Gently take each seedling, place it in a planting hole and tamp the soil around it. You can give the seedlings a gentle watering after planting. Seedlings must be kept watered while they are germinating and beginning that first tender growth.
I have protected my early hardy seedlings, lettuces, coles and chard, with a floating row cover. This is sufficient protection if I have been a little too optimistic about the arrival of spring. It also protects the plants from rabbits!
Growing plants from seed is easy, economical and very satisfying.
Cabin Fever Seed Swap Feb. 10
For those who want to get more advice about seeds, saving seed and growing seeds, the annual Cabin Fever Seed Swap is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 10, from 1 to 4 p.m. at Green Fields Market, Main Street, Greenfield. This is an informal and fun gathering for novices, experts and everything in between. You don’t need to bring seeds to swap, just your good cheer and interest.
Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.