By Dana Gochenour
Looking to get a jump start on your garden this spring? Starting your own plants from seed is a great way to do just that. Many types of vegetables and flowers can be planted indoors now so that they will be ready to transplant outside into gardens and flower beds after the threat of frost has passed, which is typically around Mother's Day in this region.
"Timing is everything," said Lynne Phillips, manager of Natural Art Garden Center in Toms Brook. Phillips suggested that gardeners write out a plan of what they want to grow and consider how much space they have, both indoors and out, before they plant anything.
Phillips also stressed the importance of reading the directions on seed packets before planting. Pay special attention to the number of days to germination, which is when the plant begins to grow, and also take note of how long the plants will take to mature. If seeds are planted too far in advance of warm weather the resulting seedlings will grow too tall and spindly before they can be transplanted, and planting too late often leads to frustrated gardeners when it seems that nothing is happening.
Many varieties of plants will germinate in seven to 14 days but some, like hot peppers, can take much longer. According to Phillips a rule of thumb is "the hotter the pepper, the longer it takes to germinate." So be patient. Tomatoes, pumpkins, melons, squash, cucumbers, marigolds and zinnias are user-friendly varieties for even the most beginning gardener.
Seed starting kits are available at greenhouses and pretty much anywhere else seeds are sold. Phillips said most kits retail for around $10 and contain a tray, four-pack or six-pack plastic planting containers, soil, and a clear plastic dome-style cover that retains moisture and heat while allowing light to penetrate. The benefit of such a set up is that it can be reused for many years, but equally effective seed-starting environments can be created from things most people already have lying around the house.
Fiber pots, also known as core pots, are popular with gardeners because they biodegrade, so seedlings can be transplanted to the garden pot and all. Phillips said that newspaper or Dixie cups can be used as seed starting cups as long as you have a tray to contain the water that will leak from them. Phillips joked that a spare bathtub is a great place to start seeds because the mess is contained and water is easily accessible.
Watering is essential for starting seeds of any kind, but over watering can be just as harmful as under-watering. Soil should be kept moist, not wringing wet. A spray bottle works well to gently mist the soil's surface, and the process may have to be repeated several times each day.
Soil is another important consideration for successful propagation of seeds. According to Phillips plants will not require fertilizer when they are very tiny, but gardeners should avoid buying just any kind of potting material. Seed starting soil blends contain more vermiculite, which helps aerate the soil and retain water.
"With the right soil and the right environment [gardeners] will be more successful," said Phillips.
Part of creating the right environment for seed germination is providing them with warmth. At Natural Art Garden Center trays of seedlings rest on special heat mats that maintain a temperature between 75 to 80 degrees, and while such devices can also be purchased by home gardeners, there are also less expensive alternatives to provide plants with heat. Try setting trays of sprouting seeds on top of a refrigerator or in a sunny window sill. For most plants, such as peppers and tomatoes, wait until the soil temperature in the garden is 60 to 65 degrees before moving plants outdoors.
To ensure that seeds have the best chance at germinating, Phillips again stressed the importance of following package guidelines regarding planting depth. Larger seeds, like pumpkins, will need to be planted deeper in the seed cups than smaller seeds like tomatoes that do better when just barely covered.
Even with the best care there is a good chance that not every seed will germinate. Phillips encourages gardeners to plant more seeds than they need and then choose only the best to transplant. The rest can be composted, which is a great tool for creating your own rich potting material. Despite the fact that many seed packets contain dozens of seeds, there is no need to use more than one seed per pot unless seeds are from a previous season. If seeds are older use two per pot and thin to just one seedling after seeds sprout.
For very tiny seeds Phillips suggested that gardeners create what is known as "seed tape" by cutting strips from newspaper, paper towels or even toilet paper. Newspaper is the sturdiest to work with, but the other two options will break down faster in the soil. Use a tape measure to mark off the tape at the seed packets' recommended space after thinning and make a paste of flour and water to secure the seeds to the paper.
Avoid using craft glue, because it is not water-soluble. Allow the "glue" to dry and then the tape is ready to be planted immediately or can be rolled and stored in an airtight container for later. Phillips said that creating seed tape is a great craft project for kids and is also helpful for gardeners who employ a square-foot garden design, since they can use an entire sheet of paper rather than strips.
The bottom line for any seed-starting endeavor is to pay close attention to detail, and if you are unsure about proper timing or plant care ask a more experienced gardener or check with someone at your favorite greenhouse.
"We want [gardeners] to be successful," Phillips said.