Starting seeds at home

-A A +A
By Dennis Morgeson

Now is the time to start seedlings such as broccoli and cabbage to be planted in the vegetable garden in late March. There are several techniques and rules that should be followed when starting seedlings so we will discuss a few of them now as a reminder.

One rule of thumb to keep in mind when starting seedlings is that generally it takes six weeks for a seed to grow into a transplant ready for the garden.

Ten things to keep in mind when starting seedlings are as follows:

(1.)  Buy quality seed from a reputable dealer. Look on the back of the packets of seeds, somewhere usually at the bottom it will have a packed by date. It should have the current year’s date which would be 2008 for this year’s growing season.  If you save seeds or have seeds from previous years, storage is the key to longevity. Many seeds can be viable for up to 10 years if stored properly. This is the refrigerator not the freezer.  If you have old seed, it’s easy to do a germination test. Simply dampen a paper towel, place ten seeds on the towel, fold it and put it in a zip lock bag and place it on the top of the refrigerator.  Seeds should sprout in a few days. Count the number that sprouted, if six out of 10 germinated then you have a 60 percent viability rate and you should increase the number of seeds you sow accordingly.

(2.)  Only use a high quality germination mix.  Ideally it should be fine and not clumpy or hard. This is one area where cheaper is not better. Many of the name brands such as jiffy mix etc. are good enough. If you have larger seeds such as tomato, the jiffy pellets work great as well, but tend to dry out easily.

 (3.)  It is always a good idea to use wide flat containers for seed starting. It reduces the amount of soil you will have to use and it will be a little more forgiving if you over water. Regular trays you buy plants in are fine but be sure to wash them with a 10 percent bleach solution and rinse them well before using.

(4.)  Firm seeds in after sowing. It is imperative that they make good contact with the soil. Dry pockets can dry out newly emerged roots quickly, thus killing a seedling before it really gets started. Be sure to mist them in well. Maintain moisture but be sure not to have the media dry or soggy, just moist.

(5.)  Cover trays with plastic wrap or a humidity dome sold at a large department store, you can guess which one. Keep in mind not to put these in direct sun and don’t make it air tight. With a cover the sun can heat up the flat too much and if the wrap is sealed down it can lock in too much moisture. Just leave the corner unsealed or if you are using a humidity dome, turn it to one side or the other to allow some air exchange.

(6.)  Keep seeds warm to encourage germination. The top of the refrigerator is a good place but remember the plants will stretch quickly upon germination, so just as soon as you see one starting to come up, move the flat to light. Another way to warm the flat is to place it on a heating mat for germinating. There are several to choose from but the cheapest ones are for one flat and keeps the temperature of the flat around 70 degrees which is adequate for most seeds. Remember, if you are going to place your flats somewhere to keep them warmer than the actual temperature, they will dry out faster than they would otherwise.

(7.)  The most important aspect of starting seeds indoors is light. Most people get disgusted with starting seeds indoors because their plants stretch from lack of adequate lighting.  Once your plants germinate they are going to need the sunniest window you can provide and that may not be enough.

You can provide additional light by hanging a fluorescent light or grow tube over them to increase wave length. Using grow lights is another way to grow plants if you don’t have adequate window space or exposure. The lights should be hung as close to the plants as possible without touching them. Usually 14-16 hours a day is adequate but it won’t hurt if you leave them on all the time. Plants don’t need to sleep.          

(8.)  Another problem many people have is spindly or weak plants. While this usually is from lack of light there are a few things you can do to strengthen the plants. If you are growing in a window, turn the plants a quarter turn each day to keep them upright. Rub your hands across the tops of the plants a couple of times per week. This will simulate wind and cause the stems to become more rigid and less likely to stretch as much. You should do this even if you are growing under grow lights.

(9.)  Feed your plants. Proper nutrition is the key to developing good transplants. Most seed starting mixes contain a small amount of fertilize to get the plants started but its not enough to really get them growing well. Once the first set of true leaves emerges its time to give them half strength water soluble fertilize on a once or twice weekly basis.

(10.)  How many of you started plants indoors only to watch them cook as soon as they went outdoors.  Remember, if not acclimated plants will sunburn just like people.  To harden off your plants place them in direct sun for a couple of hours one morning and gradually increase their exposure form 1-2 hours to 2-4 hours and so on.  After about a week your plants will be hardened off and ready for the garden.

The response has been overwhelming for the Wheelbarrow Series and most classes were closed, however due to the response I am opening a few more spots up for Washington County residents only. If you were turned away or just decided you wanted to attend, call 336-7741 by Friday, Feb. 27 to register.  I am very pleased that the series has been met with such interest.  It is rewarding for me that so many people are excited and interested in learning about horticulture and having new experiences.