|Starting Plants From Seed||
||Hard To Find Seeds||
Selecting seeds, soil and containers
When mail-order catalogs and local garden centers are bursting with an astonishing variety of plants of all kinds, why would anyone want to bother starting their own plants from seed? Because starting plants from seed is less expensive; there are more varieties to choose from; you can grow higher-quality plants suited to your schedule; and you will enjoy the simple satisfaction of growing your own seedlings. This article covers the basics, from timing your plantings to caring for your seedlings. To be successful, you'll need to provide the right conditions for good germination and healthy growth. Here are the basics:
If you are a beginning seed starter, start with "easy seeds" that are quick to germinate and that don't require a lot of extra fussing. It's easy to get carried away and buy too many different seed packets If you are starting seeds for the first time, you may want to limit yourself to no more than ten different types of seedlings.
Choosing the Right Containers
The Best Growing Medium
You can purchase a ready-mixed blend, or mix your own, using 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 perlite, 1/3 milled sphagnum moss. Remember that soilless mixes contain few, if any, nutrients. You will need to start feeding your seedlings with a weak fertilizer solution as soon as they germinate, and continue to feed them weekly until you transplant them into the garden.
Once your seedlings are up and growing, you can transplant them into a coarser growing medium that contains some garden soil or sifted compost. A standard blend may contain 1/3 compost, 1/3 perlite or vermiculite, and 1/3 sphagnum moss. This will help ensure that your plants have access to some soil nutrients, and it will also help prepare them for life in the garden.
What is in a Soilless Growing Medium?
* Vermiculite is mica rock that has been heated until it expands into what look like tiny multi-paged books. It is used to retain water and provide texture for strong root growth. Vermiculite is pH neutral, sterile and insoluble. It contains some magnesium and potassium, and also has a high cation exchange capacity, which means it is able to absorb fertilizers and release them to plant roots when needed.
* Perlite is made from crushed lava that has been heated until the particles "pop" into white, sponge-like kernels. It is used to retain water and provide good aeration. Perlite is sterile and pH neutral. It holds three to four times its weight in water.
* Coarse builder's sand is the best type of sand to use in a growing mix. Do not use beach or riverbed sand. The purpose of sand is to add texture, provide aeration, and improve drainage.
Once your seedlings are several weeks old, and you are transplanting them into larger containers, you can add compost or garden soil to your soilless blend. This will provide some beneficial nutrients, and will help your seedlings get used to the bacteria and other microorganisms they will soon experience in the garden.
Timing Your Planting
If you will be growing your seedlings in a greenhouse or a very warm room, you should subtract at least a week from the recommended planting date. Heat promotes faster growth, and you may find yourself with giant plants that are ready to be put out into the garden before warm weather arrives.
Seedlings that are started very early may need to be transplanted into larger containers after three or four weeks. This is especially true if you broadcast your seeds in flats rather than planting them in individual growing cells. The sooner your plants are put into individual cells with plenty of root space, the happier they will be.
Planting and caring for your seedlings
Seeds can either be scattered on the soil surface or placed individually into each growing cell. Resist the temptation to sow too thickly! Most seeds should be covered with a fine layer of soil. Unless the seeds require light to germinate (such as snapdragons), or are too tiny to tolerate being covered (such as petunias), you should cover the seeds to about three times their thickness.
Gently moisten the growing medium (using a mister or with dribbles of water) to ensure good contact between the seeds and the soil. Label each flat, row, or container with a wood or plastic marker so you can identify them later. Save the seed packet for reference.
If the soil is too cold, seeds may take much longer to germinate, or they may not germinate at all. To provide additional warmth, you can place the containers on top of a warm refrigerator, television, or heat mat, or keep them in a warm room until the seeds germinate. Just be sure to get your seedlings to a sunny window or under lights as soon as you see little sprouts emerging through the soil surface.
After germination, most seedlings grow best if the air temperature is below 70 degrees F. If temperatures are too warm (over 75), the seedlings will grow too fast and get weak and leggy. Most seedlings grow fine in air temperatures as low as 50 degrees, as long as soil temperature is maintained at about 65 to 70. You can keep the soil warm by using a heat mat, and can monitor the temperature with a soil thermometer.
Most seeds don't require light to germinate, but as soon as they sprout, they need to be placed in a south-facing window or under lights. Check your seeds daily. Seeds that germinate and start to grow without adequate light will become tall and leggy - a condition that is almost impossible to correct.
Most seedlings require 12 to 14 hours of direct light to manufacture enough food for healthy stems and leaves. The characteristic legginess that often occurs when seedlings are grown on a windowsill indicates that the plants are not receiving enough light intensity, or enough hours of light. If your seedlings are in a south-facing window, you can enhance the incoming light by covering a piece of cardboard with aluminum foil and placing it in back of the seedlings. The light will bounce off the foil and back onto the seedlings.
If you do not have a south-facing window, you will need to use artificial lights. When growing seedlings under lights, you can use a combination of cool and warm fluorescents, or full-spectrum fluore-scent bulbs. The familiar incandescent bulb that lights our homes produces too much heat in relation to the light given off. It also lacks the blue spectrum light that keeps seedlings stocky and dark green.
Seedlings need a high intensity of light. The bulbs should be placed very close to the plants - no more than three inches away from the foliage - and should be left on for 12 to 14 hours per day. If you are growing your seedlings on a windowsill, you may need to supplement with a few hours of artificial light, especially during the winter months.
As soon as your seeds have sprouted, you should remove any plastic covering to reduce moisture and humidity levels. Check the soil every day to ensure that it is moist, not wet. Too much moisture will retard root growth and lead to disease problems. Letting the soil dry out a bit between waterings helps prevent molds and fungus from growing on the soil surface.
Your seedlings will be much happier if you water them with room-temperature water rather than ice-cold tap water. If your water supply is chlorinated, fill some plastic jugs or your watering can and let the water sit overnight so the chlorine dissipates. Don't use water that has been through a water softener. The sodium may kill your seedlings. Try to make sure that the moisture reaches the bottom of the growing container.
You want your seedlings to stretch their roots out and create a nice, fat rootball. You might want to fill the sink or a waterproof tray with an inch or two of water and set your containers right in the water. Just be sure to remove them from the water when the soil surface feels fully moist to the touch.
Air and Humidity
Thinning and Potting Up
Stems and roots are easier to separate when the soil is dry rather than wet. You can remove a clump of seedlings and separate them as you go, or use a spoon or your fingers to remove individual plants. Most seedlings should be repotted at the same depth or just a little deeper. The exception is tomato seedlings. When transplanting tomatoes, you should remove all but the top few leaves, and bury the rest of the stem. New roots will form along whatever part of the stem is underground. When your seedlings have been repotted, water them well, fertilize them and return them to the grow light or sunny windowsill.
At least one week before you plan to put your plants into the garden, begin reducing the amount of water and fertilizer you give them. Place your plants outdoors for one hour each day on a protected porch or under the shade of a tree. Gradually increase the amount of time they spend outdoors. Be sure to protect them from too much wind and hot sun.
If at all possible, try to transplant your seedlings on an overcast or drizzly day when the wind is relatively calm. A polyethylene row cover or shade fabric can help ease the transition, and will protect your plants from cats, flea beetles and other threats as well. Be sure that you water well, so the roots establish good soil contact.
What to Feed Your Seedlings
Fish emulsion. An excellent source of trace minerals, as well as micro and macronutrients. It can be smelly, so be cautious about using it indoors. Ideal for young seedlings during their first few weeks in the garden.
Complete organic fertilizers. These specially formulated blends contain plant nutrients and organic compounds that promote strong root growth and overall vigor. They ensure that your plants get off to a strong start by providing a balanced supply of micro- and macronutrients including the Big Three: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
My seedlings are spindly. What can I do? Plants grow tall and leggy when there is insufficient light. Use grow lights and try lowering the room temperature and reducing the amount of fertilizer you apply.
The leaves on my tomatoes are starting to look purple along the veins and on the underside of the leaves. What's happening?
My seedlings were growing well until all of a sudden they toppled over at the base. What happened?
Mold is growing on the top of the soil surface. It doesn't appear to be hurting my plants, but should I be concerned?