Even here in the far north it’s time to start thinking about seed starting. Many plants need early starting to make plants for setting out in spring. The advantages of seed starting include (1) choosing varieties that are most adaptable to your site, (2) controlling exact seeding times for your climate and specific site conditions (this often varies from one garden to the next) and most important in my opinion (3) taking part in one of the most awe-inspiring and rewarding tasks available to us humans.
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Consider this… each seed contains it’s own tiny, living plant and enough stored food to get it started. It has a hard, waterproof coat to protect itself from drying out, mechanical injury, and damage by insect or disease. All we need to do to help it grow is to add the right amount of light, heat, air and water.
Even after all these years of gardening, seed starting continues to amaze me – a tiny seed contains all the genetic information and initial food to grow into a plant many hundreds of times larger than the seed… produce such bounty in food, beauty or utility. Our family is maintaining health this winter thanks in part to the seeds planted more than eight months ago in our vegetable garden.
Following are some basics to help you start your own plants:
- Start the plants that will for sure do well in your garden. The best way to determine this is to observe and network with your neighbors and local gardeners.
- Determine your optimum seed planting times. Again, local knowlege is invaluable. Also consult with your local County Extension Service or garden club.
- Use an organic seed starter mix to germinate your seeds…or if you feel confident mixing your own, prepare a mix of equal parts of perlite, vermiculite, and peat.
- Add 1/4 teaspoon of lime to each gallon of mix to neutralize the acidity of the peat. Most seedlings will be transplanted into larger containers (peat pots) for an interim period before being transplanted outdoors to the garden.
- Be sure to moisten the planting medium before you sow the seeds. Cover the seed with 1/16″ to 1/4″ of soil, depending on seed diameter. However, some seeds require light and need to be left on the surface – ageratum, alyssum, impatiens, petunias, and snapdragons
- Keep seeds moist – cover seed trays with plastic wrap to hold moisture. If you have several varieties or several trays, a portable greenhouse is useful.
Do not over water!
- Keep seeds warm – ideal germination temperature for most seeds is 70 deg. F. Bottom heat is very beneficial.
- As soon as seeds sprout, ensure that they have plenty of natural or artifical light. If you have a very sunny window, make sure they receive 12 hours of light each day. In the north, where winter and early spring is relatively dark, the best solution is to hang fluorescent or grow lights above the seedlings.
- After the plants have developed their true leaves, which appear after the round cotyledon leaves, feed weekly with a weak solution of kelp and fish powder. You can water with this fertilizer mix or use as a foliar feed.
- About a week before you set the plants out in their outdoor environment, “harden” them by setting outdoors for an increasing number of hours per day. Take care that the changing weather does not shock the plants during this hardening off process. After a week or so, leave the seedlings out overnight…they then should be ready to plant outdoors in their permanent location.
Even if you have just enough room to start a few seeds, the effort will return more than you can imagine. The joy resulting from observing this propogation miracle may just make a ‘die-hard’ gardener out of you, like it did for me so many years ago.
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About Dan Eskelson
Dan has had his hands in the soil for most of his adult life as a gardener, landscaping contractor, golf course superintendent and landscape designer. When the ground freezes, he builds websites, produces video and plays the hammered dulcimer. Full bio here.