by Lorraine Ballato
Did you hear that starting gun? Yup! It’s time once again to get your hands dirty. This time, however, it will be from dipping into bags of seed starting materials, not the frozen earth outside your door.
If you’re planning to grow things from seed, this is the month to get yourself in gear. If your last frost date is about Memorial Day and you count backwards, February is the month to start those plants which need 12 weeks to germinate and grow before planting outside after danger of frost is gone. If you start your 12 week seeds in March, the transplants might not be strong enough to take the shock of transplanting, so try to get them going soon.
Seed packets give you all the timing information you need plus lots of other good things, including the packaging date. If they are dated 2016 or older, they will only germinate if they’ve been kept in a cool, dry place. You can check all seed viability by moistening a small group of seeds, wrapping them in a damp paper towel and sealing them in a zip-lock bag. Place the bag in a warm spot like the top of the refrigerator. Check in about 7-10 days and if there’s growth, then you know the seeds in the packet are good to go.
Getting organized before starting will make the task much easier and you’ll be more successful in the long run. Look for seeds for plants which won’t show up in stores in May so you can have the pleasure of growing something unique. Make sure they’re easy to germinate and consider asking any children in the house if they want to work on this with you – it’s great fun to do together.
You need to have a place to work. Many a kitchen table gets pressed into service with a covering of several thicknesses of newspaper. A trowel is indispensable: the smaller the better. I’ve had enough failures to know that sterile seed starting mix is critical: this is not the place to economize with something you have lying around. It’s the only way to ensure that no fungi or diseases are present, which will immediately attack anything which pushes up from the soil. Potting soil is too heavy. The other items which must be clean and sterile are the containers which will hold the seedlings. You can use plastic yogurt containers and pudding cups as well as the bottom 3-4 inches of paper milk cartons. Make sure you punch a few holes in the bottom for drainage. Peat pots work well since you don’t have to remove the plant and disturb the roots when planting in the ground, but Cow Pots are even better since they totally disintegrate by the end of the season while feeding the soil and plant at the same time.
Moisten your seed starting mixture before planting, then place the seed on top, covering with a scant ¼ inch – or as much as is recommended — on the seed packet with soil or vermiculite. After that, use a spray bottle to moisten the seed and whatever is covering it since watering from the top can easily drown the seeds and cause “damping off.”
Seedlings need an even supply of water and you must never let then dry out. Capillary mats are a great invention which solves that problem.
In place of a capillary mat, set your planting containers in another tray which you can then fill with tepid water for the plants to take up. If you choose that route, remember to remove the water filled tray once the plants have absorbed the moisture (check the top of the medium to be sure it’s wet). Too much water is as bad as too little.
Ideal temperature for successful seed starting is 70 to 75 degrees. Electric mats available for this task make the plants really happy as they heat the roots (think how happy you are when your feet are warm). The top of the refrigerator works well as does the top of a furnace, being careful neither gets warmer than 75 degrees. Create a mini-greenhouse by covering the seedlings with clear plastic — like dry cleaner bags — so warmth and moisture stay in the plant tray. You can use skewers or bamboo stakes in the end pots as supports over which to drape the plastic to keep it above the planting medium.
Now focus on the light. Seedlings don’t need any to emerge, but after they’re up, they will need about 12-14 hours a day. You could put your seedlings in a south facing window, ensuring they don’t get too hot there, supplementing with Grow lights which do a fine job. Remember to keep the light 2-3 inches from the plants and to move the light up as the seedlings grow or rotate the tray if it’s by a window. Timers and lights with adjustable hanging chains work well.
Don’t forget plant tags to identify what you’ve planted. Felt tip pens used on popsicle sticks (check the craft stores) fill this need.
The final thing you need to get this project underway is patience. Checking each day is a good habit to form as you examine the medium for signs of success. Again, the back of the seed packet will tell you how quickly the seeds will germinate but conditions may alter that timing a bit. Use the time to check moisture levels and temperature.
Keep notes on everything you’ve done so that you can be even more successful next year. I guarantee you’ll get buzzed when you discover tiny green things coming up.