By Joan Howie
Chilly Weather makes even dedicated gardeners avoid outside chores, but as
seed catalogs arrive in the mail, their siren song croons “Plant!”. Who can
resist the call of “near perfection in growth and bloom”, “massive quantities
of truly elegant flowers” legendary tomato with huge, tasty fruits” or
“marvelous French lettuce with huge ruby red tipped leaves” starting seeds
in flats gives the indoor gardener something to do while getting a head start
on the spring growing season. This is also a way to try varieties not found in
Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles has never planted a seed. Here in a
capsule as tiny as a grain of sand is found all the material necessary to
produce an entire plant from the first cotyledons to next season’s seeds.
Gardeners may buy transplants, but starting plants from seed
Is very satisfying and also provides a horticultural chore to do inside while
getting a head-start on the spring growing season which, in spite of the cold,
is almost here.
For seed-growing success Extension Horticulturalists recommend
starting with a loose, fertile, disease-free soil mix, not ordinary garden soil.
This type of mix can be prepared by combining one part sandy loam with
one part sand or vermiculite plus one part sphagnum peat. The product
should be pasteurized to kill the many fungi, harmful bacteria, weed seeds
and nematodes found in garden loam. This is done by placing the soil mix
in a shallow metal pan, covering the pan tightly with foil and heating in a
160 degree oven for at least an hour. After cooling, the soil is ready for
planting. An alternative is to buy soil-less mixes which can be used right
from the bag without pasteurizing.
Any container at least 3 inches deep can be used for planting. Milk
cartons, foam cups, peat cups and recycled and well cleaned pots are
suitable, but be sure to punch drainage holes if they aren’t present. If flats
are used, rows of seeds should be spaced two inches apart. As seedlings
grow, they must be thinned when they begin to touch. If individual
containers are used for only one or two seeds, thinning won’t be needed.
Cover seeds shallowly, about twice their diameter. Read the seed
packet for planting depth and light requirements. Some seeds such as
calendula, periwinkle, portulaca and verbena need darkness to germinate;
while coleus, impatiens, snapdragon and pansy require light. After planting,
water thoroughly but carefully to keep from washing seeds away.
Containers can be covered with plastic wrap or bags until seeds sprout, but
covers must be removed at that time. Cool soil, under 75 degrees, retards
germination. If possible keep flats warm until growth begins.
Many seedling failures occur because light is too low. Plants become
spindly and turn toward what light there is. If seeds must be started indoors,
florescent lights can substitute for sunlight. Two 40 watt cool-light bulbs
placed 6 inches above the pots and turned on for 16 hours a day provide
enough light for most plants; special gro-lights are also available. A sunny
windowsill with a southern exposure is an excellent light source, but
seedlings should not be exposed to direct light through the glass.
`Finally the time has come to transplant individual plants from flats
into pots, when 4 true leaves have appeared.
First the seedling tray should be watered well to help the soil cling to the
roots. Using a table fork, carefully pull apart the seedlings and lift from the
tray. Holding the plant by its leaves – never the fragile stem – place each
root ball into a larger pot that has been prepared with a planting hole. New
transplants should be watered from the bottom with a dilute liquid fertilizer,
and every two weeks until the time for setting out in the garden.
Most annual flowers will germinate in 5 to 10 days, but some take
almost 3 weeks, so have patience. Vegetable transplants will be ready in
from 4 to 8 weeks although onions take 8 to 10 weeks. Tomatoes take 5 to 6
weeks to be ready for transplanting, but they will need protection if they are
set out during cold weather. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are all warm
weather lovers, but members of the cabbage family are hardy even in winter.
Chemicals used in gardening can take their toll on the environment,
especially along the coast. Luckily for local growers we will get to take part
in the nationally recognized “Yards and Neighbors Program” which
emphasizes in a fun format home and lawncare practices that help reduce
runoff pollution of our bays.