This is the time of year when courage is measured by how many times a gardener can walk by a seed rack and NOT succumb to the lure of buying just a few more packs of seed... that might duplicate what is already in the seed stash at home!
However, all gardeners know that there is an overwhelming pleasure in the relationship of the gardener, the soil and the seed. Is it magical beyond understanding? sheer thrift? a spiritual act? a bonding with the soil experience? Yes - it is all of that in one degree or another.
While there are no real tricks to seed starting INDOORS, having access to other gardeners' experience really helps. Master Gardener and indoor seed starter, Roxy Hunter of Rapid City, shares some of her experiences and gives recommendations for a bountiful harvest of success!
"Timing!" says Roxy, is the key. Let's consider the various pieces of information that we must collect to know when to plant.
Separate seeds according to package instructions for planting date indoors. Remember that the last average frost date for this general area is May 15 and that most gardeners set out started plants the first 7-10 days of June.
However air temperatures normally are 10-15 degrees warmer than warmed soil and soil temperature is very important for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and members of the squash family. So you want to try to start the seeds so the developing plants are really ready to take off in warmed outdoors soil in late May or early June.
Indoor seed starters know that the use of a germination heating mat (bottom heat) will greatly speed up germination but as soon as the seedlings are up, the germination container is taken off the heated mat.
In summary, germination is primarily controlled by soil temperature. Once the seedlings have two true leaves, light becomes an influencing factor.
If you use the light and warmth of a window sill as a germinating site, use the latest date to start seeds to prevent spindly growth.
Small clean containers for seed starting with drainage holes.
Commercial seed starting (soilless) medium.
Chamomile tea as anti-fungal solution and a spray bottle or small watering can.
Gro Mat or heat source for seed flats.
6 inch soil thermometer - not crucial, but you'll be glad you have it.
Normally seed-starters utilize small containers initially (see photo below left). After germination is achieved and the seedlings have their second (true) leaves, they are transplanted into small, individual containers.
Thus, the container for the first seeding can be as simple as a 2 inch deep container made from the base of a gallon plastic milk jug, or a tinfoil cake pan or the plastic clamshell (photo at left) for salad greens. Germination containers need to be at least two inches deep. Remember that the containers must have drain holes.
Buy commercially prepared seed starting, sterile, soilless growing medium. Seed starting mix is light, fine and provides a perfect environment for germination. Also purchase a bag of perlite to cover small seeds.
Because the germination container needs to be kept moist and that can invite mold and other unpleasantries, most people keep an inexpensive spray bottle or a small waterint can filled with home-brewed Chamomile tea. That seems to keep the potential for deadly 'damping off' fungus at bay. Some persons spray or sprinkle the tea mixture on the surface of the soil following seed planting. Others use an eye dropper to deposit the tea solution near the (covered or just planted) seed. Still others will lightly mist the seedlings.
THE RECIPE: Bring just to a boil ½ cup water. Remove it from the heat, pour into a clean glass jar over ¼ cup tea leaves (available at the health food store) and let it steep and cool. When it is cool, use it to mist or sprinkle the seedlings lightly. It can be stored for a week or less.
Once the seeds are in the germinating mix, spray the top of the medium lightly with the Chamomile tea solution and then cover the container with plastic wrap, a clear plastic bag, a sheet of rigid plastic or the top of the tray if you are using a seed flat with clear lid (photo at right).
While many gardeners have discovered that they can utilize water bed heaters, electric fry pans and other heat sources as heated germinating mats, surely the safest choice is a commercial Gro Mat, one developed especially for the home seed starter (photo at left). These are available locally at almost every hardware store, big box store and greenhouse and nursery center.
And while you are out shopping, purchase a soil thermometer with a 6 inch probe (photo at right). Not only will this be helpful with your seedlings, it will be invaluable when you are planning to set the plants out in the garden.
Poke drainage holes in the bottom of the container.
Fill the container with soilless mix to within ½ inch of the top.
Sprinkle seeds sparsely on top.
Cover with soil twice the diameter of the seed. Directions for seed planting depth are usually on the seed packet.
Seeds which need light to germinate are not to be covered. (The directions on the seed packet will state this.) Gently pat the seeds into the soil to achieve good seed to soil contact.
Use perlite to cover (lightly) the small seeds.
Cover seeds that need darkness to germinate with cardboard or black paper.
Spray soil with the Chamomile tea mix, wetting thoroughly. If the containers are sturdy, sit them in water till the top of the soil is moist.
Cover with plastic wrap or clear plastic.
Flip the plastic wrap daily to prevent damping off, a deadly fungal disease.
Place the container on a heat source (best choice) or in a sunny window. If you are using the heat from a sunny window, move the seed tray away from the window to a warmer spot at night and on cold, cloudy days. Or place under 40 watt, cool fluorescent lights 6 inches above, 16 hours daily.
Most seeds germinate, and seedlings thrive, in a soil temperature range of 65 to 75 degrees F. with many gradeners feeling that the secret is to maintain 72 degrees, day and night. Once the seedlings reach two to three inches in height, they prefer cooler soil temperatures, around 50 to 60 degrees . Use your soil thermometer to determine when the garden soil is warm enough for the hardened off young plants to be transplanted into the garden beds.
There are many, many ways to be a successful seed starter...
Start young! What could be more fun than making seed starting pots from newspaper and then carefully placing the seeds of those future pumpkins, sunflowers, or other summer delights in the pots.
Here is a good basic home seed starting system. The seedlings are in a starting tray with a watering tray beneath it. The plastic lid or growing dome is lifted off and in the back. Several sizes of pots are shown for transplanting more than once as the plants mature and are ready to be hardened off and set out.
Note that the roots of the young basil plant are vigorous and fine and not winding around the base of the plant cell.
This (above) illustrates a system used by many area gardeners - a combination of good natural light and artificial light. The flats are in watering trays. Care must always be taken to avoid the possibility of close proximity to windows cooling the plants.
Creativity and using what is at hand is often just fine. A shop light is suspended from a pair of saw horses. The planting flats ( a tinfoil cake pan and a plastic food container) are the crucial 6" below the lights. This is a low cost set up but probably quite productive.
After the seeds sprout...
Move to a sunny, cooler spot (note temperature guide, above). Not too much sun for the first day for fine seedlings.
Be careful to water as small seedlings dry out quickly.
Test soil for moisture with your finger.
Fertilize once a week with 1 tsp. fertilizer to one gallon water.
It's time to transplant!
Have your clean pots ready. Remember that transplanting is like buying shoes for a growing child...just one size bigger at a time. Start with a small pot for a seedling.
Use a commercial potting soil mix without added fertilizer or your own mix of potting soil, compost and perlite or vermiculite or both.
Make a planting hole with your finger or a pencil or a small dowel. Carefully remove a clump of seedlings with kitchen fork (see photos below)or something similar. Separate individual seedlings very carefully. Soil need not remain on the root...but don't try to remove the soil!
Place the plant in the hole and gently firm soil around it and water well with a very gentle spray.
Keep the newly transplanted seedling out of sun for two days. Then give as much light as possible. (Keep in mind that "strong or much light" is NOT synonmous with "direct sun").
Keep on watering when soil gets dry. Plants will often wilt drastically if they get too thirsty but they usually respond to a good drink. It's a good idea to keep them in a watering pan and "bottom water" but don't allow the pots to stand in water.
Some seeds like radish and lettuce are often planted quite thickly. When it is time to do the first transplant, lift the plant and some of the soil with a pointed object or a small kitchen fork. The little plants can be easily separated and put into still small but individual pots.
Even when seeds have not been sown thickly(photo at left), when it is time to transplant them into the first small pot, use the point of a table knife (or something similar) to gently lift the young plant (and the soil) from the seed pan. Lift the seedling and soil with the end of the knife. Hold the plant gently as illustrated. Don't pull it!
Here (photo right) a kitchen paring knife is being used to gently separate seedlings prior to being put in pots (visible in the background).
Making the move to the outdoors garden...
Think of the changes we are asking these young plants to make. We need to help them get used to wildly fluctuating day and night time temperatures, different levels of humidity, changes in wind velocity and direction and the effects of direct sunlight.
We help them accomplish this "hardening off" by placing the plants outside a few hours at a time in a sheltered spot. We are certain that they avoid exposure to the wind for a few days. Over four to seven days gradually keep them outside longer.
Sometimes it is possible (and necessary) to protect the young plants from iffy weather by utilizing structures like cold frames, hobby greenhouses and covered hoops. The cold frame (or garden box at right) has been protected by placing plastic over some hoops. That would control the moisture level, give protection from wind and with a heavier cloth (bedspread, blanket, etc) or even a 40 watt lightbulb on a heavy cord could offer some protection from sudden cool temperatures.
A hobby builder could easily construct these shed/cold frames or something similar. The key points are to be able to collect the greatest amount of solar heat, have a way to ventilate it and be certain that it meets the needs of the gardener. It is worth remembering that any cold frame needs to be reasonably close to a source of water, and if the conditions are harsh, close to an electrical outlet so that a heavy duty cord and a 40 or 60 watt trouble light could be used at night to maintain proper temperatures.
Perfectly acceptable cold frames can be made, in this case, of cement blocks and a recycled window.
When temps get close to 20, cover cold frame with blankets or if the weather really goes to hell in a hand basket, bring back indoors. On warm, windy days the plants may need more than one watering
There are advantages to propagating seeds!
*By understanding the weather history of your area and the dates to maturity of the seeds you are planting, you can control the size of the plant (at planting) as well as influence the days to maturity or harvest date.
*Plants are more vigorous at planting time. They are neither spindly and rank or root bound. (The plant, below right, has vigorous, highly active root growth. The plant on the left has more mature (tan colored) roots. Those are not nutrient gathering roots and the sides of that plant should be scored lightly in two or three places before planting to stimulate new root growth.
*It is vastly more economical, especially if you are growing for food.
*There is great personal satisfaction, expanded knowledge and pleasure in one's own garden.
*Seed starting can offer a much larger choice of plants or adventures in experimentation than from those available locally.
We acknowledge and thank Roxy Hunter for sharing her information and experience as a seed starter.