It’s that time of year when we get fits and starts of warmth, flashes of spring, reversions to winter, cold in the shade, and warm in the sun. This is “sucker weather” because every year the warm days coax our gardening optimism out of us, inviting us to believe it’s time to plant right now. Generally speaking, it’s not. The average last day of frost in the Tooele Valley is May 7. That’s important to know, because if you are going to be a successful seed starter, and have robust plants in their optimum condition for planting at the best time, you need to count backwards the amount of specified days that is noted on the seed packet.
I consulted my friend Faye Millican, owner of New Horizon Nursery, in Erda for this article. While I am an intense plant and gardening hobbyist, Faye is formally educated in such matters and is a fully committed practitioner, making her livelihood starting, growing, and selling plants. What you’ll find in this article is what really works and will give you what you need to know to successfully start your own plants and get them into your garden where you can enjoy both ornamentals and edibles.
Faye believes that starting your own seeds is a great way to expand your gardening skills as well as gain access to a wider range of plant varieties. Seeds packets are readily available in both local retail outlets as well as online. Online sources will tend to have a wider range of heritage and heirloom types, so you can try your hand at some of the favorites of generations past.
The economics of starting your own seeds are favorable as well. Few supplies are needed to do basic germination, and you can add as you go along. Make sure to use fresh growing mix — don’t reuse from previous seasons. You can use “pony packs,” peat pots, and kits with growing medium with covers to retain warmth and moisture. If reusing pots, make sure to wash and sterilize them. Other essential supplies that Faye uses are labels and sharpies (label each plant or tray!), available power outlet and heat mat (germination happens best around 70-75 degrees), lights with timer (use 4-foot tubes, T-8 32-40 watt bulbs, set timer for 12-14 hours of light per day), and of course, a handy water source.
To assure you have good results, and you remember what worked well and what didn’t, keep a basic journal to record what you planted, when, how well they germinated, success in transplanting, and whether you liked the flavor, or bloom, plant appearance, disease resistance, and so forth. You may think you will remember, but you won’t. Write it down. Good results also start with good seed. Most seeds that have been stored well in a cool, dark and dry environment will be viable for two to five years. Annuals will tend to be on the shorter end of that scale, perennial on the longer. If the seed is shriveled more than normal, broken, or moldy, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get success. I’ve found that it pays to get better seed. It costs only a bit more, and the results are appreciated many times over. Store excess seed as outlined just above. If you have seed that is getting older, but you really want to plant it, plant two or three seeds in one place, and snip off extras at the soil level after they germinate. Don’t pull them out; you’ll disturb the plant right beside it and either set it back or kill it.
Faye determines when to start seed by calculating the desired time you want to set it out or to plant it. Most seed packets for hobbyists tell how many weeks before last average frost (May 7 in our area) to start the seed. She starts with fresh seed starting medium and plants the seed at the correct depth. This is typically two-three times the width of the seed, or what is specified by the seed supplier. Very small seed is gently broadcast over the surface of the growing mix and then dusted with a layer of germination mix. Large seed can be put in partially filled trays and then covered with mix to a depth of three times the seed width. The mix is then misted with a spray bottle until all is moist (not soaking wet), and with no dry spots. Keep the mix moist and when the plants germinate, water them daily lightly. As the plants grow, water them well every other day, but again, don’t keep them soaking wet, only moist.
As the plants grow, you will need to assure that you don’t keep the humidity too high. I’ve made this mistake myself, thinking that young plants need a steam bath! They don’t. In fact, keeping humidity high will encourage disease and “damping off.” To avoid this, Faye keeps a specific set of conditions in place to assure the plants do well in their early growing phase. A light source is placed just 2-3 inches above the tops of the plants, and they are given 14 hours of illumination per day. The temperature is kept around 65-70 degrees, humidity is about 40 percent, the surface of the soil is allowed to dry between each thorough watering, and plants are thinned to reduce competition for resources, and to keep only the most robust plants.
If your seedlings are pestered by small insects such as aphids, whiteflies or spider mites, spray them with insecticidal soap. If you get fungus gnats, this typically means you are keeping the growing medium too wet. Soaps have a limited effect on them, but you can use sticky traps to reduce their numbers. Some use a saucer of apple juice to attract and drown them. You’ll also want to avoid “damping off disease,” which is identified by its cotton ball appearance, stretching across the surface of the soil. This is a fungus that will attack your plants right at the soil line. You can prevent this by not allowing the soil to remain too wet. You can reduce problems by bumping up air circulation using a small fan to sweep air across the plants. As the plants grow, move them into the next size pot, and maintain air space around them to help them keep healthy.
To assure your plants do well outside, you will need to harden them off. This is the process of helping a tender plant modify its tissues to acclimate to outside temperatures and conditions. Plants that are exposed directly to full sun, heat and wind will have problems and likely won’t survive. To harden off her plants, Faye moves them outside to a patio or shady location for a few days once it begins to warm up. She then exposes them to full sun for two to three hours for a day and gradually increases this over a course of a week until they are getting full sun for the day. Of course, remember to keep them watered! You should start hardening off plants around the end of April to be ready for the second week of May.
To assure transplanting success, you want to get as many factors in your favor as possible. This includes planting during early evening hours or in the shade to eliminate some of the stress from the sun as well as disturbed roots. Plant them in prepared and moist soil. Remove your seedling from its pot, and gently tease the roots apart, removing most of the soil mix (combine it with your soil to use a backfill) by gently shaking the plant by the stem. Doing this will reduce drying out and helps speed up establishment of the plant and gets the growth going faster. Hold the plant at the correct depth in the planting hole, backfill, and gently compress soil around the roots. The goal is to get good contact with the roots and soil, while retaining minute spaces for water and oxygen. Plant the seedling at its natural growing depth. If you plant it too low and bury the crown, it will likely rot. If you plant it too high, roots will be exposed and you will compromise the plant. The exception I know to this is tomatoes. You can plant them deeply as the stems have nodules on them that will root readily. After planting, water in all the plants thoroughly and gently. I’ve heard this termed as “mudding in,” and it eliminates air voids, gets soil particles in contact with the root fibers, and gives the plant a much-needed drink of water right away. Do not plant and wait to water, as this will draw moisture out of the plant roots, leading to plant stress and possibly death. As the plants get established, transition into less frequent, but deeper watering.
What do you do if you do have warm weather crops, such as peppers and tomatoes, ready to plant now? You can do so, but you’ll need to protect them with paper “hot caps,” row covers, a low or mid-tunnel, “wall o’ water” or some other heat and cold moderating device. You don’t gain by planting these early in cold, even if you don’t have deep frosts that kill them. That’s because they need warm soil to begin growing, so even if they do survive without heat boosting assistance, they aren’t going to start growing until the soil warms up anyway. If you have a bad case of “cabin fever,” and just need to plant something, you are better off with peas, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, cilantro, mustard greens, broccoli and the like. These cool weather crops will tend to do much better. To keep pests off them, cover them with floating row cover over wire hoops to keep the moths off them. This will greatly reduce the caterpillars that will want to enjoy what you’ve planted.
Thanks, Faye, for all your great insights! You can stop by and talk to Faye and see firsthand what they are doing at New Horizons Nursery. Put their season opening on your calendar, May 3, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. They will help you kick off the growing season with free plant lectures, garden design assistance, and more. Enjoy a great variety of vegetable starts, as well as a wide array of water wise and adapted plants with beautiful foliage and blooms. They are located on the southeast corner of state Route 36 and Bates Canyon Road, just south of Stansbury Park. Faye is knowledgeable and enjoys sharing what she knows. She’ll help get you the right plants for your yardscape!
UPCOMING GARDENER EVENTS
Saturday Gardening Workshops
Now offered at the Tooele Valley Nursery at 10 a.m., 425 E. Cimmarron Way and state Route 36. Every Saturday in March, beginning at 10 a.m.
Small Space Gardening Workshop
Taught by Jay Cooper, topics are Self-Watering Containers, Raised and Square Foot Gardening, and Soil Bag Instant Gardens. Hands-on demonstrations, plans, material lists. Saturday, March 22, Tooele Home Depot, 222 E. 2400 North, offered both at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Contact Jay Cooper at email@example.com or 435-830-1447.
Monthly Gardener’s Breakfast Get-Together
Every third Saturday, April through September, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., held at the Stockton Miners Café, 47 North Connor (the Main Street) in Stockton. Current gardening topics, challenges, successes, and collective advice will be shared. Admission is the price of whatever you order off the menu! Led by DirtfarmerJay and DirtfarmerMaggie of dirtfarmerjay.com. firstname.lastname@example.org or 435-830-1447.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at email@example.com, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.