You can already see it. Winter is starting to lose its grip. The days are getting a bit longer, and there are relative warm spells. I could hardly believe it when I got out of the car last night to fuel up, and was pleasantly surprised by the balmy 45 degrees waiting for me. With no breeze to create a noticeable chill factor, it was downright comfortable!
That’s not all. There are signs of a thaw all around our yardscape. I’m not so naïve as to believe that we are over with winter. And, it’s not that I don’t enjoy winter. I do. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I enjoy being prepared when winter comes. I like a warm fire, a hot beverage, and a good bowl of stew.
Yet, I’m ready to move to spring. I suspect you are too. There’s a sense of anticipation that comes around this time of year. Our dogs are more eager to go outside and stay there than a few short weeks ago. There was a definite uptick in activity, “happy sounds” and egg production over the last few days from our small poultry flock. Yep, spring is on its way, even if it takes a few detours before it arrives and decides to stay.
For us vegetable gardeners, this is an exciting time. In fact, many times we “jump the gun” and either put seeds into cold soil, or start plants too early without a good plan to take care of them in the time between they sprout and we are able to plant them.
The best way to determine when it’s best to start seeds is to know the average last frost date. Around here, that’s about May 7-15. Armed with that knowledge, you can look at the seed packets and see how many weeks are recommended for indoor sowing. Keep in mind that there are both cool- and warm-weather crops. If you start warm-weather crops (think tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, melons), then you need to have a way to continue to grow them in increasingly larger pots until they can be put out in the garden plot.
For the vegetable grower, there are only a limited amount of options of where to obtain planting stock. If you have friends that are fellow veggie enthusiasts, they are a good source, but not a primary one — you don’t want to wear out the friendship. Yes, you can buy started plants in packs from several great nurseries in the area. Bonnie Plants is a very popular brand that has a large presence in the big box plant centers. Just in case you didn’t know, Bonnie Plants is a national company headquartered in Alabama, but we are fortunate enough to have one of their sizable greenhouse complexes in west Grantsville. So, the plants don’t have to travel very far.
Of course, the remaining way to get plant stock is to grow your own from seeds. These seeds can be ones that you or others have saved from their own plot (non-hybrid, “heirloom” or open-pollinated varieties), or they may be ones that you’ve bought in a packet from a retailer.
There are definite advantages to starting your own seeds, although there is more planning involved. This includes proper timing to start them, putting aside space for them, and the ability to place them outside for short periods of time as it gets closer to transplant time. Even so, the advantages are many.
First, there are more varieties available at the seed packet display than when buying started plants. Greater variety allows for more experimentation to determine what does well in your garden, and what tastes the best to you. Second, the economics are quite good, and they get better the more seasons you start your own seeds. This is because you get better at creating the right conditions for seed germination and ongoing growth. You will also have initial tool investments done and ongoing costs will tend to be seed and growing medium and perhaps a bit of electricity for propagation mats or lights.
Like most things in life, there are many approaches in how to get something done. In the art of seed starting, you have some decisions to make. Will you dedicate a space or some roll-around racks for getting those seedlings started? Will you use a method of supplying bottom heat to your seed trays to give them a boost, or will you depend on room temperature only? Will you use trays with growing medium, or soil blocks, or peat pellets? They all have their supporters and detractors, and learning what works best for you is part of the fun.
Whatever way you go, there are some seed-starting basics that will serve you well. These are proven techniques, and while I’ll describe them shortly, I’m pleased to tell you that there is a live demonstration on these techniques scheduled for next week, on Wednesday night, Feb. 24, from 7-8 p.m. It’s part of the Master Gardener’s Free Public Class Series for 2016. It’ll be held at the USU Extension Office, 151 N. Main. So keep in mind as you read on, you can also see the following principles and practices at work by attending the class.
So, what are some seed-starting fundamentals? First, understand that to get vegetable seeds to start, they need two things: warmth and moisture. To accomplish warmth, you can use growing mats, which produce a gentle and consistent heat. These are placed under the growing flats. The first time I did this, the results were almost magical. I saw seeds sprout in two days — it’s that much of a difference. You can also put the seed flats in an area where it’s very warm because of a water heater or an oil-filled radiator heater. Don’t depend on sunlight for this, as it’s inconsistent. Plants can be “baked” by being in the sunshine for too long, and then chilled after the sun goes down.
Moderate moisture in the growing medium, preferably watered from beneath with a tray, is the other component. A common mistake is to keep the tray constantly full of water and to waterlog the plants. Light moisture is much better.
A lid over the tray is not necessary. It does help retain heat and moisture during the first several days of the seed germination, but it sets up the plant for almost a sure death if the lid is kept on. That’s because fungus is almost certain to grow, attacking the plant’s cellular structure. This is called “dampening off” and it can only be controlled by reducing moisture around the plant. The top growth of the seedlings are kept remarkably dry, with only a little bit of moisture coming up from under the tray. Some seed starters help assure leaf and stem dryness by using an oscillating fan being gently blown across the seedlings. This also helps the plants to grow thicker stems.
To keep your seedlings going, they need a source of light right above them. Fluorescent tube lights work very well for this. Common shop light tubes are fine for the early stages of growth — the fuller spectrum of the sun’s rays will meet their needs later as they grow in the garden. Lights need to be kept about an inch above the plants to keep them short, blocky, and densely leaved. If the plants have to reach for the light, they will get “leggy” and not have very strong stems.
Lastly, they will need to be “hardened off” before they are placed in the garden. If your plants are on small trays or on a rolling cart or shelf, they can be placed in the sunshine for short periods of time over several weeks. This causes the plant to form denser plant tissue and reduce the moisture ratio. The plant can better withstand bursts of cold as well as wind with more strength and thicker “skin.”
Remember next Wednesday night, the 24th, where you can see all this in action. See you there!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his web channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.