Published Feb. 16, 2014 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “7 seeds of knowledge: It might be cold outside, but now is actually a great time to start your garden by planting seeds indoors. Here are some helpful tips.”
By Barb Gorge
Why start seeds?
“It is so much fun to grow your own stuff,” said Barb Sahl, who teaches Laramie County Master Gardener classes.
Plus, you can grow varieties that may not be available at local nurseries. Best of all, you can time their growth so that they are the optimum size for transplanting to the garden.
Yes, even though it looks a lot like winter, now is actually a great time to start your garden.
Step 1 – Read the seed packet
Get seeds that are in packages dated for this season. The older the seeds, the less likely they will germinate.
Look for short-season vegetables so you can harvest before frost.
The “Silvery Fir Tree” tomato that I tried last year is supposed to produce a ripe tomato in 58 days after transplanting outdoors.
Most vegetables have short-season varieties available, even eggplant. “Orient Express” is rated for 58 days to maturity, and “Marketmore,” a cucumber rated for 60 days.
Cheyenne native Willi Galloway, author of “Grow Cook Eat,” recommends 75 days for our area.
Check to see if seeds are better directly seeded in the garden—some don’t transplant well.
Look for how many weeks before the last frost you should start seeds indoors. Our average last frost date is May 24.
The packets will also tell you proper planting depth. For tiny seeds, it is so scant, place them on the soil surface, sprinkling a little dry soil on top and moistening with a mister.
Check to see if your seeds need special handling. To germinate, some need soaking or nicking or exposure to direct light or to sit in darkness. Some even need to cool in the refrigerator.
Step 2—Use seed starting soil
Kathy Shreve, another Master Gardener mentor, is adamant about buying special soil designed for starting seeds. It’s available in most places selling gardening supplies. You will have a higher rate of success because it’s sterile—it doesn’t carry fungus that can kill seedlings, and it’s lightweight so the seeds don’t have to struggle through the heaviness of typical garden soil.
I don’t need a lot of this special mix. Once the seedlings have several true leaves, not just those first two “seed leaves,” I can move them into larger pots with regular, cheaper, potting soil.
Because the seed starter soil is super-dry, be sure to mix it with water before filling the pots.
Step 3—Use sterile pots
Kathy and Barb both swear by “accelerated propagation systems.” There are several brands, but the one we use is from www.LeeValley.com. The clear plastic dome keeps the soil surface moist until the seeds sprout.
But the water reservoir is key. A wicking system waters each cell from below so that seeds are never jostled from top watering. And before seeds sprout, the reservoir may not need filling for several days, letting you take a vacation before the more demanding part of plant parenthood begins.
Because the seedlings require only a few weeks before they need repotting, I have been able to start all my small seeds in shifts in this watering system, which is the size of an egg carton. More robust seed varieties do well in other containers covered with plastic wrap until they sprout.
I scavenge for my other containers, carefully reusing plastic pots from plant sales and nursery purchases, as well as whatever stores throw out. It’s appalling how much plastic waste the horticultural industry produces.
Any container you can sanitize can be reused—styrofoam cups, tall drink cups (especially for tomatoes), yogurt cups—just be sure to poke a lot of holes in the bottom for drainage. Clean them and then soak them in a 10 percent bleach solution for a few minutes, then rinse.
There are pots made from compressed fibers of various kinds. The idea is that you can plant the pot and all right into the garden and the roots will grow right through the walls. My experience is that the roots stay in the pot. It is better to tear it away when transplanting and throw the pot in the compost pile.
Last year I tried the “PotMaker,” a little wooden cylinder that you roll a strip of newspaper around several times, fold the bottom inch or so underneath and crimp the fold. Remove it from the cylinder and fill it with potting soil. If handled carefully, or rather not handled after setting in a plastic tray, these little pots will hold up until the plant is ready for transplanting outdoors. While newspaper is degradable, I prefer to remove it, if there aren’t too many roots already growing through it.
You could use any cylindrical object to make the size pot of your choice. Wrap the paper around two to three times, but not so tightly you can’t slip it off. And use a freshly read newspaper—nothing that’s been sitting out for weeks accumulating disease spores.
Step 4—Provide bottom heat
Some types of seeds, such as vegetables of tropical origin such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, are happier with warmth from an electric heat mat placed beneath them. Vegetables from cold climates, like cabbage and broccoli, don’t care so much. Yes, this is an investment, but especially necessary if you are starting your seeds in a chilly basement.
Last year, I dispensed with the heat mat when I decided to start my seeds in the hall bathroom instead of the basement. It has no windows, just a skylight, and is the warmest spot in the house—over 65 degrees. No one uses the bathtub now so I put in freestanding shelves and hung up lights.
Step 5—Provide extra light
“A windowsill is hardly ever sufficient to grow good stocky seedlings,” said Kathy.
Catalogs are happy to sell you special grow lights, but for the brief time seedlings are with you, a 4-foot shoplight with two fluorescent bulbs, 5000-6500 degrees Kelvin (daylight is approximately 5,600 degrees), is adequate for two standard 10-by-20-inch flats.
Turn on the lights when you get up in the morning, and turn them off at bedtime.
Keep the top of the plants about 1 to 2 inches from the light bulbs. Either hang the lights on chains so that their height can be adjusted, or stack stuff under the flats to bring them close to the lights.
Step 6—Provide wind
Really! Both Barb and Kathy keep small, ordinary oscillating fans going across the room from their seedlings. It prevents damping off disease, when seedlings keel over and die.
Also, plants respond to air movement by reinforcing the strength of their stems so you’ll have stockier, stronger plants.
This has worked for me when I started seeds two years ago. Last year, in the bathroom, I didn’t use a fan and didn’t lose any plants. However, Kathy and Barb’s plants did look better than mine.
Step 7—Water and fertilize carefully
More indoor plants are lost to overwatering than anything else. Once your seedlings germinate, take off any plastic covers and make sure the surface of the soil gets a bit dry before the next watering. As the seedlings grow, their watering schedule will change. Plan to check them at least every day.
Most seed-starting and regular potting soils have fertilizer added, so let the little plants chew on that a few weeks before giving them anything more—and then figure half strength of whatever the directions recommend.
Don’t worry if by the end of May your plants aren’t blooming and as mature-looking as the ones at the store. Blooming plants sell better, but often their roots are pot-bound in those tiny containers and the plants, especially flowers, may not really recover to grow much the rest of the summer.
You can make sure your starts aren’t pot-bound and are at just the right stage to jump into the garden and keep growing.