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The season of seeds

Starting seeds, a growing preoccupation

By FRITZ MAYER

UPPER DELAWARE REGION — With gardening being the number one hobby in the country, it’s not surprising that many people have taken to starting their own seeds. The trend is even more evident in this year of economic recession where gardeners will try to save a few bucks on grocery bills by growing their own vegetables and starting their own seeds. Seed companies such as Burpee and Park Seeds report that sale of vegetable and flower seeds are running up to 20 percent ahead of 2008 sales.

Many of those seeds, such as beans, peas, radishes and cucumbers, will be planted directly into the ground when the time is right because germination is quick and so is growth, and not much is gained by starting those kinds of seeds indoors.

But other seeds, such as those for tomatoes and peppers, need to be started inside before the weather is really warm enough to do the job if the gardener is to see any edible produce from the plants at the end of the season.

If you’re going to start seeds indoors, the first thing you need to decide on is a source of light. A large south-facing window will do, but that’s not as good as a set up of fluorescent lights that can be suspended just a few inches above the seedlings. This may seem like major expense, but the lights can be used year after year, and using them results in stronger, healthier plants. Moreover, the use of strong lights will reduce the amount of hardening-off activities that will be required when the seedlings are ready to be set out in the garden.

Hardening off is the process of gradually getting plants used to the increased light and temperature extremes they experience outside after enjoying a warm, safe environment inside. Many seedlings will die if put out under full sun immediately and need to be exposed gradually. For instance, plants may be exposed to one hour of sun one day, two the next, then five, after which they can withstand full sun. On the temperature side, many plants such as tomatoes and peppers will die if exposed to frost; therefore they must be put out after the last frost or otherwise protected from frost with row covers. In this region, the last frost date is generally considered to be June 1.

Beyond the matter of light, seeds will also a need a medium within which to germinate and grow. It is possible for a gardener to mix a medium at home, using equal parts peat moss and vermiculite. But the ready-made starting mixes are not much more expensive and they are much more convenient to use. It’s not a good idea to use garden soil as a staring mix because it will be much heavier and not as accommodating to the tiny roots of the growing seedling.

Keeping the growing medium moist for most seeds is very important. Many gardeners germinate their seeds in pots that sit in trays or flats; the flats are about 11 inches wide by 22 inches long. The pots have holes in the bottom, and the growing medium will wick up water that is poured into the bottom of the flat. Watering from the bottom reduces the chance that germinating seeds will be harmed by a heavy direct flow of water.

The act of watering can be kept to a minimum with the use of clear plastic tops that fit snugly onto the flats. These tops prevent the rapid evaporation of the moisture in the growing medium and reduce the chance that the growing medium will dry out.

There is also the matter of temperature. Most plants germinate in a range of anywhere from 60 degrees to 80 degrees, with some plants, such as tomatoes and peppers, doing much better at the upper end of the range. Since many of us are keeping our houses cooler now to keep down the heating bills, it might be a good idea to buy a seedling mat, which can be found online and at most gardening shops. These mats keep the temperature of the soil anywhere from 10 degrees to 20 degrees above ambient room temperature, and they work extremely well at speeding germination of various seeds.

Beyond water and light, the seedlings also need a bit of food once they get going. If your food-starting mix contains fertilizer, you don’t need to worry about it. Most, however, don’t. So you can add a bit of organic fertilizer to the mix before planting, or when watering use water mixed with a little food such as fish emulsion a few days after the seeds have germinated.

Finally, seed starters have to know when to start the seeds. Tomatoes, for instance are generally started about six weeks before the last frost. Other plants, such as melons, don’t transplant easily if they grow too large and are therefore started only about two weeks before last frost. Others, such as ornamental peppers, grow very slowly and can be started as much as three months before last frost. Most seed packets have information about when the seeds should be started.

Flowers are similar to vegetables with the following exception: there are some varieties, such as lizianthus and rudbeckia, which are very difficult to start because they require very specific conditions that home gardeners often cannot provide. However, there is a wide range of flowers that can be started at home and will greatly benefit by early indoor starting.

Photo provided by Anne Hart
From late winter through spring, my wife and I are not likely to entertain many dinner guests because our dining room is turned into a seed incubator and seedling center. Central to the operation are two wooden plant racks equipped with florescent lights that can each accommodate 16 flats or trays, which can each hold 32 to 48 pots. These pictures are from 2008. (Click for larger version)
Photo provided by Anne Hart
The tray on the left is full of tiny Ageratum flower seedlings, which were started in the pots in which they’re growing. The rudbeckia or black-eyed susans, in the tray on the right, are very difficult to start; these seedlings were bought as tiny “plugs” from growers who specialize in difficult flowers. We then transplant them into these larger pots. As the season moves on they will be moved to the greenhouse and finally into the garden. (Click for larger version)
Photo provided by Anne Hart
These artichoke seeds were started in early February. They need a very early start because the plants need to be placed outside early in the season where they can be exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees for at least 500 hours; however, they need to remain in pots to be brought indoors if the night temperatures drop too low. This cold treatment “tricks” the plant into acting as if it is in its second year of life, and can lead to the production of buds in the first year. (Click for larger version)