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December 06, 2016
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Diggin’ the seeds

Our seedling nursery was formerly set up in our dining room, as this picture from a previous year shows. However, giving that the set-up is in place from March through early June, we moved the seed-starting operation to a more convenient place. The seed-starting shelves are made from two-by-fours and fluorescent lights. The incubation arrays are reused every year to start many varieties of flowers and vegetables.
TRR photos by Anne Hart

This method of watering the seeds and seedlings from the bottom ensures that tender seedlings will not be jarred by pouring water from the top. Additionally, when seeds are first planted and seedlings are young, the flats may be covered with a clear plastic cap, which allows light to get to the seedlings, but keeps moisture from evaporating quickly; this reduces the amount of watering that is needed. These caps also hold warmth inside the flat.

Another element that needs attention in starting seeds is the potting soil or growing medium. There was a time when I bought the various ingredients myself and mixed them together in a wheelbarrow. I used a mix of about two parts peat moss, one part vermiculate and one part perlite, plus one part of compost from our compost pile.

I ultimately switched to pre-mixed starting medium for convenience sake; these products are quite good at ensuring germination. However, there are not a lot of nutrients in the mix, so a couple of weeks after most seeds have sprouted, they are transplanted into large pots, into a mixture of the prepared starting medium and compost.

Ultimately all of the seedlings will be planted in the garden. While my seedlings have been grown under fluorescent lights, most will still not be able to immediately withstand the strength of direct sunlight. The plants, therefore, must be gradually introduced to the sun—perhaps an hour on the first day, for instance, with increased exposure over the next four days or so, until they can be left out in the weather permanently.

In the case of my garden, the plants go from indoors, then into a greenhouse. After a few days inside, they can be planted directly out into the sun.

It’s important to read seed packets so as not to start the seeds too early. If you plant them too early, the plants will become too large and they will be stressed and won’t perform well. It’s also important to know when to put plants out in the garden. Some plants, like lettuce and snap dragons, can tolerate a frost and suffer no damage from a cold night. Other plants like tomatoes and sunflowers can be killed by a frost. It’s also helpful to know which plants are tolerant of transplanting, and which are not. Melons, squash, pumpkins and cucumbers do not like to have their roots disturbed, and often die after transplanting.

While seed starting may seem like a complicated process, it’s quite easy if you remember that seedlings and plants have certain requirements to thrive: they need the right amount of light, water, nutrients and space, and those variables can be rather easily controlled.