or, How to Indulge an Obsession Year-Round
By Tom Nayder
FEBRUARY 28, 2000: Most gardeners are happy to go to the nursery in May and spend $50 on a couple of trays of plants for their gardens. But if you're like me, and can't wait to get your garden started, then starting your seeds indoors is the way to go.
There are several benefits to starting seeds indoors. The most important benefit is the ability to grow rare and heirloom varieties of vegetables that are not available at most nurseries. Secondly, it gets you into the gardening frame of mind earlier. I am more likely to spend my Saturdays in late March preparing my garden if I've spent the last month watching my seedlings develop. Another reason is price. A package of 50 tomato seeds will usually run between $1 and $3, while a six-pack of tomato plants can cost $3 to $5. When you have a large garden like I do, you can easily spend $30 on tomatoes alone.
I like to start my seedlings in the peat-pot mini greenhouses you can find at most nurseries. These are plastic trays with about 50 individual cells made of biodegradable peat. They should also come with a clear cover to keep your seedlings warm and protected. Next you need soil to fill your peat pots with. I've had great success with commercial medium (soil) because it is sterile and free of unwanted weed seeds. The only drawback is that it can be expensive, sometimes as much as $10 for a three-pound bag. If you want to make your own, here is a good recipe:
Now that you've got your supplies you're ready to start. For most plants the average gardener will start indoors -- tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and many herbs -- it is recommended that they be started six weeks before last average frost date. Here in Albuquerque, the last average frost date is roughly April 15. That means you need to have your trays set up and your seeds planted the last week of February.
Now you're ready to plant! Fill your pots with loose soil mix to the top, then gently push down on the surface until the mix is 1/4-inch below pot rim. Place your pots in their tray and fill with warm water until the top of the mix is moist, then pour the excess water from the tray. Sow two or three seeds per pot. The depth varies depending on the plant, between 1/8-inch and 1-inch deep, so make sure you check the back of the seed packet and plant the seed to the correct depth. Write the name of the plant on a row marker, and carefully insert it into the edge of the pot. Cover the trays with the plastic covers they came with; if they didn't come with one you can use Saran Wrap.
Next, place your trays in a warm spot, away from direct sunlight or temperature fluctuations. I've found that the top of my refrigerator works well because the coils in the back give off a constant heat, even on chilly nights. Plus, when was the last time you cleaned off the top of your refrigerator?
Check your trays regularly to see if any seeds have sprouted. Most seeds will sprout quickly if kept warm, so don't rely on the germination time listed on the seed packet. When they sprout, move them to a light location. A sunny window is good, but because most seedlings require 12-16 hours of light per day you'll need some artificial light. The best artificial light for plants are fluorescent. Special grow bulbs are available that imitate the natural light spectrum. Ideally, you should place your light source about three inches above the tops of the plants. If they are in a window, turn them regularly to provide even light distribution and to prevent them from leaning and growing crooked.
You should water when the soil turns light brown, or the surface looks dry. The first few days are the most tricky, because the seedling has tiny roots. Keep them moist, but don't overwater them. Overhead watering is too harsh for tiny seedlings, so water them by adding a little water to the tray until the top of the mix is moist, then pour off excess. Don't leave them sitting in water. An alternative method for watering is to mist from above with a mister.
Once the first true leaves appear (the first pair that emerges from the soil are not true leaves; they are called cotyledons), you should thin the seedlings to one plant per pot. Do this by cutting the weakest (smallest) seedlings off at soil level with scissors. Do not try and pull them out; if you do you'll probably wind up pulling out all of the seedlings.
Before your seedlings can be planted outside, they need to be hardened off. This isn't as dirty as it sounds. It refers to the process of gradually introducing your delicate seedlings to the weather and elements they have been sheltered from. The carefully controlled climate inside has not prepared your plant for exposure to the sun, wind, rain, and temperature changes they'll be exposed to once they are planted outside. You should start about two weeks before your planting date. For a week to 10 days, decrease watering, gradually stop fertilizing and if possible reduce temperature to a cooler level.
The first day outdoors, set the trays in a shady location, sheltered from strong wind. If it's raining, shelter them from that as well. Leave them out for about two hours. Do not forget them! Last spring I left a 50-pot tray outside in the sun for eight hours. When I remembered that I left them out, all of my seedlings were dead. It was too late to restart my seedlings so I had to buy them from a nursery.
Over the next few days, gradually increase their time spent outdoors. Slowly increase their exposure to direct sunlight as well. Bring the seedlings indoors at night for the first two or three days, and after that only if there is any risk of frost. Keep a close eye on the seedling's moisture level -- they will dry out much faster outdoors than they did indoors.
At this point, the seedlings will be ready to face the elements -- its time to plant them in their permanent locations. Prepare the planting bed before you start. Remove weeds, add any soil additives (like compost) and work them into the top layer of soil.
Dig holes for planting, about eight inches deep, and twice as wide as the root ball (peat pot). Fill the hole halfway with compost and soil, mix them together, and water until they become mushy. If the seedling is in a peat pot, you can leave it in the pot -- the peat will break down in the soil. Place the pot in the hole about an inch deeper than its original soil level. If the hole is too deep, add a little more compost until it is the correct depth. Carefully fill in the hole with soil, and tap it in place to remove any air pockets that might be around the root ball.
Water thoroughly using a fertilizer or compost tea. You can make your own compost tea by mixing one part compost to six parts water, letting it sit for two weeks to brew, and straining off the solids. You can also use transplant fertilizers to stimulate root growth, available at most nurseries. Over the next two weeks, water frequently until the plants establish bigger root systems. Protect them from frost or high winds by covering with an old sheet or other protective covers. An inexpensive cloche (plant cover) can be made from clear plastic juice bottles -- just cut off the bottom and set it over the plant. The lid can be removed to let air flow during the day and prevent overheating.
Some plants, such as tomatoes, benefit from pruning after planting. If your seedlings are spindly, pinch off the top end of the leader stem. This encourages them to bush out. If they have started to flower, pinch off flower buds as well. Once a plant starts to flower, it will not put much energy into root growth, so removing those buds will encourage the plant to grow larger, and you will have more fruit in the end.
That's about it. After a couple of weeks, your seedlings should have established themselves, and will not need much more special attention. Just give them regular care -- watering, weeding, mulching and staking when needed. So get going, you only have a few weeks to get started. Have fun!
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