Feeling seedy? Start a garden from scratch

January 23, 1994|By A. Cort Sinnes | A. Cort Sinnes,Contributing Writer

In England, where they take gardening seriously, you aren't considered a real gardener unless you start your flower and vegetable plants from seed.

And while starting plants from seed may seem a quaint notion, like tea and crumpets, it's one of the best and least-expensive ways to landscape around such backyard amenities as the grill, the swing set and that all-purpose playing field known as your lawn.

Sometime this month you may find your mailbox stuffed with seed-company catalogs, their pages filled with colorful visions of the glories of gardening. What with a collective case of post-holiday letdown, the purveyors of seed are well aware that consumers are in the mood for thoughts of spring.

It's a marketing concept that works: According to Bruce Butterfield, research director of the National Gardening Association, 43 million households in America bought close to $600 million worth of seeds last year.

At an average of a $1 or $1.50 per packet, that's a lot of seed packets.

When you think about it, it's not hard to understand the appeal of starting plants from seed. What else can you buy for around a dollar that gives so much pleasure (or in the case of vegetable seed, so much food) for so little effort?

For the price of a couple of movie tickets, you can transform your backyard from barren to beautiful. Seeds of annual flowers and vegetables are quick to come to life with the first spring weather and are conveniently in their full glory throughout the summer, just when backyard living is at its height.

You say you've never started seeds before?

Luckily for you, there's information available that's not only excellent, but free. This spring, a Vermont-based gardening company is offering a resource to help new seed-starters get off on the right foot. Gardener's Supply Co. is a mail-order gardening catalog that offers an excellent selection of seed-starting supplies for the home gardener.

Additionally, the company publishes a four-page bulletin titled "Seed-Starting Made Easy." It covers the entire seed-starting process, from choosing the right seed varieties to successfully transplanting seedlings into the garden, while thoroughly explaining all the steps in between.

The booklet's author, horticulturist Carolyn Ormsbee, says that although it contains information that would be helpful to expert gardeners as well as beginners, she wrote "Seed-Starting Made Easy" with the novice seed-starter in mind. "Over the years, we've answered hundreds of questions from our customers on how to grow transplants successfully," Ms. Ormsbee says. "Those questions have been a great help in understanding the challenges of the first-time seed-starter."

In general, successful seed starting requires four things: 1) a lightweight, disease-free growing medium, 2) adequate warmth and moisture for germination, 3) sufficient light, and 4) a (P "hardening-off" period before the young transplants are planted out in the garden.

A lightweight, disease-free growing medium -- a fancy name for potting soil -- is essential for raising healthy, thriving seedlings. Any high-quality packaged soil mix will do nicely. Do not use garden soil, nor should you mix garden soil with a packaged soil mix for starting seeds. In general, garden soils are too heavy to promote ready germination of seeds, and often contain soil-borne disease micro-organisms that may prove fatal to seedlings.

Most seeds require a soil temperature between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit to germinate. Soil temperatures in this range can be easily achieved simply by keeping the air temperature between 70 and 75 or, if that is not feasible, by using specially designed electric heating cables (available at nurseries and garden centers), which provide gentle warmth under the flats or pots.

Adequate light is crucial not only for germinating most seeds, but to produce sturdy, stocky seedlings. As anyone who's grown almost anything indoors has probably found out, too little light results in spindly, weak plants as they stretch toward whatever light is available.

Most experienced gardeners suspend fluorescent light fixtures (the inexpensive type used in home workshops) directly over the seed-starting flats, and leave the lights on about 12 hours a day. The addition of a timer eliminates the need to remember to turn the lights on and off. If you have only a few pots of seedlings, a sunny windowsill does just fine.

After the seedlings have grown large enough to transplant in the garden, there's one final, important step that will make sure they not only survive, but thrive in their new garden location, namely what old-timers call a "hardening-off" period. To do this, move the transplants to an outdoor location sheltered from the wind and bright sunlight; a partially enclosed porch or lath house is ideal. After four or five days of "hardening off," the transplants will be ready for planting in the garden.

Whether or not starting flowers and vegetables from seed makes you a "real" gardener can be left up to the English to decide. What can be unequivocally stated is that nurturing seeds into germination, and from there on to flowering and fruition, is to take part in one of the true miracles of nature. Not to mention the miraculous visual transformation flowers and vegetables can make in that special place known as your backyard.

And imagine, all that for a little potting soil, some water, warmth and light -- and a packet of seeds that costs around a buck.

*

The booklet "Seed-Starting Made Easy" is free to the gardening public. To receive a copy, write to Gardener's Supply, 128 Intervale Road, Burlington, Vt. 05401, or call (802) 863-1700. Ask for information packet 1013.

Universal Press Syndicate

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