Get ready ... get set to grow -- indoors Garden: Many popular plants require warmer weather than we can expect in March. But that doesn't mean you can't start them right now.

March 22, 1998|By Nancy Brachey | Nancy Brachey,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Well, here we are on the edge of winter, faced with the urge to plunge into the garden and start ripping open seed packages.

Spring seems so about to happen, who can resist temptation?

While some seeds such as spinach can be planted outdoors safely now, most of the popular flower and vegetable seedlings require warm soil and air to germinate and grow.

And, despite the sorta-tropical nature of winter this year, the possibility of frost will hang around until early April.

That's why we sow some seeds indoors in March -- to get an early start on tomato and pepper plants, even marigolds and petunias. It's a way to stock your garden with plants you grew yourself and stay useful until tomato time in mid-April.

The equipment for this project is simple.

Garden centers are already stocked with this year's seeds, enough to force some hard choices about this tomato or that marigold. Just consider that part of the drama.

You also will need sterile, packaged growing mixtures, an essential ingredient to prevent attack by soil-borne fungi that cause seedlings to drop dead overnight. Not a cheerful outcome for your effort.

Fill the container -- a shallow pot or box with drainage holes -- with the growing mixture and dampen it before sowing the seeds.

Maybe it sounds obvious, but you should read -- and keep -- the seed package. If the seeds require light or darkness during germination, the package will say so. If the seeds require darkness, you must sow the seeds at the right depth.

Those that require light may be sprinkled thinly on top of the planting mixture. The seed package should also give distances the plants should be set apart in the garden, another reason to keep the envelope.

If you have bought seed trays with individual cells, sow two seeds in each, and prepare to sacrifice the smaller, less vigorous one after growth begins.

Be sure to label the trays. It's easy to forget whether you have petunias in one pot or zucchini in another. That makes a difference when you set out the plants.

The normal household temperature of about 70 to 72 degrees should suit most seedlings. During germination, the top of a TV or refrigerator should make a warm spot for the pot or box holding the seeds during germination.

But once germinated, the seedlings must have some warm sunshine. Move them to a window.

A sunny window and regular gentle misting will provide the light and humidity seedlings need, in addition to your daily check to make sure the soil does not dry out.

The mister can also serve as a means of watering the seeds and seedlings; it will not dislodge them the way pouring a direct stream of water will.

After the seedlings grow two pairs of true leaves, transplant each to an individual peat or plastic pot, then fertilize regularly and lightly. Keep the little plants in a warm, sunny spot until planting time outdoors in early to mid-April.

Seeds to sow

Here is a list of some popular flowers and vegetables that are suitable for indoor growth. It includes the approximate number of weeks it takes for each to grow large enough to set outdoors.

Except for leaf lettuce, these are warm-weather flowers and vegetables best planted outdoors in mid-to-late April, when the weather is settled and the soil warms up.

* Hot and sweet peppers, tomatoes, eggplant -- eight weeks

* Ageratum, snapdragon, dianthus, echinacea, gomphrena, impatiens, rudbeckia, salvia, tithonia -- six to eight weeks

* Cosmos, portulaca -- five to six weeks

* Alyssum, celosia, zinnia, watermelon, summer squash -- four weeks

* Leaf lettuce -- four weeks (may be set outdoors in cool soil during late March to early April)

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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