Starting from Seed

It's time for gardeners to shake off their winter ennui with the ultimate exercise in optimism.

Focus On Gardening

March 10, 2002|By Marianne Auerweck | Marianne Auerweck,Special to the Sun

The thought of growing plants from seeds started indoors may intimidate even the most enthusiastic gardener.

Many have tried, only to end up with pale, weak and spindly seedlings that refuse to grow into productive plants. Or they wither and die, pinched off at the soil line before they develop their first set of true leaves.

It is a disheartening experience, but one you can prevent with a modest investment in equipment and supplies. Knowing how to simulate Mother Nature's warmth and light opens up a whole new range of possibilities for creating a garden that will be the envy of the neighborhood.

Growing from seed is an economical way to fill a garden. Packets with hundreds of seeds often cost less than a single market pack of annuals at the nursery. If you want a dozen plants, don't plant hundreds of seeds, but plant more than you need to avoid coming up short. Germination rates vary, and decrease if seeds are not fresh.

You can get an idea of how many seeds are likely to grow by wrapping several in a damp paper towel for several days, then checking to see how many have sprouted.

Seed-starting also gives gardeners the chance to shrug off the winter doldrums and dig into the gardening season at least a month before the last expected frost date -- April 15 in the Baltimore area. Planting outdoors before May 1 is risky, as tender plants can be damaged or killed by strong winds or a surprise frost.

The correct amounts of moisture, warmth and light are essential to germination and plant development, but these requirements can be met without spending a small fortune. Even a dark basement corner can become a seedling nursery with the help of a fluorescent light fixture.

Here's how to make it happen:

Step 1. Moisten the seed-starting mixture and fill shallow containers almost to the top. Everything you need to know about planting depth, spacing and germination time is on the back of the packet. Plant seeds in rows and cover to the specified depth. Covering the seeds provides the darkness needed for most varieties to germinate. Seeds that require light for germination are sown on top of the soil and left uncovered. Most seeds need temperatures of 70 to 75 degrees to germinate, but bright light is not needed until seedlings have emerged. Place seed trays near a sunny window, radiator or other warm location. And don't forget to label what you've planted.

Step 2. Keep the seed-starting mix moist, but not soggy. Too much water can cause seeds and sprouts to rot. It also promotes fungal growth that causes "damping off." Seedlings that appear to have been pinched off at the soil level are victims of this fungus.

Step 3. As soon as the seedlings emerge, they will need 12 to 16 hours of bright light daily. Late winter sunlight is not strong enough to promote sturdy growth. Fluorescent tubes should be suspended not more than two inches above the seedlings to keep them from becoming spindly as they grow. A 4-foot long, doubled-tubed fixture will provide adequate light for two standard seed flats placed end-to-end. Adjust the height of the light fixture as plants grow.

If plants are crowded, thin them by snipping or pinching off smaller, weaker seedlings at the soil line. Pulling them out may disturb the tender roots of the seedlings you want to keep.

Step 4. After the seedlings have developed their first leaves, but before they become crowded, transplant them into small pots or market packs. Loosen the soil gently and handle the seedlings by their leaves, never by their stems, which are easily damaged. After transplanting, continue to keep the plants under fluorescent lights until they are large enough to go outdoors. Feed them with water-soluble plant food, mixed at half strength, once a week.

Step 5. Acclimating young plants to the outdoors is done during a "hardening off" period. In the week before they are planted in the garden, plants are strengthened by gradually exposing them to their permanent environment. Set them outside for several hours in a shady, sheltered spot where they will not be battered by wind. Gradually increase their exposure to the elements for a week before planting. Plants that fold their leaves or wilt are getting too much exposure and should be covered or moved to a sheltered spot until the next day.

Step 6. When the danger of frost has passed and plants are able to tolerate sun and fluctuating temperatures, they are ready to be planted in your garden.

Easy plants to try

Novice seed-starters can assure success by selecting flowers and vegetables that germinate easily and require minimal attention. Some nearly fail-safe varieties include:

Annuals: Cosmos, ageratum, calendula, coreopsis, marigold, aster, nicotiana, portulaca and rudbeckia. Annuals complete their life cycles in a single growing season.

Biennials: These live for two years, growing their foliage in the first season, then flowering and dying the following year. Try sweet william or foxglove, both of which readily reseed.

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