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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Seed-starting 101

As I write this, we are smack dab in the middle of winter. The snow is being especially stubborn about melting, which has a lot of gardeners even more wistful for the arrival of spring. But there is one gardening project you should be seriously considering: starting some garden plants from seed.

It's easier than you think!

No garden center I know of has a better springtime selection of bedding plants than Tagawa's. But there still might be something different you'd like to try.... or maybe you're just up for a little adventure while you wait out winter. Starting plants from seed may be just what you need!

It's so easy, a child could do it. In fact, if you have any children handy, recruit them to help you. For big folks and little folks, there's a special wonder to eating a bright red tomato in the summer, knowing that it started out as that tiny cream-colored seed back when.

Equipment list

The first item on your list: seeds, of course. Tagawa's seed racks are bursting with hundreds of choices of flowers and seeds that can be started indoors. Be careful of left-over seed from a past gardening season. Seeds' viability.... it's vigor.... can diminish quickly, and result in a poor germination rate.

You'll also want to use a seed-starting mix sold just for this purpose. These mixes are sterile, which cuts down on disease problems for your delicate seedlings. And I don't have to tell you not to use soil from your garden, right? Right. Soil from your garden should stay in your garden, and never end up in flower containers or in the tiny pots your seedlings will be growing in. Just too much risk of importing problems you don't need.

Here a pot, there a pot...

Any small, spanking-clean container with a hole for drainage can be used for starting seeds. Or you can treat yourself to ready-made products especially designed for this project.

There are lots of combinations of small cell-packs and plastic pots that work perfectly for starting seeds. Kris, Tagawa's Annuals Co-director, also likes the ease of peat pots, Jiffy pots and something new: "
Root Riots." Check 'em out. They're little pre-formed cubes of seed-starting mix. They're cute as the dickens, and making planting the seeds a snap.

Let the seed packet be your guide!

There is so much information on seed packets that can help gardeners succeed. The packet will say whether a particular flower or veggie is appropriate for starting indoors. And it will tell you when to plant... usually referring to your area's last frost. For metro Denver, the average last frost is mid- to late May.

The seed packet will also tell you how deeply the seed should be planted. Planting seeds too deeply is one of the most common reasons that a seedling "crop" fails. The standard rule is to plant a seed twice its depth. Twice a tomato seed's depth is about and eighth of an inch. Some very tiny seeds aren't "planted" at all. They're just dusted sparingly on top of the moist planting mix, and gently pushed down just a bit.

And yes, I said "moist" planting mix. It's much easier to moisten the planting mix with warm water before any seeds go in. Set the pots or cell packs in a tray of warm water and let the planting medium soak up the moisture through the drainage holes in the bottom the pots This is also how you'll water the seedlings until they're strong enough to stand up to gentle overhead watering,

Two more steps

Trying to start seedlings in a "bright window" often doesn't work. The seedlings simply need more light that most "bright windows" can deliver.
The answer is to set your seed trays under florescent light fixtures... what you might think of as "shop lights," the kind often mounted above a work bench. Hanging the lights from chains that can be adjusted for length is perfect.

And trust me on this one: the lights will need to be almost touching the plants.... within three inches or so, for about 14 hours a day. That's how much light the seedlings will need to be robust and stocky. Spindly seedlings are usually trying to tell you that they're not getting nearly enough light. And once a seedling gets leggy, it doesn't make for a good transplant.
The clear humidity domes that are generally used when the seeds are planted can be removed once the seedlings are up, letting you put the lights right down at plant level.

Also make sure the seedlings get good air circulation to prevent a fungal disease called "damping off." With too much moisture and too little air flow, damping off can cause your seedlings to collapse right at the soil line. It's a sad sight to see a whole tray of vigorous little plants just laying down.... done for.

A little heat would be nice....

A lot of seeds respond very well to "bottom heat." And the easiest way to deliver that is with a special heat mat made just for this purpose. Tagawa's has heat mats in stock. One of our gardening pro's will be happy to explain how to use them.

Bottom line...

With the right seeds, the proper planting mix, good planting technique and lots of bright light, there's no reason you can't have bragging rights come summer, letting folks know that you grew these flowers or those veggies from seed. Well done!

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