Categorized | Opinion

Rewards of starting with a seed

By Margie DensfordIn the Garden closeup

It’s pretty much a given that most of us buy at least a few annual flowers and vegetable plants every spring. Those plants that bloom all summer long and well into the fall.  So, if you’re looking to save a little money this year and learn a few new gardening tricks along the way, try starting a few annuals from seed indoors. This project does take a little finesse. Seeds and then seedling require timely turning, plenty of light and the right amount of water and fertilizer. Just a little neglect can be disastrous.

If you’re seed starting indoors for the first time, start small with only a couple of different plants. Plants in the ‘easy’ category like nasturtium, cosmos, marigolds, larkspur, cleome, California poppy, and bachelor buttons are perfect for beginners. For an extra bonus these plants also reseed themselves. To get a head start on those flowers that take a long time from germination to bloom, start some sunflower, black eyed Susan vine, morning glory, and moss rose seeds.

Vegetables, especially tomatoes and squash, are also easy to start from seed indoors. Buy only organic seeds for vegetables and herbs to ensure the seeds and their parent plants were not treated with chemicals.

You’ll need a few simple supplies besides seeds to get your indoor project started.  Seed starting kits are available at garden centers, but can be a little pricey. Black plastic trays with perforations and without can be purchased separately for about $1 each. These make great planting trays and watering reservoirs when you put one inside of the other. Recycled nursery pots and cookie sheets can also do the trick. To round off your supplies you’ll need soilless mix or any airy potting soil without fertilizer. Of course you’ll also need to provide the plants with a light source and water. This is all you’ll need for the first few weeks, and then you’ll need to add some fertilizer.

When it comes to indoor light there are basically two options to choose from…natural light or a grow-light system. Planting near a south facing window is the least expensive set up, but a little more labor intensive. You’ll need to turn the seedlings a quarter turn each day to keep them from leaning towards the light. The seedlings will get 11-12 hours of daylight from natural light. A simple grow light system can be built with inexpensive, 4ft. long shop lights, and with a timer attached the plants can easily get the optimum 12 to 16 hours of light each day. The lights should only hang a few inches above the plants, so they will have to be raised as the plants grow.

Use plastic stakes with permanent markers to identify plants. As you mist and water your plants the labels will get wet. Plastic milk containers cut up or plastic knives make good markers. You can always just put a number on the plastic label and keep a log of corresponding plant names in a notebook. Believe me when I say this will prevent a lot of confusion later.

As for water, it’s kind of like the three little bears story…too much or too little just won’t do. It has to be just right. Get the soil moist before you plant the seeds. Sprinkle dry soil on those seeds that need to be covered and use a mister to moisten the soil. This way you won’t dislodge the seeds by pouring water on them. After planting, the trays are best watered from the bottom, and any excess water that is not soaked up after a couple of hours should be poured off. This method also encourages the roots to grow down towards the moisture. If you let the fragile sprouts or seedlings dry out they are usually goners. Keep the soil moist but not wet. Never let the soil dry out completely.

When the second or third set of true leaves develops, you’ll want to add some fertilizer. Use half-strength liquid fertilizer once a week. Remember, there is no fertilizer in the soil, and by now the plant will have used all the natural food from the seed itself. Keep on a good schedule of tending to the plants needs, and you should be fine.

Since there is no natural wind blowing on the seedlings, it’s recommended that you run the palm of your hand across the tops of the young plants. This will signal the plants to grow strong stems.

Once the frost date has passed and the temperature has warmed up outside it’s time for the young plants to meet the great outdoors…for short periods. They will need to acclimate to not only the outside temperature but the light as well. This is called hardening off and can also be a little tricky. Depending on the plant and the weather this can take from a few days to a couple of weeks. The plants should be exposed gradually to direct sunlight, wind, heavy downpours and cooler temperatures. If you work, you might want to start this on a weekend. This is easier if you have a garage or shed you can take them in and out of in carts or wagons. If not you’ll just have to schlep them in and out of the house.

Make sure to keep good records of the plant names, planting dates, growth rate, and bloom dates. Keep notes on the difficulty or ease of growing each plant type. Always add tips for next year of anything you should do differently.

If the seedlings could talk, they’d probably say something like, “Yeah, Lady. It’s all about me right now, so get over hear pronto and give me a drink.” I read somewhere that plants a few weeks old are like Divas. Even though they are a handful at times, I don’t think there is any more gratifying experience for a gardener than growing plants from seed. When I’m showing friends around my garden and get to a plant I grew from seed, I usually say, “I birthed this one!”


February garden tips:

1. Fertilize trees, shrubs and evergreens.

2. Prune and shape evergreens.

3. Apply a combination of slow-release fertilizer and pre-emergent herbicide.

4. Keep weeds in check one area at a time.

5. Start seeds indoors.

Margie Densford is a Master Gardener, a member of the Millington City Beautiful Commission, and a member of The Garden Club of Rosemark, a member of the National and Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs.

  • Michael Murphy

    Thanks Margie. Well done!

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February 2013
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