Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Starting Seeds the right way

What could be better than the special satisfaction that comes from harvesting the bounty of a particular plant that was once only a tiny speck of a seed in the palm of your hand? For some, it is knowing that you can buy a packet of seeds which will grow 50 plants for about the same price it would cost to buy one plant. For others, that you can choose exactly the varieties you want for an earlier harvest, a better flavor or a more beautiful color. Or maybe you want to know that you have the healthiest, most vigorous seedlings available to take full advantage of our ever changing climate. Whatever your reason the info below will provide you with some useful, straightforward tips that will help you successfully navigate the seed starting process.

What you’ll need (EQUIPMENT/TOOLS)

SOIL THERMOMETER: Why? So you know the temperature of your soil! Most seeds don't like cold wet soil and will refuse to germinate, even rot! Also since I use a heating mat to give my seeds a head start, I can make sure that the soil isn't getting too hot. The first year I used a plant heating mat, I couldn't understand why none of the seeds were germinating. I check the soil temp and found out that the soil was nearly one hundred degrees! So, I use some wood slats and raised the seed flats off the mats by an inch or two and within a few days, seedlings started to emerge! I learned that since I start my seed indoors and the average room temperature is around seventy, that the mats got too hot when in direct contact with the flats! So by raising them, I got the temp closer to 70-75degrees and the seeds germinated!
For general seed germination, the soil temp should be in the 60-75 degree range. If your soil temp is staying too warm, then the heat needs to be turned down or preferable off in the room where the seed flats are at. Seedlings like a night time temp of 50-60 degrees so the plant can harden off gradually. I had my heat mats plugged into my timer so at night when the lights and fan turned off, so did the heat mats. Once the seeds have germinated, turn off the heat mats permanently. They don't need them and you want your seedlings to grow up stout and ready to go outside in the real world! For outdoor temperatures here is a general rule: Generally speaking, the soil temp stays more consistent that the air temperature and is usually an average of ten degrees cooler in the summer and retains about the same degrees in heat over air in the winter. So, if your daytime spring day temperature is seventy, you can bet your soil temperature is not over sixty. Stick that soil thermometer all the way down in your garden soil to get a true reading before planting seeds outside. Conversely, if your winter daytime temperature is 35, then your soil temperature is probably hovering around 45-50! Good news when you are judging when to pull late fall crops.
HOUSEHOLD FAN: Another reason for seed failure is a fungus called "damping off". The fungus attacks the tender stems at the soil level and before you know it, your precious seedlings have fallen over and are dying. Nothing you can do at that point. So, the trick here is prevention! This is where the household fan comes in. By maintaining a steady low flow of air circulating in your seedling room, you help keep the top layer of soil dry enough that the fungus doesn't grow. I have had no seedling damping off since I tried this years’ ago and continue faithfully to use the fan every spring. I have my fan hooked up to my timer so than when the lights come on, the fan comes on too! Works great!
TIMER: Onto the timer, this is where it gets tricky. Some plants are light sensitive such as marigolds while others could care less. So for simplicity sake, let's stick with tomatoes. I start my seedlings in late February. I will start out my daylight hours with the timer set to eight hours on and sixteen hours off. Then as the plants grow, I gradually extend the daylight hours until I hit twelve and twelve. This seems to work great, especially for tomatoes. By the time they are ready for moving into my outdoor cold frame in April, they are nice and stout, deep green and look fabulous. Also by using a timer, I don't have to worry if we are out of town a few days. The plants will never miss me!
WATERING CAN: Well, this is a no brainer. I use a gallon milk jug often times so I can mix my fertilizer correctly, then pour that mixture into a watering can for individual pot watering. OK, here is the Number One Cause of seed failure!: Overwatering! Don't drown your seedlings. The soil should never be more than slightly damp. If the soil feels damp, don't water!
For fertilizing, I use a liquid fertilizer that is balanced and has all the nutrients that the plant needs. Of course, general products such as Miracle Grow are just fine too, but remember to dilute the solution to half the recommended concentration. I feel that the plants get a sustainable and constant feeding this way. You wouldn't want to go for three days on just water, then get a mega meal to make up! Plants are constantly growing and need nutrients just like children!
PLANT TAGS AND PERMANENT MARKER: A must have before you even start planting. Believe me, you won't be able to remember what every tray has in it. Then when you are ready to transplant, you already have the tag and it goes right in with the plant in it's new pot! Nothing more frustrating than "mystery plants"! .
Try all kinds to see what works for you. Make sure they are clean and have good drainage. If you are using a fiber or peat pot, soak it well before adding soil. Dry fiber pots draw moisture away from the soil.

Container choices.
Convenience, cost, and reusability will determine which containers you use. If you won't be around to water daily or don't plan to transplant seedlings into another container before planting them out, use 2- to 4-inch-diameter containers or flats with individual cells.

Plastic flats with no dividers are an old favorite. They're readily available from garden supply stores and mail-order catalogs, and free when you buy seedlings at nurseries.

Plastic cell-packs and 2- to 4-inch plastic pots, recycled from nursery purchases, are easy to obtain and use.

Peat pots are inexpensive but not reusable. But because you plant out seedlings pot and all, such pots minimize disturbance to roots. Keep them moist (so roots can penetrate them easily).

Plastic foam flats with tapered individual cells are sold by nurseries and through seed catalogs. They come in several cell sizes; some have capillary matting that draws water from a reservoir, making seedling care much easier.

In addition to the containers listed above, you can use household items--plastic cups, yogurt containers, cut-down milk cartons, foil baking pans. Be sure to punch several drainage holes in any container that lacks them, since seedlings will die if water collects around their roots. If you're reusing old pots, scrub them out and soak them for 30 minutes in a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part household bleach to destroy any disease organisms.
There are five basic requirements for successful seed starting: good seeds, good light, good starting medium, proper watering and, finally, a sense of adventure. Most annual flowers and vegetables should be sown 4 to 8 weeks Let’s take a look at these important points one at a time.

No matter how careful you are with all the other aspects of seed starting you will not be satisfied with the results unless you have heeded the call for good seeds. None of the other factors can compensate for seeds that are not strong and vigorous. Most seed companies provide high quality, healthy seeds because their livelihood depends on customers purchasing again next year. (See the IFCGA web page for an extensive list of seed sources.) Even the 10 cent packets are generally good seeds although sometimes the quality is inconsistent. If you have any concerns about the quality of seeds you have purchased or saved it is easy to do a simple germination test:
Take ten seeds and place them on a dampened paper towel.
Roll up the paper towel with the seeds inside and place it inside a plastic bag .
Partially close the plastic bag - do not seal.
Place in a warm place (top of a refrigerator) and check every couple of days. Add moisture to keep towel damp if necessary.
After ten days or so count how many seeds have germinated, multiply by ten and you have the germination rate. For rates under 70% adjust the number of seeds you sow accordingly.

Good lighting is essential to ensure sturdy, strong seedlings ready to take on the rigors of the Idaho climate. Even a bright, sunny window does not provide sufficient light to avoid leggy, weak-stemmed seedlings. The system I have used with excellent results for the last several years is simple and inexpensive: a standard shoplight with one warm white and one cool white florescent bulbs suspended so that the lights are never more than 3 inches from the plants. You can hang the lights from a ceiling or, as I do, from the shelves of a three-tiered plant stand that will hold 12 flats of plants. For optimal growth most plants require 16-18 hours of light (once germinated) with a few hours of rest.( A timer is handy for this purpose.) Special full spectrum bulbs are available but cost about 10 times more than florescent bulbs and in my experience do not improve the results enough to justify the extra cost. As the seedlings grow be sure to repot them in larger pots as they start crowding one another. This not only provides more root space but spreads them out so that the leaves have more surface area exposed to the light. A final hint: replace your florescent bulbs each year with new ones so that the light is as intense as possible.
Some seeds require light to germinate while others prefer total darkness. Your seed packet should tell you what your seed's requirements are. Once germinated, all seedlings need light to develop into strong, healthy plants. Supplement the natural light with florescent bulbs if necessary.

This is an easy one - don’t use soil! Do use any good, light, soiless planting mix, many types of which are readily available at garden centers. A soiless planting medium is preferred for several reasons; it is light and open to encourage those tiny sprouts to push up to the surface, it can hold generous amounts of water without becoming water-logged, and because it is sterilized it will not harbor the harmful bacteria which cause damping off. If you are going to re-use planting containers from last year be sure to disinfect them in a 9/1 water to bleach solution. Nothing beats a good commercial medium because it is sterile and free of unwanted weed seeds. If you want to make your own, here are a couple of good recipes:

Cornell Mix:
4 quarts of shredded peat moss or sphagnum, 2 teaspoons ground limestone, 4 tablespoons 5-10-10 fertilizer.

Simple Mix:
1 part loam, 1 part clean sand or perlite, 1 part leaf mold or moist peat.

This aspect of starting seeds is probably the most troublesome. It requires some practice (and not a few failures) to get the hang of what we gardeners mean when we say ‘Well, keep them wet enough but not too wet’. The best explanation I can offer is that the soil should be consistently slightly moist but not at all soggy. It is OK for the surface to be a bit dry but if the leaves are beginning to droop or a shiny leaf is starting to look dull it is a sign that the roots do not have adequate moisture down deep. While it is probably better to err on the side of too little water rather than too much either extreme will stress the plants and produce a weaker seedling. In my experience the best method for watering seedlings is bottom watering. It avoids wetting the leaves and assures even and thorough watering of the planting medium, as well as teaching the roots to travel downward for moisture and nutrients. Just add 2-4” of water/nutrient mix to the container’s tray and set your pots into the water. The water will slowly filter upwards through the planting medium until the surface is wet. As soon as you begin to see the surface darkening lift the pots from the water, drain for a moment or two and return them to their place under the lights. When the seeds are newly planted and covered with plastic you will need to water much less frequently than when the plants have grown to 5 or 6” and have more leaf surface area transpiring. Watch carefully during your first seed-starting season and you will soon get the hang of it.
Use a fine sprayer to water newly planted seeds and tiny seedlings. If you can,

Getting the seeds in the planting mix is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. You will need:
Planting containers - I use re-useable, deep, 6-cell planters but you can use almost any container that has good drainage. All nurseries have convenient trays, cell planters and plastic domes.
Plant markers for identifying the seeds planted ( I use plastic milk cartons cut into strips)
A notebook for taking notes on when, how and what you’ve done (you’ll love yourself next year!)
Good seeds!

Fill the containers with planting mix and pack it down gently. Check seed packets for proper planting depth*, plant several seeds in each container, and cover with planting mix according to the directions. (Later, after the seedlings have their first set of true leaves, you will either transplant the extras or clip them out with a pair of small scissors.) Gently water each individual container thoroughly, label each container and then cover with a clear plastic bag or a plastic dome. Put into a warm place like the top of your refrigerator. Some seeds will germinate in 3-4 days so keep a close eye on them because as soon as the seedlings are up they need to be moved immediately under lights. Other seeds can take up to three weeks to germinate so read your packets. Remember to check on the moisture level periodically.
Some seeds require light to germinate so read the packets carefully - sprinkle these on the surface and water very gently.

Fill pots or flats to within 1/4 inch of the top with your potting mixture and level the surface. It's a good idea to water the soil and allow it to drain thoroughly before sowing the seeds. Make a hole for each seed with your finger or a pencil. Keep in mind that most seeds need to be planted four times as deep as the seed is wide. If your seeds are very fine, cover them with a fine layer of soil.

When the seedlings have developed their second set of true leaves, it's time to transplant or thin them. If you don't need many plants, you can thin them in place: just pinch or snip off the excess seedlings, leaving the remaining ones spaced about 2 inches apart. Seedlings in individual pots or cells should be thinned to one plant per pot or cell. If you want to save most of the plants that have germinated, you'll need to transplant them to larger containers for growth to planting-out size. It's best to use individual pots or cell-packs for this purpose, so that seedlings won't suffer much root disturbance when planted out in the garden.
To transplant seedlings, fill each new container with moist planting mix. Loosen the soil around the seedlings (a kitchen fork or spoon is handy for this); then carefully lift them out, one at a time. Or lift a clump of seedlings and gently separate individual plants by carefully teasing apart the tangled mass of roots. Handle seedlings by their leaves to avoid damaging the tender stems. Poke a hole in the new container's planting mix, place the seedling in the hole, and firm soil around it. Water the transplant right away. Keep the containers out of direct sunlight for a few days to let the transplants recover from the move.

Seedling Care
The care you give your seedlings in the weeks following germination is critical. Keep it moist, but not dripping. Small pots and flats dry out quickly, so check it often. If your seedlings are growing in a windowsill, turn often to encourage straight stems.
The first two leaves you will see on the plant are not true leaves but food storage cells called cotyledons. Once the first true leaves have developed, it's time to start fertilizing. Choose a good liquid organic fertilizer and use a weak solution once a week.

Special Seed Handling Techniques
Many seeds require special handling, so there are a few tricks you should know to ensure that your seeds will sprout. The seed packet should list any special requirements.

Scarification - Seeds with especially hard outer shells often benefit from this abuse. Rub the outer shell of the seed with sandpaper or a file. It takes a little practice to make a cut that's deep enough to help, but not deep enough to damage the plant.
• Lupine
• Mallow
• Morning Glory
• Sweet Pea
• Blue Indigo, Wild Indigo

Soaking - Seeds that have a hard outer coat will germinate faster if they are soaked in water overnight.
• Asparagus
• Lilyturf
• Lupine
• Mallow
• Morning Glory
• Okra
• Perennial Pea
• Parsley
• Thrift

Stratification - This process helps recreate the natural seasons so that the seed knows it's time to germinate. For cold stratification, place the seeds in moist peat moss or vermiculite in the refrigerator. For warm stratification, place the container in a warm spot. After the first month or so, examine the seeds regularly for signs of germination. As soon as the small white primary root appears, plant the seed in soil.
• Angelica
• Christmas Rose
• Daylily
• Gas Plant
• Globeflower
• Lavender
• Ornamental Cabbage
• Phlox
• Primrose
• Tahoka Daisy
• Viola, Violet, Pansy
• Wake Robin

Once your seedlings have their first set of true leaves you can begin feeding them at every other watering. Any good plant food with a balanced N-P-K will do but be sure to use it at ¼ strength for the first few weeks and ½ strength later.
It will make you crazy if you successfully get your plants to the point at which they are ready to go outside and then you damage or kill them by skipping this step so even though you are really anxious to get them out of your living room and into the dirt please take the time to follow this step. The process of hardening off readies the plant to withstand the rigors of the outdoors and can be accomplished in about 4 - 10 days, dependent on the weather. Start out by taking the plants outside on a calm day for about an hour. Bring them back under the lights. Repeat the process each day doubling the time until they are out all day. Now they are ready to go into the soil. If the weather gets particularly cold or windy you may want to abort the process and begin again when the weather improves. This is definitely worth doing!
A cold frame is useful for hardening off seedlings. Over the next week or so, gradually increase exposure until the plants are in full sun all day (shade lovers are an exception; they shouldn't be exposed to day-long sun).

This is the final and maybe most important of the five basic requirements I mentioned at the start. Growing your own plants gives you the opportunity to learn about growth and nurturing, about patience and perseverance. It will ignite your imagination and your sense of the possible if you let it. Be willing to try what you haven’t, accept the failures you will undoubtedly experience and realize that, as with most of life, if you stick with it, learn from your mistakes and keep trying you will keep growing and enjoying your own bountiful harvest.