Starting From Seed
Starting Seedlings in Winter
Winter definitely has its charms, but it can be difficult for people who like to get their hands into the soil. That is why this time of year is special for those gardeners who like to grow their own seedlings...it is planting time!
Start with seedling trays. If you buy them new, there is no reason to clean them. However, if you reuse them from year to year, you’ll need to clean them with bleach and hot water, or run them through the hottest cycle your dishwasher has to offer. You want to destroy any diseases or pathogens that may have been borne by the last crop of plants and may remain to infect the new crop. Bear in mind that you can use pretty much any container you want...even empty egg cartons or tin cans, as long as there is drainage at the bottom.
Fill the trays or containers with your growing medium of choice...we carry several varieties...and make sure it is moistened with warm water. You’ll want to fill them up to about a quarter inch from the top. Now a little math comes into play. Mother’s Day is the safe planting date for our area, frost-wise. So you’ll want to look at your seed packets to check the “days to maturity” and count back from Mother’s Day to determine when to plant your seeds. Label, label, LABEL! It’s easy to lose track of what you planted.
Follow the sowing instructions from each seed packet, but you will always want to sow three or four seeds per container. Once they all come up and get their second set of leaves, you can thin them out with scissors...never by pulling them up, which could damage the one remaining plant. At this point, you should cover your pots with the plastic lid or plastic wrap to keep the seeds in a warm, humid place. Light isn’t important until they sprout. Once they do, either move the seedlings to a bright spot in the house or invest in a grow light. The advantage of a grow light is that you can give them twelve to sixteen hours of light per day, which makes them grow faster and stronger. Be sure to take the plastic off once they sprout, or they will bake in the heat. If the seedlings get leggy, meaning they are tall and spindly, they are not getting enough light.
Check them daily for moisture. Water should be at room temperature and, if possible, water from the bottom of the tray, letting the moisture wick up. If possible, use small fans to blow a constant breeze over your seedlings; that helps to control fungus and strengthens the stems. If you don’t have a fan, just lightly pass your hands through the seedlings a few times per day, allowing them to bend and then pop back up. This is also the time to use a liquid fertilizer on a weekly basis. As you water every day, it is easy for the nutrients to leach out of the soil, and they need to be replaced. As they grow, the plants will start to crowd each other, so you will most likely have to repot them to larger pots and space them apart. Every time you do this, you essentially double the space you need to grow. Bear this in mind before you plant your seedlings, or you might find yourself crowded out of the house because they will take up so much space!
About one week before planting in the garden, you’ll have to harden off your plants, which are used to being indoors and would wilt if suddenly planted outside. Take them outdoors for an hour or so each day, ideally on a protected porch, and limit the direct sun for the first few days. Gradually increase the amount of time outdoors. You’ve worked hard to grow these little babies, so it would be a shame to rush the process at the very end and lose them. So be patient.
That’s all there is to it! There are few things as satisfying as eating a garden-fresh tomato that you grew from seed. It gives a real sense of accomplishment. If you have any questions...and you will...come on in and talk to our Garden Expert, Greg King, who can take you through every step of the process, including helpful hints that will make you a success in the garden!