Monday, February 23, 2015

Starting Seeds Indoors

 Daydreaming about your summer garden in the midst of winter's last weeks? 
No need to wait to get started! The last weeks before spring are a fantastic time to begin planning your garden and getting seeds started inside. Crops with a longer maturity date benefit from indoor starting, which can help counter a shorter growing season than may exist outdoors. So do plants that enjoy cool spring weather when fully grown, but need more warmth to germinate than winter provides. Not to mention, starting seeds inside can be a lovely way to experience some greenery without having to wait on the weather. 

Here's a helpful how-to and some troubleshooting tips that will lead to good health in your seedlings, which will in turn lead to stronger plants once they're moved outdoors. 

How to Start Seeds Indoors
  1. Collect the materials necessary for starting seeds - pots, soil, seeds, light, warmth, water and a fan. First you'll need pots or containers. The containers can be anything, so long as it provides roughly 3 inches of depth, and has holes in the bottom for drainage. 
  2. For soil, try to use a potting soil mixture, which is lighter than garden soil and will allow new roots to grow easily. Wet your soil to the dampness of a wrung out sponge before planting, and then fill your containers to the very top, to provide as much room for root growth as possible. 
  3. Sow your seeds. Most seeds should be buried to a depth of 2 times the diameter of the seed - thus small seeds are close to the surface and larger seeds are buried deeper. 
  4. Once your seeds are covered with an appropriate amount of soil, water them thoroughly with a gentle sprinkle of water, careful not to disturb the seeds. As the days pass, water your seedlings wen the soil feels dry to the touch. 
  5. Jot down the type of plant and variety somewhere on your container, to remember which starts are which later into the season. 
  6. Place the containers somewhere warm indoors to germinate - most seeds require 60-70 degrees to germinate, or specify otherwise on their seed packet. 
  7. Once your seeds germinate, sunlight is very important. A sunny window will do, or a fluorescent shop light with plant grow bulbs. The light should be suspended 2 to 4 inches above the seedlings, and on for roughly 16 hours a day. 
  8. Set up a fan to lightly move air around your starts. This helps to reduce the formation of harmful fungus in the soil, and also encourages tougher stems, making for stronger plants - a little training for the real world! 
  9. When the seedlings have grown their first set of true leaves (3rd or 4th leaves to emerge), they should be fed with diluted liquid feed. At this time they can be potted up into larger containers if their initial pots are too small, or transplanted outside if the weather permits.
Still having trouble? Some common problems are...

  • Poor germination: you could have used old seed, or seed that had been stored in poor (warm/moist) conditions. Some seeds take a very long time to germinate (celery takes 2-3 weeks). If your soil temperature is too cold seeds may remain dormant. Eggplant and peppers like 75 degree soil! If you have over watered the seed could have rotted. 
  • Damping-off: When your seedlings grow normally and then drop over at the soil line they have most likely been attacked by this disease. To avoid this, always use a sterile seed starting mix and clean your containers between uses. Be careful not to overwater and keep a light fan on the starts to minimize the chances for this disease to develop. 
  • Pot bound: If seedlings have been kept in a small pot too long, their roots will get crowded and start growing out the bottom of the container. These seedlings will become stressed and need to be transplanted into your garden beds, or, if it is too soon, they need to be potted into larger containers. Take care not to damage roots during transplanting1
  • Too leggy (tall and weak): If your starts are spindly they may be growing with insufficient light. The plant is reaching for light. When transplanting leggy starts into the garden bed plant them very deep ("sink" them), most plants will form new roots along the stem working to make the plant more robust and productive. 
  • Yellow or sickly looking seedlings: If your starts aren't looking very green they probably need to be fed more or watered less. Allow the mix to dry out, then feed and water with a liquid food at the appropriate diluted strength. 

Happy planting, and may all your seeds grow into beautiful and bountiful plants!

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