Friday, May 3, 2002
Starting annual seeds last chance this weekend
Why start seeds?
You won't save money. Between the pots, the soil, the seeds, the fertilizers and your time, you would be financially better off buying the plants you need. But it's fun to grow seeds. It's a connection to our past, and good for our children to experience. You get to pick what you want from a huge array of types of seeds. You can be assured they will be raised organically. Growing your own plants is pure pleasure, when it all works right. Let's examine the steps from seed to garden plant.
You should grow seeds that need extra time in the garden: tomatoes, onions, leeks, peppers and annual flowers. Don't bother with beans, peas, radishes or corn. They grow fine started outside, and don't benefit significantly from extra growing time inside. Some plants like melons and squash have taproots that can be easily damaged, so if you start them indoors, have them ready to transplant outdoors in four weeks, before the taproots get too large.
You can make your own: one part aged compost to one part vermiculite. However, outdoor soil contains bacteria and fungi, which can harm or destroy new seedlings. Some people sterilize their homemade mixtures in the oven or microwave. It's a lot of smelly work. I usually use a commercial mix. Seed-starting potting soils, which are called soil-less, are best for starting seeds because they are light and fine.
Any container that drains will work. The drain ensures the young roots will not drown for lack of oxygen. You can use egg cartons, milk cartons, plastic pots from the garden store, six-pack plastic seed-starters and old aluminum muffin tins with a hole popped into each cup. Check the swap shed. Fill each pot three-fourths full of potting soil. Gently water the soil and let it drain before planting.
Read the seed package. Most give excellent information on germination requirements, and the days to germination, transplanting and harvest. Most seeds don't need any special preparation before planting, but some annual flower seeds need to be soaked or chilled or have their coating chipped first. Before planting, have the pots and label sticks ready. As you plant, write the name of the plant and the planting date on a label stick and slide it into the pot. Note on the seed packet how long it takes the seeds to germinate. If you don't see the first leaves by a week after that date, you can assume the seeds are not viable. You can keep a chart with running notes on your work; I often don't bother for vegetables. Some seeds like to be covered with soil and some will not germinate unless they are exposed to light. Again, check the packet for the light requirements of the seed. Water the seeds carefully.
Without light your seeds won't grow. If you are growing your seeds in a greenhouse, your plants will probably get plenty of light, but inside your house your seeds may need some help. If you have a south-facing window, you can place a table in front of it. Or you can easily provide an artificial source of light. Grow lights, which are fluorescent tubes suspended over plants, are available at all garden stores. They usually come on a frame with adjustable heights. This allows you to put the light close to the plants when they are little and then raise it as they grow. This will encourage shorter, stockier plants. Plants that have a light source that is weak or too far away tend to be "leggy." They will still grow fine outside, but it may take them awhile to strengthen when they are planted in the garden. You can construct your own grow light by attaching a fluorescent light to the underside of a shelf. Be sure to turn off your grow light at night. The seedlings need cycles of dark and light, just as we do.
What happens when a seed germinates?
It is actually quite exciting and fascinating. You are taking a dry, dormant embryonic seed and, given the right mixture of moisture, soil and light, creating a plant. The first step in the germination process is the absorption of water. As the seeds swell with water, the pressure forces the seed coat to split. The seed undergoes a transformation in its chemistry makeup, going from a dried neutral material into a soluble form of starches and proteins and enzymes, which can be used as a food source for the initial growth of the plant. The result is new tissue at the point of the root tip, the stem, the bud and the initial first leaves, the cotyledons. All this happens within the first 12-24 hours for most seeds. The root will push down (how do they know down from up? This makes a great experiment for kids.), the first leaves will emerge, often with the seed coating still attached.
Seedlings are usually started in small pots and then transplanted to larger ones. The reason behind the small pots is simply to save money and have better control some seeds will not germinate so why fill a large pot with soil and waste that resource if the seeds fail? It is also easier to water the seedlings when they are in smaller pots, and to keep a constant level of moisture without flooding the seedlings. Note that you shouldn't reuse soil for seedlings. Put the used soil in the garden. When you transplant your seedlings to new pots, you stimulate root growth by breaking off fine roots accidentally as you plant. Transplanting gives plants more room to grow. Crowded plants will not grow into robust plants. The new soil should be richer, contain more nutrients than the seed-starting soils. When you transplant, you need to discard plants that are not performing well, as hard as that is. A family of four will not need 50 tomato plants, so start thinning them out. But why transplant, you ask? You may have bought lots of plants in six-packs, which are ready to transplant, and have their soil full of roots. You can do the same: start your seedlings in six-packs, and keep them in there until you ready them for transplanting, but you must do what the commercial growers do: feed them regularly with a nutrient-rich water-soluble solution, such as fish emulsion, available at any garden store. You must also be ruthless with the scissors. Each pot in the six-pack should have only one plant, so cut all the extra seedlings, leaving the strongest one to grow. You don't need to pull the rejected ones out just cut the stems, and leave the roots.
I always think of the hardening off process as the first day of pre-school for the little plants. They aren't ready to face the big world yet, so they take it in little doses. The plants need to be toughened before they are planted outside. If this step is skipped, it is possible your plants will not survive transplanting. For a week before hardening off, cut back on fertilizing and watering. Keep the temperatures cool. At the end of the week, move the plants outside to a sheltered place, out of direct sunlight. For the first few days, the plants should be left out for just a few hours at a time in filtered sun. A covered porch would be perfect. Gentle wind can help make the plants strong, but avoid a heavy wind, as the stems are still tender and break easily. By the third day you can leave the plants out all day and by the end of the week you should leave them out at night as long as there is no frost predicted.
Planting in the garden
Your plants are ready, and you are ready to start your garden. You've prepped the soil, turning it over, mapped out your garden design. When do you plant? The general rule in New England is to plant tender annuals after the last hard frost date, usually Memorial Day weekend. Lately our springs have been warm and you may decide to plant the weekend before and get lucky. I always wait, because I don't like running out at night in my pajamas to cover the seedlings with newspaper if a frost is threatened.
Certain plants are happy with frosty weather (peas, radishes), but most of those perform fine if grown directly in the garden, and you wouldn't be starting those indoors. Follow the directions on the seed packets on how to transplant the plant outside. A day that is not too hot and or windy would be best. Tomatoes can be planted deep, up to their first set of leaves. This encourages roots to form along the buried stem, making a strong plant. Most plants should be placed with the soil at the same height on the stem as in the pot. Keep the soil from the pot around the roots: don't knock it off. Plant them with space around them (check the packet again): don't crowd them in the garden. Don't forget to label them. Water each plant as you plant it with a mixture of water and fertilizer. My son learned that the early Americans, like the Native Americans, would place a whole fish in the garden as they planted. Organic fertilizers help the soil, but fish can be smelly. Aged compost and fish emulsion are good alternatives to fish. Our plot at Foss Farm this year will smell interesting he's determined to use whole fishes. Phew!
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito