Sunday, March 15, 2015

Tips on Starting Seeds Indoors for Spring Planting

spring plantingA How-to Guide for Successful Seedlings

The seed catalogs started showing up in the mailbox a few months ago, reminding us that we would be starting our seeds indoors before too long. My daughters would scour the glossy advertisements looking for new and unheard-of exotic varieties, then bring me their crayon-circled finds as if showcasing a 'what I want for Christmas' list. Athena cantaloupe, savoy cabbage, zebra tomatoes - each looked appetizing in the pictures, but it was up to me to investigate how well these species would fit into our garden. Hardiness zone is one consideration, but we needed to be mindful of companion plantings, pests, and growing season requirements. Once the list was determined, we placed our orders and waited.
Starting Seeds Indoors
 
Each seed packet comes with its own recommended germination time for preseason planting, but the package only tells part of the story. Information can be vague, as customers are all over the world and conditions vary. The Nebraska-Lincoln Farm Extension recommends being "conservative in determining the average soil temperature (on the package) by using the daily high and low soil temperatures over at least two weeks. For home garden seed packets, the days to germination indicates the number of days before the first sprouts emerge above ground."

This year, I had my daughters list the vegetables, melons, and flowers on individual sheets of paper along with the information found on the seed company packet. Then, we cross-referenced these notes against our hardiness zone, the Old Farmer's Almanac, as well as the information available on the USDA gardening sites. This took us a good week, as we were researching over 20 different seeds, but once completed, the calendar was filled and we had a plan for what plants we would start germinating, and when. Our last frost date was important to mark, as all seedling schedules are based off of that, so it was it's calendar slot was illustrated with a giant, happy sun. In general, tomatoes and peppers will be started 10 weeks out from the last frost date, while cabbages and lettuces need 6, and melons and cucumbers fall between 2 and 4 weeks.


How to Plant the Seeds
 
We converted a corner of the play room with great south-facing windows to our in-home greenhouse. The location was accessible to the girls for tending, and out of the way to avoid bumping legs and curious cats. We have a pair of antique iron planter stands where our seedling trays are set up, and a handy shelf for holding a watering can and little tools to make the job more fun like pruning scissors, popsicle sticks for labeling, and twine. Each seed will be placed in the planting tray, no deeper than twice it's length. There are some exceptions, but this is a good rule to follow when in doubt. Once in the medium, the trays are watered lightly and covered with a plastic shell to conserve moisture and help regulate heat.


What Materials to Use
 
We had thought of simplifying our lives by purchasing premixed starting medium, but in the spirit of this gardening season, we arrived at the decision to mix our own. The formula for the growing medium is simple - equal parts vermiculite for nutrients, sphagnum peat moss for moisture retention, and perlite to help aeration. Once the medium is in the trays, and the seeds are in the medium and watered, we'll turn on the heat mat to help regulate temperatures. As noted in the Nebraska paper mentioned above, most home planted seedlings do well in 70 degree heat, but some varieties require a variation of temps to germinate.


Hardening Off Seedlings


After weeks of careful watering and observation, the seeds will start to mature and my girls step up their responsibilities by carefully transplanting the young plants to larger pots as needed. After all, healthy root structure is just as important as healthy leaves above soil. We've been careful not to over plant, so we have just the right amount of seedlings to move to the garden as the calendar schedule suggests. Once the threat of frost is past, the seedling will gradually be moved outside for a little bit each day for about a week. This way, the outside temps and environment won't shock the young plants, and they can adjust to their new home's conditions. After a week of lengthened hardening, the young plants are placed in our square foot beds, and Spring can truly begin in earnest.