One of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of gardening is starting your own plants from seed. The varieties of vegetables and flowers you can grow are endless.
Seed-starting supplies include clean pots and planting flats, finely milled sphagnum moss, sterile germination mix – made of peat moss and perlite or vermiculite – and grow lights or a sunny spot to set the containers.
I’ve had good luck using seed propagation systems that have water reservoirs built into them and a wicking material that keeps the soil evenly moist. They can be found at local garden centers and mail-order companies like Gardener’s Supply (www.gardeners.com), Gardens Alive! (www.gardensalive.com) and Park Seed (www.parkseed.com).
You can also reuse clear lettuce and produce containers and milk cartons split in half. All containers must have drainage holes so the soil won’t get too wet.
To be successful, you need to start with seeds that will germinate, or sprout, easily. If you have saved seeds from previous years, it’s important to know whether they are still good. Refer to the accompanying information box on the viability of vegetable seeds.
Seed packets contain a lot of important information: when they were packaged, how deep and far apart to plant the seeds, and when to get them started. A crucial fact is how long it will take each plant to reach maturity.
In the Inland Northwest, our frost-free growing season is generally from mid-May through mid-September. I always choose varieties that will grow quickly. For example, I select tomato varieties that will ripen in 50 to 80 days.
Use the information on the seed packet to determine when to plant them. Many vegetables are cool-season varieties (lettuce, carrots, onions) so they can be planted early in the season before the last frost. Warm-season crops (tomatoes, melons, peppers, squash) can’t be planted outside until after the danger of frost is past. I use a calendar and count backward from the date I want to plant them in the garden to determine when to start them indoors.
The method for starting seeds is pretty straightforward. Fill a container with lightly moistened germination mix and plant the seeds according to the packet.
I’ve learned that seeds that aren’t round will germinate more successfully if they are properly oriented when you plant them. For example, seeds that have one pointed end (corn, squash, melons) should have that end planted facing down. Bean seeds should have the little scar on the curvy side planted down. It’s tedious but it makes a difference.
Sprinkle a thin layer of finely milled sphagnum moss over the soil surface to prevent damping-off disease, a fungus that kills seedlings. Label the container and place a clear cover over it to increase the humidity.
Put the container under grow lights or in a bright location. Once you see small sprouts, remove the cover and monitor the soil moisture.
When the seedlings have a couple of sets of leaves, you can fertilize them with half-strength plant fertilizer. Transplant the seedlings to larger, individual containers as directed on the seed packet.
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