Starting seeds indoors
By Ray Ridlen
Starting your own seeds indoors may seem like a complex process, but it really is very simple and will give you an endless range of flower and vegetable cultivars from which to choose.
Seeds can be germinated in an open flat, individual pots or sections of pots like six-packs or four-packs. Individual containers or sections of containers are preferable. Some containers, such as peat pots, paper pots, and soil blocks can go right into the garden with the plant during transplanting. Other pots must be slipped off the root ball before planting. Want to recycle as you start the seedlings? Milk cartons and plastic pop bottles can also be cut down and recycled for use in seeding if drainage holes are made in the bottom of each container. To reuse any previously used containers, wash them, then dip them in a solution of 1 cup bleach and 9 cups water.
Your growing media should be porous, with good air spaces and good water drainage. Don't use plain garden soil to start seedlings, as it becomes a hard mass that is difficult for delicate seedlings to grow in. There are several seed starting mixes available at garden centers. Moisten the planting mix before filling the containers. This makes the media easier to handle and easier to water after seeding.
Plant two or three seeds in each pot (you will snip off the weaker seedlings later), according to the directions on the seed package regarding depth. Be sure to label each type of plant so that no mix-ups occur. After seeding, set the pots in a shallow container of water and let the planting media soak up the water until the surface looks moist. This will prevent the seeds from being washed away at the first watering.
Cover the containers with clear plastic wrap initially to help preserve moisture. Check the pots daily for the first signs of germination and remove the plastic immediately after germination has started. Until then keep the soil moist but not waterlogged, and temperatures at 72 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
As soon as new seedlings begin to emerge from the soil, they need to receive good, strong light. Sixteen hours of light is ideal. Plants that do not receive enough light, or strong enough light, will become tall, thin, leggy and pale green. Ideally your plants should be short, stocky and dark green. This can be accomplished with a combination of good light and cool temperatures.
Temperature and watering
After germination, your plants require daytime temperatures of about 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime temperatures about 10 degrees lower. Lower temperatures will help to produce shorter, stockier plants.
Indoor humidity levels during the winter are very low and can quickly pull moisture away from your seedlings. Provide the plants with a steady supply of water, allowing them to dry out partially between waterings.
Seedlings can be damaged by fertilizer applied during the seeding process or before they have produced their first true leaves. "True leaves" are leaves that look like miniature replicas of the mature plant's leaves. Use a balanced fertilizer at half strength for the first three weeks, applied once a week. After that, use the fertilizer full strength, applied every 10 to 14 days.
If the plants were seeded into a flat instead of individual containers, they should be transplanted when the first pair of true leaves appears, giving them enough space to develop properly. Handle the seedlings gently by the leaves and not by the stem. Use a pencil to gently ease the seedlings apart, damaging the roots as little as possible. A 2" to 4" pot is big enough to grow most seedlings suitable for planting in the garden.
Preparing for the garden
Hardening off is a process that causes a change in the quality of growth the seedlings produce. It is accomplished by gradually changing the environmental conditions around the seedlings. If plants are not hardened off and are placed directly in the garden from the greenhouse or home, they could be severely affected. Sunburn, wind desiccation, cold injury and death are just a few of the ill affects the seedlings would experience.
Hardening off should be started at least 2 weeks before the plants are scheduled to be planted in the garden. If possible, plants should be moved to in a shady location protected from strong winds. When put outdoors the plants should be gradually moved into stronger sunlight. Gradually reduce the frequency of watering to slow the seedlings' growth, but don't allow the plants to wilt.
A seedling that is ready to be transplanted into the garden should be 4" to 6" tall and have two to four pairs of true leaves. It should be strong, stocky and a good dark green color.