Starting Seeds for Spring Planting
by Mike Kelly
Time to start seeds for lettuce, cauliflower, cabbage, chard, broccoli, and any other vegetables that can be set out in the garden in mid- March. Starting seeds is a mystery to some gardeners, and they rely on what they can buy as plants ready to go in the ground. This is all right, but limits your choices of varieties to those available—- which may or may not be suited to our growing conditions. Starting seeds is best done indoors, using a good growing medium such as mushroom compost. I always preferred a product known as “Supersoil”, but can no longer find it. Coquille Gardens carries a mushroom compost that I will try this year.
Starting seeds indoors, rather than in a hot house, assures better germination because the temperature is much more even, say 65 to 75 degrees, the temperature nearly all vegetable seeds prefer. Hot houses, unless they have an excellent climate control system, tend to have too much variance between night and day. This time of year mine will get to eighty degrees or so on sunny days, and fall to close to freezing at night. This is not conducive to seed germination. I plant seeds in small containers, one type of seed to a container. So if I am starting seeds for six different vegetables, I will need six containers. The planting medium is watered, allowed to drain well, and then the seeds are scattered on top. Another layer of planting medium is sprinkled on top, perhaps an eighth to a quarter inch deep, lightly pressed down, and then just barely dampened. Seed will germinate within a three day to two week period, depending on the type of vegetable. Parsley seems to take the full two weeks, whereas most lettuce and fresh cole seeds will be up in just several days. It should not be necessary to water during this time, and if you do, do so very sparingly.
When the seedlings have their first leaves, the primary leaves or cotyledons, is when they are transplanted from the container they were started in, into individual containers. These are usually two and a half to three inch plastic containers, filled with a potting soil, homemade or store bought, that has been moistened thoroughly, and allowed to drain and come to room temperature before transplanting. This is assured if it is left over night. Transplanting the seedlings that are at room temperature into a cold potting soil can shock or even kill them. These little seedlings that have a mostly straight root that hasn’t started to branch yet are surprisingly hardy. An old paring knife is my tool of choice. Use it to gently dig and lift some of the seedlings from their original pot. They can be laid on a piece of newspaper, to contain the soil that comes with them. Then put the knife into the new container and wiggle it to make a slit large and deep enough, deeper is better, to hold the seedling.
Pick up each seedling, place it in its new container, gently firm the soil down, and that is all there is to it. Occasionally you may break a stem, but more than likely you will be amazed that when you look at your efforts the next day, all will be upright, and new growth will soon be evident. By having the soil into which you transplant well moistened there is no need to water after transplanting, which usually results in some of the little plants being drowned or knocked over. The containers can be placed into plastic flats with no drainage holes.
My seedlings and transplants are grown in the pantry, under a florescent shop light, set on homemade stands that keep the lamps two to four inches above the top of the seedlings. The fixture is on a timer set to give light fourteen hours a day. In approximately two weeks, sometimes three, the plants are ready to be moved to the cold frame for hardening off for several days, or longer if needed when the garden conditions are not favorable for working the soil. Everybody doesn’t have a cold frame, so the plants can be hardened off by setting outside during the warmer part of the day, gradually leaving them outside longer and longer. Eventually they will stay out all night, with no damage, and now they are ready to be set into the garden. If you have a hot house, after the plants have been set outside for several days, they can be moved into it, provided you insure it doesn’t become too hot.
Some watering during the growing period in the containers is necessary, but it should be done sparingly, keeping an eye on the flats the containers are set in, to make sure they do not stand in water for more than an hour or so. If you do overwater, the flat can be gently tipped to pour out the excess. For those using the community garden, now is the time to get your plants started.