Planning for spring gardens comforts us. There is satisfaction gained from nurturing young green seedlings indoors while awaiting warmer outdoor temperatures. When selecting seeds for starting indoors, pick the ones that benefit from an early start, such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, peas, corn, and basil.
Begin: Order seeds and gather planting containers (recycled cartons, household discards, anything suitable for creating a humid environment). Remember to wash and rinse all reused seed-starting containers with a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water to eliminate fungal contamination.
Poke drainage holes in container bottoms. Add a half inch of pea gravel to create good drainage. Save empty toilet-paper and paper towel rolls throughout the year and use them as seed starting pots. Cut toilet paper rolls in half and fit them snugly (vertically) into containers on top the gravel. These seedling pots can be planted directly into garden soil.
Media: Fill seed-starting pots with a growing medium that encourages germination and root growth. Because seeds need only moisture, warmth and air to germinate, they can be started in nutrient-free material such as Vermiculite, moss, or perlite. You can also use purchased potting soil. Gently firm the medium. Water before planting seeds so that the medium is thoroughly moistened but not soggy. Use warm water for quick absorption. Don’t water immediately after planting seeds; you might wash seeds away or bury them too deeply.
Plant Seeds: Place seeds on surface of planting medium; scatter a thin covering of soil over the seeds and press gently. Label with the variety name and planting dates.
Most homes have warm spots-on top the refrigerator or under a grow light-that will help seeds germinate (best between 70 and 85 degrees). Water as needed to keep moist but not too wet. Once a sprout nudges above the soil surface, expose the seedling to light to avoid long, spindly, weak stems.
Techniques: The first leaves- ‘seed leaves’-are less notched than those that will appear later. Transplant when seedlings develop their first true leaves, but before the second set of true leaves appear. If seedlings are growing too thickly in their germination flats, snip off extras with scissors. Don’t pull them; it will disturb the other roots.
As plants develop, they need richer soil and more room. If they cannot be transplanted on schedule, feed them a weekly dose of diluted plant fertilizer, such as fish emulsion.
Disease: The most common disease of young seedlings is damping-off, caused by a fungus that thrives in wet, poorly ventilated places. When an otherwise healthy, green-leafed young plant falls over, the stem at soil level looks pinched. Prevention is easier than cure. From the start, provide good air circulation and avoid over-watering. If only a few seedlings are affected, save the rest by removing the affected seedlings and improving drainage and air circulation. (Some organic gardeners recommend spraying the survivors with chamomile or garlic tea.)
Harden Off-Outdoor Planting: Toughen your new plants to withstand harsher outdoor conditions. Water less, keep the plants a bit cooler and stop fertilizing. Hardening off takes a week or so from the time you first set the plants outside until you plant them in the ground. At first, give them a half-day of daylight in a sheltered place. Gradually work up to full sun. If frost warnings exist, be sure to cover your young plants.
After weeks of careful tending, your seedlings are ready for the spring garden. You can look forward to healthy, fruitful harvests.
Betty Hensley has been a UCCE Tuolumne County Master Gardener for 10 years. She has published articles in both editions of the Master Gardener book Sharing the Knowledge: Gardening in the Mother Lode (available at the UCCE office at 52 N. Washington St., Sonora). For many years, she has written the “Mountain Gardener” column for the Sierra Mountain Times and the Twain Harte Chamber of Commerce newsletter.