Giving the Garden a Boost

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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The seed catalogs have been streaming in. They all promise succulent vegetables, gorgeous flowers and all in all, a bountiful harvest. I love paging through them and my mind always thinks that my garden will look like those in the seed catalogs even though I know reality is usually something different.

However, this year I plan on giving the garden a little boost and I don’t mean fertilizer. I have never started plants inside and transplanted them, either for lack of inspiration or fear of being unsuccessful. There is always that window when plants are transplanted that sets them back for a few days and they go through their ugly stage. But, with just a little know-how, this can be avoided and you can give your garden a boost with a minimal amount of effort.

The first step is to know which plants will do well started indoors and which prefer starting in the outdoor sunshine. Vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and onions do well with an inside boost. Radishes, carrots, leaf lettuce, beets, peas and beans are fine to start in direct soil. This isn’t to say that they cannot be grown inside if you want to grow them to have fresh vegetables to munch during the cold months.

The basic guideline is to start your seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date for your area. This usually falls in February or March for most locales. It is sometime during this time span that cool weather vegetables can be planted outside. It is an unwritten rule of thumb that potatoes should be planted on Good Friday, regardless.

Many flower varieties can also be started indoors, after all, the greenhouses have to start somewhere.  Most annuals such as vinca, celosia, snapdragons and sunflowers do well with a start inside. This is also true for most perennials such as Black-eyed Susans, columbine, blue flax, lupine and pinks, to name a few. Keep in mind that many of these will take a year to start blooming, but the same is true if they are started outside.

The three factors to keep in mind are moisture, temperature, and light, for these are the three elements that trigger germination. And, you guessed it, the three have to be in the right proportions. As far as light, you don’t need expensive greenhouses to start your seeds. A sunny southern window will work just fine.

Sometimes Mother Nature does not cooperate though and getting enough sun can be tricky at times during the winter months. In these cases, you may want to supplement with artificial light sources. There are full spectrum fluorescent bulbs like the Sun-Lite bulbs, which produce a balance of cool and warm light that replicates the natural solar spectrum. These are excellent for seedlings and houseplants alike. The thing to remember is to keep the seedlings under light for 12 to 16 hours a day after they germinate and to continue doing this for 12 to 14 days after germination.

Sunlight contains all the colors of the spectrum just like fluorescent lights do. Black lights contain ultraviolet rays, which are found in sunlight. Horticultural LED lights are a good choice because they produce only the wavelengths that are most utilized by plants. Halogen lights can also provide full spectrum light but, like incandescent lighting, they put off a lot of heat and are less energy efficient than fluorescents. All of these light choices will do the job, so the choice boils down to what is best in each individual situation.

Temperature is probably the easiest of the three elements to control. Plants like it between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the preferred temperature for most households. One note here, if you want to trigger germination quickly, simply keep the temperature above 75 degrees.

The key to the right amount of water is the word “moist.” New plants do not want a soggy bed to lie in, but neither do they want it dry, especially while they are trying to sprout. A fine, misty spray is best, usually applied once a day is ample, taking care not to have too heavy a spray that it will wash the seed from its bedding. In dry soils the seed remains hard so it can’t germinate. The rule of thumb here is that the soil should feel moist from a half to one inch below the surface.

When it comes to potting containers, almost anything goes. Cardboard egg cartons work well. Each segment is the perfect size for starting seed and when ready, the entire container can be put in the ground as they are biodegradable. Eggshells, with small holes punched in the bottoms, are also excellent sources. Eggshell halves fit perfectly in the egg carton trays and the shells themselves, when crushed, make great soil or compost pile additives. Individual yogurt cups, paper coffee cups, and paper towel and toilet paper rolls will also serve the purpose. Just remember to put drainage holes in them and to only plant ones that are biodegradable.

The to-go containers with plastic lids from restaurants make excellent choices too. These can be filled with soil and the lids act like mini greenhouses while the seedlings get their start.

Choosing the right soil will help your chances of success. Regular potting soil may be used but it has a more coarse texture and it may contain field soil, compost or composted manure. Be careful that the starting soil you choose does not contain spores or weed seeds or you will just import your problems from outside.

Oxygen is vital to germination. Until seeds have leaves to use solar energy, they rely on food reserves in the soil to grow new cells. For this reason, always use light textured potting medium to start seeds. You can make your own seed-starting mix by blending peat moss with compost and heating it to 150 degrees to kill any weed seeds and diseases. Small amounts of vermicompost  can be added but no more than 10 percent by volume. It is made from two naturally occurring minerals which can retain and absorb several times their weight in moisture while still holding oxygen.

All in all, starting seeds indoors is a fairly simple process. Although you take precautions to make sure there are all the right growing conditions, the seeds will still face challenges from fungi and bacteria in the water and soil. Using fresh starting mix each year will help prevent some of this. Still, for any number of reasons, some seeds will produce seedlings that will keel over and die, be spindly or never germinate at all.

Nevertheless, starting your own seeds indoors definitely has its own rewards. It can deepen your garden diversity, save money, and let you have extra seedlings to share. Besides that, in the depths of winter, who doesn’t like to watch seeds springing to life to signal another growing season has begun.       

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