By Jackie Overom
As we plan ahead for our Spring gardening fun many folks love to begin by deciding what to plant from seed. By starting seeds indoors here in Minnesota zone 4, you can get a 4 to 6 week head start on the gardening season. Some crops such as tomatoes and peppers will produce much earlier in our summer once they have that early start indoors. Other plants, such as cabbage, broccoli, and peas prefer cooler growing conditions and when they are planted outside as young seedlings in the cool Spring you will have more success with them. Starting plants , both vegetables and flowers, from seed is fun and rewarding. So, let’s begin.
First, what to plant? The choices are endless and browsing through the many seed packets can be a treasure hunt. Most seeds should be started 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost. Our last average frost here in the Twin Cities is around May 15. Every year that can be a little different, so be a good weather watcher. We have had rare frosts in June. In that case you would have to cover your young transplants to protect them from the frost. On the seed packets you will find very good directions as when to start your seeds and good general information. You will learn days to germination, days to harvest, planting depth, and row spacing if you are planting directly in the garden. At Pahl’s we have a great selection of seeds to choose from.
Once you have chosen your seeds you will need to select a good growing medium. Seedlings are delicate and need a sterile seed starting mix. Never use garden soil as it can contain pathogens. Most seeding soil is peat based and works wonderfully. Seeds are little miracles and contain all the nutrients your seed needs to germinate within the seed itself.
Containers can be almost anything that will hold your sterile starting mix. The container must have a drainage hole and be sterile also. If you are using cell packs or pots that have been previously used wash them in a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Nice products that are very easy to use are pre-made peat pots. When the seedlings are ready to plant outside you plant the entire pot and there is no transplant shock for the seedling.
Seed-starting happens in two stages. Germination is the first stage and the small seed will come to life. You don’t need light to germinate seeds but you will need gentle warmth. You can buy special heating mats to put your containers on or the top of a refrigerator or dryer can work very well. Once you see green sprouts about ½ an inch tall you will need to move your new plants to a cooler environment, 60 to 70 degrees, and provide good light.
Your seedlings will now need lots of light. Without enough light young plants can become stalky, feeble, or too spindly. Sunny South facing windows can work for some seedlings, but in Minnesota we are so far North that extra lighting is best. Fluorescent lights work well and are cool enough so they won’t burn your young plants. If you have a two tube fixture use one cool-white tube and one red-light tube. That way you will provide a wider spectrum of light. Your lights should be no more than 3 to 4 inches above your plants as they grow. Suspending your lighting on chains is an easy way for you to adjust the height. Young plants will love 16 to 18 hours of light each day.
Your plants will consist mostly of water and need it for the energy they use in growing. Sow your seeds in a moistened mix. You will cover your containers loosely with clear plastic until your seeds sprout. Once your seeds have sprouted, uncover them and water the containers from the bottom. Setting your container in a tray would be perfect. If you water your young plants from the top you may risk infection from a fungus called “damping off”.
Hardening off is simply getting your young plants accustomed to the natural elements in nature. You have been growing them in a protected environment and once the danger of frost is past you need to set them outdoors for some time to get them used to wind, sun, etc. Begin by setting your containers in a semi-shaded place for a few hours and gradually increase the time and amount of light for about a week. Your plants will then be happy to be outside where they can thrive and grow.
You now have all the basic information to begin your adventure in gardening for 2013! As Pahl’s gardeners, we will help you all we can to ensure you have wonderful success in your seed starting adventure.