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Starting Seeds

If you want to enjoy those vine-ripened tomatoes and other garden vegetables in the summer, now is the time to start your seeds indoors. Gardening Contributor Georgia Raimondi of The Saturday Early Show has a few pointers on how to get your seeds off to a good start.

Many types of plants and flowers can be started from seed, including eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini, and flowers like zinnias and marigolds.

The best thing about starting your own plant from seeds if that you can choose from a huge selection. Seed catalogs carry hundreds of different varieties, from heirloom tomatoes to exotic flowers. Garden centers only carry a limited variety of flower and vegetable transplants.

It's a fun project for the whole family to get involved in, and a great deal of personal satisfaction may be derived from sowing a tiny seed and nurturing it into a mature plant.

And you can get a head start on the growing season. Many plants, such as tomatoes and peppers, require a longer growing season, and they benefit from those extra weeks indoors.

Seed-starting mix is specially formulated. It’s light and allows for good drainage so that the seeds do not rot. Do not use garden soil or potting soil.

Containers:

  • Peat pots make excellent containers, because peat pots and pellets are biodegradable. They can be transplanted right into the garden without disturbing the seedlings. Just be sure to dig holes deep enough to cover the top of pots with soil.
  • Peat pellets need no soil. Just add water and they will expand to form pot and soil all in one.
  • Recycle cottage cheese, milk, and margarine containers. Even a take-out plastic shell containers can make a great mini-greenhouse. Be sure to wash recycled containers with hot soapy water and a dash of bleach and rinse well. Punch drainage holes in the bottom.
  • Newspaper: Many catalogs sell a simple press for about $15 that will help you make an endless supply of 2.5-inch pots that are perfect for seed starting. Wrap a strip of newspaper around press, fold it under and twist it into the base. Then slip the pot off, fill it with soil and plant seed. Since newspapers are organic and will decompose, the pots and all can be transplanted right into the ground.
To start, fill a container with seed-starting mix to within half an inch of the top. Moisten. Refer to the back of the seed packages for any special instructions; some seeds with a hard coating need to be nicked with a nail file or soaked in water overnight.

The seed packet also will tell you how to sow your seeds, how deep and how far apart. Some seeds need light to germinate, while other seeds need to be covered with a light layer of soil.

Not every seed may germinate, so set several seeds in each pot to ensure a seedling. You may want to use a "hand seeder" (about $25). Squeeze the rubber
grip and you can pick up the tiny seeds one a a time and deposit them quickly with pinpoint accuracy.

Water from the bottom so that the seeds will not be disturbed or drowned. Place the seed containers in a large pan of shallow room-temperature water. Once you can see the soil at the top of the container is moistened, remove the containers from the watering tray. The soil should feel moist, but not soggy.

Seedlings tend to look alike, so it's important to label the containers using wooden plant labels and environmentally friendly marker that won't fade.

Cover the container and place in a warm spot. Warm, moist soil and constant temperatures improve germination and stimulate strong root growth. Bottom heat is the secret to fast seed germination. Also available (for about $60) are heat mats that will keep the soil temperature at a consistent 75 degrees.

As soon as the seeds germinate, remove the container from the heat and take off the cover.

Seedlings need generally 12 to 14 hours of daylight. Because our daylight hours are shorter and the nights are longer, you may want to set up a "grow light" that duplicates the solar spectrum with red for abundant blooms and blue for vigorous growth, or just use a standard four-foot florescent light fixture. Suspend it by an adjustable chain about 3 or 4 inches above the plant and raise it as the seedling grows.

If the light is situated too high above seedlings, seedlings will become leggy and spindly, stretching for the light.

Light Garden fixture ($149.00, sold through catalogs and at garden centers): Not just for seedlings, but also for houseplants during low-light winter months. Comes with special grow light and pull chain system that lets you adjust the height easily.

Be sure to fertilize seedlings once a week with a diluted solution of all-purpose houseplant food.

A week or two before planting time in the garden, "harden off" the transplants by setting them outdoors in a sheltered spot during the day and bringing them in at night. The transition process will allow the plants time to adjust to the bright sun and wind.

Here are a few newly designed commercial seed-starting systems:

  • Propagator System: Originally from England, these propagators with vented domes create a humid microclimate for seedlings, while the heat tray warms the soil to signal seedlings to get growing. The thermostatically controlled heat tray is filled with sand for even heat distribution. Some seedlings may sprout in just 24 hours.
  • Windowsill Greenhouse Includes several growing containers with greenhouse domes, each vented so that you can adjust temperature and humidity to suit individual plants. The cells fit on a single tray with a common capillary matting to simplify watering.
  • Accelerated Propagation System features a water reservoir and wicking mat to eliminate the "drought and drown" extremes that stress seedlings, plus an insulated growing tray and greenhouse cover.
  • Water Gauge ives an instant reading on water levels so you can be sure that your seedlings aren't thirsty.
For more information, contact the Gardener's Supply Company but calling 1-800-427-3363, or visiting its Web site www.gardeners.com.

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