Every gardener has experienced that gardening ailment called the gardener’s itch. The gardener’s itch symptoms include drooling over seed catalogues, dreaming about the gardening section of the home improvement center, and an uncontrollable hunger for fresh tomatoes. The cure for this ailment is as simple as starting seeds for the garden.
Seed germination is not a complicated process. It requires a seed starting medium, containers, and fresh seeds. If the gardener saved seeds from last year, it may be a good idea to test the vitality of the seeds. To do this, simply plant three to five seeds in a container and wait between one to two weeks for germination. If all seeds germinate, the seeds are viable. But if fewer seeds germinate, one may consider buying new seeds.
Soil is an important factor that the gardener should not skimp on when planting seeds. A good seed-starting medium starts with a mixture of four parts peat moss to two parts perlite and vermiculite. Mix the components in a clean bucket. If not using right away, place in a bucket that has a lid that fits securely on top or store in resealable plastic bags.
The next step required for seed germination is cleaning all containers. Seed flats, clay pots, and any other container that may be used to plant seeds needs to be scrubbed and washed in a solution of one-tablespoon dish soap to one cap full of bleach. Once cleaned, rinse the containers in clear water and let dry in the sun. Sunlight is a great disinfectant and will kill anything that may remain on the containers. The only exception to this process is if one is re-purposing items. These items include cardboard egg cartons, and cardboard milk cartons. If the gardener is using these types of items, simply move on to the next step.
Once the containers have dried, fill them within ½-inch of the top. Moisten the seed-starting medium, but do not make it soggy. Next, select the seeds that you may want to plant and make corresponding plant labels to match. While you may feel that you will remember what they are, always label the containers with the plant type and planting date.
Now comes the fun part of planting seeds. Knowing how deep to place the seeds can be a challenge. The gardener’s golden rule is never plant seeds deeper than 2 times their diameter. In common language, very small seeds require only ¼-inch of soil on top of them while larger seeds require actually digging a hole and burying. These include pumpkin, watermelon, and squashes just to name a few.
To plant seeds; create a furrow down the soil in the chosen container. Pick up small seeds by dipping a pencil point in water and placing the seed in the furrow. You can also fold a piece of paper in half and place seeds in fold. Then gently shake over the furrow and cover with the soil.
If the containers of seeds are not going to be placed in a greenhouse, then place them in plastic bags. Another approach, if using flats, is to place four layers of newspaper down on top of the soil and top with a sheet of glass. Stack another flat on top and repeat the process until all flats are covered. Then place containers in a warm room and wait. Make sure to monitor the progress of the seeds. Once seeds begin to germinate, remove any items from the flats such as plastic bags or the glass. Then move germinated seeds to a sunny window.
Continue to monitor soil moisture and seed germination. Once seedlings have developed two sets of leaves, it is time to move them to a new container. But before the move happens, an all-purpose soil mix needs to be created.
A good homemade soil is one that consists of 1/3 each garden soil or finished compost, sand or perlite, and peat moss. Place this mixture in heat resistant pan and cover with foil. Push a thermometer through the foil into the soil and place in an oven preheated at 250F degrees. Cook the soil for 30 minutes until it reaches 180F degrees. Let the soil cool before moving on to the next step. If not using immediately, leave the container sealed up with foil or place in plastic bags.
Before moving seedlings to their new home, clean the containers with soapy water and bleach. Let dry completely before placing soil into them. Also, try to stay with containers that have drainage holes. This will help prevent damping off disease.
Fill the containers within ½-inch of the top using the sterilized soil mixture. Then remove seedlings. This can be done by simply scooping the seedling from underneath the soil and placing it in the container. Another approach is to gently pull them out of the soil, but do not do this unless you are a skilled gardener. This approach can cause a lot of plant damage. Regardless of the approach, remember to check the health of the seedlings. If any are weak or deformed, do not replant.
Place seedling in a sunny location and monitor. Damping off and dry soil can lead to the death of seedlings very quickly. Also, depending on when the seeds are started, they may require more than one transplanting before the plants are placed in the garden.
Fertilizing seedlings begins once the seeds develop two sets of leaves. Start out with a diluted version of the chosen fertilizer until five sets of leaves have developed. Continue to fertilize once a week with the full strength version until the plants are placed in the garden.
Before placing in the garden, the seedlings will have to be hardened-off. This process entails exposing the plant material to the outdoor environment a little at a time. To begin the process, place the plants outside under a shade tree for three hours during the first three days. Increase the time over a two-week period until the plants can be left outside for the whole day. If shade is not available, a moveable plant house greenhouse will create the desired shade.
If the seedlings are going to be placed in the garden prior to the frost-free date, make sure to warm the soil. Covering the soil with plastic for at least one month before planting can warm it and kill weeds seeds. This plastic can even be left on and planted right through. Additional protection may be need including row house greenhouses and plant house greenhouses.
Starting seeds indoors is a great treatment for the ailment that many gardeners suffer during the cold, gray months of winter. But remember, for seed germination to be successful, use fresh seed and make the soil mixture. Before you know it that black thumb will turn green and your mood will soar like a summer breeze.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.