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Wed, Aug. 21

It's time to think about seedlings

Ken Lain/Courtesy photo
The main reason gardeners start seedlings indoors is to extend harvesting.

Ken Lain/Courtesy photo The main reason gardeners start seedlings indoors is to extend harvesting.

Garden Alert! Heavy snow is breaking branches off of juniper, pine, spruce, and cypress evergreens. Also being damaged are tall broad leafs like photinia, magnolia and Silverberry. When our trees' branches become weighed down with too much snow, we must be sure to sweep the bulk of it off the primary branches. This simple act reduces damage and keeps the shape of landscape plants looking good.

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Soon many gardeners will be starting their spring gardens indoors from seeds. They enjoy the challenge of growing difficult-to-start petunias or peppers and putting out seedlings that are different from those found at local garden centers. However, the main reason gardeners start their seedlings indoors is to extend harvesting. With early starts, many flowers and vegetables will produce weeks earlier than those seeded directly in the garden. For example, when started indoors, marigolds will flower earlier and continue to produce flowers well into November.

The general rule is to start transplants indoors six to eight weeks before you wish to plant. Some plants, such as peppers and petunias, require even more time. Plant a series of seedlings, especially for lettuce, mustard and cabbage, to guarantee a succession of plantings for a continuing harvest. Ten heads of organic lettuce in two weeks is just too much for most families. But, a couple of heads a week is just about right and is possible with staggered plantings.

The best advice I can give you is to select the highest-quality seed possible and purchase seedling-specific soils. These two ingredients can mean the difference between failure and success with seedlings. Seedling potting soil is much lighter than regular potting soil, and far better than a heavier mix.

Using the individualized seed pots and trays helps to minimize transplant shock. If you select a container that is too small, your seedling can outgrow its home before you are ready to transplant it. This definitely will result in poor fruit production. Large peat pots provide for more open development of roots and eliminate the need to separate individual plants later. Separating seedlings can result in tearing of young roots and increasing transplant shock.

1. Fill the containers with the seed starting mix and water thoroughly. Make sure the soil is wet, but not soaking.

2. Plant the seeds. This seems like an easy step, but new gardeners tend to plant seeds too deep. I recommend planting seeds a little less than the recommended depth, carefully adding soil around the seedlings later if needed.

3. Provide bottom warmth to the seeds. Garden centers have heating mats just for this purpose and are a good investment if you plan on starting seedlings over several years. The top of a refrigerator, a warm oven, or beside a fireplace also can provide a warm environment.

4. A seed incubator is a good substitute for a heating mat. Create a wooden or plastic enclosure large enough to hold the seed containers. Put a light inside the enclosure. The heat from the light will provide the temperature necessary for young seedlings.

5. Now the wait begins! The time required to germinate may be a few days to a few weeks. Germination time varies widely and is usually on the seed packet. For seeds with a long germination period, I recommend planting in smaller groups over a couple of weeks. If the first group does not germinate, you haven't wasted weeks to find out the planting went awry.

As soon as the new seedling begins to emerge, it seeks light, so place it by a window with a southern exposure. Be aware that this alone may not be enough for the seedling to grow healthy and strong. First, this time of year the sun is not up very long. Second, many winter days are overcast with little or no direct sun. An artificial grow light helps subsidize Mother Nature and increase plant heartiness.

Provide water to your seedlings every couple of days. Do not soak the soil; overly-wet soil encourages the development of "damping off disease." Let the soil dry out a little on the top, then water thoroughly.

Seedlings do not need a lot of extra nutrients in the first few days of life. A good seedling potting soil comes with a balanced formula of nutrients that the seedlings need. After several days, adding a liquid fertilizer or fish emulsion to the water is helpful; I recommend half- to a third-strength for this purpose.

Although you ultimately will have to thin out the seedlings, you may want to delay thinning until the stronger growths are obvious. Thinning out is essential because it reduces overcrowding at the root level.

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Every Saturday until spring I host classes showing how to be a smarter gardener. This morning's 9:30 class, "Wildflowers Unleashed," is perfectly suited for our weather because wildflowers need cold and snow to germinate properly. Next Saturday is one of my most anticipated classes of each year: "Gardening for Newcomers."

Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.

Throughout the week, Ken Lain is at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, and can be contacted through his website at www.wattersonline.com. Ken says, "My personal mission is to help local homeowners garden better in our mountain landscapes."

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