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Thu, April 25

Starting seeds for early spring gardens

Courtesy photo<br>Avoid buying old seeds. Purchase only fresh seed with a 2012 packaging date.

Courtesy photo<br>Avoid buying old seeds. Purchase only fresh seed with a 2012 packaging date.

This year's gardening season kicks off in March with cool season vegetables. Since seedlings take as long as eight weeks before they are ready for transplanting out of doors and the 2012 vegetable and flower seeds have arrived, now is the perfect time to start planning an early spring garden!

Healthy children make for strong adults, and the same applies in the plant world. Give a seedling a healthy start, and it will pay you dividends all season long. That healthy start comes in the form of a controlled, indoor environment. This week's article covers seed, soil, and the nurturing of seedlings for this spring's gardens.

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The general rule is to start transplants indoors six to eight weeks before planting. Some plants, such as peppers and petunias, require even more time. The seed packet will give some indication of indoor planting times and experimentation helps you fine-tune when to start.

Since 10 heads of organic lettuce in two weeks is just too much for most families, it's wise to plant a series of seedlings, especially of lettuce and cabbage. This will create a succession of plantings that will extend the harvest, providing a couple of heads of lettuce or cabbage per week.

The best advice I can give you is to select the highest quality seed possible. Verify the freshness of your seed before purchase. Seed should be date-stamped no more that nine months from the date of use. Seed older than a year will have noticeably reduced germination rates and will yield lesser quality produce. Buying seed locally rather than from an online catalog gives you the hands-on advantage to check the date stamps. I also encourage buying organic seed because organic seed producers use a better quality of seed.

Potting soils specific for starting seed need to be much lighter than regular potting soil. "Seedling Start Mix" allows more oxygen at the soil level, which produces seedlings with deeper roots. This is especially important for medicinal plants started indoors. Using the right seedling soil and buying better quality seed greatly increases your success rate with seedlings.

Using the individualized seed pots and trays helps to minimize transplant shock. If you select containers that are too small, your seedlings will outgrow their indoor homes before they're ready for transplant and this will affect fruit production negatively. Large peat pots promote more open development of roots, but if too many seeds are started in each pot, separating individual plants later can result in tearing of roots and increased transplant shock.

How to start seedlings:

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. A seemingly easy step, but new gardeners have a habit of planting seed far too deeply. I recommend planting seeds a little less than the recommended depth. You carefully can add soil around the seedlings later if needed.

3. Provide bottom warmth to the seeds. Garden centers have heating mats just for this purpose and they are good investments if you plan on starting seedlings over the next few years. The top of a refrigerator, a warm oven or space by a fireplace can skip this added expense.

4. Seed incubators are popular for starting seeds. Create a wooden or plastic enclosure large enough to hold the containers you are using. Put a light inside the enclosure. The heat from the light will raise the temperature and create a greenhouse effect.

5. Provide water to your seedlings every couple of days. Water up from the root level to reduce disease of the tender new growth and to avoid dislodging new seedlings from the soil. Overly wet soil encourages the development of a 'damping off disease'. Let the soil dry out a little on the top, then water thoroughly.

6. Now the wait begins! The time required to germinate may be a few days to a few weeks. Germination time varies widely, but, conveniently, usually is printed 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 three weeks to find out the planting went awry.

7. After the second set of leaves emerges from the seedling use "Root & Grow Plant Starter" 4-10-3 to promote better root development and more top growth. I recommend a dilution of half to a third strength for new seedlings.

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When using Earth Boxes, sow seed directly into the containers. A 1'x 2' grow box makes the perfect garden-ready size to receive potting soil and seed. Start seedlings directly in these self-watering gardens and roll them to the patio or deck after the risk of frost. Grow boxes are easy to use and perfect for small mountain gardens.

Another nifty new gardening product for 2012 is the NuVue "Winter Frost Covers." Frost cover is traditionally thin white cloth that protects new plantings down to 25 degrees. In a mountain setting the wind can carry away theses sheets of protection leaving vulnerable young plants exposed. The NuVue frost covers are mini spring-up tents that pop on right over new plants.

This is an exciting innovation and well worth the investment for guaranteed frost protection. The covers come in several tent sizes, the medium size being the most useful. It fits beautifully over and around an Earth Box garden to protect and encourage stronger growth.

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 www.wattersonline.com.

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