Growing transplants from seed puts the harvest time weeks sooner than with direct sowing in the garden. Plus, it’s the only way to grow a particular plant variety that interests you when you can’t find it offered at the local nursery. It’s fun to study the seed catalogs with your family, choosing which plants to try!Seeds are tiny, living entities, so you must store them properly to maintain viability. Once the seed packets are opened, you should label them—name, source, year of purchase—and store them in a small re-closable bag that’s kept in a larger plastic container. Keep the container in a cool, dark location with low humidity, like a refrigerator.
Use a commercial seed-starting mix. This is important to prevent seedling diseases; commercial mixes have been sterilized. Large seeds and seeds of plants that resent root disturbance when transplanted are best sown into small, individual containers such as cell packs, plug trays or peat or paper pots. Larger plastic pots, or recycled yogurt or margarine tubs with holes poked in the bottom, work well for sowing multiple smaller seeds. If recycled containers are used, sterilize them by scrubbing with a mixture of one part bleach to nine parts water. As with all potting projects, always pre-moisten the planting mix before filling the container. The soil mix should feel as wet as a squeezed-out sponge. Fill the container with the moistened soil and press lightly. Water again, and allow the container to drain.
Sow small seeds directly on the soil surface. Plant larger seeds in a shallow depression. Cover the seed with vermiculite or seed-starting mix, to a depth of twice the seed’s diameter. Each seed must be in firm contact with the moist soil to begin germinating, so use your fingers or the bottom of a glass to gently tamp down the surface.Water, and cover the container with a sheet of clear plastic or one of the inexpensive greenhouse domes found at plant nurseries. If the soil surface gets dry, lift the plastic covering and mist it with water from a spray bottle. Remove the cover as soon as you see germination to allow for good air circulation.Most seeds require temperatures of 65° to 75°F for speedy germination. If your room is cooler than that, consider purchasing a heating pad designed especially for plant use.
After germination, seedlings need bright light to avoid spindly growth. If you do not have access to a full southern exposure, consider growing the seedlings under lights. Give the container a quarter turn each day to prevent the seedlings from reaching toward the light source and developing weak, elongated stems. Also, gently brush the palm of your hand against the tops of the seedlings each day—this will encourage strong stem growth, too. When the “true leaves” emerge—those are the first leaves following the initial pair of “seed leaves”—it’s time to begin a half-strength liquid fertilizer regimen on a weekly basis.To prevent the fungal infection often referred to as “damping-off,” place a small fan near your seedlings. Keep the fan on low and direct it to blow across the containers at the soil level where air may become trapped and stagnant.
For the least shock to the young plants, transplant the seedlings into individual containers as young as your fingers can easily handle them. It’s best to transplant from the sowing flat when one set of “true leaves” has developed. Move the seedlings by grasping the small leaves—do not grab the seedlings by their stems, which are easily crushed or bent.When the roots on an individually planted seedling fill the container, it’s time to move the plant up into the next-larger size pot. Choose a container that’s an inch or so larger in diameter than the current pot.
Most seedlings will be ready to plant outdoors in about six weeks. Before the seedlings can be planted outdoors, they need to be hardened off, or acclimated to direct sunlight and fluctuating temperatures. It is best to do this over a three- to five-day period by placing them outdoors in shade the first day, in direct sunlight during the morning only of the second day, then increasing their time in the sun by a few hours each day until they are vigorous enough to be transplanted. Susan M. Eble is an avid gardener and garden writer, and has a master’s degree in horticulture.Photography by Ryan Kurtz
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