by Martin Marin, El Paso Master Gardener
A little seed for me to sow…
A little earth to make it grow…
A little hole, a little pat…
A little wish, and that is that.
A little sun, a little shower…
A little while, and then — a flower!*
Sounds simple? Getting a jump on spring by starting your plants from seed is not difficult. But we’ve all suffered failures in this process that maybe can be avoided by following simple basic rules.
Is the seed bed warm enough? With temperatures warming outside, the urge to plant is unbearable. But although the air is warm, the ground is cold. When this is the case, begin germination indoors. The ideal time is six to eight weeks before the last average frost date or April 15th in our area. If you start them too soon, they will get leggy or outgrow their pots before it’s time to transplant them outdoors.
You are going to need planting trays, preferably with clear plastic tops to retain warmth and moisture and still let the light in. You can make seedling soil by using three parts peat moss, one part perlite and one part vermiculite (or buy some at the nursery). If you’re using peat pots, soak them in water first before adding soil.
How deep do I plant them? Each seed type grows at a specific depth in the soil. Fortunately, seed packets state this clearly on the label. This isn’t a suggestion. Either too deep or too shallow and the seed won’t grow. Seeds with hard outer shells, such as morning glory, have a better chance of germination if you nick or rough up a section of the shell. Use an emery board or rub many seeds between two sheets of sandpaper.
How do I water them? When watering seed trays, add water to the drip tray below to be absorbed from above. If you’re not using trays, thoroughly mist seeds and be sure they have maintained contact with the potting soil. Make sure the mix stays evenly moist without becoming soggy. Never let the potting medium dry out.
How much sun do they need? Seeds often need a soil temperature that is warmer than room temperature. The direct sun is too much for seedlings so look for a place that is warm but that has a good amount of light. Gardeners often place their seedlings on top of the refrigerator which provides nice gentle warmth 24 hours a day. You should know the germination period for your seeds so you know when to expect germination.
Do I have to repot? The seedlings that have two sets of twin leaves are ready to be re-potted. Carefully place each seedling in its own 4-inch pot and cover the roots with potting soil. Acclimate them gradually. Find a protected area not in direct sunlight and leave 1 or 2 hours. Next day, a little longer adding short exposures to the sun. This process can last two weeks.
Am I ready to plant outdoors? Plant early in the morning or in the evening. Make sure the soil in the seedling container is moist. Squeeze the container at its base, slip it out gently. Place in wet soil, press firmly, and water well. If the plants droop the next day, find a way to shade them. Check on them daily and provide whatever they need.
*Poem credit: Maytime Magic by Mabel Watts
This article appeared originally on the December 2007 page in a calendar produced by El Paso County Master Gardeners.