Glen's Seed-Starting Tips
By Glen Seibert, Des Moines, Iowa
Seeds are little miracles. They contain everything they need to become strong, sturdy plants ready and able to take on the world. As gardeners, our only job is to provide the right conditions for the magic to take place. Follow these helpful tips from our vegetable expert, Glen O. Seibert, for healthy and garden-ready seedlings in no time!
Seeds sprout when surrounded and penetrated by moisture. To get them off to a good start, sprinkle seeds between damp paper towels and place in a plastic sandwich bag. Leave the bag open for air circulation, and be sure to label it. After the roots emerge, use tweezers to place each seed in its own container.
Little Sprouts, Little Pots
Any container with drainage holes can be used to hold seedlings, but I prefer the 2-inch square plastic pots. They are perfect and pack neatly in trays. Or you can use peat pots that go right into the soil without disturbing plants' roots.
Fill each pot with moist potting soil, press a seed lightly into the soil and sprinkle the surface with a dusting of fine, dry white sand. Place the pots in a pan of tepid water for 30 seconds to wet the soil—not the sand—from below. Loosely cover the pots with plastic to hold moisture and place them where they will be gently heated from the bottom. The top of the refrigerator is perfect.
Transplanting and Care
When the seeds sprout, remove the plastic. In a few days, the seedlings will crowd each other. Tip the pot and gently pour the seedlings and potting soil out onto a clean surface. Carefully tease the seedlings away from each other with a bamboo kabob skewer or the point of a pencil. Have larger pots already filled with potting soil, and poke a hole in the soil at the same depth as the seedlings were growing. Lift a seedling by its leaves (never the stem), and place the roots in the hole. Firm the mix around the seedlings with the skewer or pencil.
Nurture Your Seedlings
After transplanting, seedlings develop indoors for about 60 days. They need light, water and very small amounts of fertilizer while they're getting ready to move outside. Water weekly with a balanced, water-soluable fertilizer at one-fourth the strength recommended for houseplants. Continue watering from below to prevent the soil's surface from becoming wet.
Growing On, Hardening Off
Shop lights with warm and cool fluorescent tubes give seedlings all of the red and blue light they need. If you can't find horticultural grow lights, use "daylight white" or "full spectrum white" tubes. Put the lights on a timer and give plants 14-16 hours of light and 8-10 hours of darkness every day. As the plants grow, raise the lights to keep them within 4 inches of the leaf tops.
In spring, seedlings grown indoors with be tall, but tender. You'll want to harden them off (the process of acclimating seedlings by setting them outdoors) if they are to survive full sun, wind and other garden conditions. Harden off a little each day. Watch them closely as containers of potting soil dry out quickly, In danger of frost, cover or move indoors.